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Book twenty-four and Book twenty-five: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (Tales of Alderley) #Garner

The Tales of Alderley are children’s fantasy novels written in the 1950s and 60s by Alan Garner.  Despite critical success Garner actually grew to dislike his characters and the third book in the series wasn’t released until 2012!

Upon reading these books my first thought was how had I not read them when I was younger.  They are a fantastic introduction to the fantasy world for children and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to stumble across them.  Set in and around Macclesfield and Alderley Edge in Cheshire the books rely heavily on the folklore and landscape of the area and having grown up not too far from the area myself I definitely connected with the setting of the story.

So what is the story?

The Tales of Alderley tells the story of two children, Colin and Susan who are sent to stay with old family friends whilst their parents are overseas.  Living on a farm in a quiet rural area of Cheshire the children naturally begin to explore the fields and woods and in doing so come to realise that the world they know is shared with wizards, shape shifting witches, dwarves and other magical creatures.  The first book focuses on the lost Weirdstone of Brisingmen, key to protecting the world of humans and good magic from the evil spirit Nastrond.  When it falls into the wrong hands the power of dark side begins to grow and Colin and Susan find themselves caught up in a great quest to take back the stone and quell the forces of darkness once more.  In the second book some time has passed since the great battle and Colin and Susan have had no contact with the world of magic.  But times are changing and the elves need Susan and Colin’s help with an unknown evil power in their own lands.  In helping the elves, Susan is left vulnerable to other older dark powers roaming the Cheshire countryside.  A struggle between old and new magic is taking place and the children get caught very much in the middle of it.

You can’t help but smile when you begin this book and find the “obligatory” map laying out the key places of the story.  I read this book in a mere couple of days, and would find myself caught up reading chapter after chapter.  It is a natural page turner with fantastic chapter cliff endings keeping you reading on.  Whilst there is complexity to the story it is not overwhelming and at roughly 300 pages long they are considerably shorter than many fantasy novels making them perfectly accessible to children new to the genre.  I also found that having children as the central characters kept a good level of mystery and fantasy to the back story of characters, motivation  and plot development without becoming too complex or weighty.  But don’t be worried that in doing that it loses any depth or darkness, I’m sure if I had read this as a child I would have been hiding under the covers insisting that I was ok whilst secretly dreading turning the light off.

Whilst written for children I thoroughly enjoyed both of these books.  So whether you’re looking for a light fantasy read for yourself or something to get your children interested I would highly recommend these books.

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Book twenty-two: The Ipcress File #Deighton

Published in 1962 The Ipcress File is the first introduction to Len Deighton’s British Spy.  In the book he remains nameless but he was later christened Harry Palmer for the films starring Michael Caine.  Deighton took an interesting approach to his writing, the whole book is a report to the Minister of Defence and as such has references and notes supplementing the core story.

The novel begins with the reassignment of our protagonist from Military Intelligence to a small civilian unit headed up by a man called Dalby.  His first case is a missing British scientist, the latest of eight top priority personnel to disappear in a space of six weeks.  Their main suspect is a man codenamed Jay an intelligence broker believed to be working for the Soviets.  The missing scientist is tracked and a successful rescue mission executed.  As the investigation into Jay continues a safe house is raided, although abandoned a tape recording of distorted human voices is discovered.  Taking him away from the Jay investigation Dalby requests our protagonist joins him on a trip to observe an American nuclear weapons test in the Pacific.  Whilst there our protagonist learns there are suspicions that he is in fact a Soviet Spy, trusting in the wrong people he finds himself held and interrogated by the Americans before being handed over to the Hungarians.

Can he escape the Hungarian holding cell? Who was the real spy at the American test base? What was the significance of the voice recording? How deep into British government does the treachery go?

I could answer these questions but it would ruin the story so I’m going to leave my plot summary at that.

A huge commercial success when published The Ipcress File is often mentioned as one of the best spy novels of all time and whilst I do not disagree with that statement I must warn readers that this is a book that will require your full attention.  Similar to when I read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy I found myself having to re-read sections to ensure I fully understood what was taking place.  This is not a book to pick up if there are distractions or if you can’t commit a decent amount of time.  There is a lot of mystery and subterfuge within the book and I have to admit to getting a little lost at times.  But it is a credit to the characters and storyline that despite getting lost I wanted to continue and was happy to go back and clarify points to ensure I had a general idea of what was going on.   That said, I can completely understand how what I found enticing and mysterious another reader might find obtuse and just give up.

Without giving away the ending I have to say it was a little disappointing.  After such a complex plot I felt that things were tidied up far too quickly without a real fight.  And no matter how good the bulk of the book was if you’re left feeling a little deflated it becomes difficult to rave about.

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Book twenty-one: Strip Jack #Rankin

The 4th book in the Rebus series sees our leading character back in Edinburgh and in a new relationship with Dr Patience Atkin.  Rebus is without a doubt more comfortable in his native Edinburgh and in this book I would say he is at his most stable so far.  That said, it wouldn’t be Rebus if there weren’t dark clouds up ahead and doubts about his future, or more specifically his and Patience’s future.  Forever tied to his job and unable to put his love life first I found it amusing that a decision about whether to move in with Patience is weighted by whether he continues to be based at the Greater London Road police station or moved to St Leonards.  For those who’ve read subsequent or more recent Rebus books…well you know the outcome.

Of the Rebus books so far I would say Strip Jack is the more straight forward “who dun nit” with a little bit of Rebus intuition thrown in.  The book starts with a raid on an Edinburgh brothel, where amongst the many punters the police find a popular young MP Gregor Jack.  Despite the secrecy of the raid upon exiting the building the road is lined with press.  Something about this doesn’t sit well with Rebus, it just seems too lucky for the press to be there.  When Jack’s wife Elizabeth disappears Rebus can’t help but feel there is a bigger game at foot and starts to explore the social and personal lives of Gregor and Elizabeth Jack and their friends.  A disappearance becomes a murder.  There is pressure on the police to quickly solve it but Rebus  isn’t convinced they’re following the right line of enquiry.  True to himself and like a dog with a bone Rebus won’t give up.  Was Gregor Jack set up? Who can be trusted? Where was Elizabeth murdered? Step by step Rebus unravels the story in a way only he can.

Without becoming uncontrollable in twists and turns there are enough red herrings and sub-plots in Strip Jack to keep us all guessing.  The cast is larger than previous books, giving Rankin an opportunity to develop more colourful and varied characters and in doing so giving Rebus more reflections to compare and judge himself against.  With this book we are seeing a world evolve around the Inspector.  In subsequent correspondence Ian Rankin has spoken about his decision with this book to take Rebus out of a fictional Edinburgh and into a more real one.  In the short series so far geography and in particular Edinburgh and its surrounding areas have proven to be a key building block of the books.  These books more so than any other series I have read place a city at its heart.  Edinburgh is as much a reoccurring character as Brian Holmes, Gill Templer, “Farmer Watson” and in the later books Siobhan Clarke and “Big Ger Cafferty”.  Whether it is the return from London, or this decision to make Edinburgh more real, in Strip Jack Rebus feels more grounded and secure in his role at the station, his stage in life and quite possibly in his romantic life.

It goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s work, I wouldn’t be re-reading the series from start if I wasn’t.  I really enjoyed this book and felt like you could feel Rankin getting to grips with his plot structure, character development and starting to bring multiple dimensions to his main man.  A review of the book I recently read seemed to lament on the absence of the gruff, self-loathing critical rebel we know from later books.  If you’re not reading the books in order I can understand why someone would question Rebus’ approach in this book but I would say to them, start at the beginning, travel with him, because only then can you truly understand the infuriating loner who wins the sympathy of readers time and time again.

 

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Book nineteen: Shadowboxing with Bukowski #Kastin

Nicholas Kastinovich is a tormented young bookseller struggling to keep his bookstore afloat in the town of San Pedro.  Hassled by his father, ostracized more often than not by his wife his only joy comes from building his collection of books, imagining a brighter future with Katherine, a lady who visits the shop, and hoping for a clear indication of friendship from the infamous author Charles Bukowski, who lives in the area.

This is a book where our lead character is bared naked to the reader.  We are privy to his every thought, movement, irritation, desire and dream.   Narrated throughout by Kastinovich the story is honest and sad.  There is no glossing over depression, there is no hiding from the dispossessed feeling to the downtown area of San Pedro.  But somewhere within this melancholy there is hope and a belief that better things are still to come.

Any lover of books who has at one time or another found solace within the pages of a novel or even spent a day hidden away in a bookshop will immediately empathise with Kastinovich and understand why and how his books become such a lifeline for him.  The bookshop alone is his beacon for the brighter future.  When we are at our lowest, when we feel the world can offer us nothing, to a lover of books there is always a place to escape, there amongst the letters, words, paragraphs and chapters do we find our place.  Like a comfort blanket the words swirl around us and take us away from our misery.  Kastinovich is a character we can all identify with.

What I loved about this book is the honest and brutal narrative.  The style reminded me of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, one man pouring his heart out and over analysing life to us his captive audience.  I don’t know how other people read but for me characters have voices, I hear the tones and lilts within their speech as I read the book.  Kastinovich could only ever be voiced by one person in my opinion and that is David Sadaris.  Sadaris is well known for his autobiographical and self-deprecating humour which is a perfect match for our down trodden bookseller.

Whilst you feel for Kastinovich when things get tough there are also many times when you can’t help but will him to just grow some balls and take control of his situation.  There is a strong trait of self-pity in our leading character and I found myself in part waiting for the straw that would break the camel’s back and force him into action.

Ultimately very little happens in Shadowboxing with Bukowski – there is no great twist in the story, no climatic ending but there is a truth and openness.  On completing it I’m not moved like some books, my views have not been challenged and no thoughts have been provoked, but I’ve enjoyed spending time with Kastinovich.  It was sort of like having tea with a relative, it was hard going at times but you’re left feeling the other person got far more out of it than you and that’s ok.

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Book one: Knots & Crosses #Rankin

Knots & Crosses originally published in 1987 is the first of the incredibly successful Inspector Rebus novels by Ian Rankin. I was introduced to the series during my teenage years by an uncle who had the entire collection. Now I’m introducing my husband to them and taking the opportunity to re-read them myself.

In this first book Edinburgh has been rocked by the abduction and subsequent killing of two young girls. To those investigating there appears to be no link between the girls and no clear motive. Throwing man power at the enquiry John Rebus along with a number of colleagues is assigned to the investigative team. As a side story we are also introduced to Rebus’ brother Michael, a cabaret show hypnotist, small time drug dealer and focus of journalist Jim Stevens’ next big story. Throughout the case, John is haunted by his past in the SAS and an unknown person is sending him notes with bits of string and crosses. With more girls being abducted and killed can John put together the pieces to prevent the killer getting to those John loves?

As my adult reading has progressed I’ve developed a fondness for books that are set in areas that I know and where authors are true to the geography. I like to be able to follow the movements of a story as it plots it way across a city. It’s one of the things I love about Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. On re-reading Rankin’s first novel I’ve come to realise it is quite possibly within his pages that this liking developed.  In this first novel he creates a perfect picture of Edinburgh in the late 1980s, a city that is above others, is grander, more refined and certainly not a place where hard hitting crime, like the abduction and murder of little girls, takes place. Rankin treats Edinburgh with the same care and attention he does his main characters ensuring the reader sees depth to the city understands the different faces of the city and recognises that its part in the storyline is more than just a map for events to be played out on. Edinburgh is Rebus and vice versa.

It is very easy to paint the picture of John Rebus in your head. A troubled man, he is gruff, unkempt, a chain smoker (although trying to quit), a drinker of sorts and a man of few words. John Rebus is definitely not a people person, and yet, within that moodiness is a vulnerable man and it is this side of Rebus that makes him such a compelling lead character and makes us care about him. We forgive his surly behaviour, his grumpiness, his personal demons because at the heart of the book Rankin reveals to us that Rebus cares. What matters to him is solving the crime, not necessarily the working out.

I’ve purposely not talk about the story for two reasons, the first, I don’t want to give anything away and secondly, I believe the importance of this first book is as a gateway into the world of Rebus, it is the Foundation upon which mighty tales will be built.

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