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Monday, 28 May 2012

Armistice by Nick Stafford

This book was passed onto me by a friend and I must admit that I started it mostly out of a sense of obligation - haven't we all been there? Luckily in this case it turned out to be a well-placed recommendation. Armistice is set at the end of World War 1 and concerns Philomena, a young woman who is making the journey South to London to meet the soldiers who fought side by side with her fiancé before he fell in battle in France. On arrival, it is alleged that Dan's death in fact occurred after the Armistice, and under suspicious circumstances. We follow her journey to try and find the truth.




 

The main thing that I initially found off-putting about this novel was the wartime setting. I have to admit that historical fiction is just not my genre, and this particularly applies to wartime stories. The reason that this wasn't a problem when reading Armistice is that it isn't really about the war at all. You could take these characters and this scenario and stick them in the present day, even 100 years from now and it would still be relevant and engaging. One person alleges that something is true, a second person denies it, and a third party is stuck in the middle trying to fathom out what's what. Furthermore, I didn't get a good feel for life in that particular period when reading this book. The London that is portrayed actually feels fairly modern, other than Philomena's occasional reluctance to go somewhere unaccompanied as a single woman. I was surprised to read about sordid sex! and drugs! (not so much the rock and roll).

Nick Stafford raises some interesting questions about class, equality and justice which are still relevant today. On the battlefield men would fraternise with other soldiers from all walks of life and put differences in social status aside. Once war was over it must have been really difficult for everybody to go back to their normal roles, and this is something that is illustrated really well in Armistice. It also made me muse over the impact that status and power has on the justice system.

The ending was pleasantly unexpected and I felt, pitched just right. I enjoyed this and would recommend it to historical fiction fans as well as those who don't enjoy the genre.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Drowning by Camilla Lackberg

I've been a big fan of Camilla Lackberg's work since reading the first installment in the Patrik Hedstrom series. Nevertheless, I have to admit that her last two offerings, 'The Gallows Bird' and 'The Hidden Child', have disappointed slightly. The plots seemed to lack subtlety and the twists were fairly obvious. I am delighted to report, then, that 'The Drowning' is a definite return to form.





 

The mystery centres around Christian, Fjallbacka's enigmatic and brooding librarian/author. Eagle-eyed readers will remember that we were introduced to Christian in 'The Hidden Child', where Lackberg made it very clear that he had some skeletons in his closet. I remember feeling frustrated at the time that this loose end wasn't tied up at the end of that book and wondering why Lackberg had chosen to dedicate so much page space to this seemingly minor character, so I was happy to realise that his story was to continue. So we pick up the narrative as Christian's debut novel is being published and he is receiving anonymous poison-pen letters. At the same time, detective Hedstrom is investigating the disappearance of one of Christian's best friends. But are the two matters connected?

Much of this book represents business as usual for Camilla Lackberg. Chapters are interspersed with short 'flashbacks' to the past. Bumbling police boss Mellberg provides a source of hilarity as he inadvertently tries to sabotage his colleagues' best efforts to identify a perpetrator. The grizzly action is offset by cosy scenes of Patrik's home life, where Erica is pregnant with twins. And of course a large part of the detective work is carried out courtesy of nosy Erica, who snoops around into other people's business more than ever before while worrying about her lumps and bumps and eating too
many pastries.

I always think of these books as the Erica Falck series rather than the Patrik Hedstrom series, as every time it is her off-the-record snooping that saves the day! To me she is the more interesting character, an oddity amongst a sea of miserable male middle-aged leads in these Scandinavian crime novels (not that I don't love them too!). I once read someone else (apologies if I have stolen your analogy) refer to her as the 'Bridget Jones of Scandinavian crime fiction' which is fairly accurate! The reviewer in question probably did not intend that to be a compliment but I find her quite refreshing.

Lackberg seems to have a keen understanding of human nature and an acute eye for what makes people tick, and this pervades 'The Drowning' as its real strength. Even the most insignificant onlooker is brought to life and the reader is given a real sense of everybody's personality. You get the sense that you can relate to every single character to some degree or see something of them in real-life acquaintances. Unlike in the previous two books, I did not see the solution to the mystery coming AT ALL, it was completely unpredictable but not far-fetched. And just when you think it's all wrapped up another BOMBSHELL is dropped that will ensure you return to Patrik Hedstrom number 7!

I would definitely recommend this book to any fans of crime fiction, but with one caveat; it's definitely better to start from the beginning if you haven't read any others in this series. Unlike other crime fiction series where the majority of the books stand alone and don't have to be read in any particular order, these are far more enjoyable if you get to know the characters from scratch.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Nimrod's Shadow by Chris Paling

When I picked this up last week I was hoping for little more than a fairly standard cosy historical murder mystery to divert my attention and entertain me on a few lazy days off work. I was therefore delighted as the plot unfolded and I came to realise it's quite a unique little gem. I can't really remember how this came to be on my bookshelf, having never heard of Chris Paling before, but I will certainly be seeking out more of his work (not good news for my battle against the bookshelf. Bookshelf 1, Girl 0).


 


Nimrod's Shadow tells the stories of two characters living a century apart. Reilly, an impoverished painter in 1912, lives a simple but contented existance with his dog Nimrod until one day he is accused of a murder he didn't commit. Fast forward a few decades and Samantha, a secretary living in present day London, becomes enchanted by one of his paintings and takes it upon herself to investigate further into his life. 

I enjoyed this much more than I was expecting to. Both strands of the tale are equally involving and intertwine nicely together (in many books of this nature the links between past and present plotlines can feel tenuous at best). On multiple occasions the twists and turns had me on the edge of my seat and thinking 'Well I certainly wasn't expecting THAT to happen'. I don't mean this in a shocking, thriller-type way, but in a gentle, pleasingly unpredictable manner. The characters are all completely engaging and quirky. I found Samantha especially endearing despite her odd, brusque, stand-offish nature. 

I feel this book is one that most people would have some fun reading - it's certainly one of the best I've reached for lately.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

There has been an interesting discussion going on over on the ReadItSwapIt forums over the past few days about writing reviews of books that you haven't finished. It seems opinion is divided on this topic. Personally, when reading reviews of books I am considering buying, I find it really helpful and interesting to learn that somebody has found the thing so awful they couldn't even get to the end of it! As long as they state that fact honestly and clearly in the review, I'm in favour of it. Others disagree, though, and feel that posting negative reviews of novels you haven't finished is inappropriate and disrespectful to the author. What do you think?



It is with slight trepidation, then (!), that I kick off this whole blog with a review of a story that I'm sorry to say I abandoned part-way through. Don't be mad at me! I feel like I've given it a pretty good shot. I've stuck with it through almost 600 pages, through sickness and health, over approximately 4 months. I've neglected some of my very favourite handbags because this hefty tome just won't fit inside. It almost pains me to give up after investing so much time in it, but the fact is there are still 400-odd pages left to go and I just have no motivation to pick it up any more!

So let's have a bit of background. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is, according to the official blurb:

"Infinite Jest is the name of a movie said to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything but watch. People die happily, viewing it in endless repetition. The novel Infinite Jest is the story of this addictive entertainment, and in particular how it affects a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts and a nearby tennis academy, whose students have many budding addictions of their own. As the novel unfolds, various individuals, organisations, and governments vie to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest for their own ends"

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately this fatally entertaining movie was referred to on approximately three occasions in the 60% of the story I finished. The narrative is more concerned with the daily lives and family histories of the drug addicts and tennis students mentioned above. As you've probably gathered by now, it's a gargantuan volume and is full of lively characters who are all perfectly described down to the last detail. The major drawback to this for me was that it could be really difficult to remember who was who and keep track of what was going on, particularly since a character could be referred to once and then not appear again for 300 pages or so. I have since found this handy character map which attempts to illustrate things a bit more clearly!


There have been times when I've absolutely LOVED reading this - particularly the passages about the Ennet House residents and the Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I can honestly say that some of these chapters were 5 star quality for me, despite the fact that I chose not to continue reading the book in the end. They ring very true to life (from my own experience working in similar environments) and I wonder whether David Foster Wallace has drawn on any personal experiences when writing these bits. However, the book is also interspersed with pages and pages of dry, excruciating detail about really mundane events. Some of the other reviews I've read have suggested that the monotony is kind of 'the point', and that it should prompt the reader to ask questions about the nature of entertainment etc. - well, my idea of entertainment is never going to be whiling away a whole morning reading about the technical intricacies of a tennis training session. It was these sections that felt really unrewarding and made me want to give up.

Not to mention the endnotes. I'm not the world's biggest fan of endnotes anyway so 100 pages of them is pushing it a bit.

I really enjoyed David Foster Wallace's style of writing and his inventive characters, and will definitely give something else of his a go (I've got Broom of the System waiting on my shelf to be read already). This was just too much for me though. I know it has quite the cult following and that there are plenty of people who rave about it, and as I said earlier, I didn't get to the end. Maybe had I persisted my opinion would have been different. But it got to the stage where I felt that life is just too short for me to spend any more time on this book...and the rest of my bookshelf is just too long!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Girl Vs Bookshelf

I think I have a problem and I'd like to share it with you. 

I just can't stop acquiring books through any means possible - buy, beg, borrow or steal.
(Ok, for the record I haven't resorted to stealing...yet...).

I recently moved into a new flat with my boyfriend for the first time and he remarked with surprise upon just how quickly I filled the bookcases with my library. I stood in front of him debating whether or not to disclose the volumes still loitering on a bookcase in my old bedroom in my parents' house, the multiple crates of unread novels lurking in their loft, not to mention the countless stories I have temporarily lent out to friends and family members. It was at that moment that I decided action must be taken, one shelf at a time.

It's not going to be easy - only today I picked up a box set of ten Penguin classics for a couldn't-say-no price in my local TK Maxx. But hopefully this blog will help to motivate me to continue my battle against the bookshelf and share my recommendations with other bookaholics going through similar battles of their own!