Friday, 27 May 2016

Review: The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

This month's book-club book!
Okay, full disclosure. I wanted to hate this one. Since I saw it advertised, I've been thinking of it as The Girl with the Perfectly Reasonable Hatred of Being Infantalised When She is Actually a Grownassed Woman. I came to it with the narrowed eyes of suspicion, the acerbic comment of dismissal already framed and sitting on my tongue.

When you call a woman (and with a divorce, a round of failed IVF and a drink problem, there is no 'girl' about Rachel) a girl, you are presenting the kind of attitude towards women and their problems that wrecked Gone Girl for me. I was expecting another round of 'psycho ex-girlfriends' and false rape accusations - which is, I admit, generally better than the tough-but-vulnerable manic pixieness you get when men use such titles.

I wanted SO BAD not to like this book.

But I'm sorry to tell you that it's brilliant.

No, it's not the best book I've read this year, but it is a gripping, sickening and intelligent thriller. The characters are complex, realistic and never entirely likeable. Their problems are real, and - even if you hate them - you will pity them. Their suffering wrenches through the novel with a powerful 'here but for the grace of god'. It's the stuff of nightmare, but the worst nightmares, the kind that bubble so close to the surface of our experience of the world. It presents, terrifyingly, the real stakes of living as a woman in the patriarchy, and the way that you will often find yourself at the mercy of men, with no guarantee of their good intentions.

I struggled, I admit, at points with some of the set-up (spoilers, sorry) - the plot relying on a couple of tropes we could do without for the next eight decades - and found the ending possibly a little sensationalist. The mystery aspect itself was competent and well structured. I admit, I sussed it a little before time, but only due to certain personal reasons - my suspicions did not cement until the proper moment, when the careful laying of clues coalesced into certainty. One aspect of this was especially well presented, and actually did catch me by surprise.

The real draw of The Girl on the Train, however, is not its mystery, but the claustrophobic, almost unhealthy intensity of emotion within it, and on that count it hits every single mark. Fantastic, and well worth your time.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Time's Fool - coming in to the light

My debut novel Time's Fool is now live on the Unbound site.

Regular readers of this blog will know how much supernatural fiction means to me. Time's Fool is my lovesong to the genre - an homage to Dracula and an edgy, contempory take on the conventions of the Victorian Gothic. 

Please, do pop over there and check it out.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Review: The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan

I dog-ear, too. Hatemail to the usual address.
Oh, my Gods, this book. Oh, this book broke me.

So, it was introduced to our book group as "The Next Night Circus", a book which has thus far been the standard aginst which all others fall. However, I'd scarcely got half dozen pages in to it when it struck me that this was not The Night Circus, no.

This was Nights at the Circus.

Well, no, it wasn't. Logan is no Angela Carter (considering that I hold Carter to a cross between be a messianic figure for the study of fairytale and a literary Godhead, I'm doubt if I would ever make that comparison without caveat.) Her prose does not sparkle with endless profundity, she makes no bold, brain shattering arguments with her plots. However, the comparison can be drawn, the influence recognised. The main difference is that The Gracekeepers is a profoundly quiet novel.

The Night Circus rings with wonder, glory and magic. Nights at the Circus dazzles, swoops and blazes much as Fevvers herself. The clue with both of these is in the name - we are being invited to an entertainment, a spectacle. The Gracekeepers is named for the small, brightly coloured birds whose slow starvation marks out the length one should spend upon grief.

The quietness of The Gracekeepers suits its vast, empty, watery world, suits its lonely, voiceless protagonists, suits the very queerness of the novel. Because it is a queer novel, contrasting the safe, prosperous, conformist world of the landlockers with the uneasy itinerancy of the damplings - forever in the shadow of religious fanatics, or at the mercy of a violent militia.

The Circus Excalibar's play with gender and subversion is at once celebrated and reviled by their landlocker audience, and they inhabit a tenuous existence, tolerated only for the thrill they can give. Aboard ship, their loves are passionate and non-normative, their identities fluid and impossible to discern in binary terms. Their bodies are covered with scars they have taken.

To further the metaphor, the damplings are repeatedly described as a family, albeit one marred and made dysfunctional by the clear stratification of power within it. Some members embrace their outsider status, others long to return (or to gain) the respectability of land. In to this mix comes North - unrepentant dampling, an outsider even in the Circus - and Callanish - a landlocker gracekeeper trapped by her past, resisting the call of the sea.

And, until I was two thirds of the way through the novel, this was what I was enchanted by, this is what I was lost in. Whether North and Callanish's connection is asexual, lesbian, or a sweet, moving portrayal of twin spirits who understand each other on a level that transcends gender and sexuality, that connection is the heart of the book, the strength of the novel. It moved as slowly as the tide, each beat heart-rending, gorgeous, captivating.

But the problem with The Gracekeepers is that it felt the need to have a plot. And whereas most of the novel's other characters (even bit parts) are drawn lightly, cleverly, that plot rested upon the antagonist who felt like like the cheapest caricature grabbed from the brashest story of woman against woman. Her actions, which drive the so-called climax, were inexplicable, unconvincing, and unfitted - in tone, or matter - for the novel. The only explanation I can think of for the inclusion of such an event was that it permitted a neat and unproblematic ending to a novel that otherwise would have continued, troubled, tragic, ambiguous.

And, honestly, flawless.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Review: The Hunger Games

As always when reviewing YA, I feel I should state that not being the intended audience puts something of a dampener on my relationship with it. Worse, I can no longer claim to be au fait and can therefore no longer assess it in context of its peers.

My gods, is it possible to sound more pompous?

Well, anyway, I really quite enjoyed The Hunger Games. Roaringly compulsive, I read the entire trilogy over three days. Collins' world is sharp, frank and horrifying - although yes, it pales in comparison to other speculative and real-world settings - as a preteen it would have led to the kind of horrified captivation that would have kept me from sleeping. Collins presents - through Katniss and Peeta - a frank idealism that is both powerless and inflammatory against the corruption of the world they inhabit.

However, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are not equal. Neither sequal has the claustrophobic intensity of the orignal novel - by comparison, Catching Fire is directionless and perfunctory, whereas Mockingjay rushes along a adventurous thriller of a plot that overshadows what should have been the emotional heart of the novel. Yet I get the impression that the books were intended to be distinct in mood, genre and pacing. They almost need to be vert different books, to attempt very different things. Whether they succeed or not is moot - as a cynical reader, I was unconvinced. As a teenager, more open-hearted and engaged, I may have felt differently.
The greatest strength of the novels, though, was neither their plot nor their emotional intensity. What holds them together is the character of Katniss, whose stark, occasionally abrasive character convinces entirely. Collins unashamedly presents Katniss as a child warped by the dreadful circumstances of her youth.

At once sharply worldly and desperately naive, she is a survivor whose faults are redeemed by her commitment to a better world. Even more refreshingly, Katniss' emotions amd relationships are transient and adolescent - their intensity informed by the horrific circumstances in which they develop, rather than some high ideal of being 'more real' than those of her peers. More still, Katniss mimics and manipulates her own feelings in order to survive, an experience I remember keenly (although under less deadly conditions) from my own adolescence. Katniss' kisses move neither heaven nor earth. Instead, she acknowledges that they feel nice, and she would maybe like to have another. You know, when her life isn't in direct danger.

From what I know of relationships formed against a backdrop of war and uncertainty (not so very far in this country's past, if we're honest), it is this very lack of sparkle and that let's us know what is happening is 100% real. Without spoilers, the ending satisfied, too, refusing to tidy away the bodies or the trauma of the narrative. What we are left with is not some ride into the sunset but survivors clinging to one another, hoping, one day, to heal.

So, on balance, not flawless, but The Hunger Games series provides a clever and engaging exploration of how circumstance shapes us, of how we are always responsible for our actions, but perhaps not the way those are used. An enjoyable read, and some pretty awesome YA.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Review: 'Blood, Bread and Roses', Judy Grahn

You know what I was saying about random library finds?

Well, my gods, I love this so much. I admit, a fraction of this enjoyment is because (shortly after picking up) I had a run in with my favourite local mansplainer who benignly asked what I was reading, and I had the pleasure of showing him the cover and watching the vague interest turn to an actual recoil.

Still this book is astonishing. Did you know I'd never heard of it before? Me, whose doorway to adulthood was Angela Carter, whose undergraduate adulation was spent on Carl Jung, James Frazer and Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs? No-one even thought to tell me this book was around?

And okay, yes, it is one of those sweeping, slightly too-universal acts of poetic anthropology which are a) academically a bit suspect, and b) not to everyone's taste. However, the value of such works is not solely in their content, or the viablity of their research. No. What they do is shatter open the closed doors in our minds, bring us face to face with the impossible, with the things that, bone-deep, we have always suspected to be true. Their worth is not measured in intellectual terms, but in spiritual and socieological ones. Their sweeping deconstruction may not be entirely accurate, but it reframes our mental narratives, makes us interrogate our understanding of our bodies, our spirituality, our world.

To her credit, Grahn recognises this. By her own lights, she is a poet, and the story she offers here - overwhelming and encyclopeadic as it might be - is never intended to be more than one voice among many. More importantly, it is a female voice, one rooted in the female body - specifically in the act of menstruation - an act and a body that has faced and faces so much discrimination, so much legislation, disgust and ostracisation worldwide. 

Grahn takes the balance of shame laid upon the female head, the female gaze, upon female blood and female decoration, and draws out its global import. Rather than shame and staining, menstrual blood becomes the original creator of human consciousness, the single thing whose expression and management keeps the world in order. She reframes it as the root of all science, all craft, all religion, language and clothing. It is the originator of diet and ritual. In her language, all blood is menstrual blood.

 Her methodology is engaging and pursuasive, hopping through academic disciplines to create a welter of evidence and arguement, drawing parallels and concordances across time periods and civilisations. She shows consciousness, humanity, society as a gift that was begun by women and passed - through actions she calls metaforms - into the hands of men, whose mimetic 'menstruations' can be traced through every hero's journey we have ever read. 

Naturally, a book so focused on periods is going to be pretty essentialist. Yet, even so, Grahn leaves the door open for queer theory. Civilisation could not begin and end at bodies which menstruate - the truths so learned must be commicated to those that do not. The narrative she constructs suggests that gendered behaviours not only can cross the line of bodies, but more specifically that they must. That, for society to function, men can and have simulate menstrual forms to access that same ritual power associated with the original menstruation. 

A more marked criticism is that Grahn's methodology and examples are not always entirely sound. She makes much of menstrual etymology, but her focus is almost entirely upon the English language. What is more, with my limited knowledge of etymology, I was able to spot a few mistakes - a more experienced scholar would doubtless notice more. Perhaps more seriously, her universal focus could be open to the criticism of approriation and misrepresentation of other cultures. Her repeated reference to the practices of the Dogon people made me uneasy, and although I am not an anthropologist, I am always wary of the constructions European scholars put upon the practices of other cultures.

That said, however, if recognised as a flawed work that exists as one voice among many, Blood, Bread and Roses should really take its place as a central text of mythic history. It should be spoken of in the same breath as Man and his Symbols, The Golden Bough and The White Goddess.

Essentially, I should have heard of it.