Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Highlander (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 1) by Zoe Saadia

The Highlander is the story of two boys whose friendship defies tribal feuds and wars. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether the novel was aimed at a teenage or adult audience but it quickly became apparent that it doesn’t really matter. The Highlander is a thrilling, thought provoking read for all ages.

The two boys, Kuini, a Highlander and Coyotl, who is from the lowlands are both something of free spirits and meet by chance as children. Their friendship endures through secret meetings and notes and the main action of the story takes place when they are fifteen and political tensions within the region are at a crisis point. Zoe Saadia uses her novel to communicate the valuable message, particularly for young people, that our similarities as human beings are far more important than any cultural differences.

Kuini and Coyotl couldn’t have had more different upbringings. Kuini has been raised to be a warrior in the more remote, harsh conditions of the Highlands where his father is a Warlord while Coyotl has enjoyed a pampered childhood as the first son of the Emperor in the more urbane Great Capital. However, both boys possess an openness and curiosity about life beyond their own experiences. It is this natural curiosity that lends excitement to the plot and places the boys, particularly Kuini, in a perilous situation.

Saadia’s passion and knowledge of history is evident on every page and this lends a great deal of credence to the novel. There are lots of names and places that are difficult to remember but, as I lost myself in the sheer pleasure of the story, the names that mattered stuck and the rest simply melted away without standing in the way of my enjoyment.

I particularly liked the way Saadia uses the character of Iztac, who is Coyotl’s half-sister, to show how women were used as pawns, offered by up by their fathers as a means of appeasing other men. Watching Iztac’s fate unfold and her spirit and intelligence squandered, is heartbreaking. We also see how wives are displaced at the whim of their husbands as Iztac’s own mother has never recovered from the indignity of being replaced as the Emperor’s chief wife.

All in all, The Highlander is a thoroughly engaging read about friendship but there are very serious undertones that make it a relevant choice for readers of all ages. The Highlander is book one in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and it sets a very high bar indeed. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Hollywood Shakedown by Mark Barry

Hollywood Shakedown is an atmospheric crime novel in the tradition of Chandler and Ellroy. Set against a backdrop of the seedy side of LA, the plot is driven by a quest to find a rare manuscript that may or may not exist and Barry takes us on a breakneck journey with mini-sojourns in Chicago and London along the way.

The main protagonist is Buddy Chinn, a writer who doesn’t write but spends all his time drinking, gambling and wondering about the whereabouts of his lover and soul mate Monique instead. Buddy is a complex character, who tests our patience and ultimately has the potential to disappoint us. Barry’s skill and confidence as a writer, however, is evident in the way he gives us Buddy, warts and all, to make of what we will. Buddy’s fatal flaw is his fear of abandonment brought about by having to live in the shadow of a mostly absent father, a father who also happened to be an alcoholic and successful writer. Buddy’s entire life is defined by his insecurity and a crippling fear of failure.

His relationships with others are inevitably difficult. He loves Monique more than he’s ever loved anyone but he can’t trust her and their relationship is tainted by his fear of being truthful about who he is and what he wants. Monique is a free spirit, who pays a heavy price for loving Buddy and we are left in the end wondering if she deserves better. The heart of the novel turns out to be Simon Harris, a transplanted Brit who, despite being a bit of a wide boy, provides the conscience and reason that Buddy lacks.

One of my favourite themes in novels is when cultures collide and this is played out to great effect in Hollywood Shakedown. Barry takes great delight in setting Buddy, a life-long Los Angeleno, loose in a world that couldn’t be more different to his own. I laughed out loud several times as Buddy navigates pubs and has to endure a football game complete with Bovril. During his travels, Buddy encounters a myriad of characters and, one of Barry’s strengths is that there are no ‘throwaway’ characters, no matter how small or insignificant their function within the novel may be.

As the novel draws to a close with Buddy and Simon preparing to face their tormentor, the tension becomes almost palpable. Barry can’t resist playing with us a little bit, offering an alternative ending, but finally we are left feeling battered, bruised and a little bit heartbroken, much like Buddy himself.

Monday, 6 April 2015

As Snow Falls by Elle Klass

As Snow Falls is a simple, unusual story, in which Elle Klass affords us a glimpse of a woman’s life in its entirety. The novella begins with an old woman, who has reached the end of her life, reminiscing about the unusual twists and turns it has taken.

The novella starts off in an almost cinematic style, which is very effective and allows the reader to get a vivid image of where the old woman is. The isolation is emphasised, not only by the fact that she is in a cabin far from the beaten track, but also due to the heavy snowfall that will further cut the cabin off from the world.

The style of the novella is unusual in that there are no characters, dialogue or interactions. All events are related to us by the old woman, who remains nameless, which creates a sense of distance, seeming to further isolate us from her. Each chapter is essentially a memory which ends with a description of the old woman resting in her chair, waiting to die. This repetition and rhythm mirrors the rhythm of the woman’s life.

The woman’s memories begin in the womb with her reluctance to leave her “sanctuary” and thus start a journey that is not always easy. The woman is a prickly character, especially during her childhood and young adulthood, where she finds it difficult to get on with people. She sees society as an “evil” for forcing her to attend school and then go into the work place where she is unhappy.

The novella adopts a supernatural/spiritual tone, when the woman meets a seeming stranger in a park, and decides to change her life by embarking upon several years of travel. Dreams and premonitions also feature heavily in the story. The woman’s life improves when she finds true love and from then on her memories are the more conventional ones of marriage, children and the loss of loved ones.

I think As Snow Falls has a lot to recommend it. Klass is clearly an assured writer and she sets a scene of isolation beautifully. My only misgiving is that the nature of the story makes it difficult to connect with what is essentially the only character in the book. Klass clearly demonstrates how we are all isolated within ourselves, no matter how much we may love other people but has ultimately isolated us from the heart of the story by not allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in it.  That being said, I really admire the fact that Klass has tried to do something different with her writing and if you are looking for an original, quirky read then you should give this one a try. 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

One Summer In France by Bev Spicer

One summer in France is a light-hearted, breezy memoir, which will resonate with anyone who survived the 80s. Bev Spicer’s account of a 1979 summer spent with her friend Carol in France is littered with cultural references such as pop music and the notoriously popular ‘Charlie’ perfume.

Spicer’s description of her university life in Keele will strike a chord with those of us who have endured communal living. She humorously depicts the mix of people you are likely to find yourself living amongst, including the universally loathed obsessive food labeller.

The memoir is set at a time when the world was a more innocent, less security conscious place and life moved at a slower pace. Education was not only free but bursaries were being handed out like biscuits, hence the £350 that Bev is awarded for a so-called cultural experience in France. Spicer captures the sheer joy, naiveté and arrogance that goes along with being twenty but tempers it with the wry nod of her older self. It’s her a 80s adult voice that acknowledges how lucky students of the 70s and 80s were in comparison to now and we sense her adult dismay at the wild abandon with which the girls travel helmetless and fearlessly on their hired mopeds.

 Interrailing, for lots of us in the 80s, was a rite of passage and Spicer perfectly evokes the mood of that time when every European kid under the age of twenty five seemed to be on the move. Her memoir is, for the most part, a series of encounters that Bev and Carol have with different people such as the locals whose only livelihood comes from tourism, parents who are desperate to offload their kids onto the girls and the spectacular fifteen year old Swedish girl happily travelling around Europe by herself. We see the cultural differences filtered through the eyes of two middle-class students whose only agenda is to have a good time. What comes across loud and clear is something that we probably already know but is always pleasing to revisit and that’s the fact that people are generally good and decent wherever in the world you happen to go.

What I particularly enjoyed about the memoir is the relationship between Carol and Bev. The girls are very different; Carol is loud and confident whereas Bev fancies herself as a bit of an intellectual, taking great pains to let the people around her know she is reading the likes of Moliere or Baudelaire. The story though, at its heart, is a celebration of friendship and the kind of intense friendship that is unique to young women.

If you are looking for a light read that will take you down memory lane and have you chuckling at Bev and Carol’s adventures then this is the book for you. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Presidential Shift by C. G. Cooper

Presidential Shift by C. G. Cooper is the perfect weekend read if you’re looking for a bit of escapism from the grind of real life. It’s the fourth book in the Corps Justice series although, given that it is the first one I’ve read, I was able to enjoy it as a standalone read. There are some references to incidents that have gone before and relationships have obviously developed throughout the series but none of this impeded on the flow of the story.

The novel is driven by political intrigue and chicanery and centres on a company called SSI which is manned by ex- service personnel. The lead character, whose father founded the company, is a former Marine named Cal Stokes and he is hired by the President to investigate corruption within the US government.

Events take a more sinister turn when two attempts are made on the First Lady’s life and Cal and his SSI colleagues become caught up in a domestic terrorist plot that leads them to a group of white supremacists. The main cast of characters are convincing and the banter between them believable. Some of the relationships had obviously been forged through events in previous novels which made me want to read more. My curiosity was particular piqued by Senator Brandon Zimmer, Stokes’ former foe who is now his good friend.

The narrative is fuelled by action with lots of twists and turns and there is a surprising twist at the end which adds an extra punch to the story. If you enjoy losing yourself in ‘24’ style adventure then this will be your kind of thing.