Book Review: Flatland

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Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott, is one of the oddest books that I have ever read. Published in 1884 it tells the tale of a square, a resident of a two dimensional world, and his discovery of an incredible third dimension when he is visited by a sphere from Spaceland. Many of his fellow plane dwellers think him deranged, just as the resident of Lineland whom he met in a dream would not accept the existence of a second dimension because it was beyond his direct experience and comprehension.

Using mathematics the practicalities of these various worlds is explained. Each is imbued with strict hierarchies and rules alongside enhanced senses that allow order to be maintained. Much of it came across as disturbing, such as women in Flatland being the lowest of the low (almost a straight line) whereas rulers and priests were of the highest order (circles).

Children born with irregularities were generally killed at birth with any survivors forbidden to reproduce. Amongst the higher orders it was common to subject offspring to life threatening procedures in an attempt to increase the number of sides they had and thereby improve their social standing.

I struggled with the lengthy explanations in the first half of the book. They may have been clever in places and necessary for understanding but I found their presentation somewhat tedious. By the second half however the tale had become strangely readable. I had to get past my distaste for the eugenics in order to appreciate the allegorical timbre. I suspect that this story was created with a strong dose of irony, at least I hope it was.

Observations were often offered lightly, such as the suggestion that the single resident of Pointland (no dimensions) was happy because he knew no better and had no one around to disturb his simple thoughts with difficult questions. There was a recognition that the lower orders were more likely to accept the unequal society if they believed that there was a chance that they or their children could one day benefit from the way things were. Aspiration was encouraged even if many were considered expendable.

This strange little story, once it got going, turned out to be an oddly satisfying read. It posed interesting questions about how much we really know and how averse we can be to new ideas that threaten a familiar way of life. It demonstrates how those in power manage the masses for personal gain.

At a little over a hundred pages the book did not take long to read. Despite the messages it conveyed it was in no way preachy. I enjoyed the mathematical explanations and the quirkiness of the ideas. I would have some reservations about recommending this book but am glad that I persevered.

 

Book Review: Pavement

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Pavement, by Richard Butchins, is a deeply disturbing story of a serial killer. Told from the point of view of the protagonist, Smith, we are taken inside the mind of a man who exists on the edges of society. Unemployed and handicapped he lives in a damp bedsit and survives on the meagre benefits the state grants him in return for his attendance at pointless meetings. Fortnightly he is processed, ticked off a list and sent on his way. He feels invisible.

It is this invisibility and the bitterness that he feels towards the behemoth of state and its acolytes, the people who benefit from an acquisitive and controlling society, which drive him to consider hitting out against the ordinary people he observes each day as he pounds the London pavements. He reasons that if nobody notices him then he can do what he wants. He can get away with murder.

The sparse prose takes the reader inside Smith’s mind and it is not an easy place to be. Snapshots of his past suggest abuse but also a period of what would be considered normality from which he chose to walk away. He suffers from vivid nightmares with blurred boundaries between dreams and reality. He is no fool but is damaged inside, anxious and trying to cope through daily routines and occasional medication. He is aware that nobody cares about him so long as he does what is expected and follows the rules.

The story charts in grotesque detail the actions of a man who can no longer find any reason to value life. It is hard to know if it is the graphic, intense and sickening descriptions in the tale or the fact that Smith may be right in some of his reasoning that makes the book so perturbing. This is brilliant writing, atmospheric and disquieting. The imagery of the dreams alongside Smith’s observations of his everyday surroundings are haunting.

The book comes with a cautionary notice: ‘Contains extreme violence and scenes of a sexual nature’. I was glad of the warning. It is a fabulous read, but not one for the faint hearted.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cutting Edge Press, through a Goodreads ‘First Reads’ giveaway.

 

 

Book Review: The Vanishing Witch

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The Vanishing Witch, by Karen Maitland, is a dark tale of treachery and oppression in medieval England. The cast of characters offer well researched glimpses into the unequal lifestyles of the citizens of that time: the wealthy merchant whose comfortable lifestyle is threatened by corruption and revolt; the boatman who cannot escape his life of hunger and squalor however hard he works; the children expected to quietly follow in their parent’s footsteps, learning their trade before they reach their teens; the women who are passed from father to husband, raised to honour and obey however their menfolk choose to behave.

In a time when the shadow of death was very much a part of life superstitions were rampant. Into this mix steps a beautiful and wealthy widow who sets out to bewitch those who will further her cause. Using a ghost as narrator the reader is offered glimpses of the deadly games she plays as she draws families and their members into her web. Utterly ruthless in her quest she destroys any who get in her way.

The story is told effortlessly. Despite being well over six hundred pages long it never dragged. The period detail is impressive, the supernatural elements suitably opaque and spine tingling.

I wanted to be impressed by this book. I enjoy historical fiction, particularly when it involves common folk rather than just the wealthy and powerful. The attention to detail couldn’t be bettered, but the plot development left me cold. Perhaps there were just too many spoilers early on. Having anticipated much of what would happen I was left with few mysteries to solve as the story progressed. I did not find this a satisfying read.

Chapter’s were told from differing points of view but I was unconvinced by their juxtaposition. Having divulged certain actions in previous chapters a character would then appear to be unaware of their own involvement. Relationships would be revealed and then not acknowledged in a character’s thoughts. For example, in a chapter that purports to be written from Catlin’s point of view she would be thinking of those around her in terms of what she knows them to be rather than as whatever role they present to others for her sake.

I did like the denouement. I could empathise with the wealthy widow when she explained why she had acted as she did although I would have preferred to have seen her daughter’s story tied up more neatly. The ghost narrator explained the mother’s but not the daughter’s skills and powers.

The sub-plots and setting of this tale impressed. There were interesting parallels with present day wealth disparities and the arrogance of those who benefit from the labour of the oppressed. It is a shame that I perceived aspects of the main storyline to be unsatisfactorily contrived in too many key reveals.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

 

Book Review: The Other Ida

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The Other Ida, by Amy Mason, tells the story of a dysfunctional family and the legacy of abuse over three generations. The protagonist, Ida, is a thirty year old alcoholic who left home at fifteen but has never moved on from the troubled, squalid lifestyle in which she was raised. She has been estranged from her mother and sister for many years but is now returning to the family home for her mother’s funeral. She feels no sadness at the death of her parent and questions her own worth for feeling this way.

The book moves between time frames giving the reader glimpses of Ida’s childhood and adolescence as well as the period in which the novel is set. Her mother, also an alcoholic, did not cope well with responsibility. She lived a life filled with bitterness and resentment, her only apparent achievement a play written before her children were born. The shadow of this play has affected them all.

The young Ida did her best to care for her little sister, worrying about her well-being and insecurities. This responsibility created its own resentments, the repercussions of which affected Ida deeply. Their father left when they were very young and, although he lived nearby, did little to help them out of the mire their mother created with her dependencies and depression. Ida swung between hate and awe of her enigmatic mother, both enjoying at times and hating the way she made them live.

In getting together to arrange the funeral she and her sister go through their mother’s possessions and unearth secrets which go some way to explaining why all of their lives turned out as they did. With the help of a family friend they find out who their mother was.

The book is a page turner, nicely written with good pace and flow. It is rarely predictable and has a satisfying denouement. Having said that though I have read a number of books with the same premise, of families with a broken history getting together for a funeral and uncovering secrets. This book was an original take on the theme with a very strong build up, but the second half of the book did not deliver the punch that the first half suggested could be possible. Had the beginning not been so very good I may not have felt that slight disappointment, my only criticism of an otherwise solid tale.

The story is brutal, challenging and almost cruelly realistic in its portrayal of a complex mother-daughter relationship. It is also funny and warm in places with an undercurrent of hope despite the damaged people it portrays. An impressive debut by the author, one that is well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo.

 

 

Book Review: Confessions

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Confessions, by Jaume Cabré, is massive in size, scope and literary merit. Given its reach it is hard to classify: a love story, a treatise on evil, the story of a life. Translated from the original Catalan by Mara Faye Letham, the tale has a depth that demands the reader’s full attention. Compelling as the interwoven strands of the story are, it deserves regular pauses for contemplation and for the quality of the writing to be savoured.

The book introduces us to Adrià Ardèvol, a gifted and precocious only son of distant and cold parents. His father, a collector of valuable objects and secrets, pushes his son to study languages. Adrià enjoys this challenge but resents that his father rarely acknowledges his impressive progress. His mother is determined that he should become a virtuoso violinist, all but killing his enjoyment of the instrument with her passion for his success. His violin lessons do, however, facilitate a meeting with another music student, Bernat Plensa, who becomes a lifelong friend.

The book is written as a memoir. At sixty years of age Adrià is succumbing to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. With Bernat’s help he wishes to publish the story of his life, a story that has been driven by dark secrets, history and his unusual, lonely childhood. In many ways his life has been extraordinary, influenced as it was by the inquisition, Auschwitz and his own academic studies and career. As with any life though, his choices have more often been driven by regular experiences: love, friendship, guilt and chance.

There were so many aspects of this book that I enjoyed. As Adrià recalled events he jumped from his own past to that of objects which affected his life, such as the valuable violin that his father had acquired through one of his many nefarious deals. In moving between time periods it is shown that evil has always existed. Ideals are justified by strong leaders who hold power and can force others to act as they desire through promises of glory and through fear. Individual acts of distressing cruelty are as likely to be prompted by personal lust, greed or jealousy as by a shared belief in a cause.

At times the changes of voice in the tale can be disconcerting. I was unsure if this was to highlight the effects of the Alzheimer’s or to illustrate the hazy concept of truth in recollection. Each time an individual recounts a story from their past the emphasis or detail is liable to change. It was unclear at times how much of Adrià’s story came from his books, his thoughts or how he lived his life. All were his experiences.

The valuable violin was a constant throughout the tale. I empathised with Adrià’s actions when, as a young boy, he wished to give it to Bernat. The lonely boy valued their friendship over an instrument which, at that time, was simply another object in his father’s collection, a collection that was given more care and attention than the child. It was interesting that Adrià, like his father, subsequently took pleasure in acquiring historical objects, suffering problems when these were granted undue importance in his life.

Another strand of the story looked at how value is ascribed. Any item is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay. That artwork or artefacts fetch such staggering sums is as much to do with the satisfaction a buyer feels in owning such a piece as in the attributes of the object. Throughout history lives have been barbarically sacrificed to satisfy the wealthy and powerful’s desire for ownership of place, person or thing.

Having enjoyed the complex journey I wondered how the author could complete such a tale. I was not disappointed. The denouement was unexpected but satisfying, rounding off Bernat’s story as much as Adrià’s. The ending fitted perfectly with everything that had gone before.

This is not a book to be picked up lightly but the investment in reading is undoubtedly worthwhile. As a study of humanity, what is valued, and how individuals see themselves and their history it is enlightening. Beautifully written, challenging and perceptive, its narrative will continue to resonate long after the last page is turned.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.

 

 

Authors and Book Bloggers

On Friday the author and blogger, Matt Haig, tweeted

There then followed a twitter storm that lasted several days.

Some agreed with the points he subsequently made, some disagreed. There was much vehemence and a fair few hurt feelings on show. From what Matt said he also received some disturbing private messages. We all know that social media can turn nasty.

I followed the debate with interest and felt personally affronted by two strands:

  1. There was a suggestion that some book bloggers simply wish to receive free books.
  2. There was a suggestion that bloggers promote books without discernment.

I put a lot of time and effort into reading and then writing honest reviews. I do it because I love books and I want to talk about them, to share my opinions with like minded others. When I enjoy a book I want to support that author in whatever way I can.

From the discussion there was a suggestion of disparagement.

It is obviously true that writing a book takes a great deal more effort than reading it and then writing a review, but that was not the main point of this discussion.

What really grabbed my attention was the original topic, that authors do not value reviews if they are always positive, that they want to see some negative reviews of their work.

This has not been my experience so I weighed in.

I started to follow this twitter storm because personally I provide my honest opinion of a book and sometimes that is negative. Negative reviews are much harder to constructively create than positive and that effort then gets ignored. Publicists and authors are not going to promote an opinion of their book that is less than enthusiastic.

Another author came back to me with this:

 

I rarely hate a book (such a strong word) but I did empathise with the hurt. I have been there, facing up to criticism of my carefully crafted words. It does not feel good.

It is understandable that authors want the fruits of their extensive labours to be well received. To try to argue that authors want to see negative reviews though? Hmm.

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One of the books that I read recently did not impress me. The plot was compelling but a good book requires more: a captivating writing style, comprehensible structure, convincing character development, readability, realism. I gave my opinion and the review sank to the bottom of my blog.

The author subsequently released a sequel and, curious to know how the plot continued, I requested a copy for review. I was refused. Rather than ignore me the author was kind enough to explain that, as I had not appeared to enjoy the first book, she felt that I was unlikely to enjoy the second. She also provided some constructive criticism of my reviewing style which I have since taken on board.

This author saw no point in submitting a book for review if the review was likely to be negative. To me this made sense. Negative reviews are not going to be used by publicists so why provide a free book?

Another thread in the Matt Haig twitter storm discussed the fact that book bloggers only want to read books that they will enjoy.

Before reading a book a reviewer cannot know exactly what it will be like. However, from the blurb there are certain types of book that I will never request (for me these include light romance or erotica). There are plenty who choose to read these genres but I do not. Life is short. Why spend time reading a book that is unlikely to appeal in order to write a review that is likely to be negative and will therefore be ignored?

Another thread bemoaned the book bloggers who endlessly promote books. Guys, this is why we do it! If I love a book then I will shout it from the rooftops, again and again. I only truly love a handful of the dozens of books that I read but as I tend to review a lot of books by less well known authors I want to play whatever small part I can in getting them noticed by a wider audience.

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Matt sounded a little down about many of the comments made in response to his tweets. He wrote this blog post to clarify his thoughts: A blog about blogging.

At the end of the day a book review is the opinion of one reader. Writers tend to be sensitive souls who want their creations to be loved. Not all books are good, and no book is going to be considered good by everyone.

Matt, I see what you were trying to say but there was too much in this discussion that I could not agree with. Authors may want to see more negative reviews, but not it would appear of their own books.

A well written review, positive or negative, can be useful and that is why they are read. As Joanne Harris tweeted:

Random Musings: Ho ho ho

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With Halloween done and dusted, including the all night American Horror Story: Murder House DVD marathon that my elder two children enjoyed with a dozen or so of their friends (whilst emptying our freezer of pizza and fries), I can now see Christmas on the horizon. Unlike last year I intend to try to make an occasion of this.

It is not that I plan to party. The preparation for and clearing up after my children’s social events is as much as I can handle these days. Even though I did not actually take part in their Halloween gathering it still left me exhausted. Disturbed nights do that to me now.

This need not preclude me from making more of an effort with the festive season. Last year I did my best to stick my head in the sand until it was all over which resulted in a very subdued time for us all. I learned that it is up to me to build momentum. Not being allowed to celebrate in the way that I would choose does not make it okay for me to refuse to set the scene for my family’s enjoyment.

I know how lucky I am. I have three healthy, intelligent children; a husband who loves me and who I adore as much as I did when I married him two decades ago. We have worked hard to create a fabulous home for our family. Yes, the kids take it all for granted, but why would they not when it is all they have ever known?

Too often I feel tired, so very tired. I dream of a little terraced house, two up two down, small and easy to look after. I imagine a rural location, no car, long walks and peaceful nights sitting with a book in front of an open fire; no expectations or demands for food to be prepared that someone will complain about. It will never happen. My husband does not see the point of open fires.

What I hanker after is for those around to stop expecting me to do everything they ask, to listen when I demure even if this causes inconvenience. My husband works; my children have school, exams, jobs, plans, pressures. I say I am tired and they reel off how much harder their lives are than mine. They are right but I am still tired.

I am however getting better at standing my ground, at being heard. Perhaps this is why I think that I can manage once again to cope with Christmas.

I am making lists: presents to buy, meals to plan, friends to reach out to. I will ask my family what they want and comply when I feel able. I will sometimes say no.

“There are exactly as many special occasions in life as we choose to celebrate.”

My daughter was talking about her work schedule over the festive season and expressed a hope that she would have Christmas Eve off. Each year we enjoy a family party then, just the five of us. I liked that she wanted to keep this free, to continue the tradition.

I used to look forward Christmas, perhaps I will again. For this year I will aim to let go of enough of my anxieties to reclaim just a little of that elusive goodwill.