Burning Bright – The Pyre by David Hair

pyreAbout ten or so years ago I stumbled across Ashok K Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya, the first book of his Ramayana retelling. I found his (originally) six volume series wonderful. I knew very little of the epic on which the series was based, but it had everything a fantasy reader loves. Gods, princes, demons, magic weapons, epic battles and…er…flying monkeys. Paper copies aren’t in great supply these days, after Ashok spat his dummy out over editorial changes made to the UK/US editions, but ebooks appear to be available on Amazon. They are excellent and I whole-heatedly recommend them.

Those six books sparked a love affair with the Ramayana. I have read a couple of different, more traditional translations; there is something so compelling about the story. When I heard about David Hair’s Return of Ravana, Ravana being the ten headed villain at the centre of the Ramayana, my curiosity was piqued.

The action in The Pyre switches between two timelines. One is set in modern times, the other in AD 769. Both narratives take place in the same area of India, Rajasthan. The modern strand opens in the city of Jodhpur and the historical thread centres around nearby Mandore. In 769 Mandore was a thriving city, ruled over by the tyrannical Ravindra-Raj. Ravindra-Raj predicts his own death, and insists that his funeral must take a very particular course. At the heart of his wishes is the rite of sati, in which each of his seven wives will throw themselves on his pyre.

In modern India, three teenagers find themselves drawn together by virtue of sharing disturbing dreams and visions. They are each reincarnations of the players in the events that transpired in ancient Mandore over a thousand years earlier. The three are thrown into a battle that has been fought countless times before. This time, will the outcome be different?

As The Pyre progresses its inspiration from the Ramayana becomes more overt. Initially, it is an intriguing ghost story, spliced with a heroic tale of love and rescue. As the action comes to a head, the Hindu wheel of life starts to turn and the epic battle between Rama and Ravana makes itself felt. David Hair’s writing is sharp; his action sequences exciting. The demonic ghosts are more than a little scary, and the story contains some genuine surprises. Like the Ramyana, The Pyre is a story about love, honour, loyalty and fighting for what you believe. This is the opening salvo in Hair’s Return of Ravana sequence. Whilst satisfying in its own right there a lots of lose threads and many turns of the wheel left before the end of what I hope will be a memorable and enjoyable saga.

The Pyre is an excellent fantasy novel. If you’re familiar with the tales of Rama and Sita, you’ll find much to enjoy, and if not, then David Hair’s introduction to the legends are an excellent place to start.

Many thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of the Pyre. It’s out on June 4th  

‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson

a god in ruinsMy proof copy of A God in Ruins says ‘What if the new Kate Atkinson were even better than the last…’. A bold claim since her previous novel was the extremely readable and beautifully constructed Life after Life. It’s hard to imagine anything living up to that, and to suggest that a new book might is rather setting it up for a fall.

I don’t think A God in Ruins is as good as Life After Life. 

It is however still a very good book. If I’d read it in isolation, I’d probably be raving about it. Atkinson is an excellent writer, she could make the back of a cereal packet compelling reading (there’s an internet meme in there somewhere – author’s cereal blurbs), but with Life after Life the structure was so special. Its ‘sliding doors’ narrative gave Life after Life additional depth. The layers of story from different realities, intersected with one another, building up into a glorious three dimensional whole. A God in Ruins is a more conventional single reality narrative. The timeline jumps about but the versions of the main characters stay the same.

A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Life after Life, following Teddy, Ursula’s beloved brother. The story follows Teddy’s life, focusing mainly on his time as a bomber pilot during World War Two and as a declining pensioner; the god in ruins. The first hundred pages had me worried, perhaps it was the lack of artifice in structure, but the story felt pedestrian and uninteresting. It was only once the war began in full, that I started to find my way into the novel. The chapters change time-frame switching from Teddy’s modern life back from the war. We see the young wing commander, a talismanic hero among men, and his more prosaic family life.

Teddy and his wife settle into a sedate country life at odds with life in the war. The many children they hoped for don’t arrive; only one, Viola. Teddy and Viola struggle to bond from the beginning and this sets the course for a troubled relationship. Atkinson sets up an interesting juxtaposition of Teddy’s life of privation and courage during the war and Viola’s essentially selfish quest for inner peace, living on a commune as a hippy. I’d never before considered how children of the sixties and seventies may have looked to the war-scarred generation above them, and Atkinson portrays well the uneasy interaction between them.

Viola produces grandchildren, who get along much better with their grandfather than she ever did. As such, A God in Ruins becomes a generational, family saga, not usually my cup of tea. Gradually however the novel began to exert a grip over me. Whilst the war passages vivdly portray life as bomber pilot and the grinding despair brought by being surrounded by death, it was the modern day chapters that captured me most.

As I grow older, I begin to feel my own sense of the world out-pacing me. I can already see that I may outlive my own usefulness. This is something that never occurs to a thirty-year old, but now the other side of forty, with aching knees, it’s an uncomfortably real proposition. Teddy, a hero long ago, waits out his life in homes and sheltered accommodation. This again is all too close to the bone. As my parents age, how they are going to see out their days? The worst ever friction in their relationship with me, and with each other, has been caused by them railing against the onset of years. My Dad has Parkinson’s and it raises a set of challenges that cannot be conquered by staying at home indefinitely.

A God in Ruins, portrays the terrible shrinking of life that marks old age. Viola, never the most attentive of children, becomes a monster. Yet, I fear there is a little of Viola in all of us. I love my parents very much, but all too often I find them a nuisance; a problem to be dealt with. I know that one day, possibly, (hopefully even – the alternative is an early death), I will be the same situation. A burden to my boys, who love me very much, but struggle with all the things in their life, without their aged P making things even more complicated. Atkinson suggests the salvation may be grandchildren. Teddy’s later life affected me strongly and reminded me to to try to make a little extra time for my family, who one day will no longer be there.

I didn’t unreservedly love A God in Ruins. There was one chapter in particular that bordered on caricature, and felt uncharacteristically clumsy for Atkinson’s usual spot on observation. My wife felt the novel was in danger of slipping into an anti-war polemic. Whilst I rather liked its take on the futility of human warfare, her point is valid. The end of the novel throws a curve-ball, which I hadn’t seen coming. This has the discomfiting effect, of making the reader reappraise everything they’ve read. On the one hand this was frustrating, a literary trick too far, but on the other it’s no mean feat for an author to force a reader to re-evaluate everything they’ve read, and indeed their own lives in just a few short paragraphs.

I didn’t enjoy a God in Ruins like I did Life after Life, but a new Kate Atkinson novel is always something to be savoured and celebrated. The pair make an excellent whole and show why Kate Atkinson is the queen of accessible literary fiction.

Many Thanks to Alison at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book (my wife sends heartfelt gratitude too!) 

Dark Side of the Moons – ‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 22/5/2015. 

seveneves 3Most authors, who are not Neal Stephenson, would have started writing Seveneves at page 565. They would have told an epic hard sci-fi tale about seven races attempting to colonize a planet. There would have been tension and politics, spaceships and gadgets, heroes and villains. Those not tempted to start at page 565 might have written an apocalyptic tale about the destruction of the moon and the resulting disaster for planet Earth. They would have written about the great escape. There would have been spaceships and gadgets, tension and politics, heroes and villains.

Only an author with the vision and audacity of Neal Stephenson would have tried to do both. Stephenson has taken two halves of intriguingly premised stories and stuck them together like a literary cut and shut. He stops the action abruptly, with humanity on the brink, before fast-forwarding his story 5,000 years. The characters from the first 565 pages are dust. Nothing remains of them but memories. How could the final 300 pages possibly deliver anything like a coherent overall narrative? It’s a brave move, that, if attempted by lesser authors, would have resulted in an unholy mess. Stephenson pulls the trick off with aplomb.

The novel opens with an ‘Agent’ cleaving through the moon, breaking it into several pieces. The resulting cluster of rocks, still in the same position as the moon, is, at first, little more than an astronomical curiosity. An event everybody will remember but that will have little impact on their daily lives. The mass of the moon has barely changed; its position is the same. Life continues. Until a smart astronomer does some math and realizes this spectacular event is not just a curiosity, but also spells the end of life on Earth.

There follows a desperate scramble to make the International Space Station, ‘Izzy,’ habitable by as many as people as possible, in order to ensure the continued existence of the human race. The plan is to send Earth’s finest and brightest into space, with digital copies of the sum total of human knowledge. It is hoped that this will be enough. It has to be. It is all we’ve got.

Anybody who has read Neal Stephenson novels will know that they are detail-heavy. Seveneves is no exception. The opening three hundred pages detail the infrastructure required to build a space station with the capability of supporting human life for the next few thousand years. The novel is set in the near-future, giving Stephenson the opportunity to utilize some not-quite-in-existence technology. He outlines his vision for this space-faring ark in painstaking detail. I say painstaking, some readers might prefer excruciating.

This is not a book for the sleep-deprived. I read my first Stephenson novel (Cryptonomicon) before being married. The Baroque Cyclesqueezed in just before the arrival of my firstborn. In those days, Stephenson’s rich explanations brought me great joy. I loved to wallow in them. Even then, however, I could appreciate they wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste; you definitely need a certain mind-set to fully engage with a Neal Stephenson novel. Now Seveneves is here and I have three children. Time to wallow is not in great supply, and there were times when I felt myself wishing he’d get to the point. There are some chunks of description you can skim and still pick up the general point, without detracting too much from the story.

A general measure of how much I’m enjoying a book is how often I fall asleep reading it. It is rare these days that I read something so compelling, I don’t wake up at some point with a dead arm and spittle hanging off my chin. It goes with the parenting territory. Seveneves sent me to sleep a lot. Despite this, I did enjoy it. The story moved fast enough to compel me to read on, but sometimes there were a few too many detailed explanations of orbits, apogees and mass ratios.

Although clearly a demigod of technical description, I think the true mark of Stephenson’s stature as a novelist is his characterization. There are a host of characters in this book, and they are all brilliantly drawn. Their interactions and interpersonal relationships are what made this novel fly for me. It’s also why the huge break in the book doesn’t completely break the book. The vividly rendered lives of the pioneers of the first section inform the history and cultural backgrounds of those in the second. It’s a staggering accomplishment and anthropologically fascinating.

The destruction of the planet is deeply affecting. Since becoming a parent my reactions to apocalyptic novels has completely changed. They make me sad in ways they never did before children. The reaction Seveneves produced was almost visceral. I’m not afraid to admit I shed more than a few tears over it. The depth of emotion and insight showed is remarkable. These passages alone are worth the effort of reading the novel.

In both halves of the book, Stephenson presents a depressingly accurate picture of human nature. Even with the very existence of humanity at stake, politics and personal gain ride high in some characters’ minds. It is the novel’s contention, that even when we must be at our most together, humans will still find a way to fight one another. It’s a bleak view to offer, all the more so due to its accuracy.

Seveneves may contain the darker side of human nature, but it also explores our altruistic side too. Our ability to reach out and help others, at great sacrifice to ourselves. Humanity’s ability to work together for the common good. This book has true heroes and definite villains, and a few who are both. I loathed one or two of the characters for their actions. At times I almost forgot they weren’t real people: another testament to the quality of Stephenson’s character writing.

If you haven’t read any Stephenson before, I’m not sure I’d start here. The break in the narrative is quite hard to swallow. If you spend pages and pages detailing the minutiae of your world, it feels like cheating to then leave out 5,000 years’ worth of information. Much of the second section is bewildering, and I felt there was too much ramble for the size of the overall pay-off. This is not a book for those who like ends neatly tied. With an artificial end in the middle and a finale that leaves as much unresolved as completed, Seveneves leaves the reader with lots of unanswered questions. Within the context of the novel this is perfectly fitting. This is not a neat tale, but a future history and testament to the ingenuity of the human race.

With a spine of politics-technology-colonization, the book is inevitably going to draw comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson’s much-loved Mars Trilogy. Such comparisons would be entirely fair. Seveneves will appeal greatly to fans of the Mars Trilogy; they share the same roots of human endeavor and technical accuracy. They meld politics and technology in very similar ways. Seveneves is a more compelling read, but I think makes a less satisfying whole. For fans of Stephenson, a new release is always a thrilling event. Once again he delivers a behemoth filled with deep science, heavy detail and fascinating characters.

Seveneves is available now and is published by William Morrow in the US and Borough Press in the UK. Disclosure: Many Thanks to Jaime at Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

 

 

‘The Chronicles of Light and Shadow’ by Liesel Schwarz

Lieseluk

This piece first appeared on Geekdad.com on 8th May 2015. 

Steampunk. Queen Victoria, airships, and steam. Men who want to be Sherlock Holmes. Feisty women, often in jodhpurs. Fog. I’ve read good steampunk and I’ve read terrible steampunk. Because it’s a heavily stylized genre, some authors seem to think you can throw a few tropes together and make a decent novel. The Chronicles of Light and Shadow by British author Liesel Schwarz, fits firmly into the “good” category. The setting is a fairly typical cogwheels and carriages environment, but the novels have a fresh originality that many of their counterparts lack.

Whilst there’s no Holmes or Queen Victoria, Schwarz does employ steam, airships, and a feisty lead female. She also manages to blend in vampires, fairies, and fortune telling; pirates, warlocks, and clockwork hearts. Better still, rather than being confined to the fog-bound streets of London like most steampunk novels, Schwarz’s characters take in Paris, Vienna, Constantinople, San Francisco, and even Cambodia. It’s these varied settings that set the The Chronicles of Light and Shadow apart from the pack.

The trouble starts with precious cargo. Eleanor (Elle) Chance is asked to smuggle a special package to London. She is attacked, immediately after leaving the Parisian absinthe bar where she picked up her cargo. Elle barely escapes with her life, but her bag is stolen, and, along with it, the precious secret she was meant to deliver. The game is afoot!

The three novels follow Elle in the aftermath of the theft that changed her life. She is a strong central character. As an airship pilot, Elle is a woman in a man’s world. The lack of respectability of her position requires that she often take cargo that is not strictly legitimate. After the theft of her latest consignment she finds herself tangling with the shadowy Council of Warlocks. When Elle starts hearing voices in her head, it is not long before she discovers she’s in possession of a secret that she has even managed to keep from herself.

In Elle’s world magic is open, if mistrusted. Open and accepted but fading. There are two realms, Light and Shadow. The Shadow realm is where the fairies, vampires, and other mythical beings reside. The Light is the real world, and due to increased technology and a transferral of faith towards science, it is gradually squashing the Shadow out of existence. There is an interesting tension between the two sides. Both are at odds with one another, but both need the other to survive.

Villains come in the form of renegade warlocks, and a white witch with a terrifying clockwork army. I liked the way magic works in Schwarz’s world, particularly the interaction with fairies and other denizens of the Shadow. They add an extra dimension to the story, being both playful and sinister. The vampires, or “Nightwalkers” as they are termed here, largely move around in the background, adding further depth, without turning the story into something that sucks.

Although airships always seem to exist in steampunk novels, I’ve yet to read a series that features them so heavily. Steampunk dirigibles usually float around, offering local color but rarely becoming involved in the story unless an explosion is needed. Elle however, lives to fly, and as the series opens owns her own vessel, the Water Lily. I very much enjoyed the sections on board the airships, in particular the battles. Schwarz manages to make dog-fights between what are essentially cumbersome oversized cigars very exciting. By having air travel at the heart of her novels Schwarz is able to take her characters to a wide range of locales. Well-rendered alternative versions of world-famous cities are another draw for the Chronicles of Light and Shadow. If airships weren’t enough, there’s even a trip on the Orient Express from warlock-controlled Venice to an exotic and magically charged Constantinople.

The Chronicles of Light and Shadow is a solidly entertaining series. The books won’t blow you away. There are some nice extensions of familiar steampunk themes, but nothing mold-breaking. The middle novel A Clockwork Heart is, however, a little bit special. It is set in a trope-embracing fog-bound London, but the creepy menace of the “White Lady” and her army of clockwork zombies is chilling. I found I had to read this one late into the night to make sure I found out what happened. Though not marketed at the Young Adult audience, there is nothing in here that I warn against for older children. The books are written in the tradition steampunk Victorian detective style. There’s no bad language or excessive violence. If you’re looking for a new steampunk series to try and you like strong female leads, you could do a lot worse than Liesel Schwarz’s Chronicles of Light and Shadow.

Disclosure: The publisher sent me copies of all three books for review. The books are published by Del Rey in the US and UK. All three books are available in paperback and as ebooks now. 

Lies, damn lies and natural historians – ‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge

the lie treeThe Lie Tree is significantly more straightforward than the last Frances Hardinge book I read.  A Face Like Glass, was a phantasmagoria worthy of Lewis Carroll.  It took me a while to find my way in, but ultimately it’s fresh brilliance won me over. It’s a novel I love to recommend

Hardinge’s latest offering is a period tale with fantasy overtones. It is reminiscent of the early chapters of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things. Both novels feature women born out of time, blessed with towering intellect and curiosity about the world in which they live. Both women are cursed to live in a world in which they are subjugate to men. Hardinge gives her tale and additional fantasy facet, in the form of the eponymous plant, The Lie Tree.

As the novel opens Faith and her family are fleeing England in haste. What terrible disasters are they escaping? Those two scoundrels Gossip and Scandal. Piecing together what she can from overheard fragments of conversation (Faith is 14 and a girl; adults talk over her head), Faith works out that her father’s integrity has been called into question. A natural historian of great repute, it seems his greatest discoveries may be fabrications. The first of many untruths revealed in the book.

Before long, Faith’s world is in tatters. The family have fled to an isolated island with a tight-knit community. Soon after the rumours arrive on the island; there is no escaping them. The family’s prestige as London sophisticates is destroyed. The island dwellers turn on the new arrivals and Faith and her family are ostracised from their new community. After a number of slights and insinuations, and with the family reputation in tatters, Faith’s father disappears. He is soon found dead. Has taken his own life in despair or are more sinister forces at work? Faith takes it upon herself to find out.

At the centre of this novel are lies. Whilst the Lie Tree is the root of the more outrageous ones told on the island (for reasons I won’t divulge), nobody it seems is being honest with anybody. These are not all inventive lies spouted through malice or in the hope of bettering one’s position, but also little ones of the type we tell ourselves all the time. The justifications and tales we spin that make our lives bearable.

Nominally a YA a novel The Lie Tree forces the reader analyse the nature of truth. Set in the late 1800s, shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Faith is very much constrained by the time in which she lived. It was an era where appearances were extremely important, especially in the circles in which Faith and her family operate. Every woman in the novel has some hidden truth that she keeps close. This tissuing of secrets and façade builds up into a beguiling whole. Hardinge uses her construction to reveal the absurdity of gender attitudes at the time.

It is also easy to see that whilst contemporary teenagers’ lives are vastly different to Faith’s, some aspects of them are the same. Society is still built on layers of untruths. It would be impossible to function if we continually told the absolute truth. We would have few friends and many enemies. Appearances are still important today and revealing too much can still lead to ostracism. The lies of the modern world are perhaps more subtle, but advertising, media and politics still all rely on portraying elements of the truth. Gender inequality is less obvious than in Victorian times, but nevertheless is still present in society; women still need to lie about their aspirations or risk being judged by all and sundry (or at the very least Mail Online).

In today’s world, social media allows us to project an image of ourselves different to the one seen by those who know us in real life. Which one is real? Probably neither. Everybody has a façade and normally for the best of reasons. This is a powerful message to the target audience of The Lie Tree and Hardinge delivers it with subtle grace, cocooned in an intriguing story.

This is the third Frances Harding novel I’ve read. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all. The Lie Tree doesn’t quite beat the wacky majesty of A Face Like Glass, but it’s vivid setting and range of solid well-wrought characters make it in an excellent read. This is a fine novel well worth picking up by anybody looking for something that deviates a little from the norm.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme. 

Take the Train – ‘After the Crash’ by Michel Bussi

afterthecrashI wasn’t going to review After the Crash. It’s not very good and life’s too short. Then, in my (otherwise wonderful) local Waterstone’s I found it prominently displayed at the front of the shop. It had a card under it that said something like ‘Set to be the must-read thriller of the year.’ This was like red rag to a bull. There is no godly reason why this should be a ‘must-read’. I then remembered that the most read review on Robins Books is my non-complimentary analysis of I am Pilgrim, a novel I’ll never understand why people like.

If I came down with a bad case of diarrhoea, then I might see that After the Crash is an essential book to have by my side, though the paper wouldn’t be anywhere near as porous as the plot.  When the book arrived on my doorstep its premise sounded delicious. A plane has crashed in the French Alps, killing everybody on board. By the time I took the book down to read, the premise was creepily prescient. Life had overtaken art. More disturbing, on top of After the Crash on my to-be-read pile was How to Stay Alive, Matt Haig’s excellent memoir on dealing with depression. Cruel cosmic coincidence.

The opening of After the Crash is chilling. The recent tragedy in France made the description of a plane full of passengers crashing into a mountainside even more evocative. Possibly I should have stopped there. The rescue operation finds a baby girl. There were two babies on board the flight, one from a rich, one poor. Which one survived? The courts have to decide.

We pick up the action eighteen years later. A private investigator was hired to try to determine the true identity of the girl. To find hard evidence, where the court only found the balance of probability. He failed, and now feels the need to kill himself. As he places the gun against his head, he notices something on the newspaper report from the day of the crash, and the puzzle is solved. He puts the gun down, then sets out to tell his employers. Shortly after he is murdered.

That’s a damn intriguing set-up and I was very much looking forward to finding out what happened.

I shouldn’t have bothered. The book moves from intriguing, through improbable, to ridiculous as it progresses. A major problem with After the Crash is that its central device is a memoir written by the private investigator. Whilst it’s convenient that one of the main players in the book wrote out everything in the style of a modern thriller, it isn’t very believable. Another central player, Mark, is handed the book to read. He has the holy grail, the key to finding out everything the investigator knew, in his possession but at no point does he skip to the end to find out what happens. The memoir contains a DNA result that pretty much would give him the answer he’s desperate for. It’s there in bold type, but he never feels the need to flick through and take a look; scared of spoilers I suppose.

The question he wants answered – Have I been sleeping with my sister?

This is a strange state of affairs. It seems to be the contention of the book, that it’s fine to have sex with the girl you grew up with, if it turns out you don’t have the same parents after all. Dude, it’s not OK, and despite what Bussi might have us believe, your grandmother isn’t going to think it is. Neither is the tight-knit community that you both grew up in. This veneer thin level of characterisation is endemic in the book. Characters behave as they need to in order to advance the plot. The rich are portrayed as sociopathic baddies, whilst the hard-working, hard-up socialists, glow like the saints they don’t believe in.

Shallow characters aside, there’s still the kernel of an interesting plot, especially when characters obliquely connected with the investigation start being killed off. As the possibilities pare down though the plot becomes shakier and shakier, until at the point of the final reveal I was left wondering why I bothered at all. The culmination of the book requires too great a suspension of belief. With some of the twists removed, the conclusion could have been satisfying. It’s hard to explain why I felt the novel failed without giving spoilers, but essentially, whilst each step in plot progression follows on logically from the previous one, the overall journey from A – Z makes little sense when looked at as a whole.

It’s possible the whole book is meant to be metaphor for a plane crash. You begin the journey, expectant about what lies ahead. The story takes off, climbing upwards as tension and excitement mounts, then you cruise comfortably towards your destination. Before long  you start looking at your watch, wondering what time you arrive. You start to notice something is wrong, the narrative turns downwards, heading out of control, faster and faster, before smashing into the mountainside, a total wreck. I wish I’d bailed earlier. I carried on to the end in the hope that Bussi could pull the plane back up, but he never does. Bump yourself on to your next book; this is one flight best avoided.

Many Thanks to the team at W&N for sending me a copy of this book

 

 

Rerecord, Not Fade Away – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry AugustJust about everybody I’ve spoken to about this book has loved it. Harry August had been on my to-be-read pile for quite some time and finally clawed his way to the top, when I went on holiday at the beginning of the month. I was very excited at the prospect of reading about his fifteen lives. So much so, I worried that my hyped-up expectations might spoil the book for me. Need I have worried?

Maybe…

The premise and structure of The First Fifteen Lives… are immaculate. The writing is superb. The time-travel aspects work wonderfully well, and are irresistibly mind-bending. This was a book I didn’t want to end, I loved reading every page. Until the end. Then I wished the book hadn’t finished like it had. This is where, I think, heightened expectations played a part. Such was the praise for the book, I expected a seamless perfect whole. The ending jarred. It certainly wasn’t what I envisaged and considering the painstaking construction of the rest of the book, it felt far too convenient. Almost as though the author had no idea how to dismount from the convoluted literary routine she had just performed. Would I have felt like this had I not been told be lots of people that the book was absolutely brilliant? Possibly not.

The premise is simple, yet stacks up to be complicated. Harry August repeats his life, over and over. Groundhog Life, if you will. At the moment of his death, he is reborn back where he started -on the toilet floor of a railway station in the North East of England. After each rebirth, he can remember what came before. The story is then told, in a more or less linear fashion, through Harry’s lives. The first fifteen on them. I say more or less linear, the story does jump backwards and forwards between Harry’s lives. This is a memoir, and Harry tells it in the order he feels best. Even so, the overriding direction of the narrative is from life 1 to life 15.

It turns out Harry is not alone. There are a number of ‘kalachakrans’ in the world; people who are reborn over and over. More uniquely Harry has perfect recall of every moment of every life he spends. So called mnemonics are far less common, even among the incredibly rare kalachakrans. Each of Harry’s lives are essentially parallel universes. Each life is mostly filled with ordinary people, who go about their ordinary lives. Harry’s fellow kalachakrans, however, can find and meet one another, and do so, across multiple existences. That’s where the mind-bending bit comes in. The myriad meetings and messages across lifetimes and timeframes  started to hurt my brain if I thought too long about them.

Towards the end of one of his lives, Harry gets a message from the future. The world is ending. All worlds are ending and the arrival of the apocalypse is growing ever faster. A pretty compelling reason to find out what’s going on.

The layering of plot in this book is excellent. With multiple lives to play with, the novel’s heroes and villains have scope to play the long game. This in turn gives North a broad canvas on which to paint her story. She has afforded herself the opportunity to tell personal stories over a timescale normally reserved for the rise and fall of empires. This allows her to generate great depth of feeling for characters on both sides of the divide. It’s fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like it. On several occasions I had to put the book down to think through what had happened; how the multiple universes might interact. I wanted to work out how what was happening, and, in turn, what might happen. The mark of a great book.

Of course having invested so much brain-power and sheer pleasure into reading the first 350 pages of the book, it was always a risk that the denouement was going to disappoint. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but it whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what North delivered. I think the ending is fitting, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. So, having spent most of the time reading, thinking I would be telling everybody that The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of the best books I’ve ever read, I find myself wanting to say, ‘This is a truly remarkable book, but I wasn’t 100% convinced.’

But then who cares about what I think? – Without a shadow of doubt, you should read this book, take in its glory and decide for yourself.

 

London’s Burning ‘Bryant and May: The Burning Man’ by Christopher Fowler

burningmanI read the first Bryant and May novel, Full Dark House, many years ago. At the time it was the only one. Their second outing, The Water Room, is one of my favourite ever reads. Like all the Bryant and May books, it’s a love letter to London and its curious folklore, blended with a flawlessly plotted mystery. All of the Bryant & May novels are excellent, but The Water Rooms stands at the pinnacle.

The thing about being a book lover, and in particular a book blogger, is that there are simply too many books. There’s always some new floozy walking into the bookshop, turning heads and making us forget series we are wedded to. I’ve read the first five Bryant and May novels, own the next three (which my wife has read, she’s a fan too), but was flabbergasted to discover that three more have been published, whilst my attention was elsewhere.

The Burning Man is the twelfth Bryant and May novel and now, amazingly, there are as many that I haven’t read, as those I have. How did so much time slip by, and how come I stopped reading a series I thoroughly enjoyed? The Victoria Vanishes (No. 6) has been on my to-be-read shelf for a long time, yet is somehow in stasis. Christopher Fowler is not an isolated case. There are several trilogies, where I’ve enjoyed the first two books, but still haven’t read the last volume.

When offered a chance to read this latest Bryant and May instalment, I jumped at it, seizing the opportunity to reconnect with one of my favourite authors. It was like meeting up with old friends. You worry it might be awkward, but before you know it, it’s as though you’ve never been away.

Part of the draw of  Fowler’s books is his apparent encyclopaedic knowledge of London lore. I love London; just wandering about, looking at the curious buildings that stand cheek by jowl. I love the sense of history; not just the big famous bits, but the little pieces too. The lost churches, the old guilds and the hidden rivers. All the stuff Fowler writes so eloquently about. There are a few pretenders to his throne, but Fowler is the undisputed pearly king of London folklore. Marry this with tight plotting, superlative characterisation, and a side order of dry wit, and it’s no wonder we have such a fine series of books.

For Bryant and May’s latest instalment, Fowler has taken two modern-day foes that have centuries of tradition. The banks, deep rooted with the development of the city, and Guy Fawkes, one of London’s greatest folklore anti-heroes, now co-opted by modern anti-establishment movements. The novel is set between Halloween and Bonfire Night, a period of time dripping with folk connotations and import.

The Burning Man opens with London in turmoil. The city’s population has had enough of the rich getting richer. Protests and demonstrations have been sparked by the insider dealings of Dexter Cornell, a man who has broken a bank, yet walked away with millions. The city is a powder keg waiting to ignite. When ‘Break the Banks’ marches spill over into violence, a homeless man is caught in the crossfire; burned alive in a bank foyer. The PCU are called to clean up what is expected to be a routine investigation. As we know, when Bryant and May are involved, nothing is routine.

In their own inimitable style, the ageing sleuths start to tease out a wider plot and when another victim is found twenty-four hours later, it is clear the first death was no accident. Once more Bryant and May are up against a fevered mind working to an unseen timetable. Fighting off the usual scepticism from within the force, the peculiar might of the PCU swings into action.

The twelfth Bryant and May novel is a treat from start to finish. The tidbits of London folklore are entertaining, as is Bryant’s left-wing cynicism. Fowler clearly loves his city, but once again he rails against its inequalities and inequity. He is a powerful interlocutor on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Not everybody will be convinced by the beat of Fowler’s drum but it makes a welcome counterpoint to the right-wing clarion, that London is a centre for business, where we should bow to the bankers and swear fealty to their temple of Mammon. Political leanings aside, the novel contains skulduggery aplenty, with an intelligent and inventive murderer on the loose. Bryant remains as bumbling and enigmatic as ever, whilst piecing together a jigsaw no one else can see.

The Burning Man is a fine crime novel. I enjoyed it from first page to last. I have no idea why I took so long to read another Bryant and May. The best thing about having lost touch is that I now have five more novels to catch up on. Here’s to being a better friend in future.

Many Thanks to Sophie at Transworld for sending me a copy of the book. Don’t miss my Q&A with Christopher from yesterday. 

Burning Questions with Christopher Fowler

 

burningman2Today sees the publication of the new Bryant and May novel by Christopher Fowler. Bryant and May: The Burning Man, has the ageing crimefighting duo up against a serial killer with a ‘break the banks’ agenda. The city of London is in turmoil. Another bank has fallen, and another banker is set to walk away; free to spend his creamed off millions. Demonstrators take to the streets and, in the chaos, a homeless man is killed by a Molotov cocktail. Enter Bryant and May.

If you have never read a Bryant and May novel before, then you have a treat in store. There are eleven preceding novels, including The Water Room, which is one of my all time favourite crime books. Fowler weaves mesmerising tales, filled with folklore and London history. They are fascinating in both content and plot. His latest instalment promises to be an incendiary mystery, invoking the spirit of revolution and Guy Fawkes.

The release of The Burning Man, makes it a glorious dozen for Bryant and May, and to celebrate Christopher Fowler has taken time to answer a few questions.

What book(s) are you reading at the moment?

Thanks to an e-reader I usually have around 4 books on the go at once. At the moment I’m reading Graham Joyce’s ‘The Year Of The Ladybird’, Christopher Priest’s ‘The Adjacent’, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia’, and ‘Vainglory’ by Ronald Firbank, a ‘missing’ novel which has gone straight to e-print.

Which new(ish) writer have you most enjoyed reading recently?

I love Warren Ellis’s forays into crime, and I’ve just discovered Jim Shepard, an amazing US short story writer who should be better known. I’m rather shocked that I’m not reading many new women writers – much of what I choose is from recommendations, and one growing problem is that the gender divide is being courted by publishers so that it’s assumed women only write for women. Thank God, then, for Hilary Mantel, and for crime writers like Val McDermid and Laura Wilson.

‘Desert Island’ films, plays and/or music?

Where to start? Comfort movies like ‘Hair’ and ‘Aliens’ and ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (I explain the reason for that last one in my memoir ‘Paperboy’). I am also the only person in the world who loves Ken Russell’s ‘The Boy Friend’. Plays; Sondheim for wordplay, Charles Wood and Peter Barnes for muscularity of writing, but more recently ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, ‘Mathilda’ and ‘Jerusalem’. Music is insanely eclectic – I have a passion for film soundtracks that borders mental illness, but this morning I was playing Richard Strauss and German jazz funk band De-Phazz. I love minimalists like Michael Nyman and Wim Mertens. And hard house.

A favourite bookshop?

I love my two nearest shops, Foyles in St Pancras and Watermark in King’s Cross. And of course, Forbidden Planet – I’ve been shopping with them since they were just a market stall in Soho’s Berwick Street.

Who or what makes you laugh?

I love very English language-play; Monty Python, Galton & Simpson, Joe Orton, Al Murray, Stewart Lee, Viz, PG Wodehouse, the Ealing Comedies, ‘The Thick Of It’, The Grand Budapest Hotel..

What depresses you most about contemporary Britain?

The gap between rich and poor, which keeps kids uneducated, and the lunacy of television which happily fills children’s heads with unrealistic dreams. People working at TV companies should ask themselves if they’re contributing anything to society instead of shrieking at each other over Soho House drinks. Every era gets the cons it deserves, and our children deserve something better than the Kardashians.

What excites you most about contemporary Britain?

I live in King’s Cross, possible the most polyglot place in the planet, and it’s thrilling just to walk through crowds. I have no truck with the Little England mentality and – from a purely aesthetic point of view – prefer the muezzin’s call to prayer more than church bells on a Sunday. I’ll get punched for saying that.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

Better eyesight and a faster reading speed. I’ve always been a slow reader, and have always suffered from eye-strain. In a way it’s probably what made me a writer – every Friday my mother had to take me to Moorfields Eye Hospital and as a treat we would visit a museum or bookshop afterwards.

The beauty of London, and the Bryant and May novels, is how the old lies side by side with the new. In the ten+ years since Full Dark House, how much has London changed? How has the city in which Bryant and May operate changed since the recession and the government’s introduction of austerity measures? 

I try to be upbeat about the Mayor’s transformation of London into an oligarch moneypit, but sometimes it’s hard. After more cyclists were maimed on London roads last month, the half-hearted new cycle lanes that peter out after a few metres, forcing riders into traffic, feel symptomatic of what happens when government planners step in to change life here. Incredibly, the pace of change seems to be getting even faster. London has always been in flux, but change was largely driven from within. Now it is due to international market forces. Mercifully, the city no longer makes its money from children working in factories, dying of mercuric poisoning so toxic that their skeletons turned green. Now it’s the impossible-to-comprehend world of money-moving. It seems to me that the result of being driven by outside money movement is that it’s now hard to tell why anything at all happens here. Why does a presumably listed building vanish? Why are services suddenly withdrawn? Why are trees removed and emissions limits not met? Is it simply all down to chance now? For a city so well-connected, hard information is scarce. We are now at the mercy of random forces. We can only grab London’s coattails now and hang on.

****

I have just finished The Burning Man, and to borrow from a trend popular in the world of cinema, the answer to that final question is something of a teaser trailer. It’s highly illuminating in retrospect. Many thanks to Christopher for taking time to answer those questions for me, and thank you to you for reading.

Bryant and May: the Burning Man is out today (26th March), and my full review will be available from tomorrow.

 

A Change in Emphasis

emphasisI’ve been reviewing for over 7 years now. A figure which I find a little scary. First it was only on Amazon, but since 2012, it’s been here on my blog. I suppose I do it for brain exercise. As a stay at home dad cerebral challenges can be hard to come by. Writing reviews means I have to think that little bit more deeply about what I’m reading, and then try to come up with an interesting and entertaining way to convey my thoughts to you the reader. Having done it for so long it’s clear that I enjoy it, so much so that this year I decided to take things a little further by joining the team at GeekDad.

This is a smallish commitment, but it has had a knock on effect on how much time I have to write for my own blog. More unexpectedly it’s altered the way I feel about what I post here. In days gone by, I saw it as slavish chronicle of things I’d read. The occasional book did go by unreviewed, but by and large if I read it, I wrote what I thought about it – whether it were good, bad or mediocre. It may be coincidence, but since joining GeekDad, I’ve had no wish to write about books I’ve read that I found average. By not writing about them in depth, I have more reading time and more time to find the next book to rave about. It will also free up time to write some non-book related posts of GeekDad, starting with this post about in-app purchases.

This will inevitably cause a shift in emphasis in the blog, from books I’ve read to books that provoked a strong reaction. Most reviews will be positive, (which they already are) but I still want to leave the occasional post for books I’ve hated; they’re the most fun reviews to write. I suspect, I may do the odd mediocre wash-up post, just so the world knows, I am still reading…

elizabethThe three books I read recently that didn’t do anything for me were, The Invisible Library, The A-Z of Me and You, and more surprisingly, 2014 Costa prize winner Elizabeth is Missing. A debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing is brilliantly written. The sense of confusion and fear generated by the slide into dementia is portrayed almost perfectly. It makes heart-rending read, depicting the plight of both victims and their loved ones. The examination of the cruel work of Alzheimer’s is deeply affecting. Despite this, I found its central story slight, with some of the novel’s events being too convenient. The mystery at the novel’s heart, isn’t that mysterious. The whole time I was thinking, ‘this is impressive but there’s something missing’.

The Invisible Library, is a steampunk novel, with a labyrinthine multi-dimensional library at its heart. Similar in premise to books I love, such as The Grimm Legacy, and Libriomainvisible librarncer, it is but a shadow of both. The problem I think is that world feels neither real nor fantastic enough. It comes across as a facsimile of too many other similar books. There is no sense we are in a reimagined world, nor in the real world with fantasy elements. It seemed to hover between both, like Schrodinger’s cat. Most of this is down to terrible dialogue. Everybody talks in the same way, rarely sounding like their character should. I kept losing track of who was who. There was no distinctive voice, making the whole book feel beige. This was a shame, as there were some really nice bits in there. I kept waiting for it to burst into life, but I was disappointed.

a-zThe A-Z of You and Me, is a cynical a tear-jerker as you’ll ever read. It fits neatly into the mould of current popular books, having a terminally ill narrator (like The Fault in Our Stars) and a clever story telling gimmick, in this case the central character’s life story told through body parts A to Z. Perhaps I have been reading too many of these books, leaving me jaded but I found this lacked the wit and emotional resonance of Fault in Our Starts or The Universe Versus Alex WoodsIt’s well written, but I think overly gloomy, with just about everybody in the central character’s life having died.

It states in the blurb, the story about making the the wrong choices, but this isn’t strictly true. It’s more about not making any choices. Ploughing on down the same rotten path regardless. This is a pretty accurate depiction of the way many people lead their lives. The novel is by no means all bad, I just struggled to find empathy with many of the lead characters. The author is quoted in the blurb as being a Beckettian scholar, which may explain my apathy. I don’t know enough about Beckett to know if the writing structure played homage. I feel like the ending probably did, but as my only encounter with Beckett was a fifteen year old, being flummoxed by Godot, I’m not in any position to comment.

So, three books that felt flat as I enter a new period of blogging excitement. Later this week, I have a rare Q&A with author Christopher Fowler (rare for me to take part in blog tours, rather than an reclusive author exclusive!),  followed by a review of his latest book on Friday. This marks a long overdue return to one of my favourite crime series, ‘Bryant and May’. It was like catching up with old friends.

Thanks to the folks at Macmillan and Transworld for sending me the books I’ve grumbled in this post.