Archive for May, 2015

     This was a pleasant enough way to round of my half term: decently written in the engaging and practical voice of Lady Trent, this book conjures up a Regency style world with echoes of Austen. With dragons. 

The opening sections of the novel are the most Austenesque – if that’s even a word. Isabella Hendemore, the only daughter in a brood of boys, is indulged by her often absent gentleman father in an interest or passion in dragons who appear to be common enough to encroach into her father’s lands occasionally. They are treated by most people as any other predator, albeit a particularly dangerous predator, to be hunted and driven away from farms. 

After a few minor dragon-based adventures, Isabella is introduced to Society where she meets Jacob Camherst. Their courtship is sped over – presumably due to an absence of dragons – and I’d have liked to have seen more of it. Brennan’s writing was actually quite effective in describing the tension and comedy between genuine affection and the conventions in which Isabella are forced to express it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not Austen; it’s not social satire. But it was sweet and affecting. Especially as the narrative voice of Lady Trent is narrating the tale with the benefit of hindsight, status and a certain reputation for boldness. 

Following the wedding, Brennan has Isabella Camherst meet Lord Hilford, a peer of the realm with a naturalist’s interest in dragons. An expedition is planned to the village of Drustanev in Vystrana, a thinly veiled Russia. Isabella manoeuvres herself to be included in it. And from there, the heart of the novel begins as Brennan moves the memoir into the territory of a travelogue and then a mystery thriller. With dragons. 

The voice of Isabella, Lady Trent, was very well done. Self-deprecating, self-aware and honest. She – and in very real ways we’ve not seen her as neither Isabella Hendemore nor Isabella Camherst had yet become Isabella, Lady Trent, as she herself pointed out – was irascible and warm and engaging. A bit like an eccentric great-aunt. And the novel did indeed sound like what it claimed to be, a memoir, with occasional asides to the reader, references back to novels, travelogues and reference books within the world of the novel. 

The dragons’ presence was almost incidental: they were an integral feature of the landscape Brennan created and a key plot device but the story was really about the people. Some suspicious and fearful, some greedy, some venal, most generally decent, none exactly evil. It was quite refreshing for a fantasy novel not to have a dark lord figure brooding over the world pretending to be Sauron – and no doubt one whose name ends in -ex or -ix or some other suitably sinister suffix. Yes, Christopher Paolini, I’m referring to your King Galbatorix here! I’m sorry, but, well, the dragons make it an obvious comparison. 

So, all in all, I enjoyed this. It was pleasant and took me to a credible other world with some interesting characters. 

And there were dragons. 

And, doing the Reading Challenge which requires a trilogy, the remaining two books in the series (see here for covers, which are also very impressive) won’t be a bad way to spend the Summer. 

  

“Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.”

I was born in 1973 in a village in Kent. So far as I know, only once. I have to say, when I die, if I were to be reborn as myself in the same village in 1973 again, I’d be a tad surprised! I mean 1973. I’d have to live through the ’80s again. Did anything good happen in the 80s?

But how would that repetition affect your life? Your relationship with your parents? With the world? With history? Immortal, yet destined to only see the same lifetime. That’s the basic premise of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August. As a premise, it’s unusual and yet oddly familiar: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell was very similar save that you were reborn as a new person and the next generation; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Even Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Harry is a kalachakra or ouroboran, one of many across the world, looping perpetually through their lives. We are never informed how or why these kalachakra exist and the question “What is the point of you?” echoes within the book. 

The cyclical nature of the protagonist’s life also affects the narrative structure a little in that occasional snippets and flashbacks occurred but the novel was generally chronological through Harry August’s lives. Certainly it lacked the complexity of structure which The Time Traveller’s Wife had. Nor does the book dwell on ethical questions, beyond the slightly unclear “Don’t bugger about with temporal events”. Harry decides to kill someone in almost every one of his lives because he murdered a friend in one. The lives of linears (normal un-re-born people… muggles I suppose) seem to be treated very poorly. As if their lives didn’t matter.

Philosophical ideas are thrown out: does each new life create its own alternative universe? 

None of it is really dwelt on.

The book which this reminded me of the most, however, was I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It was, at heart, a thriller. Once you stripped out the reincarnation. Harry becomes part of The Cronus Club, an organisation generally aimed at self-preservation and support for themselves to avoid the ennui of repeated childhoods, as well as maintaining a temporal status quo. A shadowy figure emerges with a complex plan which threatens the world. Atrocities are committed. A confrontation occurs. 

It is a cracking thriller with a decent plot (the quantum mirror could be substituted for any weapon of mass destruction) and, despite developing over 400 years of linear time (give or take) a snappy pace. 

The relationship between Harry and Vincent, antagonists and comrades, loving and hating each other was played out well. With occasional moments of real tenderness and cruelty. Vincent, like Harry, is a kalachakra but rebels against the indolence and inaction perpetuated by the Cronus Clubs and he seeks to propagate the knowledge and science he discovers at the end of one life at the beginning of his next. In each lifetime, knowledge speeds up, discoveries are made sooner, boundaries are pushed further. The end of the world comes quicker. Harry and Vincent are two sides of the same coin, spinning together through their lives. Which reminds me of another Harry: young Mr Potter who carries around a portion of his nemesis’ soul with his own. 

The opening lines to the novel are addressed to Victor and encapsulate this:

I am writing this for you. 
      My enemy. 
      My friend. 
      You know, already, you must know. 
       You have lost. 

Time for a brief diversion. 

Books and authors and publishers are odd beasts, categorising each other and themselves… and then frequently deriding those categorisations. “What’s wrong with genre fiction?” is a frequent lament; “Literary fiction is so pretentious”. 

What is genre fiction anyway? Isn’t all fiction a genre? Isn’t fiction a genre? Well yes. My take on it though is this: if the author consciously adheres to the expectations of a genre then it feels like genre fiction; whereas, if the novel coincides with those expectations and conventions, it is not genre fiction just fiction. Within a genre but not for that genre. And then you get some clever buggers who write within a genre, consciously breaking the expectations, conventions and tropes. 
Me? I’m as guilty as anyone! I pigeonhole and categorise and shelve certain books together. I know I have a predilection for historical, crime and fantasy (especially with fairytale or Steampunk elements) and I enjoy that labelling process. Quite literally. When I moved house I enjoyed handing over my boxes labelled Gothic, Lesbian, Fantasy, Fairytale and the like!  Like many reviewers on WordPress, my list of categories demonstrates this rationalist love of classification! 

But I also like to think I am using those categories knowingly, with a half turned smirk. Post-modernly. Ironically. Because I also know that what makes a story work is utterly independent from its genre (literary or otherwise): characters, voice, language. Fun. Inventiveness. There is great genre fiction out there with all those features; there is also some very poor literary fiction.  I think that the reason genre fiction has come to be seen as a perjorative is that some writers adhere to the conventions as if they were rules. 

Now this has been a bit of a lengthy sidetrack. But it is because of a review I read of this book claiming that it was a crossover or breakout piece between science fiction genre fiction and literary fiction. I’m sorry if that was you and I’ve not credited you (let me know and I will if you want!)

I’m not sure I agree. I’m not even sure I’d agree it was science fiction. Sure, it’s sort of time travelling in a way but the science is pretty low impact. As I have said, it is a thriller more than anything else. A pretty damn good and different and unusual thriller but a thriller nonetheless.  

 

This tale has its origins in the novel Snuff: it is the bedtime story that Sam Vimes’ son requires every night. 

It is utterly silly, amusing and delightful. How charming can a book about poo be? This is the most charming book about poo I have ever read!

Does it have a plot? Of course: Young Geoffrey is dispatched to Ankh-Morpork by his parents to reside with his grand-mama. He is not terribly keen on the idea until a bird poos on his head and he is told that it means good luck. With impeccable logic, he concludes that, if bird poo is lucky, how much more lucky and interesting might the poo to more exotic creatures be? With the collusion of his grand-mama, who seems for more practical than Geiffrey thought, he starts a poo museum. 

Well why not?

We know that Harry King, who has a cameo here, found his fortune in waste!

This is a tiny gem of a book, gorgeously illustrated by Peter Dennis in a wonderfully charming style. Laugh out loud? Probably not. Wry smile? Sure. Earth shattering observations on life? Maybe not. 

A beautiful looking book, hence leaving the picture to the end!

  

What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.

Yup.
That is how bleak the world of this book is. Tragically, lyrically and devastatingly bleak, but bleak nonetheless. Nothing grows. Nothing lives. The world contains nothing of beauty or of value and very little of utilitarian use. Whilst the man and boy we follow are “good guys”, the rest of the world appears to consist of “bad guys” by which McCarthy means paedophiles, rapists, murderers and cannibals.

The story, such as it is, is ridiculously simple: a man and his son are walking south in search of something. This is narrative stripped bare, stripped to its literal bones. It has the sparseness of a fable or an allegory or a parable and puts me in mind of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress more than anything else.

The setting, however, is science fiction: a post-apocalyptic vision of hopelessness: animal and vegetable life appears to be devastated. The word “dead” occurs so frequently it would be easy to mock. The man and his son are

Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold….

The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss.

Again, for me, echoes abound, particularly of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The man and boy are very literally walking through the shadow of the the valley of death. I’m not so naive and McCarthy’s not so pedestrian that you can see direct parallels but this novel in which the man and boy “carry the fire” is embedded in these narratives and lyrics of Christian pilgrimage and Christian faith. And it is through that fire that such a bleak novel lives on with such optimism and hope. Throughout the novel, the man’s faith is repeatedly rewarded by hidden caches of food or the remnants of an orchard.

The other story which echoes through my reading of The Road is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. The road itself as a symbol; the pair of travellers; the absurdity, beauty and pathos in their interactions.

But the novel goes beyond that Christianity and beyond the evocation of other texts. There is a deeply human relationship between the man and boy, full of the love and hope, the frustration and fear which is so recognisable. And almost unbearably painful: the man’s horror over the gauntness of his son, his sense of inadequacy trying to comfort him, the bleak practicality of his teaching his son how to shoot himself. There is never a shred of doubt that this father would die before allowing harm to come to his son; and would suffer worse than death to allow his son to escape suffering.

And his final words to his son. Oh god. As a dad, that final conversation was worth reading the whole book for. And all delivered in terse almost monosyllabic dialogue.
It can sometimes be hard to think of strong and positive father figures in literature (Atticus Finch, Jean Valjean excepted and I’m sure many others who haven’t come to mind yet…) so I notice them when I come across them. And strong father-son relationships seem even rarer.

Anyway, I digress…

The writing style of the novel is different to the traditional: the sentences are often fragmented and, when not, they are short and simple, only linking clauses together with coordinating conjunctions, the “and” echoing through the prose like the tired footfalls of the protagonists. There is extremely scant use of adverbs. The man and boy are never named. Apostrophes and dialogue markers are omitted sometimes.

I’m more sanguine about that that most of the commentators on Goodreads. The sentence structures work beautifully well and, as I’ve said, contribute to the lyricism in their sparseness. And, even if I mourn the absent apostrophes just a little, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful books around. A writer who can come up with this line

“If he is not the word of God God never spoke”

should not be criticised because some people would prefer a comma there.

Haunting. Beautiful. Muscular.


  Oh dear. 

I fear I’m going to be unpopular here because I’ve heard so much good about this book. People have raved about it. A friend, whose book recommendations I’ve often been steered well by, re-reads it. Monthly. 

So I apologise in advance. 

I found it to be… okay. 

It was standard zombie post-apocalyptic horror fare with a fairly interesting twist.  

Let’s look at the world building first … World building? World destruction? Whatever. It is set in the UK which makes a nice change from the almost ubiquitous American settings. This is, perhaps, not hugely surprising as M. R. Carey hails from Liverpool but the occasional  reference (like the one to David Attenborough) gives it, momentarily, a very British feel. The setting, however, quickly became fairly generic: generic Army base; generic devastated countryside; generic infected cities. 

But one of the pleasures of zombie novels, for me, is the imagined mechanics of it all. Mira Grant’s Feed books had a credible virus-origin; World War Z felt credible enough; Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a little convenient and vague. The infection here, however, is fungal rather than viral and rooted in real science: the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis  fungus apparently does infect and change the behaviours of ants which actually is genuinely amazing! And it must be true: it’s on Wikipedia here! It is one of those facts that does shift your perception of the natural world. These are fungi, pretty much the most basic organism in the world. Taking control of an insect. In the world of the novel, a mutated form of this fungus does the same in people, destroying the higher functions of the brain and exaggerating the hunger. 

So far, so good: a pretty solid creation. The twist comes in the form of the ten-year old protagonist Melanie: infected but somehow retaining her higher processes: language, memory, intelligence, which we are told repeatedly is at genius-level, emotion and empathy. We first meet her along with nearly two dozen other children, housed in a cell, strapped into a wheelchair and transported back and forth to have classes with a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Occasionally, children are removed by Doctor Caldwell to be dissected. As a reader, we catch on fairly quickly, and Melanie’s partial understanding and her almost wilful refusal to confront it is managed well enough. 

Although not first person, the point of view is generally Melanie’s and the language seems to match it with a simplicity and clarity and naivety which is pretty effective. But the voice doesn’t change when our point of view does which don’t seem terribly well managed. Equally clumsily done are the various infodumps about the infection: even Justineau asks Caldwell why she’s telling her how the infection began. 

In terms of structure and plot, it progresses in the only real way it could: the security of the base is compromised; a small band of survivors flee, heading for Beacon, some safe holdfast south of London. On the way, Carey tries to develop the back stories of his characters before the inevitable occurs. 

And that was where the novel faltered, for me. The characters never emerged from two-dimensionality: Parks was always the gruff but well-meaning Sargeant; Gallagher, always the immature innocent soldier caught up in a war he did not understand; Caldwell never became more than a female Dr Mengele; Justineau the compassionate. And they were so incredibly stupid! Heading for cities where the concentration of zombies was at its highest; approaching a zombie in the street. Even Melanie, who was the most intriguing of them all, didn’t really engage me. I’d seen it done before in Cronin’s The Passage and between Melanie and Amy Harper Bellafonte, there is no contest.

I mean, don’t get me wrong… This is not a bad book; it’s a decent read and a good example of the genre; it’s not lyrical or beautiful in its language but it is well written and well paced. It’s a decent book. I just don’t get the huge praise I’ve heard about it. 

Maybe it’s me. 

Maybe I’m missing something. 

Related

I’ve noticed this book creep into the recommended reads of the local Waterstone’s and into the supermarkets. Well… I was reading it first!

  So, what do we have here? 
It is a murder set in Dublin, Ireland revolving around the Murder Squad. It’s the fifth in French’s series which, as I understand from other reviews, not having read any of the others myself, have returning and revolving characters so that a minor character in one book becomes the protagonist of another; the main character of one gets a cameo in another. I like that idea: it seems slightly less egomaniacal and more realistic as friendships, partnerships and rivalries grow and wither. But, anyway, I’ve not read them so…. Back to The Secret Place

The novel opens with a teenage Holly Mackey – apparently a witness in a previous novel – seeking out Detective Steven Moran in the Cold Cases Unit. In her hands, she’s clutching a postcard which she found at her boarding school claiming that someone knows who killed a boy murdered there the previous year. A quick trip to the Murder Squad and a bit of wheedling and the ambitious Steven is en route to the school to re-interview the girls, assisting Detective Antoinette Conway whose case it is, and getting his foot into the Murder Squad’s door. 

The rest of the narrative follows the events of that single day which gives the prose – which at times is genuinely lyrical, especially when describing light – a tautness which is sometimes missing from crime dramas. There is no waiting for forensics or autopsies or fingerprints; nor is there any traipsing around Dublin searching for witnesses. Everything is contained by the one day and the walls of the school grounds.  And, within those grounds, French explores issues of class (the working class detectives bristling in the exclusive St. Kilda’s), gender, generational tensions. 

Alongside the investigation narrative, and alternating chapters with it, is the back story: the year that led up to the death of Chris Harper.

It is these flashback chapters which, I suspect, will divide readers. They divided me from … well … myself. On the one hand I adored the depiction of the two groups of girls around which the novel revolves. The preciousness and beauty and magic of those intense childhood friendships – magnified by the intimate claustrophobia (or claustrophobic intimacy) or the boarding rooms – is genuinely beautiful. As beautiful, in fact, as its disintegration is painful. Take a look at the description as one girl calls another and she

turned towards her voice, hand reaching, and her head bent back into that dark shape. Their arms folded around each other’s shoulders like wings, drawing tighter, like they were trying to meld themselves into one thing that could never be prized apart. I couldn’t tell which one of them sobbed….
A night bird ghosted across the top of the glade, calling high, trailing a dark spiderweb of shadow over our heads. Somewhere, a bell grated for lights-out; none of the girls moved. We left them there as long as we could. 

I also love the parallel between the teenage friendships in the past and the blossoming of the friendship between  Moran and Conway in the present as prickly defensiveness melts into tolerance, respect and a genuine bond. 

What irked me about the girls’ chapters was the use of youth slang. I work with teenagers day in, day out and I’ve never heard anyone at any point use “OMG” the breathy “Ohmygod” as a single word, “chillax” and especially not “totes amazeballs”. It jarred with what was elsewhere a pitch-perfect mixture of credible voice and lyrical beauty. 

There is one other aspect to the novel which was … unexpected. There was a surprising touch of the supernatural running through it. Chris Harper’s ghost was sighted more often than his corporeal presence was during his life! These occurrences were readily explained as the mass hysteria of the cloistered teenage girls… but Holly Mackey and her clique (Julie, Selena and Becca) seemed to discover, through their sisterhood, confidence, strength, peace. And magic. Yes, magic. It’s not a huge part of the plot – we’re at St. Kilda’s, not Hogwarts – and a very quiet form of it, symbolic of the strength and bond they share. I liked that slightly unsettling addition: what the girls discover is love, beauty, peace and poetry and those things are magical. 

I can anticipate, though, that many readers picking this up as a police procedural would balk at it. 

Personally, I’m now pretty keen to pick up the earlier novels if this is anything to go by: genuinely engaging, literary crime fiction. 

This was not what I had expected from Nesbø. And I’m saying that in a good way.

Nor is it what the sticker on the front proclaims it to be, “The Brand New Thriller” from the author of The Snowman. Well, it obviously is from the author of The Snowman, which is the only other Nesbø book I’ve read. But it’s not a thriller. It is something different, something more.

Describing the premise of the novel, however, will make it sound like a thriller. Our narrator is Olav Johansen, a “fixer” or assassin for one of two criminal bosses in Oslo. His assignment is to kill the wife of his own boss who has been having an affair. Which then puts him in a position where he is concerned that he knows too much and will become the target rather than the fixer.

So far, so thriller.

But Olaf is an unconventional fixer. He is dyslexic but an avid reader and the prose is littered with explicit references. Facts are offered with an appended “Or so I’ve read somewhere”. Sometimes the specific book and volume are cited, along with the library in which he’d read it. There’s an extended allusion to and echoes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables  throughout the novel.

Although not explicitly stated, there’s also traits of the autistic spectrum in the presentation of Olav. He comments that Darwin had identified “only six universal facial expressions for human emotions” and he struggles to identify those emotions, describing himself as “completely tone-deaf when it comes to noticing the undertones and subtexts in what people say”.  As I say, he was as unconventional narrator as he is a fixer.

Hoffmann and The Fisherman, the two rival crime bosses, were fairly standard fare. But there are also two rival women in the novel: Corina, Hoffmann’s beautiful cheating wife; and Maria, the fiancée of a junkie who was being forced to prostitute herself to pay off his debts. These two women were beautifully portrayed, with a control and sparseness, especially with Maria, which I hadn’t expected.

In fact, sparse is not a bad word to describe the novel. There is a single plot that plays out, interspersed with fragments from Olav’s own past. And it comes in a not much over 100 pages (on my ebook edition). There is an economy and a precision here to the prose: there is enough to create the characters and no more. Nothing is wasted. The opening scene of the book contains the image of red blood pooling on snow which “made me think of a king’s robe, all purple and lined with ermine, like the drawings in books of Norweigan folk tales my mother used to read me”, and describes the way the snow “sucked the blood up as it fell, drawing it in under the surface, hiding it, as if it had some sort of use for it. As I walked home I imagineda snowman rising up from the snowdrift, one with clearly visible veins of blood under its deathly pale skin of ice”. The final scene of the book returns to and inverts the same image in a wonderfully macabre fairytale image.

At its heart, however, it is a book about stories and narratives. The stories we tell each other – but more importantly ourselves – in order to make some form of sense of the world we inhabit. Even if we are confronted with evidence that contradicts the story.