Monday, 17 December 2018

Review: The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School

Yes. Yesssssssssssss.

Oh, my blog was having its hiatus when the last one of these came out. The one where I bought half a dozen copies, gave them to all of my friends for Christmas and went, "Look, look! IT'S US!"

So: Did you go to a single sex school? Did you fucking hate it? Or, did you love it, but find yourself the 'red headed stepchild' all the same? Are you still mates with some of the weirdos you met there?
Okay. You need to read Drearcliff Grange. 

How to describe this? Superpowers and eldritch abominations at St Trinians? Rip-roaring adventures, jolly hockeysticks, defeating facism, and overcooked swede? These books are nuts and it's fucking marvellous. Newman is the King of Pastiche and he owns this totally.

I need to calm down.

The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School is the second in the Drearcliff series, and expands both the world and the themes that Newman developed in the first novel. It suffers a little from being a transitional piece between the self-contained first book, and the wider series - but it is still an immensely satisfying read. Moreover, Newman addresses that aspect of it thematically, taking Amy, Frecks, Kali, and Emma from the plucky girlhood and simple moralities of The Mysteries... to a adolescence, and a reappraisal of what it is to be a hero.

Certainties are challenged, characters change, and we explore the awkward ground between the broken and the malevolent, balance law agaisnt lawlessness, explore the dangers of privilege, the worth of trust, and the harm that can be done by the simplest of actions. At the heart of the novel is Amy, whose role as the benevolent Kentish Glory is reconsidered as she wonders if she might not do better as the more terrible Death's Head Hawkmoth.

Of course, its all terribly referential, both to adjacent literary worlds and Newman's other works, but that's all part of the fun. If that isn't your sort of thing then... honestly, you might want to find another book review blog.

More seriously, Newman's great strength as a writer is that he manages to drop every name under the sun without ever detracting from the story he is telling at that moment, and this book carries off that trick admirably. An absolute joy.

I loved it so much, I did cosplay.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Review: Domini Mortum by Paul Holbrook

Let's keep things ghastly here for a while.... Paul Holbrooks Domini Mortum whisks us off to the smoggy streets of Victorian London, where misanthropic Samuel Weaver is sketching the dismembered bodies of murder victims for The Illustrated Police News.

I mean, I'll let you make your own content notes, here - just be sure to cast a broad net. This is genuine old-school horror, full of apparitions, murder, mayhem, and gallons of gore. Sharp, funny, really quite upsetting in places, this a really satisfying novel for those who like things on the darker side.

Samuel is, as they say, a piece of work. Talented, arrogant, blockheaded, he blunders through his investigations following both a trail of mutilated bodies and his fixation on the cannibal serial killer, Sibelius Darke.Twists, turns, conspiracies, madnesses and god so many murders take the reader through a plot of high melodrama and human depravity, while Samuel himself is brought to understand several terrible truths.

Honestly, it's a great read.
<<light spoilers from this point out>>

Awful as Weaver might be, I rapidly became rather fond of him and he is cordially invited to take his place in my collection of trashy murder-boys. Part of this was because of the way the central plot was contrasted with flash back sections of Weaver's home life and upbringing in York - with his priest father, doting if neglected mother, and his early taste for the chaotic and the macabre. I don't know what it says about me, but while I seldom read realist historical fiction, if you weave a lot of period-appropriate family drama and social commentary in to a horror novel and that will be my favourite bit.

Similarly, I found myself struck far more the social interactions and class consciousness of the characters than the actual rip-roaring chases through London, and the dismembered bodies - but I think that actually stands testament more to Holbrook's skill in conveying the rich and painstaking he has done (and my own weird way of engaging with things) than it does to any deficiency on the part of the plot. In fact, the world that Holbrook presents is wonderfully realised - he crates a real, tangiable sense of a specific historical moment that transcends the genre expectations 'London Smog.'

If I had a complaint, however, it would be that the final third of the book does not stand up to the promise of the set-up. The scale, scope, and violence evoked in the early part of the novel make what is objectively a very creepy and unsettling ending seem a little anticlimactic. I'm aware this is the second book in the series, and that Holbrook may indeed resume the narrative at some point, but personally feel that had the events of the denoumont been given more space to breathe, then both the narrative complexity and personal intensity could have been kept to the same pitch they'd had throughout and given the twist ending more power.

All in all, however, this is a bloody good book (pun intended) and great fun to read.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Review: Uncle Silas, Sheridan le Fanu

So... owning up time. Who else always gets this one confused with Silas Marner?

Just me? Good good.

Right, I picked this one up in the secondhand bookshop, knowing nothing more about it that it was apparently a Gothic, and it was written by the same guy who did Carmilla. It was pretty much what you'd expect. Heiresses! Crumbling stately homes! Evil plots! Laudanum! Trains!

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this one, but struggled to take it particularly seriously. It was quite predictable, and like many Romances of Terror, if you look at things from a plot perspective, it didn't really deliver on many of its promises.

That said, there are a few things to be said for it - firstly, Silas Ruthyn himself is one heck of dish. Quite the silver fox, much prone to dabbing his temples with cologne and sighing about all the bungling fuckwits by whom he has the misfortune to be surrounded. Honestly, from a slightly biased perspective, I would say the character was wasted and we could have done with a lot more of him - but then I have a type.

Secondly, and because this is a respectable literary blog (I say, as you all collapse in to laughter) I was quite taken with Le Fanu's clarity and precision. Uncle Silas is what happens when Northanger Abbey meets Udolpho  - Le Fanu recongises that county men and respectable countries are as full of rogues and abusers as the most fantastical stories, it is only that the villains must comport themselves more carefully. The blending of modernity - at least, for the time of writing - and isolation was really powerful. Rather than Stoker's triumphalist use of technology, the railway in Uncle Silas simply makes the world feel smaller, more limited. It offers no escape to our protagonist, only faster transport for her persecutors.

Le Fanu also came through in his fairness both to young female characters, and female friendship. Barring Silas himself, and Dr Bryerly, the male characters we encounter are relatively anodyne. For all the men drive the plot,  they are not a patch on the vividness of Milly, Meg, or even Madame de la Rougierre - who may not actually do much, but who remain with you. Milly and Maud's friendship, especially, was delightful to read.

I won't mince words - Maud Ruthyn herself is something of a drip. She does not have the poise or intelligence of Carmilla's narrator, and occasionally I wanted to smack her across the side of the head, but even still, Le Fanu is fair to her. She is shown to grow over the course of the novel, and her adult commentary on her youthful follies are quite incisive. Despite all her silliness, she is never treated as a joke, or deserving of suffering - yet neither is her lack of worldliness of common-bloody-sense held up some sort of unrealistic paradigm of virtue. She's immature - that's all.

I like that about Le Fanu - while I might not agree with everything he writes about gender, he didn't hate teenage girls.
 Naturally, it was written in the 1860s, so warnings apply for all the usual 'hilarious' and 'shifty' bumpkins, virulent antisemitism, fetishing of Romany culture, and 'sinister foriegners'. I do so wish they wouldn't.

But, aside from that, an absolutely fine Gothic novel. Better than Udolpho, although that isn't difficult.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Review: The Log House, Baylea Hart

The Log House is a very strange novel. Set in a dark dystopia where humanity lives in worn thin communes, huddled away from the forest where monstrous children prey, murdering anyone they can catch, we follow Penny on her quest for revenge after she is cast out for a crime which becomes clear only as the story unfurls.

Warped by her past, Penny is a unsettling and repulsive protagonist, and her dogged, shambolic traipse through the forest has a nightmarish intensity that frames the grotesqueries of the plot excellently. There is a horror of birth and parenthood that runs through every word of the narrative, a profound body horror realised both by the hairy, murderous creatures hunting her, and the almost bloodless quietness of both the child she has left behind.

Because Penny - the fertile - inhabits a dystopia where childbirth creates monsters, and is surrounded by older, worn-down, people, living limited lives in dark houses splinter-filled houses, people who clutch after her and her son with the same uncomfortable intensity.

This is a book of madness, of suddenness, of hatred that seethes, and children that bring death. The cataclysm that brought about the dystopia is ill-defined, and the books main flaws come about when that aspect of the story is discussed. From a personal perspective, I would either say it need more space and depth to be expanded - to give us a relatable normality against which to play the nightmare - or to be glossed over with only the most general sense of a society slowly withering away. Dystopias breed questions, both as to their sustainability and their scope, and what little we learned of this one didn't give a clear picture of either.

But despite this, The Log House is a deeply creepy tale of threat and revenge, guaranteed to give you a landscape for your bad dreams for quiet some time.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Review: Tempests and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce

Beautiful cover though!

Oh, GAWD, someone give Varice Kingsford a hug from me!

To those not familiar with Pierce's work, Tempests and Slaughter is a prequel to The Immortals series, and takes us deep in to the backstory of one Numair Salmalín as we watch his struggles at the Imperial University in the years before he became known as the most powerful mage alive. An occassionally awkward cross between school/college narrative and... political thriller with magic? Tempests and Slaughter is an incredibly compelling read full of wonderful characters, deep intrigue, and powerful worldbuilding. While the wonderfully foreboding ending either leans quite heavily on the rest of the series, or an eventual sequel, it also stands alone surprisingly well.

Pierce shows both the glory and the cruelty of Empire, and the subtlties of class and race relationships. One of it's treasures - the Imperial University is a wonderfully realised: a study in petty ambitions and academic genorisity, whose seclusion from the world is thematically and narratively engaged with throughout the book, even while it provides a much needed refuge to the young Numair.   

It is often difficult to categorise Pierce's novels by age group - despite inhabiting the same world, The Protector of the Small often reads like the upper end of middle grade fiction, while parts of The Song of the Lioness are clearly young or new adult.  While this novel follows Numair from mid childhood, it has the feel of something pitched slightly older - a more jaded and slightly colder worldview that is reminiscent of Battlemagic, or The Will of the Empress rather than the other Tortall books. There was also a lot more focus on the practicalities of society - taxation, disease management, exploitation - rather than the simpler morality of her early work. A cynical reader would say was influences by A Song of Ice and Fire but Pierce was already engaging with these themes in both The Circle of Magic and The Protector of the Small, and it was lovely to see these developed unflinchingly without her characters ever being shown as less kind, or humanity as less redeemable.

However, Pierce does attempt to show the same run of crushes, dating, and physcial developments of adolescene that her other protagonists go through - which, perhaps understandably - represent one of the weakest aspects of the novel. It made sense for Kel and Alanna - surrounded by cis boys - to be hyperaware of menarchy and the development of their breasts - but hearing, however briefly, about Numair's involuntary erections felt a little superfluous.

What is remarkable about Numair is not that he is a boy (Pierce has written Briar, after all) but that he is Gifted - in both senses of the word. Pierce's stories find their strength when they hit upon what it is that stands at their character's heart - Daine's was her trauma and her recovery, Alanna's was that she was Chosen, and Kel's was her hardworking normalness. Numair is Gifted, and Pierce provides a touching portrait of the privileged insularity attendent upon that as Numair's social and political naïveté is contrasted with his already formiddable magical Gift, as well as the loneliness and rejection he faces as both someone both markedly different, and so much younger than his peers. 

At the heart of Tempests and Slaughter, is survival - from the gladiator Musenda's battles for his life, to Orzone, the "leftover Prince"and his struggle to survive the turbulent politics of court, and win acclaim. Which brings us to Varice and the hug. Because while he might be isolated, Numair is not alone in these years - Varice and Orzone are shown as two other highly gifted young people, and provide him both with friendship and comradery as the three of them grow. But whilst Numair gradually learns to focus on the realities of world around him, and Orzone is drawn in to court intrigues, Varice goes from the forthright ringleader of their little group, to a careful peacemaker, agonised by the way her intelligence is mocked and belittled by their academic circle.

This is quite a bold move for Pierce, who is most famous for stories of how young women come in to their strengths, gaining the acclaim of recognition. Varice is clearly and explicitly diminished by the narrative, her survival strategies (and the social judgements placed on her skill sets) gradually locking her in to a more and more constrained role - in which part we meet her in The Emperor Mage. Heartbreaking as this was as a reader, it provided a welcome aspect of realism on the way female brilliance is often forced to diminish itself, and was done with such sympathy and gentleness that it felt almost an apology for Varice's implied vapidity in the earlier novel.

Yeah, I got a signed one

I really enjoyed this book - but that was pretty much a given. Numair is one of my favourite Pierce characters, and while I will admit that I came to this book with both unrealistically high expectations, and a couple of dearly held headcanons that - alas - remained unfulfilled, it still gave me more than I needed. Also, while Pierce is not interested in providing fanservice, she does seem to have made a real commitment to representation in her books, and it is nice to see a handful of LGB characters. (Although since when has Orzone been white?) It was nice to see a couple of nods to faces we recognise from the other books, although potentially these were a little overdone in places.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Review: Sour Fruit, Eli Allison

Ha, it's not quite been two years since I last posted - that would just be an embarrassing delay, right? But what better way to restart this blog than with a book that I've not only been looking forward to, but that I actually helped make happen!

Yes, I am proudly listed among the supporters to Sour Fruit by Eli Allison, and if you aren't I reckon you missed a trick here. Anyway, it's now available to buy in shops and all the usual bookselling websites.

Set in a brutal, near-future dystopia, Sour Fruit is a exploration of powerlessness and dispossesion, of the cruelty and the humanity of those who find themselves on the bottom rung. Told through the eyes of Onion, a girl "forced into a knife fight with a world that has just pulled a machine gun on her" we are given a bleak and occasionally touching view of what people do to survive.

Shackled to the gentle, passive-seeming Rhea, Onion tries to escape the ghetto of Kingston and reinstate her Provisional INC number, thereby becoming a citizen again before the crime boss Milton Mooluke can sell her to a the sinister Toymaker. But as Kingston erupts in to violence, it becomes clear far more powerful and dangerous forces are at work around them.
But that would be cheating.
The whole thing is framed by Onion's interrogation by sinister Doctors some time after the events and we get the story first person. Abrasive, rude, and mistrusting, Onion makes a compelling narrator - her grim flippancy and verbal dexterity provide a necessary contrast to the darkness of the novel, and giving scathing descriptions of the various grotesqueries we meet. While some readers might find her aggressive lack of charm somewhat repulsive as a character trait, Allison uses it to convey Onion's youth and lack of agency, creating a portayal of vulnerable adolescence that is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.

Meanwhile, the dystopian England portrayed - a ruthless, corporation-owned police state which has created a subclass to deal with the effects of climate disaster and a migrant crisis - is terrifyingly plausible, and Kingston's reaction against that is reminiscent of Angela Carter's nightmarish visions of a fallen America.

If Sour Fruit has a flaw, it is that Onion's POV is perhaps too limited for the events of moment that are occuring around her. The history of Kingston and the factions within it, of the Charlie babies and the rise of the INC numbers are fascinating ideas which don't get enought the space to breathe. This can stop what is a very well realised world from being conveyed clearly. It also affects the pacing of the novel in places, where the compelling action sequences are sometimes difficult to follow without further exposition.

That aside, it's a gripping, affecting novel which I would definitely reccommend to people who their dystopias violent and irreverrant. It reads likes something Margaret Atwood might write if she habitually took 'shrooms and spent her Friday's throwing down with Chuck Palahniuk in the Chatham dockyards of the early 90s, so if that sounds like your kind of thing then you will love this. 

And pparently it's the first of a trilogy, so there are more goodies to come!