Saturday, November 14, 2015

Books for January

One of our choices for this month is Autumn Moon, the last in Jan DeLima’s Celtic Wolves series. The long break means that anyone who has not read the previous two volumes can catch up before finishing the adventure. Both Celtic Moon and Summer Moon are available on the Nooks already. The second title is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. The new choices have been added to the Nooks.

Whilst I am assured that the library will definitely reopen on January 4th, I will wait until later in the year before confirming the date for the January meeting. At the moment it is penciled in for the 21st, but anything could happen before then!

Autumn Moon by Jan DeLima

For centuries, Cormack has lived between worlds—a man trapped in the body of a wolf, shunned by humans and shifters alike. Only one person has ever welcomed his company: Elen, a kindred outcast who is feared by others of her ancient Celtic race for her strange healing abilities. 

Cormack has always valued Elen’s kindness and understanding, but after a desperate act of friendship causes Elen to free him from his curse. Except before Cormack can win Elen’s heart, Pendaran, the evil leader of the Guardians, captures her, determined to manipulate her incredible power to aid him in his twisted war against the shapeshifting tribes. 

Now Cormack must use all of his skills as a warrior and a wolf to save the woman he loves—before Pendaran’s vile schemes destroy them all… 

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart - he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm, she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Books for November

We pride ourselves on being unusual in our book selections, and this month we have again chosen one rather silly title and one that is much more serious. For comic relief we have Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan whilst Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline should give us plenty to think about.

Both books are now on the Nooks

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

Abattoir worker Terry Borders' love life is crippled by the stench of death that clings to his skin from his days spent slaughtering cows; teenage vegan Geldof 'Scabby' Peters alternates between scratching furiously at his rash and baiting his overbearing New Age mother; and inept journalist Lesley McBrien struggles forlornly in the shadow of her famous war correspondent father and the star journalist at the Glasgow Tribune.

Then an experimental bioweapon is unleashed and suddenly cows want to chew more than just cud . . .

 Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Books for October

After the silliness of last month, the group has chosen some slightly more serious reading this time. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is categorized as YA, but is supposed to be truly excellent. Dog On It by Spencer Quinn is a mystery novel written from the perspective of a dog . . . how could we NOT choose it?

Both books should now be available on the Nooks.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier. Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

It's a small story, about: a girl; an accordionist; some fanatical Germans; a Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.


Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

This fast-paced and funny tale is narrated by the inimitable Chet, Bernie's best friend and canine partner. Bernie's enterprise, the Little Detective Agency, limps along, waiting for the next job to arrive.

During a nighttime stroll through their neighborhood they encounter a panicked neighbor, Cynthia. Waving a wad of bills, she beseeches Bernie to find her daughter, Madison, a 15-year-old who has been missing for several hours. Madison soon returns home on her own, only to disappear again in short order. Intrigued by the young girl's apparent connections to a group of Russian thugs, Bernie and Chet follow a trail of clues that leads them into more danger than they'd bargained for.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch--"Scout"--returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past--a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision--a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

* * * * * 

As I said in my review of To Kill a Mockingbird, I had somehow avoided the book before we chose it as one of our titles last month. However, I immediately fell in love with Ms Lee’s writing and characters: it is very obvious why this title is considered to be a masterpiece. With this in mind, I was a little wary about this supposed ‘sequel’ and the controversy surrounding its discovery and publication only added to my concern. I tried to approach the book with an open mind, but within a few sentences I was already filled with a sinking feeling of disappointment.

Let me begin by saying that the writing is flat, dull and at times really horrible to read. Knowing that this is supposedly an uncorrected draft can excuse some of the mangled sentences, but the whole tone of the writing is lifeless. I do not think this is helped by the decision to write it in the third person, because this creates a certain distance between reader and character that is difficult to overcome. To Kill a Mockingbird is written in the first person, drawing us into Scout’s world and allowing us to see it through her eyes. Although this restricts our perspective on the world, it makes the book so much more personal and interesting as we see her learn how to relate to her environment. In Go Set a Watchman we are able to follow several characters in an omniscient kind of way, but this distance makes Scout’s behavior more difficult to understand, which is very unfortunate as she comes across as a rather spoilt and uninteresting person.

Many reviewers have commented upon the seemingly impossible inclusion of Atticus at a racist town meeting. He himself argues that he is only there to see what happens and influence things from the inside, but then goes on to expound some highly insulting assertions that the freed slaves and their offspring  are mere children and are, therefore, incapable of handling the demands of full citizenship. His ideas about States’ rights and how they should be free to ignore the Supreme Court seemed to me to be a lawyerly way of finding a reason to retain a social system based on racism. The inherent racism in Maycombe society was not a surprise to me, but Atticus’ attitudes were. Strangely, in this book the Tom Robinson case is very different from the one we are familiar with from To Kill a Mockingbird. His accuser is only fourteen years old and yet Atticus is successful in gaining an acquittal. This seems totally impossible, given the rampant racism in force twenty years later on.

Other than Scout and Atticus, we see very little of the other familiar characters: Jem is dead and Dill is travelling in Europe. The characters that we spend most of our time with are rather flat and two-dimensional. They are there merely to provoke Scout to her final epiphany and not fully functional people in their own rights. This leads me to my final criticism: the plotting of the book is sloppy and haphazard. The last third of the book comprises of Scout ranting at her father and engaging in a childish decision to leave Maycomb and never return. By this stage, I was so uninterested in her that I was not overly shocked by her tantrum, although I do think that she should have been past such things by the age of twenty-six! The paternalistic and patronizing responses from her father and uncle were smug and thoroughly infuriating: a suitably depressing end to a book that was supposed to be so great and yet was desperately underwhelming.

There was one moment of sunlight in this whole mess: a brief glimpse of Scout, Jem and Dill having their own Revival meeting in the neighbor’s fish pond. I can only assume that when the publishers saw this draft back when it was originally written they saw that one spark of brilliance and told her to scrap the rest and write more of like that.

I truly wish that I had never read this book. More importantly, I truly, madly, deeply wish that the cynical person who decided to get it published as a sequel had displayed a greater moral character and put it to one side until Ms Lee’s death. At that point it would have made fascinating reading as a historical artifact and a lesson in how a terrible first draft can become an amazing masterpiece.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Books for September

After two months of more serious titles, I thought it would be fun to try something a little lighter and with an emphasis on humor. From my list of suggestions, the group selected two of my favorite titles: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

I promise to offer up some more brain-straining titles next month!

Both books are now available on the Nooks

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

On Discworld life is never quite what it seems.

At first glance, Maurice is your typical rodent-eating moggie, but too many days spent on the rubbish dump outside the Unseen University have made him a little unique. Maurice is a talking cat who has recruited a bunch of equally loquacious rats and a dumb kid, called Keith, to ‘pull the pied piper trick’ on unsuspecting villages. All is proceeding smoothly: widdling rats . . . screaming peasants . . . a boy and his cat arriving just at the right time to lure the plague away . . .

Then they reach Bad Blintz and Maurice is faced by a strange absence of normal rats and rat-catchers waiving bootlaces and claiming that the town is overrun with rodents. Can Maurice save the rats and escape with some of his nine lives intact?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

          It begins as just another normal day for Arthur Dent and then everything goes wrong.

A demolition team arrives with the news that his house lies along the route of the new bypass, which is more than a little annoying, but then a large fleet of interstellar aircraft arrive to relay the exact same news to the rest of the planet. Oh, the irony!

Follow Arthur on his bizarre adventures through the universe armed only with his trusty towel and the most invaluable book ever written: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Discover the ‘wonders’ of Vogon poetry, the strange but massively useful Babel fish, an android with a brain the size of a planet and the reason why mice always look so smug.

December Meeting Cancelled

We have just been told that the library will be closing completely from November 16th into early January. This will allow the new staircase to be installed and give us a block of time to fit the new cataloging chips to all the items in the collections.

Unfortunately, this means that I have to cancel the NYOBG meeting that I had scheduled for December 10th. Once I have a firm date for the reopening I will select dates for January through to May and let you know.

Thanks for your patience!


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

‘Scout’ Finch lives in a sleepy Southern town in the 1930s. She and her older brother, Jem, spend their days as most children do: getting into trouble and trying to make sense of the world around them. Their widowed father, Atticus, is a very hands-off parent, who treats them both like adults and stimulates their ability to think and make moral judgments for themselves. Their female parenting is mostly provided by the housekeeper, Calpurnia, with a little help from their aunt and some of the neighbors. Further stimulus is added by the yearly visit of their friend Dill, who is wildly entertaining and deceitful. The three children are obsessed by the creepy house next door, which shelters the supposedly terrifying Boo Radley, a person that they are determined to meet.

We follow Scout over several summers as she begins to understand the inequalities of the world around her. Her childish belief in truth and decency is severely tested by the case of Tom Robinson, whom her father is assigned to defend. Tom is accused of raping and beating a local girl, but his guilt or innocence is irrelevant because he is black. The case tears Scout’s world apart, mirroring the way it divides the town, leading to an unexpectedly violent and shocking conclusion.

* * * * * 

My previous experience with a Pulitzer Prize winner was a slog through The Grapes of Wrath when I was at high school. I have to admit that I was probably not old enough to appreciate the writing, nor did I have any experience of the type of poverty described, so it was mostly wasted upon me at the time. Having read Miss Lee’s masterpiece, I feel much more inclined to revisit Steinbeck now that I have aged somewhat and gained a little perspective.

It is very rare for me to refer to a title as a masterpiece, but I feel that the term is highly appropriate in this case. From the very first paragraph I knew that I was reading a work of the highest quality, a feeling that I very rarely get when I begin a book: it usually takes a little longer for me to be sucked into the author’s world and fall in love with it. Miss Lee grabbed me by the collar and placed me firmly on the dusty street outside Boo Radley’s creaky, old house with Scout, Jem and Dill. She captured the setting with such skill that I could not only see the house, but smell the heat and feel the slight give of the rotting floorboards of the front porch. I can only recall one other title that made me suffer the stupefying humidity of the southern USA in the same way as this: Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin. Although his title is an entirely different genre, they both share a slow, meandering path that reminds me of the Southern drawl and the winding of the great Mississippi. They both capture the essence of Southern gentility, which is made more striking by the casual cruelty and racism on show. However, whereas Mr Martin’s cruelest characters are vampires, in Scout’s story the cruelty is even more shocking because it is perpetrated by supposedly ‘normal’ people.

Scout herself is a wonderful narrator, full of the casual judgment and total confidence of the very young. She is appalled by the education system, which seems to be designed to reduce all the children to tears of boredom, and highly indignant that her father is criticized for encouraging her to read. I probably find Scout so relatable because I recognize my younger self in her a great deal. She is forthright and head-strong, mistakenly supposing that her family is ‘normal’. She struggles to understand why people are dishonest or cruel and she often speaks without first thinking through all the possible meanings of a situation. As a child with chronic ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease, I found this very, very familiar: if there was ever anything that my parents would pray that we would not comment upon you could guarantee that I would open my big mouth and embarrass us all! Now in my forties I am slightly better at remembering to think first, but I still share Scout’s bewilderment at the workings of the world.

While many words have been written about the wonderful writing, setting, plotting and characters that comprise this title, it is the central theme of racism that has surely provoked the most debate. Presumably written in the 1950s, the book was published before the Civil Rights Movement had gained more equality for African-Americans and when racism was still an open and established way of life. As a Brit, this is one aspect of American culture that I find the most different from my own life experiences. This is not to say that there is no racism in the UK: I was subjected to anti-English prejudice when I worked in Scotland. The British automatically judge people based upon their regional accent, skin color or national origin because Xenophobia is part of the human condition and is, therefore, present the world over. However, the issue of slavery does not have the same impact on British culture, mainly because slaves were not held in the British Isles themselves. They were owned by the very wealthy and worked on plantations in other parts of the Empire, so the majority of British people had never even seen a slave. However, as several people point out to Scout, even the lowest of the low in the South have someone to look down upon: the subhuman ex-slaves. This places African-Americans in a uniquely derided position, as we see when Scout’s teacher sympathizes with the German persecution of the Jews.

Depressingly, I have heard perfectly nice people say things that sound terribly similar to some of the views expressed in this book. Some say that “Racism is dead” in the US, but that is not my experience and I believe that refusing to acknowledge its continued existence is massively counterproductive. One only needs to look at how disrespectful some people have been to President Obama to see how much prejudice still needs to be overcome. Unfortunately, we still see incidents that remind us that a man can be considered guilty simply because of the color of his skin, just like Tom Robinson.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Books for August

This month we continue our journey into the world of Scout Finch with Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set A Watchman. The group was unanimous in its opinion that To Kill A Mocking Bird was indeed a masterpiece, but the mixed reviews of this sequel and the controversy surrounding it make me uneasy and I wonder if it will fulfill our expectations.

Our second choice is Strong For Potatoes by Cynthia Thayer. We previously read her title A Certain Slant of Light, but this is her debut novel . . . perhaps we should make more of an effort to start with author’s debuts first in future!

Both books are now on the Nooks.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch--"Scout"--returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past--a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision--a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

Strong For Potatoes by Cynthia Thayer

Cynthia Thayer's acclaimed debut novel, Strong for Potatoes, is the resonant story of the difficult youth of Blue Willoughby, a remarkable girl growing up in eastern Maine. In a life beset by tragedy, beginning with the death of her twin sister Berry only days after their birth, Blue must discover on her own strength she needs to survive.

Blue's true ally is her grandfather, a full-blooded Passamoquoddy Indian who teaches Blue life's most vital lessons: that the ways of nature can illuminate life, that family can be depended on, that true passion is worth waiting for, and that grief can heal. Most important, he he passes on the ways of his ancestors-knowledge that Blue will need to find a sense of her own true self amid the chaos of her adolescence.

Reminiscent of Dorothy Allison and Barbara Kingsolver, Strong for Potatoes is a rich, evocative literary debut by a gifted writer and teller of the most rewarding kind of story: beautifully crafted, authentic, moving, and ultimately uplifting. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Six Moon Dance by Sherri S Tepper

The planet of Newholme was first settled hundreds of years ago, but that group of violent men vanished mysteriously. The later waves of settlers had their own problems trying to develop a world strangely devoid of metals, with increasing volcanic activity and a 50% death rate amongst baby girls. The female-dominated society that has developed subordinates the men, who must remained veiled in order to prevent arousing lust in the women. Marriage is an expensive business agreement designed to give the men the offspring that they want, whilst allowing women to obtain entertainment and sexual fulfillment from Consorts, sterilized men who are trained to be the perfect companion and to provide ‘compensation’ for the unpleasant business of breeding. Mouche is an only child and, as a boy, he is only a drain on resources, so he is sold to one of the Consort schools where he begins his training. He soon discovers that life on Newholme is not as it seems: another, indigenous, race lives amongst the humans, but their presence is denied, so much so that everyone over the age of seven simply does not see these ‘invisibles’.

The increased volcanic action, strange gender relations and rumors of the indigenes catch the attention of the Questioner. ‘She’ is a bionic construct, including three human female brains, that is tasked with judging societies against a set of ethical standards. She chooses a pair of humans to join her: Gandro Bao, who chose to train as a Kabuki dancer, playing female roles, and Ellin Voy, a cloned Nordic ballet dancer. The Questioner’s arrival causes panic amongst the Hags who rule Newholme and soon Mouche joins the Questioner, Gandro and Ellin on a quest to discover the truth behind all the problems and peculiarities.

* * * * *

I first read this book several years ago at the recommendation of another book group member, so I was both delighted and a little worried when it was selected by the group. Whilst I was fairly sure that the book’s exploration of gender identity and ethics would be interesting to the group, I was not sure quite how much they would enjoy the experience. Yet again, I have been proven wrong in my estimation of the group members and their ability to go beyond their comfort zones. I cannot express how delighted I am that this book was enjoyed even more than Mr Lynch’s title!

Set in the far distant future, this tale includes some novel concepts, such as the idea that people are cloned, grown and trained to be authentic, living parts of history exhibits. Whilst we are made aware of technologies far in advance of our own, there is very little time wasted on explanations or details of how they function. They are simply a part of everyday life for some of the characters that we encounter and so we are not subjected to a great deal of the boring exposition that sometimes plagues lesser titles in this genre. Indeed, some of the storylines made me wish for a much greater exploration of this world, which was a little frustrating but ultimately I appreciated Ms Tepper’s restraint.

I also appreciated her choice to place Newholme in a pre-industrialized level of development. At first this seemed a little strange for a colony within a giant intergalactic empire, because the colonists were acutely aware that they were not indigenous to this planet. The addition of a space port and regular communication with off-world authorities and entities made this seem even more strange, but the explanation provided was very sensible and eventually this aspect of Newholme society seemed much more likely than if everyone was living in the same sort of environment that we see in Ellin’s life on Earth. It was also a neat way of avoiding too much immersion in a highly technologically advanced society and thus made it much easier for us to identify with Newholme and its colonists.

After all, this book is primarily intended to allow us to explore gender / power relations within societies and the ethical dilemmas that these produce rather than to keep us entertained with pew-pew zap guns and space battles. It includes some pearls of t wisdom that really made me think, and which had resonances with the current debates about gender equality, racism, religious extremism, same sex marriage, gun rights and the function of the police. There were so many instances when I could see direct connections to the current news items that it was almost unnerving. It is not that I think that Ms Tepper had any particular foresight when she wrote this book; simply that she has a profound understanding of the human condition. Indeed, I found it rather depressing that mankind was basically still as dysfunctional as it is now, even all those centuries in the future. This was particularly true of some of Mouche’s training lectures showing that men and women were still incapable of seeing individuals instead of sexual stereotypes. However, I was most disturbed and disappointed by the revelations about the deaths of the Questioner’s three brain donors: I had rather hoped that humans would be able to move beyond such barbaric behavior if given enough time.

Still, the Questioner herself is a truly wonderful creation. Her description is suitably vague and yet she is unlike any other cyborg that I have come across before. Perhaps this is because of the inclusion of her human brains, so that she has all the mechanical benefits of a superior body whilst still displaying a human personality and some emotions. She is grouchy and funny, with a no nonsense attitude and a love of card games. The final scene, where Mouche uses all his skills to offer her ‘compensation’ for her impersonal life is particularly wonderful.

It was also refreshing to come across aliens that were truly different in every way, not just humanoids with bumps on their faces or based upon a form of life that we already understand. The misunderstandings that occur because of these differences show how difficult it is to think outside of our own experience. Whilst I struggled with trying to imagine how the Quaggi evolved their form of reproduction, I was massively intrigued by their life cycle, and I wanted to know more about them. Was this particular incident typical of their matings, or an anomaly? Did Quaggima and his offspring go on to change their society or receive justice for a malicious act? Even more intriguing was the almost Gaia-like life on Newholme. Whilst the planet itself was not alive, it was inhabited by just a single entity with many individual units. Again, this was an idea that I had not encountered before, so it made me reexamine how we assume so much about possible alien entities because we are prejudiced by our own experience.

My only real criticism of this title is that we begin several storylines and then leave them hanging for some time in a way that seems somewhat random at first. For example, we meet Ornery very early on, but then hear nothing more of her for another one hundred pages. This interrupted the flow of the story and was slightly frustrating until their respective roles in the story began to intertwine. However, this is a minor complaint about a generally excellent read.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

In the city of Camorr, the plague known as the Black Whisper is a disaster, killing everyone over eleven years old. However, this provides an opportunity for those who like to ‘adopt’ orphans. Slavers take most of them, but those who seem talented are apprenticed to the Thiefmaker and put to profitable work in the streets, markets and houses of the city. One particular apprentice is tiny Locke Lamora, who displays a massive talent for the noble arts of theft and conman-ship. Unfortunately, young Locke doesn’t always foresee the outcomes of his schemes and drives the Thiefmaker to pass him along to Father Chains, a blind priest who spends his days begging outside a dilapidated temple. Chains makes people feel righteous because they have been charitable whilst simultaneously making himself very happy as he gains their wealth without really trying very hard.

Chains molds Locke into the leader of a band of equally light-fingered misfits known as the Gentleman Bastards and pretty soon Locke has become infamous in the city. The Bastards are especially talented at intricate and inventive plans that help to relieve noblemen of vast sums of money, although they are noticeably reluctant to share their wealth with the deserving poor so his similarity to Robin Hood is somewhat limited. As his talents and confidence grow, Locke even succeeds in fooling the underworld's most feared ruler, but in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game, or die trying.

* * * * *

As a fan of Mr Lynch’s writing I was rather apprehensive about our discussion of his debut novel. I had pretty much convinced myself that everyone would hate it, but that is because I am a pessimist. I was concerned that the interweaving timelines would create a barrier to enjoyment or that the ‘earthy’ vocabulary would offend some of our more gentile members. I am pleased to report that my worries were mostly unwarranted, although not everyone fell in love with the book as much as I did.

This is Scott Lynch’s debut novel, but you would never know that from his skill with dialogue and descriptive writing. His voice is very engaging and witty, giving us memorable quotes and laugh-out-loud descriptions of events, and I find his writing as warm and comforting as a pair of old slippers. His characters are well drawn and fully realized and we come to love some of them very quickly: there are few ‘throw away’ place fillers in evidence and even minor characters are fully realized. The setting is expertly drawn and we are given enough detail to leave us wanting more: it is similar to Elizabethan Europe, but different enough to tick all the required Fantasy boxes. The plot has enough originality to keep us off balance and surprised, with bold moves that will have you shouting angrily at the author because you do not want him to do THAT to the characters.

Locke and the other Bastards are all engaging characters even though they are thieves. Their choice to rob from the rich makes their profession a little easier to accept, though they don’t seem to do much wealth distribution, so we know that they are not all that noble. However, it is very nice to have characters that are slightly less than the usual perfectly good heroes that litter Fantasy novels. Although Locke is the brains of the outfit, he is dependent upon his support crew, especially Jean Tannen. Jean is the gentle giant type who has his special hatchets, ‘The Wicked Sisters’, but who wears glasses and reads Romance novels. He and Locke are supported by the Sanza twins, when they can be kept away from gambling and wenching, and Bug, the latest apprentice to join the team. One of the appealing things about Locke is that he really needs his crew: he is hopeless at fighting for a start! The secondary cast is also well crafted. Father Chains deserves several books all to himself, because I want to read his entire life story. The nobles ensnared in the Bastards’ trap are not your usual idiot nobility, but more than capable of some plotting of their own. One particularly wonderful character is Dona Vorchenza, an incredibly elderly noble who has an entirely unexpected role in the story and who would be a perfect role for Dame Maggie Smith if there is ever an adaptation. The antagonist of the piece, The Gray King, is a suitably shadowy figure for most of the book, but his history and motivations are unusual and logical, if a little extreme.

The world that Mr Lynch creates is full of wonderful touches and hints, such as his use of alchemy in everyday life, that really places it into a true fantasy setting. Unlike many Fantasy writers, who bury you in a massive pile of details and histories, he keeps to the bare minimum. This is frustrating in some ways, but it does stop the exposition from getting in the way of the story and it is a testament to Mr Lynch that I left the book wanting more. He uses an interesting technique of interweaving the main plot with Interludes from the past, which either add color to the characters or explain or support aspects of the story or world. I found that this provided quiet moments to catch my breath in some of the most frantic action sequences and also gave more context to the world and its inhabitants whilst allowing us to miss out on a prolonged introduction to the Bastards. The rest of the group found the structure easy enough to follow once the basic outline became obvious.

The plot is like one of the great caper movies mixed with a dash of Mafia politics: think Oceans Eleven meets The Sopranos with more grime and some magic thrown in for good measure. There are bluffs within bluffs, political maneuvering and random violence at every turn, but our heroes are destined to rise above it all with their mythical hero aura, right? Nope, this is a cruel, brutal world, so nothing is certain. Our heroes get beaten, stabbed, drowned, poisoned, bitten and they bleed real blood: when they finish a fight you would have trouble finding bits that aren’t black, blue or red. There is a real sense of danger, which ratchets up the tension for most of the second half of the book as our heroes stagger from one danger to the next. The journey is certainly convoluted, but Mr Lynch manages all the unexpected moves beautifully, making sure that everyone behaves in ways that fit their characters. There is a slight lack of female characters, but the city of Camorr seems to be very politically correct, with no obvious division of professions along gender lines and the females we do meet are all strong and feisty.

There are a couple of things that I do want to mention though. Firstly, this is not necessarily a book for the weak stomached. There are some scenes of unpleasant violence that might be difficult for some people to read, though there is surprisingly little description of what is really happening. Secondly, there is quite a lot of profanity in the dialogue. If you look at Amazon or Goodreads, you will see plenty of one star reviews that are due to this. I do not want to debate the suitability of giving a low star rating to a book because of its choice of language, but I do think that the language is suited to the environment being described in this case. It is not used inappropriately and is not there for shock value: it is simply an accurate reflection of how I would expect criminals to speak. I was very relieved that the rest of the group agreed with the assessment.

The Gentleman Bastards are supposed to endure a total of seven adventures eventually. The next two books, Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves, have already been published and I am eagerly awaiting The Thorn of Emberlain, which is due in September of this year. Mr Lynch is a notoriously slow writer, but his books are definitely worth the wait.