Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A Note to the wise

To whom it may concern,

Thanks for visiting! I love you. However, I've moved house.

Please come and visit me over at onechaptermore.com

Why thank you!


Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern - The Night Circus

The Night Circus is, simply put, a masterpiece. An utterly sublime novel, it is both the best debut novel I've read since last year's Communion Town, and, equally, the best Fantasy I've read since Abercrombie's The Heroes. That said, to describe it as fantasy is to give a slightly false impression - this is low, primary-world fantasy, of the tradition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Magic exists among a select few magicians, and they use it to their own ends.

There is a placeholder plot of a competition between two rival magicians with regards their own training methods, but the true star of the book is the relationship between the two primary characters, Celia and Marco. The book throws them together through the titular Night Circus, Le Cirque des RĂªves, and explores their growing love for one another in a way that, I feel, will stand the test of time. The organic growth and challenges of their first friendship, then love, is put to paper in an utterly realistic manner, a manner which made me smile, grimace, laugh,in time with the characters feeling and in ways that resonate inside myself.

Woven in amongst this love story in the framing narrative of both the competition, and the circus', fate. The circus is what many comment on when discussing the novel: a beautiful lilting prose that describes the wondrous ideas of Morgenstern's brain, what with ice rooms and labyrynths, stunning descriptions of illusionists (who are, of course, really doing magic - just making it appear that they are faking it...), the tree of wishes, the central bonfire... the scenes run and run, each sticking in the head, making the Cirque a  place where you just wish you were, can picture intimately on first reading (much, interestingly, like Hogwarts was the first time I read of it). Interspersed between each part of the book are sections written in the second person: essentially following the journey of you as patron of the Cirque, they give us a glimpse into the astonishing beauty of as world constructed in black and white, tastes of the marvelous food, sights of the beautiful tents, an original, meaningful, meander from the usual swathes of first-or-third person prose that dominate most texts. It is in fact extremely hard to write in the second person (believe me I've tried), and reading it for the most part feels like a Choose your own adventure book: Morgenstern's errs right on the line of overuse, but never steps into it. Each section between parts is 2 or so pages, but they are some of the most memorable elements of a memorable book.

For a book to be obsessed about by me, it needs to do all three of the main facets of my reading perfectly: character, plot and prose. Having touched upon the plot and the character above, the prose equally follows a beautiful pattern, a present tense that, like Beukes' The Shining Girls, meanders through time. However, while Beukes' present tense occasionally reads slightly stiltedly, with the voice of someone who naturally tells stories in the past adapting to the present, Morgenstern's present tense feels as natural as walking. There were no points at which the active slipped to passive (or vice versa) when they shouldn't, and while the prose was never electrfyingly poetic, it simultaneously never slipped remotely close to purple.

Any review can't really capture the sensory mastery of Morgensten's writing. What I took from the novel is too complex really to put into words. Instead, it was an experience that touched me on many levels: emotionally, thoughtfully, my taste, my smell, my sight, all toughed by what the book provoked in my imagination. Very few books capture things with such a visceral necessity to imagined in full. An anecdote: I'm reading this book on the tube, mid-May, and the man opposite me catches my eye and starts a conversation about how wonderful the book is. Any person who has been on London transport knows that this is a cardinal sin, punishable by defenestration by the British Transport Police. But it didn't matter - it was a book that transcended even that most holy of holies. It is a book that will make you want to scream its praise from the rooftops, and make everyone you know read. It's sublime.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

James Smythe - The Testimony

James Smythe - The Testimony

Smythe's debut starts with an interesting, and deceptively simple, idea: what if something was heard by all people at the same time. The Broadcast, as it is referred to by the characters of the book occurs four times: once as static, then three times as an increasingly long (but powerful) message. Predictably, people go mental. Many think it is the word of God (or similar); others think that there must be a scientific explanation; some are simply baffled; others can't even hear The Broadcast.

I've read very few books told in mosaic style: in fact I can think of only three - Stand on Zanzibar, World War Z and this. For most part I'd guess this is because mosaic style (told from multiple, disparate points of view - in The Testimony's case upward of 20) is extremely difficult to pull off without, as one person I talked to recently put it, 'not having the time to feel for the characters'. For the most part, I'd argue that Smythe does well here: the main strands of the story arc concern characters of different persuasions and different levels of knowledge that allow for multiple perspectives of the unfolding tragedy, without deviating too much. Further, they are focused on to a level where we understand these characters as we would any primary or secondary character in a more traditionally styled book. However, there are character tht are seemingly baseless, or there to argue a single point. Instead of feeling for these people, they bog down the story, and I found myself wishing that their points of view would hurry up and be over.

A few characters baffled me further than this: a New Zealander biologist, for example, has three point of vie segments in the whole book. It is enough to tell us he's looking for a rare bird and one of them bites his friend/colleague and the friend/colleagues dies. That's it. That's the whole point of his segments. No conclusions to be drawn, no apotheosis to be had, simply an occurrence that we already know of in different guises (the swift deaths of people from seemingly minor ailments) from different character arcs.

I can see these as Smythe desperately trying to get perspectives on a global phenomenon from a global point of view, but here as well he doesn't succeed. Three of the most religiously zealous and/or unsettled areas of the world get no, or barely any, look in: South America, South East Asia and Africa. Africa has a minor character arc about a Congolese boy and some Danish travellers, and a South African drug dealer. The other two (comprising of the majority of the world's Catholic population, and significant proportion of the Muslim population as well) get no viewpoints at all. We are left, instead, with a curious middle ground: a book that, through its style, attempts a global outlook on a global problem, but, through its execution, gives only a Western viewpoint. Indeed, it is significant that the biggest points of view are those of the White House Chief of Staff and a Member of the British Parliament.

I would have liked to have seen Smythe tackle religious tensions in Indonesia, or Brazilian Catholicism at its peak; however, while the book is ostensibly about  a kind of religious apocalypse (with an environmental/scientific one shoehorned in for good measure), it casts a distinctly revisionist approach when dealing with it. Religion is consistently portrayed in a  negative light, from portrayals of Mormonism to the Church of the One True God. It is clear from the way Smythe handles the steadily encroaching waves of panic that sweep the world that his view on religion is a negative one: that it is indeed the Marxist people's opiate. From terrorist threats to the world order, to public uprisings in Moscow, to a parents outcast of her child, it is religion to blame. And when religion is given a platform to grow, the most devout of agnostics and atheists is shown to doubt in their heart, and give in to that doubt.

The plot itself is well done - the tension never slips, which, once more considering the style (which cannot be underplayed as a major - the major - feature of the Criticism of this novel), is both extremely difficult and extremely skilful on the part of the author. Not content with an apocalypse of sorts coming as a result of responses to the broadcast itself, Smythe further introduces a biological threat that ruins people's immune system, killing perhaps 1 in 7. While it is broadly hinted at the cause of this, the reader, much like the characters is left wondering whether this is true, or it has a deeper, more theological cause. No answers are truly given. No answers are really sought: instead the characters and the reader are much interested in the way people respond. The Testimony seems to ask a question, and instead of providing answers, runs away with the way people do the preliminary working-out. While the conclusion seemed a little too neat, and the book certainly loses momentum in the last third, it is well constructed and thought out.

Where character is done well, however, it is done very well. We feel great sympathy and feeling for the major viewpoint characters, up to and including an ultra-conservative American news anchor. The exploration of faith in those characters who have it is both interesting and well thought out, as much as it is in those who don't. There is a confidence to this early work of Smythe's that foreshadows the excellent The Explorer, his second book from Harper Collins. Told with broad brushstrokes, and a simplicity of language unconcerned with the stylist follies of conventional 'Literary Fiction', Smythe's voice itself tells us 'Do not be afraid'. Do not be afraid, because this is an author learning his craft in action, and while there are mistakes, there is also promise: a promise that appears to be being acted upon in more recent publications.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Iain M. Banks, or, Melancholia Enshrines All Triumph

Today is officially a Very Sad Day.

Iain Banks has gone from Very Poorly to having sustained Lasting Damage

For me, this is a big deal. It's a big deal for a great deal of the literary world, I know, but it feels massively personal to me. Iain was one of the founders, not only of my love of speculative fiction, but of my love of fiction in general. And for that, first and foremost, I thank him.

I will always remember the holiday I took aged 15 to Costa Rica. Not only for the awfully cute sloths, the raccoon that invaded our hotel room, the coati's round every corner or the other astonishing wildlife of that country so Sweet and Full of Grace, but also for The Algebraist. I spent much of those two weeks devouring The Algebraist, and as a result it holds a special place in my heart. An intensely epic space opera, outside of The Culture series, it dragged me in to a complex, exciting, different science fiction world. I'd read YA fantasy and Ender's Game, but nothing struck me the way The Algebraist did.

As a result, I read, with Furious Purpose, as much as I could get my hands on. Its a testament to the enduring legacy of Banks that I own the amount that I do: 15 y/o me couldn't really afford new books, instead he went to charity shops and (to my shame - I don't do it any more, it was Youthful Indiscretion) stole to fuel my reading. I ended up reading the entire Culture series in a year,  as well as finding copies of The Wasp Factory and The Bridge. Since then, I've reread many and bought to complete my collection. He is the only many-title author, apart from J.K. Rowling, whose books I own all of. And six years later I still read and reread. You are a giant standing on the shoulder of giants: Of Course I Still Love You.

 I think one of the things that most affects me is that this is an author who was productive, and whose work I loved, while he was still producing it. When Jack Vance died, I'd read a book by him, but he didn't feel 'real'. His death felt like an Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence between my brain and his living. Iain, yours feels raw. It feels like I know you, and I know many feel the same.

As a result of Consider Phlebas, I 'discovered' the mature works (not Cats...) of T.S. Eliot. As a result of The Algebraist I discovered stories Refreshingly Unconcerned With the Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity, aka, Science Fiction. As a result of Iain M. Banks, I discovered that what I already knew was a passion would become an obsession. Books were my New Toy. As a result of this obsession, I went to university to do English, I write, I want to go into publishing. Because of you.

Iain, I loved you.

I never got to meet you (you came to Blackwell's when I worked there, but I was on holiday), I never got to tell you how you impacted my life. I wrote on Banksophilia when I learnt you had cancer, and today I'm writing this fairly poxy blog post to publicly show my appreciation. No One Knows What The Dead Think but I hope that you like it, wherever you are.

You made me happy when I often wasn't. You introduced me to something I love more than almost anything else. Tonight, I'm going to drink a glass of whisky, and settle down to read Feersum Endjinn (only because The Algebraist is in storage). I'll probably cry when I reach the end.

I certainly am now.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes - The Shining Girls

The Shining Girls is a time travel plot with a twist. While many time travel stories concern the paradoxes of time travel itself, or perhaps the consequences of changing actions in the past/future/present. As a result, these narratives are often built around this central conceit, the foregrounding and questioning of the nature of time travel becoming the key plot point. Beukes, following in the footsteps of Audrey Niffenegger's immensely successful The Time Traveler's Wife, chooses instead to let time travel simply be, integral to the plot, but not forced upon the reader or having its rules and reasons rammed down her throat.

Instead, The Shining Girls method of time travel focuses on The House (always capitalized in the text). Tightly constructed third person chapters follow Harper Curtis, a serial killer from the 1930s, as he discover The House following a casually brutal opening scene. The House is full of artifacts in the bedroom, 'trophies' hung on the wall, each accompanied by a scrawly woman's name in chalk. These artifacts, and the names themselves 'shine' - they seem to have an effect somewhat like an addictive drug on Harper, forcing him to walk out of the house into different times and kill the woman involved.

We are introduced early on to the counterpoint to Harper, Kirby Mazrachi. A precocious newspaper intern, she was one of Harper's victims, one who didn't die. Instead, in a harrowing and utterly superlative scene, she is saved from death by another. As a result of this experience having defined her (as it would with any victim of such an horrific act), Kirby searches for answers - she joins The Chicago Sun-Times as a sports intern under the guidance of Dan, former homicide reporter, troubled, recently divorced, lonely. The relationship with Dan moves swiftly from respect to friendship, with brief flings (one-sided) into longing. It is this relationship, as well as that of Kirby and her mother, that are some of the best pieces of Beukes' fiction. In Zoo City, it was the relationship of Zinzi and Sloth that stuck with me - in this, I believe that it is the relationship of Dan and Kirby.

As with Zoo City, Beuke's prose is fluid, a lovely present-tense, third-person, literary/genre boundary-treading with enough punch and wisecracking to make you smile, to make you empathize, to make you believe. Where Beukes shines is clearly this mix of plot and character, giving eacha  particular voice. Even the caricatures are voiced individually, with their own turns of phrase, their own stylistic quirks. It is very difficult in a multi-viewpoint novel to get the balance of literary quality and individual voice perfected, but Beukes does a brilliant job - on a par with the multi-voice quality of the best of Joe Abercrombie's works, which is high praise indeed.

The plotting is meticulous, brilliantly circular, astonishingly well rounded. We follow Harper's story and Kirby's story in interweaving patterns of close third person prose, interspersed with viewpoints of other women that Harper has murdered. All share a common theme - they are strong, unique, yet alone in their dreams. They are on the margin of society and don't give a shit: are determined to continue in their ways, change their world. They, are in short, role models for the most part. Harper's intervention frequently buggers things up, makes them people who's lives are defined by Harper's intervention, but for the most part the ideas behind the characters are very good. However, despite all this, it at times rings false. The single viewpoints we encounter try and force an etire character, back story and all, into the reader in a  few short paragraphs. By virtue of the serial killer's 'rules' we only see each character twice: not enough to develop the feeling that Beukes clearly has for these women. Each victim is thus not given enough time of day - they become caricatures of themselves: the radium dancer; the transsexual showgirl; the brilliant female architect, struggling to make it; the Korean social service woman; the black steel worker in an all-white ship making factory. Coupled with the wikipedia-style factoids thrown in ('... suburban developments are going to transform the lives of working-class families' says 1950's architect [p.139]) these elements seem too pristine, too, dare I say, Dan Brown, in parts - obviously with prose that doesn't read like a punch in the face.

Indeed, the acknowledgements section is the longest I've ever seen in a book: 5 whole pages, where 2  normally suffice. As a result of the vast amount of research, pulled off spectacularly for the most part - if it weren't for my knowing Lauren is from Cape Town I'd never have she wasn't a Chicago-ite - there is a pressure to get as much of this as possible in. This is a touch too overt, too easily seen.

The plot ramps up nicely in temporal and tension shifting fashion toward the end of the book, with the final set piece an excellent rounding up of one of the most obvious temporal anomalies, as well as giving an intellectual pleasing circularity to the whole endeavour that is book and plot and Harper's life. Further, the final set piece also shows what a good time-travel story can allow an intelligent and articulate author the space to do: Beukes plays with different time periods within one set piece, using the time period themselves as pieces in a jigsaw. This is what a book like this is made for: an astonishing plot.

The book is a pleasure to read on a sentence level, indeed it is a pleasure to read on a plot level. However there are elements that go a touch too far into caricature, without being deliberate, and the tip of the research iceberg is visible when it should be underwater. Only the tip, mind you, but its enough to occasionally drag the reader out of the novel. All that said, it's a very good book, with one particularly spectacular scene, astonishingly well plotted, with believable and real relationships amongst the main characters, slightly let down by tangible elements among its minor scenes.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

London Down the Rabbit Hole

In his rather cutting review of Tom Pollock's The City's Son in Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis briefly touches upon London as the setting for so much fantastic literature:
So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City's Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she'd like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity. As one of Pollock's characters puts it: "You see, this city is built on a lot of things: brick and stone and river clay, but under that, under everything this city is built on bargains" (p. 236).
London, it seems he is arguing, is such an optimal setting as it is both space and time: it is simultaneously the sewers of Mieville's King Rat and the weird bleeding of memory into present in Cornell's London Falling.

Of course, the history of London can only help this idea. London is the birthplace of the novel: in the coffeehouses of mid-to-late 18th Century London were Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, William Godwin's Caleb Williams. While ostensibly character portraits, all take London as their setting, and argue a politicised or philosophical point, where both character and setting have vital roles to play. From Shakespeare to Dickens, Wells and Orwell to Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi, London has had a rich literary history, purely by the happenstance of being the capital of the largest empire the world has ever seen, via being the birthplace of the most spoken language in the world. It is ineveitable, therefore, that it will have a special place in literary history, and its cosmopolitain make up an impact on the plots of stories the world over.

It is only natural, therefore, that it also has an impact on contemporary speculative fiction. The sheer amount of names that can be conjured off the top of ones head tells its own story: Mieville, Sinclair, Aaranovitch, Gaiman, Griffin, Pollock, Stroud; not to mention those canonical works by the likes of Ballard, Gibson, Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Moorcock and the like. All of these authors use London as their jumping off point, offer their own perspectives of London as a place of wonder, of metaphor. The destruction of London, in Wells' The War of The Worlds, or Ballard's The Drowned World is often used as metaphor for the destruction of civilization: because London is civilization. When it is explored within its current bounds, it often the weird and secretive sections that come up trumps: the Underground, both literal place in the Sewers of Mieville and the Underground railway system of Gaiman, or history in the battle, and eventual resolution of Pollock's Blankleits and Sodiumites, representative of present and past streetlighting. The nature of London is blurring, polymorphous.

But why is this proliferation so telling? Why are, say, New York, Seattle, Tokyo or Paris not beset by fantastic works? Partly its the literary history above, but its more than that. Despite these city's being universally hailed as astonishing, containing what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world." This certainly true:the sense of place of New York, or Paris, or Tokyo, can be conjured with ease by television pictures: they have their own famous skylines, but, more than that, you can tell you're in them from street level. Neon lights everywhere? Tokyo. Grand sweeping Hausman apartments? Paris. The sight of  dilapidated, graffiti-strewn concrete jungle or the skyscraper canyon? Either Brooklyn/Queens or central Manhattan. As a result, these places lend themselves to a visual medium with ease: they give a sense of place without apparent effort. Its a repeated visual effect: the way Central Park is used in Friends, or You've Got Mail, the way the Seattle waterfront is used in Frasier or When Harry met Sally, or the way that Montmartre is evoked in Moulin Rouge, or futurism is predicted with reference to Tokyo in Blade Runner. These cities conjure images that they are automatically associated with, and can be played with in some stunning works. American Psycho is set in New York for a reason.

However, London doesn't do this. It lacks a central image. Yes, the tourists get Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, the BT Tower and, lately, the Gherkin and the Shard. But they are disparate images. There is no singular London skyline, no singular London identity. Instead it is the ultimate in cosmopolitain, inclusive cities. This is 'the crushing psychic weight' Lewis is talking about. Nowhere else in the world does Caribbean meet Bangladeshi meet Polish meet Lebanese meet Greek meet English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, creating what we call Britain. There is no denumeration of place: district blends into district, race into race, style into style. Past becomes present becomes future. You can walk out of Aldgate station, past the newest of the City of London's buildings, occupied as they are by the newly moneyed white middle class, down Commercial Road, dilapidated sixties dwellings, occupied mainly by Bangladeshi families, under the ultra-modern-seeming DLR, to Sixteenth Century Tobacco Docks to St. Katherine's Docks with its delusions of grandeur, Ferraris parked beneath in its underground car park, the Royal Barge afloat at anchor, with old aristocracy and new moneyed Arabs, and within sight of the marvelously Gothic Tower Bridge, where every denizen of London crosses at some point on their journey to the South East. All in less than half a mile.

Beyond the physical and social blurring, there is also the secrets that London hides. The thought of what is actually in the underground tunnels? The sewers. The rooftops. The canal. Hell, the Islington tunnel, where the canal goes underground. The River. Southwark, Westminster, the City. The difference between West and East, North and South. Camden and Kensington. Hackney and Tooting and Brixton and Walthamstow. London is all cities and none, it contains every possibility at all times. You are an individual and yet invisible amongst the seething throngs of King's Cross-St Pancras commuters. You are an individual and yet invisible amongst Shoreditch's Hipsters. You are an individual and yet invisible among Streatham's gangs.

With so much occurring, and no single narrative thread, is it any wonder why there are so many stories set in London? With so much potential for secrecy; the ease from which the magic of one ethnicity or sub-culture blends seamlessly into another, and the conflict or integration that is involved; the mysteries of history and future, above and below: is it any wonder that London's rabbit hole is dived into with such regularity, imbued with a magic entirely of its own creation?