Book Review 33 – The Weight of Shadows by Karl Holton

A few weeks ago I was approached by Karl Holton to ask if I would be interested in reviewing the first book of his crime trilogy, ‘The Weight of Shadows.’ It turned out that Holton is local to my area so this review is not just for an author, but also for a (kind of) neighbour! I got a free copy of the book, as my fellow bookbloggers say, in return for an unbiased review. So here it is…

The Weight of Shadows follows DCI Benedict’s involvement in a Hatton Garden diamond theft (I loved this fusion of fact and fiction,) and two subsequent murders which are linked to this. The stories of the criminal underworld and their nefarious dealings unfolded in parallel to Benedict’s story. There were a whole host of powerful, impressive characters in this book and Benedict was no exception. Curt and occasionally hostile, he gave everyone short shrift, ever desperate to be the alpha male in the room. You’ve got to love a flawed protagonist!

This book is fast paced, gripping and clever, clever, clever. Holton knows how to create a hook to draw you in. There are multiple strands to this story and each of the characters have a plot that keeps you guessing. The Weight of Shadows moves between each of these stories from chapter to chapter. It kept me on a constant merry-go-round of shady dealings which was on occasion difficult to keep up with.

There are unanswered questions in this book. Remember it is part of a trilogy, so come prepared to read books two and three. In fact the book ended with a question, the answer to which was apparently within a code in the book. Ooh, I’ve got you interested now haven’t I?! Perhaps I shouldn’t take the credit for it however, since it was actually Holton who put this code together! I didn’t work it out though, so anyone who does is welcome to leave a comment below telling me about it.

I do have a minor gripe. You see, I have a thing about dialogue. I need it to sound the way that I speak and this need makes me irritatingly picky. So I did bristle at some of Holton’s characters refusal to abbreviate. ‘You cannot be serious,’ should be left to the likes of John McEnroe. The rest of us say “can’t”. Holton also spelled out a few things for the reader which could have perhaps come across better through dialogue or the actions of the characters. But this is me reaching into my picky bag and picking out a whole lot of picky for you to pick at. It’s picky.

Ultimately if you like crime (the fictional kind, not the real kind that will ultimately land you in jail – in which case you are on totally the wrong blog) and you enjoy the unfurling of a story line with characters who have multiple motivations, then this book is for you. I could see from this one book that there is so much more to find out. Holton has a well thought out cast list and I’m certain that the books that follow will be just as good as the first.

Next week I’m going all self-help on you. I’ll be reading ‘The One Thing’ by Gary W Keller and Jay Papasan. Come back on Monday to find out more.

 

Book Review 32 – Empire of the Moghul (Raiders from the North) by Alex Rutherford

A colleague handed me this weeks book after learning that I am something of a book-a-holic. It turns out that he is  a prolific reader too. The underside of his desk is home to a teetering, leaning-tower-of-books which seem to reproduce and multiply of their own accord.

I must admit that I would have totally judged this book by it’s cover and passed it up. To me, this is a boys cover…

My colleague assured me that it was ‘a bit war-ry, but mostly about the family’ and this was largely true. Besides which, whilst I find books about wars boring, it is mostly modern warfare that makes me yawn. This book was set in the 16th century so even the warfare more or less kept my attention.

The book centres on Babur, the first Moghul emperor who conquered land and settled in India from his native lands of modern day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Whilst Babur is portrayed as a benevolent king, I did get a bit fed up with him at times. Despite the great destiny that he seemed to think he ought to live up to, most of the things that happened to him were not of his own doing. He didn’t appear to be master of his own destiny.

‘Empire of the Moghul’ was a great way to dive into life in Asia in the 1500’s. Alex Rutherford has a talent for description, so that you really got a feel for the clothes they wore, the food they ate and the local customs and behaviour of the time. There was also a well defined set of characters who felt realistic. I really got into the swing of this book, but I must say it could do with going on a diet. Empire of the Moghul is almost 500 pages long. Come on Rutherford, I wanted to say You can have too much of a good thing! There were multiple battles, multiple quests for glory, multiple times that all was lost and had to be recovered again. Of course this is one of the pitfalls of historical fiction. On one hand there are the facts, the chronology of events and on the other is the need for a good story. I felt like Rutherford stayed a bit too true to the events in Babur’s life – it could have done with a wee bit of pruning.

But if historical fiction is your thing and you are even remotely interested in the workings of ancient Asian empires then Rutherford paints a beautiful picture, rich with the imagery of people and places. I, for one, am very grateful for the day that my colleague placed this book on my desk and advised me to read it. In terms of my challenge I feel that it has brought something all of its own that was missing amongst the books I had read until now. A new subject matter and a new voice. A very satisfactory addition to this years list.

Next week’s review is of ‘The Weight of Shadows’ by Karl Holton. Come back next Monday to find out more.

Book Review 31 – The Illustrated Story of England by Christopher Hibbert

This week I indulged my inner history nerd. The fascination with all things long past is actually quite new to me. I’m not sure where it came from, but I find myself nonetheless obsessed with Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Norman invaders and Tudors. So what better place to soak up the history of our little island than with this book?

The Illustrated Story of England is a neat little book that takes you through from tribal Celtic times right up to Brexit and today. Let’s be clear, stuffing 4000 years of history into a couple of hundred pages inevitably means that things get covered briefly. The Romans appear to pop in for a cup of tea, Charles I loses his head and that’s the end of it, there’s no time for swan songs here.

This book made me realise a few things. For one being a prince or princess isn’t really all its cracked up to be. For many centuries being the offspring of a monarch was a pernicious state of affairs. It wasn’t just Richard III who was prepared to kill for the throne. Other people who held an interest in seeing a certain person make their way to the top would be willing to wage war against or murder someone they didn’t want to see crowned.

Then at the other echelon of society, life was spectacularly shitty for ordinary people for a very very long time. It was only in the nineteenth century that people started thinking more altruistically and situations began, very slowly, to improve for the lower classes, for child labourers, for slaves and for women.

For anyone that has an interest in learning about the history of this country, particularly with a focus on monarchs, this is a great opportunity to thrash your way through the list of kings and queens that have ruled these isles. So come and meet the ancestors of our queen, the good, the bad and the ones who put lead based white paint on their faces so that you most certainly would not call them “ugly”.

Come back next week and check out my review of ‘Raiders from the North (Empire of the Moghul) by Alex Rutherford.

 

Book Review 30 – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompon

This was both the weirdest and the most ground breaking book of the challenge so far. It also left me floundering as to how to review the plot, so I decided to review my reactions to it instead:

End of chapter two – this is fun and slightly surreal. I’m liking the short punchy chapters.

End of chapter four – great supporting illustrations but what the hell is going on?!

End of chapter six – the depravity is getting heavy now. These guys are totally messed up!

End of chapter nine – you learn something new every day. Muhammed Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for his refusal to join in the Vietnam war. Still not much idea what’s going on in this story though…

Part two. End of chapter two – a madcap storyline is emerging. It is surreal as hell but also an awful lot of fun!

End of the book – OK seriously, what the hell just happened there? Have I fallen through a portal into a parallel universe where I lack the requisite senses to understand anything?!

At the end of this book if you would like me to summarise what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was about I would say drugs, Vegas, trying to keep one step ahead of the authorities and a whole load of random jibberish in between everything. Fun yes, but entirely nonsensical!

My general sense of confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that the book was stuffed to the giblets with American terms that I didn’t understand and had to keep stopping to look up. And then there were just references to things that I didn’t know about because I am from the wrong place and time. Take the sentence, “A long time ago when I lived in Big Sur down the road from Lionel Olay I had a friend who liked to go to Reno for the crap-shooting.” In this one sentence I had to look up three things, what is Big Sur? Is Lionel Olay the maker of my mum’s favourite moisturiser? And what is Crap-shooting? I was wondering if it was a typo and he was referring to fishing for carp with guns, either that or some kind of reference to shooting the holy crap out of people…

Fear and Loathing was discombobulating (there’s an Americanism that I do understand) in more than one respect and it took my reading of the notes at the back to understand more about Thompson and his so called Gonzo journalism. “A method acting style stream of consciousness writing.” When I told my husband this he said ‘So you had to read an explanation to understand what happened in the book?’ I’m glad he asked that because it helped crystallise the point. I still have no idea what in the name of Dumbledore’s crooked nose was going on in the book, but the notes helped to put the style of writing into context. Ultimately Thompson was passing commentary on the world around him. He wanted to say something using a partly fictionaled scenario to support him. I say partly fictionalised because Thompson, like his protagonist was a journalist who was sent to Vegas to cover events which he did while on a number of illegal highs. He wanted to make a statement on conscription, on drugs, on Nixon… I’m not going to pretend I get it, but at least I get that he created a genre.

I watched the film straight after and on this one occasion I would say the film was just as good as the book. It barely missed anything and if anything set the tone of sillyness for the rookies like me a bit more clearly.

Thompson was evidently a great thinker. He had a vision and he executed it in all its surrealist splendour. Tragically he committed suicide some years back. Pethaps I am romanticising it, but I can’t help but picture a tormented soul who was just too disillusioned with this world to remain a part of it. If you haven’t already either read the book or watched the film then I recommend you strap yourself in and get ready for one hell of a ride whenever you decide to take the plunge.

Next week the nerd in me returns as I go back to a favourite subject of mine, history. I’ll be reading ‘The illustrated history of England’ by Christopher Hibbert.

 

Book Review 29 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

It takes a kind of tolerance to read a book from another era. To see past the racist, homophobic language of the time and recognise the story for what it was. A modern day classic.

These things are certainly true of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My overall impression was that this was a book that’d had its time. Which of course is exactly what it is. Even if I chose to overlook any distasteful terms as a symptom of the time, what I couldn’t get over was the bloody-minded caricature that was Holly Golightly. Perhaps she was a breath of fresh air when Truman Capote moulded her, but to us jaded 21st century readers (or to me anyway) these flighty, tempestuous heroine’s are just tedious. It’s a shame I felt this way about Holly because I think a more likeable character could have turned the book around for me.

Capote’s writing skill is evident. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is stuffed with beautifully crafted similes. The story is told through the eyes of Holly’s friend and neighbour as he looks back on the time that they lived in the same apartment block in New York. Him as a struggling writer, her as a… well it’s not particularly clear what she does, some kind of 1940’s society girl. Refreshingly there is no love interest between them. They are just friends though Holly is a somewhat unreliable friend and one whom it turns out has a past that she has been concealing. 

True to form the story ends with Holly getting herself into a pickle and whilst she is no longer in our unnamed protagonists life, there still seem to be hints of her several years later. 

What I didn’t realise when I picked this book up was that slim as the paperback copy that I held was, it was padded out with three short stories at the end! Breakfast at Tiffany’s was only around 100 pages. I read it in one day. If you are more forgiving than me then this is a speedy read with some good quality writing. At the risk of being branded a philistine, I’m just glad it was over quickly! But I must say I am intrigued enough to now go and watch the film and see what Audrey Hepburn made of Holly.

Next week I’ll be reviewing another modern classic. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson will be up on the blog for you on Monday.

 

Book Review 27 – One Promise Kept by Michael Round

‘The Wasichu [white men] made many promises and kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.’

This is the heartbreaking quote from a Native American chief that ‘One Promise Kept’ starts with.

Those of you who read last weeks blog will recall that there are two authors from Croydon Writers whose work I have got to know. Anand Nair, whose book I reviewed last week is one of them. Michael Round is the stupendous other.

I never even realised that I was into historical fiction before I read Michael’s books. Before my 52 week reading challenge started, I read his trilogy on Egyptian pharoes and I was totally mesmerised. To see through the eyes of people who have lived centuries before you is kind of like getting a lift in the TARDIS with the Doctor. It’s better than watching it on TV. You actually get into the heads of these people and live their lives. You actually get to BE them. It is, at the risk of seeming a little melodramatic, nothing short of a miracle.

Michael’s rendition of the White and Native American conflict in ‘One Promise Kept’ doesn’t disappoint. He crafts characters so precisely that you can practically reach out and touch them. Not only that, but with the myriad descriptions of aromas that Michael puts into the book, you can pretty much smell them too!

You know the drill of course (you usually do with historical fiction.) White Americans and Natives jostle for land in the USA. Trust between them is low and not helped by the in fighting amongst the Native American tribes. The scene is set for the Native Americans to fight for both their lives and their way of life. It is a fascinating scenario and one that had me hooked from the very first page.

Having said this I must add that the one thing I am not into is war. As Edwin Starr said, what is it good for? Well apart from making my eyes glaze over… absolutely nothing. As this book dealt with multiple battles, it was inevitable that there would be some discussion of regiments and strategies and rankings. Why do they have so many rankings? I think it’s done deliberately to confuse the rest of us! Speaking of which why did all the men in the US army have to have names that began with a ‘C’?! I had to write down the different between Chivington, Custer, Clinton and Cramer because I kept muddling them all up. Though short of actually getting into the TARDIS and going back in time to tell them to change their surnames by deed poll I don’t think there’s much we can do about this!

Whilst I have come to love historical fiction, there is always a part of me that wonders where the reality ends and the fiction begins. Perhaps with history there is always a bit of licence in the retelling. Perhaps our view of what happened is always coloured by who and where we learn it from.

I feel like I have just scratched the surface of the subject matter with this book. Whilst reading it I discovered this Radio 4 podcast on Custer, who I’d previously never even heard of. The world is of course full of things that I haven’t heard of. But in this case I have Michael to thank for igniting an interest in a topic I didn’t know I had. This was a book of two halves for me. Whilst the warcraft aspect of this book was not for me there was a frank and touching depiction of Native American life that was so captivating. These were real people (funnily enough that’s what they called themselves too, in contrast to the Wasichu who were some kind of ephemeral life form) leading real lives. Somewhere out there an actual guy called Yellow Hair sat in a teepee, hunted buffalo and fought other tribes and the Wasichu. He was real! And it is this reality that for me fans the flames of intrigue and makes me want to find out more. Sometimes the story doesn’t end with the book…

Next week I’ll be reading Mythos by the ever fabulous Stephen Fry. Come back next Monday – it’s a bit of a treat!

Book Review 26 – Shards of Sunlight by Anand Nair

In the words of Bon Jovi ‘Wooooooooooaaaaaahhhhh, we’re half way there!’ Would you Adam and Eve it, it’s been six months of me reading a book a week, every week and reviewing it here for you. Six months?! Time has flown.

In six months I have metamorphosized from someone who used to pick up a book every few months and read it over the course of a few weeks to someone who is a compulsive reader. If I don’t have a book on the go I feel restless. I start picking up reference material and rifling through it. But more than that, reading has somehow made me more inquisitive, more interested in history, science, dinosaurs… I just want to know stuff about stuff. That doesn’t mean that all the information I acquire remains in my sieve-like head, but then you can’t have everything!

Before I go into this week’s book I just want to set the scene on how I came across the marvellous author. As you can see from my blog, I enjoy writing. Gabbing on about something or other is my forte and I most enjoy doing it in this space. So about a year and a half ago I googled some combination of words that included ‘Croydon’ and ‘writing’ and up popped a link to Croydon Writers. These guys are an awesome bunch of writers, but there are two of them in particular whose writing I have got to know well since starting to attend the group. Michael Round has written a whole stack of brilliant books, one of which I will be reviewing next week.

 

The second person from the group whose work I have read is Anand Nair. ‘Shards of Sunlight’ is based on some of Anand’s childhood experiences of growing up in Kerala, however the things that happen to her protagonist Indu are not autobiographical.

There is however one major point of confluence. Like Indu’s father, Anand’s own father was a political activist and like many other activists (including my own grandfather) at the time towards the end of the British Raj in India, spent time in jail as a political prisoner. This was a period of huge political and social flux in Indian history. I’m immensely proud of my grandfather (who died when I was young so unfortunately I barely remember him) for standing up for his beliefs. For being prepared to go to prison for them. We are fortunate enough to lead comparatively plush, sheltered lives these days. Most of us can’t even contemplate having to make such a stand.

Shards of Sunlight does sit against this political backdrop, but the focus of the story is Indu herself. It is the concerns of her personal little world that we are embroiled in. We watch her growing from a girl into a young woman and see her own family situation shift over the years.

Indu is unlike other girls in Kerala. She is far too educated for one. She keeps getting told that no man likes a wife that is too highly educated, with ideas in her head. But Indu wants more for herself than to be solely a wife and homemaker. Independent and free spirited she sets out her own path, rejecting the traditional ideals and we see her begin to develop her career and meet a man that she deems worthy of her. The trouble is will her family consider him worthy of her? Let’s just say the path of true love never runs smoothly.

Anand hooks you in with her skilful writing, and mesmerised, you are powerless to do anything other than turn page after page following the story of this fiesty young Indian woman, rooting for her every step of the way.

Anand is a self published author, but as I have mentioned before there are some gems to be found in amongst the self published book market. And here is such a gem. Shards of Sunlight is a delightful read that I enjoyed immensely.

Next week I’ll be reviewing Michael Rounds book ‘One Promise Kept’. Come back on Monday and check it out.

Book Review 25 – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I had been meaning to read this book since it first came out and I eventually came to it with two very different recommendations. My colleague leant me this pristine hardcopy that she had treated herself to, whilst imparting the opinion that the book was alright once you got through the first bit. Not really a resounding endorsement, but at the same time I had another friends recommendation, who told me that it was her favourite book of 2017.  Quite an accolade! So I was intrigued as to what I would make of it.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine centres around the isolated life of the socially inept Eleanor herself. She dresses weird, she acts weird, she is weird. Or so her colleagues think. The reader, inside Eleanor’s head see’s her torturously heading towards social faux pas because she has misunderstood the situation and you begin to feel a sense of empathy with Eleanor. More than that, she begins to endear herself to you with her complete lack of self awareness. Eleanor has a quirky little wit that she shares with the reader. The daftness of it combined with her vulnerability made me love her all the more!

It is when, despite herself, she ends up getting into an unlikely friendship with Raymond from IT that Eleanor’s life begins to change. Through the revelations she makes about her past we come to understand the abuse and neglect that have led her to where she is today.

This is a career defining debut. One wonders what Gail Honeyman could possibly produce next to compete with this book. There is a real appreciation of the human psyche here. She has managed in this book to sum up loneliness, but has also given Eleanor a chink of hope.

When we reach the end and discover the twist that I certainly did not see coming being, as I was, too focused on another element of the storyline, you really get to see how long Eleanor has been self flagellating for a wrong that she didn’t commit. It is the sadness of her past that has kept her trapped in loneliness all these years, but her beautifully unfolding friendship with Raymond allows Eleanor to let herself live again rather than merely existing as a shadow in this world.

Honeyman has produced a touching novel which encourages genuine empathy for those around us. How often do we judge people based on the way they come across? And how much better would it be for us to suspend judgement because, really, what do we know about the life they have lived or why they are this way? To me Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was a book about how important it is to show kindness to our fellow human beings. So go forth, read the book and be thoroughly lovely to all ye shall meet!

Next week is a very special one. It marks the mid way point of this challenge! I will be reviewing Shards of Sunlight by Anand Nair. Come back and see what I have to say for myself on Monday.

Book Review 24 – Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

So the Harry Potter fan reads another children’s book. It may be true that I am something of an overgrown child at heart however this week’s book was actually chosen for me. I am a member of a humunguous Goodreads group and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief was the book selected for February. So in the spirit of Goodreads camaraderie, I decided to take up the mantle and read the book.

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Percy Jackson is a twelve year old boy who has never fitted in at any school he’s been to. Why? Well he is a demi god of course! Why didn’t I guess?! Helpfully no-one decided to tell Percy this and so it comes as a bit of a nasty surprise when he has to pit his wits against gods and hitherto assumed to be mythical creatures to recover an item that will avert a war. Talk about a baptism of fire!

So two teenage boys and a teenage girl on a quest to save the world in a magical realm. Hmm, I seem to have seen this formula somewhere before… One of them is even afraid of spiders!

I couldn’t help but make the comparisons with Harry Potter. Which leads me to something of an admission. Whilst I am a mammoth Harry Potter fan, I am not the biggest fan of Harry himself. He… I hesitate to say it… but he irritates me. It’s something about his heroic determination to martyr himself at every opportunity that makes him seem – well just a little bit holier than thou. His stoic focus on friendship and bravery just makes me cringe. There I said it, I don’t like Harry.

The point with regard to this story was that, I found I liked Percy Jackson a lot more as a protagonist. He’s just a kid and he doesn’t particularly want to save the world. It’s more like he doesn’t really have a choice. Mind you, it’s not like he doesn’t step up to the challenge once he has been selected. Percy is every bit the hero you expect from a book like this.

Oh and don’t be put off by the horrific film that was made about this book. Remember what I always say…

Oh Lordy, is it true in this case! I recall detesting the film – to the extent that I must have totally wiped it from my memory. I had no idea what this book was about but the Goodreads forums were filled with encouragement to give this book a chance despite the awful film.

Whilst I won’t be going on to read the rest of the Percy Jackson series, I’m not disappointed to have read this one. And although I have read other children’s books that I have enjoyed more, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief has an allure all of its own, being as it is, jam packed with Greek mythology. I mean come on, who doesn’t love an encounter with Medusa?! 

I hope you’ll come back next Monday to read my review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I have been waiting to read this book for so long!! See you next Monday.