Children of the Elementi- Ceri Clarke

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Children of the Elementi by Ceri Clarke is a good read in the Fantasy Genre.  We begin the story with the dramatic overthrow of the Elementi Empire. The Empire had been held together through the combination of the five most senior Elementi, who had dominion over the elements. These were fire, water, air and earth, with the fifth member being the High-King who had a little of all four elements and provided a means for all the elements to work in harmony together. However, unbeknown to those behind the overthrow, the offspring of each of the Elementi rulers were spirited away, to be called on to return the Empire to its peaceful, former glory.

This story got going straight away. I found that I was hooked almost immediately. The writing is fast passed and easy to get through. As an example of the genre, Children of the Elementi ticks all the right boxes.

If I had any criticism, it would be with the ending. The book isn’t very long, and while brevity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in this case the conclusion does feel a little rushed. In other words I wanted more.

But otherwise this is a worthwhile novel, that will probably take a couple of hours to knock over.Definitely worth tracking down.

Cloud Atlas- David Mitchell

Cover of "Cloud Atlas"
Cover of Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was published in 2004, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  It is a series of six short stories, spread across time beginning in the 1800’s and finishing in a post- apocalyptic future.

In addition to being six stories, it is also divided into two halves. In the first half we move through each story, in chronological order, moving forwards through time. Each story comes to an abrupt end, leaving the reader anxious to know what comes next, only to continue on into the next. The experience is not unlike watching television. We move from historical fiction, through to 1970’s political thriller, to a futurist sci-fi drama, with no more than the turning of a page.  A testament to how good this guy is as a writer, despite the shock of being dragged away from a story that we have become emotionally involved in, we are quickly sucked into the new world within no more than a few paragraphs.

Something else that is noteworthy is that with each change of story, as well as changing between eras and genres, each story has a new voice, they are all written from a different point-of-view.

As I said the book is in two halves. The first half is mainly concerned with the narrative of each individual story. The reader is vaguely aware of a ‘link’ between them, but we are absorbed in the ‘here-and-now’ of each new story. But, something happens about mid-way through the sixth story (incidentally the only one of the six that is told without any break). The book shifts from being merely a description of the events unfolding, and begins to explore some far bigger, and weightier issues. It starts to ask some big questions about freedom, about the role and nature of history, about the difference between civilisation and barbarism (and who gets to decide which is which). Following the conclusion of the sixth story, we start moving back through the other five stories (from where we left off) in reverse chronological order.

This book is brilliant. There were times when I was reading where I felt compelled to write down quotes from it, to remember later. Other times I simply had to sit and ponder the questions that this book asks of it reader. I had to leave a full day before I could even think about starting another book, because I had been so deeply affected, and didn’t want that feeling to go away.

Apparently, this book has been made into a film, set for release sometime in 2011. I’m not sure whether this will translate on to the screen effectively. But, I understand the impulse of those behind the project to want to share this with as many people as possible.

Journey Without Maps- Graham Greene

1st edition cover (Doubleday, Doran)
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Journey Without MapsGraham Greene is a travel novel, chronicling the author’s experience of his four-week walking tour from Freetown, Sierra Leone through to Grand Bassa, Liberia in 1935. The ‘without maps’ refers to the fact that at the time the only available cartography of the area was from the British, whose maps of the area were based entirely on guess-work, and so were just wrong; or else the Americans, who when they weren’t sure, simply left the area blank. He describes these as being akin to the maps of the times past when the unknown areas we labelled ‘here be monsters’.

His aim, in going on his expedition, is to see for himself one of the last corners of the world ‘uncorrupted’ by western civilisation. He is also keen to recreate the experience of John Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. On his journey he travels with his cousin Barbara Greene, and four guides recruited from Freetown, Sierra Leone. He also has with a number of ‘porters’ that he hires at various villages along the way, to carry them through the jungle.

When they first set out, Greene is scathing of the negative impact that colonisation has had on the people of Western Africa. He talks bout the place having all the short-comings of ‘civilisation’,with almost none of the benefits. He also criticises the abject poverty that the people are allowed to live in, while their colonial overlords make little or no effort to do anything about it.

At first, he is enamoured with the hospitality and the general nature of the people of Liberia. He soon realises that the people are as fascinated by him, as he is by them. He has the privilege of witnessing the various rites and rituals that fill the lives of these people. However, the deeper he goes, and the less the people are touched by any semblance of white influence, the novelty begins to wear off.  The rats, illness, having to referee the constant squabbles between the porters (who come from different regions) and just the responsibility of being ultimately responsible for the lives of all those travelling with him, take their toll.

Greene has a very dry style of writing, and may not be for everyone. However, it is definitely worth persevering with. This is a terrific travelogue. It is a fascinating account of a trip through a part of the world that, let’s face it, most of us will never see for ourselves. I love that he starts out with romantic notions about the place, but that the reality of it all very quickly pushes that aside, and he is very honest about his experiences. He is able to convey his experience in a way that makes you feel like you’re there with him. When toward the end he arrives at a town that has a truck that can carry them the last part of the journey (bringing it all to an end that much sooner), we feel the same joy and elation.

The Tiger’s Wife- Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht is the story of Natalia, a young doctor in the former Yugoslavia, who upon learning the news that her beloved grandfather has died, remembers the stories he had told her throughout her life. The main stories she returns to are the story of the ‘deathless man’ and the story of the ‘tiger’s wife’.

This is a wonderful book, so full of life and whimsy, but always in the background is the tragedy of loss and hardship that comes from a land that has been if not at war, then at least preparing for war, for most of the last hundred years or more. I found this book by accident, and when I realised that it had as its backdrop the Balkan Wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, I was hesitant, expecting it to be depressing. I am so glad that I ignored my hesitation.

While the various wars that have beset the area are a near constant feature of the landscape, it is never allowed to intrude on the telling of the stories. If anything, the book is about how life continues despite the horror of war, and that human beings always find ways to cope.

It is a country where superstition rules. To begin with we share the frustration of Natalia (and her grandfather) with the prevailing superstition that seems to grip the people, refusing to make way for reason. In many ways this superstition exacerbates that tensions between the different religions and creeds that make up the Balkan people. However, we eventually come to understand that superstition can serve a useful function in providing the survivors of horror, the means to go on.

This is Obreht’s first novel, and at the age of 26, she has already set the literary world on fire. She has won several awards about the place for her short stories, and The Tiger’s Wife was the Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. It is with great anticipation that I look forward to seeing what she produces next.

Breath- Tim Winton

    Breath by Tim Winton came to me highly acclaimed. It is a first person memoir of a man, Bruce Pike, remembering his youth growing up in the Margaret River area of Western Australia. He has since become a paramedic, and arriving at the scene of an apparent teenage suicide brings back memories of his own misspent youth.

The central theme is about fear. About meetings fears, conquering fears and most importantly learning that fear itself shouldn’t be feared or shunned. As the name suggests, it is also about breath, and how through most of our lives we breathe without being conscious that we are even doing it, but when breathing becomes difficult for whatever reason, it brings home just how important it is to sustaining life. The exhilaration that comes with regaining the ability to breathe comes from the joy of realising just how precious, and precarious life can be.

Pike grew up, during the 1970’s, in a small town that revolved around the local sawmill. He befriends another boy, known as Ivan ‘Loonie’ Loon, who has ‘never had the remotest thing in common…before we realized that we’d each independently perfecting the art of causing riverside panic.’ The two boys challenge each other to perform escalating feats of danger. This continues after the two boys discover what will become their life long passion, surfing.

Along the way they meet Sando, a retired professional surfer, and his wife, Eva. Sando, in his mid-thirties, befriends the boys and becomes a guru in the ways of surfing, and life. His philosophy is the life should never be ordinary. That a man must always be looking to push past the boundaries in order to truly live. That taking yourself to the physical limit, where life itself is in the balance, is the only way to get the most out of life.

The novel raises many important issues. The relationship and influence that Sando and his wife have over Bruce and Loonie, without any apparent awareness of any responsibility that that influence requires of them is at time quite frightening. From time to time, while telling his story, Pike reflects on the inappropriate nature of their mini-cult, and how the ramifications of his time with them impacts on his whole life.

This is brilliant book, richly deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it. It’s not an easy book to read though, it tackles some difficult subject matter and themes. It is worth the effort however. There are so many facets to this book, I am certain that I missed many of them on the first reading, and that this is a novel that needs to be read and re-read again and again to appreciate it properly.

A Darkness at Sethanon- Raymond E Feist

The Riftwar Saga
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  A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E Feist is the third and final instalment of the Riftwar Saga. In it we have the final show down between Prince Arutha (aka The Lord of the West) and Murmandamus.

A year has passed since the Prince and his supporters defeated the Brotherhood of Darkness, and restored Princess Anita to full health. However, it is becoming evident that for the bad guys, that was simply a minor set back and that only defeat at an apparently pre-ordained time and place will decided the thing once and for all. The Prince, with some help from his friends manages to sneak out of Krondor and set off on his quest.

Meanwhile we catch-up with Pug who at the end of the previous was still in Kelewan, in search of help to defeat ‘The Enemy’, that he and the rest of the Assembly are convinced are ultimately behind the impending catastrophe set to befall the known (and unknown universe). After a year with the eldar cousins of the elves of Midkemia learning more about the nature of magic, he returns to his home world to team up with his childhood friend Tomas to search for Marcos the Black, a mission that will see them touring the universe on the back of a dragon learning more about themselves and coming to terms with their power.

The whole thing culminates in the final battle, that has been where we were headed all along.

If it sounds like I was underwhelmed by this book, that is true. After the first book, Magician, I was expecting much more.  Magician after all is one of the best, and most rich and complex examples of the fantasy genres that I have read in a long while. However, while this does what you expect, the quest, the magic, the ultimate battle at the end, it fails to do  much more than deliver the stock standard formula. The thing I loved most about the first book, was the incredible depth that was given the all the characters, and their relationships with each other. However, in this (and also in the second book), we rarely go much below the surface of any of the characters. Even the main characters have very little meat on them. As for the women, they are all but invisible, shunted off to some ‘safe’ corner of the story to be brought back at the end, when the blokes are finished saving the world, for a celebratory shag.

However, having said all that the book is okay, for what it is. Readers will be satisfied by the conclusion, with all the main threads tied up neatly. There is plenty in the way of action, blood and gore to keep things interesting and it isn’t an unpleasant way to pass the time.

Silverthorn- Raymond E Feist

Silverthorn by Raymond E Feist is the second instalment of the Riftwar Saga Trilogy. All the folk we came to know in Magician are back. Instead of focusing on the exploits of Pug and Tomas, this time the stars of the show are the newly crowned Prince of Krondor, Arutha and Jimmy the Hand– talented thief on the Mockers.

Where Magician combines heroic battle scenes with interdimensional travel. Silverthorn is focused mostly on the cornerstone of all fantasy fiction– the quest. In some ways, although I enjoyed this book, it was not as satisfying. While the first book could well have been read as a stand-alone novel with rich characters that were allowed to develop and grow, with this one all the way along it is clear that it will be necessary to read the final book to resolve anything in this story. New characters are little more than sketches without any of the depth that was in the first book.

But, having said all that Silverthorn  is a good read, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog- Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a surprising novel, that stays with you months after finishing. Set in a chic apartment building on the Left Bank in Paris, the novel is narrated by two seemingly different narrators. The first is the apparently surly, middle-aged concierge Renée Michel, the second is the precocious, far too clever for her own good twelve-year-old Paloma Josse.

Renée lives on the ground floor, and is responsible for the maintenance of the apartment building. Over many years as concierge, she has carefully cultivated her persona as the typical French concierge, uneducated, grumpy, rude and above all invisible. However, she has a secret life. Far from being slow-witted and unappreciative of true beauty, Renée has read through the greater part of the offerings of western philosophy, she has become a conessieur of fine cuisine, she has developed a taste for great art and literature, most of all she loves the great Russian novels of Leo Tolstoy.

Paloma, on the other hand, lives on the fifth floor with her family. She is the daughter of an important left-wing politician father and a ‘Flaubert quoting’ mother. She is well read and intelligent, and is frustrated by the apparently meaningless existence of all those around her. She keeps two journals, one the ‘Journal of the Movement of the World’ the other called ‘Profound Thoughts’. She is endeavouring to discover the essence of what makes life worth living.

Over the course of the book, and the introduction of a new resident in the form of a wealthy Japanese businessman with a mutual love of the arts, beauty and Anna Kerinana, Renée and Paloma discover that the secret to life and happiness is to find people who really see you, and who are more than okay with who you are. The essential lesson is that while it might be ‘safer’ to hide, and cut ourselves off, we can not become complete as human beings without other people.

This book, quite rightly, has been a worldwide best-seller, translated into several languages. It is extremely popular on the ‘book club circuit’ having plenty of themes and issues worthy of contemplation and discussion. Above all this book is very French, hardly surprising since the author is French, and it was originally published in French. What I mean is that this has a very French way of thinking. The small, insignificant and ordinary are given a prominence and a dignity I rarely come across outside of French art, whether literature, film or painting.

I can not stress how much this book affected me. I HIGHLY recommend this book.

Dead Reckoning- Charlaine Harris

  Dead Reckoning is book 11 in the popular Sookie Stakhouse series. (Upon which the HBO series True Blood series is based.) As with all the Sookie novels, Dead Reckoning follows the trials and tribulations of a telepathic waitress from Bon Temps,Louisiana. The central premiss of the series is that the advent of synthetic blood has enabled the vampires of the world to  come ‘out of the coffin’ so to speak. So, vampires and vampiric culture are out in the open and mingling with human society. Although by book 11 we have the Weres (werewolves, werefoxes, werepanthers etc) to contend with and the added complication of the fae who have remained following the Faery Wars in Dead in the Family (book 10).

As with all the Sookie Stakhouse books,  Dead Reckoning is funny, sexy and thrilling. It’s a damn good read, it’s also an easy read. (It took me less than a day.) I do recommend beginning with the first book Dead Before Dark though as it is necessary to have read all the preceding books to understand whats going on.

I HIGHLY recommend this series. I should warn you though that these books are HIGHLY addictive, and despite already being up to book 11, its clear that there is still plenty of life in Sookie left.

The Fifth Witness- Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly has a reputation as a great writer of crime fiction. The Fifth Witness is his latest. Mickey Haller is  a LA based defence attorney, who has found that the current economic downturn has effected business somewhat.  As a result he has moved into the increasingly lucrative ‘foreclosure market’ helping the hundreds of Americans at risk of loosing their homes. That is until one of his clients is accused of murder, and he must revert to doing what he does best. (In return for the proceeds of the film and book sales, of course. It is LA.)

This is the fourth book to feature Mickey Haller, the first being  The Lincoln Lawyer (now a Hollywood blockbuster starring Matthew McConaughey.) However, this is the first book of Connelly’s that I have read. So I can only judge it as a stand alone novel.

The Fifth Witness is a good book, and knowledge of the prior books is not required. It doesn’t revolutionise the genre in any way, but it certainly lives up to what one expects from a courtroom based crime thriller. It is pure escapism at its best.  My only criticism is that the conclusion is somewhat predictable, but it is satisfying none the less.

I would recommend this for anyone who is looking for ‘McDonalds’ crime fiction. No real surprises, and its forgotten almost as soon as its finished. But, a good way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon on the couch.