It rakes at my heart – ‘The Crane Wife’ by Patrick Ness

crane wifeI should declare up front that I was predisposed to love this book. Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is one of the finest rendered dystopian visions in print. The middle volume, The Ask and The Answer is one of my all-time favourite books. The Crane Wife, by the Decemberists is one of my favourite albums. Both book and album draw their inspiration from the same Japanese Folk-tale. Ness opens his novel with a Decemberists lyric and acknowledges their brilliance in his afterword.

The novel opens with divorcee George being woken by a keening sound from his garden. Investigating he finds an injured bird. A white crane, its wing pierced by a long and ancient arrow. Shortly afterwards he meets Kumiko. His life is never the same. Before Kumiko George’s life is prosaic, but together they make fantastic art. Their relationship is passionate, yet unearthly. It causes ripples in every corner of George’s life. Kumiko touches everyone she meets.

The Crane Wife is a pitch perfect tale about the hazards of love. Love in every sense; familial, romantic and in friendship. The greediness of love; the need to possess, the need to be possessed. The selfishness, the selflessness. Love with all its contradictions. It is also story about stories. How the same story can be told a different way for every viewpoint. This theme is picked out beautifully at the beginning and remains lurking at the back throughout the entire novel.

The writing is sublime. Funny, razor sharp and devastatingly accurate. Interleaved between the main narrative is a folk tale, central to the main story yet entirely separate, it is very different in style, and may not suit all tastes. Towards the novel’s climax the folk-tale and real-world narrative dove-tail, giving the book a sense of magic and wonder. I’m not always a fan of magic realism, but this is both gentle and in keeping with the book as a work of art.

To unpick The Crane Wife for review is to diminish it. It is a tale about the beauty found in everyday life. Compelling from start to finish, I was unable to stop reading, even after switching out the lights. The characters and their incomplete travails played upon my mind in the dark of the night. The only way to find peace was to turn the lights back on, and devour the conclusion. Exceptional.

Other great reviews of The Crane Wife can be found at Niall Alexander’s review on Tor.Com and Words of Mercury

Many Thanks to Canongate for an advanced copy of this book

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Imagination running riot – ‘A Face Like Glass’ by Frances Hardinge

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It took me at least a hundred pages to feel my way into this book. Probably because it confounded my expectations. It’s a children’s book, so I envisaged an easy read. It’s critically acclaimed,  so I was expecting a high quality tale. What I hadn’t expected was something so mind-bogglingly creative. I recently read Catherine Fisher’s excellent Obsidian Mirror, a simple story,well told. I hoped for something similar. Instead I found my self-treated to a convoluted, crazy tale, with ruthless inquisitors, insane map-makers and exploding cheese. It’s a riot of the imagination and a work of creative genius.

The story opens inside the catacombs of a reclusive master cheese maker (see, it’s odd from the outset) Seven years earlier he found a stowaway. A stowaway who had somehow circumnavigated all of his defences. When he saw her face he was so terrified he made her wear a mask, and destroyed all his mirrors. That girl was Neverfell. She will change the world.

The novel is set inside Caverna, a subterranean kingdom, riddled with passageways and intrigues. It’s like a proving ground for Alice in Wonderland characters. Caverna is as a peculiar a setting as it’s possible to imagine. Its single most unusual attribute is that its denizens only have a fixed number of facial expressions. Each one must be learnt. The rich have many, the poor as few as four. Neverfell, the novel’s protagonist is unique. She comes from the outside, and her face is like glass. Everything thought and feeling she has is transparent. She cannot lie. It’s a fantastic device. A character whose integrity is unimpeachable. Hardinge has great fun with it.

Some of Caverna’s other delights include, a supreme ruler who never sleeps, shutting down one side of his brain at a time. Cartographer’s who can drive people insane just by talking to them. A master criminal, who’s as elusive as he is cunning. Wine that makes you forget, perfume that makes you attractive and cheese that is highly unstable. Add to this, a political family that make the Borgias look like the Beverly Hillbillies, and some bone-crunchingly inventive assassins and you have a potent brew indeed.

Once I’d felt my way into the book, it was impossible not to be entranced. Hardinge’s use of language is phenomenal  The book appears to be marketed at fans of JK Rowling, but the word building and intricate imagery make the Potter novels look like Spot the Dog. The novel is suffused with a soft and delicate wit. There is villainy of the highest order, and heroism of epic proportions. There is some obvious but important allegory, and at the centre beats a very good story.

After a shaky start, I loved A Face Like Glass, a beautiful and original novel. It’s a book that deserves to be read far and wide. I would recommend it for children with strong reading skills and adults whose sense of wonder is still alive. There really are very few books like it.

Suffragettes and Cricket Whites – ‘Half of the Human Race’ by Anthony Quinn

halfSuffragettes and Cricket Whites, goes some way to describe Half of the Human Race. Whilst not a bad novel overall, it is, I feel, deeply flawed. For much of the novel, in particular the opening half, reading it was a mechanical exercise. Just reading one word after another, assimilating what I assume was meant to be a story. There were characters, there was description, there was conflict, there was history; sadly none of it was terribly interesting.

The story follows the on-off relationship between two members of well-off English families. Connie is a woman who knows her own mind. Considering the book opens in 1910 or thereabouts, this isn’t particularly considered a good thing. Will plays cricket professionally, but is otherwise pretty useless. The conflict in the opening half of the novel is generated by Connie’s involvement with the suffragette movement. She rubs up against various society males, chafing them like grit under the foreskin.

As her involvement with the suffragettes deepens Connie’s ideology hardens, causing her to clash with the affable, but blinkered Will. Things reach a head when she is arrested for window-breaking. Will does not understand her motivation, and their relationship founders.

It may be unfortunate that I read HotHR just after Kate Atkinson’s new book ‘Life after Life’. This accomplishes much of what Quinn has set out to do, with considerably more skill. Then it does a whole lot more. In comparison, Quinn’s novel seems staid and verbose. I found his descriptions, though full, leaden and uninteresting.

Beyond the rather flat Will, Quinn’s characterisation is good. Will’s best friend Tam, is a brooding elite sportsman. Awkward but sensitive, he adds a sympathetic counterpoint to Will’s indifference. The various members of Connie’s family are well drawn and add much to the tale, as does her artist friend Brigstock. Each offers their own viewpoint on women’s suffrage, giving the novel depth.

The structure of the novel caused me great pain. The novel opens in 1910, the cover shows a man in uniform, so whilst we might like to imagine Will and Connie are going to get together, we know the War is bound to interpose. Yet it takes a long time to arrive, and when it does, the break in narrative is cynical. Things are left ambiguous, and there is an indefinite leap in time, leaving us to piece together what might have happened. Doing this once might have been forgiveable, but after the short war section, there is another break and jump forward, with the reader left wondering did they or didn’t they?

The war writing is unremarkable, yes it’s emotive, but you have to be a pretty terrible writer not to make the slaughter of the Somme affecting. The novel’s tenet that the army’s commanding officers were indifferent to the plight of their soldiers is covered with greater finesse in the final series of Blackadder.

The structure of one long section, followed by two short ones didn’t work for me at all. It just felt like Quinn didn’t know how to tell his story as a continuous narrative, so didn’t bother. There is some nice imagery in here, in particular a war painting by Connie’s artist friend, but overall, I was left unimpressed. The ending was consistent with what had come before, and therefore satisfactory, but I couldn’t honestly say it was worth the journey.

As I finished Half of the Human race, I was couldn’t help but wonder whether the whole thing was metaphor for a cricket match. Sedate, with occasional pockets of excitement, but above all over long and rather pointless. I should add that this was a book group read, and the other members were all more impressed than I was. They are female, so perhaps as a man, I failed to connect fully with the novel’s central theme. Having said that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything in this book has been done better elsewhere.

Things Fall Apart – No Way Back by Matthew Klein

no waySome years ago I read Matthew Klein’s Conned, a slick thriller narrated by a skilled confidence trickster. Its a very good book that keeps you guessing right to the end. I was very excited when I heard that Klein had, at last, written another novel.

‘No Way Back’ is a faster, more visceral thrill than Conned. Jimmy Thane is a washed up CEO. A meth addict and alcoholic paying a visit to the last chance saloon. Through a friend he has been hired to save ailing IT firm Tao Software. Success will rebuild his reputation and save his marriage, but the task is far greater than he imagined.

The product he’s selling doesn’t work. His sales team are incompetent, his head of marketing hates him and there’s a giant hole in the company accounts. If that wasn’t bad enough, the previous CEO has disappeared without trace. Jimmy thinks he must have embezzled the cash and done a runner, but when he starts looking into his predecessor’s dealings, he soon finds links to a terrifying Russian gangster.

No Way Back is so very nearly the perfect thriller, but I think Klein may have concentrated too hard on the big twist, and taken his eyes off keeping everything credible. Where Conned oozed authenticity, No Way Back is brash and far-fetched.

I really enjoyed reading the set-up. It’s well-written; pacy and witty. There is lots going on and Klein drip feeds peculiarities into Jimmy’s story, keeping intrigue and tension levels up high. Unfortunately he couldn’t quite sustain it. As the body count mounts (often brutally), I started to question, what could possibly be worth that much death? When the answer came, I still wasn’t convinced. Worse still the denouement is illogical. Klein attempted a twist as audacious as that in ‘The Usual Suspects’, unfortunately he only found suspect.

To explain why would completely ruin the novel, so I’m afraid you’re just going to have to take my word for it. It’s a shame, as until that point, Klein had delivered a first class thriller. Despite the slightly dodgy ending, No Way Back is still entertaining fiction, packed with great ideas and snappy dialogue. It’s a light read; a compelling escapist thriller, perfect for reading on the beach or passing time at the airport.

Many thanks to Corinna at Corvus Books for my copy of this book

Erase and Rewind – ‘Life after Life’ by Kate Atkinson

lifeThe strength of Kate Atkinson’s books is her prose. Time and again she serves up fantastically readable literary fiction. Even in crime fiction mode, she delivers razor-sharp observation on the vagaries of life. If, occasionally, her plotting lets her down, it is very easy to forgive thanks to the verve and poignancy of her writing.

Life after Life is a great departure from her recent Jackson Brodie novels, tipping ever so slightly in the direction of science fiction. Here we follow Ursula Dodd, born 11th February 1910. Died 11th February 1910. Shortest novel in the world? No. Life after Life is predicated on the simplest of questions: ‘What if…?’

As readers we are treated to one iteration after another of Ursula’s life. What if the doctor beat the snowstorm…? What if she’s rescued from drowning? What if she doesn’t let her Brother’s American friend roughly steal a kiss? What if she sneaks out to meet her sweetheart, what if she doesn’t? What if she marries a German? The novel even opens with that ultimate ‘What If?’ – What if somebody killed Hitler before he comes to power?

At a macroscopic level Life after Life could be considered disappointing. Lots of different stories, involving the same characters, but with no obvious overreaching narrative resolution. In the hands of a lesser author it’s easy to imagine it being an unholy mess. Delivered by Kate Atkinson, it’s a triumph.

By giving Ursula multiple lives, she can analyse so much more of the history and attitudes of the times. The treatment of women during the first half of the twentieth century is a huge theme. As are the changes and deprivations brought about by World War Two, both in Britain and in Germany. Life after Life contains some of the best depictions of War I have read, in particular, the relentlessness of the Blitz.

Atkinson’s characterisation, as ever, is tremendous. Ursula is beautifully drawn, as are the rest of her family, most notably her mother and aunt. It is this triumvirate that anchor the novel to its central theme; a feminine backbone formed from three very different women. The multiple stories allow Atkinson to explore her characters’ personalities from more than one perspective; we can see how they react to the same set of circumstances, but with different pressures. This leads to far rounder characters than one would find in a conventional narrative.

Further interest is generated by the use of déjà vu. In any given narrative, Ursula may experience a desperate feeling that something is amiss. A sense that she should or shouldn’t do something. More often than not this is to prevent a disaster from a previous narrative. The reader is in the know but Ursula isn’t, giving the novel’s strands additional coherence. But as strands are added an additional phenomenon occurs. Disaster may have been averted, but fresh ones lie further ahead; Ursula may have avoided personal misfortune but what of the consequences for her friends and family?

The assertion of the novel is that life is made from choices. Choices that have unpredictable consequences. We are all united by this. We make decisions every day but we have no idea how they will turn out. As the novel progresses questions about pre-destination and free will are posed. There are suggestions that some incarnations of Ursula can control their destiny; are aware of their myriad selves. This is where the strongest science fiction elements are found.

In essence it boils down to something like this – Given an infinite number of typewriters we can all kill Hitler. Whilst there isnt a single overreaching story that unifies all of Ursula’s incarnations, there is a central message to each of us. You only have one life, use it as wisely as you can. Life after Life is a thoughtful and informative novel. It’s heartbreaking time and time again, yet a joy to read. A terrific novel from a gifted writer bringing all her powers to bear.

Special Delivery – ‘Lost and Found’ by Tom Winter

lost‘Lost and Found’ by Tom Winter is a short and unassuming book. On the surface, there’s little to mark it out from the rest of the field, but behind it’s light tan cover and simple drawings is a wonderful book that will make you laugh, cry and above all, avoid Croydon.

‘To say that London ends at Croydon is only half true: stripped of hope and worn down, London really crawls into Croydon and dies.’

That observational gem appears on page 2, and is the first of many. Winter’s eye for detail is withering. His uses his prose to dissect the diseased body of twenty first century life, exposing the drudgery and futility of human existence. Fortunately he’s very funny whilst doing it. Lost and Found can be depressing in one sentence and filled with life affirming humour the next.

The story follows Carol and Albert. As the novel opens Carol is returning home to leave her husband. Her shotgun wedding has survived nearly twenty years, but with her husband more interested in World of Warcraft than his wife, and a daughter who treats her with little more than contempt, Carol has decided to retake ownership of her own life. This plan crashes and burns when her husband reveals he has a lump on his testicle.

Trapped by indecision and self-loathing Carol starts to write her feelings in a letter to the universe which after a rush of adrenalin, she posts. Enter Albert. Albert is a post office worker, celebrating forty years service. Coming up to retirement he has become an anachronism; a relic of a bygone era. Treated with casual contempt by his colleagues, Albert is pushed into a closet to sort the undeliverable mail. Here, attracted by the smiley face on the envelope, he opens the first of Carol’s letters. His life is never the same again.

The strength of ‘Lost and Found’ is its characters. Carol and Albert are beautifully created. Their hopes, and fears are captured with great tenderness. Their back-stories are rich and believable adding further poignancy to their story. Carol’s family are well-realised. Her relationships with them are agonising, but wholly believable. Carol’s foundering marriage and turbulent relationship with her daughter are all too real, as is the disastrous relationship with her mother.

‘It’s obvious why she called. Not to apologise, of course, not even to discuss it, but rather to pretend it never happened; to overlay the memory with the usual inane chitchat.’

Albert’s only meaningful relationship is with his cat, and this too is beautifully drawn. His hapless colleagues and dastardly next door neighbour fill out an inspired ensemble cast.

As Carol lays bare her soul, Albert becomes increasingly troubled by her plight. Perhaps, at the end of his life is a chance to give it some meaning. Every thread of the story is compelling. Most of them rely on the fact that life mostly sucks, yet somehow Winter has suffused each of them with warmth. Kindness comes from a number of unlikely sources and as the novel closes we are left to think that yes, maybe life does suck, but it can be pretty amazing too.

The reader inevitably wonders whether Albert and Carol will meet; we can’t help hope that they do. It’s a difficult line to tread, bringing them together risks an overdose of schmaltz, failure to do so could leave the reader feeling cheated. Winter’s answer to the problem was as elegant as it was unexpected. The final chapter was entirely in keeping with book and left joy in my heart and tears in my eyes. A wonderful, heartfelt book that encapsulates everything I love about reading.

Many thanks to Corsair Books for an advanced copy of this book.

On being an opinionated toss-bag

osirisDuring my review of Kasia James’s ‘Artemis Effect’ I touched on how blogging has altered my perspective on reviewing. When I was merely a faceless Amazonian (or something) it was much easier to flame a book I didn’t like. For a start I’d paid for it, so I had purchased to right to vent my ire. When I joined the Amazon Vine programme, books were sent to me for free, but it was still impersonal. I could still be rude about a book I didn’t enjoy.

Since blogging, it’s become a bit murky. I know bloggers usually write ‘in exchange for a fair and honest review’ somewhere on the blog, but how easy is it? Maybe I’m just a spineless appeaser and fantasist, but once my book has been obtained through dialogue with an actual person, I feel like I’m a small part of the team, responsible for the success (or failure) of the book. Twitter doesn’t help. The authors are right there, being nice, talking about how hard they work, discussing the pain of a negative review. Talking about what a faceless opinionated toss bag the reviewer is.

So now when I write a negative review I now feel like an opinionated toss-bag. I’m not any more (or less) of one than I used to be, but I feel like I am. I search desperately for good things to say about a book. Can 2* become 3? 3*, 4? Is it better not to review at all? But is that fair and honest? It’s doubly bad when it’s a debut novel. One day, (a long way off) I would like to be a published writer, how would I feel if an opinionated toss bag said my hard-wrought novel was, obvious, overlong and tedious?

Which brings me to Osiris. An overlong and tedious novel, the central theme of which is so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning. I wanted to like it. There are some great ideas and some beautiful writing, but there’s little story, and then what story there is, is overwritten by a two-page epilogue.

The setting is interesting. Near(ish) future, the Earth is submerged in water. Osiris is a super-city, consisting of gleaming interconnected skyscrapers. It contains the last inhabitants of earth. But Osiris is a city divided. A Berlin Wall like structure divides east and west. In the east live healthy super-rich oligarchs, in the west, the diseased, unwashed and generally desperate.

The novel fails mostly because it has little to say. Osiris is a gossamer thin metaphor for modern Britain (or the entire planet) with a fat spoiled ruling class, gradually turning the screw on a defenceless underclass. All done under the pretence of improving Osiris without any idea of the implications for its inhabitants. It’s potentially interesting, but it’s too simplistic. I’m not sure if calling the oppressed mass ‘westerners’ was a deliberate choice or an unfortunate oversight, but it gives you an idea of how obvious the author’s metaphors are.

The two main characters are from each side of the divide, and behave pretty much as you might expect. Vikram is a noble freedom fighter. Adelaide a spoiled drug-taking dilletente who takes Vikram under her wing in an attempt to annoy her family. Adelaide’s twin brother has gone missing, and she hopes to use Vikram in her bid to discover what happened to him. The inevitable physical relationship ensues.

I could probably keep finding fault with the novel. It does pick up towards the end, but being the first part in a trilogy, there is little resolution, and what resolution there is, is unpicked in the epilogue. It’s easy to imagine that book 2 could be read without reading the first instalment. Which is a good job, because its hard to conceive why anybody reading this book would want to read more. But then what do I know? I’m just an opinionated toss-bag.

Many Thanks to del Rey for sending me a review copy of this book. I should point out that so far nobody has called me anything rude in response to one of my reviews