Review: The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1929)

image002Imagine you are invited to a party at a country mansion only to find yourself the following day as a prisoner. Well, that’s what happens to Dr George Abbershaw and a group of London’s brightest young things when they accept an invitation to a party at Black Dudley. During a parlour game someone is murdered and things from there on in turn a little dark.

This novel is the first introduction of Albert Campion, though he only appears as a supporting character. But this appearance did lead on appearances in  another eighteen novels and twenty short stories.  It’s interesting that throughout  Dr George Abbershaw is the main focus. You can see, I think, where Allingham is trying to make him a detective but it is Campion who really does steal to the show.

His appearances have energy and charm whereas Abbershaw is a little more sedate and traditional. Speaking of sedate and traditional I thought that Allingham was going for a cosy country house murder but she goes darker. She unmasks a plot that puts that everyone in danger, and if it has been written now, it would have been bloody but Allingham managers to keep the restraint but keep the danger. I was actually surprised now dark she does go. I do wonder what the audience of the time would have made of The Crime at Black Dudley if she had crossed the line?

As introductions go Allingham makes you want to know more about the mysterious Albert Campion, as well as solve the mystery he finds himself tangled in. It’s quite a fun tale with twists and surprises that keep you reading. It is nice to see a darker classic crime tale and I’m now curious to see what Allingham does with Campion in The Mystery Mile.

Review: Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan (2015)

9780356501123-2Reading a popular author always sets expectations. Mostly the one that my unconscious sets for me is, ‘please let this book/author be good.’ Notice I said ‘good’ not ‘outstanding’. Don’t get me wrong I want to read something that’ll blow me away but I don’t mind reading a work that keeps me moving along with the characters and makes me feel at the end that I’ve spend my time in a pleasurable way.  I could have said memorable but I’ve read lots of books that I can no longer remember in detail.

Thief’s Magic is my first Trudi Canavan novel so I had no expectations above ‘please be good’.  I don’t know how she’s told her previous tales so I have no experience to compare this against. Thief’s Magic has a great start, a good ending and a middle which feels like it’s going from A to Z using an faulty sat nav.

It’s an ambitious tale to be sure. We swap between two characters and two worlds. Both have different but intersecting takes on magic.  In one world we follow Tyren, a student of archeology, who finds a sentient book called Vella, and watch as he struggles to keep her safe. In the other we meet Rielle who has been taught that the use of magic is to steal from the Angels.

Through a series of events each becomes an outsider to their respective societies, which brings me my big issue with the narratives. It often feels like Canavan is kicking the plot along the road or trying to fill time before we get to the end.

I honestly don’t know which it is but ultimately it doesn’t feel smooth. It is trying to do something different so it needs some analyse, as far as I can without spoilers, because there is a veil in the story, which gets lifted at the end, and does make it worth reading.

The real issue is that the two interweaving stories are different paces. One is focused on an adventure and one is focused on the impact of a new relationship: so one is high-paced and one is slow. Both stories contain elements of adventure and romance and I don’t have a problem with the romance. It’s nice to see that. It works and make sense.

The trouble is when you get to the end and know what was planned you may have a different view of the middle. If each story had been released on their own it wouldn’t have worked either. Canavan has set up an opposition which will make for a interesting collision if, though more likely when, they collide.

But to get them to the end they have to be in certain places and it feels that the journeys are a little forced. And going from ‘fast’ to ‘slow’ and back again shows up the limitations of both narratives and the way in which they’re told.

Overall, it’s a good experiment which doesn’t quite work. But the plusses are the application of theories around the source and use of magic does  show that Canavan has a clever imagination. It also has  characters whose stories you care about. Maybe if it wasn’t a trilogy this part would have been tighter though I don’t know what you’d cut or what you’d add that could possibly replace what you be removed. Guess I’ll know after reading Angel of Storms, which is out in November, what Canavan has planned for Tyren and Rielle

What I’ve Been Reading #3

I’m going to do my best to make this a weekly post, so I’m sorry for missing last week. I’ve got a touch of readers block. I’ve been reading Night Lamb by Jack Vance as you’ve seen but I’ve not been feeling it. The promise of the blurb vs that slow movement and focus of the tale itself. I even skipped a few chapters to see where it was going but it remains with a teenagers struggle, which I just can’t seem to get into.  All this means that it has turned into a slog to pick up.  I don’t think you can’t knock me for trying to keep moving but I think it’s time to officially put it aside at page 93.

The other thing that’s making me struggle, and this is an issue I hope other book bloggers recognise, is having a small pile of books to review. I’m going to make time to get the pile reviewed so I’m planning  five reviews coming Monday to Friday this week. This might sound odd but if I can a book waiting for review I can read another genre before I’ve written the review but not the same genre, and as I have a fantasy, crime, comic and two re-reads waiting I’ve run out of options. So hopefully getting this done will get rid of the block.

As way of slight exploration why the reviews are outstanding so long is that I’m 4 weeks into a new job that has me going a completely new role and new hours and leaving me mushy-brained during the week. So hopefully that’s going to level out.

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I’ve been doing a dash of non-fiction reading too. I’ve been reading more from What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton and The Complete Lenormand Oracle Handbook: Reading the Language and Symbols by Caitlin Matthews. I like Jo Walton’s style of writing about books she’s been re-reading the only thing that worries me is how much she’s read that I’ve never heard of. So, so, so much I’ve also been trying to get my head into Lenormand. I mentioned a few posts ago that I reviewed tarot cards well Lenormand is a cut-down set of playing cards with a symbol on each card, which is unlike tarot as that had an extra 26 cards on top of those used as playing cards. It’s an interesting learning curve.

I have snuck in a short story from the Fearie Tales collection. “Find My Name” by Ramsey Campbell is a gem. It’s very spooky and I think it’s my first Campbell. It’s not gonna be my last.

I’m going to be reading more short stories as I’m so excited to get a review copy of China Mieville’s new collection Three Moments of an Explosion.

 

What have you been reading?

Once More Round the Discworld & Once More to Long Earth

I probably will never write in detail about the effect that the Discworld had on me as a lonely 16 year-old but knowing that the 41st Discworld novel will be the last is oddly comforting though obvisously still sad.  But you have to be in awe of a series that has sustained 41 books without losing the joy of knowing its characters are returning, even if it is one last time.

And speaking of returning, The Long Utopia which Terry co-wrote with Stephen Baxter, is the 4th Long Earth book and it’s out this month and I guess then, after the 5th one, which the guardian reports was finished in March this year, that truly is the end.

What I’ve Been Reading #2

I haven’t had much time to read the last couple of weeks, due to a new job and responsibilities, but when I have the time I’ve found it a bit of a struggle and I think that’s down to what I’m reading.

Night Lamp by Jack Vance

Don’t get me wrong Night Lamp by Jack Vance is an interesting book and I am enjoying it but it’s not built for speed. I’m going to carry on reading it but I might have to read something else interlaced with it. It’s one of those books where the pages don’t fly by.  I know it’s not meant to but as I’m feeling a little time poor but the pace is sapping the enjoyment just a little bit.

As far as the story goes at the moment it’s about an adopted ‘alien’ boy who wants to head back into space to find some answers about his childhood while his adoptive parents try to dissuade him to stick to the academic path they’ve set him on. I’m a bit eager for him to get to the bit when he leaves so I hope this ‘scene setting’ pays off.

I’ve finished my Harry Potter of the Philosopher’s Stone reread and it’s amazing how different it felt reading it this time. It’s still Harry Potter but it’s like reading an abridged version. It might be because in later books Rowling goes into the class room lessons in detail and builds the relationships between characters in a lot more depth. But here that level of detail is missing. Part of me wants Rowling to go back and right an expanded edition using all she’s learnt from writing the rest of the series and part of me thinks it is what it is.

And that’s it really. It doesn’t mean I haven’t bought more books as you can never have too many can you? I just need to find more time to read them.

What are you reading at the moment? You finding it swift or a struggle?

Review: The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs (2014)

The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

The quote on the back of The Incorruptibles is  from Patrick Rothfuss and goes likes this:

‘One part ancient Rome, two parts wild west, one part Faust. A pinch of Tolkien, of Lovecraft, of Dante. This is a strange alchemy, a recipe I’ve never seen before. I wish more books were as fresh and brave as this.’

There is no blurb. To be honest I’d buy it just from reading just that. Go on. There isn’t really any need for me to say any more. It does what it says and does it well. Oh, You want more? OK, but I really don’t see why you’re not sold already.

Westerns with (or without) a twist seem to be in the air at the moment. At least  with releases like Nunslinger, Your Brother’s Blood and  The Incorruptibles it feels that an area of the genre that is up for exploration a little more.

Though as you’ve seen Jacob Horner is taking his vision to the extreme. It feels like a ‘what if the Roman Empire had been mixed in with the Wild West but the Empire also powered their guns, and transport by devils and hellfire?’

As a premise it does allow Jacob Horner to play some genre conventions. It is still definitely a western. It has gunfighters, and Sherifs and a frontier.  The opening scene explains that our narrator and his working partner Fisk, are escorting a hellfire steamboat, Conelian, down the river. The boat contains a Senator and his children, two of whom are ghastly and two of them are decent enough considering their status and upbringing. But all of them, in terms of status, are  placed high above our protagonists.

Jacob Horner is having fun with the setting and its confines. He’s also playing with the idea of religion.  And that’s where it goes a little deeper and makes it more than a ‘pulp’ read. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said, it packs in the fun and adventure but at the same time it tries to explore the morality of the situation. No one is really ‘pure’ so all the characters are interesting, even the less savoury ones .

There are some inhuman characters, apart from the demons, which fill in as the ‘enemy’ but even there something doesn’t quite add up. That is something which I hope the next book, Foreign Devils,  will poke at a little more.

To echo Rothfuss: This  fresh, fun and packed with a new mix of old ideas. Definitely read it if you like the sound of a gun-carrying adventure in a crazy world.

What I’ve Been Reading #1

I post a lot on twitter but the only books I’ve ended up blogging about recently are ones I’ve finished writing reviews for.  By only posting reviews I  miss out talking about the ones I’ve been dipping into or not got around to reviewing formally. So, I’m going to have a go at  writing about the other books; books that are coming up or books which take my fancy, and see how that works out.

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First up is The Innocence of Father Brown. I’ve only managed to read the first story so far and, to be fair, I was a little bit unconvinced by the farcical nature of it. That was until we got properly introduced to Father Brown at the end. I’m looking forward to reading more.

Speaking of classic crime I’m about a third into The Crime at Black Dudley, it’s my first Margaret Allingham and my introduction to her detective Albert Campion. As so often with her contemporaries she’s using another guest to be the eyes of the investigation and giving an outsiders view of Campion. It’s not the most flattering view though that’s more telling of the narrator than the character of Campion.

I’ve just finished Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan, it’s another first, and it joins Jingo by Terry Pratchett and The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs on the to-be-reviewed pile. I will say of Thief’s Magic that I did and didn’t enjoy it. It’s trying to be different, with a different take on heroes and fantasy worlds and magic but it used two contrasting threads that make it hard to get the weave right and I struggled a bit with the comparison. The ending though is a proper cliffhanger for both characters involved.

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A background fascination in my reading is going back into science fiction’s past. Luckily the SF Gateway makes that such an easy task. For example, I was reading the introduction to In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight, which collects his critical writing from 1950-60-ish, and it mentions the Science-Fiction Handbook by  L. Sprague De Camp & Catherine Crook De Camp. Now in the past, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t have bother tracking down a second-hand copy but a couple of clicks later and there it was, ready to be read. The thing about the De Camp book is it contains an essay giving lots of thought into the embryology of science fiction pre-1900 and it’s something I’d never had read without the SF Gateway, so hats off to them. I’m still working my way through both books but greatly enjoying them.

The last book to mention is my unintentional rereading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It might have been seeing the new covers from last year in the shops a couple of weeks ago, which put the idea in the back of my mind, or maybe it’s just one of those things. Anyway, I bought the ebook when Pottermore was first available to test out the online shop and see how it integrated with Amazon (it worked flawlessly btw) but not got round to reading it. I was looking over the books on my kindle trying to figure out my next ebook (I try and keep one paper novel and one electronic novel on the go) and I wondered if it would still be any good so many years later. The answer to that question is YES. Especially as I’m easily over half-way and really want to stay with Harry until the end of this book, though I might have read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soon after.

That’s my reading, what about you?

All Change? Official Hello

I come from  the generation of teenagers that emerged just as the internet was becoming accessible. My first online connection at 16 was via telephone modem dial-up, meaning a file the size of an MP3 song would take the 30 minutes to download. It also cost you money for every minute you were connected. It’s now something we take for granted.

I also grew up in a place where my only source of books were the shelves in  a small town Smiths or the library, both of which provided a good starting point but it took the reviews in SFX magazine to help me find what I liked as a 16 year old SF reader.  Being able to order books to be delivered, thought Smiths charged me a £1 every time, meant I was a little wider read. Again, now knowing about the ‘right’ books, and having (relatively) cheap and ready access is something easily taken for granted.

I was one of the first wave of book bloggers to get publishers to take the idea of using passionate readers to promote books seriously. Up until then you had to be review  for ‘traditional  media’ and for me that started with poetry magazines before leaping ahead a few years to the student union newspaper (I went to uni later than my peers, which is a story for another time). In the middle (2000-2004)  I had reviewed Tarot cards (another story for another time) for websites and had received review copies of  products so it wasn’t impossible but it wasn’t something publishers did.

Now, of course, book bloggers are seen as an engaged community who are embraced by publishers to spread new, and recently republished, books into the hands of readers, so again it’s now taken for granted that there are such things as book bloggers.

I couldn’t now imagine a world without the internet, nor can I imagine a world without being able to download a book instantly (though I really should restrain myself as it’s way too convenient ) and I couldn’t imagine a world without a book blog. I have tried but I always find my way back.

I’ve run a few of them: NextRead.co.uk was the first; followed by GavReads.co.uk; with a sidetrack to NoClocksAllowed.com; and now I’m focused on CwtchBooks.com. It’s a kind of evolution of my thinking about book blogging. The first was to look ‘professional’ (remember it was the days of not being taken ‘seriously’), the second was more personal, the sideline was an attempt to widen the view of fantasy and science fiction, and Cwtch Books is going to be me occasionally inviting other readers to talk about books, as well as the usual reviews and comment pieces (something I’ve not done for ages). But mostly I’m aiming to be more relaxed and chatty about the books I’m surrounded by.

That’s a very long way of saying, officially, welcome to Cwtch Books. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Audiobook Review: The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan (2014)

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The Dark Defiles is final book of the A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It’s also the longest. The audiobook comes in at an impressive twenty-four hours. That’s a lot of story-time though in pages it comes in at 560, so not a doorstopper of a book, but it does allow Morgan space to explore the consequences of the first two books (The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands). The problem for this reviewer is that I can’t talk about most of it without ruining the efforts that Morgan has gone through to create a series of ‘oo’, ‘ah’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hell yes’ moments.

What I can say is that as an ending to an unconventional tale of heroism Morgan manages to keep control and place the reader in the right place but not until right at the end. Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and kir-Archeth Indamaninarma are definitely back to finish their respective fates.

The narrative is that Archeth has to recover a fallen Helmesman who delivers a warning which sets the trio on a state-sponsored, though mostly privately-financed, mission on the seas far away from home and from there nothing goes quite to plan.

If you’ve read the earlier two books then you’ll know that Ringil and Archeth make unconventional heroes. One is a deviant and outcast and the other is an immortal half-blood abandoned to life amongst the humans. Egar  is the nearest you’ll get to a traditional hero but he more the glue that binds Ringil and Archeth than a hero in his own right. Unlike in The Cold Commands he doesn’t gets his own thread here.

Fate is important as Morgan plays with the idea of perspective. The Grey Places,  where Ringil the Dark-Mage-in-the-making often visits, are timeless and adds a long view perspective which would be missing otherwise, another is (and this is a slight spoiler) that in their absence war is declared, like I said nothing goes to plan. So while we are following a quest of three people they are a nexus to which bigger events are rippling outwards from and reaching towards and spectacularly  colliding.

Morgan is intentionally setting out to take the model of Standard Epic Fantasy© and dismantling it before putting it back together again in his own way. By doing that it feels fresh but won’t alienate people who expect certain things from  Standard Epic Fantasy© like heroes and quests and swords.

Oh the swords, and another mild spoiler, there is another sword which isn’t the Ravensfriend. I like magical swords ever since I read about Elric and his soul-stealing sword the Stormbringer. Morgan definitely gives a nod to that concept on more than one occasion here

But it’s not completely without an injection of technology, as the Kiriath, Archeth’s people who abandoned her, it and the Helmsman to a fate without them. What the technology is ultimately useful for remains unclear but it does have its uses. For example, it resurrects one of the minor characters, making them creeping and disturbing from then on.

Thinking about it The Dark Defiles is an unsettling read. It has lots of disturbing moments, which aren’t in themselves shocking considering the grim nature of the world and the characters, but they culminate, and gain resonance – as mentioned the ripples go out as well as in and they colide at interesting times in interesting ways.

I’m going to restrain from a spoiler to illustrate the point but I was reading another story where one of the characters had said they’d never pick up a gun but at the end circumstances force them to hold and to fire such a weapon. But lets just say that circumstances (or fate) can lead you places you’d never willingly travel.

And that is the heart of A Land Fit For Heroes. You don’t know what you’ll do or where you’ll go until you’re forced into a corner and you have to make a choice. It is also about doing the unexpected when those choices are presented, about defying expectations and about being ‘human’.

I do have a few niggles, mostly with the use of time and how realistic that it is as a timeline for some events mentioned in recent history and the likelyhood for them to be actually  be ‘real’ given the timescales of other things but I can forgive that element of doubt as it’s a story about stories and the myths we create for ourselves. And I guess I’m using that as an excuse to brush those observations out of mind and out of sight.

The other things to mention are the pace and scale. In terms of pace as it is longer Morgan has given us an epic world-crossing tale and we follow characters across a map and even though it’s not a criticism it might help manage your expectations. The other is that it doesn’t build in scale. There are armies but there aren’t two armies on battefields screaming at each other. It’s much quieter than that, which is what I meant about leaving the reveal of the outcome until the very end. It’s frustratingly teasing, surprising and right.

Finally,  as I listened to the audiobook, I’d be remiss not to mention the acting skills of Simon Vance who again did a marvellous job of keeping all the characters sounding different, creepy, and alive.

The Dark Defiles is a masterful end to a rebuilding of the  Standard Epic Fantasy© Model during A Land Fit For Heroes though I’d give anything for an epilogue, even a little one.