Category Archives: Great Read

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

the bone season samantha shannon“Knowledge is dangerous. Once you know something, you can’t get rid of it. You have to carry it. Always.”
The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season has been much hyped and much criticized, as you might expect of any novel written by a 21-year old which sparks a bidding war that results in a six figure publishing deal and 20th century Fox optioning the rights. For every person touting Shannon as the next J.K. Rowling, there is someone keen to call her writing derivative and suggest that her style will improve “after all, she is only 21”.

So which is it? Another talented writer becoming the victim of tall poppy syndrome at the hands of those bitter about her success, or a precocious Oxford undergrad who struck it lucky? I picked up The Bone Season on my way home from shopping, started it on the bus, then took to my bed with the book until I finished it and let me tell you, her success is no fluke, the girl can write up a storm.

Set in 2059, The Bone Season follows Paige Mahoney, a powerful clairvoyant and member of crime syndicate The Seven Seals as she attempts to stay off the radar of Scion, the oppressive anti-clairvoyant system which controls several major world cities. Declaring war on unnaturalness, they have recruited voyants to help identify others of their kind who are then imprisoned, tortured and executed, whether they are aware of their ability to access the spirit realm or not. Of course, it isn’t too long before Paige falls into the hands of Scion, where her problems really begin when she falls into the hand of the Rephaim, rulers of the penal colony Sheol I in the lost city of Oxford.

I find it difficult to express exactly how much I loved this novel and the many reasons why. I really would love those who’ve called it derivative to explain what they think it’s been derived from to me, as I am pretty widely read and thought that it was a fresh, imaginative and punchy. Shannon has developed an entire lexicon, political system and history to fit her dystopian world, which splinters from our own universe in 1859 when the Rephaim first arrive. Her categorisation of the different voyant abilities is complex, with different voyants having varied abilities and degrees of power within these, of course Paige is a rare and powerful form of voyant, but I look forward to seeing the various categories of voyancy being explored later in the novel. I’m also wondering how far the theological allusions will be pursued in the series- are the Rephaim and the Emim more closely related than the voyants have been lead to believe? What’s the significance of Paige’s dreamscape being a field of poppies? Exactly how long can oil and fire mix before oil is burned up or fire extinguished?

The next book in the series, The Mime Order (in which I expect to find out the full extent of how much Paige’s Mime Lord, Jaxon Hall, is a psychopathic, evil, bad ass) is out in October 2014 and I cannot wait. I’ve already recommended it to loads of my friends who’ve enjoyed it as much as I did, and I received this text from my brother who deserves it published online for failing to call me back when he promised to:

Can you try and hook me up with The Bone Season author please? I think I have a crush on her writing ability x

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

dark eden chris beckettFor 163 years the Family has patiently awaited rescue from the sunless planet they call Eden, hardly daring to stray far from the landing circle where their common ancestors Tommy and Angela landed on the planet so long ago. The 532 members of the Family, all descended from these original ancestors dream of a return to the planet they’ve heard about in the legends handed down through the generations, a planet where the whole world is made as bright as the insider of a whitelantern flower by the sun in the sky, and they will return there, if only they follow the rules and make themselves worthy to return to Earth. As the family grows larger and food grows scarcer, teenager John Redlantern tears the Family apart, questioning the meaning of the stories they’ve been told and searching for new ways for the Family to survive…

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, winner of the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year has all the ingredients of an intelligent and assured work of Science Fiction, is a clever reimagining of the Adam and Eve story on a sinister alien world which explores the nature of humanity through the figure of John Redlantern, a righteous rebel in a society which never took a bite of the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Oppressive and terrifying in its credibility, it explores a society stunted by its vague adherence to the rules written down by “our mother and father”. Genetic disorders are rife as a result of inbreeding, formal education has long been abandoned and innovation is seen as a threat to tradition.

The plot is genuinely compelling as you become caught up in the events building up to and following on from John Redlantern’s expulsion from the Family, but for me the most interesting aspects of Beckett’s new world were the cleverly imagined language shift which sees the nascent development of a new grammar system and a new vocabulary which takes account of the Family’s very different environment (especially the conflict between older and younger members of society when it comes to words relating to chronology- older members preferring concepts such as years, but younger members referring to wakings and wombtimes which are a more measurable concept in their sunless world) and the bastardization of Earth history which sees the family believing that Hitler killed Jesus, and some members of the Family looking to Hitler as a positive role model in times of conflict.

It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in dystopian fiction and narrative. John Redlatern’s habit of considering how his present actions will be interpreted by future generations and the pointed counter-analysis of his character by Tina Spiketree add an extra dimension to a genre which has often been accused of flat characterisation.

Cover design nerds will appreciate the clever effect that has been used to make rainbows play across the cover- I hadn’t seen this done before, is it a special laminate or foil?

dark eden chris beckett cover effect

 

An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears

an instance of the fingerpost iain pears“God forbid that I should ever suffer the shame of publishing a book for money, or of having one of my family so demean themselves. How can one tell who might read it? No worthy book has ever been written for gain, I think.”

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears

Set in 1663, twelve years after the end of the English Civil War, An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a bitingly clever murder mystery set in the streets and colleges of restoration Oxford. Narrated by four narrators, the reader is left to piece together the true course of events from highly unreliable narratives before discovering “the truth” in a final narrative which leaves you, despite your better judgement, unable to question the credibility of the self-proclaimed “objective” narrator.

This is simultaneously the most intelligent and most enjoyable novel that I’ve read in a very long time. It’s clearly been immaculately researched, but at no point do you feel as though you’re having a lecture on life in post-Civil War Oxford. What particularly impressed me was the way that historical characters are seamlessly woven with fictional players (in reality, most of the characters are historical characters, though the events of the novel are fictional) and familiar figures from history like John Locke and Robert Boyle drift in and out of the novel as minor players, their genius and personalities noted as incidentals in the more pressing stories the characters are telling.

I admit, that part of my fondness for this novel was the Oxford setting. The descriptions of areas that are now fairly gentrified within the city centre as filthy, run down hovels was amusing, but I especially enjoyed the description of a religious meeting in a warehouse on the quay at Abingdon (a hotbed of radicalism, apparently). I’m almost certain I know where the building the author describes must be.

If you’ve ever spent any significant time in Oxford, or are planning a little sightseeing, this is a wonderful read and one which will truly stand the test of time.

The Twyning by Terence Blacker

the_twyning_terence_blackerBeneath the city of man is a kingdom of rats. The rats are a sophisticated society, with each rat working for the good of the collective depending on its individual abilities. It might be a warrior, a taster, a historian, a spy or a translator but it will put the needs of the kingdom ahead of its own desires because they understand that tradition and love is where the strength of their kingdom lies, and nothing demonstrates the strength of the Kingdom more effectively than The Twyning:

“They were The Twyning. They tugged against one another, forever in motion, forever going nowhere. For almost all their lives, they had been united by an accident of nature that had occurred while they were still in the nest.

Their tails had become inextricably entangled. As they had grown, the knot of living tissue that was at their centre melded and fused together so that, with adulthood, each of these was less an individual rat than a limb on a greater shared body, a spoke on a wheel of flesh.

We know that to have a twyning within the kingdom is a rare blessing. As it grows, it is fed and kept alive by citizens, and it is respected by all, even by the Court of Governance and by the ultimate source of power among rats, they king.

The Twyning expresses life’s mystery. Unable to move in any one direction except at an awkward, complicated shuffle, it has its own kind of strength, for nothing terrifies a human more than the sight of rats, helpless, bound together, yet powerful.

Above all, it shows the power of the kingdom.

For it is love which keeps The Twyning alive.”

                                                The Twyning by Terence Blacker

The most important tradition in the rat kingdom is the abdication of a dying king, who swims downriver to the world above allowing his successor to be named, but when the time comes for the great King Tzuriel to step down, something terrible happens. It will push rats and humans to the brink of war, and at the heart of it all is a young rat called Efren…

I am on a rat run at the moment. By which I mean that I have been reading a lot of books about rats, which my boyfriend is a bit worried about. He suggests that I may have a few issues, but really, there a few things finer than a fictional rat and The Twyning by Terence Blacker is one of the best rat books I’ve ever read.

Set in Dickensian London, The Twyning portrays a world in which talentless politicians conspire with fearful and biased scientists to achieve their personal ambitions, bending the law of the land and spending public money to support their pet causes while impoverished children live on the street ignored or abused by those in authority. In many ways it’s a novel for our times. Swap the word rat for badger, unemployed or disabled person and Dr Ross-Gibbs’ plans might read like a Tory manifesto, but don’t for a second think that I mean to suggest that this is a soap box rant. It’s more a politically aware, urban Redwall for the noughties- vividly imagined and sharply executed.

I particularly like the well-timed moral ambivalence of this book; there are good humans, ordinary humans and bad humans at times just as there are good rats, ordinary rats and bad rats at times. Both sides have members who act well, both sides have members who act badly so there are shades of grey for readers, young and old, to interpret.

It’s difficult to express how good this book is without giving too much away, but if you like stories with friendship, battle, love, gore, misadventure and redemption then this book is for you.

And if anyone thinks that the idea of a tangled group of rats called a Twyning is silly, check out these Rat Kings to see that these things do, in a sense, exist.

Firmin: Adventures of A Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

firmin adventures of a metropolitan lowlifeSome writers can never equal their first novel. I could never equal my first sentence. And look at me now. Look how I have begun this, my final work, my opus: ‘I had always imagined that my life story, if and when…’ Good God, ‘if and when’! You see the problem. Hopeless. Scratch it.

Firmin: Adventures of A Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

So begins our eponymous narrator.

Firmin is an erudite lowlife with a taste for literature, popcorn and pornography. He is also a rat, of the literal, grey fur, bewhiskered variety. Born the runt of the litter in the basement of a bookshop, and forced to eat books to survive, he finds that the words have a strange effect upon him. Because for all Firmin looks like a rat to the outside world, he has a sophisticated Fred Astaire style character inside him just dying to get out- the books he’s read have made him intelligent and articulate, a rodent with a poet’s soul.

The concept of a book loving rat living in a bookshop in Boston is, on the surface, a cheery Disney-style image, but Firmin rejects the idea of the Disney mouse (“I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fishbones”) and replaces it with Sam Savage’s rat, a far more poignant character. Because life as a literary rat is incredibly lonely, isolated from your own species and regarded as vermin by most humans, what’s the best that you can hope for?

Firmin is far from fluffy, at times he is repulsive- but I found myself rooting for the little guy all the same. I found myself laughing aghast at his dangerous naivety, and crying at his humanity because for all Sam Savage has shaped his narrator in a rodent’s body, where it counts he is one of the most human characters I’ve read in a long time.

The Princess Bride

“He held up a book then. “I’m going to read it to you for relax.”
“Does it have any sports in it?”
“Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest Ladies. Snakes. Spiders… Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”
“Sounds okay,” I said and I kind of closed my eyes.”

The Princess Bride

 Call me a philistine if you will (and you may want to after this confession) but last week was my first true encounter with The Princess Bride. Don’t get me wrong, I’d heard of The Princess Bride– there are even Dread Pirates in The Sims for goodness sakes- I’d just never watched the film or read the book. Didn’t even know that there was a book. So when I came across the book in Waterstones I grabbed a copy (then paid for it) to read on the plane to New York.

Moving from The Mortal Instruments series to The Princess Bride, what first struck me was the coincidence that both books used the name S.Morgenstern. Then what struck me was that I wasn’t sure where the book started. I spent quite a while flicking through to see if the preface was full of spoilers or meant to be read. I couldn’t fully decide, it was crazy- was I reading a narrative frame or is this a genuine abridgement? Is this man seriously writing about his wife and son like this? Did his marriage end as a result? Absolutely bonkers. I loved it. Totally madcap.

Technically speaking it’s one of the worst narratives I’ve ever read, and yet the execution of it makes it the best. I can totally understand why it’s such a cult thing, even if Buttercup is in the most part a total drip. The thing is, while you’re reading it, you know that it’s highly probable that it is just a frame. You know that Guilder isn’t a real country (don’t you?) so you know that it’s really unlikely that he’s being pursued by the estate of Morgenstern. But then the crazy stuff with Stephen King and the adaptation of Buttercup’s Baby gets brought in and it doesn’t convince you but it genuinely does make you doubt what you know, and that’s where the genius of the book lies. The elements of “real world” coupled with the derision of the academics and an irreverent manuscript style trick you into suspending your disbelief in a way that some of the most highly respected fiction fails to.

Or maybe I’m just hopelessly naïve. Maybe it was a trick of the jetlag. But I like the idea that this book has made me less cynical. I’m ordering the DVD to watch while I’m in hospital next week.

The Song of Achilles- Madeline Miller

I’ve always been a fan of classical mythology, though this tends to manifest itself through adaptations because having tried reading translations of The Iliad and They Odyssey, I found them a little dull… I would never cut it as a classicist.

I was quick to buy The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, but delayed reading it because a friend whose opinion I trust made the book sound like Fifty Shades of Troy, all action (if you know what I mean) and no plot. This time they were off the mark.

The Song of Achilles is primarily a love story, yes, but I thought that any sexual allusions were actually pretty tame and completely sympathetic to the story. Miller’s prose is clear and controlled, and the use of Patroclus’ narrative is a masterstroke in characterisation, allowing the reader to grow close to the apparently unremarkable Patroclus who earns the love of a flawed demigod and the wrath of his ambitious mother. As our affection for Patroclus grows, we see each character through his eyes, and share his discomfort as he witnesses the man he loves distorted by his quest for heroism and recognition. As the novel draws towards its inevitable conclusion, the reader is pulled along, unable to resist, wondering which will triumph? Destiny, glory, love?

It comes as no surprise to me that this novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction, it is a stunning debut novel and, for me, a far more accomplished adaptation that the likes of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.

I highly recommend it.

The Enchantress of Florence- Salman Rushdie

Whisper it, but I had never bought or read a Salman Rushdie novel until very recently. Fortunately, having filled up my loyalty card at my favourite bookshop, I was entitled to £7 off a book and had a quick scout around the shelves for something exciting. I’m a sucker for a pretty cover, so that (coupled with the fact that I’ve always meant to get around to reading Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses) made the book my gratis book of choice. I’m so glad that I picked it up.

The Grand Mughal, Emperor Akbar, is a man of the world who understands that life is often more complex than it seems. His favourite wife is a woman he has imagined into being; his three young sons, each addicted to opium, are plotting against him for his throne; and he is emotionally conflicted by his inability to talk about himself in the first person. And life for the Elephant King becomes increasingly complicated when a young Florentine arrives at his court claiming to be the son of the lost Mughal princess, Quara Kὅz, a noted beauty and enchantress, which would make him the great Mughal’s uncle…

A clever pastiche of the oral tradition of storytelling and packed with historical characters, this book is a beautiful bedtime story for adults. Richly exotic and evocative, Rushdie adopts many storytelling conventions which have sadly fallen out of favour in adult fiction and uses these folkloric devices to create something exciting and wonderfully grown up- with plenty of clever nods to the need for storytellers to flatter their audience. This book is a jewel.

I’ll leave you with this, one of my favourite lines:

When the emperor learned the truth he understood all over again how daring a sorcerer he had encountered on that long-ago morning after the dream of the crow. By then, however, the knowledge was of no use to him, except to remind him of what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language on a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.

The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie

See? Genius. What are you waiting for? Get out, buy it, read it to friends, memorize lines and share them with strangers on the bus.

You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik

The way he talked, the way he moved around the room, the guy was either a fantastic actor or he believed what he was saying. You just don’t see that very often. Teachers in movies are always leaping onto tables and sacrificing their lives for their students and their love of literature but the truth is that you rarely, rarely take a class from a teacher who cares. It’s just unrealistic. How many people could walk into a classroom year after year and weep for “Ode to a Grecian Urn”? That’s why the ones who stay are so often some of the most depressing people you’ve met in your life. It has nothing to do with their age. They’ve stayed because of their disposition- bitter, bored, lacking in ambition, lonely and mildly insane. With a few exceptions these are the people who are capable of staying in a school. This is what it takes to teach for half a life-time. The ones who care, who love the subjects, who love their students, who love, above all, teaching- they rarely hang around.

You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik

A debut novel, You Deserve Nothing explores influence, obsession and idealism from the perspective of a teacher and two pupils at an international school in Paris. A charismatic young English teacher avoiding his past in Paris, William Silver starts the year with rock star status amongst the staff and pupils of ISF. Over the next few months, he rapidly falls from grace, closely watched by Marie, his teenage lover, and Gilad, an intense young man with a difficult family life.

I was impressed by the subtlety with which Maksik created his characters. Each narrator has distinctive voice which allows you to feel their desperate loneliness and empathise with the characters despite their attitudes and actions . Fierce Gilad with his desperation for approval and identity, who heaps upon others the expectations he wishes he could live up to himself; lonely Marie who craves warmth and affection; idealistic but empty and broken Will who embarks on an impossible love affair to avoid intimacy. Each is credible and profoundly human. Each feeling undeserving.

An intelligent and considered debut, the novel invites you to walk around the lives of others, seeing the darker sights of their psyche against the backdrop of the city of lights without prompting judgement or indicating blame. A truly outstanding debut.

For me, it felt as if You Deserve Nothing made its way to me as if by destiny. I hadn’t expected to receive a copy of it, so was very excited when I did. A few lines in and it felt strangely familiar, a few chapters in and whole passages were resonating so deeply that it felt as if the ideas had been plucked from my head. In fact, there was even a line half way through the novel which described exactly the way I was feeling:

I read the way you read when you’re young. I believed that everything had been written for me, that what I saw, felt, learned was a discovery all of my own.

You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik

Huh. I may have said before that before I got my current job I was an English teacher in a secondary school, which I loved, but I couldn’t carry on with because I was totally burned out. This was partly because of a physical problem, but also because the job is so emotionally and spiritually demanding and for me, that was something that came across really clearly in the novel. As a teacher there is a suffocating pressure to be friend, parent and priest; to guide your students, nurture them and help to widen their horizons and think for themselves while not getting too close or involved. There’s also, or was for me, the fear of failing them somehow, of not giving each individual the attention and support they need, not to mention that you get some students who will always need more than you can give. You have to be able to build a mental wall or it can eat you up. The scenario that Will finds himself in is wildly different to anything most teachers will get involved in (though you do hear about it) but despite that much of it was all too recognisable.

I found myself dreaming about teaching for the first time in months after reading this book, strangely cathartic. My (possible) psychiatric issues aside, I would recommend this to anyone as it really is a fantastic read. I don’t give stars, but if I did this would have five.

 

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice- Laurie R. King

I stumbled across this series when hurriedly purchasing a book for a lengthy train journey recently. The title, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, caught my eye as I have long harboured ambitions of owning my own hive- but this is a side note and not a sensible hobby for someone who currently lives in a small flat with no garden to speak of.

The books are narrated by Mary Russell, an orphaned heiress who stumbles across the retired Sherlock Holmes when out reading one day on the Sussex downs. Quickly proving that she can match the detective wit for wit and has a tongue as sharp, if not sharper than his own, they become firm friends and he slowly begins to involve Mary in his cases where she finds herself a more capable version of Dr Watson. This unusual partnership is soon tested when nineteen year old Mary finds them locked in a battle of wits with a deadly enemy, as Holmes, Mary and Watson become the targets of assassination attempts.

As a fan of the original Conan Doyle stories, I freely admit that I did not expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did, but the books are absolutely fantastic, constructed by a master. The author writes with an assured style and dry humour in the vein of the original stories, but cunningly allows herself to embellish upon the original oeuvre by having characters exclaim that they thought Sherlock was a fictional character, and having the great man himself lament Watson’s romantic sensibilities.

As soon as I was able I went to my local bookshop and ordered all the other books in the Alison & Busby series, including a copy to give to my father, and as soon as I got them home proceeded to devour them.

As soon as I did however, I noticed a big problem, albeit not the fault of the book shop or author. There are ten books currently published in the Mary Russell series, with an eleventh due in September this year, but if you look at the series page in the Alison & Busby books it appears that the series jumps from book one to book seven in the series. For some bizarre reason, A&B only appear to have bought the publication rights to some of the series, meaning that books two to six are published by other publishers. This in itself isn’t a problem, but it does mean that unless you know this beforehand (which you can’t reasonably be expected to) you end up reading the books out of sequence and encountering some major spoilers.

I will not share these with you here, but be warned ready for your own foray into these books. This hasn’t affected my enjoyment of the novels so far, though I am reading The Language of Bees at the moment and there is a character who may well ruin an earlier book for me when I go back to two to five… we shall see.

Go out and find them- in the correct order is preferrable they really are too good to miss.