I have no choice but to write about Natasha Pulley’s new book The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. If not I will be obliged to listen to the book narratI have no choice but to write about Natasha Pulley’s new book The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. If not I will be obliged to listen to the book narrated by Tomas Judd over and over till I do. Not that listening to it is unpleasant, it isn’t, but there are other things I would like to hear or read. In fact, that I ever bought the book was a stroke of luck. Someone somewhere suggested I read it. You know: a headline saying it was one of the best books of the year. The kind of touting I generally ignore. I had heard neither of the author nor the book. The title meant nothing to me. It sounded like a Victorian historical piece. Not really my genre. Anyway, when I discovered it was available on Audible I listened to an extract and was fascinated… So I downloaded it and haven’t stopped listening to it since.
This novel is steam punk, without the steam or the punk. All cogs and wheels and clockwork in a battle between fee will and determinism, between the fundamentally human and the predictably programmable. There are some delightful flights of fantasy that stretch our imagination, like the clockwork octopus that is more alive than the suited clerks that people Victorian London. It accompanies its watchmaker maker, but is beyond his control thanks to its random gears. Or there is the watch that knows where it’s owner is and can warn him merely by cogs and springs and a little gunpowder not to mention a hint of magic between the folds of the book.
Magic? Why is this book so captivating? What strikes foremost is the richness of the description, giving many details I wouldn’t dare to as an author for fear of slowing down the action or distracting from the story. But it doesn’t, they don’t. Maybe because that description is an integral part of the story rather than extraneous to it. Hold on. That doesn’t make sense. Thoughts, feelings, surroundings, have a real texture. They are in full colour with sounds and smells that are woven into the story. Sounds are cunningly given colours and objects are attributed colourful sounds in a world that has a thickness and a texture so that even the mundane swirls and whirls with hidden life like one of Van Gogh’s paintings. The description brings depth and richness to the characters and places alike, making the story pulse with life. It would be untrue to say there is very little action, but unlike many modern novels, the story is not driven purely by action. Action is born up by an undercurrent of throbbing veins and a nervous electric tension that never let the reader stray from its grip.
As with many of Trudi Canavan’s earlier books like The Black Magician trilogy and The Age of the Five trilogy, I really enjoyed reading her new novelAs with many of Trudi Canavan’s earlier books like The Black Magician trilogy and The Age of the Five trilogy, I really enjoyed reading her new novel Thief’s Magic, book one of Millennium’s Rule.
The story, or rather stories, for there are two of them, were gripping. The interweaving of the two is cleverly done, with the author taking her time to establish the characters and the context in the beginning, only to leave the reader with a cliff-hanger when she shifts to the other story. As the stories progress, shifting from one to another becomes more frequent, but never too hastily that the reader doesn’t have the time to plunge into the action. The familiar wish to continue with one of the stories to the detriment of the other did not occur here as both stories, one with a female main character, Rielle, and the other with a male one, Tyen, are well balanced and of equal interest.
I did find myself continually wondering when and how the two main characters would meet, seeing as they lived in quite different worlds, and was surprised, but not upset, that their two paths had not crossed by the end of this first book of the series. There was no shortage of possible clues that a meeting would eventually take place, but that meeting will be quite a narrative challenge. How will the author manage the shift from two very strong but unrelated perspectives to a situation where both meet and interact?
Sustaining the reader’s interest while switching between stories when those stories are apparently unconnected is a real achievement. Unconnected? Well they do handle a similar theme: the nature of magic and its role in society, in particular with relationship to women. As with her earlier books, a great deal of thinking must have gone into the workings of the societies in which her story takes place that makes it all the more credible and engrossing.
As a writer, one of the interesting aspects of Trudi Canavan’s work in this novel is the way she provides insight into characters by subtly revealing the reactions of one to another, like Tyen noticing a twitching muscle in the professor’s face that he takes to be an indication of envy; a perception to be seen in terms of Tyen’s changing view of his professor. With only a few words, like a finger of light probing the page, a whole vista opens up to the reader as deeper layers of the characters are made apparent through their interactions with each other. That depth brings the characters alive and contributes to our delight as we read on.
Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty is a retelling of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast. Divided into three parts, the first part deals with the periRosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty is a retelling of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast. Divided into three parts, the first part deals with the period before Nyx, alias Beauty, goes to join her new husband, the ‘Beast’, ironically named the Gentle Lord. The second and most substantial part portrays the evolution of Nyx’s feelings for her monster husband. And the final part, unravels a number of complex threads and draws the story to a conclusion.
The first part had me struggling not to set the book aside. The author constantly delays the fatal moment when Nyx meets the beast. This is done by stretching the narrative, filling spaces between moments when Nyx harps on her fear and hatred of the beast and her tense relationships with her family by digressions about the past and chunks of back-story. Although all these anecdotes are pertinent, they do not heighten the suspense, they flatten it.
The author’s basic premise in this part makes her work all the more difficult. Firstly she portrays a family that has singled out and trained one of its two daughters as an instrument of revenge. That fact turns them all into unfeeling monsters, making the writer’s task of winning the reader challenging. Secondly, although the characters do not lack strong emotions, they have all opted not to show them. As a result, they end up resembling cardboard figures or caricatures.
The story finally breaks out of this straightjacket with the arrival of the second part. Oddly enough, it’s when the monsters come out that people actually become human. I really enjoyed this portrayal of the evolving relationship between Nyx and her Gentle Lord. It is well written. As is their relationship to the castle in which they are imprisoned. The author excels in inventing creative ways of interacting with the house which has a mind of its own. Whether the descriptions are beautiful or terrifying, they are well crafted and creative.
In the final part, the author returns to the earlier setting in Nyx’s family, much to my regret. Despite the fact that Rosamund Hodge has the family members undergo radical changes of character, they are still not convincing. What’s more, a number of narrative sleights of hand to get us to the end had me troubled. But then maybe all these trials and tribulations were worth it for us to reach the final smile of relief.
Harvest is the third book of William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series, following on from Spring and Awakening. These three, along with the recently publisHarvest is the third book of William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series, following on from Spring and Awakening. These three, along with the recently published Winter, mark the author’s return to writing after a considerable pause. Those that have read and loved his tales of Duncton or the very moving Skallagrigg, amongst others, will be delighted to see him back in print, especially as many of the older books are no longer available. The flow of time of the Hydden, the little people that live unseen at the edge of the human world in William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series, might seem laborious to us, accustomed as we are to rushing from one event to another without taking the time to stop and look and listen. Maybe it is this failure to pause and savour life to the fullest that contributes most to our inability to see and appreciate the Hydden and their way of life. For the reader of Horwood’s book the difficulty is similar. Weened as we are on the breakneck speed of modern films and TV series, as well as books such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, slowing to the pace of Horwood’s narrative can be challenging. But slow you must if you want to enter this world full of unimaginable richness and delightful lightness, not to mention profound wisdom. Or so I thought as I began Harvest! Then I was abruptly whisked off my feet and whirled away in eddies of action and a flood of emotions. All is not a whirlwind, though. The pace of Harvest varies often. The action reaches an apotheosis when the Earth heaves up wreaking vengeance on a town who citizens remain oblivious to the very last, while the main characters look on, deeply touched by the cataclysm but unable to move. Yet in those moments when the story picks up speed, and that was what intrigued me, it didn’t skim precariously over emptiness as many fast-paced novel do. It had depth to its intensity. As an author, I couldn’t help searching from the roots of that intensity in the language. Several possibilities were apparent. The restrained use of dialogue and the brilliance of the descriptions of people and places often built around action and verbs. But above all, the power of Horwood’s writing lies in his challenge of the self-evident, in the density and richness of his imaginings and finally, the depth and delightfulness of an astounding range of main characters. When I reached the end of Harvest, it was not the hallmark emptiness left behind by those helter-skelter, breath-taking novels that awaited me, but rather a dense and satisfying plenitude. All was far from right, Winter was yet to come and losses had to be mourned, but William Horwood’s book had nourished me in a way that left me feeling richer and more human. Review first published on secret-paths.com....more
The strange and haunting tale of Neverwhere, crafted initially by author Neil Gaiman with Lenny Harry, began its life as a television series in 1996.The strange and haunting tale of Neverwhere, crafted initially by author Neil Gaiman with Lenny Harry, began its life as a television series in 1996. It was subsequently adapted into a book by Gaiman and finally became a six-episode radio series on the BBC in 2013. My comments here refer to the radio version, published recently in audiobook format, available from Audible.
Neverwhere is built around an imaginative and hilarious use of the names of the stops on the London Underground in the strange world of London below. A familiar, mundane reality becomes the stage of outlandish and gripping adventures witnessed by an “upworlder” who strayed through his goodness and generosity into the world below only to become the central protagonist in a deadly quest.
The radio series Neverwhere is largely made up of short scenes that move the story on at a rapid pace. Cutting backwards and forwards between worlds also gives the author an opportunity to weave them together by his choice of words. Like when a character from the Upperworld says: “You saved my life” about a non-life threatening situation and then the story cuts immediately to a chase to the death in the sewers below.
The sumptuous world of sound in which the radio series is set owes its existence to Dirk Maggs, the same person who directed the original radio versions of many of Douglas Adam’s creations. Radio allows only a limited number of layers before sounds begin to merge and the result becomes garbled. Yet Neverwhere is rich in sounds, so much so that the story takes on added depth and breadth, literally oozing into your mind. Watery footsteps in underground wastes, the click of forks on plates in a posh social function, the gurgle of potent wine being poured into a glass, voices echoing off filthy cavernous walls, all anchor the story in a tangible, palpable world.
The radio series had me wanting to read the book, but it also raised questions about my own novel writing. I was intrigued to know if Gaiman’s book also switched rapidly from scene to scene so as to employ dramatic irony born of clever juxtaposition. It had me wanting to experiment shorter scenes in my novels with all the challenge that would mean in terms of multiple points of view. And what about the intense world of sound? How, if at all, could a book echo more richly such a sensuousness and depth born of sounds, not to mention smells and touch?
Reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina had me thinking about those ingredients of a story that appeal to me most, probably because her book pleased me soReading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina had me thinking about those ingredients of a story that appeal to me most, probably because her book pleased me so much. I really enjoy stories where people discover they have hidden talents or are finally able to reveal gifts that have long been kept secret, just like Seraphina, Hartman’s main character. And in so doing we share her joys and pleasures as well as her difficulties if not nightmares at having such gifts.
Another facet of Hartman’s book that pleased me is her exploration of the strange and how she weaves it into the story. Not a contrived strangeness trumped up for effect, but rather an unexpected shift in perspective similar to that born of creativity or humour. Who would think of wondering how a dragon would feel if trapped in a human body and the impact that could have on the uneasy cohabitation between humans and dragons?
Like many stories that feed on suspense, Hartman’s book is driven forward by the constant threats that hang over Seraphina, but not to the extent that she wallows in unending pain and misery dragging down the reader with her. The author avoids having the reader cringe about what horrible plight will befall Seraphina next. Yet at the same time, the story is far from tame, which is often the fate of those that spare their main character the pain and suffering.
Perhaps the ingredient that delights me most in such a story is being privy to the blossoming love between two powerful but apparently unreconcilable characters, long before they are aware of the forces at play and then the delight when that love is finally perceived and shared by the two concerned. Succeeding such a progressive flourishing of love requires deft craftsmanship.
All in all, I immensely enjoyed this book and, although there were a few moments when my attention flagged, generally when the author grappled with introducing complex story elements, I can warmly recommend it.
The second book of the Raven Boys Cycle, The Dream Thieves, written by Maggie Stiefvater, ends on a cadence that is so far from resolution that we areThe second book of the Raven Boys Cycle, The Dream Thieves, written by Maggie Stiefvater, ends on a cadence that is so far from resolution that we are surprised to awake and realise the story is over, albeit until the next book is published. That surprise may have something to do with the sheer pace and intensity of the story. It’s a daring finish to a wild and raw, but sophisticated book.
Masculine. There is no other word for the story. It’s not just that it is about a group of young boys or the violence that explodes unbidden within and around them. The whole book is permeated with sharpness and roughness and, above all, intensity. Even the main female character, a young girl called Blue, is as sharp as a knife in her choice of words, yet she battles to find her place in the boys’ world. Maybe the gravelly voice of the reader of the audiobook, Will Patton, contributes to the profound feeling of masculinity to the tale.
The fact that there is a shift in the main character from the first to the second book also contributes to the underlying impression that this is a world for young men. Ronan Lynch is a powerhouse of raw, masculine energy and barely contained violence, but he is also a well of susceptibility and vulnerability. And Roman, like the story, is cast abreast a confused frontier between the so-called real world and that of dreams. Dreams? They lie at the heart of the story: a magnetic, irresistible, pulsing heart. The density of the language and the richness of the images deployed throughout the book have the dream world continually seeping, if not violently erupting, into the present, till neither us readers nor the characters are sure what is real and what is not.
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus, Vintage, 2012 978-0099554790
My initial reaction to The Night Circus was one of wild enthusiasm. Just like a young,Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus, Vintage, 2012 978-0099554790
My initial reaction to The Night Circus was one of wild enthusiasm. Just like a young, wide-eyed spectator embarked on a magical tour, I was enthralled by the colours, the shapes and movements, by all the sounds and smells of the circus. “A feast of the senses,” the book, typically self-reflective, says of the Night Circus. Not only did the richness of the descriptions fascinate me, making me gasp at the breadth and depth of the author’s imagination, but also the elaborateness of the narrative, moving backwards and forwards in time, shifting in and out of the story and switching from first to second then to third person narrative.
There is no doubt that Erin Morgenstern’s magic worked on me. I was hopelessly hooked on the beautiful, ephemeral world of the Night Circus, wishing it would last for ever. Only when that world began to unravel and the illusions crumple, leaving me feeling bereft and equally unravelled, did I realise how much the book had swayed me.
One thing troubled me, however. A minor thing, maybe, but worrying all the same. I listened to the book in an excellent audio rendering by Jim Dale. Periodically I found my thoughts wandering, unable to remain with the story. I set myself to pondering why that should be. As a result, my enthusiasm gave way to a more wary ambivalence.
The book, like the Night Circus that it describes, is one continuous breath-taking illusion, as if the story and all that is related to it, was pulled from a hat, and in that monumental slight of hand, it becomes strangely insubstantial and disconnected, and us, as readers, with it. The form of the novel seeks to reflect the illusion of the circus itself and, like with the illusionist’s performance, we as readers are not sure if it is mastery or trickery or both.
The author seeks to engage the reader by anticipating his or her reactions, substituting herself for the reader by using the ‘you’ form and describing our reactions to the circus in a way that echoes the performance of the illusionist who manipulates spectators’ perceptions to make them see what she wants. But do we let ourselves be manipulated? The author also evokes the growth of a large and faithful following of the circus as if to conjure up, by association, something similar for the book, involving the reader in anticipation of the book’s success and suggesting how that might feel.
The narration attempts to embarks us, not so much by what happens to the characters, but rather by the intensity of the descriptions of strange and wonderful scenes. Coming as a string of exquisite cameos of the circus, these scenes, delightful and captivating as they are, rarely have anything to do with the characters and, if characters do appear in them, those people are a support for the circus, rather than the circus being the context in which the characters evolve. If a story is seen as the trials and tribulations of a number of characters, most of this book distracts from the story. It is possible that therein lies the book’s greatest slight of hand and its greatest weakness, as a story at least.
One of the outcomes of preferring the weird and wonderful of the circus, and binding the characters to that spectacular world, rather than letting them grow and develop in their own right, is that the intense emotions they experience reach us distorted and diluted, making that young man and woman seem unattainable. In comparison, the parallel story of the two twins born at the inception of the circus and their growing relationship to an outsider named Bailey, is far more touching and heart rending than all the trumpeted fears and doubts and passions of the two main characters....more
Grossman’s novel begins full of promise. The story is gripping as it follows the archetype of the boy who discovers he really is the magician he dreamGrossman’s novel begins full of promise. The story is gripping as it follows the archetype of the boy who discovers he really is the magician he dreamed he was. There’s a magic in stories that carry their readers off to other worlds. Then the story flatten’s out. Behind what turns out to be a cardboard facade there is nothing and, with that discovery, the magic of the story seeps sadly away. This lack of depth and the failure to engage the reader is clearly due to the choices made by the author.
A large part of Grossman’s narrative construction is built around a poor mash-up of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The author has the main character longing to enter that world and once he makes it there, he and his colleagues are constantly stepping out of the story, asking themselves what they should do in it. This is also the case at many other moments in Grossman’s book. The theme of being unable to remain within a story or life itself would certainly make for interesting social critique. This may not have been Grossman’s intention, but he constantly has his characters wondering about how they will be perceived in the story and whether they are up to scratch. This leads the reader to be constantly pulled out of the story. The result is not only frustrating but casts doubts on the credibility of story. Deliberately ejecting the reader is a risky business, for, once outside, he or she begins to notice the flaws and there are many of them.
It doesn’t help that Grossman seems to intensely dislike magic. He makes every effort to leech all the magic and excitement and pleasure out of magic, reducing it to tedium and repetition. Some magicians pursue noble social causes but most either undertake futile, pseudoscientific quests or are disabused and indulge in drink and drugs unable to cope with the pointlessness of their lives. The main character, Quentin, is portrayed as a misguided believer in the excitement and joy of magic, in the quest and in the battle of good against evil, but then veers into disbelief and skepticism. The dismantling of magic begins in the school of magic Quentin attends: from the hilarious pointlessness of the entrance exam to the isolation of the school, that leaves future magicians totally unprepared for what happens when they graduate. No wonder so many magicians end up completely lost in life, not knowing what to do.
About three-quarters through the book, Alice, one of the characters says: “Wake up. This isn’t a story? It’s just one fucking thing after another!” The author may well have meant Alice to incite her fellow characters to stop wondering about whether or not they were in a story and just live it. But with the constant succession of disconnected events that burst inexplicably from the pages with little relationship to what went before or comes after, the reader begins to wonder if Alice isn’t talking about the book itself. This impression is strengthened by the fact that the characters are barely etched out, and the weakness of the relationships between people, even when they are built on passion.
So what went wrong? My guess is that the author lost the feeling for the story after the initial chapters and was forced to pile unrelated effect on effect to try to fill the resulting void until, unexpectedly, he rediscovered his lost thread towards the end of the book, and with it rekindled the story magic, if only temporarily.
I saw Linda Hawley’s book mentioned on Twitter and was intrigued by the title, so I downloaded the Kindle version. It was the first time I had read aI saw Linda Hawley’s book mentioned on Twitter and was intrigued by the title, so I downloaded the Kindle version. It was the first time I had read a full length book on my iPhone. I found the story well written and gripping. I would willingly advise people to read it and I will certainly read the next book in the trilogy. Having said that, a couple of things troubled me in the book and in my relationship to it, so I will try to explore them in what follows.
The story moves backwards and forwards from a future present to several recent pasts. At first I was troubled by this shifting in time. It wasn’t too difficult, however, to ignore the confusion it caused in me because the story was sufficiently engrossing that I quickly forgot about my momentary feelings of being lost. Later I noticed that the author had put clear markers in the chapter titles to let the reader know what time the chapter took place in. It was then that I realised that I had not been reading the titles as, at a cursory glance, I mistakenly took them for being similar. If I had been reading the print version, I might well have glanced back over the contents page to compare chapter titles, but as this was my first experience reading an ebook I was concerned I might lose my place in the book.
The more I read of the book, the more I had a niggling feeling that the story was yet to begin. Great care was taken in describing the main character and her relationships to those around her: her colleagues at work, her family, her friends where she used to live and her dog. From time to time, I wondered why certain episodes of her life were described in such detail, but that they were didn’t disturb me so much as they were well crafted and brought the character and her surroundings alive. There were moments when the story accelerated brusquely, carrying the reader away in a whirlwind of breath-taking action. Then things settled back to a more sedate rhythm. As a dystopian novel, Dreams Unleashed, bears the tell-tale marks of deep-seated anxiety that has its roots in the ever-growing threat of the nameless, faceless authorities to its citizens. In many such novels, the Hunger Games, for example, that anxiety chases the reader forward through the story. In Dreams Unleashed, we are periodically reminded of this tension but it tends to fade from view when relationships and dinner and the character’s dog get the upper hand.
When the book abruptly came to an end with a screaming cliffhanger, the underlying feeling of coming up short finally took on a tangible form. It was as if the book had ended before it had really got underway. To say so is unfair on the author. As I have described above, the book is full of all manner of things and the story is gripping. The only explanation I can find for this mismatch lies in the balance between story telling that is static, that builds on description and memories from the past, and breathtaking action that drives the story forward helter-skelter to the catastrophe everyone is expecting yet earnestly wishes to avoid....more