Teenage Boredom Personified

Alecia Stone's "The Talisman of El"

Alecia Stone’s “The Talisman of El”

You know what? Some books on this literary challenge have really made me question my own belief system. Before I started this year, I was utterly convinced that I enjoyed reading fantasy fiction, whether it be YA or adult (I really don’t care which). Mind, I haven’t ever read a whole lot of it – my experience has mainly been limited to J. K. Rowling, Anthony Horowitz and J. R. R. Tolkien (all gods in their own right) – but from what little knowledge I had garnered previously, I thought the genre was a definite goer. But my goodness, since starting this challenge I have realised that the three authors listed above are simply exceptions: for the large part, I really cannot stand fantasy fiction, whether it be Jannicke Howard’s zombie apocalypse, Peter Hamilton’s science fiction, or Alecia Stone’s The Talisman of El, set in the small town of Capeton in West Sussex, which is what I read this week.

I can only assume that it’s my loss that I don’t ‘get’ this novel: it has been ranked fairly highly by a fair number of people (admittedly, seemingly as the result of some sort of book giveaway and thanks to reviews from the author herself) on Goodreads. Well, I warn you now, if I have any influence at all, the average rating is surely going to plummet.

Charlie Blake is 14 years old and has been in care for a long, long time, since the untimely death of his parents. What details do we have of Charlie’s background, his memories of his parents or any emotions attached to his childhood development? None at all, except that Charlie somehow managed to pre-empt his father’s death in a dream. Clumsy and convenient foreshadowing? Methinks so. Anyway, suddenly, out of the blue, Jacob someone-or-other has agreed to foster Charlie and things appear to be looking up: this is a man that is caring and emotional, especially when it comes to comforting Charlie after his continuing nightmares…oh, wait, no, he’s actually a murderous villain who blackmails Charlie into burgling people’s houses for him. Why? No idea. But anyway, stereotypical bad guy checkpoint reached.

West Sussex, on the south coast of England

West Sussex, on the south coast of England

Next thing on the fantasy fiction checklist: Charlie needs a sidekick if he is to successfully fight evil on the side of good. This is Alex, his teenage crush from his new school with whom he has awkward and stilted conversation for the whole of the novel. I don’t think it’s meant to be stilted and awkward, but rather witty and flirtatious…the less said about this novelistic failure the better.

Gradually, through this friendship, plus the arrival of some others (a homeless boy called Richmond – completely inconsequential to the story but apparently necessary to provide irritating and down-with-the-kids banter – and Derkein, who introduces Charlie & co. to the confusing, fantastical, parallel world of Arcadia) it is revealed that Charlie can predict the future, talk to animals, has a natural aptitude for all languages and is, in fact, not of this world at all. Dur.

There are several types of fantastical creature introduced to the reader on the youths’ quest for understanding – a quest which takes them to the centre of the Earth. No, really. It’s not even hot there or anything.

There are also several mythologies introduced – including Christian mythology (hint: a Jesus-the-Messiah type hero-complex and a Garden-of-Eden type knowledge-is-evil tedium) – which are very, very weird. Nothing really makes enough sense or is interesting enough to be recounted here. To be honest, it is a load of irritating rubbish. 1 star, and let’s be done.

Author Alecia Stone with her novel

Author Alecia Stone with her novel

In terms of any apparent West-Sussexness associated with the book, Charlie finds that the adults around him are all too pleased to be in the countryside away from “all that city noise” (15), whereas his peers can’t stand that “there’s nothing to do here but surf the net. It’s dead boring” (24). I suppose I could say something symbolic about the parallel universes experienced by children/adults – i.e. how each generation experiences the same locality in different ways – but the novel doesn’t really inspire that much interest within me. Stone simply emphasises the countryside around Capeton, where it was “seventy percent woodland and thirty percent civilisation” (61) and where the houses “looked like something out of a fairytale” (125). Fairly non-descript, as you can see.

Next week I’ll be reading The Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb. I loved her The Legacy, so I hope good things are in store once again. Join me then 🙂

 

STONE, Alecia. The Talisman of El. London: Centrinian, 2012

Featured Image: Tree tunnel, Halnaker, West Sussex

http://travel-fashion-sports.tumblr.com/

Deathly

Matilda Wren's "When Ravens Fall"

Matilda Wren’s “When Ravens Fall”

Since I’m running slightly behind in my reviews, I’m not going to dilly-dally too long on this one. I could not wait to finish Matilda Wren’s When Ravens Fall, set in Essex; not because I grew more enthralled with every page, but because it was, from beginning to end, a catalogue of uninspiring drivel.

What it tries to be is only vaguely interesting at best: a dark alternative to glamourous, bling-filled Essex. In this novel, Essex is a “pond” (8) where the fact that “everybody knew everybody” (47) and “inadvertently paths cross” (104) is dangerous rather than charming. The story centres around Sean Fergus, who grew up in “a council house on a run down and half derelict council estate” (64) and who now “supplied half of Essex with weed and ecstasy” (93) and a whole lot more. But as violent, evil and manipulative as Sean is, he has a soft spot – or perhaps an obsession – for Rachel. I’m all for dark, psychological thrillers, but that’s not what I got here.

This book is filled with all the melodrama, repetition, awkward description, cheap lust and poor editing that are inevitable when self-publication is made accessible to the masses. I don’t know why I keep bothering to read e-books – they’re all utterly irritating.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

Apparently, there’s a sequel. Can’t wait.

Next time I’ll be Reading Upside Down with Jo Platt for Hertfordshire. It’s another e-book (!) but somehow, I’m more hopeful.

WREN, Matilda. When Ravens Fall. Authorhouse, 2012.

Featured Image: Ravens http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven

 

Taken to Court

Victoria Lamb's "The Queen's Secret"

Victoria Lamb’s “The Queen’s Secret”

I suppose I should say first off, with my apologies, that historical fiction is not my favourite genre. The problem I find is that it’s just so unreliable, so hard to get right. Even the best-known examples can leave me feeling irritated and dissatisfied.

There can be too much history and not enough fiction, the product being as unfulfilling and detached as a textbook; or, even worse, there can be too much fiction which stretches and distorts the history until the story just seems absurd. Unfortunately, Victoria Lamb’s The Queen’s Secret suffers, in my opinion, from the latter.

It is set in the court of Elizabeth I during the summer of 1575, when she and her entourage visit Robert Dudley’s home, Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Robert Dudley, believed to have been Elizabeth’s favourite, and perhaps even her secret lover, puts on a lavish spectacle designed to win the Queen’s heart and his monarchical seat. As you might expect, however, several things get in the way.

Firstly, Elizabeth’s determination to ignore her desires, remain unmarried, and retain sole power over the throne. She depends upon her status as a ‘virgin queen’ (however mythical or untrue) to make herself –and England – an icon of strength and independence across Europe. Secondly, Robert’s illicit affair with Lettice, Elizabeth’s cousin, lookalike and lady’s maid. She cannot offer him the status he wants, but at least she is easier to bed than the monarch. And thirdly, the threats against Elizabeth’s life; there’s one at Kenilworth, and it’s about to play itself out.

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

Already, Lamb is on murky historical ground – her novel is not so much based on fact as gossip, as she admits in her Author’s Note, her own ‘dreams’. She alters facts to suit her own ends. But it gets worse when she designs, as her narrator, Lucy Morgan, a rare black servant to Her Majesty, whose crime-fighting, queen-saving sidekick is William Shakespeare as a child.

I mean…what? Talk about name-dropping.

In terms of the theme of place and space that I’m looking for in all these novels, I found relatively few quotes that were of interest. There was the usual city vs. country juxtaposition, with the countryside painted as “clean” (112) but “dull” (278) compared with the city, and with woods that are mysterious and “dangerous” (112). A similar ambivalence is shown in the attitude to Elizabeth’s court: life is both exceedingly grand and wholly “corrupted by […] dazzle” (186). As for nature, it is seen as a hassle – the sun causing skin to become “freckled” (120) in a way that subverts Elizabethan standards of beauty – and simultaneously essential for use as monarchical propaganda; Elizabeth’s PR chiefs “use [nature] to her advantage where possible; so here it would be said that her arrival drove out darkness and brought light back to Warwickshire” (43) simply because the clouds happen to clear as her carriage approaches Kenilworth’s walls.

In my opinion, it would have been better not to have bothered with the pretence of historical fiction at all – why didn’t Lamb just create her own fictional monarch and fictional court and fictional castle? Why not have made the whole thing a work of fantasy? It might have been a good story if it had been allowed to stand on its own two feet. As it is, it doesn’t work for me I’m afraid. 1 star.

Next week I’ll be reading Pollard, by Laura Beatty for Northamptonshire, which will, believe it or not, see us halfway through this Placing Myself challenge…

LAMB, Victoria. The Queen’s Secret. London: Corgi, 2012.

Featured Image: Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire.

http://edwud.com/ed-okeeffe-photography/2012/03/01/kenilworth-castle-from-the-west

Misspent Time

Peter Hamilton's "Misspent Youth"

Peter Hamilton’s “Misspent Youth”

If Peter F Hamilton really is ‘Britain’s No. 1 Science Fiction Writer’ (as the cover of my copy of Misspent Youth testifies) then the whole genre has got to have gone to the dogs.

Although I’m a big fan of some science fiction films, it has somehow happened that I have never actually read anything in this futuristic/intergalactic/parallel-universe vein before. Perhaps I picked up this novel with the wrong expectations; perhaps science fiction books work in different ways to the films; perhaps being eager for action, space travel, alien encounters and funky technology is naive, since all I got here was bad descriptions of sex, poor characterisation and a non-existent plot.

The novel is set in Rutland approximately 40 years in the future, so the technological differences between then and now are minimal: there are “tracker bracelets” (7) for children so they don’t wander off; the advanced “datasphere” (10) to replace the internet and a computer that can be worn on the face as “PCglasses” (27) so that you can surf and communicate while you walk. (Has Hamilton never heard of the smartphone?) Oh, and there’s Rejuvenation, where DNA is manipulated to make people young again. Yawn.

Peter F Hamilton

Peter F Hamilton

If Hamilton was trying to create a near-future Orwellian world of surveillance, political corruption and abandoned values he does seem to have some of the right ingredients. There’s the corrupt and power-hungry pan-European government “Europol” (24) that prides itself on its “monstrous technocrat attempt[s] at social engineering” (367); the datasphere system of file-sharing that “removed traceable identity from the electronic universe – and, with it, responsibility” (49) and the social expectation that everyone be “a fully-fledged modern bitch” (199) to get by – all of this presents Britain in the same “shit-awful mess” (77) Orwell envisaged in 1984. Or it would do, if Hamilton’s content actually inspired any interest from the reader.

The problem is, the novel is totally unoriginal and plagued by a completely jumbled mess of mediocre plot events that happen to two-dimensional characters who are only interested in cheap sex. Who was the main character? I don’t know. Who were we supposed to relate to or warm to? I don’t know. What was the point of the whole 439-page book? It did not have one.

The only mention of ‘place’ that is relevant to this Placing Myself challenge, is to say that where there were once “splendid views across the rolling countryside”, now there’s only “relatively low-cost housing; almost identical yellow-brick boxes with silvered thermoglass windows and shiny black solar-cell roof panels” (121). The old rural Rutland and countryside of England is now only the stuff of “legend” (209). Not exactly original or fulfilling. (Now extrapolate that feeling for the rest of the book.)

With this novel, you might as well forget Science Fiction: there’s very little Science to get excited about and the Fiction doesn’t stand up to much either. 1 star, I’m afraid.

Next week I’ll be reading Our Lady of Demerara by David Dabydeen. I have a feeling it’ll be good. Join me next time!

HAMILTON, Peter F. Misspent Youth. London: Pan Books, 2003.

Featured Image: Jim Burns’ original artwork for another of Peter F Hamilton’s works, Second Chance At Eden.

http://lcart3.narod.ru/image/fantasy/jim_burns/1.htm

Concentration Cramp

Michael Taylor's "Linden Woods"

Michael Taylor’s “Linden Woods”

This was a bad book.

I don’t usually like calling books ‘bad’; you’ll notice even the description of my 1-star category on this blog is “not my thing” rather than a direct criticism, such as “truly awful”. That’s because I usually believe that every book is valuable to someone, even if that someone is not me. However, even with that diplomatic mission in mind – even being as objective as possible – this book irritated me because of how poorly written it is.

At the time of writing, the only other book in my 1-star category is The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall (although I’ve been having thoughts about moving Money Can’t Buy Me Love down a peg into that section too) – my goodness, those like Nobel Prize-winners in comparison to this. Well, not quite, but if I could rate this book 0/5 stars, I certainly would. As it is, 1/5 stars is the limit.

That’s it then, really, isn’t it? You might as well stop reading this review now as I hope you’re unlikely ever to pick up Linden Woods by Michael Taylor for yourself, unless it’s during one of your particularly masochistic phases. I can’t even be bothered to describe the plot; it’s not worth it. Some might be interested in my justification though (especially the author, who will probably be appalled to find his average rating on Goodreads plummet thanks to my input. Awkward) so, for the few, here goes:

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

The novel is set in Dudley which, during the Second World War (the era Taylor concerns himself with here), was part of Staffordshire, in the Black Country. At the beginning of Chapter 2, we get a painfully boring and unoriginal description of the industrial city, “grey with the spoil of coal-mining”, “criss-crossed by railways” and filled with the sound of “the hissing and huffing of mineral-hauling locomotives and the shouts of men at work” (9). We get the odd lacklustre description of the surrounding countryside too, “abundant [in] fern and dotted with silver birches” (110). But apart from that, the art of descriptive writing seems to elude our author. Oh, except for during the sex scenes, when the adjectives and imagery seem to go a little overboard, selling the novel as cheap and tacky due to its lack of artistic worth in other aspects.

There is no comparison, juxtaposition, symbolism or allusion. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters because they were so poorly painted, indistinguishable from each other due to the fact that none of them were allowed an individual narrative voice, so constrictive was Taylor’s hold on his text. I had absolutely no interest in the plot, which didn’t seem to have any rise or fall – on the one occasion, towards the end, when I thought a bit of drama might arise, my hope was quashed as quickly as it had perked up. Quicker, in fact, since after 200 pages it was quite hard to work up any hope in the first place. I wasn’t convinced by the context; war novels are normally fascinating to me because of the emotion, trauma, violence and tragedy associated with that part of world history, but in Linden Woods there is practically no mention of ‘the horrors’ at all – it might as well have been set last week for the amount of escapism it allowed me. As for the romance…Bland. Truly bland. Is that more acceptable than ‘bad’?

Next week I’m reading The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe. Things can only improve! Join me soon again soon 🙂

TAYLOR, Michael. Linden Woods. Surrey: Severn House Publishers, 2007.

Featured Image: Enville Common, Staffordshire, as mentioned in the novel.

http://photogallery-uk.co.uk/4.html

Chancing ‘Chick Lit’

One of the reasons I started this challenge was to branch out in my reading, since my booklist over the three years at university – which is also fairly representative of my recreational reading up to this point – looks something like this:

graph

As you can see, less than 10% of books I have read in my life have actually been written during my life. If it’s not classical, canonical or critical, it’s a safe assumption that I have not had the chance to read it yet. Though I utterly adored my degree and feel privileged to have read so many great literary works, I was also desperate to experience something topical! ‘Maybe one day I’ll finally be able to read a current bestseller,’ I thought, ‘or catch up with Richard and Judy’s Book Club, or even buy a book I’ve never heard of, on a whim, simply because I like the look of it.’

"Money Can't Buy Me Love" - Julie Reilly

“Money Can’t Buy Me Love” – Julie Reilly

Enter Money Can’t Buy Me Love by Julie Reilly, my choice for Lancashire. I am thrilled (yet suitably apologetic) to say that I have never heard of it and chose it for the simple reason that, as I flicked through its pages, I got ridiculously excited at seeing the all-too-recognisable references to “Marks and Spencer” (49), “Facebook and Twitter” (85), “JK Rowling” (120) and “repeats of Red Dwarf on Dave” (125). As an interesting aside, it is yet another modern novel in this challenge that mentions 9/11: protagonist Linzi “visited Ground Zero and took the walking tour of the perimeter of the site, remembering the moment in 2001 when she had first heard that an aeroplane had crashed into the side of the World Trade Centre.” (72)

The book begins, though, in Blackpool, where clinically obese Linzi lives with loving boyfriend Adam. Throughout the course of the novel, she wins £13 million in the National Lottery; becomes selfish and ungenerous whilst obsessing over a new dangerous weight-loss regime that halves her body weight in little over a year; loses everything and everyone she loves in a quest for celebrity status; moves into a huge mansion in Cheshire “where the footballers live” (126); tries to kill herself when she realises she can’t win Adam back; moves away to Devon to get away from her problems and the press; finds true love and a real home in the countryside; and gradually redeems herself.

National Lottery

National Lottery

As that brief summary might suggest, Linzi lives a life that is all over the place, with no sense of home, comfort or belonging. Despite being dubbed by the newspapers as the “notorious vanishing Lottery winner from Blackpool” (362), the town inspires no special attachment in Linzi, who “only moved to Blackpool because [Adam] got a job here” (137). Her parents’ house is no safe haven either, since her mother criticises her weight at all opportunities. In fact, after her gigantic win, Linzi spends most of her time checking in and out of “drab and soulless” (375) hotels, unsettled in more ways than one. Most importantly, she cannot even find rest inside her own “container” (101), her body, because of the self-loathing her weight incites.

Reilly compares Linzi’s struggle to redefine the lines of her body with her failure to maintain the lines round her property or create a sense of belonging for herself; after finally settling (it seems) in Cheshire, members of the press repeatedly encroach onto her driveway and into her personal space, making the mansion feel like little more than an “expensive prison” (252) which she must “climb over the wall” (264) to access. Her own home becomes “out of bounds” (123) and a place of discomfort; she moves around the rooms “awkwardly” (208), intimidated as she is by the “ample formal reception rooms” (143), the “tufts of pink stuff” (205) in her own garden that she cannot identify and its “spinning steps” (236) that bring Mount Kilimanjaro to mind.

Linzi works tirelessly towards her own literal disappearance, to satisfy her self-loathing. Not only does she want to get thinner and thinner, but she makes herself invisible to the press by wearing disguises, staying away from her own windows or using discreet entrances and exits. She chooses to decorate her bedroom with carpet “so thick you could lose your toes in it” (163) to silence her own footsteps. On top of that, and aside from the suicide attempt (which would, most definitely, have removed her from her own story), Linzi’s body visibly shrinks – through the use of diet pills, anorexic eating patterns, brutal exercise plans and, in the final stages, plastic surgery – to a size eight; she all but vanishes before readers’ eyes. Through this theme, Reilly also criticises many aspects of society (including science and technology) for aiding this superficial obsession with the “magazine body” (12), through the development of

a)      “this number called BMI which […] was actually a measure of just how grotesquely obese you were, as if the number on the scales wasn’t enough” (23) and

b)      “Microsoft Excel”, which allows Linzi to live out her addiction by “set[ting] up a spreadsheet of her weight loss with a weekly target and a chart” (24).

The NHS's BMI Chart

The NHS’s BMI Chart

This self-elimination is directly contradicted at the end of the novel, when Linzi moves to Devon and “feels like [she’s] finally come home” (274). In the “psychologically more uplifting” (323) environment of the countryside, she throws herself into village life at all possible opportunities. Tellingly, one of the first things she appreciates about the houses (in contrast with her Cheshire mansion) are “the boundary walls between the properties”, which are not only clearly defined, but attractive and protected too, “constructed of local stones” (272). She can finally be at peace with her “container” (101) – in both her body and her property.

Reilly’s novel had some interesting characters and themes but the plot was not my cup of tea. At times, especially as Linzi’s life was spiralling steadily downhill in Cheshire, the narrative dragged a lot. There were several points at which I thought the novel was going to end, but then yet another tenuous twist occurred and Linzi’s obsession was allowed to sputter on. The intricate detail of Linzi’s weight-loss regime, while commendable in some respects, made the novel feel more like a how-to book for masochists. Perhaps this is because, as I learnt at the end, “like Linzi, [Julie Reilly] lost a great deal of weight, took up running and ran the 2011 Virgin London Marathon”. Overall, it was a new experience to read a book that was so relevant to modern life but I can’t justify giving Money Can’t Buy Me Love any more than 1/5 stars.

I’ll be reviewing Val Wood’s The Innkeeper’s Daughter soon, so pick up a copy or, if you’re modern, download one and argue the toss with me next week!

REILLY, Julie. Money Can’t Buy Me Love. Secret Cravings Book Club, 2012.

Featured Image: Central Pier, Blackpool by Andrew D Hurley

http://www.orangesmile.com/travelguide/blackpool/photo-gallery.htm

The Lethargy of Hartlepool Hell

I’m going to get the poor opinion I had of Paul Torday’s The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall out in the open straight away: fortunately, the fact that I found it a 1/5 star read makes a change from all my positive reviews so far; unfortunately, despite its setting, it has nothing insightful to say about County Durham.

The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall, Paul Torday

The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall, Paul Torday

In fact, the setting of this book seems distinctly unimportant and even ambiguous: we never get closer to the truth than that the Simmonds family – aristocratic Marquesses of Hartlepool – live somewhere “on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire” (4), in the “middle of nowhere” (7). The ‘north of England’ is mentioned offhandedly on a few occasions, but otherwise the minimal commentary Torday offers of the local landscape and way of life is extremely generalised and unfulfilling. I was surprised by the lack of attention given to basic descriptions of the story’s environments, especially as much of the plot focusses on the presence of strangers or “interloper[s]” (11) who, supposedly, see everything with fresh eyes.

The story centres on the character of Ed Simmonds, who returns from a villa in France to claim his inheritance – “the large Hartlepool estate and its enormous house” (4) left to him by his deceased father – only to find that the economic tide has turned and he is virtually bankrupt, with no means to keep up his ancestral palace. He is forced to sell it to a development corporation who plan to turn the building into a block of flats. Meanwhile, several unnecessary and completely irrelevant subplots emerge: Ed has a strange Lady Alice come to stay and must also fend off the attentions of his old and issue-riddled friend Annabel.

I suppose the point of the book boils down to the fall of the English aristocracy in the modern world, shown by Ed’s human decay – into “a man who was all grey: bloodless skin, grey hair, a man whose life was draining out of him” (80) – as well as that of Hartlepool Hall, “a house that represented everything that was great, that was imperial, that was commercial” (279) but that is now no more than “a joint on the butcher’s slab, waiting to be carved up” (130) into flats. The upper-class way of life is struggling to adapt to the modern consumerist world; Annabel, for example, finds herself “trying not to be distracted by the football match on the enormous TV” while she is trying to uphold her traditional respectability by “embroidering a tapestry cushion” (21). Similarly, the fairytale ending she dreams for herself has no mention of swords or stallions but, instead, her knight possesses a “Rolls-Royce and [a] Blackberry winking its red light” (19). Basically, think Downton Abbey but with “Nescafé” (200) and food from “Marks and Spencer’s finest” (211) range.

I wouldn’t have disliked this book so much if it had had something else – anything else – to offer, but there is nothing remotely interesting or original about it. The plot is simply all over the place, with too many far-fetched things going on. Despite this, somehow it still manages to seem slow and dull – that’s a real feat. Most frustratingly of all, there are just not enough descriptions of Hartlepool Hall to make us mourn its loss or even to make the ending remotely meaningful, so the whole point of the book is completely lost. Nor is there any flow; the whole novel is a mishmash of different scenes, characters and elements of the plot that seem to bear little relation to each other. Overall, I wouldn’t bother, if I were you. It’s bizarre. Just bizarre.

Next week I’m reading Only One Way by Jannicke Howard for North Yorkshire. Get reading so I can hear your feedback!

TORDAY, Paul. The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012.

Featured image: Blenheim Palace.

HTTP://EN.WIKIPEDIA.ORG/WIKI/BLENHEIM_PALACE