Archive for November, 2014

Oh dear.

What a let down.

I was really looking forward to this one. And now I feel just… let down.

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I’ve read some great books recently: emotional, lyrical, beautiful. I wasn’t expecting any of that from The Strain. I was looking forward to an enjoyable, rollicking horror vampire fantasy in the style of del Toro’s Mimic, Hellboy or Splice. If I was lucky, it could have been as powerful as the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth.

It wasn’t either.

It was… lazy. Somehow.

Pedestrian.

The basic plot revolves around the arrival of a mysteriously darkened plane into New York JFK Airport. Once opened, the plane is found to be full of dead passengers and crew. Not a bad premise and I imagine deliberately reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s arrival into Whitby on the crewless Demeter.

We are led through the investigations into this dead plane by Ephraim Goodweather, a CDC epidemiologist. He is our main protagonist and del Toro and Hogan succeed in investing him with almost no personality. There’s a somewhat limp attempt to create a personal back story: he is separated from his wife and fighting to retain partial custody of his son. The writing here was almost embarrassingly pedestrian:

“For a lot of other guys Eph knew, men in a situation similar to his own, their divorce seemed to have been as much from their children as from their wives. Sure, they would talk the talk, how they missed their kids, and how their ex-wives kept subverting their relationship, blah, blah, but the effort never seemed to be there. A weekend with their kids became a weekend out of their new life of freedom. For Eph, these weekends with Zack were his life.”

It seems bizarre that a filmmaker with such a vivid visual imagination felt the need to tell rather than show. The same awkward gauche approach is applied to Eph’s relationship with his almost silent colleague, lover and fellow vampire-hunter, Nora Martinez.

Poor Nora. She was sidelined so far she was barely on the same page.

She was even made to stay home to babysit Zack whilst the men went out to hunt the vampires. She was no Mina Harker!

Just flicking back through the book, nearly every page has ridiculous language. It’s not even tongue in cheek, so-bad-it’s-good… It’s just badly written. I mean, take this as an example:

“Eph too had been turned. Not from human to vampire, but from healer to slayer.”

Oh. Oh dear.

Now, let’s turn instead to the vampires. I suppose they didn’t sparkle in the sunlight. They had a retractable proboscis-like stinger which darted from the mouth instead of fangs. Why? I imagine the intention was to ramp-up the visceral icky-factor. But, again, the ready appellation of stinger was applied and all the descriptive power dissipated. It could have – should have – been a depiction from a nightmare, dripping, oozing, moist and phallic… But it became just a stinger.

The physiology of the vampire was explained in tedious detail: blood worms transmitted the virus which converted the human physiology into a vampiric one. Cancerous growths on the organs take over and subvert them. After a day and a night, those bitten become stumbling new-born vampires. They have more in common with zombies than vampires: uncoordinated, shuffling and rather easy to kill.

And, seriously, worms?

It felt almost as if del Toro and Hogan didn’t agree on how to portray the vampires. Are they supernatural deriving from the blood of an Archangel? Are they infected with parasitic worms? Are they infected with a virus? It just feels messy. There is patently a larger story than is contained in this novel and it may be that these confusions are resolved later. But I’m not sure that I’m prepared to give my time to those books to find out.

A number of reviews on Goodreads compare this favourably with The Passage by Justin Cronin. That, I don’t see. The Passage was a wonderful, vivid and mythic reinvention of the vampire. The Strain Is everything I worried The Passage might be: dull, tedious in its violence, superficial in its characterisation and pedestrian in its language.

There is a TV show of the book.

I’m not inclined to watch.

I feel as if I’ve known of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for ever. The Headless Horseman. The midnight ride. The pumpkin.

I knew that – however much I loved it – the Tim Burton and Johnny Depp film took massive liberties… And even more liberties in the Fox network series Sleepy Hollow which was enjoyable enough brain candy.

But it was only when Audible offered me the audiobook for free that I came to realise that I’d never actually read the original.

It is only a small book – only just over an hour as an audiobook – and the Headless Horseman only makes a brief appearance. The story is, however, wonderful! Irving’s language and description of both the countryside and his protagonist are exquisitely ridiculous.

The long descriptions of the abundance of the Van Tassel farmlands was fantastic: rich, sensuous and genuinely funny.

Ichabod Crane is neither a sceptical police constable nor a defecting British soldier. He is, in fact, a gangly, socially inept, romantically hopelessly ambitious school teacher. A pedant who revels in and wholeheartedly believes the dark and otherworldly stories that abound in Sleepy Hollow. Everything about Ichabod Crane was ridiculous: his gluttony, his appearance, his romance with Katrina van Tassell, his rivalry with Brom ‘Bones’, his superstitious credulity, his horsemanship. And yet he was quite touchingly mocked and satirised by Irving.

The end of the story of wonderfully balanced in that Irving never makes it clear whether the horseman is real or not.

A fabulously quirky, funny and yet genuinely quite chilling read.

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Miéville is one of my favourite authors: acutely political, wildly imaginative and linguistically sparkling.

I discovered him through Perdido Street Station and adored the sprawling city of New Crobuzon: mercantile, rapacious, brutal but utterly compelling. It is a city populated by renegade scientists, scarab-headed khepri, eagle faced garuda, the amphibian vodyanoi, the cactacae and brutally Remade criminals. And badgers. This entire melting pot of a city – which reminds me of the bastard child of Ankh-Morpork and William Blake’s London – is in the shadow of the towering ossified ribs of some unfathomable creature.

Since I read Perdido Street Station, I have delved into Miéville’s more real-world novels, The Kraken, The City and The City as well as the sublimely gorgeous (allegedly) Young Adult Railsea. I had however skipped the other two books in Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy: The Scar and Iron Council.

The Scar is a sequel to Perdido Street Station only tangentially: the events take place in the same world and follow on chronologically but we have a completely different set of characters and setting. And races.

Save for a few interludes, we follow the novel through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine, a somewhat acerbic, chain smoking cynic, fleeing New Crobuzon for its distant colony Nova Esperia. That journey is interrupted, however, when Bellis and her fellow passengers and entire ship are taken by pirates and subsumed into the floating city of Armada.

Armada is a fabulous creation, nearly as puissant (a word you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read the book) in the imagination as New Crobuzon. A floating city. Composed of thousands of hijacked ships from a hundred cultures over hundreds of years. Lashed together. Re-configured. Broken apart and re-fitted. And despite its isolation in the oceans, it hums with life: factories, libraries, bars, farms and parklands all knitted into the carcasses of the stolen ships.

We encounter new races: scabmettlers whose blood congeals immediately on contact with the air to form impenetrable armours; vampires, known as vampir or haemophages – haemophage what a great word! – who don’t stalk the benighted streets but who rule one of the city’s ridings openly in the shape of the Brucolac; the bloodsucking mosquito people or anophilii trapped on an island; the part crustacean cray people; and the grindylow who shadow the narrative from the opening pages but who don’t make an appearance until the final chapters.

I loved the grindylow who seem to occupy a space between the monstrous and justice. This is Miéville’s description of them once he introduces them into the story:

They jutted prognathous jaws, their bulging teeth frozen in meaningless grimaces, massive eyes absolutely dark and unblinking. Their arms and chests were humanoid, tightly ridged with muscles and stretched skin, grey-green and black, shiny as if with mucus. And, narrowing at the waist, the grindylow bodies extended like enormous eels, into flat tails several times longer than their bodies.
The grindylow swam in the air. They flickered, sending quick S-curves down the lengths of their extended tails, rippling them liquidly.

As is typical with Miéville there are a number of stories working simultaneously. The novel is about Bellis’ refusal to be assimilated into the city of Armada and her eventual resignation; it is about The Lovers – the most powerful leaders in the city – and their plan to raise a monstrous sea creature, the avanc, harness its strength to tow the city and reach the titular Scar, a break in reality, in order to mine possibility from it; it is about the machinations of Simon Fench and his attempts to be rescued from Armada; it dwells on Tanner Sack, a Remade convict freed by Armada, who embraces his new life and second chance with both arms – and both grafted-on tentacles.

Ahhh the avanc! There is something deliciously Lovecraftian in this vast inter dimensional sea creature, summoned, harnessed and docilely and implacably towing the city. The descriptions of it in seismic and geological terms are astoundingly beautiful and powerful. Does this creature echo something Melvillian too? The desperate quests, first for this massive leviathan and then the Scar itself, had something of Ahab in them.

Scars in the novel are as significant as you’d expect from a novel with this name! The Lovers cut and scar each other over and again to prove and mark their love for each other, freggios intended to claim a lover and mar their beauty to ensure their fidelity. Tanner Sack remakes his own Remade body to become amphibian. Floggings leave scars. One of the most moving depictions of scars may be Shekel (a teenage New Crobuzoner who forms a relationship with a Remade woman

She was Remade she was Remade (Remade scum), he knew it, he saw it, and still he felt incessantly what was inside him, and he felt a great scab of habit and prejudice split from him, part from his skin where his homeland had inscribed him deep.
Heal me, he thought…. There was a caustic pain as he peeled off. Clot of old life and exposed himself open and u sure to her, to new air. Breathing fast again. His feelings welled out and bled together (their festering ceased) and they began to resolve, to heal in a new form, to scar.

Once Tanner had re-Remade his body, the doctor informs him that he will scar but that scars “are not injuries…. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”

I also found that the passages in which Bellis translated particularly resonant with the sense that language was passing through her without the associations of meanings. My next Miéville book is going to be Embassytown, his foray into science fiction, which (I believe) will again explore the idea of interpretation, translation and the power of and our relationship with language.

This is one of those novels which, when you finish it, leaves you with the sense that you have only scratched the surface. The same feeling, in fact, which Bellis is left with. Who actually was in control of the city? Who or what was Uther Doul? What was his actual relationship with the Lovers who appeared to be his superiors; the Brucolac who haled from the same culture, albeit the Brucolac was an ab-dead vampir and Doul a living human; and with Bellis? Did Bellis come to accept that Armada could become her home?

Having cast as eye over a handful of other reviews of this book, I think Miéville’s had a bit of a pounding on sites like Goodreads. People have complained that he overuses certain phrases such as puissance for magical power or thaumaturgy for a steampunk mixture of magical and scientific force. I think they’re missing the point: Miéville is consciously eschewing or subverting typical cliched fantasy tropes and creating his own. Oddly, I did feel that his descriptions of the cactacae relied overly on the phrase “fibrous vegetable muscles”. However, having just searched for the word vegetable in my e-version of the book, I find that it occurs only four times. In over 500 pages.

Perception can be a strange thing!

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There is so much to admire about this book that I feel almost guilty that I didn’t love it. And I feel I might struggle to explain why without losing sight of the fact that it is a great book and beautifully written in places.

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As you’d expect from Waters, The Paying Guests inhabits a very specific historical moment. In this case, she takes is to the social upheaval of the 1920s and the interbellum years. The aftermath of The Great War looms over the novel: a generation of men have been lost; soldiers returning have found themselves unemployed and unsupported; the division between the gentry and clerk classes are dissolving. Again, as you’d expect of Waters, the historical details are utterly convincing; her language never jars you from that period; her dialogue feels completely authentic. The voices of her characters and the way that their language is almost insufficient to reflect the depth of the emotions, passions and pain her characters feel is wonderfully evocative. It somehow recalls my grandmother.

Waters locates the writing in a traditional grand house in Champion Hill, London – a house used to a team of servants and a family of five before the war, but which now houses only our main character, Frances Wray, and her mother. Saddled with debts, the Wrays take in a married couple – Ken and Lillian Barber – as lodgers in order to maintain the cost of the house upkeep. The novel opens with the Barbers arrival and the tension created by that arrival: the hesitation over whether to offer or even drink tea with the Barbers on their arrival; the awkward maneuverings and negotiations between two families finding a space between cool civility, pragmatic commerce, resentment and an uncomfortable enforced intimacy.

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It comes as no surprise to those who have read Waters before that the awkward intimacy between Francis Wray and Lillian Barber becomes something more romantic and passionate.

And Waters is just as fabulous writing about emotions as she is in capturing a voice. Just read the following extract:

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It is one of the most beautiful and natural analogies of the quickening of love that I have read. Domestic. Sensuous. Gorgeous. And the contrast between the narrator’s lyricism and the characters’ almost inarticulate and gauche attempts to communicate those feelings was exquisitely painful.

Locating the story firmly within the Champion Hill house also worked wonderfully. It became claustrophobic and enclosing… reflecting the limitations and restrictions imposed on the characters by society and morality and family. The house almost became a character in its own right and a reflection of Frances’ own psychological state.

It is the second half of the novel, however, that lost me a little. The novel shifts from the drama of Frances and Lillian’ love to a more plot driven crime thriller. The turning point is quite horrific to read but something gets lost.

I stopped liking either of the two characters.

Their inability to communicate, which in the first part of the novel, was endearing and overcome through their contact – her depictions of skin are beautiful – became frankly irritating. Their lack of agency</em, of control, became tedious. I'm sure that it was a realistic portrait of the lack of agency women had in the 1920s and the way the patriarchal machinery of society robbed women of exactly that self determinism.

However, as a novel, it alienated me.

I didn’t find their actions and reactions credible in the second half of the novel… even though I know that Waters is a writer for whom credibility and authenticity are paramount.

It is odd though that this is the second lesbian novel I’ve read in a row, following on from Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal . The comparison is interesting: where Catton’s novel is arch and self-aware and overtly literary, Waters is real and – I keep coming back to this word – authentic. Thinking about the two books together, and being fully aware of the subjectivity of this, it crystallises what it is in books that really grips me: it is the artfulness, the language games, the twisting of not just the plot but the very relationship I have – as reader – with the writer and his or her creations.