Blackout

After racing through both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, I was keen to return to Connie Willis’ world, Oxford circa 2065, mixed with time travel back to the Blitz. As much as I enjoyed the light tone of To Say Nothing of the Dog, I was hoping that Blackout and All Clear would be closer to the darker, sombre and menacing mood in Doomsday Book. And it was and so much more.

Blackout and All Clear are two parts of one grand novel and so I will discuss them together. Set seven years after Doomsday book, we are once again reunited with Dr. Dunworthy, his team at Balliol College and Colin Templar who was just a boy in the earlier novel. Colin is now in his final year at school and preparing to get into Oxford to study under Dunworthy, his dream of time-traveling still unabated and perhaps stoked a little by his crush on Dunworthy’s student Polly who is sent back to 1940s London together with fellow history students Merope and Michael in order to complete their finals. All are armed with their required survival skills and knowledge including a list of crisis points and bombing schedules to keep them safe. Polly will be arriving in London to work as a shop girl, Merope as a maid in a country house to study evacuees and Michael, armed with an American accent to pass muster as a journalist, to study local heroes.

Everything goes smoothly for Merope who has been working for a couple of months looking after children from the East End, but as soon as Polly and Michael appear, things start to go wrong. Due to the build up of slippage, they arrive at different coordinates and time which means they are stranded. But confident in the information they possess, they try to get to where they are meant to be, looking for work and their contacts. And so begins their quest for survival as they slowly realise that their team in Oxford have no idea where or when they are when they fail to rendezvous and report back to their lab. There is no way back except to pray that Dunworthy will come to save them in time. For the clock is ticking and the list of expected bombing dates is only as long as their carefully planned stay. In the meantime, Merope finds herself in charge of two East End tearaways, Michael finds himself in Dunkirk, the last place he expected to be and one which should have been impossible as it is a major crisis point, and Polly finds herself drawn into an amateur acting troupe in her local shelter.

Both Blackout and All Clear are all about the race against time. Will Merope, Polly and Michael manage to find each other? And even if they do, will they be able to send messages back into the future for Mr. Dunworthy to mount a rescue operation? As the days pass and the dangers increase, Polly can only pray that Colin will do as he has promised; that he will come and find her wherever she is.

Willis has really outdone herself here. Apart from conjuring up how it must have felt like to be alive during this time, the constant fear, unexpected camaraderie and kindnesses, the resilience of the common people which broke through the class barrier which is reminiscent of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch in its depiction of London, she has also built this into an intricate plot with time travel, parallel timelines and history assignments. For the one cardinal rule of time-travel is that you can go back as many times as you like except you can’t inhabit the same time and place twice. There is a deadline and one of the students is in danger unless they can get out in time.

I keep saying this again and again; Willis has created a credible and vibrant universe, not so different from our own in which time-travel exists with all its paradoxes and problems of slippage. Her time-travel theories are in themselves fascinating but it is her story-telling and characters which will remain with you long after you finish reading her novels. It’s difficult to do her novels justice when trying to describe them, her plots are intricate and she really brings alive the historical periods into which she delves. And it’s not surprising that Blackout and All Clear have won the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel. So I do urge you, go and read them!

All Clear

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Because around a crisis point, even the tiniest action can assume importance all out of proportion to its size. Consequences multiply and cascade, and anything – a missed telephone call, a match struck during a blackout, a dropped piece of paper, a single moment – can have empire-tottering effects.

Following on from Doomsday Book which saw one of the Oxford historians sent back in time to a plague-ridden Middle Ages, Connie Willis returns with To Say Nothing of the Dog (or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last) set in 2057 in Oxford but this time with a different set of students to probe Victorian England.

History student Ned Henry has been sent on several trips to the 1940s and even further back by the formidable Lady Schrapnell, who has hijacked all time-traveling personnel in Oxford, to search for the legendary bishop’s bird stump, a hideous ornament lost in the bombing of Coventry Cathedral during the Blitz. Trying to escape the tedium of combing through Edwardian jumble sales looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the bishop’s bird stump, Ned jumps at the chance to travel to the Victorian period on a job for Mr. Dunworthy of Balliol College. Unfortunately, due to severe time-lag, he falls asleep just as Mr. Dunworthy is prepping him on his mission and consequently arrives in Victorian Oxford without a clue as to what he must actually accomplish carrying only a covered basket. This sets in motion a number of unforeseen events. All he knows is that his mission has to do with a place called Muching’s End and a boat.

Looking for his contact, he falls in with a student named Terence St Trewes with a dog named Cyril who hires a boat to Muching’s End to chase after Tossie Mering who turns out to be Lady Shrapnell’s ancestor. Tossie is looking for her cat Princess Arjumand who has gone missing and, it later transpires, has been rescued from drowning by Ned’s fellow student Verity Kindle, thereby possibly altering time.

Verity returns to Muching’s End to ensure she hasn’t changed anything and to ensure Tossie gets to Coventry where she will meet her destiny and to enlist Ned to make sure history happens as it’s written. As both Verity and Ned navigate the social etiquette of Victorian Britain, trying to make sure they evade suspicion while completing their mission, it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Dunworthy has plans of his own. Can Verity manage to evade the problems caused by her actions? And can Ned prevent Tossie and Terence from getting together? And will they find the blasted bishop’s bird stump?

Throw a dodgy spiritual medium into the mix and Willis has created a comedy of errors whilst also addressing the paradoxical nature of time travel. Discussions about slippage and consequences of actions are well thought out and once again Willis’ fascinating portrayal of time travel is a winner. However, To Say Nothing of the Dog is very different in tone to its predecessor Doomsday Book. We are once again reunited with Mr. Dunworthy and his team, but this novel is much more light-hearted; a comedy of manners with lots of missed chances, misunderstanding and unexpected twists.

It took me a while to get used to this new style but in the end Willis managed to hook my interest with her intricate plotting, a nice mixture of Austen and Christie with a conscious homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!). As I haven’t read the novel, I doubtless missed any references which may have added to my pleasure however this didn’t in any way detract from my enjoyment. Winner of the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1999, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a difficult novel to summarise, so intricate is the plotting, but I urge you to try Willis’ work – it’ll be like nothing else you’ve read before.

Next stop: Blackout/All Clear.

Hello and a Happy New Year

29 January, 2015

Hols 1
*Along Marine Drive in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Well, hello there.

It’s almost the end of January and I’ve only posted one review after a month’s silence. I’ve been away, you see, on a three week holiday to Sri Lanka and Thailand where I was planning to catch up on my reviews and read. I even took my heavy laptop with me. However, it was just too warm and sultry and I got no writing done. All I did was eat, sleep and shop and get lots of Thai massages. However, I did a lot of reading, unencumbered with work and commuting and socialising, so my pile of reviews to write has grown even bigger. But I’m happy to say that I’ve read some fantastic books and can’t wait to share them with you this year. The second half of last year was eaten up with work, a promotion and lots of overseas visitors leaving me with little energy to write but I hope to get back into the swing of things again. I miss writing about books, especially the ones which have worked their way into my brain and left a pocket in my heart when they finished and there were so many of them last year.

Hols 2
*The Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, Thailand

But one thing I did when I wasn’t blogging was just reading. Whatever I liked and in any order I liked (that is, except for series which I need to read in order, obvs.) So I read Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 series one after the other after finishing Connie Willis’ Oxford time traveling historian books one after the other. And it was great. I even dipped into a collection of stories about mummies, The Book of the Dead, and the extremely diverse and qualitay We See A Different Frontier. So many books I want to talk about. I took my kindle with me and picked random books I fancied while attempting to wrestle my digital TBR into something more manageable (I failed as I kept buying more titles on sale). It was kind of nice to read without a schedule and something I missed since I started blogging. So this year, I’m hoping to achieve some kind of balance between the two and be a little more consistent in my reviewing.

Hols 3
*Look choop -the best traditional Thai sweets ever

You’d be surprised to hear that I bought NO books in Sri Lanka. I figured I had enough from the last few years to keep me going – they are safely stashed away on my shelves and I really need to start reading them.

So what have you all been up to and what have I missed?

Monogram Murders

Please let no one open their mouths and find the gold cufflinks with the initials PIJ.

Poirot returns with a bang in The Monogram Murders set in 1929 amongst the sumptuous art nouveau backdrop of the fictional Bloxham Hotel. Agatha Christie’s mantle is taken up by Sophie Hannah, a contemporary crime writer with a substantial following. Anyone taking over from the Queen of Crime is facing a daunting task. And any lover of Christie’s work will inevitably read the novel with a fine tooth comb.

However, Hannah does Christie proud. Her Poirot is faithful, perhaps more to David Suchet’s portrayal, but when you start reading The Monogram Murders you feel you are falling comfortably back into familiar territory. His sidekick is Edward Catchpool, a young and inexperienced Inspector of Scotland Yard who is alternately frustrated and in awe of Poirot.

The mystery begins at Pleasant’s Coffee House, where Poirot takes his daily evening coffee, when a terrified woman known only as Jennie rushes in seeking refuge. Before she vanishes into the night, she leaves Poirot with the mysterious

Once I am dead, justice will be done, finally.

which sets him off on his new quest.

Poirot is recently retired and is taking a staycation at Mrs. Unsworth’s lodging house where Catchpool also resides. When he returns that evening, he witnesses Catchpool coming to terms with three murders he is investigating at the posh Bloxham Hotel. All three victims died at around the same time in different rooms but laid out in the same way and with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths.

Poirot feels there is a connection with the mysterious Jennie but Catchpool is doubtful. And so the pair embark on their first investigation together as they uncover a wrong that was done 16 years ago and what looks like revenge finally being enacted in the present day.

Although I began the book with some trepidation, once the mystery gets going, I began to feel Hannah’s rendition of Poirot and the mystery approaching Christie’s hallmark darkness and complexity. Re-reading Christie, whom I’ve been reading since I was nine, I am always astonished by the real darkness and deftness with which she layers her novels. And I am glad to say Hannah’s version does not disappoint.

Poirot is a national institution and staying faithful to who he is may risk stereotyping him but deviating would be disastrous. All the elements are here in The Monogram Murders, the young lovers, a free artistic spirit, the vicar, the doctor and the maid.

I really enjoyed getting back into Christie’s world and I do hope Hannah will continue in this vein.

Prince Lestat by Anne Rice

5 December, 2014

Prince Lestat

I was hunting, thirsting though I didn’t need to drink, at the mercy of the craving, the deep agonizing lust for heated pumping human blood. … Too hungry for anything else. Give me the heartbeat. Give me the salt. Give me the Viaticum. Fill my mouth.

It’s been 14 years since Anne Rice’s last vampire chronicle, first created in Interview with the Vampire which made her famous and inspired in all her readers a lasting love for her dark and richly gothic mythology. Spanning over 10 books and featuring a vast cast from different historical eras, nevertheless, there is only one vampire that will outshine everyone else: the mad, bad, devil-may-care Lestat de Lioncourt. Born into darkness out of violence, Lestat is a complex figure, at times playful and reckless, often depressed and contrite but also capable of feeling a deep love for his fellow vampires and humans. He seems more vital and vibrant than ordinary humans, seductive and monstrous at the same time. In Prince Lestat, Lestat returns, reluctantly.

There is a new cataclysm afflicting the vampire community: vampires are being destroyed in successive cities from Paris to Rio. It’s mainly the young ones that are immolated by an unknown force bringing back memories of an earlier purge by Akasha in Queen of the Damned. The young vampires, led by Benji Mahmoud, urge the old ones to come out from hiding and lead them in battle against their unknown enemy via Benji’s pirate radio station, a beacon of news. And of the ancients, the one they most need is Lestat. Lestat, who craves solitude and oblivion above all else, ignores it all, until he is sought by fellow vampires Jesse and David Talbot, formerly of the Talamasca. They urge Lestat to help them find Maharet, one of the original ancients created by Akasha herself and whose sister Menkare devoured Akasha’s brain bringing the seed of all vampires into herself and assuming the role of the Queen of the Damned. But Menkare is oblivious to the world, only trusting Maharet and Khayman, their companion of old. Maharet was the guardian of her family tree, keeper of secrets and wisest of the vampires. But now, she is in hiding, receding from the vampire community, anguished. The enemy is penetrating the vampires’ consciousness, speaking to them, urging them to do its bidding, to keep the blood pure. For too many young ones have been created and it feels stretched, unable to control its will. Who exactly is behind this voice? And will Lestat take up his calling and save his kind?

Rice is being very ambitious with her comeback novel. In some ways, it feels like a compendium of all her previous books as references to them are made throughout this one. Almost all of her characters make an appearance, even minor ones, and we finally get to the root of the Talamasca. Unless you have read all her previous vampire novels, Prince Lestat may be difficult to follow. Because there are so many characters, not enough story time is allocated to each one and the characterisation and tale sometimes feel thinly spread. However, as a true fan of the vampire chronicles, this made me want to go back and revisit all of her books, especially the first three novels. Although some of the chapters felt like a summary of all that has gone before, the chapters in which Lestat takes over are the ones that shine the most. Rice has created something special in Lestat’s voice. It is as though the years have tarnished nothing; Lestat sparkles, his wicked sense of humour and style are still intact. The other vampires, apart from Louis and Gabrielle, pale in comparison to Lestat and are too numerous, and all the talk of love and beauty become repetitive after a while.

The addition of modern technology and science may seem inevitable in the course of things, however that brings Rice’s truly original creation in line with other current vampire novels which seems unnecessary. The strength of Rice’s vampires lie in their character which eschews the modern adoration of all things high school and mundane. What makes Lestat and his kin irresistible is precisely that they are not the boy or girl next door, they inhabit the ‘other’, worlds which only come alive in our imagination. And the vampires don’t pretend to be good; they feed on human blood, their morals are askew, for they are monsters afters all. The glossary of terms too, seem unnecessary, we don’t need soundbites such as ‘in the blood’ or ‘of the blood’ to label these characters. We are perfectly aware of who they are. Rice doesn’t need to compete with the new crop of vampire novels that have appeared. Her world is hers and cannot be replicated by others. In an increasingly crowded genre, what she has created is unique and will remain so precisely because of her gorgeous prose and the character of Lestat.

Like me, lovers of Rice’s vampire chronicles will inevitably have very high expectations of her vampire novels just because they love them so much. I’m really looking forward to the next one but feel some trepidation too. However, I’m just over the moon that Rice is writing about vampires again and Prince Lestat has been my most anticipated book of the year. And it looks like I’m not the only one as the novel has won the prize for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Horror in 2014. Congratulations!

I would like to thank Random House for kindly sending me a copy of Prince Lestat to review.

Changeling

Never to whine; to accept what came; to wait for better; to take what you could; to let no one, not even yourself, know how near to giving in you were: these were his principles by which he lived…

Robin Jenkins’ novel, The Changeling, about a poor young boy from a Glasgow slum who is whisked away on a family holiday by his well-meaning but ultimately naïve teacher, is a startling account of the fallible and arrogant nature of altruism and superiority gone wrong.

Jenkins uses the character of Charlie Forbes and his do-gooding cloaked in good intentions and shortsightedness to show in sharp relief the desperate nature of a child born into poverty who possesses an uncanny intellect, survival skills and self-assuredness who comes to realise that there is no escape from his situation.

Donaldson’s Court, a slum in 50s Glasgow, is a wretched place reminiscent of Dickens’ Victorian London at its worst. Forbes’ well meaning belief born out of pity that two weeks on holiday with his family will bring some relief to Tom Curdie’s miserable existence is naïve at best and cruel at worst and so arrogant and misplace that he doesn’t realise this may have an adverse affect on his pupil, giving him false hope for a brighter future, something Tom realises early on and tries so hard to prevent. And yet, he is a child of twelve, starved of kindness, affection and stability, that a week away with a normal family irrevocably changes him and plunges him into further despair. And little does Forbes or the other adults realise this; so wrapped up in their petty drama of being fair and moral and trying to keep their indignation at bay that they are prepared to strike immediately if Tom goes out of line.

Everywhere in Towellan, in the garden among the rose-bushes, in the hut at night listening to the owl, on the lawn putting, even in the ruined castle with the sick rabbit, he was becoming convinced that this was the way of life he had always known and always would know; that at the end of the holiday he would return with the rest of the family, and would for the rest of his life be involved in their affairs as he was now; and that he would always have a bed to himself with clean sheet, and plenty of good food served on a table with a white cloth.

It is only Gillian, Forbes’ daughter who sees Tom for who he really is. At first suspicious of Tom’s motives in inveigling into her family, she is determined to expose him for the thief she knows him to be. And yet there is something about Tom which calls to her and she soon becomes the only one to see the tragic unfurling of Tom’s tightly held grasp on his emotions, something he has always hidden from everyone.

‘Did you,’ she asked, ‘did you steal those things in Woolworth’s because – because you didn’t want- to get – too fond of us?’

Expressed like that, almost angrily as if she was again accusing him, it was very far from saying what was in her heart to say. She felt not only pity and love for him in his terrible predicament, but also complicity with him. There was no way of explaining that.

Nevertheless he seemed to understand, and smiled with a gratitude she could not bear.

Jenkins’ storytelling is sparse, he draws the well-argued and dramatic emotions of the Forbes family with flair in sharp contrast to the controlled, spartan stance of Tom’s character. Forbes is poorly trained to deal with the invisible complex emotions swirling within his pupil and ultimately fails as a mentor and person. What starts as a silly, thoughtless whim quickly escalates into tragic proportions.

The Changeling is a tragic tale devoid of sentimentality. A beautifully drawn portrait of quiet suffering. Tom’s streetwise knowledge cannot help him against such mishandled naïveté. Inevitable yet heartbreaking.

I’m so glad Kim chose this for our book group otherwise I would never had heard of Robin Jenkins. There are layers to this novel which would benefit from many re-readings and I hope to do just that. A thoughtful and melancholic study of human fallibility and short-sightedness encapsulated by a fellow teacher’s description of Forbes:

The difference between you and me, Charlie, is this: if I passed a blind beggar with a tinny I’d drop in a couple of coppers and pass on, without giving him another thought but you’d be so damned indignant at such public misery and so busy blaming everybody else for it that you’d pass by without putting anything in at all.

Elective Affinities

I confess I’ve only read one book by Goethe which was Faust because who didn’t try that one as a student? But I don’t remember much of it and I probably raced through it without really thinking about it much. So although I’ve been wanting to try more of Goethe’s novels, I only retain memories of something dark and heavy. So what a revelation Elective Affinities turned out to be. Chosen as my October/November’s book group read, the novel showcased Goethe’s lightness of touch and acute sensibilities which are so finely tuned that you really feel you are in the presence of a master. What could so easily have turned into a heavy, dank romantic tragedy was saved by the relentless self questioning of his characters and their wish to do the right thing.

Elective Affinities begins with Charlotte and Eduard who has been given a second chance at love. No longer in their first flush of youth and having overcome previous life events that were orchestrated by others, they are now happily enjoying the freedom of their simple coupledom. Charlotte’s daughter is away at school and so they spend their days organising and designing their house and land at their pleasure. In fact all their time is taken with pleasure. Happy but getting a little bored of their monotonous life, a visit from a scandalous aristocratic couple embeds ideas of love and affairs which slowly take root in their minds. Their fidelity is tested when Eduard’s close friend, the Captain, and Charlotte’s niece, Ottilie who is unhappy at school, come to stay.

Goethe melds his views on romanticism with the scientific ideals and advances from the Age of Enlightenment that was fashionable in 19th century Europe to create a story which mirrors science. Elective affinities, a concept in chemistry where elements naturally gravitate towards their optimal counterpart, is used here to illustrate the romantic leanings of the four main characters.

Eduard, a dynamic man, begins to feel an affinity for Ottilie who is equally smitten, and succumbs to temptation, albeit platonic. However Charlotte and the Captain are a bit more reserved, battling with their morals even though their feelings for each other are as fierce. The main focus of the novel is the love affair between Eduard and Ottilie, a reflection and dissection of the ideals and reality of what love is.

However there were a few things that perplexed me. For example, why did everyone love Ottilie so much? Because she is young and innocent? Eduard who is actually married sees nothing wrong in his feelings and nor does Ottilie until towards the end of the tale. Only Charlotte and the Captain seem commendable but Goethe seems more sympathetic towards Eduard and Ottilie as though he holds them much higher up as his romantic ideal, that theirs is the great love story with so many obstacles when in fact they could have really gotten together at any point. Ottilie’s refusal of Eduard doesn’t seem to have a moral aspect to it, more as a whim and feels self-indulgent. And personally I felt Eduard comes very close to being the villain of the piece, acting as though his marriage to Charlotte meant nothing. It seems as though he was going through a mid-life crisis and as a result I found it very difficult to sympathise with him. In fact, all the characters felt a little flat, especially the female characters, except for Charlotte’s aristocratic friends who revel in their scandalous lives. At least they don’t pretend to be good. And although there are tragic consequences to the choices these characters make, Goethe’s light touch stops short of making Elective Affinities a tragedy or even a moral tale, leaving the reader feeling rather confused.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve finished the book but I’m still wondering about the characters in Elective Affinities, especially Ottilie and Eduard. I wonder whether Goethe was drawing a parallel to himself and his own choices in life. However, the novella certainly made for an interesting discussion and I most certainly would like to read more by Goethe.

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

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