Posts Tagged ‘character’

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.

Miniature review due to absence of Internet and wifi. In fact, only now possible because phone can – sometimes – get some reception…

I bought this for my son and wanted to cast my eye over it before he read it. He is only twelve and these are zombies. My ears still ring with his squealing at the cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

I have to say, I was quietly surprised. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of Darren Shan: I quite liked the Cirque du Freak series but The Demonata left me completely cold. I was expecting lots of gore. Lots of blood. Significant amount of entrails.

What I didn’t expect was an interesting main character, B: streetwise and sassy, decent at heart, but poisoned by the father’s extreme right-wing neo-Nazi racism. Certainly, B was capable of saying and doing appalling and racist things but, somehow, Shan never diminished my engagement with or sympathy for B.

As to the zombies, they are fairly standard fare and, once they reach the town the novel is set in, things progress as you’d expect. The GQ (gore quotient) rises exponentially.

There are also other antagonists: a number of mutants who seem to be able to control the zombies and a rather creepy supervisor.

The ending contained two twists, one of which I anticipated pretty early on, the other of which I did not.

In all, I was impressed.

But I’m also glad that my son left it behind when he went back to his mum’s house: I think it is a little too old for him, personally. But I may well pick up the next in the series….!

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There are some books that revel in plot, action and events.

Other books – perhaps quieter books – are content to develop narrative: characters and settings, relationships and language.

This book by Ali Shaw is very clearly and very effectively one of the latter: little really happens, but so much is created.

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Lets take the setting initially. The book is set on the fictional island of St. Hauda’s Land, somehow far Scottish or Norweigan in flavour. It is the perfect setting for this novel of transformation as the sea and the land are constantly changing and metamorphosing: the very fabric of the island is being eaten away by the sea. Within the island are towns, forests and bogs all of which contribute their distinctive character to the novel.

Next, the characters: the delightful Ida Macleod and the less appealing Midas Crook. Midas… named for the King whose touch transformed everything to gold; and Ida who is transforming from the feet up into glass. Yes, glass.

Don’t expect Shaw to give you any explanation. Explanations are not offered by Shaw. No more for this transformation than for the creature whose glance can turn everything it sees white or the moth-winged cattle that also inhabit this island. Ida is turning into glass. Those characters who seek explanations and cures are the least likeable and the closest Shaw gets to villainy.

And that tranformation is physically traumatic, genuinely terrifying but visually stunning.

“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease betweent he joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep, wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places where the transformation was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there, a fine blonde hair.”

It is no surprise that the writing is so visual: the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of Midas who is cripplingly shy and / or capable of being located somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder. He is a photographer. The simple image of his camera (disappointingly digital) as the barrier and (literally) lense through which he sees the world but also distances himself from the world is a beautiful one – speaking as someone who has experience of ASD. Again, as a photographer, he is allied with the static and the captured moment in a story about fluidity and transformation; Ida is transforming into a solid just as his photographs capture movement and still it. Don’t expect value judgements in the book – Smith does not lecture you to embrace change or counsel you to celebrate the static – but the play between the still and the mobile, between static and transformation is beautiful and magical.

The ending of the novel approached with a terrible sense of inevitability and was beautiful, heart wrenching and even managed to wring a tear from this cynical teacher.

A fantastic, fantastical fairy tale of a book!

This is a truly exceptional book!

And, before I discuss the book, a truly exceptional reading of it by a chap called Chris Nelson. Now, I don’t know who Chris Nelson is. I have googled his name idly but I have no clue. I do not know his age or where he is from.

But he is the absolutely perfect voice for this book: a thirteen year old boy from Worcestershire in 1982. I mean, seriously, the accent is so authentic it must be genuine! And the sense of character, of knowingness and innocence and ignorance is astounding. I can’t believe Chris Nelson is 13, but I wholly believe his voicing as a 13-year-old.

There have been a couple of downloads from Audible.com where the voice has been a barrier but here it is spot on. When I read the last few places, it was in Chris Nelson’s voice!

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Chris Nelson reads the narration is Jason Taylor in this first person story. It is – as Wikipedia claims – a Bildungsroman although not in the board sweep that we might expect from reading Great Expectations. That novel follows a life; Black Swan Green follows Jason Taylor for a mere year. It is a focused and tight structure but the boy we see at the beginning of the novel is very different to the young man we see at the end.

Taylor’s narrative voice, created through Mitchell’s language, drives the book. Mitchell creates a wholly convincing voice for me: the use of colloquialisms, some of which seem specific to the Worcestershire area and some specific to the 1980s; the pattern of language; the slightly geeky enumerating of the details of his world; the litany of the listing of his friends; the sometimes clumsy and sometimes startlingly beautiful attempts to poeticise the world around him; the balance between revulsion, fear and fascination with girls (and breasts). All these details and no doubt more that I have forgotten created the voice perfectly. And matched with Chris Nelson’s voice. As close to perfect as you could hope for.

And the world that Mitchell creates of 1982 through Jason Taylor’s eyes is superbly done. I know much of the novel is at least semi-autobiographical: Mitchell would have been 13 in 1982 as well; he shares Taylor’s stammer; he too was brought up in Worcestershire. Therefore, the realism of the world is understandable. And, as I would have been ten in 1982, completely convincing and recognisable.

The casual bullying of the school scenes; the arrogance and smirks of boys getting one over on the student teacher; the petty hopes and devastating tragedies that pattern Jason Taylor’s year; the slow disintegration of his parents’ relationship. The cultural and historical references. The Daily Mail – which shifts in Taylor’s mind from being accepted as gospel truth to a more appropriately critical stance. The Falkland’s War. His older sister Julia’s presence. The unspoken but bitter tensions between Jason’s family and Uncle Brian and Aunt Alice and their pretentious prig of a son, Hugo.

It is perhaps possible to say that there are a myriad of Jason Taylors in the book: there’s the unborn twin, the voice of chaos urging him to misbehave or rebel; there’s maggot urging him to hide and cave in to the bullies, the ‘loser’ persona that some kids try to force onto him; there’s Hangman, the embodiment of the stutter; there’s Eliot Bolivar, the somewhat pretentious but promising poet. Perhaps the book is as much an account of Taylor balancing or choosing between these voices and personas as anything else.

There are a few incidents that did strike me as slightly artificially shoehorned into the narrative. Madame Cremmelink’s forays into mentoring Jason’s poetry and his stumbling into a gypsy encampment in particular.

But these are minor quibbles.

Very minor.

There are a myriad of standout moments in the book but my absolute star moment was Jason trying out for The Spooks – the local ‘gang’ of cool kids. His initiation gave him 15 minutes to run through a string of back gardens and we overhear a sequence of conversations and witness tableaux of other characters and their families. It is masterfully done: we see tenderness and humanity and depth in some of the more minor characters that flesh them out beautifully.

And beautiful is absolutely the right word for this book: it is convincing, credible, honest and – above all – beautiful

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I have a confession.

I love Dracula. Both the character and Stoker’s novel.

And I love vampires.

Not the sparkly, fairy, effete version populating Meyer’s asinine attempts at fiction (“Dear Dracula, do you remember that one night seventeen years ago? Well, we need to talk. Sincerely, Tinkerbell”) but full blown raging bloodlust sensual sexual visceral vampires. Buffy’s Angel and werewolves may be a tortured soul trapped in a bestial form struggling to contain their animal appetites (which has its own appeal) but a real true dyed-in-the-wool vampire revels in and relishes their evil.

The concept for this book, then, had an automatic appeal: Dracula had arrived in England; he seduced and turned Lucy Westenra who is dispatched by the forces of light comprising Arthur Holmwood, John Seward and Quincey Morris. As the forces of light attempt to track down Dracula, he turns his attention to Mina Harker. At this point, Newman’s narrative departs from Stoker’s: Dracula kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris; he seduces Queen Victoria and becomes Prince Consort; a world of vampires flocks to England to make a stab at (or to take a bite at) an openly vampiric life.

History and fiction mingle in Newman’s tale: Stoker and Van Helsing are both characters; Inspectors Lestrade and Abberline work side by side; Sherlock Holmes has been incarcerated in a ‘warm’ concentration camp; doctors Moreau and Jekyll investigate vampire physiology. Vampires from fiction abound from Lord Rothven (appropriately for the first literary vampire in Polidori’s The Vampyre now Prime Minister to less familiar names such as Kostaki, von Klatka and Count Vardalek.

As a self confessed geek, there is an undeniable delight in recognising the various recreations and re-imaginings of famous and less famous characters.

Had that been the only pleasure, though, this would have been a thin, poor novel. Fortunately, it is not the only pleasure: Newman’s story remains rooted in the final years of the nineteenth century and focusses on the Jack the Ripper murders. The Ripper’s victims, Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly remain prostitutes in Whitechapel but are now vampire prostitutes and their murders attract the attention of Scotland Yard; Queen Victoria herself; the shadowy Diogenes Club headed by Mycroft Holmes (which exists somewhere between diplomacy and warfare on behalf of the Queen); the criminal spider’s web headed by Fu Manchu, the Lord of Strange Deaths, and Professor Moriarty; and the philanthropic hospital and charity of Toynbee Hall.

Our main characters are Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard. Geneviève is a four hundred year old Vampire elder who works as assistant director of the Hall under Dracula‘s Jack Seward; Charles is an agent of the Diogenes Club and, through them, the Queen. Geneviève in particular is a quite compelling character: turned at the age of sixteen and remaining in a sixteen year old body, she remains a strong moral anchor in the world. Enough of her history and powers are hinted at that she comes across as indomitable throughout the novel even though we never truly see her unleash that power. Charles Beauregard by contrast is a lesser character: mired in duty and obligation to his Queen, his fiancée and his deceased wife he is so much less confident and compelling than Geneviève.

The novel conjures up all the expected cliches of Victorian London with Hanson cabs, fogs and gas lamps yet manages to remain fresh and convincing. The addition of the vampires into the social sink of Whitechapel, where a threepenny could buy you both a roll in the hay and a blood letting, deepens the griminess of the area. One woman in a particularly unpleasant image trails the streets of Whitechapel with two children in tow (which may or may not be her own) to pimp their blood to passing vampires.

The vampires themselves are not quite the full blooded bloodsuckers I had hoped for. The magic and superstition of Dracula is stripped away, as is their antipathy to crosses and holy water and garlic. These vampires are more natural than Stoker’s: they’re still preternaturally strong, heal almost instantly from most injuries, have a various abilities depending on their bloodlines including almost psychic sensitivity to others’ thoughts or shapeshifting; sunlight can burn newly turned vampires and silver can prevent wounds from closing. It is from this silver that Jack the Ripper is dubbed Silverknife before the Ripper moniker is attached to him.

There is a wider larger plot behind the efforts to track down the Ripper but in fear of spoilers I shall not dwell on that. It did manage to take me by surprise in the final hour of the audiobook!