Fade to White – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

lhd hrpThis book was given to me as part of the Hodderscape review project.  Many thanks to them for giving me chance to read this genre classic.

I feel about reading Science Fiction classics much they way I do playing the piano. I’d love to be able to do it but it never seems worth the effort. In an ideal world I would wake up one morning with the ability to play. Not to concert virtuoso standard, that would be greedy, but enough to wow my sons by banging out some John Williams cinema classics.

Seminal SF works are the same. They’re there, waiting to be read; the greats of field, but often they can be a bit dry, dated. There’s always something more appealing to read. If only knowledge of them could just be instilled somehow. It’s these levels of dedication, ambition and perseverance that explain how I ended up a stay at home dad.

So it’s nice when a kick up the bum comes along and forces (or at least strongly encourages) me to read them. This time the boot came in the form of the Hodderscape Review Project and Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

It started much the way I expected. Slow, dry and leaving me unsure I understood what was going on. The style is of its of time. Not that I’m really in much of a position to comment, but I suspect that if this book were submitted for publication today it would be rejected. Modern Sci-Fi tends to be more immediate, with bolder characterisation. The narrative here takes second place to theme; the anthropological viewpoint keeps the reader at arms length from the story. Yet this is not a classic of the genre without reason.

Setting aside how groundbreaking it was at the time publication, this slim novel is bursting with observations about gender, relationships, communication and the nature of humanity, that are still relevant today. The androgynous population of the planet Gethen are anathema to off-world visitor Genry Ai and as he struggles to understand them so, as readers, do we. From the alien nature of the people of Gethen, it is possible to deduce the complexities and difficulties facing men and women as they try to understand one other. It’s probably an over-simplification but it’s a powerful observation.

Exploration is another big theme. As Genry Ai travels he has an impact on the places he travels through, but so they too impact him. Why else do we travel but to gain from the experience? The purity of the planet of Winter, it’s perpetual pristine whiteness, offers a blank canvas upon which the souls of its inhabitants are laid bare. The Left Hand of Darkness is, I think, our impurities. The things that make us individuals; humans. We are a ‘shadow on snow’.

This is a slow thoughtful novel, the power of which didn’t really sink in until after I’d finished reading (much the same happened with The Dispossessed). I regretted struggling with the opening chapters and so I immediately reread them. They made more of an impression when placed in the context of the rest of the novel. In many respects I feel supremely under qualified to offer judgement on a seminal work, so I will simply say, I would never have come around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness were it not for the Hodderscape Review Project. It would have been my loss.

Thanks to Anne and the team at Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book. And Orbit books for teaming up with them so they could do so.

Advertisements

City of Song and Stories – Ghoulish Song by William Alexander

gholishGhoulish Song is a companion novel to William Alexander’s exemplary children’s story, Goblin Secrets. I say companion, for it is not a sequel. The events of the two books run concurrently.

In Goblin Secrets, the focus of the tale was acting. Here it is music. After being given a flute by a Goblin troupe (the same that featured in Goblin Secrets), Kaile the baker’s daughter plays a tune on it. A small event with strong repercussions. After finishing the tune, Kaile discovers her shadow has been severed. It’s still there but is now a living, speaking moving entity with a mind of its own and a fear of the dark. To make matters worse, in Zombay, tradition holds that those without shadows are freshly deceased. Unquiet ghouls unwilling to make the journey into the next life. Kaile’s family and friends shun her, casting her out, ignoring her existence, but it turns out the penalty for bring dead could be a whole lot worse.

As in Goblin Secrets there are two tales here. There is the quest, in both books, the desperate search for a reunion but beyond that there is the wider story of the river and the arrival of the floods. In both cases the fate of the city is bound up with the arts. The theatre in Secrets and music in Song.

This book isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but as I think there is a strong case for making Goblin Secrets my all time favourite children’s book, this is not wholly unexpected. I found the driving force behind the story is less compelling. There is no scary Graba hunting Kalie down and the quest to track down her shadow is less emotionally engaging than the hunt for Rownie’s brother. The fact that Kaile’s family and friends think she’s dead, when she clearly isn’t, felt arbitrary and therefore less intense. The comparative lack of goblins was also a bit of a blow.

That’s not to say there isn’t much to love about the book. I love the idea that in a city countless stories are unfolding. It’s an idea often forgotten in children’s stories. Invariably there is only one story; everything else is everyday life. There is no background to the settings and children’s tales can be exciting but two-dimensional. Not so Zombay. The band of musicians Kaile falls in with are a great group of characters and there is also the reliquary, which, despite being hard to say when reading aloud, is one of the creepiest and well imagined places in children’s fiction.

In Zombay and its arts, William Alexander has created a wonderful setting for his stories. Once again his prose sparkles, shines, smells and bustles. The city is alive, with history and tradition and is filled with fascinating people and customs. Alexander’s pair of Zombay novels are a cut above what else is out there for children aged 8+ and I can’t wait to see what story comes our way next. It’s impossible not to speculate; saving the world through interpretive dance?


Many thanks to the Sam and the team at Much in Little/Constable and Robinson for sending me a copy of this book

And so this is Christmas – and what have I read?

My age and number of children may mean I can no longer remember much more than a week in the past, but 2013 seems to have been a particularly good year for books. Whether the standard is high, or I’ve been lucky I’m not sure, but I’ve thought ‘This is the best book I’ll read this year’, so many times, that singling one out for that honour is nigh on impossible. Instead here are a few of the books I loved, in no particular order.

genus

the machine

Things started well with Jonathan Trigell’s Genus. A dystopian vision that chimed with my own political opinions and post Christmas come-down. Another early and occasionally depressing read was James Smythe’s bleak vision of the future, The Machine. A retelling of Frankenstein, this was probably the most technically proficient novel I read of 2013. The tale is elegantly constructed, and is a powerful meditation on love, loss and above all, identity.

 

lost

Countering the darkness of those dystopian early reads was Tom Winter’s bittersweet Lost and Found, a book that had me laughing aloud numerous times. A chronicle of mundane lives in suburbia, this is the only book I’ve read this year that you could give as a gift to absolutely anybody. It’s such a sharply observed and warming tale that it’s hard to imagine anybody not liking it.  It is the perfect gift. If the person doesn’t like it they are probably dead, or at the very least suffering from a rotten heart.  This book also has a place in my (non-rotten) heart as it contains my first (and only) review quote inside the paperback addition.

humansWinter’s book was the first of many contemporary novels I read this year, whose light tone belied their seriousness and emotional impact. In addition to Lost and Found, The Humans by Matt Haig, The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extance and The Coincidence Authority by JW Ironmonger all had me laughing and crying in equal measure.  Haig’s story of an alien trapped inside a physics professors’ body, doubles as a handbook to human existence; the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Humanity, if you will. It puts Haig in the same league as Douglas Adams.

coincidencepenumbra

Ironmonger (who wins, hands down, the best author surname of 2013) had me in pieces with his novel about fate and African child armies. It’s a disarming and arresting work of fiction, which opened up my eyes to my own ignorance.  Robin Sloan, combines typography, books, codes and Google in his quirky, nerdy tale Mr Penumbra’s 24 hr Bookstore. It’s hard to imagine anything better than a vertiginous perennially opened bookshop and as such Mr Sloan wins the prize for literary construct of the year.

alex woods

And then there’s Alex Woods. I almost didn’t read this book, it’s conceit sounding trite, but it blew me away.  This in part is because its subject matter had a deep personal significance.  It’s clear headed and endearing narrator helped me sort through my own jumble of emotions about my father’s battle with degenerative illness and just exactly what his exit from this earth might be. I said it a lot this year, but this is what books are for.

life violent centuryScience fiction meets World War Two has cropped up three times on my reading pile this year, each time delivering a charged and emotive read.  Lavie Tidhar’s Violent Century served up spies and superheroes, spandex and skulduggery in as fascinating a What if? as you’ll ever read. Kate Atkinson’s rewind and repeat story, Life After Life  takes in both wars, women’s suffrage and whole lot more, in a beautifully constructed novel, which exhorts us all to live life like its the only one we’ve got. The final book in this quality triumvirate is not so much science fiction, but a story about science fiction. In The House of Rumour. Jake Arnott blends SF, espionage, occultism and misinformation to great effect, resulting in a mosaic of twentieth century history assembled in a way never seen before.

lydia


For out and out history, the prize is definitely taken by The Last King of Lydia by Tim Leach.  This isn’t my usual fare at all, but a glowing review from Kate at ‘For Winter Nights’ pushed it my way.  A retelling of Herodotus, a gaping omission in my education, I found this novel to be enthralling from first page to last. It’s a meditation on the selfish futility of chasing power for the sake of power. It’s a must read, whether you traditionally like historical fiction or not.

 

morethan

playingtyler

Many of the books I read are YA fiction. I like the pacy storytelling, and often I find the subject matter more thought-provoking than many adult novels. Perhaps, I’ve yet to grow up, but for anybody looking for a manual as to how the world is put together, YA fiction is normally a great place to start.  TL Costa’s Playing Tyler has this in spades.

What I thought might be a rehash of Ender’s Game turned out to be a whole lot more.  The ethics of war and the blurred lines between patriotism and warmongering make for a challenging and invigorating read for inquisitive teenagers.  Playing Tyler is one of the very best YA novels I have ever read. In the book there are shades of Mayor Prentice from Patrick Ness’s exemplary Chaos Walking trilogy. Perhaps then, it is fitting that the only YA book I read that might surpass Tyler is Ness’s newest offering, ‘More Than This’. Another exhortation to live you life as fully as you can. It’s the perfect handbook for navigating the confusing road into adulthood.

 
control20130327-220716.jpgFrances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass is an imaginative riot that confounded my expectations and almost defies description. The closest succinct summation is that it’s a modern Alice in Wonderland. My final YA mention is for the second book in my favourite series at the moment. Control by Kim Curran, sequel to my book of the year last year ‘Shift’. This continues the tale of Scott, and his ability to change the decisions he’s made, and so altering the present. The plot is great, the pace breakneck and the the end is a cliffhanger like no other.

game

My thriller of the year, and possibly any year, is Game by Anders de la Motte. This conspiracy/victim manipulation thriller had me gripped from first page to last.  Great characters, fast action and a plot that twists and turns, all the time managing to stay the right side of credible.

My final word is on children’s books. I have three boys, and reading is as much part of their lives as it is mine (well that’s not quite true). My oldest son and I both loved Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk. It’s the first Gaiman book I’ve loved unreservedly and it makes brilliant reading for children from 8 to 108.

GoblinSecretsCover2Last then, a very special book. I’m not sure whether it’s the best book I’ve read all year, but it certainly delivered my favourite reading experience. I read Goblin Secrets by William Alexander to my son, and we both loved it. We both looked forward to the end of the day when we could sit down together and catch up with Rownie and his adventures with Goblins as he tried to discover the whereabouts of his missing brother.  Goblin Secrets is a wonderful tale, filled with magic and excitement. The city of Zombay, its peculiar streets and mechanical inhabitants are brought to life with evocative prose.  The use of theatre and masks is unlike anything I’ve read before. Father and Son adored this book. It’s an absolute triumph.

So there it is, 2013. A wonderful year for books.  If you’ve been reading the blog, then thank you. I intend to carry on 2014 in the same way.  Reading haphazardly, reviewing as often I as I can. I hope to see you there.  Have a very happy Christmas and may 2014 bring you the books you are looking for.

Storm of Steel – Hearld of the Storm by Richard Ford.

herald of the stormHearld of the Storm is an unpretentious, perhaps unremarkable epic fantasy. It also happens to be bloody good. Eschewing the current vogue for ‘Grimdark’ novels where a darker set of clichés have subverted the old, Ford has opted for well-rounded, believable characters that actually develop. It is his strong characterisation that make the novel so readable, particularly in the last hundred pages.

The structure is of a type I like, with multiple points of view that converge towards a unified whole. At 600+ pages it is perhaps a little long. The overreaching story arc is slow to reveal itself. Indeed, this being the first book in a series, there is still much hidden. It did at one point feel as though I were reading six stories at once, without there being any obvious reason the story was being told that way.

But as the strands entwine the bigger picture begins to come clear, and it’s a satisfying landscape to behold. The standard tropes are here. Reluctant royal, Wizard’s apprentice, conflicted thief. Also added are a temple warrior, a peerless assassin, a street child and a bitter veteran. On the surface these are nothing new, but Ford brings them to life as people beyond their labels.  There are some strong female characters too, which adds another dimension to the book.

Ford’s prose is very readable with more than a dash of violence and swearing. Each scene zips along. I devoured the last hundred, hungry to find out what happens. Little is resolved, but there are any number of interesting threads to be gathered in book two. If you like your fantasy simple but hearty there is much to enjoy here, and the promise of much more to come.

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

Same Monster, Different House. – The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

Language_of_Dying1-637x1024Sarah Pinborough is a name that kept bumping up against the periphery of my reading landscape. The odd retweet, some sparring against Stephen Leather in the Great Sock Puppet Scandal of 2012, and finally a wonderful piece about internet persona entitled ‘The thing is, these people think they know you…’.

Ironically, I then pretty much proceeded to do exactly what Pinborough was talking about. Most of the stuff I had seen from Sarah gave me the impression she was a confident, sassy, talented woman of exactly the type that used to intimidate me when I was an geeky, funny-shaped-dice rolling teenager. Clearly I’ve grown up less than I might care to admit. Sarah’s work floated past without me taking much interest. I imagine that in a universe where space and time were a little more flexible, I may have found room to read one of her books, but in this world, though her novels garner much acclaim, they’ve never made it to the pile.  Until now.

When the press release landed in my in-box along with a review request, my interest was immediately piqued. The subject matter struck a chord, in part because of similarities with Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, a book which left me in tatters, but also because it chimed with the current situation in my own life.  (The beautiful cover art helped tip the balance too.)

Sarah and I are a similar age. As I approached my forties thoughts of death began to weigh more heavily. Firstly I have a family now. It’s a strange effect; by bringing new life into the world, you become sensitive to the fragility of existence. The consequences of death become more frightening.

The Language of Dying is Sarah’s response to the death of her (ex) father in law. My Dad is not dying but he has Parkinson’s and it’s killing the man he was. It’s destroying his marriage to my mother and it’s sending chaotic ripples through the whole family. Pinborough’s slender volume chronicles all this and more.

There are three strands of the novel that struck home. The main one being the indignity of death. The loss of function, the reliance on others. The undoing of body and spirit. Pinborough’s prose is delicate yet devastating. The second strand centres around family. The family in the book is perhaps atypical, nevertheless, their portrayal is most affecting.

I have three boys. They are as close as you could wish for. Yes they fight but they love each other so much. But for how long? The Language of Dying made me face up to the uncomfortable truth, that this may not last for ever. The worry has always been out there. Siblings don’t always get along. The depiction of a disintegrating family is possibly sadder than the death of the father.

Finally, and perhaps the most important facet. The idea that behind our veneer of happiness, anything could be happening. It could be a particularly British trait, but we pass through our lives, interacting with countless people, with little attempt to understand their hopes, their fears or the tragedies they are facing. It’s not just on the Internet that we decide we think we know somebody. Pinborough brings this home in one crushing chapter.

This slender book is a powerful meditation on life, death and the transition from one to the other. It is not happy book. You won’t be buying copies for Christmas presents. You won’t be exclaiming, ‘You have to read this book!’, but you just might press it into the hands of somebody who’s struggling and say, ‘Read this, it may help.’

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

Light another cigarette – Black Chalk by Christopher Yates

blackchalkI don’t know. You wait all year for a thriller based on a game and then two turn up at once. Last month I reviewed Anders De La Motte’s Game, a techno thriller of multi-layered duplicity. Black Chalk is the same, but with less mobiles. If any form of communication is to be referenced it should be Morse, for this novel is set in the fiction murder capital of the world, Oxford.

Black Chalk sees six Bright Young Things conspire to bring about their own downfall. United by their upbringing, their lack of privilege, six Oxford students form an impenetrable clique then destroy it from within. At the novel’s heart lies ‘The Game’; a contest of consequences.

The story is told by one of the players, who, fourteen years later is a recluse living in New York. After an old friend and fellow player gets in touch, this mysterious shattered hermit begins to tell his tale. From the outset we know one of the players died, but not much else. Not even the identity of the narrator. What follows is tale of high minds, psychological warfare and knives in the back.

Characterisation in the novel is great. The six students are well-rendered portrayals of university archetypes. Intelligent and witty, yet naive and self-important. I’d be lying if said I didn’t recognise something of my own callow youth. The two central protagonists and their love/envy for one another forms the backbone of the novel. It’s a strong spine that holds the story straight throughout.

The game’s rules are never explicitly set out, but the penalty for losing a round is stark. A consequence, an embarrassing forfeit. They start small, perhaps begging in white-tie with a silver bowl, before escalating to much greater things. Dark explorations of the contestants psyche, which soon starts to see them unravel. To spice things up a large cash prize is up for grabs.

Pacing is good. Yates drip feeds the reader, keeping them wanting more. If Black Chalk has a fault, it’s that it rapidly becomes difficult to understand why the students would voluntarily put themselves through such mental anguish. The two central characters, maybe, but I found it difficult to sustain the belief that six highly educated couldn’t see where things were going to end. But perhaps that’s twenty extra years of life experience talking? It’s hard to remember the feeling of being untouchable that comes with being away from home for the first time, surrounded by the intellectual elite (The atmosphere here is more rarified than my own university days).

There are other elements here too. The New York sequences add much to the story. The disintegration of the narrator’s self-confidence makes an effective counterpoint to the brash students of fourteen years earlier. An additional layer of intrigue is added by the mysterious GameSoc, bankrollers of the entire project. What is their agenda? Black Chalk’s denouement is satisfying and in keeping with the compelling build up. This is Christopher Yates’s first novel. He handles plot and character with aplomb, delivering a thriller that misdirects and entertains throughout. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Many Thanks to Fiona  at Harvill Secker for sending me a copy of this book.