Mike Finn - Audio Book Junkie

Mike Finn - Audio Book Junkie

My name is Mike Finn and I'm an Audio Book Addict.

I'm here to share my experience of the books I listen to.

My first Bingo

 

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With "Darkest London" being called today, I finally have a Bingo

 

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"I Am Half-Sick Of Shadows - Flavia De Luce #4" by Alan Bradley
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows - Alan Bradley

My fourth visit to Flavia De Luce found her posh but impoverished family preparing for Christmas by allowing their home to be used to film a movie, starring two of Britain's brightest acting stars.

 

As this is a Flavia De Luce novel, it's clear that Flavia will discover at least one dead body without having to leave her isolated little village. As it's a Christmas special, it's also clear that the plot will be as plausible as "Miracle on 34th Street". As it's an Alan Bradley novel, it's clear the writing and the characterisation will ferry your imagination into a world that feels true even if it doesn't always seem real.

 

In this visit I got a spectacular winter snowstorm, an insight into Aunt Felicity's murky wartime activities, a scene from Romeo and Juliet performed in Buckshaw's shabby splendour, a gruesome murder and rooftop fight to the death as well as learning about the chemistry of fireworks and more ways of producing poisons at home.

 

I make these visits in order to meet Flavia, who has captured my heart, In this book her energy is only exceeded by her curiosity as she tries to solve a murder, prove whether or not Santa Claus exists, reak revenge (real and imaginary) on her sisters and garnish scraps of approval and affection from the people she loves.

 

The reason I visit Flavia is best demonstrated in "I Am Half-sick Of Shadows" by the way she treats Dogger, the manservant at the Flavia's palatial but decaying home. Dogger suffers from fits of the terrors, a legacy from his experiences in a Japanese-run prisoner of war camp. One of these fits overtakes him when he is alone with Flavia. Flavia, eleven-year-old Flavia, eases him out of his attack, banishing his ghosts and giving him his dignity by letting him recover while she looks out at the pre-Christmas snow, reflecting aloud on the billions of oxygen and hydrogen atoms it takes to make the "stiff water" of a snowflake, continuing her monologue until he slips into sleep.

 

These moments of compassion and companionship fleck the narrative of these books with bright points of poetry that make me wish I knew Flavia and that, if I did, I would be one of the people with the insight to see her for who she really is rather than dismissing her as just another precocious girl.

 

I know Flavia is a fictional character, but still... fictional characters like her are what make fiction worth reading.

 

cozy mystery Mike Finn Halloween Bingo Card-014I read "I Am Half-sick Of Shadows" for the Cozy Mystery square of Halloween Bingo. I think it's the perfect archetype of that concept.

Reading progress update: I've read 17%. I was told this would be good...
The Elementals - Michael Rowe, Michael McDowell

...but I didn't think it would be so original.

 

"The Elementals" has a remarkably powerful, cliché-free start. It embeds your imagination in the South like a throwing knife splitting a rotting log.

 

The style is cinematic in a lots-of-close-ups, see-the-motes-in-the-sunlit-air lighting and strange but intimate camera angles kind of way.

 

The characters, especially Luker and India are engaging and all of it delivered to my ear in R.C. Bray's gravelly but insistent voice.

 

This is going to be good.

 

I'm reading it for the Southern Gothic square for Halloween Bingo.

Reading progress update: I've read 81%.
The Mermaid's Madness - Jim C. Hines

Perhaps current events are shaping my reaction to this book but I'm struck by the vein of sadness that runs through the book whenever we get to how these women have been treated by the powerful, especially powerful men. The book is filled with strong women but almost all of them have been damaged or at least wounded by their encounters with people who fail to see them as fully human.

 

I admire JIm C. Hines' ability to write a rollicking tale with mermaids and selkies and sea battles that has a fast pace and is lubricated with humour and yet still bring the reader back time and again to realistic sources of pain.

Halloween Bingo Update: 19 calls, 15 books read, 4 books in progress, 2 lines filled, 0 bingos, many hours of good reading

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It's a been a good reading week: I've completed three Halloween bingo books, two of which were five-star reads; gulped down the latest Murderbot novella on the day it was issued and started four more books.

 

Of course, another way of saying it is that I've spent another week without getting a bingo. True, but not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about this week.

 

Here's what I completed this week:

Terrifying Women Mike Finn Halloween Bingo CardDark MatterIn "Dark Matter"Michelle Paver proved beyond doubt that she is a terrifying woman.

 

This tale of a haunting in the Arctic dark masterfully demonstrates how to create and sustain creeping dread. 

 

 

 

a grimm tale Mike Finn Halloween Bingo Card-023stepsister scheme "The Stepsister Scheme"by Jim C Hines was a five-star read and the beginning of an irresistible new series.

 

Jim Hines' writing now owns the place is in my heart that new Terry Pratchett novels used to fill.

 

 

 

 

 

The Halloween Party genre suspense Mike Finn Halloween Bingo Card-009"The Halloween Party", a late Agatha Christie Poirot novel, is probably not Agatha Christie at her best but it was entertaining and clever enough to enjoy despite constantly giving voice to worldviews that are so "Daily Mail" editorial I'd read them as parody if we weren't currently being governed by a Party that sees the "Daily Mail" as suspiciously moderate.

 

 

 

I'm currently reading two books in squares that have been called and two more where the books just matched my mood.

 

Diverse Voices Mike Finn Halloween Bingo Card-002Dawn-2"Dawn" by Octavia Butler has been on my TBR pile for a long time. Now that I've started it, I wonder how I could have let that happen. It's harder-edged than I had expected and feels entirely contemporary even though it's thirty-one years old.

 

I'm reading it for the Diverse Voices square, which has already been called. The fact that I wasn't even aware of this book when I was avidly devouring science fiction in the eighties and nineties says a lot about the publishing industry. The fact that it's so widely available now gives me hope.

 

shifters Mike Finn Halloween Bingo Card-017Silence Fallen"Silence Fallen", the tenth Mercy Thompson book, is a treat I've been storing up for myself. This week I expect to have a little time as I wait around for various work to be done and spending time with Mercy sounded like the perfect way to stay calm.

 

I'm now 28% in and it's not in the least calming. It's fresh and tense and I'm very glad I'm reading it. I'm reading it for the Shifter square that's already been called because who better than a werecoyote to fill this slot?

 

Fear the drowning deep Mike Finn Halloween Bingo Card-01191XFh1LZ-wLI'm reading Jim Hine's "The Mermaid's Madness" because it's the next book in Jim Hines' Princess series which I'm impatient to read and because it's a perfect fit for the "Fear The Drowning Deep" square.

 

Now if only that square were to be called, a bingo could be mine.

 

 

 

spellbound Mike Finn Halloween Bingo Card-005The rules of magicMy wife and I needed something to listen to together on a long car journey so I picked "The Rules Of Magic" to keep us company.  

 

I'm nearly a third of the way through and I'm a little disappointed not to be more engaged by the characters. I'm hoping that will change but I'm beginning to wonder if it's a prequel that doesn't work unless you've read "Practical Magic. I'm reading it for the as yet uncalled Spellbound square.

 

 

 

 

 

Review
5 Stars
"Dark Matter" by Michelle Paver - novel filled with dread - highly recommended
Dark Matter - Michelle Paver

"Dark Matter" is a ghost story of the kind only a master storyteller can get right. The sense of bone-deep, hair-raising, hope-defeating dread builds with a slow inexorability that is almost too much to endure.

 

It is a book that seems at first to about the atmosphere of a place and the state of mind of an individual producing an unshakable uneasiness. This defensive explanation of fear as a product of the confluence of nature and character turns out to be too brittle to stand against the truth: the presence of something deeply malevolent, unrelentingly vengeful and entirely supernatural.

 

"Dark Matter" tells, mostly in journal form, the story of a 1937 British scientific expedition to the Arctic that ended disastrously.

 

The journal writer is Jack Miller a lower-middle-class man who sees himself as having, through no fault of his own, "missed his chance" to make a career. At twenty-seven, to change his life, he signs on to be the radio operator for a five-man Arctic expedition, made up of privileged, Harrow and Oxford educated young men, none of whom have any Arctic experience.

 

Michelle Paver uses the journal format with great skill to let us see what the journal writer sees and all the things that he doesn't see because he takes them for granted or they sit in a blind spot created by ignorance or inexperience.

 

In the early parts of the journal Jack is focused on the differences between himself and his upper-class companions, yet I was struck most by how similar they all are in their innocent unpreparedness and their unconscious sense of invulnerability.  These young men are unable to imagine the reality of the terrible power of a winter. Although they have no experience of the Arctic, they are confident that, with the right kit, some teamwork and a bit of pluck, they can conquer it. This combination of ignorance, self-confidence and wealth is probably one of the most lethal forces on the planet.

 

The expedition is dogged by bad luck from the beginning, so that, by the time they are encamped in the Arctic, Jack is accompanied only by Gus the charismatic leader of the expedition, Algie Gus' annoying, huntin'-shootin'-fishin' best friend winter and a pack of huskies. As full winter arrives, events conspire to leave Jack alone for a time with the darkness, the dogs and a nameless malevolent presence.

 

The power of this book comes from the quality of the writing, which subtly creates and sustains an atmosphere of creeping dread, one small scene at a time, letting your imagination fall slowly into the endless dark of an Arctic night until you feel the overwhelming isolation of being alone in a deadly cold darkness so silent you can hear yourself blink. Then Michelle Paver cranks up the horror by introducing an awareness of a manifest evil, a dread that is nameless only because daring to name it would make it too real to be borne. 

 

There is one journal entry that describes Jack becoming lost in fog on Halloween night, a short distance from the cabin he can no longer see. Nothing happens. Probably. Yet the passage held more fear in it than any confrontation with a monster could have produced.

 

I found the ending of the story very satisfying. There we no shortcuts and no cheap thrills, only the knowledge of how evil, once met, changes the lives of everyone it touches.

 

My enjoyment of the story was greatly increased by Jeremy Northam's skilled narration. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an extract.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/117937492" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

Reading progress update: I've read 4%.
Silence Fallen - Patricia Briggs

Bingos seem to be beyond me at the moment so I'm just using the bingo calls to test my appetite rather than to plan a game strategy. Having "Shifters" called reminded my how much I've been looking forward to reading the 10th Mercy Thompson book.

 

I've barely started it but my body had that same learned response to it as to holding a warm cup in cold hands and inhaling the scent of my first cup of coffee.

 

Thank you, Patricia Briggs. My your words never desert you and my your character always blossom.

Reading progress update: I've read 28%.
The Rules of Magic: A Novel - Alice Hoffman

Perhaps it's that I'm listening to this while driving or because I haven't read "Practical Magic" but the storytelling seems to be at arms-length from the characters.

 

It's as if there's a good plot and a great cast but lousy camera work.

 

I hope it becomes more personal as it moves along.

Off Topic Post: I'm off to see the giants

sign the giants are here

 

On 2nd October, the discovery of a giant sandal in the Liverpool docks signalled the return of the giant puppets.

The tweet says:

Have you heard the Giant news? Last night, a very small boat named Neptune made a GIANT discovery!

 

This will be the third and final visit of the Giants puppets to Liverpool.

 

I wasn't able to attend the first two but on Friday I'll be in Liverpool and on the Wirral to see the awakening of this year's giants, Then I'll follow them through the weekend. 

 

I love the way Liverpool makes this kind of thing happen and I'm looking forward to being part of this little piece of over-sized magic.

 

If you don't know about these guys, take a look at these pictures from the last time the giants visited.

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The little girl giant and her uncle hug after reuniting

 

Reading progress update: I've read 59%.
Dark Matter - Michelle Paver

I see why this made it to last year's Man Booker Longlist now. The writing is subtle and powerful, creating a gloomy atmosphere a little bit at a time, letting your imagination fall slowly into the endless dark of an Arctic night.

 

Then, when you are alone in the dark and the deadly cold, introducing a sensation of dread that is nameless only because you don't dare name it because naming it would make it real.

 

I've just read a passage about a man getting lost in fog on Halloween night, a short distance from the cabin he can no longer see. Nothing happened. Probably. Yet it the passage held more fear in it than any confrontation with a monster could have produced.

For any Jennifer Estep fans - the first book of her new Crown Of Shards series is out

Here's the publisher's (rather long) summary

 

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

 

 

 

Best Reads, Best New Finds and Biggest Disappointments of July, August and September 2018

 

2018 q3r2

 

In the past three months, I've read thirty-seven books: six were excellent and five I chose not to finish, three more I finished and wished I hadn't.

 

In this post, I'm revisiting the nine books that make up my Best Mainstream Read,  my Best Genre Reads, my Best New Series and my Most Disappointing Read of the quarter.

 

Best Mainstream Read of the Quarter

 

61RwywfqwCL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_"The Queen of Blood Everything" is one of the best books I've read this year. It tells the story of Dido Jones and her relationship with Edie, her unconventional mother.

 

Daughter of a flamboyant, convention-challenging. larger-than-life mother and absent any knowledge of her father, Dido has no greater desire from the age of six to thirteen than to be normal and in a "real" family. She satisfies this desire initially by adopting the family next door, weaving herself into their lives so thoroughly that her presence is taken for granted.

 

Starting with six-year-old Dido moving from a London squat to an Essex village in the exceptionally hot summer of 1976 and carrying on into Dido's adult years, "The Queen Of Bloody Everything" captures the language and attitudes of the times perfectly, displaying them to through the eyes of a child and the adult remembering being that child.

 

It is a riveting read, filled with strong, believable characters, realistic dialogue that is crammed with life and truth and scenes that capture moments of triumph, deep cringe-worthy embarrassment, abuse and loss and sometimes, a little bit of hope.

 

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of "The Queen Of Bloody Everything". Kelly Hotten's narration is perfect.

 

Best Genre Reads of the Quarter

2018 q3 best genre

 

My genre reads have been dominated by espionage and murder. I tried my first Josephine Tey, which transported me to an England now long gone, my fourth Robert Galbraith which showed me that even a good series can continue to improve, a rare (for me) insight into a Japanese murder mystery, and finishing with another visit to Mick Herron's Slough House spies set in a very recognisable modern London.

 

Brat farrar

Josephine Tey's "Brat Farrar", is a mystery novel, published in 1949, about a young man who pretends to be the assumed-to-be-dead heir to a minor English estate.

 

As I began this novel, I was struck by the distinctive flavour of Tey's English. Listening to it is like travelling in time. The words are, for the most part, unchanged from current usage but the rhythms of the prose, the expectations the writer has of the reader's attention span and the taken-for-granted use of complex sentence structures, speak of a time when clothes were tailored, food was prepared by servants and education was what demonstrated that you were one of us. This is language as time travel.

 

We no longer talk or think the way Tey and the people in her world talked or thought. They are our distant cousins, using a dialect that we understand but which, in subtle ways, we find ourselves translating.

 

Although Tey's the plot of Tey's novel seemed to be about fraud and possibly murder, she used it to do something much more interesting, to display the virtues and weaknesses of an English yeoman family, comfortably-off but not ostentatiously wealthy. making a life for themselves on the same lands that they have owned for generations. Tey isn't blind to their privilege or their opportunities to abuse it but she focuses on their decency and their commitment to each other.

 

The family makes its living from horses and horses play as large a role in this story as mendacity or murder. One of the most vivid scenes in the book describes a horse fair and a horserace. 

 

In the end, it seemed to me that Tey was displaying a set of values that were under threat throughout the book. They are the values of a previous age and a different class but she made me root for the ones who were behaving decently nonetheless.

 

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith US

"Lethal White" is the fourth Cormoran Strike book. I returned to this world with great pleasure. The writing is so skilful, making the emotions, decisions and misunderstandings of the two main characters painfully and credibly clear, avoiding simple answers to complex problems and setting the whole thing against a nuanced and slightly acerbic understanding of the dynamics of class and power in England.

 

This book reminds me of an elegant broach: the plot provides a complex silver fretwork, interesting in its own right but really there to display sparking gems of scenes between well-drawn characters with dialogue so accurate and attitudes so authentic, that you feel sure you've met these people.

 

Every scene, every interaction, is so well-observed, so nuanced that I was left wondering what it must feel like to see the world so clearly and to be able to display its essence at will. I doubt it's a comfortable thing.

 

At the literal heart of the story, lie Cormoran and Robin. A lot of the energy of the book comes from gaining a deeper understanding of each of them and the relationship between them. At one point, Strike comments on the number of couples or pairings in the puzzle he's trying to solve and it seemed to me that this "twinning" was also being used to discover and display Strike and Robin.

 

I came to see how similar they are: both overlapping with but not fitting into the worlds they investigate, both driven by a need to know, both damaged in ways that might disable them from doing the work they love but refusing to accept the constraint.

 

I also saw the fundamental difference between them, that drives their responses to the people close to them and their reaction to failure and threat. Robin is anxious to succeed, to prove to herself that she is not still a woman broken by rape, living with her parents and hiding from the world. Strike is almost belligerently confident and driven by a need not to fail himself or the people he cares for.

 

Devotion-of-Suspect-X

I'm fascinated by Japan, perhaps because I've never been there and perhaps because so many of the assumptions and behaviours seem to be different to the ones I've grown used to, including a very different approach to storytelling

 

"The Devotion Of Suspect X"  was my first taste of a Japanese crime novel. I found it to be a very satisfying read: original, thought-provoking and full of small surprises, it was fresh, entertaining and worked on many different levels.

 

"The Devotion Of Suspect X" sets out to do something different than a normal crime story. We know who killed whom and how pretty much from the beginning. The rest is about defeating the police investigation by out-thinking them. It becomes a reluctant duel between two genius-level thinkers who were at Imperial University together decades earlier. One is a mathematician working to cover up a killing. The other is a physicist curious to work out what really happened. This gives plenty of scope for the discussion of the nature of problem-solving, the role of assumptions in disguising meta-problems and the nature of proof.

 

Yet this is not a dry abstract, book. The plot is driven by ordinary people wanting ordinary things and this makes it much more than an intellectual puzzle. It's about happiness, purpose, devotion, and guilt. It's about what gives you the will to live and the ability to kill. Even the "dual" between the two mega-minds is not what you might expect. It's based on a respect and understanding rather than enmity of moral conflict.

 

herron_-_london_rules_-_front

"London Rules" is the fifth, and think by far the best, Slough House book. Like its predecessors, it takes a sideways look at modern MI5 through the lens of the place where it sends it screw-ups to live in tedious servitude designed to make them resign rather than be fired.   "London Rules" brings together the same elements used in the earlier books but each element has grown stronger, is used with greater assurance.

 

The violent prologue of the book reminded me of one of those young woman / old woman optical illusion drawings. I saw the scene perfectly in my head,   tragic but familiar, up until the last paragraph, when everything changed and yet everything remained the same. This way of leading me to see the familiar differently and surprise me while he does it, it what makes Mick Herron's Slough House books so appealing.

 

One of the things I enjoy about the Slough House books is how fearlessly, sometimes even viciously, they comment on the current British political culture. The most brutal and most nuanced assaults are made by Jackson Lamb and so might be seen as part of his irascible persona ("There's a Donald Trump Junior?", Lamb said, "And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse.") but the disdain for the people who made the insanity of Brexit and Trump possible is shared by most of the characters in the book except for the shamelessly self-serving Pols themselves.

 

This contemporary pulse-taking is also more than decorative. It provides the issues that drive the plot, giving the plot more credibility and showing us the damage that these people of "middling ability but supreme self-confidence"  are doing to us. It invites us to recognise that self-delusion, confidence without ability and the pursuit of personal power at the expense of personal integrity are a plague on our society.

 

Best New Find of the Quarter

Bearskin

"Bearskin"is a rare find: a literary thriller that is as lyrical as it is muscular.

 

Instead of choosing between writing a literary book about how a man can surrender himself to the dark sentience of an ancient forest and walk out more himself than he was before or a thriller about a man deeply maimed by violence who, although living an almost invisible life in the wilds, knows his past will catch up with him, James McLaughlin has written a book that is both a literary achievement and a page-turning, viscerally realistic thriller.

 

Rice Moore, the man at the heart of this book, is a great creation. Recent acts of extreme violence against him and by him have left him emotionally scarred and subject to fugues states and hallucinations. A solitary man who no longer entirely trusts himself to play well with others, he seeks isolation, partly to hide from his enemies and partly to avoid people. Alone in the forest, feeling its pulse next to his own, his inability to let go of his territoriality or his instinct for violence, repeatedly draws him into conflict with the people around him.

 

Yet this isn't a one-man-triumphs-against-the-world sort of story. Moore is losing his mind. His fugue states, his obsession with protecting the black bears on the estate he is warden of and his personal ghosts, lead him down a path where he literally puts on another skin and enters a different kind of consciousness. James McLaughlin's ability to help me experience this altering of states as something real and raw was deeply impressive.

 

Best New Series of the Quarter

2018 q3 series2

 

Trail of Lightning

Rebecca Roanhorse's "Trail Of Lightning" is the start of a fresh, vibrant Navajo urban fantasy series.

 

The Sixth World concept the series is a potent mix of post-apocalyptic devastation and Navajo-based Urban Fantasy with a monster-slaying female lead who sees herself not as a hero but as a monster in waiting, someone contaminated and abandoned who knows only how to kill and yet dreds becoming nothing more than a killer.

 

Patrica Briggs, Faith Hunter and C.E. Murphy have all given us Urban Fantasy that draws upon Native American myth (albeit Cherokee and Blackfoot rather than Navajo) but "Trail Of Lightning" is the first time I've seen Native American culture take centre stage rather than being an atavistic accident that makes the heroine a misfit in mainstream American society.

 

In the Sixth World, white America has been mostly destroyed by flooding, the Navajo Gods have returned and their lands have been protected from the chaos by four huge walls, raised by magic. For once, the Dineh are not the ones getting the crappy end of everything.

 

Maggie is not the now-normal urban fantasy kick-ass heroine, with the smart mouth, the lethal-but-sexy weaponry and the dangerous-to-everyone-but-her love interest. She is slightly broken, very much alone and is only truly herself when she is hunting. 

 

Maggie is intriguing, an essay in guilt, fear and anger. Partnering her with the smooth, wrap-around-shades wearing I'm-like-a-Medicine-Man-but-way-cooler Kai Arviso displays Maggie well and doesn't take us in any of the normal Urban Fantasy directions.

 

stepsister scheme

"The Stepsister Scheme" is one of the few books recently that I've stayed up until the early hours to finish. It was a lot of fun. It was quirky, original, not afraid to handle dark themes but ultimately powered by selfless bravery and optimism.

 

It tells the tale of three Princesses who set out to rescue a handsome Prince. These are not Disney Princesses with phenomenal hair, over-large eyes and chart-topping singing voices. These are Princesses who have survived the appalling abuse handed out to them in the original Grimm fairy tales and have gone on to become resourceful, talented, dangerous women who won't necessarily get to live happily ever after.

 

You'll recognise the three Princesses as the story unfolds, but you won't have seen this side of them before. Jim Hines presents his Princesses with a wonderful mix of humour, tension, excitement and I-want-to-stand-up-and-applaud originality that is a joy to read.

 

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter

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I bought "The End We Start From" as an audiobook.  It has an intriguing end-of-days setting. It's poetic in its intent and execution. It's been highly praised and heavily hyped. It's two hours and two minutes long and yet it felt like a test of my endurance.

 

I found the lyricism self-conscious and over-wrought. There are many fine sentences but having them layered endlessly on one another becomes a burden of blessings. The whole here is much less than the parts.

 

The rhythm is punishingly slow. The narrative drifts through dense prose that is vivid but directionless. There is no "why?", no "what next?" just a relentlessly drab "right now" that is soaked in dispassionate disassociative observation.

 

This is probably a wonderful book in the same way that Philip Glass probably writes wonderful operas, it's just that neither of them is for me.

 

 

Review
4 Stars
"Exit Strategy - The Murderbot Diaries #4" by Martha Wells
Exit Strategy - Martha Wells

"The Murderbot Diaries" are really a single novel that the publishers have released as four novellas. This would have been fine except each novella was priced as if it were a full novel, leaving me feeling abused by the publisher.

 

The reason I LET myself be abused is that "The Murderbot Diaries" are first-rate science fiction. They're fun, ingenious, fast-paced and plausible.

 

Murderbot is a wonderful creation. Its development over the course of the four novellas from a Security Unit that has hacked its own governor module so it can spend more time watching space soap-operas into a person with feelings, a strong sense of identity and a determination to stay independent is irresistibly attractive.

 

I read the fourth novella the same day that my pre-order dropped into my Audible library and I was gratified to find that the quality remained high and that the resolution was as plausible and original as the premise itself.

 

I won't go into the plot here other than to say that it brought together all the plot pieces from the previous novellas and used them to push Murderbot's development along by making it choose what to do about the mess "his" humans had gotten themselves into.

 

Although this final novella does what it's supposed to do and gives a resolution to the struggle with the big bad Corporates, it seemed to me that the main focus was on Murderbot working out what it wants to be. In the third novella "Rogue Protocol"Murderbot met what he thought of as a "pet robot". The sacrifices that robot made and the emotional attachment that the humans showed to it have both given Murderbot something to think about. He knows he doesn't want to be a pet. He also knows that watching media is no longer enough for him. Its still embarrassed and annoyed by the emotions it keeps feeling but has recognised them as an integral part of its personality. 

 

I liked the fact that Murderbot rejects the Pinnochio option. It doesn't want to be a "real boy". In the end, what it wants is to have the freedom to be Murderbot. 

 

Martha Wells has created something very special here. I hope there are more Murderbot books, just because I'm greedy for its company, but I'd be satisfied if this is all I ever know about Murderbot because it was a great ride in good company.

 

Of course, if there are more Murderbot books, I'd rather not have to buy them in four slices and end up paying four times the price. Did I mention that already?

Reading progress update: I've read 2%. There will be a short pause in my Halloween Bingo reading because...
Exit Strategy - Martha Wells

 

... the final Murderbot just dropped into my audible library.

 

Review
3 Stars
"Hallowe'en Party - Hercule Poirot #39" by Agatha Christie
Hallowe'en Party - Agatha Christie

In my mind, courtesy of all those Miss Marple and Poirot TV series, I think of Agatha Christie as writing contemporaneously about England between the wars, still hanging on to its empire and with upper-class privilege unchallenged.

 

In reality, Agatha Christie continued to publish crime novels into the mid-1970s.

 

I was shocked to realise that, when this book was published in 1969, I would have been of an age to attend the children's Halloween party that the book starts with.

 

Yet Poirot is still there. An older dies-his-hair-to-keep-it-black Poirot, now on his thirty-ninth fictional outing. He is brought into this case by Adriadne Walker, a crime writer who is a sort of fictional twin for Agatha Christie herself. Both of them are clearly creatures from an earlier age, (a phenomenon I am becoming personally acquainted with as I plod on into my sixties). They, and the older characters around them, spend a great deal of time discussing how times have changed for the worse.

 

There are recurring laments about the mentally ill being let loose to threaten the populace because the asylums are too full; about the sad loss of the death penalty as a deterrent to "wronguns"; about young women who, no longer protected by their families, place themselves at risk by venturing out alone and being attracted to the wrong kind of man; by the rise to normalcy of sexual assaults on children and the inappropriateness of empathy in magistrates which results in mercy taking precedence over justice.

 

At times, I felt as if I had wandered into an editorial from the Daily Mail.

 

"The Halloween Party" has what these days I'd think of as a post-episode-100 feel, when a TV series is stocked with characters we know so well that there is nothing new that they can do but we enjoy watching them do it anyway. The pace is leisurely. We gently trotted through the evidence gathering as Poirot interviewed the people who were at the Halloween Party in which a child was drowned in an apple-bobbing bucket.  I was surprised at the way this death was treated - as if it were not so much a tragedy as a slightly embarrassing inconvenience. This turned out to be a plot device of sorts but it fitted into the emotional climate of the community so well that I didn't realise that until later.  As we reach the denouement we do have to canter a bit and there is some physical action, although it does not, of course, involve the elderly Belgian gentleman with the big moustaches and the too-tightly-fitting patent leather shoes.

 

Beneath the culture-shocked social commentary and the only slightly muted patronising of those who live in "the kind of new houses that ordinary people can afford" there is a quite respectable plot, involving forgery, deception, murder and a lethal form of narcissism that was quite chilling.

 

What stood out for me was how well some of the children were drawn although they seemed rather old-fashioned children for the times. It also seemed to me that all the energy of this book came from the women. The men were little more than plot devices but I was left seeing the women as powerhouses of energy looking for an outlet.

I rather liked Adriadne and I found Poirot's small vanities combined with his controlled compassion rather endearing.

 

Hugh Fraser narrated the novel, with his, to my ear, perfect mimicry of David Suchet's Poirot and gaveAdriadne a voice that invoked the ghost of a slightly higher pitched Margaret Rutherford.

 

 

This is a comfortable mystery, despite its grim content. I enjoyed it as much for its timely reminder of unrepentantly Tory views on English life and morals were (are?) like and for its insights into how the old can fail truly to see the world the young live in as for the mystery itself.

 

I read this book for the Genre Suspense square on Halloween Bingo.

Review
5 Stars
"The Queen Of Bloody Everything" by Joanna Nadin - Highly Recommended
The Queen Of Bloody Everything - Joanna Nadin

"The Queen Of Bloody Everything" is an astonishingly good novel that tells the story of Dido Jones and her relationship with Edie, her unconventional mother.

 

Daughter of a flamboyant, convention-challenging. larger-than-life mother and absent any knowledge of her father, Dido has no greater desire from the age of six to thirteen than to be normal and in a "real" family. She satisfies this desire initially by adopting the family next door, weaving herself into their lives so thoroughly that her presence is taken for granted.

 

Starting with six-year-old Dido moving from a London squat to an Essex village in the exceptionally hot summer of 1976 and carrying on into Dido's adult years, "The Queen Of Bloody Everything" captures the language and attitudes of the times perfectly, displaying them to through the eyes of a child and the adult remembering being that child.

 

The storytelling is very accessible despite following a clever and complex structure. It starts in the present day, with Dido talking to her hospitalised mother, and reveals itself through a series of recollections of Dido's life in chronological order, interspersed with commentary in the here and now.

 

It is a riveting read, filled with strong, believable characters, realistic dialogue that is crammed with life and truth and scenes that capture moments of triumph, deep cringe-worthy embarrassment, abuse and loss and sometimes, a little bit of hope. 

 

Dido's understanding of herself and her mother is deeply shaped by her reading and the gap between the worlds she reads about and the life she's lived. In the beginning, the chapters have names that refer to children's books: "Heidi" or "Third Year At Mallory Towers". Later, the literary signposting of the chapters becomes more adult with titles like "The Bell Jar" or "Brighton Rock".  

 

My heart was captured by the characters but what really intoxicated me was Joanna Nadin's ability to help me to see the same thing from multiple points of view at the same time: how I felt then, how I feel now, what I failed to see then, what I wished I could do now and so on. She embraces the complexity of real life where questions have more than one answer and narratives overlay one another over time like layers of lacquer on our lives.

 

Both the ambition and the craft of this approach are shown on from the first page of the book. It starts:

Now

So how shall I begin? With Once upon a time, maybe. The tropes of fairy tale are here after all - a locked door, a widower, a wicked stepmother, or a twisted version of one at least. But those words are loaded, tied; they demand a happily ever after to close our story, and I'm not sure there is one, not yet.

 

Besides, Cinderella was never your scene: 'Don't  bank on a handsome prince, Dido,' you would sneer through the cigarette smoke that trailed permanently in your wake; that cloaked you, tracked you, like a cartoon cloud in Bugs Bunny. Like Pig-Pen's flies. 'If they bother to show up it'll be late, and then they'll only beg or borrow. Or worse.' And the twelve-year-old me would roll her eyes , like the girls in books did, and think, Those are your princes, Mother, not mine. And I'm not you.

 

But I am, aren't I? Though it's taken me four decades - half a lifetime - to admit it.

I fell in love with the tone of this writing from the first page and stayed faithful to it to the last.

 

"The Queen Of Bloody Everything" was intense, sometimes funny often painful but always felt like the truth to me. The ending is perhaps a little more hopeful than one finds in real life but even that felt like a benison of sorts to the characters and the reader.

 

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of "The Queen Of Bloody Everything". Kelly Hotten's narration is perfect. You can hear a sample of it below.

 

I liked the book so much that, having listened to it happily, I went out and bought I a hardback copy so I can keep it to hand.

 

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