Thursday, 30 April 2015

Books Read in April

Trees, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

Tress begins ten years after massive and silent alien presences have established themselves on Earth. They stand silent and immobile, seemingly unfazed by and oblivious to human life on Earth- just like Trees.

The narrative is divided into several points of view, each following different sets of characters as they live and work in the landing sites of the Trees, where their shadows darken the cities. We see fascist gangs in the tree zone of Rome, destruction in Rio de Janeiro, warmongering in Mogadishu, the mayoral candidate's musings in New York City, a polar research team on Spitsbergen and blossoming romance in "The City of Shu". Each of these separate groups are slowly learning things about the trees near to them, unsure whether anybody else in the world is doing the same.

I loved the city of Shu- it feels like it could be an entirely new series by itself. We could spend volumes simply exploring the bizarre micro culture and the artistic, super-liberal attitude of a city that's grown and matured in the enclosed, isolated 'special cultural zone'. The events that unfold in Shu definitely launch the plot into action in a sudden and shocking way, and I think we're going to be seeing a lot of Zhen in the next issue.

Zhen and Tian in the city of Shu-
look at those colours and that hum of life that comes off the page
I was pretty much floored this book and found its concept fascinating- so many narratives deal with the invasion, the war or whatever event that spells the end of the world. In Trees, that happened ages ago- and people love to believe that they don't need to do anything, to interfere. Since the landing people have adapted and more or less carried on with their lives, living with the Trees' silent presence. This story instead deals with the few individuals that ask questions, that reason, that don't merely want to act like nothing happened. What we see are reactions, ten years down the line. Ellis points out this old-news alien invasion, then pushes it to one side. Instead we see how people deal with this change of life. Democratic governments have been replaced by fascist ones, wars are still raging, police brutality is rife, there's poverty, trafficking, gangs...there's no wonder these aliens, whatever they are, don't consider the human race civilised or intelligent.

There's something incredibly threatening about the Trees, but the reader is in very much the same position as the Earth's population; it's impossible to determine their purpose, their objectives and what exactly makes them so ominous. All we see at this stage are isolated incidents, all over the World that add up to a pretty huge threat, and the questioning individuals in those locations as they discover and react to these slight changes in the trees that have become so familiar to them. It's frustrating, not knowing, but I'm itching for volume 2.

The artwork in this is absolutely beautiful- the scope of the artist is incredible. I just stared at the pages in some cases, soaking up the indulgent detail. It doesn't technically add to the story, the characters or anything but it adds a depth to the world that makes it feel alive, ignorant. We can see all these people that just carry on in the background, happy to ignore the Trees until the impact on their lives directly. He creates buzzing, vibrant cities full of bustle and colour, then barren polar wastelands and manages to make each seem beautiful. I loved how expressive the characters were, how they can communicate with the reader without the need for speech or direction. The colours are simply stunning too.

Definitely worth a look, even if graphic novels or futuristic speculative fiction isn't your usual reading diet- Trees is a gripping and tense read that asks more questions than it answers and leaves the reader desperate to know more. The ominous threat builds all the way through, the author clearly is not afraid of a big body count and it's a really unique concept that has loads of potential to go pretty much anywhere.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Gun, by Bali Rai

A tense and fast paced little book from Barrington Stoke about the terrible consequences of making bad decisions. Some quickly but well developed characters from diverse backgrounds too, including a refugee family.

Opening with the narrator, Jonas, being questioned in a police interview room, the reader knows from the beginning that this story is not going to have a happy ending. He recounts his story to the police officers and solicitors around the table.

Jonas has been best mates with Kamal and Binny his whole life- they've grown up together on the same high rise estate. When they witness a shoot-and-run one day outside the chicken shop, Jonas peels off from the group and investigates an alleyway. Finding the discarded murder weapon, he pockets it and takes it home, not considering the chain of events that will follow this decision.

Jonas keeps quiet for a few days hiding the gun from his mother and younger sister, wondering whether he should turn in the gun or not. But some gang trouble with a rival group leads him to show the weapon to his two friends. Always appearing on the brink of madness, Kamal seems to change when he knows about, and handles the gun. Soon he's out of control; armed robberies, intimidation, muggings. Jonas and Binny become increasingly concerned for their lives, the lives of their families and for the safety and mental state of Kamal.

Needless to say, things get out of control and end tragically, landing Jonas in his police interview. The book is breathlessly paced and really sharp. The sentences are short not only to appeal to non-readers, but also because Jonas is in a life or death situation and has to think, speak and act quickly. He's a good storyteller, and the reader sympathises with him because he lives in poverty and in fear and has become caught up in gang fights and turf wars because it seems that that's just what happens to boys in that area. Friendship equals gangs, and all the obsession with respect, status and territory that comes with it.

The novel is gritty and relatable- it's not exactly The Wire, but you really get a sense of the inevitability of violence and gangs for these boys. It's an easy to read, engaging story with an important message about consequences and escalating problems. There's also an important social message there about the communities stuck on the fringes of society in cycles of poverty, violence and bad decisions who just fall through the net and are ignored by the authorities.

The Outcast vol.1, by Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta

Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman is taking his horror southern gothic supernatural, rather than zombie for this new series from Image. The Outcast is the story of Kyle Barnes, an isolated loner that lives in a tumbledown house on the edge of society. We discover early on that many people close to Kyle have been possessed by demons over the years- his mother, his wife (now ex) altering their behaviour and personality unrecognisably and placing themselves, Kyle and their families at huge risk.

The novel begins with a mother becoming speechless with horror at the sight of her son, growling, dripping blood; apparently demonic. She contacts the local religious shepherd Reverend Anderson who has become a bit of a dab hand at the old exorcisms- it seems there's a bit of an epidemic in West Virginia. Stumped by this particular case, he calls on the help of Kyle, who he spots out reluctantly grocery shopping with his sister. It seems that despite his low-profile, reclusive lifestyle, Kyle has a bit of a reputation for expertise with demonic possession. Plagued by literal and metaphorical demons all his life, Kyle joins the Reverend in his next round of exorcisms, revealing powers of demonic expulsion that the Reverend simply didn't believe possible. Kyle is reluctant at first, but realising that he can't ignore these tortured souls he concedes. Together they begin to rethink what they both know about demonic possession, demons and exorcisms and begin working together to see if they can understand anything definite about the phenomenon .

Firstly, I liked the inclusion of the backstory of Kyle- we're taken through moments in his childhood where he was beaten and abused by his possessed mother. These are pretty harrowing really, and it softens the reader towards the so far surly Kyle. Once I realised that these were in fact flashbacks, not new cases of 'possession of small boy', I thought it effectively answered some questions about why Kyle is the way that he is and it broke up the cycle of exorcism, moping at home, exorcism, pep talk from Reverend Anderson. I had to go back and re-read a few bits to make sure.

There's a lot of set up in this volume, and not much so far by way of pay-off. I understand that it's a first volume, but so far it's not really asking any questions that are interesting enough to keep the reader wriggling on the hook. The identity of the Fedora man seems quite obvious, but the reader is vaguely intrigued to see if their assumptions are correct, which is about the closest thing to an emerging subplot that this volume has offered. Even if our assumptions are correct, it's hard to tell what the implications on the story are going to be. The reason, motive, and source of the demons are unexplained so far, but I guess it's unreasonable to expect that at his stage. The readiness of people to accept the existence of demonic possession is unexplained too- nobody seems shocked to find out that demons exist, they just see odd behaviour and bam! Jump straight to demonic possession as an explanation. But then it seems odd that Kyle is socially shunned if possession is such a common ailment.

Whilst the jury is out to some extent on the plot and the characters, it's hard to deny the quality of the artwork. It looks brilliant and the pages are incredibly atmospheric, with its bruise-like palette of broody blues and purples and greys. I loved the long shots of the outside of Kyle's house, with the long, shadowy outline of Kyle moping on the front lawn at all hours. The book does an excellent job of creating a 'sense of place'- the reader understands the mood and the oppressive feel of the town almost automatically, so instant is the understanding of the images. The gloomy colour really works with the whole lurking-shadowy-demon theme and it gives the whole thing an under-lit early X files vibe. I loved the little boxes within the panels that just sneak in an extra, last minute detail- a gripping hand, a rolling eye, like a crash zoom on the page. I've not seen that before and that's really effective at showing the immediacy of the action.

I'm undecided as a whole. I'll give volume 2 a go to see where the story goes next, but at the moment I don't feel massively drawn into the plight of the characters or even to the mystery of the demons' interest in this place or its inhabitants. I hope it's a Sunnydale style Hellmouth, because that has got some serious full-page potential. I like the reverend's religious musings and sense that it might be building up into a bit of a crisis of faith, but it's too early to tell. I don't know if I was expecting it to be more Walking Dead or what, but I didn't find this as compelling as I expected- it sort of loses the momentum built up in the opening sections and runs out of steam a little bit.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Seed, by Lisa Heathfield

Seed begins with Pearl, the protagonist and narrator, in a state of panic and shock, utterly convinced she is going to die from the blood she has discovered in her underwear. The reader understands from the very beginning that life for this character is very different from life as we experience it- and it's quite disorienting at first. This is only further reinforced when Elizabeth, an older woman, leads Pearl to a ceremonial hole in the ground where she is expected to spend the night trapped in the dark underground- so that nature may grant her a fertile womb during the first night of her first bleed. This night marks her transition from childhood to womanhood.

From there it's gradually revealed that Pearl lives in an isolated sort of nature-worshipping cult, presided over by the Holy particah Papa S. She and her fellow children have been raised communally and have no firm idea of who their natural mothers and fathers are- they don't go to school, but work in the fields growing and harvesting crops. There's no technology, no currency, no medicine. No influences from the outside world at all.

To begin with it all seems charmingly idyllic Pearl, Kate and Jack, the teenaged children spend hours roaming meadows, climbing trees and splashing in the lakes, looking after younger family members Ruby and Bobbie. The older women, Heather and Rachel prepare meals and sew skirts for sale. The men Kindred Smith and Kindred John tinker with engines and build things. They all eat and pray together, giving thanks to nature for her gifts, watched over by Papa S. It's all very self sufficient flower child Amish. Pearl seems genuinely happy and it seems that she is truly absorbed in her unusual religion- she overflows with love for Papa S and her family and hopes one day to become Papa S's 'companion'.

When a new family is accepted to Seed, things begin to change for Pearl. Ellis, the boy from the outside, is at first receptive to their way of life, pleased by the healing change that it has effected in his depressive mother. As his contentment dwindles, as an outsider, he can see Seed for what it truly is and the darkness at its centre. Ellis gradually chips away at Pearl's brainwashed mind and begins to make her understand that she has been manipulated- that there is a sinister heart to Seed that first she refuses to acknowledge but then can't ignore.

It's quite hard to read really- to see somebody that has been genuinely happy all her life to have her belief system, values and identity unravel and to realise that her happiness has been built on lies and manipulation. Once that veil is lifted then you can't go back. I really liked the character of Pearl; she was kind, honest and her love for nature is infectious- she's been raised well and she really appears to fit into the life that she leads. However, it's hard not to get just a little frustrated with her- for ignoring her instincts, for trying hard to please Papa S, for clinging on to Seed for as long as she can. The evidence of the evil in her family is there for so long and in such quantities and she's just too naive (or innocent, whichever) to be able to see what's in front of her. It's understandable though as it's all she's ever known, so it's her normal. It's impossible not to feel truly sorry for Kate. Slightly older than Pearl, she has been Papa S's 'companion'- she's been 'helping' the Kindreds in their rooms. She's got a defiance in her eyes that scares Pearl, but comforts the reader- there's a fighter amongst them after all. I'd like to see some narrative from her perspective in the next book.

Seed is an uncomfortable read with some genuinely dark themes- I think the reader begins to suspect Papa S's motives fairly quickly and is able to see the cult for what it is and it truly makes the skin crawl. Unsettling though it is, it's a gripping narrative that captivates the reader- the idea of this natural utopia being rotten to the core just makes the reader root for the growing rebellion. Heathfield handles her dark themes sensitively and with care, suggesting the horror to the reader but allowing the characters to gain strength and resolve from the ordeals they have endured- some willingly, some not so. Seed really effectively reveals the cult mentality- that it's easier to follow and to swallow your doubts than it is to make waves and think independently, to question.

The book maintains the suspense throughout the narrative as Pearl slowly adds up the little things, combining her questions with Ellis' answers. Overall, I really enjoyed it and found it to be a compelling and unique novel. I do feel that it ended quite quickly and without much of a resolution- there was a double twist at the end that I simply did not see coming that provides one last huge shock before the end- it changes the trajectory of what the reader expects from the sequel hugely and now there's just no telling where the story will go but I'm definitely intrigued to find out.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins, the furiously anticipated sister novel to one of 2013's best books is out at last. Here the reader revisits the Todd family of Fox Corner and delves this time into the life and times of Ted, the second youngest of the brood. The narrative jumps back and forth through the 20th century honing in on different periods of Teddy Todd's life. In Life After Life various versions of Ted go off to fight in the Second World War, always waved off at the station by various versions of his sister Ursula. Some scenarios see him safely home, some see him lost in a downed plane on a bombing raid.

Ted recounts some events of his life more fondly than others but it's difficult to tell how he feels about his life- he's of the generation that bottles up feelings and sees no sense in regret or complaint. We see him during the war and his time as a RAF bomber pilot; his idyllic childhood at Fox Corner with his sisters; his uneventful marriage to the stoic Nancy; extreme old age; the inception and adventures of his alter ego Augustus; his cantankerous elderly years as he's ferried from sheltered living to care home; the years he spent as a single father, struggling to raise his wayward only child Viola; we see him bickering with a middle aged Viola, taking care of his abandoned grandchildren as she swans off on yet another hippy world-saving crusade...

The book not only fills in the gaps in the life of the prodigal son, but it expands it too, as he outlives most of the characters that we are familiar with. Ted has led an ordinary post-war life of kindness and quiet contemplation, appreciating nature, trying to love his family, forgiving the Germans and living silently with the guilt and turmoil of his war deeds.The narrative also slips occasionally into other family members' stories. Nancy becomes the narrator in a few chapters, as does daughter Viola (late middle age) and grandson Sunny (as a child). It's interesting to see such a familiar, beloved character (beloved by the reader as well as his adoring family) seen through the eyes of a daughter that seems so angry and disappointed with him.

Essentially it's a story about complicated families and making mistakes, then living with the consequences of the decisions we make. In many ways it's the antithesis of its sister novel. Whereas Ursula had many chances to change the outcome of her life, consciously or not, Teddy is stuck- torturing himself by wondering what he's done wrong in his lifetime. The choices he made and all the 'what if's that might have existed. All he ever did was his best for the people he loved, but it's second nature to second guess. I never got the impression that Ted led a melancholy or regret-filled life, he just never seemed to be able to reach the potential that a background like his suggested. Perhaps the war ruined potential for a whole generation.

I did enjoy this novel, but it I didn't feel myself spellbound in the same way as with Life After Life. With absolutely sky-high expectations, it was going to be difficult to pull off a sequel to what is probably one of the best books in the last two decades, and that always skews things slightly. Atkinson's prose is as luminous as ever, conjuring up so many memorable images and scenes- she writes so beautifully and with such emotion and understanding. Whereas the previous book allowed the reader to decide which life Ursula truly lived (or whether she lived them all in fact, over and over) this book seemed, in comparison, to settle on too definite a course. Until it was all was  possibly called into question. All those wonderful uncertainties that made Life After Life  so unique and so unforgettable were decided on in this book. We know what happened to Ursula- she was a civil service worker and never married. We know what happened to Teddy. Pam. Winnie. Nancy. All of them. I'm afraid that I found the various episodes of one life to be less enchanting than a myriad of versions of another.

I think really, if I'm being fussy, I would ask why A God in Ruins truly needed to share characters with Life After Life. I think I would have liked it more if the same story were told with a new cast- another RAF veteran who had other sisters and lived somewhere else. There could have been cameos, he might have flown a few times with Teddy Todd...After all, RAF bombers are something featured in many of Atkinson's books- the War scenes were some of my favourite from Behind the Scenes at the Museum. There's a lot of distance between the AGiR and LAL books, but some links remain. I would've felt better, I think, if those links were severed entirely. But that's just me. It's still an incredibly absorbing and emotional read.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger

Tom Berry is a stoic and dependable man- a man that can kill an adult buck and butcher it in the field and fix pretty much anything without even having to think about it. He's a mountain man through and through and lives immersed and in awe of nature. Tom spends half of his year running a small planting outfit in the remote Canadian logging forests, a rag-tag bunch of gap year types, oddballs and drifters. The other half he spends with his his family- a fairly low maintenance daughter, Erin in her early teens and Curtis, a misfit on the brink of adulthood with a few bad habits and a self destructive streak. The reader gets the impression (as do his kids) that domestic Tom is a badly fitting disguise, compared to the more comfortable loner wilderness man. Raising them as a single father Tom has always done his best. He's proud of their quiet independence and fortitude, qualities that he has imparted on them. He's ever watchful for signs of darkness and depression in his daughter, for the illnesses which drove his wife to her desertion and ultimately to her death.

A good and wholesome man, Tom channels the quiet, fatherly patience of Atticus Finch for the early part of the book. He lets his children make mistakes (and makes them himself), comfortable in the knowledge that they will learn from them. Until the incident where it's an irreversible, life-destroying mistake that can never be undone. The plot begins with a fatal accident, a hit and run on a dark mountainside. When he learns of this accident (news is slow and sparse in the wilderness) Tom must leave his forestry outfit early and seek out his missing son. As he does so, the backstory of his family is filled in- the struggles and hardships that he's endured for the sake of his family, the difficulties of single fatherhood. A family he never really wanted, but cannot imagine life without now- he loves them fiercely, despite the emotional distance he maintains. The effects of the accident have effects for both Tom and Curtis, raking up some buried ghosts of the past and unexpectedly helping both men to understand each other better. Long-held grudges and misplaced bitterness are brought out into the light and addressed at last.

I loved the sense of place that was so beautifully and so thoroughly painted in this novel. Leipciger's prose is so sensory and evocative, it really is quite stunning. Her style of writing is quite unusual- breathlessly intense in places and gentle and subtle in others. The reader feels almost telepathic, picking up forest smells and sounds that can't possibly be in the text. The mind-bendingly immense wilderness of Canada is almost unimaginable to someone from the UK. This distance between outposts of civilisation, the isolation and just the sheer amount of nothing just doesn't compute. 

The Mountain Can Wait is a small and self contained novel about family duty, very personal conflicts and the delicate and inexplicable dynamics of complicated families. It's not a fast paced book, but it's gripping and it takes its time to build and define its characters.  Their personalities, pain and confusion pour out of the pages in a way that is captivating and immersive.Though it has a small cast, it is a vivid and detailed one, full of confusion, love and choices. The personalities are strong, whole and relatable and the reader feels truly invested in the lives of the Berries. Despite its modest plot, the climax is both emotional and inevitable, we see it coming, but there is nothing that can be done to change it.

It's a beautifully crafted novel that really takes the time to shape and study its characters, examining every choice that they have made to find themselves at their present hardship. It's an intimate story that fills the reader's senses with woodland scents and light, and conveys the trauma and struggles of its characters in beautiful and heartbreaking detail. Definitely an author to keep an eye on.

Thanks to Tinder Press and Headline for the review copy.

Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge

A hugely atmospheric and creepy story that it's difficult to talk about without giving away the reveal. Thought the reveal happens quite early on, it's a chilling moment of realisation that the reader has to experience for themselves. So I'll do my best to give a flavour without giving too much away.

Sickly and over-coddled child Triss wakes up after having an accident on holiday. She has fallen in a lake, but can't remember anything about the accident at all. As soon as she is awake, she knows that something is wrong, but not wanting to worry her family, she focuses desperately on getting better. She is insatiably, impossibly hungry and keeps waking up with leaves in her hair and crumbs of mud on her feet. Her troublesome younger sister, Pen is terrified of her and insists, loudly and constantly that Triss is pretending to be ill. To no avail- she is ignored and rebuked by her family, dismissed as attention-seeking and spiteful. Most worrying of all, Triss' tears seem to be cobwebs and the leaves and soil seem to be coming from her.

I loved the relationship between (not) Triss and Pen. To begin with, she can barely look at her 'older sister', so strong is the hatred and fear- hatred incase this person is her sister, fear in case it is not. As circumstances force them together, they get to know each other, they begin to trust until they become inseparable. Pen can't reconcile the kindness and bravery of this Triss with the pre-accident Triss, a sister that she remembers being bitter, filled with malice and spite. The reader really doesn't get to know pre-accident Triss very well at all, but they become very fond of the new Triss, the girl who came out of the lake and the way she is now. She's brave and noble and after a few blips and wobbles, she would do anything to protect her family, anything to shield them from pain or grief, whatever the personal cost.

It's a dark and chilling fairytale, full of horrible villains and dastardly plans. There's an ever-present sense of foreboding and an understanding that anything could happen.  The author creates this briefly glimpsed but effective in-between world, filled with ghostly, shape-shifting trickster spirits, nestled invisibly in the impossible dimensions of modern architecture. It contrasts starkly with the crumbling social fabric of the post World War I era, the shifting of the Old Ways into the modern era. I loved the misty, depressed real world with the shadow of the fantastic lingering over it. Very Neil Gaiman indeed.

Hardinge has a slight tendency to over-write in this book, there's the occasional metaphor that slips its hold and becomes a bit uncontrollable, but it sort of works with the creepy, fantastical nightmare elements. The melodrama suits Triss during her most traumatic or dramatic moments. Overall I was impressed with the author's sense for causing subtle discomfort through everyday things; dolls, snow, food. The everyday becomes tainted with weird, and that's very effective all the way through.

Ultimately I suppose it's a story about identity and families. The Triss that this narrative follows struggles to come to terms with her identity, or rather her lack of identity. Triss' parents struggle to accept that their daughter is growing up and becoming capable of choosing for herself. In many ways its a coming of age story about a character that only realises what kind of a person they are when they are tempted, tested to the limits and when they seem to have nothing left to lose. Well worth a read, a very unique novel whose Carnegie chances I quite fancy.