Monday, 22 April 2019

Review: The Book of Hidden Things, Francesco Dimitri

Set in the stifling heat, twisted olive groves, and relentless machismo of rural Southern Italy, and dealing strongly with themes of masculinity, it is perhaps no surprise that The Book of Hidden Things is something of a blokey book.

That isn't intended as an insult, and it is something the text itself resists, trying to have a bit gay rep as well as showing women as varied, empowered, and active characters while never actually centering them. That the women themselves come out a little in the Iain Banks Goddess mould is probably only to be expected and isn't, of itself, a criticism, just a warning to regular readers of this blog which has always had something of a feminist slant.

That aside, however, The Book of Hidden Things is excellently written, wedding a thriller plot both to an emotional story of growing up and some philosophical pondering on the very nature of magic. It is a book about brotherhood and betrayl, about that awful moment when you realise that you are no longer young, that your die is cast, your bright potential squandered, and your fuckups irredeemable. More importantly, it asks the terrifying question of what happened to all of your potential, all of your dreams, and to what ends would you be prepared to go in order to get them back again?

Following three childhood friends trying to solve the disappearance of the fourth of their group - the one who had always formed the linchpin of their group - the enigmatic and tellingly named Art. Alternating between their four viewpoints, we are led through the lies and exploitation of the local church, the threats and protection of the local Mafia, and all of Art's deceptions, crimes, and debaucheries, the mystery is gradually solved. But as it is, three lives are also opened wide to us - the secrets and exploitations of adolescence leading us in to the disappointments and compromises of adulthood, and the constant sense that somewhere, the path was lost.

Meanwhile, Art's actions lead to a climax and a decision that would do any thriller proud - even if it was a very sudden change in pace.

Honestly, this book bewitched and unsettled me in equal measure. One for fans of Nick Harkaway, China Miéville, and anyone likes things a little darker than the Blood and Icecream trilogy.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Review: The Wine Dark Sea, Robert Aickman

Sometimes, it's all about synchronicity. Like how I was walking across town shortly after Time's Fool had been released when a nice local gentleman stops me, tells me he's read it and enjoyed it. Have I, he asks, ever read any Robert Aickman?
Wrote ghost stories. Apparently my work reminded him of it.  

And what should my excellent godparents have got me for Christmas this year but a copy of Aickman's The Wine Dark Sea? With such a lovely co-incidence in place, how could I resist reading it?

And reader, I must say, I am terribly flattered.

Aickman is nasty. Cold, a little detached, his writing is wonderfully chilling, creating quiet, horrible ghost stories with some moments of gorgeously dry observation cutting through it all. This is the real world, stifling and mundane, shot through with horror that is never lessened by explanation. This is not the vaulting, heartless skies of Lovecraft, this is an insiduous little curl of darkness in your very heart.

Of the collection, my favourites were probably The Fetch, and Never Visit Venice, just because... *shudder*. Perfect build of atmosphere against the gothic set pieces. Love it.

Look, alysdragon dot blogspot isn't a book reccomendation site, really, or a review blog, or even - as I'd once hoped it would be - a criticism blog, really it's just a place I come to write about books in whatever form I see fit. Normally, this takes the form of reviews because normally my response to reading is weighing the good and the bad of any given book and trying to work out who else might enjoy - even if I didn't. Sometimes, my emotions hijack me and I want to rave about something, or else throw it in to the firey pits of perdition. But occasionally, a book is simply mine. I'll read something and not want to judge it, or pull it to pieces, or even reccomend it. I just want to put it on my eternal reread shelf and stroke it occasionally because it is mine and I have just discovered it.

I could talk about Aickman's politics, or his prose, or my analysis of his stories, or the fact that he actually seems to like women and the surprising amount of lesbianism in this book, and I might do all of that when I get a chance. 

But for now I just want to say with credit to a local reader and to my godparents, I've just discovered Robert Aickman.

This book is mine.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Review: The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

One of the reasons I don't use a formal rating system on this blog is that assigning something a certain number of stars always seems to result in injustice. For example, if a book by my favourite writer isn't quite as sublimely brilliant as I know they're capable of producing, I might give it four stars, even three if I'm feeling vindictive. However, were I to read the same novel by an unknown, it would have breezed its way to an effortless five based on my surprise by all the skill and qualities which familiarity would otherwise cause me to take for granted.

As a reader, a writer's work cannot be separated from their oeuvre, nor indeed from what they have meant to you at various points in your own life. Therefore, when I encounter a book that, taken solely on its own merits, is a perfectly adequate piece of middle grade fiction trying to pass itself off as an adult novel, I would probably be likely to give it three stars. Unless, of course, it was written by Philip Pullman, when I would feel a remarkable degree disgust, anger and personal betrayal.

Look. I loved His Dark Materials. I read them relentlessly as a child, they being one of the few things that did not talk down to me in terms of content, character, or events. I've written before about the state of middle grade and YA fiction for avid and intelligent readers of fantasy when I was that age, and Pullman was a huge part of me making the transition from Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper to Robert Holdstock and Angela Carter. I cannot overlook this when I say that La Belle Sauvage is such a dreadful disappointment.

You see, it wants to be The River at Green Knowe when it grows up, an ambition which perhaps misses the point that The River at Green Knowe is a children's book. 

Moral messages that were subtle and carefully handled in the original trilogy are here presented with all the nuance of a cosh to the back of your head - we get it Phil, the church are the bad guys - the wonder and strangeness of Lyra's world is replaced by a series of frankly generic folkloric cameos, and our deeply abrasive, awkward, believable protagonist is replaced with... Malcolm.

I'm not even going to start talking about Malcolm. 

But on top of this dumbing down of style and content, there was the insistence that this was one for grownups. Perhaps the very same grownups who had grown up reading His Dark Materials, and it was this that really stuck the knife in because, put simply, La Belle Sauvage does not function if viewed as an adult novel.

It has long been a conviction of mine that the difference between adult, YA, and children's fiction is not so much a matter of content, as one of structure, pacing, and focus. Just as children's fiction - good children's fiction - is not merely adult fic with the 'inappropriate' content taken out and all the nastiness coddled up, adult fiction - or at least, good adult fiction - is not just a children's story with a bit of sex, swearing, and an absolutely gratuitous implied rape thrown in to it.

The two modes serve different needs, tells a story differently, talk to their readers in a whole different language, and this is why you never really outgrow good children's fiction - because its qualities remain. Historically, Pullman knew this. His Dark Materials is frequently devastating, lyrical, powerful - they are children's books, unashamedly, and in the very best senses of the words.  

La Belle Sauvage isn't even a very good children's book.

Ultimately, if this hadn't been something I was reading for bookclub, I wouldn't have finished it. I don't want my childhood heroes to diminish this much in my eyes. And, if that weren't enough?

[Spoilers for His Dark Materials, and La Belle Sauvage below]

Monday, 1 April 2019

Review: Life After Life - Kate Atikinson

This is a great book.

(Fred, that isn't a review.)

Fine. So:

 Life After Life is a book I wouldn't have encountered without my book club, and - going to be honest - hadn't really heard of Kate Atkinson before it was added to the list. But that's the joy of a book club, and yeah, maybe it throws up more duds than gems, but every now and then?

I mean, it is really, really good. Intricate, complex, intelligent, the characters glow through the premise in a way that kind of reminds me of A.S Byatt. If I had to sum it up in a word, that would be "nourishing" - Life After Life a book that feeds your story sense, that builds a world, a family, a life (we'll come to that later) in a way that is just so satisfying. I'm not often a big fan of realist fiction (again, we'll come to that in a minute), but when it delivers, it triumphs - and this book is a triumph. It's just so well written. Yeah, I will quibble with the faint conservatism that pervades it, with the handling of some of the characters, or the tropes that are leaned upon - but my gods, it's well written and just good to read.

So, the premise is simply this: when the Ursula Todd dies, her life begins again from the start. While she cannot strictly remember her earlier lives, trace memories linger, allowing her to guide this 'replay'. This is the only fantastical aspect of the novel, and Ursula is not the only active agent: her fate is affected to some extent by chance, and the decisions of others. This premise offers quite some commentary in what it means to live our best lives, and how even the smallest decisions can send us on wildly differing courses, making us vastly different people.

But the real strength of Life After Life is not in exploring such questions - rather it is offering us a powerful vision of the various lives one could live in the first half of the twentieth century (limited, of course, by gender, class, sexuality and skin colour.)
[Mild spoilers below] 

Monday, 25 March 2019

Review: The Talisman Ring, Georgette Heyer

You know, I came kind of late to Georgette Heyer. I think it was catching the dramatisation of Friday's Child on BBC Radio 7 (now 4extra) that did it for me, but it wasn't until a good few years after that I finally read one of her novels - whereupon I learned that my mum had been an avid Heyer reader in her youth, but that she'd thrown them out in a fit of Respectability when she went to university.
"Why didn't you tell me about her?" I asked.
"I didn't think they'd be you'd sort of book," she replied - which led me to wonder what she thought my reading habits were as an early adolescent, but never mind.

Anyway, what can I say about The Talisman Ring? Well, in short, it's a Georgette Heyer novel - one of her historical romances, mind, not one of the murder mysteries. Best read in tattered paperback format while snuggled under a blanket with a box of Malteasers, or else your preferred cheap-posh chocolates (Aldi do some nice ones.)

So far at the plot goes,  the heir to a great esate has been banished for a murder for which he was framed, and clearing his name all hinges on the eponymous Talisman Ring. Unfortunately, he's currently living as a smuggler and the excise men are after him - can our intrepid heroines keep him safe until the inevitable double wedding?

You've got the impulsive, spitfire heroine (the cultural stereotype Eustacie de Vauban as she runs from an arranged marriage) and the wry, sensible one (Sarah Thane). You have three whole pretty boys to chose from, all nicely in the Heyer mould: the sexy, reckless Ludovic Lavenham; the taciturn and melancholic Tristam Sheild; or the arch, dressy Basil 'Beau' Lavenham - although one of them is, naturally, a desperate villain. People fall in love and are picturesquely injured, pistols are fired, punches are thrown, smugglers smuggle and schemes are hatched. The clothes are fabulous, all the men drink too much, and everyone plays cards wittily.

Basically, it's funny, delightful, and positiviely begs for slash fiction. There is a reason Heyer is the acknowledged queen of the genre. Yeah, obviously, she was a dreadful classist, and yeah, there's antisemitism, and yeah the gender rep is a terrible - so really, I suppose it depends where you set the bar for these things. Books like this are written to scratch a very particular itch and if you're content to ignore those faults The Talisman Ring delivers admirably - plus, you get to see Ludovic in a dress. That's got to be worth something, right?

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Review: In Exile by Alexandra Turney

When I was a child, I wanted to be a Maenad. At about nine years old, Anglican and living in rural England, I read the myth of Orpheus - how he was torn apart and eaten by the followers of Dionysus and thought, "Yep. Reasonable life goal."

Just putting that out there, really.

Anyway, Turney's debut novel, In Exile is fucking gorgeous.

Capturing the stultifying disaffection of fifteen in a city that doesn't fit you, it tells of Dionysus reborn in modern Rome and weaves a captivating story of worship, obsession, and sacred transgression in a world with no space for gods, that spoke to the deep buried, teenage part of me. It's really hard to describe the power of this book, occupying as it does that uncomfortable space between metaphor and fully committed fantastical fiction. It engaged deeply with the implications of godhood and worship with a deity wildly removed from omnibenevolent, monotheistic connotations, while also portraying the deeply familiar experiences of fear and trauma around blackout drunkenness around and boys whom you know are Bad News.

The aftermath, for example, of the first Bacchanal as Grace, Caroline, and Sarah go for coffee is a wonder of the sordid, dirtiness of the morning after: "All she had was a headache, a stomach ache, and the worrying sense that she was not merely forgetting, but was actually repressing what had happened. She couldn't shake the feeling that some part of her mind was trying to protect her."

Turney's young female characters are wonderfully realised in their stunted, problematic reality. Although at times it felts as though Grace - the protagonist - was made a little too heavily in the 'plain and execeptional' mould, I can see why those decisions were made, and her relationship with Caroline brought back plenty of memories of the uneasy, competitive and repressed nature of that time in life. Likewise, while (as a Pagan) I'd want to explore the conception of Dionysus more deeply, within the scope of the narrative, both his malice and his tragedy are brilliantly written. 

This is a book that I finished, and just knew I was going to reread, that it might even find itself of that special pile of books that never really find their way back to my shelf. Honestly, it feels as though that first, breathless read only got to scratch the surface, and to a certain extent I resent writing the review now rather than when I've had a couple of years to think on it properly.  There is so much there to talk about, and 2-300 words can't really cover it.

But, in the interests of brevity, if you're here because you like the way I think, then you need to read this book. It's brutal and powerful and glorious. Alexandra Turney is a writer I am going to watch.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Review: The Labyrinth of the Spirits, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Oh boy. I'd been waiting a while for this one. Let's take a deep breath and begin:

With this RSI inducing tome, the incomparable Zafón completes his Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle, and believe me, he is not fucking around. Plunging us back among the cursed writers of Barcelona, presents an intense, intricate novel that leads us through years and horrors as Daniel Sempere tries to solve the mystery of his mother's murder, Fermín Romero de Torres tries to pay a long standing debt, and a vengeance is extracted for a terrible crime.

I will admit to being unfairly harsh on The Prisoner of Heaven in my initial review, but will not deny that The Labyrinth of the Spirits brought back all my breathless devotion. There is a poetic intensity to the prose - maintained once again by the wonderful translation of Lucia Graves - that leads to the almost worshipful quoting, of sheer loss of self in the glory of the prose. This is not to say The Labyrinth of the Spirits is merely an exercise in style - Zafón's grip on the horror, on atrocity, is perhaps fresher and more powerful than I have seen it before. He does not shy from brutality, but looks it direct in the eye and permits us to see how truly appalling mankind can be.

And, as I said before, he is not fucking around. Hitherto, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books has been generally political, perhaps even Political, as it engaged with the cost of war, the way class, power, and money twist our lives, but in Angel's Game and The Shadow of the Wind these were often lost in the genre expectations and dreamlike qualities of the tale. Yes, The Prisoner of Heaven was very direct in its criticisms of Franco's regime and those who enabled it, however it is not until The Labyrinth of the Spirits that Zafón brings the full lyrical power of his prose to communicate the genuine horrors of fascist authoritarianism. This is not a Labyrinth to enter lightly, nor one to leave you unchanged.

It has long been my theory that these novels present us with devils, with tortured lightbringers who are perhaps more sympathetic than the monstorous men surrounding them, but who left the side of the angels long ago. To the damned pair that are David Martín and Julián Carax, Zafón adds Alicia Gris - who fulfils her part with incredible power - but he also lets us see that there has been an angel present all along. Perhaps one who wears old newspapers inside his coat and who is unashamed in his lust for pneumatic stars of the screen, perhaps even one who fell as far and as hard as the devils ever did, but one who remains an angel nevertheless.

But before this turns in to one of my failed reviews, I suppose I must make the inevitable complaint: I didn't like the ending. I can see why the ending is as it is, can even appreciate the cleverness with which it is all done, may even feel more kindly about it when I've read the whole series as one (which I will when I've cleared my reading pile a little) but I didn't think it was necessary to tie everything together so neatly, draw it out so long, or answer all those questions.

On top of all that - I simply did not like it, and reserve the right to feel that way.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Review: Vicious Rumer, Joshua Winning

I had the great privilege of sharing the stage Joshua Winning during the genre panel at the Unbound Author event in Nottingham last October. Eagle eyed observers in the room may have noticed my jaw hitting the stage that during the "who are your influences?" question when Winning answered that his were Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Robin Jarvis.

Suffice to say, I bought the damn book.

It's bloody good. I mean, really bloody good.

Vicious Rumer follows Rumer Cross, hard-nosed, solitary, and damaged, as she tries to escape the legacy of her mother: Celene Cross, the so called 'Witch Assassin'. Not so easy when a mobster with a propensity for throwing his enemies in to oubliettes decides that your  mother left a mystical weapon in your care, nor indeed when said mother might placed a curse on you that means anyone you get close to dies a horrible death.

Fast paced, slick, and nasty, this is a cracking thriller that manages to be kinda charming despite not holidng back on the pain, darkness, death and despair. The plot races through blood-magic, political conspiracies, and mob violence without letting up for long enough for our protagonist to have a shower. I tore through reading it at much the same pace. Winning captures Rumer's voice perfectly, her mixture of affected heartlessness and vulnerability providing a capable, sympathetic female protaganist who you are willing to follow in to some very dodgy places and questionable actions.

Honestly, go read it. Jarvis would be proud.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Review: Fighting Proud - Stephen Bourne

Oh, dear, that is quite a large pile of books I've read but not reviewed yet. I'm even going to miss LGBT+ History month by the time this one goes live and I read it in December...

Moving on anyhow, I picked up Fighting Proud, The untold story of the gay men who served in two World Wars in Norwich's wonderful The Book Hive as pre-Christmas present to myself after getting a full set of stamps on my loyalty card by buying books for other people. The title caught my interest and, unlike a lot of non-fiction I've read, Fighting Proud does exactly what it says on the tin - delivering in sparse, engaging prose, a compendium of information about the (primarily British) men who served in the Forces during the First and Second World Wars. While it does address famous figures like Wilfred Owen, Ivor Novello, Noël Coward and Alan Turing, Bourne fulfils the 'untold story' as much as possible by making the the focus the book on the ordinary gay serviceman, and an examination of the social mores surrounding homosexuality in the military at the time.

Honestly, it's a fascinating read. Using photographs, letters, personal writings and - where possible - interviews, Bourne creates a well structured, highly readable book that is informative, rigorous, compelling, and in places deeply moving. With a focus primarily on the Second World War - due to an acknowledge paucity of sources for the First - Fighting Proud finds gay stories from the Army, Navy and Airforce, as well as paying attention to the experiences of gay men on the Home Front, and in the both the state sanctioned and independent entertainment industries of the time.

 I loved it, and devoured it at a speed with which I usually struggle to read non-fiction books. Bourne portrays excellently the 'knife-edge' of homophobia, prejudice, with which men who had sex with men had to live in those periods, as well as the tacit (and occasionally open) recognition by comrades and officers that "these things happen." More importantly, it makes a very clear statement of the fact that 'we were always here', and that homosexual desire, love, and devotion, are not a new phenomenon in any part of society, or among any type of person - regardless of politics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fighting Proud is primarily concerned with the service record of those whose stories it tells - and I think if the book has a weakness it's the way it sits uneasily between being a queer history and a military history, and operating a little tentatively with its appeal to either discipline. There were a couple of moments where one felt oneself being bombarded with military accolades so that an archetypal straight reader would come to understand that Gay People Can Be Brave, Too. Also, from a personal perspective, I would have preferred more attention to be paid to the books subjects as men outside of their military service, but this is less a request for a different study than for more of this book - and it will certainly send me off to do some further reading, especially on Ian Gleed, of whom I had criminally not heard before this book.

My only other real criticism would be the ever-contentious issue of modern labels in queer historical context. Bourne is very careful in this project to rely upon his sources and not make any but relatively conservative statements about the orientation, or indeed gender, of his subjects. While a love letter between two men can generally be read fairly unambiguously*, examining possible transgender history in a time when not only transition, but even the language to describe it, was not accessible to most people is an intensely difficult undertaking. The line between drag and trans identity isn't clear or stable even now, and many closeted people use drag as an outlet before - or indeed, instead of - coming out**. As such, I feel perhaps a little more house room could have been given to possible trans interpretations of cross-dressing and gender non-conformity in certain cases, even if - in the absence of more solid evidence - Bourne was reluctant to commit himself to such a reading.

Similarly, Bourne generally divides his subjects in to those who were gay and those who had gay experiences when in all-male environs but were otherwise straight, but seldom does the word 'bisexual' make an appearance. While I appreciate that many of these men would disown that label heartily, as an historian who shows such sensitivity when regarding how homophobia and self-closeting problematise writing the history of gay men, it is a little disappointing that he does not address the effects of structural biphobia and the self-erasure and closeting that many bisexual men face even today.

However, Fighting Proud is still an immensely valuable book and one I will doubtless revisit. Well worth your dime.

 * despite what some historians insist...
** Not that I speak from experience or anything