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Review: ‘The Outcasts of Time’ by Ian Mortimer

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerOn the surface, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time has everything an historical novel should have.  It was full of sumptuous description, historical accuracy, and a well-developed protagonist used to illustrate his own zeitgeist.  It is a shame then that no strength of writing could make up for the one thing that The Outcasts of Time was really lacking.  A plot.

Within the first few pages, I was already worried that Ian Mortimer would go the way of so many historians turned novelists, and my worries were ultimately well deserved.  The Outcasts of Time gets so caught up in its own historicity that it forgets what it’s actually written for.  To tell a story.  Instead of a flowing narrative that goes somewhere and means something, instead, we are treated to a set of historical vignettes that read like a morality play for the importance of the study of history.  I’m a professional historian, so I’m all for that, but the setup was just so contrived that I caught myself physically rolling my eyes at moments.

I find it difficult to write too much more about the novel because nothing happened.  What makes this book great is the way that Mortimer brings the historical periods to life (with the exception of John of Wrayment’s foray into the 19th Century, which was just full of exposition rather than any real sense of time or place), but just giving me a good sense of history isn’t enough.  The protagonists skip from day to day, century to century, never really getting to know anyone, or really do anything except give us a snapshot of life in their times.  But if I wanted that, I would have read one of Mortimer’s exceptional non-fiction books. His Time Travellers Guide series is excellent! But a novel is more than just beautiful prose.

Ian Mortimer’s ultimate aim in writing The Outcasts of Time is summed up by one quote, that is often repeated at the end of the novel:

The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom.

It’s a bit on the nose, but that’s the ultimate point.  History is important, and we are all the sum of what came before.  It’s an admirable thought, but it doesn’t make for gripping fiction without a strong narrative to lead us there.

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Review: ‘The Fourteenth Letter’ by Claire Evans

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire EvansNo one was more surprised by my enjoyment of Claire Evans’ The Fourteenth Letter than me.  It looked like the kind of book I would enjoy as a fun distraction, but nothing more.  And I was sorely in need of a fun distraction.

The Fourteenth Letter opens with a grisly murder.  What follows is an historical mystery with a classical twist, blending old world British Gothic with new world American ingenuity.  It was a book about madness, privilege and eugenics, and while it didn’t keep me guessing through the whole reading experience, it definitely swept me along for the ride.

I was impressed with Evans’ characterisation.  Her characters were deeply flawed, mysterious, but personable.  Their experiences created a sense of real personal growth.  The William Lamb of the end of the novel was virtually unrecognisable from the character we’d met at the beginning, but his growth and development were so natural that it really gave his character depth.  Savannah Shelton, the American gunslinger as well, was introduced as a rough and hardened criminal.  Even she proved to have real depth, while Evans’ masterfully omitted the details of her erstwhile crimes, leaving the reader to judge the character on her personality and deeds through the novel rather than her sordid past.  The remaining heroes were appropriately heroic, with the generic good-guy police constable who served to move the plot at an even pace, and the villains were appropriately dark and menacing.

The pace, plotting and characterisation, however, were belied by The Fourteenth Letter’s title and branding.  The cover is more evocative of a feminine gothic family saga/romance.  There was nothing that screamed historical murder mystery.  The titular ‘Fourteenth Letter’ as well, was introduced far too late in the plot for it to have any real impact or meaning.  This was the book’s biggest letdown.  The big reveal was hardly a reveal at all, as I hadn’t even known in was an option up until that point.

All in all The Fourteenth Letter was a strong entry into the historical crime genre.  It was a fun read that was equal parts cliché and original that was just really, really enjoyable.

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Review: ‘Rattle’ by Fiona Cummins

Rattle by Fiona CumminsRattle won’t deliver anything new or provide any unexpected twists and turns, but what it does provide is a pretty gripping read that I devoured in only a few sittings.  Fiona Cummins gives us a strong, albeit formulaic, addition to the crime thriller genre that seethes with menace and tension.

I don’t want to give a plot outline because I honestly think that it will detract from the reading experience.  But what this book does have is a pretty unique psychopath and a bevvy of damaged characters who are just trying to get through life the best they can.  We see the abduction of their children affect two families in very different ways, and best of all, Fiona Cummins has included some interesting details about dealing with Natural History collections and biological specimens.  As a former museum curator, I loved reading about that part of her story.

Rattle is full of rich descriptions.  There is one passage that I thought was so beautiful I just have to share it:

Ribbons and sheets of ossified matter.  Stalagmites and bridges.  Twisted plates and bony nubs… He stands alone in the hallway, and drinks in the glory of the skeleton in its glass case, mesmerised by its distortions, the incursion of bone into thoracic cavity, the calcified trimmings decorating his spine.  A young boy trapped in a prison of stone.

It makes the human body sound like a work of art.  I’d heard of Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive before under its more commonly used name, ‘Stone Man Syndrome’ but I didn’t know a lot about it.  Rattle managed to give it a human face as I realised how difficult it must be not just for the sufferer, but for the families who have to see their children become trapped in their own bodies.  The Frith family were strong, but damaged, and had very real reactions to the reality of living with a sick child.  The Frith’s grew as characters as the novel progressed, and I was impressed with the reality of their emotions and the way Fiona Cummins wrote them in a way that ensures empathy rather than pity.

DS Etta Fitzroy was an interesting character herself, although not entirely original.  Every crime novel these days needs a disgraced detective with a tragic backstory, so she seemed more like an archetype than a real, fleshed out character.  She also made stupid mistakes unbecoming of a detective that felt contrived to bring a bit more tension to the narrative rather than for any reason that made sense to the story.  It was moments like these that brought the quality of Rattle down for me.

For me, my biggest disappointment with Rattle was its lack of any real resolution.  I’m not sure if Fiona Cummins was setting it up for a sequel or to become a series, but because of this, the whole novel felt somehow, unfinished.  Instead of making me want to desperately pick up the next book when it’s written, it made the preceding parts of the story feel somewhat lacking.  I just needed more from it.  I needed more explanation, more detail, more motivation and more resolution.  The ending betrayed what had, up to that point, been a stellar novel.

All in all, Rattle was a gripping, enjoyable read.  But if you’re looking for something groundbreaking that will reinvent the genre, then you’ll have to keep looking.  While the villain was interesting and unique, the plot, in general, was on crime thriller rails.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know where it’s going.  But at least you’ll enjoy the journey.

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Review: ‘Perfect’ by Cecilia Ahern

Perfect by Cecilia AhernPerfect is the second (and it seems final) book in Cecelia Ahern’s Young Adult Series Flawed.  Everything that made Flawed such a surprise was still there, but somehow Perfect just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Celestine North was the perfect teenager until she runs afoul of the law by standing up for an elderly gentleman on a bus who just happened to be branded Flawed by an all-powerful government entity called The Guild.  Branded Flawed herself for the infraction Celestine finds herself the unwitting figurehead for the movement to destroy the guild.  On the run, with no one to trust, Celestine must find the evidence to clear her name, and stand in defence of all the other Flawed.

There is nothing new or original here.  It’s every YA dystopian novel ever written, all amalgamated in to one.  There wasn’t anything original in Flawed either, but because of the strength of the writing and the narrative style it was easy to forgive.  Perfect has as many moments of tragic, visceral violence as its predecessor, and has just as many truly emotional moments that kept me reading in to the wee hours of the morning.  So why then could I not enjoy this one as much as the first?

Cecelia Ahern made one mistake with Perfect.  She broke the fourth wall.  She made the mistake of using current pop culture references in her narrative which broke me out of my suspension of disbelief and brought the whole plot and concept come crashing down around my ears.

When something is set in a similar society with its own rules and logic I can believe how entities like the guild come to be.  But when an author suggests that this fantasy world is somehow akin to my present, then there had better be some really deep and well thought out world building to make me believe it.  But there wasn’t.  So I didn’t.

As soon as the one flaw comes out in a book the house of cards that was narrative believability came crashing down.  All of a sudden, I was thinking about what was happening in the rest of the world.  Why is the UN not stepping in for human rights violations?  Why on earth would people allow this dictatorship to start in the first place, especially since they still have a democratic voting system and the Flawed are still allowed to vote?  As soon as I was reading a book about my world, and not some alternate fantasy world, the questions just kept coming and coming and the book failed to be in any way believable.

Celestine was still a decent character, but I still needed more development of the satellite characters.  There was a feeble attempt at a love triangle that went nowhere, and Celestine’s relationship with Carrick was just not developed enough to convince me that they’d do everything that they did for each other.

Perfect wasn’t bad, and it did bring the two-book series to an end in a satisfying way.  Despite its flaws, Flawed is still a much better series than Divergent and was really fun to read.  I read the book in a day, because I just needed to keep reading to see how it ends.  No matter what else I say about the book, that’s probably the most important.  It was enjoyable. (If not entirely believable).

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Review: ‘Under a Watchful Eye’ by Adam Nevill

Under a Watchful Eye Book CoverI’ve long been a fan of Adam Nevill, so when Under a Watchful Eye was released my expectations were naturally high.  When I started reading, I must admit I wasn’t entirely sold.  The book has a slow moving, brooding narrative, and I found myself at one point thinking I’d need to come back to it when I was in more of a leisurely reading mood.  But I kept reading, and the experience was better for it.  The dread was palpable, and the way Nevill writes is darkly beautiful with a lyricism that you rarely see in horror novels.

Seb Logan is a well-known horror writer, working on his new book from his comfortable seaside home.  His idyllic life is crashed into disarray when a friend from his past appears and threatens everything Seb has worked so hard to achieve.  What follows is a descent into the darkest recesses of the self, where Seb must confront sinister forces from within and without.

Adam Nevill taps into the everyday fears we all have and writes them in a way that makes them terrifying.  We, as readers, see ourselves reflected in his characters and that is what makes his works so frightening.  His prose is florid and expressive with an originality that makes him a unique writer in the genre.  He is descriptive in a way that builds his world naturally, without forcing too much information on the reader.  The fact that we can build our fears into his descriptions is what gives the weight of real horror.  With an antagonist like Thin Len (who will no doubt visit me in my dreams for many nights to come) he is so terrifying because he will appear differently to every reader.

The characters in Under a Watchful Eye are not the most deeply developed.  Some appear only for a few pages before disappearing into obscurity, and the motivations of some others I found to be a little ambiguous in places.  At first, this is what made me enjoy the book a little less, but the more I read, the more I realised that it was essential to making this novel so chilling.  Seb is a character who is trapped, and by minimising his interactions with other characters, it only serves to heighten the feeling of isolation that surrounds him at almost every turn and makes us question his sanity, just as the characters around him do.  We experience Seb’s subjective reality, one that Nevill manages to make real in all its terrifying and grotesque glory.

Under a Watchful Eye felt a lot more subtle than Nevill’s previous works which initially threw me.  But once I was engrossed it proved itself to be a creeping tale of horror that was both visceral and stimulating. It was a story that blurred the line between life and death and fiction and reality with allusions to one of his previous novels, Last Rites, that help tie everything masterfully into his fictional universe.

Adam Nevill is a master of horror and a writer that every reader who considers themselves a fan of the genre should become acquainted.  Under a Watchful Eye has proven his versatility and talent as a writer and is a must read.

 

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Review: ‘Fir’ by Sharon Gosling

Fir - Book CoverSharon Gosling’s Fir was an interesting addition to the already extensive collection of YA horror, but like many books in the genre didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Fir tells the story of the Stromberg family, who leave their comfortable inner city Stockholm life to move to a remote tree farm where the Stromberg patriarch hopes to rebuild the lumber business.  But there is something out in the old growth forest that begins terrorising the family, while they try and survive the harshness of Sweden’s remote winters.

There were some fascinating elements in Fir.  The forest had character, and the descriptions of the woods, the cold, the dark and the isolation were incredibly well rendered.  There were some promising moments with the introduction of old world mythology which had the potential to make this a much deeper story and Gosling took the opportunity to make some important and tactful observations about environmental ethics without coming across as forceful or on the nose.

Unfortunately, despite these elements, Fir utterly failed to be believable.  Within the first few pages, it had already fallen into the YA trap of choosing just to have unreasonably rubbish parents to mask the fact that it’s difficult to write a believable relationship between a teenager and a parent once you’re past the age where you no longer rely on them.  I say difficult, which is why so many YA authors just either omit the adults of the story entirely (I’m looking at you Leo Hunt) or make them such caricatures of bad parenting that the focus naturally sways toward its teenage protagonists. Their reactions to situations and lack of communication with their daughter were simply not believable, and so made the plot feel entirely contrived.

One of the most effective elements was that the plot developed to allow for some ambiguity as to the truth of the ‘supernatural’ occurrences in the book.  I liked this, as it left it entirely open to interpretation, and made the premise of isolation even more frightening.  Letting the characters’ experiences speak for themselves made the local mythology even more interesting, as it highlighted how remote isolation could give rise to fears like these.  Had the book ended before the appendix I might have rated it far higher, but instead, Gosling chose to spoon feed the readers a supernatural ending that detracted from the whole narrative.  A book is only as good as its ending, so had it ended a few pages earlier, it would have been a much better book.

Overall, Fir was a quick and easy read.  It wasn’t particularly cerebral, certainly didn’t bring much to the YA horror genre, but was most definitely full of unrealised potential.  The plot had the potential to be unique with a critical message about environmental responsibility,  but instead just read as a generic supernatural YA story about bad parenting.

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