Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

I bought Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song over a year ago, where it’s been on my Kindle in my long list of unread books ever since. A couple of weeks ago, it was named Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy awards (a first for a  young adult novel) and this reminded me that I really should get round to reading it.

Image result for cuckoo song coverI’m so glad I did, as it really is a magical novel in every sense. It’s full of atmosphere and intrigue, the characters are a complete delight and the storyline is not only crammed with adventure but also a touching tale of family relationships. It reminds me a little of the best work of Diana Wynne-Jones – particularly books like Hexwood, Fire & Hemlock and The Ogre Downstairs in which magic creeps slowly into real-life, suburban settings – and that is not a comparison I could ever make lightly.

Set in the 1920s, it begins with Triss, the 11-year-old daughter of well-off, upper-middle-class family, awaking in bed after an accident in which she apparently fell into the Grimmer, a mysterious pond, and emerged concussed and feverish. Triss can’t remember anything about the accident, and although she seems to be recovering physically, she’s troubled by a number of things. Her feisty little sister Pen refuses to speak to her. She’s unnaturally, insatiably hungry. And most chillingly of all, her favourite doll has started to talk – and it’s terrified of her.

What happened to Triss during her accident? Is she going mad? Or is there something even more strange going on?

Cuckoo Song soon develops into a gripping, often eerie fantasy adventure that draws heavily on British folklore – the notion that someone can literally be ‘away with the fairies’, for instance – but manages to weave magic seamlessly into the burgeoning modernity of the Jazz Age. Early cinema, trams and Art Deco architecture all become enchantingly involved in the fantasy elements of the story, and the Great War still casts a ghostly shadow.  

The book is full of vivid and memorable characters. Some are immensely loveable, some considerably less so and some are outright terrifying, but each and every one of them is wholly convincing when it comes to their motives and flaws, right down to the most villainous among them.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel – I can’t remember the last time I read a book that conjured up such a vivid picture of its characters and setting – but the plot is never compromised by the evocative prose and there’s no shortage of pace and adventure. Cuckoo Song reminds me of the very best books of my childhood without ever feeling derivative. This one is an absolute winner with me.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Monsters by Emerald Fennell

The narrator of Monsters by Emerald Fennell is an unnamed 12-year-old girl, orphaned a few years previously but not remotely saddened by this. She now lives with her grandmother, who appears to be a wholly inadequate guardian, and spends her summers at a slightly down-at-heel hotel in Fowey, Cornwall owned by her aunt and uncle, who openly find her a burden. It's fascinatingly unclear whether people dislike her because of her undeniably unpleasant behaviour, or whether her behaviour has been shaped since birth by the constant emotional neglect and dysfunction of the adults around her.

Either way, she is now on the cusp of adolescence, utterly disdainful of everyone she meets and prone to small but significant acts of malice. Unsurprisingly, she is also friendless - until one day a boy her own age arrives in Fowey for a holiday with his creepily overbearing mother. United by a shared obsession with serial killers and a distinct lack of moral compass, the narrator and Miles are naturally delighted when the body of a young woman is dragged from the sea, and the murder becomes the focus of their increasingly sinister games.

The plot of Monsters could certainly have become the stuff of a dark psychological thriller, and yet Emerald Fennell has chosen to imbue the story with a coal-black thread of comedy and a strange sense of heightened reality that turns it into something quite different - Fowey is like a seaside town reimagined by The League of Gentlemen and none of the cast would be out of place in a Roald Dahl novel; moreover the plot becomes increasingly bizarre towards the end as the mystery is resolved. Yet underneath the witty observations and the often grotesque cast of larger-than-life characters there is a strong undercurrent of genuine horror and flashes of sadness that often come from what the narrator doesn't tell us, rather than what she does.

There were many things in Monsters that I found very funny, but equally there were many moments that I found uncomfortably disturbing. Such is Fennell's skill that there are also moments where it's impossible not to feel sympathy for the narrator, despite her many nastier traits - this is an author who knows when to crank up the horror and when to plant intriguing seeds of ambiguity. 

This is an extremely cleverly-written novel, chilling, grimly funny at times and frankly not quite like any other book I've ever read. I think it's fair to say that it absolutely will not be for everyone (the appalled reaction of some Goodreads reviewers should be noted) and I'm not entirely sure who its intended audience is, but I found it an original and entertaining read. One of my favourite books of the year.

The Children's Home by Charles Lambert

I was given a copy of The Children's Home by the publisher via NetGalley, in return for an unbiased review.

The Children's Home is a difficult novel to categorise. It begins with the mysterious arrival of two children at the vast mansion of Morgan Fletcher, a wealthy, disfigured recluse. How or why they've appeared is a mystery, but they're soon followed by more of their kind. Nonetheless Morgan, who appears to be an innately kind and sensitive man, is pleased to give the children a home, where they are looked after by his housekeeper Engel and attended when ill by a local doctor, Dr Crane, who effectively becomes Morgan's only friend. Who are the children? Why are they so adept at being seen and not heard at exactly the right times? Could their secret be hidden among the thousands of books and curiosities collected by Morgan's late grandfather, the creator of the Fletcher fortune? 

This novel has the atmosphere of a quietly unsettling dream: the sort of dream where everything is just a little too 'off' to feel normal and where all that happens has a strange uncertainty to it. It's unclear where or when the story takes place. There are cars and factories but seemingly no computers; Morgan himself lives on a huge gated estate and alludes to his inherited wealth, but seems barely aware of any world beyond the boundaries of his own land. There are signs that the government is some sort of fascist regime, possibly only recently installed after a war or a military coup, but Morgan himself seems oblivious to anything that goes on in the outside world - including, strangely, what his family business actually does or how it continues to make money. When this latter question is finally answered (at least in part) we're left to wonder if Morgan's melancholic innocence is in fact a severe case of denial.

There are elements of magical realism to The Children's Home, and it also has echoes of allegory, satire and even fairy-tale. The world Morgan inhabits is a dystopia of sorts, and it's not always clear what is real and what might be of Morgan's own invention: he is, it's made clear, disturbed by an early life that is almost gothic in its misery and further traumatised by own grotesque appearance, after which he has effectively been in a sort of voluntary solitary confinement for many years. Charles Lambert does an excellent job of creating an unsettling atmosphere which begins subtly and then builds to an outright disturbing climax.

The Children's Home is essentially a symbolic novel, and the reader is very much left to make their own sense of what its various elements might mean. If you're the sort of reader who likes a neatly resolved plot and clear meaning rather than a chance to hypothesise your own conclusions, this is probably not the book for you.

For my own part I found much to enjoy about The Children's Home and have plenty of my own ideas about who the children were and why they appeared at Morgan's house; however, I did also find the story rather repetitive at times, and by necessity Morgan is also the only really three-dimensional character with the others existing primarily to highlight elements of him. This isn't inappropriate to this novel, but it does mean the whole book feels rather like reading an extended fable, and ultimately I found myself disengaging from it as a result.

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll has been billed as a graphic novel but in fact it's a series of short stories. Seemingly based on folklore and dark fairytales, they all feature strange occurrences, mysterious disappearances and people who are not what they seem. The woods play an important role in each story, as they do in all the best fairytales, and this helps the whole collection feel cohesive.

Image result for through the woods emily carroll
Some of the storylines were familiar to me already, others not, but they are all extremely readable and perfect for a dark winter's night by the fire.

The stories are sparsely told with a minimum of text, but every word is perfectly chosen. Some of the stories are more memorable than others - my favourite is the one in which a young girl discovers that her brother's vivacious young fiancée is hiding a dark secret following a childhood accident - but they are all effective. As always with this type of fiction, the strength of most of them lies in what isn't said, rather than what is.

The artwork throughout is stunning, with strong gothic elements and echoes of Edward Gorey among others. The colour palettes vary a little from story to story, although some have a stronger visual identity than others. This really is a beautiful and striking book to look at, and I found that after I'd read the stories I wanted to go back again and again to take in the artwork.

A couple of readers on Goodreads and Amazon complain that this is 'not suitable for children', which is fine, because it's not meant to be - but I do think older children or teenagers who enjoy horror would probably love this as much as an adult; these are dark, campfire-type tales that a ghoulish child of around eleven and upwards would probably enjoy, particularly if they're a reluctant reader.