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April and May Book Reviews

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A small slice of bookshelf…

Two months worth of book reviews in one post – I fell behind in my reading in April and only caught up last month. Still, what I did read I mostly enjoyed.

April

Strip Jack, Ian Rankin: An early tale of Rankin’s dour, dogged detective John Rebus, Strip Jack rings with authenticity as it depicts Rebus’s Edinburgh haunts, but in having its central mystery revolve around the doings of that city’s upper crust, it loses a lot of its weight. The central crime is appropriately twisty, but it never feels quite dark enough, and Rebus’s own troubled personal life has at least as much heft. The sharpness of the writing, especially Rankin’s ear for dialogue and the cutting line, as well as the fully-drawn character of Rebus himself, still make this a more than rewarding read.

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs: One of the founding texts of the now mostly defunct space romance genre, this is an old-style adventure that barrels along at a furious pace, never afraid to stoop to contrivance or convenience in its efforts to get to the next cliffhanger or climax. John Carter is an able and sympathetic romantic hero, marooned on Mars/Barsoom by a mechanism that amounts to authorial handwaving but swiftly adapting to his new surroundings with a verve that a modern reader might decry as wish-fulfillment if it weren’t all so much fun. You’d have to be hard-hearted indeed not to get caught up in Burroughs’ planetary adventure, with its barbarians, princesses, ancient cultures and strange mysteries, and when you reach the end of the breathless ride, you might just find yourself eager for another.

May

The Black Book, Ian Rankin: Following on from Strip Jack, Detective Inspector John Rebus returns with an altogether darker and more satisfying dive into the grimy criminal underworld of Edinburgh. Not only is Rebus himself at his dogged, incisive best, but his supporting cast stand up well to him and the array of ne’er-do-wells he navigates in chasing down the leads in a long-cold murder case are colourfully drawn. Few characters get out without some blood on their hands, and none of them (with the exception of Rebus himself) come across as being guaranteed to make it to the final page.

Mortal Causes, Ian Rankin: The blood and grim purpose of the conflict in Northern Ireland intrudes into the Edinburgh of John Rebus, further darkening an already bleak depiction of the city. A little of Rebus’s own past is also revealed, suggesting some of the demons that haunt him, and he remains a thoroughly flawed protagonist, yet admirable in his unstated insistence on pursuing the unjust into whatever corners they have chosen to hide. Rebus’s world is further deepened by the use of threads from previous novels, and the cast surrounding him are almost as well written as he himself is.

Winter King, Thomas Penn: The repressive, paranoid reign of the first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII, is depicted in epic detail, from his early years in exile to the chaotic scenes that accompanied his death. As much a portrayal of the kingdom Henry created as of the man himself, it’s a fascinating retelling of his efforts to bind together a kingdom and pass it on to his son in the face of rebellion, conspiracy and personal tragedy. With a cast of hundreds, it can sometimes prove tricky to keep track of all the players in this game of court intrigue, but for anyone with an interest in English history, this is a must.

The History of England Volume 1: Foundation, Peter Ackroyd: Speaking of English history, this is an entry in the “magnum opus” corner of the history section of the library, as Ackroyd attempts to chart the history of the English nation from the earliest settlers onwards. It’s a tale full of digressions, and Ackroyd regularly gives his writerly side free rein to express itself as he picks his way through the bones of England’s past, unearthing odd gems and revealing rarely seen sides of otherwise familiar stories. His habits of passing judgement on everything he sees and ending nearly every section with an enigmatic hint or a witty bon mot get somewhat repetitive, but there’s plenty of information in here to keep a reader fascinated.

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