“Stone Spring” by Stephen Baxter (2010)

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stone-spring“The comet swam out of the dark.”

Stephen Baxter is terrifyingly prolific as an author. Since 1991, he seems to have produced at least one novel a year, and in many cases two or three. If these were short novellas one might be less in awe of him, but they are all enormous, well-researched pieces of science fiction. Indeed, I’ve only read four of his tomes and already that means I’ve clocked up 2,182 pages of his writing. I first came to him with his novel Flood, and its sequel Ark, and later fell for his huge, sprawling blockbuster Evolution. I arrive now on the shores of Doggerland, almost ten thousand years before present day, reading myself onto a coast no living human has ever seen.

Doggerland, or as it’s known in the book, Northland, is the bridge that connects Britain to Europe and disappeared several thousand years ago when it was swallowed up by rising sea levels, cutting the British Isles off from the main continent. Ana is fourteen and is about to undergo her bloodtide, the time in which a child becomes an adult and is chosen by their Other. She is assisted by her grandmother and sister, but more than anything she misses her father, who disappeared months ago while out fishing. At her bloodtide, her Other is declared by the priest to be the owl, a bad omen – a symbol of death.

The small community of Etxelur is shaken when members of the nearby Pretani tribe come to stay, with the possibility of seeking out wives, and soon numbers expand futher as Ana’s father returns with a young woman, Ice Dreamer, in tow from a legendary continent far off to the west, and a slave boy, Novu, from the strange walled city of Jericho join the ranks of the peaceful Northlanders. Everything changes however when the sea turns against its people and a tsunami washes across the village, destroying everything and killing countless members of the community. Ana is left in charge of her people, and she comes to a staggering conclusion: if Jericho can build a wall to keep people out, it surely wouldn’t be impossible to build one to keep the sea out? Her dreams and then her actions will shape the course of history, and lead Earth down a very different path to the one that occured in our history.

As always with Baxter, the book is enormous and appears daunting, but the language flows, the setting and characters are engaging, and you find yourself pulled along willingly as the plot swims around you and tangles itself up in its embrace. Baxter is notable for long passages that contain no dialogue and just describe the world in immense detail, but even these aren’t dull. He paints a fascinating and vivid picture of a world long gone and, to our history at least, mostly never having existed.

His real skill though is how he builds up the various human factions. Each one feels distinct and identifiable. The Northlanders are mostly a matriarchal tribe who each have an animal spirit that guides them. The snailheads engage in artificial cranial deformation by giving themselves pointed heads, and name themselves after body parts (Knuckle, Cheek, Eyelid, etc).  The Bone People wear the bones of their ancestors as accessories. The Pretani, who resemble the Picts of ancient Britain, are aggressive and give themselves tree-centric names (Root, Bark, Acorn, etc), and they live in fear of the Leafy Boys, mute green-stained denizens of the canopies who attack anyone who gets in their way. Naming conventions also are particularly obvious with the True People (Ice Dreamer, Dolphin Gift, Moon Reacher, etc) and the People of the Great Eel (Wise, True, Honest, etc). The fact that we also see the world’s people as being in different stages of development is also great, and factually correct. Indeed, while those in America are hunter-gatherers, those on the European coasts have become fishermen, but the Middle East already had cities.

The book starts with disparate people but quickly brings them together so we can witness our ancestors (or rather, our ancestors in this timeline) doing what humans do best: being human. As with any era, humans are flawed and troubled, as once we developed sapience we also begun to experience love, jealousy, anger, fear, hatred and a hundred other emotions. These things are not new, and these people can feel them just as strongly as we do now. They are different from us in many ways, but they are also incredibly like us.

A beautiful work of art, and an engaging story. There are two sequels, Bronze Summer and Iron Winter, which leap further ahead in time to see what becomes of this world that contains a whole new patch of land that we lost early on. I’m interested to see what will become of Ana’s people over time.

“Agatha” by Anne Martinetti (2016)

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agatha-comic“These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!”

Of all the authors I’ve discussed on this blog over the years, there’s none I’ve talked about quite so much as Agatha Christie. As the bestselling novelist of all time, Christie is someone who, even if you’ve never read one of her books, you will be able to name at least one of them. Her life was much more than just writing murder mysteries, though. In fact, her feat of writing over eighty novels and countless plays and short stories is just about the least remarkable thing about her.

My love for Christie is unashamed and unlimited and, as you have probably noticed, today is Valentine’s Day. I’m told you’re meant to spend the day with someone you love, so I did the best I could and ventured to the small village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire to visit the grave of this incredible woman. It only seemed fitting, then, to read about her while I was there. Although I do have her autobiography on my shelf awaiting reading once I’m finished with her fiction – plus it’s a hefty tome and I need to work on my upper body strength first – I picked up this book, Agatha, last year and decided to read that for now. It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of her life; a story just as interesting and complicated as her finest novel.

The story opens with her fabled disappearance in 1926, before leaping back to explore her early life. Once caught up to her vanishing act again, it progresses forward. The story deals with all the important moments in her life, such as the death of her beloved father when she was just a child, her first husband’s affair, her time as a nurse during the First World War, her sister’s challenge to her to write a novel, her travels around dig sites in the Middle East, to the success of The Mousetrap and later receiving her DBE. It also explores things about her that are perhaps less well-known, such as the fact she was one of the first British people to surf standing up, having learnt while in Hawaii, and that she was once offered propaganda work by Graham Greene during the Second World War.

christie-graveThroughout the narrative, she is visited by her characters, Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Tommy & Tuppence, and most of all, Hercule Poirot, a man she swiftly grew to hate and promised to kill off. Sometimes these characters serve to give her advice, but sometimes she longs for them to go. Her relationship with Poirot is particularly interesting, as she realises that while she doesn’t like him, he can’t exist without her and she has no fortune without him.

The book dwells a while on her disappearance, although because she never spoke about what happened, what is displayed in the book is pretty much all drawn from the imagination. One incident that really occurred around this time involved another great mystery writer – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium to get to the bottom of whether she was still alive or had died rather than just gone missing. Rather pompously, but very sweetly, he comments here, “the father of Sherlock Holmes could hardly abandon the mother of Hercule Poirot!”

Above all, while reading this, not only do you get a sense of what an interesting and bright woman she was, she can also be considered very modern. While there’s no getting away from the fact that some of her books, particularly the earlier ones, contain views that are very much of their time, she was a pioneer in many other respects. In 1911 she flew in one of the first aeroplanes, and later she spent so much time on archaeological digs with her second husband Max Mallowan that she became the most knowledgeable woman in Britain on the subject.

Agatha Christie was a phenomenal woman, modest and humble right up to the end. She knew her own mind and lived an extraordinary life, but I sense that she didn’t always see that. I am honoured to have her in my life in such a big way, and if there was a better way to spend Valentine’s Day this year, I don’t want to know about it. Thank you, Agatha, for everything.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“How To Find Love In A Bookshop” by Veronica Henry (2016)

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Where better place to look?

Where better place to look?

“He would never have believed it if you’d told him a year ago.”

There are few places quite as wonderful as a bookshop, from the enormous five-storey flagship branch of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, to the tiniest second-hand place in the sidestreets of Edinburgh. Hatchards, Daunt and its like are enormously influential places, so it’s no surprise that plenty of books exist about bookshops. Penelope Fitzgerald had a bittersweet bash, and Robin Sloan gave the environment a funny, fantastic airing. It’s Veronica Henry’s turn now, and she’s taken the magic of bookshops to a new level.

Emilia Nightingale has rushed back to England to be at the bedside of her father, Julius, who is dying. Her final promise to him is that she will return to the bookshop, Nightingale Books, that he has run for the last thirty years and keep it going in his memory. Unfortunately, she discovers that her father hasn’t had his eye on the ball, and the shop is losing money hand over fist. It might always have been full of people, but half the time they came in to chat with the charming and kind Julius, rather than buy anything. Emilia must decide whether to keep the shop open or sell off the property to the money-grabbing Ian Mendip who wants the land to expand his empire.

The small town, however, is full of residents who want the shop to stay, but few of them are quite what they seem. Sarah is the lady of the manor, looking forward to her daughter’s upcoming wedding and hiding a painful secret that she can’t tell anyone. Bea has moved to the countryside from London for a better life, but the monotony and boredom is driving her mad. Jackson has never read a book in his life, but now is determined to start so he can bond with his young son and prove to his ex that he’s capable of being a good father. June nurses heartbreak that is decades old. Thomasina is a chef crippled by shyness and desperate to talk to the cute guy at the cheese shop. And Dillon is contractually obliged to keep his place.

The fact that this book has so many characters does wonders for it. We learn enough about each of them to really feel for them and want them to find the happiness that they each seem to deserve. They’re not perfect, which makes them even more so. You learn to love these people despite their flaws. The stories weave together neatly and while Emilia is the central figure, she’s not the most interesting one, and the book soon spirals out from being her story to being the story of many. I love a book that reminds you that we’re all part of one another’s stories, and no one is going through this madness alone.

I only have issues with a couple of moments of characterisation. Thomasina is apparently shy, but this for the most part is an entirely informed quality, as every time we see her, she seems confident. Talking to a stranger in the bookshop and setting up a two-person restaurant in her own home are not the actions of a shy person. Indeed, the first major part she has in the book is reading at Julius’s memorial, a task that seems to immediately do away with the trait she’s most linked to. I’m also not totally sure how to feel about Jackson and his ex, Mia. Jackson supposedly was kicked out after becoming feckless and not helping out with their son, but later he’s shown to be paying maintenance without having been asked, and is desperate to take Mia back despite saying how much she’s changed. For such a nice guy, he can be a bit of a dick. He redeems himself by the end, though.

While it might just be because I’m a bit emotionally unstable at the moment anyway, I did shed a tear or two in the final chapter. As is only right in a book of this kind, there are happy endings all round, and they feel deserved. It’s a book that feels like a nap in front of the fire – warm, comfortable and familiar. As much as there is a lot of human love in the book, of all different kinds, it’s really a love letter to books and to bookshops. Books are so important, and anyone who doesn’t read them just hasn’t found the right one yet. Henry’s passion for the medium is highly pronounced.

A nice little addition is that every few chapters there’s a list of books recommended by one of the characters. Thomasina, for example, lists books about food, and Dillon gives us books with particularly notable servants. This is the kind of book that will only cause you to add further to your reading lists. Devour this book and give yourself some cheer.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Brighton Rock” by Graham Greene (1938)

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brighton-rock“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Ah, the classics. I like to keep my hand in and, maybe it’s my age, but I’m becoming convinced that I should read more of them. With this one down now too, it means I’ve already read two of them since the year began, which is pretty good going as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, while I really enjoyed The Diary of a Nobody, I wasn’t so keen on Brighton Rock.

Journalist Charles Hale is on a job in Brighton, mingling with the crowds as part of a newspaper treasure hunt. If someone finds him and says the magic words, they’ll win a cash prize. He is found, however, by Pinkie Brown, a seventeen-year-old gangster who has a bone to pick with Hale and isn’t content with a bit of a moan. After trying to seek company all afternoon with the buxom, brash Ida, Hale eventually finds himself alone again and Pinkie and his cronies strike.

With Hale dead, Ida is convinced that the police have been wrong in their assessment that the death was natural causes, and sets about playing detective to prove that Pinkie had a hand in the nice man’s murder. Pinkie, meanwhile, is trying to erase any evidence that Hale was even in Brighton, and soon realises that his alibi could be blown by a waitress who knows too much. Despite both being too young, Pinkie decides that he needs to marry Rose, as a wife can’t testify against her own husband, and that could be the only thing that’s going to save him…

This is one of those books that I could actually, happily, have cast aside quite early on, but I don’t like giving up on books unless absolutely necessary, so I pressed on solely for Ida Arnold. A colourful, brilliantly moral and unafraid character, Ida is the real hero of the story as far as I’m concerned, she displays no fear in going after Pinkie and his gang, simply because she believes in the right thing being done. I know that Pinkie has entered the canon of great antiheroes of English literature, but I found him ridiculous and unbelievable.

At only seventeen, he’s leading a gang of much older men who seem to hang on his every word, and he’s a sociopath, apparently unable to experience emotions the way other people do. Again, maybe this comes down to my age. I’m nearly twenty-nine, and I look at seventeen-year-old’s now and see how they think they know everything. I’m not saying that I’m much wiser, but I’m old enough to know that at seventeen you know nothing. He plays the big man, but I find him pathetic, nonthreatening and stupid. He is obsessed with sex, but also apparently phobic of it, and is cruel to his wife, Rose, who he marries merely for convenience. Caught up in girlish desires to be married, she remains convinced that he loves her, when in reality he is disgusted by her and is thinking of himself the whole time. Rose is but a child, only sixteen, and I feel a great deal of pity for her. She is easily duped and almost ends up committing suicide over Pinkie’s selfishness.

Primarily, the themes are those of good and evil, with Pinkie and Rose both being Catholic, they are preoccupied with the notion of sin, with the murder and their marriage both being wrong in the eyes of God. The only character with any real sense of morality though seems to be Ida. She does what is right, while everyone else seems to be trying to save themselves. It’s rather a tiresome book, and I never totally felt gripped, although most of that is Pinkie and the rest is my current need to check Twitter every five minutes to make sure a war hasn’t started.

Anyway, I’m off to embark on another classic; one I’ve read before and one that seems terrifyingly appropriate…

“Third Girl” by Agatha Christie (1966)

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third-girl“Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”

There are many things that one comes to expect from an Agatha Christie novel. A recently rewritten will. A loyal butler. A fussy foreign detective. A red herring or six. But above all what one expects is a body. These books are about murder, after all. So when you’re reading one and there isn’t a body at all, you’re thrown somewhat. This is, of course, Third Girl.

Poirot is enjoying breakfast when his servant George informs him that there is a young woman to see him, most urgently. Although Poirot doesn’t normal take house calls at this time of the morning, he allows her to be seen in and very quickly she announces that she thinks she’s committed a murder, although she doesn’t seem very sure. Before Poirot can even learn her name or any more details, she declares that he’s too old to help her, and makes her exit, leaving a hurt and frustrated Poirot behind.

Upon receiving a call from friend and writer Ariadne Oliver, Poirot is soon buoyed again by her company and it transpires that the dotty author is the one who sent the girl to him in the first place! Seeking out the girl’s name and address, Poirot and Oliver set about exploring the friends and family surrounding this mysterious woman. There’s her father, recently returned from abroad with his new, young wife; a dotty old soldier who is trying to write his memoirs; a highly efficient secretary who may just be too efficient; and a glamorous dandy of a man who the mystery girl seems rather fond of.

But all the while there doesn’t seem to have actually been a murder committed, which leads to a very difficult question – is this girl a murderer, or is she mad?

If ever you need a reminder that Christie wrote more than just books set in the twenties, here is a great example. Published in 1966 and set around the same time, we dispel for the most part with the grand house and murdered nobility to explore a London populated by working girls, beautiful young mods, and more drugs than you can take if you had the whole decade free. Poirot feels like a throwback to a much older time in this society, and yet he’s on top form as ever. Personally, I find that Christie’s later novels rarely live up to the pure genius of her earlier ones (although there are, of course, exceptions) and this one includes a very long chapter in the middle in which Poirot lays out to himself everything that he has learnt so far. The answers are all in there, but you need to know what you’re looking for. I got some of the hints quite sharpish, and I’d worked out half the solution, but I wasn’t entirely there.

The book is notable, however, because just when you think you’ve seen Christie do everything possible, she plays around with the medium again. The idea of having a murderer but no murder is an interesting one, and it’s unusual to go so long in a Christie novel without finding a body. Poirot becomes increasingly frustrated that he doesn’t have a murder, and it becomes almost as weird as it is amusing. Body or no, however, I enjoyed this one. It may have meandered a little, but everything seems to tie up and you once again feel sure that justice has been done.

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