Archive for February, 2014

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I loved this book, for so many reasons!!

It is the story of a week in an unnamed village in an unspecified part of England at an unspecified period. And I loved the timelessness of Crace’s prose: his narrator’s language is lyrical and deeply informed by the landscape but not archaic or faux-authentic.

If we were identifying a period for what is quite clearly an historical novel, the brief reference to the plague and the enclosure of the common ground to make way for an invasion of sheep would put us in the early seventeenth century, perhaps a hundred years after Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies was set.

There are clear links between this book and Mantel’s. I wonder whether Harvest would have been as lauded as it – quite rightly – is without Mantel’s winning the Man Booker. Historical fiction seems to have been an overlooked genre in the past, somehow insufficiently literary. No-one reading Harvest could doubt its literariness: almost every page oozes metaphor with an extraordinarily well judged balance between the literariness and the narrative voice. The language never asserted itself to the detriment of the narrator’s character.

The character of the narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an interesting one: he is introduced as one of the fifty-eight villagers working to bring in the eponymous harvest; but he is also articulate beyond his fellow-villagers and somehow distant. Even a passive observer of events rather than an active actor. There are narrative reasons for that distance: when his master – and milk twin – Master Kent married into the local landowner’s family, Thirsk entered the village with him as an outsider, residing at the manor house; only when he married the villager Cecily, did Thirsk join the village. He himself dwells on the correct lexis to describe his position: settled into the village but not a part of the village; sometimes included in the first person plural pronouns we and us; sometimes not.

Thematically, however, Thirsk’s isolation and greater or lesser exclusion from the village is key. Over the seven days of the novel, the village faces waves of outsiders arriving: firstly, Mr Earle – nicknamed Mr Quill and quite possibly the closest thing to a hero this book has, however unlikely an epithet that might be for him – who observes and notes down and records the village, cataloging and categorising each part of the land in preparation for the enclosure of it; three strangers appear, evicted from some other village by the same enclosure of land; Jordan, the usurping landowner using local superstition and his ancient claim through his bloodline with Master Kent’s dead wife to forge a modernist future; and Jordan’s men, rough, ignorant and cruel. Amongst this heady brew of locals and outsiders, crimes are committed, injustices rendered, deaths dealt.

This brave new world sweeps away ancient and traditional ways of life, extinguishing them.

There is one character, the one woman in the group of three outsiders, who dominated the blurb of my copy of the book. She has a tiny role: we see her briefly four times and I don’t think we ever hear her voice. She becomes an object of fascination and horror for the narrator for whom, as a widower in such a small village with almost no single women, the appeal of a new female has a magnetic carnal appeal. She is almost a cipher rather than a character: she lurks outside the harvest dance like Banquo’s ghost; she evades every attempt to find and protect her, or to find her for less hospitable reasons; she never quite escapes the word witch once it is bandied about loosely. Her name is never discovered save for the label Mistress Beldam.

Crace is never, in this book, romantic or idealising in his depiction of village life: the harshness and paltry returns for back-breaking work is unstintingly conveyed. There is a lyrical delight, however, in the language and idioms of the countryside as well as its traditions: the Harvest Queen, the ribaldry of the harvest scene which opens the book, the named of the flowers and plants.

What Crace paints beautifully here is the end of an era, an end of a way of life. There’s no overt political motivation decrying the Enclosure Acts or the relentless march of progress – indeed, Master Kent may have been able to manage the enclosure peacefully and to the benefit of all – but a simple depiction of loss. It is, perhaps, above all, an elegy to a way of life.

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I’m not going to write much about this book: it doesn’t really warrant it!

This is the third in Mira Grant’s post-zombie-apocalypse political thriller Feed trilogy – so I have that glow of satisfaction of completion having read it – but it is a trilogy that should never have been. The first book, Feed was, I thought, actually pretty good up to and including the death of the main character and narrator. Book two, Deadline lost the plot, both literally and metaphorically: without the direction that Feed had because it was following a presidential campaign, Deadline seemed to lurch from one disaster to another with no real momentum; and the change of narrator from Georgia to Shaun Mason did not work. Primarily the change of narrator did not work because Shaun became unstable, violent and heard the voice of his dead sister. All of that I could have accepted. Except that Grant kept telling me that Shaun was crazy. Over and over. And over. It became dull. Slightly offensive to anyone who has struggled with bereavement. And never really engaged with as a narrative device. There is a wealth of unreliable narrators in fiction – a rich vein of interesting perspectives to delve into – all of which were eschewed just to expound the fact that Shaun was “crazy”. A waste of a narrative opportunity.

And all these problems from Deadline continue into Blackout with less zombie action – which is not a bad thing – and a really disappointing return of the dead Georgia. As a clone. Cheap sci-fi resurrection device number one. Not just a clone which I could have accepted but a clone which contains all of the original Georgia’s memories.

Plot holes abound: the CDC created the clones in order to look like but not act like the original Georgia – who was critical of the CDC and whose brother had broken into the CDC on numerous occasions. So why put 97% of her memories and personality into place at all when they weren’t going to use her anyway? The programme was created by one of Georgia’s colleagues, Rick, who is now Vice-President because she would be believed when she exposed the conspiracy. Is the US public pre-disposed to believe dead people? Even in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world? Would not any other journalist be believed – such as any member of the entire After The End Times team, trained by Georgia? Resurrecting a dead woman at a cost of billions – not to mention the ethical implications – was easier than speaking to her replacement? Or her brother?

And the final denouement? More clones were exposed; hostages were released off-screen in the space of two pages which really begged the question Why didn’t you do that a year ago, you morons?.

Rushed, unsuccessfully plotted; two-dimensional and unconvincing characters; pedestrian prose.

No, this was not a great book. Nor even, really, a good read.

Sorry, Mira, I wanted to like it but I didn’t.

And what happened to my zombie bear? I mean, I’m not a great fan of gore and violence but popcorn books need fun and some action and a standout sequence. Don’t give up your opportunities to show the sheer fun of a story. You showed us a zombie bear on the road and then did not show the confrontation with it! You even tell the reader later how cool it was without ever showing it being cool! This moment has all the hallmarks of a great action moment which either Grant or her editors excised.

But it was still on the blurb of the book!

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There are some books – most books probably – which I read, finish and review pretty much straight away. They are like those meals which are fine, tasty and enjoyable but which you move on from.

Some, however – stretching the metaphor perhaps to breaking point – I like to savour more, to digest, before turning to review it. And The Golem and the Djinni was one of those.

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It creates a world of magic realism in which Wecker invokes the rich, hopeful, uncertain and insecure world of New York in the nineteenth century opening its arms to the cultures of the world. Two specific immigrant communities are conjured up: the Jewish quarter and Little Syria. There is a richness and humanity in these descriptions: men and women struggling to reconcile old traditions with a new way of life; younger generations breaking away from more traditional beliefs.

And into these two communities in modern America come two beings of distant times. One, the ancient bound Djinni – a creature of fire from the Syrian desert bound and trapped in a flask – and the other a golem, born of ancient powers aboard a ship bound for America only a handful of days before she arrives.

These two creatures are mirror images of each other: the Djinni is an ancient, shape-shifting, whimsical creature bound to a single form and rebelling against his confinement; the Golem is barely a few weeks old, forged to be a slave and obedient but set terrifyingly free by the death of the master to whom she was bound days after her awakening.

And I think that, in that mirroring, we see the crafted nature of this book: for a long book there are very few characters and each one revolves in his or her own circle, occasionally overlapping before the circles move on again. In addition to the two creatures, you only really have Arbeely, the tin smith who releases and takes in the Djinni; Rabbi Meyer who finds and takes in the golem and his nephew Michael Levy; Mahmoud Saleh from Little Syria; the American heiress Sophia Winston; and Anna Blumberg with whom the Golem works and who becomes her friend.

And Yehudah Schaalman, the Golem’s creator.

I think this is the character, Schaalman, with whom I was least satisfied with. He is the antagonist and provides the final chapters of the novel with a strong plot. But, without giving away spoilers, his involvement was a little too neatly tied up and he did at times come across as the most two dimensional character in a novel populated by more rounded characters. He was a great villain. But he never really became more than a villain for me.

And I’d have liked to have seen more of Sophia. As a rich girl trapped in an engagement, she crosses paths with the Djinni and – somewhat inevitably – they form a brief liaison. But she is given some of the simplest but most beautiful and heart-breaking prose in the book as she realises what is happening between her water-based body and the flame which the Djinni had raised inside it.

Amid the dark haze of heat and desperation, she felt something shift inside her. A tendril of fire shot up her spine—and then her mind was filled with a small frightened fluttering, a noise like a candle flame whipped by a breeze. At once she knew that there was something trapped inside her, tiny and half-formed, and that it was drowning in her body, even as it burned her. There was nothing that either of them could do.

There are obvious parallels between this and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: the detailed recreation of a specific time and place; its juxtaposition with the magical realm. That’s certainly all there but I prefer the comparison with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus as both that and The Golem and the Djinni eschew the wider nation building that Susanna Clarke’s novel luxuriates in in favour of a smaller and more intimate cast. All three are, however, among my favourite novels!