No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

2014/40: Seed -- Ania Ahlborn

At what point do parents back away from something they love more than their own lives, put up their hands, and admit defeat? [loc. 906]

Jack Winter lives in a Louisiana backwater with his wife Aimee and his daughters, Abigail and Charlotte. They’re poor but happy. Aimee’s mother thinks Jack’s a lazy good-for-nothing, playing in a band and working as a mechanic. But Jack knows -- though he'll never tell Aimee -- that he’s escaped a great evil: the thing that he encountered (summoned?) in the old cemetery behind his childhood home, the thing that’s tattooed on his back as a reminder. He reckons he deserves some peace.

Turns out Jack doesn’t remember everything that happened to him, even when he sees two glowing eyes on the road one night: even when his younger daughter, Charlie, undergoes an unnerving change of personality.

Seed is, in places, truly scary: there’s a sense of looming, growing menace that builds gradually to a horrific climax. But I found it an unsatisfactory and depressing experience, and I think that’s because of the utter helplessness of the Winter family: the sense that there’s no point in the novel at which they could change the outcome, escape what’s coming for them. It’s written in blood, carved in stone, generation after generation, and there’s no fixing it.

Which got me thinking about the horror novels that I like, and why I like them. Yes, I like there to be some possibility, at least, of a happy ending for one or more characters; I like some explanation of what and why and how; I like characters who have strength or charisma. Poor Jack’s a-broken, and though he does the best he can, he’s damned before the story starts.

2014/39: Cooking with Bones -- Jess Richards

With her enhanced mirror neuron pathways making her empathic, with her reflective skin that lets everyone project what they want to see, everyone she’s ever met must have left their trace in her very cells. All these traces have become the layers of who Maya is. Peel the layers off an onion, and at the heart of an onion … At the heart of an onion there’s nothing left but a sharp living smell. And the person who’s peeled away an onion is left with tears stinging their eyes and a pile of dead layers of skin. [loc. 2455]

Amber and Maya live a privileged life in the city of Paradon, where it’s eternally summer, until their parents decide that it’s time they were separated, time they went out to work. Unable to face the thought of separation, the girls run away to the coast. They find a cottage, apparently deserted, in the village of Seachant. Every morning, there is an offering of produce – dried fruit, honey, flour, spices, flowers – on the doorstep. All the clothes in the wardrobe are black, and the previous occupant has not taken her hairbrush with her.

In Seachant, it’s ten-year-old Kip’s turn to do the fair – the daily delivery of the village’s offerings to Old Kelp, in exchange for which they receive honeycakes, one per villager. Old Kelp is rumoured to be a witch: you mustn’t peer in through the windows, or speak about anything you’ve seen at the cottage, or you will be cursed.

Amber falls easily into this new life. She follows the guidance of a cookbook left behind by the cottage’s previous inhabitant. Amber notes, without melodrama, that the utensils in the kitchen are made from human bone, and that the recipes are as much about emotion as nutrition (“remember that the cooking of a Nameless Pie may result in something or someone being named, and their identity brought to the fore …Cramp the edges with the prongs of a fork, constrict the surface with milk, and restrict with caster sugar.” [loc. 4294]) Maya, though, finds life outside the city much harder. She is a ‘formwanderer’, a ‘mirror of want’: engineered to reflect (literally and metaphorically) the desires of anyone she meets. Here in Old Kelp’s cottage, she has only Amber’s wants to mirror, and Amber doesn’t seem to want Maya at all any more.

And there’s Dead Red in the shed …

Cooking with Bones is a complex and fascinating novel, though on reflection I suspect it could have been blended a bit better, or baked a little longer: it feels as though there are too many ingredients. There is Kip’s exclusion by the other children, Amber’s joy in the increasing weight and softness of her body, and Maya’s bleak, lyrical confusion. (“All of the stars are alive. There are smells that are the clang of great bells, and music made from dark blue. There are clouds of echo-pulses and the tastes of winter frost.” [loc. 4811]) There is the mystery of a dead woman in a crimson dress whose disappearance has gone unnoticed. There are graves among the whispering fir trees behind the house, rumours of an epidemic that hit the countryside much harder than the city, fragments of future history that explain Seachant’s isolation, stories about the policeman who came once…

I’d have liked fewer plot threads and more examination of the future in which Cooking with Bones is set. Richards barely acknowledges the dangers of creating a person who has to be what each person, meeting her, really wants. There’s little, once the sisters have left Paradon, about the sterile, glossy city life or how it meshes with the country around it. (The passage from Paradon-summer to the world’s winter is a powerful image: I want more.) In some ways Seachant feels post-apocalyptic: in others, it could be a remote contemporary seaside town, complete with holiday cottages and small-town scandals and a plethora of craft shops.

But I liked Cooking with Bones a great deal: for all its flaws, it is beautiful, and poetic, and wise. Maya the mirror, paradoxically, is a truly original character, prone to unexpected observations and insightful aphorisms: perhaps this book is simply about her learning to be herself for the first time. If so, it’s about Amber learning to do the same, and Kip, and even some of the villagers.

… hope. It’s not found in a place, or in anyone else. It isn’t anything we can imagine or design. It’s found when there are no mirrors reflecting what we believe we want to see. [loc. 4813]

Sunday, November 02, 2014

2014/38: The Magician's Land -- Lev Grossman

This was a double game: he was trying to save his childhood, to preserve it and trap it in amber, but to do that he was calling on things that partook of the world beyond childhood, whose touch would leave him even less innocent than he already was.

Two months after the US publication of Lev Grossman's eagerly-awaited The Magician's Land, third in the 'Magicians' trilogy, a legitimate UK Kindle edition finally became available. I wish I hadn't had to wait …

At the end of The Magician King, Quentin Coldwater was expelled from Fillory for taking responsibility for Julia's actions. The first chapter of The Magician's Land shows us Quentin six months later, embarking on a magical heist of dubious morality in order to accrue personal wealth. Only when we discover what's happened to him in the intervening period does his motivation become clear -- and, because nothing in these novels is straightforward, the heist acquires considerably more significance when he discovers that the item he and his con-conspirators are to steal is a suitcase that formerly belonged to Rupert Chatwin, one of the children who originally discovered Fillory.

Quentin, slumming it in mundane contemporary America, suffers bereavement and betrayal, and finds himself revisiting past failures. The things he gains – a Discipline, a job, a page of arcanum – seem at first small recompense for what he's lost: but he's learning to accept responsibility, and he finds meaningful work that enables him to make a positive difference.

Meanwhile, back in Fillory, Eliot is being High King as hard as he can ("At times like this he wanted to look as much as possible like Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, from The Lord of the Rings, and he didn’t think he was a million miles off base") but he, and his fellow monarchs Janet, Josh and Poppy, can't deny that something is amiss in Fillory. There's an endless summer, an army invading despite magical barriers, and a series of doomy pronouncements from the ram-god Ember.

Perhaps there's something in Rupert Chatwin's suitcase that can help ...

The Magician's Land examines the dark underside of the Narnia Fillory stories, and how they've torn apart the Chatwin family. We learn more about Martin Chatwin and his loss of innocence, and about what became of the other Chatwin children (though, oddly, there's no mention of their parents' return or fate). There's more magical theory, theological debate and cosmological description. There's plenty more of the kind of black humour you get when hip young things from New York City encounter the fantastic. And, from time to time, we get to see Quentin as others see him, which is in a considerably more positive light than his own narrative suggests. (Apparently he is even good-looking.)

Most of the primary characters from the previous two novels appear, and most achieve some kind of resolution or closure. There's even a kind of closure -- or at least a change of state -- for the world (land?) of Fillory.

I found this a thoroughly satisfactory finale to the trilogy, and though I'm sad that there (probably) won't be more about these characters -- especially Janet, who really came into her own here -- I'm pleased that Lev Grossman has concluded the story he set out to tell.

2014/37: The Bone Clocks -- David Mitchell

...a terrible wasting disease called mortality. There’s a lot of it about. The young hold out for a time, but eventually even the hardiest patient gets reduced to a desiccated embryo, a Strudlebug … a veined, scrawny, dribbling … bone clock, whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.

I have bounced off a few of Mitchell's novels, but now am inclined to try them again, because I adored this – and I'm fairly sure, given a few references I recognised (to Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), that it's entwined with at least some of his previous work.

It does feature one of the elements that exasperated me in Cloud Atlas: a section told by a pompous and petty-minded middle-class, middle-aged male novelist. Crispin Hershey, at least, has enough of a nasty streak that he affects events quite drastically -- and I do feel some kinship with a man whose idea of a vicious takedown is to expose a fellow novelist as having purchased a Dan Brown novel. "‘And don’t say it was “just for research”, Aphra, because it won’t wash.'" Plenty of roman a clef here, too, with thinly-disguised literary figures popping up all over the place.

The Bone Clocks deals, in part, with Dan Brown territory (ancient wisdom! Cathars! Labyrinths! Conspiracies! Weird thingies!) but with a wholly different affect: the mystical elements are presented as matter-of-factly as Holly Sykes' argument with her mum, and with considerably less fireworks than Hugo Lamb's splendidly-rhymed visits to assorted (imaginary) Cambridge pubs.

The novel begins in 1984 with Holly Sykes, 16, who discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her and runs away from the pub in Gravesend where she lives, out along the Thames estuary towards the distant sea. It ends sixty years later, on the west coast of Ireland, in a credibly dystopian, post-oil future. Holly is a constant: so are others (Hugo Lamb, Marinus, Esther Little), though they may not always be wearing the same faces or using the same names.

The Bone Clocks weaves together several different characters and their stories, exploring many different themes: the war reporter who puts his work before his family, the novelist who plays a trivial joke on a colleague with unexpected repercussions, the sociopath who accidentally acquires the knowledge that will save him, the poet who believes that Crispin Hershey's patronage can help her save the world … Everything is connected, everything is part of the larger story, and even the cryptic utterances of Esther and her colleagues ("When Sibelius is smashed into little pieces, at three on the Day of the Star of Riga, you’ll know I’m near …") slot neatly into place in a great, inhumanly long Game. If there's an overarcing theme, it might be 'what we sacrifice to remain human'... or possibly just 'what we sacrifice to remain'.

SF or fantasy? Hard to say. The near future, the Endarkenment, that Mitchell predicts, with its gigastorms and pandemics and refugees, certainly has elements of the former: the Anchorites and the Sojourners seem more fantastical, though their origins are explained clearly enough. That said, it's no less Sfnal than, for instance, Iain no-M Banks' Transition. Mitchell's not afraid to coin neologisms, though I'm not convinced 'device' as a verb (to replace 'phone' and possibly 'email') will ever catch on. But what do I know? I live in the present.

Why did I like The Bone Clocks so much? Possibly simply because it's jammed -- no, packed tightly and neatly, Tetris-style -- with cool ideas, well-rounded characters and thoughtful examination, leavened with plenty of humour. (A character seeks his daughter in a Brighton hotel and inadvertently finds himself in the midst of an SF convention: "I pass a Dalek blasting out the lines ‘Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’".) Not every thread is neatly tied off; some themes aren't examined in sufficient depth; some plot elements remain unexplained. Amidst the fine writing, wordplay and innovation are metaphors that puzzle me ('the wood is Bluetoothed with birdsong': er, what?) But … I loved it: I found it moving at times, annoying at others (see above under 'Crispin Hershey') and unexpectedly chilling. And, as a writer, inspirational because it reminded me of how words can be wielded.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

2014/36: All the Truth that's In Me -- Julie Berry

What do I care if it’s shocking? I am shocking. What was done to me was shocking. I am outside the boundaries for ever, no longer decent. I will leave grapes for you in your own home.

This is a novel for young adults (it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal) set in Puritan revolutionary America, somewhere in New England. Four years ago, two girls went missing from the small town of Roswell Station: two years ago, Judith Finch stumbled home, unable to speak of what had happened to her. Half her tongue had been cut out.

Judith, the narrator of this novel, is forced to silence, but she observes those around her with a keen eye. The townsfolk eye her askance: they believe that she was abducted and abused by a stranger, and they punish her for her perceived impurity. There's no pity here. “You’re only alive because you’ve got no tongue,” he says. “Otherwise you’d be punished for adultery." Judith alone knows the truth of what happened to her, and to Lottie Pratt whose naked body washed up in the river. And she's unable to tell anyone: unwilling, too, to recount her story, even if she could.

The novel is effectively a love letter to Lucas Whiting, the boy who Judith loved before she – before. Though much of the narrative is first-person, we never lose sight of the 'you' to whom it's addressed. Lucas isn't as suspicious of Judith as most of the townsfolk are: her own mother regards her as a nuisance, a disturbance, and never shows any warmth. (She seems to blame Judith for her father's death, which occurred while Judith was missing.) Judith's brother Darrel, though initially falling in with their mother's opinion, grows up over the course of the novel, and begins to share his books with her. Judith is especially taken with the story of Joan of Arc: 'There’s a lesson in it for would-be heroes. The people you save won’t celebrate you. They’ll gather the wood and cheer while you burn.' Another ally is Maria, Lucas' fiancee, who befriends Judith and helps her to reclaim her voice.

Which would be a novel in itself: silenced women, female friendship, unrequited love. But there's more. When Roswell Station is attacked, Judith realises that there is only one man who can help defend the town: her captor, who lives in a hidden cave in the woods …

Often poetic and sometimes very moving -- especially when Judith speaks out to the assembled townsfolk -- All the Truth That's In Me is a complex story told in an unusual voice, with excellent pacing and just enough information to keep the reader guessing about what might have happened to Judith.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

2014/35: Silt -- Robert Macfarlane

I subdued the alarm my brain was raising at the idea of walking out to sea fully clothed, as only suicides do.

Silt, sold as a 'Penguin Special' for under a pound, is a single chapter from Macfarlane's The Old Ways, illustrated with photographs taken on the Broomway by David Quentin. I bought this on a whim whilst sitting on a beach about three miles from where the Broomway (an ancient track that leads across estuarial mudflats from Wakering to Foulness Island) begins: I read it while savouring the light and space of that corner of coast. Unlike many of the Broomway's victims over the years -- it can only be traversed when low tide and daylight align -- I grew up knowing that the tide comes in over those sands faster than a man can run, and that the weird light and silence can disorient even an experienced mud-walker.

Quentin is also a lawyer and in his afterword, he discusses the legal quagmires that surround ancient pathways such as the Broomway. "Just as Rob is fascinated by the historic and topographic characteristics of ways in the real world and in the world of the human soul, I am fascinated by the jurisprudential characteristics of ways as they subsist only in the legal overlay; the characteristics of your ongoing status as non-trespasser as you pass and repass lawfully over what would otherwise be private land." I hadn't known that there is no public right-of-way on the foreshore (the bit between high tide and low tide) … except where there is a public highway, such as the Broomway. Over the years, there have been various attempts to modify this law: does a 'public highway' have to lead somewhere, or can it be (as the Broomway effectively is, public access to Foulness Island being restricted by the Ministry of Defence) a dead end?

A quick, evocative read: now I must dig out and read The Old Ways in full.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

2014/34: Numb -- Sean Ferrell

She said, “I never want to see you again.” She said it without any edge or tone. It was the most perfect thing anyone had ever said to me. I remained surrounded by strangers who couldn’t get enough of me, and intimate friends who couldn’t stand the sight of me.

The nameless, amnesiac protagonist of this novel is nicknamed 'Numb' because he doesn't feel pain. This, and the happenstance of his encounter with Mr Tilly's Circus one scorching day in Texas, provides him with a new career: a circus performer who pounds nails through his own flesh, becomes a human dartboard, and wrestles with an elderly lion.

It's the lion (weary and sick) that makes him leave: he runs away from the circus, heading for New York City in search of his past. He's accompanied by Mal, a fellow circus artiste: but Mal quickly becomes peripheral to Numb's new life, and jealous of the success –- a beautiful girlfriend, a swift ascent to celebrity on the media carousel, intriguing leads that might reveal his past life –- and ends up pushing his own limits further than is wise.

There's a point at which Numb wonders whether his knowing Mal is bad for his girlfriend Hiko. I'd go one step further and say that knowing Numb is bad for everyone. He's immune to pain, but he's also apparently immune to human emotion. Oh, he gradually realises that he needs pain, needs to be able to feel, that being numb is no kind of life at all: but that's too late for most of the people who've become close to him.

There were some interesting ideas in this novel, but on the whole I can't say I enjoyed it, or that I liked any of the characters.

2014/33: The Secret Place -- Tana French

...they barely know he’s there. They feel someone, the green fizz and force of him, the same way they feel hot patches of it pulsing all across the Field; but if you closed their eyes and asked them who it was, none of them would be able to name Chris. He has six months, three weeks and a day left to live.

It's a year since Chris Harper's body was discovered in the grounds of St Kilda's, an elite girls' school. He was sixteen when he was killed: a pupil at Colm's, the neighbouring boys' school: well-liked, popular, good-looking, average. His murderer has never been identified.

Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey (who's featured in previous Tana French novels), pays a visit to her father's colleague Stephen Moran, with new evidence. St Kilda's has a 'Secret Place', a board where girls can pin anonymous confessions and thoughts. Last night, someone put up a photo of Chris Harper with 'I know who killed him' pasted across it.

Moran is desperate to get into the Murder Squad, so ingratiates himself with Antoinette Conway, the prickly and unpartnered detective in charge of the case. Both from working-class backgrounds, the two are oddly vulnerable to, easily wrongfooted by the privilege and elitism they encounter at St Kilda's. Over the course of a single day, though, they untangle a very knotted web of deceit and motivation to reveal who wielded the murder weapon.

Alternating with their investigations are chapters covering the last months of Chris Harper's life, though -- as in the excerpt quoted above -- he's not a protagonist. Holly and her three close friends (Selena, Julia and Becca) navigate the peaks and troughs of teenage life in the claustrophobic, mercurial atmosphere of the school. Their nemeses, Joanne Heffernan, and her three cronies, discover that Holly's group like to sneak out at night and visit a cypress grove in the grounds. (Another 'secret place': and of course there's the girls' own bodies, suddenly becoming attractive to the opposite sex.) Blackmail, viciousness and rumour proliferate. It doesn't help that Holly & co have sworn off relationships after Julia is targetted by a boy she turned down. In the eyes of their classmates, they have committed the cardinal sin of not being Normal. From there to accusations of murder and witchcraft is a small step for a teenage drama queen.

Tana French captures the loving friendship -- and its converse, the spiteful animosity -- of teenage girls. Their sense of outrage as they discover the 'mix of roaring rage and a shame that stains every cell, this crawling understanding that now their bodies belong to other people’s eyes and hands, not to them'; the feeling that, as a young woman, you should be scared of and worried about every aspect of your life; the ecstatic intimacy of a shared secret – all sharply and crisply conveyed. God, I'm glad my teenage years are far and firmly in my past.

So, 'who wielded the murder weapon'? Because this is a Tana French novel, I've phrased that very deliberately. As in French's previous novels, there are strange things happening -- most of them unknown to Moran and Conway, and only revealed in the alternating chapters that focus on Holly and her friends -- and, again as in previous novels, much is left unexplained. If you read The Secret Place as a straightforward murder mystery, I suspect it'll be a beautifully-written disappointment*. If, like me, your mind pricks up when someone mentions the hyacinths left on Chris Harper's body (and if, like me, you suspect that naming your daughter 'Selena' is asking for trouble) then you'll find this a fascinating and chilling account of the mythic colliding with mundane life.

*a quick glance at reviews on Amazon confirms this. Though some people didn't like the prose either.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

2014/32: The Islands of Chaldea – Diana Wynne Jones with Ursula Jones

The Lady Loma seemed to cast a shadow across the beasts as they came near her, and that shadow showed another shadow inside each donkey, a shadow bent and skinny, with only two legs. I was pretty sure those donkeys had once been men and women. And I was very frightened indeed. I just hoped my aunt would be a bit more polite when she saw the shadows too. But Aunt Beck didn’t seem to notice.

Diana's last novel features many of the themes familiar from her earlier work: young women with self-esteem issues, ancient secrets, apparently mundane companions who aren't what they seem, animals with attitude, and a lot of humour.

Aileen, like all the women of her family – the Wise Women of Skarr, who marry off their male children outside the family -- went to the Place when she turned twelve. Unlike her relatives, she didn't have a vision: her only surviving female relative, Aunt Beck, will just have to carry on being the Wise Woman. Aileen's mother is dead and her father is lost. He may be on one of the other Islands -- Bernica, or Gallis, or Logra – though Logra has been unreachable for the last decade due to murky sorcery. This means, too, that the magical Guardian of the East has become separated from the other Guardians, which does not bode well for anybody.

Aileen ends up accompanying her aunt, and a motley collection of followers, on a mission to rescue the kidnapped High Prince from Logra. It quickly becomes apparent that their pre-mission briefing was somewhat incomplete: why else would the money-bag be full of stones, the ship's captain over-keen to maroon them on a deserted island, and the evil stepmother's attempt to poison Aileen's cousin, young Ivar …

Aileen's true powers, and the fate of her father (not to mention the natures of several of her travelling companions) are revealed gradually, and the ending of the novel is satisfying unless you are rooting for the other side.

I couldn't spot the joins where Ursula Jones, Diana's sister, had picked up her unfinished draft: I did wonder if the climax was a little more abrupt that DWJ would have written it, but then I remembered plenty of counter-examples. The Islands of Chaldea isn't in my top five DWJ novels*, but there is stiff competition and it's by no means the least appealing of her works.

*If you're interested: Eight Days of Luke, Dogsbody, Hexwood, Howl's Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

2014/31: Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth Wein

I WILL TELL THE WORLD. I say that so fiercely. I say it with such conviction, such determined anger. But I couldn't even tell Mother, could I? A few pages ago I vowed I wouldn't tell Mother. How can I possibly tell the world?

I enjoyed Code Name Verity immensely, despite the grimness of Julie's story: on visiting an airshow this summer and seeing Spitfires and a Lancaster, I was reminded that I had an e-copy of Elizabeth Wein's second novel about women in WW2.

It is considerably more harrowing than Code Name Verity, being set largely in a concentration camp (I'm not sure I would have started reading if I'd known / remembered this!): but it is also unexpectedly hopeful, with themes of redemption and atonement and compassionate humanity to counter the bleak cruelty of the camp. Again, the main characters are all young women: Rose, an American pilot; RĂ³?a, a camp inmate; and Anna, a guard at the camp. The story's told from Rose's point of view, and is punctuated by poetry, very much in the style of Edna St Vincent Millay (whose works are also quoted). It takes her from the wedding of her friend Maddie (who featured in Code Name Verity) to the Nuremberg Trials. But really, it begins with the funeral of Celia, another ATA pilot who died trying to take down a V-1 flying bomb with her wingtip.

The memory of that lingers in Rose's mind: she attempts to emulate it (and succeeds), which leads to her own downfall. And later, in a German factory, she finds herself unable to work on the assembly line, making fuses for those bombs.

The scenes in the Ravensbruck camp are appalling: they are based on survivors' accounts. In her afterword, Elizabeth Wein writes 'My book is fiction, but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instruction of the true witnesses - those who went to their death crying out: Tell the world.' In such a situation even the smallest acts of humanity, whether from the guards or other prisoners, are treasured. And despite the horrors of the regime, love and selflessness are not wholly absent. Hence Rose's survival.

The descriptions of flying are as evocative and magical as in Code Name Verity, and I was fascinated by the glimpses of everyday life during wartime: London buses without their windows ('they take the glass out on purpose - people would rather sit in the wind than risk windows exploding in their faces'), small boys hunting for souvenirs at crash sites, buzzing the Eiffel Tower on VE Day. And the darker side of war, too: Wein does not gloss over brutality. It's apparently intended for young adults, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to a younger teen. The moral landscape is far from monochrome: Anna, in particular, is certainly not a caricature. And perhaps it would have been easier to end on Rose's departure from Ravensbruck: but there is so much more after that.

Made me cry, beautifully written, brought home just how grim the prison camps were. (My previous mental pictures were drawn largely from war films such as The Great Escape.) Rose Under Fire also made me want to research the internment camps in France in WW2: my grandmother and father were interned in one, and I don't even know which.