Having no idea what to do next left her traitorous mind free to ruminate

All Good Things
by Emma Newman

Book 5 of Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series came out in June and I bought it pretty promptly, keen to learn the fates of Catherine, Max, Sam and all the other great characters that populate these stories. I’ve been following the series since the start (I went to the Bristol launch of book 1, Between Two Thorns) and thoroughly enjoyed every instalment.

As the title suggests, this is the final part of the series (but is it an end rather than the end?). There are the same great characters and sense of humour, plus some seriously ramped-up action.

At the end of book 4 (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Cathy has escaped the Nether and is under the protection of Sam, who as Lord Iron is the one person who can keep her safe from the Fae and their magic. But Cathy doesn’t want to rely on anyone else, even the loveable, well-meaning Sam, so she finds a way to make herself stronger. It involves facing a huge decision, one that puts a lot of lives in her hands. Has Cathy bitten off more than she can chew?

Continue reading “Having no idea what to do next left her traitorous mind free to ruminate”

The delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box

A Little Knowledge
by Emma Newman

This is the fourth book in the Split Worlds, a fantasy series that Newman started in 2013 with Between Two Thorns. This review may contain spoilers for the previous three books.

The story still centres on Cathy – one of the “fae-touched” humans, whose life is controlled by the Fae – and Max, whose job is to protect innocent humans from magical misdeeds, such as being disappeared. Cathy must now live in the Nether, a magical reflection of the human world, known as Mundanus. Though she theoretically inhabits a powerful position in fae-touched society, she is frustrated by the confines of an extremely patriarchal system. Her experience in Mundanus exposed her to feminism and women’s rights – thoroughly foreign concepts in the Nether. But the resistance to her proposed changes is so extreme that she wonders if something else is going on.

“It didn’t help that at social events she just wanted to sneak off and read a book, like she had as a child. Although Cathy understood that wasn’t possible anymore, it was too much of a leap to suddenly acquire all the social delicacy and insight now required of her. Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it.”

Continue reading “The delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box”

The existence of the jinn posed problems

two-years-eight-months-28-nightsTwo Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights
by Salman Rushdie

This has everything you might expect in a Rushdie novel: gods, religion, satire, myth, history, sarcasm and wordplay. But it is much more readable than the other novels of his that I have tackled (The Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children, Shalimar the Clown, The Ground Beneath Her Feet). The tone is lighter, more comic, even though the topics are just as weighty.

The story begins in 12th century Spain, with exiled philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes (who existed in real life and is the source of Rushdie’s family name). He falls in love with Dunia, who is secretly a jinnia (female jinn). She bears him dozens of children but he refuses to marry her and leaves her when his exile is lifted.

Skip 800 years and one of the Duniazát, as Rushd and Dunia’s descendents are called, has begun to float. Mr Geronimo is a gardener in New York City, just one of many victims of the “time of strangenesses” – the result of a war between the Jinn leaking into the human world. The normal rules of physics no longer apply.

Continue reading “The existence of the jinn posed problems”

I knew the story would change as I told it

bitter greensBitter Greens
by Kate Forsyth

This book has a lot of elements that appealed to me: a dark retelling of Rapunzel, a fictionalised account of the writer of the version of Rapunzel most of us know – Charlotte-Rose de la Force – and the story of a 16th century courtesan in Venice who was muse to the great artist Titian. Plus that absolutely gorgeous cover art. How could I resist?

Did it live up to expectations? Yes and no. About a quarter of the way through, I was a little bored and even considered stopping reading. But from about halfway until the end, I was gripped and thoroughly enjoying the ride. So what was the difference?

The bulk of the start of the book is about Charlotte-Rose, but the interesting bits of her story are saved for later on – and it does get very interesting. The book’s opening tells us that she has been banished from the Versailles court of her cousin Louis XIV and been sent to live in a convent as punishment for her behaviour. There are lots of details of how austere and rule-filled the convent is, and flashbacks to court to reveal how wide the contrast is.

Continue reading “I knew the story would change as I told it”

A story can even raise the dead

Gospel of LokiThe Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M Harris

I had very high hopes for this book, possibly too high, so that even though I really enjoyed reading it, I somehow feel slightly disappointed. I’m pretty sure I’m being unfairly harsh.

Yes, the Loki of the title is indeed the Loki of Norse myth. This is the story of his time in Asgard, from his recruitment by Odin, the Allfather, to the final battle of Ragnarok. Loki narrates the tale himself, putting his own self-serving spin on events as they unfold. In this accessible, relatable style, Harris successfully brings to life a complex set of myths without the whole thing feeling complicated (although I did have to refer to the handy character list a few times early on).

“Words are what remain when all the deeds have been done. Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead.”

Continue reading “A story can even raise the dead”

Jokes, banalities and metaphors assaulted her sensibilities

rabbit-back-literature-societyThe Rabbit Back Literature Society
by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers

This book was one of the staff recommendations at Mr B’s Reading Emporium and I was attracted to the title and the sinister tone of the blurb. I waited until it was suitably wintry outside (it is set in Finland, after all) and then settled in for something magical.

Ella Milana has recently moved back to her home town of Rabbit Back to teach literature and help her mother cope with Ella’s father’s decline into dementia. Rabbit Back is renowned throughout Finland, indeed the world, for being the home of acclaimed children’s author Laura White, who is not only a beloved bestseller herself, but also declared that she could take ten children from her home town and turn them into successful writers as well. To this end she formed the Rabbit Back Literature Society, to which she invited nine children who have grown up to become great writers. As Ella is both an adult and not a regular writer (she dabbles), she is rather taken aback to be chosen as the society’s tenth member.

“The essays blared through her consciousness…Jokes, banalities and metaphors assaulted her sensibilities, and the floodgates of language standards creaked as dubious sentence structures and hyphenation errors dribbled through their cracks. Every imperfect essay left a dent in Ella’s mind.”

This passport to greatness appears to have been curtailed as soon as it began when at a dinner party thrown at Laura White’s house, a key person disappears in a cloud of snow. But Ella is still a member of this writers’ society and she is determined to dig up all its secrets, big and small, real and imagined. Why are words changing in library books? Why is society member sci-fi writer Arne C Ahlqvist (real name Aura Jokinen) creeping around Ella’s house at night? And was there a previous tenth member of the society who has been written out of its history?

I love that when the first few strange things happen, including Ella’s invite to the society, she is too busy with her normal life to pay it all much heed. She has a job, difficult parents, her own preoccupations. This really highlighted for me how often in books characters jump to something new in their life with no regard for what they would otherwise have been doing.

“He just wanted to look at the garden, to watch it grow – that’s how he explained it to his wife, Marjatta, who had begun to think of herself as a widow and sometimes suffered from a terrible feeling of guilt because of it. Old age doesn’t always wait till you’re old, was her way of answering him. Every day seemed to break off another little piece of Paavo Emil Milana’s personality, and piece by piece he was less and less the Paavo Emil Milana she had married.”

The story hints at and creeps into several genres. The overall structure is that of the detective novel, but it’s not clear whether any crime has been committed. Similarly, there are strange hints of the supernatural in various forms – ghosts, faerie creatures, magic – but nothing is definite, nothing is explained. Could it all just be over-fired imaginations?

The imagination is certainly central to everything else in this novel. White has trained her writers to tap into their and each other’s deepest, most buried thoughts to fuel their writing. The whole town seems to believe in magical creatures, in dark shapes in the shadows become manifest. Even the dogs are behaving strangely. But there is also the beautiful possibility of imagination, the joy that books (and other writing – one of the society members writes for TV and another for film) bring.

“ ‘It was a lovely collapse,’ Saaristo said. ‘Like something out of an old melodrama. All that was missing were the smelling salts. It’s no wonder you fainted in this crowd. Free coffee and cake will get the masses out better than resurrection day.’ She looked around, smiled broadly, and said, ‘But if you want to find characters for a book, this is a good place to do it, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I found bits of a serial killer’s mother, half of a hero’s lover, and three whole peripheral characters today. A nice haul.’ ”

As Ella learns the rituals of the secretive society and unearths its and the town’s secrets, there is always the potential for something awful to come to light, but what is hidden is more often sad in an everyday way, or at least everyday for the world – loneliness, infertility, the death of parents, the love affair that ended.

And yet somehow it isn’t a sad book, this tinge of sorrow underlines but doesn’t overwhelm the magical otherness, the sense of fun and adventure, the intrigue of mystery. There’s a black humour, a nod to the idea of the idyllic-seeming town harbouring dark secrets, but it’s so much stranger than that.

Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta first published 2006 by Atena Kustannus.

This translation published 2013 by Pushkin Press.

Source: Mr B’s Reading Emporium.

Mid-winter reading round-up

Hands up: I finished reading two of these books weeks ago and have therefore forgotten almost everything about them. They all deserve full reviews but I’d have to reread the books for that to happen and, let’s face it, that’s not happening. So here are some woefully brief thoughts on the last few books that I’ve read. (Incidentally, my 2015 reading has started slowly. Goodreads tells me I am already behind. Stupid reading challenges.)

Dear LifeDear Life
by Alice Munro

Munro writes beautiful short stories about everyday life in Canada, often set in or starting from the mid-20th century, and even the more modern settings have a timeless quality to them. There was a bit of a theme of passing through, of the people who are important to you for a while and then move on, which is not an easy theme to create satisfying endings from, but this never bothered me. I really liked the story “Amundsen”, about a woman who goes to a remote village to teach at a school that’s part of a tuberculosis sanatorium. It’s somehow very ordinary and very strange at the same time.

“The building, the trees, the lake, could never again be the same to me as they were on that first day, when I was caught by their mystery and authority. On that day I had believed myself invisible. Now it seemed as if that was never true.”

First published in Great Britain 2012 by Chatto & Windus.

Source: Foyles, Bristol.

The Dead Lake
by Hamid Ismailov
translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield

This strange short book started out with so much eerie promise but it got a little boring in middle. In fact, I put it down for a month and wasn’t sure if I would pick it up again, but I’m glad that I did. The language is beautiful and the story almost a fairy tale. It’s about Yerzhan who lives in a remote part of Kazakhstan where the Soviets test atomic weapons. As a young boy he fell in love with the girl next door and one day, to impress her, he dived into a forbidden (and almost certainly radioactive) lake. The consequences of this action are odd and fantastical, which is fitting for such an empty, unsettling landscape.

“Yerzhan stood there with his heart pumping hard, pounding its rhythm against the wall – or was that the heavy passenger express that pounded on the rails with a rhythm that pulsed through the ground? Whatever the cause of the pounding, Yerzhan just stood there nailed to the floor, more dead than alive. And once again that same implacable, visceral fear rose up from his trembling knees to his stomach, where it stopped like a hot, heavy, aching lump.”

Published 2014 by Peirene Press.

Source: Peirene gave this away as a free e-book to newsletter subscribers.

Rivers of London
by Ben Aaronovitch

This had been recommended to me by basically everyone and we accidentally ended up with two copies of it, so I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. It’s the story of Peter Grant, constable for the Met, who at the start of the book is at the end of his probation, waiting to be assigned to a department, so his whole career could hinge on how he handles guarding a crime scene in Covent Garden. Which would be easier if this particular murder case didn’t appear to involve ghosts and all manner of strangeness. This book is a lot of fun. It explores fantasy, magic, policing, class, race, history and death, doing so with great humour and plenty of action. There are already four sequels, which I know people rave about as much as this first book.

“Rush hour was almost in full flood when I got on the train, and the carriage was crowded just short of the transition between the willing suspension of personal space and packed in like sardines…I was sending out mixed signals, the suit and reassuring countenance of my face going one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race going the other. It’s a myth that Londoners are oblivious to one another on the tube: we’re hyper-aware of each other and are constantly revising our what-if scenarios and counter strategies.”

Published 2011 by Gollancz.

Source: Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.

Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial?

seconds-bryan-lee-omalley

Seconds
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This is a sweet, funny graphic novel from the author and artist behind Scott Pilgrim, very much in the same vein. It blends real life with fantastical elements and has a strong female lead. What’s not to love?

Katie is the head chef at a restaurant called Seconds, but her dream is to own her very own restaurant. She has started to make her dream come true but it isn’t going smoothly. Her ex-boyfriend Max keeps turning up at Seconds, she’s having an affair with the man she’s supposed to be training up to replace her, and the builders at her new restaurant keep calling with bad news. When she causes an accident through negligence Katie knows something has to change…and somehow it does.

“Katie disappeared into the pantry. It was pretty pathetic. She sat there heaving and trying to make herself cry. The saddest thing was that she couldn’t have a moment away from herself. And then, through a crack in the floorboards, she saw—something.”

This has elements of a classic folk or fairy tale, including the idea that being able to put right mistakes won’t necessarily result in everything turning out perfectly. It also has a lovely strand about female friendship, as Katie alleviates her loneliness by getting to know her waitress Hazel. In familiar Bryan Lee O’Malley fashion, there are no clear right answers and Tim and I argued about the ending, before agreeing to accept that it isn’t the ending.

“Katie’s heart wouldn’t stop racing. Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial? Was she losing her grip on reality? Was she even awake?”

The art style is simple and atmospheric, with some beautiful set pieces. For instance, one double page is given over to a top-down view of the Seconds building, like a floor plan occupied by people and furniture. It reminded me of a page from one of the Usborne Puzzle Adventure series, with subtle jokes and hidden clues to the story to come – and I mean that as a compliment; I loved my Usborne Puzzle Adventures and still have several of them in my library!

Katie is an imperfect, relatable lead character. She’s strong and confident when she needs to be, fragile and heartbroken in hidden moments. She makes mistakes and she tries to put them right. She’s a bitch on a bad day and beloved by all on a good day. She doesn’t want to be alone but she doesn’t want to give up her dreams for a boyfriend. And she talks back to the narrator, which I found hilarious.

So now the only question is: will Edgar Wright please make a film of this? It would be really really great.

Published 2014 by Ballantine Books/SelfMadeHero.

Source: Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth?

dragonriders of pern

Weyr Search
by Anne McCaffrey

After my recent introduction to Anne McCaffrey’s work, I was pleased to find this novella, an opportunity to check out the Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series that McCaffrey was best known for. Oh dear. Maybe I’m not a fantasy person?

My hackles were up from the start, as the story is introduced with a lengthy, complex prologue setting up the world of Pern, its people and its politics. Frankly, I forgot most of it almost immediately, but skimming through it again, very little of it was directly pertinent to this story and it could easily have been dropped.

The story itself opens with Lessa, who is using magic to hide in plain sight in her home, Ruath Hold, after her family, the hereditary rulers of Ruatha, were all butchered by Fax, a warmongerer from a neighbouring hold and new ruler of Ruatha. Lessa is exacting a slow revenge by preventing Ruatha from producing any profit, but as the story opens she feels a portent that danger is coming her way.

“When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category: Fairy tale? And why do certain facts remain incontrovertible, while others lose their validity to assume a shabby, unstable character?”

If this had been purely Lessa’s story, I think I might have quite liked it. She’s fearless and determined, but shortsighted about how her ruination of Ruatha is affecting its people. However, this is all rushed through far too quickly as backdrop to the central story – the dragonmen have arrived at Fax’s Hold in “Search”. Their leader, F’lar, is hunting for a woman for a purpose that is only slowly spelled out, and as he and his men travel the area it becomes clear how bad a ruler Fax is. He fears dragons and holds the dragonmen in low regard – it’s never quite clear if this is in ignorance of their power or because of it.

Perhaps if I was already familiar with the setting (and McCaffrey wrote many books and stories set in Pern) then I wouldn’t have felt so bombarded with exposition, but as it was I was constantly trying to get to grips with the terminology – Weyr, between, bronze rider, Impression, Dragonqueen, etc etc – at the expense of getting absorbed into the story.

“Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the prescience of a danger greater than when, ten full Turns ago, she had run, whimpering, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair.”

My guess is that this story was written to specifically illustrate the process of finding a new Weyrwoman, and to an extent details are held back so that the reader is as in the dark as Lessa. I would also hazard a guess that this wasn’t the best introduction to the world of Pern, and fans would recommend a different starting point. However, I’m not sure it’s for me either way. It felt to me that information-overload is an essential part of McCaffrey’s fantasy writing style. Simple conversations are peppered with authorial comment on the political and social connotations of word choice or tone of voice.

But that’s not my only objection. Though I believe from a little research that this is not typical of McCaffrey, in this particular book the gender stereotypes bothered me. For a book that starts and ends with a powerful woman who has a purpose not related to romance, the bulk of the story is about men talking war and politics while all the women are either servants or wives/mistresses with little or nothing to say. To a certain extent you could argue that this illustrates the kind of man that Fax is, the result of his methods of leadership, but if this isn’t typical in Pern then not enough is said or done to make that clear to the reader. I certainly came away with my idea of “swords and dragons” fantasy being rooted in medieval politics and gender roles thoroughly backed up.

“Mnementh’s many faceted eyes, on a level with F’lar’s head, fastened with disconcerting interest on the approaching party. The dragons could never understand why they generated such abject fear in common folk. At only one point in his life span would a dragon attack a human and that could be excused on the grounds of simple ignorance. F’lar could not explain to the dragon the politics behind the necessity of inspiring awe in the holders, lord and craftsmen alike. He could only observe that the fear and apprehension showing in the faces of the advancing squad which troubled Mnementh was oddly pleasing to him, F’lar.”

I’d still like to read more of McCaffrey’s SF but I’m not convinced I want to try more of her fantasy. Unless anyone can persuade me I’m being unfair and/or direct me toward a better starting point?

First published 1967 in Analog.

Source: Republished in Lightspeed Magazine, issue 20, which I have a selection of back issues of thanks to the Kickstarter project Women Destroy Science Fiction!

The sky was the colour of a day-old bruise

Between Two Thorns

Between Two Thorns
Book 1 of the Split Worlds
by Emma Newman

I went to the launch of this book a few months back (which for some reason I blogged about beforehand but not afterward – very strange) and the only reason I have taken so long to get round to reading it is that it is linked to a series of online short stories that I wanted to finish reading before I started this novel. Then I got impatient with myself and just read this anyway! I will go back to those short stories now.

Disclaimer: Emma Newman is a local author to me and we have met a couple of times, as well as having a few conversations over the internet. I think she is very lovely and this may or may not have coloured my opinion of her book. Which I really liked. I think it’s probably very good whether or not you ever so slightly know the author.

Newman has come up with something special in the Split Worlds. She has created a fantasy world with a multitude of characters and things going on that feed into not only 50+ short stories and three novels (at least??) but also interactive games. But you could absolutely read this novel on its own, or any one of the short stories on their own, and enjoy it for itself, without the extra knowledge of all the other stuff.

What’s great is that although Newman has clearly put a lot of thought into world-building, there’s no noticeable chunks of exposition in this novel. You get dropped straight into a funny but sinister incident involving a drunk man desperate for a wee on his way home from the pub and all the details you need to understand what is going on and how that links to the other characters are added gradually and skilfully.

“‘Tea, sir?’ Axon picked up the teapot. Ekstrand peered at it suspiciously.
‘It is Assam, isn’t it, Axon?’
‘Indeed, sir.’
‘All right,’ he muttered and started to pace. ‘It’s all happening at the same time. I never did trust Sundays and this only adds weight to my theory.'”

There are quite a few characters but arguably the main one is Cathy, one of the “fae-touched” who is trying to break free from her family and live in the normal world known as Mundanus by – shock, horror – going to university. However, those who inhabit the magical mirror world she is hiding from, the Nether, will not leave her in peace. In the meantime, Max, a sort of policeman of the Split Worlds who is separated from his own soul, has stumbled on a breach of the Split Worlds Treaty so huge that there’s no knowing how high up in society the trouble goes or who he can trust.

I like the idea of the magical world and the normal world co-existing, and Newman paints both equally well. Characters in both worlds drink a lot of tea. But the worlds themselves are very different, or at least their people and societies are. The Nether seems to be stuck in a facsimile of 18th-century Britain, all very patriarchal and anti-technology and formal, with rigid rules governing everything and everyone, especially women. Mundanus is the world as it is now, in the 21st century, which makes for a huge contrast in some ways. Really, it’s a wonder Cathy is the only one looking to escape the Nether! But the Nether also sounds quite wonderful, with its silver sky and all the possibility of magic.

“‘Bloody weather,’ she muttered and then silently took it back. The sky was the colour of a day-old bruise and the wind was bitter but she still loved it just for being there. She never wanted to see a silver sky again.”

While you could read this as a standalone book, I was left wanting more, eager to buy part two and read it soon despite my enormous TBR. Thankfully my procrastination on getting round to reading this one means that book two, Any Other Name, has already been published (and indeed I bought it last weekend) and book three, All is Fair is coming soon, in October.

Published 2013 by Angry Robot.

Source: I bought this at the book’s launch at Forbidden Planet in Bristol.