Thursday, 11 January 2018

Year One - Chronicle of the One by Nora Roberts

The One by Nora Roberts

I came to Nora Roberts as a reader through a trilogy of book about modern day witches and whilst I cooled on her more straight romance books after a period of bingeing in my early twenties, I felt pretty sure that a post apocalyptic saga with supernatural elements was going to be a winner.

A disease born of an unfortunate avian death within the confines of a Scottish Highlands standing stones. This life sacrificed unleashes a Flu like contagion that wipes out 70% of the human population. This culling leaves the way free for latent Powers to manifest themselves, Fairies , Elves, witches and Seers are all brought into the light as their immunity to the scourge brings their existence into relief. 

This magical renaissance provides an opportunity for Roberts to demonstrate the human capacity to rail against that which is different and probably most frightening in today’s political and social climate - mirroring real life, soon some are playing on and exploiting these fears to act on darker tendencies, firmly held prejudices and just plain evil to take and destroy. Where magical ability coalesces with this darkness another enemy rises.

Here we have the central premise then, light versus Dark. Fear versus Hope and Faith. There are the normal symbols for post apocalyptic tales, that of miraculous births, of prophesied saviours who will meet the coming battle for humanity, ably aided by a ragtag band of ordinary and extraordinary folk at their backs.

What makes a sprawling epic  such as this work, is relatable characters. You can have as much calamity and horror as you like, but if you do not care about the people being subjected to the trial, it just will not work. Thankfully Roberts has created a raft of characters in her central “Cast” that made me care deeply and there were several early characters I was willing to at least get to the end of this first book in the series!

I have to admit to noticing a number of very close similarities to the book that I consider the seminal work in this area of fiction, Stephen King’s The Stand. The idea of the turning on committees, of getting the power back on were very familiar, of vehicle convoys arriving at a town quite literally called New Hope, I had seen before.

That being said (and who is to say it is a bad thing, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all!) this first book was thoroughly absorbing. I look forward to seeing what Nora Roberts does to distinguish this from other post plague stories and how she uses her varied characters to further the saga. I would be most interested to learn how the opening relates to the future as it seems the curse described on the lips of a highland croftess  has  been forgotten in the scope of the tale and I hope she manages to bring it back in somehow for my own feeling of completeness.

A strong four stars for this opener

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart

The Sacrifice Box.

I have been looking forward to reading this story for a while.  I was not disappointed. Fabulous stuff and almost perfectly formed for me as the reader.

This is really a book for my generation. Finally British children of the eighties like me, get an anglicised version of a rip roaring story  similar to IT and Dreamcatcher by Stephen King. I immediately recognised myself and my own motley crew in this story of  a group of  very disparate children bonding over a shared summer holiday.

Parallels with the works of SK were inevitable as thematically and structurally there are similarities. A group of youngsters experience a trauma that arises from a supernatural evil taking advantage of the innocence of youth. The loneliest and most isolated have gravitated towards each other one fateful summer and in a bid to cement that the most tenuous of bonds, they commit their most personal items to a musty box that appears in the woods. These totems are planned to act as unbreakable links when the summer is done.

There were rules of course and someone has broken them all, disturbed the sanctity of this rather macabre time capsule.

It seems History starts to repeat itself, a theme of cyclical horrors repeated seemingly in perpetuity features. Perhaps because teens are renowned for balking against rules , even those set by peers, this callow bid for independence by someone from the group in both instances invariably leads to fear, violence and really weird goings on!

The 80s  kids are well drawn each with their own personality, voices and look that immediately creates memorable characters. September is a worthy central hero, and I found myself seriously rooting for Arkle the joker in the pack.

The fates of the previous group drawn to that same spot decades before, provides a ominous foretelling that ratchets up the tension, so even as our heroes start experiencing terrifying encounters linked to the very particular gifts given to the gaping maw of that titular Box. 

The personal traumas of the kids inform their choices and the punishment meted out by the entity that is contained in the box.

Nature is used by great effect by the smells , sights and sounds of the woods themselves, the very foliage holds an ominous threat. Crows are slick, beady eyed ides Of Terror and the most innocuous of creature becomes terrifying.

Balanced against the more mundane but equally damaging  fear felt by every non-conformist child of being made an example of and humiliated is just as frightening tool to isolate the kids within their own fear bubbles.

I was drawn in by this macabre tale that does not pull the punches, but deep at it’s Heart is a  simple premise that is so effectively presented, that Friendship and love might just be their most effective weapon in anyone’s arsenal. King has sprawling epics to accomplish this, Martin Stewart has managed to distil it down into a much more manageable piece

The best horror novels are those which make you feel deeply connected to the characters.Stewart has crafted a marvellous tale and the insertion of some rather lovely elements that truly bed the plot  in the 80s of my childhood lifts the story head and shoulders above other YA fantasy horrors. my favourite; the wanton destruction of the packaged Chewbacca action figure must have had Star Wars fans groaning.

Five Stars.

I dedicate this review to Sarah,James,Joanne, Kelly, Michelle and Natasha, my little gang whose wood was the Banks  Of Hen Brook, under the bridge and the tree houses on the periphery of “The Green”. I miss those days of bike rides with James with Kermit the frog strapped to the front of his Gold Chopper with me following behind on my blue one!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express. By Agatha Christie
Read on Audible by Dan Stevens.

The Book: I am a Christie fan. I am hard pressed to choose between the thought processes of Miss Jane Marple or the incomparable Hercule Poirot.  Here in perhaps one of the most famous of the many stories about the Belgian Detective with the impressive moustaches, he is thrust into a curious Murder on the most famous train of all.

A myriad of suspects, an amiable sidekick and a glamorous setting all add up to a wonderful story. Poirot is never flustered, rarely surprised and no one can pull the wool over his eyes! Although perhaps one of the most famous of all the murders that Poirot is forced to solve, the revelation here is as fresh as when it is written and the clues are clever secreted across the story so the reader can kick themselves for missing their nuance.

A thoroughly enjoyable six hours!

Narration: I make no bones about it, I love Dan Stevens. He has a lovely reading voice, just enough Middle English clipping to indulge my fancies, but here with such a raft of characters and nationalities to get his teeth into, he proves himself to be the very accomplished actor I always thought he was! Both Male and female characters are distinct and believable and what I would have considered a cardinal sin, the Hamming up of the Detective’s accent never happened.

Dan maintained Poirot’s personality as one imagines him to be, a neat rather knowing little man sometimes condescending but always cleverly ahead of the pack.

Definitely going to keep books read by Mr Stevens high on my wish list!

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Crow Road (25th Anniversary release) by Iain Banks

The Crow Road by Iain Banks.

Isn’t odd how the fates align sometimes?

Apparently it is twenty five years since this book was  first published. My consciousness told me that the BBC dramatisation had starred Strictly Come Dancing Winner Joe McFadden  as the erstwhile Prentice , our young anti-Hero, so when I took a quick pass at it on a You Tube, I realised that outgoing time lord Peter Capaldi also starred! I vaguely remembered

This is my first book by Banks and I was more than prepared to dislike it just because of the hype surrounding his books, but then I thought on.. if there is enough hoopla about a book’s quarter century anniversary that the good Folks at Netgalley reissue it, it has to be given a fair shot.

I found it a thoroughly engaging story! As a confirmed Sassenach I thought Mr Banks offers us a truly authentic Scottish Voice. The majesty of the Scottish landscape, juxtaposed against a family saga of a most singular nature. This is a complex and densely packed story of two generations of brothers and the close circle of friends and acquaintances that orbit them.

There are mysteries and secrets abounding and the timeline jumps around more than a kilted highlander dancing a reel, but it it was amusing, heart breaking and revealing. Love in all it’s forms is examined, faith and mysticism appraised and sibling rivalry and jealousies of many kinds unearthed throughout the course of the story.

I have read that the sudden insertion of a Murder Mystery in the last third of the book seemed incongruous to some readers, but for me it was just another facet to an already cleverly constructed tale, specifically designed to confound and keep the reader guessing about the fate of good old Uncle Rory!

The elements if taken in isolation would seem bizarre, but in combination are genius. I am a convert!

Monday, 1 January 2018

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Taking the accolade of the first book completed in 2018, this was the perfect book to fill that awful void between Christmas and New Year. This is not a snappy read by any stretch of the imagination, a slow burner if you like  and I did feel that there was a slight drag to the thrust of the story in the middle portions, but I just think that despite being a life story in which that the reader is allowed to dip into at various intervals, and so we only see truncated portions of a full life. However I believe the story benefits stylistically from the choice John Boyne has taken with the speed it reads at. It is in the details ,the minutiae of those vignettes that make the extraordinary meetings, near misses and emotional torsions of Cyril’s life stand out in better relief.

It is beautifully written, vivid and colourful, Rich in sight and sound and smell. Liberally sprinkled with Humour, but equally melancholy and thought provoking.

Populated by some truly colourful characters, this is a book of gentle and sometimes much more strident examination of the most pressing issues in Ireland in recent History. Were Mr Boyne to have focused on one of these varied themes this would have been a meaty and satisfying feat of a book. As it is, it is rammed to the rafters with interesting points of reference in Cyril’s very personal story.

Mr Boyne weaves  a story that sets the pervasive presence of the IRA, against the free rein given to the Catholic Church through deference and fear . This fear  allowing  for the physical and sexual abuse of children. He highlights the use of children as  charitable currency for good standing in society. Again the church and the now famous Nun trade of illegitimate children is spotlighted. As a result the shaming of girls by that same church that preaches Christian value from every pulpit, ostracising women our Hero set off on a course that takes him across geographical and social frontiers as he struggled with the most  taboo of  subjects, that of Homosexuality, something accepted and reviled in equal measure.

I had no prior knowledge of Mr Boyne’s personal circumstances, but the level of empathy evident in the deft handling of all the “Issues” including that of a young man struggling with his homosexuality in a time where the authority of the Church and the shame culture that engendered was at it’s height, provides a level of authenticity that gives the story a real emotional backbone.

I think that each reader will have a different experience of Cyril and his cohorts and some might find the steady amble of the narrative something to adjust to, others will find it a meaty ragout, all the more tender for the longer wait.

Literary Fiction
Published  14/12/2017
Random House Uk
Black Swan

Black SwanBlack Swan

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

What a glorious story. 

Eleanor is odd there is no denying,  and it would do the book a disservice to try to distil this wondrous character into a Review, but as this story develops and  reluctantly secrets are divulged, it becomes apparent that despite the most extreme of pressure points ,Ms Oliphant is more resilient, brave and wonderful than one could have imagined.

Wryly funny, acerbic and dry, but also heart wrenchingly sad, this book took me on a journey through modern mundanity with two wonderfully drawn misfits.

It is a gentle tale set against harsh realities where grief has built walls and horrific events deeply scarred, both figuratively and physically. A human island joins the world and what a beautifully realised journey it is.

What I loved most was watching a tender friendship grow.Never forced, always organic; my tender heart is filled with joy that Eleanor has Raymond in her life.  I think I am a little bit in love with him now.  Not dashing or heroic in a showy way, but a steady,kind and joyful soul in a average guy shell. 

Do I hope that their friendship  blossoms beyond the pages of this book? Of course!  The strength of this story though is the companionship and support will be enough, that it enriches without needing to be a romance.  In my mind’s eye there will be more cheese scones in their future though!

What a lovely book to while away a winter evening with. If you like your characters to be a little bit  off centre and enjoy Fredrik Backman , you will love this!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The Cottingley Secret is such a marvellous amalgam of true historical events and a delightful modern day book of magical realism that I am not sure that any review I write will really do it justice, but one can but try!

I think most people in my age bracket will remember the revelation that the Cottingley Fairies photos  had been faked by two cousins from the Yorkshire town some several  decades previously.  As a child  I actually remember Seeing the story on Arthur C Clarke’s programme about the supernatural. Those pictures had divided the nation, sceptics and believers alike had staked their reputations on their theories.

This book takes that story and the mysticism it always evoked and focuses the reader on the perspective  of the younger of the girls, Frances and links it to the destiny of a modern woman Olivia whose familial connection to the Cottingley affair is revealed gradually as she tries to engage her Grandmother who is sinking further and further into Dementia.

Olivia herself, a believer in the fairy Folk as a child, begins a journey of discovery and attempts to open herself up to magic again after a terrible loss, an acceptance of a bitter truth and a chance inheritance with the potential to change her life entirely as a result.

The two timelines are interwoven so skilfully through the device of a undiscovered personal account ‘Notes on a Fairy Tale, by Frances Griffith. This story of a lost and lonely young  girl forced to move to England from South Africa to live with family she had never met, to a wild and unfamiliar landscape had strong echoes for me of  “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodson Burnett. It draws you into the tale,in much  the same way, the evident discovery of joy in the untamed nature of The North, the sheer  magic of the place giving comfort to a lonely child, the kinship of Elsie and Frances, echoes that of Mary and Dickon.

 Such a feeling of intense enjoyment was evoked by the account of the unchecked escalation of the notoriety of the photos , a young girl’s fear for a father at war and the revelation that for Frances at least, the belief in  and encounter of fairies was real.

The photos may have been fabricated, but here the magic that prompted their creation is realised in the undergrowth of that infamous beck.

Olivia’s strand of the book is just as beautiful.  Grief, loss, rebirth and renewal all feature as her unexpected 
inheritance of her Grandfather’s used book store allows for a searching of her soul, and an  acceptance of a lethargy in spirit that has led her to accept a man wholly unsuited to her whimsical spirit . The story of the Yorkshire Fairies offers an opportunity via her ailing Grandmother’s connection to the Cottingley Incident to learn about and remember the joyous and vivacious soul her Grandmother had been, as Dementia  now ravages her mind and physical health.

The moments between Martha and Olivia left me near tears, it is the honesty of the descriptions of the effects of the disease and the sheer thievery of it’s symptoms that ground the narrative in reality, providing a foil  so that the lighter more joyful and magical elements can be shown in such vivid relief. The addition of friendly family friends and a grieving widower and his delicate daughter are liberal  seasonings of sugar and spice to what is an utterly delicious and delightful whole.

I loved this book,  I know it will invigorate interest in the Cottingley Photos  and start the debate over the fifth photo and it’s authenticity, but for my part I can wholeheartedly say I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES!