‘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.  

 

 

Spreading the Word – ‘The Tongues of Men or Angels’ by Jonathan Trigell

menorangelsJonathan Trigell’s Genus is one of my favourite dystopian novels. It’s a first class meditation on genetic modification and a lens on current-day attitudes towards those with lower social mobility. It is in every way a dystopian novel built in honour of George Orwell. It is also a prose masterclass. Not a single word is misplaced, you can almost feel the effort made to form each perfect sentence.

On the face of it, The Tongues of Men or Angels has nothing in common with Genus. Trigell’s latest offering looks backwards, two thousand years, to the time of the crucifixion. Though the two novels are very different, Tongues of Men does have one very important thing in common with Genus. The quality of the writer’s craft.

The Tongues of Men or Angels has a very definite style and tone. One that befits the weight of its subject matter and the history behind the story. Again, the words feel like they were wrestled onto the page; honed into obedience by a wordsmith at his forge. It does make for a slightly detached unemotional read. We feel like we are watching from on high. Perhaps this is due to the events depicted, some of the most important in world history.

I’m not sure what motivated Jonathan Trigell’s to retell this story. Perhaps he needed nothing more than the fact he is a storyteller. What better tale to re-examine, than the greatest story ever told. A story that has endured two millennia, has given much comfort and caused untold strife; has made and broken nations. A story that has inspired millions of people and outraged almost as many.

The structure of this novel is all over the place. Timeline and point of view jump about, though the journey of Yeshua towards his execution continues only forwards. Much of the novel follows Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the apostle. His life is laid out in full, through Paul directly recounting his story, and through flashback to his early years. Other pivotal moments in Judeo-Christian history also appear (such as the denial of Christ by Peter).

I imagine to glean the most from this book, you would probably need to be a biblical scholar. I expect being an atheist scholar would probably help too. Whilst Trigell remains entirely respectful to his source material, you don’t have to look hard to notice there is an absence of divinity in the novel. It’s not overt, but it’s there. I imagine a believer would find this hard to swallow, whilst finding it hard to find fault with what Trigell has done. He reinterprets many events and significant moments from biblical lore, giving them a more rational slant.

I’m an atheist, but I’m fascinated by the stories recounted in the Bible. They are after all simply another mythology. I am particularly intrigued by the evolution of those myths. Since finishing the book, I have read around the subject a little, and it seems Trigell has been exceptionally faithful to the source material and its current interpretations. What dispassionate history doesn’t tell us, of course, is motive. This is what Trigell adds. Jerusalem at that time was a melting point of ideas and religious argument. Given this context, Trigell builds up a picture of how, in the absence of divinity, the stories may have evolved.

This is a difficult novel to enjoy. It is rather dry in places and it’s staccato structure can be a distraction. It is, however, a humorous novel; one that is gently irreverent. I am sure I missed many of the novel’s subtleties, and it would definitely bear repeated readings, especially after further research into its subject matter. This is not a novel one sits down to read for pleasure; it’s a philosophical journey that requires concentration.  It’s a book that prompts you to ask questions about the stories that form the backbone of modern western society. Ask, why is the church like it is? It doesn’t give many answers, merely suggestions. Suggestions many will disagree with.

The Tongues of Men or Angels is a work of serious literary merit. It’s wonderfully crafted and forces us to ask questions about things we take for granted. I learned a lot from this book, though it is important to keep in mind it is as fictional as any other, better selling, accounts of the tale. This book prompts us to question the manner in which history and religion are reported. How it’s easy to work the divine into anything, if you look hard enough. This is the second Trigell book I’ve read, I wonder what he has in store for us next? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be well-crafted and deeply thought provoking.

Many Thanks to Jonathan and Corsair Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

The Shock of The Fly – ‘The Mirror World of Melody Black’ by Gavin Extence

melody blackGavin Extence first novel The Universe vs Alex Woods, is one of my all-time favourites. It struck a deep personal chord, which made it particularly powerful for me; it’s warmth and compassion are remarkable. It features a slightly disconnected kid finding wonder in classic science fiction, and what’s not to like about that?

When I heard a new Extence novel was on the way, it immediately went to the top of my 2015 must-read list. As ever, I was filled with trepidation about returning to a much loved author (I should probably have an auto-tally on the blog of how many times I’ve said that). Certainly, I did not expect to be as blown away by this book; there was no way it could resonate with me like Alex Woods had. I was right not to. Melody Black is a good novel, but it is not a great one.

Extence’s prose is wonderful. I love reading his descriptions. They’re off-beat, often funny and always beautifully observed. Reading his books are the literary equivalent of slipping into a hot bath; deliciously comfortable and wonderful to wallow in.

In my recent review of Alice and the FlyI mention that its tone is similar to Alex Woods. Well here the content and themes are similar to Alice. Not only that, there is overlap with another novel that details mental illness, 2013 Costa Winner The Shock of the Fall. All are well observed, have quirky narrators, and deal with depression and mental illness in sensitive and deft fashion. Unfortunately, with so much overlap, it’s unsurprising that when reading Melody Black I felt like I’d heard it all before.

The Mirror World of Melody Black follows freelance journalist Abby Williams after she discovers the body of her neighbour. Simon died alone in a chair, in front of the TV. We immediately know Abby is unusual because the first thing she does is smoke a cigarette in the dead man’s kitchen. Whilst Abby appears initially unperturbed, the lack of connection between herself and the man who lived opposite her triggers a nagging anxiety. Events spiral and before long Abby is riding a juggernaut of self-destruction.

To say much more would spoil the stacking of Extence’s deck. Abby is just one of a host of likeable characters, and as I said Extence’s powers of observation are accurate and amusing. I enjoyed Melody Black. It’s easy to read whilst dealing with important themes. Extence has a light touch that belies the weighty subject matter. This is made all the more sharp by a candid and poignant afterword by the author. There’s nothing particularly new in The Mirror World of Melody Black and it never reaches the heights of The Universe Vs Alex Woods, but then very little does. It is however, funny, moving and uplifting, keeping Gavin Extence at the pinnacle of my must-read authors.

Many thanks to the team at Hodder and Stoughton for sending me a copy of this book. 

All Things Dull and Beautiful – ‘The Signature of All Things’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

signatureI don’t ever remember reading a book that enthralled me so much, whilst at the same time being so rambling and limp. The Signature of All Things on one level isn’t my thing at all. Set in the 19th Century, it’s a story about one woman and her peculiar take on the world. It’s about society and a woman’s place being constricted by the social mores of the time. On another level the book is exactly my sort of thing; history of science blended with questions about the existence of God. I suppose that’s why I had two such conflicting reactions to the book.

Alma Whittaker is the only child of a rich American landowner, the irascible Henry Whittaker and his wife, Beatrix. Both have brilliant minds. Beatrix is of Dutch puritan descent, and has a rigorous logical approach to life and learning. She raises her daughter in her own image.  Alma grows up isolated, with little companionship her own age, pressed into learning almost every waking moment. Her dinner table conversations are scientific discourse and logical rigour. Alma is highly intelligent and focussed, yet completely unprepared for anything remotely resembling real life.

I very much enjoyed the opening of the book, which begins before the birth of Alma, charting the rise of her father. Born to a master orchardman, ‘The Apple Magus’, Henry Whittaker grew up sleeping on a mud floor. Being gifted horticultural expertise from his father, Henry is able to make himself useful around Kew gardens, where his father works. Henry is also able to make a small fortune, illegally selling samples and cuttings from the garden. Samples jealously guarded by Kew’s curator Sir Joseph Banks. Discovery leaves Henry with very few choices, and so it is he finds himself on board ship with Captain Cook, where he becomes the expedition’s horticultural expert.

Henry Whittaker is the first of several strong characters in the book. The opening half of the novel that deals with his life as explorer, landowner and family man of sorts, are excellent. Most of his life we see through the eyes of Alma, who is another fine creation. Gilbert captures her with a beautiful blend of strength and fragility. She is a woman out of time. She has so much more than many of her contemporaries yet lacks the things she desperately desires.

In the second half of the book, Alma starts to move out from the shadow of her father, and explore where her own life faltered. I found the third quarter of the book very hard going. Boring even. There seemed to be much navel gazing and repetition; much of the plot and themes seemed derivative, unlike the first half. I continued on, but had this not been a book group choice, I may have abandoned it, so fed up I became with treading water.

I’ve since discussed the novel with my book group, and I was pretty much the only person to have such issues with this segment, although it was generally agreed it is the weakest. There is some strong evocative writing, but it didn’t really seem to have much justification. Having completed the book, I have a strong feeling that, had I skipped the third quarter, I wouldn’t have missed much and the book would still largely have made sense. It’s probably no coincidence that the middle of the novel contains its spiritual heart. As one might expect from the author of Eat, Pray, Love (which I haven’t read), The Signature of All Things has a strong spiritual element. It’s with these elements I had the most difficulty.

The novel is drawn between three points. Science, the strict religious outlook of the time and an amorphous all encompassing idea of a spiritual connection. Boil this triangle down to a singularity, I suppose you would find yourself left with faith. Faith in God, faith in science or the faith that things work out according to some cosmic order. The problem for me is buying into that cosmic order. Whilst reading the novel, it didn’t work for me; it felt like a silly device to keep things ticking over. I found it difficult to maintain interest in a novel so deeply immersed in the fanciful. After finishing, I realised that perhaps the spiritual side amounted to little more than wishful thinking on the part of its players. They weren’t listening to some great cosmic spirit, but instead acting on their secret, unexpressed, internal wishes. This interpretation makes the whole novel more palatable, but I only made it after completing the book. When reading I didn’t care for these sections at all.

So having been bitterly disappointed, feeling let down after such a promising beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by the culmination of the book. If the Signature of All Things is a ‘quest’ novel, it is a quest for self. Now late on in years, looking back, Alma can evaluate her life, and decide whether it is a success. She spent years studying the mosses on her estate. A slow painstaking process, that mirrors Alma’s own evolution. Her comprehensive study of an ecosystem in miniature leads her to some challenging (for the time) conclusions about the origins of species, and the book returns to its scientific roots. Here the novel dovetails well with the scientific period it is written.

On finishing the book, I was left satisfied. There was much in I enjoyed. The science and scientists of the time are brilliantly brought to life. Gilbert writes fully about her chosen subject, but does so whilst keeping it interesting. The novel’s strong and interesting characters make it a worthwhile read. There were elements I didn’t like, but overall, I am glad I persevered to the end. The Signature of All Things was a good choice for a book group, with lots of facets worthy of discussion. Imperfect books often to give rise to the best conversations.