lundi 26 mai 2014

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

When struggling writer Marcus Goldman goes to see his friend and mentor Harry Quebert to find inspiration and a cure for his writer's block, he stumbles upon a disturbing revelation - years before, Harry had been involved with a teenage girl who has since disappeared. When the girl, Nola, is discovered buried in Harry's back garden, Harry is the obvious suspect. In order to clear his friend's name, Marcus does the only thing he knows how - he writes a book. As his investigation into Harry's relationship with Nola and the events of 30th August 1975 leads him to darker and darker truths, Marcus begins to question everything he thinks he knows about his friend...
Every so often in any reader's life, a book comes along that reminds you why you love to read. I have had a handful of such books in the past, great novels (in my eyes anyway), like An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears or The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is one of those books. Combining everything I love to find in a book, it is a fantastic, beautifully written mystery that is also so much more than that at the same time.
Told almost entirely by Marcus Goldman, a self-centered, shallow, unbelievably successful writer faced with every writer's dread - writer's block - The Truth About... details the chaos that unfolds once the body of a fifteen year old girl is found in the back garden of famous writer Harry Quebert. Harry is Marcus' friend and mentor, so Marcus decides to carry out his own investigation in order to clear Harry's name. Drafted into writing a book about the experience, Marcus soon realises that no one can be trusted and that every time he thinks he is getting a handle on what actually happened to Nola Kellergan, the truth is something completely different.
Although the centrepiece of The Truth About... is the gradual unveiling of what happened in 1975 and the truth behind the Harry Quebert affair, Joel Dicker's novel is just as much about writing, boxing and life. Each chapter (which are numbered backwards by the way for a reason that quickly becomes clear) begins with a piece of advice Harry has given Marcus over the years. While this advice is ostensibly about writing, they can be applied just as easily to life and it is thanks to this advice that Marcus gradually grows, changes and matures as the book progresses. Although he never really loses the slightly arrogant edge that any writer needs to be able to stand up and ask the world to read a bunch of words they have strung together, Marcus does grow into a more rounded human being and it is just as much this change as the truth about Nola that carries the novel forward.
The writing is great and it is difficult to remember that this is a translation out of French. Whoever the translator is, he did a phenomenal job, only once dropping the ball on the use of the French Untel (in English, So-and-so), but which I doubt anyone who is not bilingual would actually pick up on. Is the writing perfect? No. The dialogue can be a bit clunky at times and the shifts from present to past are sometimes a little confusing. But the book was such a joy for me that I passed over all those little imperfections, simply enjoying the ride.
A "coup-de-coeur" as we say in France, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair will be one of those books I will remember for a long time. A great mystery, an exploration of writing and life, the book touches all the buttons I need to make me fall head over heels in love with a novel. I cannot wait to see what Joel Dicker writes next and I doubt I will wait for a translation of whatever it is. This one will be in my top ten if not my number one at the end of the year, I am sure. I gave The Truth About... 5 seagull-full novels out of 5.

vendredi 23 mai 2014

The Red Hot Fix by T.E. Woods

After the deadly events of The Fixer, Morton Grant and Lydia are trying to rebuild the shattered pieces of their lives. Lydia has spent a year in rehab, attempting to regain her confidence and to put the truth about her connection to the Fixer behind her, while Mort is embroiled in an investigation into a prostitute serial killer who only kills the men who pay her to sleep with them. As they both try to regain badly damaged confidence and find a way of moving on with their lives, the truth about what they both did threatens everything they have built...
The Fixer was a surprising hit for me earlier this year - a thriller that I picked up on a whim but which worked really well and pushed all my mystery/thriller buttons: an intriguing mystery, a couple of damaged heroes, a twisty-turny plot. When I saw that the sequel was coming out later this year I added it to my To Read List, and when it became available on Netgalley I requested it immediately. Once it was approved I jumped it towards the top of the ever-growing pile of books to read, looking forward to returning once again to the world of the Fixer.

Due to everything that happened in the previous novel, it was inevitable that The Red Hot Fix would be a very different animal. The mystery of the Fixer - while still relevant - is no longer an issue for the main two characters, so Woods introduces a new mystery killer in "Trixie", a prostitute killing her "johns" who is the latest criminal to go up against Detective Mort Grant. While Grant investigates the Trixie murders with his son, Lydia is trying to find a way back into her life now that she has given up her Fixer persona. As the book progresses, though, she begins to realise that giving up her old life may not be as easy as she thought, especially when she is faced with a clear injustice.

The way Woods dealt with Lydia's storyline was very well done. We see her struggle to decide what to do when she meets a little girl whose father is abusing her and planning to sell her through his sick website, afraid of going back to her Fixer ways, but even more terrified of not doing anything. The way the story is wrapped up was excellent, showing that Lydia may be able to use her skills and the mindset she developped as the Fixer, but in a new way that might keep her out of the sort of trouble she found in the first book.

I much preferred this storyline - despite the disgust factor created by the girl's father and his plans - than Mort's cat-and-mouse game with Trixie. The surprise factor was missing, it was pretty easy to figure out who Trixie actually was and the situation was wrapped up very quickly. It felt like the storyline then went into a holding pattern while Lydia's story caught up, which took some of the tension away from the final scenes.

The Red Hot Fix was a good continuation of the Fixer series, bringing back a lot of what worked in the first novel and progressing both characters storylines in interesting ways. One plotline was more interesting and worked better than the other, but overall they both complimented each other nicely and set up an interesting finale. I will certainly pick up the next book in the series - I'm looking forward to see how Lydia puts her new skills to use in different situations. I gave The Red Hot Fix 4 tied-up johns out of 5.

dimanche 18 mai 2014

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

 The world begins anew, starting now.

In an unspecified future, two women are drawn together across two continents. In a world that has moved away from the former powers of Europe and America, and is now centred on Africa and Asian, the two primary continents are joined by a vast energy bridge. As one young woman flees her past in Asia by going on a foolhardy trek across the dangerous bridge, a young girl is saved by a group of missionaries and traders and carried off on a trip across Africa. Told in first person by both women, The Girl in the Road combines cutting edge science fiction with a mind-bending plot to tell the story of two unimitable women and the ties that bind them together...

I picked up The Girl in the Road as a Netgalley ARC, one that I was delighted to receive. I had been hearing good things about the book, described in numerous blogs as a mind-bending science fiction novel, dealing with identity, family, gender and the fallout of our own modern world. Set in a world where climate change has forever shifted the axis of power from the familiar Europo-American centre to an Africano-Asian combination, The Girl in the World describes what could be a logical future from our perspective. Monica Byrne does a great job developping her world, throwing in enough new technology to satisfy any sci-fi fan, while spending a lot more time on the social and political developments. This is a world in turmoil, chaos that both of our main characters are involved in.

The two main characters seem to be worlds apart in more than one sense as the novel begins. Meena is a grown woman, struggling with her past mistakes and her present fears, who decides after she is attacked in her home to go on a trek across the Arabian Sea on a vast energy bridge. Mariama, meanwhile, is a young girl whose prostitute mother told her to run and who finds herself crossing the Sahara with a disparate group of missionaries, traders and mercenaries. As the story progresses it seems clear  that the two women are linked, though exactly what the link is will probably surprise most every reader.

While the story is sometimes hard to follow due to diversions into hallucinatory visions, and can become bogged down in a series of encounters that Meena has on the bridge, the writing is such that the story is constantly propelled along, leaving the reader happily following the trail of breadcrumbs that Byrne has laid out. Byrne's imagination is at full throttle throughout and she makes great use of the technology she creates. Sexuality plays a huge role, either in flashback or more immediately during the journey, and Byrne does not shy away from confronting the complexity of sexual relations and desire. While both main characters are definitely female, Byrne creates a society where changed genders, transgenders and anything in between are frequent and accepted.

Social and political chaos plays a large role in the book, especially in the latter parts of the novel when Mariama reaches her destination. As she grows into a young woman, she becomes involved with riot and revolution, which eventually brings her into contact with the man who will change her life and cement her connection with Meena. It is trying to make sense of this connection that really propels the novel forward and the final revelation is well worth the wait. Though some of the connections still seem mysterious and uncertain by the time the book ends, it is hard to be disappointed considering the great ride the novel takes the reader on.

One of the most mind-bending, imaginative and unusual novels I have read so far this year, The Girl in the Road is science fiction done right, combining new technology with social developments, armed with an intriguing plot and two strong female characters. As the book progresses, mysteries are revealed and yet Byrne never loses sight of the story she is telling and the world she has created. An engrossing read that kept me turning the pages despite the occasional confusion, I gave The Girl in the Road 4 kreens out of 5.

vendredi 16 mai 2014

The Good Spy by Kai Bird


Robert Clayton Ames was a very good spy.

The day President Bill Clinton oversaw the signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel, a group of CIA officers strode up to Arlington Cemetary to visit the grave of one of their own - Bob Ames, a CIA operative who specialised in the Middle East, whose actions lay the groundwork for the very accords being signed that day. Heading back in time, The Good Spy tells the story of Ames' entry into the CIA and how he rose to become one of their foremost experts on the Middle East. As he tries to walk the difficult line between reality and politics, he slowly heads towards his final destiny among the ruins of the American embassy in Beirut...

I love spies. Anything relating to espionage, both in fiction and non-fiction will get my attention. A few years ago I read Tim Werner's wonderful overview of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, and remember reading about Robert Ames. So when I saw The Good Spy, a full biography of the man, on Netgalley, I immediately requested an advanced copy. And I am extremely glad I did because The Good Spy is a tour de force exploration, not only of one man but of the world he inhabited. Bird does a great job of peeling back the various layers of Ames' life as his career in the CIA takes him from one Middle East city to another.

While the book is centred on Ames, Bird takes the time to delve into the world around him. A number of key figures in the PLO are carefully depicted, especially the "Red Prince", Hassan Salameh, who shares almost as much page-time as Ames. Throughout the book, though, there is a constant threatening feeling overshadowing the narrative as we get ever closer to the horrific events of April 1983 and the bombing of the Beirut embassy. Bird deals with the aftermath in a respectful way, showing the effect of so much death on the country at large, but also more specifically those who knew Ames personally.

The Good Spy does a great job of providing a rounded, well-written exploration of an unsung American hero. Not afraid to deal with the darker aspects of Ames' career, Bird manages to give us true insight into his world. I gave The Good Spy 4 presidential briefings out of 5.

mercredi 14 mai 2014

WWW Wednesdays: 14th May 2014

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you'll read next?

My answers:

What are you currently reading? I'm reading a couple of books at the moment: The Buried Life by Carrie Patel, a pretty good fantasy set in a world beneath the ground, combining decent worldbuilding with a murder mystery plot; Jackaby, a great historical fantasy described as Sherlock meets Doctor Who and which seems to be living up to that so far (!); and The City of Stairs, the new fantasy epic by Robert Jackson Bennett that I have just started.

What did you recently finish reading? The last book I finished was Shield and Crocus, which I received as an e-Arc from Netgalley. A Weird fantasy published by Amazon's 47North, it was nowhere near as good as I had hoped, in part due to quite a large number of mistakes, typos and strange character name shifts, which I hope will be cleared up before it is released. Still, it was a relatively enjoyable fantasy/superhero mixer that unfortunately failed to click with me for large parts of the book.

What do you think you’ll read next? Next couple of books I'll be reading: Starting a Star Wars reread all over again since the announcement of the new Expanded Universe and going back to Heir of the Empire, the book that started it all. After that, probably Flirting with French, a memoir about a man who goes to extremes to try and learn the Gallic language (looking forward to this being an Englishman living in France!)

mardi 13 mai 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I Almost Put Down But Didn't

Top Ten Books I Almost Put Down But Didn't
I decided to split this one in two - those book I didn't put down but wish I had and those books I'm glad I didn't.

Books I Almost Put Down and Wish I Had

Mentats of Dune

The most recent, I really struggled with this one. The storyline was bland, the characters two-dimensional and the info most certainly dumped. Why did I stick with it? I have been reading the Dune novels since I was fifteen years old and have enjoyed most of the additions to the cannon. It was that series loyalty more than anything that kept me reading, though I am not at all sure I will be picking up the next book in the series.

Catalyst of Sorrows

A Star Trek book, Catalyst of Sorrows seems to have everything I would enjoy. Uhura as a spymistress, Benjamin Sisko before the tragedy of the Borg, Romulans, Leonard McCoy at his curmundgeonly best... And yet the parts never added up to a great whole. I struggled through it, hoping it would get better, but the book never quite clicked for me.

The Caravaggio Conspiracy

I have a hard time even remembering this book, I have to say. Like Catalyst of Sorrows, it seemed to have a lot going for it, but by the end it just did not catch my attention. I forced my way through it, but have no memory of it whatsoever.


My first Netgalley book, I so wanted to like it. A sci-fi urban fantasy mixer, written by an author I had wanted to read for at least a decade, it just did not click with me. I forced myself to finish, but will not be picking up the sequel.

The Descent

After reading and enjoying the first two books, I had high hopes for this. Unfortunately The Descent did not match them. A bit of a mess of a book, it never came together for me. Only the weight of the other two books and wanting to know how it was going to finish kept me from putting it aside.

Something More Than Night

I had a similar experience with Something More Than Night that I did with the first book in Ian Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych. I tried very much to like the main character and the interesting world that Tregillis created, but they never really clicked with me. I persisted because Tregillis did such a great job with the two follow-up books to the Milkweed series, but unfortunately this time it didn't work out. Still, I'm definitely looking forward to Clakkers, his end of year release.

Books I Almost Put Down and Am Glad I Didn't

The Way of Kings

This one was an almost put-downer mainly because of genre fatigue. I had read a lot of epic fantasy by this point and so The Way of Kings arrived at the worse possible time. The character of Kaladin does not help as he goes through a lot of very dark moments and can be quite depressing at times. Still, I am so glad that I did struggle through it because the ending is amazing and reignited my interest in epic fantasy. I recently reread the book in preparation for the release of the sequel and it was even better on the reread.

Ancillary Justice

A difficult book simply from the way it is written and the voice that the writer used, Ancillary Justice was one of those books that is a struggle to read but more than makes up for it at the end. Still, there were numerous times where I was tempted to lay it aside. I'm glad I didn't, though.

The Briar King

The beginning of The Briar King was not what I was hoping for. I had been looking forward to reading Keyes for a long time, but the disparate characters and uncertain plot did not impress me. This is another one I was delighted to have pursued though, because the book really came together at the end and the sequel was fantastic. I can't wait to continue with the third and fourth books next year.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy

I struggled through every single one of these. I found the writing hard, the characters at times annoying. And yet there was something about it that kept me turning one more page, starting one more chapter, every time I was tempted to put it down. I'm glad I did, because I now have a very good memory of reading all three books. They were definitely worth the effort.

What books did you almost put down but kept on reading? Did you end up enjoying or hating them?

dimanche 11 mai 2014

The Shattered Crown by Richard Ford

Saviour's Bridge spanned the River Storway where it ran between Steelhaven and the Old City. It was no doubt named to venerate the Teutonian saviour Arlor - that deified hero of old, raised to godhood by the teeming ignorant masses.

The city of Steelhaven is soon to be under siege. With the King dead, his daughter Janessa must wear the crown, untested and untried in times of peace, she has no idea how to handle things in times of war. As part of her guard, Kaira and Merrick - one a fallen priestess and the other a drunk and a coward - must try and protect her from enemies within and without. And down in the city, the girl Rag sees just how far she is willing to go to gain her place as part of the Guild.

I quite enjoyed last year's Herald of the Storm when I read it at the beginning of the year - a clever, well-written fantasy that, though it did not break any barriers or reinvent any major elements of the classic fantasy stories we know and love, did a great job of creating an interesting world peopled by intriguing, likeable characters. From the young princess struggling to find her place in her father's court to the assassin who falls in love with his mark, Richard Ford managed to weave a number of strands into an irregular whole that ended up being more than the sum of its parts. I put The Shattered Crown on my To Read List for the year and picked it up soon after it came out.

The sequel picks up where Herald of the Storm ended - the war is going badly for Steelhaven, not least because the King has been killed at the front, leaving the invading army behind Amon Tugha to descend on the city. Princess Janessa is now Queen Janessa, charged with protecting her city. She gathers advisors and protectors around her, who include the former priestess Kaira and the former drunk Merrick. As they struggle to stand in the way of the numerous threats against Janessa's life, they are also forced to face all that they lost in the previous book, and for Merrick that implies facing the one ghost from the past he had hoped never to see again - his father. Kaira becomes involved with an investigation into the Guild, one that brings her into contact with Rag, the young thief from Herald who is now confronting just how far she may have to go to keep her place amongst the criminal brotherhood. And Wylian, still apprenticed to the sorceress Gelredida, becomes involved in intrigue within the highest court of the Tower of Magisters.

As you can see from the paragraph above, there is a LOT going on in The Shattered Crown, in the same way as there was in Herald of the Storm. Ford has a lot of balls in play here, and while they do cross over a lot more than they did in the last one, they also continue along their own paths. While that means that you never get bored - any time one storyline begins to drag you are quickly moved on to another - it also means that the book as a whole feels just as disjointed as Herald of the Storm, with the central plot of the Kurtha invasion never really gelling until right at the end. Considering how much set up there was in Herald, I was expecting Shattered Crown to move the plot forward more than it did - this still feels like a transitional book.

That is not to say that The Shattered Crown does not have any resolution. While it does end on a huge cliffhanger, each character has his or her own plotline that is clearly defined from the beginning and has a clear ending. The characters all grow and change during the course of the book and Ford does a wonderful job of surprising through clever twists and revelations. Along with the existing characters exposed above, Ford also introduces a new one: Regulus, leader of a warrior band travelling to Steelhaven to take up service with Janessa's father. If there is a central storyline the others move around, it would probably be this one, although certain characters have very little to do with it. Regulus himself is a great addition - brave, honourable and a major bad-ass when it comes time to fight.

Of the other characters, I preferred the chapters surrounding Janessa, Merrick and Rag, mainly because they seemed to have the most to gain and/or lose. Each of the characters is playing for big stakes, but these three were the ones who changed the most by the time the book ends.

The ending itself is a huge bang, bringing the series to a point we have been expecting since the herald first arrived in Steelhaven at the beginning of book one. Any disappointment felt at the lack of a cohesive plot evaporated when the hordes show up outside the gates, leaving me looking forward to the third book.

A fine continuation of Herald of the Storm, The Shattered Crown improves on some of the things that were lacking in the first book but remains a transitional novel. The world is expanded, the characters change but by the end it is difficult to say that the actual plot has advanced tremendously. Still, the characters carry the book forward and each of them is compelling enough to keep anyone reading. I for one will be looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy. I gave The Shattered Crown 3 black iron helms and carven hammers out of 5.

Buy It For Kindle
Author's Website

From the Blogosphere:
Grimdark Reader
A Fantastical Librarian
Robin's Books

From the Author's Mouth:
Interview from last year with SFX

vendredi 9 mai 2014

The Lincoln Myth by Steve Berry

Abraham Lincoln kept his temper under control, but the woman standing across from him was taxing his patience.

When a plot to secede from the Union drags Cotton Malone's on-again, off-again lover Vitt Cassiopeia into danger, Malone agrees to once again assist his former Magellan Billet boss. Paired up with a young agent with secrets of his own, Malone's investigation leads him into conflict with the Church of Latter-Day Saints and a centuries old secret hidden within the US Constitution. As the bodies begin to pile up and more revelations are made, Malone comes to realise that the entire conspiracy revolves around the truth behind one of the United States' most beloved presidents...

The Lincoln Myth is the ninth book in the Cotton Malone series, which follows the eponymous hero through a number of historically orientated thrillers, pitting him against larger than life villains and putting him on the track of some of history's most enduring secrets. Up til now, Malone has investigated the Templars, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Napoleon Bonaparte and Queen Elizabeth I. All of the books are great fun, with slightly less of the over the top vibe that characterise Dan Brown, and with more of a historical bent. Malone is an interesting character, one with scars and hidden depths that Steve Berry continues to plumb even nine books in. As such, any new Cotton Malone book is a shoe-in for my To Read List and this year I was lucky enough to get an advance look at the latest thanks to Netgalley.

Nine books in it is difficult to see how Berry can still surprise, but he does an admirable job here by throwing a wrench in the growing relationship between Malone and Vittoria Cassiopeia, his paramour for the past few books, and putting them on opposing sides of the growing conflict. Berry also manages to layer an interesting commentary on current events throughout the book, forcing his characters to face the growing dissatisfaction in the United States and the ever-present threat of secession.

The plot itself revolves around two main arcs - on one side, a historical maguffin in the form of a secret adendum to the Constitution that allows for the legal right to secede from the union, and on the other a plot within the Church of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons, to use said adendum to secede from the United States and build their own Eldorado. Though obviously far fetched, there are some startling arguments for both of these arcs that make the book seem less out there than it otherwise might. Laying aside the Mormon aspect, it is certainly true that there are some in the current US who would like nothing better than to force government out of their business and see each state make its own decisions. And the adendum to the Constitution, while an invention of Berry, seems like something that could easily have happened when one takes into account the historical context of the times in which the Founding Fathers wrote it.

As usual, Berry does a great job of balancing the action portions of the thriller with the necessary information that he must impart. Anyone who writes this kind of book needs to be a master at feeding the reader information at the right pace - too fast and it becomes nothing more than an info-dump, too slow and you risk alienating the reader who feels like the author is holding back. Berry has had a lot of practice and he does it with a steady hand. The revelations come just when they need to and each character is forced to make choices and face consequences for gaining the information they want.

The relationships take centre stage in this book - not only the rocky romance between Vitt and Malone, but also the relationship between Malone boss, Stephanie Nell, and Berry's president, Daniels. Daniels has been a growing presence in recent books, and Berry does a good job of showing how the pressures and weight of the presidency have come to drag on him. He is coming towards the end of his final term in this book and it is clear that his actions in The Lincoln Myth are a direct result of him worrying about the inevitable question of 'legacy'. His relationship with Nelle is also advanced, and we see another side of him as he handles a difficult reunion with his nephew, the young agent mentioned in the summary above.

The ending does not hold many surprises for anyone who has read any other books in this series (or in any other similar one), but Berry does a fine job of showing consequences. We get the feeling going forward that Malone and Vitt's ongoing relationship will have been irrevocably changed by what happens here and that may have a domino effect on his willingness to get involved in the future. Like Jack Bauer, soon to enjoy his own revival, though, we can be sure that Malone's adventures will not end here.

The Lincoln Myth is a historical thriller done right. While not holding many surprises, it does a great job of combining historical speculation with a taut action thriller, while not flinching from the relationships and characters that make the whole thing hold together. A true page-turner and a great book for the beach, it shows that Berry is still a master at this form and that there are still many ways in which he can make the Cotton Malone series work. I gave it 4 crazy angel-seeing killers out of 5.

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From the Blogosphere:
Historical Novel Society
cayocosta72 – Book Reviews

From the Author's Mouth:
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jeudi 8 mai 2014

When The Lamps Went Out edited by Nigel Fountain

'The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.'
                                               Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary, 3 August 1914

When The Lamps Went Out tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of the journalists who reported on it, providing us with a glimpse into how the war effort was presented to the people back home. As the various dispatches and editorials are published in the Manchester Guardian, we are afforded a rare look at a society in the grip of a true cataclysm, one that changes everything from the role of women to the political currents that held sway. Through the eyes of those who wrote about it, we see history unfold and gain insight into how Britain changed before, during and after the Great War...

One of my goals this year is to read a few non-fiction books set during the pivotal war years 1914-1918. Since we are now a full century away from these events and will be celebrating the centennial of the beginning of the war, it seemed like a good idea. So when When The Lamps Went Out came up on Netgalley I requested it immediately and was happy to receive it from the publisher. The book met two of my requirements, in fact: a non-fiction book about the First World War, but also a book that takes a well-known historical period and gives it a twist.

The twist in the case of When The Lamps Went Out is that rather than be a standard exploration of the years 1914-1919, the editor has spun together a view of the war based entirely on fragments and snippets from newspaper reports of the time. These are taken exclusively from the Manchester Guardian, but their import is nationwide, giving a glimpse into what the British public was reading and thinking while the war raged. As such, it gives a nice overview of the events leading up to, during and immediately after the war, but in a way that makes it stand out from other books about the period. We see the way the tenor of articles and editorials change as the fear of war turns into its reality and the belief in a quick resolution gives way to the drudgery of the trenches and the horror of chemical warfare.

The very twist that makes the book stand out, though, is also its greatest weakness. Since the narrative is made up entirely of fragments, there is a lack of cohesion and quality. Some fragments are more interesting than others, while some articles caught my attention where others were quickly skimmed over. Nigel Fountain, who is accurately credited as editor rather than author, does do a good job of keeping the narrative balanced between the various strands he chooses to explore. These include the warfront, the moral back home, but also the change in government, the rise of the women's suffrage movement and the effects of the Soviet revolution. This makes for a more rounded story, but again there are certain strands that kept me reading more than others.

The first hand accounts of the battles, told by the journalists who have been allowed access to the front, are especially gripping. It is interesting to see what they are allowed to say and what was presented to the people back home. One article in particular, about the soldiers in the mountains of Italy and Austria, breathes life, painting a deft picture of the beautiful scenery that is marred by the constant risk from enemy soldiers. Another touching strand takes us into the trenches during the "miraculous" Christmas celebrations that for a single day or handful of days brought Germans and French and English and Scots together between the trenches. It is much more difficult when reading about the First World War than the Second to see the "Good Guys" and the "Bad Guys" - a book that explores similar terrain from the viewpoint of the Germans could make for just as compelling reading.

One gets the impression that every single soldier on the front is simply trapped by the short sightedness of the politicians and leaders behind the scenes and there is much more of a sense of a camaraderie between the soldiers that would ever exist later on when faced with the Nazis. As such, the Aftermath chapter becomes especially chilling, especially as we see - from afar and through the objective lense of the journalist - the beginning of the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Although the core of the book is the extracts from the newspapers, I would have enjoyed a little more interpretation and discussion from Fountain. While each article or fragment is introduced by a small paragraph explaining what is being discussed, these are extremely short. Of course, your own mileage may vary on this point depending on your prior knowledge of WW1 and the events surrounding it.

Not always an easy read, with a lack of cohesion that is unavoidable due to the very nature of the work, When The Lamps Went Out provides an interesting twist to the World War One book. Told through the eyes of journalists and editorials, the book gives a rounded view of the events while never forgetting the people who were reading about them back home. Although I would have preferred slightly more interpretation and explanation from the editor, the words of the journalists speak for themselves, especially when dealing with the horrors of the trenches and the humanity that continued despite them. I gave When The Lamps Went Out 3 Christmas ceasefires out of 5.

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From the Blogosphere:
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mercredi 7 mai 2014

WWW Wednesdays: 7th May 2014

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you'll read next?

My answers:

What are you currently reading? I've been catching up on some Netgalley books I had asked for and received, so am currently reading The Girl in the Road (a great SF epic) and The Red Hot Fix (sequel to one of my favourite thriller novels from earlier this year)


What did you recently finish reading? Just finished The Lincoln Myth by Steve Berry and The Good Spy, a non-fiction look at CIA agent Robert Ames, by Kai Bird.


What do you think you’ll read next? Still have a few Netgalley books to finish up before I get back to my usual TBR, so will be reading Shield and Crocus, which I am really looking forward to, and The Buried Life, which looked interesting but is less up my usual alley in terms of fantasy.

What have you/are you/will you be reading at the moment?

mardi 6 mai 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Book Covers I'd Frame As Pieces of Art

Top Ten Book Covers I'd Frame as Pieces of Art
Another fantastic theme, though there are so many fantastic covers out there that narrowing it down to only ten is quite difficult...

What are your favourite covers?

dimanche 4 mai 2014

Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

The great Mentat School was his - from the initial concept seven decades ago, to choosing this location in the remote marshes of Lampadas, to the many graduates he had trained over the years. With quiet efficiency and determination, Gilbertus Albans was changing the course of human civilization.

In the aftermath of the Butlerian Jihad, when mankind overthrew its robot overlords, the Empire struggles to survive the turmoil left behind. As the Corrino Emperor strives to strike a balance between the remnants of the Jihad, determined to assert control over humanity, and Venhold Spacing, who hold the only key to safe travel through foldspace, two rival schools who will one day play key roles in the galaxy take their first faltering steps. The Mentat School especially finds itself thrust into the centre of intrigue and danger.

Dune is one of the seminal science fiction novels of the 20th century, a philosophical space opera full of great concepts, multifaceted characters and musings on family, power and fear. It inspired such great speculative fiction as Star Wars and the Wheel of Time series. A handful of sequels followed, whose reception varied, before Frank Herbert died leaving the series unfinished and poised on a cliffhanger. Fast forward a few decades and Herbert's son, along with prolific scifi author Kevin J Anderson, picked up the torch. Beginning with a prequel trilogy detailing the fued between the Atreides and Harkonnen that forms such an important part of the original book, the Herbert/Anderson duo have gone on to complete the original series, before returning to the deep past of the Dune universe. Mentats of Dune is the latest in the series, a sequel to 2011's Sisterhood of Dune.

The obvious question to be asked with all of the prequel/sequels written by the duo is whether they bring anything to the universe Herbert created or whether they are nothing but a cynical use of a beloved saga. While I don't think the motives of Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson are cash related - their love for the universe is obvious - I also think that it may be time for them to let the Dune universe lie.

By this point, it is difficult to have a conscious discussion about plot when it comes to the Dune books without going into a long rambling explanation. And that is one of the main faults with this book - it relies so much on connect-the-dots scene setting and winks to the audience that it is hard to discern a clear plot to discuss. The book is called Mentats of Dune and yet for large parts of the book the main Mentat characters are almost secondary to what is happening. There is very little tension and few characters I personally felt invested in.
The writing is fine - clear, crisp, without major infodumps or long descriptive passages. However I found myself skim reading the book, reading just enough to discern what was happening and how each situation would be resolved. There is very little of the sense of wonder left - it feels like each planet is similar to the one before, and even Arrakis was missing that special something that once made it so compelling.

The book ends without any major surprises. It left me without any major expectations for the follow-up, beyond a mild interest in seeing how the Atreides will rise from their current position to the powerful house we see later. I imagine I will pick up the final book of the trilogy, but unfortunately I think that may be the last Dune book I pick up for a while.

Mentats of Dune may be the bridge too far for some fans, though from what I have seen on other blogs and forums that bridge was reached a long time ago for many others. Lacking the sense of wonder that made Frank Herbert's original such a hit, this is paint-by-numbers space opera. I didn't hate it but it did leave me numb. Not a book I will be remembering at the end of the year by any stretch of the imagination. I gave Mentats of Dune 2 disembodied robot overlords out of 5.

Buy It For Kindle
Series Website

From the Blogosphere:
Flickering Myth
Giant Freaking Robot
Sci-Fi Pulse

From the Author's Mouth:
Older interview with Kevin J Anderson at MediaMikes

vendredi 2 mai 2014

The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J Mazzeo

This book did not begin on the beautiful Place Vendôme. It did not even begin in Paris. This book first took shape, instead, one winter afternoon in the former eastern zone of Berlin, in a friend's apartment overlooking the Alexanderplatz.

The Hotel Ritz, in the centre of Paris, has seen a constant flow of celebrities: royalty, artists, journalists, actors... After the Nazi invasion, though, it became the only luxury hotel allowed to stay open. Through the eyes of some of the men and women who passed through its doors (eyes which include Coco Channel, Hermann Goring and Ernest Hemingway), The Hotel on Place Vendome traces the history of the legendary place from its opening at the end of the 19th century through to its present day incarnation as part of the Al-Fayed empire. Concentrating mainly on the wartime period, we see how the hotel became a hotbed of affairs and espionage, where collaborators, Nazis and resistance fighters rubbed shoulders. As the war years advance, it soon becomes clear that not everyone will survive...

I love history books that take a slightly twisted look at historical events, whether it be through a crime or a location that has not often been dealt with. When I saw the cover and blurb for The Hotel on Place Vendome, it immediately spoke to me: a World War II history that takes a swing at the well-known events from the very small prism of a hotel and its inhabitants, whether they be customers or staff. Mazzeo has done a great job of combining all of these elements into a well-written, intriguing narrative fiction.

Rarely diverting from the hotel that is at the centre of the book, The Hotel on Place Vendome brings together a huge cast of characters, some of them well known, some of them lost to history. Though cultural bias means that we automatically codify the characters into good (the Allies, the French resistance) and bad (the Nazis, collaborators), we also see very clearly that things are not so simple. Using each chapter to focus on a single person or handful of persons, Mazzeo manages to pull together all of the different strands into a single narrative by the end that casts an unflinching eye on the chaos and tragedy of the Second World War.

The Hotel on Place Vendome did exactly what I was expecting - providing a slightly slanted look at WW2 and more particularly the invasion and occupation of Paris. Written with all the verve that is required of narrative history, Mazzeo juggles a lot of different characters, providing just enough background information to situate them in the hotel before, during or just after the occupation before showing us how each and every one of them made sacrifices and/or bent their principles to survive the dark hours after Paris fell. Some of them come across better than others, but Mazzeo never judges the actions or beliefs of the people whose lives danced around the Hotel Ritz.

Mazzeo also does a great job of showing the truth behind the veil that the French as a people often place over the events of the occupation. Living in France, I can definitely see where this comes from - when talking, even today, to French people, you get the definite impression that what happened in France is taboo as a topic for conversation. Or that every single person living at the time was part of the resistance, although historical documents prove that only a small percentage actually ever took that stand. When detailing the horrific things that were done notably to women as soon as the Nazis were thrown out of the country, Mazzeo does not hold back from pointing out the hypocritical reactions of a large swath of the population, who days earlier had been working alongside the Nazis and now were attacking the women who - for some - had been forced into "horizontal collaboration". 
Although most of the book is taken up with the events of the occupation and the fall of Paris to the Allies (including some great stuff about Hemingway and his fellow journalists engaged in a competition to be the first to get back to the Hotel Ritz), Mazzeo also brings the story forward through the difficult 60s and 70s through to the purchase of the hotel by Al-Fayed and its small role in the death of Princess Diana.

Easy to read, with an interesting narrative structure that focuses each chapter on a different character while advancing the overall story, The Hotel on Place Vendome brings an interesting side-view to the well-known events of the Occupation of Paris by the Nazis. Bringing to life an eclectic cast of characters, Mazzeo keeps up the suspense through to the end. While quite a short book, it still packs in a lot of information, without ever making the reader feel overwhelmed. A fantastic narrative history that is well worth picking up. I gave The Hotel on Place Vendome 4 drunk Hemingways out of 5.

Buy It For Kindle
Author's Website

From the Blogosphere:
Book Reporter
Adventures With Words
Entomology of a Bookworm

From the Author's Mouth:
Video Interview over at Newstalk1010

jeudi 1 mai 2014

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.

Ever since her father died of a heart attack, Ruthie's mother has been overly protective of her and her sister. For an eighteen-year old girl, though, this protection quickly becomes stifling. When her mother vanishes one night, though, Ruthie is forced to take responsibility for herself and her younger sister. As she searches the farm house where they all live, though, she begins to realise that her mother's disappearance may be due to something much darker and more horrific than she could imagine. Something linked to an old diary that she finds hidden beneath the floorboards in her mother's room...

The Winter People was an Amazon pick of the month, but also a book that had come up on multiple blogs as a book to look out for. The hugely atmospheric cover is really eye-catching and the blurb seemed to indicate that it would be a thriller with a historical bent. Since that is definitely my kind of book, I picked it up and delved into it as soon as I could. What I found, though, was not at all what I had expected. It was better!

Set in the same house but in two different time periods, The Winter People tells the story of two women - Sara, a young mother who loses her daughter in tragic circumstances and whose story is told through a diary she left behind after her own death, and Ruthie, a young daughter whose mother has vanished, leaving her alone with her young sister. Both stories intertwine and eventually collide, bringing with them a number of other women whose lives have been affected in one way or another by Sara's story. Secrets are revealed on both sides of the temporal gap, building to a terrifying and troubling conclusion.

Although I was expecting a thriller that would combine the two time periods together, The Winter People actually has much more of a horror vibe. As I was reading the first few chapters of the modern section, Stephen King came to mind: a small town with a number of past secrets and crimes, strange disappearances revolving around mysterious part of the nearby forest, a young protagonist struggling with her family's rules. Where Stephen King - whose work I am a big fan of - would probably have developed this into a sprawling epic with a dozen different viewpoint characters, McMahon keeps this story very closely focused on three women - Sara, Ruthie and another woman called Helen, who has recently lost her husband. While a handful of chapters are told through the eyes of Sara's husband, it is this triumvirate of women who form the core of the novel.

The horror elements are very low key, hinted at in the historical parts through Sara's aunt and her stories of sleepers. Right from the start, we understand that these are some kind of zombie, though it is not until later in the novel that we discover how much of what Sara's Auntie has told her is true. Most of the historical section is devoted to the mystery of Sara's death - McMahon does a good job of playing with expectations as we hear the rumours in the modern part that have evolved out of what happened back at the beginning of the century. Not until the conclusion of the novel do we understand what really happened and all of its implications. These historical chapters are extremely well done and it is clear that McMahon has done her research.

In the modern part, Ruthie and Helen are very well drawn characters, though I found Helen's storyline to be especially touching as she tries to make sense of her husband's seemingly senseless death in a car accident. Fearing that he was having an affair, Helen abandons her entire life and moves to the town where Ruthie lives. The two storylines are entirely separate until much later in the novel, where we discover the unusual and unexpected links that bind them.

The book ends with a creepy-as-hell confrontation in a cave system in the woods, and while I won't give away any of the great surprises and twists, I will say that I found the ending for Helen to be particularly haunting! I promise that you will be thinking about the final couple of paragraphs of her last chapter for hours after closing the book.

The Winter People is one of a number of books I have read since the beginning of the year split over two time periods and with either a crime/thriller bent or a supernatural one. It is also one of the best. Suspenseful, marvelously well-written, with a keen eye for detail in the historical sections and a great trio of female characters at its core, the novel stayed with me in the days after finishing it. At its heart, The Winter People has a lot to say about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and beyond that the relationships between us all. It is the first book by Jennifer McMahon I have read, but will certainly not be the last! I gave The Winter People 5 skin-peeling sleepers out of 5.

Buy It For Kindle
Author's Website

From the Blogosphere:
Beth Fish Reads
Caffeinated Book Reviewer
The Lost Entwife

From the Author's Mouth:
Interview over at the Quirky Bookworm