Tag Archives: book reviews

The Children’s Book- A. S. Byatt

Open at your Own Risk

Most readers will probably have heard of The Children’s Book, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I picked this book up a few times in bookshops before I bought it, I’m not going to lie, it was the cover which attracted me (not that I judge a book just by its cover but it was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in recent years) but was put off by my experiences of reading Byatt at university.

I read Elementals as a part of a contemporary fiction module, and I hated the fussy prose she used in her short stories. The Children’s Book is better initially, as Byatt’s writing style is better suited to the novel form. I say initially, because like the rule that says a task will expand to fit the time you allocated to it, Byatt’s writing seems to expand to fill the page allocation rather than in order to tell the story. It would have been vastly improved by an editor getting busy with a red pen and cutting vast swathes of text out.

The story is an ambitious work, following a group of people associated with the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement from the “golden days” of the later 18th century to the aftermath of the First World War. There is no strong plot line, more an attempt to explore the social mores of the time, in the style of a non-satirical Vanity Fair. However, it lacks the dynamic and punch of Vanity Fair as Byatt strangles the exploration of action and character with her elongated prose and history text book summaries.

The novel began and ended very well, they were interesting and emotionally engaging. There are a large number of characters, but the bonds between them are intelligible and sustained. Towards the middle however, Byatt (and consequently the reader) loses the plot, bringing in an army of unnecessary minor characters who add nothing to the plot, name checking historical figures who have nothing to do with the action- to contextualize or appear learned I can’t decide- and sticking in chunks of half written fairytales which take the reader along a path to nowhere. This is to say nothing of a strange fascination with the sexual desires of teenage boys. Many of the characters are vain, selfish and irritating, which would be fine, but this left me with no interest in the story. I couldn’t empathise with them. I didn’t care. It’s a miracle I finished the book, but I’m glad I did. Some of the description of the war was quite moving.

I wonder what the author was hoping to achieve when she wrote this book. I would be vaguely interested to know. Did she want to tell a story about parents who fancied themselves Bohemian and damaged their children through their self indulgence? Did she want to write a history of a period in history? It’s not clear and I think that this is the problem with the book. I have a keen interest in history and still found the constant references to figures and events annoying- a well written story doesn’t need this historical name dropping. If I want to read a factual account I will pick up a history book, if I pick up a novel I want to be entertained. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn from a novel, but I most certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in a history lecture or watching one of those dramatisations we watched in school history lessons showing us how the plague was passed from ships to the common man and the lord as well. I felt that Byatt was simpering to herself about how she was bettering me. Irritating.

The book probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. There are some very good moments. The trouble is, you feel like you’re experiencing the book as things happened. Living through the wheat and chaff of twenty years of history, wondering whether the time you’re investing is possible worth it. If you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining story, don’t pick this book. If you manage to finish it, you’ll feel quite worthy, but next time I think I’ll just try War and Peace.

The Winter Ghosts- Kate Mosse

The Winter Ghosts is Kate Mosse’s seventh book, her previous forays into novel writing having included Labyrinth and Sepulchre. Once again Mosse revisits the landscape of the Pyrenees, constructing a novel which weaves the regions tragic past into a ghost story, tinged with sad romance.

Set in 1928, The Winter Ghosts follows Fredrick Watson as he wanders alone in France, still struggling to reconcile himself with the loss of his beloved brother George. While there, he meets the beautiful and mysterious Fabrissa, who eases his grief before plunging him into further turmoil with her sudden disappearance.

The novel is fundamentally simpler than Labyrinth and Sepulchre, extending a Quick Reads Novella aimed at emerging adult readers into a full length novel. The plot is very linear, and is in effect a simple ghost story embellished with careful prose and details of the landscape, encased in a frame which aims to add interest. It’s by no means ground breaking, but I did find it very enjoyable, and infinitely superior to Sepulchre which actually put me off Mosse for so long that I’ve only recently purchased The Winter Ghosts.

If you enjoy a neat little ghost story, or enjoyed Labyrinth then I would recommend this book. I think it would be especially good for teen readers who are sick of Young Adult themes.

Teenage Kicks- YA Fiction with Grown Up Ideas

I often enjoy reading teen/adult fiction, because the authors are generally happy to tell a decent, well written and engaging story without getting bogged down in literary pretentions of feeling the need to be, well, boring. I would hasten to add here that the Twilight Series are a clear exception here- I think they’re poorly written and thought the Wuthering Heights references were pathetic. So shoot me.

However, some books for young adults which have impressed me recently, and which will be enjoyed by old adults as well are listed below:

Before I Die- Jenny Downham

Tessa is 16 and like most teenage girls, she has a whole list of things she wants to try before she dies. But Tessa is dying of leukaemia. Before I Die tells the poignant story of Tessa trying to cram those important life milestones: getting drunk with friends, losing your virginity and falling in love into the short time that she has left. A beautiful bittersweet book which was totally devoid of melodrama, I cried my eyes out.

Th1rteen R3asons Why– Jay Asher

Imagine this. One day you come home to find a mysterious package on your doorstep. You open it to find that it is a shoe box full of cassettes, with numbers painted on them in nail varnish. When you play number 1, you realise that they are recorded in the voice of your first love and they want to tell you something important. That’s what happens to Clay Jensen. The only problem is, Clay’s first love Hannah is dead having committed suicide a fortnight before, and everyone named on the tape contributed to Hannah’s decision to kill herself-including Clay. Truly thought-provoking, this book made me reassess the way everyday interactions can have far seen effects upon an individual.

Before I Fall-Lauren Oliver

Sam Kingston is not your typical 18-year-old girl, in the sense that she is self-assured, a member of the most popular group of girls in school and loves her gorgeous boyfriend. In short, she lives what she believes is the perfect teenage life. That is until she is involved in a horrific car crash, bad enough to kill her, and she wakes up forced to live out her last day on earth over and over until she gets it right. A fusion of Th1rteen R3asons Why and Groundhog Day, Sam’s story makes you think again about how you treat your peers, regardless of where they come in the pecking order.

PopCo- Scarlett Thomas

“If you stop and look around,” Chloe says, “you see that we have decorated our world with lies.”

Alice is a cryptanalyst and cryptic crossword setter, hired by PopCo, the third biggest global toy company as an experiment. They want creatives from new fields to help in the ideation of a new product which will wrestle the cash from the one elusive cash rich market they have so far failed to connect with- teenage girls. But how can Alice connect with the teenage market, when her own childhood was marred by the death of her mother and disappearance of her father? Having spent her childhood breaking codes to find buried treasure with her grandfather, can she develop a product which appeals to the teenage girls of today? When coded messages start appearing, and people start behaving strangely, Alice’s eyes are opened to the hidden truths which have been in front of her all along.

PopCo is a wonderful fusion of cryptoanalytic theory, maths and cultural criticism, but enjoyably so. When you think back over the novel and consider what actually happens, you realise that in terms of actual storytelling, not a lot has- and yet you’ve enjoyed the novel immensely. In this respect, Thomas’ writing reminds me of the novels of Jostein Gaarder (Sophie’s World in particular) that I used to read as a child, where the story is a frame for the philosophical content, and the whole point of the book is what you learn along the way. Her skill as a writer, I feel, lies in the fact that unless you sit and consciously deconstruct the novel afterwards, as a reader you don’t really notice where this is happening.

As someone who is somewhat allergic to Maths, I found it amazing that I was enjoying the Mathematical content of the book to the extent that I am actually considering taking an A-level in Maths as a result. I think you would have to know me to appreciate this. Through the discussions of cryptography and cryptanalysis, you begin to realise that the whole world is run around numbers to the extent that you are lead to think about the concept of God as a 4D being, and the idea that we are driven to create our own universes- thus explaining the popularity of web based phenomena like Second Life et all. I genuinely never realised the extent to which codes and ciphers are used in modern day life, and I find it fascinating. Conveniently, if you read PopCo, you learn a little about coding messages along the way- which I intend to try out on some unsuspecting victims at some point in the future!

All of this is fused with Thomas’ comments on modern life, and what passes for culture; the study legitimised in the novel by being based around the mysterious PopCo toy company for which Alice works. As I am in love with Thomas, and her seemingly endless expertise in everything, I found out that she has a first class honours Bachelor’s Degree in something like cultural studies. And you can tell. I find the presence of these all powerful corporations in life a little bit worrying anyway, but again, when I read the book and learned about their research methods and mirror branding etc… chilling stuff, but I won’t spoil it for you.

I am aware that this post is mostly me gushing about how in love I am with Scarlett Thomas, so I will stop that now and get a little bit more analytical. Because despite my finding the book enjoyable and informative, as a work of fiction it does have some massive, gaping flaws, other than the constant mentions of green tea, which it is really only fair to point out if you read books for the story (and there is nothing wrong with that, novels are meant to be a source of entertainment!)

I’ve mentioned before that part of Thomas’ cleverness lies in her ability to use smoke and mirrors to convince you that you have read a fascinating story, when actually the story is pretty weak. In many ways, I found the characters somewhat lacklustre and 2D (though perhaps appropriately, given the discourse of the book) and the story… didn’t really happen for me. Thomas is so busy educating, and no doubt some would argue preaching to us, that the story is a means to an end.

Thomas tries to mix a little mystery and a love affair into the story, and this had huge potential, but I found myself quite disappointed by the end product. A convincing back story is built up around the main character’s romantic involvement with her boss, though not to the extent that it is credible when she decides that she loves him, and ultimately goes nowhere. This should have been exploited further to create further impact with later revelations in the book, but I kind of thought, so what? Also Thomas has little hobby horse moments when she preaches about women’s sexual liberation and saving the planet to us, and, whereas I agree with these things in principle, they are awkwardly forced into the book and don’t explain her love affair with a second character. It comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t fit the tone of the story, but Thomas tries to cover it up with preaching, which was a little disappointing.

Another thing which began to grate on me, having read The End of Mr. Y, another Thomas novel, was that the main characters in both of these books are worryingly similar. Very little, other than their names, occupations etc. have been changed. It isn’t a huge issue having only read two Thomas books, but I hope to read more of her novels, and I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t shake things up a little bit soon.

The novel’s end is very hurried, and lots of loose ends are left just that way, loose. Though in a way, Thomas acknowledges this, suggesting that Alice has in fact, written the book that we’ve read so far. I don’t think that this was very successful though, and I think it was the sign of a writer who needs to finish the good book that she has written, but has no idea how to bring it all back together with any sense of unity. It was a little amateurish and disappointing.

I can appreciate that this is a very mixed review. If it helps, I am already looking for other Thomas novels to read. I really enjoyed this book, which is why I read, and I can let the flawed storytelling slide on that front. It really is a case of horses for courses. You know what matters to you in a book, and should choose accordingly. I will say one thing though. There is a puff on the cover from some critic or other gushing that this book will change your life. I am usually scathing of such things, but I do have to agree. This book has really changed the way I look at the world, and I sincerely mean that. It may be a bit preachy, but it is wonderfully clever and forces you to think; I don’t think you get many books like that these days.

Addition- Toni Jordan

Grace is thirty-five years old, single and unemployed following an unfortunate incident when teaching. She is also an obsessive compulsive who must count everything, to quantify the limits of her world. Because if she can’t quantify it, who knows what might happen? From the hairs on her toothbrush to the poppy seeds on her orange cake, everything must be measured. Then she meets Seamus who is thirty-eight, single and working in the cinema. All of a sudden allowing the numbers to rule her life doesn’t seem so much fun…

I’m not sure whether Addition made much of an impact when it was published in 2008. This may be attributable to really bad marketing. It was listed as a Richard and Judy summer read, but let’s face it, you’d be hard pressed to find a book that hasn’t been. When I picked up the book I thought that it must be a bad romp about dieters (the Quiche and graph paper on the cover were responsible for this). Then I thought it must be a teen romance as the characters were described as Grace (19) and Seamus (19). I don’t mind a bit of teen fiction, so I picked it up in expectation of this. I’m pretty sure that some parents somewhere will have done the same and given it to their thirteen year old, only to be horrified by some of the reasonably explicit erotic scenes later in the novel. So yeah, if I was this author I would have sacked my design team and copywriter. A few people failed to do their jobs properly on that one.

However, this is a blog which revels in going beyond a cover judgement and fully exposing the crimes of poor marketing. And this marketing was a crime, because the book inside is actually a decent read.

Toni Jordan tells the story of an obsessive compulsive with refreshing originality. Instead of being depressed at living on the outside of normal society, Grace lives in it, scorning the ants who wander through their existence waiting for life to happen, not realising that life is what is happening around them while they fail to realise, because they are unable to count and therefore measure the wonder of the universe. She has her flat and a picture of her ideal man, Nikola Tesla, by her bed. Though things have been different in the past, which is occasionally hinted at with some degree of subtlety, she is quite happy and has no intention of changing. The drama and dilemma in the story comes when Seamus, meaning well, encourages her to get treatment for her “disorder”.

I felt that this was an interesting exploration into the nature of obsession and our attitudes towards it. The author forces us to question the extent to which we as society view difference as a condition to be treated, drawing a distinction between people who are largely functional, like Grace, and people who are harmed by their obsessions, like the Germaphobics in the book. This book is a slow, sarcastic round of applause at all the psychiatrists and therapists who try to cure aspects of personality- how far do you go?

Make no mistake, obsessive compulsive disorder is a debilitating condition for many people, and the author acknowledges this. But in an age where many functional, yet admittedly quirky people are labelled with a spectrum of disorders (I saw this all the time in teaching. Shy, rude or uncommunicative? Must be low on the Autistic spectrum. Chatty? Must be ADHD. Bad tempered? Behaviour Emotional Social Disorder…) I think it is healthy to challenge the wisdom which suggests that everybody who is not completely normal, whatever that means, must have something wrong with them.

This is a light-hearted read, but an enjoyable one. It combines some sexy flirtation with scientific thought and philosophical musing on society. If anyone has ever irritated you by questioning your lifestyle choices (You don’t watch Big Brother; you actually enjoy being single, you like children but couldn’t eat a whole one and actually you don’t fancy theirs much) then this is an amusing two finger salute to those who want to turn us all into pop culture clones.

You could eat this with a banana, bought in a bunch of ten and cut into ten equal pieces. Or with whatever you please. You are an individual and fairly unique, after all.

Keeper by Andrea Gillies

keeper by andrea gilliesIf your mother was old and unable to look after herself, what would you do? Take her in and look after her yourself, or would you find a suitable nursing home and admit her to it? This is a sensitive subject in our society which has been described as a ticking bomb due to the vast amount of people over retirement age who are living to be older and older due to better access to drugs which unnaturally prolong their lives. No doubt you have an opinion about what you would do in the hypothetical situation, though whether you would be prepared to share it honestly with your friends is another matter. Les Dennis jokes aside, would it make a difference to you if it were your mother-in-law, and not your own mother, who needed the care?

At first glance, these questions seem irrelevant to Keeper, Winner of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2009. Described as “a book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake”, Andrea Gilles’ book with its swirly, feminine, pastel coloured fonts initially looks like common or garden chick lit, unworthy of a second glance. Normally I would have done exactly that, but this book piled on a table in the Medical Reference section of Blackwell’s Oxford seemed profoundly out of place.

The book, you see, is about as far away from chick lit and happy endings as it’s possible to get. A gut wrenching personal account of a struggle to care for an elderly mother in law, retain a sense of your own identity and survive the havoc and destruction that Alzheimer’s disease wreaks upon family life, the book the experiences of Gillies’ family with unflinching honesty. This account, Gillies will be the first to admit, is subjective and that of one particular case. So the book goes further, exploring this history of medical opinion surrounding Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and the future of diagnosis and treatment. The book is chatty not preachy; full of anecdotes about the workings of the mind, famous dementia sufferers and philosophical musings about the nature of the soul and identity. Hard science is offset by human experience, leaving an end product which both informs and involves.

Despite her efforts in raising awareness of the disease, research into which is pitifully underfunded, Gillies has been as widely criticized for writing the book as she has been praised.

The praise is easy enough to understand. Alzheimer’s is a terrifying disease, but one which people are still reluctant to talk about. Seen as being an illness of the elderly or a natural decline into old age, research on the subject is slow and treatments hit and miss. Such a powerful memoir outlines the nature of the disease for those who have not encountered it themselves showing its crippling effects up on the individual suffer and the people who love them. Why then the criticism?

As an outsider, it’s easy to claim that Gillies was naive in moving their family from the familiar surroundings of Edinburgh to a remote Scottish peninsula to care for her mother-in-law. Naivety is no crime, and is in the most part forgivable. I did however find myself filled with the urge to criticise and judge when Gillies talks about her search for what she terms “the Sublime”. The capital R which characterises the Romantic poets, early in her memoir Gillies speaks of this immense union with nature she believes her mother-in-law will find healing, and which will fill her with the power to write a Great Work of Fiction. At best I found this vaguely ridiculous. I don’t think I need to discuss the vanity and conceit in this notion, that the decision to write a book by the sea will save a dementia sufferer where medicine can’t. Though, who knows what desperate people will do?

Worst of all though, was the dark hints between the lines that the situation might be somewhat manufactured. Cooking Julie and Julia style had been done, so let’s uproot the family, settle in the middle of nowhere with our vulnerable elderly relatives and see what happens.. sinister references to “the experiment” end early into the book, which was a relief, quite frankly, as they made me feel quite hostile towards Gillies. When they ended, along with the vainglorious wittering about the sublime, the account becomes less impersonal and more human.

Jo Brand described the book as being “darkly comic”, and Gillies herself admits that people have criticized her for writing about her mother in law who is unable to agree or disagree with the publication for the book. Personally, I don’t feel that the book was darkly comic. I certainly don’t feel that Gillies is poking fun at her mother in law. What might pass for slapstick in a tasteless Hollywood comedy is a bleakly tragic. The reader is not so much invited to laugh at the crazy old lady, but gently persuaded to see the frustration and terror that dementia sufferers live with day in and day out. Not knowing friends and family, losing your whole sense of self.

Don’t expect a happy ending, but do read the book. This is a topic which will affect us all before too long and merits deeper consideration.

The Angel’s Game- Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Few people who have read The Shadow of The Wind would question any suggestion that Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a modern day master of elegant lyrical prose.  Translated from Spanish in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind has been a worldwide best seller, selling well in excess of a million books in the United Kingdom alone. Understandably his follow up novel, The Angel’s Game was hotly anticipated, and perhaps these great expectations played on the author’s mind.

The Angel’s Game has been classed by many as a prequel to The Shadow of The Wind, but I would dispute this terminology. It is set in the same world, which is to say we see The Cemetery of Lost Books and there is some small overlap between characters, but the events to not link together insofar as I can see, so I don’t think of it as a prequel. This is just a convenient term for the unimaginative.

The Angel’s Game tells the tale of David Martin, who rapidly rises from an office boy at a Barcelona newspaper to become the celebrated author of many successful penny dreadfuls. His success upsets his colleagues and he is thrown out of the relative safety of the newspaper’s offices to fend for himself on the dark mean streets of Barcelona; writing for a pair of unscrupulous brothers and living in the foreboding shell of an abandoned tower house. We sit with baited breath as a series of cleverly wrought plot twists draw us deeper into the secret web the house has spun for him, and tear him away from his one true love… or so Zafon would wish to think.

The language of the novel is undeniably brilliant. I was breathless with anticipation upon reading the first page of the book, which said something profound about a writer always remembering the first time he manages to sell his writing, because from that moment onwards his soul has a price. It seemed to me that this would be a fitting follow up to The Shadow of The Wind, and at first it seemed to be,

Zafon’s love of Barcelona was a s clear as ever. His descriptions of the city were masterful and were enough to inspire envy in any would be writer. The dark and heady style was there; a pastiche of the Gothic novel and Penny Dreadful, shot through with poetry.

Despite this, I felt there was something lacking. It’s hard to put my finger on any one thing exactly, but if pushed I would have to say it’s the plot. The plot is missing, or so poorly constructed as to seem invisible.  For me the novel lacked any conviction, and I had to force my way through it. Perhaps I was being especially dense, but Zafon seemed to have Martin dart about trying to solve problems which were never even present, and if they were? Well I certainly didn’t care about them. There was nothing sufficiently gripping about the plot to make me care what happened to anyone.

Minor characters are afforded great importance by the writer but totally fail to add anything to the momentum of the narrative, or, I would argue, the plot of the novel. They succeed only in destroying any glimmering sense of intruge which might have been built by diverting the reader’s attention away from one plotline, which wasn’t really going anywhere, to some pointless subplot which definitely isn’t going anywhere.

A clear example of Zafon’s adulation of secondary characters would be the, the Sempere family. They have several small cameo appearances in the novel, which is the only real reason this is called a prequel. The only real reason for using these characters was to allow the protagonist to be introduced to the Cemetery of Lost Books, but this too only added further confusion to the plot. To me there was an element of vainglorious allusion to the author’s previous successes and it dragged the plot deeper into the chaos of poor construction which plagued it.

I found the obvious literary pretentions of the novel really irksome. The first time the boss was described as being as still as a spider was effective, the fifth time was just fricking irritating. This irritation was further compounded by the frequent allusions to Great Expectations, a text Sempere gave the protagonist, who was cruelly deprived of books by his illiterate father. But what do these allusions add to, beyond my growing suspicion that the Zafon is capable of being a tad pretentious? Little. The boss is meant to be a criminal, who gives gifts which destroy the protagonists integrity… fine, a bit heavy handed, since I’d already twigged that, but fine. Cristina is clearly meant to be Estella, but lacks any of the original character’s verve…  and don’t get me started on the intended parallels between Vidal and Miss Havisham. The whole book was filled with poor, unfitting allusions and irritating literary pretentions.

I should be generous and point out that the book is a translation from the Spanish, and we might lay some blame at the translator’s door. However, the language was really the only redeeming feature. The author must take credit, if I can call it that, for the insipid plot, full of hopeless leads to nowhere beyond a truly anticlimactic end. I know it’s a work of fiction, but I can’t help myself adding an “its unrealistic” barb here. Who on Earth would spot that they have a secret room hidden inside their house and then not explore it for half a novel? I wouldn’t. Maybe he should write a book about me.

This book is passable. And probably no worse than much of the slush that gets published these days. But if, like me, you were a fan of The Shadow of The Wind and picked this up hoping for more of the same, I would strongly recommend forgoing biscuits and eating something like, raw garlic, a habanera chilli… maybe wash it down with a bottle of Tabasco sauce. Whatever you choose you’ll want to wash the bitter taste from your mouth.

The Swan Thieves- Elizabeth Kostova

An artist, Robert Oliver, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital having desperately attacked a painting at the National Gallery in Washington. Refusing to speak he spends his days obsessively painting a mysterious and beautiful woman. The novel follows Marlowe, a psychiatrist, as he struggles to treat Oliver, with nothing more to go on than his observations of the patient and conversations with Oliver’s ex-wife and lover, which hint darkly at the insanity which is consuming the artist. Who is the dark lady he paints? And what is the significance of the ancient letters that Robert keeps so close at all times?

Personally I found The Swan Thieves somewhat slow to start as the author was overly keen to establish relationships between minor characters that didn’t really enhance the story, possibly because of a fear of being seen to “tell” the story rather than “show” it. I found the split narrative perspectives lacked cohesion which left the story with a fragmented feel, especially given that the author frequently inserts letters to replace elements of the narrative prior to developing a sequence of chapters which are set in the late 1870s. There are those who will probably attempt to claim that this unity is a clever technique meant to reflect Oliver’s inner turmoil. If so, it’s pretentious, as well as fussy and irritating. It prevented any real sense of urgency developing; something which made Kostova’s debut novel The Historian so enjoyable.

Kostova has clearly researched the art scene carefully, and her presentation of both the modern artists and impressionists are convincing, if not truly engaging. Despite the beautiful language use, her characterisation in this novel is generally poor. The voice of the three main narrators was too similar, and as a result I didn’t believe in the characters. Even when Kostova switched to the third person to narrate the events of Paris in 1870s, I was left with a feeling that the slow progress of Beatrice and Olivier’s relationship was lacking passion and conviction.

The most convincing characters in the novel were the minor characters that were observed by the narrator without a voice of their own, save in sparse dialogue. As the focus of the novel’s quest for truth, Robert Oliver grew in complexity and developed sufficiently to appeal to the reader’s curiosity, though for me this was ruined by the novel’s hurried ending, which was over simplified and somewhat trite.

I have to admit, for me this novel is far too reminiscent of Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre (another disappointing second novel). The time switch in the narrative, the descriptions of painting and the lack lustre characterisation all pulled me back to this.  I was incredibly disappointed, as The Historian suggests that Kostova is the more accomplished writer when developing a unique and compelling story. However, this novel was a far cry from its excellent predecessor.

Mistress of Rome- Kate Quinn

Thea is a slave girl, one of the few survivors of a mass suicide in Judea. Arius is a gladiator, fighting for survival and revenge. Both are outcasts in a hostile world until they find comfort together. But they are pawns in the games of the rich and powerful in Rome and their happiness is short lived. When a mysterious Jewish singer, Athena, becomes the most powerful woman in Rome, Mistress to the Emperor, few realise the old hostilities which simmer, waiting to erupt.

The plot of Mistress of Rome was simple, yet well paced enough to be compelling. It encompassed the full time spectrum of the novel, a feat many writers seem to struggle with, following Thea from being a 13 year old girl, to a woman of approximately 39 and tracking the lives of many characters in between.

In many ways the narrative assisted this, chapters being sectioned according to who is the active character in the story. I did find the way the author did this very odd. For example, in a chapter which was assigned to Thea, you would have Thea giving a first person account of events in one section, then in another section of the same chapter, the author would suddenly switch to a third person narrative, though still focussing on Thea as the action occurs. This may have allowed the author to make the plot tight and coherent, but as a reader I found it moderately irritating, as I had to stop and get my bearings, deciding which character was being narrated or described this time. Annoying.

The writing wasn’t a mastery of majestic prose, it shouldn’t be in a story about Gladiators, if any particular detail catches the eye, it means something has been crammed in awkwardly. In this case it was the descriptions of the women’s clothing. I’m guessing the writer had researched this in detail and was damn well going to prove it. It wasn’t just used to embellish the story or highlight the status difference between characters at one point in the story. No. Every time a female character was mentioned you had a full description of her outfit, jewellery and hairstyle. It added pages to the book, but little to the story. The decadence and chaos of Rome would have come through without this.

The characterisation made this Rome credible. Despite the back drop of Rome; ideas about slavery and freedom; the role of fate and destiny in the life of man- this is a novel about people. The characters are working examples of the human condition. A heroine who does not crumble in the face of heart break, a hero seeking his own death, a man who needs to be feared by the people he loves scratch the surface and there is a bleak darkness to the novel are the driving force behind this story. There is a cloying hopelessness as many are destroyed by their own actions or those of others, but the characters, endearing or repulsive, make you need to follow, need to learn what will happen.

My feeling is this book was undersold by the publishing company because it’s a difficult niche. Men read books about gladiators, but here you have a historic novel which tells the female experience and doesn’t lapse into bodice ripping stereotypes. Hard to sell when the market is saturated with chic lit and teenage vamp fiction. It’s definitely worth a read on your commute or at the poolside.

Her Fearful Symmetry- Audrey Niffenegger

Identical twins scare people. Think The Shining. Julia and Valentina Poole are even more disconcerting, because, far from being mere identical twins, they are mirror twins, each a perfect reflection of the other- even beneath their skin. At twenty years old they do everything together; watch television, go out, eat… even drop out of college. The desires of the individuals are sacrificed to meet the needs of the unit. The sisters couldn’t be closer.

However, when their mother’s mirror twin dies in London, a woman the twins have never heard of, let alone met, she leaves the sisters all her possessions in her will on the condition that their parents are never allowed to enter her flat.

Desperate for adventure, the sisters move to her flat, an antiquarian’s dream overlooking Highgate Cemetery, forces neither twin could imagine begin to drive a wedge between them. Throw in a crossword setter who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and a man more at ease with the dead than the living and you have another excellent novel from the best-selling author of The Time Traveller’s Wife.

As anyone who has read The Time Traveller’s Wife knows, Niffenegger is bringing Magic Realism into the main stream with breathtaking stories which focus as much on characters and their relationships than the exceptional circumstances in which they life. Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t disappoint in this respect, as Niffenegger weaves a modern Gothic Fairytale; crafting her characters with care, exploring their humanity and building drama creating stock heroes and villains. These characters are beautiful and flawed. Sketched on the page in simple black and white words, they are you and me; they are exceptionally vivid.

Niffenegger creates a multi layered story, and though the snaking plot threads are complex enough to ensnare the reader, they never become tangled by the magnitude and otherness of the story. At times, elements of the plot did become predictable in a way that The Time Traveller’s Wife never did but make no mistake, this novel is a great work of fiction and stands alone from its famous older sibling.

If you have no inclination to pick up this brilliant novel, I would recommend reading it for the character of Martin and the Highgate Cemetery Setting alone. The prose is beautiful, the plot well constructed; it was Martin however who simultaneously seemed wholly absurd and wholly alive to me. I’ve actually started to learn to do cryptic crosswords because of his character.

In a similar way, I am already planning a trip to Highgate Cemetery. Niffenegger’s description made me feel like Highgate was a place that I had spent my childhood in, exploring in the brambles yet terrified of the gravestones and mausoleums. Perhaps that’s a sign of a great writer; the ability to make an unknown environment at once familiar and other.

One day I will also visit Highgate and explore the environment I read about with such interest. I wonder if I will see shadows of the characters moving around. I call it New Gothic or Magic Realism (because we all like to label things) but behind the fantasy I almost believe this story could be true.

Read while eating slightly stale digestive biscuits, in a battered only arm chair by the light of a dim and somewhat rusty lamp.