I Fought the Lore – ‘Romeo Spikes’ by Joanne Reay

This review was written in October 2011, and appears on amazon.co.uk

I was unsure whether to chance reading ‘Romeo Spikes’ . The modern fantasy setting, and mention of life after death in the blurb, had me worried it might be an insipid emo ‘True Blood’ clone. The Tattoo on the front cover and the fact that this is the first book in the “Lo’ Life” trilogy did little to allay my fears. But for whatever reason, I decided it was worth a punt, and I am so glad I did. ‘Romeo Spikes’ is not only the finest modern fantasy novel I’ve read, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter. From start to finish Reay’s prose is filled with verve and crackles with wit. The plot is pulsating and every chapter is stuffed full of ideas. There is ancient lore, multi-lingual wordplay, not to mention some awesome fight scenes, and top class characterisation.

The basic premise, is that demons live amongst us. One set called the Tormenta, can only increase their life-span by drinking the unused span of people who have committed suicide. So, your average Tormenta can be found honey-trapping a gullible geek, or whipping up self-loathing at the front of an emo band. Reay has great fun in suggesting modern day roles for her tormenting creations. Set against them are the Sinestra – Angels, whose primary responsibility is to seek out the Tormenta and destroy them. Throughout history the two factions have tussled and every now and then a champion for each side is born. When the Mosca rises for the Tormenta, the Sinistra’s Moera will follow. We join the action just before the new champions are to be revealed.

The cast of ‘Romeo Spikes’ is large, which does sometimes get confusing, and there are many factions, and factions within factions to muddy the waters. It’s never quite clear who the good guys are , and even then, the good guys are often far from holy. ‘Romeo Spikes’ is the best book to feature Judas Iscariot you’ll read this year! If the novel has one fault, it’s that the wealth of ideas does threaten, at times, to overwhelm the reader. I’m not sure quite so much esoterica and asides were necessary, but nevertheless ‘Romeo Spikes’ always makes for riveting reading. The novel does stand alone, but the final chapters also add a huge ‘What happens next?’ to tantalise for book two.

It’s is quite hard to convey just how much I enjoyed reading this novel. If you have half an inclination to do so, then I can whole-heartedly suggest that you do. In trying to do some research on the book before writing this review, I discovered that the publisher, Beautiful Books, has gone into receivership. I do hope that Joanne Reay can find a publisher prepared to pick up volumes two and three.

Obsession is Passion That Gets Stuck – ‘Signs of Life’ by Anna Raverat

Picador’s tagline writers are certainly earning their money this month. ‘Signs of Life’ is, according to the top of my review copy, ‘One of 2012’s most hotly anticipated debut novels.’ Who is doing this anticipating, I’m not sure; until ‘Signs of Life’ appeared on my Amazon Vine selection for this month, I’d never heard of it. I’ve since realised it’s on the Waterstones 11 pick for 2012, so this is clearly a book that the industry believes in. And with good reason. For much like Picador’s ‘most controversial novel I’ll read this year’ – ‘Hope: A tragedy’, ‘Signs of Life’ is a very fine piece of fiction.

At its centre is a most unreliable narrator, who is writing ten years after the end of a catastrophic affair. The novel opens with the bald statement that ‘this is not a confession’. Instead it’s a history; a history with holes. A history that has been rewritten and reorganised to make the tale more palatable. Not to the reader, but to its narrator. We all self-edit. Special events in our lives probably did not glow in the way that we remember. The mistakes we made had mitigating circumstances. The mistakes of others were not our fault. This fragmented narrative shows remarkable perception about how the human mind can polish its memories.

Having experienced some of what Anna Raverat is writing about (i.e. there was a period of time when I was a Grade-A bastard), I found Rachel’s story particularly poignant. Her selfishness, denial and  naive self-justification, are all magnificently captured. But if this novel was just Rachel carping on about her tempestuous affair, and whining about how she couldn’t help it, this would not be a good book. Holding up the body of this novel is a backbone of steel. Hints of dark events creep into Rachel’s story, and through them the reader gains some idea what might have happened, but until the final pages the truth remains tantalising and elusive. When it arrives, it’s like an adrenalin shot to the heart. The final pages are grimly fascinating, and unputdownable.

‘Signs of Life’ is a triumph. Despite it’s fragmented structure and haphazard sequencing (the story’s timeline meanders all over the place), Raverat squeezes out an amazing amount of tension into the last few pages. A meditation on the darker side of love, that packs a punch, this is a fine novel. If I wasn’t hotly anticipating this debut, I shall be certainly be very interested to see how Raverat follows it up. An author to watch.

A Fist Full of Nothing? – ‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt

It can be hard reading (and then reviewing) a highly acclaimed book, particularly if you find your own opinion of it contrary to everybody else’s. I had wanted to read ‘The Sisters Brothers’ since before it was longlisted for the Booker prize; its subsequent acclaim had me anticipating something special. Whilst in no way a bad book, I found ‘TSB’ to be a pedestrian tale. A tale well told, but one that failed to deliver on its promise.

The novel is narrated by Eli Sisters, one half of the notorious Sisters Brothers, murderous enforcers for an unseen crime baron called ‘The Commodore’. Eli and Charlie are travelling to California, to track down Herman Warm. Warm has irritated their employer, and Eli and Charlie have been dispatched to ensure he doesn’t do it again.

The period and setting are well constructed. deWitt conveys the openness of the wild west well, but what really stands out is the sense of lawlessness. Unlike most depictions of the Gold Rush era deWitt’s contains no glamour; it is survival of the fittest. The strongest takes what it wants from the weak, and the weak die. The motto of almost everybody in the book is ‘Get rich or die tryin’.

The novel’s characters, particularly Eli, are well drawn. Charlie is a ruthless killer, Eli is on the surface a brute; violent and quick to anger, but he has another side. Eli is a dangerous man, but he is also a thinker, and he does not like what he has become. The novel explores his inner turmoil as he tries to transcend his circumstances and lead a better life. Although the style, settings and characters are entirely different, I found ‘TSB’ curiously reminiscent of ‘Great Expectations’.

The story essentially follows Eli’s pitiful attempts to change. Gauche and naive, each of his attempts to appear ‘normal’ end in acutely embarrassing failure. Whilst this was interesting to begin with, over the course of the novel it failed to sustain my attention. The idea that bad men are capable of good is hardly a new one, and Eli’s tribulations don’t really add much to the discussion.

The novel is a series of set pieces; situations in which Eli can fail in his attempts to straighten out. By the end to the novel it feels all too artificial. And that for me is the big problem – despite a well-drawn setting, the story never feels real. Everything, including the title,all feels contrived. They’re brothers, but they’re also sisters – girls, who are cowboys – clever heh? For some reason the more I read, the more the book’s title annoyed me.  I can envisage a parody of this novel, with two taproom tarts called the Brothers sisters.   That wouldn’t be funny either.

The novel has a moving and fitting epilogue, about which I won’t say any more, lest I spoil it, but overall, I found the book’s culmination absurd. Characters behave against type, and so I stopped caring what happened to them. Many, many other people have really enjoyed this book, but I am unable understand why. For me this was a novel filled with potential that was never realised; I’d hoped for gold but came away empty handed.

Devils and Dust – Black Arts by Prentice and Weil

‘Black Arts’ is a fast-paced, young adult fantasy, that entertains throughout. Set in London in 1592, the novel opens with Jack about to undergo his initiation into a gang of street thieves. The leader of the gang is the menacing and mendacious Sharkwell, an Elizabethan Fagin. As part of his first job, Jack picks the pocket of a mysterious foreigner, and in the process hooks more than he bargained for.

As as result of his actions Jack finds himself an orphan, and the enemy of the powerful preacher Nicholas Webb. He also has a stained red hand, and an infected eye. An eye that can see a second London; a layer that sits beneath his own, that no one else can see. A London that is the domain of devils. Sharkwell expressly forbids Jack from pursuing his vendetta against Webb, but of course if he listened ‘Black Arts’ would be a very short novel…

Prentice and Weil have a strong sense of setting and character. The foetid side of Elizabethan England is evocatively described, as is the superstition and paranoia of the era. There is also a fine sprinkling of London folklore, that gives the novel some extra depth. The characters are well-drawn and believable, with a crew of plucky heroes and dastardly villains that will have you cheering and booing as you read. The storyline is slight, but there is enough ambiguity in it to keep you guessing as to the outcome right to the very end. It is, in essence, an old-fashioned good v evil caper, that delivers excitement and entertainment from start to finish. The novel is complete in itself, but there are plenty of opportunities for further books in the series. Books, which on the strength of this one, I’d be more than happy to read.

Solid Gold Sequel – Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

I enjoyed Ben Aaronovitch’s début Rivers of London (Rivers of London 1), but found it compared unfavourably to a couple of other similar titles (most notably Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series). Moon over Soho, is an assured follow up, that delights throughout. Perhaps Bryant and May finally have a match?

In this instalment, trainee wizard DC Grant is investiating the sudden deaths of several Jazz musicians. They appear to be dying from natural causes, but Grant has reason to suspect otherwise. When another brutal (and rather peculiar) murder takes place in the Groucho Club, Grant is called into determine whether the murder has any supernatural elements. Soon he is looking for two killers, both who use magic, but are they connected?

The reason ‘MoS’ works where ‘RoL’ didn’t, is the subject matter. The folklore elements of ‘RoL’ felt shoe-horned in to fit the story, and reference to them often felt forced. Moon over Soho, draws inspiration from the London Jazz scene, Aaronovitch clearly has a passion for it. It might just be because it’s a subject I know nothing about, and so therefore more easily enthralled by the author’s prose, but I found the storytelling to be seamless. Like its predecessor this is a book that is very easy to read, with some great turns of phrase, and observations. I’m not sure the first-person narrative always works, Grant seems to be too reliable a narrator to me, but this is a very minor quibble.

In ‘Rivers of London’ the magic impinged too much on the real-world. It wasn’t plausible that the rest of London wasn’t in on its existence. Here everything is kept much tighter. The use of magic is more subtle, making for a far more believable and satisfying read. Aaronovitch is clearly more sure of his creation, and Grant’s character develops as he begins to investigate the mechanics behind his powers. The author teases and hints what these might be, but never reveals too much, keeping the reader hanging on for more. Similarly, shadowy forces are abroad in the streets of London, and the novel is left wide open for the soon to be published third instalment. A third instalment I am very much looking forward to reading.

I’ve gone out the window – Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

How do you react when a book touts itself as ‘The Most Controversial Book of the Year’?  With some scepticism seems wise; publishers will say anything in order sell a book.  I’m sure Picador would love it to be true, a bit healthy debate in the media does wonders for book sales.  Exaggerated though the claims may be, I hope they work.

‘Hope: A Tragedy’ is a fresh, funny and thought-provoking novel that deserves a wide readership.  Certainly this is a book that will offend some people; probably those who haven’t read it.  It’s that sort of book.  It deals with the Holocaust and survivor guilt, and has lots of counter-intuitive things to say.  Counter intuitive, but on reflection, remarkably perceptive.

Sol Kugel is a standard neurotic Jewish narrator, the sort that graces many a Woody Allen film (see also Evan Mandery’s excellent Q: A Love Story).  Sol is obsessed with death and in particular his last words – he wants to make sure they’re meaningful.  He lives with his family, in a house he hates, worrying it might be the death of him.  His mother lives with them, having been given two weeks to live. Six months ago.  If that wasn’t enough, as the novel opens, he discovers an ageing Anne Frank in his attic; she claims to have been there for forty years.

This is a book about survivor guilt and the effect of the Holocaust on American Jewish society.  It’s a novel about the first world’s obsession with tragedy; the more tragic something is, the happier it makes us.  The living embodiment of this is Sol’s mother, a woman who claims to have survived Auschwitz, despite being born in Brooklyn in 1946.  The more she suffers, and the more she can tell people she has suffered the happier she is. This is a book that asks whether we should try so hard to remember atrocities, because doesn’t that make it impossible to forgive, and to move on?  This is a book that questions the wisdom of optimism.

There are number of intriguing characters, who though not terribly interesting in themselves have some very interesting things to say.  There is Pinkus, Sol’s brother-in-law, an evolutionary biologist (a thinly veiled Steven Pinker) who expounds that there has never been a better time to be alive; humans are nicer to one another now than at any time in history.   Sol’s psychiatrist, who thinks that optimism is a curse, citing Hitler as an optimist, because he thought he could make the world a better place.   Then there is Anne Frank, hoping to write another book.   She’s a writer, who’s sold 32 million copies.  She must have talent, right?

As you might expect ‘Hope: A Tragedy’ is filled with black humour and laced with irony.  Beneath its irreverent exterior is a core of intelligent observation, and razor sharp insight.  I imagine that some will find that Auslander’s style grates, and there will be those few who misunderstand what he is trying to say.  ‘Hope’ is bound to polarise opinion.  In a world beset by tragedy and embroiled in endless repercussions, this is a novel that has a lot to say, and most of it worth listening to.  Highly recommended.

Everything is Broken Or ‘The Hunger Games’ for Grown Ups – Pure by Julianna Baggott

Dystopian fiction is rarely a barrel of laughs, but ‘Pure’ is probably just about the darkest, bleakest speculation on humanity’s downfall I have read. This is a distressing book in so many ways, not least because the cruelty displayed by some of its characters is all too plausible. It rivals 1984 in its bleak analysis of the human condition.

‘Pure’ is set after the ‘detonations’, a cataclysmic chemical and nuclear fire-bombing of the entire planet (we assume). The fortunate ones were sheltered in an impervious dome, the rest were left to fend for themselves with the promise that ‘We will one day emerge from the Dome to join you in peace’ there is a heavy suggestion that those inside are God’s chosen few.

The story begins a decade or so after the detonations, and follows Pressia and Partridge Wilux (who rivals Ender Wiggin for a ‘most ridiculous protagonist name’ award). Pressia lives outside the Dome in a ruined city with areas such as the Meltlands and the Deadlands. Partridge lives safe inside. Pressia lives with her grandfather, eking out a hand to mouth existence, bartering and trading favours to survive. Partridge is the son of the Dome’s designer. All children in the dome are subjected to genetic recoding; enhancements to make them more useful to the rarefied society in which they life. Rather inevitably, Partridge is unhappy with his lot, and devises a way to escape.

The power of ‘Pure’ is derived from Baggott’s evocative descriptions of the world outside of the Dome. Everything is broken; nothing works as it should. Almost nothing can be grown, the ground is so contaminated. The inhabitants themselves are broken, both mentally and physically. Such was the power of the weapons used in the detonations that survivors found themselves fused to inanimate objects. Pressia has a dolls head fused to her hand; a hated reminder of a lost time. Throughout the book, treasured pets and loved ones have become attached to the wretches in the city outside the dome; the love/hate dichotomy this creates makes for some powerful writing. It is a highly original and discomfiting device.

It is not giving away much of the book to say that Pressia and Partridge meet. After initial mistrust, they discover they have more in common than they have any right to expect (this does stretch the novels credibility at times). Together with an intriguing, compelling and more than a little disturbing ensemble cast, they attempt to explore their shattered pasts, in the vague hope of understanding their parlous present.

There are similarities between ‘Pure’ and Suzanne Collins’ highly entertaining ‘Hunger Games’ series, but where Collins books are about a plucky individual sticking it to the man, Baggott’s novel is a much more subtle examination of the disintegration of society; the world that she has created is credible throughout. Broken bodies, broken bones, broken hands on broken ploughs, broken treaties, broken vows and people bending broken rules; it’s all here. Everything is broken. Baggott weaves a terrific tale in the aftermath of destruction. ‘Pure’ is ‘The Hunger Games’ for grown ups

Though its pace is sometimes a little slow, ‘Pure’ is a highly absorbing novel. It is also the first in a proposed trilogy, something that only became apparent to me, as I approached the novel’s end, and realised there was no way it could all be wrapped up. The novel’s finale is open, and as hard-hitting and emotional as the rest of the book. It also proves that Baggott can make unflinching decisions about the fate of her characters. ‘Pure’ is a fine novel and a must for all lovers of dystopian fiction. I look forward to the arrival of part two.