Book ratings & Red April book review

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how I rate books recently*. I think that, as of 2015, I’m going to stop using the five-star rating system, at least for full reviews. It isn’t nearly detailed enough for what I want to say. Books I absolutely love will continue to get five stars on Goodreads, because I want to demonstrate my enthusiasm, and books I can’t stand will still get one star (just in case I block them out of my mind and am tempted to pick it up again), but other than that, I’ve found that I mostly seem to give three-star ratings and that doesn’t really convey everything that I think about a book.

As an example, I thought I would try and write a review for a book I recently finished but don’t entirely know how to review. I read Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo, published in 2002, largely as part of a drive to read more translated fiction (original title Abril rojo), and I was fascinated by it–but fascinated is not exactly the same as thrilled, and it’s certainly not the same as gushing. Continue reading

Review: The Nine Tailors

Title: The Nine Tailors
Author: Dorothy L Sayers
Rating: 5/5

The Nine Tailors

Have cropped out as much of the tattiness as possible. Honest.

DL Sayers seems like someone I would have greatly enjoyed knowing. She was a Christian, a feminist, a lay theologian, a classicist, a writer of exceptionally geeky detective stories, a friend to CS Lewis and various other Inklings… I mean, she just seems pretty interesting. I don’t agree with all of her theology, by any means, but I think she might have stolen the spot of ‘Author I Would Most Like to Have Coffee With if Given the Opportunity’, held for the last fifteen years or more by CS Lewis. It’s an impressive feat.

This is one of those books where the ending was so beautifully realised that it significantly affected my overall enjoyment of the book. Prior to the closing few scenes, although I was enjoying the book, the excessive amount of campanology and the sheer brainpower required to follow the switching back and forth between past mystery and present mystery was making it somewhat of a slow read. I never feel quite clever enough to follow Sayers’ mysteries. With Agatha Christie, for example, I can at least make a few guesses along the way, but with Sayers, it’s all I can do to keep the suspects straight in my head. One of the reasons I enjoy Sayers’ work is that it is unapologetically intellectual, but perhaps I could do with things being a little more dumbed-down. I mean, I grew up in church and went to Catholic school, and even so I struggled with some of the more esoteric ecclesiastical references. There is an entire page (of extremely small text) that looks like this:

It is very small font. Very small.

It is very small font. Very very small.

I’ve omitted the main bulk of the page in case any extraordinarily clever people reading this could figure it out and thus be spoiled for the novel (unlikely, since even having read the thing I can only link it tenuously to the plot), but hopefully it’s enough to show the amount of brainwork she makes her readers do. I nearly stopped reading a couple of times, not because I wasn’t enjoying it but simply due to the density of the prose. I tend to prefer my crime reads a little more fast-paced.

Having said all that—oh my word, the ending. I don’t think I’m ruining things if I say that the climax of the novel comes in the midst of a raging storm. It was written so evocatively that I could almost feel the raindrops pounding on my neck and hear the bells crashing out their warning over the countryside; I could see the characters scrambling and scrabbling to protect their loved ones and possessions. Characters that had previously annoyed me, or seemed unnecessary, came entirely into their own. Others, who were positively heroic elsewhere in the narrative, came close to an undoing—you see human strength and human frailty flipped upside down, and that is far greater characterisation than one could possibly expect from a crime novel. The big reveal, for me, came as an absolutely unexpected twist—I had not been able to gather the various threads strewn through the narrative into anything like a coherent, plausible story, and Sayers’ grim creativity is at its best here. The ending is everything you could want from a crime novel, and such a contrast to the sedate, cerebral build-up: fast-paced, violent, gritty, and shocking. When I think back on this book now, a couple of months after reading it, all I can see is that clamour of activity, colour and noise created so effectively in the final few scenes.

I would particularly recommend this book to anyone with an enthusiasm for ‘quaint British things’. There seem to be an awful lot of you Anglophiles floating around in book blogger land. Rural England is no longer exactly the way that it is portrayed in the books—I’m not sure it ever was, except perhaps for a handful of privileged aristocrats—but there are certainly aspects of southern English culture represented extremely well within the pages. The narrative was rainy and restrained throughout. Passions sometimes came out sideways as a sort of symptom of emotional repression (the vicar, for example, says a thousand more kind things about the bells than he does about his wife, even though their relationship seems to be a good one). I spent my teens on a small and somewhat grimy council estate which nonetheless had a strong sense of community, and much of that Englishness was rendered well in this book. Half of the characters in this book populated my real-world adolescence (I knew someone called Nobby who does gardens; I knew a retired seaman called John, who slept in the caravan in his front garden when it rained and used to talk to me about t’Bible; I knew Mrs Kirk, who paid for the paper and the milk every Saturday at 9.20, on her way to the market. Any one of them can be found in the pages of this book, although the details are slightly altered).

Recommended more generally, too. My friends and family members have had this book thrust at them with vigour. It is undeniably hard work, but I think that it’s worth it in the end.

Dissolution

Title: Dissolution

Author: C. J. Sansom

Rating: 3/5

C. J. Sansom’s debut novel Dissolution is the reason I finally started this blog after having thought about doing so for ages. It is the first in a series featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who works for Lord Cromwell at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. To broadly summarise the premise of this instalment, Shardlake is sent to investigate the murder of Cromwell’s commissioner in a wealthy monastery in Sussex. He takes along his protégé Mark Poer for assistance and support.

Initially, I raced through Dissolution. The atmosphere is well-developed and I could feel the brooding tension at the monastery mounting as the story went on. Given that the author has a PhD in history, it’s not surprising that all the little details which go into creating and maintaining a setting were consistent and realistic. (Not being an expert on the Reformation period myself, I’ve no idea if they were accurate, but they were certainly realistic). Although Sansom managed to avoid giving pages and pages of irrelevant description, I had a clear picture in my head of the layout and structure of the monastery throughout the novel, particularly the infirmary. There are constantly little ‘tells’ that yes, this story really is set 500 years ago and yes, it really was like that. Characters, including sympathetic characters, express racist and sexist views (that would not have been considered racist or sexist at the time), and the depiction of the monastery toilets is colourful, to say the least. The narrative itself doesn’t reflect these views—the most interesting non-Shardlake character was an Moorish physician—but the ease with which they are expressed grounds the narrative in the time period.

In fact, given that this is more or less just pulp crime fiction wearing a codpiece, the amount of detail and thought that is put into the story is impressive. This doesn’t just manifest itself in the historical facts; several of the characters are well fleshed out, particularly Shardlake himself. Shardlake was given just enough backstory to explain his beliefs and motivations without it overwhelming the plot. Since it’s the first in a series, I presume he is gradually developed over the course of the novels. The monks, in keeping with their roles as suspects, are depicted as neither wholly good nor wholly bad—at no point does this novel deal with absolutes. The good characters aren’t perfect and the bad characters aren’t evil, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle anyway—a convincing portrayal of reality in fact.

This brings me to my third and final highlight—the distinction Sansom draws between the actions of the church and the character of God. I am a Christian—a Protestant—but I recognise that atrocities have been committed in and by all denominations throughout the centuries. Even though I am pleased the reform happened, because the idea that the church was selling salvation and monetising the grace of God sickens me, I do realise that reformation was accomplished using methods that do not at all reflect the heart of God, and for reasons that did not glorify Him. I expected, picking up a book about the dissolution, to read a lot of church-bashing. I got it—neither the Reformers nor the Catholics get off scot-free, and Sansom draws attention to some of the more inexcusable things that were done by both parties. Remarkably, he does this without condemning the church whole-scale or profaning the name of God*. Very much of the appalling stuff done during the reformation, in the name of the Lord, is directly contrary to His Word. That’s a vital distinction to be drawn—one which is rarely made explicit even in news media in the 21st century—and the fact that Sansom does it so clearly greatly increased my enjoyment of this book.

However, I can only give this book 3/5, because I have to admit it lost something in the closing chapters. The uneasy tension, which was so deliciously created at the start of the novel, doesn’t explode in a climactic fight scene or spill over the tops of the monastery into rioting the streets—nothing so dramatic. Although there is a crisis point, in which there is a great deal of action, I didn’t feel like the plot capitalised on all the excellent atmosphere. Moreover, I guessed who the murderer was on initial introduction, although I did second-guess myself several times afterwards. It was disappointing to realise that I was right—the whole climax and denouement seemed a let-down in comparison to the rising action. I can’t exactly put my finger on it—at least not without spoilers—but even though the loose ends were tied up, I was still left with an unsatisfactory feeling of ‘unfinished’ because of the way Sansom chose to end it. Additionally, the sole female character struck me as a stock stereotype of ‘feisty girl’, without any particular character qualities outside that trope. Weak, generic female characters are always a bit of a disappointment to me.

This was his first novel and I think it reads as a very good debut, far better than a lot of the whodunits I’ve read. If it had been third or fourth in a series, I’m not sure I would have bothered to buy the next one, but as it is, I’m looking forward to it. I always find it exciting to see how a writer’s style develops and matures throughout a series, and this book in particular shows a lot of promise.

*There is lots of 16th century-style blasphemy, to be sure—lots of ‘God’s wounds’ and ‘God’s death’—but it doesn’t feel bitter or critical, it feels like an accurate depiction of the time.