Archive for July, 2015

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Okay, so short stories.

Part of me loves short stories. The precision, the concision, the economy of language within them – read The Dead by James Joyce. Part of me, however, longs for the lengthy, relaxed familiarity you get with the characters in a novel, even in the best of the genre.

In the worst collections of short stories, you get the impression that the author has swept up the offcuts and cast-off fragments from his editing desk and served them up.

So reading any short story collection is a double-edged sword for me.

But Miéville has such a range to his writings and such a wealth of imagination and control over his voices and depth to his settings that I was looking at this with a lot of excitement. And in main part, this collection was wonderful and rich. Not every story in the collection chimed with me – but then you’d expect that from a short story collection. We also have more than just short stories here: the collection includes monologues, meditations and screenplays for film trailers as well as short stories. And within the collection, Miéville takes us into his familiar weird fiction milieus: familiar and recognisable locations confronted by the bizarre and inexplicable such as walking oil rigs, floating icebergs and a sickness which surrounds the infected with a moat. In addition to this, we encounter magic realism, horror, zombie apocalypses and science fiction.

Let’s have a quick canter of some of the most successful stories (at least for me).

  • Sӓcken was Miéville’s foray into horror and begins in familiar enough territory: a pair of innocent girls stay in an isolated lakeside cottage in the forests of Germany. Something horrific drags itself from the lake and into the girls’ lives. In itself, the scenario is traditional enough but Miéville’s control over the horror and his navigation of the territories of scepticism, doubt, nightmare and horror was wonderful.  As were his descriptions of the

“nightmare calf born without limbs or head or eyes but full of tumors”.

  • After The Festival was wonderfully viscerally creepy. Imagining a world in which revellers attend celebrations of slaughter and cooking, and afterwards decked themselves with the severed heads of the slaughtered animals was wonderful. Imagine now the worms burrowing from those heads into the flesh of the people beneath, revealing the animal within the human condition, and the craving those people have for those heads.
  • The 9th Technique was, perhaps, the most truly Miévillian in the collection. The description of the diner in which clandestine magical black market transactions was brilliantly evoked and made the purchase of the potent puissance-laden cocoon credible. I wonder how many Miéville-readers wondered whether the cocoon contained a slake moth! Again, the beauty is in Miéville’s descriptions as much as anything: the glass jar in which his protagonist, Koning, placed the cocoon

“did not break and it did not bow or bend or inflate grotesquely as if heated and made soft, but it was harder and harder to lift, denser and denser with shadow.”

  • The Dowager of Bees, in my mind, was the most evocative story and showed the greatest control to maintain its conciseness. A gambler discovers that there are impossible and unknown hidden suits of cards capable of manifesting inside any pack of cards in any game, warping reality around them, inserting additional chapters of rules into rule books whenever they appear. The imagery of the cards themselves – with echoes of tarot cards and magic in themselves – and the idea that these cards were somehow conscious or sentient.

I did miss with these stories what has, for me, been the cornerstone of Miéville’s writings: the urban, thriving, decaying, living cities, whether they be London from The Kraken, New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station or Armada from The Scar. Obviously, that is inherent within the brevity of the genre and at times there are suggestions of it. Dan’s flight in Estate in which he “fingered walls and bollards. He passed a knocked-over bin and knelt to examine it”, where he seemed to be reading the cityscape the way a tracker might read a forest, came close. And then the London of Polynia seemed curiously blank in contrast.

All in all, this collection offers a number of rich and lush gems, all the more evocative for being so concise, and a myriad of interesting ideas and conceits.

  Oh I’m in two minds about this book. 

I so wanted to like it.  A alternate history world in which the borders between reality and books is flexible and malleable. Who would love to pop to Wuthering Heights for a cup of tea with Nelly Dean? Or stroll through the 100 Acre Wood? Or play hide-and-seek in the Garden of Eden (who’s going to find you behind that apple tree?) for an afternoon? 

You could pop into Fifty Shades and inform Ms. Steele what consent actually means.

And you have to dodge Baconians on the street seeking to convert your views on Shakespeare’s authorship. A world where entertainment includes coin-fed Shakespearean soliloquy dispensers and wholly audience-participation Shakespeare plays with the atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

And you can own dodos in Fforde’s world. I mean, dodos!  Because genetic splicing is a thing. 

And time travel. 

And vampires and werewolves. 

I’m sure many people would find the range of alternative structures thrown into this mix quirky or witty – which each one is individually – I mean, book worms which crawl around and eat prepositions and excrete apostrophes or, if they’re stressed, capitalisation – the range of ideas, concepts and conceits thrown in, to me, felt confused. Almost as if Fforde wrote himself into plot holes and had to go back to insert a random new feature in order to provide him with a way out. Or woke up with an idea and the words “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” on his lips. 

What we’re presented with is essentially a crime caper: the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and Thursday Next is called in to investigate. We discover increasingly shady departments of the Special Ops forces of which Next is a member; the sinister Goliath corporation manipulating the investigation, a subplot involving Next’s love life and her time in the Crimean War. 

In addition to the confused gamut of tropes, there were more issues which irked me, as a writer myself. 

[It is a new thing to self-identify as a writer for me… but it felt lovely saying it!]

The other issues. Oh yes. For a book so aware of the limitations of the first person narrative (it actual is a significant plot device towards the end, the fact that Jane Eyre is itself first person), the novel failed to either give Thursday a convincing narrative voice or to remain in its own first person narrative. We see numerous scenes from outside Thursday’s point of view: whole chapters took place miles away from Thursday; some chapters alternated from Thursday’s and an omniscient narrative point of view within the chapter. 

And to have your first-person narrator randomly look at herself in a mirror just to describe her for the reader? Really?! I’d expect that from kids at school. What was even the point to tell me that she was 

somewhat ordinary features…. Her hair was a plain mousey colour and of medium length …

What do I learn of her from that? Really? Were her looks a plot point? No. 

And sometimes Fforde did try. After a botched arrest attempt, we learn what happened from Thursday’s interview with internal affairs. That’s okay. That’s a good idea: you can create the emotion of the protagonist directly; you can deliver half-truths and dramatic irony and unreliable narrators. Or, you can do what Fforde does, and simply retell the story in the same bland voice that Thursday’s narrative voice has. 

And our antagonist, Acheron Hades. With a name like that, how could Fforde have expected him to be anything other than a cardboard cutout villain. Imbued with a range of unexplained powers. Powers which are not shared by anyone else. 

Let’s have a look at Fforde’s naming system. Thursday Next is odd; Acheron Hades is too obvious and blunt; Jack Schitt is childishly scatological; but minor characters like Millon de Floss or Felix Tabularasa have sparks of fun and wit. 

Maybe I’m being too harsh on Fforde – or his editor, in all likelihood. A stronger editorial control could have made this a much better book. Maybe, though, just maybe, there’s a really clever developed story arc which will tie everything together over the rest of the series. Maybe I’m too foolish to recognise meta-literary post-modern irony and see them as a lack of control over the narrative. 

Maybe. 

I will probably give one more in the series a go. Just in case. 

If you liked this, try:

Mark Hodder, The Curious Case of Spring-Heeled Jack

Kim Newman, Anno Dracula

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

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Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who I have been aware of but avoided for a while. I put my hands up, it was and has been deeply unfair of me. Like that chap in the village I grew up in who always crossed the road when he saw my mother to avoid talking to her. For no apparent reason. But the truth is, that with Kate Atkinson, I was that man! And I can remember where this irrational aversion came from: as a young and impressionable fellow, I distinctly recall a copy of Behind The Scenes At The Museum languishing on the corner of our bath. It was my mother’s. And it was water-warped, crinkled, coffee stained and genuinely mouldering. Abandoned. I responded to the sight of the rotting book with a visceral repulsion which I appear to have transferred to the whole of Kate Atkinson’s opus.

Perhaps the fact that the copy of Life After Life I have is the pristine white of the picture has helped overcome that reaction. As well as the praise and publicity which the book received. The list of awards it has won and been shortlisted for (and the quality of the novels which beat it) is impressive: it won the 2013 Costa Award, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize, Waterstone’s Book of the Year and was nominated in a clutch of other Books of The Year lists. All of which praise, I must say, is absolutely justified.

This is a magnificent and wonderful book.

Recapping the premise briefly, because I’m sure most people are fairly well aware of it already, Ursula Beresford Todd – Little Bear – is born in a legendarily snowy night in 1910 and the novel is essentially a Bildungsroman following her life from mewling babe to her death. Or deaths. Because the narrative continually returns to the birth and snow of 1910 every time Ursula dies and she is born again, re-living the same life with minor variations and changes which often have immense repercussions on her future. If I recap a handful of the ways she dies, we bear witness to her being drowned in the sea, falling from windows, succumbing to Spanish ‘flu during the 1918 Armistice celebrations and on numerous occasions during World War II, on both sides of the conflict.

It could very easily have become a tedious and repetitive conceit save for the beauty, quality and wryness of Atkinson’s writing, and the strength of Ursula as a character. She is created and presented by Atkinson with intelligence and wit, with an emotional depth and delicacy and with such a strong historical and social context that she genuinely does breathe from the page. She is one of the most real characters I have encountered for a while!

There are certain fixed points in Ursula’s narrative which recur life after life: she is born at home in Fox Corner, surrounded by siblings – the warm Pamela, the rambunctious Maurice, the idolised Teddy, later the youngest Jimmy; her father Hugh is a delight and one of the very few realistically portrayed and positive male figures in Ursula’s life; her mother Sylvie is initially endearing enough but descends into bitterness and petty cruelties. The irascible but reliable Mrs Glover who cooks for them and the flighty and romantic Bridget who serves as their maid. Aunt Izzie who only truly appears half way through the novel is delightfully wayward, eloping to France with a married man and embracing the freedom of the libertarian after her return. The family and Fox Corner are perhaps an idealised and mildly sentimentalised depiction of Britain during the wars: it is a world which is un apologetically middle class and bucolic: the gardens and copse and stream and fields and farms behind Fox Corner a pastoral idyll which – as someone who grew up in a not dissimilar part of the country – is not quite real. But it is certainly a vision of Britain which is worth saving and protecting through two world wars… and I imagine that that is the point! At least, for me it was the point.

The idyll of Fox Corner, however, is not wholly idyllic: a sexual predator prowls the lanes and fields, a story which a lesser writer would have brought to the fore; the relationship between Hugh and Sylvie sours and we glimpse Sylvie with another man. This does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: there are very few good men in it. With the exception of Teddy, Jimmy and Hugh, men generally bring sex and violence into the narrative. In addition to the predator, Maurice brings home a friend whose interest in Ursula is carnal and casual and more cruel because of its casualness; typing tutors study Esperanto and expose themselves; the marriage to Derek Oliphant is abusive in the extreme and a very harrowing depiction of domestic violence; her marriage to . Maurice himself is persistently labelled as vile by his sisters.

And of course there is Hitler. Not the best role model for male readers.

Ursula’s time in Germany, in my opinion, was the most forced and least satisfying part of the novel. Perhaps I just missed Fox Corner as much as she did. But the plot device – if you knew about the horrors of World War II, would you kill Hitler? – seemed a little too familiar and clichéd and unnecessary. Atkinson’s depictions of the war, in both England and in Germany, are so horrific and real and convincing that that the question itself seems redundant.

Atkinson’s writing is absolutely on point at every turn. Where it needs to be tender and tragic we get descriptions like this

“Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”

Yet, where it needs to be sardonic, a wry and amusing counterpoint to the pain in the novel, we get snippets of doctors whose

“patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him”.

or jarring images of Mrs Glover’s tonguepress intruding itself into one of Ursula’s first kisses. Nor is Atkiinson averse to commenting on the growth of a blackmarket economy in kittens in the farms around Fox Corner, nor dispatching said kittens with a single wry sentence

“To Pamela’s surprise, this promise was kept and a kitten duly acquired from the hall farm. A week later it took a fit and died. A full funeral was held.”

All in all, an exemplary book. Simply by reason of its conceit, it cries out for comparison with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Bone Clocks. For me, this comparison is easy: Life After Life is a truly magnificent book and even The Bone Clocks pales in comparison.

  Again, a gorgeous cover here and a decent read. 
This is the second in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent trilogy and it continues the adventures of Mrs Isabella Camherst – still to meet Lord Trent or to be named a lady – from the first book, A Natural History Of Dragons. Much of what I praised in the first book re-appears here, but not all. 

I have more hesitation this time round – although I’ll admit that that may be caused by how quickly I read this after A Natural History, or perhaps pressing distractions of a personal nature. But mainly, I felt a lack of dragons!

Allow me to summarise what we do get in the novel before lamenting what we lack. 

We pick up Isabella Camherst three years or so after the first book, in which her husband Jacob died and, at the end of which, we learn she is pregnant. Her son is named Jacob after his father and promptly taken on by nannies whilst Isabella distances herself from him. Even more so than might be expected in this Regency-esque world. To the extent, in fact, that she flees to the continent of Eriga – a thinly disguised Africa just as Vystrana was a thinly veiled Russia. 

The expedition arrives and potters about a bit somewhat aimlessly. It seemed poorly conceived. Maybe Lord Hilford, who funded but did not join it, is getting a little vague in his senescence. Eventually, however, the group are given a task by the oba in whose palace they’ve been whiling away their hours: descend to the rain jungle / swampland of the neighbouring Mouleen area and bring back dragon eggs. More time was whiled away. Only a couple of dragons were seen. 

What this was really was a study of the society of the Moulish (with whom we spent most time) and of tensions and conflict between the somewhat mercenary Scirlanders and various other tribes using the Mouleen swamps to further their own ambitions. At least once, Lady Trent informed me that she should not be distracted by her natural history of dragons and meditations on their life cycle when her reader was more interested in the army she’d encountered. 

No. 

I was not more interested!

The book meandered a little in the first half and rushed towards the end but it was a perfectly decent read. 

We retained Lady Trent’s narration and her voice remained convincing, entertaining and engaging throughout.  As a character, as Isabella Camherst, I felt she benefitted from the extra years and was more credible than the girl in the first book who kept on coming up with the answer. We added Nathalie, Lord Hilford’s wayward engineering granddaughter who, to be honest, didn’t really add much to the mix. 

What I missed with this entrance to the series – in addition to the direction of the first – was the tenderness of the marriage between Jacob and Isabella. They were lovely together in A Natural History. And the relationship or friendship with Tom Wilker wasn’t enough to replace it. 

I don’t want to sound too down on this book: it’s a decent and well-written thing. It is good. It does perhaps suffer from the typical (stereotypical?) middle-book syndrome so I’m hoping that the third book lifts the trilogy.  What am I hoping for from Voyage Of The Basilisk? I hope Jacob (junior) will be brought into the book properly – if the chronology holds he’s probably about four or five at the end of Tropic of Serpents and there may be a delay of years before Basilisk so he could go on the expedition. It seems mean to sideline him utterly! I hope we meet Lord Trent – assuming that Isabella becomes Lady Trent through marriage which is, I suppose, not guaranteed – and I hope that their relationship is given time to develop … Actually no, ignore that. I hope we meet him and some form of relationship develops, but that the romantic relationship doesn’t even begin.