Saturday, 15 December 2012

Umbrella, by Will Self

I started reading Umbrella by Will Self a few months ago, but only managed 50 pages or so before I had to take to back to the library. Granted, it was a pretty busy time for me, and due to its popularity I only could borrow it for two weeks, but I struggled through those 50 pages. Not quite willing to give up on it though, I requested it again, this time finishing the book. It is an audacious, exhausting and eventually compelling read.

Umbrella follows a few characters over different periods of time. Dr Zack Busner is a psychiatrist working in post-World War II London, and an elderly man in contemporary London. Audrey Death is a working class girl in London’s east end, who becomes a munitions worker in World War I, and eventually one of Dr Busner’s patients. Her brother Stanley Death enlists as a soldier in World War I, and is sent to the front as a gunner. Audrey has languished, in a catatonic state, in psychiatric hospitals for decades before Dr Busner suspects some of the patients are misdiagnosed encephalitis lethargica sufferers and treats with them with new medications - bringing them back to awareness. This is based on real life events familiar to many through Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings.

Self’s novel meanders around this backbone of character and plot. It is a stream of consciousness novel, told in third person and present tense with no chapters. The focus of the novel can shift even mid-sentence, from Audrey to Stanley or so-on. It is at times maddening, one cannot mindlessly drift through the pages. It is a remarkable achievement though that you are always clear whose thoughts you are following. Throughout the text are italicised words or phrases; these seem to represent conscious thought on behalf of the characters, the words they are hearing within their own head. Self’s style is particularly effective in the blurring of Stanley’s own mind between his wartime experience and ‘normal’ life.
We’ll have to reposition! He orders the section at the end of a long burst - and Adeline abandons the cover of the low wall to go forward and reconnoitre. Look at Her! Her skirts dragging through the muck, her proudly hatless head held high….Stanley rises and floats back to the madness of the tea party.
I did think that the sections on Stanley later on in the war were, well odd. They weren’t badly written - in fact they were clever and even amusing in their own right - but I wasn’t sure what they meant. Whether they were real or not. Whether it was even Stanley telling us this story. Against the intense realism of the rest of the novel they just didn’t seem to fit.

At times you could almost imagine Self had just spewed ideas out onto his typewriter. It is a very deliberate novel though: while it seems to be overflowing with ideas, towards the end everything begins to come together. The encephalitic patients have ’tics’ or regular repetitive movements. In Audrey’s case she is repeating the movements she made as a factory worker; in a sense her tics become emblematic of the mechanisation of our world that has occurred since her birth. Family breakdown, women’s lib, the blurring of the class system, it all adds up to a summation of the 21st century. Reading Umbrella can be compared to reading a puzzle: at first it seems like a big pile of thoughts, random and messy, but slowly a shape begins to form and everything finds a place until you are left with a complete picture.

Will Self was widely tipped to win the Booker prize that went to Hilary Mantell’s Bring Up The Bodies. I’m sure he was disappointed not to, as this is a brilliant novel. Had he published it the year before I doubt it would have made the shortlist with the controversial focus on ‘readability’ the Booker panel emphasised that year. I had to make an effort to read it at first, but my persistence paid off.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham

As a teenager I read the usual dystopic novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, A Brave New World. Somehow I managed to omit John Wyndham from my nerdy reading list. What a mistake. Thanks to my favourite nerdy TV show (ABC‘s First Tuesday Book Club) I picked up The Chrysalids, and I’m glad I did. It is an inventive post-apocalyptic story that had me completely hooked.

The Chrysalids is set a few thousand years in the future, after what is strongly indicated to be a nuclear disaster. It is a coming of age story of David Strorm. David lives on a farm, on something akin to a frontier landscape, society having being reduced to a pre-industrial form. There is a memory of the ’old people’, a technologically advanced society who were all but destroyed by what they know only as ‘Tribulation’. Wyndham creates a strong set of rules that David’s community live by; they practice a fundamentalist form of Christianity, one that is obsessed with the ’true image’. Genetic mutation is common, but also hunted out and destroyed. Nearby are the fringes: land that is wild, where no pure strains can be found. Humans that are found to be mutations are sterilised and abandoned to the fringes. David and a small group of other children are telepaths, something they realise they must conceal if they are to avoid that fate.

David’s father, a prominent man in his community, takes his religion seriously, hunting out genetic mutation in his crops and household with zeal. We learn the fate of some of those not lucky enough to fit the norm; in particular the story of a mother whose newborn has a small mutation is a heartbreaking moment. As it is told through the eyes of a young boy we are spared the gruesome details, nonetheless, the sense of danger Wyndham creates for his protagonist feels very real. Wyndham also hints at a wider world - different communities in other places who also survived ‘Tribulation’. David’s uncle (and confidant) Axel, has travelled as a sailor, and is unable to follow the orthodoxy of their community.
most of them - whether they have seven fingers, or four arms, or hair all over, or six breasts, or whatever it is that‘s wrong with them - think that their type is the true pattern of the Old People, and anything different is a Deviation….You start asking yourself: well, what real evidence have we got about the true image?
Wyndham’s world building is excellent, but it is his characterisations that really make this book interesting. David himself is an atypical lead in that he is often unable to do the right thing, occasionally cowardly, and unprepared when he really shouldn’t be. It is the small characters though, that really make this book. Wyndham imbues minor characters with a sense of humanity, and creates real pathos, such as the aforementioned mother and child. One of the most interesting examples of this are the other telepath children: despite making only the briefest of physical appearances, some have a strong presence.

I’ve agonised a little over the ending, not being completely satisfied as it is dangerously close to deus ex machina. When I began to see it coming I felt bitterly disappointed. Thankfully Wyndham saves the book by not tying up every storyline neatly. While for some characters the ending is happy, the reality that others are left to face is dark and dangerous. Even the ‘happy’ ending leaves us asking some moral questions.

While it is certainly a novel of its time, it also asks questions that are relevant today. While we probably aren’t so concerned about nuclear apocalypse, we do face huge environmental challenges that could have similar impacts. Wyndham also asks us to think about who we will tolerate in our society: where does mutation end and evolution begin? How ‘superior’ are we as beings? Crucially, how do we treat those we deem ‘lesser’ beings to ourselves? Religious fundamentalism is probably even more of an issue in our society than it was when the book was written. People like David’s father are on our news every night.

When so many science fiction classics date badly, Wyndham’s imagined future seems horribly plausible. The book is short and fast paced, and the characters are strong. It is an enjoyable read, that still makes you think about the society we live in, or want to live in.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Wulf, by Hamish Clayton

This a good book. A really good book. It’s one of those books I’m sure some readers won‘t enjoy, but surely even then people will have to recognise the skill and ambition with which this book is written. Hamish Clayton recently won the NZ Best First Book Award for it. That’s right. This fabulous book is his debut novel.

Ostensibly Wulf is a piece of historical fiction; it tells the story of a group of white traders aboard the Elizabeth in 1830s New Zealand, and the story of Te Rauparaha, the legendary Maori rangatira (chief). Their stories came together when Te Rauparaha paid the Elizabeth’s captain, John Stewart, to transport himself and a group of his warriors to Banks Peninsula, where they slaughtered an estimated 1200 people.

The story is told from the point of view of a sailor who (apologies if I’m wrong) remains unnamed throughout the novel. Te Rauparaha’s history is told to him by Cowell, another historical figure, who travelled with the Elizabeth from Sydney as its translator. Our narrator is captivated by New Zealand, and Clayton gives an excellent sense of New Zealand as seen by this British man’s eyes for the first time. The Wulf of the title mostly refers to Te Rauparaha: a foreign animal used by foreign men as a nickname for this native man.

Telling Te Rauparaha’s story by remove by white men could seem a cop out - a modern author afraid to put himself into a pre-colonial Maori mind. But, actually, this is Clayton’s most ambitious theme in his novel; how can these two white men be a reliable source for Te Rauparaha’s story? Where does fact and the man himself end, where does myth and legend begin? How can these foreigners interpret his actions without an understanding of the culture it came from? Are the scenes of cannibalism fact, or are they an exaggeration - the acts of savages as believed by the white man? How accurate is their account of history when every sailor has a different name for what we now know as Kapiti Island (Kopitee, Cobarty)? This is not so much history as told by the victors, but as told by the passers-by .
Their sunsets were part of our story, just as the arrival of our ships had already become a part of theirs. We were, us and them, part of the same story, different verses woven into the same song.
This is also a tale of when two disparate cultures came together, when modern New Zealand was born. It is a story of the irrevocability of contact; once ships and muskets arrived New Zealand could never be the same. Just as Maori civilisation was changed, so to were the whalers and traders, and eventually the settlers. After all it is not just Maori who have a traditional oral culture.
Had we ever stepped upon those unmarked burial grounds concealing the shafts of ancient war, where fossils of old Angles’ battle lay, and became poetry, slowly petrifying towards a state of lore?
Wulf is also based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, first recorded in the eleventh century, Wulf and Eadwacer. It is a short poem, and appears in two different translations at both the beginning and end of the novel. It is a particularly ambitious poem to base a novel on as no-one appears to be sure what the poem is about. It is generally thought to be a lover’s lament, sung by a woman, but no-one is sure if the Wulf and Eadwacer she sings of are the same person or not, so it could be a love triangle. Alternatively it has been read as a mother’s lament for a child. There are clear features of the poem that are recognisable in Wulf. Certainly the ‘whelp’ at the end of the poem features in Clayton’s novel in a memorable, historically accurate, detail.

Clayton’s novel is complex, I could spend pages dissecting what makes this book so clever, yet it works beautifully as nothing more than a great story. It is hard for me to be sure, but I think that this novel would also be a great read if you knew nothing of New Zealand, its culture and history. It is rare to read a book that lives up to its hype. I’m excited to read what he publishes next.

If you are interested Radio NZ have featured it as their book reading - available online here.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey has burst onto the bestseller lists with her debut book The Snow Child, based on a Russian fairytale. Ivey’s version is set in early twentieth century Alaska, where Jack and Mabel have settled in an attempt to escape their grief for the children they never had. During a bleak winter they build a little girl out of snow. The next morning footprints lead away from the spot where the snow child stood, and a girl is glimpsed in the forest.

Ivey’s depiction of homesteaders in Alaska is engaging, and it comes as no surprise to learn that she is Alaskan herself. Her personal knowledge of how to live off this wild land is put to good use. The land itself is also bought to life; the long bleak winters of frozen rivers and deep blankets of snow, followed by the mud and green of spring, are all beautifully described without leaving the reader feeling as thought they are wading through page after page of nature.

Jack and Mabel are wonderful characters. As they are new to this landscape we can be introduced to Alaska through their inexperienced eyes. Their relationship is beautifully portrayed, and for me that was one of the highlights of this novel. Ivey captures the care and tenderness each feels for the other, and the misunderstandings too. They are both torn apart and bound together by their shared grief. The harsh Alaskan landscape, and the entrance of Faina (the snow child) into their lives, forces them to adapt; their resilience is moving. Mabel’s journey in particular - from a comfortable middle class background, depressed and marooned in the wilderness, to, finally, a strong frontier woman, is especially well portrayed.

As a foil we are also introduced to their neighbours, Esther and George Benson, and their sons. They are salt of the earth homesteaders, and provide Jack and Mabel with much needed support early in the book. They also bring a dose of reality to the novel. When the story could feel quite claustrophobic - a couple alone in the wilderness, apart from an ethereal child - the Bensons are representative of the wider community. While Jack and Mabel are outsiders the Bensons belong in Alaska. Ivey uses them as the insider voice, providing the know-how of how to survive in this extraordinary landscape.

The question asked by this novel is - how real is the snow child Faina? Is it just coincidence that she appeared after Jack and Mabel built the snow girl, or did they really conjure her to life? Ivey plays with this idea throughout the novel, never really making her answer clear. I’m not sure she does this entirely successfully though, but I will get to that in a minute. What she does do well is find a way to tie in the original fairytale - Snegurochka - to the story. Mabel is familiar with the fairytale from her childhood. It becomes an obsession of hers, especially as in all the variants of the fairytale the snow child never stays. This is all done with a lightness of touch; Mabel’s worrying comes across as something akin to normal motherly concern.

Faina herself is very thinly drawn. The book is more about the effect she has others, than her as a person. Ivey does well to make her seem part of the Alaskan landscape: beautiful but with wilderness at her core. I didn’t quite understand why though, if Ivey wanted to preserve the mystery of Faina, she hinted at an explanation for Faina’s presence in the wild, one that was essentially quite grim. This happens reasonably early in the novel, and I initially thought that Ivey had explained her background, but then the more ethereal/fairytale origins continued to be important. I’m not sure it was the right decision. I struggled to ‘buy’ the mystery, partly because Ivey’s explanation of how she came to be alone was so believable and heartbreaking.

It isn’t a perfect novel, but it is an impressive debut. There was a lot to like in Ivey’s characterisation and her depiction of Alaska. I took it on holiday with me, and it was a great holiday read. It isn’t a groundbreaking novel, but I enjoyed it enough that I’d check out books Ivey publishes in the future.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Thanks to the new addition to the household I’m finally able to indulge in one of my great pleasures - children’s books. At the recent Canberra Lifeline Bookfair I spent hours (not kidding) scouring through the stacks of picture books looking for goodies. I certainly found some old favourites, and even discovered some new ones. It inspired me to share with you some of the books and authors I‘ve been reading recently.

The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree
‘Three little Bears. One with a light. One with a stick. One with a rope’
I loved this book when I was little. Jan and Stan Berenstain wrote what has become an empire of children’s books. Often their Bears series is moralistic, and I’ve seen many that I wouldn’t be interested in. This one though, is a real charmer, as is the similar (but not quite as good) Bears in the Night. The story is simple: as the bears climb through the spooky old tree they gradually lose their belongings and gain the shivers. The language has a lovely rhythm and rhyming scheme, and is repetitive without being annoying. This makes it perfect both to read to young children, and for older children starting to read to themselves.

Judith Kerr
An old favourite who is still publishing - the delightful One Night At The Zoo was released in 2009. Kerr is best known for her first book The Tiger Who Came To Tea; it’s a great book - there is something slightly anarchic about this unexpected guest who proceeds to eat all the family’s food. It’s funny, appealing to a child’s sense of naughtiness. The Mog series are also deserving of a prime spot on the book shelf. Originally from Germany (yes, she also wrote When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) she thought learning to read in English was very hard so she puts a lot of work into making the book accessible for early readers. It’s easy to focus on entertaining children with a book, but encouraging children’s confidence to read for themselves is so important. It’s lovely to have books that do both.

Emily Gravett
Emily Gravett is more of a newcomer, and if you thought the aforementioned Tiger was wicked, wait until you see what can happen in her books. She is most well known for The Odd Egg, in which a duck is teased by the other birds for not having an egg. When he finds an egg of his own he is delighted but then it hatches with unexpected - and for the other birds unfortunate - results. It’s fantastic. One of her newest offerings is a version of the three little pigs, in which she actually makes you feel sorry for the wolf. Gravett illustrates her own stories, and plot is often conveyed in the pictures. This makes them great for less confident readers as they can still get the punch lines purely from the illustration.

Last but certainly not least

Helen Nicoll and Jan Pieńkowski
The Meg books, about a witch, her cat (another Mog) and her friend Owl, were first published in the 70s. The stories are simple and the bright block-colour pictures are real eye catchers. Meg is an unsuccessful witch: none of her spells ever work, and sometimes they have disastrous, but funny, results. The books are short, but exuberant. There are about fifteen in this series, most of which I have never read, but I love the ones I remember. The author Helen Nicoll passed away recently, so we won’t see any new ones, but I think these books will remain popular for years to come.

It is one thing to pick the best new books, or old favourites, to read with your children. But more important is to just read to them, with whatever you choose. Who has ever met a child who doesn’t love a story? I’m sure I’ll get sick of reading the same book over and over, but it is such a precious gift to give your child. I could always do what my father did when he got sick of reading Harry By The Sea - turn it into a (much shorter than the book) song.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt is the latest in the Canongate myths series, which has had myths re-imagined by contemporary authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood (whose retelling of the Odyssey as The Penelopiad is highly recommended). As you can probably tell from the title, Byatt has chosen the Norse myths, from creation through to Ragnarök - the end of the world. It is much more a literal retelling of the myth than the freewheeling interpretations other books in the series make. She does however include a framing device of a young girl, called only the thin child, living in World War Two Britain. We read the myth through her eyes, a device that is only moderately successful.

Much of Ragnarok is Byatt’s version of the Norse myths. Instead of following modern conventions of character, she writes them in a style more akin to their original forms. The gods are archetypal, and their behaviour is symbolic of the world around us, rather than a psychological portrayal. The prose is, as expected, beautifully written. The imagery she conjures up of Ginnungagap (the void before creation), of Jörmungandr (the serpent who circles the world), and the final awful silence after Ragnarök, is vivid and engaging. I’ve read a reasonable amount of classical epic poetry, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with this form of storytelling. I wonder though whether some readers will struggle to engage.

Byatt intends the thin child to be our window into this mythical world, and uses her to make two thematic links between our world and myth, which I’ll get onto in a bit. I don’t think this device really works. Partly this is because the thin child herself is a passive interpreter, and is as characterless as the archetypal gods. Rather than giving us insight to the Norse myths, I found her an interruption to the narrative flow of myth, and felt the explanatory role she played in interpreting the stories she is reading was unnecessary.

Byatt was herself a young girl during World War Two, and the child is a thinly veiled self portrayal; apparently Byatt even read the Norse myths at this age. In this child’s mind the destruction of Midgard and the wartime threat of impending doom become inextricably linked. Humans, like the gods of Asgard, are trapped in never-ending cycles of violence. The people who originally told these myths may have disappeared, but the truths the myths portray are as valid as ever.

The child is also a device to explore our modern natural world; as she walks to school, or plays, we are told of the plants and birds she sees - an ode to the British countryside. Over the course of the novel, as the myths move from creation to the destruction of the world, Byatt slowly draws a parallel to the state of our environment. The countryside Byatt describes is disappearing, and the same thing is happening all over the world. The world as we know it is in peril because of human behaviour. The Norse gods continue their drinking, brawling and general cavorting while they wait for Ragnarök. As do we.

Of the two thematic points I think the second is more effective. It is more subtly handled. I wondered if I was reading too much in it until I neared the end of the novel and decided it was intended. Weirdly the book contains what is clearly an afterword (not that it is labelled as one) in which Byatt explicitly explains her intentions in writing in mythic style, and her themes. The fact that it was felt necessary, I think, shows what is problematic about this book. I enjoyed it, but at times I felt I enjoyed it at an intellectual level, rather than being drawn into the story. Whenever I felt the story was getting underway, the thin child popped up to explain the myth, or a purely thematic passage appeared. It is a small book, but I felt it would have benefited from less being attempted; the combination of her themes, the myths themselves and the secondary story in wartime Britain is just a bit much being crammed in.

Byatt is a compelling writer - both Possession and The Children’s Book are fantastic novels. While Ragnarok has its faults it is an interesting addition to the Myths Series. Her depiction of the mythic world is beautiful. She captures both the joy of life and creation, and the cruelty in the stories, and Ragnarök itself is vivid, yet unsentimental.
The wolves tore the throats out of the horses and turned to the drivers of the chariots, sun-woman, night-mother, moon-boy and the boy in the bright chariot of day. Somewhere in the middle air, as the chariots rolled in their fall, the wolves tore apart sun and moon, day and night, drank their blood and swallowed them.
It isn’t a book for everyone, but I did like it. Just, perhaps not as much as I would have liked.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of the most loved, but also misunderstood, novelists. Her wonderful romances, more widely known to many now through television, have earned her a reputation as a girl meets rich guy, girl marries rich guy writer. This ignores the fact that many of her ideas were quite revolutionary for the time. For those who are interested I highly recommend Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen; it is a fascinating account of Austen’s family and society, and the difficulties she faced as a female writer. It changed how I viewed her novels; it made me love them that little bit more, especially this, the most revolutionary of all her novels - Persuasion.

Eight years before the beginning of this novel Anne Eliot, middle daughter to a baronet, was persuaded to break off an engagement to young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, largely because her family believed him to be beneath her in social standing. It would also have been an imprudent engagement as he did not have the income to support a wife, and no guarantee of ever doing so. He has now returned to the neighbourhood a Captain in the Royal Navy, and rich. Charming and charismatic, he is seen as quite the catch and the local girls all determine to fall in love with him. Anne is now 27, past the prime age for marrying(!). Overlooked and unappreciated by her own family she deeply regrets her refusal. Due to the social conventions of the time, it is impossible for her to communicate this to Captain Wentworth. She can only watch, and hope.

Of course, there is the inevitable happy ending. But in a way, this is what makes the novel so remarkable. Anne is the daughter of a Baronet (a hereditary knighthood, the closest thing to being noble other than being noble). She marries a man who is not even a member of the gentry. While he is rich, he is a self-made man, having earned his fortune and title through his career in the navy. Austen is so often criticised for being stuck in the class system of her day, but to me this heralds the massive social changes of the 19th century - the beginning of the decline of the aristocracy in the face of ambition. Of course Austen had no way of knowing what was to come, but her reflection of society is quite cutting edge.

In a world where to be mistress of a house was the greatest degree of autonomy most women could achieve, the desire of Austen’s heroines to marry for love, not necessity, is a bold choice. Marriage was generally arranged by parents, and in the absence of a large dowry, being very beautiful was the surest way to marry well. Her heroines do not settle for a mediocre marriage; they aim for the best in life and take the gamble. While it works out for them all, Austen understood well the difficulties in being a spinster. She, her sister, and widowed mother were eventually dependent on their brothers to arrange even basic things for them. Is it so bad that in her novels she is living the dream? Persuasion is the ultimate example - Anne is aging, and her father has squandered his money to the extent her dowry is in doubt. Nonetheless she gets a second chance. Her loyalty and good character are enough to bring about her marriage to the man she loves. Austen, in her early forties, ill and near death, writes a happy ending that she and her sister never got. Every time I read Persuasion I find it beautifully poignant.

One of Austen’s greatest qualities as a writer is her wit. She lays bare the hypocrisy of her society, where merit is too often based on wealth, not quality of character. She can be scathing, yet is also very funny. Persuasion is perhaps less humorous when compared to the sparkling Emma, for example, but it finds a gentle sense of humour in Anne’s family - the hypochondriac Mary, or her snobbish father who is so vain as to have filled the house with mirrors, which was an expensive habit for the time. While it lacks the humour of her more grotesque characters, what this novel does have is a lot of heart. Austen was a ferociously intelligent woman, at a time when female intelligence wasn’t appreciated. Persuasion was written at a time when she had received some recognition for her novels, and a small income had given her some independence. It is a more mature, well rounded work - perhaps some of that anger had abated.

Classic novels seem to be a love or loathe thing, those who loathe them finding them wordy or difficult to relate to. While the style of writing is indeed different, the craft behind it is impeccable. Society has changed in the two hundred years since Jane Austen sat at her little table and wrote this novel, but people haven’t. Pompous Sir Elliots, manipulative Mrs Clays, and faithful Annes, still exist. It isn’t a story about marrying a rich man; it is a story about marrying someone who loves and values you. Austen has inspired women with this dream for centuries; no wonder we love her so much.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall won Hilary Mantel the Booker Prize for her account of Thomas Cromwell, and the role he played in the ascension of Anne Boleyn to the throne. I absolutely loved the book. Through Cromwell, Mantel found a fresh take on the Tudor era that we all know so well. The book was huge, but encompassed a very specific period of events, and ended, I thought, perfectly, so I was not without trepidation when I heard that it would now be the first in a trilogy. Would she ruin that ending - leaving us with our own knowledge of history to fill in the gaps - by fleshing it out for us? By the time Bring Up The Bodies arrived in its resplendent crimson and gold cover on bookshelves, my appetite had got the better of me. I couldn’t wait to dive back into Mantel’s version of Tudor England. It didn’t disappoint.

Rising up from his origins as a common London boy, Cromwell is now an established, powerful figure at court. He is the man Henry VIII trusts to get things done, and not without good reason. The only thing Cromwell cannot do is magic up the son Henry is so desperate for. Having rid him of one wife, it falls to Cromwell to rid him of the second. As we all know, this will end with Anne Boleyn on the executioners block, and Jane Seymour on the throne. It is how Cromwell, the Seymours, and the Boleyns get there that is so thrilling.

As familiar as the history is, the novel is about Cromwell. It is told exclusively from his point of view. Unusually, considering this is the case, Mantel does not use first person (I), but rather the third (he). We sit inside Cromwell’s head, and yet we are kept at ever so slight a distance by this choice of voice. It is the same technique used in Wolf Hall, with one slight difference. In the first book some readers found the unrelenting use of ‘he’ difficult to keep track of. For this novel, where Mantel thinks there may be some confusion as to who ‘he’ is, she specifies ‘he, Cromwell’. It does reduce the confusion that, I admit, I found a little distracting at the beginning of Wolf Hall until I got the hang of it. It also adds something to the text. In a sense his name becomes his own epithet. Cromwell becomes this incredibly solid presence, instead of the slippery figure he could be in Wolf Hall. This Cromwell is a powerful figure; his name invokes fear at court. Henry VIII might need his title to invoke his sense of power - Cromwell needs only his name.

Cromwell is a fantastic character: intelligent and cunning. If you are lucky he is a loyal friend; if not, being on Cromwell’s bad side is a dangerous place to be. He is an admirable character, and perhaps just likeable enough, despite his ruthlessness. Mantel does a fabulous job of fleshing him out as a man. His mind wanders throughout his life, flitting to memories of his childhood, his time in Europe, and the wife and two daughters who died young.

The dead hover throughout this novel, haunting Cromwell. Not without reason is the second group in the list of characters at the front of the book ‘The Dead’. It would be impossible to understand without knowledge, not just of his family, but also of the executed Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More. A particularly beautiful passage at the beginning of the book, regarding Cromwell’s sometime adversary, Thomas More, was for me the moment I sunk completely into the world of this novel
What could he do but splash to the scaffold, on a day in July when the torrents never stopped, except for a brief hour in the evening and that too late for Thomas More; he died with his hose wet, splashed to the knees, and his feet paddling like a duck’s. He doesn’t exactly miss the man. It’s just that sometimes, he forgets he’s dead. It’s as if they’re deep in conversation, and suddenly the conversation stops, he says something and no answer comes back. As if they’d been walking along and More had dropped into a hole in the road, a pit as deep as a man, slopping with rainwater.

Other deaths haunt this novel. Because it is historical fiction, we know how it ends. Two deaths are important to our understanding, the first being the inevitable death of Henry VIII. The precarious position England would find itself in at his death is bought home by a historical occurrence early in the novel: Henry’s jousting accident in 1536. He was badly injured - it is said it was believed to be fatal at the time - and it is known that within days Anne had miscarried a male child. Mantel makes clear, through Cromwell’s frantic mind, that if the King dies, England would be on the brink of civil war. Henry may be verging on the tyrannical at this point, but an England without Henry is unthinkable. Anne’s failure to produce an heir is now unforgivable.

The second death is that of Cromwell himself. I know when his life ends, I can look up the exact date of his death. I know the means, but I don’t really know the how. Nor does Cromwell. He does know that a world without Henry VIII is not one that will be kind to him. His position at court is dependant on Henry’s goodwill. Mind you, this could be said of almost anybody. Cromwell has the advantage - while Henry is alive, if he is clever enough, ruthless enough, he can stay in Henry’s favour. Therefore he does whatever it takes to keep Henry happy. Perhaps the key lines to the novel are these thoughts as the trial of the men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn approaches
He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.

Mantel assumes a certain level of historical knowledge, and plays with it. She plants seeds of ideas throughout the novel, hinting at what we know for these peoples’ future. She stays within the facts of history, but it is her ideas of how it unfolds that make it so gripping. The biggest criticism that can be made of this book is that it is so clearly a second book in the trilogy; it just isn’t quite satisfying enough - I immediately wanted the third book to read, which is hardly the sign of a bad book. It may be familiar ground to that covered in Wolf Hall, but it is such an interesting period of history that there are plenty of ideas for Mantel to explore. I enjoyed every page; the prose, the characters and the Tudor world are all beautifully rendered.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Railsea, by China Miéville

China Miéville is one of my favourite authors, so I’m pleased to finally be reviewing his latest offering: Railsea. Miéville writes what he calls ‘weird fiction’ - not strictly fantasy or sci-fi, but something that blurs the boundaries. He is attempting, within this, to write a book in every genre; so far he has written novels as diverse as a western (Iron Council), a sci-fi planetary romance (Embassytown), and crime fiction (The City & The City). Railsea is his young adult offering. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it; it is well written for the youth market, but is also clever enough to satisfy his adult readers.

Railsea takes place in a dystopic future of either our world, or one quite like it. Large bodies of water are nonexistent; instead, the lands people live on are divided by treacherous stretches of earth that may or not be poisonous (as is much of the sky). Crisscrossing these are train tracks, providing trade routes and hunting grounds to the train crews who work on them. Sham Yes ap Soorap finds himself apprenticed to a doctor on the moletrain Medes. They hunt the vicious beasts that live in the poison earth: the most profitable of these being the giant moles, or moldywarpes. While they hunt, Captain Naphi is on the lookout for one particular moldywarpe: Mocker Jack, the giant yellow beast that claimed her arm years ago. While she will stop at nothing to catch him, Sham discovers a quest of his own that will lead him down perilous tracks, perhaps as far as the ends of the earth.

What Miéville does best is world building. Apart from his three Bas-lag novels, all of his works take place within a unique universe. He is an absolute master of invention, and crucially in communicating his ideas in his books. Some of his worlds can take a bit of time to get your head around, but once you have done so they have a completeness and believability to them that is so often lacking in lesser writers’ works. Miéville explains his worlds very well, taking his time to lay the pieces before bringing it all together in your head. I remember reading Embassytown and feeling like I wasn’t quite understanding, then with one particular paragraph everything slotted into place. Talking to my husband later, he had the same feeling at the exact same place in the book. It is a real skill to be able to communicate so clearly his, often very weird, settings.

The book obviously contains a loose homage to Moby Dick, but that is only the start. It is jam packed with tributes to literature: Robinson Crusoe is referenced, and the works of R.L. Stevenson - with Treasure Island in particular coming to mind. It is also unashamedly meta-fictional. Miéville first widens the story to include further characters, such as the Shroake children; he then teases us with snippets of their story while always returning to his central character Sham
At last they pushed on, under a huge night, in the deeps of which upsky predators make sounds. The Shroakes-
-but wait. On reflection, now is not the time for Shroakes. There is at this instant too much occurring or about to occur to Sham ap Soorap
Miéville’s early work is not exactly known for its brevity; this narrative technique helps to keep the plot moving without dropping the Shroakes for long tracts at a time. It’s a clever ploy, and entertainingly written - reeling us in only to drop us again moments later.

One of the things I most admire and enjoy in Miéville’s writing is his language play. He has a knack of twisting words and grammar so they say not what they would normally, but exactly what he wants them to say. He imbues words with meanings of his own, that become important to the plot or ideas in his stories, such as ‘philosophy’ becomes in this book. His vocabulary is extraordinary, although perhaps at times beyond the young adult readers this book is aimed at. One of his quirks is that he has favourite words, and these can vary from novel to novel, but often these words will pop up. This has lead to what I affectionately think of as ‘the chitin game’, after a much used word in Perdido Street Station. Knowing which words in his early works he loves, you look out for them as you read new books. Which leads to scenes like my husband and I announcing ‘chitin’ abruptly into a room where we both had been reading in silence. Other words this can be played with include ‘puissant’, etiolate’, and words that start with ‘un’ but don’t usually.

A stylistic feature of this novel is the decision to use ‘&’ instead of ‘and’. Miéville also often starts his sentences with ‘&’. It is very striking - we are so used to the convention that you don’t begin sentences this way. Writers often deliberately flout convention - it is part of the skill of being a good writer. Just as you get used to it Miéville explains this choice in a short chapter directed at the reader. In which chapter, the antiquated spelling of ‘and’ is explained to have been replaced with ‘&’ because of its connection with the railsea.
‘What word better could there be to symbolise the railsea that connects & separates all lands, than “&” itself? Where else does the railsea take us but this place & that one & that one & that one & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than “&”?
It is a lovely idea, which after all is what you read Miéville for.

He walks at times a fine line between his cleverness getting in the way of his stories or not. For me he manages to stay on the right side of the line. That’s not to say he isn’t without limitations. Characters can be a little underdrawn in his books. They are sometimes merely vehicles for the ideas he wants to explore, not believable people. This is a fair criticism of Railsea. It is obviously just not what he is interested in as a writer, though I don’t think this prevents his novels from having emotional impact. When it is important he manages to make you feel. I have mentioned he has a degree of vocabulary predictability, and this could also be said for his themes. Miéville is an ardent Marxist and these beliefs are often explicitly expressed in his books, something I find amusing rather than troublesome.

I’m something of a Miéville completist. He is also currently publishing a comic series Dial H for Hero that I’m buying, and enjoying. There is so much I love about his books; their inventive worlds being only the start. Miéville is an excellent writer of the dramatic set piece, huge battles and showdowns which are a joy to read. All of this is present in Railsea, so I was pleased to read it. I think it is also well targeted at its young adult audience, whereas I thought his children’s book Un Lun Dun may not have been. It is not my favourite of Miéville’s works, but he is one of my favourite authors writing today. I can’t wait to read whatever comes next. For those of you whose appetite has been whetted by my review, here is Covehithe , a short story published on The Guardian.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré

I’ve never been much of a thriller reader. My father is a fan of the genre, but the closest I’ve come to reading the crime and spy novels he likes is a brief John Grisham phase in my teens, around the same time all the hot young things in Hollywood were starring in the movie adaptations. While it wasn’t exactly full of heart-throbs, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a fabulous movie. Once again I was inspired by celluloid to pick up a book and try one of the masters of the spy genre - John le Carré.

Those of you who have seen the movie will find the plot very similar. A British SIS officer is sent to Czechoslovakia on a top secret mission by the head of his agency, known only as Control. Control has reason to suspect a mole is operating amongst his highest officials, and a Czech general is promising him a name. When events go wrong, and the spy is shot, heads roll within the security service. Months later Control is dead, and rumours of a mole have resurfaced. Once a suspect, the ousted spy George Smiley is the ideal candidate to hunt out which of his former colleagues is spying for the Russians.

Because not only the set up, but also the way the plot plays out, is basically the same, I found it a bit of a shame that I hadn’t read the book first. Still, I enjoyed the book even though I knew what would happen. Unlike a lot of thrillers we are used to these days there is no race to solve the mystery. Instead we follow Smiley through his logical reconstruction of events, and eventual trap, to discover who the mole is, at the same time that Smiley has his (unvoiced) suspicions confirmed. If you are looking for a mystery to solve, this isn’t the book for you. Perhaps this is why I wasn’t bothered by knowing the outcome. Le Carré isn’t interested in red herrings, or tantalising details; he unfolds the mystery in a logical way, and at a calculated pace. It is the world of the spy that is of importance, not the mystery. The book is full of spy speak, which can take a while to get your head around - to be honest I got confused as to the difference between ‘shoemakers’ and ‘lamplighters’, though some, such as ‘pavement artist’ to describe those following a suspect, have a charm (and clarity).

The story is told in third person, following Smiley, as he tries to piece together what is going on. He does this by meeting fellow spies - talking to those who will talk secretly, hunting down those who were ousted after the Czech scandal. I found the way the narrative flowed interesting, as it meant that a lot of the real action in the novel is narrated, in conversation, after the fact. It is curious to me, looking back, that it works. Through Smiley’s conversations we build a thorough picture of that fateful night, who was where, talking to who, whose stories have gaps in them. But we also know the outcome. It could all be very dry, but le Carré brings each scene to life, so the stakes seem real.

Although this is the first of a trilogy, it is actually the fifth book Smiley has appeared in. He is le Carré ’s perfect spy - what he lacks in physical brilliance he makes up for in mental acuity. His last name is somewhat ironic, as he comes across as a rather inexpressive chap. I gather that this is not the only le Carré novel to find Smiley brought in from the outside somehow to investigate, or tidy up after other spies. As a narrative device it clearly works. I do wonder if I would find it so interesting after reading a few similar books. I am however sufficiently intrigued that I can see myself reading a few more of these at some stage in the future.

The Cold War is brought vividly to life, with a nice bit of moral ambiguity on both sides. The SIS might be a world peopled largely with middle aged white men, but the major players all have personalities that leap off the page - from repressed anger, or ruthless ambition, to the feeling of failure. The nit and grit of this book might be a spy story, but it is also a story of how people react to betrayal. The ending is beautifully understated. What the film made quite explicit, the book only implies. It might not end with a bang, but it’s not a whimper either. The pay off, if you have been paying sufficient attention, is a very satisfying conclusion.

Friday, 15 June 2012

A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Another book that has been on my to-read list for some time was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. Like everyone else I hadn’t heard of her a little over a year ago, but her profile has rocketed since winning the 2011 Pulitzer with this novel. I didn’t find it a perfect read, but it was enjoyable, and unlike many literary novels these days it was a fairly quick read.

The book sits somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. Each chapter is a self contained story, following a diverse cast of interconnected characters, and together they build a thematic story of life in the modern world. Unlike true short stories, most of them need the context of the other stories to impart meaning. It isn’t just that they would lack emotional resonance, more that without the character information you have already built up over the course of the book, a reader would be somewhat lost reading later chapters on their own. While some connections are obvious, Egan weaves her stories together with a lot of detail. After finishing the book I went back to the first chapter and picked up on numerous references to other chapters. I imagine the level of detail in the book would reward rereading.

The book begins with Sasha, in her mid thirties, assistant to Bennie Salazar, a music producer. These two are the characters that probably pop up most often throughout the book. We slide along the time scale of their lives, meeting Bennie as a teenage punk, and as an ageing manager in a near future, trying one last time for success. We also get to know Bennie’s mentor Lou, the teenage girls he seduces, and his dysfunctional family. We have sub-plots involving dictators, mentally ill addicts, and sexual coercion. Yet Egan also finds some real heart and light in sections. The ‘Goon Squad’ of the title is a reference to the way life can beat you up sometimes.
Time’s a goon, right?
Her characters makes mistakes, screw up relationships, pass years in a haze of drugs and eventually realise life is passing them by. Occasionally Egan throws them a bone, and the moments of redemption, the hint of better things to come in their life is what stops this being a funny, but ultimately depressing book, and turns it into something with a soul.

The most memorable chapter is the novel’s most famous, because it sounds so gimmicky: a powerpoint presentation, taking up sixty pages. It is the slide journal of Sasha’s daughter, documenting her parents, her obsessive younger brother and all her family’s foibles. It is a brilliant chapter. Individually it tells a beautiful story of family: of the love that holds people together even when they drive you mad. They are by no means perfect, but in documenting the at times dysfunctional relationship between father and son Egan cuts to the essence of family. To the book as a whole it is also important. Sasha appears in a number of stories, and after tales of misspent youth and unhappy adulthood we need this story to swallow the bitter pill of the rest. Sasha’s family allows us to hope; after all the mess we need to see that lives can get better, that something beautiful is ahead.

I did have one problem with this book: it isn’t anything wrong with Egan’s writing, nor is it unique to her book. Why are so many books full of characters that are selfish and egotistical, especially when they purport to be exploring ‘modern’ life? Does this really reflect the world we live in today? I understand writers want to explore all kinds of characters, but to that end why are they all so unrelentingly narcissistic? Many excellent novels are like this, Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections being another example. It isn’t just books, it is television as well. Individually they can be fine, but the cumulative effect of this navel-gazing can be a little tiresome. Admittedly the egoism Egan’s characters exhibit works well with the black humour that makes this books enjoyable.

This is a very well constructed book, the structure and characters working together to tell a story that encompasses a wide breadth of human experience. It is not however flawless: some of her futuristic elements felt unoriginal and didn’t really add to the novel. Overall Egan brings humour to what are the painful truths of her character’s lives, revealing all their inadequacies. At times scathingly critical, and at others beautifully poignant, A Visit From The Goon Squad deserves much of the praise and attention it has received.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Death Comes To Pemberley, by P.D. James

There are no lack of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs in the world, none of which I have bothered to read. What sets this one apart is its author: P.D. James, who has written best selling crime novels in a career spanning fifty years. She wasn’t an early starter either: she is the same age as my grandfather - nearly 92. I’ve not read her novels before - crime is not my favourite genre - but a writer of this calibre taking on Jane Austen’s world got my interest.

Set six years after Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are happily married with two small children (boys - the Darcy estate is safe). Elizabeth has adjusted to being the lady of the house at such a grand estate as Pemberley. Jane and Bingley live nearby, and Mr Bennet is a frequent, and welcome visitor, to their home. Dastardly Wickham and Lydia are most certainly not welcome at Pemberley. Georgiana is yet unmarried, though some suitors may be on the horizon. In short, everything is orderly and respectable. The household is busily engaged in preparations for the annual ball, one of the highlights of the local social scene, when, late at night, a carriage arrives at the house. A murder has been committed, throwing the previously orderly, happy home into uncertainty and chaos.

James invokes a strong sense of era, and her dialogue feels both natural and appropriate to the period. As this is a crime novel it encompasses aspects of Austen’s society we don’t see in her books. The body is examined by the local doctor, with what I assume is cutting edge skill for the time. There is an inquest, and then a trial, where we can see the foundations for the court system we know today. I am sure James has researched thoroughly, and these sections of the book work well. James introduces a young lawyer, Henry Alveston, who voices some rather liberal views in regards to women, mentioning Mary Woolstonecraft. Austen’s world is taken out of the parlour - the nineteenth century has arrived.

Much of the action at Pemberley, and indeed the murder itself, take place in an area of woodland on the estate. It is inhabited by an elderly servant, Thomas Bidwell, and his family, and while not otherwise neglected, it is considered wild in comparison to the rest of Pemberley. This is partly because of a family legacy: Darcy’s great grandfather committed suicide there, an act that has weighed heavily on the family for generations. There are of course ghost stories associated with the woodland. All this adds a gothic element to the book, a genre that Austen herself satirised brilliantly in Northanger Abbey. It works though, partly because James keeps it fairly subtle. The slight shifts in mood as the woods and weather close in when Elizabeth and Darcy find themselves in the woodlands give a lovely sense of the claustrophobia, and volatility, of both their physical surroundings and their situation.

For any potential readers out there, I don’t think this will in any way effect how I perceive the characters when I reread Pride & Prejudice. The style of the novel is too different, while I know they are the same as Austen’s characters, and James does write well, they don’t have the same feel. Nonetheless the book is written with skill and wit. It is a fairly light read, and enjoyable. I did find myself wondering why, other than that she is well established enough, and old enough to do whatever the hell she likes, James chose to write this book. I usually associate unofficial sequels with authors who can’t create their own worlds, not with someone with a proven track record of doing exactly that. While setting it in Austen’s world adds a sense of fun to the novel, much of the plot could be as well served by a story of James’s own creation. The one way the novel felt - at only a few moments to be fair - flat, was in scenes where characters are explaining their actions in Pride & Prejudice. I didn’t understand why Darcy would feel the need to explain to Elizabeth behaviour of six years earlier; especially as this is largely done through expository dialogue, it felt a bit clunky. Also, why would we be interested in James’s interpretation of events? I feel that filling in those gaps ourselves is often part of the joy of reading. Interestingly I listened to an interview online in which she discussed some aspects of Pride & Prejudice that had puzzled her, and that she wanted to explain. It is very deliberate, but I think it would be a stronger book without these sections.

If you are only ever going to read one sequel to a Jane Austen this is probably the one to read. Of course it doesn’t compare to one of the best loved novels of all time, but it does stand on its own two feet as a novel in its own right. James has wisely not written a romance; by writing in a different genre she is able to bring something new to the world of Elizabeth and Darcy. The crime aspect is fittingly ungrisly for the most part, and I thought the gothic aspects worked particularly well. A few quibbles aside, it is an entertaining read.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Egg & Sperm Race, by Matthew Cobb

I like science. It wasn’t a subject I excelled at in school; to my disappointment I only just scraped through my final year. Nevertheless I find mankind’s attempts to come to grips with the world around it deeply fascinating. From the far reaches of deep space to tiny subatomic particles, from the bottoms of oceans to the human brain, the scope of science is vast and encompasses every aspect of our lives. One of the big questions we have grappled with over the centuries is the origin of life. The Egg and Sperm Race takes us back to pre-enlightenment days; before Darwin could develop his theory of evolution we had to discover the answer to a much more fundamental problem: how do we breed?

It seems so obvious to us now - even a child can explain the basic concepts behind fertilisation - however not so many centuries ago even the top thinkers of the time were deeply muddled as to how life came about. As Matthew Cobb makes clear, even basic facts we take for granted aren’t that easy to establish. For example, there is no obvious indication of pregnancy for some time after intercourse; while people knew there was a connection, they didn’t know what that connection was. Some of the ideas circulating, even amongst learned members of society, seem ridiculous to us now. Since insects were so clearly identified with dirt and decay it was widely believed that they spontaneously generated in rotting matter. No wonder mammalian reproduction was little understood! While it was generally accepted that offspring took after their parents it wasn’t seen as the hard and fast rule we know it to be. In the seventeenth century the newly formed Royal Society was happy to listen to stories of mutant children of cats bred with rabbits. Although they were a bit confused, the Royal Society, and other European scientific institutions like it, began to develop a more rigorous approach to science.

It is easy to think of the history of science as a series of eureka moments, such as Newton’s apple, but Cobb gives a good sense of how science really happens: hard work and the slow accretion of facts over time building a picture. He also shows how poor methodology, and sometimes luck, play influential roles. William Harvey, one of the first ovists (those who believed the egg was primarily responsible for reproduction, as opposed to spermists), unfortunately chose deer to study. There was no way Harvey could have known, but deer are unusual in many ways, including that mating often begins before females are fertile. This lead Harvey to some false conclusions which, if he had made a luckier choice of animal, he might have avoided.

Another prominent figure in this book, Antoni Leeuwenhoek, was a Dutch draper who arose to prominence in the field of reproduction through his skill with a microscope. He was unusual in that he wasn’t from an aristocratic background; nevertheless he became a regular correspondent of the Royal Society. In 1677 Leeuwenhoek discovered spermatozoa, which was a remarkable achievement. The story Cobb relates though has a charm of its own. In his letter to the Royal Society Leeuwenhoek was at pains to clarify that he did not come across his semen sample through any immoral means, rather it was ‘the excess which Nature provided me in my conjugal relations‘. Leeuwenhoek’s wife must have been a very understanding woman!

Throughout this book Cobb does an excellent job of explaining the science clearly, in layman’s terms. He is particularly good at illustrating how cutting edge some of the techniques were for the time. This is helpful - as I have said it is difficult for us to imagine a time when reproduction was so poorly understand. He also brings to life society of the time, and the scientists working within it. This is a great pop-science read, accessible without being oversimplified.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Tallulah Rising, by Glen Duncan

In last year’s review of The Last Werewolf I anticipated the arrival of a sequel, and that I would read it. I was right, and no sooner did Tallulah Rising hit the shelf, I got my paws (sorry) on a copy. I really enjoyed these books, so I just want to state right here it is impossible to review without giving some spoilers of the first. I’ll try not to give away much, but if you even think you might read The Last Werewolf, stop now!

So, the big twist in The Last Werewolf was that Jake Marlow wasn’t really the last werewolf. He finds himself able to enjoy the company of a female werewolf, Tallulah. This female is the central character of the sequel. After various events in the previous book I am not explaining, Tallulah finds herself both pregnant and alone. Oh, and WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) still wants the werewolves dead. Also, did I mention the vampires in my last review? They are the werewolves’ natural enemy, but they want something from Tallulah that doesn’t involve her being dead. Yet.

Duncan certainly knows how to set up a plot, and he sets lots of plates spinning in this one. Even with all the plot he jams in, he still finds time to think and grapple with more existential questions, lifting this from a shlocky horror to something with a bit more bite. In this second book much of this revolves around Tallulah’s feelings with regard to her pregnancy and subsequent motherhood. Her fears have to do with the main theme of the first book: how does the human come to terms with the monster that lives inside them, especially when the monster eats another person every full moon? It isn’t simply a matter of sustenance - The Hunger (as it is called) also demands cruelty and horror.
It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them.
As we discover in The Last Werewolf, one of the best things for a werewolf is to consume someone you love. Hence Tallulah has rather complex fears over bonding with her baby; she is terrified that if she does, she will eat it. It is both a logical extension of themes already existing in the novel, and a metaphor for the complex feelings most new and expectant parents experience. A few times, especially early on, I had to wonder if this was a good book to be reading while I was pregnant, but at least I know I won’t have that problem!

Duncan really knows how to write a page turner. Often chapters and paragraphs end on a tantalising detail, so you just can‘t stop. He is a total tease, which makes this a terrible bed time book as you compulsively keep reading. The plotting is immaculately done, sometimes relating back to what seemed minor details in The Last Werewolf. Events are carefully layered, plans are hinted at but not explained, and every time you think a partial resolution might be coming Duncan throws in a twist, until the final quarter of the book, when events and characters all come together at a rapid pace. I did think the end of the book was a little deus ex machina, however it is clearly setting up the third of the planned trilogy, and it signals a possibly interesting direction for this book, so I’ll forgive him.

I criticized the first book for some slightly florid writing at times, a problem that reared its head once or twice in this book too. The change of voice from Jake to Tallulah allows Duncan to explore new territory which he clearly enjoys. Tallulah is a new werewolf, and a thoroughly modern woman, whereas Jake was world weary and laconic. Some of the ideas don’t change though. Sexual deviancy is a bit of a theme in both these books. I find it slightly bemusing how often anal sex seems to feature. I thought perhaps it was appropriate in a male werewolf, but Tallulah’s musings on it include pre-werewolf days, so I guess it wasn’t just that.

After slogging through Tristram Shandy, this was the perfect antidote. It is wonderful entertainment, full of sharp wit and black humour. The characters are engaging, and the plot draws you in. For all that Duncan writes this in a supernatural world, the characters are all battling with recognisably human desires. There is a lot of sex, and gore, but just enough literary pretension to lift it above much of what is being published in what is a very popular genre.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne

I bought Tristram Shandy in a fit of zeal a couple of years ago at a charity booksale. Rather appropriately it has taken me a couple of years to get around to reading it. I say appropriately as the book is the ‘autobiography’ of one Tristram Shandy, who is far too distracted in his writing to get around to telling us about his life. Publication of this novel began in 1759; it was published in nine volumes over eight years. Considering it is an early example of the novel it seems extraordinarily postmodern. It’s not a book I would recommend for most people. At times it was a maddening, tiresome read, but it could also be funny, in quite unexpected ways.

The first three volumes nominally tell the story of Tristram’s life from conception until birth. As I have already said Shandy finds himself continually distracted from his own tale, and instead diverts himself to stories regarding other characters, or general philosophical ramblings. The real main characters in this book are Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy, and his uncle Toby. While Tristram’s mother is left to labour upstairs for three volumes, Walter and Toby have a varied philosophical discourse downstairs. Tristram also narrates stories about them, including introducing some, such as his Uncle Toby’s courting of the Widow Wadman, which in typical Shandian fashion are not actually told until the final volume.

I found this first section of the book the most interesting, although I also enjoyed the final volume. While the narrative meanders around, there is more of a shape to the story he is telling, as he keeps referring back to the events surrounding his birth. This thread was lacking from the middle sections, where he rambles on about one thing for a while, and then another. I found myself struggling during these chapters, especially the volume which narrates his travels through France. While individual episodes could be amusing, the overall effect was mind numbing. I really did have to force myself to keep reading, occasionally feeling as though I had read through a number of pages without taking anything in.

The humour of this book is much broader than anything you would expect to encounter in a nineteenth century novel. It is striking the difference fifty years makes in what was acceptable. Licentious behaviour is only ever implied, never explicitly described in the Victorian novels, even when it is integral to the plot. A bawdy sense of humour is continually present throughout Tristram Shandy, The book begins with an account of his mother distracting Walter Shandy at a rather delicate moment, leading to Tristram being conceived in a more disordered state than ideal; thus setting the tone for both Tristram’s character, and the novel.

From our modern vantage point it is easy to describe the book as ‘postmodern’. It seems to anticipate what later writers like Virginia Woolf or WG Sebald would do. Famously his book contains a page entirely filled in with black ink, as though to represent the melancholy of the story being told at that point, or the eyes of the dying man as they close for the last time. I think though, considering the long time span in between this work and anything similar, it is perhaps more of an anomaly, rather than the inspiration for a trend. His techniques for chopping and changing the narrative are very clever though, the following being one of my favourite examples
‘Dr Slop drew up his mouth, and was just beginning to return my uncle Toby the compliment of his Whu—u—u—or interjectional whistle—when the door hastily opening in the next chapter but one—put an end to the affair.’

This isn’t a book I would recommend as a good read. I read it myself mainly as a curiosity. My interest in this book was first piqued by a Michael Winterbottom film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. I remember really enjoying the film, and being certain I wasn’t getting all the jokes as I hadn’t read the book it is (very loosely) based on. In short the film is great, the book slightly more challenging, although it did amuse me at times.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

A couple of months ago I joined an imaginary book club through a friend. I say ‘imaginary’ as we have never met to discuss the book; in fact I’ve not met the other participants - I begin to suspect Marie made them all up. Too late! As, in hope of some literary discussion over tea and biscuits, I have ploughed my way through a hefty tome: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Thackeray was a contemporary of Dickens and, like Dickens, he first made his name as a journalist before becoming a famous novelist. In their own time Thackeray was second only to Dickens in popularity. However he is much less read these days, and is known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair. The book is undeniably intimidating in size - my copy has just under a thousand pages. In comparison to other similar novels though, I do not think it is too complicated. It helps that it has a smaller cast than many. While it takes place over a period of many years, including the Napoleonic wars, history is only a backdrop, requiring no in depth historical knowledge to make sense of it.

What makes this book so successful is one of its main characters: Becky Sharp, the orphaned daughter of an artist, determined to claw her way up through English society. The novel has the subtitle ‘A Novel Without A Hero’ as, over the course of the story, every main character is shown to be flawed. At the start of the novel Becky is with her friend Amelia Sedley, another main character. While Becky can be spiteful and artful, her feelings for the naïve Amelia, at least, appear to be somewhat genuine. Becky’s scheming eventually lands her with a husband, a buffoonish soldier with aspirations to wealth. Amelia marries her childhood sweetheart, but soon finds herself widowed, pregnant and impoverished. From here the two women go their separate ways. Amelia becomes ever more insipid, wasting away, caring only for her son and unable to recognise the love offered to her by her late husbands friend, Captain Dobbin. While Dobbin seems an admirable enough character he too becomes a slightly pathetic figure by the end of the novel, as he is unable to get out from under Amelia’s thumb.

In contrast Becky and her husband Rawdon Crawley are enjoying life, living in style in London with no real income. Their portion of the book is where Thackeray’s satire and wit shine. Two particularly witty chapters concerning these two are entitled ’How to Live on Nothing a Year’ and ’The Subject Continued’ in which Thackeray details how by relying on a good family name one can exist entirely off credit. The creditors, for fear that the meagre payments might stop, continue to furnish you with goods, until they themselves are declared bankrupt, while you continue merrily with your lavish, unpaid for lifestyle. It is amusing, but also not entirely inaccurate - young men of the time were continuously in extravagant debt, and the higher your income, well, the more you could borrow. So Rawdon and Becky get by on nothing, presenting whichever face to whoever most suits their purpose. Becky is demure and gracious to Rawdon’s family; meanwhile she is prostituting herself to a rich landowner (not in so many words though, it is after all a Victorian novel). Like any good thing, it’s great while it lasts, but inevitably Becky’s duplicity gets the better of her, and she finds herself in difficulty.

Thackeray’s critique of high society is really quite savage, particularly his treatment of the marriage market. As awful as Becky’s behaviour can be, it all stems from the way society treated women. Not content to be poor, Becky must marry well, as she has no means to make her own money. When that doesn’t quite work out, well, there are other ways. Men too come in for their fair share of Thackeray’s contempt. Money and respectability reign supreme, friends are cast aside when down on their luck, and anything can be ignored as long as it is behind closed doors. Sir Pitt Crawley is a wonderful character: disgusting and miserly to the extreme, he alone refuses to play by society’s rules. His real transgression though is not his behaviour, it is the transparency of it. Ultimately this novel is about the veneer society paints over itself.

Thackeray is a knowing writer; his omniscient narrator directly addresses, and challenges, the reader a number of times.
a polite public will no more bear to read an authentic description of vice than a truly refined English or American female will permit the word “breeches” to be pronounced in her chaste hearing. And yet, Madam, both are walking the world before our faces everyday, without much shocking us. If you were to blush every time they went by, what complexions you would have!
Thackeray is merciless in his exposure of society; all within the confines of what could be acceptably published. Perhaps this is part of why the book hasn’t dated badly: what was shocking then, isn’t so shocking now. By not lecturing us on morality Thackeray gives the book a universality and timelessness - although society has changed since this book was published we all know people like Becky Sharp and Captain Dobbin. The characters are vivid and realistic, breathing life into this classic novel.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Early Work of Philip K Dick Volume One: The Variable Man and Other Stories

From one sci-fi great to another, this time it’s Philip K Dick. This collection contains short stories from the first two years of his publishing career, 1952-53. They are not the polished science fiction he is known for, but they certainly touch on some of the themes familiar from his later work. It is an intriguing collection of stories; the quality can be, well, variable, but there are a lot of interesting ideas and some of these stories are very successful.

The collection is nicely published. The book has a good introduction (which does give away the first story, but not any others). It also has story notes at the back, with information about when they were published, and how they fit into his body of work. The stories range in length, beginning at only ten pages, while The Variable Man is almost a novella. I would expect they would be new to most people, except for Adjustment Team, which was made into a movie starring Matt Damon last year.

Some of the concerns of Dick’s later works are already cropping up. Robots feature prominently in many of these stories, as do post-nuclear societies. Some though are much more whimsical, such as Beyond The Door, which is about an overprotective cuckoo clock, of all things. One of the unfortunate things about science fiction is it can date rapidly, and Dick’s obsession with a futuristic Soviet threat is an example of this. Mind you, give the world another twenty years and maybe it won’t seem so!

There are some excellent stories in this collection. While sometimes you can see the twist at the ending coming a mile off, Dick knows how to deliver that twist with such panache it doesn’t matter. Even when a story as a whole doesn’t appeal, a scene or image can contain a spark of brilliance that hints at the mature writer he is becoming. Dick’s vision of a man wandering through an office building turning into dust around him in Adjustment Team is a great, creepy, piece of writing
The man slowly collapsed. He settled into a heap, a loose pile of gray ash. Dust. Particles. The two women dissolved when he touched them. Silently. They made no sound as they broke apart.
A favourite of mine is Beyond Lies the Wub, Dick’s first ever published story. It is very short, but a real gem. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it is available to read online and is well worth the time to read it. There were some that I enjoyed less; Of Withered Apples, about a young woman who becomes infatuated with a dangerous apple tree, was particularly weak.

Last year I read Embassytown by China Mieville, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin one after the other. Both books by great sci-fi authors, one newly published about colonialism and language, the other a classic exploring gender. It wasn’t planned, but they made an intriguing double bill. I feel I may have done Dick a disservice. I read this straight after reading The Dispossessed, also by Le Guin. While it is not about gender, feminism is present in the book. To go from that, to Dick’s (admittedly earlier) works I felt incredibly frustrated at his paper thin female characters. There are very few of them; his futures are all very patriarchal. Without exception, every female in this book is either weak or passive. This is part of what annoyed me so much to start with in Of Withered Apples - the story begins with a young woman requesting permission for a walk from her husband, by promising to be home in time to cook dinner. Urgh. On the other side, it adds to my appreciation of Le Guin’s work. While I think her books are anything but heavy handed, it does bring home the establishment she was reacting against. Dick’s stories are hardly unusual in this matter. It is merely a reflection of the society he was living in, but it still annoys me.

Feminist gripes aside this is a fine collection of stories. I’m no expert on Dick’s writing, but I could see the early traces of ideas explored in his later novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep being a particular example. It is also interesting seeing how his career got started. He was able to support himself publishing these stories in sci-fi magazines. While some literary journals still exist (McSweeney’s springs to mind), it is hard to imagine a writer financially supporting themselves from publishing in these. While many lament how the internet and text messaging are reducing our ability to digest longform writing, I wonder, how is our obsession with the novel hindering the careers of the novelists of tomorrow?

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Science fiction is often derided, seen as something appropriate to teenage boys. Perhaps the swathes of Star Wars fan-fiction on the sci-fi shelves in bookstores has something to do with that. However good science fiction can explore very complex ideas and themes that literary fiction struggles with. Like any genre it is a matter of knowing which authors to try, and who not to bother with. Ursula K. Le Guin is known to many people as the author of the popular Earthsea series they read as children, but she is also considered to be one of the great science fiction authors. Now that I’ve started reading her other books, I’m inclined to agree. While The Dispossessed is not my favourite amongst her novels, it is a worthwhile and thought provoking read.

The Dispossessed is one of the Hainish cycle: a series of works that take place in the same universe, though not on the same planet. The Left Hand of Darkness, one of her most well known works, is another of this series. The Dispossessed is set on the twin planetary system of Anarres and Urras. It is in many ways a thematic novel, rather than a character study, and explores as major themes anarcho-socialism, authoritarianism, time and metaphysics. The story centres itself around one major character called Shevek, a physicist from Anarres.

Roughly two hundred years before the start of this novel a group of anarchists on Urras, followers of the revolutionary Odo, were offered a permanent settlement on Anarres, which was only used as a mining base, thus removing their influence from Urras, and allowing the Odonians to create their vision of society. Contact between the planets has since been strictly limited. This changes when Shevek, a minor dissident on Anarres, is offered a posting at a university on Urras, where they want him to work on his principle of Simultaneity; a theory other physicists believe will be as important as the theory of relativity. Once on Urras, Shevek discovers he is not as free as he believed he would be. He finds himself a pawn in a political system he does not understand.

The beauty of Le Guin’s set up is she is able to explore two disparate political systems, and critique both. Anarres is run on a Anarcho-socialist basis with no political structures - decisions are made by consensus, by computers, or by temporary administrators; and no possessions - people are provided with what they need, but expected not to be greedy. Work is done for the collective good, and while people specialise, everyone is expected to contribute to jobs such as garbage collection in turn. If society is to function everyone must play their part. Urras has the capitalist society of A-Io, where Shevek lives. A-Io is also a patriarchal society; women do not work and appear to spend all their time looking beautiful for the men. No wonder Odo, a woman, started a revolution! This novel is sometimes subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, as neither society is the utopia it could be perceived as. As Le Guin shows through the novel the collective society of Anarres exerts its own pressures, controlling the individual just as effectively as a state. Shevek, fleeing the pressures exerted on him as he parts from mainstream thought, believes he will find freedom and self-determination on Urras. However, everything in a capitalist society has a price.

One of the cleverest things about this book is its structure and how this interplays with Shevek’s theory of simultaneity. In explaining his theory Shevek makes the analogy of reading a book
The book is there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order.
That is to say, time is all there, at once, but we experience it by moving through it, chronologically. This book, though, is not written chronologically. The first and last chapters are set on Urras and Anarres both, with all other chapters alternating between one and the other, telling us both of Shevek’s present on Urras, and his past on Anarres, simultaneously. It is very clever, and I have to admit I missed it (thanks Wikipedia). Some people believe that it may even be unintentional, but Le Guin is clearly a clever and considered writer, surely she thought this through. The theories of physics in this book are integral to the plot. While Le Guin could have entirely fictionalised these, she instead grounds them in ideas that would be familiar to readers. She uses both the theory of relativity and Zeno’s paradox as starting points from which to explore her fictional ideas. I think this must be hard to write - she is after all a novelist, not a physicist - but she does it well. There is also a balance to be struck between exploring these ideas, and avoiding overwhelming the reader with scientific detail; once again I think Le Guin is successful.

While The Dispossessed is mainly a novel of ideas it does have successful characters. Shevek is engaging, both in exploring his new life, and back at home. He is likable, but, like the political ideals in this novel, flawed. The story of he and his partner Takver on Anarres provides a heart to this novel, preventing it from becoming a cold exploration of ideas. Finally, I hate to admit it, what stopped me truly loving this book was the ending, which felt, if not rushed, then perhaps just a little too tidy, preventing it from having the emotional cachet I expected. This is still, though, an excellent book, one that deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens has been a favourite author of mine ever since I first opened Bleak House, over a grey English Christmas holiday. I was thrilled to learn that Claire Tomalin was writing a biography of him, to be released in time to tie in with his 200th birthday celebrations this year. I have read her biography of Jane Austen (another favourite), which I thought was fantastic. Tomalin doesn’t disappoint, using available resources, including a large number of Dickens’s own letters to friends and family, to build a portrait of a complex and compelling man.

Tomalin writes the book chronologically; every chapter is a few years of Dickens’s life. She writes with clarity; letters and other sources are all clearly footnoted giving this already large book a ninety page section of notes at the end. As life is, by its nature, disorganised without neat endings, Tomalin often explicitly informs us that people will reappear in a period of time, which helps as otherwise we could feel as though people had just disappeared abruptly. The book also has plenty of illustrations; Dickens was photographed many times throughout his life, and as the book continues we can watch him age, becoming a grizzled old man although he was only fifty eight when he died. Other photos and portraits show family and friends, helping us to put faces to names.

Dickens was a self made man, and the book clearly shows how driven he was to achieve despite obstacles. His parents were loving, but ineffectual; his spendthrift father and he would have a tumultuous relationship all his life, especially after Dickens made money. Unusually for the time they prioritised his sister’s education over his, paying for Fanny to attend the Royal Academy of Music at vast expense while Dickens had to work to earn his keep. His first job, working in a blacking factory, had an effect on Dickens that rippled through the rest of his life. He was later deeply ashamed of having worked in such a menial job. At the time he was also lonely, separated from his family. He was, though, free to wander the streets of London, getting to know its seamier side, the dirty streets, the prostitutes, and the poor, that would later populate his novels.

As an adult Dickens plunged into everything with an excess of energy. He overcommitted himself in every direction, working not just as a novelist, but reporter, editor, amateur actor and social campaigner. In his personal relationships Dickens was fiercely loyal, and yet those that fell out of favour were treated abominably. He financially supported an astonishingly large number of people: his parents, siblings, their families and mistresses, and the widows and children of friends and acquaintances, yet two of his brothers wore out his patience and died in poverty. He left his wife after twenty years of marriage. A separation was unusual in those times, and it caused a minor scandal. Dickens used his celebrity to publicly denounce his wife. Tomalin’s account of his cruel behaviour towards her is very unflattering. Dickens was, however, a tireless campaigner for the poor and underprivileged. His books drew the attention of the middle and upper classes to those less fortunate in their society. The fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist, and Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, both having a noticeable effect on the public. Dickens was heavily involved in the running of a charitable institution which turned around the lives of prostitutes, educating them and providing them the opportunity to emigrate for a better life. It is hard to reconcile the two sides of the man, but Tomalin makes the case with clarity throughout the book that Dickens’s early struggles gave him a sympathy for those in need, but a total lack of tolerance for those who squandered the opportunities he gave them.

The latter sections of the book are quite moving. By this time Dickens’s health was failing him: he probably had gout, and was possibly an alcoholic. Tomalin tells us of a visit to stay with friends where Dickens is known to have packed a private bottle of punch. Despite this he continued to work at a phenomenal rate. Around this time he wrote some of his finest novels: Bleak House and Great Expectations are two of his latest works. He was at the peak of his celebrity, travelling throughout Britain and America putting on the public readings of his novels he became so well known for. He received rave reviews, but the letters of those who knew him tell a different story: these stage performances often left him shattered - he apparently had to be helped off stage at the end. He complained of sleeplessness, faintness, various pains, and lack of appetite (although his account of what he did eat was a prodigious amount of alcohol including ‘a pint of champagne’ for dinner). Dickens appears now to be an irascible old man, but he was as hardworking as ever, right up until the day he died. It would take a hard hearted reader not to feel the pathos of his final words: on the suggestion he lie down Dickens replied “yes, on the ground” and collapsed. Tomalin has successfully created a three dimensional figure, so that it is easy now to forgive this frail man his faults, and understand the national outpouring of grief that occurred at his sudden death.

This is an excellent biography. My only disappointment was that while I learnt so much about Georgian society reading about Jane Austen in that book, I felt I learnt less about the wider world he inhabited. This is perhaps because the Victorians are more familiar than the Georgians, thanks in part to Dickens bringing his world so vividly to life in his novels. Dickens created a cultural legacy that few can match. In her book Tomalin successfully brings to life the man behind the name.