“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Piranesi lives in the House. He supposes he always has. Only one other person lives in the House, Piranesi calls him The Other as he has never known anyone else in the house, though he has found evidence of other people in the forms of their skeletons and makes a point of tending the fourteen dead. But one day a stranger comes to the house, and the knowledge she brings will turn Piranesi’s world upside down.
Susanna Clarke writes wickedly clever books. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was wickedly clever in skewering the style of a 19th century novel, while creating an epic fantasy. Piranesi, by contrast feels far more restrained, a focused, almost academic novel that defies categorisation – part allegory, part travelogue, part personal philosophy.
For me, Piranesi felt a bit like a refraction of Plato’s Cave allegory through the lens of Robinson Crusoe. Instead of watching shadows on the wall, Piranesi sees the statues of the house which represent lost knowledge that have flowed from our real world. In his Crusoe-esque travelogue, he tries to make sense of his world, his lost past repressed by the amnesia inducing powers of the house, believing that he infers the existence of large numbers of people from the existence of the statues, and marvelling that he can makes sense of the idea of a university without the existence of one in his world, The House.
For all it’s relative brevity, Piranesi is one of those books that I could see would stay with you. It leaves you with so many questions, so many things to find an explanation for. What are we intended to take away from Piranesi’s reverence of the house? Are the birds truly augurs, what does the presence of the albatrosses and their chick mean? Is there an environmental/ecological analogy in Piranesi’s rejection of the quest for the Great Knowledge and appreciation of the house itself? While the other sees the house as Piranesi’s prison and a threat, Piranesi sees it as a sanctuary, a protective force; does the inhabitant project their own character onto the house? Is it in that sense a sort of crucible? And who is the skeleton of the little girl with the necklace?
Ana Kelly is in love with Connor Mooney. They met at her legal practice when Connor came in to draw up his will and started an affair. One day, shortly after the couple have argued, Ana receives a phone call from Connor’s wife, Rebecca. Unaware of their affair, Rebecca tells her that her husband has died and she needs to organise the legal affairs relating to his estate. Bereft without the man she loved, and unable to share her grief as a result of the affair, she transfers her obsession to the woman who stood between them.
Here is the Beehive is a short novel written in blank verse, narrated from the perspective of Ana Kelly as she struggles to come to terms with her lover’s death. Crossan makes the most of the narrow focus of her narrator, the story, despite its brevity, becoming increasingly complex as Ana’s focus shifts in increments and we learn more about her own circumstances, and the increasingly complex world of her affair. I did wonder if Connor’s wife was named Rebecca as a nod to the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name.
I thought the book was skillfully written, but I struggled to empathise with the main characters, at times feeling incredibly hostile towards them, a testament to the author’s skill but not a recipe for the most relaxing read! In terms of style, despite the blank verse, I’d say it’s a little bit Sally Rooney’s Normal People, twenty years after university and lacking (for me) the emotional hook and goodwill the characters in Normal People engendered.
I, like most people, read books partly for the escapism they provide. You suspend your disbelief, and enter the world of the book, outside concerns irrelevant for as long as you can focus.
I’ll be honest, when I bought The Flat Shareby Beth O’Leary, I was expecting to have some problems suspending my disbelief. I know that these arrangements – where two unrelated parties end up sharing a bed, sleeping shifts, because life is so bloody unaffordable – exist, but getting my head around how that would work (how is that working, for so many people post-covid??) in lockdown, I didn’t think I’d be able to go with the flow. But I could, and I did, and I found myself genuinely smiling with enjoyment as I read.
The plot of The Flat Share is pure chick lit, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. The author knows what her readers want – a love story in which you know that the characters will get together, but it’s more about the journey than the destination, and wow, what a journey.
Tiffy has broken up with her boyfriend Justin, who she is very much in love with, but she only realises that this isn’t one of their temporary splits when he brings another woman home. Nice. Being an associate editor at a craft publisher (hello less than London living wage publishers, we see you) she can’t afford anywhere to rent on her own, so is forced into taking a flat share with a palliative care nurse who works nights and spends his weekends at his girlfriend’s place. Leon, said palliative care nurse, needs the extra money because his brother has been sentenced to eight years in prison for armed robbery, a robbery that Leon believes that he didn’t commit, though his girlfriend Kay is less than convinced. She is taking care of the subletting of the flat share so that he and Tiffy never meet. Instead, they communicate through post-it notes, and it isn’t too long until a written friendship springs up between the flatmates….
Looping back to the issue of chick lit being considered a derogatory term, I guess I am using it here as a reference to women’s issues fiction, though I acknowledge that’s very reductive too. This novel, while hugely entertaining is more than a romance, and tackles some pretty serious issues, like emotional abuse, wrongful conviction based on racial profiling, and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the surface it’s less will they, won’t they, more when will they, how will they, marriage plot stuff, but as a novel it has heart and depth, and I thought it was well done.
It would make a fun sitcom/drama, and in the hope that they will adapt it for the big screen, you could have hours of fun fantasy casting The Flat Share.
I will be checking with friends and family as to whether they’ve read it and, if not, will be gifting this as the escapist read lots of us need in 2020.
But if Chick Lit isn’t your genre, I challenge you to write the dark psychological thriller that this book could undoubtedly have been if more sinister characters and lockdown had been thrown into the plot. There’s a writing prompt for you.
“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains and entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
There’s nothing hugely new about a novel in which a boy finds a book and it leads to a world of adventure. A story in which a boy finds a book which leads to an unknown enemy hunting them to retrieve the book isn’t hugely new either, Carlos Ruiz Zafon did this with The Shadow of the Wind. But believe me when I say The Starless Sea is far from basic. It’s so extra it’s meta.
A moibus strip of stories, The Starless Sea reads like a love letter to storytelling, video games and fan culture. An adventurous storytelling adventure which spans from myth to modern day and back again, watching entire empires rise and fall in the liminal spaces occupied by our book hangovers. This is the heartsong of the readers.
“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”
It’s rare that I want to start a book straight away after finishing but I could so easily have done that with The Starless Sea, and I would have enjoyed it just as much, appreciating how the puzzle fits together, catching the references that I glossed over chasing the plot, becoming an acolyte to Morgestern’s storytelling.
There must be a more elegant word than book hangover (and my guess would be it exists in German or Japanese because they have the best words for these intangible concepts) to describe the feeling of a book that stays with you, that you want to revisit from scratch and occupy all over again. What Erin Morgenstern has done in this novel is effectively distill that essence and used it to paint a cast of characters who are both slaves to the story and causes of book hangovers in their own right.
Given the book’s fondness for cocktails, I’d love to try a starless sea if anyone mixes one up. Otherwise, I’ll take the bees knees.
Spoilers for The Starless Sea Below
“And there are always those who would watch Alexandria burn.
There always have been. There always will be.”
Yeah, okay, she’s technically the villain of the piece but you can’t really blame Allegra for wanting to protect the harbour and the starless sea can you? She chose the wrong path but I bet many a booklover would have done.
Who else thought Mirabel had gone rogue there? I have to admit that I did and the ice sculpture briefly seemed apt. As an act of penance, I’m going to have to dye my hair pink and dress like Max from Where the Wild Things Are. It’s happening and I’m not sure I can wait until World Book Day.
Eleanor and Simon do find each other at the end! That’s nice, the poor kids had a rough deal. Loose ends have to be tied up but the book doesn’t labour the point and I like that.
But who killed the Owl King this time? Or did he not have to die this time? Was that not the point of the sword after all?
I love Madam Love Rawlins, love, trust and acceptance. Those are mothering goals.
How horrific is the idea of drowning in honey? What kind of mind comes up with that?! It reminded me of one of the Plantagenets asking to be executed by drowning in a barrel of wine. It probably sounded like a good way to go until he actually had to go through with it.
I need a Kat Hawkins in my life and on my WhatsApp. But not as much as I need a kitchen.
What are the cats about?
Is anyone else tempted to make the room with the dolls house and the paper world? It can’t just be me.
Again, I love you Kitchen.
This is morbid perhaps, but I loved the idea of people being mummified shrouded in the stories of who they were. It was a really poignant moment for me.
The bees say that “she” always sends them a key to end the story. And Zachary is the key this time. Is she the Sculptor? How many stories have there been? Is this story, and this puzzle, just one of many? But if the sculptor is a godlike figure telling the story of Zachary, Mirabel, Dorian, The Keeper… what universe is she existing in? And who did she begin sculpting the stories out of raindrops for.
Come to that, how does time work? Who wrote the story of Zachary finding the door down in a book that was published before Mirabel was born so that Eleanor was able to read it?
Is Kat now the sculptor of a new story? She’s the world builder of the piece with avant garde theatre and virtual reality fusions. Is she there to build the new harbour? I get the feeling there will always be a new harbour, the egg cracks and a new story emerges.
Have you read it? I’m desperate to hear what other people think of it all.
Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is one of those widely acclaimed debut novels that seems to follow you around, even before you’ve read it you see the cover in bus stops, catch the title in magazines and catch the name standing out in strangers conversations. But is there anything more to the hype than a clever marketing campaign?
At first glance, the story has all the elements of a Gothic pastiche: a young bride turns up at her new husband’s house and finds herself at the mercy of his cold, maiden sister with a servant who openly treats her in a disrespectful way. Alone and isolated (in a room bedecked with grizzly artwork depicting meat and game birds no less), she is insulted when her husband buys her a child’s dollhouse to occupy her but soon finds that there is more to this than meets the eye. In itself, not massively compelling.
To reduce the story to this rough plot overview though, would be to do the novel and the author a massive disservice. I think that part of Jessie Burton’s talent is that she sets up the reader’s expectations for a particular kind of plot then through subtle misdirection surprises the reader with the course of events that follows, keeping you only half a step ahead of Nella as she encounters the wonders and horrors of her new life in Amsterdam and making her one of the most credible naïve brides in literature.
The history of 17th century Amsterdam been well researched and certainly well rendered, and the setting is a masterstroke for anyone who thinks of Amsterdam as a shorthand for liberalism and tolerance. While the miniaturist remains shadowy, the city comes to the fore as a contradictory, cruelly capricious character – the home to a society simultaneously obsessed with trade and piety, where neighbour watches neighbour to exert a pervasive social control, a fearful puppet master in its own right.
Though the novel isn’t perfect, it is very, very good and like all good novels it leaves you with questions. Why does the miniaturist come to the church in the first chapter? Why did they want to leave the miniature-miniature there? And most of all, what has compelled such an astute student of human behaviour to hold a mirror up to their subjects lives when the emotional repercussions of their art seem to shake them too?
Though each speaker(Gaynor Arnold and Elizabeth Edmondson, for, and Juliet McKenna and Anita Mason, against) spoke well, their arguments did seem to repeat each other regardless of what side they were arguing for, the main crux of the issue being reduced to, genre is irrelevant, it’s really a matter of whether the book is good or bad.
Gaynor Arnold’s speech stressed that from her perspective the genre and literary fiction have so much overlap that it’s very unhelpful to put authors into these categories. As an author she was quite concerned that her books would be read as historical fiction. She stressed that a book should be judged by, “is it a good book per se, not is it a good book of it’s type?”
Anita Mason argued in favour of retaining a distinction between the two, because she sees a genre novel as being governed by limitations which allow it to meet the criteria of that genre, while literary fiction is governed by nothing and is trying to do something different. She cited Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake as a novel which is rooted in a genre (speculative fiction) but has all the qualities of a literary work, comparing writing to a wheel with literary fiction as the hub and genres as the spokes. The hub holds the wheel together and unites the whole, but it is the spokes which give the wheel its strength.
Elizabeth Edmondson used Jane Austen as an example of a literary author who wouldn’t be published as such today- she’d be shoved into romance or comedy which are very rarely considered to be “literary”. Edmondson speculated as to whether classing certain books as being literary fiction wasn’t just a marketing strategy from the publishers to set certain titles apart, a bid to elevate them to the status of literature without the test of time. It’s an interesting idea… one which brings to mind Penguin’s inclusion of Morrissey in its Classics series. Edmondson reminded the audience that though literary fiction may be considered more profound than genre fiction, profundity has a dark twin called pretension which can result in judgemental and reductive reading. “There are only good books and bad books, which can be thrust into many genres- lit fic is just one of these.”
Juliet McKenna was by far my favourite speaker, she is what the world might term a genre fiction writer and is damn proud of it. She sees literary fiction as attempting to reflect real life while speculative fiction introduces an element of other to discuss major ideas without the restriction of a “real life” setting. She argued that the unfamiliar worlds of speculative fiction need to create a clearer picture of the world that they are set in, as the reader’s mind won’t just fill in the blanks that the author has overlooked, so in this sense it is much harder to write speculative fiction well than it is to write literary fiction. I also liked her point about the increased scrutiny that genre fiction authors receive from their reads, the sci-fi and fantasy genres have very active communities built up around them who are incredibly invested in their genres.
The most interesting part of the talk for me was a brief discussion of the influence of metadata in publishing which came up as a result of an audience member complaining that an agent had rejected her novel because it sat across a range of genres. The influence of key words and tagging means that books in future should have the opportunity to define themselves more broadly and reach out to a more specific audience type that isn’t necessarily restricted by a generic categories.
The talk hasn’t revolutionised my views on genre vs literary fiction, I still think genres are useful categorisations for readers. I was a little disappointed that the whole panel was made up of women- even if it is as a result of the Hilda’s college connection. There can only have been two men in the crowd, probably because they saw the genre debate was among a panel of women and thought it would be about chick lit and this genre wasn’t really touched upon. Call me a gender traitor, but I think that putting a man on the panel might have shaken up the debate a little bit- it was a little too collegiate with everyone ultimately agreeing with one another.
If The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making is to be compared to The Wizard of Oz for its tale of astounding journeys, unlikely friendships and a plucky heroine standing up to a sinister figurehead, then The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There must be compared to Alice Through The Looking Glass.
Returning to Fairyland, September finds that the magic is bleeding away as shadows fall away from their owners and seep into the dark realms of fairyland below. Being a plucky lady, September is forced to investigate and finds herself in a strange land of anarchy and mischief, accompanied by the shadows of A-through-L and Saturday who, while looking a lot like her friends, aren’t quite the friends that September remembers.
Another plucky, darkly amusing novel from Catherynne M Valente. I can’t wait to read the final instalment of the trilogy.
Image by BadgerHero, used under the terms of Wikimedia Commons License
Badgers remind me of my childhood. Mysterious woodland animals who usually played a noble role in fiction, defending the weak, standing up for what was right… They remind me of more innocent days in my naive youth. A time when I believed that a democratically elected government had to listen to the views of the people, or, if they insisted upon taking a paternalistic approach, the mainstream of scientific opinion… you know, silly things like that…
Given the UK government’s current foray into badger fiction* (fiction in the sense that they are flying in the face of the facts/a ten-year independent scientific study into badgers and Bovine TB) I thought I would share my top five badgers in actual fiction.
1. The Badger Lords of the Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
I was obsessed with the Redwall Series by the late, great Brian Jacques when I was small. I’ve always had a fondness for rodents. The Redwall books are a little like what Lord of the Rings might be if you take out the magic and replace hobbits, dwarves and orcs with mice, squirrels and wildcats. My favourite characters always the badgers and the mice. Though the badgers are noble characters, they suffer from bloodwrath which turns their eyes red, the sign of a great warrior who will not hold back or even be able to restrain themselves in the heat of battle.
2. Badger in The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann
If you’re of a similar age to me, you’ll probably remember The Animals of Farthing Wood as a television series in which a diverse group of woodland animals who are threatened by man’s interference in their wood, form a motley crew and journey to the safety of a woodland reserve. It doesn’t look as though this will go ahead, due to the smaller animals natural fear of the carnivores eating them, until Badger suggests they take an oath of mutual protection. It’s a very nice story about understanding other people’s limitations and supporting them (Badger carries Mole on his back because he can only walk very slowly). Someone should also read it to the Environment Secretary because it makes the point that animals under threat migrate.
3. Tommy Brock The Tale of Mr Tod Beatrix Potter
Now Tommy Brock is a very naughty badger, the kind of badger you could imagine the government wanting to do something about. Don’t be fooled by his smart waistcoat and downturned gaze. This is the kind of badger who would steal a nest of baby rabbits and hides them in Mr Tod’s oven. Now you might say that badgers don’t commonly eat rabbits in the wild. To that I say, foxes don’t commonly own ovens. We’re suspending our disbelief here. Suspended? Thank you. Many people love Beatrix Potters “good characters” but I’ve always had a soft spot for the villains. Yes, I prefer Samuel Whiskers to Tom Kitten, and I salute Tommy Brock for stealing the baby rabbits and making everyone wonder why Benjamin Bunny decided to sire a family with his first cousin Flopsy. Well, that’s rabbits for you.
4. Mr Badger The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme
I admire any badger that wears a dressing gown, and the solitary Mr Badger may have attempted to stage one of the first interventions in literature when he tried to dissuade Toad from his path of self-destruction by placing him under house arrest. Interestingly, Badger and Mole are driven out of Toad Hall by a crew of stoats and weasels. Did you know that the TB virus can survive for a very long time in empty badger setts, infecting any badgers which move into the area. Interestingly, since rats and weasels move into Toad Hall, rats, weasels and ferrets can also carry the disease. As can foxes. And deer… shoot anything that moves will be next.
5. Trufflehunter Prince Caspian C S Lewis
This Old Narnian badger rescues Prince Caspian and hides him when he is fleeing from his evil, murderous Uncle Miraz. As a good and true Narnian, he surely lives on in Aslan’s Country, the true Narnia. But you have to wonder what fate lies in store for less vocal members of the meles meles if the government proceed with this madness.
Honourable mention should go to Bill of Rupert the Bear fame and Captain Ramshackle of Automated Alice but I felt that we had one randomologist too many in the form of Owen Paterson at this time.
* Even if your name isn’t Sherlock, you will notice that I have used this post on fictional badgers to ram home my views on the cull. I make no apology for that, it is madness. A ten-year study has shown that culling will not solve the problem of Bovine TB. It may in fact make it worse as studies showed TB decreasing in cull zones but rapidly increasing in surrounding areas. 92% of the surveyed British public are against the culls so both the scientists and the people the government have been elected to represent are being ignored.
If you’re a UK resident and as annoyed about this as I am please sign this petition. It’s already been debated once and the cull was postponed. Hopefully a second debate will see the cull cancelled altogether and Bovine TB managed through vaccination, improved husbandry and better biosecurity.
In 1576 a ship sails from Constantinople to Venice carrying both life and death in its hold.
Death comes in the form of a dying man, a victim of the Bubonic Plague, sent by the Sultan to spread the disease through the city and bring his enemies to their knees. Life comes in the form of a talented young doctor, Feyra, a stowaway, running from the Sultan’s advances and carrying an important message for the Doge of Venice. But Feyra has few allies in the plague ridden city, and time is running out…
Taking real historic details as a starting point, Marina Fiorato has created an enjoyable story which, though clearly very well researched and brimming with historic detail, feels natural and engaging. Those with a passing interest in history will be pleased with the detailed reconstruction of plague struck Venice, with its saints and quacks, while those reading for adventure and romance will not be disappointed.
The characterisation is decent, there being enough complexity to prevent Feyra becoming the stock plucky yet virtuous maiden, and enough warmth to prevent Annibale becoming a Renaissance Mr Darcy in a bird mask. The relationships which develop between characters are for the main part credible, if a little oversimplified, though the author uses a subjective narrative to understate or overstate the bonds between characters to great effect at times.
The novel relates some very dramatic moment- births, deaths and destruction- without seeping into hysterical melodrama. And though there were occasions when the novel felt a little awkwardly paced, or when characters felt a little more like plot devices than characters (Columbina Cason) I was impressed with the way the author managed the pace and scope of the novel.
Looking at the cover with its beautiful woman in a low-cut corseted dress against the backdrop of Venice, you could be forgiven for thinking that this would be something of a bodice ripper and dismiss it as a result. Don’t. The cover is beautiful in its own way but really doesn’t do the story justice.
On the whole this is an enjoyable read, which is suitable for young adults but which has enough flair to impress an adult reader as well.
Oleander is named for its resemblance to the leaves of an olive; deadly nightshade is called belladonna, the beautiful lady, for its luscious looking black berries; poison hemlock is easily mistaken for a parsnip.
It’s not always easy to spot a poison, especially when you have limited experience recognising the things that mean you harm. Jessamine has lived a sheltered life in the ruins of an abbey with her apothecary father, and knows enough to stay out of the poison garden which is hidden behind tall walls and a strong chain. But when Weed, a mysterious but attractive young man with a strange knowledge of plants, arrives, Jessamine quickly learns that love and obsession can be more poisonous than the most deadly plant.
I picked The Poison Diaries out as a Christmas present for my brother having fallen for the best blurb I have ever read:
IS A POISON
Someone promote whoever wrote that copy! The book comes very close to living up to the blurb, which is no mean feat.
Narrated from the perspective of Jessamine, the reader is drawn through an exciting mixture of thriller, romance and fantasy which twists and turns with every chapter. I find myself frustrated by obvious foreshadowing in novels, even subtle foreshadowing when you feel you have predicted the outcome and I loved the fact that this was peppered with red herrings to mislead and trick you.
It was clear that the author was in control of her plot, but at no point did you feel that the author was present, the characters were the ones telling the story. I don’t want to give the ending away, but I will say that I was impressed by the way in which the author wrote with conviction and refused to shy away from the strongest ending to the book. My brother said that he went to sleep feeling cheated, but woke up feeling quite impressed by the brilliance of it. It’s nice to see an author with the courage of their convictions.
This book is equally well suited to young adults and old adults alike (I use the word young adult to describe teenagers, because that seems to be common practise though I’m not sure I should be an old adult at twenty-five. It was called teen fiction in my day and was good enough for us!) as the themes and content are relevant to both age groups, which is quite an achievement. It’s rare to find a book that fits both age categories perfectly but this is one.
I’d never heard of Maryrose Wood (given her name you can understand the fixation with plants…) before, but I was so impressed that I will keep an eye out for any books by her in future.