Monday, 29 June 2015

Weathering by Lucy Wood

Weathering is a meandering, almost dream-like novel in which a mother and daughter, Ada and Pepper, return temporarily to the decaying and isolated home of Ada’s recently deceased mother, Pearl. The cottage resists all attempts at renovation as the damp of the adjacent river and the constant rain and snow intrude on a daily basis, and the ghost of Pearl seems to haunt every last corner – literally and figuratively. The relationships between three generations of women are explored as they constantly repeat and reflect one another, and attempt to come to some sort of peace with themselves, each other and their surroundings.

I absolutely loved Weathering, but if you’re looking for a novel with pace and plot, you may want to give this one a miss: the characters’ journeys are slow and difficult, and the narrative is rich with descriptive detail, to the point where the house and the river on which it stands are really characters in themselves. This is a book with an incredible sense of place and atmosphere, and of the effect that one's environment can have on the psyche. Rarely have I read a book which has given me such a strong, almost physical sense of its location.

It’s also a brilliant character study of three women. Six-year-old Pepper is difficult child, excluded from multiple schools, prone to fits of temper and full of blunt questions. She’s capable of developing a fierce fondness for people, yet has little idea how to express this; at the start of the novel she repeatedly butts at Ada's hip rather than giving her a hug, and her disappointment when a feral cat refuses to return her love is poignant. Ada herself, back in the very place from which she spent her whole life planning her escape, seems inept and irresponsible at times; nonetheless, it’s clear that she’s simply trying to do her best under challenging circumstances. Cooking is one of the ways that she not only shows affection and helps herself to feel under control, but also the means through which she begins to find some sort of niche in a village stricken by rural decline. She is also full of guilt at leaving her mother alone – a guilt that’s encapsulated in the blood stains on the floor from her mother’s fatal fall.

Pearl herself, whose death has brought Ada and Pepper back to the house in the first place, begins Weathering as a ghost trapped in the treacherous river, and yet her plight is extraordinarily physical as she struggles against the current and the weeds. Gradually, she fights her way back to the house and makes her presence known in a way that Ada doesn't seem to find surprising; we’re almost straying into magical realism here, albeit in a remarkably unwhimsical manner.

There’s a suggestion that runs through Weathering that only through memory will Ada and Pearl manage to repair their relationship, as each of them dwells on their years living in the cottage together and on Pearl’s unorthodox approach to motherhood. They don’t explicitly discuss this – their interactions are small and few – but in the environment of the cottage, in which the memories of years past seem to be as deeply ingrained in the walls as the ever-present damp, they seem to be reconciled. Pepper, a child whose life so far has lacked continuity and belonging, takes to photographing things as physical record of memory, only to be utterly devastated when she discovers that her camera lacks a film.

The idea of someone coming to a particular place, hating it and then gradually finding happiness by making it their own is not a new one. However, Weathering presents the idea in a way I haven’t seen before, full of ambiguity and frequent unease. There is a strong sense that the battle against the climate and the isolation will never be won, that the house will never be comfortable and dry, and that its occupants can only accept, rather than overcome, this situation. Pepper is as drawn to the river and its bird life as Pearl was before her, and is enchanted by observing them, but never is the landscape romanticised – indeed, the river’s unpredictable currents and sudden rises in water level are a constant threat. Watching the birds means being cold and wet, entangled and scratched by vegetation. 

Similarly, every tiny thing at the cottage, whether it's getting the radiators going, making a journey in Pearl's old car or even just painting a wall, presents an exhausting challenge. There is no moment when Ada and Pepper finally triumph in their struggle with the house; when a leak in the roof is fixed, it simply reappears elsewhere.

As a portrait of rural life, Weathering is similarly uncompromising. Ada’s former school friends Judy and Robbie are struggling to keep their farm running, the local pub is frequently empty and serves terrible frozen meals; the village shop is exploitatively expensive, devoid of fresh produce and sells bottled water and bad firewood at inflated prices when the pipes freeze over the winter. And yet somehow, this is where Ada and Pepper realise that they belong.

Weathering is a beautifully written, vivid and captivating novel, bittersweet and occasionally surprisingly funny. There is a sense of melancholy about it, but ultimately, I found it strangely life-affirming.

After The Crash by Michel Bussi

After The Crash by Michel Bussi has been huge hit in France, where it was originally published, despite Bussi’s previous novels being relatively moderate sellers. The story begins in 1980 with a plane crash in the Alps in which every passenger is killed and their remains burnt to ashes – except for a baby girl who is discovered at the very edge of the wreckage, alive and unharmed. The problem is that there were two baby girls travelling with their respective parents on the flight from Turkey, and in the days before DNA testing, there is no obvious way to determine which one the miracle is.

Is she Lyse-Rose de Carville, born into an immensely wealthy and powerful family? Or is she Emilie Vitral, whose working-class socialist grandparents scrape a living selling chips and crepes from a van on the seafront at Dieppe? Judges eventually come to a decision, but can ‘Lylie’, whose hybrid nickname is a constant reminder of her uncertain origins, ever be certain that the ruling was correct – and what effect has all this had on those who may or may not be her surviving family? Her possible sister Malvina de Carville is desperate to the point of madness for Lylie to be her sister, while her potential brother Marc Vitral, in a complicating twist, is equally desperate for her not to be his.

The gradual unravelling of the 18-year-mystery of Lylie’s identity takes place from multiple points of view, including long sections told in flashback in the notebooks of Credule Grand-Duc, a private detective engaged by the de Carvilles to uncover the truth. 

After The Crash is without doubt a gripping thriller. It’s full of twists, murders, thwarted love affairs, unlikely alliances and a race against time (and across France) that features a particularly awkward road trip undertaken by Marc and Malvina. As a page-turning beach read, it’s a winner. It is also, however, absurdly improbable – something that’s even acknowledged at times by the characters, as Marc wonders aloud why Grand-Duc’s notebooks are presented in the style of a fictional whodunnit (or who-is-it) instead of an investigation report. Some of the cliffhangers are so contrived as to be absurd – pages ripped from files only to finish mid-sentence just before the truth is revealed, and so on. There are endless implausible complicating factors, unlikely stumbling blocks, perfectly-timed interruptions and repeated coincidences.

According to the blurb on the front of the book, The Sunday Times compared After The Crash compared to the work of Stieg Larsson, and although I don't think the comparison stands up to much scrutiny, I can see where it's coming from. After The Crash is very, very French in the same way that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is very, very Swedish. More to the point, both of them have some impossibly larger than life characters and plots that are, while deeply engaging, essentially barking mad.

It’s always hard to review the quality of the prose itself in a translated novel, as it’s difficult to know what idiosyncrasies are the author’s and which are the work of the translator. There are plenty of sentences in After The Crash that seem clunky and amateurish to me, including some misplaced melodrama which almost made me laugh. However, the primarily colloquial, no-frills style does make for a very easy, fast-paced read.

In short, this is a highly entertaining read if you disengage your brain before you start. I did, and I enjoyed it. You just have to be happy to go along for the ride.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Bodies by Si Spencer (artwork by Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade, Meghan Hetrick & Tula Lotay; colour by Lee Loughridge)

Right, first of all, I don't recall ever having read a graphic novel before and know almost nothing about the form, so forgive me if I review Si Spencer's Bodies (originally released in eight episodes but now brought together in a single volume) in completely the wrong way: the last book I read that had speech bubbles was probably a Monster Fun annual so essentially I have no other graphic novels as a reference point.

Anyway. The initial set-up of Bodies is an absolute belter: there are four detectives, operating in four different time periods ... investigating what appears to be exactly the same murder. Same corpse, same position, same location and the same elements of what appears to be a ritualistic killing.  The only thing that seems to connect the detectives is that they are all to some degree outsiders. Shahara Hasan is a hijab-wearing Muslim police officer in the present day. In Victorian London, Inspector Hillinghead is trying to conceal his homosexuality from his colleagues. In the Blitz-ravaged East End of 1940, Karl Weissman - or Charles Whiteman, as he prefers to be known - has escaped the Warsaw ghetto only to become a corrupt copper. Finally, far in the future, a young woman whose name may or may not be Maplewood has a brain so addled that she's barely aware what a corpse is at all. Throw in the cult of Mithras, apocalyptic pulse waves, neo-fascist terrorist groups, Jack The Ripper, psychogeography, potential shamanism and cryptically repeated instructions to 'know you are loved', and you have a dizzying, high-concept mystery with immense scope and ambition.

Unlike a lot of high-concept fiction, however, Bodies doesn't skimp on character: each detective has a strong individuality that comes through in the dialogue as well as their actions, and there isn't a stereotype in sight (this, in itself, is significant to the story). Neither does its undeniable cleverness come at the expense of a heart: there's plenty of humour, and also some genuinely affecting moments, not least in the final pages. If you don't feel find yourself a little misty-eyed at the ending, you may well have something wrong with you - especially if you happen to be English.

England and Englishness are central to Bodies - it's essentially a story of identity and culture. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that this not really a murder mystery at all, and the corpse, reappearing in the same location to different people at different times - people whose speech and thoughts carry occasional echoes of one another - has a symbolic significance to England.

And yet, as is clearly evident by the diversity of the characters and their circumstances, English identity can mean a million and one things to any and all of us, and is inextricably entangled in our endlessly complicated history and melting pot of cultures and influences, in our finest moments and our most shameful. This is reflected in Bodies not just in character but also in language and setting.

Throughout the book you'll find countless hints, clues, references and allusions, not just in the dialogue but in the names of people, places and things - and indeed within the artwork. In fact, by the time we reach Maplewood in 2050, her consciousness seems to consist of almost nothing else as she struggles to piece together snippets of memory and language into anything of which she can make some sort of sense. And is the murdered man re-appearing over and over again, like a reverberating echo through time? Or does he appear once, but in simultaneous time periods? Most importantly, are you confused yet? If not, you probably should be, because if you finish Bodies without wanting to go straight back and look for more things to try to understand, you've seriously missed out on the fun.

I've now realised that I've got through this whole review without mentioning the artwork, which is clearly incredibly important to the book. Each of the four detectives' stories has its own artist and its own colour palettes, which gives each time period a distinctive atmosphere. There's a smoky, noirish feel to the 1940s sections, which are visually my personal favourites - you can almost hear the eerie wail of distant air-raid sirens, and every frame is rendered with incredible detail. The Victorian storyline has hints of Hammer and steampunk, with a fantastic dark colour scheme with splashes of Ripper red. In 2050, Maplewood wanders through a disorientating, far more stylised world filtered through unnatural, suitably sickly neons, as befits her confused mental state. Shahara's investigation takes place in a gritty-looking environment of concrete blues and greys, as if we're looking at news footage or even CCTV. Despite the clear visual differences between each section, the different colour palettes used for each (the work of colourist Lee Loughridge) are carefully chosen to give the whole thing a sense of continuity and cohesion that isn't just visually pleasing but is also symbolically significant.

If you want a clear and straightforward mystery with all the loose ends tied up, you won't find that here: this book is strange, ambiguous, complicated and open to interpretation, like a jigsaw puzzle that constantly shifts and expands as you try to complete it, and occasionally turns into a crossword puzzle or a treasure hunt just for larks. However, I personally found it no less satisfying for that, and this is a book that I'll re-read over and over again.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Offering by Grace McCleen

I adored Grace McCleen's earlier novel The Land of Decoration, and The Offering similarly has as its protagonist a young girl growing up in relative isolation with religious fundamentalists, deeply confused about what she believes to be her relationship with God.

Image result for the offering grace mccleenTold partly from the point of view of the adult Madeline, now in a psychiatric institution and undergoing hypnosis at the direction of an ambiguous, almost sinister doctor, and partly in flashback, it's the story of Madeline's family's spiral of tragedy during the year they spent trying to make a life for themselves on a small farm on an unnamed island off the coast of England.

This is, from the outset, a somewhat unsettling novel, with a powerful sense of foreboding that hangs over both the past and present narratives, rather like the shadowy presence of the judgemental, threatening Old Testament God Madeline's father has taught her to fear. Darkness is always just around the corner, even when Madeline speaks of her love of the island and its natural landscape, or her touching bond with her dog Elijah, effectively her only friend. As the family sink into poverty and resentment, it's impossible not to share Madeline's own bitter anger at her father's stubborn insistence that God will provide, not to mention his dismissal of his wife's obvious suffering as she begins to succumb to depression, his beliefs as rigid as his temper is volatile. Meanwhile, in the present day there are obvious parallels between Madeline's father and Dr Lucas, the domineering psychiatrist.

Like The Land of Decoration, The Offering deals with the fine line between religious fervour and mental illness - 'hearing' the voice of God, for example, and a conviction that good and bad luck can be created and prevented by one's own actions, as well as a disturbing sense of low-level paranoia that comes from a genuine fear of the temptations of Satan. Entirely isolated from her peers (and indeed, terrified of them) the twin burdens of guilt and responsibility that weigh down on Madeline's shoulders are almost painful for us to read about, let alone for a 13-year-old girl to bear without lasting psychological damage.

Throughout the novel Grace McCleen weaves together the vivid, evocative prose of Madeline's suppressed memories and the drab institutional ugliness of the psychiatric hospital with a strong thread of lurking unease and, despite everything, the occasional spark of wry, observant humour. As befits a novel told from the point of view of a severely disturbed and presumably constantly medicated psychiatric patient, there is a slightly dream-like, drifting quality to certain sections, while others have a sense of very concrete, mundane reality.

Although The Offering is, undeniably, a terribly sad novel, it is also a beautiful and a powerful one - plus, I found it every bit as a gripping as a thriller. This is a book I will continue to think about for a very long time.

Under My Skin by James Dawson

Image result for under my skin james dawsonJames Dawson writes for a young adult audience, but I enjoyed his debut Hollow Pike a couple of years ago and had been meaning to try another of his books. Like Hollow Pike, Under My Skin is a teen horror novel with a sixth-form setting: mousy protagonist Sally Feather, bullied by the cool kids and painfully shy, stumbles into a tattoo parlour after being harassed by a sinister homeless man and suddenly decides, under the influence of the mysteriously persuasive receptionist, that a tattoo is the answer to all her problems.

And not just any tattoo. Sally's design of choice is Molly Sue, a vintage pin-up girl who represents everything that Sally is not - confident, sexy, daring, dangerous. But it soon transpires that having to hide Molly Sue from her deeply conservative parents is the least of Sally's worries. There's clearly more to Molly Sue than meets the eye - and of course, once you get a tattoo, you're stuck with it forever...

If, like me, you're interested in tattooing and tattoo culture, do be aware that there's almost no exploration of the significance or experience of being tattooed - indeed, Sally's tattoo parlour experience actually bears little resemblance to reality. Not that this matters, as the reasons for this do subsequently become clear as the tension builds at the end of the story.

What I liked most about Under My Skin is the rejection of female stereotypes. When Sally is transformed from a nerd whose mum buys her clothes into a badass bleached blonde rock chick, it's made clear that her new look doesn't have to mean making a choice between 'ugly and deep, or pretty and shallow'. The ultimate conclusion is essentially that girls don't have to decide if they're 'virgin or vamp', and it's only by understanding this that Sally might just manage to beat the terrible evil that threatens to to overwhelm her.

I also enjoyed the friendship between Sally and her friends, Jennie and Stan, and the acknowledgement, through Jennie's relationship with her boyfriend Kyle, that teenage relationships can be every bit as dysfunctional and destructive as adult ones. There's plenty of diversity among the characters too, which is great to see. Dawson goes out of his way to highlight and condemn the lazy, casual homophobia that's still rife among some teenagers, and the inevitability of the class's best singer standing no chance of getting the lead role in the school musical if she's heavily overweight, but manages never to be patronising in the way he addresses these topics. There are smart, witty observations and entertaining dialogue throughout.

Less successful, for me, were some of the supporting characters. Sally's parents are suburban caricatures who just didn't ring true, particularly in their dialogue, and despite an attempt to point out that even school bullies are insecure kids at heart, Sally's nemesis Melody and her henchwomen are straight from Heathers or Mean Girls, the boy of Sally's dreams is a cardboard cut-out school hunk - plus, the resolution of the romantic element is exactly what you know it will be right from the start.

As far as the horror goes, it's fun and a little schlocky rather than genuinely creepy - think Buffy and Point Horror rather than full-on terror (indeed, the protagonist's favourite TV show is a Buffy-style American import called Satanville). It's entertaining, but I might have preferred a few more real scares.

That said, I'm not by any means this book's target audience: I'm pushing forty, and I wasn't especially interested in reading about teenage relationships even when I was an actual teenager, so it was probably inevitable that certain aspects of Under My Skin wouldn't hold much appeal for me. Under My Skin doesn't have quite the 'crossover' appeal of some YA novels, but that's not by any means a criticism - Dawson writes very well for his intended readership. Some of the cliches of teen literature can be found in this book, but they're subverted often enough for me to happily recommend this for the teenagers in your life.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life last year and loved it, so I should probably be reading the recently-released sequel A God In Ruins about now. However, when I reviewed Life After Life a Facebook friend urged me to read the Jackson Brodie series, and I've just got round to doing so with Case Histories.

Jackson Brodie is a private detective and Case Histories is ostensibly a crime novel, but as you'd expect from Kate Atkinson, it's not quite a straightforward whodunnit and despite the (several) mysteries within the novel, it's driven more by character than plot. Case Histories is full of dysfunctional families and hopeless relationships, and characters who are trapped in one way or another, sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by guilt, sometimes by the past, and sometimes simply by their own idiosyncratic shortcomings.

The novel opens with three families, three tragedies, and three time periods. In 1970, the youngest of four girls is taken from her own garden while her sister sleeps beside her. In 1979, an eighteen-year-old mother's post-natal depression drives her to reach for an axe when her husband wakes the baby. In 1994, a doting father arrives at his office to find that his daughter, working there in the school holidays, has been murdered by a crazed intruder. Brodie himself, who like many a detective is haunted by a family tragedy of his own, is called upon to carry out three separate investigations in relation to the above cases.

Each of the incidents is shocking, but somehow, Atkinson is an expert at keeping such events to a small scale - these are domestic family tragedies, with all the mundane detail and a narrow impact. Theo, the father whose daughter is murdered at his own workplace, finds it hard to comprehend that ten years later Laura's death has had so little effect on anyone beyond her immediate family that the building is now a beauty spa. Startling events, bizarre attitudes deeply eccentric behaviour and appallingly unpleasant people are described in a manner so stoically, darkly matter-of-fact that it's sometimes impossible not to laugh at the sheer Englishness of it all.

As a detective novel, Case Histories probably relies too much on coincidence for some crime readers' tastes - for a detective, the somewhat hapless Jackson Brodie doesn't do an enormous amount of detecting, and what he does do is combined with his duties as a divorced father. But really, this is far from the point. This is a detective novel that, like Life After Life, deals with the small moments on which a person's fate can turn, and the tiny, unpredictable ways in which people can be linked by seemingly insignificant factors.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

The Wolf Border is Sarah Hall’s fifth novel, but the first of hers I've read. After The Wolf Border I'll certainly look out for more of her work.

Rachel Caine is a zoologist who works on a wolf conservation programme, stationed on a Native American reservation. When she is offered the chance to oversee an experiment to reintroduce wolves to a secured area of land in Cumbria, close to where she grew up, she initially turns down the role; although left to fend for themselves, the wolves are essentially captive, and Rachel is unsure of the motives of the rich aristocrat-turned-entrepeneur, the Earl of Annerdale, on whose land the project will take place. But when two life-changing events occur within a short period, returning to Cumbria becomes as much as about escaping as coming home.

It isn’t the plot that makes The Wolf Border a compelling read – indeed, some readers might find it a little anticlimactic in that sense, as what little conflict there is tends to resolve itself fairly rapidly. What makes this book stand out is Sarah Hall’s beautiful, incredibly vivid prose, combined with a character-driven narrative. The novel deals in various ways with freedom, wildness and regeneration, with the wolves themselves becoming an extended metaphor for growth, fertility and rebirth in an emotional sense as well as a physical one, the developments in their lives often mirroring Rachel’s own. There are also elements of psychogeography in Hall's stunning descriptions of the Cumbrian landscape, and the effects of human intervention upon it.

Another strong thread running through the book is an exploration of the influence of parents on the children. Rachel and her half-brother Lawrence are both shaped in different ways by their difficult childhood with their eccentric, promiscuous mother Binny, frail and incontinent at the start of The Wolf Border but still in some ways the formidable force she once was. Rachel, despite the physical and emotional distance between herself and her mother, frequently echoes her behaviour both consciously and unconsciously. Rachel's childhood leaves her rejecting emotional closeness, while Lawrence seems to crave love and stability. Sylvia and Leo Pennington, the Earl of Annerdale’s children, are bowed by the weight of inherited responsibility and the whims of their father. 

The Wolf Border is also set against a backdrop of political change, with a fictional Prime Minister presiding over a Britain in which Scotland has just won its independence referendum. While this isn’t a major part of the story, borders are always oddly fascinating to me and indeed, when problems arise with the Cumbria wolf programme, the England-Scotland split acquires a vital significance. I would, however, have liked to see this explored in a little more depth, as there are times when its treatment feels a little cursory, as if an opportunity were being wasted, particularly when it comes to the Earl’s own interests and motives.

This book’s biggest strength is the sheer quality of its prose, which is remarkable throughout. The passages in which Rachel observes the wolves are, in particular, beautifully written, and her unsentimental love and respect for them and all that they represent shines from the page. Every character is perfectly described, and every line of dialogue is convincing. Earl of Annerdale Thomas Pennington is a perfect rendition of a man with too much entitlement, too much money and too few people around him who are prepared to say no. There is not a single poorly-chosen word in this novel.

As a lead character, Rachel herself is not always entirely sympathetic; she can be cold and distant, even selfish. However, like most of us, Rachel is trying to do her best in the only way she knows how – professionally and personally. When we first meet her at the start of the book, she has spent the past ten years in America, not only avoiding her family but also making a point of forming no new close bonds of her own. By the end of the novel, Rachel’s life has changed immensely and we get the sense of a character regenerated and renewed.