All Aboard the Skylark – ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan

Due to a small family emergency, it’s been over a week since I finished ‘The Lifeboat’.  It speaks volumes that as I try to write my review, I’m struggling to remember much about it.  The premise is simple; this is a survivor’s tale.  A survivor of a transatlantic shipping accident.  Grace escaped in an overcrowded lifeboat.  From the outset, we know her husband is dead and that she is on trial for murder.  The novel opens with her presenting the account she wrote for the lawyers defending her case.

‘The Lifeboat’ starts promisingly enough.  Grace details her fellow evacuees, and the terror of being adrift in the ocean.  There are hard decisions to be made about who can be let in to the boat.  It’s already overcrowded, there is no room for any extras, even a stranded child.  The narrative quickly centres around ‘Hardie’, an employee of the shipping company, and the only person with any real sailing experience.  He organises the survivors and works out bailing rotas and the rationing of supplies.  He is rough and taciturn, with no time for the foolishness he perceives in others.  He is their saviour, but many of the boats occupants do not like him.

So, the scene is set.  Tempers will fray, someone (maybe more) will die, Grace will survive, but what will happen in the meantime?  At first I found Rogan’s story convincing.  She assembles a varied and interesting group of characters.  Grace is a spoiled rich girl fallen on hard times, who thanks to her determination has married a rich man. A man she left on a sinking ship.  She loved him, yes, but also she wonders, what will happen to his money?  As food and drinking water become scarce, motives and intentions are picked over, and weaknesses exploited.  Alliances are made and broken.  The other passengers wonder how Grace ended up on the ship, did her husband buy her passage? Was it at the expense of other passengers?  Why does Hardie want to avoid the other lifeboats they see floating on the waves?  Is doing so their best chance of survival or does he have more sinister motives?

As the sea becomes rougher, and the boat starts to take in water, there are many reasons why any number of the survivors should not make the cut.  How will it be resolved?  The opening half of this novel is taut and exciting, before reaching a crescendo, but then for me it all goes wrong.  The narrative switches from being Grace’s account of the voyage, to her time in court, and with her psychiatrist. Who survived from the boat and who didn’t is laid out plainly, and the survivor politics forgotten.  Instead the novel becomes about the treatment of women in Edwardian society.  The shift is a peculiar one.  Although gender was definitely an issue in the lifeboat, the narrative was driven by human interaction.  Once Grace is in the legal system, the novel’s humanity ebbs, and the suspense drains away.

Outside of their predicament Rogan’s characters suddenly feel two-dimensional; copied and pasted from Period Fiction 101. The emotional power of the book leaches out, and it limps along to a reasonable but unremarkable conclusion. The power to be found in ‘The Lifeboat’ was derived from the claustrophobia of the boat and without it, there is little tension.  I am struggling to remember what happened at the end of the novel, or why I might have cared.  ‘The Lifeboat’ is never a bad book, but it fails to live up to its promise.  For me, the switch from survivor crisis to courtroom drama didn’t work.  This is Rogan’s first novel and she is writer with some great novels ahead of her.  Sadly this isn’t one of them.

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Palace of Dreams – ‘The Killing Moon’ by N.K. Jemisin

Since joining Twitter and starting this blog, the way I hear about books has changed.  I used to religiously read newspaper book sections, browse my local bookshop, or follow an endless trail of Amazon recommends.  Now, good books create a storm on Twitter, and I follow an increasing number of blogs by fellow reviewers.  One review by Justin at Staffer’s Book Review was for ‘The Killing Moon’, and frankly, it was so glowing, I couldn’t pass up the chance to read it too.  After a shaky start, it turns out that Justin was right; this is a remarkable piece of fantasy fiction.

For the first hundred pages I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.  Much is made in fantasy circles about Jemisin’s desire to break from traditional fantasy conventions, most notably moving away from a setting based on medieval Europe.  For ‘The Killing Moon’ the basis for the setting is, apparently, ancient Egypt.  I didn’t particularly pick up on the Egyptian references, but definitely felt a middle eastern flavour through the novel’s descriptions of art, culture and religion.  Whether it was because the setting took me out of my comfort zone (there’s a reason most fantasy is set where it is; because the readers like it), or because Jemisin tried to accomplish too much too quickly, I’m not sure, but I found the opening chapters stilted and hard to follow.

The magic and religion of ‘The Killing Moon’ are innovative, being based on dreams.  The novel follows (in part) a pair of ‘Gatherers’ who can enter people’s dreams and draw out their life-force, sending them happily into the next world.  To be gathered is considered a religious honour in the nation of Gujaareh, but an abomination by neighbouring Kisua.  The Gatherers are one of the four religious disciplines that form the backbone of Gujaareh society, and have a strict code of honour regarding worship of the ‘Goddess’.  Alongside the church, Gujaareh is ruled by a Prince; who in the tradition of a many middle-eastern rulers, has hundreds of wives and murdered all his relatives on the way to the throne.

‘The Killing Moon’ has many concepts and locations that are similar to one another, either in character or name.  During the opening hundred pages I must have consulted the glossary – twenty or thirty times.  This made for a frustrating and broken read, preventing me from following what was going on.  It was almost too much, but I persevered and I am glad that I did.  I often find with novels, that effort put in up front pays dividends in the later stages.  My hard-earned understanding of the world Jemisin had created, meant her story’s conclusion delivered a greater emotional pay off.

Again eschewing many of the tropes of the genre, the loyalties of Jemisin’s characters are multifaceted and display varying shades of grey.  Good and evil are malleable concepts, in a way that extends far beyond most fantasy novels.  The story is complex, a tale of religious and political conflict, and its subtleties manifold. Overall it’s a rich and enjoyable tale.

‘The Killing Moon’ is a complete story, but open-ended; the first of two ‘Dreamblood’ novels.  Though I struggled at first, by the time I’d reached the novel’s enthralling conclusion I was hooked by Jemisin’s style and the depth of her world-building.  I look forward to reading the second novel, and catching up on her backlist.

The Shattered Vase – ‘Drowning Rose’ by Marika Cobbold

‘Drowning Rose’ is a quiet understated novel. The story, though not without conflict, is rarely dramatic. The characters are unremarkable, but well-drawn. The novel’s conclusion is gentle, but lingers after reading. This is not a novel that will blow you away, but it should leave you with admiration for Marika Cobbold’s writing and her accurate perception of the vagaries of life.

The novel is written as a split narrative (a conventional and unremarkable device). Eliza’s tale is contemporary. She has been damaged by a tragic event from her school days (the clue as to what this might be is in the title). She has a failed marriage behind her, has no direction and a history of self harm. She is forever looking backwards, with little interest in what the future might bring. In what is a rather overblown metaphor, she mends broken pots for a living.  At the start of the novel she is contacted by her godfather (and also Rose’s father) Ian. Ian is dying and wants to mend broken bridges.

The other narrative follows Sandra/Cassandra, a young girl desperate to fit into her boarding school. This narrative is curiously timeless, but must be twenty-five years or so earlier than Eliza’s narrative strand, because Sandra’s fellow boarders are Eliza, Rose and Portia; three beautiful ‘princesses’.  There is also a irritating third strand, which barely features, but is necessary to allow the two main threads to come together.  This feels like a ‘fix’, rather than seamless storytelling.

The novel’s weakness is its plot.  Very little unexpected happens, and the story never pulled me along.  In short, it’s unremarkable. There are also a couple of points were the narrative feels forced to make the story work. Considering the weak plot, this is unsatisfactory.   What makes ‘Drowning Rose’ worth reading is it characters.  Each and every one of them is beautifully crafted, and believable.

Eliza is a near-perfect encapsulation of a life stalled by tragedy.  Her foibles and idiosyncrasies are well-realised.  She is irritating, compassionate and has a deliciously dry wit, which makes her story great to read.  Sandra is a girl on the verge of womanhood, and again, Cobbold describes her insecurities very well.  The ensemble cast is similarly well-rounded.  The girls at school are thoughtless and fickle; a clique of bullies that exists in every school environment.  Eliza’s irritating step-sister brings light-relief, as does an elderly neighbour.

‘Drowning Rose’ never thrilled me, but thanks to its strong cast of characters, its conclusion packed a greater emotional punch than I expected.  It reminded me in turn of Amanda Craig and Rose Tremain.  I think I would probably read both of these authors in preference to ‘Drowning Rose’, but if you have read and enjoyed them, you will find much to like here too.

Inside Himmler’s Brain – ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

You should read this book.  It’s very very good.  If you are interested in WWII, you should read it.  If you like a good thriller, you should read it. If you like a well-written novel, you should read it.  If you want to understand the best and worst of humanity, you should read it.

So? Am I Clear? You should read this book.

Then, maybe you can help me decide, is this a novel, is it brilliant non-fiction or is it scripted reality? (See my observations on scripted reality in my review of the equally excellent Wordsmith’s Tale).

The book is an in-depth account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the hangman of Prague’, but it is a whole lot more than that. It is a tale of obsession, bravery and the indomitable human spirit. Is also, inevitably, about the Holocaust.  It is informative, gripping and above all things, accurate.  Or at least so the author keeps telling us.

The story of the Czech plot to assassinate Heydrich is an incredible one.  The planning, the attempt and the aftermath, are storytelling gold.  For even a half-decent writer, it would be hard to mess up.  The author of ‘HHhH’ Lauren Binet, has chosen to place himself in the narrative, where he talks of his obsession with representing only the facts, and his worries about inventing unverifiable conversations between his characters.  As an author, he is continually driven to find new information, and to seek out new viewpoints that shed more light on his story.  All this to enhance its authenticity.  On one level, having the author’s voice adds little.  It breaks the flow and it seems a little vainglorious.  In other ways it is a powerful device, enabling Binet to go off at tangents, to tell the reader about other events that were going on at the same time, in a way that would have been impossible were he writing a straightforward narrative.

Of course, if he were writing a history book, portraying simultaneous events would be easy, and this is where I am confused.  ‘HHhH’ reminded me of ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ (only HHhH is never tedious).  Both books contain a historical narrative, with the author placed inside it. One is fiction, the other biography.  So is Binet playing with us?  Is his rigorous fact checking, another fiction?  I’m not in any position to check almost any of what he assures me is accurate -so how would I know?  His obsession with revealing the absolute truth, is laudable, and an interesting aside, but it does sometimes dilute the power of the story he is telling.

Ultimately though, HhHH is historical storytelling at its finest. Even without the author telling us, you would know it’s constructed on solid foundations.  It takes a pivotal but overlooked incident of the war, and uses it to examine the rise of the Nazi’s, their inner workings, and their unparalleled atrocities.  He also reveals the small but effective band of brave resistance fighters, who would give their all to overthrow the most heinous of regimes.  The assassination of Heydrich had deep and unexpected consequences, that affected the progress of the war; consequences I was woefully ignorant of.  Binet lays them all bare in a brilliant and readable fashion. ‘HHhH’ is compulsive reading, and should probably be compulsory reading, for all.

‘Osama’ by Lavie Tidhar

‘Osama’ is a novel that ought not to work.  The idea of Osama bin Laden as the protagonist of a pulp-fiction series called ‘Osama bin Laden – Vigilante’ is as audacious as it is controversial.  Yet this is what Lavie Tidhar has done.

OK, it’s a little more complicated that than that.  Joe, a private detective and narrator of the tale, is hired (by the inevitable attractive woman) to find the author of the ‘Vigilante’ novels.  He sets off on a quest to find the implausibly named Mike Longshott, and the closer he gets, the more he realises that something strange is going on.

All the genre tropes are here.  Whisky, hat, cigarettes and wisecracks, all feature.  There are mysterious forces at work trying to prevent Joe from reaching his goal, but he tenaciously sniffs out every lead.  He’s the type of PI who takes fists to a gunfight, yet somehow stays alive. So on one level, there’s not a lot new here, but this book has a lot of levels.

Firstly, there are the excerpts from Mike Longshott’s novels that Joe reads as he searches for him.  These are semi-fictional accounts of real-life Al Qaeda plots and bombings; they are well rendered and compelling.  Then there is the fact that the world Joe lives in is subtly different from our own.  I won’t spoil how, but Tidhar feathers in teasing observations, that hint at where we might be, and what is really going on.

The work as a whole reminded me of Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’ and Mieville’s ‘The City and the City’, but I enjoyed ‘Osama’ much more.  It’s more readable than either of them. Tidhar never forgets to be entertaining, even whilst deep in his metaphysical constructs.   He examines our responses to terrorism, as individuals, and by the institutions that represent us.  The whole novel can be viewed as an investigation into the fallout of being involved in a terrorist attack, yet it is full of wit and humour.  This type of layered reality novel normally leaves me cold, but whilst I wouldn’t pretend to have understood all of Osama’s nuances, there wasn’t a single point at which I thought this was a novel I didn’t want to read.

The hardback is beautifully packaged with a gloriously tactile cover, featuring terrific and evocative art.  The production values between the covers match that on the outside. ‘Osama’ is a novel that defies expectations.  A peculiar between-worlds narrative, detailing notorious acts of terrorism investigated by a classic noir gumshoe, it’s a mix that could have been an unholy mess.  Instead, it’s a compelling mystery with a handle on the state of the world.  Highly recommended.

The Day the Earth Slowed Down – ‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

If you are going use a title as grandiose as ‘The Age of Miracles’, then you had better make sure you produce something special.  This novel has an elegant premise and some very readable prose, but unfortunately Karen Thompson Walker fails to deliver.

‘The Age of Miracles’ poses a simple question; what would happen if the Earth’s rotation slowed down?  Firstly days (and nights) will get longer, but what effect will this have on humanity, and on the planet itself?  Walker’s novel examines both the physical and psychological fallout, with an emphasis on the latter.  I am not in a position to put forward any theories as to what might happen should the Earth slow down, but for the rapid rate of slowing described in the novel, the effects on the planet feel under-powered.  In some ways this doesn’t matter; this is not a novel soaked in science. Walker has picked her premise –  what would happened if our days keep lengthening?, and makes no effort to explain the how and the why, because it’s immaterial to what she wants to show.

Unfortunately, the complete lack of background, overshadows the human interactions she wants to examine.  For a novel powered by a global phenomenon this is a parochial affair.  Its narrator, Julia, is a high-school student in small-town America, with a stable home life, and all the usual problems than come with being a teenager.  The scope of the novel rarely extends beyond Julia’s life, which is a shame.  I would like to have seen more about what happens elsewhere on the planet, in particular how the geopolitics might play out, but other than the occasional mention, the rest of the world seems not to exist.

What we do have is a fairly typical, end-of-the-world/dystopian society romance.  But there is little conflict.  Julia hankers after a cool kid, but she’s unpopular. School muddles on, although as other families leave the area, Julia becomes more and more isolated.  Does she get her man? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.  The novel is narrated in the first person, from some time after the slowing occurred.  Walker uses lots of foreshadowing, which becomes really annoying. Julia is forever saying things like, ‘Little did we know it was the last time we’d ever see her’ and ‘at that time, almost nothing was known about the syndrome’; it’s a lazy way to generate tension.  And that’s the biggest problem with the novel, despite the premise, there is almost no suspense.  People behave pretty reasonably, and like the Earth, the novel slowly winds down without a whimper.

The tagline on my copy reads, ‘It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe.’  Leaving aside the interest-sapping use of the word ‘quite’, this neatly sums up the failings of the novel.  Invisible catastrophes don’t make for interesting reading.  The novel is an age of miracles, where almost nothing miraculous happens.  There is the odd unfortunate coincidence, but there is nothing in this novel to make the reader go ‘Wow!’  It’s certainly readable, and undoubtedly moving in places, but it all feels too clean and artificial.  Even many of the human interactions fall flat.  Everybody seems to take the impending end of the world very calmly, and the school children are the least convincing teenagers I’ve ever encountered.  Julia’s fragmented friendships are laughably flat.

Everything in this novel has been done before and so much better.  If you want a compelling catastrophe novel try James Smythe’s The Testimony. If you want an end-of-days romance, under difficult circumstances, there’s Lauren Oliver’s ‘Delirium’.   Indeed there are countless novels that deal with the same themes, so much more effectively. (I urge you to try Neal Shusterman’s ‘Unwind’)  It’s a shame as there is some great writing here, but ‘The Age of Miracles’ fails to pack enough punch.