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.

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