Thursday, 17 January 2013

"The Dark Winter," by David Mark

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

 I thought that it was time that I had a dutiful dig into my review pile.  "The Dark Winter" was the one that I most fancied reading at the moment.  It seemed like a serendipitous choice when I read the words "a fortnight until Christmas" in the first chapter, as this was the time of year that I started reading the book. 

David mark's hero is Aector McAvoy, a policeman in Hull.  At the start of the novel he is out with his young son when he hears screaming from a local church, which he instinctively runs towards and confronts a killer who has stabbed a young girl.  A murderer seems to be targeting people who are sole survivors of tragedies, killing them in the manner of the death that they had previously evaded.  But who is the mysterious killer with tears in his eyes, and what is his motivation?

This is a good mystery, with a strong sense of place (although, as I've never been to East Yorkshire, I can't attest to its verisimilitude). I did guess a couple of developments along the way, but the denouement was still twisty enough to be satisfying and did have elements that, to me (as a fairly regular reader of crime, but not an expert), seemed pretty original. McAvoy is an interesting central figure, refreshingly free of the alcohol problems or broken marriages that seem to haunt fictional detectives, but he is a man with a mysterious past (being viewed by his colleagues with suspicion, hatred or awe due to his hushed up involvement in bringing down a corrupt policeman).  I also enjoyed Trish Pharaoh, his superior officer, who is a particularly strong and memorable character.  This book does read as if the start of a series, as both McAvoy and Trish Pharoah are well realised figures and I can imagine that David Mark could certainly develop a series with McAvoy at the centre if he should want to (and a quick Google search suggests that might be the case).

I enjoyed this book, but I think that it might be destined for the book swap shelf at work.  It was worth a read, but I'm not sure that it is one that I would be tempted to return to and re-read.

Thank you to Quercus Books for sending me a review copy of this novel.

Friday, 4 January 2013

A crafty interlude....

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I thought that it might be quite nice to do a post about what I like to do when I am not working, reading, blogging, cooking or cleaning.  My problem is that it feels like that doesn't leave me a hell of a lot of time for other stuff - but, when I do get time, I also like doing cross stitch to relax.  If you are a friend of mine, or if you have come to this blog through social media like Twitter, you might already know this.  But if you have found this blog by serendipity or through a random search gone awry, then you probably don't.

This is really just an excuse to put up a picture of something that I have recently finished doing.  This photo is pre washing and ironing - hence the hoop mark - and I am planning to stretch it (which I hate doing) for framing.  I bought the kit in Aberystwyth for my 21st birthday (I'm now 37), but I would like to stress that I haven't been doing it for quite that long (as some of my friends would have you believe).  I will admit though that I have been sewing it for over 10 years: part of the slowness of this is due to also doing a PhD during this time while supporting myself by working, however, since I finished the PhD a few years ago, I haven't had quite such a good excuse for a while.  It's just been hard to find the time.

This is it:

I've also finished a bookmark with Tigger on it recently, and I have been doing the following project for a while which I hope to finish soon:

There is a twist on a phrase which says that those who can write, those who can't review.  I think of cross stitch as a similar outlet for me: I don't have the creative vision to design something to sew or to come up with a novel to write (although, like many, I have aspirations to do so), but I can follow a pattern.  And it's a nice feeling to have made something.

I am just starting to do another cross stitch project which is a bit smaller than the puppies.  I hope that it will take me less than 10 years to finish.....

Thursday, 3 January 2013

"Apocalypse," by Dean Crawford

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I have previously read Dean Crawford's two earlier books, "Covenant" and "Immortal," and I have written about them in previous posts in this blog.  I enjoyed them a lot, so I was keen to read his latest book as soon as it came out.  I was lucky enough to receive his first two books as review copies but, as I didn't get a review copy of this one, I had a quick trip to the library.

Like his earlier books, "Apocalypse" features the team of Ethan Warner and Nicola Lopez who, when this novel opens, are still struggling to survive working as bail bondsmen.  They are once again recruited by the Defense Intelligence Agency to assist with a case.  This time, the investigating officer at a murder scene receives a phone call from the chief suspect who just happens to be able to predict events in the future.  In a trail that is laid out for the investigating police, their suspect instructs them to contact Warner.  The ensuing adventure leads them to the Bermuda Triangle, which is a fun myth for Dean Crawford to play with and an idea that I found very interesting (although I don't necessarily believe in it, the Bermuda Triangle is cool).

Once again, a big pleasure of this book is the relationship between Ethan and the feisty Nicola.  In my review of Crawford's last book I wrote that I felt there is more to develop in their characters, and the reader learns more about them in this novel - and the addition of a new character (who I rather liked) helps to act as a catalyst for this.  And, I have to say, "Apocalypse" has a pretty great cliffhanger for the next book.

If you like the books of James Rollins or Chris Kuzneski, then you will probably like this and you should read "Apocalypse" now.

Sorry.  My whole review was leading up to that lame joke at the end of the last sentence.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

"Tom-All-Alone's," by Lynn Shepherd

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I'm sorry that it has been so long since I have written on my blog, and maybe my resolution for the New Year should be to try harder.  I've had another of my blogging slumps and crises of writing confidence, which seem to have become regrettably frequent.  However, "Tom-All-Alone's" is a great book and it would do it a disservice not to put aside my blogging malaise for long enough to write about it.

A few weeks back I commented on Twitter that I was attempting to read "Mansfield Park" (which I got distracted from and haven't picked up again, so I think I need to give it a break and restart it sometime).  I then had an interesting Twitter exchange with Lynn Shepherd - author of "Murder at Mansfield Park" - about Jane Austen's novel.  As a result of this discussion, Lynn Shepherd's novel "Tom-All-Alone's," which I was lucky enough to get a review copy of from Waterstones, skipped to the top of my review pile.

Lynn Shepherd's novel has been inspired by Dickens' "Bleak House," and some of Dickens' characters elbow their way into "Tom-All-Alone's."  Anyone who read my feelings on "Oliver Twist" will know that I have a troubled relationship with Dickens, but I remember having to read "Bleak House" as a part of my degree and enjoying it (despite reading it while laid up after an ankle operation in the summer break).  Lynn Shepherd's hero is Charles Maddox who, after being dismissed from the Metropolitan Police, is trying to forge a reputation as a private detective.  The opening of the novel finds him visiting the titular Tom-All-Alone's - a gruesome graveyard that is memorably described in language which calls on the reader's senses in all the wrong ways - as part of an investigation.  He subsequently takes on another case for Tulkinghorn (yes, the one from "Bleak House") to find the person who has been writing anonymous threatening letters to a powerful client.

The mystery into which Charles Maddox is drawn is an engrossing one, but I found myself becoming even more engaged by the characters than by the mystery itself.  In the course of the novel, Charles Maddox comes to live with a much loved and admired uncle (also Charles Maddox), who was a thief-taker himself, but whose mental capacities have been waning with old age into alzheimers.  I'm lucky enough not to have had personal experience of watching the mental decline of someone I love - and I profoundly hope that I never have to - but from my position of blessed ignorance this aspect of the novel was particularly moving and well-written. The moments in which Maddox the elder is lucid and is fearfully aware that he is losing himself are painful and haunting. In addition to this relationship dynamic, there is also a romantic interlude for Charles Maddox junior which is touchingly sweet and tentative.

I did, however, find that I had a sometimes uneasy relationship with the style of the novel.  There are - admittedly not frequent - instances where the narrative steps outside the Victorian time-frame to acknowledge that this is a modern take on a period setting ("Even now, more than a century later...").  I initially found these interjections jarring, as they would pull me up short and take me out of the story.  This comes down to my own personal preference - I take a stance against Brechtian alienation muddling - as, although I can understand the dramatic function that it serves, I prefer my fiction or drama to draw me in (yes, even into a grim graveyard) rather than remind me that I am on the outside looking in.

Yet, with Lynn Shepherd's novel, something curious happened.  As I approached the end game of the novel and my credulity was tested - this is not a criticism of the novel, merely a symptom of the difficulty that I have with the convolutions and coincidences of the Victorian melodramatic turn of plot (I refer you again to my feelings on "Oliver Twist") - these reminders of time slippage had a personal pay-off for me.  I found myself more forgiving of these elements, because I had been reminded that I am a modern reader outside that frame of reference.  That which had previously alienated me actually ended up increasing my enjoyment because it reminded me to suspend my twenty-first century preconceptions.

I know that some review readers like to see a star system of ratings, but I personally don't like to simplify my feelings on a book in that way.  However, now that I am evaluating my own limited shelf-space, I see things more and more as whether a book is disposable - to be taken to a charity shop or put on the bookswap shelf at work after one read - or whether I liked it so much that I want to keep it for a future re-read.  So, at the end of each review, if it is a book that I own, I'll say whether I plan to keep it or not.  If a book is worth keeping, then it would probably equate to at least a three on a star rating system and more likely a four star or even above (though I am quite strict with my stars, and a 5 star review is almost as rare as a griffin).

And "Tom-All-Alone's" is definitely a keeper.