Monthly Archives:: October 2017

Review: ‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase’ by Louise Walters

October 29, 2017 Review 2

This is one of those books with a great premise let down by less than perfect execution. It’s ambitious – a dual-timeline story, with the grandmother in the second world war and her granddaughter in the present day. Each woman has her own story, but needless to say they have echoes of each other and eventually overlap.

The grandmother’s story is by far the more interesting to me. Dorothy is married to Albert, a working class man she married as much to escape her mother as for any other reason. Mother then casts her off for marrying beneath her. The marriage seems dogged by tragedy, with a succession of miscarriages followed by a stillbirth. When war breaks out, Albert takes off, leaving Dorothy alone, where she falls under the spell of a young Polish airman.

Modern woman Roberta works in a new and second-hand bookshop, leading a pretty dull life, when all’s said and done. She has a passionless affair with a married man (a customer!), visits her father, slowly dying of cancer, and her grandmother, now in a care home. Her sole pleasure, it seems, is finding letters, cards and messages hidden in the second-hand books she sells.

Neither of these women is particularly likable, it has to be said. Roberta is just too timid and insipid and downright passive to be interesting. Dorothy keeps herself aloof from the inhabitants of the small village where she lives, refusing to join the community and making no friends. Her tragic life ought to make her a sympathetic character, but this is one area where the author misses a trick, for somehow Dorothy’s emotional state never quite resonates, and she seems to have a curiously flat personality. She is instantly attracted to the Polish airman, Jan Pietrykowski, and all thoughts of her husband and marriage are abandoned. When her husband returns home on leave, Dorothy shows no interest in him, or sympathy for his experiences. The result is not entirely a surprise.

In fact, this is a feature of the book – pretty much everything that happens is telegraphed in big letters from an early stage, so there were no unusual twists of any merit, and everything is fairly predictable. This in itself is not a problem, for a skilled author can make the journey interesting, even when the destination is never in doubt. Unfortunately, the author here doesn’t quite have that ability. Major scenes lose all emotional resonance, or are so clumsily handled that they are almost laughable. For instance, without giving away any spoilery details, there’s a moment where one character engineers a major confrontation over an action by Dorothy. It’s a very dramatic scene, where everything Dorothy hopes for could all be swept away. How will it be resolved? The reader waits with baited breath… and the confrontational character simply says, “Oh, all right, do what you want then,” and walks away. All tension dissipated at a stroke. There are several moments like that which are just clumsily written, and towards the end several people behave contrary to their previous characters – Mrs Compton, for instance, and Dorothy’s mother, where it all felt a bit too easy. And the love interest resolution in the modern section is very clumsy.

An irritant for me (and this is a nitpick, because I’m sure most people wouldn’t notice) was in the writing of the modern sections. These are written in the first person (I walked… rather than she walked…), and paragraph after paragraph was riddled with sentences beginning with ‘I’. Here’s an example: “I tidy shelves. I make sure they are not too tightly packed. I take stock each year,…” I don’t mind the simplistic, short sentences, but all those ‘I’s just jump out at me and upset me. It’s really hard to write in first person without scattering ‘I’s all over the page like pepper, but it can (and should) be done (even in a review! Now I’m seeing all those ‘I’s of my own). The visual element of writing is important. But otherwise, I liked the difference between the modern sections (short, staccato, self-focused) and the war-time sections (longer, more elegantly written paragraphs). It fitted well, I thought.

I understand that this was the author’s first published book, so it may well be that these little hiccups will disappear in later work. It’s an interesting and confident work, if a little flawed (to my mind). The underlying themes of family and babies are well drawn, even if the characters never quite came to life for me and there are just too many cliches. I would have liked it better if the author could have spun out some of the key moments a little longer, to draw out the emotions underlying them. I generally assign a star rating purely on the basis of my own personal enjoyment (I know, I know, perverse of me, so sue me), and initially, having not enjoying it a great deal and not found much to interest me in either main character, I was prepared to go with three stars. But since finishing it, the characters have stuck in my mind rather, and on balance I’m going to go with four stars.

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Review: ‘Forsaken Kingdom’ by J R Rasmussen

October 27, 2017 Review 0

This book has all the elements of epic fantasy that I’ve poked fun at in the past. You know the sort of thing – the lost heir to the kingdom, the enchanted sword (which has a name, naturally), the school for magic, the trusty sidekicks… I should have hated it, but instead I inhaled it almost at one sitting. Why? Because it’s so much fun. And there are positively no boring bits.

The book starts in the most awesome way imaginable. Wardin Rath is a prince, whose uncle and father have just lost a war. Wardin is the last of his line, and will be the object of the victorious king’s searches until he’s found. And then killed. But Wardin is somewhere very special, the last Magistery in the kingdom, the sole remaining repository for magic in the land. If Wardin is tracked down there, not only his own life will be lost, but the Magistery too, and with it all magical knowledge. So, at the age of just twelve, Wardin does something amazingly heroic: he leaves the Magistery, and allows himself to be caught by his enemy.

Needless to say (because the book would be very short otherwise) he isn’t killed. Instead his memories are magically erased, and he’s held at King Bramwell’s court as a royal tutor. Now, this requires some suspension of disbelief, because Bramwell is a hardnosed warrior and battle campaigner, and his motives for this action are dubious to say the least, but let that pass. Inevitably, the spell is eventually fractured, and so begins the main part of the story, with Wardin, now all grown up, trying to work out just who and what he is as bits of memory drift back to his mind, and eventually returning to the Magistery and his old friends.

I liked Wardin very much, and he’s believable both as the memory-wiped tutor and as the prince who is obviously destined to be a great leader of men (by book 3 of the trilogy, I predict). I liked the two sidekicks, too – Erietta and Arun, twins, and between the three of them they cover all three kinds of magic in this world. Battlemagic is physical, moving things about. Sage magic affects minds. Contrivance is about the imagination. And – here’s the really nice touch – each form has to be ‘balanced’ by its opposite. So battlemages have to do mental work after the expenditure of magic to balance themselves, sages do physical work and contrivers have to do mundane work, like scrubbing floors. This is very elegant.

The world-building isn’t excessive. The map at the front of the book is fairly minimalist, but I suspect that more places may be added as the trilogy progresses. For anyone (like me) who got a bit muddled about the family relationships, there’s a family tree along with a hires map at the Cairdarin website (Cairdarin is the world/continent name). But even if the world itself isn’t quite as detailed as an Ordnance Survey map, everywhere felt totally real and I could picture the settings perfectly in my mind, specially the awesome Magistery, nestled in the mountains, with its secret entrance.

The story rattles along, and there’s absolutely no filler. When Wardin sets off on a journey, there’s no meandering through the scenery, describing every tree and rock in loving detail. No, we jump straight to the next point of action, or sometimes the destination, with barely a moment to catch our breath. Sometimes these transitions felt a bit abrupt, but mostly I was glad to be spared the saggy bits.

As you’d expect, there’s a grand confrontation at the end, resolved very elegantly, which neatly sets the scene for the next book in the trilogy. I can’t wait. Highly recommended for fans of traditional epic fantasy. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Beguilement: The Sharing Knife #1’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

October 5, 2017 Review 6

This is an awesome book. As a fantasy, the setting is brilliantly evoked, so that it feels utterly real, and the magic is suitably intriguing. But don’t be fooled: this is a romance through and through. Apart from a few high-action moments, which are mostly designed to throw our hero and heroine together, the plot is pure romance – the accidental meeting, the turning away because they’re on different sides of the cultural divide, the crisis that unites them, the nursing back to health, the long-drawn-out courtship and so on and so on.

The premise of this world is that there are two kinds of people. One kind has no magic. They’re farmers, living on settled plots of land, patriarchal and with a largely pre-industrial way of life. The other kind, the ones with magic, are called Lakewalkers (because they are constantly moving around the perimeter of the massive lake that defines their world). Their task is to rid the world of malices, immortal entities that suck the life out of humans, animals and plant life, growing stronger and stronger as they do so. The relationship between the two groups is edgy tolerance. The Lakewalkers think the farmers are simple-minded primitives, and the farmers, for their part, are very afraid of the magically-empowered Lakewalkers (as they should be) but they need them for healing and a few other benign purposes, as well as to clear out the malices.

Our representatives from these two groups are Fawn, the farmer, a girl kept ignorant by her upbringing and despised by her family, but driven by a burning curiosity about – well, everything, really. A trait which has got her into some difficulties as the book opens. Dag is the world-weary, seen-it-all Lakewalker, a man with a tragic past who’s something of a renegade even amongst his own people (yes, that old chestnut). Happenstance throws the two together, and when Fawn is drawn into Dag’s battle with a malice, their lives are irrevocably intertwined.

After that battle, the action fades into everyday survival and then travelling together. Inevitably, the two end up getting it on, and the sex is fairly graphic and frequent, so if that’s not your thing, avoid. I don’t mind a certain amount, but once it stops advancing the plot or enlightening the reader about the characters, it ceases to serve any useful purpose, and I felt that was the case here.

And then we came to the culmination of the book – a wedding. The lead-up and actual event went on for chapter after chapter and frankly, if I’d liked the characters less I’d have thrown the book at the wall at this point. Fortunately, I loved both Dag and Fawn. Dag is the kind of world-weary warrior type that I adore – very gentlemanly, and tender with his lover, but a total man’s man in battle. A little too perfect, perhaps, but it worked OK for me. Fawn is a delight, too, neither too shy nor too assertive. They make a good match.

With the clear setup that they will have to secure the approval of both her family and his fellow Lakewalkers to the marriage, the stage is set for two confrontations. But no. We get the visit to the farmers in full measure, and that over-lengthy wedding, but the book ends as the two set off to travel to the Lakewalkers’ camp. With the prospect of another lengthy series of confrontations and perhaps not much forward motion on the fantasy elements, I’m not mad keen to get book 2 in the series. Nevertheless, I loved almost everything about this book. Five stars.

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