Iain M Banks – Paul Kincaid

Iain Banks – with or without the ‘M’ initial to separate his sci-fi – is one of my favourite authors. Crow Road has the best opening line ever (“It was the day my grandmother exploded” – perhaps influencing my habit of collecting opening lines in fiction reviews here); Player of Games remains one of my favourite books of all time, and it was fascinating to get another viewpoint on it and the rest of the collection.

And here it is: a discussion of the man’s work, looking at themes and motifs in the novels, alongside briefer discussion about the political landscape and literary scene at times of writing, with the overall aim of showing the importance Banks had in the revitalisation of the sci-fi genre. Various interviews with Banks are used to add depth to the discussion, including a long reprint at the end.

Although Paul Kincaid mentions all of Banks’ books, the dissection-level is primarily aimed at the sci-fi – the ‘M’ – books. Given that these are sometimes multi-layered affairs, playing with structure and time lines, there were a few points of this book that had me going “Oh!” – and for that alone, I thank it. Perhaps not enough of those, as given the quantity of work to cover and fairly short length of this book, most are kept more to the overview plus a few random observations.

Also worth noting: this is a book for people who have already read Iain Banks’ work. There are a few of the later tomes that I am still saving/savouring (or, eking out so I don’t finish altogether!), and I did have to skip or at least skim the sections on those to avoid spoilers – obvious, given this is a book discussing those books, including the endings!

It was really great to read someone taking a body of work I love and looking at it with such care and attention. However, I’m not entirely sure about the tone: on the one hand, it’s very readable, but it tries to stay quasi-scholarly, whereas I think a bit more personal, heartfelt “I love these books!” (except for the ones he didn’t – no shying away from some being less than brilliant, if still always intriguing!) might have connected with the reader a little more. On the other, perhaps going a little more academic would have tightened the structure, maybe having topic sections instead of just a book-by-book approach with surrounding discussions feeling a little meandering.

Overall, this book is a great look at some fantastic works, and if nothing else has left me desperate to re-read most if not all of Iain Banks work – and quite possibly refer back to what was written here about it.

NetGalley eARC: 208 pages
First published: 2017
Series: Modern Masters of Science Fiction
Read from 18th June – 29th July 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

Darien – CF Iggulden

Darien cover

“He was a hunter, Elias Post, a good one.”

A hunter with an uncanny knack. A thief who knows where an ancient, impenetrable tomb lies. An old man teaching forbidden fighting skills to a group of street waifs. A young woman who knows magic is a fake, ‘cos it’s never ever worked when she’s been there. A young boy who can mimic anything he sees. And the city of Darien: ruled by 12 families, each with their own ancient artifact to protect the city – from invaders, and from themselves.

Conn Iggulden is well known as a writer of historical fiction, which comes with such rave reviews that I’ve been meaning to read some of his work for years. So, when NetGalley had a copy of his new foray into fantasy fiction, I jumped at the chance!

The best bit about this book for me was the sheer multitude of ideas, different forms of magic and magical skills. The downside was therefore how little time we get to spend with each of them, following at least three main plot threads as they inexorably pull towards an explosive meeting.

Thankfully, this is the first in a series – there is so much more to discover about Darien, its ruling families, the Empire of Salt, and of course all of these characters we’ve barely met in this first instalment. While the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of something so much bigger, and there are far more areas to be explored still. Colour me intrigued to see where the rest of the series might take us.

 

NetGalley eARC: 341 pages / 23 chapters
First published: July 2017
Series: Empire of Salt book 1
Read from 10th-20th July 2017

My rating: 8/10

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan

“Lydia heard the distant flap of paper wings as the first book fell from its shelf.”

Mystery set in a bookshop? Well, that’s me sold already! Small warning, though, that this is not a cosy mystery à la Elementary, She Read, but a fair bit darker. However, it’s firmly in the ‘mystery’ and not ‘thriller’ category, so nothing trying to make you jump – perfect!

We start off with the suicide of a regular patron – a ‘bookfrog’ (heh, it was meant to be reviewed here, wasn’t it!? 🙂 ) – of the titular bookstore. When Lydia finds the body, she also finds a 20-year-old photo of her tenth birthday party in his pocket. How? Why? And then another photo – a newspaper snap of her coming out of the bookstore alongside the stretcher – suddenly brings a rush of her long-avoided past to sweep her back up.

While most of the story follows the current interlacing mysteries, we get plenty of flashback chapters, taking us back to a time just after that first photo was taken, when Lydia lives through a huge trauma – no spoilers! – that is still impacting on her life today. Old friends, estranged parents – it seems like everyone is coming out of the woodwork, and Lydia will no longer be able to put her past behind her.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, including the slightly darker tone. Lydia is a very well-written character, with just the right amount of fear and courage, and believable responses to things that (have) happen(ed). The other characters are kept more secondary, but not 2-dimensional, keeping the focus on the plot’s twists and turns. Okay, so the final denouement perhaps relies on a few too many coincidences, but for the main they are woven very organically into the story and kept me guessing the whole way.

I think, with this book, I’ve come to realise that I really like the mystery genre. I’ve dabbled in the past with more ‘thrillers’, but am rarely in the mood for that kind of ‘Danger! Danger!’ approach. MatBIB kept me mentally intrigued, without having to reach into the disturbing territory. More like this, please!

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 27 chapters plus epilogue
First published: August 2017
Series: none
Read from 5th-9th July 2017

My rating: 8/10

A Gathering of Ravens – Scott Oden

“The storm howled out of the west like the terrible voice of God, shouting down the heretics who doubted the coming Apocalypse.”

The last kin of (a version of) Grendel – the monster in Beowulf – is on a mission to wreak vengeance on his brother’s killer. Along the way, he toys with a Norse warrior turned monk and his young apprentice, little knowing the impact one of them will have on both his quest and his unnaturally long life.

As the trail leads from Denmark to Ireland, the reader is treated to ancient myths meeting the rise of Christianity, in a tale of gods, kings and monsters, unlikely alliances, revenge and recreating yourself and the world.

I do wish I’d enjoyed this book more than I did. There’s a lot to be liked about it, including the mix of history and myth and the effort to cast orcs as part of both. However, I must be honest: I found the whole thing just a bit of a slog. Not bad by any means – and I did finish it, after all! – but there was something that just fell flat for me about the whole thing.

The characters, for instance, are either monstrous (well, on purpose!) and therefore unlikeable (mostly), or in my view just a bit… damp. I could not fathom the motivations of at least one main character, and therefore had very little empathy for dangers then encountered. As the story progresses, we switch from unpronounceable Norse names to a long list of old Irish, but as none of these characters are really there for any reason other than to further the plot, it just became an effort to remember who was who.

As for that plot, I found it a little too linear: creature seeks revenge. Other character is dragged along for the ride. Perhaps with something more involved, I would have been too. I did like the historic period – c.1000 AD – and the attempts to show the new ‘Nailed God’ worshippers ousting the old, more pagan ways, but there was either not enough explanation, or just too much reliance on ‘because: faith’, and either way I felt… meh.

Thankfully, I seem to be in the minority on this one, if Goodreads reviews are anything to go by. I could sense the love and passion that had gone into the writing, even before I read the afterword about ‘the story that wouldn’t let go’, and the author’s aims – which were fab to read. But, alas, this one just wasn’t for me.

NetGalley eARC: 400 pages
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 4th June – 5th July 2017

My rating: 5/10 – just didn’t grab me, ymmv

One of Us is Lying – Karen M McManus

“A sex tape. A pregnancy scare. Two cheating scandals. And that’s just this week’s update.”

Imagine if The Breakfast Club didn’t get the chance to spend detention coming to deep and meaningful revelations about themselves, because one of them dropped dead. The brain, the jock, the princess, the criminal – all four of them were about to have some shocking secret revealed by the dead boy, Simon, the outcast and creator of a nasty little gossip app. Which means all four had really good motives for murder…

The book is told from all four points of view, with the switch between characters clearly marked with the name and a timestamp. So, as we see inside all four heads, it means one of the narrators must be lying, as they relate the events after Simon’s death, including the police interviews, sensationalist journalists hounding them, and deepening relationships as the four become the ‘murder club’, shunned by classmates who can’t believe any of them are innocent.

I really liked the idea of this story, but felt that the different voices could have been a little more disparate, and the stories told with a little more tension. There’s something just a little too cosy about the tellings of watching movies and getting haircuts, in the midst of all the drama – yes, it’s normal life going on despite everything, but it did lessen some of the potential impact for me.

The mystery unfolds well enough, but the real ‘message’ of the story is more about the secrets and lies, and the impact these have on all five lives, not to mention those around them. Go in knowing that and not just looking for a straight murder mystery, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this book.

NetGalley eARC: 358 pages / 30 subdivided chapters plus epilogue
First published: June 2017
Series: none
Read from 29th May – 4th June 2017

My rating: 7/10

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

“One for sorrow: Mary Tudor, a magpie queen – dress black, face chill white, pearls hanging in her hair like teardrops – stands in the pose of a woman with child, her right palm flat across her swollen belly.”

Imagine a little corner of England, a village snuggled away from the hustle and bustle, where modern life has been kept at bay for centuries. It’s not that technology doesn’t exist here – in fact, thanks to the highly intelligent population and the university, much of the modern world’s tech is actually developed here – but the pace of life is still ‘ye olde worlde’, somehow. Not that the people necessarily know this, as outsiders are discouraged, and learning any history prior to 1800 is outright banned.

Why would such a place need to be hidden away? What’s so wrong with teaching history? When two newcomers – a history teacher and a new lord of the manor – arrive, both seem destined to wrap themselves in yet more mystery, as they struggle to figure out this strange, other-worldly place.

My first praise for Rotherweird is that it’s a wonderfully original book, quite unlike most of the fantasy stuff out there. There are layers upon layers of mystery, and no way to guess where most of it is going – lovely!

If I’m being picky, I did find there were perhaps a few too many point-of-view characters, which I felt got a little confusing at times. Everyone has such weird names, too. The author is also clearly a very intelligent chap (he’s a lawyer by day-trade), and there were points where I felt I was playing catch-up on the clues and reveals, which took away a little from the impact.

However, overall this is just a fantastically weird and immersive world, which was amazing amounts of fun to visit. There’s a strong dose of humour throughout the writing, and some excellent mystery-building to keep you reading ’til the end. I particularly liked the historical interludes between each section, slowly revealing a little more of the enigma.

Delighted to read interviews that suggest this is the first part of a trilogy – thoroughly looking forward to seeing what’s next for the odd population of Rotherweird!

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / ~60 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: Rotherweird trilogy, book 1
Read from 15th-29th May 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

“‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night,’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to Marie Antoinette. ‘That sounds like a riot’.”

Big Little Lies centres around three women in the Australian town of Pirriwee, each with a child starting kindergarten, each with their own troubles to contend with. Madeline has to come to terms with her ex husband moving back into the area to be in their teenage daughter’s life, while his new daughter is starting the same class as Madeline’s youngest. Celeste is half of the most glamorous couple in town, but she seems to struggle with her rambunctious twin boys despite a seemingly perfect, charmed life. And newcomer Jane is a single mother also hiding dark secrets, facing a new struggle when her son is accused of bullying on day one.

Interspersed throughout the book are interview snippets, comments from fellow parents as the town is caught up in a murder investigation, while the bulk of the book takes us back six months and explores the build up to that fateful night. So never mind who did it – we’re left on the edge of our seats wondering who died, and why.

Unusually for me, I actually ended up watching the truly excellent TV adaptation first, picking the book up a few episodes in. That probably worked in the book’s disadvantage, to be honest, as while I really enjoyed it, I could also see all the places where the adaptation took the tension and racked it up several notches. The character of Maddy, for instance, is given a much meatier storyline in the TV show, whereas in the book she’s not quite hitting the same drama levels as her two co-leads, Celeste and Jane. Would I have noticed if I’d read the book first? Hmm.

That said, I’d still fully recommend the viewing AND the read – in either order! There is a longer ‘epilogue’ in the book, which explores the motivations for the murder in a little more depth and feels a bit more satisfying. The TV show is a bit darker, too, which may or may not suit some people.

Definitely going to look out some more of Liane Moriarty’s work now!

NetGalley eARC: 465 pages / 84 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 17th-27th May 2017

My rating: 8/10