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In a Nutshell: Fictionalised biography, early 20th Century Ukraine.
Even before I began to read this, I was so impressed by what Diana Stevan has done - this is the first part of a partially fictionalised biography of her grandmother, Lukia Mazurets, who Stevan knew as a young child. In the notes at the back, she writes that her mother told her the story of their lives, and she pieced the rest together by extensive research of the history of that place and time. The research is evident throughout, without seeming intrusive; the customs and daily toils of such resilient peoples' lives were fascinating to read about. Also most interesting was the effect of the political situation, from WW1 to 1929, and how little the peasants actually knew; all news about events elsewhere in the country came via word of mouth. Aside from this, the nature of Lukia's incredibly hard life, with so much tragedy, meant that events happening thousands of miles away were not her immediate concern.
The novel begins in 1915, with her husband going off to fight for the Tsar just as Lukia has given birth to a sixth child - Stevan's mother. The story is simply written, very readable, and I flew through the first half. During the last third, I sometimes felt that events were whizzed through too fast, and the storytelling became a little too simplistic, as if she was racing to the end. Now and again I would have liked a little more depth and detail, and did consider that there might be an excess of material for one novel.
In itself this is a marvellous book to have written, and I imagine it is greatly treasured by Stevan's family, but it also stands up as commendable piece of historical fiction about the lives of the common people of a country about which I knew little. I have the sequel, and look forward to finding out what happens next.
How I discovered this book: I got talking to the author on Twitter some years back, and took an idle look at his debut novel, The Turning of the World. It was in my favourite genre, so I bought it, and was hugely impressed; I've actually read it twice. I also enjoyed his second novel, The American Policeman. Years passed... and then my sister, @ProofreadJulia on Twitter, told me she'd just worked on this new one, and loved it.
In a Nutshell: low-key paranormal drama/thriller, set in Belfast.
Josie Clenaghan doesn't have much going for him. Socially awkward, sometimes physically frail, he scurries about his life in Edinburgh. It's not so much the long shadow cast by the cruelty of his abusive father that bothers him. Or his barely controlled stammer. It's more the actual dead people, proper ghosts, that glare at him constantly with their burning eyes or silently scream into his face. But now his mother is dying and he needs to come home. Back to Belfast. Back to the past. He's packing a suitcase when the police call to his door. An act of unspeakable violence has ripped through a sunny summer Belfast afternoon. Josie finds himself at the centre of a hurricane of murder and destruction as Northern Ireland teeters on the brink of disintegration. He also discovers that, after the longest time, he might not be alone. This provides welcome comfort when everyone, it seems, wants to kill him.
Then things get really bad.
Haunted, hunted and clueless, Josie faces the past and the present with nothing like bravery. As the violence spirals out of control around him, he must confront the inescapable truth: there are worse things than ghosts.
Ah, the seemingly effortless writing, the wonderful inner narrative of the protagonist, the characters drawn straight from real life, the lack of pretentiousness or waffle, the plot originality that makes you do that 'just one more chapter' thing, over and over ... all this I expected from The Emperor of Dogs, if the author's other two books were anything to go by, and I was not disappointed.
The ghosts/paranormal genre is not a favourite of mine, but it depends on the writer, doesn't it? John Privilege manages to make the haunted world of Josie Clenaghan completely believable. Soon, Josie discovers that the unseen world is made of up depths far murkier than he knows about, delving into the evil within man, and the reasons why sadists and psychos do the things they do (in such a way that did not seem wholly unlikely).
This book is tragic and touching, frightening and funny, violent, shocking, steeped in loss and memories and regrets... it's great. The paragraphing is a tad all over the place (for the uninitiated: formatting books for Kindle is a total mare), but you know when a book is top stuff because you don't care if the first line indents are on the erratic side; I mention this only in the interests of objective reviewing. Highly recommended!
How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, though I'd bought it anyway.
In a Nutshell: the story of James Brooke, who became the ruler of Sarawak in Borneo, in the 19th Century.
I read the third in this series (the Williamson papers), Back Home, five years ago, and adored it - they're all stand alones. I read Book #2, Cawnpore, shortly afterwards, liked it but in a 4* rather than a '5* OMG' way, and never got round to reading The White Rajah. Then I watched the film Edge of the World, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as James Brooke, and thought, I know of a book about this...
In short, it's a fair bit different from the film, in that it's written from the fictional John Williamson's point of view - he is cast as an interpreter who went with Brooke to Borneo. However, I recognised the atmosphere and the chain of events, but even if I hadn't, I thoroughly enjoyed this book - and apparently it is far more historically accurate than the film! Tom Williams is a fine writer and a most engaging storyteller, his style perfect for the time period, and I was engrossed from the first page. His characterisation is subtle and clever, and the narrative is not without humour (the earlier Governor of Sarawak's military strategy).
I loved reading about the different tribes in their long huts and the traditions; I would have liked to read more about them. Of course, the attitudes of the British men are of the time, and at first they see it as their God-given right - nay, duty - to bring 'civilisation' to the natives, though there is a rather nice passage in which Williamson observes a tribe and considers that they seem quite happy and efficient as they are, thank you very much. About the Dyaks: 'These were a people who knew not the poorhouse nor the lockup, whose lives were not blighted by working in great factories. They knew nothing of steam locomotives or spinning machines but led a simple life at one with nature.'
Highly recommended: 'A tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery'.