Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist

This debut novel takes place in (presumably) very near future where the famously democratic nation of Sweden has implemented a new social policy. Designed to cut down the national cost of the elderly, the ill and the socially unproductive, all childless adults aged 50 for women and 60 for men are deemed 'disposable' and are taken to a facility called the Unit. At the Unit they can enjoy the best entertainment, leisure facilities, companionship, good food, theatre and comfortable living space, but they will be required to undergo constant medical tests (some harmless, some not so much) and ultimately to sacrifice their vital organs to those deemed to be 'needed' by society.

Dorrit has just turned 50. Intelligent but unsociable, an unpublished writer and all round bohemian, she has never married, never had children and never had a career that is considered to contribute to the nation's prosperity. She leaves her beloved dog, Jock, and her ramshackle house behind and signs her body over to medical science. The unit proves to be the only place in her life that Dorrit has met truly likeminded people, mostly 'pointless' intellectuals such as herself. Amongst the childless she is no social outcast, and now she has time and need for friendship. Her tragedy is that during her first week, she meets and falls in love with another resident who, had she met him on the outside she may have led a happy life with.

To begin with, I was convinced that this book was a Swedish re-hash of Never Let Me Go but with Borgen jumpers instead of boarding schools. I changed my mind. NLMG hides the true reason for the existence of the characters and of the school they attend- we understand it's not a normal school, but can't work out why. When its organ-farm purpose is revealed to the reader, the characters discover that there are organisations, such as their old school, working to determine the ethical implications of cloning and forced organ harvesting, and asking questions about what makes a person a true person and what makes one just a walking bag of spare parts. There's none of that here. We know from the beginning what the purpose of the unit is, and so does Dorrit. Society knows. The donors know where their organs go and the recipients know where they come from. It's the assumption that it's all fine and sensible and that it's the right thing to do because it's the economically sustainable thing to do that makes this book shocking.

The residents of the unit arrive shell-shocked and confused, they have outbursts throughout their stay of grief and rage as their friends and the people that they have fallen in love with within the unit are taken forever and recycled- but for the most part, they accept their fate. I think this is what intrigued me the most about these characters- the fact that they have lived in the outside world outside of social norms, but become so passive and so resigned within the unit. Are these people- artists, writers, poets- genuinely dissatisfied with their childless lives? Do they crave companionship and security? Are they really that conventional at heart? Do they really buy into the state's idea of the reuse of 'disposable' human tissue? Dorrit, faced with an unusual amount of options, decides her own fate in a very obvious way but the reasons for her choice are never confirmed in any real sense. The reader has a lot to consider when deciding what motivates the behaviour of the characters that they read about, which is a brave move on the part of the author.

I honestly did enjoy this book a lot, despite expecting not to. It's haunting, original and well written in a stylishly sparse way. I genuinely liked Dorrit and her friends; I felt the injustice of their social position acutely and hated the cruelty of the two-tier social system. Books like this prove that behind every supposed fictional Utopia there's some hidden (or in this case unhidden) horror that's necessary to keep the important people comfortable.

I look forward to discussing it at our meeting!

Slow Storm, by Danica Novgorodoff

My second graphic novel write up, and it's definitely an impressive one. I was struck by how fleeting the story is and how it managed (with very few words) to create an atmosphere of eerie suspense, exhibiting the struggles and the social and emotional displacement of both of the characters.

The narrative is not so much a whole story in the conventional sense, but a series of moments in time. Ursula, a small town fire-fighter has made a few bad decisions and is struggling to understand her place in life. The slow storm of the title, oppressive and constant throughout the narrative, starts a barn fire on a Kentucky horse farm, causing her life to cross paths with that of an illegal Mexican immigrant for the briefest of spells. The storm changes their lives in different ways, that we can see, but the pair go their separate ways before the consequences can become clear to the reader.

The most immediately striking thing about this graphic novel is its artwork. Brooding but subtle, Novgorodoff uses beautifully tonal watercolour washes and inky blackness to really make the reader understand the intricacies and the personality of a familiar landscape. She captures the movement and the grace of a location that is evidently very familiar and incredibly precious to her. Slow Storm is a very human novel that creates a sense of place effortlessly, both Ursula and Rafi are tied to their respective home territories in similar ways- both share spiritual connections to their homes and the landscape that they were raised in, but home is a source of pain for them both.

Homesickness and horses, saint and storms, displacement and disappointment are all brought together into a story that is both dramatic and mundane at the same time.  Though the events of the narrative are small individually, it's impossible to shake the idea that the handful of hours that Rafi and Ursula spent together will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Look at that artwork.  It's not fussy or overly stylised- it's simple and clean but it demands attention. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Marlowe Papers, by Ros Barber

  Set in Tudor England, The Marlowe Papers asks the question: What if the notorious Christopher Marlowe wasn't killed by a stabwound to the eye in a tavern brawl? What if his 'death' was staged like one of his plays and Marlowe was smuggled overseas to live in exile? What if he continued to write for the theatre, publishing his plays under the Pseudonym William Shakespeare?
I'm so confused. I was always fairly confident that I hated historical fiction, but then I read this and now I don't know who I am anymore!

Not only is it thriller-paced, with treachery and betrayal, slander and gossip, brawling and boozing and espionage, it's also IN VERSE. It's two books really- an intricately plotted novel and a feat of poetry. There appears to be absolutely no narrative reason for the book to be in verse, it would stand up admirably without it, but the fact that Barber has braved the Iambic to bring blank verse to the 21st Century is mind-blowing. After reading it, I'm thoroughly convinced that Marlowe would have written, thought and spoken in blank verse, and anything else would seem wrong. I read it fluently, as if it were prose, but there were rhymes and rhythms that just would not be ignored. This book is a language lover's dream come true- you can feel the craft and the labour that's gone into every line, and it is much appreciated. I honestly expected to find the structure hard going, but it proved to be smooth and fluid- dialogue was natural and easy to understand and Elizabethan England came alive not through description, but through the peripheral bustle of London and the atmosphere of the black cloud hanging over it, the political upheaval that Marlowe works through.

The narrator Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe looks back on his life from middle age and wonders how a man with such promise has in death become such an infamous symbol of atheism and malevolent wickedness. He recounts tales of his arrogant youth, believing that he could write with absolute freedom and dodge the consequences, his Cambridge scholarship, prison spells, lazy loose-tongued evenings spent 'blaspheming' in taverns that may come to haunt him later, his exile, espionage and odd jobs that he performs over the years. Throughout the whole novel, the themes of identity, suppression and expression are consistently explored.  Marlowe has no true identity, constantly living under other names and in the company of enemies, but the one thing that sustains him throughout is his writing.  Though it is writing that he is bound to attribute to somebody else, it’s clear that he’d die without his words.  Marlowe’s voice in this novel is staggering- his thoughts and dreams, his actions, his reflections and speech are an absolute joy to read and are so beautifully written.  Melancholy and bitter in places, tender and passionate in others, he tells the story of his life and loves and losses in a way that’s absolutely captivating.

I love how it drew together all of the unanswered questions of the Shakespeare authorship debate-Shakespeare’s probable illiteracy, his modest background, the fact that few London records refer to him by name...the 'real' Shakespeare, a Stratford merchant, rears his little bald head now again throughout, paid by Marlowe to be the face of the operation. A dead playwright can't publish under his own name...The fiction is woven so seamlessly with the fact that I for one am absolutely convinced that this could've happened.  After all, history is always changing.  Look at Richard III…

I honestly can’t recommend this novel enough, it’s an extraordinary piece of writing.  It’s undoubtedly a challenge, but the rewards are huge, both narratively and linguistically.  For a debut novel it’s unparalleled.  It’s bound to become a modern classic.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Painted Bridge, by Wendy Wallace

Another month, another Book Club book. Again, this is something that having seen it in a shop or a library, I would never ever have picked up. I read the hardback version, with the caged bird cover. It's pretty standard fare for a book about imprisonment and would have in no way enticed me to read it under normal circumstances.

The book is set in the mid 1800s and opens with an experimental Doctor slash photographer attempting to use this snazzy new medium for diagnostic purposes. Dr. St Clair believes that the camera lens may be able to distinguish mania or insanity in troubled women more easily than the Doctoral eye. Querios Abse, Lake House owner and manager allows him to use his patients for his photographic research. The photographs brighten the somewhat gloomy interior and one must look medically progressive in the mental health field in order to impress the magistrates.

Meanwhile, a wholesome, rural sailor's daughter type arrives at the grand country house with her new husband. He is very much cut from the uptight minister cloth (whiskers, top-hat, frown) the couple do not seem incredibly comfortable with each other. We quickly learn that though Lake House terms itself a "country retreat" for well-off ladies of a nervous or hysterical disposition, it is in fact a private asylum. Anna, the unfortunate wife, finds herself committed to the asylum for her missionary exploits rescuing Welsh sailors from a recent shipwreck- something she felt compelled to do, being from a naval family. Rev. Victor Palmer unceremoniously dumps her into the care of Querios Abse, who is only too happy to oblige. His asylum is experiencing certain financial difficulties lately. Anna remains convinced for a while that there has been some sort of mistake and that husband Reverend Palmer will return to collect her. Or failing that, her sister. She resolves to distance herself from the insane women that she suddenly finds herself forced to live with because she is not one of them.

Personally, I was bored rather quickly by this novel- there wasn't really enough to get your teeth sunk into. The plot is fairly transparent from the beginning (and very well-trodden by Victorian authors too), most of the characters are flimsy and uninspiring (one matron has to be cruel and villainous, one has to be helpful and kind), most of the other patients felt like interchangeable bit-players. I felt that this book spent too much time trying to make us feel outrage and sympathy for Anna and not enough time establishing an atmosphere or a supporting cast. Some characters appeared to be set up to rise to importance later in the plot, but turned out to have no discernable purpose at all. I found it very difficult to care what happened to any of them, to be honest. Even the presumably horrific 'treatments' that Anna is forced to endure didn't stir up any empathy. Perhaps an implication of torture would have been more effective than merely whizzing through the descriptions of the procedures. Anna barely reacted to them, in thought or in behaviour. Though the book didn't offend me in any actual sense, I certainly wouldn't recommend it.

Our discussion of this novel raised some interesting points about the history of mental illness, the stigma which has always been attached to it and the (perhaps not as advanced as we would like to believe) contemporary means of diagnosis and treatment used today. We also compared the abandonment and the neglect of the women in the novel to modern care homes for the elderly. Whilst this was an interesting discussion, it wasn't something that the book made me think of.

I read quite a lot of Victorian literature and very little historical fiction. I think these things are related. For a start, I couldn't help but feel like this novel borrowed a little too heavily from one chapter of The Woman in White. Lady Glyde (previously Laura Fairlie) finds her identity switched with Anne Catherick and she is committed to an asylum by her dastardly husband under Anne's name. The asylum owners are led to believe that 'Anne' is suffering from a crippling delusion that she is Lady Glyde. Lady Glyde's untimely death is announced publically- though it is the body of the real Anne that lies in her grave. Laura, Lady Glyde is powerless to prove her identity and her sanity. What's done in a couple of pages by Collins is stretched out to novel length here.

I think people are aware, generally, that many women had a fairly tough time in Victorian England. No votes, no property, few employment prospects, very little influence or status. Healthcare and hygiene were rudimental at best- we get it. Personally I'd rather hear about it through the fiction of actual Victorians, but that's just me.

On a related note- if you liked The Painted Bride, I would recommend the Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, featuring the non-victim, mustache-faced single-and-doesn't-care Marian Halcombe- my favourite fictional woman of theVictorian Era. Even if you didn't enjoy it- I'd Recommend tWOW anyway. Also, if you want an incredible examination of mental institutions, ostracism and 'the insane' please, please read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey. Kesey crafts a thoroughly hellish asylum with one of the sickest and most sadistic matrons ever committed to paper. His supporting characters are brilliant- three dimensional and each with their own untold story. His protagonist is one of the best- flawed, yes, both a coward and a hero. He jumps out of the pages and demands that you pay attention to him. READ IT NOW!

Monday, 3 June 2013

Harriet Tubman, the Life of an African American Abolitionist, by Rob Shone and Anita Ganeri

Before reading this book, I had never heard of Hariet Tubman.  We're not huge studiers of the Civil Rights movement in the UK (or at least I did very little at school), and whenever Civil Rights comes up, it's often Martin Luther Kind Jr. or Rosa Parks.  Not that they're not worth learning about of course, but there are bound to be many unsung heroes of history, and I think old Harriet here might be one of them.

Firstly, I thing graphic novel Biographies are a brilliant idea.  Particularly for people from either really important historical events, or really boring ones.  The American Civil war, Slavery and Abolition and everything that comes with them are immensely complex topics covering politics, human rights, trade, ethics and any other angle you care to come from.  However, these graphic novel biographies streamline history, and tell it from the perspective or a single character.  A reader will also learn about the historical period and contemporary issues, but it is the life story of the individual that is central.  If you're going to break history into bite size chunks, seems a pretty good place to start.

As a child Harriet was hit on the head with a metal weight by her owner which gave her seizures, headaches, hallucinations, visions and dreams throughout her life which Harriet put down to being messages from God.  Anyway, old Harriet had an eventful life.  An escaped slave herself, she personally led a total of 300 slaves to freedom on 19 separate missions over the border into Canada (ON FOOT in WINTER), freed 700 more as part of the Combahee River Raid, dabbled in espionage and armed scouting for the Unionists during the Civil War, nursing and cooking for the wounded, founding care homes for the elderly and being a suffragette.  Looking at photos of her she didn't smile a whole lot, but I guess some things are more important than fun.

The artwork is not overly stylised- realistic but unfussy, think functional cinema storyboard but in bright colours, and the text is kept to a minimum.  To the untrained eye it looks much the same as any other graphic novel.  Focused, clear storytelling that is engaging as well as informative, the authors stick to the biography and avoid getting too sentimental or preachy.  Harriet's adventures and the risks that she takes to help others help to maintain interest, and her
Such a good, accessible resource for learning about history, slavery or Civil Rights, would definitely recommend the series.  Glad it came my way and I'm doubly glad I read it because I learned a lot about an amazing woman. 

Mortal Chaos, by Matt Dickinson

Wow.  What an impressive novel.  Some of the best types of Children's and Young Adult's books are the ones that don't go mad over exposition and explanation, that challenge their readers with complex, mind bending concepts and plots and assume a certain level of intelligence in their readers.  Those are the sort of books that become unforgettable to young readers and demonstrate the range and power that a book can have.  It's nice to know that some authors have faith in the ability of young readers.

Mortal Chaos is an almost impossibly complex spiderweb of interconnecting micro stories.  At first the stories seem unconnected.  Random, even.  Two boys bunking off school, a pilot that's late for work, a young Japanese climber almost at the summit of Everest. It begins, fairly innoculously, with a newly emerged butterfly flapping its wings, but the series of events that are set in motion by that one moment in time reach the whole way around the world. 

Each of the short chapters gives the time and the location of the events and the reader dips in and out of each narrative thread.  The characters are not developed a great deal, the whole point really is that they're strangers- strangers to each other and to the reader.  As the plots develop, it becomes apparant that each one directly or indirectly affects most all other events.  The plots become more and more wrapped up in one another as the author begins to pull all of the threads together, cause after effect, culminating in several dramatic tragic/joyous/lucky endings.  Dickinson writes in a streightforward, journalistic style that simply presents the events of the chapter simply and clearly.  The pace of the plot and the choppiness of the chapters, switching from Malawi to Heathrow to Nepal really helps to build the tension leading up to the book's culmination.  I tried to find a story-diagram online that connected all the incidents in the book, but nobody appears to have made one.  I tried.  It is HARD.

What's great about this novel is that it makes you realilse that no one person ever has a story in its entirity.  None of the people in this book are able to see the whole picture.  One character may have a better understanding of the apparent co-incidences that have happened to her, and is thoroughly shaken by the realisation...but that's the closest any of them come.  Events that may seem unconnected in the book (and in real life, SCARY) may actually be part of a much bigger chain of events when viewed from afar, and the all-seeing perspective that the reader enjoys in this novel cannot possibly happen in real life. 

A brilliantly plotted thriller that really challenges the reader which I would recommend to anybody wanting a challenge.  It's so unlike any other YA books I've read recently that it would always be a bit of a risk to suggest, but it might jsut be the book to hook a young reader into books forever.

I leave you with this thought.  What if this is the way the world actually works?!  What if the whole of human history, every little bit of it, was the consequence of somebody somewhere, ages ago, doing something insignificant.  What if life is one massive game of Mouse Trap?!

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer

This book sits firmly in the Young Adult classics cannon, and it is for that reason that I made sure to read my school's shiny new copy before it went on the shelf- just in case I needed to recommend it a lot. 

I was surprised by how different this book was to what I expected it to be.  I knew through book osmosis that Artemis Fowl was some sort of globe-trotting adventurer millionaire, but I was expecting an Indianna Jones meets Sheldon Cooper eccentric genius character, not the micro-Moriarty slash Tony Stark of this book.  The fairy plot sort of took me by surprise too- expected it (inexplicably) to be much more real world based.

The story centres on 12 year old Artemis Fowl, latest in a long family line of career criminals, and his bodyguard come companion Butler.  Artemis has cooked up a plan to obtain millions of pound's worth of fairy gold.  Not really because he needs the money, but just to prove that he can - the gold is a secret that the fairies have managed to keep concealed from the 'Mud People' for millennia.  We're not talking pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, it's good old fashioned ransom money.  When Atremis kidnaps one of the Fairy underworld's prestigious LEPrecon operatives, the fairies are forced to use all the magic, tricks and weaponry that their fairy fingers have developed over the years, and all the technology that their misanthropic centaur tech-support can devise.

It's a strange experience reading a book where the main character is the antagonist...Artemis is engaging as a character, he's obviously wildly intelligent and there are cracks in his criminal mastermind veneer that prove that he's not the cold hearted robot that he likes to think he is.  However it's impossible to warm to him as a character.  The fairy squadron on the other hand, are funny, resourceful, full of life, conversation and resolve.  They're definitely more like real people than Artemis is.

Overall, a book that's full of action, technology and humour.  A few genuine laughs in this story, and some really clever pieces of writing.  The way Colfer blends our real-world understanding of fairy mythology with the carefully cultivated cover story of the Fairy people in this book is brilliant.  A good YA heist novel that I can understand the appeal of and which I enjoyed, despite it being a lot different to what I was expecting.  I would recommend this to competent readers that are a bit bored of their normal book choices, possibly as a bit of a wild card to gauge their interest generally in the action/adventure/fantasy genre.  The book might also have appeal to anybody with an interest in characters with Asperger's or Autism, seeing as Artemis displays many traits associated with those conditions.  Kids that have read a lot of Beast Quest might enjoy it, and it could offer something different to those who read a lot of stories featuring mythical creatures.  Just in case Fairies become the new Vampires...