Guest Book Review: Library of Souls

 

As part of their #SummerReads promotion, Quirk Books sent me the second and third books in Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children trilogy (I review the first one here). These books are aimed primarily at young adults and, within a day of their arrival, one of my resident young adults, Robyn, had them read. As my reading and reviewing schedules are currently somewhat packed I decided to ask Robyn to provide me with her thoughts. I posted her review of Hollow City last week – you may read it here. I plan on reviewing both books myself later in the year but, for now, I hope you enjoy reading Robyn’s take on the final book in the trilogy.

 

‘Library of Souls’ is the third and final book in Ransom Riggs’ ‘Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children’ trilogy. It follows the peculiar children as they attempt to locate and free their ymbryne and guardian, Miss Peregrine, and in the process save peculiardom from the threat of their mortal enemies, the hollowgast and wights. Readers are introduced to some intriguing new characters, and there are several twists before everything is neatly wrapped up – as it tends to be in young adult fantasy.

This book focuses on the myths and legends of the peculiar universe. The children have to navigate a new time zone, new peculiar abilities, and an interesting cast of new characters. One of these was Sharon, an obvious reference to Charon – the ferryman of Hades from Greek mythology. The inclusion of a Greek mythological figure seemed somewhat random, but then again the entire premise of the novels is the peculiar. It would have been interesting to have more exploration of the interplay between mythological beliefs and the peculiar in this universe. Sharon’s character was intriguing, but did seem to represent a missed opportunity. It begs the question whether more was included in an earlier draft and cut during the editorial process.

Like its predecessors, ‘Library of Souls’ is well-written, and complimented by an interesting selection of black-and-white images. The trilogy continues to hold its own against other young adult fantasy books. The main weakness with ‘Library of Souls’ is the neatness of the ending. It comes across as rushed, and almost a bit too good to be true. Perhaps the average young adult reader will like the ‘happily ever after’, but I expect some will be left with a lingering taste of disappointment. The book did not take very long to read, so there could have been more explanation without making the ending overly long.

‘Library of Souls’ – and the ‘Peculiar Children’ trilogy as a whole – makes an excellent addition to any young adult’s bookshelves. However, the first book in the trilogy is undoubtedly much stronger than its successors.

   

Robyn Law

Book Review: Freefall

Freefall, by Adam Hamdy, is the second book in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy (you may read my review of the first here). Set across several continents it opens with a suicide in London, the depiction of which is chilling. The action then moves to Afghanistan where John Wallace, the photographer targeted in the first book in the series, has gone to hide from the world and grieve for his beloved Connie.

Several of the original cast return, although all have been damaged by their horrific experiences, referred to just enough to allow this to be a standalone read. Detective Patrick Bailey has eschewed therapy and turned to alcohol to cope with the lingering effects of his shooting. Over in New York FBI Agent Christine Ash is suffering her own nightmares. Her inability to trust colleagues, a result of her traumatic upbringing, will have deadly consequences.

Ash is convinced that the Pendulum case involved more than one man, that he did not work alone, but her boss remains unconvinced. Proof presents itself when Wallace comes under attack, first in his mountain retreat in Afghanistan and then in Kabul. The reach of a shadowy organisation with apparent links to Pendulum ensures that it is Wallace who is branded a terrorist after he flees the scene. When eventually taken into custody he discovers that nowhere is safe.

Short, pithy chapters keep the reader appraised of the action as it unfolds in key locations. With the forces of law and order compromised it becomes necessary to call on personal friends for assistance, including some wonderfully shady characters. The enemy, whoever they may be, show no mercy.

This is a high-octane, adrenaline fuelled thriller that powers along at unremitting pace yet never runs out of the energy and ingenuity to maintain reader engagement. Along with the gradual reveals, the denouement adds a twist that makes me eager for the next instalment already. An exhilerating, entertaining read.

My early proof copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Illogic of Kassel

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

The Illogic of Kassel presents something of a literary conundrum. It offers what appear to be perceptive insights, nuggets of wisdom, wrapped around a tale that does not always engage. It is mocking, opaque in places, appearing clever but perhaps for clever’s sake.

The protagonist, a Spanish writer who enjoys morning euphoria and then suffers evening depression, is invited to take part in a prodigious, avant-garde artistic endeavour, Documenta, in the German town of Kassel. Despite his antipathy towards the live installation he will be required to be a part of, the writer agrees as he wishes to solve what he describes as the mystery of contemporary art – to ‘seek the aesthetic instant’.

The writer is influenced by all he reads and observes – his life experiences. He plays out scenarios in his imagination which then inform how he acts. Reading this story felt, at times, like playing a game where the rules kept changing, where the premise and coherence shifted as the plot progressed.

On arriving in Kassel the writer finds himself repeatedly drawn to certain exhibits. He is particularly taken by a vast space, first empty and then leading into darkness, pulled along by a current of air. He opines,

“I had proved that solitude was impossible, because it was inhabited by ghosts.”

Whilst this may appear to be profound, a result of his careful deliberations, it is exactly what the artistic space represents.

In walking around Kassel the writer realises that his evening depression has lifted. He is affected by the exhibits he visits and ponders if art appreciation is purely a state of mind. In an attempt to be cultured, are intelligent people looking for inspiration in what is ridiculous? Does the avant-garde exist when, if acknowledged as art, anything can be accepted?

(I ask myself if I, as a reader of this book, am seeking to be impressed because I believe I should appreciate the skill of an acclaimed author.)

The writer is passed between organisers of Documenta and their assistants. Although enjoying their company he does not always understand what they say or mean. He forms ideas of them and is then discomfited when they do not act as he expects.

“how frightening people are who suddenly show a side of themselves we’d never imagined”

The installation of which he is to be a part involves him sitting at a table in a remote Chinese restaurant becoming a Writer in Residence. To cope with the unknown aspects of this, particularly the attention he may receive, he invents a persona for himself and considers how this alter ego would react to observers.

“we are so many million people in the world, and yet communication – real communication – is absolutely impossible between any two of us.”

The writer comments that the contemporary art of Documenta is created without the contamination of the laws of the market. I found this disingenuous, akin to an author claiming not to care whether or not their book sold well.

The story is witty with much play between experimental arts of all kinds but still I am left feeling underwhelmed. This is much the same as when I view modern art, particularly live installations.

Any Cop?: If designed to provide a debatable literary experience the book succeeds. Whether it is one worth seeking – I am not entirely convinced.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Not Thomas

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin, is told from the point of view of five year old Tomos, who lives with Mammy and Brick in Wales. Mammy and Tomos used to live with Nanno and Dat, and Tomos misses them a lot. Nanno fed him good food and wrote him letters. Dat made him a train table that he still plays with even though the trains have been taken away. Nanno and Dat’s house was filled with stories and songs; now Tomos spends much of his time alone. He knows he mustn’t open the door when Mammy isn’t there so when the lady comes knocking, or the man with the web tattoo, he hides behind the big chair and waits for them to go away.

Tomos likes his teacher at the school he attends since the move. Miss is kind and smells nice, unlike the people who frequent his home. Miss shares her lunch with Tomos when her husband has made her too much, telling him that he is being helpful. The other children tell him he is stinky. Mammy calls him Stupid Boy.

Sometimes Tomos has fish fingers for tea but often all he can find in the cupboards are crisps. He likes the food at school and takes seconds when offered. His new friend, Wes, tells him school dinners are yucky and he should bring a packed lunch. Wes also tells Tomos about the DVDs his uncle watches. He enjoys putting thoughts into Tomos’s head that give him nightmares, and then running away.

The reader experiences Tomos’s life through his eyes whilst understanding the aspects that a five year old child cannot comprehend. The hunger, cold and neglect he suffers are harsh enough but the more immediate dangers he is subjected to when Brick’s associates visit make this a tense read. Tomos is known by social services to be at risk. Their stretched resources and need for proof before intervening are starkly portrayed.

Set in a small community where residents have grown up together, sometimes in equally challenging circumstances, there are memories of how people were before the drugs and alcohol took hold. Loyalties and a desire to protect their own lead to difficult choices, with outcomes that may be causing more damage than good. Old at nineteen, Mammy has already made accusations to get what she wants, using her son as leverage. Trying to help Tomos risks reputations as well as hard won careers.

The author has captured the inner voice of the child whilst retaining the flow of an adult story. Although incidents of extreme violence are graphically depicted there is no sensationalism.

The possibility of other life choices in a neighbourhood rife with hardship is touched upon, effectively lifting a narrative that could have become overwhelmingly bleak. The author writes with compassion and empathy but also practicality. There is nothing mawkish about this tale.

This is the human face of contemporary child poverty where the kindness of others, the refusal to look away, can make the difference between life and death. A difficult subject woven into a darkly engaging story. A recommended read.

 

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

 

Not Thomas has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Guest Book Review: Hollow City

As part of their #SummerReads promotion, Quirk Books sent me the second and third instalments in Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children trilogy (I review the first one here). These books are aimed primarily at young adults and, within a day of their arrival, one of my resident young adults, Robyn, had them read. As my reading and reviewing schedules are currently somewhat packed I decided to ask Robyn to provide me with her thoughts. I plan on reviewing both books myself later in the year but, for now, I hope you enjoy reading this, the first guest review I have hosted.

 

The second novel of Ransom Riggs’ ‘Peculiar Children’ trilogy, ‘Hollow City’ picks up immediately where the first book left off. It chronicles the children’s quest to find a cure for their ymbryne and guardian, Miss Peregrine, who has become trapped in the form of a bird. Their adventure takes them through multiple locations and time zones, and the children make both new allies and new enemies along the way. There are also some fascinating revelations about the various children’s histories. The book delves much deeper into the world of the peculiar, and contains an interesting twist towards the end to set things up for the final novel of the trilogy.

The concepts in the ‘Peculiar Children’ books are not particularly original. Children with powers who must go on a quest from their school-type environment is probably the single most common young adult plot in history, notably done in the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series’. However, the way this is presented in ‘Peculiar Children’ comes across as new and refreshing. Ransom Riggs succeeds, as in the first book, in writing something that stands out from other books in the genre. The inclusion of peculiar animals as well as humans did come across as a little juvenile – but this could be more to do with the association of talking animals and children’s books than the writing itself.

‘Hollow City’ reads like the typical middle novel of a trilogy. It is well-written, with intriguing new characters and revelations, but it doesn’t stand alone as a strong book in the same way as the first. ‘Hollow City’ would not make much sense without having read its predecessor. As much as the plot is engaging, the feeling persists that the primary aim of the novel is to take the reader from A to B so that everything is ready for the ‘grand finale’ in the last book. It follows a linear journey rather than a traditional story arc. This is especially evident with the ending – the book never really comes to a conclusion, merely hitting another climax then leaving things to be continued in the next novel.

Overall, ‘Hollow City’ is an enjoyable book that approaches the young adult fantasy genre from a slightly different angle. Anyone who enjoyed ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ will likely enjoy this, but they will probably find it a bit weaker.

 

Robyn Law.

Book Review: How to Be a Kosovan Bride

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill, follows the trajectory of two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other becomes a Returned Girl, rejected when her husband accuses her of lying about her virginity.

The Returned Girl determines that she will not accept a marriage to a lesser man just for the sake of form. Instead she will pick up her studies and, despite the skewed entry system, try for university. Her family support her efforts, ignoring the looks and comments from their local community.

The Kosovan Wife quickly falls pregnant, much to the delight of her husband and his parents with whom they live. They regard her as a good girl, believing their son has made an excellent choice. The Kosovan Wife is grateful that, for now at least, he leaves her alone.

Interwoven with the lives of these two women are related tales of the previous generation during the Kosovo War. Many are still haunted by the cruelties inflicted by the occupying soldiers from whom they fled into the mountains, where they struggled to survive the hunger and cold. Those who returned often found that their homes had been destroyed. Although wishing to move forward, the older generation’s hopes for the future are at odds with many of the young women’s dreams of personal freedom, which traditional living precludes.

The Returned Girl is much taken by the idea of life in London. University offers her the chance to meet foreigners and secretly, scandalously, she dates boys her family do not know. She acquires an interest in politics. She starts to write down her relatives’ stories from the war.

The Kosovan Wife is also writing, as a means to escape the increasing unhappiness of her married life. She retells an old folk tale in which a good woman is wronged by a series of men. Unlike the Kosovan Wife’s experiences, these men are taken to task for their behaviour and thereby gain understanding.

The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. Whatever path taken, the glimpsed alternatives bring into question choices made. Tradition and poverty prove as constricting to women as closed borders.

This subtle exploration of the complexities of life in newly liberated Kosovo is presented in nuanced, engaging prose. A modern history told through its people. An intelligent, rewarding story.

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

Random Musings: Reader Fatigue

To be clear…

If you wish to read a book, any book, then you should read it. If you enjoy reading a certain genre – and genre is simply a means of classification – then you should read it. No reader should be shamed for their choices. Sometimes it is good to switch off from life’s stresses by indulging in easy entertainment.

As for me…

I like to read an eclectic mix of books. As a book blogger I am fortunate in being sent a generous quantity of books to review. Other than romance, which I am unlikely to enjoy, I accept most genres.

Over the past few years this has resulted in me reading a large number of crime and thriller novels. Recently I have become aware of them merging. The means by which they grab my attention, maintain the tension, throw out a few red herrings, offer a twist at the denouement, has appeared uniform. I believe I am suffering reader fatigue with these popular genres.

There are, of course, exceptions. Authors such as Sarah Hilary, Mick Herron, AA Dhand, Adam Hamdy, Paul E. Hardisty and Ragnar Jónasson have produced books in the last year that have sufficient depth and character development to stand out – and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What I have become aware of though is that I am seeking out more literary fiction. I crave the variety of structure, the experimentation, the lyricism. Beautifully crafted prose delights me more than clever plot twists. I seek characters who challenge my preconceptions.

 

I find the books I currently enjoy reading bubbling up from the small presses. It is not that I wish to fall off the radar of the bigger publishing houses who still produce much fine work – Gather the Daughters and Tin Man come to mind as recent reads I would not have wanted to miss.

Still though, the market feels crowded and I am not simply after the next big thing. For me, a standout read must do more than mimic. Rather than the next, I seek the original.