life-after-life-e1364310158304 Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who I have been aware of but avoided for a while. I put my hands up, it was and halife-after-life-e1364310158304 Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who I have been aware of but avoided for a while. I put my hands up, it was and has been deeply unfair of me. Like that chap in the village I grew up in who always crossed the road when he saw my mother to avoid talking to her. For no apparent reason. But the truth is, that with Kate Atkinson, I was that man! And I can remember where this irrational aversion came from: as a young and impressionable fellow, I distinctly recall a copy of Behind The Scenes At The Museum languishing on the corner of our bath. It was my mother's. And it was water-warped, crinkled, coffee stained and genuinely mouldering. Abandoned. I responded to the sight of the rotting book with a visceral repulsion which I appear to have transferred to the whole of Kate Atkinson's opus.
Perhaps the fact that the copy of Life After Life I have is the pristine white of the picture has helped overcome that reaction. As well as the praise and publicity which the book received. The list of awards it has won and been shortlisted for (and the quality of the novels which beat it) is impressive: it won the 2013 Costa Award, was shortlisted for the Bailey's Women Prize, Waterstone's Book of the Year and was nominated in a clutch of other Books of The Year lists. All of which praise, I must say, is absolutely justified.
This is a magnificent and wonderful book.
Recapping the premise briefly, because I'm sure most people are fairly well aware of it already, Ursula Beresford Todd - Little Bear - is born in a legendarily snowy night in 1910 and the novel is essentially a Bildungsroman following her life from mewling babe to her death. Or deaths. Because the narrative continually returns to the birth and snow of 1910 every time Ursula dies and she is born again, re-living the same life with minor variations and changes which often have immense repercussions on her future. If I recap a handful of the ways she dies, we bear witness to her being drowned in the sea, falling from windows, succumbing to Spanish 'flu during the 1918 Armistice celebrations and on numerous occasions during World War II, on both sides of the conflict.
It could very easily have become a tedious and repetitive conceit save for the beauty, quality and wryness of Atkinson's writing, and the strength of Ursula as a character. She is created and presented by Atkinson with intelligence and wit, with an emotional depth and delicacy and with such a strong historical and social context that she genuinely does breathe from the page. She is one of the most real characters I have encountered for a while!
There are certain fixed points in Ursula's narrative which recur life after life: she is born at home in Fox Corner, surrounded by siblings - the warm Pamela, the rambunctious Maurice, the idolised Teddy, later the youngest Jimmy; her father Hugh is a delight and one of the very few realistically portrayed and positive male figures in Ursula's life; her mother Sylvie is initially endearing enough but descends into bitterness and petty cruelties. The irascible but reliable Mrs Glover who cooks for them and the flighty and romantic Bridget who serves as their maid. Aunt Izzie who only truly appears half way through the novel is delightfully wayward, eloping to France with a married man and embracing the freedom of the libertarian after her return. The family and Fox Corner are perhaps an idealised and mildly sentimentalised depiction of Britain during the wars: it is a world which is un apologetically middle class and bucolic: the gardens and copse and stream and fields and farms behind Fox Corner a pastoral idyll which - as someone who grew up in a not dissimilar part of the country - is not quite real. But it is certainly a vision of Britain which is worth saving and protecting through two world wars... and I imagine that that is the point! At least, for me it was the point.
The idyll of Fox Corner, however, is not wholly idyllic: a sexual predator prowls the lanes and fields, a story which a lesser writer would have brought to the fore; the relationship between Hugh and Sylvie sours and we glimpse Sylvie with another man. This does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: there are very few good men in it. With the exception of Teddy, Jimmy and Hugh, men generally bring sex and violence into the narrative. In addition to the predator, Maurice brings home a friend whose interest in Ursula is carnal and casual and more cruel because of its casualness; typing tutors study Esperanto and expose themselves; the marriage to Derek Oliphant is abusive in the extreme and a very harrowing depiction of domestic violence; her marriage to . Maurice himself is persistently labelled as vile by his sisters.
And of course there is Hitler. Not the best role model for male readers.
Ursula's time in Germany, in my opinion, was the most forced and least satisfying part of the novel. Perhaps I just missed Fox Corner as much as she did. But the plot device - if you knew about the horrors of World War II, would you kill Hitler? - seemed a little too familiar and clichéd and unnecessary. Atkinson's depictions of the war, in both England and in Germany, are so horrific and real and convincing that that the question itself seems redundant.
Atkinson's writing is absolutely on point at every turn. Where it needs to be tender and tragic we get descriptions like this
"Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”
Yet, where it needs to be sardonic, a wry and amusing counterpoint to the pain in the novel, we get snippets of doctors whose
“patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him”.
or jarring images of Mrs Glover's tonguepress intruding itself into one of Ursula's first kisses. Nor is Atkiinson averse to commenting on the growth of a blackmarket economy in kittens in the farms around Fox Corner, nor dispatching said kittens with a single wry sentence
"To Pamela's surprise, this promise was kept and a kitten duly acquired from the hall farm. A week later it took a fit and died. A full funeral was held."
All in all, an exemplary book. Simply by reason of its conceit, it cries out for comparison with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Bone Clocks. For me, this comparison is easy: Life After Life is a truly magnificent book and even The Bone Clocks pales in comparison....more
I so wanted to like it. A alternate history world in which the borders between reality and books is flexible and Oh I'm in two minds about this book.
I so wanted to like it. A alternate history world in which the borders between reality and books is flexible and malleable. Who would love to pop to Wuthering Heights for a cup of tea with Nelly Dean? Or stroll through the 100 Acre Wood? Or play hide-and-seek in the Garden of Eden (who's going to find you behind that apple tree?) for an afternoon?
You could pop into Fifty Shades and inform Ms. Steele what consent actually means.
And you have to dodge Baconians on the street seeking to convert your views on Shakespeare's authorship. A world where entertainment includes coin-fed Shakespearean soliloquy dispensers and wholly audience-participation Shakespeare plays with the atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
And you can own dodos in Fforde's world. I mean, dodos! Because genetic splicing is a thing.
And time travel.
And vampires and werewolves.
I'm sure many people would find the range of alternative structures thrown into this mix quirky or witty - which each one is individually - I mean, book worms which crawl around and eat prepositions and excrete apostrophes or, if they're stressed, capitalisation - the range of ideas, concepts and conceits thrown in, to me, felt confused. Almost as if Fforde wrote himself into plot holes and had to go back to insert a random new feature in order to provide him with a way out. Or woke up with an idea and the words "Oh, wouldn't it be cool if..." on his lips.
What we're presented with is essentially a crime caper: the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and Thursday Next is called in to investigate. We discover increasingly shady departments of the Special Ops forces of which Next is a member; the sinister Goliath corporation manipulating the investigation, a subplot involving Next's love life and her time in the Crimean War.
In addition to the confused gamut of tropes, there were more issues which irked me, as a writer myself.
[It is a new thing to self-identify as a writer for me... but it felt lovely saying it!]
The other issues. Oh yes. For a book so aware of the limitations of the first person narrative (it actual is a significant plot device towards the end, the fact that Jane Eyre is itself first person), the novel failed to either give Thursday a convincing narrative voice or to remain in its own first person narrative. We see numerous scenes from outside Thursday's point of view: whole chapters took place miles away from Thursday; some chapters alternated from Thursday's and an omniscient narrative point of view within the chapter.
And to have your first-person narrator randomly look at herself in a mirror just to describe her for the reader? Really?! I'd expect that from kids at school. What was even the point to tell me that she was
somewhat ordinary features.... Her hair was a plain mousey colour and of medium length ...
What do I learn of her from that? Really? Were her looks a plot point? No.
And sometimes Fforde did try. After a botched arrest attempt, we learn what happened from Thursday's interview with internal affairs. That's okay. That's a good idea: you can create the emotion of the protagonist directly; you can deliver half-truths and dramatic irony and unreliable narrators. Or, you can do what Fforde does, and simply retell the story in the same bland voice that Thursday's narrative voice has.
And our antagonist, Acheron Hades. With a name like that, how could Fforde have expected him to be anything other than a cardboard cutout villain. Imbued with a range of unexplained powers. Powers which are not shared by anyone else.
Let's have a look at Fforde's naming system. Thursday Next is odd; Acheron Hades is too obvious and blunt; Jack Schitt is childishly scatological; but minor characters like Millon de Floss or Felix Tabularasa have sparks of fun and wit.
Maybe I'm being too harsh on Fforde - or his editor, in all likelihood. A stronger editorial control could have made this a much better book. Maybe, though, just maybe, there's a really clever developed story arc which will tie everything together over the rest of the series. Maybe I'm too foolish to recognise meta-literary post-modern irony and see them as a lack of control over the narrative.
I will probably give one more in the series a go. Just in case.
If you liked this, try:
Mark Hodder, The Curious Case of Spring-Heeled Jack
Part of me loves short stories. The precision, the concision, the economy of language within them - read The Dead by james Joyce. Part of me, however, longs for the lengthy, relaxed familiarity you get with the characters in a novel, even in the best of the genre.
In the worst collections of short stories, you get the impression that the author has swept up the offcuts and cast-off fragments from his editing desk and served them up.
So reading any short story collection is a double-edged sword for me.
But Miéville has such a range to his writings and such a wealth of imagination and control over his voices and depth to his settings that I was looking at this with a lot of excitement. And in main part, this collection was wonderful and rich. Not every story in the collection chimed with me - but then you'd expect that from a short story collection. We also have more than just short stories here: the collection includes monologues, meditations and screenplays for film trailers as well as short stories. And within the collection, Miéville takes us into his familiar weird fiction milieus: familiar and recognisable locations confronted by the bizarre and inexplicable such as walking oil rigs, floating icebergs and a sickness which surrounds the infected with a moat. In addition to this, we encounter magic realism, horror, zombie apocalypses and science fiction.
Let's have a quick canter of some of the most successful stories (at least for me).
Sӓcken was Miéville's foray into horror and begins in familiar enough territory: a pair of innocent girls stay in an isolated lakeside cottage in the forests of Germany. Something horrific drags itself from the lake and into the girls' lives. In itself, the scenario is traditional enough but Miéville's control over the horror and his navigation of the territories of scepticism, doubt, nightmare and horror was wonderful. As were his descriptions of the "nightmare calf born without limbs or head or eyes but full of tumors".
After The Festival was wonderfully viscerally creepy. Imagining a world in which revellers attend celebrations of slaughter and cooking, and afterwards decked themselves with the severed heads of the slaughtered animals was wonderful. Imagine now the worms burrowing from those heads into the flesh of the people beneath, revealing the animal within the human condition, and the craving those people have for those heads. The 9th Technique was, perhaps, the most truly Miévillian in the collection. The description of the diner in which clandestine magical black market transactions was brilliantly evoked and made the purchase of the potent puissance-laden cocoon credible. I wonder how many Miéville-readers wondered whether the cocoon contained a slake moth! Again, the beauty is in Miéville's descriptions as much as anything: the glass jar in which his protagonist, Koning, placed the cocoon "did not break and it did not bow or bend or inflate grotesquely as if heated and made soft, but it was harder and harder to lift, denser and denser with shadow."
The Dowager of Bees, in my mind, was the most evocative story and showed the greatest control to maintain its conciseness. A gambler discovers that there are impossible and unknown hidden suits of cards capable of manifesting inside any pack of cards in any game, warping reality around them, inserting additional chapters of rules into rule books whenever they appear. The imagery of the cards themselves - with echoes of tarot cards and magic in themselves - and the idea that these cards were somehow conscious or sentient. I did miss with these stories what has, for me, been the cornerstone of Miéville's writings: the urban, thriving, decaying, living cities, whether they be London from The Kraken, New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station or Armada from The Scar. Obviously, that is inherent within the brevity of the genre and at times there are suggestions of it. Dan's flight in Estate in which he "fingered walls and bollards. He passed a knocked-over bin and knelt to examine it", where he seemed to be reading the cityscape the way a tracker might read a forest, came close. And then the London of Polynia seemed curiously blank in contrast.
All in all, this collection offers a number of rich and lush gems, all the more evocative for being so concise, and a myriad of interesting ideas and conceits....more
Again, a gorgeous cover here and a decent read. This is the second in Marie Brennan's Lady Trent trilogy and it continues the adventures of Mrs Isabe Again, a gorgeous cover here and a decent read. This is the second in Marie Brennan's Lady Trent trilogy and it continues the adventures of Mrs Isabella Camherst - still to meet Lord Trent or to be named a lady - from the first book, A Natural History Of Dragons. Much of what I praised in the first book re-appears here, but not all.
I have more hesitation this time round - although I'll admit that that may be caused by how quickly I read this after A Natural History, or perhaps pressing distractions of a personal nature. But mainly, I felt a lack of dragons!
Allow me to summarise what we do get in the novel before lamenting what we lack.
We pick up Isabella Camherst three years or so after the first book, in which her husband Jacob died and, at the end of which, we learn she is pregnant. Her son is named Jacob after his father and promptly taken on by nannies whilst Isabella distances herself from him. Even more so than might be expected in this Regency-esque world. To the extent, in fact, that she flees to the continent of Eriga - a thinly disguised Africa just as Vystrana was a thinly veiled Russia.
The expedition arrives and potters about a bit somewhat aimlessly. It seemed poorly conceived. Maybe Lord Hilford, who funded but did not join it, is getting a little vague in his senescence. Eventually, however, the group are given a task by the oba in whose palace they've been whiling away their hours: descend to the rain jungle / swampland of the neighbouring Mouleen area and bring back dragon eggs. More time was whiled away. Only a couple of dragons were seen.
What this was really was a study of the society of the Moulish (with whom we spent most time) and of tensions and conflict between the somewhat mercenary Scirlanders and various other tribes using the Mouleen swamps to further their own ambitions. At least once, Lady Trent informed me that she should not be distracted by her natural history of dragons and meditations on their life cycle when her reader was more interested in the army she'd encountered.
I was not more interested!
The book meandered a little in the first half and rushed towards the end but it was a perfectly decent read.
We retained Lady Trent's narration and her voice remained convincing, entertaining and engaging throughout. As a character, as Isabella Camherst, I felt she benefitted from the extra years and was more credible than the girl in the first book who kept on coming up with the answer. We added Nathalie, Lord Hilford's wayward engineering granddaughter who, to be honest, didn't really add much to the mix.
What I missed with this entrance to the series - in addition to the direction of the first - was the tenderness of the marriage between Jacob and Isabella. They were lovely together in A Natural History. And the relationship or friendship with Tom Wilker wasn't enough to replace it.
I don't want to sound too down on this book: it's a decent and well-written thing. It is good. It does perhaps suffer from the typical (stereotypical?) middle-book syndrome so I'm hoping that the third book lifts the trilogy. What am I hoping for from Voyage Of The Basilisk? I hope Jacob (junior) will be brought into the book properly - if the chronology holds he's probably about four or five at the end of Tropic of Serpents and there may be a delay of years before Basilisk so he could go on the expedition. It seems mean to sideline him utterly! I hope we meet Lord Trent - assuming that Isabella becomes Lady Trent through marriage which is, I suppose, not guaranteed - and I hope that their relationship is given time to develop ... Actually no, ignore that. I hope we meet him and some form of relationship develops, but that the romantic relationship doesn't even begin.
This was a pleasant enough way to round of my half term: decently written in the engaging and practical voice of Lady Trent, this book conjures up a This was a pleasant enough way to round of my half term: decently written in the engaging and practical voice of Lady Trent, this book conjures up a Regency style world with echoes of Austen. With dragons.
The opening sections of the novel are the most Austenesque - if that's even a word. Isabella Hendemore, the only daughter in a brood of boys, is indulged by her often absent gentleman father in an interest or passion in dragons who appear to be common enough to encroach into her father's lands occasionally. They are treated by most people as any other predator, albeit a particularly dangerous predator, to be hunted and driven away from farms.
After a few minor dragon-based adventures, Isabella is introduced to Society where she meets Jacob Camherst. Their courtship is sped over - presumably due to an absence of dragons - and I'd have liked to have seen more of it. Brennan's writing was actually quite effective in describing the tension and comedy between genuine affection and the conventions in which Isabella are forced to express it. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's not Austen; it's not social satire. But it was sweet and affecting. Especially as the narrative voice of Lady Trent is narrating the tale with the benefit of hindsight, status and a certain reputation for boldness.
Following the wedding, Brennan has Isabella Camherst meet Lord Hilford, a peer of the realm with a naturalist's interest in dragons. An expedition is planned to the village of Drustanev in Vystrana, a thinly veiled Russia. Isabella manoeuvres herself to be included in it. And from there, the heart of the novel begins as Brennan moves the memoir into the territory of a travelogue and then a mystery thriller. With dragons.
The voice of Isabella, Lady Trent, was very well done. Self-deprecating, self-aware and honest. She - and in very real ways we've not seen her as neither Isabella Hendemore nor Isabella Camherst had yet become Isabella, Lady Trent, as she herself pointed out - was irascible and warm and engaging. A bit like an eccentric great-aunt. And the novel did indeed sound like what it claimed to be, a memoir, with occasional asides to the reader, references back to novels, travelogues and reference books within the world of the novel.
The dragons' presence was almost incidental: they were an integral feature of the landscape Brennan created and a key plot device but the story was really about the people. Some suspicious and fearful, some greedy, some venal, most generally decent, none exactly evil. It was quite refreshing for a fantasy novel not to have a dark lord figure brooding over the world pretending to be Sauron - and no doubt one whose name ends in -ex or -ix or some other suitably sinister suffix. Yes, Christopher Paolini, I'm referring to your King Galbatorix here! I'm sorry, but, well, the dragons make it an obvious comparison.
So, all in all, I enjoyed this. It was pleasant and took me to a credible other world with some interesting characters.
And there were dragons.
And, doing the Reading Challenge which requires a trilogy, the remaining two books in the series (see here for covers, which are also very impressive) won't be a bad way to spend the Summer. ...more
This tale has its origins in the novel Snuff: it is the bedtime story that Sam Vimes' son requires every night.
It is utterly silly, amusing and deligThis tale has its origins in the novel Snuff: it is the bedtime story that Sam Vimes' son requires every night.
It is utterly silly, amusing and delightful. How charming can a book about poo be? This is the most charming book about poo I have ever read!
Does it have a plot? Of course: Young Geoffrey is dispatched to Ankh-Morpork by his parents to reside with his grand-mama. He is not terribly keen on the idea until a bird poos on his head and he is told that it means good luck. With impeccable logic, he concludes that, if bird poo is lucky, how much more lucky and interesting might the poo to more exotic creatures be? With the collusion of his grand-mama, who seems for more practical than Geiffrey thought, he starts a poo museum.
Well why not?
We know that Harry King, who has a cameo here, found his fortune in waste!
This is a tiny gem of a book, gorgeously illustrated by Peter Dennis in a wonderfully charming style. Laugh out loud? Probably not. Wry smile? Sure. Earth shattering observations on life? Maybe not.
A beautiful looking book, hence leaving the picture to the end!
I fear I'm going to be unpopular here because I've heard so much good about this book. People have raved about it. A friend, whose book reco Oh dear.
I fear I'm going to be unpopular here because I've heard so much good about this book. People have raved about it. A friend, whose book recommendations I've often been steered well by, re-reads it. Monthly.
So I apologise in advance.
I found it to be... okay.
It was standard zombie post-apocalyptic horror fare with a fairly interesting twist.
Let's look at the world building first ... World building? World destruction? Whatever. It is set in the UK which makes a nice change from the almost ubiquitous American settings. This is, perhaps, not hugely surprising as M. R. Carey hails from Liverpool but the occasional reference (like the one to David Attenborough) gives it, momentarily, a very British feel. The setting, however, quickly became fairly generic: generic Army base; generic devastated countryside; generic infected cities.
But one of the pleasures of zombie novels, for me, is the imagined mechanics of it all. Mira Grant's Feed books had a credible virus-origin; World War Z felt credible enough; Justin Cronin's The Passage was a little convenient and vague. The infection here, however, is fungal rather than viral and rooted in real science: the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus apparently does infect and change the behaviours of ants which actually is genuinely amazing! And it must be true: it's on Wikipedia here! It is one of those facts that does shift your perception of the natural world. These are fungi, pretty much the most basic organism in the world. Taking control of an insect. In the world of the novel, a mutated form of this fungus does the same in people, destroying the higher functions of the brain and exaggerating the hunger.
So far, so good: a pretty solid creation. The twist comes in the form of the ten-year old protagonist Melanie: infected but somehow retaining her higher processes: language, memory, intelligence, which we are told repeatedly is at genius-level, emotion and empathy. We first meet her along with nearly two dozen other children, housed in a cell, strapped into a wheelchair and transported back and forth to have classes with a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Occasionally, children are removed by Doctor Caldwell to be dissected. As a reader, we catch on fairly quickly, and Melanie's partial understanding and her almost wilful refusal to confront it is managed well enough.
Although not first person, the point of view is generally Melanie's and the language seems to match it with a simplicity and clarity and naivety which is pretty effective. But the voice doesn't change when our point of view does which don't seem terribly well managed. Equally clumsily done are the various infodumps about the infection: even Justineau asks Caldwell why she's telling her how the infection began.
In terms of structure and plot, it progresses in the only real way it could: the security of the base is compromised; a small band of survivors flee, heading for Beacon, some safe holdfast south of London. On the way, Carey tries to develop the back stories of his characters before the inevitable occurs.
And that was where the novel faltered, for me. The characters never emerged from two-dimensionality: Parks was always the gruff but well-meaning Sargeant; Gallagher, always the immature innocent soldier caught up in a war he did not understand; Caldwell never became more than a female Dr Mengele; Justineau the compassionate. And they were so incredibly stupid! Heading for cities where the concentration of zombies was at its highest; approaching a zombie in the street. Even Melanie, who was the most intriguing of them all, didn't really engage me. I'd seen it done before in Cronin's The Passage and between Melanie and Amy Harper Bellafonte, there is no contest.
I mean, don't get me wrong... This is not a bad book; it's a decent read and a good example of the genre; it's not lyrical or beautiful in its language but it is well written and well paced. It's a decent book. I just don't get the huge praise I've heard about it.
Maybe it's me.
Maybe I'm missing something.
The Passage, Justin Cronin World War Z, Max Brooks Feed, Mira Grant My Swordhand is Singing, Marcus Sedgwick The Strain, Guillermo del Toro and Chick Hogan...more
EditThis was not what I had expected from Nesbø. And I'm saying that in a good way.
Nor is it what the sticker on the front proclaims it to be, "The EditThis was not what I had expected from Nesbø. And I'm saying that in a good way.
Nor is it what the sticker on the front proclaims it to be, "The Brand New Thriller" from the author of The Snowman. Well, it obviously is from the author of The Snowman, which is the only other Nesbø book I've read. But it's not a thriller. It is something different, something more.
Describing the premise of the novel, however, will make it sound like a thriller. Our narrator is Olav Johansen, a "fixer" or assassin for one of two criminal bosses in Oslo. His assignment is to kill the wife of his own boss who has been having an affair. Which then puts him in a position where he is concerned that he knows too much and will become the target rather than the fixer.
So far, so thriller.
But Olaf is an unconventional fixer. He is dyslexic but an avid reader and the prose is littered with explicit references. Facts are offered with an appended "Or so I've read somewhere". Sometimes the specific book and volume are cited, along with the library in which he'd read it. There's an extended allusion to and echoes of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables throughout the novel.
Although not explicitly stated, there's also traits of the autistic spectrum in the presentation of Olav. He comments that Darwin had identified "only six universal facial expressions for human emotions" and he struggles to identify those emotions, describing himself as "completely tone-deaf when it comes to noticing the undertones and subtexts in what people say". As I say, he was as unconventional narrator as he is a fixer.
Hoffmann and The Fisherman, the two rival crime bosses, were fairly standard fare. But there are also two rival women in the novel: Corina, Hoffmann's beautiful cheating wife; and Maria, the fiancée of a junkie who was being forced to prostitute herself to pay off his debts. These two women were beautifully portrayed, with a control and sparseness, especially with Maria, which I hadn't expected.
In fact, sparse is not a bad word to describe the novel. There is a single plot that plays out, interspersed with fragments from Olav's own past. And it comes in a not much over 100 pages (on my ebook edition). There is an economy and a precision here to the prose: there is enough to create the characters and no more. Nothing is wasted. The opening scene of the book contains the image of red blood pooling on snow which "made me think of a king's robe, all purple and lined with ermine, like the drawings in books of Norweigan folk tales my mother used to read me", and describes the way the snow "sucked the blood up as it fell, drawing it in under the surface, hiding it, as if it had some sort of use for it. As I walked home I imagineda snowman rising up from the snowdrift, one with clearly visible veins of blood under its deathly pale skin of ice". The final scene of the book returns to and inverts the same image in a wonderfully macabre fairytale image.
At its heart, however, it is a book about stories and narratives. The stories we tell each other - but more importantly ourselves - in order to make some form of sense of the world we inhabit. Even if we are confronted with evidence that contradicts the story.
This is no great work of fiction. This is not a literary masterpiece. It is neither lyrical, resonant or thought-pr
I'm going to 'fess up here.
This is no great work of fiction. This is not a literary masterpiece. It is neither lyrical, resonant or thought-provoking - those three adjectives appearing more and more regularly on my blog as praise-words for novels. It does not sparkle with intriguing new metaphors; its prose does not ring with the clarity of a bell; its characters rarely emerge beyond sketchy two-dimensionality.
If you're looking for these things, you'll not find them in this book and you'll be disappointed.
If, however, you're looking for a good, rollicking, fun burst of inventiveness, you'll be happy.
This is the second of Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series and cracks straight on from the first, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. The same alternate reality Albertian London re-appears; the same range of inventively steampunk mechanisms and genetically engineered swans, dogs and parakeets return to fill its streets, run messages and transport people. This time, they are added to by insect carcasses, grown to immense sizes, hollowed out, powered by steam and used as public and personal transport. The VW Beetle becomes very literal! We are also re-acquainted with the familiar historical cameos of Lord Palmerston, Oscar Wylde, Charles Babbage, Isembard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale. These are now supplemented with Burke and Hare in a less grave-robbing incarnation than you might expect and the philosopher Herbert Spencer.
Hodder uses this second book to expand both the geography and mythology of his world: we see beyond London to the Tichborne estate; we learn of three giant black diamonds with mysterious and mystical powers. Fragments of these diamonds had been used in Spring-Heeled Jack's time travelling suit in the first book; two are recovered through this one. The third book is clearly set up as a rescue mission to recover the third and final diamond.
As to the core plot here, it revolves around the real legal scandal - for more details of which you can read here - in which a purportedly lost aristocrat returns to reclaim his title. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence against him which led to both his claim failing and a criminal case for fraud against him, the affair roused popular opinions and the imposter received immense public support.
Hodder develops a unique explanation for the support his version of the Claimant received. An explanation which involves mediums, wraiths, a horde of abjectly apologetic and verbose zombies as well as the black diamonds.
The battle towards the end of the book where the "well dressed, debonair and faultlessly polite" walking dead - who are absent for most of the book - have their day, apologising all the while, is ridiculously fun.
"I'm mortified," one of them confessed as he jammed his fingers into a constable's eye sockets. "This really is most despicable behaviour and I offer my sincerest apologies."
Yes, the humour detracts from the tension in the climactic battle. But it's fun!
Hodder's imagination clearly steers towards the large-than-life and the grotesque - the Claimant himself is the obvious example. But he writes with enthusiasm and, I imagine, a broad grin. Is his dialogue convincing? No, not really. Is the description of Burton as "the famous explorer" too often repeated? Probably. Are his characters any more than over-drawn cardboard cutouts? Not particularly. Could you drive a horse and cart through plot holes? Probably, if you were so inclined.
Does it matter in this case?
Not a jot!
It reminds me of The Avengers: over-the-top, very silly in places and hugely enjoyable. ...more
Of the three CILIP Carnegie nominees I've read, this is my clear front runner. And I'm saying that having read Patrick Ne This is a remarkable novel.
Of the three CILIP Carnegie nominees I've read, this is my clear front runner. And I'm saying that having read Patrick Ness!
Before I review it, however, I'm going to play a game with my sixteen year-old stepson, whose birthday it is today. Despite his protestations, he is going to give me three numbers between 1 and 408, which is the number of pages in the book. His choices are: 407, 52 and 64. I think that the novel is so rich in (or over-abundant in, depending on your sensibilities) figurative language that I'll be able to find an example on each page!
Page 407: Trista's smile is "thorny", which may be literal or figurative; her life is a "book" which could have been "closed"; the Crescent family is a "jigsaw".
Page 52: The doctor smiles "warmly" and describes trauma as being like a time when you "swallowed a marble" causing "A ... sort of tummy ache of the mind"; an explanation which is "homely".
Page 64: Triss was driven home "with jazz in her blood" made up of "leaping" melodies; her sense of identity "closed in on her again, like cold, damp swaddling clothes"; a motorbike is described as a "lean, black creature", out-of-place like "a footprint on an embroidered tablecloth"; it was "bold", with the "rough cockiness of a stray dog".
One of the first things that leapt at me from the novel was the level of metaphor, simile, personification and pathetic fallacy. Perhaps it was particularly noticeable having used the word "sparse" to describe the prose in previous recent reads. In fact, it was so noticeable I had blogged about it here. Not quite purple prose but a little self-indulgent perhaps, a little self-aware. Actually, quite close to my own writing style so perhaps I recognised the richness in the same way I'd recognise my own reflection - and that was a very deliberate analogy!
But each simile and metaphor is gorgeous and resonant. I particularly liked the following quote
Outside Triss' room, the evening came to an end. There was movement on the landing, muffled voices, door percussion. The faint rustles and ticks of the sleep-time rituals. And then, over the next two hours, quiet settled upon the house by infinitesimal degrees, like dust.
The story itself is evocative and powerful. And very British. It revolves around changelings and fairies and elves - but very much in the vein of Shakespeare's Puck rather than Disney: mischievous, childish, animalistic creatures whose interactions with humanity are nervous, whimsical and suspicious. And it is a crackinglingly good adventure story in its own right.
Set in the aftermath of World War One, it is also a bone-achingly dissection of grief and loss. Not simply at an individual level - Triss's brother, Sebastian having died in the French trenches - but also at a societal level. The shattering of the pre-war traditions and beliefs and structures; and the futile efforts of some characters to cling to the empty traditions. I can recognise that in my own grandmother's attempts to maintain the facade of respectability and gentility which did feel like a pantomime - a memory of a ghost of a pantomime - even to my dulled senses.
So how much more appealing is the world of the fairies (or the Besiders) - immigrants forging a life a new life in the cities and towns, fleeing from the countryside and foreign countries. And how apt and poignant is that? As the UK enters a General Election with UKIP currently on 15% of the vote. The Besiders are chaotic, dangerous, afraid; some may be malicious, mostly seeking nothing more than shelter and safety. And in there, perhaps, lies one of the many beauties in the novel: neither the immigrant Besiders not the indigenous humans are demonised. Both communities have suffered; both communities are suspicious of the other; both communities are rich in different ways.
And beneath this again lies a psychological tale of parents and children, the thorny boundaries between love, protection and autonomy being explored in all their complexities and knottiness. Triss's dependence on her parents, their dependence on her dependence, are dissected with a brutal honesty; sibling rivalries and love grow and rip open characters. How do we forge our identities, our sense of self, when so much of what we are is inherited, borrowed from and imprinted on us by the limited worlds we inhabit. The image of Triss / not-Triss / Trista stuffed full of leaves, twigs and ribbons and borrowed memories is an apt metaphor for each of us struggling to create our own stories, our own voices.
Violet was a wonderful creation: the uncompromising, unsentimental, jazz-feulled motorbiking Violet.
There's certainly scope in the novel for a sequel - even a series. But I hope Harding doesn't go down that road. I'd rather have these characters live independently in my imagination, a right that they fought for throughout the novel. ...more
This is the first of my reviews of this year's CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness' More Than This I read back in August - seThis is the first of my reviews of this year's CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness' More Than This I read back in August - see here for my review - six months before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest, it will take some beating!
Anyway, this is my first knowing CILIP Carnegie read.
And I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly! I don't think it's a winner but a great read. I mean, fairytales, wolves, witches, werepeople, cross dressing. And a slightly underused hen. What's not to like?
Fairytales and mythology have continued to inspire writers and are enjoying a revival with Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Helene Wecker, Ali Smith, Ali Shaw, Erin Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Disney - who would watch Frozen when you could read The Girl With Glass Feet? So, in this environment, expectations are high for Tinder. Heady company, Ms Gardner!
And the opening lines do not disappoint.
Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking. He wore upon his skull a withered crown of white bone twisted with green hawthorn. His skeleton was shrouded with a tattered cloak of gold and, in his wake, stood the ghosts of my comrades newly plucked, half-lived, from life. Many I knew by name. Based on the first fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson's wrote, The Tinderbox, Tinder's narrator is Otto Hundebiss, a common soldier drafted into the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Following the slaughter of his compatriots, Otto drifts into a fairytale world of hidden castles, unruly princesses and fearsome werewolves. Following the structure of the original take, Otto has to face three trials in order to retrieve a mysterious tinderbox, keeping the riches he finds there. Instead of returning it to its owner, he keeps the tinderbox, causing her to be killed. In a nearby town, he discovers that the tinderbox grants him the power to summon monstrous werewolves.
The language of the novel maintains the sparseness and occasional lyricism of the classic fairytale. There's not the depth of character or psychology you might expect: Otto never becomes more than a cipher for the traumatised child soldier, the common man struggling against social inequalities, or sexual maturing. He doesn't work as a character, even though Gardner does toss us flashbacks to the horrors that Otto has experienced. But that's all okay because this is, at the end of the day, a fairy tale.
The illustrations in the book by David Roberts are also worth a mention: they are gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. Stylised and unreal but gorgeous.
The novel certainly holds the imagination with the quality of an hallucination or a dream and a similar logic. Gardner has said that the novel was inspired by the experiences of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and of child soldiers in Rwanda as well as the Thirty Years War. For me, these real world parallels were mere echoes - although parents may want to exercise caution as the fate of Otto's sister becomes clear as well as the fate of the daughter of a neighbouring farm. It is perhaps here that the more modern conflicts and our outrage at the use of rape as a weapon of war become most patent. ...more