Category Archives: book review

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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I enjoy Neil Gaiman’s books and I love the Norse Legends, so I thought that this book was would a great little read. However, I will admit I was left feeling a bit flat.

There is a little bit of context in my reaction, it isn’t just the book. My reading has slowed down in recent weeks as my own writing has been pretty dominant. Also, I bought the book in hardback, which was a massive mistake as I was discouraged from reading it simply because it wouldn’t fit in my handbag. So not the greatest context in which to try and read the book.

However, my biggest problem is very much centered on the fact that I much preferred Joanne Harris’ ‘The Gospel of Loki‘. I simply couldn’t put that book down. There was a central character to get behind, protagonists and antagonists to root for (Loki fell into both categories simultaneously). The plot was intricately woven together and there was pace that kept you turning the page.

I felt flat with Gaiman’s interpretation because there was no central character to get behind, and the characters themselves felt really two dimensional. I know that in Norse mythology the characters themselves probably aren’t that fully formed but I had thought that in a re-interpretation by Gaiman, the characters would have got fleshed out.

Instead there was a just a series of characters in a series of disconnected myths and legends that Gaiman had interpreted. I didn’t feel much incentive to read the next story, and coupled with my hardback mistake I struggled to motivate myself to read the book. And I was disappointed by this because I know this is a passion of Gaiman’s, and I just thought he would do a better job.

I try not to make massive comparisons between books on similar topics, but in this case I can’t help it. I would recommend Harris over Gaiman on this one. The former is just more entertaining.

 

Book Review – Vinland by George Mackay Brown

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I lost my heart to Orkney years ago. I think at first it was the tranquility and the silence. Then it was realising the silence (compared to a city I mean) isn’t as quiet as I first thought; the birds, the wind and the waves are the sounds of Orkney, and I grew to love it even more. That was my first trip; on the second trip I got engaged at the Ring of Brodgar, so what was already a special place for me became even more so for us.

The second best thing to being there, is reading about Orkney through the words of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. ‘Vinland’ might make its way onto my list of all-time favourite books. It is utterly stunning to read and I want more. I’m not familiar with Mackay Brown’s poetry, and the only other book I’ve read by him was ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’, which I will have to pull off the shelf again, but after reading ‘Vinland’ not only did I want the story to go on and on, I also want to see what else he wrote.

This the reaction I want when I finish reading a book. If I put off reading the last few pages because I don’t want the tale to ever end, it is for me the sign of a perfect book. The book is set in the Medieval Scandinavian world, including Orkney, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Ireland, as well as North America. The title ‘Vinland’ is a little bit misleading, as only part of it is set in North America, when Leif Ericson tried to settle a colony there, however the dream of Vinland is carried on throughout the protagonist’s life.

The book charts the life of Ranald Sigmundson, a boy who goes to sea with his father, and ends up with Leif Ericson in Vinland. He returns home to Orkney, and evens goes to war in Ireland. I’m particularly fond of this period in history, and while I certainly don’t know as much about the Scandinavian World as I think I should, I had briefly studied the Vinland Sagas as a student, in what I would say is one of the best modules I ever had the privilege of undertaking. This book brought this world to life.

History can seem at times to be a bit cold and a bit distant, and the further back in time you go, the less evidence there is to help you reconstruct the past. The reason I enjoyed this book so much is because of the people. The political and religious turmoil certainly made the plot intriguing, but it is the characters, mainly Ranald, that makes the book so evocative. I’m sure that there is more metaphorical meaning within the work than what I have interpreted for you here, and I’m sure many of you would enjoy the book for those reasons.

For me I loved it because I didn’t just escape into a book, I also got the chance to escape into a period of history that I adore.

I remember picking up the copy of ‘Vinland’ in a lovely little bookshop in Stromness where Mackay Brown lived in Orkney. These days I’m keen on having context and a bit of life woven into the tapestry of my experience with a book. While I am planning on going back, I don’t think I can wait to go back to Orkney to get more books by him though; I think yearning for them badly enough to order them will have to be experience enough.

Book Review: The Devil in Amber by Mark Gatiss

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Needless to say, I picked up the second of Mark Gatiss’ novels, and the protagonist Lucifer Box leapt off the page. Lucifer is so damned sarcastic, and I do love a bit of wit. There was context as well; I’d just finished ‘Slade House’ and was more than a little bit wired up, so I thought I’d make a start on ‘The Devil in Amber’ in order to lighten the mood (and ensure I didn’t need a nightlight).

One line was enough to ease my tensions about attics. One line; quite remarkable really. And the next day, when I did venture to the second line and quite a way beyond because it isn’t easy to put the book down (I really should stop tying books to myself as if they are mittens) I was once again hooked in by Lucifer’s adventures.

It is twenty years on from his romp in ‘The Vesuvius Club‘; he might a bit older, but still young at heart, and just as fun. I would say that the tone of the book is a little bit more serious, but it reflects that Lucifer Box has had experiences in the intervening years between the books (mostly World War One) that have matured him.

Though thankfully not too much; there is still plenty of wit and a few silly names, not least Lucifer’s sister who makes a prominent appearance and is called Pandora. (I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I realised the reference- no need to face-palm, I’ve done that myself already. Several times.)

The serious tone also flatters the subject matter better. The light-heartedness in which Lucifer dealt with the murders of the Vulcanologists suited the Edwardian Era and nature of the story Mark Gatiss told in his first book. Dealing with 1920s fascists and satanists who want to summon the devil does need to be a bit more serious in tone. The book is still fun and addictive to read, but it is respectful of history as well.

This seriousness and the slightly bittersweet tone of the protagonist lamenting not being quite a young as anymore is what makes me love this book. Except it is a different sort of love than the thrill I got from the first novel, which I fell in love with because of the vibrancy. This is more of a settled love; the sort you feel over time after you’ve got to know someone and are more comfortable with all their quirks and foibles.

When I reviewed ‘The Vesuvius Club’ I remarked upon how much I enjoyed getting to know Lucifier Box’s distinct character voice. It’s why he leapt off the page from the very first line. The groundwork of establishing the character in the first book paid off, because in the second novel Lucifer Box’s adventures held onto my attention from the first to the last line with minimal effort. I wanted to know what happened next because I already loved the character.

I enjoyed the story of the first book as well, but the plot of The Devil in Amber is even better. Lucifer was persecuted in the first book, but this time the threat to him is more personal, and the devilish plot to end the world much more sinister. There is a move from the slightly steampunk nature of the evil grand plan in ‘The Vesuvius Club’, to a supernatural threat in the second. Given Mark Gatiss is a talented writer he pulls of the change in which speculative genre to delight us with masterfully without the books ending up disconnected.

Can’t wait to read the third and last (sob) Lucifer Box book, ‘Black Butterfly’.

Book Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

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Slade House came to my attention via a recommendation from a member of staff in the Newcastle Branch of Waterstones. I will admit I don’t get recommendations very often, but on this occasion I was rather lost as I’m still figuring out the layout, which changed recently. I was also wondering in which section Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box books might have been kept, so I will have been looking more puzzled than normal.

Strangely I didn’t ask for help to find what I was actually looking for, but I did get recommended this book when approached to see if I was okay. I was drawn in by the recommendation, not least because the lovely gentleman was so enthusiastic, but also because the premise of the book is so wonderful. I was aware of David Mitchell’s novels, but I hadn’t read a novel by him. I have tried to read Cloud Atlas, whilst also studying for university exams; I didn’t get far. I will have to give it a better chance in the future, as I struggled to connect when distracted.

I absolutely loved Slade House though. I’ve always thought of myself as someone adverse to horror, but actually I’m not. Looking at what defines something as horror, I actually do read it, watch it and even write it myself more often than I realise. I am a lot more receptive to the genre than I thought, and discovering Slade House is part of my recent relish in exploring the genre.

I wouldn’t have even thought about this as a horror story if not for the fact I have been recently researching the genre and it does fall into the supernatural category. It’s not particularly horrifyingly though and I would definitely say it would be suitable for teenagers from about 15 and older to read.

Slade House is a ghost story, well actually its several. It is a series of interconnected short stories, set over a period from 1979 to 2015, following people who every nine years enter Slade House, usually looking for the last set of people who disappeared never to be seen again. It has a fabulous plot, and the reasons why people are disappearing is slowly revealed over the course of the book, just tidbit by tidbit; enough to keep you wanting to turn the next page.

I started this book on my morning commute, eagerly read more during my lunch break, and then tucked myself under a blanket in the evening and read until midnight when I finished the last page. I was utterly addicted, and in the annoying hours in-between when I had to earn a living, I was constantly thinking about it. This book will get under your skin. It is compelling.

The character voices are so distinctive from each other, yet all of them draw you into the story to make you want to know more. It is a fantastic example of how to write a distinct set of characters very well and give them all a unique voice. And the setting of Slade House itself changes in each story. It is recognisable as the same place, but the descriptions of the house are evocative, and disorienting as they fall into the trap. Beware you will begin to dread the characters heading up the stairs towards the attic.

You will definitely get a shiver up your spine, and be left delighted by the tension.

Book Review: SS-GB by Len Deighton

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I’ve always been tempted to try Len Deighton’s books, simply because I am partial to gritty and realistic portrayals of lives of spies. However, I never have got around to doing it, but when the BBC recently adapted SS-GB into a tv series (which I also didn’t get around to seeing) and given my recent enjoyment of ‘The Man in the High Castle‘, when I came across a copy of the book I thought it would give it a go.

Most unfortunately it is one of those books that I have had to give up trying to read. Usually when I review things I’m generally positive and I would recommend whatever film, book or tv series I’m reviewing. The thing is, I would recommend SS-GB, but I do have to say that I haven’t been able to finish reading it myself. I’ve only read about half of it and the decision to stop reading it wasn’t an easy one to make.

For most books, depending on the length, I have a 100 page rule. If I’m enjoying a book I’ll carry on, but if I’m not I won’t. I managed (struggled) to get to that point with Fifty Shades of Grey, just because I won’t dismiss something out of hand without reason. I want to have a basis for my argument. I did have a particularly bad experience with Miss Peregrine’s House of Peculiar Children, where I couldn’t get to page 100 for various reasons, which are only now beginning to disappear and feel like a distant memory.

I mention all of this, because I want you to understand the context of this decision; I started to have the same feelings with this book as I had with ‘Miss Peregrine’s House for Peculiar Children’. I was dreading having to pick it up and read it, baring in mind I was nearly at page 200 by this point. I had been enjoying it, and then for whatever reason that feeling just stopped. I will read several non-fiction books at a time (just because as a student I had to) but I never have more than one fiction book on the go at a time. I interrupted reading this book to read another, and that is an extraordinary thing for me to do.

And it isn’t because it is a bad book; on the contrary it is actually a really good book. It is just one of books in the world that just isn’t for me. The premise that attracted me to read this book is that the Battle of Britain was lost, and that Britain is currently under the occupation of Nazi Germany. What I was enjoying about the book was the story world; the creation of Britain and what it might have been like under occupation is fantastically brilliant.

The initial murder mystery plot within a war time setting, and a police officer having to find justice under extraordinary circumstances reminded me a great deal of the tv series ‘Foyle’s War’ which I am fond of watching. However, the book began to lose my interest because of the plotting, and the fact I struggled to connect to the protagonist.

It just ended up with too many layers to the plot; to many conjectures made by the protagonist based on seemingly no information at all as to where he needed to go next in order to move the plot forward. There ended up being too many supporting characters, some of whom were very well fleshed out but insignificant, with many of the main characters remaining too mysterious and two dimensional for my liking.

It was a very difficult decision to stop reading the book; I never make that decision lightly, especially when I don’t necessarily think it is a bad book and when the premise and the setting is so well thought out. It just isn’t for me, but if you like counterfactual books and period mysteries, then it might be for you.

Book Review: Cheer Up Love by Susan Calman

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I’m rather fond of Susan Calman; she makes me laugh and has always seemed like a genuinely lovely person. I was a bit surprised by the title of the book ‘Cheer up Love’ when it caught my attention in the corner of my eye, because I absolutely hate that expression. However on getting a bit closer I saw that  the full title of the book is ‘Cheer up Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate’, and I immediately forgave her when I realised using that phrase would have a point. I even picked up the copy of the book (and not just because it was a signed copy either) without reading the blurb.

I really like this book. It is an incredibly honest, sometimes hilarious account, of Susan Calman’s ‘adventures’ (the word ‘battle’ is more apt in my experience) with depression, which she calls The Crab of Hate. I have read books by people in the past about depression, but this the first time I’ve ever been able to read a one fully, because let’s be honest they are usually depressing. Somehow, this wonderfully witty woman has managed to write about depression and I’ve been left with a smile on my face.

She has managed to make understanding what it can be like to have depression and anxiety incredibly accessible. It isn’t easy to talk about having depression or any other mental health problem, and I know this from experience. I mention it frequently on this blog, but don’t for a second be fooled into thinking it is easy to do so. I have agonised over posts for days, especially in my Book (Re)Writing series.

To write an entire book is nothing short of heroic, for which I thank Susan Calman a great deal.

It has not been the easiest of times lately for me, and this book came along at a good point. I needed to be reminded that I’m not alone, not only in having mental health issues, but also in being re-assured that others like to arrive in a timely fashion for appointments and trains etc. I call it ‘Departure Anxiety’ and no-one yet has managed to convince me that I’m leaving too much time to get to places; it was nice to hear Susan Calman has a similar attitude.

And that short paragraph near the end of the book, is one of many things that I took away from this book. One small bit of reassurance that I am not the only one. I will admit that on the whole I generally have a different experience with depression than Susan Calman, but that isn’t the point of the book. It is one person’s experience of a mental health condition; it is not a be all and end all description of what it is like for everyone. This is her experience, but what you can take from it is a great deal of empathy, maybe a few points here or there that are the same.

I highly recommend it to any one who has suffered or is suffering, because she understands, and that is an incredibly important notion. She understands and does not dismiss what you are going through. I also recommend it to anyone who hasn’t suffered, because if you do need to understand; it will help you be better at being supportive.

It is not a guide on depression nor a cure, but it is an important book.

 

Book Review: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

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Book Review: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

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‘The Vesuvius Club’ by Mark Gatiss is very much one of those books that found me at the right place, at the right time and when I was particularly receptive to falling completely in love with it. I’m relatively familiar with Mark Gatiss’ work as a screenwriter (not to mention a massive fan of said work) but it was only recently when someone mentioned to me in passing that he is also a novelist.

Naturally being a fan (and a nosy-parker) I did some research and I will admit on reading the kindle sample I was left a little bit uncertain as to whether it would be something I would enjoy, simply because it is very unlike anything I normally do read. I gravitate towards mostly towards speculative fiction or gritty crime (from before the Scandinavian authors became popular). As it turns out there are speculative elements, and while the protagonist I would say is more lucky than as clever as the likes of Poirot, I found more to enjoy than I had originally thought.

The book is the first in a trilogy centering around the character of Lucifer Box, a dapper secret service agent in Edwardian Britain, who ends up investigating a group of vulcanologists who are dying mysteriously. It is a light-hearted, witty romp through London and in the latter half of the book, Naples (of course, where else), where Lucifer has to try to solve the mystery and evade whoever it is that is trying to kill him. It’s a delightful read, with plenty of amusing names and remarks to entertain you along the way.

That wasn’t my first impression though. However, because I do have a great deal of faith in Mark Gatiss as a writer and because I’m trying to diversify my reading, I knew I would give it a go, but I made the decision to wait until I found a hard copy in a book shop rather than order it for direct delivery.

So several weeks later, I found myself killing time in St. Pancra’s train station. I was waiting for a train home to Newcastle, when I decided to go to Hatchard’s bookstore (well I say ‘decided’. I have found myself in bookstores before with no clue how I got there; it’s like a natural instinct for me to just enter them and figure out why afterwards). I’d had a half four start to get myself to London that morning, with another five hours before I’d be back at my front door. I was utterly exhausted and looking for something to keep me awake on the journey home.

Of course, I had brought a book with me, but it was heavy going with a rather grim plot, and I just wasn’t enjoying it. I knew if I tried to read it I’d end up asleep and in Edinburgh. This was when fate intervened and ‘The Vesuvius Club’ found me. I just knew that it was meant to be. I’d been uncertain about the book because of the flowery prose; it took just a little bit too much concentration to keep up with the descriptions. It was perfect for keeping me conscious.

Okay, I admit essentially saying ‘don’t worry this book isn’t a trained anesthesiologist’ is quite possibly not the best way to try and persuade you to give it a go. I promise I mean it in the nicest possible way: I did say, there was context in me falling in love with this book. That warm fuzzy feeling emerged when I realised I was traveling past Durham Cathedral, I was still awake, and I was dazed only because I been utterly engrossed in a really good book.

And it is with great irony that it the style of the prose, which had left me uncertain at first, is actually what I love the most. The book is told entirely from the perspective of the protagonist Lucifer. What I had thought to be a slightly superfluous use of adjectives and adverbs, is actually what creates one of the most distinctive character voices I’ve ever had the joy of getting to know.

I don’t entirely trust the reliability of everything Lucifer conveys to the reader, but that’s not the point. Everyone’s dialogue seems to be as witty and smooth as his own inner voice; while I’d initially thought I’d find that quite annoying, I actually find it endearing and rather amusing. It is a lovely foible of Lucifer’s personality; the desire to ensure that at no point could the reader possibly suspect that his life might not be as dapper, eccentric or as colourful as he would like to have us think. And I love it.

I’ve tried to read similar prose in the past, only to find myself bored and annoyed. It takes a certain amount of skill to pull it off properly, and I’m rather glad I put faith in Mark Gatiss’ talent as a wrtier. The imagery that got fired up in my head was fantastic, which forms an additional facet as to why I love the book so much.

Winston Churchill called it ‘the black dog’; Susan Calman ‘The Crab of Hate’. I call depression ‘The Thief’ because it robs me of the joy of seeing the colour, textures and beauty in the world around me. I’ve not been at my best lately, so to read a book with a character voice with such determination to ensure every minute detail of the world around him is colourful, textured, and  essentially glowing was wonderful.  It is what I found to be the most delightful part of discovering this book.

Needless to say I decided not to wait to find the second and the third books by chance; I’ve had them swiftly delivered to me.

 

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