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 MiƩville, 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]