Recently, I’ve Read … Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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And so we bid a fond “bugger off and mind the door doesn’t hit your arse on the way out” to 2016. As fitting a time as any to reflect on my literary highlight of 2016.

Missing, Presumed has received somewhat mixed reviews and I can completely see why. It is billed as a crime novel when, really, it isn’t one. It just so happens that the central character is a police officer, DS Manon Bradshaw, who investigates the disappearance of a Cambridge PhD student. So far, so formulaic.

However, the main focus here isn’t on the solution of the crime. Instead, the focus is on the impact of the crime on police and civilians alike. In this respect, the novel occupies very similar territory to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. Which is A Very Good Thing in my book.

Steiner’s writing is peppered with searingly insightful meditations upon a range of themes including motherhood, grief and loneliness. She uses Edith Hind’s disappearance not just to propel her plot and generate tension, but to reflect on the nature of family. Here, for instance, Edith’s mother Miriam, who is remarkably clear sighted regarding her daughter’s (myriad) faults, measures the impact of her disappearance:

She screws her eyes tight, her head tipped back, and tears squeeze from their corners, because she loves the bones of Edith and is critical only as if she is a part of herself. This separation is like a rending of her flesh.

So often in crime fiction the characters become mere ciphers who function only to move the plot forward. Here, though, they are real people.

This extends to the central character, Manon Bradshaw, who I am hoping goes on to become the star of a very long series indeed. Just like Steiner’s prose, she is intelligent, sharp, witty and wholly three-dimensional. At 39, she is desperate for marriage and children but, as she confesses to her colleague Davy – and as we ourselves witness during several highly relatable but cringe-inducing passages – she often gets things a bit wrong when it comes to relationships:

‘What I mean is, it takes me ages to find someone I think is really great and then, well, sometimes I knock them over with enthusiasm.’ ‘Like a St Bernard.’ ‘Bit like that, yes.’

Not only is Manon an engaging character, she’s an important one. Why? Because she cries in the toilets and manages to be good at her job at the same time, helping to underscore the message that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Anyway, on the strength of its wonderfully three-dimensional characters, beautiful and insightful writing, and tremendous wit, Missing, Presumed is my book of 2016.

Fantasy Fiction Week: Recently I’ve Read … The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower Book 1) by Stephen King

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The Dark Tower series is the prolific horror writer Stephen King’s foray into epic fantasy. It took him over thirty years to complete this seven-book sequence, almost as long as it took me to pick up my first King book after a near-lifetime’s awareness of his works.

The Gunslinger is the first King novel I have read but I was familiar with his stories decades before they became age-appropriate. My late brother was almost thirteen years older than me and, when I was small, he held the keys to an adult world to which I desperately wanted access. He had a record player (and a CD player as well. I’m not that old). He had books. He had a Spectrum computer. Barbie, My Little Pony and She-Ra held only limited appeal once I’d got my eye on that lot.

When you grow up with a much older sibling, your journey through popular culture is accelerated. Example: when I was five I was listening to the Fall. When I was six, this was my favourite song. And when I was nine, my favourite story was The Sun Dog by Stephen King. Although my brother didn’t go so far as letting me read the novella for myself, he did regale me with some edited highlights.

It's coming for you, Kevin. It's very hungry. And it's VERY angry.
It’s coming for you, Kevin. It’s very hungry. And it’s VERY angry.

As gripped as I was by the story, I was also utterly terrified to within an inch of my life. It is perhaps for this reason that I steered clear of King’s books until last month. Yes, at the ripe old age of 33, I finally felt Ready.

But not quite ready for the full-blown horror stuff. I was drawn to King’s take on epic fantasy, due to my own interest in the genre.

The Gunslinger is very short and reads more like a curtain-raiser to the series than an addition in its own right. It introduces us to the central character, the eponymous Gunslinger himself, also known as Roland of Gilead. It is here that the meshing of genres first becomes apparent. On one hand, the tropes are western right down to their sand-covered cowboy boots. Roland is a Gunslinger and he is in pursuit of a man in black. Roland pursues his quarry over a desert landscape. So far so familiar.

Yet these western tropes are fused with others that fantasy readers will immediately recognise. For Roland is also a knight of sorts. His intriguing, though hazily rendered, backstory is filled with hawks, castles, pseudo-duels, ballrooms and courtesans. And the man in black is also a sorcerer.

Not content with mixing western tropes and fantasy elements, King adds some post-apocalyptic dystopian strands, too. The Gunslinger doesn’t inhabit our world, though there are echoes of it: customers in a bar sing Hey Jude, for instance. Roland’s world has undergone some upheaval, a Fall of some kind. Our own world exists somewhere, though. From our world comes Jake Chambers, a young boy from contemporary New York with whom the Gunslinger forms a rather touching relationship.

If all this sounds like a confusing hotchpotch, then it is at times. But King just about manages to pull it off. Yes, there is a frustrating lack of clarity in places. The Gunslinger is journeying towards the Dark Tower, but why? At this point, who knows? King’s writing can be infuriatingly confusing. But it can also be utterly brilliant. His dialogue is often masterful: biting and laconic. There are some vivid and visceral scenes, too, making The Gunslinger the perfect novel for a visual reader like myself: you can see the endless desert and feel the arid heat.

Most importantly for the first in a seven-novel sequence, The Gunslinger holds a great deal of promise for the volumes to come. The Gunslinger himself is a promising character, though he is laconic and lacking in imagination. As such, he often appears rather one-dimensional and functional. He is thus in need of some back-up in the form of some engaging sidekicks; sidekicks who are conveniently and tantalisingly prophesied to arrive in the next installment.

And will I be reading the next installment? Yes. The Gunslinger may be confusing to the point of being impenetrable at times, but it ultimately lands on the right side of ambitious (just). I am hoping that the storytelling and world-building clarify in volume two. If they do, then this will be a compelling and immersive series.

Fantasy Fiction Week: My Fantasy Fiction Checklist

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This week on the Book Bower, it is all about fantasy fiction. Over the next few days, I will be reviewing two fantasy novels that I read recently – one relatively new release and one that many consider to be a classic of the genre. Friday’s favourites post will be dedicated to a series from a ridiculously talented British fantasy author.

Before all that, though, some musings. Recently, I was pondering the qualities that, for me, distinguish a fantastic fantasy from a mediocre one. This is what I came up with – my very own Fantastic Four as it were:

  1. Characters

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Works of fantasy are often rather sprawling affairs so being in good company is of paramount importance. Fully-rounded characters who live and breathe and don’t just mechanically serve the plot are my number one requirement. Throw in a few razor-sharp one liners and a bit of moral greyness and I’m in.

2. A compelling central arc

Of course, these terrific characters need to do more than utter witty dialogue and wrestle with their conscience. Their struggles must have some kind of purpose and significance. A danger-strewn quest is all very well but I must care about its outcome. Yes, you must search for the Shield of Mortality, I get that. But WHY? Say what you like about A Song of Ice and Fire – and I have said plenty about its rather uneven quality – but I know fine well that if I was diagnosed with a life-curtailing illness, the second thought through my mind (after ‘f**k!’) would be ‘noooo, I will never find out who wins the Iron Throne!’. Admittedly, that may say just as much about me as it does about the quality of GRRM’s storytelling, but still … I will also add here that logic and clarity are necessary: the central arc and the world-building that frames it should actually Make Sense.

3. Some comment on the ‘real’ world

A novel completely divorced from reality is pretty pointless (and may also be pretty impossible – I am still pondering that one). Fantasy worlds should mirror, enable us to explore and better understand our own. Not in a heavy-handed THIS IS AN ALLEGORY way, I hasten to add.

4. Contribute to the genre

Any new fantasy offering is contributing to an existing conversation that has been continuing for decades and is underpinned by a set of conventions. Innovation rather than repetition is the order of the day, then. I am particularly fond of fantasy novels that interrogate and challenge existing conventions and flout my expectations of the genre, particularly where gender roles are concerned.

Right fellow fantasy fans! What do you make of that? Anything you would dispute? Anything you would add? Let me know in the comments!

See you later in the week for more.

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Musing on a Monday: Why Blog About Books?

Welcome to The Book Bower!

My name is Caroline and it would make sense to kick things off by explaining what on earth I’m doing here. Why am I blogging about books?

The answer isn’t as short or as simple as you might expect it to be. Something that might become a custom round here as I do have a knack of hideously over-complicating the straightforward!

I have been writing about books for a long time but I have never been brave enough to blog before. Bit shy; tendency to think my ideas are a bit daft. The usual. Anyway, in my shamefully untidy and overstuffed desk is a set of notebooks containing my jottings on all of the novels I read between 2003 and 2009. During this period,  my first action on completing a book was to write down my thoughts, ideas and impressions of it. The main motivation for this was to somehow counter the ephemeral nature of reading: to fix my immediate impressions of a novel before they disappeared or were altered by time (more of that later). The process of writing helped me to tease out my thoughts. Often, a novel creates a series of hazy impressions and you need to step back and reflect in order to see the whole image. So that is my first reason for wanting to blog about books (well, the second I suppose after the first, massively obvious reason: I really like books). Blogging will help me untangle – and to share – my thoughts on the books I read.

Now for  my second reason. I am going to go a bit philosophical now; I really hope I don’t sound silly. Right. The main purpose of those book-related jottings now is to bring me back in touch with my past selves (I know. Are you still there?!). Please, allow me to explain. During a period of idleness, I decided to update my Goodreads bookshelf, going back as far as I could. As most of you will probably know, as well as allowing you to record what you have read, the site lets you review books and give them star ratings. As I retreated further into my reading past, I had to rely on my notes in order to decide upon a star rating. This is where things got interesting. Books I had fond memories of reading and planned to award 4 or 5 stars received scathing reviews from my earlier self. Just as oddly, books I could barely remember were honoured in glowing terms. For those familiar with the plays of Samuel Beckett, things took rather a Krapp’s Last Tape turn.

The moral of the waffle is that my book-related scribblings and postings are important  because they record a little of me as I was and help me map how I change for better or for dimmer. Such  musings also shed a little light on the reading process. Why do I recall Victoria Hislop’s The Island so fondly but dismiss it as trash in my notes? Perhaps because I have a treasured memory of a lazy Sunday afternoon spent reading the novel in my very first flat. Freedom, independence, indulgence. It would seem that, over time, the way in which we judge and remember the books we have read is informed by far more than just the words on a page. Some books stay with us and frame our recollections of particular periods in our lives, and it isn’t always the books we consider to be most worthy or satisfying at the time.

To conclude, then, I reckon there is more to blogging about books than just indulging in and sharing a passion for the printed word. Let me know what you think!