Archive for January, 2015

Death Bringer.

An apt title to read this week as I have struggled with another vile bug. Or possibly the same vile bug that I’ve had since Christmas and never really shifted.

The Death Bringer virus.

IMG_6726
Or perhaps just book six in the Skulduggery Pleasant series.

I lost faith a little with Mortal Coil and the unnecessary violence inflicted in Valkyrie Cain there. I was pleased that Landy appeared to have stepped back: there is plenty of violence in here – plenty! – but it has a comic book quality to it rather than horror. It is perhaps telling that the final conflict is resolved in a Forbidden Planet store for a couple of reasons.

Ok. Let’s look at the plot. In some ways, the plot felt freer than previously. Almost pared down. The various generals of Mevolent’s war had been dispatched with previously and it felt as if Landy had drawn a line under that. Our antagonist instead was the Necromancy Order who had been erstwhile allies and were tutoring Valkyrie. They had discovered (or twisted into being) a sufficiently powerful necromancer to act as the fabled Death Bringer.

Once it was realised what the Death Bringer was intended to do, which isn’t wholly surprising given its name, Skulduggery, Valkyrie and the Sanctuary seek to stop her.

A lot of fighting ensues.

We also get a good chance to study the terrible Darquesse, the ultra powerful version of Valkyrie fated to destroy the world. And we discover the truth about – and again witness – Lord Vile. The full Lord Vile. Not just his armour. Their combat certainly came across as cool. And violent. Bones shattered and organs were crushed. But healed instantaneously. There was also something reminiscent of Man Of Steel about it though: two functionally invulnerable characters fighting each other quickly becomes repetitive. And stale. And dull.

In fairness, Landy does just about pitch it right. Better than Man of Steel.

The novel also seems more character driven than previously. Although there has been a gap since I read the previous ones so I may be doing them a disservice. The darkness at the heart of both Skulduggery and Valkyrie get star billing with echoes of Jekyll and Hyde. The somewhat cliched love triangle between Valkyrie, Fletcher and the vampire Caelan is resolved – with an always enjoyable swipe at Twilight

“We’re not Buffy and Angel, or Romeo and Juliet, or those other two from West Side Story. We’re not even Edward and Bella. OK? You’re far too freaky for me.”
He looked at her. “We’re meant to be together…”
“And this is exactly what I mean.”
“Our love is written in the stars.”
“And there you go again.”
“I love you.”
“You bore me.”
He faltered. “What?”

And we see far more of Valkyrie at home, with her parents, her baby sister and even her uncle and cousins.

Along with the fighting, Landy’s hallmark has been the comedy elements to his books: Skulduggery is typically described as wise-cracking; Scapegrace and Thrasher return as the comedy zombies. Personally, I think the comedy was overdone here a little: following the deaths in the assault on the Necromancers’ Temple, Cleric Craven and the remains of the order seemed to degenerate into farce and were almost played for laughs which detracted from the credibility of their threat. And the incessant joking and wisecracking from Skulduggery became just a little tiresome.

I did enjoy Fletcher’s character assassination of Valkyrie, though, when she dumped him

“Do you even care? I mean, I know you’re crying, I can see the tears, but they’re not tears for me. You’re crying because you feel bad. Those tears are about you, because everything is about you. It always is, isn’t it? The world revolves around you because you are just that selfish…. I don’t think it even occurred to you that I would be hurt. It never entered your head. You’re that obsessed with yourself, you know that?”

And I have to say I do kind of agree with him: she is an engaging character but all her wisecracking gives her a certain air of self-importance. It is important that we see her in these more domestic and mundane and emotionally vulnerable.

The novel leaves many potential threats by the end: Melancholia, Eliza Scorn, the continually misbehaving reflection and, most interestingly to me, Kenny Dunne, a journalist slowly patching together an exposé of the magical world of Dublin.

IMG_6725

Advertisements

Ahhhhh David Mitchell.

This, for me, is probably your crowning glory. I loved the realism and naturalistic voice of Black Swan Green; I also loved the mysticism and scope of Cloud Atlas. The Bone Clocks incorporates both those elements whilst ramping up the fantastical into a breathtaking and deft novel.

2015/01/img_6602.jpg
The novel most closely resembles Cloud Atlas in its structure: a range of interconnected stories narrated by a variety of characters. The connection between them, in this case, is straightforward: the character of Holly Sykes whose voice introduces the novel in 1984 as a fifteen year old girl; whose voice closes the novel as a seventy-four year old in a post-apocalyptic 2043; and who crosses the paths of each of the other narrators in between – Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Iris Marinus Fenby.

2015/01/img_6603.jpg Each section works as a self-contained tale; and the whole is coherent, compelling and tragic. The way in which Mitchell incorporates his human voices into a fantasy cosmography and mythology is exquisite.

Let’s take a look at the different sections of the novel.

Our first introduction to Holly Sykes in A Hot Spell sees her escaping her parents’ pub and cheating boyfriend. Holly reveals that she had heard voices inside her head as a child, which she named The Radio People before being ‘cured’. As she walks, she encounters the equally teenage Ed Brubeck, an angling Esther Little to whom she agrees to offer asylum and a somewhat incomprehensible and unexpected encounter with a homicidal magical being. Following a quick memory swipe, we follow her off to The Isle of Sheppey where she picks fruit briefly before Ed Brubeck finds her to reveal that her brother, Jacko, has gone missing.

Holly was a wonderfully engaging character: realistically naive and gullible, regurgitating opinions and half-formed thoughts; childishly impulsive; impetuous and independent. And strong.

The second section, slightly oddly entitled Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume, a line from the carol We Three Kings, follows the Cambridge student Hugo Lamb in 1991. Ironically, that is one year before I entered Cambridge. The Cambridge depicted was not one I remembered – possibly as I wasn’t a member of the choral society, didn’t hang out with minor aristocracy and wasn’t groomed by societies of immortal atemporals. I was somewhat disappointed not to be approached by MI5! There did seem to be an element of caricature in the characterisation … but then, it was still a highly enjoyable caricature!

And I wasn’t a sociopath, which Hugo Lamb was. He seemed utterly devoid of conscience, ethics or morals, leaving friends dead, women used and the helpless cheated. And yet was somehow compelling. I liked him; and felt slightly dirty for doing so! He is also the deeply unpleasant cousin in Black Swan Green and the reveal there was a genuinely pleasurable ahhhh moment!

His encounter with Holly Sykes in a ski resort was brief and tender, offering him (and her) something akin to redemption.

The third installment, The Wedding Bash, set in 2004, was in my opinion the strongest and most tightly controlled section. Holly is now in a relationship with Ed Brubeck who is a war reporter for Spyglass Magazine, the same magazine featured in Cloud Atlas. They have a daughter, Aoife, and have amassed in Sussex for Holly’ sister’s wedding.

This section alternates between the domestic tensions in the Sykes-Brubeck household and Ed’s recollections of a near-death experience in Baghdad. Ed’s feeling of being torn between his world’s – domestic and international – was utterly convincing. As were his almost self-destructive interactions with Holly.

Perhaps the reason for the success of this section was the extremely light-touch fantasy elements.

It was a shame in some ways that it was succeeded by the weakest section, Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet set in 2015 following Crispin Hershey, author of Dessicated Embryos – a thinly disguised Martin Amis of Dead Babies fame – on the literary tour route as his career floundered. Partially as a result of a negative review of his most recent book by Richard Cheese man, whom we had previously met as an undergraduate friend of Hugo Lamb.

This section didn’t add much to the novel: Hershey was a self-interested and self-pitying egomaniac – without the delicious darkness of Lamb. We do see his character evolve, but it is one of the longest sections of the novel narrated by its least engaging voice. But it does serve to re-introduce both Lamb and the fantastical more concretely.

And that leads us to 2025 and An Horologist’s Labyrinth. This section explores the fantasy element to its full: its narrator is an atemporal immortal b
with psychosoteric powers of mind reading and control (scansion and suasion), telekinesis and others. Magic, in short. We learn of Horologists like Iris Marinus Fenby who reincarnate and Anchorites who decant others’ souls to achieve immortality. We learn of the war between them and the significance of 1984 and the offer of asylum becomes explicit.

This section could have stood as a fantasy element in its own right: the mythologising is deft and detailed, the characters convincing, the familiarity we have with Holly by this point, moving.

I was concerned that this book might not quite work, that the literariness and the fantastical might jar. But I was wrong. Save for the Hershey episode, I don’t think there’s a single misstep.

There is, however, one overwhelming message in this book: stock up on tampons and insulin in 2030. And move to Iceland.

I do love a book with a map in its cover!

2015/01/img_6591.jpg I must confess I’m not entirely sure what this map adds to the book, but at a personal level, I used to live pretty much where Shardlake’s house is! Inside Lincoln’s Inn. Abutting Chancery Lane.

And that, pretty much, sums up the appeal of the Shardlake series, of which this is the sixth. They are familiar and comfortable. The Tudor era is familiar. The legal world of the Inns of Court are familiar. The recurring characters of Guy and Barak are familiar.

And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

2015/01/img_6589.jpg
I have missed the two preceding novels, Revelation and Heartstone, but there’s nothing here that depends on a prior knowledge of those – or any previous Shardlake stories.

There are three interrelated plots within the novel: an ongoing bitter legal case which generates new friends and new enemies for Shardlake; an instruction from the Queen, Catherine Parr, to Shardlake to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous book; and domestic tensions within his own household. These plots alternate and weave together more successfully than I’d felt previous Shardlake novels had done. The conclusion twists deliciously and harrowingly for its protagonists – and the reader. And a continuation to the next book established in the epilogue. Shardlake is a cash cow that Sansom clearly intends to continue milking!

And why not?!

The book is very much a transitioning work: it marks a somewhat brutal retirement of Barak and Tamasin; the introduction of a new assistant, pupil barrister Nicholas; a complete gutting of Shardlake’s own household; and, of course, the anticipation of the death of one King and succession of another. I’ll miss Barak, who I hope may make guest appearances in the future, and particularly the somewhat fiery Tamasin, although Nicholas has promise as a character.

So, beyond the comfort and familiarity, what does the book offer? An effective enough depiction of the final months of Henry VIII’s reign as a time of religious and political turmoil. There are a few slightly clumsy expositions of Anabaptists and Lollards – the benefit of Nicholas’ role: the worldly Barak wouldn’t have needed the history lessons! Plot points were repeated slightly too frequently for my liking: Shardlake sometimes ruminated on the plot to himself, reported to the palace and then discussed the case with Barak later. I would like Sansom to have a little more faith in my ability to keep up. Similarly, the machinations of the Court politics and the ruse and fall of traditionalist or reforming sympathisers was expounded too much. And if another person commented that Secretary Paget followed the King and did not seek to lead him, having learned from the mistakes of Wolsey and Cromwell one more time, I might have … tweeted angrily!

Perhaps I have been spoiled though. After Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, almost every depiction of Tudor London will seem … Well, monochrome.

I’d also have liked the trail to have been a little less obvious. Shardlake – to me – needs to be piercing in his intellect and perspicacity. Here, his investigations were a little ‘plodding’: only four people had access to the Queen’s room when her book was taken, so he interviewed them and followed the leads. A murder had been committed and the neighbour had disturbed the murderers, so he interviewed them and followed the leads. I did wonder once or twice what Shardlake offered the investigation which others couldn’t provide beyond what we might nowadays call plausible deniability for the Queen.

I was also rather more interested in the legal case of the Slanning painting than Sansom seemed to be. For me – abd I fully accept it is possibly just because of my legal background – I’d have liked that explored further. The darkness eventually revealed, again, seemed a little convenient.

What Sansom has produced and offered is a well plotted, well paced, tense political thriller with a likeable cast. The tour-de-force moment, however, is the brooding, terrifying and corrupted presence of the king which presides over the novel.

2015/01/img_6574.jpg
Many things about being a teacher vex me: longer hours than the public realise, pay, governmental meddling. Paperwork. Ofsted. As a teacher of English though, the lack of imagination in exam boards’ choices for set texts is pretty high on the vexing-list. Really, Of Mice And Men, again? An Inspector Calls as modern drama? Don’t get me wrong, both are great books. But there is an embarrassment when parents point out they read the same book in their generation. As did some grandparents!

So, for me, I avoid the familiar and, if I can, try to teach at least one fresh book a year. Last year, it was The Woman In Black by Susan Hill; this year, Mister Pip. Admittedly, it’s not completely “fresh”: I’d read it when it was nominated for the Man Booker in 2007. But it has stayed with me, the child’s voice of the narrator, the somehow ephemeral Mister Watts. The island.

Mister Pip Is set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Near Australia. Now, going back to exam text lists, that is a different culture. 1930s America in contrast seems altogether too familiar! Lloyd Jones, literally, takes us to the other side of the world.

2015/01/img_6581-0.png And this island is gorgeous! Do a quick Google image search. You’ll find images like these.

2015/01/img_6585.jpg

2015/01/img_6584.jpg
And in the middle of the island – the heart of the island – is a vast ugly scar of a copper mine.

2015/01/img_6580.jpg
The copper mine and its white owners became the subject of criticism, strikes and eventually rebellion in the 1990s and it is into that conflict which Jones plunges us.

Almost.

We only see the conflict (and indeed the island) through the prism of Matilda’s eyes, a young girl in a village around which threat of the civil war rages. We only see the conflict as it touches on the villagers’ lives: the embargo which means they run out of fuel for generators; the exodus of whites which leads to the closure of the village school; occasional helicopters and gunfire in the jungle; visits by both the rebels and the redskin troops trying to eliminate them. The conflict circles the village, eddies around it, and becomes increasingly threatening until the truly horrific atrocities committed in the final chapters. All the more brutal for the simplicity and directness of the narration.

The war, however, is but a backdrop to the novel: the heart of this novel is the character of Mister Watt, the last white man on the island who declined his opportunity to leave it. Who re-opened the school after the blockade. Who read Dickens’ Great Expectations to a schoolroom of teenage kids. Who wheels his wife around the village on a cart, whilst wearing a red clown nose. Who may be an heroic or a sympathetic or a pathetic character. Or all three. Who clashes with Dolores, Matilda’s mother, about, well, everything!

There is some criticism of the book on Goodreads that Mr Watts is painted as the great white hero, using the great white novel, to save the souls of the helpless aboriginal children. People are uncomfortable that there’s a colonial arrogance in the portrayal of Mr Watts. Perhaps we are meant to be uncomfortable about that. Perhaps the irony of the conflict between the value of the bible versus Great Expectations, both of which symbolise the white colonial presence is intended. Maybe we as white readers are complicit in the ills which befall the inhabitants of this island.

But those criticisms, in my view, miss the point almost entirely. It’s not the fact the it’s Great Expectations that saves the children, it is the power of story. Including the stories, folk tales and jungle knowledge of the villagers. Mr Watts’ final seven day performance to the rebels of his story which stitches elements of fantasy, his own autobiography. Great Expectations and local stories is the absurd, touching, bright gem.

Mr Watts is no imperial or colonial hero: he is an actor who only succeeds in his various roles because his audience has the capacity and imagination to permit him to succeed.

And Lloyd Jones prepares and preempts the final twist to Mr Watts’ story and character beautifully.

Anyway, to sum up, this is s gorgeous novel about the power of story, the strength of ordinary people to endure. It is about identity, about mothers, about love. And told through the lips of a remarkable narrative voice in Matilda.

Thank goodness it’s found its way onto the GCSE set text list… Until the new exams hit us and exam boards revert back to reliable classics!

Woohoo my first finished novel of 2015 and a start to my Reading Challenge!

2015/01/img_6453.jpg

This book was not what I expected. There was something very evocative and intriguing about both the title and cover – as well as the photographs inside. Almost all of which, according to the note appended to the novel, are genuine and authentic found photographs. I was expecting something haunting and thought provoking and this … wasn’t.

Now, I fully accept that my dissatisfaction with this book is probably in part because I misjudged the audience for it. But I think Ransom Riggs may have done the same. I had expected this to be an adult book and it’s not. Hence disappointment. But here’s the thing: as any cursory review of my blog will reveal, I have no problem with Young Adult books. I love Young Adult books and see no reason why they shouldn’t be included in the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prizes. I mean, look at just three: My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Anything by Patrick Ness. Sublime.

So, the shift in gear in my expectation from Adult to Young Adult was not the source of my problem. It just wasn’t hugely good.

Here’s the premise: Jacob Portman was brought up on his grandfather’s tales of monsters and children with strange powers. He believed these to be fairytales or repressed memories of Nazi oppression until he nearly witnessed one of these monsters murdering his grandfather. A series of clues lead to an island off Wales where his grandfathers fairytales suddenly prove themselves true.

There are echoes here of the X-Men’s School For Gifted Children, of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts… It’s all a little familiar. A little derivative.

I also had a problem with the narrative voice. It is a first person narrative from the point of view of a teenager. And the language just wasn’t right for that voice. Some very long, tortuously clumsy sentences such as

I was following my dad into our suspiciously dark living room as he muttered things like “What a shame we didn’t plan anything for your birthday” and “Oh well, there’s always next year,” when all the lights flooded on to reveal streamers, balloons, and a motley assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins I rarely spoke to – anyone my mother could cajole into attending – and Rick, whom I was surprised to see lingering near the punch bowl, looking comically out of place in a studded leather jacket.

Wow. That’s nearly 100 words. Including an Oxford comma. And a whom.

It is just clumsy and typical of a tendency towards over long sentences and oddly formal language. Riggs just doesn’t seem very good at voices and I wish his editor had picked up the phone and said “Ever thought of the third person?” Here’s another e ample which jarred with me. It’s from the finale after a life-and-death battle

“When we leave here, this loop will close behind us. It’s possible you may never be able to return to the time you came from. At least not easily.”
“There’s nothing for me there,” I said quickly. “Even if I could go back, I’m not sure I’d want to.”

I’m sorry! What? His mum, whom he left in America? His dad, who brought him to the Welsh island in the first place being stranded alone with the horror of having somehow lost his son?

No voice and character are not Riggs’ strength! There was almost nothing to distinguish any of the peculiar children save for their power. And the fact that Jacob hooks up with his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend. As you do.

Don’t even get me started on Miss Peregrine’s interminable info dump exposition about peculiar children, ymbrynes and time loops.

Putting all that to one side, though, the conclusion had promise. Escaping from time loop to time loop allowing for a myriad of different historical and geographical world’s to be explored. Again, it’s nothing shatteringly novel – the anomalies in BBC’s Primeval spring to mind – but promising. This was Riggs’ debut novel and I may be persuaded to delve into the sequel Hollow City. Maybe.

Anyway I shall conclude with a selection of the photographs which litter the book. They are undoubtedly cool even if they lack the power of the illustrations in Ness’ A Monster Calls. I wonder how much of the planning of the story derived from the necessity to shoehorn in these pictures….

2015/01/img_6457.jpg

2015/01/img_6456.png

2015/01/img_6455.jpg

2015/01/img_6458.jpg

2015/01/img_6459.jpg

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,500 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.