Nick and Abe – Lex Jones

I saw this title and read the blurb: the Devil and God assume human form for a year as a wager, but it doesn’t go to plan. I admit my reaction was: “Great! The cosmic battle played out on the playing field of Earth!”That wasn’t what I got, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of focussing on supernatural beings and an age-old war, this book is subtle, thoughtful, and filled with interesting ideas.

41cevbn9bal-_sx322_bo1204203200_For fans of Kevin Smith, this may sound along similar lines to “Dogma”. But in the book there is no overarching threat, no rebellion and no race against time. It’s a book about two men trying to find their way in an unfamiliar world and discovering themselves along the way. There’s also an element of romance to this which is, I have to say, one of the sweetest romances I’ve read in a while. There were various ways this could have ended. Jones went with the “safe” ending rather than one of the darker versions I had envisaged. But that’s fine: it would have undermined the whole sweetness of this book if there had been a cruel twist at the end of it which would have been surprising, but ultimately disappointing. Both of the characters at various points during the novel are required to talk about the Bible and Christian mythology. There was a risk that this could have resulted in a plot dump, but Jones adeptly turns them into interesting and thoughtful monologues that will leave you wondering if this might truly be what a benevolent god and his chief angel think of the world.

This book wasn’t for me as a fan of supernatural thrillers, but it really could be for you if you like emotional and philosophical works. At time of writing, it’s got four and five star reviews on various online sites, all of which are thoroughly deserved. It’s an interesting and unusual book that puts a whole new spin on just how good and evil might be viewed in our modern world. If personal development and sweet romance are your thing, if you like empathetic characters with whom you can enjoy a spiritual journey, then this book is the one you’ve been waiting for.

Charlotte

It’s so hard to choose…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last twenty years and, naturally, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the books I’ve read in that time. I can’t remember them all – I do spend a lot of time reading – but I did start to wonder if I could try to pick a favourite out of the books I’ve read which were published since 1996. When it comes down to it it’s a lot harder than it looks so I decided to ask around and see if I could get some inspiration.

I started at home. Yes, pity poor Rob as I demanded he review his past two decades of reading…Luckily, after a quick trawl through the bookshelves he came up with a few suggestions. They range over the genres – travel writing, fiction, environmentalism, science writing and science fiction – but the one that stood out for me from his list (like I said, it’s hard to choose one) was one we both loved. Nick Harkaway’s Gone-Away World is a remarkable book with a crazy plot which has more to it with every re-reading and some memorable characters. To be honest I don’t think either Rob or I will ever forget Ronnie Cheung.

Next I asked around my colleagues at work. Starting with Bex herself. Impressively she found it rather easy to choose the book that meant most to her (and I quote) ‘Harry Potter – I’m a first generation reader…I was the same age as Harry when Philosopher’s Stone was published’ . Although is it cheating to pick an entire series? Who cares! It is such a great series to choose… And I even got a bonus choice from Bex’s daughter who, at 18 months old, just can’t get enough of Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s Tales from Acorn Wood which she described as essential pre-Gruffalo reading. (That’s Bex, not her daughter, obviously…). Ian the manager (who has recently moved to our Leeds store) also found it simple to narrow down his favourite – I reckon he had to move to Leeds since he has already recommended Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to the whole of Bradford. I also cornered Jamie (our new manager) who named Kill Your Friends by John Niven as his favourite. Up in the coffee shop Luke (lead barista and store hipster-in-chief) was quick to name Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Megan (our newest staff member – she makes a mean bacon buttie…), when pushed, plumped for Khalid Hosseini’s  A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although she did say this was subject to change – there are so many great books out there!

I decided not to stop there and have been bothering lots of other people – some who have worked in the store in the past 20 years and, of course, some of our customers. Sarah, who supports us in choosing and ordering stock for the shop, chose a graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson. She described it as her favourite graphic novel of all time and one that redefined the genre. Charlotte, a customer, author and occasional contributor to this blog showed her penchant for horror and fantasy by being undecided between Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. And we both agreed that her daughter Sophie was still a huge fan of You Choose (we’ve both read it with her for entire afternoons…). And Kay, one of regular customers and member of our monthly book group, tells me that the book she regularly recommends or gifts to family and friends (always a sign of a true fave)  is Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons.

So, has all this made it any easier for me to choose my own favourite? Of course not…The best I can hope for is a short list of books which have left a lasting impression on me (and which I would happily reread – always a sign of a great book for me). Hugh Howey’s Wool makes the cut, as do all Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (or Connie Willis’ book of the same name…). And then, of course, there’s always the fabulous Rosie Project or a dozen other books which I’ve been pressing into people’s hands for the last two decades. I don’t think I can pick just one (and the way things are going my own personal shortlist is just going to keep on getting longer).

Jane

 

 

Copper Promise – Jen Williams

It seems to be increasingly common online for some authors to give away free stories to entice people to buy and read their full novels. For Jen Williams and in my case, this strategy has paid off.

I’d heard good things about this author from a few people, enough that I was willing to shell out £0.00 for her story “Sorrow’s Isle”. This short but complete piece provides an introduction to the characters of Wydrin, “the Copper Cat”, and her companion Sebastian. What was rather surprising was that the female Wydrin is the brash, arrogant leader of the pair, while male Sebastian represents the calmer, quietly thoughtful aspect of the two of them. I read it and was instantly hooked.

18667112So, with my appetite whetted, I purchased “The Copper Promise”. In short, it was a fantastic, exhilarating read. Williams’ characters are diverse, conflicting and complementary, often all in the same chapter. The book follows Wydrin and Sebastian whom we’ve already met, but also throws the displaced Lord Frith into the mix as well. Wydrin and Sebastian are hired by Frith to help him seek a weapon that will enable him to retake his stolen homestead. However, Frith’s quest accidentally sets free an ancient dragon-god who takes to the skies and wreaks destruction upon the realm.

For me, as with many others I suspect, Wydrin is the star of the show. She’s like a female Han Solo – fearless, reckless and with a host of witty one-liners at her disposal. In “Sorrow’s Isle”, there was a hint that Wydrin may possibly have a goddess’ favour – or certainly her interest at least, which we know may not always amount to favourable treatment. This wasn’t really developed much as a theme in “The Copper Promise”, so I’m hoping that this might be a plotline for later books. I think Wydrin versus a goddess could be a real corker of a book.

I asked Jen Williams herself whose story she thought dominated “The Copper Promise” and she replied “each of their stories are equally important”, adding that “Wydrin is the lynchpin of the group, driving the rest of them forward”. Certainly that’s the way that the book comes across, and that has both positives and drawbacks.

On the positive side, none of the characters are sidelined, and each of them gets to have their share of the action. However, I did find that with no strong protagonist, the pacing floundered a little at times. The scenes with the dragon were brilliant, but it almost represented too big a threat. It was definitely the personal conflicts and obstacles that really kept me reading. Sometimes giving the story over to one protagonist can really help character development. For example, Frith starts out really quite unlikeable. He gains power but doesn’t take much responsibility with it and so ends the novel almost as stubborn and unlikeable as he began it. It is his personal quest that is played out from beginning to end, but somehow he doesn’t seem sufficiently changed by it. In contrast, Sebastian goes through some immense changes both to his conscience and his circumstances, and I was desperate to read more about him. But by splitting the book three ways, it meant I felt he didn’t get the focus his story deserved. But that just made me want to read the next one when I got to the end of this one! Thankfully, there are another two books following this one, and I have full confidence that any character whose full story wasn’t told in “The Copper Promise” will be given due attention in the sequels.

As well as having complex characters, Williams also builds a comprehensive fantasy world. It is marvellously expansive, has elegant rituals and an intriguing history. Sometimes too much knowledge about a world can kill a book’s pace, but Williams interweaves it seamlessly with the plot. The quest of the protagonists takes them from one culture to another, each of which is distinct and fascinating.

“The Copper Promise” is a remarkable debut from a fantasy writer who has proven herself to be one to watch. Her characters include types under-represented within this genre – a strong yet feminine woman as well as a homosexual character (no spoilers as to who it is!).  Such personal traits are not defining or all-encompassing for the characters in question, but merely aspects them which make them that much more diverse and interesting.

Charlotte

Ritual – Adam Nevill

I have a mixed history with Nevill’s work. I enjoyed Banquet for the Damned. I moved from that to Apartment 16 but had to stop as, while the writing was good, the content made my morning sickness worse. And again I didn’t make it through No One Gets Out Alive, but for different reasons: having been a young girl and currently raising one, I found this book too uncomfortable to read. That shouldn’t make you think it was bad writing though; in fact, it was exceptional and frighteningly realistic, which is why I couldn’t finish it. So I got The Ritual out of the library on a whim when I saw it. I nearly took it back without reading it, but then I thought, “What the hell?” and I opened it. Thirty pages in and I was wondering how I could have been so stupid as to think about taking it back unread.

ritualThe plot follows four university friends now grown up – Phil, Luke, Dom and Hutch – as they set off on a camping trip destined to end in disaster. A typical horror set up, yet what follows is not a standard horror novel but an exceptional one. My pulse was racing in several sections and reading as much horror as I do, that’s no mean feat. The flaw with most horror novels is that they can be predictable. That is not the case with The Ritual. Nevill keeps you guessing to the end – not just as to whether his characters will survive but, if they do, whether they will do so whole in both mind and body. Nevill writes brilliant characters, sowing just the right amount of familiarity to make the set-up plausible while at the same time inserting enough discord and enmity to keep the tension ramped up. Then he throws this fracturing group into a sinister forest, far from help and with something stalking their every step. Watching everything fall apart and seeing how the characters deal with it (or don’t), is mesmerising reading.

From a stylistic point of view, as the friends get further into the forest, Nevill’s writing starts to get disjointed; his sentences are abrupt and sometimes confusing, but that’s not a criticism. Nevill is using style as much as content to show his characters’ descent into darkness and confusion, and it just adds to the intensity of the experience. I don’t really think it’s a spoiler to say  “four men go into a dark forest, and only one of them makes it out alive”. That’s pretty standard. But Nevill’s tale doesn’t end there. In much the same was as From Dusk Til Dawn changes halfway through from a violent road-trip movie to a vampire-killing fest, so halfway through The Ritual our lone survivor finds that while he may have left one threat behind him in the forest, he has nevertheless stumbled into something just as deadly.

In No One Gets Out Alive, Nevill focussed on how one young girl’s options grew fewer and fewer until she got into an impossible, inescapable situation. He applies the same skills here; the reader follows the characters’ descent from jolly jaunt into dismal danger and physical incapability in terrible yet credible increments. When the lone survivor is at his wits’ end, you’ve followed him every step of the way; not only do you understand completely how he got there, but you’re sitting there with him, in the dark, dripping forest, with those yipping barks echoing around you. My only mild issue with this is that I wondered whether Nevill perhaps took his survivor’s physical state beyond the point where he would have been able to act and function as he did. But then, I’m no expert on the reserves that the human body can call upon when pushed to its truly final limits. The question certainly didn’t detract from the chilling enjoyment I got reading about his continued struggles and rooting for him.  One passage in The Ritual deserves special mention. When the first camper is taker, his fate is uncertain for a few pages. We can guess what’s happened, we’re just waiting for the big reveal. Nevill did this so suddenly and so bluntly, I was genuinely startled. It was a beautiful moment of writing and revelation.

If you like your horror with plenty of suspense, a smidgeon of the supernatural and a splattering of gore, then you should check out this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Charlotte

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

In my opinion Naomi Novik’s novel, Uprooted, is a modern classic. I haven’t read her other books, which were sold to me as “naval warfare with dragons”, as I like dragons but naval warfare is not my thing. What I do like is fairytales.

The current trend is to retell old classics, but with a twist in the tale. These range from cyborgs in Marissa Meyer’s retelling of the eponymous rags to riches fairytale in Cinder, to offerings such as Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner. However, it takes some real talent to craft a brand new fairytale, one that only gives a brief nod to the well-known stories and instead carries a charm all of its own. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a prime example, and now Uprooted can be added to this list as well.

uprootedI was initially drawn to this by the synopsis. But that only gives away the first few chapters; it sheds no light on how the rest of the novel pans out. Agnieszka is a young girl who expects her best friend, Kasia, to be taken by the Dragon, a powerful magician who lives in a nearby tower. The Dragon works ceaselessly to hold back the corruption of the living, sentient Wood which borders Agnieszka’s village. Only it turns out that Agnieszka is taken instead; Sarkan (the Dragon) has seen power in her and he knows he must teach her to harness and control that power before the Wood seeks to corrupt her untapped power for its own malevolent uses. That’s pretty much all the synopsis gives away, making it impossible to write a review without any spoilers at all, but I’ll do my best to keep them minimal.

Kasia is beautiful, graceful and educated in etiquette; Agnieszka is plain, clumsy and with no training in the ways of a lord’s serving girl. At first, her clumsiness, mistakes and fear really irritated me, but Novik quickly turned that around by making Agnieszka’s mistakes and lack of education the crucial key to unlocking her own powers. Many European fairy tales involve a forest with something evil lurking in it, but Novik instead makes the forest itself a threat – and just how to you defeat a whole forest? It’s a joy to watch the characters develop as they try to work on this problem. There is love and conflict at every turn, and the relationships between the characters manage to satisfy the reader’s expectations while at the same time not following predictable paths. My favourite was the relationship between Sarkan and Agnieszka. I kept expecting him to mellow, to bend his unyielding principles in the light of Agnieszka’s successes, but Novik didn’t let him succumb to my modern, post-Darcy expectations. For me, that made Sarkan’s character all the more refreshing and endearing.

There were two miniscule flaws that I found with this book. One was forgivable, and the other I could live with. Firstly, I felt there was too much left unexplained. There were references to rituals and customs, mentioned only in passing and lacking any kind of detail. That irritated me a little, but then I appreciate that it was unavoidable: to build a kingdom in the reader’s mind as strange and vast as Novik creates, it is essential to have a rich history to it. However, some details needed to be glossed over in order to keep the book to a reasonable length, otherwise it would spiral out of control with tangential details. And adding in all the details would detract from the excellent pace of the main story, so the omissions were forgivable. Secondly, was a flaw which carried on throughout the novel without explanation: Sarkan would appear to answer Agnieszka’s thoughts when she hadn’t spoken them aloud. I thought this might be because Sarkan was a mind reader. Yet if he had been, I would have expected Agnieszka to have been fazed by this. Since she is not, I don’t know what to conclude. It might seem like sloppy writing, yet the rest of the narrative is so tightly written, with not a word seeming out of place, that I find that hard to believe. In the end, it was a minor flaw which, while noticed, did not detract from my appreciation of the novel as a whole.

Authors sometimes come across books that they wish they’d written; this is a book that I wish I had written. It’s unique, beautiful and engaging. The story works on so many levels. Believe it or not, it was a month or so after reading it, as I was working on crafting my own fairytale, that I realised that Uprooted could be read as a new take on the old “dragon capturing the maiden” tale. This was simply not an aspect I picked up on while reading since it isn’t hammered home but is left to the reader’s own interpretation.

This book works beautifully as a stand-alone novel and while I want Novik to write more like this, I almost don’t want her to move the characters away from where she left them or change them in any way. One thing’s for sure though: this book should be on your reading list, if it isn’t already, and Novik’s next novel will be top of mine.

Charlotte