Search This Blog

18 September 2014

'Tower Lord' Book Two of 'Raven's Shadow' by Anthony Ryan

Blood Song satisfied me in every sense.

I follow good writers through their imaginary worlds gladly, if the individual books have beginning, middle and end.  Blood Song satisfied me in every sense.  The premise is a classical fantasy with magic and swords and mysterious prophesies but the telling is compelling and the characters have depth.  Moreover, the book made me smile as I closed it.  I was sated AND looking forward to the next book at the same time.  I wondered when it would come out. A quick search and lo and behold 'Tower Lord' would come out in two weeks.  So, of course, I bought it.

'Tower Lord' continues the adventures of Vaelin Al Sorna, a warrior by nature with unusual secrets and some of the usual secrets as well.  I love it when an author takes what fantasy readers, such as myself, read as obvious and then turn it completely around.  I'm a big fan, Anthony Ryan.  You have to be careful what you decide to give your muscly hero with a big sword and what you take away.  Vaelin Al Sorna is balanced and charismatic.  In 'Tower Lord' he has matured.  His companions, enemies and friends are equally believable and interesting.  If you have read fantasy then you know that there will be battles, treachery, unexpected friends and magic.  The writing itself is excellent, the story is tight and well thought out.

This is the kind of writing that Stephen King talks about.  For the reader the process of immersing in the story is effortless.  I'm sure I have made this argument before, but I will mention it again because I think it is worth mentioning to any would be writers.  There is an understanding when an author takes an established format and uses it in a story... for instance a vampire.  If the author decides that vampires can walk in daylight then the setting and circumstances of the book will help a reader suspend her disbelief.  A vampire that no longer depletes mortals of their life force would not be a vampire.  In one notorious case, the so called vampires were sparkly, like sprinkled Ken dolls... Well, you see what I mean.  Anthony Ryan, on the other hand, knows and loves his topic, and is a talented writer as well.

Sorry, I need to rant on for a bit...  I admit it, of late fantasy series (not Raven's Shadow) have been driving me crazy.  Somewhere half way through reading a fantasy, I realise that the book is not a book but a conglomeration of chapters.  There are those books that kill off almost anyone I get to know or so convolute the problems at hand that a lifetime of reading will not resolve the mess.  Some books do both.  All I keep wishing for is an editor with the guts to take scissors to the draft but these days editors and writers alike often only hear the sound of tills rather than sense.  I have nothing against a good series or trilogy, I love big, fat books but they must read like a book not a story made up on the spot by a dragon crazy eight year old at the dinner table.

Anthony Ryan 
ISBN: 9780356502441 

13 September 2014

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' by Haruki Murakami translated by Philip Gabriel

New books by Haruki Murakami get me excited.

I look forward to them like Christmas.  I wait for months, curse the slow pace of the translators and wonder why they don't get on with it... Poor Philip Gabriel, I bet he doesn't deserve it.  To make up for all those bad, impatient vibes, I am utterly grateful to the talented translator when I finally get my hands on the book.  Without translators I would miss many sources of joy in my life, like Murakami's next book.

For those of you who have never read Murakami let me say that he is the master of what my teens call "random".  Many things happen to children and teens that in their world have no explanations and no resolutions.  From a comment uttered in the school hallway, to a song on the radio at just the correct moment for a cry, to a divorce.  My teens will label great and small as random...  As an adult I like to imagine that random does not happen to me.  I know why things happen, I know that I happen to others (I am a happening woman) and I often know the consequences...yeah right.  Murakami says yeah right too but with a lot more style.

Sometimes what I would describe as magic happens and suddenly the character is in an alternate world. Sometimes a character has an unexplained talent, like the ability to talk to cats (which in another format would qualify as a mutant but I am not going to get into my cross novel cross character fantasies).  And sometimes all your friends in the world abandon you without explanation at the same time, as is what happens to Tsukuru Tazaki.  Most of us have the fear of losing someone or something, even if it is only the fear of losing the cat.  So Tsukuru is left in a cloud of fear, despair, confusion and deep sadness.  He is certain that there must be something wrong with him.  My sympathy for Tsukuru is sincere, I wonder as much as he does what happened; I admire what he makes of his life and of his emotional life.  So the courage he shows to resolve his personal mystery and eventually to face so many uncertainties in his life like the uncertainty of love (one of the worst in my opinion) is exhilarating and absorbing.

In spite of being a big fan of fantasy and the convoluted solution to a complex problem, this time I am reminded of the fact that true courage is the courage to identify a problem and face it without magical swords.  I would rather face a dragon than face what Tsukuru faced when he identified his problem.  With a dragon, you are quite certain of your enemy.  In Tsukuru's case the enemy could very well be himself.

For those of you who read '1Q84' and are worried, this book has a different tone, pace and environment.  '1Q84' is challenging in its premise, characters and setting.  Tsukuru Tazaki is more a straight forward problem and a terrifying solution.  Read it  and let me know what you think.  My favourite is still 'Kafka on the Shore', but I think this one is number 2.

Haruki Murakami  
ISBN: 9781846558337 

11 May 2014

'London; The Concise Biography' by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd's  'London' opens up whole new wonders for the historically curious.

I enjoyed Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas Moore, so I was quite willing to try out a biography of London.  I was only disappointed when I realised I had purchased the abridged 2012 version.  Nevertheless, I read on and enjoyed it immensely.  Ackroyd did not follow a chronological line in order to introduce me to London.  He divided the history into topics.  Some of the chapter titles include"London's Outcasts", "Voracious London", or "Women and Children" and "Victorian Megapolis".  If a specific topic interests me, I can easily find it.  And did I mention how well Peter Ackroyd writes?  He is a pleasure to read.

I have to admit that I read this book because I had been reading several books that take place in London.  Most of them are fiction and several of them are fantasy.  Furthermore, Beloved Proof Reader spends a lot of time in London so I have been lucky enough to visit quite often the past six years or so.  Little by little I have become acquainted with this amazing city.  I thought it was time to take the relationship to the next level.  In London I feel like I belong, even if it is only for a weekend.  In such a city I am no longer a foreigner.  Even locals are foreigners with strange accents if they wander out of their neighbourhoods.  There is something exciting about a city that is equal parts deep and mysterious, shallow and frivolous...  Moreover, I like the idea that I will never get to know such an immense, old city.  I like to explore and discover.

There are so many magical, mysterious things in London that I confuse the different stories I have read with historical facts... for a given value of fact... or history for that matter.  The sewers have been of special interest in the past year.  They were mentioned in several books.  It was an awkward delight to find out that these authors did not have to stretch their imaginations.  In several cases they were only stating the facts but with an artistic flair.  Then I read on the news that some poor men digging for a new train in London have found Black Death pits, where the numerous dead were quickly buried.  Death is discussed in depth and often in 'London'.  The city is but one large graveyard.  The gruesome testimony to progress, war, pestilence and poverty can be uncovered on a daily basis.

I somehow feel that Londoners are so accustomed to this history that if the dead truly rose from their numerous graves, most would complain about property and let prices rising even faster.  Certainly, Ackroyd gave me the impression that commerce has become the whole point of the crowded city.  British people, who pride themselves on common sense, would openly admit that there is very little point in such a city if not to make money.  Everyone wants to live in the country, after all, with lots of slobbering dogs and a place to put your wellies.

If you have never been to London, read this book.  If you have only lived in London, read this book.  You do not have to read it in one go.  Pick a topic and read about it.  It is comprehensive without being exhaustive.  Peter Ackroyd's  references open up whole new wonders for the historically curious.  I open this book at random on rainy afternoons and get lost looking for Gracechurch street.

Peter Ackroyd 
ISBN: 9780099570387 

19 April 2014

'Enon' by Paul Harding

Paul Harding really is that good

Most good writers entertain me, sometimes they teach me and often they leave me eager for more.  Most bad writers leave me indifferent and at worst annoyed at the waste of my time.  Then there are great writers… You all have read a few of them.  The kinds of writers that make you want to write; the kind of writers that make you despair of writing because you will never be as good; the kind of writer whose turn of phrase lingers in your mind; the kind of writer whose characters have depth and subtlety and grace regardless of their age or status… That kind of writer is Paul Harding. I did not think he could write like that again.

I cried at the beginning.  I cried at the end.  I cried in between.  Sometimes I was sad, often I was grateful… Harding is that good.  The whole story is told from the point of one man, Charlie Crosby.  His triumphs but mostly his loss and failure are told in his beloved home town of Enon.  The reader gets to know some of the towns people and the history of the town.  I also got to know my own sense of judgement, tolerance and sympathy.   In taking Charlie's mask off to see him, I had to take mine off and see myself.  There are some hard lessons in this book if you are willing to look closely.  If you only wish to enjoy a beautiful story, beautifully told, then this is also a book for you.

I read 'Tinkers', his Pulitzer Prize winning book and thought I was in story telling heaven...  The elegant sort of heaven with beautiful libraries and gardens in which to read with just the right kind of tea and chocolate that matches the kind of book you wish to read that day. Ehem… Instead, he did it again.  'Enon' is a love story with a town and a child and life and choices and and and.  It is not a romance. There are no happy endings if what you mean by happy endings are everyone living whole, vindicated and happily ever after.  The best this book can offer is hope and a grown up sort of hope at that…exactly the sort of hope that dawn brings every day, no solutions only … opportunity, potential… for good or bad.  That 'Enon' happens to be a distant continuation of 'Tinkers' gives it added depth and poignance.  It is not necessary to read one before the other.  'Enon' is beautiful on its own.

Paul Harding 
ISBN: 9780434021727 

13 April 2014

'World War Z' shortly followed by 'The Zombie Survival Guide' by Max Brooks

While reading, I assessed my home for defense as well as available weapons

One of the best parts of reading many a horror book is closing it and saying "This is not real".  It is often my favorite part of reading such books.  Stephen King excels in terrifying me paragraph to paragraph.  He suspends my disbelief with a deft touch and gives me stomach aches.  Having said that, a demon possessed car is not a plausible concern in my world.  So I can go to sleep, eventually, 99.99 % certain that my car will not be possessed in the morning.  The same goes for other kinds of stories that often involve monsters.  I thought zombies would be fun.

I wish I could say I had a good laugh while reading 'World War Z'.  I wish I could say I did not go out and buy it's companion book 'The Zombie Survival Guide' a week or two after completing it.  In fact, I wish I could say it did not linger.  Who wants to dream of zombies? like I did… two nights in a row.  'An Oral History of the Zombie War', as it is also titled, feels real.  The interviews, the individual survivors who are damaged or crazy or ashamed or relieved or all of the above were real.  Unfortunately, the political reactions to a zombie pandemic were real in the worst sense.  I am certain that in an alternate world the zombie apocalypse is real.  WWZ channels that history into fiction in our own dimension.

My nightmares were on a personal level.  A slow nameless terror in my garden (which I don't have in real life and now may never have thanks to this nightmare… easily defensible homes from now on) or running from zombies with my children down a tunnel... nightmare number two, made me realize how much I had internalized the stories.  On a conscious level, my favorite parts of the book were the political and cultural decisions that affected people on a personal level.  Max Brooks draws these connections with precision but is not heavy handed.  My imagination made everything clear.  In some cases, I wish my imagination had not made anything clear.

While reading, I assessed my home for defense as well as available weapons in different areas.  I felt reassured by my dog and cat or as I like to think of them, "warning system".  My life became for several days haunted by slow, moaning, merciless, soulless creatures who may or may not look like relatives…depending on the day dreams of the moment.  By the way, it helps to put faces of loved ones on the zombies of your mind so that you are prepared to defend yourself.  'The Zombie Survival Guide' helped me fine tune many of my ruminations.  I was disappointed to find that in these parts of Europe machetes are difficult to acquire.  I have used machetes in South America so I feel confident in wielding one.  I am not sure a hatchet would be as useful.

Go out and read these books… Contact me later so as to form survival committees in multiple continents… 'cause you never know.

Max Brooks 
ISBN: 9780804137881 

08 February 2014

'The Gone-Away World' by Nick Harkaway

 I was scared from about ten pages in and stayed scared until a week after I had finished

What if mankind (or an idiot military scientist intent on a weapon that makes your enemies GoAway) invented a weapon that manifested our worst nightmares and our most innocent unicorn fantasies all mixed up.  Such a weapon, fed by our own fears and imagination would soon be out of control.  Our reality would also quickly disintegrate... several times a day if your luck is bad.  'The Gone-Away World' describes such a world.  I can imagine being attacked by my own imagination.  And I use the word imagine because it is a fantasy not a reality.  Those that believe it is reality are often afflicted with a mental illness.  But, what if?  I was scared from about ten pages in and stayed scared until a week after I had finished the book.

Kids often do this king of wishful thinking, you know, the one about having wings or a perfect family.  Adults do it too but with different props.  See now you get me.  It is true that there is nothing in this world as terrifying as the contents of our own heads.  I grew up on a steady diet of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Anime, manga, comics and literary classics.  Does this give you an idea of what is in my head on a daily basis?  I should be grateful I avoided Horror.  So then I try to put myself in Nick Harkaway's universe; I even inserted some of my childhood fantasies as a test.  There is no getting away from such a nightmare; there are even mimes but no clowns (thank God… or author)

'The Gone-AwayWorld'  was written before 'Angelmaker' and while I like the protagonists in that book better than here, I still enjoyed the complexity of the environment and the large group of characters that come in and out of the story.  Sometimes the characters are a bit wooden, I think because there are so many.  Nick does a better job of fleshing people out in his next book.  Having said that, his narrator is interesting and reliable until, well… There is a twist, as is often the case but it is a good twist.  Twists often signal a change, perhaps the resolution or a release.  This twist is all of those things but I still find it frightening. It is the sort of twist that I would not like to meet from my own imagination.

I recommend this book.  I enjoyed it.  It challenged me.  I had to pay attention as an active reader.  Nick Harkaway did not spoon feed me anything.  I can imagine him tightening the screws of some complex machine and laughing as he gives an extra twist to make sure I get full value for my effort.

Nick Harkaway 
ISBN: 9780434020942 

30 January 2014

'The Imperfectionists' by Tom Rachman

Once again, I have read a book because I could no longer avoid it.  It popped up everywhere, in three different countries and three different languages.  Eventually, and I am sure Beloved Proof Reader agrees with this, I let it into my flat like a puppy that followed me home; never mind that we have no place to put him… Still, no regrets.  'The Imperfectionists' is as wonderful as the reviews and blurbs assert it is.

As I said, I picked it up because I could not help it.  I had no real expectations.  In brief, this book is about the birth, life and demise of a newspaper.  No… wait… This book is about the blood that pumps through a newspaper.  Wait, this book is about people who happen to work at a newspaper…errrr, no.  This book is about all of the above and more.  As a reader I learn about the process of writing for and then publishing a serious newspaper only to realize that my knowledge is as obsolete as the newspaper at the end of the book.  The book is divided into the different tasks at a newspaper… editor, journalist, owner and others are individually explored both at work and in private.  Some stories are heartbreaking.  I am left with the desire to read an entire book devoted to some of these people.  The newspaper itself brings them all together like a collection of short stories with Tom Rachman as the editor.

It is fitting that a book titled 'The Imperfectionists' should be situated in Rome, a city famous for its art and its imperfections.  It has been argued that the grandeur of Rome is made possible by its glaring faults.  Well, I would argue that the greatness of this international newspaper was made possible by the imperfect humans that worked for it.  I feel sadness and disconnection as I finish it.  I am aware that many excellent newspapers have quietly died.  Our pool of professional journalists has narrowed.  We now receive our news from more varied sources, true, but their reliability and their biases are not as transparent… maybe I am wrong.  But 'The Imperfectionists' left me feeling a deep nostalgia, like looking at Rome and thinking of some perceived Golden Age…

Tom Rachman  
ISBN: 9780385343671 

03 December 2013

'Are We Nearly There Yet?' by Ben Hatch

I remembered trips I had forgotten, for very good reasons...

'Are We Nearly There Yet?' provides plenty of laughs.  It was also a surprise that it provides plenty of tears.  I do not know why I was surprised since in my vast experience as a passenger and driver in long, long (long) road trips (Dad is a big fan) I have laughed plenty and cried plenty.  And there you have it, Ben Hatch may have been talking about this particular journey in his own country, his own family, his own marriage and bless them, his own children but what he was in fact doing was talking about all the road trips all families have taken since the invention of the car.  I remembered trips I had forgotten, for very good reasons... Ben, we are going to talk about this some day.  You cannot just dig up people's traumas like this and not expect consequences or even revenge.

 I was in a spectacular car accident, because of the scenery, not the injuries.  We spun one and a half times when we were struck and stopped just by the edge of a cliff in the Andes.  I stepped out of the car as my mom kept repeating "nos chocaron, nos chocaron" which means "they hit us, they hit us".  I had to edge around the car like a crab, sideways because to step forward was suicide and that would have been a waste of the excellent brakes on that Land Cruiser.  By the time I was in safety my mom was out too.  My father was doing what all men do in these circumstances, he was inspecting under the car...can't imagine why.  Then, and here is the traumatic part, my mother told me to go ask the people in the other car if they were ok.  WHY?  I mean they hit us.  They were coming down hill at speed through the winding mountain road and decided to cut a curve, as one does, if one is all alone on a mountain road.  My father saw them and tried to avoid them.  Thanks to his maneuver they hit our back left wheel which means we spun.  I guess it is better than if that over filled Suzuki (OMG. I still remember the make of the other car) had hit a heavy Land Cruiser head on.  Injuries would have ensued, their injuries, not ours.  Ok, so no one was hurt but my mother's voice, the view down that mountain as I slowly got out of the car, and then the task I was set, have stuck.  Should have cured me of road trips but nothing deters my father...

But then Ben Hatch did something worse.  He reminded me of the heat only possible in a metal box attached to a hot engine.  When we were not in the high Andes we might be driving through quite a bit of Mexico.  This was long ago.  My memories include a burning neck as the sun struck us through the window from behind.  My sister and I would try to sit lower and lower, risking car sickness as we could not see out the windows (seat belts were not mandatory back then).  Our legs would stick to the fake leather seats and we would beg for some cool air.  This is standard in any Summer road trip from before "climate control".  Stops were heaven especially if there was air conditioning.  My father assured us that the next stop had great food.  We were in a desert somewhere or other.  On the side of the road was a large wooden structure with no windows downstairs.  There were tables inside with long backless benches.  We all ordered a Coca Cola, no glass or ice as my mother did not trust the water.  My memory is of these rapidly warming bottles, with pathetic, limp straws as my father enjoys the house specialty, goat head...including the eyes (the trick is not to eat the brown part).

As you can see, the damage here was done years ago but it was fun to compare road trip horrors with someone else.  The 'stepped on poo' story is not to be missed in this book or the marriage that seems to balance itself with humour and love.  I know I have not spoken much about Ben Hatch's excellent book but my joy came from the release of my own memories of which I only shared two.

Ben Hatch  
ISBN: 9781849531559 

28 November 2013

'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold

In this book the author Alice Sebold gave me a workout

I picked up this book and put it down at least twice a year for ten years in different shops, airports and countries.  As a mother with a powerful imagination, I did not have enough courage to read this book.  Recently, I received it as a gift from .  I watched the movie a year or so ago with my daughter so I felt prepared.  I was not prepared... The movie is lovely, heaven is captured just right and the antagonist is also perfect but, as is often the case, the book is better.  I am so glad I read this book though.  Sometimes, if I read about something I fear, like the murder in this book, I do not stop fearing it but I gain depth and faith.  Faith in my own strength is hard enough but, at least for me, faith in other people's strength is even harder.

Heaven, murder, grief and time are themes often explored in literature.  Alice Sebold makes them all fresh.  Heaven in particular is such a believable and comforting place.  Comfort and love are surprising words to use about a book that starts out with such a horrible crime.  This crime is my worst nightmare.  While the narrator was a dead 14 year old girl, as a reader I felt both the suffering of the parents and of the child.  Like I said, my imagination can be quite strong and even insert appropriate smells; in this book the author gave me a workout.  My imagination was not stressed or stretched to the point of disbelief.  Quite the contrary.  I felt that I lived all these confused, unexpected emotions.  Heaven itself was a comfort to my senses and not just to the narrator.  My heaven includes youth, health, mountains, open spaces and my favorite flowers and scents.  Pets are allowed, company when I want it and vast, wonderful, magical libraries.  I bet I missed a few things but this feels right for now.

Life does go on, through grief, horror, violence or even those bullies in high school.  I do not think forgiveness is necessary to move on.  I think the effort to forgive focuses too much on the perpetrator of the offense.  It is better to look to your own strength and towards those you love, who often love you too.  Forgive if you want but always move on.

Alice Sebold 
ISBN: 9781447202653 

08 November 2013

'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' by Neil Gaiman

I was sad to put the book down.  I even forgot my tea. Neil Gaiman is improving in his art.

Sometimes books have no beginning, middle or end.  Well, obviously they do... after all  most books are not infinite or worse, 'War and Peace'.  But sometimes books, their authors and by that mysterious alchemy called imagination, readers tap into an on-going story.  'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is such a book.  It catches a paragraph or two of a much greater story about humanity, belief, faith, love, temptation and nightmares.  In fact, it captures a glimpse of the creation of humanity... we all suspect we are only half baked anyway; we are still in the process of becoming.

'Boneland' by Alan Garner is also such a book.  In fact, I felt 'Boneland' is the male counterpart of 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'.  Neil Gaiman tapped into a feminine side of the great story that is us.  The Hempstock women superficially represent the well known aspects of the feminine archetype, the hag (grandmother), the mother and the virgin (daughter).  On a deeper level, they point the way to, and protect us from, different realities.  They even protect us from ourselves.

I am a little afraid of the Hempstock ladies.  I sense real power there and finite patience.  I should mention that they feel familiar, which is probably why they frighten me a little.  I am certain I met them before, maybe in books or maybe in person.  I can even tell you what I think they smell like, so yes they feel real.  I was sad to put the book down.  I even forgot my tea.  I had to say goodbye to them like the protagonist.  And like the protagonist, my memory has faded... I know they are out there somewhere when a book like this reminds me of my own story.  Reading this book is like going home.  Neil Gaiman is improving in his art.

Neil Gaiman 
ISBN: 9781472200310