When I first noticed this book getting shelved as young adult on Goodreads, I assumed it was just because the protagonist is a teenager, and that people were making that typical mistake of thinking teenage character = YA. It's being published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a literary fiction imprint, and doesn't appear to be categorised by them as YA. But I did notice that between the book being listed on NetGalley and listed in Orion/W&N's catalogue, the inevitable 'x meets x' comparative description in the blurb has been amended from 'Children of Men meets The Handmaid's Tale' to the rather more YA-skewed 'The Hunger Games meets The Handmaid's Tale'. And now I've read it, I do feel it is probably accurate to categorise this as a young adult novel, whether it's intended as one or not.
The Ship begins with a few chapters of world-building, establishing a dystopia that's reasonably detailed in its creation, but probably not designed to be subjected to much analysis. It's a future version of the UK, partly recognisable - people still use the internet (on tablets referred to as 'screens'), but access is heavily restricted; ownership of an identity card is the only way you 'exist' as a citizen; those without are subject to government culls. Nature is virtually nonexistent, thus food is incredibly scarce (cue a bit of clumsy preaching about the damage previous generations did to the environment; thankfully this doesn't dominate the narrative). The reader is only shown London, with little evidence of life really existing beyond the capital. Parts of the city are underwater, others burning, and places familiar as tourist attractions (parks, the British Museum, St Paul's Cathedral) are filled with the dispossessed.
The narrator is Lalage Paul, a privileged and cloistered sixteen-year-old living in a heavily secured flat with her mother; her father, Michael, who has an influential role in the government, is frequently absent. Lalage enjoys the luxury of relatively plentiful (tinned) food, clean water and a fixed home, but at the expense of any kind of freedom - she has never had a friend and rarely leaves the flat, except to visit the nearby museum, now stripped of most of its exhibits, with her mother. For years, Michael has promised that they will one day leave on a ship, equipped with home comforts and plentiful food, and it's the Paul family's eventual departure on this ship - leading a group of 500 hopeful emigrants - which, naturally, marks the start of the real story. Here Lalage finds herself a reluctant escapee, literally adrift, and kept in the dark; neither her father nor anyone else on board will be direct with her about where they are supposed to be going. In an emotionally involving narrative, she is continually torn between a desire to return to London and help others, and the hypnotic pull of life on the ship. She meets a boy named Tom, and first love distracts her; but all the time there are sinister undercurrents, particularly around the increasingly messianic figure of Michael.
Lalage is a good character, but inescapably an annoying one. As a teenager, she is very well-drawn; believable, sympathetic and infuriating all at the same time. She has led an extremely sheltered life, and that is communicated in her development - she is naive to an extent that wouldn't be plausible if she hadn't been so sheltered, and although seemingly quite intelligent, she is slow to realise very obvious things, to a point that can be frustrating for the reader. Her approach to her relationship with Tom is immature in the extreme - she doesn't trust him, sometimes doesn't seem to even like him, yet at the same time she fantasises about the two of them having a fairytale happy ending, repeatedly states that she wouldn't care about anyone else if only he would love her forever. For Lalage, the order and peace on board the ship is monotonous; to those who have lived in chaos, it is joyful, and each party struggles to accept the other's point of view. The reader is trapped in a queasy and often dispiriting push-and-pull, mimicking the movement of the ship, between Lalage's desire for a freedom she doesn't understand and the adults' need for stability. The Ship constantly reminds us that the teenager who thinks the world's against them isn't in the right; but the adult who's patronising towards them isn't in the right either.
Ultimately, what makes this work is that it's hard, indeed almost impossible, not to be on Lalage's side. Is she an insufferable spoilt brat at times? Yes. But what she faces - from her megalomaniac father who won't even allow her a few hours to (view spoiler)[grieve for her mother (hide spoiler)]; to creepy Tom, who's so featureless he may as well be a robot, and made me shudder every time he popped up; to the maddeningly calm and condescending people of the ship - is far worse.
It lacks the action of The Hunger Games, and there is little meat to the romance, but The Ship will probably play best to teenagers because they will more easily be able to accept Lalage as a heroine and her point of view as 'right'. I found it a captivating read, yet quite a depressing one, and sometimes, though I'm sure deliberately, a repetitive one. Part of me felt more could have been done with the premise, that there was something missing and the last chapters were a letdown; another part of me was impressed by the way this was handled, with the reader's disappointment designed to mimic Lalage's, setting up a cliffhanger ending that could perhaps make this the first entry in a series. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 with The Finkler Question; J - described as both 'a dystopian novel like no other' and 'like no other novel Howard Jacobson has written', along with platitudes like 'thought-provoking and life-changing' - is on the longlist for this year's prize. When I read the premise of J, I assumed it would be a serious dystopia, especially since the blurb makes comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. (Actually it says 'J is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World', which almost put me off reading it at all - I hate it when pronouncements like that are forced on the reader, and this one seemed a particularly foolish and grand example since the books mentioned are generally regarded as classics.) But, while it matures into something approximating this by the final chapters, it actually starts as a much stranger and more light-hearted mixture than I was led me to believe. This threw me off a bit until quite a way into the book, although I suppose it shouldn't really have surprised me after the strong element of humour in The Finkler Question, and the author's reputation for comic writing. J is also an unconventional love story, with a blossoming relationship between two of the main characters, Kevern and Ailinn, forming the basis for the plot.
There is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, but it's a subtle one. Society is altered in some ways that are minor, but odd enough to be disconcerting; in other ways not at all. It is mentioned more than once that 'the past is a foreign country', rarely discussed, an ethos enforced by Orwellian slogans (or perhaps the logical conclusion of 'keep calm and carry on' mania) such as 'yesterday is a lesson we can learn only by looking to tomorrow'. Consequently, much classic literature and music has been forgotten - or at least is not consumed publicly - as with many, many things here, there is no explicit law against it, it just isn't done. There is some sort of taboo around the letter J, which is rarely used and which Kevern cannot pronounce without making a gesture - covering his lips with his fingers. Digital technology seems to have died out, so in some ways this feels like a historical novel or one about a remote part of the world isolated from modern society. (Although when the characters leave their home town, Port Reuben, and visit 'the capital', there's more of a typical dystopian vibe - city-dwellers are attired in colourful costumes that sound similar to the ones worn by the upper echelon of society in The Hunger Games (I'm basing this on the films, as I haven't read the books) and once-grand hotels limp onward in a state of dilapidation.) Love is championed above all things, and constant apology is encouraged, but adultery and violence within relationships are common for both genders. Above all of this looms the influence of an event only referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, a concept just as frustratingly opaque to the reader as it is for the characters. It has the significance of some apocalyptic disaster, yet the secrecy surrounding any discussion of it, not to mention the uncertainty about whether it even took place, makes it seem impossible that this could be the case.
In amongst all this, the relationship that develops between Kevern and Ailinn is so dysfunctionally whimsical it feels as though it's straight out of some quirky-hipster-romance story - something like Q: A Love Story or The Girl With Glass Feet. With his paranoia, rather pathetic nature and morbid romanticism, Kevern definitely shares numerous traits with Julian, the protagonist of The Finkler Question, while Ailinn occasionally veers a little too close to MPDG territory. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, I felt like I was reading some kind of farcical comedy. Larger-than-life small-town characters have noisy affairs and brawl in the streets. Giving a member of the opposite sex a brutish kiss is a common practice, a disturbing expression of sexual aggression - but the fact that this act is still known as 'snogging' makes it read as amusing. Even murder has something colourful and comic about it and doesn't quite seem real. It is only later that these strangely, and sometimes uncomfortably, funny elements, converge and a darker, more serious narrative emerges. The story takes a new turn, focusing more heavily on the reasons why Kevern is being observed by an eccentric colleague (whose diary makes up part of the book), the secrets Ailinn's 'companion' - half housemate, half foster mother - may be hiding. Similarly, while I didn't feel that the relationship between Ailinn and Kevern ever quite transcended its twee foundations, it does become apparent as the story progresses that it has a greater significance than appearances suggest - which in itself makes it less annoying. This is a book in which threads really do come together slowly, but when they do come together, they make sense of so much.
J is, like The Finkler Question, essentially a novel about Jewishness; it is also, indirectly and abstractly, a novel about the Holocaust. This is not something that is made explicit at the start. Even going into the book knowing that this is the case, it is initially difficult to link the characters and their circumstances directly to these themes without feeling that you are clutching at straws, or shaping things to make them fit. It's especially disconcerting, if WHAT HAPPENED is the Holocaust or something like it, that the characters all have Jewish surnames - until you discover the reason for this. The humour and oddness of the first half of J work to obfuscate the real direction of the story in the same way that bland ballads, saying sorry, quaint and unnecessary jobs, sex and petty crime distract the population of Port Reuben from any public analysis, apportioning of blame or questioning of the past. This makes the eventual unfolding of the truth, achieved partly through explanation within the story and partly through gradual realisation on the part of the reader, all the more powerful.
There is something richer and more rewarding about J than much literary fiction - that element of light-heartedness also carries over into the language and wordplay - but it's still easy to read. It's a story you can (but don't have to) think about in order to read between the lines; the first half in particular could be read as a typical dystopian tale, and it may not mean the same thing to all readers. Its speculative aspect means that, although it discusses a lot of the themes typical of Booker nominees and novels by big-name authors of literary fiction - identity, memory, the power of history etc - it does so in an entirely original fashion. In a time when bestseller charts and awards lists are still saturated with fiction about WWII and its aftermath to the point that you wonder what else can be said about the subject, this approach makes it far more memorable.
Having finished J, I am still not entirely convinced by the comparisons to Orwell and Huxley - but I am far closer to being convinced than I was at the start of the book. Although I don't think any novel is ever really 'life-changing', it is certainly thought-provoking, and enormously clever; it plays with the reader's perceptions and subverts them, not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to draw parallels with the story itself. I really enjoyed this book, but more than that, I was impressed by it. It's also much better than The Finkler Question, and would be a worthier Booker winner. ...more
First, two points about my experience of reading so far in 2014.
1. I've read some great books this year, but in terms of highly anticipated new fiction, 2014 has frequently been disappointing. Elizabeth is Missing and The Miniaturist, two enormously hyped debuts I had been hearing about since around a year ago, were both perfectly readable and okay, but fell far short of what I expected from them; Sarah Waters' new novel The Paying Guests I found boring beyond belief and didn't even finish. Therefore, when I started hearing about Station Eleven, I approached it with scepticism. It's Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, but whereas the first three were put out by an indie publisher, Unbridled Books, this one has been picked up by major publishers in both the UK and US. If you're're active in the book community on Twitter, it probably won't need any introduction - although it doesn't come out until September, in social media terms it is already one of the most talked-about books I have come across all year. The marketing campaign has been extensive and effective. I'm yet to start hearing about the book in the mainstream media but I have no doubt that I will. All of which inevitably left me wondering whether it could possibly be as good as people were saying, and actually put me off starting it immediately.
2. This has been the year I have discovered I really enjoy speculative fiction, or at least some sub-section of it that I'm not quite sure how to define. Three of the most enjoyable books I've read in 2014 - Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way To Burn, Sarah Lotz's The Three, and this - have been based around a version of the near future that might, to various degrees, be called dystopian. All of these books could be defined as fantasy, but they retain a significant sense of the 'real', recognisable world. They are not high fantasy or science fiction and, particularly in the case of Station Eleven, they are more literary in style than many would expect this genre to be. There's a whole other tangent here about how I've become jaded by the hackneyed themes of much popular literary fiction, and find myself drawn more and more towards books like this - well-written, intelligent and driven by character as much as plot, but including components and tropes traditionally belonging to genre fiction: a mystery, bits of fantasy or horror, gothic elements - than I am to more 'typical' literary fiction, but that is another discussion for another time.
Station Eleven itself is a book I am keen to recommend, but I don't want to say that much about it. I think it is best approached with little existing knowledge of what happens. It is about a future version of North America, twenty years after most of the population was wiped out by a pandemic. But it starts in the present day, during a theatre performance of King Lear, and throughout the book there are flashbacks to these 'before' moments which gradually establish the backgrounds of several characters - characters who do not necessarily feature in the 'after' sections, but have some kind of link to those who do. Although you may have to wait for some time to find out what that link is. 'Station Eleven' is not, as you might expect (well, I did), some remote outpost in this ravaged landscape, but a reference to a kids' comic book which is... well, it's a part of one of those links.
This is a very elegantly written novel, very restrained. It doesn't go too far with its world-building, and it isn't overdramatic; in fact, one of the many remarkable things about it is how quiet this fall of civilisation seems to be. It isn't, of course, and we know this from things some of the characters say, and fragments of their memories, but all of this happens off-screen, with the focus purely on the 'before' and 'after'. The story is more about human behaviour, relationships and the invisible connections between individuals then anything else. The fact that it is set in a post-apocalyptic future could almost be incidental, but I can't deny that the surreal surroundings add an intense intrigue and a sort of malevolent undertone to anything that happens. There is constant, low-level tension. For anyone who finds abandoned buildings interesting, there are parts of this narrative that will be endlessly fascinating. There are flecks, mere flecks, of magic.
I'm not going to write about the characters in detail, either, except to say that I loved them. They are so real. Mandel is one of those authors who can do that magical thing of making a fictional person human and sympathetic within just a couple of pages, without much background detail being needed. She isn't afraid to kill characters off, but it's never gratuitous; she also isn't afraid of leaving loose ends untied and important things unsaid.
The book Station Eleven most reminded me of was Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad - which I can't remember very clearly and would be hard pressed to recall anything specific about, and yet I repeatedly thought of it throughout my reading of this book. Looking back at my review of Goon Squad, I wrote: 'The chapters, then, are not always directly about the main characters, and sometimes don't even mention them at all; the story reaches out beyond the protagonists to explore the past and future of the people surrounding them. Each chapter works on its own as a self-contained short story but the connections between all of them form... not quite a whole, but more a sort of web, or network.' Most of this is true of Station Eleven, except that it isn't structured as short stories (the post-pandemic narrative runs through the book and is interspersed with flashbacks), but each character's story could, I think, be taken out and read as a short story on its own. Station Eleven as a whole circles one character in particular, but it also tells the stories of various others in order to achieve that.
For me, this incredibly enjoyable novel is a perfect blend of literary and genre fiction, the sort of story I would love to read more of: intelligent, elegant, original, with both plot and character realised beautifully. It is a wonderful piece of real storytelling and yet it is tightly controlled; I could have read more and more and more about this world, but I'm glad the book isn't too sprawling. Its clear focus on who and what it is about is a great strength. With this one, you can believe the hype. ...more
Kirsty Logan's debut collection of short stories combines magic, fantasy and sexuality, all related in lush, descriptive prose. Across twenty stories,Kirsty Logan's debut collection of short stories combines magic, fantasy and sexuality, all related in lush, descriptive prose. Across twenty stories, the author uses a wide range of narrative techniques, settings and time periods; some of the tales are a few paragraphs long, others far meatier. There is always an element of the fantastic, but Logan always links this to more recognisable depictions of love and lust. The collection reminded me of Lucy Wood's Diving Belles, which also splices modern everyday life with folklore, and Angela Carter's work. My favourite story from the book, 'Coin-Operated Boys', also made me think of Daphne du Maurier's early stories, specifically 'The Doll'. Some of the stories are too short to be wholly effective, but at their best, they create whole worlds within just a few pages. Original and inspirational, this book made me itch to write my own fairytales....more
The Time Tutor is a novella-length prequel to Bee Ridgway's debut, The River of No Return, which came out last year. The story follows two charactersThe Time Tutor is a novella-length prequel to Bee Ridgway's debut, The River of No Return, which came out last year. The story follows two characters who become involved with the Guild, the shadowy organisation at the heart of the time travel intrigue forming the backdrop for both books. Because it's been a while since I read River I was worried I'd have forgotten what it was all about, but The Time Tutor is fast-paced, immediately interesting and works well as a standalone story. Despite it being short, I was captivated by the characters and was delighted when the romantic development I was rooting for actually happened! Exciting, entertaining and sexy, this tale reminded me how much I enjoyed the world of River, and made me keen to read even more as soon as possible. Basically, it did its job absolutely perfectly....more
I put off reading The Summoning for quite some time because, although it's written by one of my favourite authors, I wasn't sure I would like it, sincI put off reading The Summoning for quite some time because, although it's written by one of my favourite authors, I wasn't sure I would like it, since it differs from his previous work in two significant ways. Positioned as a 'supernatural dark fantasy', it is the first in a series called The Shadow World; although Cottam's books usually have elements of horror, they are more ghost stories than full-on fantasy epics, and all have been standalone novels. It's also the first of his books to be aimed at a young adult audience. Both fantasy and YA are genres I don't read much of, and I also tend to have a bit of an aversion to most things that are part of a series. Altogether, the signs weren't really that good, and in some ways, I think I was right to worry. Of the books I've read by Cottam, I definitely enjoyed this the least, but I just felt it wasn't for me rather than thinking it was actually bad.
In an evocative, rain-soaked opening set at an archaeological dig in Scotland, we are introduced to Adam, a student who unearths an unusual, anachronistic object which he immediately feels is a significant, even life-changing, find. His tutor, Professor Grayling, is immediately suspicious and despatches Adam and the strange carving to visit a colleague, McGuire, in Brighton. Meanwhile, a kind of love triangle is set up: Adam has a crush on the beautiful Jane, who may or may not have a thing for fellow student Martin. As various strands of the plot progress, the story of the 'shadow world' - one parallel to, and in conflict with, ours - emerges. This first volume in the series is all about scene-setting, establishing the richly detailed backstory of the shadow world and how these characters are key players in its destiny.
The good and bad news is that this book doesn't read like a YA novel. Good because as far as I'm concerned, that's an advantage. Bad because it's supposed to be targeted at that market and it doesn't, for me, have the right feel - I suspect it will be more successful with adult fantasy/SF fans than with teenage ones. Impressive in its scope, with a large cast of characters and relationships that don't adhere to the usual stereotypes of this genre, it feels too mature to be truly endearing to that audience. I agree with a couple of other reviews I've read that Adam and Jane don't speak or act like 19-year-old students. Then again, to be honest I feel that's one of the main barriers to enjoyment (for me personally) with most YA anyway - maybe readers of the characters' age won't pick up on it so much.
Ultimately my feelings about this book are really mixed and I constantly changed my opinion throughout reading it. I love Cottam's writing and in parts of this book it's better than ever, bringing palpable atmosphere to every scene, particularly in the earlier parts of the narrative in which Adam first discovers the artefact. However, I can't deny that the fantasy-series premise just doesn't appeal to me and is not something I would ever have considered reading had I not already been a fan of the author. At points I was simply uninterested in what was happening or being described. A fantasy saga needs a great deal of world-building to be successful, and that is what Cottam's doing here - especially so, because this is the first part of a trilogy (or more?) - but if, like me, you're not really into the genre, it can feel like a bit of a slog.
I'm probably not going to read future installments of the series, purely because I just don't think this kind of story is my cup of tea. That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate what Cottam's done with this book - it's arguably his best work to date in a technical sense. I would recommend The Summoning to readers who have previously enjoyed fantasy novels or series, but perhaps not to those for whom that type of thing is usually a turn-off. Hopefully, this book will introduce Cottam's back catalogue to a whole new audience....more
**spoiler alert** As I've noted before, it's quite difficult to review a David Mitchell book without spoilers. If you haven't read The Bone Clocks yet**spoiler alert** As I've noted before, it's quite difficult to review a David Mitchell book without spoilers. If you haven't read The Bone Clocks yet, I'd recommend not reading any further. I've used spoiler tags when referring to specific plot points (or ranting about characters), but I have discussed things that happen throughout the book, in general terms, all the way through the review below. Consider yourself warned.
The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell's sixth novel, nominated for the Booker prior to its release - is, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, a series of interconnected stories set in different places and time periods. The difference here is that the link between the stories is explicit: they all focus, in one way or another, on a woman named Holly Sykes.
A Hot Spell: 1984. The first section is about fifteen-year-old Holly, and it's a sort of YA thriller crossed with a confessional diary; with all the childlike slang it's rather Jacqueline Wilson, if her books had more swearing and sex. Holly runs away from home, fleeing angry parents and a cheating boyfriend, and sets off to walk to a farm where she hopes to find work. On the way, some rather strange things happen, and ultimately, we learn that Holly's little brother, Jacko, has also run away and apparently vanished without a trace.
Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume: 1991. The second section is about a privileged, obnoxious Cambridge student, Hugo Lamb. He's a womanising misogynist and a self-confessed sociopath who swindles an elderly man with dementia and drives one of his 'best friends' to suicide. He's blatantly and deliberately horrible, but his narrative, a playful pastiche of a sort of Martin Amis style (underlined by references to a writer, Crispin Hershey, whose character is obviously 'inspired' by Amis), is at least entertaining to read (until the end, but more of that later). Hugo goes skiing in the Alps, where he meets Holly, now working as a waitress.
The Wedding Bash: 2004. This starts fairly banally, at a family wedding. Here, Ed Brubeck, who featured in the first part, resurfaces. Then, he was a classmate of Holly's who helped her, and tried to dissuade her from running away; now, it transpires, he's a war journalist, Holly's partner, and the father of her daughter, Aoife. Drama ensues when Aoife goes missing.
Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet: 2015-2020. The Amis-esque writer, Crispin Hershey, re-emerges as a narrator. He's having a midlife crisis: poised on the brink of divorce and promoting a poorly received new book that's been rubbished particularly viciously by a high-profile critic, Richard Cheeseman (a friend of Hugo's from part two). He meets Holly on the promotional circuit - she's written a bestselling 'spiritual memoir' about her experiences of precognition. Crispin's adventures include revenge on Richard, much guilt over the resulting effects of said revenge, the birth and death of an affair with Holly's agent, and, as the years pass, an increasingly close friendship with Holly herself. This is possibly the most fully realised section of the book: in parts it is beautifully written, and more reflective than the others.
An Horologist's Labyrinth: 2025. Part five provides the real climax and crux of the book. Up to this point, strange, inexplicable things have happened, but they have happened in quick bursts, unremembered by the characters, and not infringing on their everyday lives. Up to this point, every section of the book would have made sense and been able to stand alone had these bursts of strangeness been taken out. However, part five is pure fantasy. The narrator is Dr. Iris Fenby, who treated Holly's cancer, except she's not really Iris Fenby, and she's also met Holly before, as a different person - it's complicated. Fenby and her 'colleagues' draw Holly into an extremely weird conspiracy, resulting in a climatic battle.
Sheep's Head: 2043. Holly is given her own voice again; now in her seventies, she lives on Sheep's Head Peninsula, southern Ireland, with her two grandchildren, one adopted. A number of disasters have befallen the world, including various technology failures and depletion of oil reserves, leading to a more primitive way of life. As society breaks down still further, Holly struggles to protect her family.
The fantasy element In part four, Richard Cheeseman says of Crispin Hershey's would-be comeback novel: 'The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.' In the same section, another character tells Hershey, 'a book can't be half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.' It's surprising that Mitchell would include lines like these when these exact accusations could easily be levelled against The Bone Clocks, but I guess he's just cheekily pre-empting possible criticisms. In fact, this book is half fantasy - much of it is just about the ordinary lives of people who aren't interesting aside from their tenuous links with a hinted-at 'war', and until two-thirds of the way through the 600-page book, the reader is only exposed to short and isolated scenes of fantasy, which may add a frisson of intrigue to the narrative, but don't make it feel as if it's actually a fantasy novel.
Then, in part five, the book breaks away from these largely 'normal' narratives and dives head-first into truly fantastical events with language to match. There are real words used to mean something specific to this underworld (transverse, hiatus, kinetic); words that, as far as I know, are made up (submention, psychosoteric, suaison); and oft-repeated proper nouns (Atemporals, Horologists, Soujourners). You get sentences like, 'Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants.' These chapters culminate in an otherworldly battle for power which takes place in some sort of alternate dimension. Unfortunately, the whole thing rather reminded me of The Magician King, the pretty terrible sequel to Lev Grossman's The Magicians.
Generally speaking, I love books that combine touches of fantasy, magic, or something macabre with a setting that's recognisable as the world we live in, with individuals' lives remaining largely realistic and relatable. However, in The Bone Clocks the gulf between the two is too great: the ordinary lives are too ordinary, the fantasy is too fantastic, they simply don't gel.
Misogyny, sexism and reading the book from a feminist POV While reading The Bone Clocks I spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that I can't help reading books from a feminist perspective - even when I'd prefer not to, because it often impedes my enjoyment of said books. This novel was a case in point. It's filled with deeply unpleasant male characters and I found the implications of some of their actions, and their relationships with Holly, impossible to brush aside.
I mentioned above that I found Hugo Lamb's story entertaining until near the end. That's because, in the final chapters of his narrative, a weird shift takes place: (view spoiler)[it suddenly seems as if Hugo abruptly becomes a character the reader is supposed to like and sympathise with. In a scene that ENRAGED me, he's HORRIBLE to Holly about Jacko, saying things he has no right to say, and what happens? She sleeps with him. For fuck's sake. Then we're meant to believe he's 'fallen in love' with Holly, despite his alleged sociopathic traits, his obvious misogyny in previous scenes ('I wonder why women are uglier once they're unpeeled, encrusted, and had'), and the fact that he's only known her a couple of days.
I tried to fence off my anger at all this and judge the narrative on literary merit alone, but it was too difficult. The whole setup, if - obviously - not the language, was more like something you'd find in some sub-Fifty Shades of Grey crap in which an abusive man is held up as a romantic hero. Complete with the idea that Hugo's serial womanising and inability to love is absolved and 'cured' by sleeping with Holly and that, of course, she's far more pure and innocent than him, fragile and slight, and 'out of practice' at sex, and as soon as he's slept with her, he immediately starts going into a jealous rage about the idea of her having male friends. Or a job. Nice. (In another echo of bad romantic fiction, I think we're meant to believe this creepy possessiveness is somehow endearing.)
I assumed, or at least hoped, there would turn out to be a greater point to all this. Maybe it was a parody after all, like the Luisa Rey story in Cloud Atlas was meant to be a pastiche of detective fiction/conspiracy thrillers? I was disheartened and infuriated even further when there was an implication that Hugo's comments to Holly about Jacko somehow changed the course of her life (ie, her career choice) thereafter, but salvation arrived when Hugo popped up later on as a bona-fide bad guy, properly evil, with reference to his misogyny actually made in Marinus' narrative. At this point, there's no doubt he's Bad with a capital B. Thank god - I finally thought we were getting somewhere. And then...
The denouement comes and it turns out we're still meant to believe Hugo was sincerely in love with Holly. (Just in case there was any uncertainty, Marinus extracts the memory of this from Hugo's own mind.) I mean... come on. (hide spoiler)] I sometimes wonder if authors forget what love actually is when they're writing books. They really seem to like turning it into whatever malleable thing they fancy so that it suits the plot, even when it makes absolutely no sense and goes against every aspect of the characters involved, as is the case here. This stuff is all the more galling when it comes from Mitchell, one of a very small number of authors to have written a love story that really made me cry (Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith in Cloud Atlas). I know he can write male characters that aren't arseholes, I know he can write believable relationships and moving descriptions of love. Yet Hugo's feelings for Holly weren't remotely believable, her relationship with Ed lacked chemistry entirely, and the idea of (view spoiler)[Crispin having been in love with her too (hide spoiler)] felt cheaply tacked on and pointless.
I am aware that many of the things that really bothered me are extremely minor points, not particularly important in the grand scheme of the book as a whole, and may not even be noticed by other readers. This is what I mean by wanting to be able to read without the constant feminist POV; if I only I could turn off the part of my brain that hates these things with such a passion, The Bone Clocks and many other books would be so much better. However, these bits really ruined my enjoyment of the book - some of the Hugo stuff truly turned my stomach - so I can't help but focus on them.
Characterisation To say that Holly is the centre of the whole story arc, I never connected with her. Though teenage Holly's voice was amusing, I wasn't entirely convinced by her as a character: there was just something hollow about her, something that stopped me completely believing in or caring about her; maybe the fact that her story had no tension in it, aside from the 'weird shit', which was instantly forgotten and not explained. When she met another runaway, a girl who might have been her five years down the line, that character was much more interesting, and I wished the story could have been about her instead. In parts two and three I only sided with her because the men she was involved with were so abhorrent and pathetic that of course I wanted her to get the fuck away from them. After that I found her vaguely likeable, but did I really care about her fate on anything other than the most basic level? Was I really bothered who triumphed in the battle that took place in part five? No - (view spoiler)[except to see Hugo die painfully, and that didn't even happen; instead there was a limp 'who knows what became of him'! (hide spoiler)] I understand that Holly's ordinariness was necessary, but sometimes I felt it was underlined to the point that she was just uninteresting to read about.
As I've mentioned already, the men are terrible. Ed isn't much better than Hugo - he's just low-level condescending, manipulative, and a bad father. Crispin fares better - he starts off being just as hateful as the others, but he does at least develop and change over the course of his narrative. By the end of his story, I had warmed to him enough that I found myself rooting for him to survive, despite all his wrongdoings. This kind of complex, interesting characterisation is more what I've come to expect from Mitchell; the considered voice of Marinus/Fenby in part five was also welcome, although the character wasn't given much chance to establish his/herself before the fantasy action infringed. And: (view spoiler)[Why didn't we get to find out more about Crispin's killer? Who was she, whose side was she on, what was the content of her poems? This, for me, was one of the main disappointments: Crispin's story had just developed into something genuinely rich and full and intriguing, there had finally been a character with depth, and then it just stopped, with no follow-up to further explain things. (hide spoiler)]
Similarities to and connections with the author's previous novels I've read three of Mitchell's books before - Cloud Atlas (good, but not as good as some people think it is), Number9dream (better), and Ghostwritten (best). The Bone Clocks features some characters who also appeared in these books, and makes references, both direct and indirect, to others. This is nothing new - Mitchell has always referenced his own characters - but here the connections are more transparent and overt, and far more frequent. I even recognised some references to books of Mitchell's I haven't read, because they actually mention phrases used in the titles of the books. The connections between chapters are also more obvious, an inevitability given the central focus on Holly, but this makes its world feel strangely small and insular, less dense than the world of its predecessors. In the end, I felt The Bone Clocks was hampered by its insistence on shoehorning in a self-referential namedrop at every turn. It could have been a stronger book if it had been allowed to stand alone.
In past books, Mitchell's stories have moved me without needing to be emotionally manipulative. Yes, I did feel vaguely emotional at certain points in the story, but it's easy to feel sorry for a character who has a terminal illness or is saying goodbye to their family forever. The Bone Clocks completely lacks something with the emotional power of, say, the heartbreaking love story between Robert and Rufus in Cloud Atlas; the immediately and endlessly sympathetic characterisation of Luisa Rey in the same book; the excruciatingly tragic life of Margarita in Ghostwritten.
tl;dr Annoying teenager followed by several hundred pages of misogynistic pricks, a flash of promising characterisation, a fantasy battle in a space church (or something), and a subdued if preachy final section that's probably the best bit of the whole thing.
I do wonder about the honesty of many critics when a book like this one is reviewed so positively, so widely. Don't get me wrong, it isn't bad, but to me it is quite plainly the weakest Mitchell so far (obviously I haven't read them all, but even taking that into account, it's still weaker than the three I have read). If it was a debut, if it had been written by a fantasy author who wasn't thought of as a literary novelist, no way would it have received the high praise it has. I liked parts of it, and as always I enjoyed the writing; I glimpsed flashes of brilliance, of promise, of intense intrigue; I found it compelling, and raced through it quickly; and at least I had a proper REACTION to it, for which I am thankful - rather that than complete boredom. But the overall experience was disappointing.
2.5 stars; could be bumped up to 3 for prompting me to write the longest review ever. I think this is the only time I've been worried I might exceed Goodreads' 20,000-character limit. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
When I first heard about A Lovely Way To Burn, I wasn't sure I would enjoy it. I'm aware of Louise Welsh's talent - although I've only read one of her previous books, The Girl on the Stairs, it was good enough to leave a lasting impression on me, and despite my total failure to get round to reading anything else by the author, I've heard a lot of praise for her other novels from various sources I respect. My apprehension was more to do with the fact that a dystopian crime thriller that's the first of a series (this is the start of a trilogy titled Plague Times) didn't really sound like my sort of thing. More fool me, then, because this was one of the most exciting, original books of the year so far.
I mentioned above that this is a dystopian tale, but you won't immediately identify it as fantasy - it's set in what initially appears to be a very normal version of present-day London. The book's unlikely heroine is Stevie Flint, a former journalist turned presenter on a trashy TV shopping channel. Stevie prefers the gritty reality of journalism, but her good looks and ease in front of the camera have helped to make the presenting job an easy, and lucrative, option. This also helps to explain why she's dating Simon Sharkey, a somewhat flashy doctor with a taste for the more extravagant things in life. That is, until Simon fails to turn up for their latest date. Stevie writes off his no-show as a coward's way of finishing their relationship, but can't help paying one last visit to his flat on the pretext of picking up some of her belongings. There, she makes a discovery that changes everything: Simon is dead.
Stevie is traumatised by this shock, but has little time to dwell on it before she succumbs to a terrible, feverish illness. Holed up in her flat for days, she barely survives, and when she does recover, the world outside is much changed. The virus - nicknamed 'the sweats' by the public and the media - has swept the city, causing so many deaths that it seems miraculous for Stevie to have survived without medical help. Then she's given a letter Simon wrote her before his death, in which he instructs her to deliver a hidden laptop to one of his colleagues - and makes it clear nobody but this particular man can be trusted. The stage is set for the two major threads of the plot: the widespread devastation wreaked by the pandemic, and Stevie's pursuit of her suspicion that Simon was murdered. As London falls into disarray, Stevie is increasingly isolated - the police are in a state of chaos and disinterested in the circumstances of Simon's demise; as the strapline on the cover says, 'it doesn't look like murder in a city full of death'. (For the purposes of this novel, London is the world: we never hear about whether the rest of the country is suffering as badly as the capital, or whether the sweats has spread outside the UK. Perhaps these are questions that will be answered in later installments of the trilogy.)
An argument could be made that A Lovely Way To Burn is a feminist novel - although I have a feeling Stevie herself wouldn't like being called a feminist. She is the protagonist and leads the story and the action, but she is also the only female character who survives longer than a few pages. Once the sweats really hit, all the characters who successfully manage to avoid the virus are men. Stevie constantly comes up against male characters who treat her with suspicion and contempt, whether they're leering at her, dismissing her as weak, or putting on frightening displays of their superior physical strength. She makes a number of alliances throughout the novel, but these - and by 'these', I mean both the alliances and the people - never last long: ultimately, it is very clear that Stevie is on her own and can't trust anyone else to protect her. Her femininity is both her most valuable asset and her biggest liability; in the end she rejects it, mindful of the need to disguise herself and become invisible. She also appears to be the only person in London to have had the sweats and lived - a fact that's tantalisingly dangled in front of the reader a number of times without the narrative properly exploring it, perhaps another hint of things to come in the remainder of the trilogy.
If I had one criticism, it would be that Stevie's commitment to her quest for the truth sometimes seems a bit too convenient. Her relationship with Simon wasn't serious (her recollections frequently make it obvious that it was mainly about sex), so is it really believable that she would keep chasing answers through life-threatening danger, rather than choosing to place herself out of harm's way? It helps here to remember that she's an ex-journalist: I find it more plausible that she'd be determined to tie up the loose ends of an unfinished story, as opposed to avenging a guy who, despite their involvement, she didn't really know very well at all.
The vivid, often surreal quality of the writing here has the feel of a TV series or film - it's so easy to envision on screen, it'll surely be adapted quickly. It's like 28 Days Later meets Black Swan (I can see that quote on the posters already...) Welsh's atmospheric depiction of Berlin was a major strength of The Girl on the Stairs, and her London is similarly lucid - vibrant and repulsive in equal measures (though the latter quality increases somewhat as the story progresses). A Lovely Way To Burn is suitably fast-paced, action-packed and tense, and while there is a conventional thriller-type storyline to give the book wider appeal and hold the attention of even the most casual reader, it's full of strange, intriguing undercurrents. Although this is the start of a series, it's wrapped up properly at the end and doesn't feel unsatisfying; yet there are still enough points of interest to make the second installment a very exciting prospect indeed.
Edited to add my favourite scenes: (view spoiler)[- The scene with Rachel in the dressing room, a nightmarish melodramatic sequence straight out of a psychological horror movie - When Stevie tries to take the laptop to Reah and is made to do the blood tests. Nail-bitingly tense and surreal and awful - The confrontation with Melvin and Django in the pub - When Stevie goes back to Simon's apartment - the fluttering curtain...! (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The first fantasy novel from Joanne Harris, The Gospel of Loki is a brilliantly entertaining retelling of Norse mythology. As the title suggests, it'sThe first fantasy novel from Joanne Harris, The Gospel of Loki is a brilliantly entertaining retelling of Norse mythology. As the title suggests, it's all seen through the eyes of the god of mischief, Loki, who relates his own version of events in a wonderfully unpredictable, unreliable and humorous voice. It's part 21st-century update - Loki's narration is very modern - and part faithful reconstruction - the book presents the world of these myths as it was originally told, and as a very real experience, or at least as real as Loki wants you to think it is.
First things first: I'm not going to pretend that my reasons for reading this book and my reasons for loving it have nothing to do with the Marvel Avengers films. Or that I wasn't reading the whole thing in Tom Hiddleston's voice. Yes, I am pretty enamoured with the character of Loki (I'm not quite of the obsessed Tumblr-fangirl variety yet, but I do own a Loki figurine... or two...) and that undoubtedly helped. Still, I'm sure the same will apply to a lot of the potential audience for this book, and this alone is not what makes it good, it's just an added bonus.
I only had the vaguest familiarity with these myths before I started the book, and it's a perfect introduction for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge of the source material means I can't assess how faithful it is to the original stories, but it feels fresh, interesting and even relatable while packing a lot of fantastical detail into the narrative. Loki's mischievous personality and sense of humour are useful tools for explaining away some of the more out-there elements of the plot... like the fact that he gives birth to an eight-legged horse. (Sometimes the stuff that happens in the Nine Worlds makes Adventure Time look like an episode of Springwatch.) (I bet that scene won't be featuring in Avengers 2.)
I'd never read anything by Joanne Harris before, I think because I had viewed her oeuvre as somewhat cosy and slightly twee. I'm now reassessing this opinion and have found that I was very wrong: I'm particularly interested in checking out her debut novel The Evil Seed, described as a reworking of the classic vampire myth, and the recent collection of short stories A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String. Apart from being original, funny and engaging, The Gospel of Loki is also brilliantly written. It must have been so hard to write about these complex fantasy worlds with such a light and accessible tone, but Harris pulls it off without the end result seeming in any way flimsy.
I would recommend this not just to habitual readers of fantasy and/or to those who have a surreptitious crush on movie-Loki, but to everyone. It's a delight to read, enormous fun, and even makes you feel like you've learned something. To be honest, I'm crossing my fingers for a sequel....more
The Shining Girls is a murder mystery with an unforgettably original premise. The killer it centres on, Harper Curtis, enters a ramshackle building inThe Shining Girls is a murder mystery with an unforgettably original premise. The killer it centres on, Harper Curtis, enters a ramshackle building in 1930s Chicago and finds something very different on the inside. 'The House' is lavishly decorated, full of strange money, and has a bedroom full of apparently random objects, with girls' names written beside them: it also allows Harper to step through time, to visit dates throughout the 20th century. Harper's discovery makes him into the ultimate serial killer, stalking and murdering the 'shining girls' - from whom he takes the objects, as macabre mementoes - and escaping through time. But, unbeknownst to Harper, one of his victims, Kirby, survives. Years later, she tracks down Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her attack, and gets a job interning at the newspaper he writes for. Together, they set out to find her would-be killer - but of course they discover more than they bargained for.
I enjoyed this book but I didn't feel a great compulsion to keep going back to it. In fact, I started and finished a couple of other books during the time that I was reading it. It's difficult to put my finger on exactly why this was: I just think it comes down to the fact that I liked it but I never felt that obsessive interest in what happens next that always pulls me back to books I really love.
One thing that did bother me was that I didn't feel there was enough clarity around how and why Harper realised that he had to find and kill the 'shining girls'. It wasn't that I needed more of an explanation of his motive or anything like that - I think it was pretty well established that Harper was a twisted man who had already killed and would have gone on to kill again with or without the influence of the House. I just wasn't convinced by the way he made the mental leap from discovering the room to realising that he would have to track down and murder these individual girls. I felt the chapter that dealt with this glossed over it a bit, with a 'he just knows he has to do it' attitude.
The narrative is also very fragmented - it's split into almost 70 short chapters and (like Harper) is constantly jumping back and forth through time, with the focus often on a new character. I have to admit I was confused at a few points, and there was one chapter in particular (the one with (view spoiler)[Kirby finding the bedroom in the House (hide spoiler)]) that really threw me because it seemed to have come from nowhere and I didn't understand, until later in the book, how it related to anything else. (I still don't get why that scene had to be placed there, to be honest.) The brief chapters make the story easy to read but I think the disjointed nature of the plot could make it difficult to follow unless you read it very quickly.
I did really like Dan and Kirby together, which is unusual for me - I usually find this type of age-gap relationship (with a much younger woman who is really fucked up and vulnerable) rather uncomfortable, but I was rooting for them from the beginning, and loved the development of their friendship. I also really enjoyed the way each 'shining girl' was introduced. I haven't read anything else by Beukes, but it's clear from this book that she's great at character portraits, at making you like and care about someone within just a few pages, paragraphs even.
The Shining Girls is a strange combination, but one that works well to the point that it ends up seeming much like a conventional thriller. You almost forget there's a fantasy element to it, and whether or not that's a good thing is debatable - it will depend on the individual reader, I think. I'm sure this will be huge and it will definitely be one of those books that gets people talking. Recommended, certainly, but I would warn against expecting too much from it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
In Victorian London, a girl named Eve is born covered in hair, a coat she comes to think of as her fur. Unloved by her mother and mocked by strangers,In Victorian London, a girl named Eve is born covered in hair, a coat she comes to think of as her fur. Unloved by her mother and mocked by strangers, she is swept off her feet by the avaricious Josiah Arroner, who fills her with hopes of romance but leaves her trapped in a loveless - and sexless - marriage. Instead, he cruelly parades her as 'the Lion-Faced Girl', the central attraction of his 'Unique and Genuine Anatomical Marvels', a variety performance with the air of a freakshow. Meanwhile, elsewhere in London, a man who should be dead is pulled out of the mud of the Thames. This is Abel, who has few clear memories of his past, but is seemingly unable to suffer injury, illness or death. His rescuer happens to be another of Arroner's performers, a coincidence which leads to a fateful meeting between Eve and Abel.
Inevitably compared to Angela Carter (obviously a major influence on Garland's prose style here) and Sarah Waters, this is an engaging adventure-slash-romance that will appeal to fans of both historical fiction and magical realism. Since the antagonist, Arroner, is so despicable, it's easy to root for Eve and Abel, who take turns narrating the story; and Abel's mysterious history adds an extra layer of intrigue to the plot. I was captivated early on by Eve's inner struggle over whether to reject or embrace her condition (the voice in favour of this is represented by an imaginary friend she dubs Donkey-Skin), and Abel's uneasy relationship with his 'friend' Alfred, which he fails to perceive correctly due to his straightforwardness and naivety.
I enjoyed The Palace of Curiosities - it's a fast and easy read - but I felt that, despite all its luscious, vivid description and eccentric characters, there was a certain emptiness at the heart of it. I love books that present a simple narrative which reveals itself to have hidden depths and layers, and this was the opposite: once you strip away the florid language, it's a very uncomplicated story. For me, there was never a true sense of drama - it was obvious (to the reader if not Eve) that Arroner was 'bad' from his first appearance, and I never believed there would be any real barriers to the protagonists' eventual happiness. Overall, a pleasant and diverting read but too lacking in tension to be particularly memorable....more
I almost don't know where to start with describing Cooking With Bones. This is a novel with a lot of different elements and influences, but the storyI almost don't know where to start with describing Cooking With Bones. This is a novel with a lot of different elements and influences, but the story as a whole is unlike anything else I've read. It's a bit like a more refined, complex, fantastical, modernised, and even more original version of Richards' debut, Snake Ropes.
The book opens in a city called Paradon. Here we meet two sisters, Amber and Maya. While Amber is an 'ordinary' girl, Maya is a formwanderer - human, but genetically engineered to mirror the desires and needs of anyone she encounters. To Amber, who as a child was desperate to have a twin sister, she is exactly that: a perfect reflection of Amber herself. To the sisters' parents, she is the perfect daughter, the favourite child. Amber, however, is growing out of her yearning for a twin and is starting to want Maya to find her own identity. At the same time, there is growing hysteria about formwanderers in the Paradon media - due to their nature they are able to act on others' unconscious desires, and as a result they are thought to be capable of killing. When the girls' parents find them separate jobs as 'Lab Assistants' (Amber in 'the Tear Lab, where sadness is measured'), Amber persuades Maya they must leave Paradon.
So this is fantasy - kind of. When the action moves outside Paradon, we see that the city is the only part of this world where society has advanced to such a stage. In Paradon, huge mirrored panels keep the city permanently sunny and warm; but in the countryside, life is simple, even backward. In a small village - its name is given as Seachant, but that's only mentioned once; for the most part, it is just 'the village' - the residents are in thrall to an ancient, unseen witch they call Old Kelp, the local school is closed because there's no coal, and the only medical assistance comes from an inexperienced doctor who lives miles away in the next town. Here we encounter the secondary protagonist, ten-year-old Kip, who delivers the 'fair' - a daily offering consisting of baking ingredients and other food - to Old Kelp's cottage every morning.
The story is about what happens when Amber and Maya come to the village, and discover Old Kelp's cottage. It's also about how an affair, two disappearances, a possible death and some difficult secrets affect the lives of the villagers, as seen through Kip's eyes. Ultimately it is about how these events come together with the stories (and beliefs) that have made this place what it is.
Cooking With Bones feels like a fairytale, replete with magic and enchantment, and indeed there are elements of myths, legends and stories woven throughout the narrative - both in the tales the villagers tell each other about Old Kelp, and how the sisters make sense of their old and new lives. Like Snake Ropes, this is a largely female-dominated story: although there doesn't seem to be any hierarchy among the villagers, it's Old Kelp who effectively rules the village, terrifying its residents so thoroughly that they won't even approach her cottage or look through the windows for fear of being cursed. And when the legend of Old Kelp is told, it's not the witch who is the hero of the story, nor her lover, the farmer Gilliam, but Gilliam's wife. In turn, this story is mirrored through the actions of the characters, with more than one 'tangle of three' affecting what happens to them all.
One of my favourite parts of the book was the character of Kip. (view spoiler)[Kip is a boy who wears dresses, and his gender isn't revealed until at least a third of the way through the story. While there is a realistic element of prejudice in the way other characters react to him - he is bullied at school, and his father tries to force him to wear trousers - the overall message is one of acceptance and that Kip's identity is nobody's business but his own. When his cousin, Adam, asks Kip whether he wants to be a girl, he doesn't answer the question. The author avoids giving the reader a straight answer about Kip, but it doesn't feel like she's side-stepping the issue: more that it just doesn't matter, and that it's none of our concern anyway. (hide spoiler)]
There are so many different things to be fascinated by in Cooking With Bones: while it's an oddity, it also has something for everyone. It's a dystopian fantasy, a murder mystery, a ghost story and a coming-of-age tale (about more than one character), with sex scenes that are more erotic than most of the stuff you find in erotic novels, but are also weird and discomfiting. It's a story about a girl who wants to be a woman, a girl who doesn't know what she wants to be (even though she could be anything at all), and a boy who might want to be a girl (or might just want to wear their clothes). It's about loving your family, leaving your family, taking on a new identity, the enduring power of stories; the power of fear, fearlessness, lust, fate, and getting to know who you really are. It's like science fiction rewritten by an author of centuries-old fairytales and then rewritten again by a modern-day feminist. There are so many ways it could be read - so many layers of meaning and mystery - but at its heart, it's also an enjoyable, emotive, funny story with great characters, and despite all the strangeness, it's very human.
I really loved this book. It's so rare to find something so unpredictable and unique yet so coherent, interesting and memorable. It's beautifully written - lyrical and evocative (with distinct voices for the three protagonists) but not so much that it feels pretentious or stops you from relating to the characters. I paid £9.99 for this - the most I've ever paid for a Kindle book, and I did wonder whether it would be worth it. However, I can now quite happily say that it most definitely was. Another beautiful cover, too - I suppose I'll end up buying the hardback edition as well, to match my gorgeous copy of Snake Ropes!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I must confess my initial interest in Bee Ridgway's debut, The River of No Return, was superficial: I fell in love with the gorgeous cover. The more II must confess my initial interest in Bee Ridgway's debut, The River of No Return, was superficial: I fell in love with the gorgeous cover. The more I read about the premise - a time-travelling historical romance, with an emphasis on the romance - the more dubious I became. Then there's the fact that it has been widely compared to The Time Traveler's Wife, a book I tried three times to read without any success, and A Discovery of Witches, a book I finished but in many ways disliked. All in all, by the time I came to actually start reading this book I was a bit concerned I would end up hating it. It was a relief to find it was, in fact, very enjoyable.
The story begins in 1815, with 22-year-old Julia Percy at her grandfather's bedside as he takes his last breaths. Julia believes his secret power - the manipulation of time - has died with him, and she dreads the arrival of her unpleasant cousin Eamon, the new earl. The scene then switches to Vermont in 2013, where Nick Davenant, the wealthy owner of several farms, lives a content yet complicated life. Nick is not what he seems: he is a member of the Guild, an organisation made up of those who, like Nick, have 'jumped' through time and found themselves in an age not their own. At the moment of his near-death in 1812, he was transported to 2003, and after a strange and painful period of adjustment, he has made peace with his unconventional existence. That is, until he receives a summons from the Guild which contradicts one of its own cardinal rules. Does this mean the principal law of the Guild - that there can be no return - could be broken too? And what connects Nick's summons to Julia's predicament back in the nineteenth century?
After a slightly clumsy start which didn't give me a very positive impression of Nick's character, I soon found myself intrigued by the multi-layered plot, particularly the questions surrounding the Guild's operation. Between Nick's story, Julia's story, the background of the Guild and its shadowy enemies, and real-life historical events affecting the characters, there's a lot in this book, but it works - there is plenty of detail but it's all very fast-moving and never becomes dull: nor does it feel like the author is throwing too much information at you, impressive given that the amount that needs explaining about how all this works. As for the love story, it's pleasant enough, and (thankfully) believable. I was relieved to find that there was already an established connection between the two main characters, rather than it being one of these insta-love situations - the reader was easily able to imagine that, had none of the fantastical parts of the story actually happened, these two would probably have ended up together anyway. I did feel that Nick was being a bit too forward with Julia at times, given the strictures of the age (which he was obviously familiar with), but for the most part I liked them together, believed in their feelings for each other, and wanted them to be happy. Beyond this, I don't think I can discuss the plot in any further detail without significant spoilers. Suffice to say, I was carried along by the momentum of it and once I'd got to grips with the basic principles of the timey-wimey stuff and the dynamic between the characters, I was hooked.
The one thing I will say, without actually spoiling anything, is that it's very obvious at the end that the stage is being set for a sequel. This can be read as a standalone book, and there's no cliffhanger as such, but there is plenty that could still be explored about this world and a number of questions which aren't answered comprehensively. I won't pretend this didn't disappoint me a little - I'd have preferred to think of this as a single novel, not the start of some fantasy romance series. Would I read The River of No Return 2? Yes, I probably would, but I have a gut feeling it would be inferior to this one.
I obviously can't say with absolute accuracy, but I don't think this book is really anything like The Time Traveler's Wife, excepting the obvious link of the time-travel theme. It is much more like A Discovery of Witches - a romance between two characters with supernatural abilities, the juxtaposition of rich historical detail and the present day, a secret organisation that holds all the power, our hero and heroine used as pawns by greater forces - but it avoided all the things that marred that story (in other words, the male protagonist wasn't repulsive, the description wasn't too corny, and the romantic scenes didn't make me feel sick).
The River of No Return is, for me, best described as a good old-fashioned rollercoaster of an adventure story. The romance aspect is appealing but it doesn't overwhelm the plot to the detriment of other elements. It's a shame it doesn't look likely that this will be a standalone novel, as I'd like to read a totally different story from the same author, but - obviously - that wouldn't stop me from recommending this one. If anything about the idea of it strikes you as interesting, you'll probably love it....more
To some extent, Isabel's Skin is a straightforward pastiche of, or homage to, the traditional gothic novel. Set in the early 20th century, it has an eTo some extent, Isabel's Skin is a straightforward pastiche of, or homage to, the traditional gothic novel. Set in the early 20th century, it has an educated but naive narrator - David Morris, a book valuer - journeying to a ramshackle country house. There, he discovers the nearest neighbour is a mad scientist from whose cottage mysterious, terrifying screams can be heard. So far, so sterotypically gothic, but Isabel's Skin veers in some strange directions with its elements of fantasy and - for me the most noticeable thing about the book - the fact that it's so incredibly straight-faced and serious. Probably the only traces of humour I could pick up were in some of the character names, which wouldn't have been out of place in a parody (Buff-Orpington!) and (although it's a rather bleak example) David's astonishing naivety and/or self-delusion about the nature of his mother's death.
The style, the use of language, is often extremely odd. For example, when David is talking about a former sweetheart, he describes her hair as being like 'a plate of unusual food'. I can't decide whether that's a brilliantly original turn of phrase or whether it just doesn't work at all?! There were lots of other examples, and similarly, the book was peppered with extended metaphors which I often found awkward rather than effective. Another hurdle was the relationship between David and Isabel: the apparent development of feelings on both sides happened far too quickly to be plausible, and they were both so uncharismatic that I couldn't bring myself to feel anything much for them. On top of all that, the ending felt a bit wet: I thought it was wonderful how Benson had linked the prologue and the epilogue so closely, bringing a different meaning to all the assumptions the reader is bound to have made at the beginning of the book, but the conclusion itself was something of a cop-out.
All in all, when I reached the end of this book I still wasn't quite sure exactly what I was supposed to make of it. Other reviews have pointed out that it's riddled with clichés, and I would have to agree, but I'm not certain whether the story was intended to send those clichés up or pay tribute to them. Nor did I manage to come to any conclusions about how the reader was supposed to react to the characters. I almost always enjoy gothic fiction, and Isabel's Skin did hold my interest to a degree, but it was far from satisfying....more
Cute, fun, funny, and very short ebook to tie in with the Doctor Who episode The Angels Take Manhattan. Very in keeping with the character of River SoCute, fun, funny, and very short ebook to tie in with the Doctor Who episode The Angels Take Manhattan. Very in keeping with the character of River Song - I loved the witty way it was written and the narrative did a very good job of combining the atmosphere of a noirish, pulpy mystery with near-constant wisecracks and puns. There probably won't be any more of these but if they were written, I would certainly read them!...more
I have had this book on my to-read list for years. In fact, I've already tried to read it once before and just couldn't get into it, but for two reasoI have had this book on my to-read list for years. In fact, I've already tried to read it once before and just couldn't get into it, but for two reasons I was recently inspired to give it another go. The first reason was that there's a movie adaptation due out soon, and I thought I'd better get the book read before I start hearing all about the film and people are posting screencaps of it on Tumblr and any twists are ruined for everyone. The second was that I've read a number of reviews of Sam Thompson's Communion Town, one of my favourite recent reads, suggesting that the two books are alike. It's easy to see why: like Communion Town, Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of stories written from very different viewpoints, at least some of which have an element of fantasy to them, and all are linked. There are six stories, most of which are split into two parts. The first parts have an infuriating (but attention-grabbing) habit of cutting off just as you are absolutely desperate to know what happens next. The second parts, which unfold in reverse order to the first half of the book, conclude each of the stories in turn, although the narratives ultimately remain separate and don't come together in any definitive way.
What follows may be considered spoilers - I have outlined what happens in the first half of each story, although not how they end, and have also referred to the links between the stories.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing The mid-nineteenth century. Adam Ewing is a naive notary travelling across the Pacific on the Prophetess, along with a shifty doctor called Henry Goose and a bunch of untrustworthy sailors and stowaways: he believes he is suffering from an illness caused by a parasitic 'Worm' and that only Dr. Goose can cure him. It took me some time to get into this narrative and, in fact, I think it was the fact that the book started like this that put me off the first time I tried to read it. The constant racism was also pretty offputting, although it's necessary and has a 'point' which links in with a lot of the themes that run through the other stories.
Letters from Zedelghem Early 1930s. The young, charismatic Robert Frobisher escapes his debtors and family (who have disinherited him) in England and flees to Belgium, where he successfully ingratiates himself into the household of Vyvyan Ayrs, a reclusive composer. His experiences are related in the form of witty letters to his best friend/lover Rufus Sixsmith. This section was when I really started feeling that I was going to love this book - the playful language, the combination of pathos and humour. The ending of Robert's story is also by far the best and most powerful of the lot. (view spoiler)[At first I disliked the second half, primarily because I disliked Eva, but the last letter - wow. It made me cry. 'We both know in our hearts who is the sole love of my short, bright life' - TEARS. (hide spoiler)] Link with the last story: Robert finds a copy of Adam Ewing's journal in Ayrs' mansion.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery 1975. Luisa Rey is a small-time journalist who uncovers what may be a massive conspiracy involving a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. This (the Lana Del Rey mystery as I kept thinking of it) was instantly my favourite, a fact I am almost embarrassed to admit as it is by far the most conventional and ordinary of the narratives, and is apparently supposed to be bad. Ha! Well, I absolutely adored it regardless. I liked Luisa more than anyone else in the book, the atmosphere and pacing were fantastic, I really felt like I was THERE. Exciting and emotive with plenty of dramatic twists - I loved every minute of it. Link with the last story: Rufus Sixsmith is now a scientist whose study is responsible for uncovering the scandal.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish Roughly the present day? Timothy Cavendish is a publisher of 'vanity' books who becomes famous when one of his authors murders a critic, then finds himself on the run from the author's thuggish brothers. He thinks he's found safety at a 'hotel' in Hull, but it turns out his own brother has installed him in a prison-like nursing home. Written in what I felt was an entertaining but somewhat derivative style, this story both rips off and sends up a certain style often found in contemporary literary fiction. I found the aforementioned style a little too self-conscious and I didn't feel as invested in Timothy's plight as I had with the other characters. Link with the last story: Timothy is sent a manuscript of 'Half-Lives'.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 A dystopian future 'corpocracy', about a hundred years from now. Sonmi~451 is a cloned 'server' working in what appears to be a truly nightmarish version of McDonald's. As a result of an experiment gone awry, she attains learning and knowledge, and begins to behave like a 'pureblood', unheard of for a 'fabricant' such as herself. This chapter is told in the form of an interview with Sonmi~451 following her arrest and incarceration for crimes which are not fully revealed until the end of the story. I thought the tale itself was fascinating, but it bothered me that once I started thinking about the way the corpocracy worked and how it had come to be, it didn't seem at all believable or plausible. Link with the last story: Sonmi~451 watches a film version of Timothy Cavendish's story.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After The far future, after the 'Fall' of civilisation. The narrator is Zachry, a member of one of the few tribes now left, living in a post-apocalyptic version of Hawaii. His story follows what happens when Meronym, a member of a more advanced tribe known as the 'Prescients', comes to stay with Zachry's family. The whole account is written in an annoying and difficult-to-read dialect, which I really struggled with at times - meaning I sometimes skipped over bits I wasn't that interested in - and didn't feel was necessary at all. I did get into the rhythm of this after a while, and I didn't hate it, but it was by far my least favourite of the narratives and the only one I was glad to finish. Link with the last story: The people of this society appear to worship Sonmi as a goddess.
In order of how much I enjoyed them: Luisa Rey, Letters from Zedelghem, Sonmi, Timothy Cavendish, Adam Ewing, Sloosha's Crossin'.
Cloud Atlas seems to inspire extreme reactions - it's often viewed as either a modern classic or a case of the emperor's new clothes. Personally, I don't agree with either of those interpretations. I certainly didn't take any deep and meaningful philosophical point away from it, and I didn't look too hard for connections between the stories, other than the obvious and deliberate ones: I felt they could all stand on their own well enough. I thought the implied theme of (view spoiler)[reincarnation (hide spoiler)] was flimsy, so I chose to ignore it - nor did I spend too much time thinking about whether all of these people were supposed to be 'real'. I don't think any of the stories are meant to be examined at in too much detail (the circumstances of Sonmi's society being a case in point) and I certainly didn't think the book was a work of genius. But I also happened to think it was exceptionally well-written and well-woven, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for what (I think) it is - a collection of good stories which are either smarter than they seem to be or not as smart as they think, depending on which way you look at it. Some may object to the fact that it's a patchwork of pastiches, but personally, that was a big part of what I loved about it. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Subtitled A City in Ten Chapters, Sam Thompson's debut is a collection of ten short stories: all are set in the same unnamed city, and all have looseSubtitled A City in Ten Chapters, Sam Thompson's debut is a collection of ten short stories: all are set in the same unnamed city, and all have loose connections with the others. The city itself remains an enigma, though its many districts have colourful, slightly offbeat and evocative names - Sludd's Liberty, Glory Part, Low Glinder. The narrative style varies enormously, from the cool, detached tone typical of literary fiction, present in (my favourite) 'Outside the Days', which recalls the best bits of Great House by Nicole Krauss, to the noirish romp of 'Gallathea' and 'The Significant City of Lazarus Glass', which is a bit like a dark spoof of an Agatha Christie mystery. The many narrators and their vastly different experiences in different locales of the city create a patchwork effect, as if you are studying something huge from a number of different angles, while the whole remains too vast to perceive. The experience of reading Communion Town is much like that of exploring an unfamiliar city on foot - both disorientating and seductive, and full of sharp turns with the occasional dead end.
There is an element of something strange and supernatural to almost all of the stories, giving the book as a whole an unmistakeable air of fantasy. This much I expected from the fact that it has won plaudits from the likes of China Miéville. However, this is not actually a fantasy novel: rather, each of the stories has a touch of something weird and inexplicable, with the most prominent example being the 'monsters' that stalk the city at night, which are never quite described or explained properly. Most of the interactions that take place within the stories are recognisable, even mundane, and easy for anyone to relate to, but their surroundings and circumstances are not. I won't pretend I understood everything that was going on in the stories or precisely how they were all linked, and this may be frustrating for some readers, but for me it just deepened the intrigue.
Communion Town is one of those books I want to go back and re-read straight away. I miss being immersed in its world, and I wish there had been ten, twenty more stories about the city. I want to pick apart the layers and puzzle out the connections, figure out who each character was to each of the others. I borrowed my copy from the library and held onto it for weeks after I'd finished reading, because I just didn't want to let it go: I found that there was something weirdly comforting about this strange, beguiling, nameless city. It's a place I want to escape back to and, in fact, I can't stop thinking about it. I can't think of a better reason for a five-star review than that....more
I'm not really sure how to go about reviewing this. First of all, if you're unfamiliar with Dahlquist, I should point out that The Chemickal MarriageI'm not really sure how to go about reviewing this. First of all, if you're unfamiliar with Dahlquist, I should point out that The Chemickal Marriage is the third, and last, book in a series that began with The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and continued with The Dark Volume. If you're at all interested in this book, I can't emphasise enough how important it is that you should start with the first of the three - both because it's absolutely fantastic, and because the others will make no sense if you don't. I very much doubt The Chemickal Marriage could be read as a standalone novel: although there's a recap of previous events at the beginning, and numerous concepts/details are briefly summarised within the narrative, I don't think I would have understood much of it without an existing knowledge of what 'glass books', 'the Process' etc actually were and what kinds of things the characters had been through prior to this book.
At the beginning of this story Miss Temple, having barely survived the events of the previous book, is recuperating in a hotel, believing her former comrades Cardinal Chang and Doctor Svenson to be dead. It soon becomes apparent that Chang and Svenson are alive after all (not a spoiler, it's mentioned in the blurb!) and the three join forces once again to defeat what's left of the nefarious Cabal. There is more chaos than ever in this volume, with constant unrest on the streets and the introduction of new weapons which turn mobs of citizens into something akin to rage-filled zombies. The lines are blurred everywhere you look - every new character is a potential enemy, while some old enemies become tenuous allies, bad characters turn good and good characters turn bad. Like the previous books, it's a heady mix of action, sex, science and deceitful behaviour. It's also intense and highly descriptive, although I think I actually find this installment easier to read than the others - I certainly finished it more quickly than I'd imagined I would.
I didn't write proper reviews of either Glass Books or The Dark Volume, and it's been more than three years since I read the latter, so I was unsure whether I'd remember enough to follow the plot properly. Happily, I did - just about. As with The Dark Volume, I found the fight scenes confusing and whenever there was a lot of action I just had to keep reading in the hope that I would figure it out. At some points, particularly in the penultimate chapter, the sheer amount of characters overwhelmed me and I have to admit that I wasn't sure exactly who a few of them were, and whether they were supposed to be on the 'good' or 'bad' side (if such a thing even existed by that point).
I loved the epilogue: it was a fitting conclusion to the trio's adventures and left the story open enough that there could be some kind of follow-up. Although the two sequels haven't quite matched up to the brilliance of Glass Books, I've really enjoyed the progression of this trilogy and am looking forward to what Dahlquist will write next, whether it's a continuation of this story or something new. I would recommend the series to anyone who likes, or likes the sound of, literary fantasy... but start with the first one!...more
Q: A Love Story is a misleading title if ever there was one. It is a love story only in the sense that it's a book with a love story in it - most of tQ: A Love Story is a misleading title if ever there was one. It is a love story only in the sense that it's a book with a love story in it - most of the plot doesn't relate to this, regardless of what you might (understandably) assume. More unusually and significantly, it's also a time travel story. But more than either of these, it's a comedy. Oh, and the character of Q barely features, only making a couple of appearances, which seems odd given the author's choice to name the book after her.
The premise, however, is great, and certainly caught my attention when I impulsively picked up the hardback from a bookshop display. The unnamed narrator (possibly representing the author himself?), a rather unsuccessful writer, is blissfully happy with the love of his life, Quentina, known to all as Q. He's happy, that is, until the day he is visited by a man who claims to be an older version of himself, from a point in the not-too-distant future when time travel has been invented. This man tells the narrator he must leave Q, or else something terrible will come to pass that will ruin both their lives. The narrator chooses to heed the warning, and thereafter, his life becomes dominated by attempts to avoid various awful fates.
I loved the idea of a person being visited by their future self, and I also loved that the story was set in contemporary New York - there seemed to be so much that could potentially be done with this scenario. Unfortunately, the book wastes it. The tenderness of the love story and all the potential intrigues of the time travel detail are jettisoned in favour of what seemed to me like a rather heavy-handed satire. None of the minor characters are developed further than a one-note caricature. There's an irritating repeated emphasis on the 'quirkiness' of the narrator and Q - they're very eco-conscious, they like painfully cool indie music and cult films, Q grows organic vegetables in an Eden-like garden in the heart of NYC etc etc - which, honestly, made them seem more like awful stereotypes of smug, middle-class, white hipsters (I hate that word, but it's SO apt for these people!) than anything else. And Q is, of course, one of those radiantly beautiful, incredibly kind, apparently flawless female characters with no negative traits whatsoever that authors so love to invent. After a while of this I did begin to wonder whether Mandery actually wanted the reader to find the protagonists insufferable - confusing since you're meant to care about the romance between them.
Ultimately, Q is much more of a farce than a love story. Mandery dwells on the ridiculousness of the narrator blindly following whatever his future selves, who crop up with increasing regularity as the book progresses, tell him to do. Entertaining, I suppose, but not half as good as what could have been done with an idea like this. The writing reminded me of Jonathan Franzen's style, and indeed this story may appeal to fans of Franzen, but its humour lacks any kind of real edge. I have to give it some credit for a genuinely interesting, original premise and a half-decent ending. Unfortunately, in every other way it was rather disappointing....more