Archive for February, 2013

Reading this immediately after the first in the series, Skulduggery Pleasant, is interesting: it highlights both some flaws and some developments.

In terms of plot, there’s a sense of déjà vu from the first book: a general from the previous war escapes from prison; he sets about acquiring an artefact to bring back ancient Gods, the Faceless Ones; he is defeated on the cusp of success.

The baddie this time is Baron Vengeous (again letting us see Landy’s almost Dickensian playfulness with his characters’ names – although BBC Radio 4’s Dickensian spoof Bleak Expectations’ still wins the name calling contest for me, naming its antagonist Mr Gently Benevolent!) And the artefact in question is The Grotesquery: a dead Frankenstein hybrid of various parts of various monsters including the corpse of a Faceless One.

There is a ramp up in the violence and gore here from the first book: the Grotesquery itself is a combination of gory detail and bandage-covered suggestion of worse; numerous characters get ripped apart and poisoned and crushed.

A note on Landy’s magic system. Sorcerers come in two categories: Elementals who manipulate earth, fire, water and air; and Adepts who can do anything else. China Sorrows’ body is (presumably magically) covered in multiple rune and symbol tattoos which can be activated to create effects; Billy-Ray Sanguine seems to be able to sink through the physicality of earth or walls or prisons. It’s almost as if Landy tried to work just with Elementals like Skulduggery but didn’t have enough variety to play with.

The most intriguing character for me currently is Stephanie’s reflection. It’s a device that my step-son would kill for: it brings her reflection out of the mirror to continue her mundane school life whilst she’s out detecting and magicking. And we’ve been told that she’s overusing it; she allows it to be shot and ‘die’ in her place; sorcerers are finding it difficult to tell it apart from the original; and it seems to be hiding things from Stephanie when it’s dismissed and she re-absorbs all of its/her memories. I can see Landy building her / it up as a plot device in future books.

I still worry that there is a shallowness to the book: Stephanie barely blinks when the reflection ‘downloads’ the memory of dying into her own memories. She was equally unreactive to Gordon’s death in the first book. Again, it is another well paced story but perhaps sacrifices narrative for plot. I understand that there are limits to the introspection you can put into a Young Adult book… But I wanted some.

I think a break from the series is in order for a moment…

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What was this book about?

Murder and a new detective in the Murder Squad of Scotland Yard.

What was the detective like as a character?

(Shrugs)

I didn’t think he was a very confident person in what he did but he was actually very good at it.

How would you compare him to other detectives?

Caring.

What attracted you to this book?

You told me it was like Ripper Street.

And was it?

Yes

When is the book set?

Just after The Ripper had stopped. 1886… 1889 isn’t it? 1886. And it focused on the new Murder Squad.

How explicit is the violence in the book?

The first murder isn’t; the second murder was from the victim’s point of view. What it felt like.

How does the book deal with the divisions between classes in Eighteenth Century society?

You what? It doesn’t. There isn’t a division. There only one upper class character – a doctor – and he gets his throat cut. Serves him right. He was going to murder one of the constables.

So how successfully does it recreate the seedy underbelly of society?

Fab! You could practically smell the pubs and see the foggywog.

So it was atmospheric, was it hunni?

Yes!

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What sort of reader would the book for?

As I’m not a big reader … as I find books hard to get into, I would recommend this book for anyone who likes a good story.

Interview terminated due to pressing medical appointment.

I read Landy’s The Faceless Ones – the third in the Skulduggery Pleasant series – and, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it: a smart and sassy heroine; an enigmatic and intriguing (possibly anti-) hero; a wide range of engaging characters. So I have taken the fact that the current seventh book, The Kingdom Of The Wicked is longlisted for the Carnegie Medal 2013 to catch up on the series starting with this, number one.

And it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

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Skulduggery, the eponymous skeletal hero, is still an engaging character. His own bemusement at his own existence is wonderful.

But the darkness that other characters refer to – his obsession, the hatred that pulled him back from death to inhabit (most of) his old bones, the tragedy that lead to his death – was never felt. At least not by me. And I know that Landy is writing for a relatively young audience but there is the occasional gruesome scene and he doesn’t shy away from impalements, death and torture. I wanted to feel with this book what I vaguely recall feeling with the third: that Skulduggery Pleasant was dark and dangerous.

I also had peeves with Stephanie Edgely as a character here: she is plucky and independent and thats all great … but she becomes too authoritative too quickly, too absorbed into and claiming understanding and knowledge of a world that heretofore she had not known existed. Seriously, Stephanie, you think the Sceptre of The Ancients exists? You’re 12, you’ve known of magic for a weekend, I’m not impressed. You came across as … I’m sorry to say … a bit of a brat.

As for the plot, if you’ve seen it read Harry Potter, you’re in familiar territory. There is a secret society of magic; the mundane world knows nothing of it; an ancient war between good and evil was won by good; evil is making a play back for power; an innocent girl with a hitherto unknown background in magic is drawn into the magical society and saves the world.

There is an ancient magical race known as – somewhat predictably – The Ancients who worshipped The Faceless Ones as gods but who turned against them and created the ultimate weapon, the Sceptre of the Ancients, to destroy or banish them. And once successful, they turned on each other and destroyed the entire race. In the war, the dark side were intent on bringing the Faceless Ones back to earth and allowing them to destroy humanity.

Landy does have fun with his characters names: Nefarian Serpine (nefarious, serpentine), Mevolent (malevolent) and the elders Eachan Meritorious and Sagacious Tome. Even Edgley: the family who live on the edge of the mundane and magical worlds.

In many ways the minor characters are more evocative and intriguing than the main ones: China Sorrows with whom everyone falls in love; the swordswoman Tanith Low who alternates between heartless savage killing and childlike gigging with Stephanie. Apparently Landy’s first draft killed her off but she was saved by his editors who thought the scene too sad. In exchange, Landy was permitted to torture her in each book. What does that say about our society? The character of Gordon Edgley, like Marley dead before the book begins, seems a thinly veiled portrait of Landy himself: a writer who would

systematically subject his hero to brutal punishment in a bid to strip away all his arrogance and certainty so that by the end he was humbled and had learned a great lesson. And then Gordon killed him off usually in the most undignified way possible. Stephanie could almost hear Gordon laughing with malicious glee as she read.

There is certainly enough here to warrant further reading of the series. It is certainly a good, fun and very well-paced book populated by likeable engaging characters. In comparison with other Carnegie award winners – the closest comparison would be Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness as the final book in a trilogy – there needs to be a big shift up in gears for The Kingdom of The Wicked to make the Carnegie Shortlist.

After reading a couple of extremely well-written, moving but rather serious books, picking up The Bloody Red Baron was intended to be a welcome piece of light relief: a bit of fun vampiric horror.

Kim Newman takes up the reigns of his alternate history some thirty years after the events in the previous Anno Dracula. Having fled from England in the conclusion of that book – as a result of Charles Beauregard’s effective device of giving the enslaved Queen Victoria the knife with which to kill herself and alienate Dracula from his claim on her throne – Dracula has ingratiated himself as Graf Dracula in Germany and taken over the persecution of World War One.

One of the pleasures of the book was putting together the pieces between the previous book and the current one with Beauregard as the rock around which both novels revolve. In this novel, as he staunchly refuses offers to be turned he appears to be moulding one Edwin Winthrope as a successor.

One regrettable loss was that Genevieve Dieudonne did not make any re-appearance here having been parcelled off to California; her role taken up by Kate Reed who had been somewhat underused in Anno Dracula. Although not as underused as in the original Dracula: Stoker managed to write her out compeltely! Reed – whilst still a vampire – is a new-born one and therefore fails to bring the mystique, majesty and mystery of Dieudonne who can state to Dracula the Prince Consort himself that “Impaler, I have no equal”.

Another pleasure is recognising the references and intertextuality that abound in Newman’s fiction: vampires from book and film stalk his pages from Count Orlok to Lord Ruthven to Caleb Croft (and fortunately no Cullens); but being further from the 1890s, for me, the references were less well-loved, less tender, less Gothic and more historical: Biggles, Mata Hari, Ten Brincken and Doctor Moreau.

One character who I simply did not like and did not understand his role in the novel was Poe: ostensibly drafted in to compile the Red Baron’s biography he just seemed to float about as an observer neither affecting nor influencing anything. The character of the Baron was fascinating: cold, detatched, bound in layers of emotional armour which I was hoping Poe would be able to peel away… but it seemed that, just as something human was being unearthed in him, the novel ended.

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This novel pits the plucky Allied airmen and airvampires of Condor Squadron against the eponymous Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen and his demonic Jagdgeschwader Eins. And demonic is probably the right adjective here: Newman’s vampires are full-blooded nightmarish creatures, not the sparkly effete fairies of our post-Twilight world!

Whilst most vampires in the novel are broadly human in shape and size, Newman delights in the shapeshifting ability that the Dracula bloodline has and grows his JG1 into enormous bat-winged creatures the size of aircraft with guns strapped onto their flesh. As Newman put it:

a prehistoric monster with twentieth-century guns.

And these are not the most mostrous vampires: Isolde is a vampire mentioned briefly who as a performer in Paris presents a remarkably unattractive striptease, slicing through a leotard with a knife and then continuing to slice through her own flesh and to flail herself for her audience night after night. Newman delights in the description of her

exposed muscles [which] bunched and smoothed…bones visible in wet meat… arteries [which] stood out, transparent tubes filled with rushing blood

She becomes a recurrent image in the novel, memories of her returning to haunt Winthrope throughout and can be seen as a metaphor perhaps for the war itself. And the book is very strongly anti-war in its message: whilst there are individual acts of bravery and even heroism on both sides, the war across Europe created monsters of all involved. At its most literal level. In fact, as rather civilised and sympathetic vampires abound in the novel, the greatest difficulty Newman faced in the book may have been how to make the vampire more monstrous to his readers.

But it is not just the vampires who are the monsters here. Another very briefly seen vampire is an American one who – nameless – is seen disintegrating into mist in order to infiltrate a tank and, less than a page later is hit by a flame thrower and

centuries of unchronicled life were extinguished in an uncaring instant, blasted to sparkling shreds by brute modernity.

What this novel lacked was the overview that Anno Dracula had: Dracula there was present, ominous and contagious; in this sequel, he was distant and almost absent, his activities reported but not seen. There was no final standoff. No climax.

All in all, a good well-written and surprisingly thoughtful romp through Newman’s alternative World War 1. Certainly worth a read – as is any book in which Private Charles Godfrey from Dad’s Army appears!

This book has been lurking on my to-read list for a while but has been eclipsed by work, work and work and applying for my own job again and other books and has just slid…

Then I lent it to a friend who devoured it in 24 hours and proceeded to try to talk to me about it – damn her! – and I felt like a numpty having not read it yet whilst she gushed about how much she had cried.

So it was somewhat shamefacedly that I picked it back up again.

And realised what an absolute gem I had nearly missed!

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Harold Fry is a retiree living an outwardly calm and quiet life behind net curtains in Kingsbridge in Devon. He and his wife Maureen rarely speak, sleep separately and circle each other like different planets orbiting the same star. They remind me sharply of my own grandparents in their excessively cleaned home. My grandmother used to polish the apples. With polish.

One day, a letter arrives from an ex-colleague of Harold’s, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying of cancer. Harold pens a reply, pops to the nearest postbox, and then decides to deliver it by hand. To her nursing home. In Berwick-upon-Tweed.

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By foot.

Along the way, Harold encounters a variety of people all bearing their own stories and goodness; and Harold recalls, rediscovers and reconciles himself with the tragedy in his own past.

It is a truly beautiful book! The deep humanity within it is hugely touching. As is the quiet dignity of Harold and the aching struggle that he and Maureen have to communicate.

There was a personal interest in the book: having moved from the Midlands to the North East to the South West, I have literally travelled Harold’s road. The places – the towns – he visits however are briefly mentioned: Exeter, Taunton, Bath, Ashby de la Zouch, Darlington are little more than names and sketchy details. There is, however, a deeper love of England and nature beyond any passing urban description.

This book revolves deeply around the love and pain of family: the pain of a child feeling unwanted by his parents; of a father being unable to connect with his son; of a husband and wife estranged within the same home; of how the humdrum routine of life can dull the passions and joys and racing heart of earlier time.

Joyce’s language is full of the quiet dignity of her characters. By way of an example, Harold

wished the man would honour the meaning of words, instead of using them as ammunition.

There is a twist to the novel – which I won’t spoil for you – and a critical event twenty years earlier around which the novel revolves. I am pleased to say that it was a twist that I hadn’t anticipated or expected .. and that rarely happens these days!

Returning to my grandparents, my Grandad did run away from home once. On my Granny’s birthday. He didn’t get terribly far: he was wearing slippers and their drive was gravelled and hurt his feet. So he popped over the grass to the neighbours and knocked on their door. Just imagine how far he could have gone had their drive been tarmacked!

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There are some books that revel in plot, action and events.

Other books – perhaps quieter books – are content to develop narrative: characters and settings, relationships and language.

This book by Ali Shaw is very clearly and very effectively one of the latter: little really happens, but so much is created.

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Lets take the setting initially. The book is set on the fictional island of St. Hauda’s Land, somehow far Scottish or Norweigan in flavour. It is the perfect setting for this novel of transformation as the sea and the land are constantly changing and metamorphosing: the very fabric of the island is being eaten away by the sea. Within the island are towns, forests and bogs all of which contribute their distinctive character to the novel.

Next, the characters: the delightful Ida Macleod and the less appealing Midas Crook. Midas… named for the King whose touch transformed everything to gold; and Ida who is transforming from the feet up into glass. Yes, glass.

Don’t expect Shaw to give you any explanation. Explanations are not offered by Shaw. No more for this transformation than for the creature whose glance can turn everything it sees white or the moth-winged cattle that also inhabit this island. Ida is turning into glass. Those characters who seek explanations and cures are the least likeable and the closest Shaw gets to villainy.

And that tranformation is physically traumatic, genuinely terrifying but visually stunning.

“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease betweent he joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep, wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places where the transformation was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there, a fine blonde hair.”

It is no surprise that the writing is so visual: the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of Midas who is cripplingly shy and / or capable of being located somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder. He is a photographer. The simple image of his camera (disappointingly digital) as the barrier and (literally) lense through which he sees the world but also distances himself from the world is a beautiful one – speaking as someone who has experience of ASD. Again, as a photographer, he is allied with the static and the captured moment in a story about fluidity and transformation; Ida is transforming into a solid just as his photographs capture movement and still it. Don’t expect value judgements in the book – Smith does not lecture you to embrace change or counsel you to celebrate the static – but the play between the still and the mobile, between static and transformation is beautiful and magical.

The ending of the novel approached with a terrible sense of inevitability and was beautiful, heart wrenching and even managed to wring a tear from this cynical teacher.

A fantastic, fantastical fairy tale of a book!