Tag Archives: novel

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke“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?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Past The Shallows- Favel Parrett

If you’re planning to read Past The Shallows by Favel Parrett I would recommend that you do not do so in the bath. I made this mistake last night. I got in, planning to make a start on the book, but I couldn’t stop reading and when I got out of the nearly cold bath two hours later the book was finished.

Needless to say, the book is a gripping read. The bleakly compelling narrative follows Harry and Miles, brothers who struggle to protect one another in a difficult life which has seen them lose their mother, uncle and grandfather, leaving them at the mercy of their unstable and embittered father. As their older brother Joe prepares to leave Tasmania and Miles is forced to leave school to work gathering abalone with his father, the boys seek small comforts where they can, until a catastrophe occurs.

This is not a happy book, but Favel Parrett’s understated approach to the difficulties of the brothers’ lives is impressive and moving. Harry’s vulnerability is chilling, and Miles’ desperate attempts to protect his little brother from the cruel world in which they live are heart-breaking.  The prose is pared back and functional, and I think it is this restraint which makes the novel feel so worryingly real, so horribly credible.

A truly impressive debut, Parrett’s writing is powerful and unflinching.

Don’t read it in the bath, but do read it.

The Poison Diaries- Maryrose Wood

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:










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.


Giveaway for World Book Night

Hello all, as you can see I still have lots of copies of Life of Pi to give away. As in my last post, all you have to do is email me at bookandbiscuit@hotmail.co.uk with your address. I won’t keep your details after sending the books, don’t worry!

The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt

Most readers will probably have heard of The Children’s Book  by AS Byatt, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I picked this book up a few times in bookshops before I bought it, I’m not going to lie, it was the cover which attracted me (not that I judge a book just by its cover but it was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in recent years) but was put off by my experiences of reading Byatt at university.

I read Elementals by AS Byatt as a part of a contemporary fiction module, and I hated the fussy prose she used in her short stories. The Children’s Book is better initially, as Byatt’s writing style is better suited to the novel form. I say initially, because like the rule that says a task will expand to fit the time you allocated to it, Byatt’s writing seems to expand to fill the page allocation rather than in order to tell the story. It would have been vastly improved by an editor getting busy with a red pen and cutting vast swathes of text out.

The story is an ambitious work, following a group of people associated with the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement from the “golden days” of the later 18th century to the aftermath of the First World War. There is no strong plot line, more an attempt to explore the social mores of the time, in the style of a non-satirical Vanity Fair. However, it lacks the dynamic and punch of Vanity Fair as Byatt strangles the exploration of action and character with her elongated prose and history text book summaries. Maybe it’s more Anna Karenina, that could have done with a brutal edit at times as well.

The novel began and ended very well, they were interesting and emotionally engaging. There are a large number of characters, but the bonds between them are intelligible and sustained. Towards the middle however, Byatt (and consequently the reader) loses the plot, bringing in an army of unnecessary minor characters who add nothing to the plot, name checking historical figures who have nothing to do with the action- to contextualize or appear learned I can’t decide- and sticking in chunks of half written fairytales which take the reader along a path to nowhere. This is to say nothing of a strange fascination with the sexual desires of teenage boys. Many of the characters are vain, selfish and irritating, which would be fine, but this left me with no interest in the story. I couldn’t empathise with them. I didn’t care. It’s a miracle I finished the book, but I’m glad I did. Some of the description of the war was quite moving.

I wonder what AS Byatt was hoping to achieve when she wrote this book. I would be vaguely interested to know. Did she want to tell a story about parents who fancied themselves Bohemian and damaged their children through their self indulgence? Did she want to write a history of a period in history? It’s not clear and I think that this is the problem with the book. I have a keen interest in history and still found the constant references to figures and events annoying- a well written story doesn’t need this historical name dropping. If I want to read a factual account I will pick up a history book, if I pick up a novel I want to be entertained. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn from a novel, but I most certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in a history lecture or watching one of those dramatisations we watched in school history lessons showing us how the plague was passed from ships to the common man and the lord as well. I felt that Byatt was simpering to herself about how she was bettering me. Irritating.

The book probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. There are some very good moments. The trouble is, you feel like you’re experiencing the book as things happened. Living through the wheat and chaff of twenty years of history, wondering whether the time you’re investing is possible worth it. If you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining story, don’t pick this book. If you manage to finish it, you’ll feel quite worthy, but next time I think I’ll just try War and Peace.

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

“If you stop and look around,” Chloe says, “you see that we have decorated our world with lies.”

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

Alice is a cryptanalyst and cryptic crossword setter, hired by PopCo, the third biggest global toy company as an experiment. They want creatives from new fields to help in the ideation of a new product which will wrestle the cash from the one elusive cash rich market they have so far failed to connect with- teenage girls. But how can Alice connect with the teenage market, when her own childhood was marred by the death of her mother and disappearance of her father? Having spent her childhood breaking codes to find buried treasure with her grandfather, can she develop a product which appeals to the teenage girls of today? When coded messages start appearing, and people start behaving strangely, Alice’s eyes are opened to the hidden truths which have been in front of her all along.

PopCo by Scarlett Thomass is a wonderful fusion of cryptoanalytic theory, maths and cultural criticism, but enjoyably so. When you think back over the novel and consider what actually happens, you realise that in terms of actual storytelling, not a lot has- and yet you’ve enjoyed the novel immensely. In this respect, Thomas’ writing reminds me of the novels of Jostein Gaarder (Sophie’s World in particular) that I used to read as a child, where the story is a frame for the philosophical content, and the whole point of the book is what you learn along the way. Her skill as a writer, I feel, lies in the fact that unless you sit and consciously deconstruct the novel afterwards, as a reader you don’t really notice where this is happening.

As someone who is somewhat allergic to Maths, I found it amazing that I was enjoying the Mathematical content of the book to the extent that I am actually considering taking an A-level in Maths as a result. I think you would have to know me to appreciate this. Through the discussions of cryptography and cryptanalysis, you begin to realise that the whole world is run around numbers to the extent that you are lead to think about the concept of God as a 4D being, and the idea that we are driven to create our own universes- thus explaining the popularity of web based phenomena like Second Life et all. I genuinely never realised the extent to which codes and ciphers are used in modern day life, and I find it fascinating. Conveniently, if you read PopCo, you learn a little about coding messages along the way- which I intend to try out on some unsuspecting victims at some point in the future!

All of this is fused with Thomas’ comments on modern life, and what passes for culture; the study legitimised in the novel by being based around the mysterious PopCo toy company for which Alice works. As I am in love with Thomas, and her seemingly endless expertise in everything, I found out that she has a first class honours Bachelor’s Degree in something like cultural studies. And you can tell. I find the presence of these all powerful corporations in life a little bit worrying anyway, but again, when I read the book and learned about their research methods and mirror branding etc… chilling stuff, but I won’t spoil it for you.

I am aware that this post is mostly me gushing about how in love I am with Scarlett Thomas, so I will stop that now and get a little bit more analytical. Because despite my finding the book enjoyable and informative, as a work of fiction it does have some massive, gaping flaws, other than the constant mentions of green tea, which it is really only fair to point out if you read books for the story (and there is nothing wrong with that, novels are meant to be a source of entertainment!)

I’ve mentioned before that part of Thomas’ cleverness lies in her ability to use smoke and mirrors to convince you that you have read a fascinating story, when actually the story is pretty weak. In many ways, I found the characters somewhat lacklustre and 2D (though perhaps appropriately, given the discourse of the book) and the story… didn’t really happen for me. Thomas is so busy educating, and no doubt some would argue preaching to us, that the story is a means to an end.

Thomas tries to mix a little mystery and a love affair into the story, and this had huge potential, but I found myself quite disappointed by the end product. A convincing back story is built up around the main character’s romantic involvement with her boss, though not to the extent that it is credible when she decides that she loves him, and ultimately goes nowhere. This should have been exploited further to create further impact with later revelations in the book, but I kind of thought, so what? Also Thomas has little hobby horse moments when she preaches about women’s sexual liberation and saving the planet to us, and, whereas I agree with these things in principle, they are awkwardly forced into the book and don’t explain her love affair with a second character. It comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t fit the tone of the story, but Thomas tries to cover it up with preaching, which was a little disappointing.

Another thing which began to grate on me, having read The End of Mr. Y, another Thomas novel, was that the main characters in both of these books are worryingly similar. Very little, other than their names, occupations etc. have been changed. It isn’t a huge issue having only read two Thomas books, but I hope to read more of her novels, and I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t shake things up a little bit soon.

The novel’s end is very hurried, and lots of loose ends are left just that way, loose. Though in a way, Thomas acknowledges this, suggesting that Alice has in fact, written the book that we’ve read so far. I don’t think that this was very successful though, and I think it was the sign of a writer who needs to finish the good book that she has written, but has no idea how to bring it all back together with any sense of unity. It was a little amateurish and disappointing.

I can appreciate that this is a very mixed review. If it helps, I am already looking for other Thomas novels to read. I really enjoyed this book, which is why I read, and I can let the flawed storytelling slide on that front. It really is a case of horses for courses. You know what matters to you in a book, and should choose accordingly. I will say one thing though. There is a puff on the cover from some critic or other gushing that this book will change your life. I am usually scathing of such things, but I do have to agree. This book has really changed the way I look at the world, and I sincerely mean that. It may be a bit preachy, but it is wonderfully clever and forces you to think; I don’t think you get many books like that these days.