Book Reviews (14)

Books (14)

Dracula – Bram Stoker

I’ve seen a few people saying they struggled with Dracula, particularly the slow middle. I enjoyed it overall, but I see where this is coming from.

The key problem is that the main characters – each taking turns writing in various documents – can come off a little, well, dim. When someone is losing blood, has puncture marks on their neck, and seems to do better with garlic plants placed in their bedroom… come on, are you really going to dance around the V-word for a hundred pages? And not immediately realise what’s up when someone else gets lethargic? There’s dramatic irony, and then there’s wondering if the cast has lead poisoning.

But it’s a classic for a reason. There are striking passages, as well as a looming unholy threat deeper than some more modern vampire fiction. The Victorian religious context raises the stakes (lol) higher than the mere threat of dying or becoming a sparkly emo. Undeath is a curse, trapping a soul in a state inimical to the laws of God and man, barred from heaven and casting ruin on the earth.

Renfield’s spider thing is grim as hell, when things get going they do get going, and I liked the dry humour of workmen hinting for a liquid bribe – ‘dusty work’ indeed. If you like Victorian writing or vampires, here’s the obvious place to go.

Also, there’s some interesting stuff in this edition’s (Penguin 2003) appendices. Nobody has ever had less chill than Stoker in his gushing letter to Walt Whitman.

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco

A series of murders in a monastery in 1327, investigated by William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso. William must attempt to solve the case before a papal legation arrives for an important meeting on a matter of doctrine dividing the church and setting the peasantry against the nobility.

This is far from a straight thriller. Eco focuses deeply on the historical and theological context, with long debates on philosophy – heresy, ownership, semiotics. William’s detective work does showcase puzzle-solving talents, while the murders strike tension, but the pace is moderated by an immersion in medieval monastic concerns that, while definitely interesting and insightful, can get a bit obsessive.

At one point Adso, the narrator, spends pages describing the outside of a door. The book itself opens with Eco pretending, in detail, that he didn’t actually write it, but found a French translation of Adso’s original Latin text. So what? And why leave so much Latin untranslated – is Eco showing off his intellect as William does?

Perhaps the book would’ve benefited from some trimming – but not too much. If this was just a fast-paced historical thriller it wouldn’t have its depth of immersion, its portrait of divisions and power struggles on every level, or its grasp on character and psychology.

William and Adso are a brilliant monastic Holmes and Watson, and watching them figure out the way through a labyrinth is fun. I appreciated the rich context and broader concerns behind the sleuthing, but some of it is a bit dense.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

(H/t Michael James)

A fun read, with great examples of how to do things wrong and plenty of jokes.

Take this line from a passage parodying Russian literature: “Come, let us go to another room and slowly reveal to each other our unhappinesses!”, or this warning on shady agencies: ‘If an agent is charging you a fee to read your book, you would probably do just as well responding to that intriguing e-mail from Nigeria.’

All the key bases are covered: plot, character, dialogue, setting, aspects of style; as well as a range of more specific issues, like ways to prevent characters having access to a phone.

Some points felt a bit old fashioned – implying younger readers ‘may be under the vague impression that cell phones were invented by Galileo’, stating that self-publishing is only a success story if you end up offered a book deal.

Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation – Grace Blakeley

A rigorous but fairly accessible analysis of the financial sector. Blakeley explains why it took its current extractive and speculation-laden form, how it led to the crash, and the failings of austerity, providing bold, detailed suggestions for where to go from here.

I learned a lot from Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, but thought it shied away from the radical implications of its own content. This is rather the opposite.

Financialised capitalism may be a uniquely extractive way of organising the economy, but this is not to say that it represents the perversion of an otherwise sound model. Rather, it is a process that has been driven by the logic of capitalism itself.

Stolen keeps class at the centre of analysis, explaining how policies and models follow on from power structures, reacting to the struggle between labour and capital.

The outline of the 1970s discontents and Thatcher’s rise provides a compelling narrative of the contradictions of social democracy – a system aiming to maintain a stalemate between classes – falling apart, paving the way for neoliberalism. Thatcher locked in a new regime for decades through detailed strategy, including promoting home ownership with rising asset prices to secure a ‘mini-capitalist’ base in the middle class.

The financialisation of the firm provided an immediate fix to the profitability crisis of the 1970s – a fix built on the repression of wages and productive investment. [States] deregulated their banking sectors in order to give households greater access to credit and expand asset ownership [to] disguise the chronic shortfall in demand finance-led growth threatened to create, and to make the system politically sustainable.

But that housing bubble eventually had to burst, didn’t it? Meaning that the reality of stagnation is no longer hidden by the bubble, and old ideas are new again.

Blakeley wants to conduct an inverse Thatcher. With wide-ranging financial reforms (counter-cyclical capital requirements for private banks to support balanced investment, a National Investment Bank supporting a Green New Deal, debt refinancing, etc) taking place alongside the development of a People’s Asset Manager and Citizen’s Wealth Fund, she hopes to rein in the sector’s excesses, improve most people’s living standards, and secure long-term support for an expanding system of collective, democratic ownership.

Very illuminating, though some typos tripped me up, and some of the points on capitalism vs. socialism could use more expanding to fully answer the concerns and questions a newcomer to this way of thinking would have.

Here’s a good interview on the book.

Book Reviews (13)

books 13

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

I somehow hadn’t read either Pratchett or Gaiman before, so I joined seemingly everyone else in reading their joint story of the apocalypse going wrong. It’s a playful blend of funny and dark elements, with great turns of phrase and imagination, like when the demon Crowley ‘blessed under his breath’.

The Antichrist getting into new-age magazines, the corporate-training-paintball-thing, Aziraphale’s attempt at stage-magic despite being an actual angel, the holy water: there’s fantastic memorable scenes.

Like Ally said there’s the odd bit like ‘prease to frasten sleatbert’ (no enormous deal for me, but, eh). I would’ve liked a bit more of the sinister notes too, but taste varies.

Milkman – Anna Burns

An account of the Troubles from ‘middle sister’ in an anonymous town, with conflict brewing in an environment of rumour and sternly enforced unwritten rules. Another story of simmering darkness lightened with absurdity, but with a very different feel.

Burns captures a mood of conflict and rumour baked in community life – a place where there are acceptable or unacceptable baby names, films, even brands of butter; depending on political/sectarian allegiance. Along with the Troubles, there’s an intriguing feminist angle. Middle sister’s wry narration addresses the town’s perception of the feminist ‘issues women’, the policing of men for proper masculinity (with enjoying cooking or viewing sunsets being suspect), and the psychology of unwanted sexual attention going unrecognised as a form of threatening harassment (if they’re not touching you, it can’t be violent).

The absurd elements keep a current of laugh-worthy wit through what would have been dense and depressing by itself. The humour shifts the tone brilliantly, with great side characters like tablets girl, nuclear boy, or chef.

The language is evocative while maintaining the air of protective secrecy, with turns of phrase steeped in implication. The style is thoroughly distinctive, although the first third is slow in places and the dialogue can be a bit stodgy and unrealistic. I see what Burns was going for with the speeches filtered through middle sister’s knotted mind, told in her non-committal and defensive style, but some more direct straightforward speech could’ve been a nice contrast.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne

The mysterious Captain Nemo takes unwilling guests on a journey under the seas in a submarine far advanced for its time.

It’s a unique view of the world, with lush description of marine vistas. There is a fair amount of specialist vocab and exposition in there, explaining the submarine and doing sums. Unless you know the names of a lot of marine species, you’ll find your eye glazing at points, unsure what you’re meant to be picturing.

Definitely a bit stiff in style and dialogue – but it’s an enjoyable voyage, with striking scenes and interesting thoughts.

The Spellgrinder’s Apprentice – N.M. Browne

An orphan boy runs from his apprenticeship grinding spellstones, an escape punishable by death, but this doesn’t explain why the island’s tyrannical ruler is hunting him: fearing a return of true magic to threaten his power.

A quick easy read with deft worldbuilding and strong characters, magic and betrayal. The plot packs in a good clip of action and connecting threads. I last read this when I was a lot younger so half-remembered a few surprises, but it still holds up as a clever adventure with deep details, like how magically providing bread affects the market for farmers. Vevena’s ways of working around her curse make for inspired writing.

The dodgy comma placement is annoying, though.

Book Reviews (12)

Books (12)

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Akala tells the story of race and class in his life – featuring interactions with police, violence growing up, racist experiences throughout his education – and places it in a wider social and historical context.

His deeply informed and nuanced analysis picks apart narratives of ‘black-on-black crime’ (were the Troubles or Glasgow’s gangs ‘white-on-white crime’?); exposes our shallow self-serving vision of the end of the slave trade (which omits the role of slave rebellions); reveals Cuba’s significance in fighting apartheid; and much more.

Akala uses history and data to place his own experiences in the context of a class-stratified society forged in racialised imperialism, and unable to face up to the reality of its past or present. All more clear and readable than I’m making it sound.

Here he is talking about this stuff.

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy – Mariana Mazzucato

In mainstream neoclassical economics, things are seen as valuable to the extent they fetch a price on the market – reflected through supply, demand, and marginal utility. Mazzucato contrasts this ‘marginalism’ with earlier theories of what value is, how it’s generated, and how it may be extracted – arguing that as economics largely stopped debating the meaning of value, it has become easier for value extraction to masquerade as value creation.

The financial sector fetches a price on the market, but much of it is hardly ‘productive’. Often profits are ‘justified’ by risk-taking, but most of the real risk is taken in prior public investment and not rewarded. Inflated medicine prices are unjustified by research costs, and the argument their prices are high in proportion to benefit to society is false and has unacceptable implications (how expensive should water be?).

The public sector is undervalued, making it more vulnerable to capture by supposed ‘wealth creators’. Short-termism is incentivised, with firms spending astronomical sums on share buy-backs to please shareholders (instead of wages and investment). GDP has bizarre holes – if a company cleans up its own pollution that’s a cost which reduces GDP, if someone else is paid to clean up then GDP rises because paying workers adds value!

Marginalism is riddled with problems. Mazzucato doesn’t present a new alternative theory of value – the book’s long enough, to be fair – but calls for renewed debate about it to give rise to better policy. She does have a range of reasonable prescriptions, like using a financial transaction tax to incentivise long-term investment, nationalising natural monopolies such as energy, and upholding ‘stakeholders’ rather than shareholders.

I’m no economist, but I couldn’t help feeling she kept dodging the implications for capitalism itself. If landlords extract value, while there are more empty homes than homeless people, should housing even be a market commodity you can earn money just by owning and renting out? Isn’t the logical endpoint of ‘stakeholders>shareholders’ (at very least) Jeff Bezos losing a great deal of ownership and influence to all those employees he’s got pissing in bottles? If value doesn’t really track price, might markets and the profit-motive be inherently problematic means of arranging production and exchange? Important questions, but the answers are taken for granted here.

Even the Dogs – Jon McGregor

A man’s body is found lying in his dilapidated flat. Those who knew him watch from the sidelines as he is investigated, their stories of homelessness and heroin addiction unfurling in a close, intense portrayal of troubled lives.

This can be difficult to read, not just because of the subject matter, but also because the chronology is stretched and shuffled, speech merging into narration, sentences occasionally fragmented and paragraphs tumbling out of control. But if you can stick with it, you come to find the rhythm of the prose and the story, with each crisply depicted moment and detail adding to something deeply compelling, informed, and empathic.

There are some fantastically beautiful evocative passages, and the darkness is tempered by the humanity of the characters and moments of humour – ‘I don’t think I’d even have mental health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?’

From Hell – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

A  t h i c c  graphic novel exploring the case of Jack the Ripper. More than a theory of occult conspiracy and a story of legendary violence, it’s also an inspired depiction of the Victorian world and the birth of the modern age, reflecting on power and our fascination with evil.

Campbell’s simple but expressive black-and-white imagery fits the time period, portraying vistas of London as well as graphic brutality. The style complements the mood of Moore’s writing, rendered in suitably rough font – though I sometimes wanted it a little clearer or bigger.

The story is fascinating and multi-layered, going beyond the murders themselves to delve into the police drama and to highlight the victims; who are treated as meaningful in themselves, and to whom the work is dedicated. All the characters are convincing, their interactions showing different perspectives and places in society, backed by research, understanding, and wit.

Book Reviews (11)

books 11

Four Roads Cross – Max Gladstone

Back to the Craft Sequence with the sequel to Three Parts Dead. In the wake of what happened there, Kos’s shareholders attempt a hostile takeover while protests, zombie traffickers and demonic incursions rock the city.

Great stuff. Tara develops further in the odd position of Craftswoman for a god in a world where they don’t tend to mix well, while aware that staying in the firm would’ve paid much better. Cat and Raz have fun interactions, and the whole vampirism thing was inspired – really fresh sides to the idea. The farmer’s market subplot and characters were okay, but not quite as interesting.

Gladstone’s fusion of the bizarre and realistic – contracts as magical structures, student debts laying claims on one’s soul, market fluctuations in a fire god’s church threatening global economics – forms an insightful fun-house mirror reflection of reality.

There were little points where I found things weird for the sake of weird, but, as usual, the wildly unique ideas and plot notes tie up into an overall logic with an action-packed conclusion.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

The Allies lost WW2, with the US divided between Japan and Germany. In a neutral buffer zone lives the writer of an underground bestseller, telling a story where the Allies won. The characters deal with everyday life in occupied territory, take part in risky plots, and witness a power vacuum open at the top of the Reich.

The story takes place mainly in the Japanese-run Pacific States of America. The way power relations work in ordinary life here is masterful. The natives hate or fear the ruling Japanese, while adopting their customs and coming to view them as subtly superior. As lives interconnect, reflecting recurring Taoist themes, relatively benign Japanese rule is contrasted with the spectre of Nazism. The Fascist regime is presented as a nihilistic madness which has swept genocide through Europe and Africa, papering over the cracks in its instability with technological grandstanding.

The only character I couldn’t connect with much is Juliana – she seems quite vague, blown about passively by events and the I Ching. Why did she join Joe on that trip, exactly? Maybe I’m missing something, but some of those segments were the few areas where an otherwise deeply considered world and psychological nuance slipped.

The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

Very t h i c c and very good. It’s hard to summarise the plot: a Queendom without an heir, dragons, international ideological conflict, an ancient enemy rising.

Ead has a fantastic arc, sent from the mages of the Priory to secretly protect the initially cold-seeming Queen Sabran. Both of them grow substantially through the novel, while far in the east the dragonrider Tané pursues her ambition, at great risk, through some of the most intriguing and emotive parts of the book. Loth felt like he should have been interesting, but didn’t quite click for me – though the gruff but complicated alchemist Niclays was a strong character.

The core ‘ancient enemy rising’ plot thread tying all this together was the weakest aspect for me. That threat felt distant and amorphous much of the time, coming in rapidly near the end. I liked the mythology, drawing on St George and other lore, and the tension springing from different regions’ perspective on it clashing. But this involved a fair amount of exposition and exposition disguised as dialogue.

The court intrigue, character arcs, and personal and political conflicts are where Priory shines. Those aspects are richly crafted, forming the real heart of the book. Well-developed characters, rivalries, friendships and relationships more than make up for the flaws, with enough compelling drama and fantasy for novels in their own right.

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (trans. Ralph McCarthy)

Frank, an American tourist, hires Kenji for a guided tour of Tokyo’s seedy nightlife. Kenji swiftly finds himself swept along with Frank’s real murderous desires, in a novel described on the cover as ‘American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad.’

I was expecting a bit of 3edgy5me escapism, but this isn’t gritty so much as grotty. The atmosphere is mainly… empty. Yeah, there are some shocking gory scenes, and some nicely executed tension as Kenji attempts to keep his unpredictable client placated. The overwhelming mood, though, is loneliness and materialism and cultural void.

Sometimes that atmosphere feels thoughtful, as when Kenji muses on the ‘matchmaking pub’ cruddy furniture, the blank face of the man running it, the lonely and desperate characters trying vainly to assert themselves or connect with others. Other times it comes off as bland nihilism, not backed up by deeper engagement with setting or culture or character. I don’t know much about Japan, but this doesn’t feel like a convincing, disturbing portrayal of anywhere. It feels more like Murakami needs to get some sun and lighten up.

I can appreciate certain scenes. But as a whole, this doesn’t feel real enough to be creepy. Frank’s violence doesn’t mean much unless it’s somewhat explicable – rather than a cheap, ‘oh, he’s just insane’. Without more of a human counterpoint – which Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun, was supposed to be, though why is he dating a 16-year-old? – for a contrasting element of substance, the empty mood detracts from the threat.

Book Reviews (10)

books (10)

The New Poverty – Stephen Armstrong

75 years on from the Beveridge Report, Armstrong’s book explores the hidden poverty caused in the UK in recent years. He speaks to people affected by unemployment, in-work poverty, exploitative conditions, and the increasingly vindictive benefits system – as well as the organisers doing their best to address the problems.

I’ve read a fair amount about some of these issues. However, Armstrong investigates important factors that I hadn’t seen represented before: the rise in DIY dentistry(!); the decline in local news reporting and its impact on democracy and corruption in local government; how lack of internet access and computer illiteracy impacts access to vital services.

A distressing picture of entirely unnecessary struggle. People shouldn’t have to resort to pulling their own tooth out, but apparently that’s where we are.

All The Fabulous Beasts – Priya Sharma

16 bizarre, macabre, gothic short stories.

Sharma’s writing is elegant, concise, and deeply atmospheric. The stories focus on family, relationships, parenting, love and loss. Some of them were a bit opaque, with fantastical elements coming out of nowhere in a way that didn’t quite land; while some others felt a bit too obvious with their symbolic meaning.

All of them, though, are well developed, with a highly distinctive style conveyed in their details, characters, and turns of phrase. I most liked ‘Pearls’, a retelling of the story of Medusa with brilliant attention to character and modern concerns. As a collection, these fit together well, giving a cohesive overview of the sort of things Sharma writes about and her approach to storytelling.

Here’s the story Egg. If you like that, you’ll enjoy the rest of these.

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

The India Office sends injured expeditionary Merrick Tremayne to Peru, to get cinchona trees so the British Empire can produce its own quinine to treat malaria.

Like in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Pulley combines a well-realised historical setting and convincing characters with intricate, highly imaginative magical realism. There are nice cameos from Keita, which may be a bit confusing to people who haven’t read her first book, but I like that this is all one cohesive world.

This time the magical element takes a very different and unique angle, though it again involves time, and again intersects perfectly with the characters’ lives and their society.

The presentation of the India Office (formerly East India Company) is a deeply researched window into how imperialism worked at the time, and the natural friction between Merrick and Clem approaches similar themes – all with an unpretentious deft touch.

My only real quibbles are that some aspects of worldbuilding near the end felt like they escalated in scope a bit too suddenly to swallow, and that I couldn’t quite picture the layout of Bedlam clearly. Overall, though, another immersive work of magical realism showcasing what the genre can do.

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!’ Dorian wishes, beginning a descent into an aesthete’s cold hedonism that led critics at the time to moral outrage.

At first I struggled with this. Lord Wotton rambling on in pseudo-deep paradoxes (‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’ ‘The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.’) and nothing much going on – certainly nothing really scandalous by modern standards.

But then Wilde simmered down on the self-indulgent speeches, things started happening, and it was great. Some dazzling writing, capturing Dorian’s twisted state of mind as his corruption advances and his suppressed conscience stirs. It’s still hard to see how everyone was so shocked by this book, since it’s actually… clearly moral in its message? (Aside from the casual anti-semitism, etc…)

Sometimes irritating, but becomes a compelling psychological downward spiral.

Book Reviews (9)

Books 9

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

Danny, a misfit with a desperate need for Wi-Fi and phone signal, joins his estranged, successful cousin Howie in turning a castle into a hotel. As they navigate their difficult relationship and the castle’s surprises, the convict narrator’s story within the story unfolds.

The story of the castle is a good one in itself – the contrast between tech-addict Danny and luddite Howie speaking to our time, their awkward relationship rooted in the trauma Danny caused Howie in childhood, the blend of realist and bizarre. But that story is being told by Ray in a prison writing class, with Ray and teacher Holly’s lives also an interesting course of events, as the challenge of life within prison interferes with the class and we learn about her own state of affairs. It’s a good touch to have a bit of meta in the mix, as the two tales reflect and reach into each other.

The castle and prison narratives are both a strong mix of human drama and the strange, with intriguing characters at the helm. The meta element really adds something on multiple levels, without sliding into the head-scratching complexity or posturing that can come when things go in that direction, making the whole deeper than its two parts.

Really entertaining, thoughtful, and moving.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: a Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason – Chapo Trap House

The book by the comedy/politics podcast Chapo Trap House.

Chapo offers a caustic, ironic, irreverent look at (mostly American) politics from a far-left perspective, saying that ‘you don’t have to side with the pear-shaped vampires of the right or the craven, lanyard-wearing wonks of contemporary liberalism.’

The comedy is a cathartic take-down of the centre and right for Extremely Online failsons, but under the irony are nuggets of insight.

[The liberal] process pits tepid reforms against a deranged and revanchist right wing with no such inclination toward consensus or incrementalism. […] Without an organized and popular Left, liberals end up negotiating themselves into oblivion, moving the country, inevitably, to the right.

The chapter on the world provides a quick Chapo-style riff off Howard Zinn or Chomsky, the chapters on libs and on cons are caricatures of both sides with satirical summaries of major administrations (The young and ready [Obama] threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and declared, “Let’s find some fucking consensus!”), the chapters on media and culture are entertaining satire. The chapter on work is a great broadside against capitalism, railing against the system of wage labour (‘no employer hires anyone unless they can extract more value from them than they have to pay out in wages and benefits’) and the financial system’s destructive gambling.

Even as a Chapo fan, I don’t think their brand of bitterness and irony can make a whole manifesto. What’s missing is a chapter on the left – with, dare I say it, a bit more hope, warmth, and sincerity.

There are a couple of paragraphs here and there that mention egalitarian ideals, a new order where ‘the productive forces of society aren’t spent on inventing new weapons of mass destruction and clever ways to brutalize dissidents but on ensuring that all people enjoy the fruits of their birthright.’ Okay, but this is pretty simplistic, and only speaking to the home team. Chapo is better at tearing down than building up.

A must-read laugh for fans of the show. This book isn’t aimed at convincing newcomers, but as the hosts say themselves: your politics shouldn’t come from their dumb comedy podcast anyway.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

‘Bird by Bird’ doesn’t have much detail on the nuts-and-bolts technique of writing – point of view, showing vs telling, whether adverbs are all evil or not, etc. Its focus is on things like paying attention to life, staying at your desk and dealing with your neuroses until you can finish a shitty first draft, dealing with jealousy, perfectionism, and getting out of your own way.

Lamott is funny and honest, dismissing romantic ideals about writers and being published. This was a refreshing dose of warmth and sincerity after the Chapo book. Although there wasn’t much here that struck me as new insight, her points are still important and expressed with nice jokes and anecdotes.

If you’re struggling with doubts and distractions, read this – you’ll find it very helpful. If you’re looking for help with the gritty details of technique, try Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or David Jauss’s ‘On Writing Fiction’.

Broken Things – Lauren Oliver

Obsessed with the book ‘The Way into Lovelorn’, 12 year old children Mia, Brynn, and Owen killed their friend Summer, following a ritual from their fanfic sequel. That’s what the community believes, anyway. Five years on, their lives thrown off track by the murder, Mia and Brynn try to find out the truth.

Another great ‘story within a story’ thing, with extracts from ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and their fanfic providing clues to what happened that day. The darker elements of Summer’s friendship with Mia and Brynn come to light, as her obsession with Lovelorn and troubling features of her personality unfold. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, shaped by the past as her life and death looms over them.

A brilliant depiction of difficult knotty relationships, the aftermath of tragedy, and darkness tangled up with affection and hope. The mystery has some nice twists and turns, casting suspicion while building to an intense conclusion, and I found that ending a good move.

Book Reviews (7)

reviews7

Pact – Wildbow

(Webserial: read it here)

‘Blake Thorburn was driven away from home and family by a vicious fight over inheritance, returning only for a deathbed visit with the grandmother who set it in motion. Blake soon finds himself next in line to inherit the property, a trove of dark supernatural knowledge, and the many enemies his grandmother left behind her in the small town of Jacob’s Bell.’

Considering it’s basically a first draft, another impressive work from the writer of the acclaimed and massive superhero serial Worm. Pact successfully brings the Wildbow disturbed imagination and fast pace to urban fantasy.

The magic system and worldbuilding are great fun, following rules while allowing for clever use of them. The demons have real menace – in many horror films they’re basically just strong and possess people, while here they have abilities like ‘permanently block access to higher realms upon death’ or ‘delete you and all memory of you from existence’. It’s speculated that the universe wouldn’t be so empty if not for them. Heck.

Which makes it disappointing there aren’t more demons. The plot goes in some really interesting directions, but also misses opportunities to show things it should have. Making the reader expect one thing then swerving course can be a boss move, but what if I still really want to see what I was expecting to? The other key quibble is that all the conflict/treachery/let’s-screw-with-Blake can get tiring, and too many characters are just awful people.

There are some incredible ideas, characters, and nice flourishes like the ‘group chat chapter’. I have complaints, but this was basically a first draft written at breakneck speed – and it’s still well worth a shot if you aren’t too squeamish.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley

A compelling and charming work of magical realism, set mainly in an intricately realised 1884 London.

Thaniel Steepleton, a Home Office telegraphist living his life on autopilot, is saved from a bomb by a pocketwatch someone placed in his room. He becomes entangled with its maker, the enigmatic Japanese immigrant Keita Mori, and Grace Carrow, a woman trying to prove the existence of ether before she is forced to marry – events spiralling out between possible futures and opposing geniuses.

The characters jump off the page, and the plot is full of surprises, the various elements coming together elegantly. The magical realist element was unexpected, but makes a lot of sense and is used to great effect. The different ways Thaniel and Grace respond to it drives tensions, resting on a strong bedrock of psychological realism in which both their perspectives are highly believable, making the reader question who’s right.

Recommended!

Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero

The concept of a Lovecraftian riff on Scooby-Doo where the grown-up (and messed-up) meddling kids reunite and return to a case that wasn’t just a guy in a mask – hell yes. The execution… is a very mixed bag.

When it gets going it’s pretty fun, and the characters are generally entertaining (albeit one-dimensional), particularly the dog, Tim. If this were a film it’d be the sort of bad but good one that’s dumb as hell but keeps you watching, like a Sharknado or Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes. The book randomly veers off into script format sometimes, leaning into that atmosphere – but it’s still a distracting stylistic choice.

Some of the writing is definitely more ‘bad’ than ‘bad but good’:

Bruises sprawled throughout his slender chest and arms like industrial developments in nineteenth-century Britain.

The night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor.

Kerri’s hand was warm and white and so rarely soft like one of the only three species of flowers native to Antarctica.

She was joyfully drowning in Kerri’s hair, its fragrance and softness pounding on her senses like a cheerful Mongol army banging on the gates of Baghdad.

Kerri’s hair did get tiresome, and Andy (Andrea’s) attraction to her wasn’t handled that well: it was a bit creepy and more than a bit male-gazey. There’s also some trans comments that strike as ill-conceived. It’s unfortunate, because early in it feels like Cantero was trying to be #woke (Kerri tells Andy she thought she might have been trans, Andy clarifies she’s just a woman who doesn’t do traditional femininity).

Overall, I found this a fun ‘bad but good’ read with groan-worthy points here and there. Great concept, mixed execution.

Book Reviews (6)

Godblind – Anna Stephens

The Rilporian Gods of Light are waning, and the Red Gods are rising. The Mireces are preparing to invade, returning their Red Gods to the world by spilling the blood of Rilpor.

At first, I wasn’t sure about this. There were some pretty cool scenes and characterisation – the effects of Rillerin’s life after capture by the Mireces were portrayed with thoughtfulness. But also cartoony bad guys, occasional excessive ‘telling’, and really short chapters flitting between characters too much.

But then I got to the scene which informs us that Anna Stephens should never be trusted around a hammer. (Yikes) And it became really good!

The head-swapping was still often unnecessary, the bad guys were still quite ‘ha ha I like blood and death for some reason lol’, and a crucial – otherwise great – scene felt too reliant on rules-lawyering for me: but it was a lot of fun.

Fast-paced and brutal, with constant twists and really well written fight scenes. This is a book where if a sword hits your hand, you’re absolutely losing fingers. But there’s also impactful crisp description, and when Stephens does develop a character, she does it brilliantly. A particular scene/character arc with Crys at one point compares favourably to SPOILER LINK (a highly-regarded story), capturing his complex state of mind in that moment.

The grimness and gore are exciting – though, naturally, not everybody’s cup of tea. The writing approach has real flaws, but also signs of talent.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism – David Harvey

An eye-opening examination of what neoliberalism is, how it came to power, and its effects across the world.

Harvey meticulously outlines the contradictions between neoliberal ideology – free markets with only minimal state interference as the path to prosperity and freedom – and the reality in practice – states bailing out the chaotic financial sector, soaring inequality and social decay, economic imperialism through institutions such as the IMF. Neoliberal ‘freedom’ turns out to be the freedom of market forces and corporations to dominate.

Among Harvey’s investigations of IMF mischief, the inefficiencies of ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics’, the role of the state, etc, runs an underlying class-conscious thread which may strike readers not already way to the left of Thatcher and Reagan as too ‘ideological’ (which is a dumb complaint).

This is rigorous enough to make a very solid case against neoliberalism. Not only from a leftist viewpoint, but by many of its own standards for what it was supposed to achieve and how it is supposed to function. At the same time, it’s not too hard to read.

So, after all this criticism of the last few decade’s political/economic orthodoxy, is there an alternative? Harvey doesn’t give an exact blueprint for one. He prefers to focus on making the idea that there can be an alternative a serious proposition, and promoting an ethic of equality and solidarity rather than individualism.

At first I found this ending dissatisfying. But on reflection, it’s an inspiring conclusion which neatly caps off the issues raised. Harvey setting out his preferred alternative would have to be a whole other book in its own right – and I’ve had enough graphs for now.

Thunderhead – Neal Shusterman

Scythe was pretty dang good – the sequel takes everything up another notch.

The world-building continues – going further into the Thunderhead, the previous book’s extracts from scythe journals replaced with passages of the AI’s thoughts. The separation between the Thunderhead, which rules, and the Scythedom, which gleans, forces it to watch the unfolding chaos without any active intervention.

The continuing cast are still solid, but new characters also shine. Greyson’s storyline takes us through aspects of this world that weren’t shown in much detail in Scythe, and he’s just such a cinnamon roll.

Everything that was great about Scythe, but more!

Book Reviews (5)

The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla

This book complements Reni Eddo-Lodge’s (review here) well, reinforcing some of what she said about race in British society while providing some more perspectives, and addressing issues specific to a wider range of ethnic groups.

Vera Chok’s ‘Yellow’ addresses orientalist tropes and the concept of ‘yellow fever’; Wei Ming Kam’s ‘Beyond “Good” Immigrants’ questions the rhetoric of ‘the model minority’. Riz Ahmed discusses constantly getting stopped at airports with wry dry humour. Sarah Sahim’s ‘Perpetuating Casteism’ reveals the significant role of the British Empire in exacerbating the ongoing issues of the caste system in Indian diaspora – British-imposed censuses consciously using divide-and-rule tactics with ongoing impact. There are many other valuable entries.

Vinay Patel’s exploration of his beliefs and fear of death would have been a good essay for a different book, and not all the writers managed quite the analytical slam-dunk Eddo-Lodge’s book pulled off – but a world where everyone engaged with what’s said here, and gained a better understanding of these issues, would certainly be a better one.

The Vorrh – B. Catling

Not entirely sure what happened, to be honest. Something to do with a magic forest. There were various plot threads which didn’t necessarily connect together, and made some sense in their own right but didn’t give you much of a hint what it all meant. Why is that guy trying to cross the forest? Who knows! It sort of works, because he doesn’t seem to either.

This was insanely imaginative, evocative, with an image-dense writing style (which does trip over into purple prose imo). Part of me appreciates the dreamlike, mystic approach, the way characters and readers are both confused, at the mercy of mysterious forces. Another part of me wishes there was more reason to care about the characters, to be invested in whether or not they succeed, have a bit of narrative tension. The dark, peculiar, meandering literary atmosphere has its a e s t h e t i c panache, but don’t go in expecting a standard plot-driven novel.

Catling has some weird unresolved issues, frankly. No normal person writes a long stream-of-consciousness paragraph of a dog’s violent wet dream for literally no reason, or describes what a woman made from Bakelite’s vagina is like in obsessive detail, or… sigh. Dude. Take a cold shower, maybe see a therapist, definitely stay away from kennels.

Some really fantastic ideas, in a highly unique work of fantasy. The experimental approach has its pros and cons.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

This is really good. The worldbuilding. The magic system. The sympathetic characters, the nasty ones. The interplay between Kvothe telling his story and the ‘present’ interludes. Rothfuss has written an immersive and suitably epic work of epic fantasy, with humour, pathos, darkness, and excellent magic.

I just struggled with the protagonist, Kvothe. Is he a Gary Stu? It’s fine to have a character be a genius, but figuring out Chronicler’s writing system in a few minutes and learning things in days instead of months gets a bit much. Let him struggle a little bit first. Sheesh. I can buy him being a great musician, too, but not THAT great.

He’s probably exaggerating in places – but the narration doesn’t give a clear sign that he’s an unreliable narrator, and some of his feats definitely happen, in the present interludes. I’d like him more if Rothfuss either made him less over-proficient, or made him a more blatant unreliable narrator.

He isn’t a complete Gary Stu though. He has flaws which cause him real problems – he’s petty, impulsive, and really dumb in certain areas. There are places where he does reveal that he made himself seem more amazing than he actually was through trickery, and they were points I warmed to him much more.

Great story, great world, great supporting cast, mixed feelings for the protagonist.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

A human, Genly Ai, has been sent to the planet Gethen as ambassador of the Ekumen, an alliance of worlds. He struggles with the knotty politics and freezing climate, trying to properly understand the Gethenian’s unique gender status. The natives are neither male nor female, only taking on a sex during a short monthly period of ‘kemmer’. He instinctively applies human gender roles to the ambisexual natives, while they see him as a pervert in permanent kemmer.

Often fictional species are all humans with cosmetic differences, or with some heavy-handed cultural difference leaving little room for them to have divergent personalities. Le Guin managed to write Gethenians as socially and psychologically distinct from humans, and as individuals distinct from each other. The countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn have different political systems and cultures from each other, but both are clearly of Gethen.

The environment, political structures, religions, and particularly the gender element of Gethen’s inhabitants ties deeply and logically into every detail: the various words for snow, the code of hospitality, the lack of aircraft, the rules of prestige. Le Guin crafts an engaging story with rich characters, at the same time as ‘making strange’ aspects of the real world to expose insights into gender, politics, and life.

An excellent work of sci-fi for its imagination, setting, characters, story, and insight. Deserves its acclaim.

Book Reviews (4)

Scythe – Neal Shusterman

In a post-singularity world where poverty, war, and even death has been conquered, the population is kept in check by scythes, the only people able to kill. Citra and Rowan are chosen to become a scythe’s apprentice, but only one can succeed.

After reading Coffee Stars Books’ review I thought this sounded great, and I wasn’t disappointed. The world is so interesting – thrill-seekers ‘splatting’ off buildings for fun, knowing they’ll wake up in a revival centre; the ennui of having nothing left to achieve; the way people fear, respect, and celebrity-worship scythes. The characters are strong, and there’s plenty of action.

It’s refreshing to have a world that could’ve been a boring utopia contain such tension and drama. Looking forward to reading Thunderhead.

An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

Recommended by Phil Ebersole . The story of a murder in 17th century Oxford, told by four unreliable narrators: a Venetian Catholic, the son of an alleged traitor to the Royalist cause, the chief cryptographer to Cromwell and Charles II, and the antiquary Anthony Wood. Each present a different version of events, spiralling out into schemes at the highest levels of government.

Pears has really done his work. The political, religious, and scientific ferment of the Restoration seeps from every detail. Characters occasionally think in ways alien to the modern world. Early figures of the Royal Society don’t know things that we all do now, like what blood is for. Minor things in one version of events take central roles in another. Getting the timeline to fit together across all this must’ve been quite a headache to plan, but the result pays off.

This is extremely intricate and realistic, full of twists and turns. A compelling mystery that makes excellent use of unreliable narrators, combining deeply intelligent historical fiction with an ambitious thriller.

Anything You Do Say – Gillian McAllister

Joanna hears footsteps behind her on the way home. Sure it’s the man from the bar who’d been harassing/groping her, when she hears the man speed up she acts, pushing him, sending him falling down steps to lie, motionless, at the bottom.

From here the narrative splits in two. In ‘reveal’ chapters she calls the police, while in alternate ‘conceal’ chapters she hurries home and hides it. The ‘psychological’ part of ‘psychological thriller’ is taken with gusto – Joanna’s avoidant but well-meaning personality is highly developed, both irritating and sympathetic as the book raises social issues with a deft touch.

Joanna doesn’t get much chance to work through what she’d faced at the bar, too busy addressing the fallout of her own crime (crime?), in the double role of victim and – criminal? Is there any point punishing her? What is the justice system for – retribution, or rehabilitation?

At first she irritated me a bit too much, with her poor adulting and excessive adoration for her husband Reuben. But as the dual narratives progressed she developed, and I understood more where her flaws came from. The ending didn’t fully work for me, but on the whole this was engaging.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

Probably the weirdest book I’ve ever read. It’s about as metafictional, postmodern, and self-aware as a thing can be.

It begins, ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.’ You read the opening but are stopped by a printing error as it gets interesting, and when you go to replace it, you end up reading another book entirely, which is also interrupted early on, and so on. You read the openings of ten novels, alternating with a second-person narrative unravelling what’s up with these books via the activities of a troublesome translator, international book fraud, and shadowy organisations.

‘If on a…’ is a playful and unique exploration of the relationship between readers, fiction, meaning, and life. I like what Calvino was trying to do – it’s inventive, clever, and will appeal greatly to fans of things being meta. This is a rare example of second-person being used well. There were some quite funny and self-deprecating passages, and the writing at its best is richly eloquent.

However, it can be dense. It’s not an easy read. Some stodgy, opaque passages were definitely a thorny struggle, and the greatest weakness was that Calvino writes in much the same style throughout – a style that has its worth in poetic imagery, ironic humour, and wordplay, but can be hard to plough through for 260 pages, and gets too pretentious. Another issue was discomfort with how the female characters came across – objectified props for men, particularly the assumed male ‘you’ of the story.

Not at all a beach read, and I have quibbles. But if you’re up for something playfully self-aware with a highly original approach, give this a go.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

Harry August is born in 1919, and every time he dies, he lives his life again. He and people like him, kalachakra or ouroboran, cycle between birth and death knowing what will happen because they’ve seen it before. At the close of his eleventh life, a girl comes to pass a message conveyed from the future, child to adult. The world is ending, and it’s ending increasingly sooner.

Ouroboran pass messages to their future kind through inscriptions on stone and hidden messages, and receive responses sent back through their generations. They’ve set up systems to have money, rescue each other from the tedium of repeated normal childhood, and leave jokes on historical artefacts. Their often blasé attitude to ‘linears’, people who live and die normally, was both realistic to their situation and disturbing – it doesn’t matter, everything gets reset when you die anyway.

There was some real darkness here. The soviet regime is terrible, but there’s also the British spy resorting to torture while desperately saying he’s one of the good guys. Harry inevitably has a certain cynicism, and is in some ways an anti-hero, but he goes to extreme lengths to do the right thing.

The way time gets used here is a great alternative to standard time travel, avoiding much of the confusion that tends to come with it. North chose a good slice of time for Harry to cycle through. His lives take us to Soviet Russia, to China during the Great Leap Forward, to the Blitz. A great concept and well executed.