Archive for October, 2016

It’s surprising how coincidences happen sometimes.

I mean, it’s no surprise that there’s been a lot of crime and detective fiction in my reading list recently: it’s basically research! But there’s also been a lot of Shakespeare in it!

Ali Shaw’s The Trees isn’t – I don’t think – based on Shakespeare but there are resonances and echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through it. The whisperers in their enigmatic and invisible presence stir memories of Puck and Robin Goodfellow, or perhaps the fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed, tending on the creature on the throne as if they were an Oberon. And the trees’ own confusion of season recalled the lines

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

And now, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a modern revisiting of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, where Prospero has become Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival usurped by his assistant following the deaths of his wife in childbirth and then his daughter Miranda.

And alongside that, I have picked up Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, thinking from the blurb that it was more of a murder mystery – until, that is, I read the prologue and kicked myself for not recognising perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most potent quotations

“I could be bounded in a nut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

How could I not have recognised that?!

Here, Hamlet is indeed bounded in a nutshell: he is a (somewhat precocious) unborn foetus two weeks from birth listening to – and narrating – it requires a serious suspension of disbelief – his mother’s and uncle’s plans to murder his father. Just on a small note, what McEwan does with the names is delightful: Gertrude (a name which teenagers usually mocks) becomes quite beguiling as a Trudy; Claudius (which has classical connotation) is modernised to Claude which, phonologically, conjures up the image of a clod of earth, which fits delightfully with the scarily unimaginative and dull-witted would-be murderer.

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risk-of-darkness

This will be a fairly brief review for two reasons: firstly, I thought I’d already reviewed it and only realised when I tried to link my review of The Vows of Silence to it that I’d not; and secondly, it is very much a continuation of the second novel, The Pure In Heart.

Serrailler is summonsed to Yorkshire to help investigate a lead in the kidnapping and (presumed) murder of David Angus, leading him to effect the arrest of the kidnapper, Edwina Sleightholme, in a surprisingly and refreshingly thrillerish moment fleeing down a Yorkshire cliff face – a moment that was a tad reminiscent of The Woman in Black or of something Hitchcockian.

Hill is a writer who has gone on the record to say that she is less interested in the whodunit than the why-dunnit, so I was anticipating something thoughtful and interesting in the presentation of Sleightholme. And was slightly disappointed. There was no real exploration of the mind of a killer. She is portrayed pretty much as simply evil – a word I have trouble with – who just did because she wanted to. After the genuine emotional horror of The Pure in Heart in which the repercussions of the abduction are seen on the family, the explanation and the presentation of the killer were bland. And maybe that was entirely the point. That the monstrous wears the same banal face as the rest of us.

Other tragedies and crimes took place too and interweaved with new characters: Max Jameson lost his wife Lizzie to Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease – an unusual and odd disease to choose perhaps – and his grief led to increasingly bizarre confrontations including holding the new pastor Jane Fitzroy hostage in her own home. Serrailler eventually talked him round to releasing Fitzroy who quickly became a friend of his sister, Cat Deerbon, and lined up as a love interest for Serrailler. It was a nice breath of fresh air in the Deerbon household where some very tedious arguments about GP working conditions were held ad nauseam.

As often happens with the series, it is slow and gentle and meditative – with the exception of the scene on the Yorkshire cliffs – and I vacillated between enjoying that meditativeness and finding it slightly tedious. I didn’t find the Max Jameson plot line convincing as an exploration in either crime or grief, nor the presentation of Sleightholme. What I did like was the reaction of Sleightholme’s mother to her daughter’s arrest: the shock and denial and obsessive rejection of the truth.

It’s a Dresden File.

It’s Harry Dresden; it’s Jim Butcher.

Even after reading only the previous two novels, I already know what to expect.

It’s also a step up from the previous two novels in the series: the prose is still very, well, prosaic; Dresden is still a wise cracking hard boiled detective with magic; but the plotting and world have expanded here and it feels that there’s a more assured hand on the tiller. I have not been convinced that Jim Butcher knew whether to embrace the paranormal or the police procedural style of the first novel, but, with this one, he seems to side with the paranormal, expanding his mythology as well as his character list.

The first book touched on vampires but focussed on a single rogue sorcerer; the second turned the spotlight onto various forms of werewolves. This one has sprouted into a dozen other fantasy creatures. And so we meet (in the opening chapter) Michael Carpenter, a carpenter and crusader, who wields Amoracchius, a fabled mystical sword embedded with one of the nails of the Cross. We also meet Dresden’s Godmother Leanansidhe, a faerie who seeks to control Harry through a combination of seduction, bribery and bargaining.  The plot revolves round Harry’s efforts to confront the being dubbed The Nightmare which attacks people as they sleep and possesses them, binding them with a spectral spiritual barbed wire. Ghosts abound and are vanquished, rival clans and houses of vampires assemble and even a Dragon makes a cameo appearance. And, somehow, the overtly Christian and the Faerie and the mythological and the magical managed to complement  each other rather than conflict with each other.

It is not great writing – sorry Mr Butcher – but it is a fast paced and enjoyable read and is written with a playfulness and joy which is a pleasure to read. It is as if Butcher knew just how insane putting these multifarious ideas and mythologies together was, but did it any way.

In terms of plot, we are plunged directly in medias res as Dresden and Carpenter battle a ghost in a children’s home, learning that the boundaries between the mundane world and the otherworld has thinned, causing the increase in ghostly apparitions. Later, Dresden is summoned to the home of a police officer – with whom he defeated a demon-summoning sorcerer named Kravos earlier – who is under attack by The Nightmare, briefly reuniting with Karrin Murphy (who is again regrettably absent from the novel) and defeating the attack. Further attacks by The Nightmare show that it is assaulting those involved in defeating Kravos prior to the start of the novel, leading to attacks on Karrin and on Carpenter’s wife and on Dresden himself, consuming a large amount of his magical power. As with Fool Moon, we are given hints that Dresden is ridiculously powerful but fettered which is a little (and I’m sure intentionally) frustrating and not unlike Ben Aaronovitch’s treatment of Nightingale in the Rivers of London series.

Throughout the novel, the Red Court of vampires’ ball is built up as a central set piece, and it is here that we finally get to see a real hint at the extent of Dresden’s power, even though Susan Rodriguez, his girlfriend for wont of a better word, is captured, which forces the weakened Dresden into a reckless attempt to rescue her. Without adding spoilers, Susan’s fate is tragic and painful and I hope that she returns later in the series.

Just set aside any expectation for realism, strap in for a fun ride, turn off your brain and enjoy!

You know when you hope you got a book series wrong? Other people are telling you it’s great but you just don’t get it? You end up offering excuses for the writer: maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind; maybe  I was too tired; maybe I read it too quickly.

Sometimes, it is genuinely that other people are wrong.

J. K. Rowling does not write well for an adult audience.

Let’s be fair, this isn’t a car crash of a novel – note the pun; I worked hard on that one else! – it’s serviceable in a pedestrian way. It whiles away a rainy weekend. In the same way that Dan Brown does. And that’s okay.

Let’s turn to the plot. A writer goes missing and Cormoran Strike is hired to locate him; once located, he is discovered dead in a particularly gruesome way that echoes the ending of his unpublished book. The list of those who had access to the book becomes the list of suspects, and it is made up entirely of two-dimensional caricatures. The chain smoking agent, Elisabeth Tassel, who seemed to owe a huge debt to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada; the obnoxious literary rival, Michael Fancourt; the pretentious publisher, Daniel Chard; Jerry Waldegrave, the alcoholic limp editor who permitted practically anyone else to have unfettered access to the safe in which the manuscript was locked; the self-published mistress and her transgender friend, Kathryn and Pippa. 

Each one is equally unlikeable and unlikely as a suspect; each had opportunity; each has motive; no motive is any less credible than any other.

And just like in Cuckoo’s Calling, about two thirds of the way through the novel, Cormoran Strike deduces the killer and spends the rest of his time smugly not telling anyone. And, to be frank, I didn’t care. Not a jot.

Strike was a loner in the first novel and this one widens his social circle a little: in addition to Robin Ellacott, we suddenly have a socialite half-brother, a shark-diving friend and a taxi driver joining Team Cormoran. And that’s all lovely… but all terribly convenient and again those characters are two-dimensional plot devices.

And Strike is – for wont of a better word – a bastard. Yes, I know that it’s not untraditional to try to create sympathy for characters with flaws, that flaws can in fact create sympathy. But Strike is a bastard. Not just is he irritatingl smug, he is a user of women. His relationship with his ex-fiancee is toxic; his treatment of Nina in the novel is atrocious. Which makes the clumsy and blunt attempt to create sexual tension between him and Robin deeply unattractive. In fact, Robin is caught essentially between  two abusive men: her fiance Matthew Cunliffe is just as bad and controlling. 

In fact, that may be the most interesting thing about the novel – albeit one which was done on The Archers recently: the toxicity of abuse within apparently “normal” middle-class relationships.

Susan Hill is, without doubt, a fantastic writer.

The Woman In Black is an exquisitely crafted horror; Strange Meeting is exceptional. so I am persevering with these detective novels hoping for … well something.

But I’ve not found it yet.

I really don’t know what it is that’s missing but something is.

The plots are decent enough: this time, the increasingly dangerous town of Lafferton is host to a serial killer gunman. It is terribly easy to mock, but the body count in Lafferton must be on a par with Midsomer or Cabot Cove! This gunman is on top of the serial killer surgeon from book one, Various Haunts of Men, and the paedophile murderer who passed through in books two and three. In fact, the plot felt very familiar and almost a rehash of the first book.

We also continue with the various traumas of the Serrailler family: having lost his love interest and then his disabled sister and then his mother in previous books, Simon Serrailler’s sister, Kat, faces the prospect of her husband being diagnosed with brain cancer in this one. At this rate, there won’t be many Serraillers left in a couple of books’ time! And is there a part of me that thinks that is lazy writing? Just a touch lazy? Not sure where to go with this plot; I’ll give someone cancer or kill off a loved one.

I do like the wider community and returning cast of minor characters. Hill does create a sense of community reacting to the murders with fear, indifference or shock. We were introduced to Helen Creedy and her attempts to start a new relationship and then balance that with her teenage children; an obvious parallel to Simon Serrailer’s difficulty in accepting his widower father’s new relationship with Judith Connolly. Andy Gunton, the reformed car thief, made a cameo return here, as did Karin McCafferty. Karin, who also had cancer which alternative medicine appeared to have cured previously, returns in order to die. And I didn’t like the way Hill dealt with that death: it seemed unnecessarily cruel to turn Karin into an acerbic, bitter and twisted caricature. I’ve read reviews that disliked her story arc because it was thought to promote an anti-traditional medicine message but her death pushed the seesaw too far the other way for me. However, in terms of the narrative, it did its job: it brought Jane Fitzroy back to Lafferton as a potential love interest.

And I think all these spare characters and community – whilst providing some red herrings for the murders – give the books the feel of this soap opera rather than a crime novel. I mean, it’s a balance of course – and having written a police procedural, I’ve included similar personal elements to humanise the detective – but I  feel that Hill hasn’t trod the line quite carefully enough. To be honest, I’d hoped Serrailler would have moved out of Lafferton so he couldn’t constantly pop to his sister’s! He’d been promoted and given a role in a Special Incident Flying Taskforce – which is a clumsy title in order to give the acronym SIFT – between the end of the previous novel, The Risk Of Darkness, and the start of this one. Couldn’t you have slipped in a SIFT case between these two, Ms Hill?

The other thing that really irked was that everything seemed to be conveyed in dialogue which felt a little stilted – and repeated at regular intervals – or in plodding exposition. With these novels, I don’t feel that Hill is following the show-don’t-tell truism. Now, I’m not a stickler for thinking that there is any such thing as a writing rule, but this did feel very pedestrian.

So, overall, not a bad book at all – not bad enough to put me off the rest of the series, unlike The Silkworm, a review of which is coming – but also nothing in it that sparkles from a writer who I know can sparkle.

the-trees-by-ali-shaw-front-cover

This book might win the most striking cover award this year: the stunning autumnal russets and reds are gorgeous!

But you know what they say about judging books by their covers?

As a parent and as a teacher, we trot out that truism time and again but on what else are you going to judge a book? Well, the author is one other way and Ali Shaw was the author of The Girl With Glass Feet in 2010 and that was a book which has stayed with me hauntingly. The Trees looks like a heftier and heavier novel than that one – and I suppose length is as reliable a way of judging a book as any other – coming in at about 500 pages.

Just as with The Girl With Glass Feet, Ali Shaw’s The Trees inhabits the boundary between mythology and the mundane, between the fantastical and the real, between the magical and the ordinary. It is, I suppose, a magic realist novel although there is very little magic as such in it. A mythological realist novel perhaps. And the mythology does feel deliciously British: forests and trees and a return of the primal woodlands over which mankind has built and paved and lived. And a very abrupt and violent return of the forests:

Then the trees came.

The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.
In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement.

Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.

The violence is, to be honest, rather muted and mainly directed at the fabric of humanity’s world rather than the humans in it. Reference is made to deaths and it’s usually fleeting; very few deaths are actually shown in any detail.

It’s almost as if the novel arose from one of the many what if writing prompts that float around the internet. The how and the why and details of the trees’ appearance is almost irrelevant; how people deal with their appearance matters. And Shaw chooses a small and discreet group of travellers: Adrien, a self-loathing cowardly English Teacher (and a small part of me wrankles at that choice of career for our non-hero); Hannah, a nature-loving mother and Seb, her tech-savvy son; and Hiroko, an enigmatic Japanese girl with a knack for using a slingshot.

Adrien, Hannah and Seb leave their devastated home town and trek through the forest, meeting Hiroko along the way, as well as wolves, endangered mushrooms and kirin, a mythical creature which seemed partly unicorn and partly a woolly rhino. As well as “whisperers”, tiny creatures made from leaves and twigs and moss which seem to haunt the forest and Adrien in particular. And something darker that lurks in the heart of the forest too.

Like many post-apocalyptic novels, the real threat to our main characters is from the other humans which they encounter rather than the wolves of the forest. In many ways, it feels a lot like The Walking Dead in parts: the forest is often just the backdrop, the people are the true horrors. How do you react when every social, societal and legal structure disappears overnight? Do you forge new bonds or do you reforge yourself and, if so, in whose image? What governs your behaviour when there is no judge but yourself?

Much of what I loved about The Girl With Glass Feet was the lyricism of Shaw’s language and there was less of that here. There was certainly a power to the language, especially in the more surreal vision that Adrien has of the earth and its creatures. But perhaps the quest structure, the driving narrative of the journey – in this case to reunite Adrien with his wife in Ireland – gave less opportunity for it. And I missed that and the intimacy of The Girl… The Trees has, by its nature, a global dimension which perhaps distracted a little from the character-driven prose of that earlier, first book. I liked the characters in general, although Adrien was a little tiresome and I wasn’t really convinced by his journey and Hiroko seemed a little two dimensionally inscrutable.

However, I am grumbling and nit-picking and I know it. It’s what us self-loathing English teachers do. This is a grand book and, despite the weighty length, a rapid read with a good pace. In fact, the modulation of chapter length was particularly effective.

But, no, a good cracking novel, touching on some of the mythological and fairy tale elements that I love.

Certainly good enough for me to be on the look out for the intervening book, The Man Who Rained.