Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Review: 'An Exercise in Futility' by Steve Thomas

This is yet another self-published ebook by a debut author, the first part of a presumed trilogy, 'The Histories of Atreus'. This one was cheap, but not that cheap (£2+ for each part adds up). As always, such books are a leap into the unknown, but this one is better than most.

The first part of the book is rather ho-hum - a young man learning to be a wizard of sorts as his people are caught up in a war of annihilation. It turns out that his ability is as a necromancer, or raising the dead, and about half way through the book, this talent leads to an unexpected and far more interesting turn of events. This section felt rather odd, like turning a page to find yourself in the middle of a Terry Pratchett book, and I found it hard to take seriously. I also thought the logistics needed more thought. I don't want to give anything away here, but let's just say that it was extremely fortunate for Ezekiel that he had the Elf thinking things through and preparing for the consequences.

The book was quite short, noticeably shorter than the average fantasy, and although it seems churlish to complain about that (most fantasies are way too long), I do feel the story would have benefitted from a slower pace, and a little more depth, both to the characters and to the situations they found themselves in. Charity, Meunig and perhaps Ruth are among those who needed to have their personalities drawn out in greater detail. Charity's decision to leave the safety of the mountains and return to the plains, for example, seemed rather abrupt, and her motivation wasn't as clear as it might have been. This brevity led to a rather flat writing style - 'Ezekiel decided ...' or 'he understood that...' - with very little emotion. This made it hard to engage with the characters, even when they were in terrible danger or suffering physically or mentally. But on the whole, the characters were interesting, with some depth, and all of them felt believable (I particularly liked the Elf). My only reservation was Charity - she felt like the compulsory love interest, with no other real purpose, and her sections seemed rather dull to me.

The story itself is excellent, moving along at a nice steady pace, with some neat twists and turns - nothing wildly original, but none the worse for that. The author makes the point that people are much the same, whichever side of the war they may be on, and there is good and bad on both sides. The magic system is interesting and well thought out, and the created world is believable (what little we saw of it), although the transition from nomadic to settled way of life is perhaps rather too simplistic. Overall, I found this an enjoyable, thought-provoking read, with more substance than many fantasies, and only marred by the emotionless tone of the writing. A good 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4. [First written August 2011]

Review: 'The Cricket' by Simon Habegger

This is a self-published ebook by a debut author. I have to say, it is rather a strange book, and I'm not at all sure what to make of it. The basic premise is that some kind of immortal, Corus (we never quite find out exactly what he is) enters the mortal world through sheer boredom, where he is rescued from apparent drowning by Hana. The background is some type of near future post apocalypse, post war setting, where so-called civilisation is retreating (for some reason, this is not very clear), leaving numbers of people living and scavenging on the margins.

The first half of the book is rather charming, focusing on their simple life beside the ocean. Corus is an innocent at large, and Hana protects and shelters him. But about half way through, they take off to find Hana's father, and later her brother, and here the tone of the book changes. As they move into the cities, we discover something (although not enough for me) of what has gone wrong with civilisation, and the light touch of the earlier writing becomes a little heavy-handed. So people are much the same, equally cruel and evil, throughout the ages - we get it. And the political grandstanding - the Gulf War, the oil dependence, the way war changes people, the religious undertone - is too dominant.

This is not a story grounded in the real world, it's mythological after all, but the obvious connections to the present day grate with the feyness of Corus, and the simple lifestyle Hana wraps around him. When they collect driftwood for the fire or Corus makes his hammock, the story is utterly absorbing. When they go to the library or soup kitchen or a party, it feels a little odd but I can go with the flow. But the trip to the Heart to rescue the brother just rocks me out of any suspension of disbelief. Suddenly all these alienated, barely surviving outsiders can rustle up fake IDs and money? Really? People go as tourists to this place? Really? And despite all the warnings of how difficult it is to leave, we skip blithely over that part.

I find it difficult to comment sensibly on this section of the book. With most fantasy, I have some idea what the author is trying to achieve, and even when there's an obvious 'point', it's possible to read simply for the story. But I found that impossible here. I wasn't bothered by the strange visions and experiences that Corus and Hana suffered, and felt no need to have these explained, either as science or magic. This is fantasy, after all, and if they're intended to be metaphorical or allegorical (or something), that's fine, it can whizz over my head all it likes. But the Heart is portrayed as a real place, populated with real people suffering from real problems, protected by armed guards, which gives it a deeply authentic menacing feel, which some of the other characters display very well. On the other hand, the bucolic journey with the eccentric doctor is almost whimsical. Then there's the seam of religion running through the whole book, which becomes dominant here. I have no idea if this is all deeply clever, and I just didn't get it, but it really didn't work for me. Fortunately, the book eventually returns to the initial simplicity and charm. The ending is totally predictable (even I saw it coming) but enjoyable, nevertheless.

Overall, this is a strong attempt at something out of the ordinary, which I applaud, but I do have reservations, namely: the unsubtle commentary on modern issues, which is intrusive; the heavy religious theme, which I didn't quite see the point of; and finally, the rather stylised, fey tone of dialogue, which works brilliantly for Corus, but is odd in the other, supposedly modern, characters. I found this a frustrating book - parts of it are hauntingly beautiful and well-written, and Corus is a wonderful character, but some parts simply don't work for me. On the grounds that this is a failure of my imagination, rather than the author's, I've rated this as a good 3 star effort. [First written August 2011]

Review: 'Catch Your Death' by Louise Voss and Mark Edwards

This was a cheap ebook, and, as always, it's a bit of a gamble. Some are brilliant, some are awful, this was just a bit meh. There is a cracking story in here somewhere, but the authors have buried it under a positive mountain of cardboard cutout characters and unbelievable plot contrivances. The premise of mysterious goings-on at a research facility, ostensibly working on the common cold but actually up to something far more devious, is an intriguing one, and the plot rattles along at a good pace. But somehow, it never quite works.

The main characters are completely flat. Kate is meant to be a highly intelligent scientist but, frankly, she comes across as pretty stupid, not to say flighty. Paul is entirely nothingy. The bad guys are over-the-top cartoon characters. The minor characters are one-dimensional. The technique of allowing pretty much everyone to have a shot at being a point of view character, which should give them greater depth, actually manages to make them less interesting. In Sampson's case, seeing exactly what is going on in his head makes him less scary - Hitchcock understood that very well - and it removes a great deal of the tension by revealing pretty much everything that's going on. Even so, there's still pages of detailed explanation necessary at the climax of the book.

Vernon is a classic example of a missed opportunity. The authors could have made him a much more sympathetic character - Kate must have seen something in him at one time, after all, and he's described as being intelligent - but no, instead he's a one-dimensional bad-tempered misogynist whose only function is to be a mini bad guy early on and to create the dramatic climax by hiding away with Jack (and miraculously turn into a nice guy for the happy ending - bleah).

As far as the plot goes, there are a few moments of cleverness - the business with swapping the two boys is nicely done - but there are too many coincidences and contrivances all the way through. The car chase sequence is quite ridiculous. A stag? Oh please... And what was the point of the shotgun in the boot? There were moments, too, when I was distracted by some of the historical details. Would Paul really have been able to use a PIN and card to get £1000 from a cash machine in 1989, for instance?

There was one other aspect that grated on me, and that was the crude sexual descriptions. Sampson's fantasies I could live with (he's barking, after all), but Kate's panting lust felt all wrong, somehow. I couldn't quite see what the authors were aiming for. Sexual tension is a great driver, but that doesn't mean telling us every physiological response in Kate's body. It's not romantic or erotic, and frankly distracts from the thriller part of the story. It would have been far more effective and subtle to keep Kate and Paul's relationship in a more enigmatic state.
But overall, the story is moderately readable, with a nicely dramatic (if overdone) climax, and if you can overlook the flaws it's quite a page-turner. I'm feeling generous, so I've given it 3 stars for effort. [First written August 2011]

Review: 'Wycliffe And The Guilt-Edged Alibi' by W J Burley

You always know what you're going to get with a Wycliffe book. There's a murder, a cast of suspects with motives and various secrets to be uncovered, and a dogged detective painstakingly putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. It's not quite as cosy as an Agatha Christie, but it's nowhere near as blood-soaked or hard-edged as many police procedurals. There are no psychotic serial killers here, just a family with a complex history. So, not a challenging read, then, but nevertheless this is a good, solid story with believable characters and a plot that builds nicely and resolves itself without any jaw-dropping contrivances. Three stars. [First written August 2011]

Review: 'Three Men In A Boat' by Jerome K Jerome

This has been one of my comfort reads ever since I was a child - one of those books that always makes me laugh and cheers me up. It's the story of three friends (and their dog) taking a boating trip up the River Thames in the late Victorian (or maybe Edwardian, not sure) era, describing their misadventures along the way and a sprinkling of other amusing anecdotes. The humour still holds up, and it's also an interesting snapshot of the times, a way of life that was ordinary and even banal to the participants, but which is endlessly fascinating from a distance of more than a century. It's rather like visiting a distant colony where the language and customs are tantalisingly familiar, yet bizarrely alien at the same time. If that makes any sense.

 If the book stuck to the humorous anecdotes, it would be fine, but sadly the author occasionally feels the need to interject passages of purple prose musing on historical events and other philosophical ramblings. Sometimes he punctures his own pomposity by weaving these passages into the story (he is so engrossed in his own deep thoughts that he steers the boat into the bank, for instance), but all too often they are simply uninteresting waffle which drift on for pages. They are a small part of the book (although they feature more heavily in his other writings, which makes them much less readable), but still they drag it down to 3 stars. [First written August 2011]

Review: 'Remix' by Lexi Revellian

You never quite know what you will get when you buy a cheap ebook - it could be anything from a total turd to an unexpected gem. This is definitely in the gem category. It's probably best categorised as a murder mystery romance, where the mystery is of the bumbling amateur sleuth variety, and the romance is a gentle, realistic affair rather than chiselled cheekbones and lust on page 3 and steamy sex by the end of the second chapter.

The plot burbles along nicely, without too many credulity-stretching contrivances. It's a real page-turner, which just gets better and better as the pace hots up, and with a nicely believable ending. The author's writing style is perfect for the story, throwing out humour, intriguing developments and tension in all the right places. But it's the characters which really make it. They are all eccentric enough to be interesting, yet utterly believable in their behaviour and motives. And the author resists the temptation to tie up all their stories with neat little bows at the end. Highly recommended. Four stars. [First written August 2011]