I put off reading this for a while for some reason – but in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, engaging Victorian fantasy.
It’s set in 1889 Paris, not the 1889 Paris we all know (ha ha) – this one is a fantastical world, with four Houses of an international order, the Order of Babel. Each House historically has its own matriarch (or patriarch), except that one house has fallen – the Fallen House – and is no more; and the heir of another – the House of Vanth – was found to be not the true heir during some magic test of rings 10 years ago. That failed heir is Severin, convinced that the test was fixed and that he must reclaim his birthright. In the meantime he manages to be very wealthy, owns a Paris hotel, and has gathered a diverse band of accomplices who help in his trade of “acquisitions,” commonly known as theft, robbery or heists.
Some aspects of this world are dealt with rather sketchily: the background is that the biblical Tower of Babel fragmented and the fragments scattered, providing the foundation of civilizations, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of how the Houses arose or even of the current members, apart from the misfit patriarch Hypnos who joins the band. The forging magic which certain members of the Houses possess – who has it, how, do they receive training, what does it do??? Some of that stuff is there but it’s very fleeting and we don’t really see it. Similarly, the bad guys – to do with the Fallen House – are not really given enough presence, motivation or background to seem deeply sinister or scary. I found myself wondering why Severin didn’t join forces with the Fallen House, as they’d both been kicked out of the Order.
The story has a number of very strong points. The Paris Exposition at the time was a celebration of empire and racial supremacy: the novel counterpoints that brilliantly, partly through its highly diverse characters and partly through its explicit discussions and references (one character is a mixed-race filipino historian) as to how history is rewritten and cultures erased through colonization. The characters’ diversity is not limited to their racial identities – although that is intrinsic to the plot: is that why Severin was denied his birthright? The brilliant Zofia is on the autistic spectrum, Hypnos is queer, Enrique pan… so, diversity in various ways.
The writing is often sumptuous and poetic, and paints gorgeous sensuous scenes. The puzzles and problems, and the interweaving of this magical world with ancient civilizations, mythologies and religions, are very cleverly done. The characters are extremely engaging for the most part. Two things slightly bothered me at the end: A reveal about Tristan – why? I could have done without that (and why did the bad guy target him anyway? I didn’t understand the reason). Plus Severin seemed to undergo a personality transplant for the last couple of scenes and turned into a dick. If I’m going to be super-picky, too – interesting that Severin and his buds are wealthy. Racism and oppression are in reality tied very closely to wealth acquisition: the general status of the oppressed is that they are poor, and have to work long hours in cruddy jobs just to eat. They don’t potter around experimenting in laboratories and greenhouses, or perusing historical texts in libraries. Only the oppressors have time for that kind of thing. So the racism here is stand-alone, not tied to economic exploitation as is the case in the real world.
But apart from that – if you like smart fantasy with healthy multicultural themes, very engaging characters and a fast-moving story, then you should give this one a go. Definitely a cut above, sophisticated YA.
This was nearly a DNF for me. Ultimately I’m glad I stuck with it, but it was definitely not the sort of writing I find appealing.
It’s basically the story of the massacre of the Palestinians of Lydda, now Lod, in 1948. Once the narrator gets to that, the narrative becomes powerful and horrific – somewhat diluted still by his endless circuitry and waffle. The long first part of the novel is about the narrator, Adam Dannoun, having a kind of identity crisis as he’s told his parentage is not what he believed. This is told as a story within a story, by some academic first person maundering on about his not-an-affair with a beautiful young Korean student, amongst other things, and how he came into possession of Adam’s notebooks. I suppose Adam’s search for identity is kind of a mirror or symbol of the crisis in identity that displaced refugees experience, as the heart of the story is around dispossession, and losing your place in the world. As well as genocide. Certain themes are revisited: love, silence, words… over and over again. Repetition is not a crime in this kind of stream of consciousness narrative (though I’m sure it’s not really SOC at all, but carefully constructed): maybe repetition is meant to emphasize.
The finding of notebooks device, and frequent (again, repetitive) references to an old myth or fairy tale of a lover in a coffer, again seem to go round and round. The prose is often poetic, and probably more poetic still in the original, but this kind of waffle I find self-indulgent. I think the impact of the atrocity – the tale he has to tell - would be infinitely more powerful without this endless self-obsessed burbling (though admittedly that is often a feature of lauded literary works I don’t like), which ultimately wraps around and dulls the sharp blade of truth and horror within.
I’m being a plebian/philistine here – but it would be better at half the length. Then, if he wants to talk about words and silence and his many fathers, he could write a short poem or two. And as for the Korean student – did-he-didn’t-he have an affair?– leave her out altogether. And the notebooks device – story within a story. He doesn’t return to it, and as far as I can see it’s entirely redundant.
But for all those many caveats, an important, heartbreaking story that needs to be told.
I remember this title from years back caused quite a stir when Loewen challenged various myths embedded in standard text books, and how the accepted attitude ennobles the heroic founding father figure type and ignores or belittles any other culture’s contribution to America’s unquestioned greatness.
This is an American book about American history textbooks, so it is less directly relevant to an outsider (I’m not an American) but it is still fascinating reading. Much of Loewen’s debunking is around figures such as Columbus (what a piece of work he was) and the early founders of the constitution. He takes on the injustices and near genocide wreaked on Native Americans north and south, the way slavery is skated over in traditional school texts, the neglect of the civil rights movement, America’s unconstitutional involvement overseas, and the myth of the American dream – “work hard and you will get on in America” – when in fact America possesses, interestingly, one of the least socially and fiscally mobile populations in the western world. So basically, Loewen addresses social class – a near-unmentionable in traditional texts, which choose to perceive America as a classless society with opportunity open to all.
I think this is an incredibly valuable book, despite elements of repetition and maybe a slightly too obvious liberal white guilt itchy feel. I see Loewen mentions time and again that school boards will not accept non-traditional texts: there is a kind of censorship (or maybe propaganda) which decides that young minds should only be fed carefully edited facts to encourage them to believe their country is great.
The trouble is, how does this translate for poor white kids, or black kids who know it isn’t true? They must be poor because their parents didn’t work hard enough, or are undeserving in some way. So if they believe this version of reality, they must feel shame for their parents and their families.
I suspect most of them don’t believe it, but they don’t know what they should believe, either. They are most likely confused, maybe angry – and maybe disengaged. They will certainly be uninformed.
This book is an attempt to address that lack of/misinformation.
If I would like to see one addition, it would be a bigger section on the class system and the effect of trickle down economics. Loewen describes the enormous and fast growing disparity in wealth between haves and have-nots – the gap between rich and poor – but doesn’t mention Reaganism and Milton Friedman, whose economic policies have become widely accepted across the western world. The catastrophic failure of these policies, which we are being very slow to recognize mainstream, is surely a significant factor in the growth of poverty and inequity. They are part of history too.
I’ve read some Sophie Kinsella in the past and thought this would offer a fun, lightweight, heartwarming read.
I still read it quickly in the way that you do when you’re fully hooked on the story, but despite that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. There were some funny moments, especially earlier on. Sophie does have a knack for witty dialogue and humour.
Essentially the reason it didn’t quite resonate as it should was that the basic premise was a fail, for a couple of reasons.
First, Fliss takes it on herself to wreck little sister Lottie’s rushed rebound marriage by orchestrating non-consummation on her wedding night. Even putting aside issues such as: Fliss has no right; Lottie is a 33 year old adult woman; if she wants a baby, who is Fliss to stop her at this age and stage of her life?…
The main problem was that the non-consummation orchestrations just aren’t funny. They’re too implausible to be amusing: I couldn’t suspend disbelief to that degree, or even close (and I believe in Harry Potter). The telly tubbies, the single beds, the peanut oil, the airport toilet – it just seemed silly, and not very interesting. More cringe than laugh. Rather like those old unfunny farces where people run in and out of doors mistaking identities because they have wigs on, and the like. There’s a reason farces are no longer popular.
Also it becomes clear quite early on that Ben is dimwitted and shallow and unpleasant despite hot bod, so why does Lottie persist in trying to shag him anyway?
Even when Lottie finally realizes she really loves Richard and doesn’t like Ben and they’re going to split up straight away, she still wants to shag Ben just the once. “We deserve this.” Really? It seems deeply unlikely character-wise (who wants to shag a guy who they know is dim, selfish and all over some other woman? Not Lottie, unless she has the lowest self-esteem out there.) It’s a plot device to bring in another round of consummation-obstruction orchestrations, and as they weren’t funny the first time round they’ve definitely overstayed their welcome by now.
Which all sounds highly critical, and is – but partly I’m annoyed because I like Sophie Kinsella, and her writing is lovely: intelligent, warm-hearted, humorous. So I had high expectations. Counterpoint to criticisms: intriguing idea – the rebound marriage, droll moments and flashes of wit, and strong characters. Yes, Lottie’s an immature (likeable) idiot and Fliss is a micro-managing control freak (best interests at heart etc). So they both have issues, but of course that’s what makes them interesting. They’re both engaging in different ways – I rooted for them, and I liked the ending (yay!). I just wanted the story to be better, and funnier.
Also - will still rush out and read the next one that comes along, so slight disappointment not enough to put me off Kinsella. We all have off days.
I read this without knowing that it was a sequel, but as it turns out that is no big deal: the novel stands alone comfortably, and in fact it’s hard to see how it is a sequel at all really (though from reading reviews, I presume it’s something to do with the paranormal premise).
First of all: this was a great, can’t-put-down-storm-on-through beach read, with a gripping premise and solid writing that kept the reader hooked throughout. The idea of a cruise liner stranded, floating in dead calm on the Gulf of Mexico and out of contact with any rescue service, is one I find fascinating (and have in fact toyed with myself, unsatisfactorily – though not in the Gulf of Mexico). Throw a few key conflicts/intriguing characters into the mix – a sexual predator with blood on his hands, a fake medium who suddenly starts nailing the psychic insights, her anorexic kind-of-nice assistant, suicide sisters who got together through internet death dating, secretly gay Indian security guy, slightly sociopathic cleaning staff member, stalker blog-reporter… Yes, there are a lot of characters. But it’s easy to keep track of who’s who, they have clear and consistent identities, and at no time did I lose track or become disengaged. Quite the opposite – I couldn’t put it down.
The story reminds me a little of early Stephen King, such as the Shining or Christine or Carrie: great premise and strong characters – except King’s would have waffled on for 600 pages. Also I used to find his horror a bit strong to stomach, and Lotz’s – although at the scary end – wasn’t the kind of horror that would make me keep the light on at nights. Which I like. I wouldn’t have picked it up at all, if I’d known it was categorized as horror.
Negatives? The ending, basically. I found the landfall section (minimizing spoilers here) out of the blue and implausible. Plus the format changed from the various main protagonist’s viewpoints to a bulletin/report style. Hm. Losing the personal and replacing with a Kafka-esque unknown government agency report? For me that didn’t work. The faceless bad men of government who disappear people feels tired, and definitely doesn’t offer satisfaction/resolution enough. If you’re the sort of person who felt horribly let down by the way Lost lost the plot and fizzled out with a whimper not a bang – then this isn’t quite a whimper, but it’s not an ending you can get your teeth into and feel satiated by, either.
But I will still rush out and buy number one in series – so obviously the pozzies well outweigh the negs.
St Martin’s Press, pub date August 14th 2018
Apparently this is the sixth outing in a bestselling series featuring Mary Di Nunzio, a partner in an all-women Philadelphia law firm. The blurb intrigued me, as it features a reverse discrimination case: three young male lawyers claim they were not hired because they were men. Plus any series featuring a group of hard-hitting strong women has got to be a winner.
The story is a fast-moving, brisk read. At first I was not especially drawn in: the writing style is simple and lacks flavor. The story is told plainly, the writing an unadorned dull vehicle for getting the story out there. If you’re looking for nuance, rich imagery or colour – this is not the place.
The strongest moments, those which do jump off the page, are when Mary is with her extended Italian family in South Philly. Then you do get some sense of the strong local scene, its dialects and food and family-based culture.
The story itself is gripping: an old unscrupulous opponent manufactures a lawsuit against Mary and friends, for which as it turns out he has ulterior motives beyond simple antipathy/revenge. And then their only male associate is murdered, which seems to put them in a highly suspicious position.
The legal aspects and the twists and turns are well-handled in traditional thriller style. Despite the promise of the initial hook, there isn’t much meat here in terms of the hypocrisy of launching a suit of this kind; the reverse discrimination suit is explored (briefly) via the “but we don’t! We’re equal opportunity…” route, fairly superficially.
Plus the final denouement is not entirely satisfactory. The surprise villain of the piece is a little too much of a surprise: insufficient motive, realistically, compared to the frontrunner up till then. His action is justified by a slightly bizarre descent into mania and rage, not even hinted at and not especially consistent with the character.
The ages, also, seem a little off. Mary’s parents are in their eighties? But she is just having a baby, her first… But then celebs are doing it (Janet Jackson 49; Rachel Weisz 48; Brigitte Nielsen 54), so maybe it’s not so extraordinary.
The story is undoubtedly gripping, and the main character engaging and highly sympathetic. The knowledge of the legal system that underpins the story seems reassuringly confident. Feared is an enjoyable light read, but misses the opportunity to be so much more.
There seems to be a trend at the moment for contemporary real-life issues-based YA carrying meaningful messages. Which sounds a little cynical, but if the story is handled as skillfully and sensitively as this one, then it’s all good. Novels like The Benefits Of Being An Octopus open eyes to other people’s lives, develop empathy and understanding, and change the world one small step at a time.
Zoe is one of the invisible, marginalized by poverty. She’s a seventh grader living with her mum, three younger sibs and mum’s boyfriend Lenny in Lenny’s nice clean trailer, much better than their previous place. The writing is very clever and subtle. It gradually becomes clear to the reader, though not at once to Zoe, that Lenny is domineering and a bully. It’s an unusual but important depiction of the ways in which one person can abuse another: because the abuse is emotional, not physical, it’s insidious, not obvious and yet deeply destructive. Zoe’s mum has lost all confidence or clear sense of herself. Even Zoe, at the start, is ashamed of what a mess her mum has become.
Zoe and her friend Fuschia fly under the radar at school, invisible to the jocks, the cool and rich kids, which is the way Zoe likes it; until one day a teacher starts taking an interest in her and forces her to join the debating club.
One of Zoe’s assignments, which for once she manages to complete amidst the chaos of childminding and no personal space, is on the octopus; she is fascinated by its many defence and survival strategies, and imagines herself as an octopus finding ways to navigate the chaos that is her life. The metaphor is sustained quite imaginatively and beautifully throughout.
The story develops around Zoe’s problematic association with the debating club, and her growing awareness that her mum is being abused. She is a great character, shy yet strong, human, dignified, engaging and totally believable.
The resolution is not perfect, but plausibly open-ended. There are no easy solutions for the very poor. But, Zoe has found a way to steer her family to a kind of safety, where they can be emotionally whole again, and that demands our respect.
A great book that needs to be read. Five stars.
This is basically a survival story. Jess Cooper ends up in the Canadian wilderness with her survivalist dad after her mum dies in a car accident, and then SOMETHING VERY BAD happens to dad, their cabin burns down, and Jess has to find a way to get through many many months, including the winter, before she can have any hope of rescue. Add to that she is disabled due to her car accident injuries, and she is up against it. But she does have a very good dog.
The novel starts slowly: for a considerable portion I struggled to engage with Jess. She’s whiny, inconsiderate, not very interesting and basically quite annoying at first. The constant referencing to her pain and agony – sorry, because pain is after all subjective – but as someone with first hand experience of these kinds of injuries, I was just thinking, oh for God’s sake get on with it. Glass cuts clean for the most part; I lost part of my scalp, and still had windscreen glass working out of my head six weeks after a car accident – but you just get on with it. Glass wounds hurt at the time, but they heal pretty clean. And as for walking with foot drop, damaged tendons etc –my son had a serious spinal injury, all those symptoms and more. It’s hard to explain, but Jess seems so fussy and absorbed in her constant agony as not to be quite real. People in real ongoing pain don’t talk about it or even think about it that much, because that makes it worse. Real life pain is very boring. You learn to focus on other things. I feel vaguely resentful, that some authors believe foisting pain on their protagonists makes them more interesting. It somehow feels like an affectation.
Plus, later in the story Jess is sprinting around like a spring lamb. So the exercise did help: Dad was right. And her “disability” evaporates, or at least gets very much better.
Anyway – starting with the bad, moving on.
Some critics moaned about cruelty to animals: if you’re stuck in an icy wilderness, you hunt or die. And if you’re hunting for the first time, you’re not very good at it. So, it might be unpleasant, but it’s real.
The revenge aspect, which both blurb and early reviews indicate is a major driver, is scarcely mentioned, thankfully. Jess needs a plane to get out of there: bad men come with a plane; she can wait till spring with fingers crossed – or take the initiative and try to get away. She didn’t even go after the bad guys, actually, only the plane. Personally, I found that aspect refreshing and plausible. A sixteen year old taking on three gangsters would have been slightly far-fetched, and also unsatisfying in terms of natural justice. She barely knew her dad, as she keeps saying (although the little we do see is very engaging; one of the reasons Jess seems such a pill at first). But in the end it isn’t about revenge, it’s about survival, and that is far more realistic and satisfying.
I am a sucker for survival stories, and enjoyed that part of the story very much – though Jess does make a bit of a meal of everything at first, whinging about her incredible pain all the time. But it gets much better about halfway though, when she finally starts stepping up and getting on with it.
The writing is often poetic, and can strike the right emotional cord, but would do so more consistently if it didn’t spell out every nuance. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s actually very good, but the reflection and introspection sometimes felt over-written. Possibly a younger reader would appreciate that uber-detail, however.
The best thing about the story, of course, was Bo the dog. So, spoiler-free, the ending was not at all satisfactory. In a thriller way, it was well-worked out and resolved. In a human and emotional way, Jess is a sixteen year old alone in the world, in foster care with no family. But she is a different person to the whiner who started this journey: she is now self-reliant, strong, and determined: ultimately a solid if slightly bitter-sweet resolution.
I’d heard good things about Colin Bateman, and decided to start with his first, a 1998 thriller set during the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Bateman’s wit carries this: as thrillers go, Divorcing Jack is laugh-out-loud funny – in a dark and violent way. The main protagonist, Dan Starkey, is a decidedly beta male (or maybe even omega of there is such a thing). He’s not strong, brave, fair, loyal, tough, or honest. He betrays his wife with little remorse. He spends a fair bit of the story far too drunk (which increasingly appeals very little to me as a reader: drunks tend to be out-of-control bores in fiction as well as real life). He has some moral core – he can’t kill a gangster in cold blood when given the chance – but it’s wafer thin. And he is moderately clever. But basically his main redeeming feature is that he’s funny. Otherwise, he’s not very likeable – and for a reader, that’s a major flaw. I wasn’t that bothered by the outcome, so far as he was concerned. There were other characters I would far rather have survived.
For me, Bateman immediately invites comparisons with Adrian McKinty, another Irish novelist setting his stories during the troubles, and the Bateman does not hold up well. McKinty also has a mineshaft seam of black humour, and his character Sean Duffy drinks more than seems humanly possible at times, but the Duffy novels have greater depth and reality. The setting and background are explored with real understanding; you feel that you know what it was like to have lived in Ulster at that time, that you have got inside a very bad place in history, and under its skin. The Bateman is more plot-driven and yet at the same time the plot is more predictable. Which I hate that word, when there are basically only so many plots out there – but the handling of the blackmail elements just doesn’t feel fresh. I think Sean Duffy’s first involved a homosexual element in the IRA, and a rent boy: now that was unexpected – and the characters felt more complex, and real. As a Catholic cop in the RUC, Duffy’s character is constantly ambivalent, conflicted, pulled all ways and mistrusted on all sides. He has a strong moral core, but is frequently faced with impossible choices, and the insanity of it all is sometimes too much to bear. But, Duffy is tough: he stands up when it matters. The women all falling over themselves for this wee shite Starkey seems rather wishful thinking.
Which line of reasoning, by the way, raises the question: does a novel have to have an underlying morality, or truth to it? Or can it just be entertainment? Arguably the answer to the latter is yes, but such a novel is maybe a less satisfying read. Ultimately, according to Christopher Booker of Booker Prize fame, we read stories to believe wrongs can be righted and that there is some purpose and justice in the world. On that count, Divorcing Jack isn’t entirely lacking, but it feels shallow.
That being said and done, this was a first novel, and it was more than good enough. I would hope that with time, the author has achieved more depth and complexity. Even if he hasn’t – it’s still very very funny.
I have read Harlan Coben before, and though I’ve enjoyed a couple of his stand alones I’ve never quite got into his serial character, Myron Bolitar. Clearly I’m in a tiny minority, however, as his last seven consecutive novels have debuted at #1 in the New York Times bestseller list, he has over 60 million books in print, and is one of the most successful novelists on earth.
What Works And Why?