I'm too old to associate the Harry Potter books with my childhood, and I always find it faintly bemusing when anyone I think of as 'my age' (a bracketI'm too old to associate the Harry Potter books with my childhood, and I always find it faintly bemusing when anyone I think of as 'my age' (a bracket that includes people from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties) does so. I didn't read the first Potter until after I'd seen the first film, when I was at university, but nevertheless I've come to associate both the books and the films with comfort. Along with certain cosy mystery series – Marple, Rosemary & Thyme, Death in Paradise – and kids' TV shows from my student years, I've often watched and/or read them when I was ill or depressed (or both), and they have stronger-than-usual connotations of a particular form of escapism: escape to the enclosed and 'safe' feelings typically associated with childhood, without recourse to things from my actual childhood, which might provoke more specific and complicated memories.
I think all of this helped Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to work better for me than it might for a true Potter devotee. I enjoyed – more than I expected – being back in this world; it's familiar and comfortable, even with the 'nineteen years later' angle, and that's what I wanted from it. The Albus/Scorpius dynamic is perfect (a big thumbs up for Slytherin heroes, too) and it's exciting and fun. And yes, it is a script and not a book, and it suffers for that, but I actually think the dialogue does a pretty good job of replicating Rowling's typical style. It has its much-discussed problems, notably that Harry's other two kids might as well not exist, and more problematically that the time travel stuff throws a lot of things from the previous books into question; these would undoubtedly be less noticeable in a stage or film version, where you'd be caught up in the visual magic of it all. (It's difficult to imagine how some of the effects described in the stage directions would actually be achieved in a theatre, and that can be quite distracting when you're reading it.)
If you ignore the offputting title, this is really interesting on the oddness of the 'it reads like fanfiction' critique so often levelled at the play/script/book....more
As I'm only an occasional, and very picky, reader of YA and children's books, I feel they have to work extra hard to impress me. Unlike so many othersAs I'm only an occasional, and very picky, reader of YA and children's books, I feel they have to work extra hard to impress me. Unlike so many others, The Square Root of Summer not only impressed me, but surpassed any and all expectations I could have had: it's not just a decent YA novel, it's a fantastic concept and a warm, heartfelt story that works well for any audience. I also liked the way it sidestepped so many of the paths I'd expect a book like this to go down: main character Gottie is science-obsessed rather than bookish; she's average in many respects instead of being your typical special-snowflake YA heroine who's amazing in every way; she's a brilliant student but knows nothing about, for example, music, and she's happy in her small and unremarkable home town. She is, happily, a believable teenager, a thing that's much rarer than it should be in novels for both adults and kids.
Gottie is relatable, but her life comes with just enough touches of everyday magic to hit that aspirational sweet spot. The loveably eccentric family, bacchanalian parties, beach hangouts and cosy country bookshop all made me long for the endless summers of adolescence. Her relationship woes are nicely done (when I was the exact same age as her I had a relationship with a boy who wouldn't acknowledge me in public, so the Jason storyline traced over old, old wounds) but it's her grief for beloved grandfather Grey that really hits home, really makes Gottie's characterisation sing. And that's without even mentioning the fantasy bits - they're great, and they make The Square Root of Summer read like a junior version of Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr. Y.
I felt bereft when I parted from Gottie and co, and the ending made me cry on a train. A lovely, heart-melting book....more
A couple of months ago I came upon a piece at Public Books – Chick Lit Meets the Avant-Garde, by Tess McNulty – that seemed to perfectly encapsulate aA couple of months ago I came upon a piece at Public Books – Chick Lit Meets the Avant-Garde, by Tess McNulty – that seemed to perfectly encapsulate a phenomenon I hadn't exactly noticed but had been absorbing, and enjoying, for a while. In reviewing five recently-published novels by female authors, McNulty identifies an emerging trend: fiction that combines accounts of the 'female experience' (in fact, as she puts it, 'the most insistently girly features of that experience') with aspects more commonly found in experimental postmodern novels and, less prominently, sci-fi and fantasy. Two of those reviewed, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and The Ghost Network, are among the best books I've read in the past year, and although McNulty also mentions one I tried and couldn't get along with – The Beautiful Bureaucrat – this naturally made me interested in the one I'd never heard of before: Andrea Phillips' Revision.
In terms of style, Revision falls much more firmly into the chick-lit bracket than do any of the other books mentioned in McNulty's essay. Mira is a breezy Fifth Avenue heiress whose first lines are sheer cliche: she unironically enthuses about how the best way to deal with a breakup is by bingeing on ice cream, watching tear-jerking movies, and burning all photographs of you and your now-ex-partner. Her vocabulary includes terms like 'carbolicious'; she uses 'crazy' as a noun far more than is necessary (which is not at all); the forced ditsiness of her voice can be very grating. But the themes veer closer to science fiction. Mira's boyfriend, Benji, is co-founder of tech startup Verity, a kind of Wikipedia for breaking news. When he abruptly ends their relationship, she spitefully alters his Verity profile to say they've just got engaged, only for him to reappear with a proposal straight out of a cheesy rom-com... and that's how she realises Verity doesn't just report on what's happening in people's lives; it's capable of altering them. Chick lit meets the avant-garde, indeed.
What follows is a mild conspiracy thriller: Mira's contacted by former Verity executive Chandra, who faked her own death to escape the company's manipulation, and the two do some amateur sleuthing to get to the bottom of Verity's true purpose. It's fun, but the stakes never feel very high. In a post on her own website, Phillips says 'the emotional arc of Revision is very much about how someone who has advantages in life has the power to ruin everything for the vulnerable people around her, while remaining personally more or less unscathed'. It's interesting to consider that, especially as it's an interpretation that didn't really occur to me – partly because I assumed the reader wasn't supposed to feel too much negativity towards Mira, and partly because I was more interested in the world-altering-tech conspiracy arc than the emotional one.
As much as Revision has some outlandish twists, it doesn't fuse its light tone with anything like the weird fiction of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine or the academic framework of The Ghost Network. This isn't to say that it should, obviously – Phillips wasn't writing it to fit into a micro-trend that hadn't been identified at the time – but I wouldn't have bought or read it if not for the McNulty essay, and the implication that it belonged to the same literary universe as those other books. It's entertaining, but doesn't break any new ground....more
A genre-defying novel with multiple timelines - from the 17th century to the 20th - that converge in a fantastical alternate-history climax. Real histA genre-defying novel with multiple timelines - from the 17th century to the 20th - that converge in a fantastical alternate-history climax. Real historical figures appear in the story, and they're given surprisingly authentic voices, but the best plot strand involves Chris, a young computer programmer who's working to eradicate the millennium bug and has a crush on/obsession with a coworker. Comparisons to David Mitchell are accurate; the later parts in particular gave me distinct Slade House vibes. To that, I'd also add references to Keith Ridgway's Animals and the fiction of Scarlett Thomas. The Countenance Divine is smart (and obviously meticulously researched) but always easily comprehensible, cleverly laced together, unique. I didn't feel at all like reading when I read it, yet I was captivated....more
Set in a near-future America which appears to have become one big dilapidated theme park, the bizarre stories (and novella) of CivilWarLand in Bad DecSet in a near-future America which appears to have become one big dilapidated theme park, the bizarre stories (and novella) of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline are by turns funny, disturbing and moving. Saunders' characters are invariably weird, eccentric, even occasionally horrifying, yet they end up feeling more human than the majority of fictional characters. It's also satisfying to find I can now detect Saunders' influence in the work of so many other writers I admire - to name a few: Lindsay Hunter's short stories, Kaaron Warren's novel Slights, and recent favourite You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman.
My favourites from this collection were the title story and 'The 400-Pound CEO', and I also found the insightful author's note - which is really another story, albeit an autobiographical one about the creation of this book - to be just as enjoyable to read as the stories themselves.
If only I could stop hoping. If only I could say to my heart: Give up. There's always opera. There's angel-food cake and neighborhood children caroling, and the look of autumn leaves on a wet roof. But no. My heart's some kind of idiotic fishing bobber.
I believe he [God] takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly un-likable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health....more
The unique idea at the heart of this story is instantly intriguing. Mark-Alem, scion of the powerful Quprili family, is given a job at a prestigious iThe unique idea at the heart of this story is instantly intriguing. Mark-Alem, scion of the powerful Quprili family, is given a job at a prestigious institution: the Tabir Sarrail, or Palace of Dreams. Transcriptions of citizens' dreams are collected here in their thousands, then pored over, analysed and interpreted for indications that they contain some divine prediction, a message of glory (or doom) for the Empire. The eventual aim of this mammoth task is to identify the 'Master-Dream', the most meaningful and portentous of them all, which is delivered to the Sultan on a weekly basis.
Unsurprisingly, the novel has often been compared to the works of Orwell and Kafka. Mark-Alem's job is bureaucratic yet bizarre, and cloaked in so much mystery that at first, he doesn't even know what he's supposed to be doing, or the way around the vast Palace, or what all the oddly-named departments do. There are recurring scenes in which he wanders the corridors, lost and disorientated. Parallels are drawn between being swallowed up by this place and the experience of sleep - or even death. Having become accustomed to its strange ways, Mark-Alem finds real life comparatively insipid: 'the whole world seemed to have lost all its colour, as if after a long illness... How tedious, grasping and confined this world seemed in comparison with the one he now served!' Yet when he's at work, the dream transcripts often seem incomprehensible to him. At times he marks them at random, and it's this cavalier approach to the task that ultimately brings about the plot's bloody climax. Its meaning as a political allegory is clear, but the novel is always equally enjoyable as an imaginative (often quite suspenseful) story.
Had this been a smoother read, my rating would be higher, as I really liked the story. However, I thought it had a stilted and awkward feel all the way through, and I'm convinced this can only be the result of it having been translated twice - this English version is not translated directly from the original Albanian, but from the the French edition. There were a couple of unusual recurring phrases that really jarred, and seemed like inaccurate choices; certain words were repeated with irritating frequency. I found all of this really offputting and I'm afraid it also makes me less likely to read more Kadare (though I'd first need to establish whether all of them have been through the weird Albanian-French-English treatment)....more
Dystopian novels that aren't strictly SFF – that splice their post-apocalyptic setting with some other genre or style – are becoming A Thing, a trendDystopian novels that aren't strictly SFF – that splice their post-apocalyptic setting with some other genre or style – are becoming A Thing, a trend maybe not as pervasive as The Post-Gone Girl Thriller, but a trend all the same. It's hard for me not to attribute this at least partly to Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, though my impression of that book's significance is likely magnified by my love for it. Station Eleven is my dystopian benchmark, and it looks like the publishers of The Last One might agree, since they mention it in the blurb.
The Last One is a billed as a thriller, and it has the bright idea of placing into its imperilled setting a group of reality TV contestants who, of course, don't necessarily know what's going on in the outside world while they're filming. There are dual narratives, recounted in alternate chapters and probably best summed up as Before and After. Before is about the show, In the Dark, itself, and follows the progression of its storyline from the first day of filming onwards. After is about one of the contestants, a woman dubbed Zoo (because she works at a wildlife sanctuary; they're all given nicknames like this, mostly occupation-based – Engineer, Biology, Waitress and so on). She is living and hunting alone, believing herself to still be competing in the show as part of a lengthy solo survival task, while the reader is given heavy hints that the ravaged, post-apocalyptic landscape she's traversing is the result of a real pandemic, and the crew, other contestants, and indeed the viewers are most likely long gone.
Reality TV makes an exciting subject for fiction because an omniscient perspective allows us to see it from all sides: the contestants' actual experiences; how they are interpreted and analysed, controlled and edited by the producers; how the end product is consumed by viewers and the media. The topic has been tackled to wonderful effect in a couple of pieces of short fiction I've read – Rebecca Makkai's 'The November Story', from her collection Music for Wartime, and Jonathan Coe's 'The Comeback', a segment of Number 11 – and it's one of the strongest elements of The Last One. The construction of the show is fascinating; the disconnect between screen and behind-the-scenes also gives the book its compelling opening chapter.
Probably the biggest problem I had with The Last One was Zoo herself. She's meant to be charismatic and likeable enough that she's pegged as a 'fan favourite' by the show's producers, but none of this comes across in her depiction from any perspective – she's almost cartoonishly self-obsessed, myopic (in more ways than one (her actual short-sightedness is made into a linchpin of the plot)) and singularly dull. Her supposed reason for competing doesn't gel with the idea that she would keep going as long as she does; her arc is as unbelievable as she is unsympathetic. I longed for another character's viewpoint – or just something, anything, good or bad, to make Zoo interesting. The worldbuilding, too, is shallow; the fact that this is lampshaded (Zoo comments that Brennan's ramblings resemble 'every post-apocalypse plot, ever') doesn't make it any better.
What The Last One has going for it is that it's very gripping. The fact that I finished it at all, despite not much liking the plot or main character, attests to that. I'm sorry I didn't enjoy it more – I guess I kept hoping the ending would have something that would lift my opinion of everything else. (view spoiler)[I wondered whether all of this WAS part of the game show after all – or maybe I was supposed to hate Zoo, and she'd get a satisfyingly unhappy ending. Instead, there's just the saccharine promise that she and her surprise-not-dead husband will find each other. Ugh. (hide spoiler)]
I received an advance review copy of The Last One from the publisher through NetGalley.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Odd and fairytale-like, The Children's Home is a strange dream of a story. So many things about it are non-specific: the country and time period it'sOdd and fairytale-like, The Children's Home is a strange dream of a story. So many things about it are non-specific: the country and time period it's set in always remain blurry; there is little context to anything; the characters accept peculiar and fantastical events with barely a flinch. In the most simple terms it's about a man called Morgan, who lives a cloistered life in his vast, walled manor; having been disfigured in an accident, the circumstances of which are not immediately made clear, he no longer ventures into the outside world, which is in any case described as war-torn and ravaged. One day, children start to appear on his estate. And they keep appearing, until there is a whole group of them - precocious, enigmatic, and with the apparent ability to disappear back into thin air whenever they need to.
Morgan cares for the children along with his housekeeper, Engel (another person who mysteriously appeared at the house one day and simply stayed there), and his doctor, Doctor Crane. There's no question of them leaving, no possibility that Morgan will hand them over to the government officials who conduct occasional inspections. Meanwhile, a boy named David emerges as their leader, commanding authority over not only the other children but Morgan too. As the story progresses, it edges further into the realm of fantasy and fable; I would be reluctant to actually describe it as horror, but there is certainly a hint of that too, especially in the climactic scenes. Macabre details - for example an intricate model of a pregnant woman which can be 'opened' to see the baby inside the womb - make certain parts of the story particularly eerie and therefore memorable.
The Children's Home has an unusually low average rating on Goodreads; it seems the lack of explanation and vagueness of the whole story have ruined it for many readers, and I can understand that - it does rather fall apart, as both fantasy and allegory, if you think about it too much. I'm not sure why that didn't bother me. All I can say is that I found the story enchanting enough that I was happy to fall under its spell and accept all its oddness....more
When I started the first story, 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon', I thought I knew what I was getting. The protagonist, Robbie, begins by reminiscing about his first job, as a security guard at a museum of aviation, and remembering a particular gallery in which a projection of a disembodied head was the main attraction. But the narrative quickly moves away from the obvious creepy angle here and instead weaves a detailed and character-driven tale around Robbie and two of his ex-colleagues; it's certainly uncanny, but evasive about exactly how. The characters – like most of the characters in most of the stories collected here – are middle-aged, not inclined to fantastical speculation, and many of the most effective moments are touching rather than unnerving. 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon' is unusually lengthy for the first story in an anthology, almost a novella in itself, and it sets the tone for a collection in which the 'strange' is often not what you expect it to be, and the longest stories are the most rewarding and surprising.
'Winter's Wife' is told by a boy whose neighbour, the eccentric Winter, suddenly brings home an inscrutable young Icelandic woman as his wife. Winter meets her on the internet, and our narrator thinks she looks like Björk – it's these humanising touches that make Hand's stories so effective; we identify ourselves in the backdrops, if not the mysterious cloud of hummingbirds in the forest, or the character with an apparent ability to bend nature to her will. 'Uncle Lou' spends so much time establishing the relationship between the main characters, a woman and her flamboyant uncle, that the ending has powerful emotional clout, despite taking a real turn for the fantastic. The brief 'Cruel Up North' is memorable chiefly because it doesn't explain its mysteries – what, for example, might the 'lava fields' be?
There are missteps – or, at least, some stories are weaker than others. 'Hungerford Bridge' – a short scene in which an old friend introduces the narrator to a fantastic creature – feels too thin against the richness of many of the other tales; 'The Far Shore' contains some beautiful moments but goes in a predictable direction, the opposite of the clever feints performed by the strongest stories here; and 'The Return of the Fire Witch' is an oddity, the one slice of high fantasy among a set of what might otherwise, per the subtitle, be termed 'strange stories' in the Robert Aickman sense.
But the jewel in Errantry's crown is 'Near Zennor', a flawless work of art that has to be one of the best short stories (strange or otherwise) I've ever read. It starts with a discovery: Jeffrey, a 'noted architect', is organising clutter belonging to his late wife, Anthea, when he finds a tin containing a bundle of letters and a cheap locket. The letters are in Anthea's hand, all returned to sender; when he investigates the recipient, Robert Bennington, he discovers the man was a children's author later vilified as a paedophile. Disturbed by references to a meeting between Anthea and Robert, and tortured by the idea that she could have been a victim of abuse she never told him about, he journeys to her native England to meet with one of her childhood friends. There, he hears a story that will lead him on a journey through the places of Anthea's past; to Padwithiel farm, near Zennor, and to Bennington's abandoned home.
Everything about 'Near Zennor' is absolutely pitch-perfect. The Cornish landscape is lovingly described; there is a true sense of reverence, and an awareness of the power – and menace – of nature runs throughout the whole story. The revelations about Bennington's crimes and reminders of his pariah status mean there's also an underlying current of real horror that has nothing to do with unexplained phenomena. Hand captures the force of a disquieting experience endured in childhood, how the memory can magnify it, give it the status of a legend. Jeffrey's ordeal at Golovenna Farm induces pure terror without resorting to anything as prosaic as an explanation. And there is a final twist that is shocking, and almost grimly funny, but not histrionic. All in all, it achieves the strange, wonderful duality of feeling perfect and complete but also leaving you wanting more, and more, and more, and it feels so real that I was tempted to google Bennington's Sun Battles books and the Cliff Cottage B&B. (This short interview with Hand gives some fascinating context – not just the fact that she deliberately set out to write an Aickmanesque story (an aim at which, in my opinion, she has absolutely succeeded) but that the three girls' peculiar adventure was, in fact, based on an inexplicable childhood memory of her own.)
'Near Zennor' is the second story in the book, and after finishing it, I had to take a break – to absorb its greatness, and because I was so sure nothing else could even begin to live up to it, I wasn't sure I wanted to read on. It's one of those stories that's so good, it's worth buying the whole book for it alone. Errantry is a strong, unpredictable collection of stories, but 'Near Zennor' is a masterpiece....more
A 'haunting supernatural thriller' translated from Swedish, Stallo traces the connections between two events: the disappearance of a boy from a woodlaA 'haunting supernatural thriller' translated from Swedish, Stallo traces the connections between two events: the disappearance of a boy from a woodland cabin in 1978, and the possible sighting of a troll in a small town, 25 years later. The latter is investigated by Susso, the creator of a website dedicated to supposedly mythical beings: her father, a wildlife photographer, once took a picture of a strange creature which has entered family lore and sparked her obsession. With her mother Gudrun and ex-boyfriend Torbjörn in tow, Susso sets off on what turns out to be an epic adventure - apparently traversing the entirety of Sweden - to chase down the truth about the 'troll', a mission that suddenly becomes crucial when another boy goes missing in the town where it was spotted. Another narrative follows a man called Seved, although it's rather difficult to discuss the details of his part of the story without giving away exactly where it goes.
While very intrigued by the themes and the whole idea of this story, I'm afraid I found it rather a hard slog. Stallo suffers from the simple fact that it lays its cards on the table way too early: (view spoiler)[it's revealed very quickly that trolls and other 'mythical' creatures are real in this world, so the cover tagline of 'what if there really is something out there?' isn't really a question. (hide spoiler)] There are also so many characters it's difficult to keep them straight. Aside from Seved, Signe and Mattias, I have to admit I had no clue who anyone in the troll house was. And don't get me started on the amount of different names/words/phrases used to describe the various magical creatures; even by the end of the book I wasn't sure if they were all the same thing or several different 'species'. On the plus side, I did find the structure of the book enjoyable, with the main trio chasing clues, travelling from place to place meeting different people who help them, etc - it's old-fashioned and curiously reassuring. And I liked Susso and Gudrun: they were surprisingly ordinary heroines for this sort of novel.
I never feel very confident in talking about the quality of the translation in a translated novel, because unless I can also read it in the original language, how would I know which one is at fault? But the cover of this edition is plastered with a big quote from Karl Ove Knausgård about how the 'words seem to sparkle on the page', so I kind of feel like it probably is the translation that's the problem here. Far from being sparkling, the writing seems dull and turgid and adds to the feeling that the story is dragging on for too long. In places, it just seems plain wrong, or at least odd - the word 'object' repeatedly being used to refer to an animal particularly stood out to me.
I don't know if it's because most Scandinavian books I've read have been part of some series or another, but - despite its length - Stallo feels like it's the beginning of something, not necessarily a complete story in itself. There's a moment of sexual tension between Susso and Torbjörn that's never revisited, and the ending is very abrupt. I wonder if there'll be a second Susso investigation? I'm not sure I'd be interested in picking it up if there was. This was at least engaging and readable enough that I stuck with it for 600 pages, but all in all I think it's one of those books that tries to bridge the boundaries between literary and fantasy/horror fiction and ends up not being very good at either of them.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks may have been a disappointment for numerous reasons, a three-star book that really, if I was being completely honest, should have been two (as I've occasionally done, I gave it extra credit, so to speak, because of my affection for the author's other work), but that didn't stop me from being excited about Slade House. A (sort of) ghost story centred on one mysterious house was always going to be irresistible to me. Early reviews have compared it to classic ghost stories and horror movies, and it's often been referred to as 'a haunted house story'. That isn't quite the case, as anyone familiar with the premise of The Bone Clocks' more fantastical segments will likely guess, but Slade House certainly has the spirit (no pun intended) and suspense of one.
Why am I mentioning The Bone Clocks anyway? Well: published hot on the heels of its predecessor, Slade House is a short novel with significant links to the world of The Bone Clocks; though it's been established that all Mitchell's novels are linked, this is arguably a follow-up rather than a wholly new story. (It's also partly based on a tale Mitchell originally 'published' in a series of tweets.) That said, you might initially wonder where exactly the similarities lie. This begins as a story about Nathan, a teenage boy who, with his mother, visits the eponymous house. It's hidden down Slade Alley, grey and narrow and and permanently rainy, and is accessed through a small iron door. What lies beyond this unprepossessing door is incongruous: a grand house, a beautiful, verdant garden, and a charming aristocratic host, Lady Norah Grayer.
In what's become regarded as typical Mitchell style, the book doesn't stick with Nathan, but tells a number of short stories in different voices and different time periods, though they all have the same basic premise and structure: someone comes to visit Slade House and finds something they desire behind that door - something that's (needless to say) not what it seems. There are nuances of characterisation here that were (weirdly) absent from the much longer Bone Clocks: loveable but exasperating Nathan and his understandably agitated mother; swaggering copper Gordon, with an unexpected heart of gold; Sally - lovely, tragic Sally. The first two in particular are clever feats of subverted expectation: starting off as cliched character types, they turn out to be so much more fine-spun than that. Meanwhile, our villains are the ruthless Grayer twins - they're undoubtedly sinister and satisfyingly nasty, but there's an element of comedy in their bickering that smacks of sitcom banter. That prevents the repeating doomed scenario on which the plot hinges from making the whole thing too depressing, even though really, there's quite a lot of tragedy in this book, something that's particularly keenly felt because the characters are so well defined.
Much shorter and tighter than The Bone Clocks, Slade House lacks the flabbiness of its predecessor; but towards the end, its links with the world of Bone Clocks become clearer, its fantasy element ramps up, and much of one chapter is devoted to belatedly explaining the Grayers' backstory. This is where it lost me a little. I know lots of people love the self-referential thing in Mitchell's books, but I'm finding it increasingly gimmicky; straining to recognise references or remember where you heard a name before can sometimes be detrimental to enjoyment, and gets a bit tiresome when repeated. And as much as I thought Bone Clocks was overlong, as much as I literally just said it was good that this was shorter, there were some other things I'd prefer to have been expanded and examined, instead of a rerun of all the Atemporal/orison/pyroblast stuff. (view spoiler)[For example, what was with the reappearing runner - was he trapped in time or just an 'echo'? Didn't his presence suggest the whole thing was a dream each time? And why did the Grayers willingly give away so much information to their prey, anyway? (This was explained, but I felt sure there was more to it.) And I wanted so much to know that what happened between Sally and Todd wasn't all a result of the Grayers manipulating her mind - although maybe it's better I don't have an answer for that. (hide spoiler)] I felt slightly deflated by the ending, though as with lots of enjoyable books, that might just have been because I wanted it to go on and on and on.
The thing is that even with its flaws, I'd read this again, and I want to buy a physical copy. I loved the idea, the mystery of Slade House; the setup of each character's approach of the place; I ache to know more about some of them, maybe all of them; and the atmosphere of the whole book has really stuck with me. I think it benefits from the fact that it's definitively a horror story, and a great example of one. The late October publication date is perfect, not only because it coincides with events in the story, but because this is one of those ideal winter books, with its crawling sense of horror and rain-soaked, freezing settings. And it made me want to revisit The Bone Clocks, too. Who'd have thought?
(NB: you can read this as a standalone novel. But there's a chance you may be a little confused by some of the explanation that's thrown at the reader at the end. If you're not already madly keen to read Bone Clocks, I wouldn't really recommend it, especially if you haven't read anything by Mitchell before; Ghostwritten is a better place to start, or Cloud Atlas.)
--- Lines to remember - not confirmed, as they're from the ARC (and most work better in context, but anyway):
My question falls down a deep well with no bottom, and I forget what I've forgotten.
The Valium's throbbing in my fingertips now, and the sunlight's a harpist.
A slit of light opens its eye and becomes a long flame. Cold bright star white.
The curtains were drawn, but the house sort of glowed like vanilla fudge in the evening light.
I smell lavender and smoke and I get that off-road feeling you get when anything's possible.
Her voice before was woolen, now it's a rusty jackknife.
Slade Alley cuts through black shadow before turning sharp under a feeble lamp that pulses dim beige.
I can't, won't, mustn't, don't.
True, I only properly started talking with Todd half an hour ago, but every undying love was only half an hour young, once.
Grief's an amputation, but hope's incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.["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
I loved the first book of Louise Welsh's Plauge Times trilogy, A Lovely Way To Burn, so this sequel was an automatic shoo-in for my Most Anticipated oI loved the first book of Louise Welsh's Plauge Times trilogy, A Lovely Way To Burn, so this sequel was an automatic shoo-in for my Most Anticipated of 2015 list. I was mildly surprised, but still excited, to learn it would focus on a different character. A Lovely Way To Burn was all about gutsy TV presenter Stevie Flint; Death is a Welcome Guest is about a stand-up comedian, Magnus McFall.
This one doesn't start where the last one left off. Instead it opens as the spread of the virus known as the Sweats, which we already know will eventually engulf the country (assuming 'we' read the first book of the trilogy), is in its early stages. Magnus is en route to a gig, as warm-up act to the obnoxious Johnny Dongo; an afflicted boy collapses onto the railway before the show. After a spat with Johnny, Magnus gets arrested - there's a convoluted scene involving him rescuing a girl from an ostentatiously nefarious would-be rapist who turns out (a bit implausibly) to be an MP, then being caught in the act by a gang of men who assume he's the girl's attacker - and finds himself imprisoned in an overflowing prison where both inmates and staff are dropping like flies. He forms a precarious alliance with Jeb, a long-term prisoner whose crimes are, for most of the book, unknown. Magnus's aim is to get back to his hometown on Orkney, where he's convinced he will find his family safe and well, and so the two set off on a potentially treacherous trek across the country. Then they meet a gun-toting military priest who presides over a community at crumbling Tanqueray House, and it all goes a bit 28 Days Later.
Unlike A Lovely Way To Burn - which had me completely hooked from the outset - this story is really slow to get going. The prison riot is interminable, and totally lacking in suspense since, if Magnus and Jeb didn't escape, there'd be no story at all. At this point I was seriously worried I wasn't going to like the book; but once they're out of prison and on the road, it picks up.
I've spent ages trying to work out whether this is objectively a better book than A Lovely Way To Burn. I think it probably is. It's less melodramatic; sure, it has a dramatic climax, but not quite the crazed, almost horror-movie-esque scenes of its predecessor. It's more contemplative and spends a greater amount of time delving into its main character's state of mind, examining the psychological implications of the virus - and, to some extent, the political fallout. (I should also mention that it can certainly be read as a standalone novel, although it perhaps has something in common with the second part of many trilogies in that much of the content feels like filler.) The best moments come towards the end, when all the tension that's been building throughout the story combines with the strange undercurrents in Tanqueray village and creates a lurid, horrible climax. It's telling that these scenes are probably the least believable in the book and yet they are the most emotionally compelling.
While I loved Stevie, Magnus left me feeling indifferent. Because this story is less plot-driven, it sacrifices the great advantages of the first book's crime thriller structure - the brilliant tension, the need to know what would happen next, the clues and revelations leading the protagonist from one place, one person to the next. I had no real investment in Magnus's quest to get back to his family, because the narrative didn't want me to care about that. (view spoiler)[Sure enough, it ends up becoming a footnote - by the time Mangus reaches Orkney, both he and the reader know his family aren't going to be alive. (hide spoiler)] Jeb is a deliberately offputting character, the whole point being that he will end up a scapegoat and that the reader will be prompted to wonder what they'd do in Magnus's position, whether they'd bother to help him. But honestly, I didn't find this dilemma that interesting either.
Death is a Welcome Guest is a good, solid read that does a decent job of advancing the story arc of the Plague Times trilogy. But I think perhaps it's more scene-setting for the final part than anything else. I'll definitely be reading the last installment, with the hope that it returns to the irresistible excitement of the first.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A sprawling (how apt), colourful, cyberpunk dream-or-nightmare - I didn't always understand what was going on in Neuromancer, but I definitely enjoyedA sprawling (how apt), colourful, cyberpunk dream-or-nightmare - I didn't always understand what was going on in Neuromancer, but I definitely enjoyed the ride. I'm sure it was partly the knowledge that it inspired The Matrix, and partly because I imagined the early parts in the novel in particular as looking Ghost in the Shell-ish, but it all felt very film-like, and reading the novel in what I think of as quite an old-fashioned way - a chapter or so every night before going to sleep - made me feel like I was escaping into a very vivid alternate world. The negative reviews I've read of this frequently pick apart the confusing language, but I found that once I'd got into the flow of it I could easily comprehend it without grasping every specific component of it - like reading something written in an unfamiliar regional dialect. It can also be really beautiful:
Under bright ghosts burning through a blue haze of cigarette smoke, holograms of Wizard's Castle, Tank War Europa, the New York skyline... And now he remembered her that way, her face bathed in restless laser light, features reduced to a code: her cheekbones flaring scarlet as Wizard's Castle burned, forehead drenched with azure when Munich fell to the Tank War, mouth touched with hot gold as a gliding cursor struck sparks from the wall of a skyscraper canyon.
- And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiled in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like a film compiled of random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information. Please, he prayed, now— A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky. Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding— And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach. And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.
As I said when I first sampled The Gracekeeperslast September, I feared, at first, that it wasn't for me - that the fantastical premise was too whimsAs I said when I first sampled The Gracekeeperslast September, I feared, at first, that it wasn't for me - that the fantastical premise was too whimsical for my tastes and that it was in danger of being too twee. However, the first few chapters really surprised me. I was drawn straight into its world and wanted to read on; I found the characters easy to care about, and the story gave me the same cosy, magical feeling as Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. (Unlike many readers, I enjoyed that book, but as others won't necessarily find the comparison flattering, I will again add that Logan is a better writer. It's the atmosphere of the stories that's similar.) As with many good stories that appear to be whimsical, there is an undercurrent of darkness that adds spice and bite to a narrative that's often deceptively gentle.
The setting is a waterlogged world in which there is a class division between landlockers, the lucky few with homes on dry land, and damplings, whose nomadic lives are spent at sea. There are two main characters: North, who resides on a circus boat and makes a living performing with her beloved bear, and Callanish, who lives alone on an island and works as a gracekeeper, tending the graves of those who die at sea. (The latter idea is expanded from a short story in Logan's debut collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales.) When a storm hits and tragedy strikes the Circus Excalibur, North and Callanish meet and are immediately drawn to each other; The Gracekeepers becomes a story about their connection, how they are inescapably drawn back to one another, and about how each is searching, in some way, for a family, for a home, for permanence.
Many negative reviews are from readers frustrated that there wasn't more world-building, that certain things about how this society worked weren't fully explained - but I always saw it as more of a dreamlike landscape, one that wasn't necessarily supposed to feel entirely real. In my head, it didn't look anything like this world; instead, I imagined that beyond the seascapes we heard about, the water simply poured off the edge of the earth. Many reviews also assume the setting is post-apocalyptic or a version of our own future, but again I saw it differently, as an alternate world or alternate history, definitely magical; there's no actual magic, but you wouldn't be surprised to encounter it. Pre-flood society might well have been the world we know, or something very like it, but I felt that taking that for granted would reduce it to some cautionary tale about the environment, taking away all the enchantment. Enchantment is a very appropriate word for The Gracekeepers, perfect for the glamour of the circus, the ethereal imagery of Callanish's island home, and the magnetic draw of the central couple's attraction.
The lush language of The Gracekeepers makes it a book to be savoured slowly, and it's best when measured out in small portions. If there was one thing about it I didn't like (and this became particularly noticeable whenever I read a big chunk of the book in one go) it was the repetition of certain words and phrases - I'd be quite happy to never see the word 'belly' again in my life, and Flitch calling Callanish 'little fish' drove me crazy (though, considering the general obnoxiousness of his character, I'm sure that was the point).
Something a bit different for me, certainly, but a book I'm really glad I persisted with, and one that created a genuinely memorable world....more
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
No review of Armada would be complete without a mention of Ernest Cline's debut novel Ready Player One, to which this is the long-awaited follow-up. BNo review of Armada would be complete without a mention of Ernest Cline's debut novel Ready Player One, to which this is the long-awaited follow-up. Both books share lots in common, mainly a love of video games and all things 80s. Like Ready Player One, Armada has as its hero a teenage boy whose obsession with gaming proves more valuable than expected; in this case, it's because aliens are about to invade earth, and the highest-scoring players of a video game named Armada - including our protagonist, Zack - are being recruited to fight them.
I really liked Ready Player One, but I wasn't wildly excited about Armada. I picked it to read specifically because I wanted something undemanding and fun, because I didn't feel I had the emotional energy for the other books I was supposed to be reading. Around the time I started it, I was seeing a few negative reviews popping up in my Goodreads feed and on Twitter: in fact, I'm not sure I've actually seen anything positive said about it yet. At the beginning I didn't really get why - it seemed just as fun as Cline's debut - but when I got further in I began to understand. A lot of it is made up of descriptions of gaming and in-flight battle scenes that, to be honest, I found boring. And, perhaps because everything is framed so solidly as being exactly like a video game, I never really felt any real sense of threat from the alien attack (though that is kind of the point). It's a good job, then, that there's another plotline - about Zack's dad, a conspiracy he may have uncovered, and the mysterious circumstances of his death - which is much more engaging. (Correction - much more engaging TO ME.)
The film rights to Armada were sold a full three years (!) before its publication, reportedly on the basis of a 20-page proposal, and it's easy to believe the whole thing was written with a movie in mind. Absolutely nothing about it is going to need to be changed - the setpieces, the dialogue, the meticulously detailed weapons and spaceships, even the way the characters' body language and facial expressions are described; it's so much like a sci-fi/action blockbuster, so easy to picture, that it could be a novelisation of an existing film. (Indeed, I think many of these things would/will be better on screen than on the page.) Once it got going, this was what carried it along. I imagined it as being very Guardians of the Galaxy, sans raccoon.
Armada was also kind of hatchet-jobbed by Slate this week, and again, I can understand the criticism in that review. For example, I agree that it's wish fulfilment... but it's such harmless wish fulfilment. I could no more hate this book than I could hate an enthusiastic puppy. I wanted escapism, and it delivered escapism.
This was just an okay read for me, and I didn't enjoy it as much as Ready Player One. But then, I'm not the target audience at all - I think the fact that I had to google a lot of the references shows that clearly enough. I'm sure uber-fans of Ready Player One and those more familiar with the video game stuff will love it....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 climactic 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