Tuesday 21 May 2013

Three quick reviews

Somehow or other I've managed to be three books behind again, so this is another of my 'three quick review' posts. Although this is me, so *quick* is of course a relative term...

First up, Postcard Killers By James Patterson and Liza Marklund.

Two psychotic killers are on a tour of Europe, killing attractive young couples, often newly-weds. Jacob Kanon is the father of one of the victims, Kimmy, killed in Rome. He is also an NYPD police detective and has been following their trail around various cities, but never quite catching them. They arrive in Stockholm and journalist, Dessie Larsson, becomes involved in the latest murder case having been sent a postcard by the killers. She and Kanon make an uneasy alliance as they investigate the murders and a game of cat and mouse ensues as they try to outwit these brutal killers.

I think this may be the first book I've read by James Patterson. Thus, it's hard for me to say whether I like him as an author because of course I don't know how much influence his Swedish co-author, Liza Marklund, had on the writing. I did find the style a little simplistic for my taste, I will say that. Having said that the plot sucked me right in, and the simple writing style doesn't half make the book a real roller-coaster of a read. I don't think this is the sort of book you read for good characterisation or deep thinking but as a quick, fun read it's fine and to be honest, I really quite enjoyed it, especially the Swedish element. I've always wanted to visit Stockholm and this book made me want to go even more.

Next, Gunpowder Plot by Carola Dunn.

Daisy is once again on one of her forays to a big country house. This time it's to Edge Manor in the Cotswolds and heavily pregnant Daisy is there to write an article on the impressive firework display they hold every year. As always there is tension in the family, the Tyndalls, and she soon finds herself embroiled in their problems... Daisy being the sort of person people talk to. It's not long before a dead body is discovered, two in fact... the owner of the house and head of the family, Sir Harold Tyndall, and one other. The circumstances are very odd and no-one can make head or tale of how this has happened and why. Enter Daisy's husband, DCI Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard. Between the two of them, and Alec's junior officers, the wonderul Sergeant Tom Tring and DC Ernie Piper, he of the ever sharpened pencils, they eventually manage to sort the mess out.

I don't think there's been a bad instalment of these terrific Daisy Dalrymple books. They're always a fun read but never all that easy to guess whodunnit. I had it down to two and it was one of them but you can never be quite sure. This is book 15 as a matter of fact and Daisy is 6 months pregnant which is a nice development. Interesting to read a realistic account of what it feels like, and how pregnant women were perceived back then. These books are always a treat and I'm glad to still have 5 left to read with a new one out in November.

Lastly, my 7th. book for Carl's Once Upon a Time VII fantasy reading challenge and it's The Various by Steve Augarde.

Twelve year old Midge has been sent to Somerset to spend several weeks with her Uncle Brian. Her mother, a violinist with an orchestra, is off on tour and can't take Midge with her. Midge is resentful that she often comes second to her mother's job, but in actual fact has no problem with spending the summer holidays in such a beautiful area. Uncle Brian is an easy guardian and Midge finds she has the freedom to explore the countryside. On one expedition, to her shock and surprise, she finds an injured creature in an old barn, a creature that shouldn't exist - a miniature white horse, with wings. Midge nurses the magical creature, known as Pegs, back to health and returns him to the Royal Wood from whence he came. Here Midge is in for further shocks. Pegs is just one magical being amongst many. There are tribes of tiny fairy people here, wisps, dangerous flying hunters, farmers, and one tribe that lives underground. Midge has something to tell them. Her uncle is going to sell the land the wood is part of and it will probably be developed. The fairies will lose their home and must move. The tribes don't wish to hear this and most don't believe her anyway. They send her away but reality must be faced and Midge is the one human they know who might be able to help them. Midge knows this too, but there is a mystery to be solved here as well. Who is the mysterious Victorian girl whose photo is on the wall in the farmhouse? Did she also know about the fairies in the wood? Is *she* the key to solving the serious problem of where the tribes will go?

Well, this story is set in an area I know fairly well - that of the Somerset levels and the hills around about - because it's very close to where I live. The author has the area down to a tee; it's beautifully described and the atmosphere of a hot summer is almost tangible. It's worth reading for that alone, in my opinion. Aside from that though this is a story very well told indeed. The fairies in this book are not your cutesie Disney type fairies. They're real people with all kinds of normal traits, nastiness, jealousy, blood-lust, but also kindness and imagination. The children (Midge has two cousins who appear later in the book) are also your average 21st. century kids, not saints but not bad kids either. Although this *is* a fairy story it actually felt like something that could easily happen. I liked it an awful lot. It's book one in a trilogy in fact, the next book being called Celandine, and I've already reserved it from the library.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Unseen Academicals

I'm waaaaay behind on reviews, three books in fact. No way am I going to be able to do long reviews of all of those so what's going to happen is that I'll talk a little about Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett and give a brief mention of the other two.

Nutt is a candle dribbler, one of the lowest of the low employed in the Unseen University in Ankh Morpork on the Discworld. But he has friends, Trev, a bit of a wide-boy but with a good heart, and Glenda who runs the night kitchen in the university. Employed under Glenda, but also a neighbour and best friend is Juliet. Juliet sets male hearts afluttering wherever she goes because she is, quite frankly, stunningly beautiful... but... thick as two short planks. She needs someone like Glenda, quite ordinary and rather sizeable, to keep an eye out for her, just as Trev does for Nutt.

People look at Nutt and feel uneasy. Their subconscious knows what he is but won't recognise the fact. Possibly he's a goblin? Or possibly not. He looks stupid but is in fact erudite, well read, incredibly practical and very sensible. But still he makes them feel uneasy.

Various teams in the city have been playing foot-the-ball for years. There are no rules and games are chaotic and violent. Vetinari, the Patrician, decides it's time for all that to change. New rules will be formulated and a big match will be held between a team from the Unseen University... it takes Glenda to point out that if they put two huge Us on their shirts it'll look like the men have two big boobs... and another.

The job of training the team is given to Professor Ponder Stibbons who is already holding down half a dozen jobs so he delegates the position... to Nutt. Everyome wants to be in the team but can they play? Not really. Nutt has his work cut out but is more than up the job. More difficult is dealing with people's prejudices and the attitudes of the street gangs. Plus, he has to help Trev with his mission of romancing Juliet. Which is more difficult than it sounds because Juliet is about to be discovered...

Well... I've been avoiding this book for several years. Why? Because I knew it was about football. I am the least likely person to want to read anything whatsoever that involves football. I loathe it, quite frankly, to really quite an obsessive extent. And then I suddenly changed my mind... I've no idea why... and borrowed it from my daughter to read for the Once Upon a Time reading challenge. I had a sudden feeling about it, hard to explain, but it turns out I was right.

As always with Terry Pratchett's books, not all is as it seems. Yes, this is a book about football (shudder). The rules - a scene where the off-side rule is explained is particularly funny and as always makes no sense to me whatsoever - the players, the motivations of those involved with the game, the fans... particularly the fans. How can football fans be such a varied bunch? It's a mystery to me and always has been. I've never seen the attraction but it appeals to all sorts, so there you go. So yes, a book about football and those who love it. But of course it has to be a lot more than that. In reality it's about 30% footie, 70% other stuff. Other stuff such as racial prejudice, and the prejudice that exists about where you were born and brought up. Not just from people born outside your class or area but from within it too - how your people will try to keep you in your place even if it's clear you belong somewhere else because you're clever or have a talent, or are just ambitious and want a better life for yourself.

But best of all, for me, and the reason the book kept me rivetted to the end were the characters. I absolutely loved Nutt, his cleverness was genius, not just the character but in the writing of the character. All his philosophising was hilarious and you could picture people's eyes glazing over as they listened. I loved Glenda, identified very strongly with her to be honest, her size, her love of cooking, her outlook on life. As always there was a strong supporting cast... the wizards at the university, Vetinari (a big favourite with me), Sam Vimes popped up and the chap from The Truth, so many of our favourite Discworld characters were there, including the obligatory scene with DEATH. Terry handles all it brilliantly, making the whole thing fun and thoroughly entertaining.

It all goes to show how you should not be put off by what you think you know about a book. Often it turns out to be very different from what you imagine. I should have known that Terry Pratchett never writes bad books. And here's the embarrassing thing. From being a book I avoided like the plague, Unseen Academicals has turned out to be one of my absolute favourite Discworld books, along with Monstrous Regiment and all of the Sam Vimes books.

The other two books that I've not reviewed are Casting Spells by Barbara Bretton and Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch.

Casting Spells was huge fun, combining as it did knitting, crime and fantasy. It's set in a village in Vermont where everyone is a magical being. They have no crime there so no need of a police presence, until one day... a murder is committed. The village is relying on Chloe Hobbs, who owns the local knitting shop, to keep them safe via an old spell. But she is not magical, her father being human, and runs into trouble when the spell protecting the village begins to unravel. The state sends a policeman, Luke McKenzie to investigate the murder. The plot is pretty obvious and all the better for that as this is pure comfort reading and I liked it very much indeed - book one in a series I believe.

Whispers Under Ground is book three in Ben Aaronovitich's 'Rivers of London' series. This one is, as the title suggests, an underground tale of things living in the sewers and how the new magical policeman, Peter Grant, has to deal with the problem. I'm not going into very much detail as spoilers would be involved and that would be a shame. It was a truly excellent yarn, probably the best of the three so far, in my opinion and they were all good. Looking forward to book four, Broken Homes, which is out next month.

So that's it. Three more books for Carl's Once Upon a Time VII challenge, which brings my total to six now. Very happy with that and I will doubtless read a couple more before the closing date of the 21st. June.

Friday 3 May 2013

Moon Over Soho

Carl's Once Upon a Time VII challenge is a week or two short of halfway through now, and I've just finished my third book. It's not brilliant progress but good enough and I'm quite a happy bunny - three out of five is not bad at all. There are other things I want to read so mixing those up with some good fantasy works for me.

Anyway, my book three is Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch.

Detective Constable Peter Grant is the first new wizard apprentice in many years. His boss, Thomas Nightingale, wizard, and also a police detective, was injured in the events of the first book and is still recovering. As is Peter's friend and colleague, Lesley, only her injuries were much worse than Nightingale's in that her face was almost destroyed.

Peter is on the way back from visiting Lesley when he recieves a call from Dr. Walid to come to the hospital and examine a body. Cyrus Wilkinson was a jazz player, as was Peter's father, and Walid suspects suspects that there is something magical and therefore wrong about his death. It doesn't take Peter long to sense a vestiga, an imprint that magic leaves on physical objects, and then he hears a saxophone solo of an old 1930s song coming from the body. It's Body and Soul, a jazz classic and well known to Peter, a bit of a jazz expert. It's not his kind of music but he knows a lot about it having been force-fed it since childhood by his jazz playing father.

The problem is, has someone murdered Cyrus *with* magic or was Cyrus a magic practitioner who accidently killed himself? Peter is also called to join another investigation whereby men are being killed in rather explicit sexual situations. Peter wonders if there might be some connection between the two cases. It's not long before two more jazz players are killed in mysterious circumstances and Peter has to call on his father for help. He has also not been able to avoid getting involved with Cyrus Wilkinson's girlfriend, Simone. He knows he shouldn't be doing it but for some reason is unable to resist. It seems there are monsters stalking Soho and Peter is about to be very deeply involved in some very dubious goings on indeed and stretched to the very limit of his capabilities.

Well, this is only my second book in Ben Aaronovitch's 'Rivers of London' series, but it felt like returning to an old friend. I'm not sure why. I don't feel any particular connection to his hero, Peter Grant, who is young and, to be honest, a trifle shallow. But that's easily made up for by other things. Firstly, the London setting. The author clearly knows the city very well indeed; I don't, but know it well enough to be able to really enjoy the bits I do recognise. It's fun following Peter's footsteps and thinking, 'Ah yes, I can picture that road or that bridge or that landmark'. It greatly adds to the enjoyment.

The humour is also a big plus, the author is a talented comedic writer - Terry Pratchett springs to mind - and I found myself laughing quite a lot. It's great that the book doesn't take itself at all seriously... there's a scene where Peter thinks Nightingale is going to give him a hug but they both remember, just in time, that they're English... small scenarios like this are so perfect and underline the very Englishness of these books. They're full of references to English culture too and I like that a lot.

Aside from this there is a good imagination at work here. I like the introduction of magical beings, some of them rather bizarre, others quite sinister. The sinister aspect seemed to come to the fore towards the end of the book and I wondered if this is the direction in which the books are heading. I hope so, though I still want them to make me laugh of course.

The theme of this book is jazz, something that really doesn't interest me much, but it didn't matter in the slightest. I wanted to continue reading regardless of how little I knew about that type of music and, for me, that's the mark of a good author, if he or she can make you read about something that might normally turn you right off.

I'm going to add just one little warning. These books are not for children or even really young adults. Older teens yes, fine, but not younger ones. There are scenes of a sexual nature, as they say on the TV, nothing offensive if you're an adult, but I wouldn't give them to a child to read.

I'm truly looking forward to the next book in the series, Whispers Underground. I have it on my library pile and will be reading it later in the month for this same challenge.