‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson

a god in ruinsMy proof copy of A God in Ruins says ‘What if the new Kate Atkinson were even better than the last…’. A bold claim since her previous novel was the extremely readable and beautifully constructed Life after Life. It’s hard to imagine anything living up to that, and to suggest that a new book might is rather setting it up for a fall.

I don’t think A God in Ruins is as good as Life After Life. 

It is however still a very good book. If I’d read it in isolation, I’d probably be raving about it. Atkinson is an excellent writer, she could make the back of a cereal packet compelling reading (there’s an internet meme in there somewhere – author’s cereal blurbs), but with Life after Life the structure was so special. Its ‘sliding doors’ narrative gave Life after Life additional depth. The layers of story from different realities, intersected with one another, building up into a glorious three dimensional whole. A God in Ruins is a more conventional single reality narrative. The timeline jumps about but the versions of the main characters stay the same.

A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Life after Life, following Teddy, Ursula’s beloved brother. The story follows Teddy’s life, focusing mainly on his time as a bomber pilot during World War Two and as a declining pensioner; the god in ruins. The first hundred pages had me worried, perhaps it was the lack of artifice in structure, but the story felt pedestrian and uninteresting. It was only once the war began in full, that I started to find my way into the novel. The chapters change time-frame switching from Teddy’s modern life back from the war. We see the young wing commander, a talismanic hero among men, and his more prosaic family life.

Teddy and his wife settle into a sedate country life at odds with life in the war. The many children they hoped for don’t arrive; only one, Viola. Teddy and Viola struggle to bond from the beginning and this sets the course for a troubled relationship. Atkinson sets up an interesting juxtaposition of Teddy’s life of privation and courage during the war and Viola’s essentially selfish quest for inner peace, living on a commune as a hippy. I’d never before considered how children of the sixties and seventies may have looked to the war-scarred generation above them, and Atkinson portrays well the uneasy interaction between them.

Viola produces grandchildren, who get along much better with their grandfather than she ever did. As such, A God in Ruins becomes a generational, family saga, not usually my cup of tea. Gradually however the novel began to exert a grip over me. Whilst the war passages vivdly portray life as bomber pilot and the grinding despair brought by being surrounded by death, it was the modern day chapters that captured me most.

As I grow older, I begin to feel my own sense of the world out-pacing me. I can already see that I may outlive my own usefulness. This is something that never occurs to a thirty-year old, but now the other side of forty, with aching knees, it’s an uncomfortably real proposition. Teddy, a hero long ago, waits out his life in homes and sheltered accommodation. This again is all too close to the bone. As my parents age, how they are going to see out their days? The worst ever friction in their relationship with me, and with each other, has been caused by them railing against the onset of years. My Dad has Parkinson’s and it raises a set of challenges that cannot be conquered by staying at home indefinitely.

A God in Ruins, portrays the terrible shrinking of life that marks old age. Viola, never the most attentive of children, becomes a monster. Yet, I fear there is a little of Viola in all of us. I love my parents very much, but all too often I find them a nuisance; a problem to be dealt with. I know that one day, possibly, (hopefully even – the alternative is an early death), I will be the same situation. A burden to my boys, who love me very much, but struggle with all the things in their life, without their aged P making things even more complicated. Atkinson suggests the salvation may be grandchildren. Teddy’s later life affected me strongly and reminded me to to try to make a little extra time for my family, who one day will no longer be there.

I didn’t unreservedly love A God in Ruins. There was one chapter in particular that bordered on caricature, and felt uncharacteristically clumsy for Atkinson’s usual spot on observation. My wife felt the novel was in danger of slipping into an anti-war polemic. Whilst I rather liked its take on the futility of human warfare, her point is valid. The end of the novel throws a curve-ball, which I hadn’t seen coming. This has the discomfiting effect, of making the reader reappraise everything they’ve read. On the one hand this was frustrating, a literary trick too far, but on the other it’s no mean feat for an author to force a reader to re-evaluate everything they’ve read, and indeed their own lives in just a few short paragraphs.

I didn’t enjoy a God in Ruins like I did Life after Life, but a new Kate Atkinson novel is always something to be savoured and celebrated. The pair make an excellent whole and show why Kate Atkinson is the queen of accessible literary fiction.

Many Thanks to Alison at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book (my wife sends heartfelt gratitude too!) 

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Dark Side of the Moons – ‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 22/5/2015. 

seveneves 3Most authors, who are not Neal Stephenson, would have started writing Seveneves at page 565. They would have told an epic hard sci-fi tale about seven races attempting to colonize a planet. There would have been tension and politics, spaceships and gadgets, heroes and villains. Those not tempted to start at page 565 might have written an apocalyptic tale about the destruction of the moon and the resulting disaster for planet Earth. They would have written about the great escape. There would have been spaceships and gadgets, tension and politics, heroes and villains.

Only an author with the vision and audacity of Neal Stephenson would have tried to do both. Stephenson has taken two halves of intriguingly premised stories and stuck them together like a literary cut and shut. He stops the action abruptly, with humanity on the brink, before fast-forwarding his story 5,000 years. The characters from the first 565 pages are dust. Nothing remains of them but memories. How could the final 300 pages possibly deliver anything like a coherent overall narrative? It’s a brave move, that, if attempted by lesser authors, would have resulted in an unholy mess. Stephenson pulls the trick off with aplomb.

The novel opens with an ‘Agent’ cleaving through the moon, breaking it into several pieces. The resulting cluster of rocks, still in the same position as the moon, is, at first, little more than an astronomical curiosity. An event everybody will remember but that will have little impact on their daily lives. The mass of the moon has barely changed; its position is the same. Life continues. Until a smart astronomer does some math and realizes this spectacular event is not just a curiosity, but also spells the end of life on Earth.

There follows a desperate scramble to make the International Space Station, ‘Izzy,’ habitable by as many as people as possible, in order to ensure the continued existence of the human race. The plan is to send Earth’s finest and brightest into space, with digital copies of the sum total of human knowledge. It is hoped that this will be enough. It has to be. It is all we’ve got.

Anybody who has read Neal Stephenson novels will know that they are detail-heavy. Seveneves is no exception. The opening three hundred pages detail the infrastructure required to build a space station with the capability of supporting human life for the next few thousand years. The novel is set in the near-future, giving Stephenson the opportunity to utilize some not-quite-in-existence technology. He outlines his vision for this space-faring ark in painstaking detail. I say painstaking, some readers might prefer excruciating.

This is not a book for the sleep-deprived. I read my first Stephenson novel (Cryptonomicon) before being married. The Baroque Cyclesqueezed in just before the arrival of my firstborn. In those days, Stephenson’s rich explanations brought me great joy. I loved to wallow in them. Even then, however, I could appreciate they wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste; you definitely need a certain mind-set to fully engage with a Neal Stephenson novel. Now Seveneves is here and I have three children. Time to wallow is not in great supply, and there were times when I felt myself wishing he’d get to the point. There are some chunks of description you can skim and still pick up the general point, without detracting too much from the story.

A general measure of how much I’m enjoying a book is how often I fall asleep reading it. It is rare these days that I read something so compelling, I don’t wake up at some point with a dead arm and spittle hanging off my chin. It goes with the parenting territory. Seveneves sent me to sleep a lot. Despite this, I did enjoy it. The story moved fast enough to compel me to read on, but sometimes there were a few too many detailed explanations of orbits, apogees and mass ratios.

Although clearly a demigod of technical description, I think the true mark of Stephenson’s stature as a novelist is his characterization. There are a host of characters in this book, and they are all brilliantly drawn. Their interactions and interpersonal relationships are what made this novel fly for me. It’s also why the huge break in the book doesn’t completely break the book. The vividly rendered lives of the pioneers of the first section inform the history and cultural backgrounds of those in the second. It’s a staggering accomplishment and anthropologically fascinating.

The destruction of the planet is deeply affecting. Since becoming a parent my reactions to apocalyptic novels has completely changed. They make me sad in ways they never did before children. The reaction Seveneves produced was almost visceral. I’m not afraid to admit I shed more than a few tears over it. The depth of emotion and insight showed is remarkable. These passages alone are worth the effort of reading the novel.

In both halves of the book, Stephenson presents a depressingly accurate picture of human nature. Even with the very existence of humanity at stake, politics and personal gain ride high in some characters’ minds. It is the novel’s contention, that even when we must be at our most together, humans will still find a way to fight one another. It’s a bleak view to offer, all the more so due to its accuracy.

Seveneves may contain the darker side of human nature, but it also explores our altruistic side too. Our ability to reach out and help others, at great sacrifice to ourselves. Humanity’s ability to work together for the common good. This book has true heroes and definite villains, and a few who are both. I loathed one or two of the characters for their actions. At times I almost forgot they weren’t real people: another testament to the quality of Stephenson’s character writing.

If you haven’t read any Stephenson before, I’m not sure I’d start here. The break in the narrative is quite hard to swallow. If you spend pages and pages detailing the minutiae of your world, it feels like cheating to then leave out 5,000 years’ worth of information. Much of the second section is bewildering, and I felt there was too much ramble for the size of the overall pay-off. This is not a book for those who like ends neatly tied. With an artificial end in the middle and a finale that leaves as much unresolved as completed, Seveneves leaves the reader with lots of unanswered questions. Within the context of the novel this is perfectly fitting. This is not a neat tale, but a future history and testament to the ingenuity of the human race.

With a spine of politics-technology-colonization, the book is inevitably going to draw comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson’s much-loved Mars Trilogy. Such comparisons would be entirely fair. Seveneves will appeal greatly to fans of the Mars Trilogy; they share the same roots of human endeavor and technical accuracy. They meld politics and technology in very similar ways. Seveneves is a more compelling read, but I think makes a less satisfying whole. For fans of Stephenson, a new release is always a thrilling event. Once again he delivers a behemoth filled with deep science, heavy detail and fascinating characters.

Seveneves is available now and is published by William Morrow in the US and Borough Press in the UK. Disclosure: Many Thanks to Jaime at Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

 

 

‘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.