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

Friday, December 26, 2014

2014/47: The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning -- Hallgrimur Helgason

I’ve finished my first week in exile. Even though I’ve not killed anyone for the past seven days, except one small dog, this has to count as one of the most interesting weeks of my life. For seven days and seven nights the sun has not set. I’ve had five different nationalities and held down two jobs. I’ve appeared on live television. I watched the European Song Contest for the first time in six years. I broke into two apartments, stole one car, three beers, some bread and bacon and six eggs. I also find myself in love with two different girls. One Icelandic and one Indian-Peruvian.[loc. 1618]

Toxic (a.k.a. Tomislav Bokšić) is Croatian, but lives in New York: America is the land of opportunity and he's built up a formidable business as a hitman for the Croatian mafia, priding himself on a recent 'six-pack' -- six bullets, six funerals. Then it all goes horribly wrong, and Toxic ends up in Iceland (or, as he calls it, Easeland) disguised as an American televangelist.

With hilarious consequences.

Toxic really shouldn't be a likeable character, but his attempts to come to terms with his past (as a soldier in the Croatian war of independence, then as an assassin) and ensure his future (which is unnecessarily complicated, in part by Toxic's unreconstructed attitude to women). He is, to be frank, a bit of an arse. But I like his predictably dark sense of humour, and he has an outsider's eye for the absurber aspects of Icelandic society, and some interesting and profound observations on war and killing. ("A nation is the sum of our strengths, as well as of our collective stupidity. War makes the former obey the latter."[loc. 961])

The author is Icelandic, but wrote this novel in fluent and colloquial English. (I'll blame the publisher for spelling 'heroin' as 'heroine', twice.) However, it has possibly the worst closing line of any book ever: 'then I'm not sure what happens'.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014/46: Ship of Souls -- Zetta Elliott

I never imagined ghosts could be racist.[loc. 1047]

Dmitri, known as 'D', is an orphan: he' black, but is being fostered by Mrs Martin, who's elderly and white. He's struggling to make an identity for himself. D makes two good friends at his new school: Keem, a basketball jock who's struggling with his grades, and Nyla, a punk girl whose upbringing in a military family has left her self-sufficient and worldly-wise.

Oh, and there's Nuru, a spirit manifesting as a talking bird. Nuru's mission is to free the ghosts who linger in Prospect Park, unable to leave.

Ship of Souls is a very short novel that nevertheless manages to bring together the American Revolutionary War, the African slave trade and 9/11. While D's narrative voice sometimes reads as rather more mature than his stated age (11), his motives and emotions are clear and credible. Keem's problems -- he's a Muslim in post-9/11 America -- are also depicted sensitively and believably; and I liked Nyla's tough brand of feminism. ("I’m proud of who I am and how I look. But I got a right to be myself and be respected when I’m out in the street.")

This would be an excellent novel(la) for younger teens: it deals with some big themes sympathetically and accessibly.

2014/45: Anarchy -- James Treadwell

There was a kind of clarity to it. The girl who wouldn’t talk, walking out of a locked cell, paddling away into the mist; the boy on the beach where the whale had been, huddled around that extraordinary mask; the messages from the rest of the world announcing that all was not well [...] No, she thought, I don’t know what’s going on; but so what? It was kind of like unpacking. You just did what was in front of you. Or like walking in the fog: you kept on putting one foot in front of the other, even though you couldn’t see where you were headed.[loc. 2354]

In Advent, teenaged Gavin travelled (or was exiled) to Cornwall to stay with his aunt Gwen, and became friends with the mysterious and sheltered Marina -- as well as a young Anglo-Chinese boy, a crow-spirit, a dryad and a professor of anthropology. Though it's only October, the snow comes down steadily, and the world is changing ...

Anarchy picks up where Advent left off, more or less: Jennifer Knox, suspected murderer, disappears from a locked cell at a small police station on Vancouver Island. RCMP officer Marie-Archange Séverine Gaucelin-Maculloch (known as 'Goose') feels responsible, and tries to find the girl: meanwhile in the wider world, a computer virus -- the Plague -- is crippling government and industry. There are rumours from England of occult events, and an unending winter. A ferry is found drifting, abandoned by all on board. But Goose's world narrows to the search for Jennifer, even when she's told to let it go.

Female disobedience is something of a theme in this novel. As well as Goose, there are two other viewpoint characters: Izzy, Gavin's stepmother / aunt, and Marina, a naive teenager who's never left the family estate. Both refuse to stay at home and wait. Izzy gets on her bike and cycles from London to Cornwall through apocalyptic conditions; Marina decides to go out into the world.

In a fairy tale the women's initiative, their boldness and courage, would be rewarded with success in their quests. But this is not that kind of story, and each woman's reward is a savage loss.

One might expect Gavin's self-appointed quest to be at the core of Anarchy, and in a way it is: but he passes through unrecognised (as does the BT engineer who visits Izzy: I only realised who he was on second reading). No, Anarchy is the story of three women who incur the displeasure of magical beings. Treadwell writes female characters with astonishing depth, warmth, and subtlety: each has a distinctive voice and a complex psyche. It's a shame they're all doomed ... the plot of these novels depends on a great deal of cruelty, often to women. I don't believe it's authorial misogyny, though -- and certainly there are plenty of male casualties of the resurgence of magic.

Dark, obscure, haunting (this novel gave me bad dreams: this is an excellent sign!) and with stunning prose: as soon as I'd finished this, I pre-ordered Arcadia, the trilogy's conclusion ...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014/44: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic -- Emily Croy Barker

Nora still felt the bite of envy. She used to be able to do that—sit in a clean, well-lighted room, choose a book from hundreds, start reading, and effortlessly take herself to another world. And now she was actually in another world, and she might never read another book again.[loc. 1916]

Nora Fischer's life isn't quite as she'd like it. Her last relationship ended badly; her dissertation supervisor isn't happy with her thesis (on John Donne and Emily Dickinson); she's still torn up about the death of her brother, four years ago. She is totally not in the mood for her friends' wedding. So she wanders off for a walk, and discovers a deserted graveyard ... and then finds herself in the garden of a splendid mansion, where the beautiful Illisa seems only too happy to welcome Nora. Illisa's son Raclin is romantic, mysterious and attentive. Perhaps a break from quotidian monotony is just what Nora needs: it's certainly what she's wished for...

Suffice to say, no good can come of it. Raclin is not what he seems. The mansion is on the border between contemporary America and a very different world. And Nora, fleeing a monster, crosses the border: it's a one-way trip that leads her to a country straight out of medieval fantasy. The old kind of medieval fantasy, with rampant sexism and insanitary living conditions and hard labour from dawn til dusk.

Nora is rescued, sort of, by the magician Aruendiel, who is scarred, melancholy, sarcastic and misogynistic. Obviously women can't do wizardry (which relies on spirits), much less real magic. Nora must call on her considerable inner reserves (hates Tolkien: loves Jane Austen, and indeed a copy of Pride and Prejudice is her sole memento of her former life) to resist despair.

Actually she doesn't resist despair that well. And I have to say she is not the most likeable of protagonists. (*This* is the 'thinking woman' of the title? Admittedly she has an excuse for being dense in the first part of the novel, but later on I did find myself wanting to cognitively recalibrate her. Still, she does some pretty smart things now and then. And has a nice line in wry asides.)

It *is* a romance (though not a particularly traditional or honeyed one), but it's also a novel about the importance of literature and imagination, and about feminism, and about fairies and demons and ghosts, oh my. I enjoyed it immensely, and didn't mind that the plot sometimes sprawled or that it could have been cut by a fifth without detriment to said plot. Looking forward to Barker's next novel, though the internet is silent on when, or what, that might be.

"...real magic comes out of what is around you, it is born from the long conversation, negotiation, fellowship that human beings have with the things of the world. A god would never give us such a valuable gift. Humans had to learn it for themselves." [loc 7434]

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014/43: Therapy -- Sebastian Fitzek

‘She wanted to know why her story only had two chapters. She said, “I want to be well again. What happens next?” She told me to finish the book.’

‘In other words, you were instructed to keep writing by a character created by you?’

‘Precisely. In any case, I was perfectly honest with her. I told her I didn't know how the story ended, so there was nothing I could do.’

‘What did she say to that?’ ‘She took me by the hand and promised to show me where the story started. She said, “Maybe you'll think of an ending when you see where it all began.”’ [loc. 956]

Viktor Larenz, a reputable psychiatrist, has retreated to an isolated North Sea island in an attempt to recover from the disappearance of his adolescent daughter Josy and the subsequent separation from his wife Isabell. A mysterious woman, Anna Glass, arrives, hoping for help: she’s an author and the characters she writes about come to life. There’s a story she’s been working on about a young girl with a strange illness, who has disappeared. Can Larenz help her to unravel her delusions?

Josy was ill: she disappeared from the doctor’s consulting room, and nobody would believe that she’d been there at all. And the little girl in Anna’s story has more than just illness and disappearance in common with Josy. There has to be some connection, some solution … Larenz realises that he is hoping for healing for himself, and not for Anna: a terrible betrayal of the doctor-patient relationship. But his confusion and mental deterioration might make him more susceptible to delusions of his own.

Therapy is translated from the German, and the prose is serviceable though seldom lively. Fitzek evokes the windswept desolation of the island, and the ominous encounters between Larenz and the locals, admirably. But I did not like this book: it felt at once vague and heavy-handed, and I could find nothing sympathetic in Larenz. Anna is a cipher, barely a character at all (for reasons that do actually make sense in this context) and none of the other characters make more than a brief appearance.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014/42: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August -- Claire North

the Cronus Club … like the Illuminati without the glamour, or the Masons without the cufflinks, a self-perpetuating society spread across the ages for the infinite and the timeless.[loc. 619]

Harry August is born on New Year’s Day 1919, at a railway station. He grows to adulthood, enlists in WW2, contracts bone cancer, dies.

And … repeat.

Unlike Ursula in Life after Life, Harry remembers his previous lives: and unlike Life after Life, he is not alone. About one in every half-million children is born a kalachakra, an ‘ouroboran’, with the gift (or curse) of living the same span of life over and over, and the ability to remember previous lives. (The term ‘kalachakra’ comes from Buddhism, and refers to the wheel of time.)

The possibilities are immense, and North explores a good many of them: the increasing pace of technological advance as ambitious kalachakra use knowledge from earlier lives to shape their world; the ennui of the effectively immortal; the temptation to kill Hitler, or bomb New York (“you can do whatever you like so long as you don’t bugger it up for the next lot. So no nuking New York, please, or shooting Roosevelt, even if for experimental purposes. We just can’t handle the hassle.”[loc. 1143]). Each kalachakran’s point of origin – birthday – is fixed, but their lifespan overlaps with those of others. They devise a method of communicating up and down the time-stream: to talk to earlier generations, a child in, say, 1925 speaks to a dying man, then that man is reborn in 1850 and repeats the question to a different dying man … In this way a body of knowledge (and the single inviolate rule of ‘not buggering it up for the next lot’) is built up.

Turns out that someone down the line is buggering things up very thoroughly: the end of the world is nigh, and nigher with each life. Somebody is subtly altering the world in tiny increments: small technological advances with immense consequences. Kalachandrans are dying, or rather never being born. (Some are simply forced to forget previous lives, so may as well not be reborn for all the good it does them.) Victor Rankis, who is Harry’s closest friend (in some lives, at least), may hold the key to the mystery. He is certainly the most important person in many of Harry’s lives.

I liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August a great deal: the complexity of the world-building, the credibility of the alternate histories that come and go as the cycle repeats, the depth and emotion of Harry’s various relationships, the grandiose plots of the characters, the wry asides and observations. (“I wondered if Senator McCarthy would do so well in this new world, now the vivid flushes of his skin could be seen in such glorious technicolour. Black and white, I concluded, lent a certain dignity to proceedings that the proceedings themselves probably lacked.”[loc. 4317]). I especially liked that – despite what Amazon’s categorisation engine (which puts this as #1 in ‘Romance > Time Travel’) might think – this is not a romance in any traditional sense. There are romantic elements, but they are not the focus of the story.

Claire North also writes as Kate Griffin, author of the Matthew Swift novels. [source] I’ve bounced off the first Matthew Swift novel before, but am now tempted to give it another go.

“the past is the past. You are alive today. That is all that matters. You must remember, because it is who you are, but as it is who you are, you must never, ever regret. To regret your past is to regret your soul.”[loc. 2447]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

2014/41: Cuckoo Song -- Frances Hardinge

... you woke up one day and found out that you couldn’t be the person you remembered being, the little girl everybody expected you to be. You just weren’t her any more, and there was nothing you could do about it. So your family decided you were a monster and turned on you…. let me tell you – from one monster to another – that just because somebody tells you you’re a monster, it doesn’t mean you are. [loc. 3769]

Triss wakes up after an accident that she can’t recall clearly. Her sister Pen is acting suspiciously, as though she knows more than Triss does about that accident: as though Triss has the power to hurt her. Their parents, respected architect Piers Crescent and his lovely wife Celeste, seem to have secrets of their own. One of those secrets might explain why, or at least how, letters from their son Sebastian are delivered almost daily to Sebastian’s desk drawer – even though he died in Flanders five years ago, in a bitter winter.

And Triss is ravenous, can’t eat enough. She sleepwalks, too. And someone’s ripped out half the pages in her diary. The doctor is unsympathetic and her new friend Mr Grace has an agenda of his own. And Triss’s parents wholly disapprove of Violet, Sebastian’s former fiancée, “all her angry, grimy inner workings visible to the eye”. But perhaps Violet, whose windows are icy only on the inside, can help Triss uncover a secret or two ...

This is a novel that’s at once chilling (in several senses) and uplifting. Hardinge is especially good at describing Triss’s state of mind: a young girl who suddenly feels that her life is not her own, that she’s doing everything wrong, that she’s become (or has always been?) something terrible. Cuckoo Song conveys the claustrophobia of a loving family, the rigour with which that family’s rituals are maintained, and the price of freedom both within and outside the family home. It’s also a darkly subversive evolution of the Victorian fairytale, filtered through the aftermath of the First World War. Not everyone comes home: some refugees are stranger than others.

Hardinge’s turn of phrase continues to glitter: eyes are ‘cold and hard like those of a thrush’; a cry ‘sounded the way a scar looks’; the night is ‘curled around the world, dispassionate as a dragon’.

At times Cuckoo Song reminded me of Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss, and not just because of the wintry elements.Maybe it’s Triss’s relationship with the brother she hardly remembers; maybe it’s the sense of shadows that aren’t cast by anything, things ‘half seen and half heard’. I think, though, that Hardinge’s novel is ultimately more hopeful: the ice can melt, the lost be saved.

“The War crushed faith. All kinds of faith. Before the War, everybody had their rung on the ladder, and they didn’t look much below or above it. But now? Low and high died side by side in Flanders Fields, and looked much the same face down in the mud. [loc. 2935]

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]