Seventeen year old Bobby Seed is a carer. His mum has MS, his brother’s unlabelled but almost certainly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and Dad is a distant memory not worth a mention. Only two things change, really, to give this story some kind of structure: Bobby reluctantly joins a carer’s group for young people in a similar situation, and his mum decides she want to die. This might not seem like a promising premise for a story: unutterably depressing, gloomy, with enormous scope for maudlin. But The Weight Of A Thousand Feathers is none of these things. It’s by turns hilarious, breathtakingly suspenseful and deeply, deeply moving. I can honestly say this is one of the truest and most genuinely profound books I have read, on the theme of love. Because Bobby loves his mum, deeply and truly, and also his annoying but sensitive, vulnerable and surprisingly perceptive little brother Daniel (actual age: 13-14; developmental age: maybe 10, apart from when it comes to computer games). The relationships between the three of them are handled with incredible sensitivity and insight. These people feel real, at a level rarely achieved in fiction. We feel Bobby’s exhaustion, at the constant, never-ending drudgery of chores. We know his isolation, his distance from the normal stuff teenagers get up to at school and in their social and personal lives. We feel his conflicted emotions, as he performs the most intimate of caring tasks for his increasingly incapacitated and incontinent mum; how he carries them out with gentleness and care, but also with unhappy detachment. And then experiences guilt, because he would love to reassure his mum in some way, take away her mortification and shame, but finds himself rigid and unable to respond in that way. The complexities, pain and intensity of such a very close relationship are written beautifully, with rare empathy for all the people involved. The decision Bobby then has to make regarding his mum’s wishes is of course all the more agonizing because of the clarity with which their relationship is realized. Ultimately, the resolution is beautiful in many many ways, and handled exactly right by author, Bobby, Daniel and Mum: a heartbreaking, inevitable yet perfect outcome. Not least because of Bobby’s developing ability as a poet. No expert on poetry, I felt his poems were mostly pure and spare, with the odd very slightly clunky turn of phrase (which I suspect is deliberate, and a nod to his age). Whatever. They express his pain and love absolutely beautifully, in a way plain prose can rarely achieve. This is a beautiful book. Yes, it deals with important “issues:” euthanasia, burgeoning homosexuality, even the injustice of children being obliged to perform a caring role, which is generally given remarkably little recognition in literature or anywhere else. But this is far, far more than an “issues” book. Highly, highly recommended.
At first I thought I might take against this book due to its lack of any strong female characters, and its traditional take on an oppressive social structure (if you believe that a social system based on birth privileges must by its nature be unjust; but that perspective is hardly going to fit with any mediaeval style knights’ tale.) That is a sign of its age, maybe: a modern author would not (hopefully) assume that the female role is to fleetingly appear simply to provide the hero with food, and would have written in a female character with more agency. And oppressive class/cast birthright systems are rarely challenged in modern young people’s literature, or even fantasy.
But, despite those reservations, this is a story that resonates and grows better over time. Tiuri is a character who grows as the story progresses, and somehow has a depth to him that makes the reader fully engage. He is a hero, but a hero full of self-doubt, courage, and reflection as well as decency. He is reminiscent of Harry Potter in the way the reader relates to his struggles, and has a reality and depth that many more superficially written YA characters lack. Maybe it’s the sheer length of the book that tends to this engagement, or the limited third person perspective, or maybe it’s simply that we get to know Tiuri better as his character is revealed through action – which it is – but the reader ends up being deeply invested in him and his travails.
The writing is classically beautiful, the pace is fine given the length of the book, and the morality of the different choices Tiuri is presented with, is at the core of the story. Tiuri is a boy who gives up the most important thing in his life, the chance of knighthood, in order to help a stranger: and that is the beginning of his story. Who can not be hooked by that premise?
A beautiful book, in every way.
This story has a highly interesting premise: the King Arthur legend, but retold with a gender switch – Arti is a girl, just discovering her mythical role – and the magical power of words, of books rather than the sword, being the weapons of destruction, control and freedom. Should literacy be for all (the good guys, Arti and her round table of mixed-gender knights)? Or for just the few, to control and blinker the masses (The bad guys, Morgan Fay and her evil son Mordred)? Plus there is modern technology: wicked Morgan’s mantra is “a picture is worth a thousand words;” readers are hunted down and executed mercilessly, scribes even more so, and the masses are all obliged to carry their wee screens with them at all times, so Big Sister Morgan both knows where they are and controls their thoughts.
To me, this is a story with masses of potential and could have had a lot to say, but it was disappointing. Maybe even more disappointing because expectations were high. The style is lively but superficial. The pacing is poorly handled: suspense is never built effectively. The characters hint at interest and depth, but never get there: they remain one-dimensional.
Maybe a very young readership would enjoy this, but it lacks the texture, depth and power to engage a more sophisticated audience.
This was an intriguing premise and could raise some thought-provoking ethical questions on the right thing to do when you see a child being abused, and the relative love and rights of biological/non-biological parents. Rea Frey’s two narrators, the unattractive, highly stressed, non-maternal mother Amy, and the kidnapping professional thirty-something Sarah, are portrayed with some depth and perception. Neither is maybe fully realized although it is a brave attempt.
Amy is too wholly unattractive: plain, fat, terrible skin, horrible gas and bowel problems, hate-filled and angry toward her 5 year old daughter.
Sarah’s behavior is short-sighted and dim, probably not really in character with a highly successful businesswoman. It could be a lesson in how not to be a fugitive, which would run something like this: have no longterm plan, let alone a realistic one. Stay in your ex’s house and then when he gives you forty eight hours before he turns you in, go for picnics and play by the lake until the 47th hour, then be surprised when the cops turn up a few minutes early. Alter your appearance after you’ve been recognized a few times. Sell and buy your car legally to leave a clear paper trail.
Luckily the police have forgotten basic procedure, such as identifying the owner of a suspect vehicle, or even obtaining the name and vehicle details of an identified suspect from an informant, so Sarah miraculously gets away with it and keeps running.
Despite this nonsense, I did quite enjoy the story, but it was slow, repetitive and fluffy in parts, with Sarah rehashing stuff a lot: describing the little girl Emma’s appearance and their twenty-seventh visit to the playground, and her fraught relationship with her own mother. She murmurs a hundred times about how beautiful Emma is, how she’d love to be a family, how she dreams of living with Emma like this is a summer haze… without once coming up with a practical strategy for making this or any other future happen.
The novel is told through segments: before, during, and after, and through two pov, which I didn’t mind but suspect is a device to make a very simple linear tale more interesting.
The ending? Nice in a fairy tale sort of way: Amy is happy to let Emma go, Sarah gets verbal permission over the phone to keep her – but real world? Birth certificates, medical records, not to mention the police search and Amber Alert: how on earth could this have been managed? The book glosses over this, for very good reason: there is no reasonable explanation. Plus wishy-washy biological dad’s rights are conveniently invisible.
I’ve said it before and this is something that bugs me: there seems to be a double standard of realism, accuracy and authenticity when it comes to matters of police and law in fiction. Crime thrillers aimed at least in part at men, have to be spot on. Women’s fiction, on the other hand, often doesn’t even attempt real-world probability. Is that because publishers and authors think women readers are less well-versed in police and legal procedure? I don’t know, but I find it disrespectful of the female readership.
I did wonder, too, why did Emma had to be beautiful, while her mother was plain? Suppose it had been the other way round? Would Sarah’s emotions have been so readily engaged by a plain and pudgy child with eczema? Her misery could have been easily as evident and no less painful than a pretty child’s. And unhappy children often are obese: they comfort eat, and it’s easy for parents to shut them up with junk food.
But despite these caveats – I am sure lovers of Jodi Picoult will enjoy this story. It’s rich book club material, is basically well-written, raises some interesting issues, and has a good heart.
Usually I love Chris (formerly Christopher) Brookmyre: hardboiled tartan noir, formerly laced with dour black humour (Chris mellowed Christopher’s excoriating wit, with age), and strong female heroes which few male authors manage convincingly.
I have to say this was my least favourite of his books so far. The complex plotting is there, as is the usual economic imbalance and burning sense of social injustice, plus he gives us two very different, brilliantly complex female heroes. Detective story set in space! It should have been a winner. And it did get better, towards the end, but it was desperately slow to get going. I was tempted to do the unthinkable, and not finish – pages and pages of tedious exposition, on the structure of this bloody space station, and how artificial intelligence research is still years off giving us androids – what, five or six times? Why? Maybe just in case we forget, because 300 pages later that whole concept comes up again.
I’m not a huge fan of hard SF but I do read it. Robert A. Heinlein? Been there (one of the space platforms or stations or something is named after him). Places In The Darkness reminds me a bit of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, operating on the principle that too much information is never enough.
Sometimes hard SF can be done well (The Martian springs to mind). But this was, if I’m honest, quite boring for quite a lot of pages. It did finally pick up, but I couldn’t recommend it as a favourite.
Sorry Christopher. I should go back and write reviews for all the ones that are brilliant...
Fascinating story – Black Death hits village north of York in 1349, when half Europe has already died, told through present tense pov of a fourteen year old girl.
I read this pretty well at one sitting, so it was thoroughly gripping and has fascinating subject matter.
Picky picky me:
Typos – surprising number of;
Voice slightly too contemporary – though that’s not quite fair, as I really don’t want to be reading Chaucerian English, and where do you draw the line?
The plot development when they went to York with merchant Thomas – this was oddly tacked-on and didn’t really fit with anything that had happened up till then. What the hell was Thomas even doing in their village?
The book describes changes the Black Death left in its aftermath – more land available, labour could command better rates, women were doing jobs previously the preserve of men – but Isabel the hardworking farmer, with a source of wealth in Thomas’s valuables, apparently simply hands them over to her main chance brother Richard and goes to work for him for free. Wot a let down – what happened to her potential, to doing her own thing?
BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY
The story was breathtaking, gripping in a horrible yet relentless and unputdownable way for maybe the first 75%. And Isabel is a great character. And the writing style (despite modernistic whinge) is fluid, concise and highly engaging. Overall, a fascinating, well-written and powerful read.
I really enjoyed this story. It’s well-written: good clear prose, strong story and well structured. The theme is similar to that of Avatar, with off-worlders exploiting a planet’s natural resources for financial gain, destroying its ecology and denying the rights of the indigenous to self-determination or any kind of protection, rights or voice. So of course it is also a fine analogy with the problems of our own world, both in the past, with overt colonialism, and the present where such exploitation carries on mostly unabated but now under the cloak of free enterprise.
There are many interesting idiosyncracies and quirks to give this planet a solid reality. It is a terraformed world: because it was created, in a past so distant its creators are now forgotten, it is filled with collections of extinct or semi-mythical beasts. Gryphons, dinosaurs, dragons and unicorns exist side by side. There is no predation, only scavenging by the gryphon and others, plus the main sustenance source is a kind of nectar-like manna that forms in belts in the sky and drops to earth, but can be harvested at its best by creatures such as the dragons in flight.
There are scientist/watcher, and exploiter/collector humans or humanoids, the two groups possessing profoundly different and irreconcilable approaches to the life on this planet. Two scientists are a mother and son, Amber and Hote, and they have problems of their own to do with the Commander of the collectors, and a missing sister, and a fusion in interspace that has left Holt half-invisible and invaded.
Then another main character we follow is Rumplewing, a young dragon with problems in her clan. After an horrific accident, she breaks her wings and loses her groombug. The groombug is a symbiot/tiny male dragon, who lives in each dragon’s third ear and grooms her scales. Without her groombug, who is bonded with her from birth to death, dragons die.
Cast out from her clan, Rumplewing is desperately lonely without her groombug, terribly damaged and unlikely to last long; but her meeting with another groombug, Balofur, an elder as opposed to a youngling like herself, means her path changes and takes on great purpose. Together, Rumplewing and Balofur discover more about the horrific dragon trade the collectors are secretly carrying on: they must save the dragons, and expose the illegal trade by proving to a High Arbiter judge-like person that dragons are sentient.
The pace is well-maintained, the main characters well-realized and very relatable. Amber is sweet and approachable and well-loved; Hote is perceived as weird and half-crazy and feels uncertain, anxious and excluded. Giving a dragon a voice as a main character was brilliant, because we get to learn the dragon’s customs and way of life from the inside.
If I were going to be picky, I would say that the ecology by which each dragon only lays one egg at the end of her life, ie replaces her self so there is no population explosion, so no natural selection which relies on vying for scarce resources (which would almost certainly lead to the evolution of predators) is not really sustainable in perpetuity. Even if there is no predation or sickness, accidents will happen: it is mentioned that damaged dragons, or ones who have lost their groombugs due to injury etc, separate from their clan, shut down and die. This would over time inexorably lead to a constantly diminishing population.
It is quite interesting, actually; I suspect that the author has chosen the 1:1 replacement method of reproduction as a mechanism for maintaining a planet in perfect balance, but it wouldn’t really work. Living systems’ balance comes from opposing forces always in a state of flux, and it’s difficult to imagine a system which is completely stable.
Anyway, that’s all very boring and doesn’t affect enjoyment of the story at all, is just interesting as it gets you thinking…
I would have quite liked a clearer idea of Holt in the sense that I was never quite sure exactly how he looked. At first I thought the invisibility might be metaphorical, for his exclusion. Then I realized it was literal, but he clearly wasn’t completely invisible, as people always seemed to know he was there… only he doesn’t always feel fully present. It’s a minor point, but I would have liked a bit more clarity on how exactly he appeared to others.
And the story was a bit too forgiving for me. Quite a lot of bad guys were allowed to reform in some way (not all, trying to avoid spoilers here). I wanted harsher retributions after all the terrible things that had been done. Plus I was a bit puzzled that the Shining Ones Clan were so harsh towards Rumplewing, tasking her with lugging the disgusting Batwing around – and then, when Batwing caused the accident which ruined Rumplewing’s wings, she’s not blamed at all. It seemed the justice and judgments were extremely one-sided.
They’re my quibbles, and they are only quibbles.
Great read, carrying its important message lightly: give it a go.
PS One further thing after all - the cover doesn't do this story justice. Invest in a better cover, Gloria! The story's 100% worth it!
This story starts very well, with the intriguing scene of a mystery man bringing an infant to the doorstep of a Texas couple in a snowstorm, and abandoning the child there. Yes, it’s been done from Tom Jones to Harry Potter – but it always grabs you. Who is the child? Will it be cared for?
The answer in this case is: Emily, from another world where she has been torn by some unknown catastrophe from her family and twin brother (another trope that never grows old: twins); and the Whaynes care for her very well indeed, providing her with every conceivable extracurricular activity as she grows older. Although in that they are helped by the paediatrician Andrew Dalton, who saves Emily’s life when she’s still a baby, and who becomes her devoted Godfather and mentor, and who also happens to be a magician from her home planet.
So Emily races between fencing, martial arts, swimming and horseriding, and is naturally outstanding at every one. Plus she also has developing magical powers, and her godfather’s role is to train her in magic and lore, preparing her for the future and trials to come.
So the story segues between high school type problems with boys and rivals, to times with Yoda-like godfather, to an increasingly engaging federal agency crowd looking out for Emily but maybe governed by sinister presidential motives (the president also has an adopted son with powers, hm), to an evil magician called Samil who is raising a gorgeous female warrior queen from the dead to become his half-dead vampire partner. And of course his henchman are also on earth, after Emily.
I suppose the story builds quite slowly, and virtually nothing is resolved, but I was never bored. The author has a fluid, often incredibly vivid writing style that is overwhelmingly a pleasure to read, despite perhaps a little overwriting – saying the same thing twice, in this case, or over-attributing dialogue. I think authors generally should stop themselves using adverbs as qualifiers eg: he yelled angrily. Let the dialogue speak for itself, use stronger verbs, use beats of action. And avoid teased, joked, quipped as a general rule altogether: they stink. If someone tells a joke, it needs to be funny. We don’t need to be told he joked: that implies we wouldn’t know otherwise, ie he’s failed in the attempt. But that’s a personal pet peeve. This is a good link (random) for those interested in decent dialogue:
Even though it could have done with a tighter edit in that respect, it was still a pleasure to read. I enjoyed Emily’s evolving into a confident young warrior woman. She seems to have jumped from the frying pan into the fire –¬ from earth to her home planet Acacia, full of half-dead enemies, powerful magicians and fierce creatures. I’m rather anxious that she plans to go to Bashan to learn, and Bashan is the home of the evil Samir who uses students he doesn’t like as food for his half-deads. Silly students, that’ll learn you how to behave in class.
Xena the bondmate Doberman is a highlight, and the world of Acacia, plus the magical system, is very well realized and beautifully described.
If I’m going to pick – it seems a bit strange that Emily trots back to the stables after a running gun battle and multiple deaths on her horse-riding run, between opposing teams set to grab her. And she still goes happily about her extra-curricular activities while ever-increasing teams of agents sit in black vans outside on the street – but she can still stroll out the back door with her dog for a walk and no one notices. Numbers don’t seem to translate to vigilance in this case. So those parts strain credulity a little. But not enough to spoil the read, great fun.
If you like fantasy, and not just YA fantasy, this one is a winner.
The Light of Paris follows the parallel stories of Madeleine in 1999 and Margi in 1924. I’m going to be harsh here: if you enjoy reading about upper-class, affluent, well-educated young women bemoaning their fate and their entirely self-imposed inability to follow their dreams, while making no effort to take control of their lives but instead choosing to be whinging doormats, then enjoy. For me, it was irritating beyond belief.
The story reminds me of another I read recently, “A Better Man,” which also follows uninteresting wealthy people with no real problems other than those they create themselves. I commented then how odd it is that wealthy people figure in so much of fiction, while ordinary people do not. It’s as if the 95:5 real life ratio of ordinary to wealthy is reversed in fiction (proportions made up here, but principle is true). This has been the case forever in England, where publishing was historically elitist (a tiny proportion of published works in the 19th and first half of 20th century were written by ordinary people, which leads to the rather odd perception overseas that all English people live like the lords of Downton Abbey. The lower echelons are invisible). But it seems this elitism might be the case in America as well, which is unexpected. See this link:
The question that puzzles me is: at a time when supposedly traditional publishing is struggling, and it is harder than ever before to get a publishing deal, and many great authors are forced to go indie – why is any publisher still choosing to put out this dated drivel? It’s absolutely baffling.
Quirky thought: one of my great grandmothers raised eight children alone in the slums of the East End of London, on a pittance of a widow’s pension. She made children’s shoes for the wealthy by hand, to supplement her family’s diet which was never far off starvation – and she succeeded, they survived, only then she lost two sons in the first world war.
You want to write about why feminism is important? Her wages were around half or less (when she worked from home) of what a man would earn. She had no voice and no vote. Her story was a story of success, because she triumphed over adversity and her children survived, at a time when women had no rights and no opportunity in the workplace, and over 20% of children in that part of London at that time didn't live to see their first birthday. For women like these, feminism did not mean the chance to "find herself" and her airy-fairy readily-abandoned art. It meant the right to survive and live in dignity not desperation.
Her story was not extraordinary, quite the opposite.
But we don’t read about those women (who were probably barely literate so wouldn’t have left handy diaries for their great-granddaughters to find in modern times). We’re offered pap about rich girls agonizing for 300 pages on why they’re not as sylph-like as the other rich girls. Meh.
I’m a long-standing fan of James Lee Burke, originally getting hooked on his Dave Robicheaux stories, but this one (a Hackberry Holland) is I think one of his best. Brilliant.
Certain themes or motifs run through all Burke’s work: often ex-drunk, wounded, deeply flawed main characters; strong wildly badass female characters; appalling ‘morally insane’ villains, bad enough to keep you checking your doors and windows at night; a more or less traditional crime story; reflections on the past, America, social injustice, the cruelty that man inflicts upon man, good versus evil; a sense of deep spirituality that is juxtaposed with self-serving and bigoted religiosity; and a profound sense of landscape and place, infused with an almost hyperbolic richness of language that is pure poetry. I’m not a purple prose kind of person, but I love James Lee Burke’s: it’s powerful, and beautiful, and probably some of the most evocative prose I’ve ever read.
I liked this book, very much. It has all the elements of his other books, but if anything even clearer and richer and stronger. The main baddie – there is the usual pantheon of lesser gang-style thugs – is a deeply complex killer known as the Preacher, who thinks he is the scourge of God, but maybe in another way is seeking redemption for the evil that he has done. He exercises the power of life and death over others with sometimes surprising compassion, usually chilling brutality. Hackberry Holland, the aging sheriff on his tail, is haunted by memories of his dead wife, his alcoholic and abusive past, and horrific wartime experiences. There are three women who are each in their own way incredibly powerful: Pam Tibbs, Hackberry’s tough and mercurial deputy; the singer Vicki Gaddis, collector of broken creatures including terribly scarred young soldier Pete Flores; and Esther Dolan, a Jewish woman whose bone-deep understanding of the oppression her people have suffered on the southern Siberian steppes, informs her courage and understanding of the evil that men do.
I usually read quickly but I took this book as slowly as I could, to absorb the richness of the prose. The story isn’t incidental, it’s key to driving the characters and their actions, but I didn’t feel the need to rush through to find out the end, because the other elements are so powerful.
Some people found this a dark read, but I didn’t. Although it does paint a picture of exploited blue collar workers and immigrants, broken veterans, rampant greed and gangsterism: an ugly underbelly. If America as an empire is truly on the decline, then Burke may be its most vivid chronicler.
But ultimately it's not dark, but uplifting. I love the humanity that prevails over all the darkness. Ordinary people – the singer, the scarred young soldier, the goofy nightclub owner Nick who loves his family and stands up against all odds, even Esther his wife – in the end, their simple courage and determination shine through. No heroics: but the strength of their relationships and decency are the right stuff, what counts.
MUST READ – but maybe not an easy one. I just read one reviewer who said he would go out on a limb here and call this a masterpiece. I think I would second that.
What Works And Why?