Where Falcons Fall by CS Harris

Each year I buy myself books as a birthday present. My financial situation at the time dictates whether I stroll out of the bookshop with a couple of novels nestled in my handbag or if I traverse carefully, knees bent, back braced, trying not to topple over under the weight of soon-to-be dusty volumes. In recent years it has been the former, but however many stories I manage to gift myself there is always a certain series included. For my birthday I always buy myself the latest Sebastian St Cyr novel.

falcons-fall-225-shadowThis blog is not devoid of Sebastian reviews. The series is one of my very favourite things to read – a thoroughly enjoyable experience I look forward to with giddy excitement. The books also rank in my mum’s favourites and even though we currently live very far apart (England and Australia) I still pop each finished ‘Sebastian’ in a bag and mail it across the seas for her to read. I know it would probably cost about the same to order her a copy, but the act of specially posting it is one that makes us feel connected; somehow the reading experience is more shared.

In Where Falcons Fall, Sebastian and Hero are outside London for once, and it gives the story a refreshing air. While staying in a small Shropshire village to try to discover more information about the man Sebastian believes could be his half-brother, and thus perhaps learn who is their shared mother, the Viscount and his wife become entangled in a rare local, and also particularly mysterious, murder. What at first appeared to be a quiet, harmless hamlet soon reveals itself to be a place hiding dark deeds and people with dark agendas.

I will have said it before, but I can’t recommend the Sebastian St Cyr series enough. They are well-written, well-plotted, romantic and exciting –  the perfect novels to give yourself for your birthday. Or  for Christmas. Or just because.

 

 

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Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

I’m not usually backwards in coming forwards. On reading this statement, those who know me well are probably rolling their eyes and muttering a mutter of faux disbelief. ‘You don’t say, I always saw you as a timid creature lacking confidence in your own opinion.’ But often in these book reviews I meander about a little. A bit of entertaining waffle at the start, the occasional divulging of personal information no-one needed to know, a stab at describing a plotline or a thematic penchant, before a bit more waffle, a pronouncement of judgement, and a conclusive note that doesn’t always end up how I imagined it would when I started writing.

But this time. This time. No mucking around, no babble, no gushing, no sitting on fences. I’m embracing in my blog-personality that which is more apparent in my everyday non-blogging existence. I’m going to be straight with you good people: I did not like Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark.

Charlie Flint is a psychologist who is asked by a former college professor to find out who killed her daughter’s husband on their wedding day. The mother suspects her daughter’s new girlfriend, Jay, a wealthy and powerful businesswoman who both Charlie and her teacher know from the college. It seems people who get in Jay’s way keep ending up dead, and Charlie takes it on herself to discover if this successful and rich business celebrity is actually a serial killer.

When I say I did not like this book, I mean it fairly comprehensively. I didn’t get much enjoyment from reading it, I didn’t have enough interest in or empathy for any of the characters, I didn’t find much in it to appreciate, I wanted to read it quickly but only so I could finish it. It wasn’t terrible (if it was I could at least lampoon it) it just wasn’t, well, it didn’t do anything for me and I couldn’t see how it would do much for anyone else. I found myself running through the questions I would have asked the author if I was editing the manuscript and the suggestions I would have made for changes to the text, and believe me, it is not a good sign when I am reading for pleasure and my editorial hat takes over. The significance of these opinions, for all the significance my opinions usually have, is that in the past Ms McDermid’s books have done something for me; I have enjoyed them very much. But here is the key difference: never before have I read one of Val McDermid’s novels that wasn’t a part of the Tony Hill series.

So I’m pondering a few things: Did the author just have a bad one? Did I just not get it? Is it only that I am terribly attached to the characters in her Tony Hill books (due to both the books and the television series) and those characters rise high above all others? Or are those novels Ms McDermid’s true calling and other stories are not?

There was a new Tony Hill novel released recently, and once it is in paperback I will be getting myself a copy to read (I almost splurged on the hardback when I was in Edinburgh a couple of months ago). But I don’t think I’ll go running towards Val McDermid’s other novels for some time. Trick of the Dark left me too disappointed.

The Other Statue by Edward Gorey

Before moving digs to Britain I read The Other Statue by Edward Gorey as a welcome break to packing. I’m very good at taking breaks from the activity I should be focusing on. For example, I am writing this post when I should be editing a true crime manuscript. A friend said the other day, ‘Sometimes I feel like work gets in the way of a good break,’ and I tend to agree. I always get everything done on time but it takes a lot of ‘rests’ to get me through (and the occasional cup of coffee and late night).

The break from packing had more to do with trying to avoid thinking of what I was about to embark on. I kept getting teary every time the radio played a song with the word ‘home’ in it, which I’ve discovered is a surprisingly large number of tunes, and I needed something to distract me. I thought Gorey’s usual kooky themes and dark whimsy would cheer me up, and add a little spring to my step as I decided which socks to include in my suitcase.

Instead I found The Other Statue somewhat unrealised and rather disappointing. My understanding is that it is part one of a mystery and I haven’t read part two (in fact I’m not sure it was ever published), but part one of a story really should encourage a person to want to read the next instalment, shouldn’t it? Perhaps it was just the funny old mood I was in at the time, though previously I would have thought a funny old mood was just the spirit in which to read a Gorey story.

In the end I found it a kind of Gorey paint by numbers: take a melancholic tone, some quirky illustrations, a handful of funny names, and odd pairings of people and objects and throw it all at the page. Not that I’m a Gorey expert by any stretch but to me it seemed a somewhat random collection of sentences added to some spare illustrations he had lying around. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a book I read as an avoidance tactic, and during a big upheaval, but for me The Other Statue lacked the heart and purpose of Edward Gorey titles I have previously had the pleasure of reading. Next time I need to procrastinate I’ll just re-read The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

It seems to me that ‘these days’ we can’t leave a good thing alone. Suddenly a Snickers has almonds it, pizza’s gone tandoori, TV shows need a film release, films need a sequel—and now a prequel, and successful young adult books must be trilogised.

The fact is that  Suzanne Collins’ first book in the Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games, could stand by itself. There was nothing about it that required sequels to be written, except that it was successful. In saying this, I really liked books two and three, but I think this is a good opportunity to highlight the integrity of book one, and that if it had been a ‘one-off’ story the novel would still have been a great success and still been a book you would recommend to others. Actually, not just recommended to others, but waved about and tried to foist on them.

But here we are with book three, Mockingjay, after a perfectly enjoyable book two and, to be honest, I was darn excited to be reading it. Who needs to work or organise moving overseas when they can be reading an adventure tale? Or, as it was more realistically in my case, who needs to be sleeping at all?

I know some people, loyal readers of this blog included, were left a little disappointed with books two and three in this series. As one so wonderfully stated her case: ‘My view is that it’s like The Matrix—you’d prefer that movies two and three had never blighted the face of the earth. I’m not quite as harsh about this, but book one was such perfection that anything was going to be a letdown…’. I suppose I haven’t felt as let down by the sequels as some have, although in retrospect book two is definitely the weakest of the three. But hell, it was still good, and there was clearly a lot I liked about it or I wouldn’t have been so positive. Sure the ‘let’s have an ultimate Hunger Games’ plot could have indicated a little panic on the author’s part, but if that’s what it was initially she certainly turned things around by using book two to set up book three and conclude the series in splendid fashion. Because sure, book three is not book one (if a more obvious and redundant statement has ever been made please let me know), but you know what? I thought it was pretty darn good. (Oh, this may be where, for the sake of a review-gauge, I point out that I also liked the second and third Matrix movies. Okay, the third not so much.)

Mockingjay leaves the Hunger Games’ arenas behind as we follow our heroine Katniss in her new not-so-rosy life in District 13 and her involvement in the rebellion’s plot to overthrow the Capitol once and for all. But who is seeking to destroy who? And for what? And in exactly what way is Katniss their secret weapon? And during all this empire building, where is Peeta?

The final novel in the Hunger Games series takes us into the streets of the Capitol as the rebellion assault begins, and we travel with Katniss and her team as they navigate the twists and turns of the booby-trapped city. Collins doesn’t hold back as the realities and randomness of war affect the characters in ways we’d rather not deal with. And then there is Peeta, dear Peeta, who is fighting a war within himself, against his enemies, against his friends, against Katniss.

There were easier ways to complete a Hunger Games trilogy. We could have seen an arena battle three times over and merely had some of the faces change, we could have focused on the love story between Katniss and Peeta and watched everyone live happily ever after, some kind of vampire could have been involved. I don’t think Suzanne Collins took the easy way out. When faced with turning her first wonderful novel into a trilogy she looked at the world she had created and expanded the tale she would tell. In the end, the whole of Panem was an arena—filled with dangers and people with personal vendettas, with people who would kill you as soon as look at you, with power struggles and turncoats and a foreboding sense that at any moment you were probably going to die. But it also contained people you could trust, people who would sacrifice themselves for others, who would help you reach your goals; it was an arena where there was hope and redemption and not just for the ultimate winner.

The Hunger Games is most certainly Suzanne Collins piece de resistance, but the whole series is more than worth your reading time, and Mockingjay is a very fine way to end it all. If you like young adult adventure tales set in a ruthless dystopic future-world, you will like the Hunger Games trilogy. In fact, you will love it. And the books will also appeal to you if you just want to read a set of addictive, well-written stories that keep you on the edge of your seat and manage to remain reasonably devoid of cliche in both character and prose. Whether you will like them based on your opinion of The Matrix film series, I just cannot say.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I am not a trendsetter. I don’t own an i-phone, I don’t live in a funky suburb, I’m not sure what the hip kids are up to these days, and wearing cartoon-character T-shirts to the gym seems to be something only I find pleasing. And yet in the last few months I have had a taste of what it might be like to be one of those cool cats who live on the cutting edge of the in-the-know zeitgeist. And all because everyone in the known universe has wanted to borrow my copies of the ‘Hunger Games’ series.*

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and it’s fab. Yep. Why bother with 600 words of  thoughtful consideration before sharing my (always subjective and entirely  personal) views on the novel. Plus it’s been three weeks since a post, it’s time to get moving. So. It’s great. Top-shelf action and adventure for the young adult in your life, and all the adults who like reading young adult books.

This novel fits in neither the Here nor There categories I decided to straitjacket myself with earlier in the year. Unless of course it fits the latter in a ‘never want to have to go There’ fashion. Panem is not a country you want to live in. It’s not even a country you want that Lexus-driver who cut you off this morning to live in. It’s certainly not where you want the characters you give such a damn about to have to exist, even if they have won the Hunger Games and have an easier life than they had before. And that’s all a ruse, anyway. We wouldn’t be launching ourselves into book 2 if we thought all we were going to be reading about was a couple of teenagers living in nice houses trying to make the poor folk around them have a slightly-nicer-than-down-right-horrible existence. Something sinister is afoot and it’s got that evil bastard President Snow’s fingerprints all over it.

In the first bookour heroes Katniss and Peeta fool the Capitol into making them both the victors in the annual Hunger Games—a (traditionally) winner-takes-all fight to the death for conscripted teenagers from the downtrodden districts of Panem. In this second book the Capitol seeks it revenge, throwing Peeta and Katniss back into the arena with a group of previous games victors, for the ultimate-mega-champion fight to the death. Once again the vicious reality of kill or be killed faces our heroes and their fellow competitors. Who is aligning with whom? Who can truly be trusted? Will Katniss save Peeta again? Or will he foil her plan as he tries to keep the girl he loves alive? And back in the districts there are whispers of rebellion; a bubbling undercurrent of anger fuelled by generations of wrong; and a growing sense that the girl who beat the Capitol once, can lead them all to do it again.

Suzanne Collins has written a heart-stopper of a novel; suspenseful, action-packed, stirring. Yes, there is violence. And gore, misery and destruction. Senseless death and ruthless greed. But there are wonderful characters (especially Peeta, oh how I love Peeta), endearing relationships, bravery, selflessness, humour and inspirational acts, with only the occasional tinge of sentimentality wafting in. All together they meld into a well-plotted and executed story that when I wasn’t reading it had me permanently distracted from any other task I was meant to be focusing on. Who wants to work/shop/exercise/socialise/eat when they could be reading Catching Fire?

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* And they’re not even my copies but were lent to me by my friend Kate, who is one of those lovely, generous, kindhearted people who doesn’t mind that I dish out her  books to all and sundry like some kind of short-order cook.

S is for Sicily

Sometimes I give the impression that I worry about my age. And sometimes I do. I reckon I’m about four years off well-meaning relatives and domestically-blissed friends wondering out loud what I’m going to DO about ‘finding a MAN so I can have CHILDREN’ before it’s ‘TOO LATE’. I think it’s more the anticipation of this annoyance that stresses me, rather than the (not that many) years I’m carrying. Maybe it’s a single woman thing… I reserve the right to be contrary over matters of age, in any case.

It’s new year’s eve and notions of time passing are on my mind. And in August Heat they are also on the mind of my dear friend Inspector Salvo Montalbano, adrift in a sweltering summer in Sicily and pondering if his advancing years are affecting his reason, his actions, his decisions, his heart, his very being. The body of a young woman, throat slit, is found stuffed in a trunk in a hidden room of a holiday house and the police are determined to find her killer and violator, concentrating on a dodgy property developer and a simple young man with uncontrollable urges. Helping the police is the victim’s beautiful, twenty-something twin sister—but is she more of a hindrance than a help to our Salvo?

Like a glistening plate of antipasto; stuffed, fresh and colourful, and glistening with olive oil, an Andrea Camilleri Inspector Montalbano novel is always a delight. A feast of tight and pointed narrative, lashings of humour and social commentary, a sprinkling of literary and historical references, a breathing, sparkling sense of place, an intriguing mystery to solve and a cast of characters that gladden the heart. Reading this series always makes me so goddamn happy. Camilleri is a wonderful writer and I am highly sentimental about many of the characters, especially loyal Fazio and our Montalba.

But in August Heat Salvo is a troubled man, and though often a reflective creature, in this novel he has a darker edge. He does things, thinks things, makes errors in judgement which are out of character and a shade or two outside his usual moral code. Could it just be the interminable heat? Or is he losing his touch? Are the tendrils of senility starting to caress his mind? (Our protagonist is deeply worried about being 55 years of age ‘and more’.) These changes of character concern him as much as they concern his readers. Mind you, they concern his readers because of their affection for the detective, not because they don’t make for good storytelling. A darker Montalba in a state of slight despair only whets the appetite for the novels to come.

I find myself occasionally dreaming of visiting Montalbano’s Sicily. Strolling the beaches, swimming in the sea, dining in the trattorias, lying on a sun-drenched terrace, letting the Mediterranean breeze waft over me. Though in my crazy imagination I’d quite like the inspector to be there as well, and if we could just do something about the rampant crime and mafioso I’d be most appreciative. Of course there’s nothing stopping me visiting southern Italy the next time I’m in that part of the world. It’s definitely on ‘the list’. Perhaps I can visit it with that person who will help keep the well-intentioned questioners at bay for a few more years. You never know your luck.

Happy new year, everyone.

N is for New York

I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure of late. To be in the loop. To be in touch. To be up to the same goddamn Mad Men episode as everyone else. And to be honest, at this near-festive time of year, it’s all becoming a bit much. I’m close to announcing that ‘The Mortal Instruments’ will be the last I read in the young adult fantasy/adventure series genre for a while*. The stress of having to ‘read the next one’ is tiring this lowly bookworm. I need a  break. At least for a few weeks. At least until my friend who gets me on to these introduces me to something new. At least until I get the urge to read book 2 in the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy.

Recently I choofed off up the coast for a week of relaxation and quality time with my grandparents, so it seemed a good opportunity to read something a little light and indulgent. And I did need to finish the Mortal Instruments series. Well, what I thought was the end of the series… I think there are now three more to come! Oh, let’s not have a whinge about flogging the life out of an idea with a range of prequels and sequels; here we discuss book three in Cassandra Clare’s shadowhunter extravaganza: City of Glass.

Clary Fray is safe in New York. Momentarily. All shadowhunters are being called back to their homeland of Idris for a grand conference to try to work out how the heck they’re going to stop Valentine and his destructive quest. And Clary feels she must go. Even if not to help her recently-found brethren she needs to meet with a warlock who may be able to help her mother awaken from an enchanted coma. Once in Idris, the true depth of Valentine’s evil is revealed and all are in danger. The capital city is not safe, the shadowhunters are at odds with each other and with their downworlder neighbours (faeries, werewolves, vampires, warlocks), a great battle is on the horizon and all it suggests is large-scale bloodshed. And among our group of adolescent heroes: Simon is discovering more and more about the realities of his vampiric existence, Clary and Jace still have sibling/romance issues, Alec is still hiding his true self, and a new boy—Sebastian—is causing all sorts of consternation. Yup. Quite a bit to deal with.

So N was for New York, was it? I realised by about page 12 that my ‘clever’ idea of selecting this book on the basis of its setting may have been misguided. City of Glass was going to be set in an invented enchanted city. Whoops. The Richard Price novel in the pile glared at me and fingered the glock hiding in its pocket. A bit of research, Pile o’ Books, a bit of research. Lucky for me Clary and Simon are such New York natives that Alicante (not the port city in Spain, but rather the capital city of Idris) is always being compared to the Big Apple, and just like New York informs the action in the first two books, Alicante is a firm, thought-out concept in this third novel. So we’re talking big cities, we’re talking New Yorkers, we’re talking New Yorkers comparing everything they see, smell and touch in other cities to their own big city. There’s a certain relevance. Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (Mr Price, I apologise.)

Ms Clare does well in this instalment to pull together the different strings of her ongoing story, to create mystery and suspense, to let her characters grow, to occasionally surprise her readers. At the end of the novel I felt satisfied and also pleased with how the story of Clary, Simon, Jace etc had panned out, at the level to which I had been entertained, that my reading time had been put to good use. Questions raised throughout the series are answered, things left hanging are resolved, and you have to be happy with that. At times the author still over-explains (in case the stupid 13-year-olds don’t get it) but there are thrilling passages of action and suspense, sound descriptions of place, and on the whole her characters are individual and reasonably well-formed. She also writes humour and conversation well—some of the quips that come out of characters’ mouths are very funny, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and cynicism you expect from young adults (and not-so-young adult book-bloggers). There’s a line early on from Luke (our werewolf father-figure) suggesting that what a lovesick teenage boy should be doing is standing outside Clary’s window holding up a boom box, and Clary quickly replies that not only has he probably got better things to do, but no one has boom boxes anymore. Little additions like this make me laugh and smile, anyway, and what’s more they ring true and I appreciate that, even if I can’t quite appreciate as much some of the overtures of love and relationship crises that run through these novels. (And a quick, indulgent, aside: I finally pegged recently why we called ghetto-blasters, ghetto-blasters. It never occured to me as a child in the 80s/90s; it was just a name for certain type of stereo. My discovery both pleased me and made me wonder what on earth I use the majority of my reasonably-sized brain for.)

Despite feeling a little world-weary with the various young adult series I’ve read this year (or intended to read), I can’t say that you shouldn’t try ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series**.  It’s the concept (and act) of series-following which tires me. After all, I could still be found curled up in bed (surrounded by the boxes) reading City of Glass at 2 am one morning, and a school-night at that, because I wanted to find out how the book ended. You can’t complain about a story that does that.

* Please note: I’m very talented at announcing all sorts of wild statements which I don’t end up honouring.

**  After ‘extensive research’ it seems the planned next three books in the series follow a different storyline, so I feel like I’m under less obligation to ‘keep up’. (Not that we should ever feel obliged to read a book.)