Oh, hai! I read books, then I write down what I think of them.
Cas Russell is good at maths. Really good. As in calculating where to apply to correct amount of power to kick a chair so it causes maximum damage to the person standing in front of it good. As in working out the trajectory of bullets as they are fired so they don't hit you in leg good. Which is useful for somebody working under the radar as a freelance ... retriever.
But while maths can be really useful, it's not the best defence against somebody who can read your mind and implant thoughts in it. So when Cas finds herself up against said telepath, she not only has some nefarious schemes to scupper, she's also got to be sure she's not unknowingly helping them along.
Zero Sum Game is the debut novel from SL Huang and it's pretty good. Not only does it feature a main character who manages to kick asses while being female, her superpower is maths. Or 'math', because this book is American. The only thing my maths skills have done for me is enable me to always buy the most cost effective bag of dishwasher tablets even when I don't have a calculator.
I've heard a lot of good things about this one so I was initially a bit disappointed. The opening was underwhelming - not because it did anything wrong; it read like the action sequence which preceeds the credits of a blockbuster film which was fine and everything, just ... meh. However, by 16% it had me. Cas is a witty voice (I will admit, I slightly want to be her. I want to throw sticks.) and she's joined by a cast who complement her nicely. I especially liked the interplay between her and Arthur - he's a nice (if marginally predictable) foil to Cas's Lone Ranger attitude, a dose of empathy in situations where some things need remembering.
The ways in which this could have gone horribly wrong are many and, all credit to Huang, it didn't. When you've got a first person narrator who may not be acting of her own volition you need to get it right and Huang mostly did. The pace keeps things moving forward and it was only towards the end, when that began to slacken, that I felt some minor irritation with a couple of things.
While I was reading it, this was on course for 4 stars - I usually have 2 books on the go, one upstairs and one downstairs; if I carry a book to another floor with me, it's a good sign - but the ending is also underwhelming. It's not bad, just weak. Although the book stands alone, it's the first in a projected series (Book 2, Half Life, is out now) and much of what I disliked were the manoeuvres in the final third, the necessary setting-up of strands for future books.
Zero Sum Game is a seriously enjoyable read for the most part. It's got a great premise, a main character who does it justice, and a story which kept me reading. If only the ending had been better. 3.5 stars and I'll likely be getting the next book in the future.
Just the other day I commented to my Mammy that you don't see enough of of Meera Syal these days. She's been in the second series of Broadchurch (which is worth watching just for Olivia Coleman calling David Tennant a wanker. Honestly, I could listen to that all day) but other than that she's been off my radar.
If you aren't a pleb who lives in a field, you'll know she's been doing theatre and various other marvellous things including earning a CBE for services to drama and literature. The House of Hidden Mothers is her third novel and her first this century. I read her first, Anita and Me, when I was at University and loved it - it's now on the GCSE syllabus.
So I'm very excited to have this ARC - provided by RandomHouse/Transworld/Doubleday via Netgalley - and there will be a review closer to its release date: 4th June 2015. Thanks PR peoples!
[I paid nothing for this book, instead being provided with an uncorrected proof copy through the kindness of the publisher, Harper Collins, gifted via Edelweiss. I thank them profusely.]
There is always a burden on an author delivering a second novel when their first novel has been a tremendous success. S.J Watson's first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, was not merely a success, it set the trend for all the huge domestic psychological thrillers which have come since: Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, The Girl on the Train... Watson's debut was there first, 4 whole years ago. Watson doesn't merely need to stand up well against himself, he also needs to stand up well in an increasingly saturated market where the books we now hear about tend to be very good indeed.
When Julia's younger sister Kate is found dead in a Paris back-alley, Julia is destroyed with grief. Learning from Kate's housemate that Kate used internet dating sites to arrange smexy liaisons, Julia becomes convinced it was one of these men who killed her. So she does what anybody obsessed with an idea does: attempt to find proof. She sets herself up on some websites to entice the murderer. Except the man she does meet, Lukas, is everything her perfect middle-class life is missing.
Initially, this is slow. It takes a good 40% to get started properly and I was consciously reading with one eye trying to work out what was going to Be Important Later and why. I couldn't really engage with Julia's initial shock and grief over the loss of her sister and was instead waiting for the inevitable Search For The Truth to begin. Once it does it's good, the flirty messages becoming something more until sexual fantasy collides with reality and being controlled is considered part of the game. These aspects of the book are done excellently - and by that I mean so horrific and triggering I would have stopped reading if this hadn't been an ARC, which is the reason I'm mentioning them. It's gradual and insidious, the type of thing which can be explained away so very easily even when you aren't Julia, a grief-wreaked alcoholic fighting a relapse.
The trouble is it becomes boring. Julia's head is a fairly dull place to spend time and even before the book shifted into its end-game I became deeply irritated by her actions (and inactions), some of which felt designed to artificially spin the story out a bit longer.
I was also unreasonably annoyed by her alcoholism. It felt like a device, and while I think it could have been a very effective one, it needed to treat alcoholism as more than just wanting a drink and riding out the compulsion.
For instance, there is nothing about Julia's active alcoholism in her youth, only her attendance at the AA meeting where she meets Markus. She bangs on about failing her sister, about her guilt at leaving her behind when she went to Berlin, but never a word about the drinking she must have been doing when she was bringing Kate up or the effects of it. I genuinely thought Julia would turn out to have been lying about it, or faking it for some reason. It's used as a minor spoke in the story and could have had far more mileage than it's given.
In the end this story is wrecked by its own plot. The grand reveal of what's really going on is a laser saw away from the Bond-Villain School of Illogical Schemes. Plus, it makes something either a catastrophic plot hole or a clever piece of misdirection depending on your overall view of the book. If I learned Watson was a pantser rather than a plotter, I'd nod sagely and say, 'Well, that explains it.'
SJ Watson is a good writer. Whatever churlish things I'd say about Before I Go To Sleep must be countered by the fact it had me absolutely gripped by the end. Although Second Life never managed to hook me the same way there are some excellently done parts; it's scary because it's real. Until the last 10%, I genuinely wasn't sure how I was going to rate this. Happily, the terrible ending made it easy: 2 stars (but I'm definitely going to be interested in whatever Watson comes out with next.)
When it was released, The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, was marketed as being the next big thing; the new Harry Potter, despite being nothing like Harry Potter. The second in the series is freshly available at a bookshop near yourselves, so it seemed like a good time to read it. It was... okay.
Paige Mahony is a clairvoyant in a future alt-England where such powers are illegal. More specifically, she’s a dreamwalker, one of the rarest types of voyant, who can separate her spirit from her body. Paige lives in London where she works for Fagin Jaxon Hall, her Mime Lord (Gangster boss), until she accidentally kills an Underguard. She’s captured, drugged, and sent to a place she and the rest of the populous didn’t know existed: Oxford. Okay, Sheol 1. Formerly Oxford.
There she learns the things which make this book and this review such a challenge: the extensive world building. It is confusing. For a start, there are the various types of voyants. I spent my youth with an orange dot energised by Yuri Geller himself so I came to this knowing terms like ‘cartomancer’ and when I didn’t know I word I could make an educated guess. Then there’s the world of Scion, the government, and its creation in the first place (Edward VII was the first voyant, and also Jack The Ripper, and apparently still Edward VII rather than Prince Albert Edward, despite people knowing this at the time of its occurrence). Then there’s the world of Sheol where the Rephaim – a race of beings from the Netherworld, as scholars of Hebrew mythology will remember – keep voyants as slaves and mobile larders, feeding on their auras. Those who embrace their new overlords can become Red Jackets, a necessary part of the attempt to stop the Emim from overrunning the city and the rest of the world. Then there’s a whole host of other stuff, sometimes with nicknames and a light smattering of Victorian slang in addition to the books own terms, and as a result the book proceeds in fits and starts, bogged down by its own exposition, not really getting into to gear until a good half-way through. It’s intermittently interesting until then but the first 20% is quite a slog requiring more than one consultation of the book’s glossary.
Because this is YA, it’s necessary for the MC to be imprisoned in some fashion. Paige becomes the property of a Rephaim who instructs her to call him Warden, even though that’s not his name, whose job it is to train her to earn her Red Jacket. If she doesn’t [world building stuff] but if she does [world building stuff] but there’s also the fact that [character] wants to [spoiler] because [spoiler]. Did I mention this gets a tad bogged down by itself?
Some aspects of the plotting are bland and predictable – Paige does something for Warden then repeatedly asks herself why she did it. Then it happens again and she repeatedly asks herself why she did it again. Other aspects give a nice spin to that predictability, setting up threads for coming tomes in the 7 book series. Others feel like they’re ripping off another YA series entirely.
The main story is ... merely okay. As is the trend in YA books, we have a female MC who gives the illusion of being active. Paige, like Katniss Everdeen, is at the mercy of her situation and can only act within its restrictions so much of the book involves Paige hoping to get out of her situation but having to go along with it. Your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for reading about Paige being Paige. I was fairly meh. There are some good scenes – Shannon can write action when she wants to - but the final sequence, like much of the book, could have been a lot tighter.
I read this because it was an offensively low price on Amazon – 51 English pennies if I remember correctly – but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel. I didn’t expect huge amounts from it and it gave me pretty much what I expected. The world building is going to be a huge plus several books down the line and this has got the potential to create internet communities in the way Harry Potter and Game of Thrones has but I, who can barely remember how to spell her own name sometimes, was left unengaged and frustrated. I suspect I may get more out of it on a reread, but right now I feel no compulsion to give it one, nor to continue with the series.
So, this was (and may possibly still be) FREE on Amazon UK. I don't usually bother with authors who've been involved with internet shenanigans, but, yannow, free. It's like sticking it to the man.
I began reading it last night and honestly - it's amazing. I'm waiting to find out it started life as Hungar Games fanfic because it mirrors that book so closely.
It's everything which is bad about YA (flat writing, characters whose live revolve around teh romance, the MC is the centre of all activity and they alone can fix their family's problems), plus everything which is bad about teenage girls in general (a desire to be constantly told you're the most beautiful/popular/desired person in the room while absolutely, genuinely feeling like you're not because humility makes you even more attractive).
It is hilariously bad. Honestly, it's appalling. Thank god I wasn't drinking anything when it mentioned King Clarkson.
BUT, it's pretty damn readable. It's like Dan Brown or James Patterson. It's like the film Supergirl. It's terrible in almost every conceivable way, but I will almost certainly have had it read by tomorrow.
If you've never understood why people write gif reviews, read this. Words cannot do it justice.
As those of us who have nothing better to do than stalk me know, I really like James Smythe's books. When this first cropped up on my radar, for some reason I thought it was YA, which it isn't, so I wasn't really on the look-out for it. Happily, I have a rather fabulous local library who have a knack for carrying all the books I want to read including this one.
No Harm Can Come To A Good Man is what, back in the day, we called a techo-thriller. It's set in the near future, in a world one piece of technology further along than ours. ClearVista is an algorithm which extrapolates all known data to accurately predict the future. Want to know if you're going to get a job? ClearVista can steer you right. Keen to determine if the time is right to be impregnated? ClearVista is totally with it. Want to know how many seconds your son can survive underwater? ClearVista knows.
ClearVista is the most powerful tool in the aspiring US Presidential candidate's armoury. But for Lawrence Walker, widely assumed to be a shoe-in for the role, the video of his future shows him sitting before his terrified family, holding a gun which will be fired.
For Lawrence and his PR guy, Amit, there's clearly an error. Something's gone wrong with the algorithm, but how? And why? And while Amit tries to find the answers, Lawrence is under pressure and failing to respond well.
It's a fun premise this future prediction, and the story works extremely well with it. However, although there were certain aspects I loved, the actual book was quite disappointing.
It takes an awfully long time to get going. There's a large amount of necessary set-up which doesn't quite throw the reader - who is given the description of the video as a prologue - enough bones to feel a sense of mounting tension. That prologue feels like a lazy editorial decision after the main book was done, especially when on page 200-ish, a character dramatically finds out the bang on the film has been isolated and they've confirmed it's ... a gunshot. Even without the prologue, it's a real 'Ya thunk?' moment.
The king of the the techo-thriller is the late Michael Crichton, a writer I loved as a teen. Smythe and I are about the same age and were inhaling Stephen King's oeuvre at the same time so it wouldn't surprise me if he was also reading Crichton when I was (although I'll bet his Mum didn't take Rising Sun away from him for being age inappropriate). No Harm's flat writing style feels like a deliberate imitation. Unfortunately, the characterisation suffers, the same as it did in Crichton's work. Lawrence Walker is just some guy who has some things happen to him; his wife, Deanna, is just some guy who has some things happen to her; Amit is the everyman sidekick. It's difficult to care what happens to them and even at the moments of high emotional drama, I remained at a remove. The *really* dramatic moments felt over-the-top and I had some trouble taking it as seriously as it took itself.
This is a rather inbetween-y book which doesn't quite do enough of anything. It's not really a thriller although it has aspects of one (that's an observation, not a complaint), and the ideas - which I loved - are almost too sophisticated for the rest of the book. If I handed it to my Mammy (big fan of the 'rollicking good yarn'), I don't think she'd get those parts and would instead find an okay book which would make a jolly good film. I (who understood The Matrix first time round), found a rather 2d thriller enormously improved by the resolution of its sub-plot, which would make a jolly good film.
Without the idea this would probably be 2.5 stars simply for the time it took to get going, so I'm going to give it 3, although I'm not going to look askance at anybody marking it lower.
I must begin this review by extending my congratulations to this book's PR person who rejected my request for it some months ago on NetGalley. You, dear person, are brilliant at your job. I began cackling wilding on the second page when the narrator characterised the pupils of Cheltenam Ladies College and other public schools as make-up free bluestockings. A few pages later, when we encounter the quaint rural types with their quaint rural ceremonies and bee gossip obsessions, I went to check if the author was American (he isn't). To suggest this book wasn't exactly my sort of thing would be the wildest of wild understatements.
The Prophecy of Bees is narrated by Izzy, the rebellious daughter of a late business-business man who was enobled by the Blair government for his various good works. Izzy's mother, an American who really enjoys being Lady Griffin-Clark, moves herself and her daughter to Stagcote Manor in darkest Cotswoldscestershire so Izzy can have a fresh crack at her A Levels without any of the behavioural problems which marred her first attempt. But Stagcote Manor may or may not have a Dark And Terrible Secret - the yokels call it Heartbreak Hall, all who live there are cursed, and Izzy finds rural life is governed by bizarre superstitions designed to keep people safe from something nobody will fully explain.
Dun dun duuuuuuuuun.
Although this book is marketed as adult fiction, it's not really. The first 2/3rds are a mixture of light ghost story and what I call YAngst Lit: YA books in which the MC has legitimate problems presented in a desirable way (self-harm is a typical example), and which are dealt with maximum of drama and minimum of personal responsibility. YAngst Lit always has a parent figure who makes the decisions, often giving the pseudo-adult-aged MC something else to feel aggrieved about. It's the kind of thing I loved as a 12/13-year-old and a genre I mined in many a piece of exceptionally bad X Files fan fiction.
So, when she's not trying to uncover details of the supposed curse, Izzy mourns the loss of her wannabe rock-star boyfriend Cosmo and the baby her mother 'forced' her to abort, but she does so with all the emotional engagement of somebody who's missed out on the latest iphone. The abortion in particular only matters as a way to punish her mother, or when Izzy wants to feel hard done by. Izzy should be 17 (I don't think it's specified) which means she can legally leave school, get a job, and acquire a place to store as many sprogs as she cares to pop out, but she's too busy Gothing up in an attempt to embarrass her mother to consider any of these things.
The other trouble is that the voice is not that of a 17-year-old girl, especially not one as immature as Izzy, so the whine never felt deliberate. I'm all for an unlikeable, even bratty, narrators, especially ones whose personal problems have given their sense of entitlement a good inflate (see Gillian Flynn's first two novels, Dark Places and Sharp Objects), but Izzy just felt thin. She was all about telling rather than showing, about how she had done X, Y, or Z, but it was never the voice of somebody who had done that. Nor did I get the sense we were supposed to doubt her validity as a narrator. It's a pacey book which sits largely on the surface: Izzy mentally makes accusations she retracts in the next paragraph so there's no time to digest it or suggestion you should question what she's doing or how accurately she's narrating it.
As far as the actual story goes ... well, that wasn't going to be my thing either. One of the reasons I dislike YA is the element of wish fulfilment you often find in it - the MC is always the most important person in the world in some crucial way - and The Prophecy of Bees suffers this bigtime. Izzy is at the centre of everything: she is the only one who can hear the scratching in the walls; she is the one who engages with the superstitions; she is the one who becomes determined to discover the truth about Stagcote. Again, it doesn't feel like a deliberate narcissism, more that the other characters aren't engaged with anything when they're off-screen. The convenience of Izzy's progress is well disguised by the excellent pacing, but I was never on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen.
It doesn't help that I grew up in the kind of small town this book is set in, complete with a t'big house and a t'Lord and t'Lady of t'Manor who hosted t'village events. A book demands a reader suspend their disbelief but for me the idea that there exists a village full of forelock tugging yokels whose every move is governed by superstitions and traditions which have existed for, oh gosh, ages, is hilarious. I understand why The Wicker Man is considered a cult classic, but that film (the original version) makes me cackle even harder than the second page of this book did. At least Summerisle was remote and Scottish and their gene pool was small. Cheltenham has a Waitrose.
I get it, really I do. In my childhood town we frequently used our free time to try and summon the devil (the internet hadn't been invented yet). I've lived a lot of places and know more local traditions than you can shake a mare's skull at, but you're either going to have the temperament to sit through 350 pages of wide-eyed women insisting the MC must drink apple juice through her nose to prevent badgers eating her feet in the night, or you're me and regard it as somewhere between derivative and entertainingly stupid. I didn't get why Izzy should believe any of it - there are lots of reasons she could have but none came through in the book.
I also had my pedantry sensors tripped more than once, particularly when Izzy arranges a funeral for a skeleton she has found. I had to research funerals last year so I can tell you with some confidence that what she organises would have been over three thousand pounds without the extra cost of her chosen coffin, payable up front. It's not mentioned how she pays for it and it matters not only because I am a pedant who makes petty complaints, but because it shows the author isn't applying real-world logic to their characters. If they aren't thinking about who their characters are and what they are able to do, even on a day-to-day basis, how am I going to take them seriously? It's not just this either, every mention of 'Lady Lindy' was a minor irritation (because she isn't and it matters, dammit).
If you have a tolerance for immature YA heroines with controlling mothers and can sit straight-faced through stuff like The Blair Witch Project, you may well enjoy this. There's huge potential for a film version which I'm confident I wouldn't like either, but I, despite the efforts of the marketing team, am really not the audience for this. It was entertaining enough and I'm not put off giving something else by this author a whirl, but due to the deeply stupid ending this one gets 1.5 stars.
To everybody, everywhere. To friends, acquaintances, and sources of annoyance. To those who show patience and compassion and love.
To you, the very best of New Year Wishes.
May things go well for you. May you find a way to see all things in their best light. May you exist without fear. May you exist without pain. May you be the person you are without the judgement of others. May you find only love and joy in all that you do. May peace be in your head, your heart, and your household.
May your coming year exceed your every expectation.
Happy New Year guys.
Continuing this year's trend of reading books by vets, I found Marc Abraham's Vet on Call at the library and decided to give it a whirl. Abraham is well known in the UK by people who aren't me due to his regular appearances on the Paul O'Grady show, but this is the story of his first year running an out-of-hours small animal clinic in Brighton, a coastal city well known for its lively party scene.
If you mentally lay James Herriot's output in a chronological line and placed the books I've read along it, Gillian Hicks' début would go at the beginning, her second a little further along, while Anna Birch would nestle happily next to Herriot's rather saccharine Every Living Thing. Vet On Call can go next to The Lord God Made Them All - it's still a good book but the edge is definitely blunter than my taste prefers.
As a small animal practitioner, Abraham establishes a distinct identity from the start. Where Hicks and Birch both had their own take on cases Herriot encountered, Abraham has stories of performing caesarean sections on guinea pigs rather than cows. He is concerned with the difficulties in running an out-of-hours vet service - rather surprisingly the first in Brighton. It was interesting enough and the stories entertaining.
Abraham touches on his own personal life and his own personality with a degree of honesty and self-awareness I find more rarely than I'd like. His focus remains largely on the job and how that affects him, the difficulty of living a nocturnal life for a man in his early 30's who's still keen to get out on the lash with his mates, and he presents himself as the fallible human he is.
As far as this sort of thing goes, this is pretty good. It's amusing, decently written, and I learned something. I'd certainly read other books of Abraham, but for me they'd be from the library rather than the shop.
[This book was provided to me many moons ago by the publisher, Penguin, via the magnificence that is NetGalley. They charged me nothing and for that I thank them.]
I like Marian Keyes a lot. She's often maligned for being Chick-Lit which is both unfair and stupid - while you don't have to like Chick Lit, you do have to not write off an entire genre. As I mentioned in my review of Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, Keyes pre-dates Sex and The City and Bridget Jones by several years. She didn't single-handedly invent the genre, but she was an important step in its development.
The Woman Who Stole My Life is a pleasing return to form after the rather jarring The Mystery Of Mercy Close (which I'll mention I enjoyed tons more the second time around) and The Brightest Star In The Sky, which left me wanting to throw it (it's decent enough, but a book which turns out to be narrated by the spirit of an unborn baby waiting to find out which lady's womb it's going to settle down into makes me stabby. Full marks for originality and all that, but it's worth mentioning that abortion is illegal in Ireland so I have trouble regarding an unplanned pregnancy with anything other than horror).
Stella Sweeny has returned to Dublin under a cloud following a year in New York as a lauded self-help author. Now broke, she's desperate to get another book out, but that's going to involve laying off the wall of jaffa cakes and actually writing the thing, a task she's finding far more difficult this time around.
Keyes uses the structure which has worked so well in previous novels such as Rachel's Holiday and Anybody Out There?: a first person narrative beginning after the fact, the day-to-day story around which the past unfolds. Stella's story has a terrific concept and Keyes' does great work balancing the distress of the character with the levity of the style. She has so many throwaway moments, so many tiny details of life in there. Her characters are both human and ridiculous - Stella's ex-husband Ryan is the exactly like somebody I know in real life (which made me terribly sad, and a little grateful his kidders are boys).
I like the Irish vernacular - when you read as much as I do, anything which stands out a little is gratefully received. This isn't the full Dub, but there's plenty of 'That's gas,' and 'gameball' floating around, along with the odd nun reference which, as a Protestant Atheist, I find minorly thrilling.
There are problems, the largest of which is the story. Along with the present in which Stella desperately tries to write her new book before she runs out of money, there are two main sections: Stella's time in New York and the events which led to her being there. Both are good, but the ending feels desperately weak. Keyes usually gives us characters who are dealing with something - Helen and her Depression, Rachel and her drug addiction etc - but Stella isn't doing that. She's procrastinating and worrying, sure, but most of what happens in her present is filler - completely appropriate and wildly entertaining, but nevertheless filler. When the full story is finally given, that's pretty much it. I genuinely wondered if my ARC was going to have its final chapter missing because I was down to the last few percent and still dealing with Stella's past.
And while Stella herself is an excellently done character, she's not the best type to have at the heart of a book. She is a passive character - the direction her life takes has little to do with her own decisions or efforts. She is a passenger in her own reality. Keyes knows this and uses it to brilliant effect, but it still leaves for a disappointing reading experience. I understand and sympathise with Stella, but I was never urging her to succeed.
I enjoyed The Woman Who Stole My Life (and I learned something, which is always nice). If you haven't read any Marian Keyes this probably isn't going to turn you onto her, but it's a good book for those who do, if probably not worth the full price of admission. A goodly amount of my like comes from the coverage of Stella's life as an author which - as with The Other Side Of The Story - engaged me. The majority of the book was a solid 3.5 star, but that ending is massively undermining: 3 stars.
There's a full review of this one coming but as it's unlikely to happen before next week I wanted to give a heads up on this one because it's on NetGalley for my US friends (ahead of its January Publication date. It's already out in the UK).
I'm not the greatest one for memoir, but this is great - if you want to know what it's like in a Southern Funeral home in the 60's, look no further.
[This book was provided to me for the price of nothing, nyet, nada monies. I was wildly happy about it. All hail the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley, who makes my dreams possible. Well, my dreams of acquiring books I don't have to pay for or leave the house to get my hands on, at least, and of not being tracked down to be shouted at even though I'm a month late with this.]
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of the few books which have made it onto my 5 star list. It was the bookish equivalent of a bowl of rice pudding with a dollop of really tangy jam - immensely comforting, not many surprises, but with a definite punch which made the whole thing come alive. Plus it made me cry, and any book which does that deserves a high mark.
In all honesty I was a bit apprehensive to learn of this book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Harold Fry was such a massive success - not only commercially: it was also longlisted for the Booker - I feared this would be a cynical tie-in, or an attempt to exploit the great affection readers have for Joyce's debut. It isn't. This book stands as a companion novel to Harold Fry and it does so marvellously.
It begins with a letter - the letter Harold Fry receives which prompts him into his pilgrimage - and its reply, the one Harold scribbles the note onto to tell Queenie to wait for him. Which she does.
Love Song is Queenie's longer letter to Harold, her confession and attempt at atonement. It is the things she needs him to know in case he doesn't get there in time. It is what happened during her time at the factory, during the car rides, and why she acted as she did back then. This story is interspersed with the day-to-day life of the hospice - the nuns, the other patients. Joyce has a rare skill for the ridiculous, and for balancing it against heart-wrenching truths. There is great sadness in this book, but it is genuinely funny too and filled with joyous moments.
Yet, it is lacking. There is a story to be told here but at the same time it's rather too dependent on Harold Fry, relegating it to a top-notch curio rather than a must-read. The premise of Harold Fry was always contrived but Joyce handled it with enough skill and compassion to make it work; Love Song doesn't work in that way. Harold's walk and Queenie's desire to wait for him don't make enough sense when this book is treated in isolation.
There is also the problem of Queenie herself. Harold Fry was never about her, she was simply a name, a memory; she was an icon through which Harold and Maureen found peace. She did nothing beyond exist, which was fine within the confines of that story but here she is a woman in love with a married man. She has spent her life loving him and I do not find that romantic, I find it hateful. I bring my own baggage to this in the form of a psycho hose-beast who declared herself in love with a man she'd never met, who caused cataclysmic damage to two vulnerable people, and who is - above and beyond all else - a pathetic coward who needs to get a grip and live in the world which is in front of her, not the fantasies of her own head. So, yeah, every time Queenie recounted how much she loved Harold and how she'd spent her life alone, I wanted to reach for my trusty slap-haddock. I like to image hitting people I don't like with fish. Judge me if you wish.
Joyce, it should be emphasised, does a sterling job with Queenie. As much as I disliked the abstract concept, and as much as I hated the emphasis on her love for Harold - Harold Fry was never a love story - I did enjoy this book. From an outside perspective I think it's tremendously faulty; while there's certainly a story to be told here I do feel it's a little hamstrung by its own set-up. Compare Queenie to Penelope (Greek lady; liked weaving) to show the missed potential. There's no getting away from the fact this is 368 pages of a woman writing about a bloke she's been secretly in love with for decades. When the great confession comes, it felt absolutely perfect for this self-obsessed character, Queenie again taking ownership of something which isn't hers, but it's disguised as a Romantic gesture and that is disappointing. It's written to be felt, but for me it was Queenie making things about Queenie. Shyness is arrogance in disguise.
It is fair to mention, especially because I have railed on plenty of books in the past for the issue, that I frown upon its narrative concept (if that's the correct term). This presents itself as a character-written text. Queenie is writing her story in shorthand, desperate to get this tale down before it's too late yet it is very writerly. I bang on about how if something is X it has to BE X; Queenie Hennessey does not read like the product of somebody writing in shorthand, worrying about whether she has enough time left. It doesn't inhibit the enjoyment of the book but it would be hypocritical of me not to mention it.
If you loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry as much as I did, I'd definitely recommend picking this one up. If you haven't read either, start with that; Love Song has significantly less to offer the uninitiated and will demand they suspend their disbelief rather too much to get into it. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy a bittersweet, hilarious and heartfelt book full of terrific characters and despite my personal baggage, I enjoyed it hugely.
When I decided to join the #bloggerblackout, I did it for a lot of reasons, all of them personal. In the post I made about why I was doing it, I mentioned my concern over the fact I was late with a couple of reviews and in joining the blackout they would be made later. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter and it makes very little difference to those books and their success - however, it was still important to me that I try and behave in a professional way, which means getting ARC reviews done in a timely fashion.
I knew when I went into it that some people thought the blackout was designed to, or was about, hurting or punishing authors. It was never about that for me - I don't think it's about that for anybody. I didn't realise some people thought an ARC meant I owed them something beyond an honest review. I didn't realise that accepting books for review made me, in the eyes of some, obligated to the people who'd provided it.
Amateur reviews are a pretty useful thing for the publishing industry. An awful lot of the online activity I see is around the areas of Romance and YA/NA, two genres which don't have much traction in the mainstream press. Without sites like Dear Author, or Smart Bitches, or any one of the hundreds of small blogs contributing to the accumulation of reviews on Goodreads, there are an awful lot of books which wouldn't receive any publicity. I had a quick Google to see where Hale's novel would have been covered without the blogs and the answer from the first few pages of my results is: Kirkus, and Bustle. YMMV.
That's not Blogs only value - it also lies *in* being amateur. To work in publishing, the usual route is via the unpaid internship. In the US I understand some places offer remote work placements, but in the UK it means working for free, in London, which gives something of an insight into why the industry is so very, very white, and why there's an industry perception that POC characters will harm a book's chances in the market. #WeNeedDiverseBooks, not more privileged Oxbridge/Red Brick graduates out of touch with the book buying public. Even I, white, middle-class, find few people like me in the newspaper. There was an article in the Guardian some weeks ago in which a woman struggling with money tried an experiment with Supermarket own brands to see if they were worth the saving (spoiler alert - some were). It mainly illustrated to me that the good people of that newspaper aren't actually in touch with the whole "struggling with money" thing. Anybody who thinks having to stop using Ocado counts as "struggling with money" needs a sharp reality check. Some weeks I genuinely can't tell if The Sunday Times Style magazine has been secretly taken over by The Onion.
Blogs though - bloggers are people like me. They post pictures of their cats sitting in cardboard boxes, and they have terrible days at work, and they celebrate losing weight or having a haircut, and they're excited about a new TV show, or maybe they're annoyed about it, whatever - they're all people who live lives far closer to mine even though I should have far more in common with those broadsheet journalists who are so very keen to show just how ordinary they are.
And because Bloggers are people like me, I trust them. I trust that most of them are doing what I do - reading a book and writing down what they think of it.
If we become obliged to publishers, or authors, or anybody but ourselves, we lose the thing which makes us useful.
So, to you, those people saying (or thinking) that bloggers owe authors/publishers something: is that what you want? Free adverts spread across the internet? Do you want us to be good little boys and girls? Do you want us to write enthusiastically about everything you provide us with? And, do you think, in your infinite wisdoms, that this will do you any good? Or do you suppose that having these "independent" reviewers in your pockets will mean people get their reviews from people who don't accept ARCS? Because hear this: if I never get another ARC, I will still have plenty to read. And it will not be hurting authors to not accept ARCs because I will still be reviewing, just not the books freshly available this week. But then, this is so tangled it would not surprise me if you did think closing to ARCs was hurting authors, and this is so far past the point of appropriateness it's almost worth doing so to laugh at your self-important Twitter attacks. Oh noes! Am I functioning as an autonomous human being? Won't somebody please stop me?! Think of teh authors!
If you are an author, it is in your very best interests to have an independent group of people saying what they think about your book. It is in your interest to have this group of people able to say what they want about things without having to worry about you butting in, which, if there's no f***ing @reply including you, is exactly what it is. If it's not emailed to you, or tweeted at you, or facebooked at you, or whatever the hell the cool kids are doing these days, you are butting in. You are doing the internet equivalent of announcing yourself to the people having a conversation at the next table in a restaurant. Consider street harassment - even just those simple thank yous, those little harmless words which nobody in their right mind could have a problem with unless they drip, drip, all day, every day, until every time you leave the house you're braced for it. Reviewers have these small words all the time, and all the people in their community do too, and they don't know, when you say those little words, whether that's all you'll do because you are Schroedinger's Author.
The only difference between Kathleen Hale and Richard Brittain('s alleged actions) is a bottle. Until that bottle hit the head of a reviewer, their actions were the same. Do not justify Hale to me on the basis of her walking away. Do not tell me you have the right to respond to reviews, or to chat up a woman who wants nothing to do with you, because they are the same thing and neither are okay. Forcing interaction is not cool.
One of the things which has made me saddest about this whole situation are the number of stories I'm hearing about reviewer harassment, a lot of it from trade published authors. Most of it isn't a big deal, but - like street harassment - when it's this constant background noise which occasionally turns into something worse, do you really think your right as the author (or simply as a human being) to comment on a review trumps the right of the reviewer to go on through their day unimpeded?
I've thought about this a lot. I love ARCs. I love seeing a book in the best-seller list and smugly mentioning I had a review copy of it. I've never claimed to be a good person.
I don't want to stop requesting them but my independence as a reviewer is far more important to me than a few free books. I haven't done a proper breakdown, but ARCs have been roughly 10% of my reading material this year. If an ARC means I owe anybody anything, in the nicest possible way, keep it. I am not the enthusiastic promo-bot you are looking for. This one actually is about ethics in journalism.
I already had plans to cut back on ARCs for a bit so this isn't some grand move, it's more something I was kind of doing anyway, and it's not intended to be permanent. It's for as long as I feel like and it's not about anybody who isn't me.
[With this post, I declare my personal Blog Blackout over. I thought about extending it to the 1st to keep in line with others, but from tomorrow I'm busy with Other Things, so I decided breaking early was better than breaking late on account of all the damage little old me is doing to teh authors. Why will nobody think of the authors? Anyway, this book was provided to me for no cost by the publisher, Two Roads, aided by Bookbridgr. I thank them, for both hardcopy and not sending Kirsty Wark to my home to find out why I hadn't got this reviewed yet.]
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is the debut novel of the journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Wark (you'd have heard of her if you were British). She is intelligent, classy, and a generally all round good egg, which is why I requested it in the first place. She also had a cameo in the Doctor Who episode "The Poison Sky' according to Wikipedia, which tells you how highly she is regarded.
When 93-year-old Elizabeth Pringle dies, she leaves her house and everything in it to Anna, the woman who pushed a note through her door 30 years earlier asking if Elizabeth would be interested in selling. TIt is Martha, Anna's daughter, who takes shocked custody of the place; the house is an untold story, one which will forever remain so thanks to Anna's Alzheimers.
The book alternates between Martha - struggling with her mother, her sister, and this new property, the gift of a woman she's never met - and Elizabeth's memoir, the story of a long life in a small place she's desperate to set down before she becomes unable to. There is a lovely parallel in the unfolding of Elizabeth's story and Martha's gradual acquaintance with her through the Arran islanders who knew her, small details cropping up in Martha's chapters to be explained in Elizabeth's.
As you might expect from somebody of Wark's calibre, the writing is pretty good. There's the odd clunky paragraph, usually speech related, but the prose has a lovely subtlety to it which only becomes apparent when you mentally apply a Scottish accent. In the right vocal chords, I imagine this would be an excellent audio book. It's certainly something which should be read for long, uninterrupted periods, sunk into rather than dipped.
And this is because while lovely, and evocative, and interesting, Elizabeth Pringle lacks a strong plot. Any book split between two narratives in this way faces an uphill struggle to engage the reader because it usually takes twice as long for the book to get going. This one gives no impetus to either story. Elizabeth's memoir is exactly that, the story of her life, while Martha merely lives hers. Things happen, certainly - the relationship between Martha and her sister Susie over their mother is especially keenly observed - but there is little drive or tension. At no point was I waiting to find out what happened.
When the great denouement comes, it feels ... random. There is no particular build up, or the sense that this was the reason Elizabeth was writing her memoir. It's a shame, and I wish Elizabeth's actions following the event had been made more of. There is seriously under-utilised mileage in that particular idea.
The same can be said of the romantic elements - it feels like there's a stage missing between the characters' conversations-in-passing and the characters giving each other a metaphorical throat-swabbing on the doorstep. It feels like the parts are there on paper, but they lack the organic connection between the characters. When I read about a relationship I want to feel these two people not getting together would be a travesty. Instead I was a bit ho-hum about it.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is one of these books I could might well have given up on if it hadn't been an ARC, but one of the ones I'm glad I didn't. Sometimes a book turns out not to be right for me, the sack of meat and bitterness behind the keyboard, and I think there's certainly an element of that here. While slow, for me it was a solid three-star read. If Women's Fiction set on a remote Scottish Island appeals, I'd certainly recommend you download a sample.
I don't use Twitter much. I find it too much of a time sink; it can take me 5 minutes minimum to read and respond to a Tweet (I'm dyslexic). Yesterday, though, I was keeping an eye on #HaleNo and I ended up having a conversation with an internationally bestselling author about the proposed blackout. She argued that it would be hurting a lot of authors who had nothing to do with Hale, and she's right - in a way - it will.
When I began the conversation, I wasn't sure what my position was going to be. I agreed with the blackout but I wasn't sure if I was going to join in. I'm horribly behind on my ARCs and I've got 2 reviews which I was intending to get finished and post ASAP - if I join in with the blackout, I am actively punishing these two authors (if you will excuse me the ego trip of pretending anything I do makes a difference, especially to the two people concerned). It's going to effect another two authors who's books I need to crack on with and who I would make the effort to status update about because I am so horribly behind. It's going to effect another author, because I started their book last night and am really excited that it's going to be good and if I join the blackout, I can't say anything about it.
I don't know what any of these people think about #HaleNo. I haven't looked. It doesn't actually matter because this is not about them. As I said to the IBA on Twitter, when nurses strike it's not done to hurt the patients. As a blogger, I hope that authors understand why we're doing this and that they offer to support us. We all have our own reasons for doing this. These are mine.
So, here it is. With regret, until the 27th I will not be posting any reviews of new books, or status updates about the ones I'm reading. I apologise to the authors whose reviews are being further delayed by this action.
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