Posts Tagged Book Reviews

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini – Review by Alexicon

71Mk2fl3kTL._SL1272_Khaled Hosseini has a knack for heart-rending narrative. It was the case in his debut novel The Kite Runner and it’s the case in A Thousand Splendid Suns, his second novel. Thematically, the two are comparable. We have the child start in Afghanistan, we have two major characters who have a difficult and complicated relationship, we have the backdrop of civil war, coups and violence in both novels. Where A Thousand Splendid Suns differs is its characters.

The story initially follows the young girl, Mariam, who lives in a tiny mud hut in the Herat province of rural Afghanistan. She is a harami, essentially a child born out of wedlock, and as such is shunned by her father, Jalil Khan, (save for his false smile plastered visits every Thursday). Mariam’s prying into her father’s life gets her sent away to Kabul to marry a moderate shoemaker named Rasheed who is thirty years older than she is. Mariam, unfortunately cannot bear him the son he craves, and becomes distant and irritable towards her. Laila is the daughter of a woman-about-town in the area of Kabul Mariam finds herself. She is a blonde head-turner and turns the head of Tariq, a childhood friend. Tariq leaves Afghanistan under the oppression of the Taliban and Laila, once old enough, is taken in by Rasheed as a wife, with the intent of her giving him a son.

The relationship between Mariam and Laila is initially one of intense bitterness, but they eventually form a bond of an almost sisterly quality, despite their age gap of close to fifteen years.

The one problem I had with A Thousand Splendid Suns is that is feels somewhat regurgitated. It was an excellent novel, I have to admit first, and a powerful, emotional and moving read which evoked intellectual ideas as well as brought a tear to your eye. But, so was The Kite Runner. Some of the themes which Hosseini concentrated on in The Kite Runner were very similar to some of the themes portrayed in A Thousand Splendid Suns. They are still good themes and excellent to read, but they just hark too much back to his other work. It’s true enough to say that he writes about Afghanistan and he can’t write anything but the truth of what it was like and what happened there but I feel there could have been more to put the two apart.

The novel has its differences in that the protagonists are women, and as such are significantly oppressed during the novel. The idea that blame will always find a woman is a powerful one and certainly holds true in the narrative. The other notable difference is the lack of America in the novel compared to its predecessor. Hosseini moved to America and became a novelist, much like The Kite Runner protagonist, Amir. There are brief mentions of America in A Thousand Splendid Suns but it’s far more grounded in the east.

To put it simply, A Thousand Splendid Suns isn’t Hosseini’s best work, but only because it lacks the raw power of originality which his debut novel held so clearly. I’d recommend it as a good book to read, if you’ve already read The Kite Runner and enjoyed it. But for me, it has a bitter hint of a formula that works about it which knocks a few marks off a great book. The praise it’s been draped in speaks for itself though. It’s definitely worth your time. But read his first book first.

 is available on Amazon.co.uk from £5.59 and Amazon.com from $6.13.

 

 

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The Eagle’s Conquest by Simon Scarrow – Review by Alexicon

-THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR UNDER THE EAGLE, IF YOU INTEND TO READ IT, MY REVIEW CAN BE FOUND HERE

6460909Simon Scarrow’s difficult second novel is a damn sight better than his first one. The journey continues for Cato and Macro, through the bitter wilderness of South East England, about ten years after their fellow Romans seriously annoyed a group of Israeli Christians for crucifying their Lord and Saviour. The novel takes off about four days after the end of the previous one. The Second Legion are reeling from a messy victory against the British and the prospect of continuing a campaign in which the battles get bloodier and bloodier with no sign of any let up.

Cato has developed nicely from the first novel in the series. He’s more confident at fighting, and following the rhythmic process of thrusting a shield out then goring a man in the throat. For a scholarly young man he’s surprisingly ineloquent at public speaking, especially in the position of second in command in his century which he stumbled into one novel previously. He is also dreadfully mournful of the departure of his young lover Lavinia and pines for her throughout the novel, using her image as a reason to fight. These flaws and fumblings build up to make a nicely rounded character. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for his centurion.

Macro seems to have gone backwards. For a series which is purportedly about both Cato and Macro, his character goes from the complex hard outer shell with a softer centre – like a crème egg – to a man who is as brutish and simple. Cato has evidently more on his mind than to worry about giving him reading lessons as the entire plotline regarding Macro’s illiteracy seems to have been ousted and the novel passes by with just one solitary mention of it. It’s a great shame in my opinion. Macro was a complex and interesting character, and all though he is now depicted as a fearsome warrior, who fights by day and drinks the best wine the legion can offer by night, he’s lost a sense of vulnerability which Scarrow had so carefully built up in the last novel.

I must admit, this is honestly my only criticism. The novel is leagues better written than the previous one. Scarrow has nicely ironed out the cliché and the bizarre turns of phrase. The pacing is a lot better, and the climax is rightly where it should be, at the end (and what an end it is!). The other notable improvement is the politics in the novel. Where Under the Eagle bogged down in convoluted details, The Eagle’s Conquest deals with politics in the way a good thriller should. The wonderfully evil Tribune Vitellius sees to it that only the protagonists see him as who he really is, while he has Emperor Claudius on all fours, with a length of string around his neck like a leash.

Overall, it still shows as a second novel but Simon Scarrow is definitely finding his feet as a novelist at this stage. While there are some shortcomings, the novel is succinct, interesting, gritty and exciting. But please read the first one before this one.

The Eagle’s Conquest can be found on Amazon.co.uk from £2.49 and on Amazon.com from $0.99

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The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, Reviewed by Alexicon

FringesThe expression goes ‘never judge a book by its cover’. But John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids goes far beyond that. The cover in question is the image in the top left corner. It’s his name, in block caital letters, the title underneath and then an image of an alien lizard thing. It’s green. It has crab claws. It’s wearing armour which looks like it fell out of an early episode of Doctor Who and it’s carrying a rather brutal looking mace. One would surmise, and rightly so seeing as this alien sounding name is written above an alien looking creature, that it is a Chrysalid. One would be wrong.

This book has nothing at all to do with this apparent depiction of Chrysalids whatever they might be. This creature does not get a mention in the entire two hundred pages of novel. In fact, nothing even remotely like this creature gets a mention in this novel. But here I am, judging a cover by its book. A grossly misleading cover, I might add. But nonetheless, it’s a good book.

The Chrysalids is a novel about a boy called David Strorm who lives in the closeted, fundamentalist Christian village of Waknuk, in a futuristic projection of Labrador, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The villagers are obsessed with what they refer to as purity. A true form of person, if you will. Any deviation which crosses their path, they destroy. If a field is deemed to have too many variants from what is considered the norm, then it is burned. If a baby is born and is not considered the norm, then it is killed, and the mother is punished. David, as a child, meets a girl called Sophie, who has been living with the secret of having an extra toe on each foot and over the course of the novel he comes to realise he doesn’t fit the norm as well as he thought he did. David, and a collection of others from the village can communicate with each other with what they call thought shapes. It’s telepathy by another name, but it immediately put David and his friends in danger.

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Certainly a better cover!

The book is good. The characters are interesting and well rounded; the plot is interesting, if a little predictable. As per with Wyndham’s work, there is a sense that everything will be okay. It came through very strongly in the Day of the Triffids that there was never any real danger to the protagonists and it feels similar here. The characters are too good at surviving for there to be any real urgency. It was this, perhaps, which made it such a demotivating read for me. It’s a book which you can put down. It just doesn’t carry you very well. I think the concept is very imaginative, and the characters portray it well. The sense of oppression is excellent and the communication between the characters is fantastic. But for me it can’t really carry it.

In the USA, this book is called Re-birth. It’s a title which makes a lot more sense to me. Potentially, it’s possible to surmise The Chrysalids is a reference to change, changing situations, attitudes, lives. It’s a novel about change. But as a title it’s an abstract way of saying this. It’s not often I prefer the American titles of novels but in this case I do. The cover on the other hand, I cannot see what it has to do with the novel, but thankfully, it’s hardly a point to stick at. Just be careful if you have an old Penguin edition of this book. I came into the novel expecting one thing and was left confused at the end and the cover was a large influence on my expectations.

Nevertheless, Wyndham writes brilliantly. His narrative style is relaxed yet interesting, he manages to avoid cliché neatly, while giving insightful commentary on a violent and twisted society brainwashed by their obsession with perfection. The novel was first published in 1955; I’d hedge a bet that he was drawing influence from the Nazi Aryan ideal. Overall, it’s worth a read, it’s a very interesting concept and well told, if a little slow, but it’s definitely worth the time spent reading it.

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Apologies for the lateness of this review! I’ve had a fair bit to do this week. I will also be missing next week’s review post and all of my P365 posts as I will be away on holiday. So expect a load of posts next weekend. 🙂

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Wan Hu’s Flying Chair by Richard Marggraf Turley, Review by Alexicon

1844712931book.qxdWan Hu’s Flying Chair is an anthology along the same strain for me as Your Brother’s Blood by David Towsey. Having said that, it does not feature any wild-west vistas or undead soldiers, it is only related by the profession of the authors, who are both tutors at Aberystwyth University. This is Richard Marggraf Turley’s third published collection of poetry after Whiteout, co-authored with Damian Walford Davies and The Fossil Box, his first solo project.

It stands to reason therefore that this collection should be a strong example of poetry from a seasoned poet. And it certainly lives up to expectations. The collection as a whole weaves its way through several themes from the exotic to the arts and delves into the cultures of Caribbean islands and ancient China. There is a natural sense of the exotic intertwined with astrology and science. Wan Hu, was a Chinese official who is said to have been the first astronaut. He crafted a chair and attached forty-seven rockets to it in the hope of visiting the moon. The story has been discredited as apocryphal, but the ideas it brings forth make for an interesting and unusual collection.

Margraff Turley’s use of language was a feat in itself. The way the words fall onto the page brings each poem to life in an almost sensual way. The language plays with you. Every single word knows its quarter and the structure of each poem is meticulous. One line which particularly stuck in my mind was in the section ‘Life Classes’ in the poem ‘Female Nude with a Mask’ where the word manipulation is cleverly split with a hyphen, leaving us with the line “torso of a man-“ followed by “ipulation” of light at the start of the following stanza. This trick with hyphens, which jars your reading slightly and deliberately was an extremely effective technique early in the book, but perhaps used to less great effect in the later half.

I do feel that the first half is the stronger half, though some of the sequences were very interesting and there were imaginative phrases all the way through. The way he writes about the natural world is exceptional and certain poems really stuck in my mind. ‘Seventh Moon,’ ‘Billiard Ball’ and ‘Beach’ were particularly good to read, but my personal favourite was ‘Islands,’ dedicated to his former co-author Damian Walford Davies with its wonderful final two lines.

“Let’s ride to the Pineapple Islands.

Perhaps there’ll be pineapple people.”

Wan Hu’s Flying Chair is available on Amazon.co.uk from £8.59

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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Review by Alexicon

OnChesilBeachIan McEwan has a way with words most other writers can only imagine having. He has an almost Joycian level of complexity with his style, but it seems somewhat more accessible. On Chesil Beach is a novella full of this level of writing. It’s very impressive to read.

But does that make it worth reading?

The novella follows the two lives of a couple of newlyweds. The narrative is primarily set on the evening of their wedding. Edward Mayhew is a ‘sixties businessman, and Florence Ponting is a nationally recognised violinist. There is disparity between the two sides of the relationship. Florence is asexual, Edward isn’t. Progress is slow through the book as about three-quarters is given over to just the night of their wedding and flashbacks about how and where they met and segments regarding the development of their relationship. The remaining quarter rushed through most of the rest of Edward’s life. It reminded me of a cycling sprint race where they look over their shoulders at each other for most of the duration of the race then go like hell for the last forty seconds. However this section seems to be more of an epilogue than an end, and as such, it works quite well and leaves you with something to think about after you’ve finished.

One issue I had was the characters as neither Edward nor Florence come across as particularly likeable. Where this isn’t necessarily an issue in a lot of fiction, I find in here it becomes one because of how close you are to the characters. Almost every action, inaction and thought they display as their wedding night is described. You’re inseparable from their being. Again, it’s clever, but it’s not a place I as a reader felt comfortable in. The novella did make me feel uncomfortable in places. The detail is extremely graphic and each emotional response bears a lot of weight. But I didn’t enjoy reading it in the same way I have enjoyed other books. Perhaps it’s too real; the slow motion aspect of the novel leaves nothing to your imagination. It lays every detail on the bed and asks you what you think about it. Or perhaps I was simply frustrated with the two characters. Florence seems very self-obsessed. She talks about how the thought of sex with her husband revolts her. Edward is completely oblivious and naïve to any possible other way of thinking as well. It begs the question of why the couple thought they’d be good for each other at all.

It’s worth remembering that this novella is set in 1960’s southern England, it’s a different world to where we are now, post war, rationing may even have been in effect in some parts of the country. Edward fits into the Angry Young Man persona. He’s been denied fighting in the war due to the fact he was born during it and his tension is released in the form of arousal. The characters are oil and water and both have flaws which mean you cannot really side with either. It’s an interesting novella and the writing is shocking, beautiful and very well thought out. I couldn’t enjoy the book. But I could definitely appreciate the author’s skill in writing it.

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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, Review by Alexicon

the-lifeboatThere can be no doubt that The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, is an interesting an engaging read. But whether or not I actually like the book is a different matter. The novel, narrated by the rather prim Mrs Grace Winter, is her memories and recollections of the sinking of The Empress Alexandra, a transatlantic cruise ship, and her time floating aboard an undersized lifeboat with thirty-eight other people, a couple of years after the sinking of the Titanic.

As far as plot goes, there isn’t a huge amount of it, which is understandable due to the nature of the novel’s setting. The ship sinks; Mrs Winter finds herself in a lifeboat; they are eventually rescued, and then there is a court case surrounding some of the events which occurred on the boat. As such the novel really needs to be outstanding on atmosphere and character development. The former it excels at until they are rescued. The three quarters of the novel set on the boat are a harrowing recount of a group’s determination for survival amidst a seemingly hopeless backdrop of waves, sharing out knife caught fish, ship’s biscuits and water for the progressively decreasing figure of thirty-nine and the constant dissension amongst the passengers.

The latter on the other hand is severely lacking. Because the novel is written in first person and past tense there is a significant distance between the reader and the situation. It’s beautifully described but you cannot feel anything for the character who you are essentially watching through the particularly cold and disclosing eyes of Mrs Winter. There is very little engagement with the other characters on the boat and twinned with the truth that none of them, least of all the narrator, are distinctly likable; you can’t really feel for them. They end up just as objects. There is no sense of remorse for the dead, nor relief for the living. It makes the concept feel deflated. The other issue is that there are simply too many people on the boat to align with. Thirty-nine people are said to be on the boat. But you quickly forget those other than the key characters of Mrs Winter, Mr Hardie; the only seaman on board, the officious Mrs Grant and her dogsbody Hannah and the wet and annoying Mary Ann. I am certain that at least half of the characters on the boat are unaccounted for even at the end of the novel, so how can you care that they lived or died?

The novel seems to be trying to make a statement, but it doesn’t seem to know which statement to make. It extensively addresses feminism and suffrage, but as it appears to be leaning towards that it veers off into religion. I couldn’t even call it a novel about survival or trauma. It’s a novel about a selection of cardboard cut-out stereotypes who find themselves in an extreme situation. But it’s the situation which wins the awards, not the characters. To be honest, the boat left bobbing in the ocean at the end as the survivors departed on a fishing boat was the only character I truly missed. If the first three quarters existed without the final one and if the novel had been in third person then perhaps it could have been better. Unfortunately it had a lot of shortcomings. It’s real saving grace is the description and the tension Rogan creates. I feel it’s a divider of opinions and you can only really know what yours is after reading it.

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Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow, Review by Alexicon

isbn9780755349708-1x2aI was once again, much the novice coming into this series of books, I have an appreciation for historical fiction but I haven’t really explored it that thoroughly. It was interesting therefore to begin with a less commonly written about period of history: the second Roman invasion of Britain, rather than the more commonly written about, like the Plantagenet kings, or Caesar or Queen Victoria.

The novel follows two principle characters through their lives in the Roman army from living in Gaul and being attacked by barbarians to the invasion of Britain, a soldier mutiny and ther first battle on English soil. Macro is a powerful but illiterate Centurion who is a very strong willed person. He develops nicely from his introduction to Cato, the other main character, and inevitably is a student of literature and teaches Macro to read. Cato joins the Second Legion of the Roman Army as a Optio (a Centurion’s second in command) from the palace in Rome. He seems he would have been more suited to the libraries of the Roman palaces, yet somehow becomes a fairly formidable warrior by the end of the novel. The issue I had was there was very little character progression for Cato. He starts as an inexperienced and bumbling boy, elevated above his rank through a favour from the emperor and ends as a well deserving war hero. It could be put down to being a natural, but it seems too far a stretch of the imagination to me. The training of the soldiers is almost entirely glossed over, which innately is not a bad thing – endless chapters of sword drills and building base camps would be very tiresome indeed. But because there is so little mention of Cato’s training, his military prowess seems hard to explain.

Simon Scarrow is a former history teacher, and Under the Eagle is his first published novel. Unfortunately, it shows. It’s good to a point but it falls short in several areas. My first reading session ploughed through half of the novel, during which the main characters are introduced and sent off to deal with a small matter of legal business at a nearby German village. This quickly escalates into a brilliantly described battle. The problem is, is that this isn’t the end of the novel. The true climax at the end (which dealt with the first battle in Britain) felt somewhat anticlimactic in comparison. It had significantly less air time than the German skirmish and was less enticing to read. It didn’t make it bad, just not quite as good as the climax in the middle had been. It left the novel rather bloated and misshapen. There are frequent jarring moments throughout the novel as well, particularly in dialogue: Macro yells to a barbarian soldier “Piss off you bugger!” which sounds considerably too upper middle class British than you’d expect of a 43AD Centurion sticking a sword in a German’s throat. The politics in the novel are another point which I found somewhat lacking. The main political twists were either lacklustre or predictable and overall the writing felt somewhat unfitting in comparison to the action sequences. Macro’s reaction to the politics is what I found most interesting. Being illiterate, he cannot read the messages and cannot sign his papers. His slow understanding of the politics behind the army is a very nice touch.

One commendation I have is the historical accuracy of the novel. The Second Legion (of which Macro and Cato are part) march to invade Britain, and the events which pan out are as history dictates. The research is second to none and the atmosphere (with the exception of some dialogue) is very Roman, and creates an excellent feeling within the novel. It is obvious that Scarrow truly knows this period of history.

The reason I will be reading the next one is because despite the novel’s flaws I can definitely see potential here. Scarrow’s first novel will never be as well written as his seventh, but it’s the place to start if you are at all interested in getting into this series. I am hooked, and the other books will be reviewed in due course. Under the Eagle is an okay book, but it’s the prospect of this book with the promise of a seasoned and experienced writer in the future which kept me reading.

You can buy Under the Eagle from Amazon.co.uk for £5.72 and from Amazon.com for $13.36

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