Archive for August, 2012

This is a truly exceptional book!

And, before I discuss the book, a truly exceptional reading of it by a chap called Chris Nelson. Now, I don’t know who Chris Nelson is. I have googled his name idly but I have no clue. I do not know his age or where he is from.

But he is the absolutely perfect voice for this book: a thirteen year old boy from Worcestershire in 1982. I mean, seriously, the accent is so authentic it must be genuine! And the sense of character, of knowingness and innocence and ignorance is astounding. I can’t believe Chris Nelson is 13, but I wholly believe his voicing as a 13-year-old.

There have been a couple of downloads from Audible.com where the voice has been a barrier but here it is spot on. When I read the last few places, it was in Chris Nelson’s voice!

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Chris Nelson reads the narration is Jason Taylor in this first person story. It is – as Wikipedia claims – a Bildungsroman although not in the board sweep that we might expect from reading Great Expectations. That novel follows a life; Black Swan Green follows Jason Taylor for a mere year. It is a focused and tight structure but the boy we see at the beginning of the novel is very different to the young man we see at the end.

Taylor’s narrative voice, created through Mitchell’s language, drives the book. Mitchell creates a wholly convincing voice for me: the use of colloquialisms, some of which seem specific to the Worcestershire area and some specific to the 1980s; the pattern of language; the slightly geeky enumerating of the details of his world; the litany of the listing of his friends; the sometimes clumsy and sometimes startlingly beautiful attempts to poeticise the world around him; the balance between revulsion, fear and fascination with girls (and breasts). All these details and no doubt more that I have forgotten created the voice perfectly. And matched with Chris Nelson’s voice. As close to perfect as you could hope for.

And the world that Mitchell creates of 1982 through Jason Taylor’s eyes is superbly done. I know much of the novel is at least semi-autobiographical: Mitchell would have been 13 in 1982 as well; he shares Taylor’s stammer; he too was brought up in Worcestershire. Therefore, the realism of the world is understandable. And, as I would have been ten in 1982, completely convincing and recognisable.

The casual bullying of the school scenes; the arrogance and smirks of boys getting one over on the student teacher; the petty hopes and devastating tragedies that pattern Jason Taylor’s year; the slow disintegration of his parents’ relationship. The cultural and historical references. The Daily Mail – which shifts in Taylor’s mind from being accepted as gospel truth to a more appropriately critical stance. The Falkland’s War. His older sister Julia’s presence. The unspoken but bitter tensions between Jason’s family and Uncle Brian and Aunt Alice and their pretentious prig of a son, Hugo.

It is perhaps possible to say that there are a myriad of Jason Taylors in the book: there’s the unborn twin, the voice of chaos urging him to misbehave or rebel; there’s maggot urging him to hide and cave in to the bullies, the ‘loser’ persona that some kids try to force onto him; there’s Hangman, the embodiment of the stutter; there’s Eliot Bolivar, the somewhat pretentious but promising poet. Perhaps the book is as much an account of Taylor balancing or choosing between these voices and personas as anything else.

There are a few incidents that did strike me as slightly artificially shoehorned into the narrative. Madame Cremmelink’s forays into mentoring Jason’s poetry and his stumbling into a gypsy encampment in particular.

But these are minor quibbles.

Very minor.

There are a myriad of standout moments in the book but my absolute star moment was Jason trying out for The Spooks – the local ‘gang’ of cool kids. His initiation gave him 15 minutes to run through a string of back gardens and we overhear a sequence of conversations and witness tableaux of other characters and their families. It is masterfully done: we see tenderness and humanity and depth in some of the more minor characters that flesh them out beautifully.

And beautiful is absolutely the right word for this book: it is convincing, credible, honest and – above all – beautiful

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I had enjoyed The Name Of The Wind. It was refreshing within the fantasy genre. I didn’t think it quite deserved the incandescent – which seems to be my word of the week! – praise that it had received. But I liked it.

Part 2 of The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man’s Fear, heaps more of the same at you. In fact, the first 300 or do pages are nearly identical to the last 300 or so pages of The Name Of The Wind: Kvothe is at University, he excels in everything, he is really poor, Ambrose hates him.

Again we have three distinct parts to the narrative: Kvothe in University; Kvothe in Vint; Kvothe with the Ademre. Again, in each part, Rothfuss presents the same pattern: Kvothe is really poor and alone but through hard work, luck, music, genius or charm he survives, makes a handful of friends and a couple of enemies.

Whenever Kvothe is moderately comfortable, Rothfuss pulls it away from under his feet to make him start again! A case in point is the way he leaves University. Kvothe has managed to create a reasonably tight circle of friends – Sim, Fela, Devi, Wil – with whom he is able to laugh, prank and get petty revenges on his arch-enemy Ambrose. It’s all becoming a little Harry Potter ish… and within the space of a dozen pages he is criminally tried, persuaded to leave the University for a year and shipped off to some palace a thousand miles away; he is given money and clothes for the voyage but loses them in a storm and fight with pirates, arriving with nothing.

And Rothfuss – presumably for the sake of pace – does not show us either the trial or the pirates. I like trials and pirates.

And exactly the same thing happens in Vint: he becomes a favourite of the Maer – basically a King – as broadly a medical and amorous adviser and then is shoved off to fight bandits in the wood. I mean, there are many people who could fight bandits in this book but I wouldn’t give the job to some chap who had done little more than write a few love letters for me!

And no sooner has he won the grudging admiration and trust of his band of outlaw-hunters than he leaves them all behind to go to the edges of the world to the Ademre.

Oh and, in between killing out laws and going to the Ademre, oh my god, he goes and cavorts with Felurian, a mythical, legendary immortal sex-fairy. I have no objection to sex fairies. Not even to sex fairies who kill their mortal lovers. I mean, Diana and Actaeon is one of my favourite myths! But, please, Rothfuss! It must take a special skill to make a year’s cavorting with the faerie queen of sex quite so boring! I getthe desire to make it seem dreamlike in the world of the fae but not to the point of sending your reader to sleep!

But this is my biggest gripe: Kvothe never changes.

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He claims to learn but never changes. After his sojourn with the fairies, he finds his way back to the human world, walks into the closest pub and carries on as if nothing happened. The only thing he seems to have learned is a range of sexual techniques.

Even worse, after months learning the discipline and control of the Ketan – which is basically a series of movements for a secret martial art which for months he practises and repeats two or three times a day – he leaves the Ademre and it is only mentioned again once. He returns to University and everything continues as it did at the start of the book 1000 pages earlier.

The impression I get of this book is that Rothfuss has spent years on snippets, fragments and portions of the book – possibly even starting and rejecting three or four different books – and has now stitched them together roughly like one if my granny’s knitted blankets! This was a grumble I had with the first book and it has become a massive bug bear with the second. There is little development of character and minimal coherence between sections.

I signed up to Audible nearly a year ago now.

I was interested in trying audiobooks and had been for a while : I drive. Lots. Daily. And whilst I like the Today Programme in the morning, I’m less keen on PM in the afternoon.

But I’m also a skinflint and object to paying £20 plus for a book.

Which left me with PM…

Until I discovered Audible. So now I have one credit a month to spend on one book. And I find it particularly hard to make that decision: what if I get the wrong book? It might be too thoughtful to cope with at the end of the day! It might be too distracting! It might be narrated by a voice I’d struggle to listen to for an hour a day without wanting to veer off the road!

I can spend hours clicking links and contemplating new releases and reading what’s recommended and browsing best sellers.

It is a trauma.

Now, this book had popped up as a recommendation a couple of months running so, doing what my Granny would hate, I judged it on its cover. A mysterious hooded man; a tangle of vines and trees framing it like a Blake engraving.

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And the narration by Rupert Degas is fantastic: he has a great range to his performance, able to give a voice to each character without it turning into poor, silly and childish squeaking and gibbering. As a father and a teacher, who frequently reads aloud to his class and sometimes to my kids, I hope I manage to achieve the same range.

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One of the irritations I had with Simon Slater’s reading of Wolf Hall was the high-pitched camp voice he adopted for Cardinal Wolsey.

Right, back to the book.

It is a poorly kept secret that fantasy, especially high fantasy, is my guilty reading pleasure. Looking at the list of books on this blog, this probably isn’t a surprise! It was The Hobbit that was the first ‘grown up’ book that got me into reading and since then it has always been a familiar, comfortable milieu. Tolkien, Eddings, Canavan, Donaldson, Goodkind, Kerr, Nix, Pullman, Pratchett, Gaiman and more latterly Sanderson, Erikson, Martin, Weeks and Miéville.

And now Rothfuss.

Golly that list makes me sound like SUCH a geek! But then, the geek shall
inherit the Earth.

Rothfuss has attracted a lot of positive reviews with this book; and some equally negative ones.

It certainly does not have the linguistic playfulness that Miéville brings to the genre but there are some features here that set it apart from the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy.

The first is structural. This is a story about stories as much as anything else. And it is a story of a story.

Rothfuss creates a world that is very credible and real in the opening chapters: an inn named The Waystone in a quiet, rural village named Newarre frequented by farmers and blacksmiths and run by a self-effacing innkeeper name Kote and his assistant Bast. It seems to be a world untouched by magic, prophecy or politics; a world removed from the usual milieu of high fantasy!

But “Kote” is in reality the semi-mythical, legendary magician Kvothe, the eponymous Kingkiller. And Bast is far more than an innkeep’s assistant; far more than even a magician’s assistant; possibly the most interesting character in the book. When Devan the Chronicler arrives in the inn, the stage is set for the true book to begin as the contemporary Kvothe relates his life history to Chronicler.

The device is a good one: the voice we get through the majority of the book is Kvothe’s. And he is an engaging narrator. But a tricky one to pull off: he is a really rather precocious and talented member of the Edema Ruh – a band, no a race, of travelling players, performers and poets – and his skill with words and performance are constantly referred to. But personally I don’t think his narration matches up to the skill he claims for himself. There are flashes of power in his language. The opening paragraphs of his narrative are powerful, muscular and mythic

My first mentor called me E’lir because I was clever and I knew it. My first real lover called me Dulator because she liked the sound of it. I have been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them.

But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant “to know.”

I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

Because this is his story, it becomes more of a Bildungsroman than is usual for fantasy: certainly on this book, there is no prophecy to be fulfilled or tyrant or evil emperor to be overthrown. There’s just a boy’s journey to manhood covering about three or four years of his life.

And his journey is painful: just as he looks set on happiness, settled with his itinerant family and considering a life at University, his world is literally ripped apart by seven creatures known as The Chandrian. This is the closest Rothfuss gets to providing a traditional enemy: The Chandrian are fairy tale creatures who turn fire blue, cause all things around them to entropy – metal rusts; wood rots – and appear once for a dozen pages before Rothfuss removes then from our sight!

But, having destroyed his world, Kvothe vows vengeance.

Which would be easier if any right minded person in Rothfuss’ world believed they existed!

It is in this chapter, which runs with an air of inevitability, that Rothfuss’ writing shone again for me: the tenderness of the description if his parents’ love for each other; the bitter-sweetness of Kvothe’s imagined happiness that he hoped they shared before The Chandrian attacked; the quietness of the present-day Kvothe’s grief were all extremely well depicted. Again, very powerful and moving for fantasy.

One feature of this Bildungsroman approach is that it is necessarily slow and a bit – dare I say it? – repetitive. Kvothe has had three – possibly four – sections to his life thus far:

1. happy itinerant childhood with the Edema Ruh;

2. appalling street life as a homeless beggar and thief in the city of Tarbean;

3. tenuously happy and successful life as a student at the University in Imre; and perhaps, as a jaunt within his University life,

4. a successful albeit brief career as a monster hunter and dragon slayer in the town of Trebon.

In Tarbean, he was beaten so regularly that one simply got tired of his having broken ribs! There are 206 bones in a human body that could be broken. Ribs every time?!

In Imre, he excelled in every class; misdemeanours landed him in front of the disciplinary board and he argued his way out of trouble – or at least the most serious trouble – every time; he failed to get the girl on every date! Even when a girl wearing only a see-through sheet inadequately wrapped over her naked body asks him in! Seriously?! And he’s 15!? At 15, in the presence of an all-but naked girl, one does not say “hmm, wanna go to the library?”

There is a slightly addle-pated child who lives in the sewers but that would be wrong! So so wrong! And unhygienic!

Each of these three sections is great! The stitching between them is a little clumsy. It is literally within a space of 12 hours that street-urchin-Kvothe – who has suppressed the memory of his troupe’s death – recalls it and decides to hop on a cart to University. That, I felt, needed a gentler more real transition.

What I do like here though are the narratives. In addition to the framework structure, characters gossip and tell tales; sing songs; and perform plays. Whole chapters are given over to mythology and the story of the very Christ-like Tehlu, a God who allowed a mortal form of Himself to be born of a virgin to save mankind from sin and demons and who sacrificed himself to defeat the most powerful demon.

This is, perhaps, Rothfuss’ strength: his myth building. Whereas George R. R. Martin builds worlds, Rothfuss builds mythologies. I am fully confident that the various myths that have been told, of Lanre and Lyra, of The Chandrian, of the Amyr and of Selitos will resolve into a consistent and coherent whole.

There are some authors for whom a new book is more than just a new book on the shelves of W H Smith. It’s an event; it’s anticipated; it generates a frisson when you see the spine waiting for you, calling to you, beckoning you.

China Miéville is an author like that for me.

There are also authors whose books echo and resonate and speak to me year upon year, age upon age.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is such a book for me.

To stumble upon Miéville’s Railsea was a genuine moment of excitement in a dreary end-of-term week. A young man, aboard a mole train – what’s a mole train? – seeking a great white mole for his less-than-whole-bodied captain.

Could this book lover resist?

Hell no! He could not!

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What this is not is a re-hash of Moby Dick, despite the obvious similarities. Yes, Captain Abacat Naphi and her philosophy in pursuing the giant white mountain of a mole that is Mocker-Jack is Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick. Sham ap Soorap has touches of both Ishmael and Pip the Cabin-Boy. Miéville’s post-modern, fourth wall breaking – not so much as breaking as shattering and disintegrating the fourth wall – echoes Melville’s own cul-de-sacs and digressions in Moby-Dick.

But Miéville’s world is not derivative. All of Miéville’s books are notable for their world-building whether it be the London of Kraken or the sumptuous world of Bas-Lag within which Perdido Street Station and The Scar and Iron Council breathe. And this is no exception: Railsea inhabits a continent of shifting, inconstant, permeable earth. Cities can only survive on rocky outcrops because the soft soil is home to a range of vast, carnivorous, monstrous beasts: man sized earthworms, antlions, owls, tortoises

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and the various sized moles.

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And atop this shifting surface are rails: not the linear rails we are used to but a snaking, branching, multiplying sea of rails and tracks and sidings and branch lines and rail upon rail upon rail. Miéville rejects the word and in Railsea, relying of the ampersand instead – often starting sentences and paragraphs with an “&” which initially grated but which I quickly accepted. About halfway through, Miéville opines as to the futility of the past’s linear use of “a-n-d” and posits the symbolic nature of the ampersand, it’s curving twisting shape reflecting the nature of the Railsea itself.

I can understand that some readers would be put off by oh-so-self-aware metatextuality of the narrative. Robinson Crusoe is explicitly referred to as well as Moby Dick. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island inform it. Miéville’s own Iron Council is echoed here.

And Miéville ruminates and ponders the narrative itself explicitly. The first half of the book is very much from Sham’s point-of-view aboard the train Medes. Half way through, the narrative splits: Sham and the Medes part company and other trains are introduced as points-of-view. And Miéville explicitly discussing when and where to change point-of-view. Chapter 64 consists of two simple sentences:

Time for the Shroakes?
Not yet.

And Chapter 71 opens with

Now. At last. Surely.
This must be the moment to return to the Shroakes & to their rail. Surely.
It is, in fact, yes, Shroake O’Clock.

As I said, I get that this will irk and put off lots of people. Some will just shrug it off. But I loved this!

I loved how much fun Miéville had with the structure, the voice, the language. I imagine him chuckling to himself as he wrote it – no doubt with a pneumatically enhanced pencil attached to an artificial prosthetic like his Captain Naphi. He uses language like

a gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed up oddness

chthonic

eruchthonous

verspertilian

there was throating & a snarl of tree-sized slaver-spattering tusks & a plunging

These phrases shout to me a joy and a playfulness with language which (I hope) I share in – albeit with a less impressive vocabulary. Miéville’s prose for me shimmers and sparkles and coruscates.

Yes, this is a very writerly readers’ book but that doesn’t distract or detract from a cracking good tale and extremely tautly plotted novel.

The weakest part for me was the final confrontation. Miéville’s politics spills out into the novel here and – whilst I absolutely share his left wing views – it felt just a tad didactic and obvious.

But, what a book!

Absolutely mind blowingly wonderful.

Railsea has been labelled as Young Adult which I worry about: how many children expecting Hunger Games or Twilight would pick this up? How many adults who would love this wouldn’t pick up a YA book?

And as a brief postscript: I now want a daybat … As well as a direwolf!

I worry about Sweden.

It keeps me up at night.

I wake in cold sweats.

I worry about the weather there: the snow and freezing temperatures. I worry about the trolls. I worry about IKEA. And I worry about the people. And families.

It must be a terrible place.

Every single novel I’ve read from there – Stieg Larsson, Mons Kallentoft and now Lars Kepler – seem to hold a mirror up to show the twisted, rotting heart of Swedish families. Darkly. Incest, violence, neglect, abuse.

I suppose any country that invents the concept of IKEA must have something to hide beneath the surface of its sleek plywood exterior.

I also worry about the effect of these books on the Swedish tourist economy. Especially on any hotel, bed and breakfast or hostel labelling itself as family-run.

*Disclaimer: yes, I do understand that these are works of fiction. This is not racism; it’s satire!*

Kepler – which is actually the nom de plume of the husband and wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril – opens The Hypnotist with the slaughter of what seems to be an entire family. The violence is gruesome but not lingered over – which is a relief to those of us with a tender nervous system! – and a couple of images of severed limbs and joints suffice.

A child is discovered still to be alive despite multiple wounds and extensive injuries and he is rushed to hospital. A familiar image then resolves: the well-meaning but somewhat brusque police officer wants to interview the child; the concerned doctor says he’s not up to it. And it’s at this point that the doctor calls in an expert in trauma care: the eponymous hypnotist Erik Maria Bark.

This is a book that jumps around between different points of view and we see the events of the story through the eyes of Bark; his wife Simone – whose nickname of Sixan I found was oddly sweet; Sixan’s father, a retired but police officer with a somewhat mythic status; and the aforementioned Police Officer, Joona Linna. Apparently Linna is the main character in the book which is the first in a series based around him.

Which is a little odd: Linna has a rather minimal role in the book and is the least used point of view; the book is not named after him; his character is barely fleshed out. Perhaps the plan is for Linna to be little more than a thread from which to hang more interesting characters that he encounters.

Erik Bark’s is the first viewpoint we see. Bark is given the honour of an extended first person flashback narrative half way through the book.

And Bark I did find interesting. His relationship with Sixan – flawed, frayed and fragile as it was – was actually quite moving. A hypnotist who doesn’t hypnotise. A doctor who self-medicates. A husband who has betrayed his wife. The way that a simple misunderstanding – the wrong person at the hospital answers his phone – fed by a previous betrayal – leads to doubt, fear and suspicion and eventually the disintegration of the relationship was actually rather deftly handled and moving. I hope that it doesn’t reflect the two Alex Ahndorils’ relationship! I’ve got enough to worry about!

There are a number of plots running through this book. The slaughtered family that opens the book is dealt with rather quickly: within 50 pages or so the injured boy, Joseph Ek, has been hypnotised, confessed to the murders, given the police the location of his surviving sister and escaped from hospital. Thereafter, Bark’s son Benjamin is kidnapped and the main plot commences. The race to find and rescue Benjamin is given even more urgency as he has a blood clotting disease and will die without weekly injections. The pace of the book is quick: the chapters are really short, perhaps 3 or 4 pages; the writing is in present tense; the changes in perspective are rapid; the writing is quite visual … it’s almost as if the Ahndorils had a mind to a film version as they were writing. A third and the weakest plot evolves as Sixan and her father investigate Benjamin’s computer in which a local gang – somewhat oddly naming themselves after Pokemon characters – have been terrorising Benjamin’s girlfriend and her brother.

The plots involving the Ek family and Benjamin’s disappearance were not terribly well integrated. The Ek plot seemed little more than a device to introduce Erik Bark and I felt it had more potential to be developed in its own right or could have been knitted into the main plot more fully. I wonder whether one was Alexandra’s plot and one was Alexander’s.

There is another gripe I have with the plotting. The main theme is that the past is never past: as a hypnotist, Bark’s research is to resolve his patients’ traumatic histories; Erik’s past betrayal gives Sixan’s present misunderstanding real pain. And the past is at the root of Benjamin’s kidnapping which we learn is rooted in the reasons why Erik gave up hypnotism. But he doesn’t remember that incident until he comes across a video of a hypnosis session. It just didn’t strike me as realistic that the phrase “the haunted house” would not have triggered Erik’s memory as soon as he had heard it!

Altogether though, a decent well paced thriller. And insofar as genres are useful (limited if at all: I do find genre a limiting concept. The temptation is to only read the books that a publisher has given a certain label too. Surely the only real genres are books-I-like and books-I-don’t-like. Otherwise we end up with Polonius wondering whether a book is

tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

Anyway, rant over…) I’d say it is a thriller rather than crime because of the prominence of Bark as a character over Linna.

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I am conscious that I haven’t managed to post on here for a while… Primarily because I’ve not managed to finish a book for a while.

Now, there are a number of possible reasons for this…

    1. I am just very very lazy…
    2. I have been doing a lot of work for, well, work…
    3. Olympics
    4. The kids are down and my me-time has dissolved…
    5. Possibly having five or six books on the go at once has diminished my completion rate.

So, these are the books currently being read concurrently on the ereader, depending on mood, tiredness and time!

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And that’s in no particular order and doesn’t include the (re-)reading needed to write schemes of work for school….

Sure I must complete one soon…!