andrewspink's reviews
377 reviews

South Riding, by Winifred Holtby

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emotional hopeful informative reflective medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.0

I heard about this book on the brilliant podcast "Backlisted". It is set is South-east Yorkshire (not South Yorkshire as you might think), roughly the area which used to be North Humberside. My father, and several generations before him, came from that region (Goole, just a bit up river from Hull - or Kingsport, as it is called in the book).  
The book has a strong woman as a central character (which I guess was quite unusual for its age, it was published in 1936) and a whole set of other interesting and complex people. The setting is local government, specifically the county council, which you might think would be unutterably boring, but actually that means it is all about power and relationships and poverty and pride and a whole lot else. To get an idea of how important that all is, you only have to take a look at the grand town halls in the big cities of Northern England from the 19th century.
A lot of the characters speak to each other in local dialect. That is difficult to do well. If the dialogue is written too literally, then it becomes incomprehensible and if just the odd word is thrown in to standard English, then it is not convincing. Winifred Holtby manages to capture the rhythm of the speech with judicious use of a few words like 'nobbut' (understandable to everyone, I suppose) added, and that is very well done.
Several of the councillors are local preachers or otherwise active in the Wesleyan church. Round about when this book was published, various branches of the UK Methodist church, principally the Wesleyans and the Primitive Methodist were united into one church. The Wesleyans were the closes to Anglicans; less identified with the trade unions and similar than the 'prims' and more concerned with status and power. They come across very negatively in the book, with large amounts of hypocrisy, pomposity and self-interest and are contrasted with the positive mind-set of the non-religious (at least in the sense of organised religion) main character, the headmistress. Despite the negative gloss on the Methodist, I still enjoyed reading those passages. It was the Wesleyanism of my grandfather that was clearly portrayed here.
I am so happy that I discovered this book through Backlisted. It really is a gem.
Het koninklijk huis, by Herman Koch

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adventurous funny lighthearted fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.0

The plot of this book is lightly based on the characters and history of the Dutch royal family, with a touch more drama than the real-life soap that they are.  It is amusingly done and even though it steps beyond the bounds of what actually goes on (so far as we know!) Herman Koch makes it all seem quite plausible. There are quite a lot of sub-plots and character, just like in a soap, but that does mean that there are quite a few loose ends left over, especially with regard to Vera, which is a pity. 
Readers who are fierce royalists will probably consider it to be too irreverent, but for republicans like myself it is a nice piece of fun. 

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The Mystery of Rutherford Abbey, by Stephen Taylor

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mysterious medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

3.0

This book is an unusual mixture of genres, namely sci-fi and detective. I have come across detectives solving mysteries on far-flung planets or spaceships, but this is the first time I have read a detective where an essential element is a witness time travelling. It is hard to say much more without spoilers, but I must admit that for me, the combination didn't really work.  I love sci-fi and can happily suspend disbelief for all sorts of travels through time and spaces, but the combination with a very traditional detective complete with police investigation, socio-pathological criminal and time-pressured investigation, and I was struggling.
The detective story itself was enjoyable; the plot was well-developed, and the author did a good job of building the suspense. 
The book was easy to read, although there was some strange use of language. No serious academic is going to refer to their technical colleague as 'boffins'. The translation of the Latin manuscript is 90% in modern English, but with the odd archaic word thrown in ('quoth').  It is a translation, why is that word used? It makes no sense. (I see now in the end notes that the writer is aware of this. But that didn't stop it grating when I read it).
  
A rather minor point; crocuses are not native to Britain, they would not have been around at spring time in the 12th century. And a bit of a strange thing. Several characters are mentioned as chewing the inside of their cheek when they are nervous. How odd. I don't know anyone who does that.

In summary, a solid detective story, but the time-travelling element didn't work for me.

The book was kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review using the NetGalley platform.




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Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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challenging dark emotional reflective medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

Kazuo Ishiguro and science fiction are a pretty unbeatable combination. He writes so nicely and always has an interesting way of making you think about the way our society is, or is heading.  
He is famous for his unreliable narrators, and you cannot get much more unreliable than a robot that doesn't understand a lot of what is going on. Klara (the robot or 'artificial friend') tries to understand the world by a process of induction from close observation of everything going on around her. Ishiguro is able to use that to make a point of certain things (like how we behave differently with different people) and (when her induction leads to bizarre conclusions) to comment on issues like superstition/religion. 
The book deals with some pretty heavy themes, but does that with such a light narrative that it it is not hard work. It is only afterwards, that you stop and think about it, that you realise the profundity (or at least that was my experience). For example, there is a discussion of what makes a person unique (I can't give the context, or that would be a big spoiler), and one character states that what makes us unique is not what is inside ourselves but our relationships with others. "There was something very special, but it wasn't inside Jose. It was inside those who loved her". Interesting thought! 
Ishiguro builds up the story nicely. In the beginning, we don't know all sorts of things, like what is wrong with Jose, and he reveals what is really going on gradually. He does that very effectively because the book is entirely written in the first person from the viewpoint of the robot, Klara, which of course has no idea about all sorts of things. This is really effective, and also helps create sympathy for Klara. 
Like all books with robots as characters, it is not about robots, but about people. And that is also what makes it so good.
Vis in bad, by Tijs Goldschmidt

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informative reflective slow-paced

4.0

Essays zijn niet mijn lievelings-literatuurvorm. Ze zijn kort, en ik hou niet van korte verhalen, en ze hebben vaak iets geknutseld. Echter, Tijs Goldschmidt heeft de P.C. Hooft-prijs gewonnen, ik wilde sowieso iets van hem lezen, en hij schrijft essays. Uit alle boeken van hem in de (digitale) bibliotheek lijkt Vis in Bad mij het meest interessant. En, inderdaad, was het een leuk boek. Natuurlijk een gemengde ervaring. 'The Flying Panty' vond ik niks en 'Hot Spot' nog minder. Het laatste hoofdstuk, 'Het gen van de ziel', vond ik erg mooi en overtuigend geschreven. Ik ben zelf geen atheïst en toch vond het overtuigend! Hij maakte wel een of twee logische fouten in zijn denken, bijvoorbeeld dat verwondering over het feit dat alle soorten op aarde van één gezamenlijke voorouder afstammen, iets is wat alleen atheïsten zouden kunnen voelen. 
Tussen die hoofdstukken in zijn er veel prachtig geschreven interessante en prikkelende essays.  Een plezier om te lezen. 
Once Upon a Raven's Nest, by Catrina Davies

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emotional informative reflective sad slow-paced

3.0

This book wasn't what I expected.  I thought it was going to be mostly about the nature and landscape of Exmoor. There is certainly an element of that, but it is actually mostly about a local man, Ralph Collard. Nevertheless, it is an interesting story and certainly gives something of the flavour of the local culture.
The book is written in the first person. That would be fine, but it is not an autobiography, but a biography, so that comes across as a bit strange. What is more, according to the preface, it is not a biography but a 'portrait'. That means that it has an unreliable narrator (in that sense, that does fit with a first-person narrative). That does make the book difficult to interpret. How much exaggeration is there in all the tall stories in the first half?  I don't know that I really believe the story of his father cutting the tree down, for example. How complete is the transformation from poacher to conservationist? We don't know. It is, thankfully, not the case that the book is a hagiography. It is quite clear that the protagonist's troubles are in part brought on by his own actions, and it is also obvious that he was lacking in social skills. 
It is written mostly in normal English, but with some dialogue with dialect mixed in.  That seemed a bit random (why are some bits in dialect and others not?), but on the whole added to the local flavour. Occasionally, there are fragments rather than sentences, and I wasn't sure if those were bits that needed editing or also meant to be dialect. There are also some errors; Ernest Bevin was born in 1881, not 1804, for instance.  Maybe those will be cleared up by the publication release (I am reviewing a pre-publication copy). 
The book is not written in chronological structure, although each chapter is clearly labelled with its date. I didn't find that the hopping about in time helped me. Interspersed between the chapters are pages with key environmental facts like rising carbon dioxide concentrations and biodiversity reductions. It was not entirely clear to me how they fitted with the rest of the book. Are they statements related to the actions of the protagonist's father and his own actions in his early years? Parallels between the destruction of individuals and the destruction of the natural world?  Placing the biodiversity reduction of Devon in an international context?  I didn't really get it.
In summary, the book took some getting into but it was an interesting read about a man who was certainly an exceptional character. 
This review is based on a pre-publication copy of the book kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review, via the NetGalley platform.
Shards of Earth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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adventurous emotional relaxing fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

4.0

The author rather throws the reader in at the deep end, with a whole load of concepts and characters,  right from the beginning.  That meant that I struggled to get into the book, although  the glossary helped. However, once I'd read the first couple of characters and begun to understand its world, I found there was a lot to like. There was quite a lot of fighting,  but the author takes care not to glorify it. There are some interesting feminist perspectives.  There is a nice reference to H.G. Wells (the Thunderchild battleship features in War of the Worlds). There is an amusing use of 'pronouns' in which 'they' refers not to a different gender but a species made of multiple individuals. I liked that the aliens are properly completely different and alien, which is a refreshing change from much sci-fi.
All in all, a lot to like, and I'm definitely adding the sequel to my 'to be read' list.

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The Bullet That Missed, by Richard Osman

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funny inspiring lighthearted medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

5.0

Possibly even better than the first two. Very enjoyable.  I read it in just two sessions.
De omwenteling. of de eeuw van de vrouw, by Suzanna Jansen

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informative inspiring medium-paced

4.0

A couple of months ago, I realised that I had never read anything about the history of emancipation or feminism in the Netherlands.  I scoured the ebook catalogue of the library,  but to my surprise couldn't find a single book. So I was pleasantly surprised to see De Omwenteling in this month's Bookchoice selection.
The book is well read and interesting.  I wad astonished to read just how slow reform has been here compared to surrounding countries. The main culprit, according to the author,  seems to have been the church(es), although she doesn't really address the question as to why that was worse here than by neighbours with equally influential religious groups.
The book is very readable because Suzanne Janssen uses her own family history as the framework,  which automatically gives a narrative.  However,  that also gives a restricted viewpoint. It is all about the Catholic community,  which makes me wonder how it was for the rest of the country. Did the Protestant churches block progressive legislation as enthustically and effectively as the bishops? There are hints given about developments in neighbouring countries but it would have been interesting to have placed the developments much more in a broader international context. 
Anyway,  an interesting and readable book and a timely reminder of the necessity of anchoring progressive ideas both in the constitution and in the law.
War of the Maps, by Paul McAuley

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fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes

4.0

This was the first book I have read by Paul McAuley, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read a review somewhere that said he was the most imaginative sci-fi author in Britain today, and whilst there might be other contenders for that title (Peter Hamilton, perhaps?) it certainly sounded worth giving him a try. I was not disappointed. <i>War of the maps</i> is very imaginative and it also has a good plot and well-developed character to boot. I particularly enjoyed his use of ant biology in the plot.
McAuley quotes Terry Pratchett at one point ("Or have things so degenerated in your sandy scourhole of a country that you think you live on a flat plate riding on the back of a turtle, or some such nonsense?"), which is certainly enough to put him in my good books as well as a passing reference to a famous evolutionary biologist ("but I soon learned that there are more kinds of beetles than there are people in the entire kingdom. The creator gods had a particular ,liking for them, it seems", which refers to J.B.S. Haldane's remarks about God having an "inordinate fondness for beetles").
This was the first book by Paul McAuley that I read; it will not be my last one.