Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s already been widely publicised that Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel, with the words ‘Tolkien’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ being casually bandied about. However, it has about as much in common with Tolkien or Game of Thrones as Nineteen Eighty-Four has with The Hunger Games or a Raymond Chandler novel has with Alexander McCall Smith – they’re superficially part of the same broad genre but that’s more or less where the similarity ends. In any case, whether this is or isn’t a fantasy novel is frankly neither here nor there; it shouldn’t make any difference whatsoever to the way it’s read or understood.

The Buried Giant is set in a version of post-Arthurian Britain peopled by Britons and Saxons and yes, there is a dragon, there are ogres, there is a quest of sorts, but its language feels more like that of a traditional fairy-tale, and its episodic plot gives an impression more of an allegorical epic. There is little sense of the characters’ inner thoughts or feelings, and their reactions to and interactions with one another are matter-of-factly expressed, most often through dialogue.

This is heightened by the omniscient narrator, whose viewpoint takes in not only the characters’ actions but also the full scope of history. At times, we’re addressed as modern readers, at other times, as readers who might conceivably have lived in Saxon roundhouses. These sorts of inconsistencies are jarring, but clearly deliberate; we’re expected to take notice of them. When the omniscient narrator is revealed to have an identity, these oddities begin to make a sort of sense, and this is one of the more powerful moments in the book – although much is still left unexplained, and I’m not sure there is quite enough effort made to bring the narrative together.

The book begins with an ageing Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice living almost communally in a subterranean village, deciding to set out to find their adult son. They can’t remember his name, are not entirely sure where he is, and indeed have gone for long periods without remembering that he ever existed at all: the Britain of The Buried Giant is shrouded in an oppressive mist that refuses to lift and is affecting the memories of its inhabitants. When people leave the village, they are fast forgotten. Axl and Beatrice, despite their touching devotion to one another, have few memories of their own pasts; while their relationship has clearly lasted for decades and seems to be a loving one, they can’t be completely certain that their happy marriage has always been so.

Shortly after their departure, they stop at a Saxon village, and it’s really here that we (and they) begin to acquire vague, intangible wisps of the past. How did the Britons and Saxons pass from what once a state of violent conflict into an uneasy peace? Why does Saxon warrior Wistan think he has met Axl before? Why does Beatrice see the bones of children where her travelling companions see none?

The novel as the whole, rather like Ishiguro’s earlier book Never Let Me Go, is about the way societies face up to – or don’t face up to – terrible things. Forgetting has its own consequences, but remembering can be devastating too. Do Axl and Beatrice owe it to those wronged in the past to lift the mist that clouds their memories, or in doing so, will they unleash another wave of atrocities? 

In reality, Britain was ravaged by battles between Britons, Romans, Saxons and Vikings for centuries – and King Arthur himself, constantly evoked throughout the novel and represented by an elderly Sir Gawain, is at least in a part a ‘memory’ collectively constructed to create a false, romanticised British past. There are obvious parallels to contemporary situations too – how do Bosnian Muslims relate to their Serbian neighbours after Srebenica? How can Spain forget the Civil War when the bodies of those murdered by Franco’s forces are still being uncovered?

The Buried Giant is also, however, about love and loyalty. There are small-scale wrongs to be remembered, too – betrayals on a personal, but painful, level that might also be revealed when the amnesia-inducing fog is lifted. A mysterious boatman tells Beatrice and Axl of an island where people walk in eternal isolation from everyone - including their spouse, unless they are truly in love. Could any couple feel confident in making that journey? And conversely, could any relationship survive the implications of the decision not to do so?

There are elements of The Buried Giant that are gripping, fascinating and deeply touching (the ending moved me to tears). Equally, I did feel that the detached, matter-of-fact style employed throughout, particularly in the dialogue, detracted somewhat from the characters and the depth of their experiences. I am certain this was a deliberate technique on Ishiguro’s part, and it’s one that we see elsewhere in his work, but I didn’t feel it worked here as well as it works in Never Let Me Go, when the truth of the characters’ fate seems all the more affecting as a result. 

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn (no, not that Anthony Quinn) has widely been billed as a murder mystery, in which a serial murderer known as the Tie-Pin Killer stalks the streets of 1930s London.

However, if you actually pick up this book looking for detective fiction you will probably be disappointed, as while it's the actions of the killer that tie the main characters together through a series of meetings, coincidences and misunderstandings, the mystery element of the plot occupies by far the fewest pages of the interlocking story arcs and is subject to almost no analysis whatsoever. There is no detective work involved and no exploration of motive; in fact, you are unlikely to give a toss who the murderer is at all.

For me, though, this didn't matter in the slightest. I enjoyed this book so much and became so invested in its characters and their relationships that I was perfectly happy for the murder plot to  - as, I suspect, was the author's intention - play second fiddle.

The main characters in Curtain Call are a joy. Actress Nina Land is a modern, independent woman, but fears for her future as both her career and her small inheritance appear to be dwindling. Stephen Wyley, a renowned society portrait painter, is fast falling in love with her but is painfully aware that by doing so he is betraying his blameless wife and children. There's also larger-than-life theatre critic Jimmy Erskine, a monstrously conceited coward who is, at the same time, somehow saved by Quinn's skill from being completely insufferable. Like all the characters, Jimmy has something to hide: he's gay at a time when this could not only end his career but put him in prison. His long-suffering secretary Tom Tunner, despite being straight, is trapped in an amusingly marriage-like relationship with Jimmy, while at the same time concealing from him that he suffers from epilepsy. Finally, there's the fabulously named Madeleine Farewell, a kind, sensitive middle-class girl whose apparent impoverished gentility becomes a cover for her profession, which as you can probably guess, is the one commonly known as the oldest.

Each of them has a multitude of faults, yet you can't help thinking you'd happily sit down to dinner with any one of them, and Jimmy - the most flawed of them all - is possibly the most entertaining of the lot. There is a sense of genuine tragedy about Nina and Stephen, and the relationship between Madeleine and Tom is utterly charming from the very moment they meet.

Moreover, in the huge cast of supporting characters, there isn't a single one I couldn't immediately believe in; Quinn really does create portraits with words with all the skill of Stephen's paintbrush. Nina's theatrical dresser Dolly, Stephen's daughter Freya, Madeleine's pimp Roddy, Jimmy's Hungarian Jewish friend Laszlo - every one of them is as memorable as the major players.

Equally vivid is the setting. The London of the 1930s, with its theatres, nightclubs, semi-respectable boarding houses and Lyons Corner House cafes, is almost a character in itself. The clandestine gay scene, and the appalling injustice of the anti-gay laws of the time, are brilliantly evoked. The looming threat of World War II is already present - Madeleine's strange dream about a London ravaged by fire and its houses turned to matchsticks is surely no coincidence - and there's home-grown fascism to contend with too, including a guest appearance from William Joyce, latterly better known as Lord Haw-Haw.

The style of Quinn's prose is perfectly suited to the period setting. It's witty, occasionally brittle, and never overblown; precise, yet stylish - the dialogue, in particular, is close to perfect. There are aspects of a comedy of manners in the language at times, and yet also of Brief Encounter, and of Golden Age detective fiction, and, fittingly for a book that seems to cross genre boundaries, all the elements combine into a deeply satisfying whole.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Terry Pratchett

Do you ever have that sudden sense of shock that comes not so much from a thing itself, but from the degree to which it unexpectedly affects you?

When I learned today that Terry Pratchett had died, I was startled not so much by his death - like most people, I was aware of his health problems after he was diagnosed with an early-onset form of the 'embuggerance' of Alzheimer's disease - but by the sudden lurch I felt in my stomach when I heard the inevitable sad news. While I'd kept an eye on what he'd been doing, and closely followed his campaign for the legalisation of assisted dying, I hadn't actually read his books for a fair few years. Why, then, did I find myself so genuinely and deeply upset in a way I rarely am when a famous person passes away?

Probably because I was a huge fan of Terry Pratchett during a time in my life when being a fan of anything is a particularly big deal - and throughout the years when I was at my most painfully awkward, and desperately in need of some assurance that there were other awkward nerds out there who liked the same things I did and found the same things funny. I took the first three Discworld novels - The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites - during summer 1988, when I was 12, I think because the library were promoting them as an 'If you like Douglas Adams, you'll also like...' suggestion. I read them all one after the other, and as soon as I'd read them, I went back to the library to look for more. After that, I decided I had to own them too, and when I had to save up pocket money or wait for Christmas and birthdays if I wanted to own new books, actually owning a book instead of borrowing it from the library was a big decision. For years, a Pratchett paperback or two, all with the original, highly distinctive Josh Kirby cover art, appeared in every little pile of presents I received.

The thing that blew me away about the Discworld series was that, while the books were extremely funny in a way that chimed perfectly with my sense of humour at the time, they were also damn good fantasy novels in their own right. They poked fun at the tropes of fantasy fiction, yes, but they were never parodies, never pastiche. The plots were clever and complex, the concepts dizzyingly imaginative, and the pace of each book built steadily to proper, exhilarating, pacey adventure. The characters were almost Dickensian in all their larger-than-life glory, but also oddly believable. At the heart of every Discworld book there was also a tremendous warmth and charm.

Good Omens, the non-Discworld novel that Pratchett co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, probably remains in my top ten reads to this day. As well as being an entertaining satire and a fantastically affectionate homage to countless horror films, and really quite dark on many levels, it is still a strangely life-affirming, comforting read, and soon became my go-to reading matter during the toughest times of my teens. It was the only book I could bring myself to pick up the day I found out that my mum had breast cancer, and the only one I wanted to read after my grandad died. All Pratchett's books gave me a focus and brought me comfort during bouts of what I now understand wasn't adolescent angst but clinical depression. When I wrote to him to ask him some questions about his books, he sent me a charming, personal and characteristically funny letter in response.

There are thousands of people - many of them my friends - who will be feeling bereft today upon hearing that Terry Pratchett is no longer with us, and who will feel bereft all over again when suddenly Christmas comes around and there is no sign of a new Discworld book in their stocking, full of the adventures of all the memorable characters he created. No more Rincewind, no more Captain Vimes, no more Granny Weatherwax - no more The Luggage, even.

There will, of course, still be Death. There's always Death. But thanks to Terry Pratchett we might not fear him quite as much as we used to.

1948 - 2015

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

After enjoying The Cuckoo's Calling, I moved straight on to its sequel The Silkworm, the second novel in the Cormoran Strike series written by JK Rowling under the pen-name Robert Galbraith.

Given the story behind the publication of The Cuckoo's Calling, it's interesting that The Silkworm has a literary setting. Author Owen Quine has disappeared, shortly after submitting a manuscript to his agent that cruelly and obscenely lampoons a number of well-known figures from the world of publishing, along with his wife and mistress. It's his wife, an awkward, long-suffering woman who bears a passing resemblance to Rose West, who hires Strike - not because she thinks anything's happened to Quine, but simply because she thinks Strike will be able to persuade him to come home. However, this is a murder mystery after all, and in the course of investigating Quine's disappearance, Strike soon uncovers a much more sinister mystery.

Although the murder central to The Silkworm is so gruesomely elaborate that it wouldn't be out of place in David Fincher's Se7en, the book still the has the structure and style of a traditional Golden Age detective novel, with Strike edging his way into Quine's somewhat alien world to gain access to suspects, and pitting his skills against those of the police, a conflict complicated by the fact that the investigating officer is a former Army colleague of Strike's. In fact, many more of Strike's friends, acquaintances and relatives also appear in The Silkworm, and while it's not entirely plausible that they would all be quite as helpful to the investigation as they are, their presence is always welcome for the insight it gives us into Strike himself.

In the unlikely event that you didn't warm to Strike and his assistant Robin in The Cuckoo's Calling, you would need a heart of stone for them not to win you over in The Silkworm. Both immensely likeable in their own right, the awkward relationship between them is endearing. The aftermath of Strike's broken engagement to the troubled, unstable Charlotte and the disapproval of Robin's own solidly reliable fiance Matthew are also key to this novel, and are a suitable counterpoint to the dark intensity of the investigation itself. There is also great deal of wit to this book, and a great deal of warmth, all of which balances out the snobbery, spite and egomania that Strike encounters as he delves into Owen Quine's background.

The less favourable reader reviews of The Silkworm and its predecessor on Amazon sometimes draw attention to a lack of pace and an unnecessary dwelling on detail. Detailed description, and fairly long reflections on the inner musings of the characters, are indeed noticeable in The Silkworm, although for me, they add to the novel's appeal rather than detract from it.

I can see myself getting as excited about the next Robert Galbraith book as I currently do about Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway novels or Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series - and for similar reasons: a recurring cast of likeable, occasionally quirky characters, cleverly-constructed crime plots and a good-humoured warmth that contrasts with the very genuine darkness of the central mysteries.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Unless you avoid the news to the extent that you have actually been walking around wearing ear-plugs and blinkers for the past two years, you are probably already aware that crime writer Robert Galbraith, whose debut novel The Cuckoo's Calling was published in 2013, is in fact JK Rowling writing under a pseudonym. If you've read the Harry Potter books you'll also know that they are as much mystery stories as they are fantasy novels, with neat, intricate plots scattered liberally with clever hints and clues, so it doesn't surprise me at all that Rowling was inclined to move into the detective genre.

Lots of people have already written reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling in which they look for similarities between the writing of JK Rowling and that of her alter-ego Galbraith, so I won't bother to do that here, and will try instead to review the novel just I would any other book.

The Cuckoo's Calling, rather than being a police procedural, has a private detective as its main character. Private detectives, the hallmark of the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction, are increasingly rare in mystery novels these days, and as such Cormoran Strike makes a pleasant change from the obligatory maverick Detective Inspector. With his embarrassing family history, immense bulk and prosthetic leg, Strike begins the novel broke and down on his luck, but as a former soldier - Strike was a Red Cap until the loss of his leg - he is tenacious, resourceful and stoical. 

The central mystery of The Cuckoo's Calling is the death of troubled mega-star supermodel Lula Landry, one of three adopted children in the rich Bristow family. The official verdict on Lula's fatal fall from her apartment's balcony is suicide, but her older brother John is convinced she was pushed and asks Strike, once a school friend of their brother Charlie, to investigate.

The investigation itself features numerous encounters with various super-rich celebrities, as well as the people who make a living out of being part of their entourage such as the often unnoticed drivers, make-up artists and concierges. Every single character is vivid and well-drawn, no matter how small a role they play in the story, and the crime plot is extremely well-executed and satisfying.

It's also an interesting take on the nature of celebrity and publicity, with Strike appropriately positioned as an observant outsider, sometimes appalled, sometimes fascinated and sometimes comically unimpressed. The novel counts an exclusive night-club, a fashion house and an ultra-expensive designer boutique among its settings, but also never shies away from the underlying tawdriness of modern fame as seen through Strike's eyes.

Interesting too is the character of Strike himself, whose intriguing back-story, awkward relationships and occasional vulnerabilities make him an immensely likeable protagonist. Likeable too is the ultra-capable Robin, the office temp Strike can't afford who arrives after a mix-up with her agency but who proves to be surprisingly well-suited to her role as Strike's assistant. The relationship between them is both endearing and amusing, and could certainly provide endless scope for sub-plots in future Cormoran Strike novels.

It could be argued that the events of The Cuckoo's Calling aren't always entirely plausible, but frankly, this really doesn't matter. Some suspension of disbelief is required when reading any detective novel that features a private detective - who hasn't wondered why people don't just tell Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe to piss right off with their rudely personal questions and total lack of any official authority? The Cuckoo's Calling, to my mind, seems very much a modern homage to those sorts of novels, despite its contemporary setting.

This is an extremely accomplished detective novel with characters I loved and a plot that kept me constantly guessing. I suspect I'll definitely be reading the second Robert Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, pretty soon. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Birthday book haul

As I've mentioned before, I have a Kindle (although I now have a different model to the one I reviewed in that post). However, I do still buy physical books. If I want a book that's a really lovely edition or has a lot of illustrations or photographs I buy them new, and I often look in second-hand shops for paperback novels.

It was my birthday last week so I had the week off work and we did quite a bit of travelling around. My boyfriend's hobby took us to York and Newcastle and an incredibly cheap TravelZoo hotel deal meant we could just about afford a trip to Wales towards the end of the week. I did a bit of shopping for books in charity shops and independent second-hand bookshops, and I also got given some nice books for my birthday and spent some of the money I was given on books in Waterstones.

My Waterstones purchases were A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke and The Fabled Coast by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood.

I've been wanting to read A Natural History of Ghosts for ages. Roger Clarke has been fascinated by ghosts for most of his life, although is quite open about the fact that he's never seen one (and I would probably be less keen to read his book if he claimed he had). I don't believe in ghosts but I love ghost stories and I do think it's very interesting that so many people are truly convinced that they have had ghostly experiences. This book is about different types of ghosts people believe in and also looks at the science, psychology and cultural history of ghosts and ghost stories. It's been very favourably reviewed and I'm looking forward to reading it.

The Fabled Coast is a very comprehensive encyclopaedia of folklore, myths, local legends and fairy tales from all over the UK. You can either just dip into it at will or you can look up specific places that you're visiting and get a little insight into the area's local mythology. It would also be a great book for writers; a lot of the stories would make good prompts for fiction.

Two of the books I got for my birthday were Soviet Space Dogs and Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson, both of which my boyfriend bought for me. They're both lovely hardback editions and Soviet Space Dogs is beautifully illustrated with photographs, propaganda and images of souvenirs of the many dogs who were part of the Soviet space programme.

It is sad in parts - some of the dogs lost their lives - but also extremely interesting and many of the dogs were looked after as mascots by office and laboratory staff after their role in the space race was complete. What is really fascinating is the cultural significance that the dogs played in the Eastern Bloc - they were the subject of films, toys, children's picture books, stamps and all sorts of odd merchandise in their day. I love dogs and am fascinated by the art and popular culture of the Soviet Union during the Cold War years, so this was a great choice for me. My boyfriend bought it from Magma on Oldham Street, Manchester, which sells lovely, unusual books that are either about design or are just beautifully designed in their own right, as well as all sorts of other unusual things. If you're passing I recommend you go in and have a browse. There are two branches in London as well, I believe.

The Horror Stories book is an anthology of classic supernatural fiction from the 19th and early 20th century, a very influential period for horror fiction. It's edited by Darryl Jones and has some of my favourite stories in it as well as some I haven't read yet, and it's another well-chosen gift for me.

I also got a  beautiful book from my parents: My Year With Hares by Martin Hayward Smith. I love hares so much that I have a tattoo of two hares on my back.

This book is a photographic diary of a year spent observing and photographing hares in the Norfolk countryside, and the author even raised an orphaned leveret for a few months in his own home before releasing her into the wild. The photographs are stunning and give you a really strong sense of the passing of the English seasons and the year turning full circle, as well as capturing the combination of strength and fragility that makes hares so special.

And now, on to my second-hand purchases! All dirt cheap, priced from 75p to £2.50 each.

The Quarry by Iain Banks - I find Iain Banks' work quite variable in quality if I'm honest, but this was his last novel and was apparently written while he was dying. The story also deals with the last days of a dying man, but Banks is usually far from sentimental so I'd like to see what this much-missed novelist did with the novel and the character. Although I bought it second-hand the copy I got seems brand new, so a bargain at £2.50.

Harvest Home by Thomas Tyron - my sister asked me recently if I'd seen the old mini-series adaptation of this. I haven't seen it yet, but her recommendation meant that this copy of the novel caught my eye. It's quite obscure so it was quite a coincidence that I discovered a copy so soon after she mentioned it. It's a folk horror story set in America. It was only 75p as it's very tatty. It has also has a hilariously naff cover, as you can see from the picture.

Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Claire Morrall - I'd never heard of this, although it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a few years ago. I got this in Oxfam Books where they had cleverly wrapped a few books in plain brown paper and were selling them at extra-cheap prices in a sort of lucky dip with just a few hints written on the wrapping to tell you roughly what kind of book to expect. What a great idea! I'm really glad I took the chance as I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise and it sounds very good.

Deliver Us From Evil by Tom Holland - as soon as I saw this book I remembered that I bought a copy in around 1998, and that before I'd even had a chance to read it, my ex-boyfriend read it himself and then lent it to someone else without asking me. Anyway, I never got it back so I thought I'd have a second attempt at reading it 17 years later. It's a sort of gothic revenge tragedy set in the Restoration, apparently.

The Greenway by Jane Adams - I've never heard of the book (published in 1995) or the author before, but it's a psychological thriller that looks up my street.

Spider and Martha Peake by Patrick McGrath - I read McGrath's Asylum a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. I couldn't decide which of these two to get and as they were only £1.50 each I got both. You can never have too many books.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Prophecy of Bees by RS Pateman

Having been obsessed with the folk horror genre ever since I was a child, I was quite excited to see that RS Pateman, author of The Second Life of Amy Archer, has written a novel about a girl and her mother moving to a Gloucestershire village full of insular, superstitious locals, unsettling rural traditions and grim local legends.

On the other hand, my folk horror nerdery is so extreme that it's also quite hard to please me with this sort of story: get it wrong, and I will burn you to death in a giant wicker man.

18804882It's fortunate, then, that Pateman gets it very much right with The Prophecy of Bees. The eerie atmosphere builds with just the right momentum, and the plot, which centres around rumours of a curse placed upon a Tudor manor house now occupied by teenager Izzy and her American mother Lindy, is satisfying. 

It's fair to say you will find just about every genre trope here: Izzy is warned about the curse by a group of villagers in the local pub, which meant I could picture the landlord as perennial Hammer innkeeper Michael Ripper, and someone actually does say 'you mark my words' at one point'. Ghostly scratchings, hidden bones, midsummer rituals, standing stones, coded manuscripts, things in sevens, creepy twins, weird sacrifices and bizarre superstitions can all be found here.

But this is absolutely not a bad thing. It is, in fact, exactly what you should want from a story like this and as such I enjoyed every page. This is a book that doesn't appear to pretend to be anything it's not, and it's all the better for it. I wasn't immensely surprised by the final revelation, but at the same time, there's enough ambiguity to leave the reader with plenty to think about at the story's conclusion. What, exactly, is real here? Are the villagers right to fear the curse apparently placed on Stagcote Manor, or is the curse the fear itself?

Izzy's role as narrator means we spend a great deal of time in her company, and fortunately she is convincingly written and well constructed as a character. Having read many a novel in which a male author makes a terrible of job of writing young women, I was pleased to see that RS Pateman did an excellent job here. Moreover, it would have been easy for Izzy to be terribly annoying: the daughter of titled multi-millionaires, she is a teenage rebel who smokes roll-ups, resents her mother, wears too much black eyeliner and falls for boys who live in squats and play in bands. And yet somehow she still comes across as flawed and genuinely troubled rather than merely brattish and spoilt, which is no mean feat on the author's part. 

Her mother Lindy, too, is far less irritating than she might have been, even seen through Izzy's critical eyes. Misguided and overbearing she may be, but she does ultimately have what she believes to be Izzy's best interests at heart. The relationship between mother and daughter makes an interesting counterpoint to the main plot. 

The Prophecy of Bees an excellent chiller that's part supernatural horror, part psychological thriller. It's appropriately paced, packed with memorable moments and remarkably sinister detail, and builds to a tense climax. Despite an obviously contemporary setting - mobile phones, social media, Latvian housekeepers - it also has something of the feel of the best British horror of the 1970s about it, which I mean in a way that's entirely complimentary.