Presley Ashbury needs two thousand dollars for an event that her best friend Justine would describe as a “cattle market” or a “misogynist tool of patriarchy”. Presley prefers to use the more mainstream description for it, however: beauty pageant. Or rather, “scholarship pageant”, which is apparently the PC term for a thoroughly un-PC event.
Anyway, Presley’s not your typical wealthy, privileged beauty queen. Her reason for competing is less to do with her desire to mince around in a bikini and tease her hair up higher than your average serving of fairyfloss than it is to do with the fact that beauty pageants can be lucrative, and Presley needs the money for uni. (Ah, America, you have a very, very flawed academic system if the most viable way to get a scholarship is to strut your stuff on a catwalk.)
Unfortunately for Presley, though her pageant talent might be tap dancing, in the real world her most salient talent is her unsurpassed ability to get into harm’s way at every opportunity. Presley’s what you might call a bit of a ditz (and that’s a euphemism), you see. And her astonishing gaucheness is milked for all its worth by the author, who’s clearly having a good deal of fun with this book and with poor “like, really?” Presley. A quick glance into the deep thoughts of our protagonist: “Is everybody in the whole world smarter than me? And isn’t Oedipus Rex a dinosaur?”
Although Presley might be doing her very best to keep on top of things, she’s sadly not all that good at it (too much hairspray inhalation over her short lifetime, perhaps). The dramas quickly add up until she’s facing an evil beauty queen, a cheating boyfriend, an underage drinking scandal, meanness from cheerleaders, and a rich boy who may be (but hopefully isn’t) using her just to get back at his Senator dad. And, worst of all: cellulite.
It’s probably not spoiling the plot for you to say that the book, well, pretty much plays out as you expect a YA chick-lit style novel containing a love triangle and beauty pageant might. The plot is probably the weakest element of the book, really. Not just because it’s predictable, but because it uses that very predictability to move forward. The various complicating events don’t really seem to hang together or arise out of much else other than chance–they just do what they need to do to set the characters on their way to the finish podium (never fear: I won’t tell you where Presley places). The romance between Presley and the rich boy, for example, seems to just burst into being (rather like Athena from the head of Zeus, although poor Presley probably thinks that Zeus is the plural of zoo. But I digress.)
The book, too, occasionally gets bogged down in its efforts to show the dark side of beauty pageants (or darker side, if you’re like me and think that beauty pageants don’t really have a light sight to begin with). There’s a scene towards the end of the book, for example, that tries to highlight the tragedy of a competitor who’s become scarily thin, yet is still pushed to compete by her mother. Unfortunately, when seen through Presley’s eyes it just doesn’t quite have the impact that it should.
Rather, the strongest bits of the book are where Presley is well and truly getting her airhead on (this happens quite a lot). Although there are a few instances where the humour falls flat or is pushed to a fanciful extent, it’s the ongoing poking of fun at Presley and the pageant world that’s actually the book’s strength. Presley’s narrative voice does have a tendency to ramble and get lost in asides (see all these epenthetic comments? I’m being clever over here), but it’s what largely keeps things trotting along.(less)
I’ve never understood the utter terror that accompanies being told how a book or a movie turns out, and I certainly don’t understand the passionately head-in-sand approach to learning anything at all about a story ahead of time. With the possible exception of a whodunnit novel, I’m perfectly happy to read on even if I know exactly how a book is going to turn out, and have had every single plot point and reveal explicated to me along the way. I’m not in the habit of reading the end of a book first and then back-tracking, but I understand people who do this.
Because there’s so much more to a book than its ending. A book, more than anything is about the journey, not the final destination. Finding yourself unable to appreciate the entire book that leads up to that very last ten percent purely because you’ve heard some oblique murmurings about a twist seems to me very strange. That you’ve perhaps missed the entire point of what reading and stories are all about.
Books aren’t just about that final reveal, which is what they’re reduced to if you’re spoiler-averse. Books are all about exploring the ways that people interact with each other, with their own egos and with the world around them. They’re about settings and situations and ethics and puzzles. If you steamroll ahead with your eyes set grimly on the finish line, you’re invariably going to miss the utter joy that comes from all of the elements that work together to make a book.
Let’s take a look at The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. It’s a book that doesn’t even have an ending (sorry if I spoiled that for you), thanks to Mr Dickens kicking the bucket half-way through and leaving us right in the middle of a murder mystery. So by very virtue of its unfinished nature, it’s a book that you simply must enjoy for reasons other than that means-to-an-end reading style.
When you’re reading a book without an end–and there are plenty: take Gogol’s wonderful Dead Souls or Nabokov’s recently released The Original of Laura–you have the opportunity to read in a way that you probably aren’t used to reading. The book necessarily becomes about the book itself. The same is true to a degree of the classics, whose endings and plots are pretty much a spoiler free-for-all, but I do think there’s an even facility for this in a book without an end. Because without a complete narrative to work with, you’re freed up entirely to read the book on your own terms. You can be unshackled from the fetters of plot and structure and readerly expectation.
And The Mystery of Edwin Drood is, quite honestly, sheer delight. It’s the kind of book that you do want to spend some time bumbling about in, enjoying the deliciously Dickensian names (Mrs Crisparkle, Miss Twinkleton, and certainly Edwin Drood himself), the tsk-tsk-worthy humour (poor Rosa has a nickname that would surely make her cheeks flush a colour to suit her given name), and the unbridled fun that the author clearly had in writing this.
Take, for example, Mr Honeythunder’s nominatively-appropriate outlook: “his philanthropy was of that gunpowderous sort that the difference between it and animosity was hard to determine.” Or the poor Reverend Septimus’s selfless donning of a pair of unneeded glasses in order to make himself unable to read text so that his mother might rejoice in her own excellent eyesight–what a ridiculous, hilarious scenario. Or the description of Mr Grewgious’s hair: “He had a scanty flat crop of hair, in colour and consistency like some very mangy yellow fur tippet; it was so unlike hair, that it must have been a wig, but for the stupendous improbability of anyone’s voluntarily sporting such a head.”
And what of this scene about the gossip involving some (uncertain) implement being hurled at Edwin Drood, a scene which must surely be the author’s attempt to fill up the word count for his weekly serial allotment:
Miss Landless’s brother had thrown a bottle at Mr Edwin Drood. Miss Landless’s brother had thrown a knife at Mr Edwin Drood. A knife became suggestive of a fork; and Miss Landless’s brother had thrown a fork at Mr Edwin Drood. As in the governing precedence of Peter Piper, alleged to have picked the peck of pickled pepper, it was held physically desirable to have evidence of the existence of the peck of pickled pepper which Peter Piper was alleged to have picked; so, in this case, it was held psychologically important to know why Miss Landless’s brother threw a bottle, knife, or fork–or bottle, knife and fork–for the cook had been given to understand that it was all three–at Mr Edwin Drood.
And perhaps my favourite, a several page long missive about the contents of a cupboard, including this choice snippet:
“Every benevolent inhabitant of this retreat had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family. The jams, as being of a less masculine temperament, and as wearing curlpapers, announced themselves in feminine calligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach…”
It goes on…and on, with every single item in that cupboard surveyed as though part of a gastronomic census. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is indeed a mystery novel, and even more so given that it ends a few chapters after Drood disappears, leaving the reader looking pretty cagily at John Jasper, but never actually being certain whether this fellow’s to blame, or whether some more peripheral character has been lurking at the edges of the narrative leaving clues all around. If you’re reading in order to get to the end, to slam the volume shut with a satisfying “Ha! Another Dickens down!” thump, you’re going to be disappointed. But the true disappointment of this is something that you probably won’t realise until later: that you missed all of these wonderful, amusing things that this book has to offer because of your end-fixation. Because unfinished books give you the freedom to make of them anything you want to, so why not take the opportunity?
Books like Edwin Drood are advertisements about why this fear of spoilers is so ridiculous and unwarranted. There is so much that can be appreciated in a book despite–or even because of–an awareness of how it ends. If your enjoyment of a book can be undermined completely by having the outcome of a plot revealed to you, then you probably need to ask yourself what it is why you’re even reading in the first place. Because I think you’re doing it wrong.(less)
Before reading The Lucky One, my knowledge of the books of Nicholas Sparks was limited to what I knew of the many film adaptations of his work. I knew to expect passionate romances against all odds, characters split apart by dark secrets, gasping professions of love followed by some sort of lengthy embrace (usually involving rain or someone being lifted in the air and spun around), progressive illnesses, devoted animals, and whichever teen actor is currently Hollywood’s most beloved. I also knew to read with a box of tissues at hand.
And indeed, this novel follows the pattern I expected, although fortunately without a Miley Cirus in sight, and rather reminds me of Diane Chamberlain’s work.
Logan Thibault has returned from Iraq uninjured and unscathed, which is more than can be said for those who worked alongside him. Logan is without a doubt, a lucky guy. But Logan’s luck seems to be tied to a photograph of a young woman found during one of his patrols: a photograph clearly dropped by someone else in his platoon. Someone who hasn’t come forward to claim the picture. And so, upon arriving back in the States, Logan sets out on a pilgrimage to find the mysterious girl in the picture–both to thank her for her part in keeping him safe, and to learn more about the fallen soldier who was the original owner of the picture. Elizabeth “Beth” Clayton is a young divorcee who splits her time between working as a primary school teacher, helping her elderly but sprightly mother run a dog training kennel, and looking after her son Ben. Beth has almost everything she’s always hoped for, except, of course, an enduring romantic relationship. But after a series of attempts at dating that have all ended in disaster, Beth has resigned herself to a life of singledom. Until, of course, the mysterious Thibault arrives on the scene, capturing the hearts of Beth and her son–and even Beth’s mother. But Beth’s ex-husband, the creepy Keith Clayton (who reminds me of the terrifying Lou Ford from The Killer Inside Me) has other ideas about Beth getting involved in a romantic relationship. Over the years he’s made his thoughts about this amply to clear to Beth’s potential suitors, but Logan’s persistence means that Keith’s usual scare tactics might not be enough… The Lucky One is ripe for film adaptation, and indeed is presently showing at the cinemas, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a book that’s almost suited better to the big screen than it is to print format. It begins slowly, setting up the series of seemingly unconnected characters and gradually building the links between them, before building to a dramatic life-or-death conclusion that makes for the perfect Hollywood climax–and why, yes, there’s rain involved. (I can picture the fade-out, followed by the truth-is-revealed happily-ever-after epilogue as I write this.) On the page, however, the ending feels rushed: what would take a good ten minutes or so in a film is covered in a mere few pages, and the summary-style epilogue that follows doesn’t help matters.
Although I did enjoy this one, I can’t help but feel that it seems a little lacklustre: the plot is fairly slight, and relies on the multiple point-of-view approach to pad it out. The two mysteries that are to be inevitably uncovered by the end of the book–the fact that Logan has carried a photo of Beth for years, and that of Keith’s nasty ways–pack less of a punch than the narrative requires, and Beth’s reaction to both is necessarily little more than a cursory “how could you?”. Given the set-up in the initial chapters, it just feels as though there should be something more here.
I found the progression of the relationship between Beth and Logan in this one a little fast, as well: they’re professing their love for each other within a few days of meeting, yet there’s not much here that speaks of anything akin to passionate romance. Their relationship feels more safe and convenient than anything, rather than the all-encompassing love and obsession that it seems that we’re meant to be witnessing. Perhaps it’s this that detracted from the tension of the “black moment” between the two.
It’s a paint-by-numbers novel, sure, but in all, it’s is a solid read, and certainly lends itself to a bit of afternoon-page turning on a rainy day (although I’d avoid reading it in a tree-house if I were you). It’s not enough to evoke the famed Sparks-inspired tears, but there’s enough here that I’d be interested to peruse Sparks’s substantial back list. (less)
Eva Khatchadourian is ambivalent on the notion of children: she fears the curtailing of her life and career, and the mind-numbing spiral into a world of baby-talk and mushy foods. But yet, Eva has always wanted something more out of her life than what it has offered up to her from its platter of banality. The anguish she experienced at her tenth birthday party stemmed not from the fact that her mother didn’t make an effort, but rather that she did, and the result failed to transcend the puerile, the day to day.
For Eva, the decision to have a child stems from an existential haze that is slowly descending on her to blinding effect. The birth of a child is seen in society as something transcendental, a way of establishing oneself as a member of a club that has bragging rights to its very existence: it is, perhaps, Eva thinks desperately, a way of escaping those endless barriers and manacles of daily life. But her romantic designs are soon humbled when she learns that pregnancy and motherhood are perhaps, in reality, as she has suspected, poisonous carrots dangled in front of dreamy, worldly women in order to entice them into a club of behavioural manipulation, and to narrow their sphere of existence rather than blowing it wide open.
Eva, the owner of a shoe-string travel guidebook company, whose very spiritual nourishment comes from the unique mixture of fear and delight of travelling abroad and who bathes in other cultures as a way of cleansing herself of her very Americanness–something she loathes enough that she flies the flag of her Armenian background wherever possible–sees having a child as, perhaps, a journey into those most unrelatable, challengingly foreign vistas. But rather, she finds motherhood draws a rather terrible parallel with a trip she takes to Africa not long after her son is born: everything is too much this way or that way; there is no comfort to be found; the available paths for the hapless tourist are few, and the desire to venture beyond these carefully delineated tour-guided areas can, so very readily, end in disaster. And if this does indeed happen, it’s your own fault.
“Although the infertile are entitled to sour grapes, it’s against the rules, isn’t it, to actually have a baby and spend time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn’t,” muses Eva retrospectively, as she writes to her husband in the wake of what we learn is a multiple-homicide committed by her teenaged son Kevin. “But a Pandoran perversity draws me to prise open what is forbidden. I have an imagination, and I like to dare myself.”
We Need to Talk About Kevin is constructed in epistolary format, taking the form of a series of lengthy letters written by Eva as she contrasts her present situation with that of the past, slowly working her way towards the inexorable school shooting incident. In her brutally honest, unflinching manner, she carefully excavates the emotional artefacts of her past, carefully cataloguing and describing them, and as archaeologists do, ascribing a sense of narrative and purpose to them. Kevin is a novel that has famously divided its readers into two camps: those who put Kevin Khatchadourian’s actions down to an innate evil, and those who skewer Eva for her conflicted approach to parenthood, and even the conflicted manner in which she identifies as a parent: the precocious Kevin, from an early age, seems to catch on to this, calling Eva “Mommer”, a term that she readily goes along with.
Such small details, however, exist alongside larger ones across the identity and experience of Eva, and there are numerous instances of Eva settling in situations that are less than ideal, and others where she seems to seek out the terrible out of a desire for self-flagellation. She speaks of rough sex in the bedroom; marries a man who is the veritable opposite of the man that she thought that she would end up with–indeed, her husband is, in my mind at least, a blindly sexist man who is so wrapped up in his own entitlement that he scarcely sees Eva as a person–; gives up her body and autonomy throughout and indeed after a pregnancy; sacrifices her career in order to align with pressing societal expectation, nevermind that she is the CEO of a successful business, while her husband is a mere location scout; and meekly backs down when her husband purchases a vast suburban McMansion that is the antithesis of the home that Eva has always wanted.
It’s perhaps prescient, then, that Eva demands that her son should take her surname, so that she might have something upon which she is allowed to make her mark. Admittedly, though she only succeeds in her efforts after a good deal of protestation on her husband’s behalf, and her coup is only managed after evoking the Armenian genocide as an argument in its favour. The venom oozing from this scene, and the claim that she tries to makes of her son, provides an interesting contrast to Eva’s later matter-of-fact comment of her “approach to parenthood being conditional…the conditions strict.” She goes on to note that perhaps, rather than testing for deformities, the doctor in charge of her amniocentesis might have tested for “malice, for spiteful indifference, for congenital meanness.” The implication is, of course, that Eva may be aware that she carries these very transgressive genes.
I do wonder whether these qualities had been found that Eva would have acted on them: indeed, the very unqualified nature of the passage suggests to me that Kevin’s nature is something that Eva simultaneously despises and admires, largely because Kevin is so very much Eva, but without the fetters of being born female: “I leant from the best,” Kevin says at one point. We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a simple study of nature versus nurture, but it is also one of identity, projection of self, and of the reconstructive nature of prose. Eva has lived a life of the boundaries and limitations that are impressed from every angle on women, and especially on those women who choose to walk amongst the child-bearing mainstream. Her escapes overseas are a leap for oxygen after spending so long in the airless void of the dank depths of anti-intellectual consumerist America, but every effort to rail against the pressures of the cultural amniotic sac that surrounds her is stymied by cultural norms and the constantly evoked concept of “tradition”. If it is even noticed in the first place. Eva, then, is a victim of anti-feminist expectation, and she is, quite conceivably, angry about it.
In a world where women are tolerated under a guise of equality, it’s little surprise that Eva finds herself struggling for a voice. And one way of having another opportunity to speak is through having a child. ”In a way you get to do everything twice,” she says. “Even if our kid had problems at least they wouldn’t be our same own problems.” But, despite this, Kevin’s constant, endless misdemeanours go all but unnoticed: Eva’s husband either turns a blind eye to his son’s behaviour, or fails to notice it at all. “You never do [see anything wrong],” mutters Eva darkly at one point, simmering with the frustration of her desperation, and indeed Kevin’s own–for Kevin is an extension of Eva, of course–going unnoticed. ”For you he was ‘our son’,” she notes in one of her letters to her husband. “There was a persistently generic character to your adoration that I’m certain he sensed.”
For me, the constant battle between Eva and Kevin is that Kevin is as much as symbol as he is a character: he is Eva’s anger and frustration made manifest, the very embodiment of her own sense of uselessness and the focus of her country on the pithy, the trivial, the ephemeral. Kevin’s atrocious final act is, in a way, a violent interpretation of Eva’s own desperation, and perhaps something that means far more to her than it does to him. ”So he is resentful,” she says at one point. “And I don’t blame him for being bored with his own atrocity already, or for envying others their capacity to abandon it.” And yet, Eva, though she ostensibly abhors his actions, sets about reliving them and the compounding moments of transgression that lead up to this final protest.
“As far as I can tell, it was War on Weirdos,” she says of the increased vigilance surrounding a series of copycat school shootings. “But I identified with weirdos…Were I a student at Gladstone High in 1998, I’d surely have written some shocking fantasy…about putting my forlorn family out of its misery…or in a civics project on “diversity” the gruesome detail in which I recounted the Armenian genocide would betray an unhealthy fascination with violence.”
In fact, given the distanced nature afforded by the book’s epistolary format, it’s not inconceivable that Kevin is not just a vessel for Eva’s ever-growing disillusionment: I can’t help but feel that her earlier admission to wanting to “prise open what is forbidden” suggests that what we are reading may not necessarily be the truth at all, and that we may indeed be reading a narrative imagination. How much of Eva’s account is veracious, and how much is sheer imagination–a protest on paper, in the non-violent manner that Eva has spent her adult years preaching? ”His silence seemed to confront me with a miniature version of my own dissembling,” she says at one point. “If I found our son’s visage too shrewd and contained, the same shifty mask of opacity stared back at me when I brushed my teeth.” And perhaps, then, there’s more to Eva’s husband’s simple statement: ”The answer, if there is one, is the parents.”
For someone who eschews violence and seeks protest through other means, is it so unlikely that a woman who has striven all of her life for a voice might do so through the page, through that very medium that has allowed her to forge her career and to reflect? (Or, perhaps, if Kevin is indeed the stuff of the real world, through a third party who has all the benefits of being a white male at his fingertips?) Moreover, the letter format of the novel is adamantly one-sided, meaning that response and recourse is not possible: perhaps the non-responses to Eva’s letters have rather less to do with the fact that the person to whom she is writing is dead, but rather that for all we know he might not have existed in the first place. There is a certain truth in madness, and though Eva’s account is achingly lucid, it is difficult to determine where recollection is replaced with projection, and to me Eva and Kevin become very much one another, with the difference being that one lives in a world of non-actualised protest, while the other makes a statement so overt it cannot be ignored.
The Gordian connectedness of Eva and her son and their nihilistic outlooks is perhaps most clearly illustrated when Eva asks her son what he did what he did, and Kevin answers with, “I thought I knew. But I’m not so sure any more.” And it’s this endless ambiguity that is what make this such a brilliant, haunting read.(less)
Most agree that character growth and development is the key component of a successful narrative. After all, what’s the point in completing a journey if one emerges from it utterly unchanged? Even a small change is significant in the greater scheme of things, with even incremental shifts in outlook changing the way we approach things. These small shifts are the standard shape of things in adult literature, where few individuals undergo a truly epiphanous experience. In children’s literature, however, such changes are reasonably common: think of the myriad “chosen one” narratives out there, or those that could be tucked under the wing of the “overcoming adversity through [random activity]” sub-genre.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved The Secret Garden is all about these sorts of dramatic changes, and is perhaps so universally so well-received because she allows her characters such flaws in the first place. Where many authors err on the side of the likeable protagonist in order to ensure that the reader is able to feel some sort of empathy with the character in question, Hodgson Burnett eschews all of this and gives us a trio of rather foul, down-trodden individuals who are more sour than a tub of off cream. Fortunately, Hodgson Burnett is skilled enough that she not only works her magic on her characters, but on us, too, and what should be a book that’s rather pat and twee is something utterly superlative instead.
Indian-born Mary Lennox is a self-centred, snippy young girl who has spent the formative years of her life being waited upon by an array of servants and governesses. Mary is used to being treated with deference, to having her every whim attended to. But her being able to treat her servants as playthings doesn’t hide the fact that Mary is utterly without companionship, and that her callousness and insularity is a shield that serves to protect her from the loneliness she feels. A loneliness that is only compounded when, after a bout of cholera churns through the population in her area, she is the only survivor. With no one to care for her, Mary is sent to Misselthwaite, a rambling manor deep in the heart of the moors of Yorkshire.
The contrast of vibrant, bustling India, with its dazzling heat and socially and linguistically complex way of life and quiet, bucolic Yorkshire, whose own soft beauty Mary has be coaxed to learn to appreciate, is a fascinating one. But while Mary was an outsider in India, so to is she an outside at Misselthwaite. Unversed in the Yorkshire dialect and unaccustomed with the pragmatic way of life of the locals–which includes things such as dressing oneself, a notion that’s utterly foreign to Mary–Mary is equally out of her depth in this new environment as she was in India. But she’s not the only one. Her new guardian, the aptly named Dr Craven, is a forlorn, lost man who has never recovered from the death of his wife some ten years ago. And, of course, there’s Colin, the would-be cripple who lives out his days secreted away in his bedroom, counting down the days until his inevitable death.
It certainly sounds like an abject setting, and yes, at first one is rather tempted to slap a bit of sense into this moody lot. But Hodgson Burnett’s way of doing so proves to be rather more beautiful than my own suggested open-handed approach. She uses a garden, a locked away, lost garden that has gone untended for years, to illustrate the way in which beauty, passion, and hope, lay dormant in all of us, and need only be tended to if it is to be brought to the fore. Hodgson Burnett highlights the way in which so much of our way of being is psychosomatic, with our self-concept being based upon fears and habituated behaviours that have simply gone unchecked and unchallenged. She highlights that the very act of tending to something, or indeed someone, necessarily involves tending to oneself.
Thus, as Mary throws herself into the new-found delights of the natural world, led carefully by the winsome country lad Dickon, who is the very embodiment of love and acceptance, she gradually comes into her own. With her every effort Mary becomes physically, emotionally, and spiritually enhanced, and she reinvests her new outlook into improving the lives of those around her. She helps to imbue Colin with the self-confidence he needs to cast of his own emotional shackles, and her increasingly robust presence brings life to Misselthwaite, raising the awareness of Dr Craven, who becomes more reflective and open and less lost in his own misery. The children’s breaking into the “secret garden”, of course, emphasises the importance of dealing with one’s emotions and struggles rather than leaving them to fester: for both Colin and Dr Craven the garden represents a wound that no one has thus far been allowed to tend to.
Hodgson Burnett manages all of this with astonishing warmth, and though there is certainly a quixotic feel to the narrative at times, with every Yorkshire native a red-cheeked, plump, and universally loving individual, and motifs such as the garden and the robin redbreast (who is, oh, just a wee bit over-anthropomorphised) being trotted out time and time again, it’s impossible not to adore this book. Like The Little Prince (see my review), it’s gentle, suggestive, and so very evocative, and it’s hard not to do a little reflecting yourself once you’ve turned that final page.(less)
Some of you might be aware that the title of Aldous Huxley’s famous novel Brave New World is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I would imagine, though, that there are a good many who might not be. While there are likely all manner of reasons for not knowing this piece of trivia, two significant ones come to mind, one of which is rather Orwellian in provenance, and the other of which is Huxleyan. If you’re in the first group, you’ve likely not come across The Tempest due to its having been censoriously ripped from the shelves and, what’s more, you’ll likely not endeavour to obtain a copy due to a very real fear induced by the omnipresent state that wields its terrible, clutching power over you. If you’re in the second group, you’ve likely not come across The Tempest due to the fact that it’s, well, all but irrelevant to you. Why should you spend hours muddling through thick Shakespearean prose when you can delightedly while away your evenings in front of the television or engaging in some other equally undemanding form of entertainment?
Why indeed, you’re probably wondering, as you flick between this review, some hilarious pictures of lolcatz and the latest gem on Youtube’s homepage. Well, you might be interested to know that if you take pleasure in zoning out in the evenings, avoid engaging in challenging debates, get your news in hashtag-heavy bursts via Twitter, and are perfectly happy as a result, then this rather rousing Shakespearean quote might bear more relevance to your life than you might think: congratulations, you’re living the Huxleyan dream. (Or nightmare, as the case may well be.)
Written as a scathingly satirical response to the gleamingly utopian visions of authors such as HG Wells and other futurist peers, Brave New World is often compared with seminal works by George Orwell (1984) and Soviet writer Yevginii Zamiatin (We), but stands apart from these works due in part to its somewhat peculiar approach to the dystopian genre. While many of the classic dystopian novels bring to mind cruel, oppressive governments beneath which the populace, usually ground down under the exigencies of scarcity and poverty, labours ceaselessly towards fruitless, meaningless ends, Huxley takes a slightly difference stance, positioning his dystopia in a curious, although no less perturbing manner. The citizens of Brave New World lead an existence of unfettered hedonism, are for the most part are quite happy with their lot in life–ignorance, after all, is bliss. But it’s what Huxley’s characters that have lost in return for this life of simple lassitude that turns his book from utopian idyll to chilling dystopia: their capacity for creativity, for emotion, for competition, for love.
Speculative fiction is famously less about the future and more about the present, and Huxley’s world is one in which the fears of the early twentieth century are boldly manifest: the loss of identity and personal and social depth as a result of the mechanisation of daily life and the incessant drive for greater and greater consumption; the rise of sexual promiscuity and its impact on self and the family; and the pervasive, colonising force of American culture. The remodelling of society on the production-line processes of the Model T-Ford, as well as the deference given to Henry Ford himself (‘O Ford,’ the citizens of Huxley’s world wail, whilst making the sign of the T), is at once indicative of the rise of Americanism and the increasingly fast-paced life of modernity, where the individual is subsumed. Huxley takes this critique beyond its natural extension, leaping occasionally from satire into parody: it’s telling that society’s mind-numbing drug of choice is in the form of chewing gum, something unabashedly American, and the ubiquity of zips (or ‘zippers’, as they’re known to Americans) on every imaginable piece of clothing embodies both the crassness of function over form, as well as the loss of subtler intimacies and mood. (Also of note is the rather meaningful use of political and brand-name monikers, which brings to mind Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which similarly includes such head-shaking names as Telegraph Telegraphovich but I digress…)
But little of this is problematic to those inured into this brave new world, as careful conditioning has resulted in a social stability that is near perfect. Careful monitoring of birth and death rates has ensured that no citizen wants for anything (a point emphasised by the ubiquity of contraceptives known rather hilariously as Malthusian belts, referring to, of course, the notion of a Malthusian disaster, in which population growth outpaces agricultural provision), and social engineering is used to ensure that each citizen is allotted a role that is matched perfectly with their physical and cognitive capabilities, ameliorating issues of competition or unmet desire. Each plays a fragmented part within the Fordian production line, learning the appropriate skills and capabilities, but nothing beyond what is required. Not only is desire for competition and social mobility slowly ground away, but potential triggers for jealousy and possession are, too: citizens are no longer born, but are created, and any problematic emotions that might have arisen as the result of romantic intent are wiped away through careful conditioning that emphasises promiscuity and sexual abandon.
But despite the society’s best efforts, its social conditioning is not unassailable, and it’s in the upper echelons that querulous and schismatic thoughts begin to breed. Bernard is an ‘alpha’ by caste and a psychologist by trade, and is one of those in charge of the subliminal feeds that are delivered nightly to his fellow citizens. However, being who he is, he is afforded somewhat more individual and intellectual freedom than those from other groups or professions might be, and as a result begins to develop a seething cynicism about the society in which he lives. This disaffection, this disenchantment, only grows when he takes would-be lover Lenina to an American Indian settlement to observe how the ‘uncivilised’ live, and is astonished to observe the chasm between their two worlds: the integrated, contextualised learning of those on the estate when compared with the compartmentalised, isolated understandings of his own; the value placed upon mending and repairing clothing and small household items when compared with the throwaway, consumption-oriented processes of the ‘civilised’ world; the disturbing emphasis on family, on story, on the past and how it can be learnt from, all of which are in stark contrast to the in-the-moment shallow hedonism of Fordian life. This juxtaposition, however, is even more firmly realised when Bernard brings home with him a young boy, ‘The Savage’, who is revealed to be the illicitly born child of Bernard’s employer, and thus is seen as in a unique position to bridge the two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.
The Savage’s education and learning on the estate is counterposed with that of his mother’s: primitive though his lessons may seem, we understand that there is a depth and a continuity to them that is missing from his mother’s lock-step understanding of the world. The Savage’s love for literature, and in particular Shakespeare, is contrasted with the ‘feelies’ with which the members of Fordian society superficially occupy themselves, and his stunningly felt and often unbridled emotions are set against the soporific habits of the others. This point is acutely drawn when the Savage’s mother begs to be returned to Fordian society so that she might spend her days in a state of drug-induced bliss, free from the challenges of emotion and the uncertainties of the unstructured estate life. The Savage is distraught at the loss of his mother–a situation that is not usually an issue in Fordian society due to its lack of emphasis on family and its pragmatic approach to death–and grows increasingly alienated by what he sees as a shallow and immoral world that is entirely lacking in the humanist values he so desperately longs for. The consequences of his struggle stretch out painfully, until he flees from Fordian life in an effort to eke out an existence more closely aligned with his own beliefs. But the reach of society is all but absolute, and despite his efforts to remain separate, to remain an individual, he eventually succumbs to its desultory ways, losing himself in devastating totality.
Brave New World is a stunning poignant scenario, which I feel is rather a more apt way to describe it than a narrative. The book is less a novel than it is a careful portrait of a world-that-might-be, and despite its astonishingly perceptive and insightful critique of a society that rather eerily mirrors that of present-day western society, it does fall rather flat as a story. As a series of separate, staged scenes, the book is competently written, but as a whole, it’s uneven and unfocused: the first two chapters are dedicated overtly to setting the scene, whilst a third employs a fractured narrative approach that though intriguing is out of place against the more traditional style of the rest of the book. The Savage, who is as close as any character becomes to the protagonist, is not introduced until rather late in the book, and the reader has to do an about face to realise that the book is less about Bernard than it is about this new character. The Savage himself is a rather hasty construction, and the scenes in which he appears often feel rather laborious and blatant, and struggle under the weight of the carefully elucidated dual perspectives with which we’re provided. I struggled to accept particular plot elements, such as the fact that Bernard is allowed for so long to so openly critique the system before being sanctioned, and Lenina’s rather confused role as a conflicted sexual object. While the final scene is undoubtedly moving, I can’t help but feel that the media in a society such as this would not act in the way that is described here–one would think that given issues of taboo, they would blushingly retreat and speak nothing more of it. (And indeed, would there be much of a news media at all, given the all-consuming emphasis on presentism and infantalism?)
While Brave New World deserves its place amongst canonical dystopian literature, it does feel less of a narrative, a story, and more of a broadly sketched scenario. Though it makes a nice counterpoint to works such as 1984, as a novel, it’s unfortunately not as successful as the other classics with which it’s frequently compared.(less)
Eleven-year-old Timothy Freshwater is anything but a breath of fresh air. With his unfettered cynicism and oh-so-winsome catchphrase of ‘whatever’, it’s no surprise that teachers, parents, and perhaps a sock or two quake in their boots at the very thought of dealing with this snotty little chap. With Timothy having a tongue so sharp it could cut through a block of cement, it’s no surprise that his mother lives far away in a veritable world of make-believe, his father has thrown himself into his job much like an Olympic diver would a swimming pool, and, as of today, Timothy has been expelled from every school in the city.
Which raises some problems. What exactly does one do with a bratty eleven-year-old who has heretofore been fairly safely ensconced in a classroom? Homeschooling is out of the question, and even Mary Poppins would agree that no amount of sugar would help here. Timothy’s father quickly works out that the obvious, or perhaps most pragmatic, solution is to bring young Timothy along to work with him. Brash young Timothy makes quite the splash, and it’s not long before he’s taken under the sweaty wing of ‘fridge magnate’ Evans Bore, who is an unfortunate case of nominative determinism if ever there is one. The only thing about Bore that is not as dull as Timothy’s wit is sharp is the fact that the gold key he wears around his neck represents his mastery over a little man known as Mr Shen who, despite his unprepossessing ways, happens to be a dragon. A dragon who is cursed to live out a life of servitude in human form, and thus doesn’t really seem to epitomise dragonness, but still. Timothy, being the quick study that he is, manages to coax Bore into handing over the key, and in doing so becomes the new master of Mr Shen.
But unfortunately, ownership of dragon isn’t all about piles of gold and glorious flights through the air with the theme tune of the Never Ending Story playing in the background. There are far more serious consequences to worry about, such as ninjas. And pirates. And possessed black cabs a la Stephen King. Oh, and the upcoming Chinese New Year, which admittedly isn’t quite as dangerous (gunpowder and fireworks aside), but which represents a major turning point for Mr Shen, who in order to be freed from servitude must pass beneath the Dragon’s Gate, situated in some unknown province in China, before the celebrations draw to a close.
Timothy and Mr Shen take, admittedly, a rather circuitous route to China, travelling there via sewers, trucks, private jets, and pirate ships. But while travel by pirate ship is probably neither the most efficient nor safe way to travel around Asian waters, it’s certainly up there with the most entertaining. Timothy, having been ejected unceremoniously from the afore-mentioned private jet by the no-nonsense Emily the Ninja, finds himself flailing in the ocean before being hauled out by a youth of rather androgynous appearance–none other than the fabulous Alex from Kress’s debut novel Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. With the gutsy Alex leading the way, Timothy finds himself drawn into all manner of new adventures as they do all they can to return Mr Shen to his natural dragony state.
Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate is a competent addition to Kress’s oevre, although I have to admit that it didn’t endear me quite as much as did her debut. This has little to do with Kress’s skills as a writer, which once again are proudly on display here–she plots and quips and twists and turns with the best of ‘em, and it’s hard to go past her narrative style, which hovers somewhere between twee, bawdy, and self-deprecatingly sniffy. Rather, it’s her choice of a leading character who initially has so very little to redeem him. It’s a challenge enough not to glare at my little brother when he breaks out the oh-so-ubiquitous ‘whatever’, and being asked to empathise with someone of similar personality to whom I’m not related by blood…well, that’s a considerable ask. However, there is more than enough humour infused in the pages of this book to keep a reader chugging along until we meet Alex, who is such a pleasant and spunky lass that it’s rather difficult to feel anything but love for her. Moreover, Timothy’s chilly little heart does show some evidence of thawing as we progress through the narrative (perhaps this is to do with his ever-increasing distance from the ‘fridge magnate’ Evans Bore?), and his eventual efforts to redeem himself do help endear the reader somewhat.
A large portion of the book is set in China, or deals with Chinese characters, and Kress writes about both comfortably and in a way that highlights and problematises particular Western assumptions and stereotypes whilst never falling into a didactic or moralist trap. I applaud her for writing a Chinese-style dragon rather than a Western-style dragon into the story, and for her pointed reminders about language, culture, and custom.
While Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate is the slightly less sparkling younger sibling to the overachieving, university-bound Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, there’s a good deal here to like, and I find myself eagerly awaiting Kress’s next offering.(less)
Caravaggio’s famously evocative painting the Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the gospel of St Luke in which a deceptively unprepossessing man wh...moreCaravaggio’s famously evocative painting the Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the gospel of St Luke in which a deceptively unprepossessing man who has walked anonymously with two disciples reveals himself as Jesus. The scene echoes Jesus’s earlier words that he will always appear when others gather in his name, and this theme of rebirth, although more of the spirit than of the spiritual, becomes a key motif in Salley Vickers’s novel The Other Side of You. Read the rest of this review here(less)
Cassia Tallow should have been a brilliant surgeon. But her disinclination to rock the boat means that instead, seven years after passing he...more2.5 stars.
Cassia Tallow should have been a brilliant surgeon. But her disinclination to rock the boat means that instead, seven years after passing her university exams with flying colours, she spends her days managing the family home. Though Cassia loves her children, it’s impossible not to feel some resentment as she watches her plodding GP husband struggle to oversee even the most simple of cases at his mediocre small-town clinic. Particularly when her husband Edward refuses to let her have anything more to do with his work than act as a glorified secretary. But it’s the 1930s, and Cassia is fighting against social expectations all the way.
In my family the humble stove-top espresso is a powerful signifier, marking both time, such as the beginning of a day or the contemplative lull after...moreIn my family the humble stove-top espresso is a powerful signifier, marking both time, such as the beginning of a day or the contemplative lull after an evening meal, and occasion: family gatherings to celebrate births, marriages, deaths come to mind. There are so many joys to what is really such a simple ritual: the wincingly tight espresso cup around one’s finger, the steamy warmth sweating between the pressing web of one’s fingers, that frank and bitter fragrance, so sharp and determined against the sweet waft of biscotti or wafers. Meeting for coffee is a social event vastly different from meeting for a meal, or meeting for a drink of the alcoholic persuasion: coffee is versatile, ubiquitous, and comforting. There is something about coffee that appeals to the mainstream, the cultural elite, and everyone between. It is an elixir that heals, that promotes, that soothes, that poses a challenge to both the new and the experienced palate. Coffee is divisive, gaining a passionate lover with each passionate enemy, and drawing its share of pilgrims in search of that elusive, perfect brew. In The Various Flavours of Coffee, Anthony Capella, author of a number of food-themed novels, including the recent Empress of Ice-Cream (see my review) explores the growth in the demand for coffee, and the appreciation of the same, in early twentieth century London.
Foppish gadabout and would-be poet Robert Wallis delights in his own self-importance, whiling away his days in about as useless a manner as he can manage. However, Robert gradually begins to realise that there is a certain disjunct between his spendthrift ways and his less than substantial income, and thus when he is offered a job helping to develop a taxonomy of the various flavours of coffee, he finds himself, despite his aversion to the lurid vulgarity of writing for money, accepting. Of course, the fact that his employer’s daughter Emily is a highly eligible young lass does help things along somewhat, and Robert, using all of the (admittedly minimal) charm available to him, seeks to woo Emily. But fate, economics, and stern fathers intervene, and Robert soon finds himself shipped off to Africa to further familiarise himself with the life cycle of the coffee bean. After a number of impressively humbling failures in the spheres of coffee-growing and romance, Robert returns home to a London that is deeply unfamiliar: Emily is lost to him, the coffee trade is undergoing significant change, and the suffragette movement is at its height–and all of these elements have a substantial impact on the way in which Robert’s life will eventually play out.
In reading The Various Flavours of Coffee I’m reminded of the work of science fiction writer Ted Chiang, whose short stories typically mash together a number of seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Capella’s novel, however, while combining several key themes and ideas, lacks a little in the cohesion stakes, and one can’t help but feel that had the author picked one particular narrative or thematic element upon which to focus the book would have been far stronger. As it is, the book is not more than the sum of its parts, but is rather lessened as a result as it struggles to cohere coffee-flavour notation, the norms of early twentieth century London life, intercultural and interclass forbidden love, treks to Africa and Brazil complete with a sort of cursory anthropological analysis, an examination of the slave-owner relationship, feminism and the suffragette movement, and the micro- and macroeconomics of the coffee trade. Taken alone, any one of these elements would have made for a fascinating read, but the combination of the same is rather like mixing a number of strong and heady coffee blends and then re-brewing them without changing the beans: simultaneously overwhelming and oddly diluted. Capella himself appears to be aware of the way in which his various narrative choices threaten the pacing and general cohesiveness of the book, and as the book progresses it shifts from being told only from Robert’s perspective to Emily’s as well, giving the effect that the author is trying desperately to cling to the floating balloon of his narrative. This sudden shift to multiple point of view characters is something I noticed in The Empress of Ice-Cream, occurring similarly when the narrative, originally taking part in one geographical area, began to travel abroad.
In addition to this, Wallis’s narration is full of pomp and self-satisfaction, and is extraordinarily self-conscious. His references to dandyism and Oscar Wilde are so frequent that one suspects he might well be wearing, beneath the gaudy sleeves of his subcontinent-style garments, a What Would Oscar Wilde Do? bracelet. Unfortunately, where Wilde has seemingly unlimited amounts of charm, Wallis’s own charms are rather more finite, and his endless quips, pedantry, and insufferable know-it-allness become trying–a fact that the author/narrator explicitly acknowledges, apologising for the ceaselessly boorish behaviour of Wallis. There are moments that are truly fascinating, and the reader can tell that Capella has undertaken some rigorous research, but the depiction of Wallis’s descent into slatternly slovenliness becomes rather dull after a while, and it takes some time for the novel to really get going. Wallis, of course, does eventually redeem himself, spending rather less time in brothels and rather more time being an upstanding young lad on the front lines of the suffragette movement, but this redemption occurs only towards the end of the novel, and after a good deal of narrative circumlocution.
There are parts of the novel that, taken separately, are truly excellent. Scattered throughout the pages are breath-taking descriptions of the aromas and notes of coffee, and some of the exposition is quite beautiful. The tales of Robert’s being fleeced by a stunning slave is highly entertaining, as is the account of the time he spends in Africa and elsewhere abroad, but these read more as a short story than as an integrated part of a larger narrative, and one suspects could quite easily have been excised from the novel without negative consequences. The discussion of the diabolical economics behind the coffee trade is also rather interesting, but again feels more like an appendix or a footnote than truly part of the wide narrative. Emily as a character is fascinating, too, and her moral and intellectual strength, combined with her head for business and her actions as part of the suffragette movement make for some excellent reading–and of which I wish there had been rather more. The chapters from her perspective are some of the more interesting in the book, and to be honest I would have been quite happy to have read a novel written solely from her point of view, or to have read a narrower narrative that allowed more focus on the business and (potential) romantic relationship between Emily and Robert, rather than being whisked off to various exotic locales. As it is, however, the rangy narrative and Capella’s love of the melodramatic make for a plot that meanders and digresses, but that ends with a dramatic, but perhaps not entirely believable, or necessary, ending in which A Point Is Made and where all of the various preceding elements of the novel are jammed together into a huge snowball of a conclusion.
From its opening pages I was expecting The Various Flavours of Coffee to read rather more like an espresso or a long black than the Starbucks-esque frappuccino with syrups, sauces, and chocolate savings that it turned out to be. While it contains some exquisite elements in terms of prose, historical detail, character, and theme, these are hidden beneath a splendiferous layering of prose-level calisthenics and narrative digression that, like a topping of cream, smothers what might otherwise be an excellent blend.(less)
We first encountered the precocious and sharp-tongued Theodosia Throckmorton in Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, in which our favourite Edwardian era eleven-year-old Egyptologist and polyglot found herself embroiled in all manner of dastardly issues relating to the theft of priceless (and sacred) artefacts, as well as a minor episode or two involving a secret society quite fixated on taking over the world. Unfortunately for Theodsia, despite her quite impressive investigative skills and her incomparable verve, her efforts to stop these villainous ragamuffins were not entirely successful: the world as we know it (or rather, as she knows it) might well have been kept from imminent destruction, but the criminal masterminds behind it all managed to get away. But now, it seems, they're back.
Theodosia is not exactly London's most sociable young lass, preferring the company of her cat Isis, dusty grimoires and well, anything that lacks the ability to answer back to her pertinacious commentary. Still, when she is invited to accompany her rather unforgivably neglectful parents to a night of curatorial glory at the abode of the Egypt-enamoured Lord Chudleigh, Theodosia can't help but be a wee bit excited. So excited, in fact, that she bites her tongue over the appropriateness of unwrapping an ancient mummy at a social event--well, at least until the mummy turns out to be less an ancient mummy and more the aged corpse of a dusty museum curator. Theodosia is certain that this rather gruesome finding is indicative of the Serpents' return, a feeling that is given credence when mummies from all over London start wandering about the streets at the siren call of the Staff of Osiris. Drawing on her extensive archaeological and mythological knowledge, and on her connections with a number of benign secret societies (honestly, doesn't anyone simply join clubs these days? she wonders) and a reformed pickpocket and his recidivist brothers, Theodosia sets about putting a stop to the evil plottings of the Serpents of Chaos. Only it's not easy being a young girl in the early years of the twentieth century, and Theodosia finds the most appallingly odd barriers falling in her path at every turn: pinching nannies, sartorially obsessed grandmothers, well-meaning cab drivers, and reverent cult members to name but a few.
I struggled with the first book in this series: although it was a book I felt like I should like given that it ticked a number of my usual readerly boxes (strong female characters with a feminist bent, a fun mystery plot, and zany historical facts and whimsy galore), I felt that the book as a whole felt rather unanchored and tedious, and Theodosia was, frankly, patently unlikeable with her lashing little tongue and her both smarter and holier than thou attitude. In this second outing, however, LaFevers has worked to correct a number of these failings, and Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris is a much stronger book as a result. Our villains are slightly more nuanced (there are fewer of Ze Evil Germans in this volume) and represent a wider range of backgrounds, with some even hailing from France and Russia, which is rather interesting given that this book is set at the eve of WWI. Theodosia herself is also stronger as a character in that she relies less on painful snark and wit to get her through the challenges she faces, and more on being an actual human: it's quite possible that the Theodosia of this second volume would pass the Turing test. She is more sympathetically portrayed this time around as a rather neglected and unfulfilled child seeking through her studies and adventures her parents' attention and approval, something we see in her dismay at being appointed a governess rather than being allowed to work alongside her often absent parents, and during her breathless outing at Chudleigh's party, where she feels as though she is an adult, a real person, at last. There's also a moving scene on a battleship where she is decidedly out of her element, and is rather more meek as a result. I must say that I'm also glad to see that Grandmother Throckmorton has moved from being simply a foil to someone who is also rather more humanised: in this volume we're treated to her displaying real concern (hidden behind a serious of petty concerns) for her son, as well as developing a crush on somebody who is very much one of the Bad Boys. The setting of the novel, too, feels rather more grounded than it did in the first, which felt as though it was set in the now with the occasional anachronism thrown in to complicate things.
It's not all good news, and the book does groan a little under some unnecessarily over-elaborated subplots, such as Theodosia's three prospective governesses, a Goldilocks-like plot that is rather belaboured, and the astonishing ubiquity of the aforementioned secret societies is rather hard to swallow. Why not simply a club indeed, gentlemen? The subplot-in-threes also appears with the reappearance of the walkabout mummies at Theodosia's parents' museum each morning, something which becomes tediously Groundhog Day-like given that it's given quite a bit of page time, with very little variation in the way that each episode plays out. The careful (or perhaps the ruthless) elision of a few of these scenes would have resulted in a rather more streamlined read. The criminal neglect of Theodosia's parents is also a little painful, and although I understand that the adults need to be got rid of so that Theodosia can solve her own problems, it doesn't quite work for me. Perhaps if Grandmother Throckmorton lived on the premises (a notion that would be anathema to poor Theodosia, whose rather lacking manners would surely not stand up to such a prolonged assault) this situation would be more believable. And while I'm a lover of puns and bad names, the lengthy lists of supposed historical authors such as 'Mann U Script' or 'Pappy Rus' (okay, so I made both of those up, but you get the idea) does grate a little after a while.
Still, young readers will no doubt find themselves revelling in the Egypt-related arcana here, and in the fun and fanciful mischief Theodosia gets up to. LaFevers again touches on issues of cultural appropriation and the respect of the rituals and norms of other cultures, not only through the way that she challenges notions of 'ownership' of relics and artefacts, but also through the way she depicts the treatment of these items. Both of these issues were prevalent during the early twentieth century, when Egyptology was at its height, so it's nice to see the author give a nod to this without being didactic. In addition, she provides us with a strong female protagonist who is surrounded by feminist role models (her mother, for example, is a well-regarded archaeologist, although she experiences her own professional troubles being a female in her field during the early twentieth century), something that I'm always delighted to see. On the strength of this second book, I'll be interested to pick up the third in the series. (less)
The sixth novel by celebrated Egyptian author Bahaa Taher, Sunset Oasis has already garnered accolades far and wide, with the Booker-esque Arabic Fict...moreThe sixth novel by celebrated Egyptian author Bahaa Taher, Sunset Oasis has already garnered accolades far and wide, with the Booker-esque Arabic Fiction award amongst its more notable achievements. It’s not difficult to see why: this volume may be slim, but it’s deceptively so, making masterful use of setting and character to address themes such as colonialism, identity, exile and love. Read the rest of this review here(less)
Although A Fatal Appraisal is the second of J B Stanley’s cozy mystery series featuring writer and antiques lover Molly Appleby, readers new to the se...moreAlthough A Fatal Appraisal is the second of J B Stanley’s cozy mystery series featuring writer and antiques lover Molly Appleby, readers new to the series will have no difficulty catching up with the (cue voiceover) story so far, as this novel works well as a standalone. We’re introduced to poor overscheduled Molly as she hits the road once more under orders to cover the recording of the travelling television show Hidden Treasures (think Antiques Roadshow, one of my mother’s many beloved home and lifestyle programs). While Molly has a fierce passion for all things antique-related–a fact to which her dwindling bank balance attests–at this point in time she’d like nothing more than to spend some quality time with her maybe-boyfriend Mark. However, her wistful if-onlys are quickly blown out of the water upon meeting the cast of Hidden Treasures, with a dashing Brit called Garrett making her somewhat weak at the knees.
The witty and exuberant Molly settles in quickly, befriending the various cast and crew members over all manner of luncheons, morning teas, and afternoon snacks (Molly’s surname is rather apt, given that her physique, as a result of all of this indulgent munching, somewhat resembles an apple). She quickly finds, though, that there is a complex lattice of tension between her new friends. Like the antiques she loves, just about anything could lurk beneath their patina of wholesome togetherness, and Molly soon finds that the anything in question is perhaps not something she wishes to become to intimately acquainted with.
A Fatal Appraisal has a few major weaknesses, one of which is the heavy-handed foreshadowing and clue-dropping. Like a teacher off-stage at a high school play cueing in a shy child with an obscenely loud whisper, Stanley throat-clearingly points out the murder rather early on, and it’s likely that both the astute and the skim reader will likely figure out the murderer’s identity pretty much right away. Fortunately, while the whodunnit is sorted out rather promptly, the whydunnit is infinitely more interesting, and really helps to carry the narrative to its conclusion (although it must be said that the murderer’s motivation remains a little iffy). While they’re by no means drawn in any great depth, Stanley’s characters are immensely likeable, and it’s rather good fun to watch them gad about drooling over Wedgwood this and Bakelite that in between eating rather obscene amounts of sweets and pastries. Molly in particular is a delight to read, as unlike many a cozy heroine, she spreads the snark rather like one should Vegemite: rarely, and in very small amounts.
The second weakness of A Fatal Appraisal is at the prose level. Stanley (like me, but I’m sans editor, so I’ll run on all I like) likes to jam as much as possible into a sentence, and this unfortunate tendency results in all sorts of snort-worthy ambiguities or things that are just quite painful to read. Take, for example, the following: Mark searched Molly’s grey eyes framed with a sweep of long, dark lashes for a sign of what was going on in her mind. These gems are scattered throughout the book, and they do become maddening after a while. Stanley also has Superman-esque propensity to make giant leaps in point of view, which can disrupt the narrative somewhat.
All in all, though, while A Fatal Appraisal won’t be battling the big guns for any literary prizes, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable read, and there are a number of interesting bits and pieces about collectibles and curios, including an additional narrative occurring during Civil War times, that should be extraneous but that actually make for fascinating reading. This is one to read with a piece of lemon slice and some earl grey tea–but only if it’s in your best china, of course.(less)
I always find the hermeneutic nature of literature, both at the wider level of the literary canon, and at the microlevel of my own reading history, fa...moreI always find the hermeneutic nature of literature, both at the wider level of the literary canon, and at the microlevel of my own reading history, fascinating. All art and literature is informed by that which comes before it and, likewise, my own reading is informed in the same way. It’s curious, because at some subconscious level I seem to select my reading in waves, and I’ll find that when writing my reviews the previous few books that I’ve read vie for a place within my latest review (or perhaps I simply notice in those instances when this happens, and otherwise not so much!).
Reading Albert Camus’s classic existentialist work The Stranger (alternatively rendered as The Outsider) was one of these experiences. Having studied The Plague extensively a few years ago, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the author’s work, but this was my first encounter with this particular novel. As I read it, however, I couldn’t help but find myself slotting it in amongst recently read novels such as The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee, and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. All feature those who are in some way lost or deficient; all are about the role of the individual within society, and how that role is simultaneously (and conflictingly) created by and created for that individual; all feature condemnation of this individual; and all a sort of phoenix-like redemption or self-renaissance through the arts or through introspection. Fascinatingly, though, while similar themes are touched upon in each of these books in each case the take and perspective of the author is different. As such, we get a series of books that intersect but that don’t necessarily overlap, and which inform each other without deriving from each other.
The protagonist of The Outsider is Mersault, an ambiguous character who, like Coetzee’s K, is rarely named and who as a result (as Foucault, who emphasises the importance of names in modern society, might argue) seems to float, inchoate, at the periphery of the reader’s awareness despite being forefronted by the author. Unlike K, however, whose laconic, socially distant ways stem from his imbecilic innocence, Mersault’s antisocial ways are painted in more of a nihilistic light. Where K functions adequately and largely unquestioningly within the bounds of society until the exigencies of civil war, Mersault has spent his life struggling with societal norms, seeing himself as beyond their artificially negotiated bounds. There is a sense of acceptance (or perhaps resignation) within K that is not evident within Mersault, whose self-imposed sense of alienation has an air of the cynical and hostile to it. Moreover, throughout Coetzee’s novel, K’s ‘deficiencies’ are accepted by others as being due to his slow-wittedness and his physical weakness, while Mersault, who is physically and intellectually normal, is seen as deliberately transgressing. There are differences, too, in the degree to which they function as part of a wider social circle. K, for example, despite being penniless and without means of transportation, seeks to return his ailing mother to her rural home-place–doing so during shocking conditions and circumstances–while Mersault’s treatment of his own mother is used to position him as amoral and heartless, and is eventually the cause of his downfall. In contrast, K is always depicted as benign and to a degree beatific, although one could argue that the torment his mother suffered during the trek was far more cruel than Mersault’s actions, which involved placing his own ailing mother in a nursing home when he is unable to accommodate her in his own residence. Both believes he is doing the right thing, and while both are punished eventually, it is for very different reasons and very different ways.
Where The Outsider linked in to The Man in the High Castle for me was largely to do with lived realities and the seeming powerlessness one has over fate. Dick in his classic dystopian novel has his characters realise that they are living in one of many possible realities, and that there are indeed worlds where the United States has not come under combined German and Japanese rule. However, Dick’s point is that despite this realisation that what seems real is not what is necessarily real, it is still real to those living within those circumstances. That is, while there are indeed realities in which the Allies won World War II, this is practically little more than a hypothesis, as Dick’s characters have no choice but to continue living the narrative that has been ascribed to them. Similarly, Mersault, eventually condemned for murder less on the actual facts of the crime and more on his murky character, reflects on both his current reality as well as other possible outcomes and the points from which they have sprung. Like Dick’s characters, however, after reflecting on these possibilities and seeking solace within, he eventually grimly yields to his one and only lived reality, which in his case ends a long, painful march to the scaffold. Curiously, however, where Dick’s characters arguably always act in moral ways regardless of the extenuating circumstances in which they find themselves, Mersault seeks to absolve himself by arguing that he has done no wrong. He has, of course, wronged, but like the jury who tries him, fixates on the wrong circumstances and acts when trying to assert his innocence.
The notion of absolution through art is a strong theme of The Man in the High Castle, The Other Side of You, and The Outsider. In Dick’s novel, art is used as a way of finding the chung fu, the inner truth, of the world, and the book within the book that is so central to its final outcome is also a means to existential enlightenment. In The Other Side of You art, in the form of Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s famous Supper at Emmaus and through more traditional spoken-word narratives, is used to allow Vickers’s two main characters to embark upon a journey of self-discovery and to finally assuage their guilt and ambivalence over past wrongs. Similarly, in The Outsider Mersault pointedly assesses a women whose only interaction with culture is in circling indiscriminately the radio programmes on offer that week; and indeed, later, he seeks to find himself not through the spiritual absolution offered by the prison chaplain, but through throwing himself into his memory and seeking self-realisation through this means.
Curiously, the absurdity of life and the arbitrariness of societal rules is touched upon in all four novels, despite their largely stoic approaches. In each, the novel’s characters manage to transcend themselves by a self-realisation that largely stems from rationalising society as absurd.(less)
"We all this land of ours Great Britain...I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint." So muses Stevens, erstwhile butler to Lord Darlington, as he embarks upon a brief sabbatical at the behest of his new employer, a sabbatical in which he reflects on the actions, and indeed, inaction, of his past, and sets out to make sense of a series of unknowns that plague his conscience. There are parallels, believes Stevens, between the proud stoicism of is native land and of his profession, with both exhibiting, at their finest, a sense of dignity. A true butler should comport his or herself with utter dignity, offering "no clue as to his desires or intentions."
Stevens lives and breathes his role as one of Britain's finest: as his new employer, an ebullient American, puts it, he's a "genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one." And yet, Stevens needs to be pressed to confirm this, having remained tight-lipped about his previous employment for reasons, we are told, out of fear of impropriety: speaking of one's past employment is not the done thing, he says, using his new employer's unfamiliarity with the way things are done as leverage. Though his statement may initially be taken at face value, we soon begin to see that Stevens is perhaps not the paragon of virtue he presents himself as.
For one so taken up with conduct and comportment and properness, Stevens is rather less one for veracity than we might expect. In fact, not only does he have a capacity for self-deception--an extraordinary one, as it turns out--but of deceiving others as well. His transgressions at first seem minor, but soon grow into something large and ghastly. And yet Stevens paints everything with a veneer of dignity, having us look through the lens of measured professionalism he applies to his life.
He offers excuses and justifications for the most minor of misdemeanours, a sleight of hand that would have us believe that such a mild-mannered man could not, surely, be capable of any wrongdoing, or of succumbing to any of the weaknesses of the human spirit.
Take, for example, his preference for calling the former Darlington Hall housekeeper by her maiden name of Miss Kenton, though she has been married for some years now. The fact that her recent letters may indicate that her marriage is in trouble provides further justification for this "impropriety", he argues, although as Stevens continues to reflect on his time at Darlington Hall, we see hints of the scarcely acknowledged romance that has haunted him since.
And yet, he argues with cool emotionlessness that there is nothing of note here: Stevens' visits to Miss Kenton's parlour after hours, are entirely above board in that they are strictly work related. No matter that Miss Kenton hints at one point that marriage may be an option: "It occurs to me that you must be a well-contented man. Here you after, after all, at the top of your profession, every aspect of your domain well under control. I really cannot imagine what more you might wish for in life."
A stringently emotionally repressed man, Stevens purports to conduct his entire life within the boundaries allowed by his position, noting that even when off-duty, a butler still remains a butler--and it is within this professional cocoon that he is able to safely live his life without having to take any sort of personal responsibility. He rejects Miss Kenton's gift of a floral arrangement out of the fear of blurring the boundaries of his work and personal life; his habit of reading romance novels is, he says, purely for the purposes of improving his verbal skills. He responds to the news of his father's death with the words, "I see...", then upon being asked whether he wishes to view the body, defers to his workload, adding, "I'm very right busy just now. In a little while, perhaps."
Stevens would have us think that he does not exist beyond his status as a butler, with even his clothing marked by his professional life: "I am in the possession of a number of splendid suits, kindly passed on to me over the years by Lord Darlington himself, and by various guests who have stayed in the house and had reason to be pleased with the standard of service here." These suits, he muses are "rather too old-fashioned these days", highlighting just how much his life has been delimited by his work. And yet, when he travels out to the countryside on his holiday, he allows others to labour under the mistaken assumption that he is a man of importance himself--it is only when he is directly asked about his title that he admits to being a butler.
These deceptions form a web of quiet concealments and duplicity, although Stevens continues to assert that he has always conducted himself with nothing less than the utter dignity he sees as so integral to his role. And indeed, one supposes that this is true enough, save for the fact that by evoking this conception of dignity and of the master as one whose will cannot be questioned, Stevens is able to extricate himself from any moral culpability.
And since, as it turns out, Lord Darlington is a Nazi sympathiser, this continued reliance on impartial, disinterested dignity is perhaps the greatest, most horrific self-deception of all. When two Jewish staff members are dismissed, Stevens believes that his "duty in this instance [is] quite clear." He adds, that although a difficult task, it is one that demands "to be carried out with dignity". Indeed, when asked directly about his opinions about his employer, he is utterly circumspect, retreating into ignorance and self-deception and speaking of his loyalty. After all, he notes, those who allow "strong feelings" to affect their work will inevitably see "their careers come to nothing as a direct consequence."
And yet, although he is all too aware of his employer's chilling ideological position, he argues that his "fate [is] ultimately in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world." Indeed, he says, "How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington's efforts were misguided, even foolish?" With his culpability resting solely with another to whom he has given his loyalty, be believes that "it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account."
The Remains of the Day is a quiet, mannered novel that juxtaposes dignity with atrocity and loyalty with culpability--a theme that can of course be extrapolated more widely to wartime horrors and crimes. Stevens' endless deception and indeed self-deception renders him unreliable as a narrator, resulting in an ambiguous, challenging read where the full truth will always remain unknown. But then, that is part of Stevens' loyalty, is it not? (less)
I have a friend who's a former chef. The only thing he loathes more than poor-quality coffee is the current trend of amateur food photography.
"Wouldn't you rather enjoy the food that someone's prepared for you, and spend some time hanging out with your friends rather than fiddling around with the filters on Instagram?" he said one day.
This obsessive need to document and share our lives isn't just limited to food, however. Just as our phones have become an extension of our memories as far as contact details, maps and schedules are involved, photo-sharing sites have become the way that we engage with the narratives of our lives. Retrospectively, and with rose-tinted lenses that are no longer just metaphorical.
Rather than experiencing a moment, embracing its temporal ephemerality, letting it shape us in its own subtle way...and then allowing it to slip into memory until dredged up into consciousness by some conversational or olfactory mnemonic, we've become obsessive documentary-makers. But one of the things about being able to outsource the recording of these experiences is that we don't necessarily engage with them with the depth that we might otherwise.
My in-laws are a case in point: after putting together a precarious, overpopulated itinerary, they'll hurtle their way through their trip, sitting back to relax and reflect on the experience only on the plane afterwards, digital cameras at the ready. Oohs and aahs will ensue as they try to piece together their holiday from the photographic artefacts beeping along in a slideshow in their hands.
I'm not sure that these sorts of pictures are each worth a thousand words.
But we're all guilty of this. Digital cameras mean that we don't need to be discerning in what we photograph--every moment, then, is given an equal weight. But not all moments are created equal, and being able to differentiate what ought to be retained, not to mention the way that we choose to document it, is somewhat of an art. One, I can't help but feel, that's fading away with the need to internalise travel directions (I will be forever glad that I'm young enough that thanks to GPS systems whatever part of my brain in charge of this can be put to use doing other things. Coming up with meme extensions, perhaps.)
I can't help but wonder what W Somerset Maugham's On a Chinese Screen might have looked like had he been travelling through China today, rather than a century ago. A slim edition of just under sixty vignettes written during his travels through China in 1919, the book is described not as a novel, but rather as material for a novel. There's not a photograph nor a FourSquare check-in in sight.
Rather, with only one or two exceptions, the book comprises lengthy character sketches of the people, largely western foreigners living in China, Maugham met as he made his way along the Yangtze. It's wry, devastating, and infuriating in turn, and it presents a shame-inducing picture of western attitudes towards the Chinese in the early twentieth century. Though he gives only a couple of pages to each character, slipping from merchant to philosopher to cabinet minister with the staccato induced by a page-turn, a story--or at least, a perspective--arises from these observations, and it's a damning one.
For the most part these are people who disdain, resent or reject China, and who are clinging to their past lives in the west, no matter how distant they might be.
In "My Lady's Parlour" we read of a woman who has turned a temple into a dwelling house, carefully papering over its history with western tapestries and accoutrements. And let's not forget the kitchen: "Here generations of believers had burned their tapers and prayed, some for this temporal benefit or that, some for release from the returning burden of early existence; and this seemed to her the very place for an American stove." There are missionaries who hold nothing but loathing towards the Chinese, and gadabouts who treat the country and its people as some sort of personal carnival.
We read of people bored and disengaged with what they see as a purgatorial stretch in a culture they perceive as so far beneath them that they see it as either a playground or a prison. The tall man in charge of the BAT, for example: "He is bored. It has never occurred to him that he lives a life in which the possibility of adventure is at his doors. He can only recognise it through the printed page; and it needs a story of derring-do in Texas or Nevada, of hairbreadth escape in the South Seas, to stir his blood." Even the Chinese scholar we encounter seems to be undertaking his studies less out of an interest in the culture than he is in satisfying a grudge against a fellow scholar.
And then there are the displaced, the people live between cultures, or long to become a part of a culture they see as being elevated above their own--a snobbery and cultural relativism that becomes only more pronounced against the Chinese backdrop. In "Dinner Parties" we read of a young Russian woman who experiences deep ennui "when you [speak] to her of Tolstoy or Chekov; but [grows] animated when she [talks] of Jack London. 'Why,' she [asks], 'do you English write such silly books about Russia?'. Then there's the First Secretary of the British Legation, who speaks "French more like any Frenchman who had ever lived" and who "you [wish] with all your heart...would confess to a liking for something just a little bit vulgar". Or Her Britannic Majesty's Representative, who while fixing his pince-nez more firmly on his nose, argues that it is monstrously untrue to accuse him of putting on airs of superiority.
Then there are the confessional moments, the ones that are so perfectly familiar...but which, I realise as I write this, probably won't be for much longer:
"How precious then is the inordinate length of your book (for you are travelling light and you have limited yourself to three) and how jealously you read every word of every page so that you may delay as long as possible the dreaded moment when you must reach the end! You are mightily thankful then to the authors of long books and when you turn over their pages, reckoning how long you can make them last, you wish they were half as long again."
On a Chinese Screen is a magnificent read, capturing in so few words entire people and a painful, lingering sense of cultural superiority, and I found myself wishing that I'd spent more time engaging and reflecting during my past trips abroad, rather than letting so much slip through my fingers as I watched the shutter click again and again.
Until I read this paragraph referring to the work of Jonathan Swift: "the words," writes Maugham, "are the same as those we use to-day and there is hardly a sentence in which they are not placed in the simplest order; and yet there is a dignity, a spaciousness, an aroma, which all our modern effort fails to attain: in short there is style."
A familiar sentiment.
Perhaps, after all, food photography isn't to blame. Perhaps it's perfectly normal not to be able to appreciate something until we have enough distance from it that our perspective is sufficiently undistorted by time and emotion. Now excuse me while I upload some photos of my afternoon coffee to my Instagram account.(less)
It’s a simple fact of young adult literature that if you want to get things moving right off of the bat, you need a prophecy. Better yet, an ambiguous prophecy. Better still? An ambiguous prophecy that applies to twins. Series such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and myriad others have rested firmly on the narrative possibilities opened by a prophecy, and Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst happily walks these well-trodden pathways with portents, sybils, and oracles galore. One of the great things, after all, about a prophecy is that it has the fabulous ability to suddenly turn a nondescript everyman character into a kung-fu-fighting, sabre-wielding, me-against-the-world hero. Prophecies force the character in question to suddenly make a 180 degree turn, and ensure that they can’t simply opt out of the narrative. After all, if Harry had said something along the lines of ”Voldemort? Can’t the police deal with him instead?” the famous series might not have been quite so thrilling.
Sophie and Josh Newman are your everyday fifteen-year-olds. They’re welded to their iPods, suffer through tiresome part time jobs in order to save up for clothes, cars, and other goodies and, well, actually, that’s pretty much it. But all of that’s about to change. When a creepy, bearded (no, not Rasputin) decides to visit the bookshop in which Josh works, Josh finds that he’s in for something a little more challenging than trying to find a book based only on a description of its cover. The man, John Dee–yes, that much-maligned John Dee–it turns out, is indeed after a book, but one that’s not your usual trashy thriller. Rather, he’s after The Codex (note capitalisation), an ancient volume full of all sorts of magical boons, including a spell for immortality. Problem is, Josh’s boss (who turns out to be that reasonably well-known alchemist chap Nicholas Flamel) doesn’t particularly want to give up this book. Magical shenanigans and plenty of butt-kicking ensues, and Josh and his sister Sophie, along with Nick and a martial artist vampire named Scathach or, affectionately, Scatty, are on the run. Eventually finding asylum in Yggdrasil, the famed World Tree of Norse mythology (as you do), the bewildered teens are told of the role that they are to play in saving the world. Or perhaps destroying it.
Superficially The Alchemyst reminds me of the fabulous Percy Jackson series (see our reviews), perhaps because its narrative draws very similarly on the approach of “Main character walks into a room. AND THEN THERE WERE MONSTERS!” But while the action in Riordan’s work is famously non-stop, The Alchemyst seems to suffer from pacing exhaustion mid-way through, resulting in a few chapters that seem to consist of little more than narrative panting. Moreover, it lacks the neat self-contained arc of each of the Percy books, ending as it does with not so much a cliffhanger as just a general sense of incompleteness. It may start out Meatloaf-like (ie, like a bat out of Hell), but then sits back on its haunches for a bit while it gets into the nitty gritty of each adult character’s history. And given that we’re dealing with immortals here, this takes a bit of time, resulting in plenty of the book taking place in the form of flashbacks or of soliloquy. The result is a read that can feel somewhat unfocused, particularly given that a YA should ostensibly focus on the teen characters rather than the adult ones.
In fact, while we get to hear all about the histories of each of the major adult characters, all of whom are famous beings from various world mythologies–Hecate, The Morrigan, the Bastet cat, and plenty of others make an appearance–we learn very little about our supposed protagonists, Josh and Sophie. One has the sneaking suspicion, in fact, that there’s very little about them to learn. Indeed, Josh’s main concern when being hunted down by various supernatural forces is for his iPod, while Sophie seems to rejoice in taking every available opportunity for witty banter. (Words may be cutting, but they’re not exactly the best weapon against the forces of darkness.) Scott attempts to work in their ambivalence about whole prophecy thing, but rather than adding a sense of believability or depth of characterisation to the novel, this simply serves to slow things down, and we’re treated to several slow chapters wherein the twins try to work out where Nick’s loyalties lie or go about looking for hidden cameras just in case they’re unwitting guest stars on Punk’d. Things further slow down when we switch over to the viewpoints of Nick’s wife, Perry, who spends most of the book chained up in a cell–yep, fascinating reading, that–or those of John Dee, who prefers to spend his days indulging in flights of fancy.
Another issue that I struggled with is the writing level in this one. Our characters are almost sixteen, but the novel itself feels written for the MG crowd rather than the YA one, and I found myself constantly thinking of Josh and Sophie as much younger than they actually are. (Indeed, every time Josh started up his car, I wondered whether he’d need a booster seat in order to see over the dashboard.) A little bit of humour wouldn’t have gone astray, either.
On the plus side, The Alchemyst is wonderfully creative, pulling in all sorts of critters and creatures from mythology, and young readers will have a field day picking out the various allusions and references. Scott is a dab hand at world building, and he creates an interesting wider mythology upon which all of this rests that makes for some fascinating reading. Moreover, as a plus, the ecology of magic use is well thought-out and interesting. But there’s something about his world that, like the characterisation, just feels a little superficial. Throughout the book, various nasties blow stuff up, destroy stuff, and generally cause all manner of mischief, but no one in the real world ever seems to be affected by any of it. In addition, the fact that the twins’ family members (which I have to note include a pair of obligatorily absent archaeologist parents) are so remote that they might as well not exist at all, makes the twins’ efforts seem sort of futile. What are they fighting for, if neither the world, nor their loved ones at the very least, seem to be affected by any of this?
The Alchemyst is an intriguing start to a new series, and while it suffers a little from some pacing issues and a lack of focus, it has plenty of good things to its name: strong female characters, all sorts of mythical creatures and legendary tales, and monsters galore. I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops, but I’ll certainly be giving the next in the series a go.(less)
Henry York spends his nights in an attic room bristling with cupboards of all shapes and sizes. These are cupboards, though, that hold a good deal mor...moreHenry York spends his nights in an attic room bristling with cupboards of all shapes and sizes. These are cupboards, though, that hold a good deal more than moth-eaten overcoats and yellowing stamp collections. Cupboards that lead into myriad worlds, some familiar, some vastly less so, but all of which take rather less than a cube of Turkish delight to tempt the young and curious. But while the worlds that exist behind some of these cupboards are no doubt places of wonder and adventure, it is the other, darker worlds that seem to call Henry. And with good reason, as it turns out, for Henry is not from our world, but from somewhere within the cupboards. Desperate to learn more about himself, about his history, and his identity, the siren song of these complex, ambiguous worlds, and their endless and uncharted possibilities is simply too much.
But while Henry is on some level conscious that he is courting danger in crossing the threshold from his warm, safe Kansas farmhouse to the myriad anythings that exist on the other side, the consequences of doing so don’t in the least hesitate to make themselves known. Henry, the seventh son of a seventh son, is courted by a stranger who attempts to inure Henry into his sinister plans: this man is service to none other than Nimiane, a terrifying eyeless crone intent on achieving a foul, soul-sucking domination of the worlds behind the cupboards. Henry and his family, who through a series of violent and chilling events have become separated, find themselves trekking through the wild and anonymous lands beyond the cupboards, searching not only for each other, but for a way to overcome the seemingly invincible Nimiane.
Dandelion Fire marks ND Wilson’s second foray into the complex, fantastical world first introduced to us through his excellent middle years novel 100 Cupboards. Like its predecessor, it’s full of rich, voluptuous language, and takes an almost languid approach to narrative, giving it the same sense of the organic, the natural, in terms of plotting. Indeed, I’m pleased to be able to note that this middle book of the trilogy stands well on its own two legs, rather than acting as a bridge between an introductory first novel and the inevitable denouement that is the third–although I would recommend reading its predecessor before attempting this book. While Dandelion Fire is considerably longer than the aforementioned 100 Cupboards, it does not feel bloated: rather, Wilson rather admirably uses the additional space not only to subject his poor characters to rather a lot of intrigue and violence, but also to make salient certain contrasts and themes–although to its credit rarely in a didactic manner.
There are the same themes of alienation versus belonging, and of family and togetherness, although in this volume they’re all the more apparent. In a nod to Oz, the disconnect between the pseudo-home of Kansas and that of the worlds in the cupboards is highlighted through the virtual destruction of the former, leaving the latter as the only option, and perhaps, despite its quiet anonymity, the only true reality. The loss of the homestead is quite moving in a way, alluding as it does to the fact that Frank and his family have never truly belonged, have always been sort of temporary, transitory residents. But this loss of the material pseudo-home serves to emphasise the importance of family, and acts as a catalyst for Frank and his family to begin their search for the missing Henry and Henrietta, an effort that eventually culminates in their banding together against what seem to be insurmountable odds. Family and the importance of kin is in evidence all throughout the book, and is echoed through minor characters, such as a secondary character, also called Frank, who bears many of the same loyal traits as Henry’s uncle, and who similarly seeks to protect him. The strength of the individual is also touched upon, however, for example the strength upon which Henry is able to draw after his formal christening, an event that not only cements his place within his family, but that also affords him an identity through which he is able to channel a certain sense of agency.
I did, I have to admit, wince a little at the notion of a christening and of the somewhat heavy-handed way with which it’s included, but for the most part Wilson, though dealing with ostensibly Christian themes, keeps these as an interpretable subtext rather than making them a rather overt allegory in the vein of C S Lewis (although there are definite nods to Lewis’s work here). In fact, the Christian influence is rather arguable, given that there are strong pagan and humanist themes that seem to run through the book. There is, for example, that of the natural versus the unnatural, such as the native powers of Henry and his family when contrasted with the parasitic, manufactured abilities of Nimiane and Darius, through whom Nimiane rather horrifyingly acts; there’s also the fact that Henry draws his strength from a dandelion, and that he has a sort of familiar in the strange winged beast known as a raggant.
But rather than ascribing responsibility to fate or to some higher being, Wilson emphasises the role of the individual (or of the group) in their own actions, and indeed one of the most common themes throughout the book is the selfless sacrifice that must be made in order to achieve a noble outcome. We watch characters such as Darius struggle under the weight of his power, his inability to channel it productively or engage with its consequences, and we watch Nimiane fall under her own arrogance, while in contrast, Henry learns to manage his skills and strengths–although not without a great deal of suffering. In fact, each of the main characters demonstrates quite a noticeable degree of growth, and in a realistic, earned kind of way rather than having it sort of awkwardly bestowed upon them.
It’s probably clear from the above that Dandelion Fire does not quite have the quirky kookiness that characterises 100 Cupboards, but it’s not without its moments of levity. Wilson’s at once rich and laconic prose is a pleasure to read, and it’s full of winking allusions and asides that add both depth and breadth to the novel without resulting in turgidity. In terms of the narrative, there are moments of familiarity that readers of classic children’s fantasy works may find somewhat derivative, and it’s true that occasionally the plot does become a little lost in itself, particularly when Wilson is working to weave together multiple simultaneous viewpoints, but it’s just so difficult not to fall for the worlds that Wilson has created: I’m entirely enamoured of that little attic room bristling with its cupboards.(less)
David Grann is the authorial equivalent of the method actor, living the lives of his subjects to the extent that he often becomes obsessed with them. But Grann's newest biographical obsession is a dangerous chap to idolise: Percy Harrison Fawcett was an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer who made his name trekking about the Amazonian jungle in search of the lost city of El Dorado.
No one knows exactly what happened to Fawcett and his team, but many have died trying to find out. Not that this has dampened public interest in the Fawcett mystery. In fact, expeditions to retrace the explorer's footsteps became so commonplace at one point that the Brazilian government issued a degree "banning [search parties] unless they received special permission."
There are myriad reasons why one might set out into the dangerous depths of the Amazon. In this vast area lurk all manner of unknowns. Un-contacted societies, possible ancient ruins and accompanying riches, and perhaps most appealing of all, an utterly alien landscape.
"I envy my great-grandfather, really," says Fawcett's granddaughter when author Grann explains to her his interest in retracing Fawcett's footsteps. "In his day, you could still go marching off and discover some hidden part of the world. Now where can you go?"
It's true, muses Grann, as he GoogleMaps his forthcoming expedition and heads off to a specialty camping and outdoors shop to get set up with all of the latest in fancy explorer gear. Where adventurous types like Fawcett signed up for survival courses at the Royal Geographical Society, begged for loans to support their exploratory habits, and quite literally risked their lives by heading off into those areas of the map marked with "here there be dragons", today's explorers have access to wicking socks, GPS systems, satellite mapping, antibiotics and air-conditioned vehicles. Indeed, Grann sheepishly notes that the route that took Fawcett and his men a month to traverse, with several fatalities along the way, takes Grann and his tour guide two days.
The Lost City of Z is a tale of then and now: of the bright-eyed adventurers of generations ago seeking out the unknown and the unencountered compared with our adventurers of today, whose efforts feel somehow less grandiose in their absence of hardship. But despite the dissimilarities in outlook--in addition to the differences in accessibility, there are also very different anthropological approaches employed now than there were some generations ago, when phrenology and enthographic ranking were the stuff du jour--both of these groups are fuelled by a lust for adventure and for discovery.
It's perhaps this argument that Grann is trying to make as he recounts his own research into Fawcett and his own travels into the Amazon whilst recreating in parallel the journey of Fawcett and his men. Though Grann's experience is certainly the more cushy, armchair-based account, it's abuzz with the same frenetic energy that seems to imbue Fawcett in his own explorations.
Grann feverishly describes the many predators of the Amazon: some of them terrifying in their largeness, like the anaconda and the big cats, but most of them even more fiendish for their ability to pack a very, very large bite into a small package. "The sauba ants that could reduce the men's' clothes and rucksacks to threads in a single night. The ticks that attached like leeches, and the red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue. The berne flies that...deposited larval eggs that hatched burrowed under the skin. The almost invisible biting flies called biums." And that's not to mention the plethora of parasites, diseases, and illnesses that lurk everywhere, and almost always, it seems, with utterly horrific effects. It's the stuff of a horror movie, and Grann spares no detail in his gleefully sordid depiction of everything that can go wrong in the humbling world of the Amazon--and everything that did for Fawcett and his men.
But though the conditions crippled many of his fellow travellers, it seemed that the only bug that Fawcett, luckily a robust and healthy man, caught was the adventure one. Returning home to England, he wanted to "forget atrocities, to put slavery, murder and horrible disease behind [him]", only to realise a few months later that "Inexplicable--amazingly--I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again."
Fawcett was a wily man, a talented adventurer, and a meticulous note-taker, and achieved an astonishing amount during his travels, in part because he seemed immune to those ailments that cut down his rivals and companions, and in part because the desperation that comes with age made him push on even harder. "If we had a few more men like him, I am sure there would not be a single corner of the unexplored regions," said a Bolivian emissary of Fawcett. He was also a man who did not subscribe entirely to the models of race and ethnicity that prevailed at the time, which allowed him a more descriptive approach in his interactions with the societies he encountered during his travels to find the lost city of Z, a place of untold riches and beauty--the place he was searching for when he and his crew disappeared.
But though Fawcett was progressive for his time, he lacked the present anthropological methods we have today, as well as our differing conceptualisations of the type of imprint a society may leave behind. In this world where boundaries--both geographic and informational--are collapsed, Grann, however, has access to those very things that Fawcett did not. And while I won't ruin your own adventure through these horror- and pestilence-filled pages by giving the game away, the final reveal may set some hearts racing.
And yet, I couldn't help but feel that parallel threads of Fawcett's and Grann's adventures didn't entirely work: where Fawcett is off battling off the wilderness in true McGuyverian style, Grann is checking his email and making Skype calls, and though I certainly don't begrudge Grann his mindfulness of his mortality, it's impossible for these chapters not to feel a little dull in comparison. Surprisingly, it's those chapters where Grann is preparing to go on his journey that are more interesting than those when he's actually off in the wild: perhaps because of the very anticipation that these chapters arouse in the reader. Still, the comparatively slow nature of these chapters and the sort of fade-into-nothingness of the ending aside, this one's a fascinating read that really does make you wonder what it is about the unknown--and the desire to conquer it--that captivates us so. (less)
Anne of Green Gables and its accompanying volumes had pride of place on the shelves of the local library of my childhood, with multiple dog-eared copi...moreAnne of Green Gables and its accompanying volumes had pride of place on the shelves of the local library of my childhood, with multiple dog-eared copies of each jammed on to the shelves. But for some reason, despite reading close to everything in that humble little venue, I bypassed Anne, and it wasn’t until I began a concerted effort to work through some of the young adult classics featuring female protagonists that Anne made an appearance on my TBR at last. Needless to say, this review is somewhat belated, for not content with the first book, I zipped through the whole series (or at least what I could get my hands on) in quick succession. For me, sympathetic characters are crucial to my enjoyment of a book, and in Anne I found a kindred spirit with whom I was more than delighted to spend my evening (and many early waking) hours.
A couple of years ago, at a wedding (a crazy wedding at that), I was chatting to a couple of Aussies who had relocated to San Francisco in order to seek investment for their tech start-up. Or, more accurately, they’d relocated near San Francisco, because apparently the rent there is so high that it’s liable to give you a nose bleed. And I thought Melbourne was bad.
Anyway, having heard this little anecdote, I wasn’t surprised to read about poor (literally and figuratively) San Fran native and private investigator Izzy Spellman deciding to squat in her brother’s downstairs apartment. It’s crime that pays, after all, not solving crimes.
Things aren’t looking up for Izzy. Not only does she have to endure twelve weeks of court-ordered therapy after a misunderstanding about the differences between stalking and friendliness, but she’s lost her job and her flat, has to play chauffeur to her 84-year-old lawyer, and is stuck playing go-between in the ongoing battle between her snarky teen sister and her best friend Henry (whom she’s definitely not in love with. Probably.). She’s also being blackmailed by someone forcing her to wash her father’s car and visit the Museum of Modern Art. Dastardly.
To say that Izzy Spellman courts chaos is an understatement. Izzy and disaster are seen together roughly as often as garlic and bad breath. And given the delis Izzy frequents, well, you know where this is heading. Anyway, amidst all this family drama, and there’s a heck of a lot of family drama–enough that Izzy has an extra twelve weeks of therapy slapped on to her sentencing–there’s also a mystery. Or several. A routine investigation of a maybe-cheating spouse turns into something more elaborate when Izzy realises that there’s a politician’s reputation on the line, and Izzy finds herself caught up in all manner of ludicrous shenanigans as she tries to get to the bottom of the investigation while also attempting to solve the much more problematic issues of the zany Spellman family.
Revenge of the Spellmans is the third in Lisa Lutz’s Izzy Spellman series, but stands quite readily on its own. It’s a zany, silly ride, and the mystery side of things takes a back seat (a back seat so far back that it might as well be in a limo) to the unending dysfunction of the Spellmans themselves. But that’s not a bad thing at all. Their mishaps are endlessly comic, and there are a lot of laughs, although I have to say that at some 350 pages, the book did begin to feel a little long, and could have done with some trimming. There are some design issues in the edition I read as well: the font is achingly small and narrow, making it a tough read, and the constant footnoted asides and referenced appendices disrupted flow of the book rather than adding to it.
Still, I always get a bit of a kick out of seeing a family that’s more dysfunctional than my own, and I plan to go back and read the others in this very, very silly series.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, things turned out a little better for those tech start-up guys than for Izzy, whose rental situation doesn’t exactly improve by the end of the book. Those start up guys? They sold their app to Disney for a cool sum involving many, many zeroes.
Think present-day New York, presided over not by politicians and reality television stars, but by Cadre of archangels. Sounds lovely and fluffy and like an ad for Philadelphia cream cheese, doesn’t it? Wrong. These angels may be all delicate wings and inhumanly beautiful features, but they’re also a little morally canted. Thousands of years of immortality has that effect, after all. What’s the odd life here, the occasional bit of suffering there when you’re looking at a timeline that stretches out indefinitely?
But while most of the archangels manage to keep their ethical compass pointing in a vaguely cardinal direction, this is unfortunately not true of all of them. Power corrupts, after all, and power and immortality? For some, that way can lead to madness. Archangel Uram, who’s just embarked on a particularly debauched killing spree, epitomises this rather well (albeit grotesquely). Allowing this to continue is rather ill-advised indeed, so vamp-hunter Elena Deveraux is called on to the scene to, well, kick some angel butt. However, Elena finds herself not only pitting her will against Uram the Terrible, but also against that of the archangel Raphael, who despite his lofty Cadre position and significant age and wisdom, finds himself quite taken with young Elena…
While paranormal romance is decidedly not my preferred genre, Nalini Singh has been good to me thus far. I found her Psy-Changeling books, although problematic in some ways, well-done, with better than expected world-building, and some believable characterisation. I had then, reasonably high expectations for Angels’ Blood, the first in Singh’s new Guild Hunter series. There are times where these expectations were met quite resoundingly, and times where I felt a little more polish was required, but in all, Angels’ Blood is a solid, although not stand-out, read.
The world-building is largely what made the Psy-Changeling books for me, and once again Singh shows her strength in this area, building her alternate angel-ruled with surprising depth and assurance given that she’s working within a fairly minimal page extent. She neatly integrates a curious hierarchy of rather hellish angels and quite awful vampires into the fabric of our world, and give us a sense of the longevity of this situation, a fact that makes for some interesting ruminations on the readers’ behalf. If these angels have been ruling over the various continents of the world for thousands of years, what does that mean for humanity, our history, and our agency?
However, it’s not all neat and tidy, and I have to admit that the very nature of this omnipotent and vastly ancient angel Cadre raised a few questions for me. If Raphael, the ostensible leader of the feathered-winged crew, is as powerful and prescient as we’re led to believe, then how come this Uram chap has been given his head to wreak the mess he has? And how come all-powerful Raphael, or at least some of his angelic or vampiric cronies, can’t intervene? Why is it up to Elena, a vampire hunter–yes, vampire hunter, not angel hunter–to take down this dude? This isn’t to pass aspersions on Elena, who really does a good job of being angsty and fiery and dangerous and all that, but one has to admit that this does seem like a plot hole that needs a little bit of narrative putty to be truly believable.
Moreover, while Elena does her best to hunt down Uram, she finds herself stymied time and time again by Raphael, who would rather coat her in angel dust and make sultry remarks than allow her to earn her commission by stopping the whole mass murder thing that’s going on in the background. In fact, this is perhaps the most confounding thing in the whole book: we’re given to believe that there’s an urgent need for intervention, and that Elena’s mission is a matter of life and, erm, rather a lot of deaths, but all of this takes a backseat in this literary station wagon while Raphael and Elena get busy steaming up the windows. It’s not until perhaps the final third of the book that Elena drags herself out of her crumpled pre-marital bed to go and do her butt-kicking, and this makes the whole book feel more than a little uneven. Unfortunately, Elena’s butt-kicking never really eventuates, as despite the fact that she’s spent most of the book posturing and wise-cracking (although I think this may be largely to do with the fact that she feels rather vastly out of her depth), Raphael is the one who eventually nips in to save the day. This is a little frustrating both in terms of narrative cohesiveness, characterisation, and of course my feminist tendencies, and I really would have preferred to see Elena rescue her angel from the jaws of death rather than the other way around.
With that thought in mind, I can’t help but make a comment about the whole alpha male thing that runs rampant through this book (and all of Singh’s I’ve read so far). Regular readers of my reviews will know that I have issues with alpha male characters, and while Singh does an interesting job in her characterisation of Raphael, avoiding simply making him a human with wings, and rather giving his character the particular traits and outlook that would no doubt rise to the fore as a result of his power, age, and immortality, Raphael is, well, rather creepy. There are scenes where he all but brutalises Elena, and for the better part of the book he is simply a violent fiend intent on wielding his power–physical, emotional, and sexual–over a lesser being. This changes, however, towards the end, when he has an epiphany of sorts, and the two suddenly become soulmates. This element was probably the hardest for me to swallow, as the notion of an ageless archangel hooking up with a thirty-year-old vamp hunter seems a little weird. (And I thought the age gap between Buffy and Angel was a bit much!) While I can see the appeal of a quick roll in the sheets for these two, it’s hard to imagine that two people from such hugely divergent backgrounds could really be meant to be in such a way (unless perhaps Elena has a past life we’re as yet unaware of, or somesuch). One wonders whether Elena is perhaps a “right place, right time” person–Raphael is in a situation where a sense of humanity is suddenly demanded of him, and as such perhaps he sees falling in love with a mortal as appropriate recourse.
While Singh does a nice job of fleshing out the minor characters, giving them personalities strong enough that I’d welcome their appearance in future books, the Manhattan setting is a little weaker, and I have to admit that the setting feels a little urban-generic. This is particularly problematic at the beginning of the novel, as it takes a while to become anchored in the narrative (with all the flashbacks and quick references to other characters and past situations I had to check that I was indeed reading the first in the series and not the second). Singh’s prose could also do with a polish, as well the same issues I highlighted about the Psy-Changeling series crop up again: eyes flash, stomachs roil and wrench, lips are constantly bitten and touched and, er, hands fist (and I really wish that they wouldn’t!). Few sentences are longer than a few words, and. it. all. feels. a. little. staccato.
While all of the above sounds critical, however, don’t be mistaken in thinking that I didn’t enjoy this. Singh is a competent story teller, and creates a rich and nuanced world with female characters who invite empathy and cheering from the sidelines. Even when the major plotline is backgrounded, she still keeps things zipping along, and her dialogue is fun and zippy. Angels’ Blood is a snappy read, and gets the Guild Hunter series off to a strong start. I’ll be sure to read the next in the series (and yes, it’s in the pile by my bed, so I promise that I shall).(less)
Sometimes I think I’m a bit of a slow learner. Why is it that the books I put off reading the longest are always the ones that end up resonating with me the most? Perhaps it’s that I’m getting old and the plasticity of my brain isn’t what it used to be, or that I’m settling quite comfily into the staid mindset that comes with becoming a proper adult, where at the end of each day, my overworked mind wants nothing more than to fling off its confining business-like trappings and slump into the intellectual equivalent of woolly slippers and and a Snuggie?
All I can say is that I’m glad that every now and then some literary singleton drags my poor little brain out for a spin. And yes, Alison Wonderland is indeed one of those books. If Lewis Carroll, Haruki Murakami, and Ulrich Beck got together and ate too many Smarties, snorted some lines of sherbet and then span around in circles for a good five minutes, this is the book they would subsequently sit down to write. It’s both surreal and hyperreal, and it’s very, very strange and very, very funny.
Freshly free of her cheating spouse, Alison Temple takes a position working as a freelance investigator. But as she sets about following suspicious married types about–note: your wayward partner may merely be, ahem, casting his rod for actual fish, not for other fish in the sea–she finds herself the subject of a bizarre investigation that is the result of a series of communicative blunders and assumptions, largely one involving a presumed intelligence and craftiness that is well beyond what the addled Alison, whose mind is always late for a very important date, exhibits. And thus, while Alison is off daytripping (and tripping) by the sea, in search of cabbage patch babies and witchy-poo myths, the authorities are cobbling together dozens of bits of wrongly interpreted evidence that they’re convinced proves that Alison is an activist mastermind bent on taking down the world’s GMO operations. Let this be a warning to those of you who care to mark down your friends’ star signs in your address book.
A frothy mix of plaited plotlines that weave in and out of our world and one very much beyond it, Alison Wonderland is a novel of sleuthing after cheating lovers, of genetic engineering, of undefined relationships and of the grit of London. Or at least, it seems to be–reality is very much a thing of question here. This is a novel whose verve and delight exists at the apogee of its plot, with its true appeal being in the hurdy-gurdy of Smith’s prose and her ability to slap the reader with a cod of insight that in other books would flail limply about on the page. She blends the mundane and the banal with the serious and the intellectual, and serves it up with a garnish of the absurdity that is a comedy of errors.
Along with assessments of social activists who rue that “a social conscience doesn’t leave much time for a social life”, we’re fed such sweet morsels as that involving the outlaw status of the Jaffa Cake, the “Robin Hood of the snack world” due to its VAT-exempt status; we shuffle ashamedly along with such painfully true statements as the businessperson who says “I never see my family” while meaning “see how attractive I am; my wife still loves me even though I ignore her except to talk about work”, and cringe at oh-she-didn’t moments such as where Alison objects to her friend Taron tying red protective ribbons to their foundling pseudo-daughter’s clothing because “she looks too much like an AIDS fashion statement”.
Like the Carroll novel that is its namesake–although other than its down-the-rabbit-hole dreaminess of this volume, there’s little else to connect the two–Alison Wonderland is the kind of book that stirs up all of the ignored gunk at the bottom of a fishpond and sets it seething to the surface, where you can’t help but see it, no matter how much you want to pretend you haven’t. It’s embarrassing and abrasive, and it’s also surprisingly beautiful, if, of course, a novel that involves sheep-pig bestiality can be called beautiful.(less)