Sunday, 30 December 2012

December links round-up

Dear readers, December has been a month to erase from the records. Let us acknowledge that it happened and move on to better things.

Reviews for The Bookbag:

Something You Are by Hanna Jameson. A really stunning crime debut by a writer who is only 22 (she's amazing, I hate her a bit). This is a great book, if firmly in my boyfriend's mother's 'stabby' category.

The Flowers of War by Geling Yan (trans. Nicky Harman). Heard of the Rape of Nanking? Yeah. This is about that. This book will significantly depress you, but you should read it anyway. Extremely subtle and elegant take on an unimaginably horrible event.

Articles for Litro:

I collated Litro's 2012 Books of the Year list. My pick, of course, was Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child.

Other than that, I have mainly been choosing other people's stories for our #StorySunday feature. Therefore I feel uniquely qualified to say that there are some really cracking ones and I absolutely recommend that you read through the whole backlist of them.

Possibly because of this influence, and also because it is Christmas, I also wrote my very own short(ish) story, 'The Worser Part', a creepy ghosty thing set in Edwardian Oxford. Yes, it is on this blog already, but here is another link to it anyway.

So, onwards! To 2013. I am hoping for great things from it. See you all then.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Quick-fire reviews: my Christmas book list

I personally move to rename Christmas, Bookmas. I can hear the Christians wailing and gnashing their teeth from here, but it would be a more accurate description of my activities during the festive period. There is a bit of Christ, but there are a lot of books, and as you all know, I am all about the books.

Please note that the following reviews are not of the books I received for Christmas. Oh no. I have not even begin to make a dent in that towering pile. These are merely the books I read during my 'holiday' at home (ho ho), while the rest of my family revolved around me screaming and shouting and playing endless games of Battleship.

Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucci

I started things off with this jolly little tale of police suppression in 1930s Portugal. The Pereira of the title is a fat and aging crime reporter who's come down in the world to become the culture section of fledgeling 'non-political' paper the Lisboa. For slightly cosmic reasons, he gets into contact with a philosophy graduate named Monteiro Rossi. Rossi becomes Pereira's assistant at the paper, but he turns out to be pretty much the worst assistant ever - not only did he fake most of his dissertation, but all the articles he writes for Pereira are politically incendiary and therefore unpublishable. You see, this is Portugal under Salazar, a place where people pretend that everything is normal even though the secret police are beating stall-holders to death in the middle of the market. Culture has become dangerous, and the translations Pereira innocently makes of European stories suddenly have new and worrying political meanings.

Pereira begins the novel as pretty much the most clueless, passive person in existence - he's a journalist who has to ask his friends for the news - but he finds his friendship with Rossi changing how he sees the world. Rossi becomes the son he never had, and as Rossi gets deeper into the resistance movement, Pereira is dragged into it along with him. The whole novel is written as Pereira's testimony - of exactly what, we're not sure until the very end.

This is an apparently peaceful and dreamy little book, under which hides some serious subversive meaning. I think it's one of those novels that can be read and re-read, new themes emerging each time. It's clever without being showy, beautifully written (and with visually beautiful images, crystal seas and palm trees waving and so on) but with a really nasty undertaste to it. I think Pereira Maintains is a book that needs to be thought about. I didn't fall in love with it immediately, but it's been growing on me since I put it down, and I think it's going to stay in my brain for quite a while to come.

4.5 stars

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

I bought this for my niece for Christmas because I wanted to read it myself. It was that kind of present. Luckily, she read it in three hours flat, and then I wrenched it out of her hands and read it in two.

The number of people I recommend a book to after I've finished it is usually a good test of how much I liked it, and after I finished Maggot Moon I tweeted about it four times in quick succession and then sent three ecstatic emails to friends ordering them to JUST STOP EVERYTHING AND READ THIS BOOK.

It was that good. As I said at the time,

Set in an alternate-reality 1950s Soviet state, Maggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell. On the eve of a planned great moon landing by the Motherland, Standish dreams of flying away to his own perfect planet, Juniper, with his best friend Hector. On Planet Juniper the Cadillacs are the colour of ice cream, the Croca-Colas never run out and there are no secret police waiting to turn you and your family into maggot food if you disobey the Motherland.

Maggot Moon is a totally black dystopian fantasy told with incredibly effective simplicity. Standish is a wonderful, idiosyncratic narrator (he's dyslexic, so words come out of his head sounding brilliantly wrong), likeable and heartbreakingly honest. It'd have been easy to have made him one of those wide-eyed teen narrators living in a world he doesn't understand, but Gardner's smarter and more realistic than that. Standish absolutely does understand all the horrendous adult things that happen around him, even though he processes them in an utterly teenage way. He knows what happened to his parents and he knows what's likely to happen to him and his Gramps, but all the same he clings on to the wonderful world of Juniper that he's built in his head.

As the Moon Landing gets closer, it becomes clear that Standish is in possession of some pretty important information - the kind of stuff that could either destroy the Government or (more likely) himself and the people he loves. Then Hector goes missing, and Standish realises that he's got to be brave enough to use what he knows before the Government are able to make him disappear too.

This is a book about a kid making the kind of impossible decisions that most adults wouldn't be able to face. But like all the best fantasy, it feels real, totally believable and totally tragic. The ending, I warn you now, is awful, but it's one of those endings that destroys you in a hopeful sort of way, leaving you feeling slightly fire-damaged but lighter because of it.

Honestly, this snuck in from absolutely nowhere to become one of my books of 2012. I think it's one of the most perfect pieces of teen fiction I've read, maybe ever. I wish I had written it. Why didn't I write it?

5 stars.

Hand in Glove and Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh

The good thing about Agatha Christie is that, even when she's phoning it in, the result is still readable. The bad thing about Ngaio Marsh is that, when she's phoning it in, the result is... really not. Her entire back catalogue was recently re-published in fat omnibus editions, and as I work my way through them I am more and more reaching the conclusion that, although when Marsh is good she is very very good (see: A Surfeit of Lampreys, still one of my top favourite crime novels ever), when she is bad, she is horrid.

Hand in Glove and Dead Water are both thick with hackneyed stereotypes, gurning yokels and clangingly awful love-affairs, and the murders in them are both done for overwhelmingly stupid reasons, by methods that are needlessly complex and/or totally unbelievable. I mean, the whole of Hand in Glove revolves around the premise that a cigarette case is an object important enough to bother about. And then there are all the couples who conduct entire love affairs via sentences like Come here, silly darling, and let me clasp you to my bosom! And then there are the aforementioned yokels, who hawk and mumble away as though they have been endowed with the brains of rats instead of human beings. Seriously, Ngaio Marsh, going to Cambridge is not a test you have to pass to become a person.

God, these books. I just can't. I give up. It's a good thing that Marsh is dead, so she can't see me denounce her.

1.5 stars.

Broken Voices by Andrew Taylor

Broken Voices is a brand-new Kindle-only novella by Andrew Taylor - and since I have a brand-new Kindle it seemed a necessary purchase. Set one hundred years ago in a Fenland cathedral city, this a gloriously straight-up ghost story, one of those English classics of the genre in which nothing happens except a lot of chilling suspense.

The main character, a pupil at the city's King's School, has been stuck at the cathedral over the Christmas period while his parents stay in India. He's boarding at the house of a poor ex-teacher along with another pupil, an ex-choirboy who's suffering a terrible disgrace. Both boys are lonely and embittered, and when they hear a mysterious story about the Cathedral's history they decide that this is their opportunity to prove themselves.

Taylor's real strength - I've mentioned this before - is his extraordinary ability to evoke atmosphere, and that's something that's great for this tale. His historical settings feel both right and at the same time deliciously wrong. Something is always rotten in an Andrew Taylor novel, the skies are grey and the buildings lour. In Broken Voices there's a very nasty cat, an even nastier bit with some rats, chilly winter nights, cold Cathedral stones and a beautifully joyless Christmas day. Uncertainty is the name of the game - as the very first line asks,
'Was there a ghost? Was there, in a manner of speaking, a murder?'
(Taylor, like me, doesn't seem to be able to get away from murder. I can understand that.) His main character is a typically sulky and selfish teenage boy - and, in fact, all of his characters are small and basically unsympathetic. This is a cold-hearted world where there's really no one to root for, and that's perfect for the maybe-ghost story Taylor's telling.

I believe firmly that Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a few really good scary stories (see also my own effort), and so this made my holiday season feel complete. Simple but effective, Broken Voices is an excellent marriage of author and subject which does exactly what it promises to do.

4 stars.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Fiction post: The Worser Part

Man the alarms! I am about to take this blog to places it has never been before.

By now, you're probably used to me using this URL to criticise other people's writing. You may even be one of the people I have criticised. If so, I am sorry. My heart is a lump of coal. But today, in a unique December miracle, I am turning everything on its head and posting my own short story for you to criticise at your leisure. Think of it as this blog's very own Christmas present to the internet.

Said story is a ghost story, because apparently nothing says 'Christmas' to my brain like posh Edwardian men getting haunted in Oxford. It came about because my friend Boadicea sent me an email asking for some M. R. James-style ghost story recommendations. I read this email immediately on waking up one morning, and in an intense pre-dawn, pre-coffee brain-wave I understood that what she was REALLY asking was for me to write her MY OWN M. R. James-style ghost story (she wasn't). But I sat down to write it anyway and since the whole thing came blurting out in less than 36 hours, it must have been in there somewhere already. It was obviously meant to be.

One final thing before I begin: although my characters are quite rude about Pembroke College, I do not share their distain. In fact, I grew up there, and it is one of my favourite places.



The Worser Part

“And that,” said Carmichael, “was when my haunting began.”

I believe, at first, that I thought I had misheard him. The wind was yelping and howling outside and making the catch on Carmichael’s window rattle like a train. The fire popped weakly, and I said, “Sorry, old man. I missed that. Say it again?”

“That,” repeated Carmichael, sticking out his jaw at me defiantly, “was when the hauntings began.”

Perhaps that is an unlikely beginning. But then what I have to tell is an unlikely tale!

To elucidate. It was late on a December evening, and we were sitting in Carmichael’s second-rate little rooms in front of a pale and distinctly second-rate little fire. The only consoling thing about the situation – Carmichael’s digs were jammed in halfway up a shoddy little back staircase in one of the shoddiest of the Oxford colleges – was the entirely excellent glasses of port we were both clutching in our chilly hands. That was Carmichael all over – a shoddy little back-stairs bounder, but he could still confound you by playing a trump card like that port. I believe everyone has a friend like Carmichael, by one name or another. 

That rather makes it sound as though Carmichael and I had been friends of the bosom since our Prep. school days. Not so. In fact, my friendship with this particular Carmichael was not one of a long standing, and indeed, on the evening when this account begins, we had only been acquainted for a matter of weeks.

Our first meeting came about in the following manner. After dinner in Hall I am accustomed to play a few rounds of bridge with other Christ Church men in the JCR. I am a keen bridge-player, and thus tend not to pay a great deal of attention to the goings-on around me – the atmosphere quickly becomes murky with smoke and hot with chatter – and of course, we play for stakes. That evening I remember I was doing rather well – I was up by a tidy sum, and one half of the opposing partnership, Tommy Macilhay, was cracking badly. He’d taken rather too much wine with dinner – rather too much wine altogether – and there were rumours that this was because he was in hock to a certain pub landlord in Blue Boar Street. I am not a man to listen to gossip, but at any rate, from the wine or from the landlord, his hands were shaking as he bet another guinea. We were declaring, and I won, and won again. I was just about to make the contract with a masterful bid in clubs when from behind me I felt a hand laid on my shoulder and a voice in my ear said, “No, no. Hearts, old man. You must play the hearts.”

I started. I believe I swore. At any rate, I lost the thread of the game, funked it badly and ended up throwing down some juvenile bid. Spades, I believe. Tommy Macilhay gave a sob of excitement, counter-bid wildly but unpleasantly well, and the other partnership took the rubber – and my winnings along with it. 

I spun about in a rage. The man who had done it – a man who I had never seen in our JCR before – was still behind me. He had a bounderish little moustache and beneath his gown his dinner-jacket had a nasty velvet collar to it. “What do you mean by that?” I asked the bounder furiously. “I’ve gone and lost!”

“Ah yes,” said the bounder, smiling behind his shrub of a moustache, “But I had a bet with my chum Brownrigg over there that you’d funk it, and, you see, I won.”

I was simply too angry to do anything but pant impotently. This fellow had come into my JCR and disrupted my bridge game – who did he think he was? 

“I’m a Pembroke man,” he said laconically, as if I had asked my question out loud. “Carmichael. Benjy Brownrigg introduced me to your delightful common room this evening. Oh, come now, old chap. You can’t have been hit too hard by it. I tell you what. I’ll make it up to you. What say I take you for a slap-up lunch at the Mitre tomorrow? Noon. You can’t refuse.”

I never thought Carmichael would be the sort of man who would honour his promises. But when I arrived at the Mitre the next day, there he was, a rather offensive cravat around his neck and a very large bottle of sherry on the table in front of him. He greeted me as though we had been friends for years – and thus it began!

I believe, despite all his side, that Carmichael was lonely. Certainly, after that lunch, he attached himself to me and refused to let go. On a more practical level, I suppose he wanted another ‘in’ to the Christ Church JCR – and I had my own reasons for tolerating him. That he was a bounder was certain, but he had a kind of style – a flair – for doing a thing, no matter the trouble or expense – and that, I admit, was rather fascinating to me.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Delicious Death - Devoured

Twitter is a weird thing, isn't it? You get involved in it, and suddenly you are friends with THE ENTIRE INTERNET, and then you have conversations with your real, actual friends that go like:

YOU: Oh, I know her!
THEY: How do you know her?
YOU: I know her on, um, twitter...
THEY: You don't know her. You're delusional.
YOU: No, but twitter is actually very... sort of...
THEY: Like I said. You're delusional.

Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I follow the writer D. E. Meredith on twitter, because she likes Victorian crime (like me) and she seems nice (like... no, wait), and because of this I decided I needed to give her Victorian crime novel Devoured a whirl.

So, invisible internet not-friends, I did.

Devoured, as I said, is historical crime fiction, set in London in the 1850s. A wealthy female patron of scientific discovery, specifically the shocking new research of men like Lyell and Alfred Russel Wallace, has been found dead, her head bashed in by one of her prized fossils. Dr Hatton and his Head Diener Monsieur Roumande, practitioners of the (other) new science, forensics, are called in to help, but it soon becomes clear that the murder of Lady Bessingham is just the beginning. Someone has been murdering 'Botanicals' (people who are interested in the theory of evolution), and it seems as though the crimes may have something to do with letters sent to Lady Bessingham by an explorer on a collecting expedition to Borneo. But when Hatton and Roumande make an unpleasant connection between a series of dead children and the Botanicals murders, the police don't like what they're being told. With so much against them, can Hatton and Roumande manage to expose the truth?

This is an interesting premise, especially for me. I love the story of how Darwinism came to be, and I appreciate a writer who acknowledges that Darwin wasn't the only scientist working on the evolution project. In fact, I am just totally on board with the current trend for properly researched historical fiction. Meredith both adores her subject and knows a lot about it, and as a result her settings really work. The Borneo letters (my favourite part) glow with beautifully described flowers, birds and beasts, and they're contrasted nicely with the cold, misty London winter setting of the rest of the novel.

Devoured, as you might expect, is all about people being taken over by their obsessions. Corruption is everywhere, in the heart of London as well as the heart of the jungle, and it affects every character in the novel. Sometimes this gets a bit simplistic - the Big Bad Duke of Evil, Lord Ashby, is pretty much cartoonish in his pursuit of filth for filth's sake - but there are some more interesting portrayals. The beta baddie, Madame Martineau, is not just written as the bloodsucking femme fatale she could have so easily become. She's a rounded character who does her evil because she believes it's in pursuit of a higher, truly worthy, cause, and I like that.

Mid-Victorian London is brought to life vividly, the story rollicks along and the murders are many and interestingly varied. Overall, I definitely came down on the side of liking Devoured, both its style and its substance. Meredith's imagination and plotting ability are firmly in place and in no doubt. But there's something about the way the book is written that, at times, left me a bit ambivalent about it. Meredith's style is sharp and interestingly elliptical, but while some of her sentences hit home beautifully, some just didn't work for me. Since this is Meredith's first piece of published fiction (and, as she's said in interviews, she's a writer who hasn't done much of it before) I suspect that she still hasn't quite settled into her form. But while there are kinks and bothers, there's also talent on show: like I said, there are some sentences that are really great. I think that future Hatton and Roumande novels will just keep on getting better, and the little points that I'm raising here are definitely not going to prevent you from enjoying a very fun book.

Devoured is not perfect by any means, but it's a very engaging presentation of a scientific and historical moment that I love. Victorianists will be delighted by it, and historical crime fans will be very pleased to be introduced to the comforting medical presences of Messrs. Hatton and Roumande. And I will certainly be reading the next in the series.

3 stars.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Review: Twelve Minutes to Midnight

I don't know if I mentioned this (maybe I did, once or twice. Or ten times. Or twenty. Are you sick of it yet?) but I interviewed Philip Pullman for Litro last week. I talked to him about fairy tales and storytelling and it was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. I am still not over it. I may never be over it.

Before he got onto fairy tales, though, Pullman used to write pastiche Victorian teen fiction (possibly my favourite thing he's done - Sally Lockheart is my hero). And, in a total coincidence, pastiche Victorian children's fiction is the topic of my review for today.

I hope you all appreciated that segue.

Now, I like children's fiction. I would say that one day I want to write it, except that I already do. So I'll go with: one day I want to publish what I've written, and be poor and happy and probably live in a garret. Ambitions, eh?

Anyway, Christopher Edge's Twelve Minutes to Midnight is swag I picked up from a past internship at the lovely Nosy Crow. I chose it because its blurb promised Victorian penny dreadful magazines, and if there is one thing I love in this world, is it Victorian pulp fiction. I cannot tell you how happy I am that this seems to be a very popular topic at the moment - I've actually just reviewed what is probably Twelve Minutes to Midnight's grown-up brother, Stephen Gallagher's The Kingdom of Bones, and very good it was too. So I came to Twelve Minutes to Midnight with high expectations and a lot of prior form. Happily, the book did not disappoint.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight's plot (or rather, the basics of its plot, I could be here all day) is as follows: it's London, 1899, and at twelve minutes to midnight each night all of the inhabitants of Bedlam madhouse get up and start scribbling frantically on whatever surface they can find. What they write seems crazy to the Victorians who read it, but to anyone from 2012 it's immediately recognisable as events from the twentieth century - our past, but their future. What can it mean? How can it be stopped? And what does the MYSTERIOUS SPIDER LADY OF SOUTH KENSINGTON (yes, really) have to do with it all?

Promising premise, right?

Although much lighter on graphic sex, murder and mutilation than The Kingdom of Bones (for reasons that should be obvious), Twelve Minutes to Midnight goes big where it matters. Christopher Edge does not stint on his sensational plot twists. In 250 short pages he gives us insanity, mysterious death, crazy science, evil women in black capes, hallucinations, toothless crones, madhouses, H. G. Wells, terrifying futures and deadly African spiders. You know a book is going to go to good places when the villain's past history is described thusly:
Sir William died on the eve of her wedding to Lord Cambridge. Some say it was the shock of his passing that sent Lady Cambridge's mother into the arms of madness. But of course, Lady Cambridge has had her own tragedy to bear since then. The death of her husband, Lord Cambridge, on expedition to Africa - poisoned by the very spiders they had both gone there to study.
Now THAT is how to have a good time with a story.

The heroine of this marvellous piece of excess, Penny Treadwell, is, of course, totally ridiculous herself. She is a twelve year old Wunderkind who is secretly the UK's foremost writer of fiction, a crack detective, and a dab hand with scientific implements. Seriously. At one point an adult character remarks on her handiness with a pipette and Penelope (aged twelve) responds, "I've always been interested in science." I love this.

Penny (although at times her over-described beauty gets a bit dull) is a great children's heroine. She's the perfect mixture of exotic wish-fulfilment and tiresome reality. Every kid knows that they could be as effective as the adults around them given half the chance, and Penny is the embodiment of this. She uses the adults in her life like convenient glove-puppets to further her own amazingly cool and ruthless agenda. But despite all that, she's still a kid, and that means that she's still continuously being brought up short by officious grown-ups who tell her she can't go in there and she can't do that.

She circumvents them, of course, in ways that are intrepid and incredibly unlikely, and the plot gets insanely and delightfully daft, with one sensational twist every two pages. I did take slight issue with the fact that so many of said twists have something to do with spiders (for about two days after I finished Twelve Minutes to Midnight I kept imagining that there were things crawling all over me, which was not pleasant), but nevertheless I read the whole book in a state of great delight, shouting "YAY!" and making my poor boyfriend listen to long and exciting extracts from it.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight may not be as slick and super-sophisticated as the Sally Lockheart books, but it nevertheless holds its end up well. It's a hammer-punch of fun, and it comes from a writer who obviously knows his late-Victorian fiction. There are some especially fab cameos from Real Victorian Writers. So many books are doing this at the moment, and I am a sucker for it EVERY TIME, but I think in this case they work particularly well.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight is a mad, silly, wild ride. I enjoyed it greatly, and that's the mark of a good children's book: that it should delight anyone who reads it, no matter how much older they are than its apparent target audience.

A very satisfactory read.

3.5 stars.