underland
Robert Macfarlane
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
Penguin, Hamish Hamilton 2019
ISBN 0-241-14380-3

Robert Macfarlane writes in the introduction to this quite extraordinary work that although we spend a lot of time gazing at and thinking about the sky, the stars, what’s overhead, we seldom if ever think about the worlds below our feet. Macfarlane opens up those worlds, each chapter a meditation on different spaces in the underworld, from caves in the Mendips to a deep burial site for nuclear waste in Norway.

In the chapter “Invisible Cities,” about the Paris catacombs, he describes a work by Walter Benjamin, an “unfinished meditation” on Paris. He writes that its form “may be compared to a constellation or galaxy, the individual stars of which he drew together over more than a decade, collecting notes, quotations, aphorisms, stories and reflections.” Much of the same could be said of this work, although it is certainly not incomplete and has enormous power as its fragmentary narrative comes together as a whole. His narratives encompass the beginning of time and potentially its end, as he meditates in the final chapter: “At Boulby [where scientists search for Dark Matter] then encased xenon in lead in copper in iron in halite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to see back to the birth of the universe. At Onkalo [where they bury nuclear waste] they encased uranium in zirconium in iron in copper in bentonite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to keep the future safe from the present.”

His style is poetic, often almost incantatory, and over the course of the book he allows us to feel how awe-inspiringly alien and powerful the world of the underland is and at the same time how fragile. It is hard to choose a “most extraordinary” of all the extraordinary stories. I was captivated by the notion of a World Wood Web: the connecting tissue of fungus that joins woods and forests and allows them to share nourishment (and perhaps memory). Also fascinating was the story of the “urban explorers”: groups of probably crazy climbers and cavers who map and explore the subterranean tunnels of cities. So many images capture the imagination: the story of the catacombs under Odessa where even the hardened and experienced explorer of Paris feared to go, especially dangerous, she said, for a woman. The whisper of “dark matter.” The notion of “nuclear semiotics”: a mini-think-tank of people trying to find the best way to warn explorers in a future unimaginably far forward in time not to open the vault in which is stored the most radioactive of the world’s radioactive waste, enough that were it to explode it would destroy the world 30 times over. How do you say “do not touch” to the future, especially when so many of our myths are about opening that forbidden box?

All his stories are layered with other stories: myths, works of literature, true stories of climbers or cavers or explorers or scientists. He writes of the difficulty of writing about the impossible changes and loss brought about in our present era, the Anthropocene, commenting that it is perhaps best imagined as “an epoch of loss – of species, places and people – for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.” He offers hope in human relationships, in shared goals, in storytelling. This is a powerful and beautiful book, in some way an elegy for our time; let us hope it will last through to a more hopeful epoch than ours.

kay brightnessA Brightness Long Ago
Guy Gavriel Kay
Penguin Random-House Canada

Spring 2019

Guy Gavriel Kay’s website is called “Bright Weavings,” and this new novel is brightly woven. The narrative is, indeed, more weblike than linear, tracing the tight but seemingly random relationships between characters in one brief moment in time. For me, the title represents the brief light of a life flaring out in the dark reaches of history; Kay brings them to life and their lives shine and interact like a kaleidoscope.

The novel opens with an incredibly tense and suspenseful assassination, and two characters meet whose lives will intersect briefly. Their lives intersect with others, and with others, and so the web is woven. It is a novel built of moments – like history – each one shining out, radiantly important to the individual at its center, perhaps meaningless beyond that context, or having repercussions that go unsuspected at the time.

In our universe, Guidanio Cerra, the narrator whose memory captures most of the threads of this web and spans a time-line that exceeds the direct actions of the novel, would have read Boethius in the school in Avegna where he was fortunate enough to study and which led his path to cross with larger figures of his time. He thinks about Fortune’s Wheel, and if we have read Boethius, we think of his central lesson which is to withstand the blows of fate and set an even keel through life. Guidanio Cerra does that, and perhaps this is why he is the one to encounter and witness the brief, more fortune-driven lives of others, and to reflect on them and his own place in them.

We meet many characters: Guidanio Cerra, the son of a bookseller from Seressa (a Venice analogue), Adria Ripoli, the young woman at the center of the two most striking set-pieces in the novel (the assassination and the most exhilarating horse-race), the powerful rival mercenaries, Folco Cino and Teobaldo Monticola, and the intriguing Jelena, the healer. And others. We get brief insights into the lives of “bit” characters as well, each one vividly drawn even if just for a moment.

Kay is known as a fantasy writer, but this is something of a misnomer; Kay himself resists genre identification. A Brightness Long Ago is perhaps the least “fantasy-like” of his novels that I’ve read, and I’ve read most of them (all but one, I think). This is set in the same world as Children of Earth and Sky, and I believe is a prequel. Someone needs to write a guide to Kay’s characters and settings, because there are connections and threads running between his works that add to the complex sense of connectedness that informs them. Perhaps the best description of Kay’s work would be “meta-history” – his novels are set in a world that does not exist, yet explore and illuminate themes and historical trends that are very much alive in our own. Kay’s work always has an underlying melancholy, a sense of tragic inevitability, perhaps just in the sense that all our lives and enterprises are brief and ultimately pointless, but we also get the sense that each of us has our own brightness to share, and what a brilliant light that can be.

I am grateful to have been provided an ARC of this novel by NetGalley and the publishers.

wicked saintsWicked Saints, by Emily A. Duncan
Wednesday Books, April 2019

It’s not Emily Duncan’s fault that hers is at least the third book this year that I’ve read with the same general premise and structure: a world torn apart, warring factions – magic vs non magic or different systems of magic, a boy, a girl, one or both of whom is powerful, one from each side, alternating points of view. To Duncan’s credit, hers is by far the best I’ve read, even as I wish for slightly less of a “cooky cutter” narrative.

At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. There was the afore-mentioned basic similarity to a lot of other books. It also had a bit of a “Final Fantasy” feel to the magic system (mages carrying round spell books, ripping out pages to cast them). But I was won over by the characters; not just the main characters (and I commend a wise decision by the author in terms of how much of themselves she allows us to know), but the relationships between them and others. I don’t want to say too much more, because spoilers. But the plot was exciting; although there’s a certain amount of blood and thunder, the violence didn’t feel gratuitous, and there’s a really interesting moral ambiguity that feels earned rather than arbitrary. Towards the end, I couldn’t put it down, and I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Crown of Feathers, by Nicki Pau Preto
Simon Pulse, 2019

For readers of Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, and Tamora Pierce, this exciting YA fantasy hits all the right buttons. Sentient bonded animals! Evil empire! Rebel forces in hiding! Girl dresses up as boy in order to join group of Phoenix Riders!

The world has been ripped apart by a terrible war between two warrior queens. Now, the Phoenix Riders are in hiding, and two sisters, Veronyka and Val, barely survive as refugees. Val is domineering and overly controlling, and Veronyka must learn to be self-sufficient if she is to follow her dream of joining the Riders.

Preto takes some rather common tropes of YA fantasy and turns them into a compelling, if somewhat predictable, story, although the last few chapters set up what could be a very intriguing sequel. The world-building is impressive, but a bit heavy-handed; the author needs to learn to integrate background information rather more smoothly. I found the “info-dumping” pushed me out of the story rather than moved it along. Overall, though, I would recommend it to a younger YA audience and will look forward to the sequel.

I was provided a copy of this book by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Cold is in Her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale

Margaret K. McElderry Books 2019

This is a beautifully written and absorbing mythopoeic fantasy that explores the damage that can be caused by “othering.” It is set in a small forest community – and the claustrophobic atmosphere of this locale adds to the overall affect of the book – where girls and young women are always at risk of being possessed by the spirit of a woman who was ostracized because of her strangeness. Milla lives with her parents and her brother on a small farm. Both her parents seem to distrust her, and she longs to be loved. When a girl moves in to a neighbouring farm, she gains her first real friend apart from her brother, and when both Milla’s brother and her new friend are threatened by the “demon,” Milla risks everything to save them.

van Arsdale conveys Milla’s feeling of isolation and her longing to belong very well. I think what I appreciated most about this story was the portrayal of how lack of affection can be a form of abuse. The coldness of Milla’s father, in particular, is painful. Milla is a strong character, brave and true to her friend and brother without the author resorting to cliches of the feisty heroine, and I also liked that there was no need for the romance tropes of much YA fiction. This is in some ways a disturbing little book, but overall a very effective one.

I was provided an ARC of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

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TRANSCRIPTION
by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company, 2018

There are many pleasures to be had in this most recent novel by the always interesting Kate Atkinson. Not the least of them is the  voice of the narrator, Juliet Armstrong, whose acute observations and wry commentary make the book sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

This is a Chinese puzzle of a book; it is framed by brief scenes in a hospital in 1981, when Juliet has been hit by a car (no spoiler, this happens in the first couple of pages). It then jumps to 1950, where Juliet is a producer for the BBC Schools Service, and then to 1940, when the then eighteen-year-old Juliet is recruited by MI5, not, to her disappointment, as a bona-fide spy, but for her secretarial skills. Her job is to transcribe meetings between an agent working under cover as a Fifth Columnist and the various fascist agents he has contact with. This happened in real life, and Atkinson tells us in her afterword that the actual transcripts were the inspiration for this novel. But, as Juliet thinks to herself, “History should always have a plot …. How else could you make sense of it?”

However, one of the epigraphs of the novel is a quote by Winston Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” At one point, when she resigns herself to a less exciting job than she had hoped, Juliet thinks to herself “Choice, it seemed, was one of the first casualties of war”; so, of course, if we correct her misquotation, is truth. No one and nothing are quite what they seem: one character tells her “It’s all a front, darling,” and her internal response is “But then wasn’t everything?”

But to focus on the thematic aspects of the work is to take away from its comedy. It is almost a comedy of manners; one pictures the characters in Philip Larkin’s “old style hats and coats” acting in a black and white Ealing comedy, with a script by Noel Coward. Hardly a page goes by without an amusing aside or editorial commentary from Juliet’s inner voice. One particular favourite is when a pedantic teacher quizzes her on word derivation: “‘Hypocaustum from the Ancient Greek – hypo meaning beneath and caust burnt. Which word do you think we get from that?’  ‘I have no idea,’ she said, caustically.”

This is not a novel that tells a straight-forward story of wartime derring-do; it is something more complex, but cloaked in a light tone and featuring mishaps and misadventure. Most importantly, it is an exploration of story-telling, of information and mis-information. At a climactic point in the narrative, one character declares “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.” But of course they are.

I was provided an advance copy of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

after zero coverAfter Zero by Christina Collins

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018

This debut novel was elevated from the run-of-the-mill “problem” novel partly by its insight into a disorder – selective mute syndrome – that apparently the author herself suffered from as a young woman. Elise has had a strange childhood, home-schooled, raised by a remote and apparently uncaring mother, and kept pretty much isolated from other children, to the extent that at 7 years old she had no idea what a birthday party was. Her father had been killed when she was born, reportedly by a drunk driver. When Elise finally persuades her mother to send her to a real school, she makes several social gaffes, turning the popular group of girls against her, including the one who lived next door to her and had been her friend. Her response to all this is to turn to silence. If when she speaks she makes a fool of herself, she thinks, it’s better not to speak.

Collins is most successful in making us understand Elise’s motivation, and the pain and confusion she feels when she is socially misunderstood. We also get inside the head of a sensitive and creative child, who expresses herself through writing. This was an enjoyable read, but not outstanding. There was a bit of clunky writing and some of the situations – especially her mother’s behaviour, both bad and good, were not completely believable. There was a sub-plot involving a raven that I guessed was added to give some “mythic” resonance to things, but that I didn’t find convincing or necessary. I liked the boy who becomes Elise’s friend, and would have liked to see some of the other characters a bit more fully developed. Things are rather too easily solved, and the conflicts rather too black and white for full believability. However, I would recommend it to the middle-grade age-group it is marketed for.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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It must be difficult for an author to have written not only his greatest novel, but arguably one of the greatest novels in his particular genre, early in his career.  I write, of course, of The Last Unicorn, a lovely, pure and perfect, haunting fantasy that neither Beagle himself nor any other fantasist will ever quite match.

This book does not match it either, although in parts it comes close.  It also, in a strange way, revisits some of Unicorn‘s themes, particularly the wonder and pain for a mortal person to come into contact with the numinous and the immortal.

Summerlong takes place on an island in Puget Sound, fictional but in atmosphere and geography familiar to anyone who knows the Pacific Northwest.  It focusses on Abe Aronson, a retired(?) historian, and his long-time lover Joanna Delvecchio, and the effect on their lives when they meet the mysterious Lioness Lazos, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the power to keep the island in perpetual spring, make plants grow and talk to killer whales.  She appears to be running from someone, or something, and Abe gives her shelter in his house.  Her presence shakes the lives of both Abe and Joanna and of Joanna’s daughter Lily.

This is a graceful, thoughtful and lovely novel that captures the mood and anxieties of late middle-age (in the case of Abe and Joanna) very well.  It provides a wonderful sense of place and clear portraits of the two elder characters.  Where it is less successful is in the handling of the relationship between Lioness and Lily, Joanna’s daughter.  We are not given enough of a sense of Lily to care greatly about her, and I found her somewhat lumpish and tiresome.  It was hard to fathom the value that Lioness seemed to place in her.  I guessed who Lioness was well before any of the characters, which was also a small irritation, as I felt that we were given enough clues that any educated person, especially a historian like Abe, should have twigged much sooner than he did.

There are many elements that suggest that Beagle is in some way revisiting The Last Unicorn, only in this case in a world that is quite clearly our own and without it being absolutely certain that magic is involved.  However, the love triangle, the attraction and danger for mortals of coming close to powers that they long for but cannot touch, all are reminiscent of the earlier work.  Some might find it slow; not a lot happens, but a lot is felt, and a receptive reader will not be left unmoved.  I enjoyed it very much, particularly responding to its mature protagonists and affectionate portrait of middle-aged longings.

I was provided a copy of this novel by the publisher and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Lie Tree
Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books, 2016

26118377I was provided a copy of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Lie Tree was recently awarded the prestigious Costa Prize, not just in its own category of children’s book but as the overall “book of the year,” only the second time a children’s book has won since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. I was aware of the acclaim with which this novel has been received, and I’ve been immensely impressed with Hardinge’s previous work, so I had high expectations. They were not disappointed. This is a brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Faith Sunderland arrives with her family on the island of Vane, a fictional Channel island off the south coast of Britain. Her father, an amateur archeologist of some repute, has been invited to join a dig on the island, but Faith discovers that he is running away from a scandal, accused of falsifying historical evidence. Along with the family, a snake, many notes and papers, the Reverend Sunderland brings a cutting from a mysterious plant, which, it turns out, feeds on lies but provides visions and secret knowledge to those who eat its fruit. Soon, the family has to deal with not just suspicious islanders and the scandal, but with the Reverend Sunderland’s death under mysterious circumstances, apparently suicide. Faith is convinced it is a murder, and she has to feed the tree with lies of her own in order to uncover the truth.

This is probably the darkest of Hardinge’s novels so far. It lacks the wild exuberance of the stories of Mosca and her goose, or the fantasy of such as Gullstruck Island. It is at once a murder mystery, a Gothic, a morality tale and a coming of age story. I see it classified as a historical novel, but I think to some extent that’s a misnomer, as it relies not on historical events so much as a historical zeitgeist – the moment in time when Darwin’s theories of evolution are having their impact and when society is on the cusp of change. The characters are to a great extent who they are, forced into the roles they exist in, because of the time in which they live.

We may at first find many of the characters unattractive, but this is to a large part because we see them through Faith’s eyes, and our view of them expands as hers does. I found Faith a completely sympathetic character: I admired her gumption, her guts, her courage, her ability ultimately to move beyond her own beliefs and biases. She is self-aware, and becomes more so as the novel progresses. I loved the streak of feminism that ran quietly through the novel: the way that Faith realizes she herself had been ignoring women as “the devoted wife” or “the housekeeper” and is able to change her views not only of her own potential role but also of her mother and other women around her (for example, there’s a delightful hint of a “special friendship” between two women that emerges towards the end of the novel).

Philosophically, there’s a lot going on. It’s a commentary on – yes – faith, on the science/superstition binary that is not as clear cut as might be assumed, on human nature, on greed, on how easy it is to make people believe what you want them to believe.

It’s a great book – I want to read it again and talk about it more and think about it more. It is complex and clever and richly deserves the acclaim it has received so far.

I am No One
Patrick Flanery
Tim Duggan Books, 2016
ISBN 13: 9781101905852

cover82537-mediumI received an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This is a fascinating psychological “thriller” in the mode of Graham Greene or Ian McEwan. It’s also a textbook “unreliable narrator,” as, from beginning to end, it raises more questions than it answers.

Jeremy O’Keefe is a history professor at NYU. He has recently returned to New York after some long time at Oxford, and is happy to renew a relationship with his daughter, an art dealer, and with his mother. As the novel opens, he is waiting to meet a student at a cafe, and is dismayed to discover that supposedly she cancelled via an email that he never received. Then, he gets the feeling that he is being followed. Then, he starts getting boxes full of transcripts of all his online activity, his phone records and so on. Then his mother receives threatening phone calls. Someone obviously wants him to know that he is being watched. Who? And why? And does it all have something to do with events that he is reluctant to talk about during his time in England?

On one level, certainly, this is a study of how easily our lives can be exposed and, potentially, how even (seemingly) innocent conversations or encounters could be misused by those who might wish us harm. As a character study, though, I believe it is more ambiguous than that, and that it is also an exploration of the way a person may (or may not) construct an identity, or a role, for himself. Jeremy’s voice is prosy, academic, meandering, faltering, concealing. Is he just a rather dull, unimportant middle-aged historian, or did his actions affect larger global events?

I think it is important, throughout, to remember that Jeremy’s academic specialty is surveillance, and that he has a side interest in film. Prominent early name-placement of films like “The Conversation,” “Blowout,” and “The Lives of Others” should alert a careful reader. Certainly, they give us clues about the way Jeremy is likely to construct a narrative; whether that narrative is true, however, is something we have to decide for ourselves.