Robyn Reviews: The Absolute Book

‘The Absolute Book’ is a contemporary portal fantasy novel of epic scope, drawing in influences from Norse mythology, the Fae, and tales of forbidden books and burning libraries. However, it’s also very much literary fiction, written in a style reminiscent of Dickens and other classics. The combination will work for some readers, but unfortunately I found the fantasy elements unoriginal and the literary elements tedious, labouring too much on tangents and unnecessary description and never allowing the reader to connect to the characters. I suspect this is a book for literary fiction readers who wish to dabble in fantasy rather than established fans of the fantasy genre.

Seeking revenge for her sister’s death, Taryn Cornick – the spoilt daughter of a well-known actor and pampered wife of a wealthy husband – allows a man called the Muleskinner to murder the supposed killer. Her actions draw the attention of DI Jacob Berger – but they also come to the attention of those far more otherwordly. For her family’s library has been hiding a secret, and those in a realm very far away now see Taryn as key to finding it. Thus begins a quest that will span the breadth of the Earth, and several other words as well, to find the secret – and perhaps save all the realms in the process.

There’s very little to say about either Taryn or Jacob, despite them being the protagonists. Knox doesn’t focus on her characters as more than plot devices. Taryn is a spoilt, wealthy woman who’s experienced a great deal of grief – the loss of her beloved sister, and the subsequent decline and loss of her mother. However, it’s hard to feel sorry for her given how insubstantial and selfish she is. She has no clear motivations or drive, no wishes in life. She publishes a book, and seems to have knowledge and passion on the subject, yet has little to no interest in her own life. It’s possible she’s intended to portray someone with severe depression, but she’s so underdeveloped as a character it becomes almost impossible to tell.

Jacob, a police detective who becomes unhealthily invested in both the case against Taryn and Taryn herself, is equally insubstantial. His life before Taryn is never shown – he simply appears, and his life becomes her bizarre story. Once again, he has no motivations – he claims he wants to solve the case, yet shows little interest in pursuing it once the answers become apparent. Almost nothing about the plot would change if he wasn’t in the book at all, which shows how flimsy he is as a character.

The plot is very standard fantasy quest fare – a missing, very powerful, world-changing object must be found to save the worlds. Similarly,world-hopping, with secret passages to worlds beyond Earth, is well-trodden ground in fantasy because it’s a device with huge creative potential. The world Knox creates is intriguing – the inhabitants have very different morals and politics to humans, with the ethics of how they dip in and out of human lives and history mused on in an engaging way – but overall it’s underutilised. Powers are introduced only to be very mentioned again, and ethical dilemmas discussed only to be summarily brushed over and never dealt with again. There are glimmers of brilliance, but none of them come to fruition.

My biggest issue, however, is with the writing. Knox favours writing filled with lavish descriptions and constant tangents, almost like a stream of consciousness. Passages which start as serious conversations meander off into observations on the weather, characters outfits, memories of the past, random and entirely unrelated facts. It’s difficult to keep track of what’s actually happening as there are constant diversions, most of which are entirely irrelevant. The novel could tell the same story with a fifth of the words, leaving some room for developing characterisation and narrative tension. Some people will likely appreciate the wealth of descriptions, but whilst I enjoy descriptions that create atmosphere, I’m less fond of unneccessarily long novels that lack purpose.

My other issue is the sexual undertones that several passages have. There are frequent references to Taryn’s breasts in strange moments, and several times when it is explicitly mentioned a character is getting an erection in an otherwise non-sexual moment. Each of these moments jarred me, throwing me out of the story. This isn’t a sexual story – it doesn’t even have a romantic sub-plot – and whilst streams of consciousness may, naturally, contain the odd sexual reference, none of these felt like they belonged.

Overall, ‘The Absolute Book’ is definitely a literary fiction novel that happens to contain fantasy elements rather than a typical fantasy novel. For those fond of complex descriptions, unreliable narrators, and books inspired by Norse mythology it may hold some appeal – but for those looking for a character-driven novel, or even a novel primarily driven by plot, this may not be the book for you.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 18th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Eight Detectives

Eight Detectives is a detective novel about an author of detective novels. Grant McAllister, a mathematician, published a series of seven detective novels in the 1940s as part of his research into the mathematics of murder mysteries. Many decades later, Julia Hart – an acquisitions editor for Blood Type Books – seeks out Grant McAllister, now retired and living in seclusion on a remote island, as she wants to republish his books. However, as they talk through the stories together, discrepancies start to appear – and is Julia imagining the link between The White Murders and a real-life White murder that happened back in 1940?

The idea behind this is brilliant – detective stories within detective stories – and this started very strongly. The tales contained within this are Christie-esque and very hard to predict until the culprit is revealed at the end. I also enjoyed the dynamics between Julia and Grant – clever, sharp-eyed Julia picking out discrepancies and asking probing questions, Grant trying to avoid the questions and steer the discussion towards mathematics. Julia’s youthful inquisitiveness and energy contrasted well with Grant’s weariness and musings. After spending years living in anonymity and seclusion, Grant both welcomes the normality of human interaction and seems wary of what Julia could unleash.

The ending is what makes or breaks a murder mystery, and the ending of this didn’t pack quite the punch I wanted. The major twist was clever – I hadn’t predicted it – but in many ways it felt like cheating. This book was keen to reinforce the rules of murder mystery novels, going over the required components and mathematics – yet the major twist seemed to bend those rules. The final two chapters contained two more twists – one which I had predicted (I believe this was the author’s intention), and one which I had not. It speaks to the author’s ability that it was a complete trope of the genre and still took me by surprise.

In many ways, I think I preferred the constituent detective novels to the overarching plot. The idea of a story within a story is brilliant but very hard to carry off effectively – I can only think of a couple of successful examples. This came very close, and for some it will likely work well, but I wasn’t quite satisfied.

If you’re a fan of detective novels I’d recommend this – the idea of the mathematics and the story within a story is excellent, and the tales within are brilliant examples of short murder mysteries. As for the ending, I’ll leave you to make up your own minds.

 

Published by Michael Joseph
Hardback: 20 August 2020

Robyn Reviews: Anxious People

Fredrik Backman has a gift for writing people. He seems to understand how people think, how they interact with each other, their motivations, their desires, their fears, in a way that no-one else quite manages. His books are little slices of humanity, always profoundly moving experiences, beautifully written but without any flowery language. I wish I could speak Swedish just so I could experience them in their original form – but full credit to the translator, Neil Smith, for their exceptional job.

Anxious People is a brilliant book. It’s laugh out loud funny in places, sad in others, and changes the way you look at the world. Each character is fresh, unique, and perfectly written. The plot is, in many ways, completely insane, but it works – possibly because it’s almost incidental. This is a story about characters, not about events, and the madness of the plot illustrates perfectly the madness of humanity.

It’s a story about a bank robbery, except it’s not. It’s a story about a hostage situation, but to call it a hostage situation doesn’t do the book or the characters justice at all. Really, it’s a story about a bank robber, two police officers, a banker, a young lesbian couple, a retired couple who renovate homes, an actor, a grandmother, an estate agent, and a therapist. I could tell you more, but all I’m going to tell you is to read it. It’s brilliant, and it’s even more brilliant when you don’t know anything going in. Just enjoy being taken for the ride.

The characters are perfect. They all start perfectly normal, somewhat stereotypical, then layers upon layers are peeled back and suddenly you’re questioning everything. Backman takes every single assumption that people make and flips them. It’s clever and leaves you questioning everything, which is exactly how a novel should make you feel.

Read this book. I usually end my reviews by recommending books to a specific audience, but this book’s audience is everyone. There is no-one who wouldn’t benefit from reading this, and I think most will enjoy it. It’s fun, clever, very different, and an indescribably good reading experience. I’m so grateful to live in a time when we have a novelist like Fredrik Backman.

 

Published by Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Hardback: 20 August 2020

Robyn Reviews: We Are All the Same in the Dark

We Are All The Same In The Dark is a gritty mystery novel with twists right to the end. The writing is beautifully atmospheric and pulls you right into the deep Texas setting. It’s a multiple POV novel, but instead of cycling between characters it follows them sequentially – Wyatt for the start, Odette for the build-up, and Angel for the thrilling conclusion.

Wyatt is the town’s pariah. Ten years ago, his sister Trumanell – prom queen and the town’s sweetheart – disappeared, with only a smear of blood and some glitter left behind. The prime suspects were her father – now deceased – Frank, and her mad brother Wyatt. These days, Wyatt hides out at the house he grew up in, talking to his sister as if she were there and painting the walls Chantilly Lace white – her favourite colour.

Odette is a cop, like her father and grandfather before her. After Trumanell disappeared, Odette left town, determined to start anew – but the town’s secrets dragged her home, Chicago lawyer husband in tow. Odette has history with Wyatt, and with Trumanell, and when Wyatt finds a girl on the side of the highway it sets off a chain of events that might just uncover a mystery that’s been sleeping for ten years.

I’m not American, so I can’t speak for the accuracy of the setting or the characters pictured, but they all felt thoroughly believable. It felt like a typical small town – obsessed with its own secrets. I was gripped by the simultaneous fear and veneration of Wyatt, people’s opinions of Odette always framed by their opinions of his dad, the missing girl never let go by a town which only had one claim to notoriety. The writing was as tough and gritty as the Texan setting and, whilst this made it jarring in places, it wouldn’t have felt quite right without it.

I felt sorry for Wyatt – haunted by the past and unable to move on – but even in his own head he is never framed as an innocent party. Whether because he truly believes it or simply because so many people have told him so, he doesn’t think of himself as a nice man. Readers can judge for themselves.

Odette is a fantastic character – brave, feisty, reckless, and never defined by her weaknesses. She makes mistakes – and plenty of them – but she is honest, and always determined to do the right thing. The town sees Trumanell as some sort of goddess – Odette sees her as a girl. Spending time in Odette’s head isn’t always easy but it is fascinating – especially the insights into her disability and how it frames her outlook on life.

Angel was my favourite. Her section flew past much faster than the rest of the book – possibly because it was faster paced, but I think because it gripped me more. It would be spoiler-y to give away too much about her, but she is a fascinating and brilliant character; the epitome of the impulsive teenager but also one who’s had to fight to survive. Her interactions with Rusty and Finn were spectacular, and every twist – of which there are many – had me on the edge of my seat.

Overall, this is a great book – one that really draws you into its setting and complex characters. The disability representation was a bonus. If you like stories with an eerie atmosphere about strong characters and long-buried secrets, you’ll like this. Recommended.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Michael Joseph for providing an eARC of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review.

 

Published by Michael Joseph
Hardback: 6 August 2020

Book Review: On The Bright Side

On The Bright Side, by Hendrik Groen (translated by Hester Velmans), is the new secret diary from the Dutch octogenarian whose first offering, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, I review here. It is similar in scope so I will not repeat my thoughts – do check out that link for an overview. This sequel is as well written, equally amusing and offers further food for thought. Hendrik’s health continues to deteriorate but he remains sharp enough to provide candid observations on living into old age along with the treatment of the elderly by their peers and those who have not yet experienced the trials of advancing years.

Still living in a state run care home and enjoying his membership of the Old But Not Dead Club, Hendrik returns to keeping his diary after a year’s break during which he mourned the passing of his beloved Eefje. Grietje has been moved to the dementia wing but the remaining club members, along with two newly elected additions, are still doing their best to indulge in whatever pursuits their failing bodies allow. The diary entries include details of outings to local landmarks, tourist sites and restaurants as well as the day to day issues that must be faced when a body is no longer functioning as it should. Although poignant, the telling is humorous. There is no shying away from incontinence, odours and the restricted speed at which elderly people shuffle or roll from place to place. The delight they take in simple pleasures contrasts with the potential boredom and inertia that builds when nothing is required of them day after day.

A new, national Health Care Law is proving a cause for concern. The rising elderly population is making the cost of their care a hot political issue, with news of cutbacks and closures of affordable homes increasingly prevalent. Mrs Slothouwer, the prickly and evasive manager, is refusing to share whatever plans are being discussed by the care home’s board. The residents have noticed that vacated rooms are not being filled as they once were despite reported waiting lists of many years. In an attempt to find out more, particularly if their home is to be closed or, worse, privatised, the Old But Not Dead Club plan a coup of the Residents Committee.

Given the ages of the inmates, death is a regular occurrence and one that Hendrik ponders and considers planning for. Although suffering maudlin moments he remains determined to make the best of whatever time he has left. His musings on the preoccupations of his fellow residents, their behaviours both deliberate and inadvertent, are considered and direct but largely sympathetic. He has an attitude and demeanour I have rarely experienced amongst elderly people. I wonder if there is an inability to communicate across generations. Hendrik’s views on children belie my own impressions of criticism from his age group. This is, of course, a work of fiction and offers a balance between poignancy and humour.

The writing is tightly woven and entertaining. Most day’s entries are between half a page and a page in length so offer snapshots of varying seriousness. The Old But Not Dead Club are as subversive as is possible given its member’s ages. The help they receive from drivers and others made me wonder how many in reality would ever enjoy such compassion and willing attention.

This is an enjoyable tale as well as a reminder that growing old is a double edged sword. Enlightening, touching, and laugh out loud funny, it is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Ladybird Book of the Nerd

My husband reads special interest magazines, and blogs that encourage him to believe his point of view is valid and widely held. I was therefore surprised last week when he announced he had bought a book – until he showed it to me. He believes this is the perfect Secret Santa gift for a colleague. Given his line of work I suspect he may be correct – in this at least. Before wrapping, I decided to slip in a quick review.

The Ladybird Book of the Nerd, by JA Hazely and JP Morris (illustrated by various artists), is one of the latest offerings from the Ladybird Books for Grown-ups series (you may read my review of The Ladybird Book of The Meeting here). These pithy and amusing little hardbacks offer clear and entertaining text alongside original artwork from the Ladybird series’ that the grown-up readers may remember from their childhoods. To gain a flavour I offer some examples from its pages.

   

   

I ponder what it says about me that I recognise friends and acquaintances in each of these, and many more from the remaining pages. The third made me laugh especially. How must teachers regard the parents of such children, unless of course they share the interests.

Although quickly read The Nerd still entertained. That it got my husband to spend his money in a bookshop is also a big win.

Ladybird Books for grown-ups are published by Michael Joseph.

Book Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old

hendrikgroen

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, by a Dutch author whose identity is a closely guarded secret (his words have been translated into English by Hester Velmans), is a must read for anyone who claims they wish to live into old age. It had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions, but this is an honest, poignant and insightful exposé of how it feels to exist in a busy, modern world when one’s body is inexorably deteriorating.

Hendrik Groen doesn’t like old people, particularly their endless complaints and repetitive, small minded conversation. He lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, one provided by the state at minimal cost. He admits that it is not a bad place to be, that the food is passable and he has made some good friends. Many of his fellow residents, however, he derides. Due to his habit of wishing to please everyone he cannot bring himself to say what he thinks, so he decides to write it down, narrating a year in the life of the inmates.

Given that this home is the sort of facility where people go to die, death is a regular occurence. Each time a room is vacated it must quickly be cleared that a new resident may move in. When one such arrival, Eefje, turns out to have a sharper wit than most, Hendrik befriends her. He and his select band of peers have an epiphany – if life is to be improved then they must take action. To the palpable disapproval of management, they set up the Old But Not Dead Club. Outings are arranged and fun is had. Once more, they have something to look forward to, including a chance to fall in love.

Each entry in the diary presents aspects of life from the point of view of an elderly gentleman who fully recognises his incapacities yet rails against the way the growing number of old people are treated by society. He also rails against how so many of these old people talk and behave towards each other. He acknowledges the smells and the leaks and the slowness of their actions; he dislikes these unavoidable features of aging as much as anyone. What he struggles with is the narrowing of horizons, the constant discussion of ailments, the petty bullying and intransigence endemic in their everyday lives.

Alongside the routine are moments that prove Hendrik can still garner enjoyment from life. Their club outings enable the members to try new activities, to eat well and drink with abandon. Such behaviour earns them the rancour of their envious peers.

There are also the trials, when good friends suffer serious health setbacks. There is discussion of euthanasia, dementia and suicide.

The wide ranging scope of the book makes it, in my view, an essential read. It does not shy away from the issues of aging, but neither does it present it as without hope. I loved the fun Hendrik had on a mobility scooter, the way the members of the club behaved on their outings, and the subversive nature of their gatherings within the care home where they flouted the rules designed to make life boringly safe, or  simply easier for the carers.

Hendrik is incorrigible, sometimes grumpy, always relatable. His honesty is both poignant and refreshing. He asks that he may be granted a place in the world, not shunted aside as the embarrassment too many view him as.

It is pointed out that the number of old people is set to grow yet economies in provision for them are forever being sought. Hendrik does not expect to live long enough to suffer the consequences. He offers a reminder to the policymakers that they are ruling on the quality of their own future lives.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Think Jam.