Autodidact: self-taught

Apr
17
2015

The Winter Family

by V. L. Craven

The Winter Family

In the final days of the Civil War Quentin Ross (who grew up wetting his bed and pulling the wings off flies) is sent off by General Sherman on a mission. Ross puts together a small band of people who have a, shall we say, tenuous  connection with morality and set off. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they’re wanted for desertion.

In the wake of the war, the Klan is formed in the South and several members of the gang hire themselves out to combat them. Some unfortunate decisions are made and soon enough they have to split up to save their lives.

Luckily, this was in the early days of the Union. There were huge swathes of uncharted land to get lost in. Violence-loving thugs and those with nothing to lose lead by two sociopaths could easily get lost.

Then came the Chicago election of 1872. The Republicans had held the city forever but the Democrats were beginning to organise. All the working-class people and the various ethnicities–the Irish, German, Polish, etc, were coming together in order to face the rich Republicans. President Grant has promised the gang pardons if they help maintain order on election day.

Except Augustus Winter (sociopath number two of the group) his brand of violence was beyond the pale. He was not up for pardon and he was not invited to Chicago.

So the gang is reunited in Chicago–Winter finds out, of course–and it wouldn’t be a Winter Family reunion without copious amounts of violence. Once again with the unfortunate decisions and having to split up.

Eventually they wind up coming back together in Oklahoma in 1891 for the big showdown with their arch-nemesis, Matt Shakespeare, brother of one of their former members.

The main events of the book take place in Georgia 1864, Chicago 1872, Phoenix 1881 and Oklahoma 1891. Between each section are summations of what was happening in American history and what the characters did while they were apart. This could feel a little disjointed, though the narrative device is understandable because otherwise the book would have been 2,000 pages long.

The Winter Family is about race and violence and what really lives in the hearts of men. It’s well-written and was difficult to put down and it covers a vast area both geographically and historically–Jackman definitely did his research–I learned a lot about parts of American history that wasn’t covered at school.

Overall I’d give The Winter Family 4/5.

[I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Feb
11
2015

Conversations with Spirits

by V. L. Craven

Conversations with Spirits

Trelawney Hart wakes up on the floor of the reading room of his club. It’s still England in 1917–just as it was when he fell asleep the previous night–and even his location isn’t all that strange, as he’s taken up residence there since the death of his beloved wife some months before.

No, indeed, waking up, wrapped around a bottle of brandy, on the floor of his club’s reading room is entirely par for the course.

What  isn’t par for the course is being informed that the pre-eminent author of the day, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is coming to have a bit of a chin-wag.

Hart wishes to be left in peace with his floor and booze, but good manners dictate he at least speak with the man and thus Sir Arthur is shown in. What he has to say isn’t entirely welcome, though. He wants to commission Hart, a renown sceptic and logician, to come to Kent at the weekend and see an up-and-coming medium, J.P. Beasant. Sir Arthur is a committed Spiritualist, but he’s convinced this show (which involves the medium walking through a solid ten-foot brick wall) will change Hart’s mind and having him on-board will lend credence to the Spiritualist movement.

Reluctantly, and believing not a word of it, Hart agrees to go. They travel separately in order for Hart to remain as incognito as possible, but this also leads to our man becoming lost (no doubt partially due to the heroic quantities of alcohol he consumes) and getting himself into various other difficulties. He may be a genius, but suave he is not. Nor particularly likable.

Along the way he picks up an assistant of sorts–someone who knows how the real world works. Well someone has to. And off they trot to the seaside town where this Beasant is going to change the way we see this world and the next.

This mustache believed in fairies.

This mustache believed in fairies.

The first time I learned the creator of the most rational fictional character in history believed in supernatural things it was at a bookshop I was working in. To my incredulous response my manager said matter-of-factly, ‘He wanted to believe in fairies.’ And, indeed, the Cottingley Fairies make a brief but vital appearance.

Higgins addresses the most-rational-character-in-literature vs author’s-beliefs issue very early on in a discussion between Hart and Sir Arthur. He addresses pretty much every argument a pro-logic person could have with a pro-belief person throughout the book at one point or another. The conversations come across as quite natural and realistic, rather than an author trying to make a point, which often happens in these cases.

He also covers the pitfalls of attempting to be a purely rational being–the protagonist’s father had raised him to be a maths and logic prodigy without nurturing other aspects of his humanity, which leads to some personality problems later on.

Tightly-plotted, E.O. Higgins’ Conversations with Spirits doesn’t have a superfluous scene or unanswered question. The reader is engaged on page one and remains so until the very end.

Higgins clearly knows his material, deftly capturing both the tone and atmosphere of the Holmes novels. Though I must say the characters drank so much I felt I was inebriated half the time. I’m glad Hart (who has the makings of a great series character like Holmes) wasn’t shooting up morphine or cocaine, but the occasional glass of water or cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss. I suppose it seemed like more booze than it was because the characters were drinking the entire time they were awake and I read it in one 5 hour sitting. So I was reading all of the alcohol consumption of a raging alcoholic and his chums over a four or five day period but in five hours.

Fans of Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George will like this one. (My review of that book is midway down this page .)

Do I need to say I give this one 5/5?

[I received a free copy of this in exchange for an honest review.]

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