Dissolution – C.J. Sansom

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C. J. Sansom DissolutionHenry VIII is now Head of the Church of England and Reformation is in full swing.  Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who is particularly liked by Thomas Cromwell and works with him on various cases.  When a monastery inspector is found decapitated in the monastery’s kitchen, Cromwell dispatches Shardlake to find the murderer and to get the Abbot to agree to close the monastery down.  Though a hunchback, Shardlake shoulders the extreme responsibility and makes his way out of London with his young assistant.

This book was recommended to me by a local bookshop in Grantown-on-Spey and it was a fantastic recommendation.  Though it takes place in the 16th century, the reader is almost instantly thrown back into that time, the scenes and characters painted so vividly you feel completely jarred out of reality.  When reading a historical fiction book, you want every little detail to feel tangible, and Sansom does that with great aplomb.  The concept of a hunchback lawyer solving crimes in the 1500s seemed a bit far out there to me, but I am glad that I gave the book a read.

Shardlake himself is a very likeable, sympathetic character.  Self-deprecating because of his hunchback, you never are asked to pity him but you find yourself wanting to give him a hug so that he knows he is loved.  He values his intelligence and knows his strengths, but especially because of his place in time sees his physical deformity as an impediment to the possibility of real love.  It’s especially this little detail that makes you feel attached to Shardlake and makes him incredibly alive on the page.  He is a character of his time, and yet his growing understanding of what really fuels the dissolution of the monasteries and other acts of the Reformation under Cromwell makes his thinking feel a bit more modern, allowing the current reader to connect with him yet again.

Even the “side” acts on the page are well-drawn and fleshed out, and the who-done-it of the story has a great number of twists and turns.  I devoured this big book over a few days (in front of a roaring wood fire in the Highlands) and could not put it down.  Every time I picked it up I stepped back into the pages so completely that to stop reading it, to stop being in that Sussex monastery with Shardlake, almost felt wrong.  C.J. Sansom has done something incredible with Dissolution.

Rating: 9/10

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

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Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil GaimanA now grown-up returns to his childhood home during a funeral.  He only really means to look at his parents’ long-sold home and the area that used to be all theirs, but he winds up at the door of the house at the end of the lane.  It is while there, the man begins to remember some strange happenings of one year during his childhood.

I make no secret that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, especially when it comes to modern fantasy.  He not only has one of the most incredible imaginations, he also churns out some of the most innovative, grounded fantasy works I have ever read.  Gaiman has a talent for making the unbelievable seem almost commonplace, and he does not fail do to the remarkable in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

We never learn our main character’s name – something I would complain about with another author but a fact I did not even notice until writing this review – and we never learn who’s funeral he is attending, but those facts almost do not matter.  Instead, we are enraptured by the young boy with few friends that are not found in books, and our hearts break when he mentions that no one showed up at his seventh birthday party.  When our protagonist meets Lettie Hempstock, we are just as enthralled as he is with the spunky eleven year old girl who seems wise beyond her years.

And that is because she is.  Gaiman gives us a family of immortal women – grandmother, mother, and daughter – who hold some kind of power over the natural world around them.  Lettie’s mother and grandmother are just as intriguing as our new young friend, and even with their little involvement the reader is left wanting more of their story.  Gaiman crafts rich, interesting characters that live on the edge of reality and yet never seem unreal themselves.

I loved the simple discovery of this plot so much that i don’t want to give much away, but it flows so effortlessly from his memory that you almost forget that it is all in flashback.  Gaiman alludes to powers that are gotten by way of thought and belief again (something seen in many of his fantastical works), but even a trope he’s used before feels natural and new.

I listened to this on audiobook, and to my delight it was Gaiman that narrated it.  He is a great reader and really manages to bring his words to life.  The book is short – less than 6 hours on audiobook – and was too addicting to not finish in just a couple of days.  Of course, now I am left wanting another Gaiman book to listen to on my commute . . . .

Read The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Rating: 9/10

Audipbook Rating: 9/10

Back From the Dead

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It has been 2 1/2 months since my most recent post – woops!  Good news in my personal life (a new full-time job with still additional freelance work on the side) and a recent holiday have left me little time to read, let alone to review.  However, now as I am finally adjusting to the regimented schedule and getting used to finding new ways to read (during my commute and more audiobooks), I am hoping to pick up where I left up without too much delay.

Thank you all for reading when I post, and for new readers who have continued to discover me in my absence.

Letters to Alice – Fay Weldon

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Letters to AliceLetters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen isn’t strictly fiction, but it is written by a fictionalized character.  Novelist Aunt Fay has a niece she’s rarely seen – 18 years old and believes that she knows everything about the world of fiction after taking half a course of English at university.  While Alice wants to write, she is reluctant to pick up anything by Jane Austen to read.  Aunt Fay writes 15 letters to her niece, helping her to see the intricatisies of fiction and the marvels of Austen.

This book is beautifully written, with passages that float across and lift off the page.  For any huge fan of Austen (and I certainly count myself among them), Weldon manages to point out much of Austen’s brilliance and reminds you why you fell in love with the pioneering writer in the first place.  Though Fay doesn’t seem like to Sense and Sensibility much, (an appraisal with which I disagree), she does an in-depth look at all of the books that Austen wrote in her short life.  She examines the time period, the expectations, her family life, and what her life as a spinster really meant.

One thing in particular that I loved were Weldon’s descriptions of fiction and writing in general as building houses and villages.  Good novels are well constructed houses, genres live in different areas of town, and the flashy brilliant celebrated masterpieces often fall by the wayside in a few years.  Contained in the first letter, it is worth reading that section of the book for that description of writing alone.

However beautiful Letters to Alice is, it still did not manage to engage as much as I had hoped.  It is not a book one picks up for a casual read, but rather a scholar would study for its perspectives and depths.  I wish this had been around when I was a student, but picking up the book now did not feel like much of a Saturday leisurely read.

I still loved the book, and will treasure certain passages, going back to read them as I get stuck on my own writing goals.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a hankering to read an Austen again.

Ian Rankin’s 10 Writing Tips

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On Monday, Most Wanted publishing is announcing Ian Rankin’s newest book title and revealing the cover.  With a new maybe-Rebus on the way, I wanted to celebrate tonight with Ian Rankin’s 10 Writing Tips.  I love the bluntness of his advice, and that he recognizes there’s a lot of luck involved with getting published (look at how many publishers rejected J.K. Rowling after all). What do you think of the Scottish Crime King’s tips?

Ian Rankin Writing Tips

Image Text:

  1. Read lots.
  2. Write lots.
  3. Learn to be self-critical.
  4. Learn what criticism to accept.
  5. Be persistent.
  6. Don’t give up.
  7. Have a story worth telling.
  8. Know the market.
  9. Get lucky.
  10. Stay lucky.

Source: Guardian

Heat Wave – Richard Castle

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Heat Wave Richard CastleTV meets novel reality with Heat Wave, the book Richard Castle writes while following Kate Beckett.  Heat Wave introduces us to Nikki Heat, a tough, guarded NYC homicide detective.  A local real estate tycoon is thrown off his balcony, and Nikki must rush to find the killer before he takes out anyone else, all while being shadowed by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Jameson Rook.  Rook is writing a piece on the NYPD, but has taken a liking for Heat.  She finds herself unwillingly attracted to the mischievous reporter, but how long can she stay distanced from him?

In the last month, my husband discovered and then “forced” me to watch all 4 1/2 seasons of “Castle” with him.  In about a month.  So after binging on the fun Nathan Fillion show, I decided to finally pick up the first in the Nikki Heat series.  These are all written by a ghostwriter but sold as Richard Castle;  there are even cute asides in the acknowledgements and Fillion appears on the back cover.  I didn’t expect a lot from a TV show tie-in, but Heat Wave is fun and entertaining, pulling you along with the characters and their crime solving goal.

I have to admit, if Richard Castle really wrote these I would expect them to be better.  There isn’t a specific problem with Heat Wave, it just is a bit simplistic and somewhat poorly written.  While the characters are fairly rounded and the tone matches what I expect from Richard Castle, they certainly aren’t an addition to some of the better crime fiction out there.

There are some funny little inclusions in the books, things that Castle experiences with the crew.  For instance, in the second novel, Naked Heat, it features a body snatching from a morgue vehicle just as it happens in the season 2 premiere.  You also get Detectives Ryan and Esposito in the form of Ochoa and Raley (though Raley might be a bit tougher than his TV show counterpart), and ME Lauren Parry who is a lot like Lanie.  Frankly, it’s pretty much what I would expect from Castle; including his friends while making subtle character changes but infusing them with the same brand of humor.  And it is just like Castle to make himself a Pulitzer Prize winner (twice) and Beckett’s Heat a little less guarded with herself.  Man can dream, right?

Heat Wave is definitely geared towards fans of the show, but may not stand well on its own legs.  That, I think, is where the tie-in fails.  It could have been a thick, substantial, gritty and fun novel to match what the TV show has told us about Richard Castle and his career.  Instead, there isn’t a lot to bring in the more discerning crime fiction crowd, though the book is fast-paced and very visual.

But, if you love “Castle” it is definitely worth a read and it’s quick enough that you’ll be finished within a day or two.

Rating: 6/10

Seraphina – Rachel Hartman

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Seraphina Rachel HartmanSixteen year-old Seraphina is the new assistant to the Court Composer, a grumpy old man riddled with gout.  As she tries to navigate her new daily duties and dealing with the royal family, she also hides a secret.  Seraphina lives in a world where dragons and humans have peace based on a tenuous treaty and dragons can take the shape of humans.  Actual humans are still weary of these dragons-in-hiding and the dragons are mostly content to study this unusual culture.  Seraphina manages to get caught up in the middle of the dragon-human relations and must rush to keep the treaty intact.

Seraphina is a great novel that pulls you in, makes you wonder why Seraphina is different, what she is hiding without giving it away too soon.  By the time the reveal came, I sort of expected it but definitely was not sure that was really going to be the answer.  The novel is engrossing from the start and the plot and characters equally keep you involved until the very last page.  I read Seraphina in just a day and a half, the first time I’ve neglected other things to really read for quite awhile.

During the first portions of the novel, I wanted Seraphina to tell me more about herself.  Provide more about how these situations were making her feel.  I felt it was so guarded that when things were happening it was only plot, no character.  That was until a pivotal moment when Seraphina finally breaks, and at that moment I realized the first-person narrative was so guarded because Seraphina herself is guarded.  She opens up more then, sharing more with the reader and more with the others around her.  It is wonderful to watch this scared girl blossom into a far more comfortable-in-her-own-skin adult.

The other thing this book does well is provide a list of rounded characters.  From Seraphina’s father to her tutor to the engaged Prince Lucian and Princess Glisselda, all are written with a surprising amount of depth for being supporting characters.  These characters were probably the strong-poing for Seraphina, driving the story forward not because of plot points but because of the characters’ actions.

My only complaint was the climax; it felt a bit rushed and like Hartman wasn’t sure how to deliver something more compelling.  It was good, but with just a few paragraphs, the “final fight” was over too quickly to create much tension.  But Seraphina was written so well besides that I am desperately hoping there will be more forays into Hartman’s world.

Rating: 8/10