[Review] Dear Committee Members written by Julie Schumacher

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Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Publisher: Doubleday
Date of Publication: 19 August 2014
Number of Pages: 181

Rating: 3 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby. [Goodreads]

Review: There are many reasons why this novella shouldn’t work and in some ways, it only works because of the length. At 181 pages, the reader can just about suspend their disbelief and irritation at Jason Fitger but add a few more letters and this wouldn’t be the case. I reached the 80% mark and skipped a couple of letters just to get to the end. Interestingly, this is the point when quite a few other readers did the same thing. A narcissistic pessimist character that made me think constantly of work isn’t the kind of book I want to be reading.

Initially, I found the book humourous. In my job, my colleagues and I receive quite a few LOR and each one is time consuming, tedious, boring, pointless and ultimately, thankless. I did laugh out loud (in public) at the letter Fitger wrote for a demanding student he had known for 11 minutes. The student, though fictional, sounded like many of mine. The other section I particularly enjoyed is Fitgar’s loathing of web-form references and the insistence he use email for some recommendations. Who hasn’t been forced to fill in a form that doesn’t provide enough space for a complete sentence? The grammatical checks were also well placed.

Ultimately, this book fell flat for me.

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Tom Rob Smith’s “The Farm”

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For the pure pleasure of reading a book I selected myself, rather than one I have been approved for, I recently finished The Farm by Tom Rob Smith.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Date of Publication: 13 February 2014
Number of Pages: 400

Rating: 5 stars

Until the moment he received a frantic call from his father, Daniel believed his parents were headed into a peaceful, well-deserved retirement…: setting off to begin life anew on a remote, bucolic farm in rural Sweden…But with that phone call, everything changes.Then, he hears from his mother…Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother’s unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a horrible crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father. [Goodreads]

For me, this book delivered exactly as the blurb reads. No more. No less. It was a fantastic trail of clues and deceits which culminated in an ending that is both sensible and honest. The ending works on multiple levels because it ignores what a Hollywood blockbuster would demand and delivers an ending that we, as normal readers, we can feel an affinity with. There are no tricks, no loopholes, no gimmicks. This felt like pure storytelling from a man who knew what it was to have experienced a similar situation and who knew exactly where he wanted the story to go.

I raved about The Farm to a colleague and loaned her my copy. My colleague is a workaholic. Unless she has made specific plans not to be at work, she is here in the office. At 11am yesterday, I received this text;

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If you knew my colleague you would understand why I’m so excited that she took time for herself. Tom Rob Smith has written a great story. I will be going back for more of his work and soon. *adds Child 44 et al to reading list*

[Review] The Lazarus Prophecy written by F.G. Cottam

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Title: The Lazarus Prophecy
Author: F. G. Cottam
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Date of Publication: 9 September 2014
Number of Pages: 289

Rating: 1.5 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: There is a killer loose on the streets of London, one that evades security cameras, is not held by locks, and savagely mutilates his victims. When the murderer switches from unknown prostitutes to Julie Longmuir, a beautiful actress at the height of her success, no woman feels safe. As the press begin to draw uncomfortable comparisons with Jack the Ripper, Jane Sullivan, heading up the police investigation, grudgingly has to agree. But the religious writing, scrawled on the wall in Julie Longmuir’s blood, is outside Jane’s area of expertise. Roping in Jacob Prior, a disillusioned theologian, they attempt to pick apart the demonic delusions of this Ripper copycat. They must act quickly, as events are spiralling out of control, and Jane is next on the killer’s list.

Jane will be tested beyond the limits of standard police work, as the esoteric insinuates itself into the investigation. For events are linked to the clandestine Priory in the Pyrenees, the home of a secret Christian sect that pre-dates the Knights Templar. Jane and Jacob are faced with a deeper mystery than they had ever dreamed of; are they simply dealing with a psychopath, or is this something bigger, is this The End of Days?

Review: The Lazarus Prophecy is a mediocre “thriller” based around Jack the Ripper and arcane threads of early Catholicism but with all the charm of a procedural manual. There is no atmosphere evoked within the text and readers are treated to a dry regurgitation of historical facts that seem unedited from the Wikipedia pages they were copied from. I was going to suggest the modern reader is too sophisticated for the subtlety Cottam is aiming for but this doesn’t explain authors like Stephen King and one of his recent releases, Revival. Revival is shocking to the end because King tells a mundane story that is anything of the sort.

It isn’t that the story is bad – quite the contrary. Inside The Lazarus Prophecy is an interesting and exciting story that simply hasn’t developed. Before I go any further and explain what I mean, I want to acknowledge that what we, as NetGalley readers receive, is a pre-publication draft. I want to acknowledge that any of the sections I reference here may not exist in the final copy and I want the publisher to acknowledge, in this instance, they sent a reader copy in such poor condition, I spent more time playing editor than I did, reader. This has tarnished my opinion of the book quite dramatically as I do not read for NetGalley and publishers, as an editor.

There is a strange undercurrent of sexism and misogyny in the text.

1] Cottam writes, He thought she was one of the two or three most attractive women he’d encountered in his adult life and was intrigued on that basis to learn more about her. Raising the question of whether he would have been interested in the woman if she’d been plain or fat.

2] Cottam panders to gay sexual types when he writes, Jane Sullivan would have assumed the obvious: that Elaine Page and Barbra Streisand featured heavily in his CD collection and that he couldn’t get through The Wizard of Oz without a box of Kleenex to hand.

3] Cottam shows alarming naivety with There was a tradition in some religious faiths of trivializing or denigrating women. There wasn’t in Christianity. Catholics particularly revered women because of the crucial part Mary had played in the birth of Christ and his journey to maturity. Culturally, Catholic countries were overwhelmingly matriarchal. Put at its simplest, all the boys loved their mum.

4] Cottam suggests that a priest is not “naturally misogynistic”. All of this makes me wonder whom he is attempting to convince.

5] Cottam perpetuates the stereotype of the drunken Irish immigrant – and other stereotypes remain that should not be considered as factual.

6] Cottam writes, Even in the 21st century, men routinely hit on women kept company only by the glass in front of them at a pub table. This seems an incredibly strange statement as it suggests that the dawning of a new century suddenly would suddenly have seen men better behaved in their relationships with women.

There also seems to be a deliberate avoidance of maps of London. For example;

1] Jacob Prior lives near Oval but walks to Holborn to go to the gym. Without specifics it is impossible to work out what the round trip would be but even at a minimum, this is about 7km [4.4 miles]

2] One of the female characters walks to Bermondsy from a destination that is also a 4km [2.5miles] distance. I cannot help but wonder if Cottam just didn’t want to check which bus route or tube station was closest to his character. It is difficult to believe that a DCI, going to meetings where her appearance is important, would walk in the peak of summer heat.

3] Charlotte walks a considerable distance on a damaged ankle that the reader is repeatedly told, needs time to heal. Considering the damage Cottam writes the character to have, I doubt she would have been travelling the distance or side stepping tourists around the Southbank with any kind of ease. Further, in this section, Charlotte looks across the river from BFI and sees many buildings. While this is correct, why would Cottam not write that she could see Somerset House at the very least?

Looking back over my notes I find that the words cut and redundant and the phrase awkward sentence repeat constantly. Words appear in sentences that feel backwards. “Facts” are learned too quickly and we are expected to believe that DCI Jane Sullivan doesn’t know what Marxism is. I can believe she wouldn’t know about Fabian Socialism but the other defies belief.

1] Cottam refers to a Bafta Award as a “mask trophy”.

2] A priest “knew his scripture”, which honestly, is only to be expected.

3] DCI Sullivan is removed from the case but she doesn’t react – at all! There is no dialogue, no internal monologue, NOTHING!

As for the ending, I can only say hurried, rushed, unconvincing, contrived and fast approaching the maximum word count. The ending is so easily resolved I actually laughed out loud. While I didn’t see it coming, there was nothing to it that makes me believe I should have.

There are many more examples within the text that show how much work still needed to be done on the draft before releasing it to readers but I feel I’ve made my point. Unfortunately, this is not the first Cottam novel I’ve read where these problems have existed – it will, however, be the last Cottam book I read.

Fire Bad, Tree Pretty* written by Philippa Gregory

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Title: The King’s Curse
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Touchstone
Date of Publication: 9 September 2014
Number of Pages: 608

Rating: 1 star

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: The final novel in the Cousins’ War series, the basis for the critically acclaimed Starz miniseries, The White Queen, by #1 New York Times best-selling author and “the queen of royal fiction” (USA TODAY) Philippa Gregory tells the fascinating story of Margaret Pole, cousin to the “White Princess,” Elizabeth of York, and lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon. [Goodreads]

Review: In my last review I touched on the current debate about the length of books. In general, I am in favour of them provided they have had a good editor and every word progresses the story. When it comes to The King’s Curse, however, I find myself changing my mind. This book is about 200 pages too long and could have been far more interesting if we the reader weren’t being told which title belongs to which character at multiple points in the story. The same can be said for the unnecessary and repetitive descriptions of courtly protocol. There is no need for the reader to be told about curtseying and bowing and respectful speech every time two people interact.

The first person narration is tedious. I’m sure Margaret Pole was far more interesting than Gregory writes her. The historical accuracy that some reviewers mention is dubious at best and tarnished at worst by Gregory’s own leanings. It is disheartening to read about the “evil” Tudors and their desire to overthrow the Plantagenet dynasty. The way Gregory writes, one could quite easily be duped into believing that the Plantagenet’s never attempted to control a large power base the span of England and France. How quickly Gregory seems to negate Henry V. I do not expect historical referencing in a fictional book, however, I do expect that the historical context and the facts be adhered to. Unless you shift the entire setting into an alternate reality, there is no excuse for laziness.

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Once upon a time I really enjoyed Gregory’s work. The work felt more engaged, whole, finished, polished. When you read something like The Queen’s Fool, you could almost feel Gregory’s excitement at writing. Now, I feel indifferent – as does the writing, the tone and the style. I feel I’ve wasted a number of hours on a book that gave me no enjoyment and on the subject of curses, I was surely under a spell when I clicked “request” for this title.

*many liberties taken with the title

May in Review

May seems to have gone as quickly as April – the days are a blur. Still, I managed to bring myself a bit closer to date with these but I’m still very much behind. I’ve got two books on the go at the moment, one fiction, one non-fiction but I’m also trying to finish the edits of my own novel. My self imposed deadline is July 15 so wish me luck as I don’t think I’ll get there.

may 2015

Average star rating – 3.6
Pick of the month – The Children Act
Total Pages – 2154

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell [a review]

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Title: The Bone Clocks
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton – Sceptre
Date of Publication: 2 September 2014
Number of Pages: 608

Rating:  2.5 stars  or 4 stars – depending on what mood I’m in when you ask me

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: One drowsy summer’s day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’. Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking…

The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly’s life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.

Review: Boris Kachka, writing for The Vulture, asks the “when did books get so freaking enormous?” This question is one that many in the media, bloggers included, have started asking recently. Most frequently cited examples include Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries but overlooked are We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (620 pages) and the subject of this review (608 pages). While both of the two later works are short by comparison, at 200 odd pages fewer, they both represent a significant time investment.

The Goldfinch was an effort to finish – I found Theo self absorbed and obnoxious, however, my mistake was more than likely, reading this after The Little Friend. There are few characters who compare with Harriet. The Luminaries by comparison was fascinating and so well imagined – the story so well plotted and left you wanting more. We Are Not Ourselves did not have any of the style of the Tartt and Catton. It wanted to play with the big boys but didn’t quite make it.

The Bone Clocks, at 20% is maintaining my interest though  it does read like other teenage angst and university boy novels that have been done, both well and terribly over the years. At 20% I cannot point out any element that sets it apart or makes it unique.

William Skidelsky argues “…there are many reasons why a novel like The Bone Clocks shouldn’t work. Yet what’s surprising – and a testament to Mitchell’s singular abilities – is that for the most part it does.” The only problem with this statement is that it doesn’t work. This book is a really good, standard length novel, clogged up and lumbering to a less than satisfactory conclusion. It is refreshing to read Ursula K Le Guin’s Guardian review and discover she has has very eloquently put into words all the misgivings I have been struggling with. For example; five separate narrators, of which, three are tedious and and one, positively loathsome –  the constant flood of words that desperately need an editor with a courage and a red pen – and a good versus evil showdown that takes too long to happen and is vague at best.

James Wood also focuses my thoughts on the problems I encountered with The Bone Clocks. The lack of connection with the characters, the weightlessness of the very well written prose that drags you on but ultimately never grounds you in a single place or connects you with anything. The closest the reader comes to any feeling of being grounded is briefly in Iraq but even then, it remains a brief, tantalising glimpse. While none of these factors leave you at a dead end, there are a number of good places for The Bone Clocks to have finished without leaving the reader disappointed.

I am torn between what level of rating to give The Bone Clocks. Part of me enjoyed the romp and part of wanted to leave it unfinished. In all honesty, this book may hasn’t changed my opinion of or curbed my desire to read long books but if the prose is long and the words irrelevant, it might well be the start of something.