Review — “Supernatural Tales” – Vernon Lee

Supernatural TalesSupernatural Tales by Vernon Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of fun. Very gothic and baroque, with dense descriptions, the stories feel both of their time and out of time. Her love of Italy and art shine through all the stories – she was also known for her writing about aesthetics and her travels through Europe, especially Italy, and her knowledge in these areas provide the density, the colour, the richness.

Possibly the best of the stories for me were “A Wedding Chest” and “Amour Dure”. The final story, “The Virgin of the Seven Daggers”, I found a little clumsy, as if it wasn’t quite sure whether it wanted to be humorous or serious, and didn’t quite maintain the style of the other stories. All the stories, however, have something to commend them — riots of descriptive prose, for example, provide pools of interest.

Of course, these stories are unlikely to shock or scare a modern audience, but the best of them have the feel of fairy-tales, a kind of timeless quality.

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Review — “The Fifth Voice” — Paul Connolly

The Fifth VoiceThe Fifth Voice by Paul Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second self-published novel I’ve read, and proves — if proof were needed — that there are many more story-tellers out there than the gatekeepers of traditional publishing allow through those gates. Although, at the same time, I understand that the gatekeepers only have towns of limited sizes, and can only nourish a certain population they hope will be productive (and I think I’ve strained that gatekeeper metaphor quite enough…).

Anyway, this is the simple tale of a barbershop quartet — yes, I said barbershop quartet — and of the lives and loves of the members of that quartet. The fifth voice of the title is a kind of supernumerary voice created by the perfect unison of the quartet members, but in the book becomes a metaphor for.. well.. many things. The plot and subplots are straightforward enough, with few twists and turns. It is a kind of lighthearted romcom/bromance about singing people. You aren’t going to be surprised where the plot goes, nor where the subplots end up.

But then, not every narrative needs, I feel, to include intricate webs of tangled threads and unusual weltbilds. If this is an ordinary tale about ordinary folk you or I might know, pursuing artistic fulfillment or self-actualisation through ordinary, if slightly unusual, hobbies, it is nonetheless interesting for that. As is often the case, a novel can be introduction to worlds unknown — in this case barbershop and a capella singing, and Lundy Island — and thus enrich a world.

Ultimately, this was an easy read, about people I might know, with problems I might understand, told in an entertaining an engaging way.

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Review — “Matter” — Ian M Banks

Matter (Culture, #8)Matter by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very short review of a very long book…

I found this one of the more enjoyable of Banks’s sf books. I often find I like or appreciate the idea of what Banks is doing in sf more than I enjoy the books themselves, and some of the Culture books haven’t remained in my memory at all. What on earth, for example, was The Player of Games all about?

But Matter didn’t feel quite so overburdened with the weight — ironically, given its title — of its own cleverness and out-of-control invention, although I do think, like other of his books, it was a bit top-heavy with irrelevant detail (the appendix at the end only serving to reinforce this, with its lists of characters, spaceships, world levels and species names). Still, it was a romp, if a 550 page book can ever be a romp.

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Review – The Little Friend, Donna Tartt

The Little FriendThe Little Friend by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been sitting on my shelves for the last few years, taunting me. 555 pages long in my Bloomsbury edition, with narrow margins and tiny print, the first time I tried reading it I didn’t get much beyond page 50. But this is the year of attempting the big books; the year when I read many pages but few actual tomes as I work my through the neglected pile of “large, daunting books”.

I read The Secret History many years ago now, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t particularly memorable. I liked it and Tarrt’s style enough to want to explore any other books she might publish (and The Little Friend was the next), but couldn’t quite understand the reviews and plaudits Tartt had received.

I really enjoyed this book. Yes, there are a few longeurs — not so much tedious, as drifting slightly, Tartt caught up in her descriptions of her sensuous, well-realised world — but overall, the book kept up to its own slow, dreamy pace throughout. I was suprised, half-way through, to note a review on the cover saying the novel was “unputdownable”. I found it very putdownable. But also — and here’s the important point — easy enough to pick up again. I did want to return to that summer in Mississippi, somewhen in the 1970s, and settle down into the book’s ryhthms, wondering if young Harriet would avenge her brother’s murder or even know how to do that. Again, another review spoke of Tartt’s mastery of suspense; and again, I found myself surprised because the book never struck me as a novel of “suspense”. There are a few tense, gripping incidents, but over the course of nearly six hundred pages, suspense would be stretched far too thin, and the sensation would be lost. The book was better for having hard knots of action rather than tenuous “suspense”.

Tartt has a lovely way with language. It’s not my way, and I rather envy her for it; at the same time, were I to write like that, I’d be Tartt, and not me. She conjures a very rich world, a world thick with sight and sound and scents. And yet there lies the danger… Such evocations can spin away, and the language itself seems to become the point of paragraph after paragraph; it is during such flights that you might find yourself wishing for a some of that promised suspense.

Nonetheless, the book was a qualified delight, and I shall now look forward to the equally daunting The Goldfinch with slightly less trepidation.

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