Book Reviews

I used to read a lot more. Around 5-6 books a month. This seems incredible to me now, although even that, I realise, is low for some. Especially book bloggers, who might easily hit double figures.

I’ve always wondered how people could read so quickly anyway… surely it’s not possible to absorb a story and its nuances when you’re done with it in a couple of days. I’d always understood that a short story was designed to be devoured in one sitting, whereas a good book – even one that ‘cannot be put down’ – should be savoured, with breaks. I don’t know where I heard this, by the way, it might be complete nonsense.

Perhaps there’s a link with books designated as a ‘quick read’, that is, the desire by some readers for a novel resembling a snack (apologies for the terrible food metaphors!) and the writers prepared (or forced by the industry of publishing) to provide it. This is not a criticism, by the way, of authors, readers, or current trends. I’m genuinely curious.

I’m not sure why my personal reading speed has dropped in the last couple of years. It’s probably a combination of factors. And Twitter. I blame Twitter for a lot. However, I’m back, it seems, to around 3 books per month, all read mostly at night in bed. My doctor once advised me, when I was having trouble sleeping, not to do this because stimulates rather than pacifies the mind. He obviously hasn’t read some of the books I have. Boom tiss.

I’m not a book blogger. I love reading but I love doing other things too and there are only so many hours in a day. But I did want to talk, briefly, about the novels I’ve read recently, a couple of which are truly wonderful. It’s a little tricky… I’m not an experienced critic, or any kind of critic to be fair and I also don’t want to give away anything that might spoil it for others. Still, I’ll do my best. If I’m making a right hash of it, please let me know. I’ll be adding each review to Amazon too.

Lost & Found by Tom Winter.

This is one of the aforementioned wonderful books. It’s about two lonely people, middle-aged Carol and imminent-to-be-retired Albert. Carol is trapped in a loveless marriage to Bob, estranged by her bright teenage daughter and seemingly despised by her mother. Albert works for the Post Office, lives in concrete hell on a London council estate, lost his wife decades years ago and is caring for his sick, nay suicidal, cat.

Just as Carol reaches a decision about her life and is poised to act she is thwarted by tragic news. Her frustration and anger at the circumstances lead her to write an open letter to the universe. Albert, sidelined in his last days on the job, finds her letter and what follows is a witty, beautifully observed story of the unconnected relationship between the two.

I cannot tell you how much love I have for Lost & Found. Tom’s writing is sparing and precise but packed full of heart and humour. His characters are the people we all know. Indeed, they are us. It had me laughing out loud one moment and in tears the next. The ending is surprising and satisfying without feeling forced. A book full of gems. Damn good job, sir. Damn good.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I’ve come to this quite a bit later than most of my friends. I have no idea why I waited so long… they’re completely right; it’s a staggeringly good book. A book for children but pertinent to all ages.

Conor’s mother is ill. He is visited at night by a monster. A monster that resembles a tree and feeds him riddles. Whether the monster is real or not remains unsaid. The idea sits astride prose that deals so very deftly with the weighty themes, the character studies of both Conor and his mum… and the ending you know is coming. It’s sad and beautiful and, yes, even heartening. I have tears in my eyes thinking about it, even now.

If you haven’t already, you must read this. And buy the illustrated version, if you can.

The Shuffle by Richard Blandford.

Firstly, I need to apologise to Richard for taking so long to get to The Shuffle. He emailed me a copy, some months ago now, on the basis that I read/review it on a short turnaround. I did fully intend to do just that… but stuff happened. Anyway, as well as this very late review, I felt it only right I purchased a copy. I haven’t done that out of guilt, by the way, (even though I do feel very guilty) but because I genuinely enjoyed it.

The Shuffle is a collection of short stories about… well, almost everything. The entire human condition appears to be represented here, each story a vignette that serves its subject matter brilliantly.

Stand-outs for me are the three connected stories regarding the Shuffle (and effect) itself, The Man Who Drew the Brook and The Home Cinema. But they’re all good. And there are a lot of them too… nearly 40 stories. Quite a collection.

Richard writes assuredly, if sometimes verbosely. And the stories don’t always twist at the end, as you might expect… which is a twist itself, I suppose. But the raw, often ugly, truth of the characters contained within comes through perfectly. Greed, sex, love, anger, fear, loneliness. This could have been Tales of The Unexpected that Dahl dreamt up but then rejected for being a little too brutal in its honesty… great stuff!

Space Danger! The Deadly Planet of DEATH! by Doug Strider.

OK, come on… I had to pick this up on title alone! It’s the first part (of four, I believe) of a planned series of novellas, or novelettes (what’s the difference between the two?), so even I was able to down this in one go. And it’s laugh out loud funny. Truly.

SD!TDPoD! (I’m not typing it out in full again!) is so very English. I loved it. Quirky with an undercurrent of dry wit and sarcasm. It reminded me a little of Hitchhikers, which is no mean feat, obviously. Alongside the humour are some nice ideas, some great characters and it’s very tidily written. Doug doesn’t skewer the jokes into your eyeballs or let them overrun the story. He lets things breathe, allowing the plot to steep perfectly. I’m probably mixing my metaphors there but never mind.

The story revolves around the crew of HMSS Monstro and a BIG mission. The noteworthy characters so far are Captain Kurt Dangler, Commander Hilary, Navigator Barnes, an alien therapist called Jack and new recruit Midshipman Harris, just out of penalty cryogenic storage for a past offence.

I had so much fun reading this. Comic-strip like. A little bit pulpy. The cliff-hanger ending is perfect too. My only criticism is regarding the cover. But even that is imbued with some kind of strange self-deprecating charm.  Honestly, go and buy. You won’t regret the decision.

Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan.

The aeons-long war between Heaven and Hell, between the angels and the Fallen, is hotting up. Innocents are being carted off. At the centre of it all is unsuspecting librarian, Alice. After a horrible day at work, she meets Mallory, a gun-toting, hard-drinking Earthbound – an angel on probation, with wings clipped – one of Heaven’s frontline soldiers. He’s been given the task of looking after her… and preparing her. She learns that her life is about to change drastically.

The story follows Alice as she struggles to understand her past, what the angels expect of her and what happened to her mother. There’s tragedy, humour, some truly horrible mouth-open, eyes-wide moments and a slew of great characters, a couple of whom are, frankly, terrifying.

My only criticism would be of Alice herself. I love that Lou hasn’t created a ‘kick-ass’ heroine right off the bat. No, what we have here is a confused, frightened protagonist who actually behaves like someone really would, given the immense weight of the information just dumped in her lap. As the story progresses, she grows. This feels right. My problem, however, despite the wonderful story-telling, is that I find it a little difficult to actually picture her. This might be exactly what the author intends, of course, perhaps making it easier for some readers to imagine themselves as protagonist instead.

I’d like to add, this didn’t put me off in the slightest. I enjoyed Blood and Feathers immensely. And Lou paints a picture of Hell itself that is more horrible and frightening than any traditional image I’ve ever seen.

Really looking forward to the sequel.

One Comment

  1. Cheers Darren, might read a few of those once I get through the current backlog of books!

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