Saturday 29 October 2016

Stacking The Shelves (#3)

Stacking the Shelves

It's been far too long since I posted for this....annoying how much real life can get in the way sometimes, isn't it? I thought I would share a few of my favourites from the last couple of weeks.

I picked up these two just because they sounded too good to miss. Viper Moon from Lee Roland and Beast by Paul Kingsnorth.

These three are to review; Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy, The Strays by Emily Bitto and Solomon Creed by Simon Toyne.

Finally a friend was generous enough to loan me these.  Lament of the Fallen by Gavin Chait which I have wanted to read since it was published in July. Hildegard of Bingen by Fiona Maddocks - if you have never heard of Hildegard she is worth looking into, a truly remarkable woman.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Lily's House by Cassandra Parkin

With so much darkness and brutality in the world it is not surprising that so many books are written on its numerous incarnations. Yet (and this never ceases to amaze me) some of this writing can be so beautiful and compelling. This is especially true of Lily's House by Cassandra Parkin.

The novel follows Jen, who with her daughter Marianne, has travelled to the south-western coast of England to finalise the estate and arrange a funeral for her estranged grandmother, Lily. Jen has not seen or spoken to Lily in over a decade but as the only living relative the task has fallen to her. The two of them stay in her home in order to clear and sell it on - something that will make their family financially comfortable for the first time. But this is a house where Jen spent her happiest times and is full of childhood memories with a definite mystical feel to them. It is somewhere that makes her re-evaluate her past, plan her future and, eventually, gives her the courage to deal with the present. On the surface they appear to be a happy family with Jen the one working while her musician husband Daniel looks after Marianne and searches for his 'big break'. The longer Jen stays in the house the more the cracks begin to show and the violence in her life and those of past family members starts to emerge, painful secrets long hidden come to light. By the end of this journey Jen has found clarity and focus but in a way she cannot possibly have imagined.

The style of the prose bothered me a little at first, especially the long mobile phone text conversations with Daniel, but the further into 'Lily's House' I went the more fitting it became. With the past told in flashback mixed in with these texts you start to get a clearer image of Jen and her life yet there is never a point where you can predict what comes next. This is an elegantly beautiful and bewitching novel even though its has a dark undertone which initially manifests as a slight sense of unease and climbs inexorably to a surprisingly violent conclusion.

With themes of domestic violence along side the inevitable controlling behaviour, the death of a loved one and the regrets that can bring when things are left unsaid, this is not an easy book to read. By the time these elements come to the fore it is impossible to stop reading and, though for personal reasons I found this incredibly difficult, I am very glad I have read this and I would recommend Cassandra Parkin and the wonderful 'Lily's House' to anyone as ultimately it is about hope and love in their truest forms.

Thursday 20 October 2016

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

With so many fantasy novels now being described as 'epic' I have discovered it can be quite difficult to find something that genuinely fits this billing. It is true that many contain some of the right elements but rarely do they really live up to the definition. However, in my humble opinion, 'The Grace of Kings' by Ken Liu, can definitely be classed as an epic.

The book follows two main characters - Kuni Garu, the seemingly carefree gambler and bandit, and Mata Zyndu, an almost inhuman warrior obsessed with honour and revenge. Their stories are separate to begin with. Kuni Garu grows up in the city, a playboy surviving on his wits and charm until he meets Jia, the woman who captures his heart and quietly propels him on to become a man of the people, fighting a tyrant as head of a rebellion. He discovers a deep-seated love of his nation, a sense of fairness and an unexpected role as a popular leader. Mata Zyndu (heavily reminiscent of Robert E Howard's Conan) is the last surviving child of a once great noble house, trained since childhood to become the ultimate fighting machine so that he may avenge his fallen family, an obsession that eventually excludes all other things. Inevitably their paths cross and become irrevocably linked.

The scale of this novel is quite extraordinary and the world building is incredibly layered, intricate without being overwhelming and is also beautifully vivid. There are strong elements of Chinese legend, Greek mythology gets more than a passing nod with the inclusion of a group of Gods who both watch from the sidelines and actively interfere with events depending on how the mood takes them. There are even elements of Steampunk thrown in with airships, kites and air battles adding to the fun.

There is a great supporting cast of small characters which, though their appearances are brief, the author manages to make pivotal to the tale: Princess Kikomo who makes the supreme sacrifice to save her people; Jia, the wife who inspires and helps to lead; Gin Mazoti, the fiercely independent woman who becomes the ultimate military strategist; Luan, the inventor who becomes a trusted advisor. The writing is graphic where it needs to be, especially during the huge battle scenes, but Mr Liu handles the gentler side of life with a nice sense of compassion.

Essentially (for me anyway) this is a novel about power and corruption. It encompasses the misery common man experiences when faced with a tyrant, how power can change a person both when it is gained and when lost. It is a study of the lengths we can go to exact revenge and how a good person can be driven to acts of pure evil.

All that aside, this is quite simply a fantastic, sweeping, truly Epic saga. Long but absolutely worth setting aside some time for, I would recommend 'The Grace of Kings' to anyone.

Monday 12 September 2016

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

When it comes to the world of fantasy fiction it seems to be getting much more difficult to find a good standalone novel. This, for me at least, made The Wolf in the Attic' by Paul Kearney nicely refreshing.

Eleven year old Anna Francis is a Greek refugee living with her father in 1920's Oxford. We first meet her as a very young child in her father's arms on a burning quayside of her homeland fleeing from the invading Turks having already lost her mother and brother in the slaughter. This horror is shown entirely through Anna's eyes along with the changing effects it has as she grows from terrified child to the girl on the brink of young womanhood. The changes in understanding and perception are done sympathetically and with a great deal of style.  This gradual coming-of-age also colours her views of her father who begins as an optimistic storyteller whom Anna idolizes and eventually becomes a despondent, defeated man who spends much of his time drinking, gambling and attending shady meetings.

A free spirit, Anna is prone to wandering the streets and forests surrounding Oxford (which is beautifully brought to life by Paul Kearney's writing). On one of her late night trips Anna witnesses events that will change her life forever. It is at this point that the book moves into the realms of fantasy (though there have been brief cameos from both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien). It is difficult to say too much about Gabriel, Luca and the gypsies Anna meets without giving away the plot. 

This is not an adventure in a world of epic, high fantasy but more a gentle stroll through the timelessness of English folklore, pagan legends and a darker element more reminiscent of Grimm's fairy tales. It is compelling, brilliantly paced and near impossible to put down - I found it so anyway.

'The Wolf in the Attic' is a fascinating blend of magic and reality that is both beautiful and enchanting. An obvious love of the subject matter flows through the pages with skill and affection. I have seen the name of author Paul Kearney many times in my book travels but this was my first reading experience. I will be looking for more now and would highly recommend this to anyone from 8 to 80 and beyond. 

Friday 5 August 2016

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Take a large helping of science, a generous portion of reminiscence, an occasionally spicy look at friendship then add a slightly bitter twist of feminism and a splash of what it means to be part of a family. Stir all of these ingredients together, lightly warm over a bunsen burner and you should have the essence of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Starting with the simple childhood joy of accompanying her father in his laboratory, following the hardships of college and the struggle to achieve (and be taken seriously) as a female scientist, Lab Girl is a fascinating memoir told in anecdotal form. These stories are held together with some compelling sections on the science of the trees and plants that surround us. The passion Hope Jahren clearly has for her subject matter shines through every description and this in turn makes the information easily accessible to those of us without a previous knowledge of the field. There is never an overwhelming moment or a phrase not thoroughly explained as can so often be the case when an academic writes.

Following the personal thread of Lab Girl is certainly an experience, especially her remarkable and enduring friendship with the enigmatic Bill, her scientific soulmate. To me it felt that there was a thread of bitterness running just below the surface that seemed a little out of place but this does make perfect sense the further into the book you go. The chapter that deals with what Hope had to endure during her pregnancy, the lengths she went to in order to protect her unborn child is deeply emotional and at times harrowing. Personally I thought that to include such personal details was a very brave decision.

Lab Girl is a strangely hypnotic and beautiful journey. The writing flows well - be it discussing the impossibilities of finance in the academic world or the reasons a plant grows in a certain way or to a set pattern. While I have always been a nature lover this book has given me an even greater sense of wonder and respect for the flora around us - something I am grateful to Hope Jahren for.

A great piece of writing and one I would highly recommend.

Sunday 19 June 2016

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery

More of an ode to Nature and beauty than an actual novel 'The Life of Elves' by Muriel Barbery is a very strange mix, one that I constantly struggled with but, eventually, finished.

The plot, in the loosest possible sense of the word, revolves around two young girls born at precisely the same moment. One of them, Maria, resides in the French countryside and has an incredible affinity with the natural world. The other, Clara, grows up in Italy as a musical prodigy. Their connection becomes apparent as the tale progresses as does the effect they have on their surroundings and the people close to them. This does give the book at least some sense of cohesion.

Some of The Life of Elves is truly beautiful, sublime in its descriptive prose to the point where some moments are simply breathtaking. Unfortunately these are too isolated, swamped by almost incomprehensible writing. I am not sure if this is down to the translation (maybe the original French makes much more sense) but I found it virtually impossible to follow in places - and I am not easily stumped.

The love of the Arts and the nature that frequently inspires us as a race is apparent on every page, which in turn, is balanced by a passionate loathing of war and the evil that humanity is capable of. In the end I think this is where this novel fails. The author spends too much time on the philosophical arguments that are involved with our connections to the world around us, the beauty inherent in music, art in all forms and the destruction we are so good at inflicting that she forgets this is meant to be a piece of fiction and not a text to be studied by great thinkers at some future date.

I find it a great shame that I just am unable to recommend this book to my fellow readers.

Thursday 16 June 2016

Wild Life by Liam Brown

A thought-provoking, darkly eloquent and decidedly quirky look at the dangers of success and the possible consequences of losing touch with ourselves and the world around us, Wild Life by Liam Brown is all of these things and much more.

Narrated by the main character, Adam, a highly flying executive with an apparently perfect life (wife, children, money and all of its trappings), it brilliantly shows the pitfalls of such an existence. Adam is spiralling out of control with drug and gambling addictions taking their toll until one night he walks away from everything. In a drunken stupor Adam finds himself in a forgotten park when he finally reaches his breaking point, which is when he meets Rusty.

Rusty leads Adam further into the wilderness of the park where he is befriended by a group of homeless men led by Marshall. The lifestyle these men lead is slightly surreal but the lack of the normal beer-guzzling, drug ridden cliches at this point is really refreshing. They have created an entire world for themselves with a small farm providing vegetables, foraging for herbs and even some chickens. The setting is almost idyllic with no real sense of time other than that which nature provides with dawn, dusk and the turning of the seasons.

Thanks to the leadership of Marshall there is a structure to their lives - yoga, running in the morning and work on the farm. All of which give Adam more of a feeling of reality and purpose than he has had in a very long time. There is, however, a strange 'Lord of the Flies' vibe from this point onwards and an underlying sense of violence just below the surface.

I felt it was slightly unrealistic that there is no mention of his family throughout this sequence but, with the reappearance of a loved one, Adam begins to take a more truthful look at himself. Unfortunately for him the situation within the group slowly descends into madness and destruction. This is a little far-fetched but ultimately a natural progression for the story. After all this is a work of fiction so no problem there.

The structure of the novel, with its seasonal sections, works well. With Adam's downfall in winter, rescue by Rusty and the rebirth inherent in spring, an idyllic summer giving him a reconnection with reality, the change of autumn and the eventual chaos and death winter can bring, it is easy to become engrossed in his story.

I can highly recommend Wild Life as a fine piece of fiction but also as an interesting twist on a phenomenon we all see everyday whether we want to admit it or not.