Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Book Review | The Rift by Nina Allan


Selena and Julie are sisters. As children they were closest companions, but as they grow towards maturity, a rift develops between them.

There are greater rifts, however. Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen. It will be twenty years before Selena sees her again. When Julie reappears, she tells Selena an incredible story about how she has spent time on another planet. Selena has an impossible choice to make: does she dismiss her sister as a damaged person, the victim of delusions, or believe her, and risk her own sanity in the process? Is Julie really who she says she is, and if she isn't, what does she have to gain by claiming her sister's identity?

The Rift is a novel about the illusion we call reality, the memories shared between people and the places where those memories diverge. It is a story about what might happen when the assumptions we make about the world and our place in it are called into question.

***

Around the middle of The Rift, a sister who insists that her traumatic twenty-year disappearance came about because she woke up in another world says, by way of explaining why she now shelves her novels in with her non-fiction, that "no book is completely true or completely a lie. A famous philosopher at the Lyceum once said that the written word has a closer relationship to memory than the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones. Anyway, it's more interesting. When you shelve books alphabetically you stop noticing them, don't you find?" (pp.199-200)

I may be too time-poor to even contemplate such an almighty organisational endeavour, and yet... I'm tempted, because there's some truth to Julie's attitude, I'm sure. Once something becomes known, you do stop noticing it—and there's so much in the world that needs noticing, so much that in a sense deserves the extra attention. Not least Nina Allan's new novel, which, like her last—namely The Race, a story of stories about the lives of ordinary people becoming unfastened from reality—mixes the real with the unreal to tell a uniquely human tale, albeit one that may contain aliens.

Like the lawless library we learn about later, The Rift swiftly resists the rules readers expect fiction to follow from the first by beginning both before and after the fact. Before, we learn of a girl—Julie's little sister Selena—who befriends a bloke who sadly commits suicide when his koi pond is poisoned. After, the girl is a grown-up, out drinking with a few of her few friends, who answers the phone upon coming home to hear a woman introduce herself as Julie:
Selena's first, split-second reaction was that she didn't know anyone called Julie and so who the hell was this speaking? The second was that this couldn't be happening, because this couldn't be real. Julie was missing. Her absence defined her. The voice coming down the wire must belong to someone else. (pp.23-24)
But it doesn't. The caller is her missing sister. Selena knows it in her bones from the moment they meet in a coffee shop a day later. She has the same way of making Selena feel insignificant; the same memories of what they went through when they were wee; she keeps the same secrets, even.

She keeps a couple of other secrets too, to start. Even after Selena accepts this new though not necessarily improved Julie into her life—a quiet life defined by Julie's absence as much if not more so than Julie's own—she simply won't tell her sister where she's been all these years, nor why she's gotten in touch all of a sudden.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Book Review | The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt


When the Supreme Being and his son decide that being supreme isn't for them any more, a new management team has to be found—and fast!

Dynamic, resourceful and always customer-focused, the Venturi brothers are perfect for the job, and keen to get stuck in. First on their to-do list is Good and Evil, an outdated system that was always a bit confusing and just made everyone feel bad about things. 

Unfortunately, the sudden disappearance of right and wrong, while welcomed by some, is a big concern to those still in favour of its basic principles. Particularly given that the Venturi brothers have replaced it with something that seems decidedly... well, evil.

***

The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt's new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it's more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.

God, the thing begins, is getting on. "Fact is [...] I feel old," (p.38) He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that "had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton." (p.37) An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.
You build a business from the ground up, you care for it, worry about it, you take pride in its progress, you're there for it when things don't go so well. But there always comes a time when you have to let go. Or does there? (p.37)
For obvious reasons, Jesus—who goes by Jay these days—doesn't disagree. After all, "they're father and son but also equal aspects of the One; it's therefore logically impossible for them" (p.35) to part ways in anything other than a philosophical fashion. It's to His credit that Jay does wonder where that's likely to leave Uncle Ghost, who's gotten a bit dotty in His dotage, before giving God the nod... but notably, nobody mentions Kevin.

Kevin is "the younger son of God, marginally less well beloved" than his celebrated big brother "and with whom his father was not always quite so well pleased." (pp.1-2) That's probably because Kevin is desperately inept. He's the kind of person who sticks to instant because he broke the cappuccino machine and everyone in a position to fix it with a minor miracle is too busy. Even celestial mechanics, "the easiest part of the business," (p.9) is beyond this poor kid, whose destiny seems to be to watch one rerun of Touched by an Angel after another, which... well, the less said about, the better.

To wit, when the time comes to hand off the heavens and the earth, Kevin isn't even in contention...

Monday, 12 June 2017

Book Review | Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott


The town of Rotherweird stands alone—there are no guidebooks, despite the fascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird's independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused. But secrets have a way of leaking out...

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothing before 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow been given permission to renovate the town's long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time—and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

***

[The Full English: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott]

If J. K. Rowling had given Jasper Fforde permission to document a decade of derring-do in Diagon Alley, the result would read rather like Rotherweird, an appetising if stodgy smorgasbord of full English fiction set in a town unlike any other.
Like everyone else, Oblong had heard of the Rotherweird Valley and its town of the same name, which by some quirk of history were self-governing—no MP and no bishop, only a mayor. He knew too that Rotherweird had a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world: no guidebook recommended a visit; the County History was silent about the place. (p.15)
Yet Rotherweird is in need of a teacher, and Oblong—Jonah Oblong, whose career in education to date has been a disgrace—is in need of a job, so he doesn't ask any of the questions begged by the classified ad inviting interviewees to the aforementioned valley. Instead, he packs a bag, takes a train, a taxi, and then—because "Rotherweird don't do cars," (p.16) as his toothless chauffeur tells him—"an extraordinary vehicle, part bicycle, part charabanc, propelled by pedals, pistons and interconnecting drums," (p.17) and driven by a laughably affable madman.

Need I note that nothing in Rotherweird is as it seems? Not the people, not the public transport, and certainly not the place, as Oblong observes as his new home heaves into view:
The fog enhanced the feel of a fairground ride, briefly thinning to reveal the view before closing again. In those snapshots, Oblong glimpsed hedgerows and orchards, even a row of vines—and at one spectacular moment, a vision of a walled town, a forest of towers in all shapes and sizes, encircled by a river. (pp.19-20)
It's here, in lofty lodgings and under the care of his own "general person," (p.41) that Oblong is installed after he's hired as a history teacher. But the position comes with one stickler of a condition: he has "a contractual obligation to keep to 1800 and thereafter, if addressing the world beyond the valley, and to treat Rotherweird history as off-limits entirely. Here he must live in the moment. Private speculation could only lead him astray." (p.43) And if you venture too far off the beaten path in Rotherweird, you might just end up disappeared—the very fate which befell Oblong's incurably curious predecessor.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Review | Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami


"I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden."

Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all. 

Marked by the same wry humor that has defined his entire body of work, in this collection Murakami has crafted another contemporary classic.

***

"If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden," muses Haruki Murakami in the materials accompanying Men Without Women. He must, then, be something of a glutton for punishment, having immersed himself in metaphorical forestry for the decade and change since his last short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, allowed the World Fantasy Award-winning author to tend to his wending trellises.

Compared to the twenty four works of fiction featured in that last, Men Without Women is a strikingly slim volume, compiling only seven stories, six of which Murakami's legion of English-language fans may well have read already. And whilst I wish I could tell you their haunting quality makes up for their wanting quantity, so many of said struck me as uneventful retreads that I can only recommend this collection with a handful of caveats.

That being said, if you come to Murakami for the cats and the cars, the deep obeisance to The Beatles and the bars choked with smoke, then come! Men Without Women has all that jazz—and oh so many miserable men and mysterious women.
The day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you're already there. But by then there's no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called 'Men Without Women.' Always a relentlessly frigid plural.  
Only Men Without Women can comprehend how painful, how heartbreaking it is to become one. (p.224)
That's as may be, but if this collection is about anything, it's about communicating that pain, that heartbreak, to the reader.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book Review | City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett


Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing. 

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve. 

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

***

The Divine Cities series comes full circle in City of Miracles, a positively action-packed fantasy about getting your own back. But revenge is not just what the hardy anti-hero at its heart is after: revenge is also what its both figuratively and literally tortured villain is interested in.

This child of the night, who shall not be named because to identify him is to invite his wickedness in, is not a divinity like the other antagonists of Robert Jackson Bennett's incomparable narrative—at least, not quite. He's really just an angsty adolescent; a "selfish kid who thinks his misfortunes are bigger than everyone else's" and has decided to take his frustrations out on everyone around him.

Unfortunately for everyone around him, this angsty adolescent just so happens to be the spawn of a few fallen gods. To wit, he has a domain—the dark—and some of his mother and father's magic. City of Miracles begins with him flexing his miraculous muscles: by outfitting an assassin to slaughter the former Prime Minister—and the first of this spectacular saga's protagonists—Ashara Komayd.

When news of Shara's shocking death reaches a remote logging range beyond Bulikov, every man around the campfire is taken aback, but only one among them takes it personally. He is City of Miracles' new central perspective, and whilst he hasn't played this role before, he's a figure folks who've followed this fiction will be intimately familiar with; a fan-favourite character, in fact, who has flitted around its fringes but never before been at its fore. That's right, readers: the focus of Bennett's barnstorming finale is finally on Shara's right-hand man, the Dreyling she saved who has saved her so often since. Good to see you again, Sigrud!

Following the death of his daughter in City of Blades, not to mention the mindless massacre that followed, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson has been in exile, none too patiently awaiting the day when Shara can at last bring him back into action. But with his dearest friend so dramatically departed, what does he have left to live for? Nothing, initially, but a need to make her murderer pay.

He does so summarily, racking up a rather improbable body count in the process. As a member of the supporting cast who crosses his fiery path puts it: "You've lost none of your subtlety, Sigrud."

But whilst raining hell on everyone who had a hand or even a hair in Shara's assassination, our daring Dreyling learns about a scheme that gives him a reason to keep on keeping on. In short, "someone is targeting Shara's adopted daughter" Tatyana, and having failed to save his last loved one, the least he can do, he reasons, is ensure that this small part of her legacy lives on.

To do what needs doing, he has to go to Ghaladesh. "Ghaladesh, the capital of Saypur, the richest, most well-protected city in the world. The place with perhaps the most security in the civilised nations—and thus the place that he, a fugitive from Saypur's justice, is most likely to be caught, imprisoned, tortured, and possibly—or probably—executed."

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Book Review | The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey


Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived...

***

Whether it's a character that captures us or a narrative that enraptures us, a situation that speaks to something unspoken or a conflict that builds on something broken—who can say, on this or any other day, what makes a book a bestseller? The quality of a given novel has next to nothing to do with its success on store shelves, that's for sure. Plenty of bad books have shifted millions, and many more deserving efforts have come and gone to no such notice. It's a blessing, then, when a truly wonderful work of fiction becomes a bestseller... but it can also be a burden.

The Girl With all the Gifts was probably the best zombie novel to have been released in recent years, and it sold hella well—well enough to spawn a movie that was also pretty swell. But while the next book to bear M. R. Carey's name was a dark delight in its own right, Fellside didn't catch on in the same way, I'm afraid.

To wit, I wasn't entirely surprised when I heard that Carey's new novel was a sidequel of sorts to The Girl With all the Gifts. I was, however, concerned; concerned that setting a second story in the same world that Melanie and Miss Justineau so wholly inhabited ran the risk of diminishing their devastating adventures. Happily, The Boy on the Bridge bears its burden brilliantly, and I can only hope it's as blessed by the book-buying public as its predecessor.

It is, admittedly, a little derivative. And I don't just mean that it tugs on many of the same heartstrings The Girl With all the Gifts did—though it does, ultimately: The Boy on the Bridge is an equally bleak book, and equally beautiful, too. But that's not it either. I'm talking about the plot, which is, at least initially, almost a mirror image of its predecessor's: it's an apocalyptic road story about the relationship between a teacher and her unusual student.