Saturday, 28 July 2012

West End Front

West End Front – Matthew Sweet

There have been a plethora of books written about the Second World War and its effect on the common man in the UK, yet Matthew Sweet's investigation into the lives of the more extravagant hotels on London’s west end presents a fresh view of a world at war. The Savoy, Claridge’s and The Ritz are the protagonists as they cater to a London that refused to let Hitler interrupt the sacred ritual of tea. These hotels were home to those who called the shots, made the big decisions, with entire floors rented to MI5 and war ministers. Within the richly upholstered walls were Kings and Queens, Spies and Agents, and the many men and women who served them. 

Sweet’s writing is extremely accessible and enjoyable to read, full of atmosphere and characters that jump off the page, in particular the vivacious men recalling their time at the Ritz’s Pink Sink – the best place to ‘pick up’ in town. Yet this is not the romp behind formerly closed doors that I had imagined it to be. Even at their most extravagant this London was one that suffered (albeit less than the general populace), tales are told of monarchies exiled to rooms in the Savoy who were never able to go home, innocent waiters who were interned under Regulation 18b and of Winston Churchill hearing about the end of the war he fought so hard to win from the sidelines of a room at Claridge’s. Ultimately the reality of War could never be escaped, however much the great hotels tried, even the moments of oblivion they provided could not stop the world from turning. This was a great read; I would really recommend it for History buffs and anyone simply enjoys a good yarn.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Alif the Unseen

Here's a little sneak peek for ya'll - Alif the Unseen – G Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is being hailed as the ‘Harry Potter of the hacker generation’, this is not something I agree with – the themes and characters are so far removed from Rowling’s world that I feel the comparison was made simply to drum up a buzz. Which is a shame, as this is a wonderful novel, full of atmosphere and written with a precision that allowed a complete computer illiterate like me to comprehend the world that Alif inhabited. Wilson plays with concepts of power, such as a name and the personality inherent in all those we take on, the Jinn are a people who place a great deal of importance in a name, and the fact that Alif chooses to be known by his ‘handle’ rather than his given name is proof of how he views himself. I found the world created by Wilson to be wonderfully foreign, yet at the same time incredibly real, I felt the world Alif lived in surround me as I read – this is a rare occurrence.

This is novel firmly set in the Middle Eastern world and mindset – Alif and his hacker friends (most of whom he has never met) struggle to provide a modicum of freedom in world where even the words you type are censored and cause for disciplinary action. This is a world that Alif is proficient in, a world in which he has a nobility that eludes him in the real world. However, all too soon Alif’s controlled world spirals out of control when the woman he loves sends him a copy of the mythical Alf Yeom – the Thousand and One Days, said to contain the wisdom of the Jinn, the magical creatures that inhabit a world alongside our own. The knowledge this book contains is enough to make Alif a target, a fugitive, it is worth killing for. Alif must use all of his skills and knowledge to free not only himself, but the oppressed people of his country.

'Cause everyone has to have a favourite...

The Obernewtyn Chronicles – Isobelle Carmody

I started the Obernewtyn chronicles in 1998 and I’ve probably read them again every second year since. Needless to say I’m over the moon that in less than a fortnight I’ll be the proud (very anti-social) owner of the latest offering in the series ‘The Sending’.

Set in a world that has been ravaged by ‘weaponmachines’ that cause a nuclear apocalypse, the series follows the misfit (people with mental powers such as talking to beasts and each other with their minds) Elspeth Gordie as she strives to find a place for herself and her misfit friends in the cruel, authoritarian land run by the Council and the fanatical religious order the Herder faction.

With the aid of her friends, cat Maruman and horse Ghaltha in particular, Elspeth must follow the clues left only for her many years ago to the site where the weaponmachines are sleeping, waiting to finish the job they started. It’s a race against time as she strives to outwit her counterpart seeking to end the world. Amidst all this she still manages to live her life and it is this and the wonderful characters that surround her that makes these books well worth the wait.

Carmody is a wonderful writer, the worlds she creates are always complete and despite the differences still familiar. Her characters are flawed and loveable and so real I’ve always thought of them as old friends. The only problem is the time it’s taken her to finish this series – but given the other wonderful places she’s taken me to in the meantime I’ll forgive her. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night - Deborah Harkness

I first read about ‘A Discovery of Witches’ in 2009 – many months before it hit the shelves. I waited with an anticipation I had not felt for a new publication in quite some time – there seemed to be something about this novel of witches and history that would give a post twilight world the intelligent escapism it was crying out for. Happily I wasn’t disappointed, I found the protagonists ambivalence to the magic dynasty she was born into to be intriguing, her obsession with history understandable and the tall handsome stranger intent on protecting her very titillating. Furthermore, the world Harkness created was both credible and vivid. So often in fantasy today it falls to authors to completely reconstruct the mythos of the magical world in order to put their mark on it – and this was certainly a new world with politics and magical hierarchies that set Harkness apart. 

The plot flows quickly and methodically – we meet Diana and Matthew whilst Diana is working at Oxford, when she innocently calls up Ashmole 782. This book is one that Witch, Daemon and Vampire kind have only heard rumours about – is it the first Spell book? Or something more, could it be the book that contains the answer to the origins of all three species? One thing is for certain; both Witch and Vampire will go to any lengths to get their hands on it. Diana and Matthew must defy centuries of prejudice if they are to survive and understand both their feelings for each other and the implications of the book. This journey will take them from modern Oxford, to France, to the USA and finally to Elizabethan England. 

Not always is a sequel as polished or as inventive as a debut novel, especially when an authors first book garners the acclaim of ‘A Discovery of Witches’, yet I was thrilled to find that I enjoyed ‘A Shadow of Night’ just as much as its predecessor. The character arks were written skilfully and so the characters grew as the plot was driven on. I find Harkness’ writing style to be extremely readable and enjoyable, my only criticism is that it will be another year before I find out what happens!

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

Don’t let the authors name put you off – this is anything but free love view of the world. Eleanor and Park is an extremely intelligent coming of age tale set in the reality of 1986 USA. Park keeps his head down, he’s grown up and been to school with the same bunch of kids his whole life and he knows exactly where he fits in the scheme of things, until the day Eleanor gets on the bus and he feels obliged to offer her the seat next to him. Eleanor has just been allowed to move back home after being kicked out by her low-life stepdad, she’s aware that she looks different – stands out – and this is the exact opposite of what she wants. Over the next few months their mutual sufferance of each other becomes a tentative friendship, which then becomes that most precious of all things – first love.

What makes this so much more than just another coming of age novel is the intelligence of Rowell’s writing. Her depth of understanding and the art with which she relays the characters feelings and experiences is transcendent and places this novel among the best I’ve read. This novel is so easy to relate to, every new experience is one we’ve all had, as readers we get to experience every first touch and thought in such an authentic way that this will be a novel that stays with us all.