Thursday, 31 July 2014

But at what cost?

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

If I could give a brand new, really good book by your favorite author (living or dead) RIGHT NOW, what would you be willing to do for it?

Ooh, tough one. If it's by a living author, I'd have the patience to go through the normal channels and pay standard retail prices for it. For a genuine newly-discovered Charlotte Brontë or Jane Austen, though, well... That would just be the most amazing thing, and having something like that in my hands would just be priceless. Add to that the fact that it actually WOULD be pretty much priceless, as something that unique would fetch a vast sum from the right people.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Raven in the Foregate - Ellis Peters

This is a thought-provoking but comfortable story, which begins with a new priest taking the living of the local parish. Father Ailnoth is brilliant, educated, devout, austere - he has everything, in fact, except for the smallest hint of mercy or humility. In spite of his graces, his strict adherence to the letter of the law and his preference for correctness over human kindness soon makes him hated in the parish. When he is found dead in the mill-pond on Christmas Day, there are only too many suspects.

Suspicion rests on the young man helping in Cadfael's gardens, who arrived with the priest as nephew to his housekeeper. As pressure builds for a murderer to be uncovered, Cadfael tries to shelter his young assistant and discover the true culprit.

As usual, the tiny details are spot on historically and add very much to the atmosphere and depth of this novel. Cadfael's benevolent, forgiving attitude and his willingness to aid young people in love give a feeling of warmth and hope not often found in murder mysteries.

Another beautifully written and intriguing novel by Ellis Peters.

Next up: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Sunday, 27 July 2014


This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Different kind of reading … what do you think about letters? Do you ever send them anymore? Receive them? Or do you just do email and texts instead? Do you miss the days when people used to write letters?

I love letters! Reading old collections of letters, like Charlotte Brontë's, leaves you feeling as though you really knew the person as a close friend, rather than as an historical figure. I think it's wonderful to have access to such unfiltered, spontaneous thoughts and feelings, like reaching back through time and having a personal conversation with someone.

In terms of my own letters, I used to have the odd penfriend when I was a child, but with the growth of electronic (and instant) communication, it's become a bit redundant. I agree completely that an email or a text doesn't have anywhere near the warm, caring feeling of a letter, or the same sense of nostalgia when you look over them later, but when you think about the benefits of being able to communicate instantly and mostly for free with someone on the other side of the world, there's no comparison.

Sometimes I think it would have been nice to have lived in a simpler time, when we weren't bombarded with information 24/7, and could feel free to live our own lives without signing petitions about life in a country you've never been to, or having graphic images of wars and natural disasters shoved in our faces. Would I want to return to a time when, if your friends or family lived in a different country, you might only be able to speak to them once a year or so? No.

Legend - David Gemmell

I wouldn’t normally choose something quite as… battly, but this one came recommended so I thought I’d give it a try.

The writing style doesn’t have much finesse, but then it was Gemmell’s debut novel, so it’s quite possible he improves over time. Another criticism would be that he really doesn’t understand women – the point of view shifts between characters throughout, and the women are a little odd, to say the least.

That said, the events of the novel are suitably epic, with the odd real-world historical echo in there. The central character, Rek, falls in love with and marries the daughter of an earl, whose fortress is in danger of attack by a vast invading army. He reluctantly joins the siege to defend what is now his family’s holdings, along with the aging legendary warrior Druss.

Gemmell conjures up some interesting concepts, for instance the group of thirty warrior-monks (with the ability to see the future), and toys with ideas of the after-life. To my personal taste, I would have preferred more detail on these, and on the lives of the characters we meet, than so much description spent on military and strategic proceedings and the minutiae of the siege. There were some very gripping action sequences, however, and some touching moments.

All in all, I get the impression that this is a very manly book, with the emphasis on heroic action. Not exactly to my taste, but if that’s what you want, Gemmell’s Drenai series can provide it!

Next up: The Raven in the Foregate by Ellis Peters

Monday, 21 July 2014

Summer reading habits

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Do your reading habits change in the summer?

They certainly used to, but then my lifestyle used to change in the summer too. I'd be on holiday from school, university, etc., and I had days and days free to sit outside reading (or inside, if the weather was bad). Now I'm a functional grown-up, though, summer pretty much means the same thing as the rest of the year, except that it's sometimes nice enough to spend a couple of hours outside reading on the weekends.

When I was at university I spent hours every day on the beach with a book, weather permitting. It was wonderful, the warmth on your skin, the sound of the waves, giant seagulls stealing peoples' food... Seems a shame to have to work with the weather so nice now, but that's money and being an adult and so on for you.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express seemed like apt reading material for the 6-hour train journey to my graduation ceremony at the weekend, although it did make me long for the lovely old-fashioned trains portrayed in the book, instead of the crowded, greasy and boiling hot ones I was stuck on at the time.

We begin with Hercule Poirot travelling back to London, after solving a case in Syria. He plans to break his journey for three days exploring Stamboul (or Istanbul, as we now know it), but receives an urgent telegraph to return home immediately. He bumps into a friend of his who happens to be a director of the railway company owning the Orient Express, who pulls some strings and gets him a last-minute berth in an unseasonably crowded train bound for London.

Once on the train, he meets a couple of his former travelling companions, who seem now to be avoiding one another, as well as making the acquaintance of the diverse range of other passengers on the carriage. After a day or two of travel, the train is halted by a snowdrift, and in the morning one of the passengers is discovered murdered. Trapped on a train with the murderer, and without the facility of telegramming for further information about his suspects, Poirot must puzzle out the identity of the culprit using his deductive powers alone.

As usual with Agatha Christie, the plot keeps you guessing throughout, and I felt rather smug at having spotted a pivotal clue at the time it happened. Naturally, the conclusion is rather contrived compared to modern, gritty detective dramas, but that’s one of the great things about Christie’s novels – you have the pleasant sensation of sitting safely outside the action, watching what’s going on and wondering about the solution.

Hercule Poirot’s warm, amiable character and strong sense of compassion and humour is also a nice contrast from other early detective fiction, for instance Sherlock Holmes’ cold intellectual logic. For Holmes each crime is simply a puzzle to be clinically solved and the culprit handed over to the authorities for justice, but Poirot sees each suspect as a human being, and uses this to his advantage when making his deductions.

Next up: Legend by David Gemmell

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Elantris - Brandon Sanderson

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Brandon Sanderson, so I’ve been really looking forward to reading his debut novel, Elantris. The friend who lent me this novel said he’d thought the language and plot were rather clumsy compared to his later novels, but I have to say I mostly disagree. Admittedly, Elantris has the odd moment where the words chosen or the sentence structure doesn’t feel quite right, but on the whole it’s still really well written. It’s true that Sanderson’s writing becomes more polished as his career progresses, but there is nothing amateurish about this novel.

The titular city was once the glorious home of god-like inhabitants, whose pale skin and white hair shone like silver, and who could perform magic to raise seamless palaces, heal wounds, and create food out of dust. One day, however, the magic suddenly failed, the Elantrians’ hair fell out, and their skin became grey and blotchy. As their magical powers faded away, they were locked in the city to rot, leaving the outside world in the grip of civil war.

The plot begins 10 years after the fall of Elantris, when a foreign princess is brought to the neighbouring city of Kae in a political marriage to unite two kingdoms against an aggressive religious expansion. When she arrives, however, her husband has been declared dead – but in fact has become an Elantrian and been incarcerated in the crumbling city. We follow her efforts to avert civil war, and her husband Prince Raoden’s struggle to survive in his half-life in the dilapidated ruins of Elantris.

As in his later novels, Sanderson treats magic more like a science. It has strict rules and limitations, more like a kind of script-based alchemy than the type of magic used by your average fantasy wizard. He even includes a glossary of symbols at the back. In a nice added touch, each chapter is headed with a symbol indicative of the themes it contains.

Coming to this novel after having read many of his other works, the Mistborn series and Warbreaker in particular (both of which I highly recommend), Elantris feels rather like a testing ground for many of the ideas explored more fully in his later books. It still works perfectly well as a cohesive story, but it does have a cut-down sense to it, leaving me feeling as though I’d like to have more detail on some of the concepts and characters in it. There are echoes of the relationship dynamics and magical systems that form the core of the Mistborn novels, and the enclosed city populated by ‘gods’ is strikingly similar to the basis for Warbreaker.

Elantris is a compelling, intriguing novel that grips you from start to finish, and as a debut novel is even more impressive. If you’re a Sanderson fan but haven’t got round to reading this one yet, do so immediately! And if you’re into any kind of fantasy novels, you’ll enjoy this, I promise.

Next up: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Monday, 7 July 2014

An Excellent Mystery - Ellis Peters

This particular Cadfael novel is a little slow to get going, with an unusual lack of mysterious corpses or sinister characters to investigate. Two monks fleeing the massacre at Winchester arrive at Shrewsbury, one maimed in the Crusades and a younger, silent companion tirelessly caring for him. As well as tending to the elder’s wounds, Cadfael wonders about the past of the silent young monk devoted to the welfare of his patient, and tries to discover what bond it is that keeps them so strongly linked.

The pace increases later in the story, and the ending is, if anything, more poignant for being more of a contemplative tale than usual. As always with Ellis Peters, the historical detail is vivid and ever-present without being intrusive, and Cadfael’s attitude of open-minded acceptance means that the fact that he’s a monk doesn’t force religious doctrine onto the reader.

An Excellent Mystery is a particularly complex story where morality is concerned, and touches on issues such as homosexuality and arranged marriage with a sense of compassion and understanding. All in all, not the most action-packed and exciting of Cadfael’s adventures, but one that leaves you thinking for some time afterwards.

Next up: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Shadows Edge - Brent Weeks

After The Way of Shadows, I had high hopes for this novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. Weeks builds on the first installment, weaving events and characters deftly together in a way that, for the most part, is subtle enough to go unnoticed, but all culminates at the end. There were a few points at which a character does something without thinking and I thought “This seems important”, but I had no idea why it would be important, so if anything that increased the sense of anticipation.

We begin with Kylar, the main character, attempting to renounce his career as an assassin and settle down with his childhood sweetheart Elene and their adopted daughter, Uly. However, events pull him inexorably back to his invaded hometown, and he is forced to accept the fact that he is meant for greater things than living quietly as an apothecary in a foreign country.

This novel introduces some new point of view characters, and also gives us some surprising changes of loyalty for characters from the first novel. One of the most outstanding things about The Night Angel Trilogy for me is the moral complexity it creates – both good and bad characters do things that could be construed as either good or evil, and Weeks rejects the idea that anyone can be all unadulterated good or evil. A particularly poignant example is the close friendships the rightful king Logan makes in the dungeon with some of the murderers, cannibals and prostitutes, who are still human beings despite their pasts and their horrific surroundings.

There are many point of view characters, and I did occasionally find it hard to remember exactly who they all were and who was allied with whom, but everything inexorably led to the climax of the novel, where it all came together with a momentum that just makes you keep reading.

One minor gripe I have with the trilogy is the artwork on the covers. I know it’s a minor thing, but it is easy to look at the cover of a book and decide then and there whether you want to buy and read it. I get the impression that they were aiming for a similar effect to the style of Brandon Sanderson’s novels – a plain white background, with a figure and abstract colour swirls. What makes Sanderson’s covers beautiful, however, is the artwork, whereas for Weeks’ trilogy we have a slightly blurred
photoshoot with some guy in a black costume. Because it’s a photograph rather than artwork it just looks strange with the overlayed swirl of colour. The complete trilogy has a black cover with a simple sword across it, which to my taste is much more effective.

Anyway, the cover makes no difference to the contents – I just feel that with such a great story inside, this trilogy deserves better presentation outside. It’s definitely well worth reading, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the third book leads.

Next up: An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters