Fiction

Death of Kings – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Death of Kings

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2012

Genre – Historical Fiction

There isn’t much need for preamble to this review – I pressed straight on with this book after finishing The Burning Land. Feeling on a bit of a roll after getting caught up on the action in book 5 of The Saxon Stories I thought I would strike while the iron was hot.

As you might guess from the title this is the book which sees the death of King Alfred, a moment which he and Uhtred have believed would be a catalyst for action by the factions looking to secure the throne for themselves.  However, the book is mostly about more political shenanigans, partly as the new King needs to find his feet and figure out which of his many advisors he should trust. The rise of Christianity has been a theme in the series but it feels as if this book may have seen the tipping point in its importance.

Uhtred is frustrated by King Edward’s reluctance to attack the Danes and puzzled by the Danes lack of attack. The lack of action was a bit frustrating for me as a reader too. There are some small skirmishes but it felt like a lot less happened in this book than in its predecessor. The main action is saved until the very end of the book in what is a great set piece with a real feeling of tension.

Not as fast-paced as its predecessor and pleasingly (for me) there was less attention to the memoir aspect of the story – less foreshadowing of future events by Uhtred.

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The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

Title – The Burning Land

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2009

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s for a long time (although oddly not the Sharpe series) but have fallen well and truly behind. He was writing (with the exception of Sharpe) standalones or trilogies but now some of the other series I was reading seem to be without end.

I bought this book in hardback when it was published so it’s been sitting around for a while but the longer I’ve left it the more difficult it’s been to pick it up. It’s bad enough coming back to an action series when it’s been a year between books but the longer I left it the more daunting it seemed. I should have remembered that I would be swept up in the action!

The Burning Land is the fifth historical novel in The Saxon Stories which follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his quest to return to his ancestral home. Told in the first person and narrated as a memoir this book is set around 892 and the opening starts quite slowly as, acting on Alfred’s behalf, Uhtred is in Kent to pay off a Dane to get him to leave. The action ramps up quite quickly as he then turns his hand to finding a way to remove Jarl Harald Bloodhair from Wessex. I was surprised to realise, and wonder if it’s always been the case, that the battles are as much about Uhtred’s ingenuity as they are about brute force. The story is what you expect from Cornwell – action-packed, fast-paced, spanning the length and breadth of the country and so full of detail that you can almost see, hear and smell the place for yourself.

There is one thing which I really dislike about Cornwell’s writing and this is something I should complain about less as I get further behind but it’s the fact that as a ‘memoir’ you know that the narrator survives to tell the tale. So while there may be some tension about how events will unfold you can be pretty certain that the main character isn’t going to perish in the middle of a shield wall. But not content with this Cornwell drops in remarks like “never to see xyz again” or “that was a decision I would regret” which tells me more than I want to know. I appreciate this supports the memoir style but it’s not an aspect I like.

Anyway my worries about picking the series up after so long were unfounded, either there’s an explanation of who people are and what their connection is or it doesn’t really matter, the action swept me along and I’ve even picked up book 6 to read already.

Score – 4/5

Underground Airlines – Ben H Winters

Title – Underground Airlines

Author – Ben H Winters

Published – 2016

Genre – Alternative History

I know that there are a lot of bloggers who believe that if you don’t enjoy a book you should just keep it to yourself and only share positive reviews. I’m not one of them. If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I am a huge fan of ‘The Last Policeman‘ trilogy by Ben H Winters so I was thrilled when I heard he had a new book being published and even treated myself to a signed, limited edition copy, but perhaps, for once, I should have waited to find out more about the book because I’ve come across alternative histories before that I’ve thought sounded interesting but were disappointing in their execution.

What if slavery had never been abolished? The story is set in the present time but in an America where slavery still exists, shaped differently as a result of the Civil War. The protagonist is ‘Victor’, a man who works undercover to track down escaped slaves, thwarting the efforts of the “underground airlines” who try to help these unfortunates escape to freedom. The rub here is that Victor is himself black (‘moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41’) and this isn’t a career he is pursuing of his own fee will.

Sent to Indianapolis to pursue ‘Jackdaw’, Victor is unsettled by a number of anomalies in the case he is being asked to investigate and equally disturbed by his unanticipated involvement with a young mother and her son. His undercover work and investigations contribute the thriller element to the book as the truth about Jackdaw and his escape point to larger forces at work.

I found the book incredibly slow, there was a lot of internal dialogue from Victor and a lack of pace. I also didn’t find Victor a particularly gripping character, within the story he is something of a chameleon and perhaps that didn’t help me to engage with him. If you compare him to Hank from The Last Policeman he was (literally) worlds apart. I appreciate that the subject is an incredibly serious one, so a lack of any sort of levity might be expected, but while the end of the world wasn’t exactly a laughing matter there was still humour to be found.

I appreciate that the issue is thorught-provoking but instead of raising deep questions about race and the risks of ignoring where we’ve come from and what we’ve learned, my thoughts were on a much more prosaic level about the practicalities of the world Winters had created. The book made reference to real historical characters (from world leaders to musicians) but that distracted me by wanting to know more of the ‘how did that happen?’ or ‘what about so-and-so?’.

Perhaps my disappointment in the book has as much to do with this being outside my usual genre as anything else. I’m not sure if that means I should read more widely so my expectations are better managed or stick more narrowly to what I know I like (and I have romance book to review that makes me think the latter may be the best option). Perhaps the subject matter, especially at the present time, feels too uncomfortable and the lessons too worthy to make it enjoyable fiction?

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The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

Title – The Feed

Author – Nick Clark Windo

Published – Jan 2018

Genre – Fiction

This is another debut that I picked up at the Headline ‘New Voices 2018’ event I attended in January. I have to say that the description of the book didn’t do it justice – it packs a whole lot in and it’s difficult to know where to start with a review. The book is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, speculative, thriller with a range of themes from technology to identity.

We’re introduced to a future where technology has been extrapolated to a believable conclusion. The Feed is social media to the max – it’s in your head and it goes beyond sharing news and information but it’s also thoughts and memories. For most people it’s impossible to be without it – it’s the way everyone communicates and it’s a hundred times more addictive than social media is now.

And then a cataclysmic event ends The Feed. Six years or so on and Kate and her husband Tom are about to celebrate the birthday of Bea, their daughter. The world has changed and we’re now in territory familiar to readers of Station Eleven or viewers of The Walking Dead. Without The Feed civilisation has collapsed – no-one knew how to do anything without it, all the knowledge was stored digitally, they don’t know how to cook a meal or grow crops.  Some people were so addicted to The Feed that its loss lead to their death – corpses littering the towns and cities and the infrastructure of society has failed.

So that’s the setting and a story of survival could have been enough – but there are two more key aspects to the book. The first is that you have to have someone watch you sleep as you could be ‘Taken’ and if this does happen you need your watcher to act. But what does being Taken mean, what is it that happens to people…? And the other driver for the story is the loss of Bea – she goes missing and Tom and Kate have to embark on a search for her, leaving the safe haven they’ve established. As the story unfolds and Tom and Kate search for Bea the gaps are filled in and the reader learns more about what caused The Feed to collapse.

But there is even more to the book than this and I don’t want to give too much away. The main crux of the story seems to be a warning of the dangers to relying too much on technology, the importance of family and the lengths people will go to to survive.

There is a lot going on which means this isn’t necessarily an easy read. It’s definitely thought provoking and disturbing and it kept me guessing. As I said it’s not a genre I often read so my perception of the book will no doubt be different to those who read more sci-fi / dystopian fiction than I do. Although quite dark, without some of the lighter moments of Station Eleven, I’m not sure that it really delivered on horror or tension, I think there was room to push both a little further than they went. I didn’t find Kate or Tom to be particularly likeable, they have flaws which outweigh the more positive aspects of their characters but I don’t think that necessarily detracted from the book. It’s not a story I’ll forget in a hurry!

If you need any encouragement to put your phone down and step away from social media then The Feed should do the job! Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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In Her Wake – Amanda Jennings

Title – In Her Wake

Author – Amanda Jennings

Published – 2016

Genre – Fiction

I first came across Amanda Jennings at Crimefest a few years ago just before she announced a new deal with (then fledgling) publisher Orenda books. I duly received a review copy of In Her Wake and it has sat on my TBR for well over a year. It was one of those books that I was put off for two reasons – one was that it wasn’t an obviously ‘crime fiction’ book and the second was the overwhelming amount of positive reviews I saw the book receiving. It might seem odd to delay reading a book because of the second point but if a book is getting such a lot of coverage then my blog post won’t add anything to what’s already been said and the other reason is that often books with such overwhelming praise can be disappointing when your expectations have been raised.

We all imagined when were young that we were adopted or somehow came to be living with wrong family, what we picture as our ‘real’ family is a sort of idyll of family life.  When both Bella’s parents die in quick succession she discovers that there is some truth to this feeling – her parents have deceived her for years and her seemingly perfect life is torn apart. Bella embarks on a journey (to Cornwall) to find out more about her real identity in what becomes a journey of self-discovery. What Bella finds isn’t what any young girl would dream up as their ‘real’ family. The aspects of a more female-centric book are balanced by the events that lead to Bella’s new life and the truth behind the events adds a more thrilling aspect as they are uncovered during the course of the book.

The author definitely  has an eye for character, it was easy to empathise with Bella and the writing made the behaviour of other characters credible. Interestingly the one person whose point of view the reader never gets to understand is the person Bella thought of as her mother, the driving force behind the events in the book. As Bella learns more about her childhood she can see how it’s shaped her life and the decisions she’s made, whether for better or worse.

For me, and it’s not the first time I’ve criticised this aspect of a book, I wasn’t too keen on the more supernatural elements. Just me, just not a fan. But that aside this was a compelling book that mixed a character-driven story with a mystery. It was beautifully written and captured the emotional rollercoaster of Bella’s grief and discovery as she reevaluates everything she thought she knew.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell

Title – The House We Grew Up In

Author – Lisa Jewell

Published – 2014

Genre – Fiction

I’m still trying to clear a  backlog of book reviews that I should have written / published so this will be a shorter than normal review.

As this isn’t strictly crime fiction I might never have picked it up but it was in a goody bag I got from … somewhere which I opened on the train home and was gripped. Although billed as ‘fiction’ the heart of the story is a family secret and a tragedy that has shaped the lives of the Birds so it certainly shared some characteristics with crime fiction, particularly the desire for the reader to figure out what had taken place before the author revealed it.

The opening makes the book feel as if it will be a twee domestic drama; a mother and daughter returning to the mother’s childhood home to clear the house and discovering that her mother had developed into an extreme hoarder. While this is set in the present day there are two other threads to the story which are told in parallel – the first is an exchange of correspondence between the late Lorelei Bird and a man that she’s met through the internet. This has quite a poignant quality to it as it’s one sided, a bit like an Alan Bennett ‘Talking Head’ but it’s through these emails that we learn about how Lorelei sees her family. The second thread starts back in 1981 and tells the story of the Bird family through their annual Easter Egg hunt and gives the reader the opportunity to follow the family as it slowly disintegrates.

It soon becomes clear that in all times and all ways this family is pretty dysfunctional, it paints a dark picture of family life and the impact of unrecognised or untreated mental health issues. The fallout affects the different members of the family in different ways – I thought the characters were well written and even though I didn’t particularly like Lorelei I was still interested in her. The pressing reason for reading on, however, was the need to discover what the pivotal event was that was at the heart of the story.

If there was something that I wasn’t happy about it was actually the nature of the secret. When you’ve built a whole book around something shocking that has taken place you need it to really shock the reader, perhaps I read too much crime fiction where ‘anything goes’ but I did feel a little underwhelmed by the actual event.

Not a book I might normally choose for myself but nevertheless an enjoyable read.

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Rescue – Anita Shreve

51COB0351LLTitle – Rescue

Author – Anita Shreve

Published – 2010

Genre – Fiction

I have to confess to being a huge fan of Anita Shreve. I enjoy her prose and her (usually) female-centric novels which have relationships – often under stress – at their core. In Rescue the main character is a chap – paramedic Peter Webster. Now in his forties bringing up his teenage daughter alone, the story tells how as a rookie he begins an affair with Sheila, a young woman that he treats at the scene of an accident. Webster is a small town guy and Sheila is more worldly-wise – things are never going to run smoothly.

I’ll stop describing the plot there – the blurb on the book gives a lot more away but not having read it (I never read the blurb before the book) I enjoyed the story as it unfolded.

The two characters start a relationship without really knowing each other and they have their own issues and obsessions. In part the story deals with obsession and addiction but it’s also about the importance of family and what sacrifices parents are prepared to make.

I’m impartial enough to say that this probably isn’t Shreve’s best book, the characters aren’t all as fully drawn as those in some of her other novels and I didn’t find the main ones particularly engaging. I just wanted to tell Webster to get a grip! I did enjoy the main themes of the story and I wanted to know what happened, but I did’t quite care enough.

If I haven’t put you off completely I would suggest reading Fortune’s Rocks or The Weight of Water.

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