“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley (2012)


rook“Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Over the years I’ve encountered so many books that I wish I’d written, but known that I’d never be able to do them as well as they were done. Rowling and Fforde have both done wonders with their works, but there are numerous other titles too. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, for one – I had a very similar idea about a week before I found the book. And Superpowers by David J Schwartz: I considered something very similar for about a month before finding it. But then there are books that I didn’t know I wanted to have written until after I’d read them. This brings us to The Rook – a book oddly written by an Australian, first published in the USA, but set very definitely in Britain.

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park, surrounded by gloved corpses and with absolutely no memory of how she got there. A letter in her pocket informs her of whose body she is inhabiting and she makes her way to a hotel to sleep and hopefully recover some memories. When none come, she finds another letter and is asked to make a choice. She can either run away and start a new life that the Myfanwy Thomas writing her letters has arranged for her, or she can choose to continue impersonating Myfanwy. Although originally going for the first option, when the time comes she finds it impossible to resist the second. Thus, her life becomes something rather strange indeed.

It turns out that Myfanwy Thomas is an operative in the Checquy, a top secret agency that deals with the supernatural, bizarre and downright weird. Everyone working for it has a superpower of some kind – Myfanwy can manipulate people’s nervous systems – and the positions of high office are named for chess pieces. Myfanwy is a Rook. She finds herself thrown into a world where the magical seems mundane, and she has to try and convince everyone that she is the real deal, which proves harder than one would imagine when she doesn’t know a thing about her predecessor.

Before look, Myfanwy and the reader are catapulted into a series of adventures involving a centuries old group of dangerous Belgian scientists who have given a whole new meaning to “biological warfare”, dragons, vampires, secret schools for the superpowered, a prophetic duck, and piles and piles of paperwork. On top of this, she must try and work out who it was that came before her and what happened. No small task when you can’t even remember your own address.

It’s hard to try and explain this book any further without ruining the surprises along the way. It’s mad, it’s intelligent, it’s incredibly funny, and it’s creative to all extremes. It seems nonsense, but it works, and everything hangs together neatly. The Rook plays with your expectations. The heroine is not a gung-ho adventure type, but a quiet, shy, efficient bureaucrat. What you think you see coming as the final showdown happens two hundred pages before the end, opening much more speculation about what the hell could come next. The exposition is neatly handled in a genuinely realistic way. The magic and powers on show are highly unusual and wonderfully creative. And best of all, there’s barely a hint of a romantic subplot, without having to resort to turning Myfanwy into a man-hater or indeed give any excuse for why she does or doesn’t seek a husband at every waking moment.

It’s peppered with wonderful, interesting characters, not least Myfanwy who is incredibly likeable, and everyone with a name is given some characterisation, often rather a lot. I’m particularly fond of Ingrid, Myfanwy’s super efficient personal assistant, and Gestalt, a mind with four bodies. The idea of having the original owner of Myfanwy’s body leave her a lot of notes behind to help her means that the exposition comes with humour and seems natural, rather than having to have the other characters explain things over and over again. Somewhat wonky in its chronology, jumping between narrators – primarily the two owners of the heroine’s body – it manages to grip you and keep you interested for nearly five hundred pages.

The book’s cover states “Welcome to MI5 … for wizards” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a science fiction fantasy mystery comic novel about a fully-realised, brilliantly constructed universe in which magic is kept hidden from the general population. O’Malley has given real thought to the history of this organisation, and the jokes come thick and fast, interspersed with some really quite horrific scenes.

I’ve gone a bit overboard on the adverbs today, but it feels necessary. This book is a gem of the genre – whatever genre that might be – and is sure to delight anyone who likes a bit of magic and mystery in their lives.

“The Antagonist” by Lynn Coady (2011)

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Every hero is someone else’s villain.

“There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people.”

Life isn’t black and white. There are innumerable shades of grey in between and when you tell a story, you’re guaranteed to tell it in a different way to anyone else. Something that is traumatic to you, might seem unimportant to someone else. Now imagine if that someone else had taken your trauma and sold it. How would that make you feel?

This is exactly what has happened to our antagonistic protagonist, Gordon “Rank” Rankin. At thirty-nine, after years moving around Canada with more than a few dark secrets in his past, he discovers that is old friend Adam has written a book. Inside this book is Rank’s story, and he’s furious. All his secrets, confessed one drunken night to this friend, have been laid bare on the page.

Raging, Rank finds Adam on the Internet and begins to send him emails that aren’t exactly non-threatening, but don’t suggest that he’s about to turn up and bash his door down at any minute. Rank just wants a chance to tell his side of the story – give Adam a refresher course of what happened at university and before, from his point of view.

What Rank ends up discovering, however, is so much more.

OK, so some books are immediate duds, and some books are immediately revered and held aloft, but then there are some – and they’re rarer – that sit simply on that three-star-review position and don’t seem to resonate particularly in either way. The Antagonist is one of those. It’s well written, and Coady has a flair for colourful, interesting language. She sets up fully rounded characters, painting them for us, and knows how and when to release certain information for the best reactions.

But frankly, there are a lot of words here for not much action. Rank’s three great tragedies in his life are revealed out of order, and one of them he isn’t even directly responsible for, which seems to be the one, ironically, that he can’t forgive himself for most. You can see where it’s going, and it’s rather interesting, but it just takes a bit too long to get there.

The conceit of having Rank speaking directly to Adam in the book is good, but he is a distracted narrator, drunk some of the time at least, and he weaves about the narrative, jumping backwards and forwards in time, changing from first to third person and back again with barely a warning. I guess more than anything it’s a story about Rank’s father, Gord, whether it’s intended to be or not. Unfortunately Gord isn’t a particularly captivating presence, more a cartoonishly angry man who has a bad relationship with his son.

We’re exploring too many themes here – narcissism, fate, forgiveness and religion – and as such none of them get enough page time to stand out. Again, it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, the writing is polished and it’s an easy read, but it’s just not very memorable. Find me in a year and ask me what I thought of this book. I’m unlikely to be able to tell you much.

It’s a filler novel; but at heart a tale of fear, struggle and our obsessions with ourselves, always wondering how we come across to others, but never really knowing.

“Love, Nina” by Nina Stibbe (2013)


love nina“Being a nanny is great.”

Autobiography is a risk. A celebrity can write their life story and be pretty sure that it’ll sell and people will be interested. A non-famous person, though, will never get the step up that fame provides, at least when the book is first published. It’s not to say that the non-celebrity will have a life less interesting than the celebrity, the opposite is absolutely possible and perhaps in some ways more likely, as while I like celebrity biogs, eventually they start to merge into one, sometimes becoming merely lists of plays, films or name drops.

So I started reading Love, Nina because it was the story of an unknown, a woman who had published the letters written to her sister (Vic) during the time she was nannying in London in the 1980s. It was a notable choice because she worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her sons Sam and Will Frears (now an actor and director, respectively). I’d love to give more of a summary of the plot, but that’s about it. Nina writes letters, we get a glimpse into 80s literary London (which should be far more interesting than she makes it) and she worries if she doesn’t get Thomas Hardy.

The front and back covers, as well as the first three pages of the book are printed with reviews containing no less than twenty-six uses of the word “funny”, “hilarious” or similar. Given that most of these are attributed to newspapers, they’re clearly not all from friends trying to big her up, but it does make me wonder if they’d been given the wrong manuscript to read. Oh sure, the observations of the children, Sam and Will, are occasionally quite amusing, but none of this is laugh out loud stuff. Stibbe has all the concerns of typical twenty-somethings of the decade, but is somewhat oblivious to the wider world.

This is most obvious when you come to learn that Alan Bennett (the Alan Bennett) is a frequent guest at the house and joins them for dinner most nights. His voice utterly fails to come through, mind, and Stibbe seems completely unimpressed by his existence. She is also nonplussed by the fact that Michael Frayn and Jonathan Miller also live in their street, meaning that the book is literary London through the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand the significance of what she’s seeing.

It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on as well, given that very rarely are any dates given. The odd letter here and there has a year on it, sometimes a month, but Stibbe herself admits that some of them may well be out of order, and it’s disconcerting to realise that you’ve suddenly skipped six months ahead. What happened in that time? The letters are one-sided (we never see Vic’s response), so we have to interpret cryptic replies to unseen questions ourselves and are left wondering what’s going on. Because of the style, too, there is no real beginning or end. We don’t find out how Stibbe came to be working there, and the letters stop just as abruptly as they start. If you’re looking for something with a plot, don’t bother looking here. I get that real life pretty much doesn’t have a plot, but it feels like something should’ve been constructed.

All in all, for the comments of the kids (both of whom seem far older than the ages given to them), it might be worth taking a look at, but it doesn’t deserve double-digit declarations of hilarity. This is the book they’re talking about when they tell you not to judge them by their covers.

“Ketchup Clouds” by Annabel Pitcher (2012)

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ketchup clouds“Ignore the blob of red in the top left corner.”

The idea of an teenage girl in England having anything to do with a death row inmate in Texas is a strange one, but the combination of the two is what is happening here in Annabel Pitcher’s novel, Ketchup Clouds. Zoe Collins (not her real name) has a dark, guilty secret that is eating her up from inside. She did something awful and she got away with it, so she begins writing to Stuart Harris on death row, thinking that if anyone knows what she’s going through, it could be him.

Zoe is a bookish sort of girl who loves writing and works at the library part time, but doesn’t seem too keen on the ideas of big parties, if only because her fairly strict parents don’t let her go to many of them. At one of these parties, she meets a cute boy but doesn’t get his name and, instead, goes off with Max, one of the most attractive and popular guys in the school. They begin dating and, a little later, Zoe finds the first boy again. He’s called Aaron and, it turns out, is Max’s brother.

When Aaron finds out that Zoe is already involved with his brother, he is furious about being lied to and the two of them, after some arguing, decide that they really want to be together. They just now have to tell Max. Meanwhile at home, things are no easier. Zoe’s dad has just lost his job, and her estranged grandfather is very ill in hospital, causing friction between her parents.

This is a young adult book, so I’m over the marketed age, but a story is a story, regardless of who it was written for. I have very mixed feelings about this book, though. It bristles with truth, you can’t deny that, and there’s a certain innocence running through the whole thing (which is ironic), but the writing lacks magic and while you keep hanging on to find out what exactly happened to make Zoe so guilty, the payoff feels a little rushed and the ending almost casual.

Zoe is, at best guess, fourteen or fifteen, although that’s based only on references to her GCSEs because her actions make her appear older, while her writing makes her sound younger. She writes like she’s about eleven or twelve, with strange twists in language, but she goes to parties, drinks, doesn’t bat an eyelid about kissing and more with boys she’s just met, and gives the impression of being seventeen or eighteen. In fact, the book has a strange dichotomy throughout, as things clash and everything is a bit confused. Zoe is studious and knows the name and call of every bird on the British Isles, and occasionally speaks like she’s shy and retiring, but as soon as there’s a boy involved she’s bolshy and outgoing. The two verisons of her don’t quite match up.

Ideas and plotpoints skitter about and around one another, such as when she’s hiding in the wardrobe with her nine-year-old sister, talking about her boyfriend (again, she’s too old to be in the wardrobe, or too young to be talking like she is), which seems a bit out of place. The leaps between what’s currently happening and what happened a year ago to give her such guilt are usually clear, but sometimes it feels a little muddled. It’s quite funny, and the ending is somewhat predictable, but there’s definitely something in here that makes it worth a look.

Perhaps the best thing throughout it the battle between good and bad, and how it’s not always as easy as doing the right thing. As they say in the book, sometimes there are good reasons for doing bad things. I think ultimately the book is about that, about how sometimes doing the right thing or the good thing is difficult, or painful, but we should do it anyway.

The book culminates with an excerpt from her six-year-old sister’s diary, which is quite cute but again, the six-year-old writes like she’s much older than she is (despite the spelling mistakes), and then is followed by the first chapter of the novel Zoe is writing, which in turn feels like it’s written by someone younger than her. I appreciate that at fourteen, you are at that difficult age where you’re not really a child and not really an adult, and there are ways to write that well, but it’s not done here. It’s a good story for what it is, it has heart and humour, but much like many teenagers, it doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be.