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.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen Books, 2016
ISBN 1476781222

Layout 1It would make sense for Lois McMaster Bujold to bring the Vorkosigan saga to a close as it began, with a novel focussing on Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. If this is, as it feels, a kind of coda to the series, it is a very satisfactory one: gentle, leisurely, affectionate of its characters and of human foibles, more comedy of manners than space opera, despite its science-fictional cover.

The titular “Red Queen” is Cordelia; “Gentleman Jole” is Admiral Oliver Jole. The action begins three years after the death of Cordelia’s husband, the formidable Aral Vorkosigan. Very early in the novel there is a revelation about the nature of Oliver’s relationship to the Vorkosigans (we have known him as Aral’s military right-hand-man), which seems to have sent one group of Bujold fans into a bit of a tizzy, but which made perfect sense to me and did not seriously undermine what has gone before.

Cordelia has some plans for her own future and some ideas about Oliver’s. Eventually Cordelia’s son Miles turns up, family in tow, and eventually revelations and decisions are made and immediate conflicts are resolved.

As I said, this is a very gentle book. I loved it, because I love the characters, have been a loyal follower of the series and am happy to see things apparently resolved as they have been. This is not to say I would not welcome more, and Bujold has provided us with a “next generation” who could carry the torch, but I think she has gone as far as she wants to go with both Miles and Cordelia, and this novel adds a very fitting grace-note to the series.

Even Dogs in the Wild
Ian Rankin
Orion, 2015

25248463There’s a certain elegaic quality to this, the latest in Ian Rankin’s wonderful series of crime novels featuring the lugubrious, tenacious, irritable, irritating but ultimately loveable detective, John Rebus. Several books ago, it looked as if Rebus was going to walk away into the sunset. Fortunately for us, this has not been the case, as this is the second to feature him since his “retirement,” and I think it is not just better than the last one but is the best Rebus since, oh maybe, The Falls, which I always thought was the best of the lot.

It opens, not surprisingly, with a murder: a prominent government legal advisor has had his head bashed in, and there is a handwritten note declaring “I’M GOING TO GET YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID.” Then, someone takes a shot through “Big Ger” Cafferty’s front window, and, strangely, it looks like the two events may be connected. As well, a couple of crime bosses from Glasgow are in town, and it looks like a gang war may be going to break out. Malcolm Fox, the protagonist from The Complaints is assigned to a team doing surveillance on said thugs, while Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’ old partner, is in charge of the murder investigation. Rebus gets involved partly because, well, Rebus, but also because of his long, love-hate, relationship with Cafferty.

The various strands of the plot weave, tangle and untie in a very satisfactory way (barring the ending of which I can say nothing without spoilers). What made this novel stand out, however, was that Rankin allowed himself to focus more on the characters and the relationships than the plot points. Over all this time, and the space of twenty novels, we have enormous affection for Rebus, and for Siobhan, and some growing respect for Fox, although I find him harder to like, even for “Big Ger” Cafferty. Rankin doesn’t either exploit that or betray our trust by pulling the rug out. Reading this latest novel is like spending time with a very old friend.

On a personal note: I so don’t read crime fiction or mystery novels under normal circumstances, though I’ve been known to relent for Dorothy L. Sayers and one or two others. It says a lot that I have read every single Rebus novel – even if not all have given equal pleasure -and would jump at the chance to read more. That is the power of a great character.

By the way: there is a song “Even Dogs In the Wild.”  Read what Rebus has to say about it, and then find the recording with the Scots connection.  You’ll be glad you did.

A Song For Ella Grey
David Almond
Delacourt Press, 2015
ISBN 0553533592

24836168Magnificent. This is an extraordinary piece of writing: haunting, beautiful, achingly sad but completely unsentimental. Watch out, because I’m going to be pushing this novel to everyone I know now. It’s hard in a way, having read what I suspect will be the best book I read in 2016 in the first week of January.

I read it in one almost completely uninterrupted sublime gulp. You can read it quickly, because you get swept away by the power and rhythmic force of the language, but you will also want to go back and reread, re-experience some of those lyrical tour-de-forces of writing. The tone and timbre captures the voice of the English north without ever falling into caricature or making the reader trip. If I say it is “poetic,” you will think “flowery,” but it is not: it is achingly pure, precise, not a single word out of place.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been inspiring poets, artists and musicians for centuries, millennia. Somehow, Almond makes it new, infuses the power of the ancient myth into a contemporary world. Nor does he shrink from the violence of parts of the story, but somehow without ever mis-stepping, crossing the line into banality or excess. One thing I like is the ordinariness of the young characters. These are not disaffected or damaged youth. This is not a “problem” novel about teenage pregnancy or drug addiction. These are intelligent, self-consciously artsy, slightly bohemian young people on the cusp of adulthood, with all their restlessness and questioning and yearning, insecurity and brashness. What happens when you expose such young characters to love and beauty and art in their most ideal forms, reified in Orpheus? That it is a tragedy is not a spoiler if you know the story; what is unexpected is the joy that underlies the grief. But that is the power of the myth and of this novel.

It is a song. It is a masterpiece.

These are the books I read while on my European Vacation.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I initially decided to read this because I’m teaching a course in Creative Non-Fiction come September, and obviously had heard about it and wondered if it would be suitable either to recommend to students or even to teach. Also the first part of it is set in Italy, so it appealed for that reason.

It relates the experiences and discoveries of a young-ish woman, recovering from a marriage break-up and near nervous breakdown, who decides to explore physical pleasure (eating) in Italy, spiritual enlightenment (praying) in an Ashram in India, and some kind of balance between the two in Bali. I found it enjoyable, if a little uneven. It’s impossible to avoid feeling that it’s incredibly self-absorbed and self-indulgent, that she needs to stop thinking about herself all the time and just get on with the job of living, and to be envious that she managed to get paid to lounge about eating, praying, and having sex and then writing about it, however engagingly (and where do I apply for a similar assignment?).

It is an easy read, perfect for travelling, as it’s written in short, two or three page bites rather than extended essays. Of the three sections, disappointingly I found the Italian bit the weakest and the least interesting – too much emotional angst and not enough about Italy or eating. The whole book is All About Her, which I suppose is only to be expected; the interest, I suppose, lies in reading about the experiences of someone not all that unlike oneself rather than finding any great insights about Life.

Georgette Heyer, Sylvester

Heyer is also perfect vacation reading, light as air, amusing and frothy. This, however, was far from the best of her books that I’ve ever read. I found the female protagonist rather tiresome rather than sympathetic, and the predictable romantic entanglement was mechanical rather than engaging or believable.

Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

This was on the bookshelf on my Venice apartment, obviously left by a previous tenant. I took it with me (and donated it to my hotel in Bath), donating the two books above to the flat collection, so a fair exchange. Possibly the previous reader had chosen it because it in part involves a trip to Italy, but it has more to offer than vicarious travel pleasure.

The novel is written in the form of a diary of sorts in the voice of a middle-aged woman who is starting a new life in London after the break up of her marriage. She has led a dull, predictable life of marriage and children, and now finds herself exploring her own interests and identity away from her husband and suburban life-style. She takes an evening course, reading Vergil’s Aeneid in Latin, and an unexpected financial windfall makes her decide to arrange a trip to North Africa and Italy with her teacher, one of her classmates and a couple of longtime friends, to find places mentioned in the epic.

One of the pleasures for me in reading this novel was some identification with the “coming-of-middle-age” emotional arc. The narrative voice is distinctive and sympathetic, and the novel’s exploration of ideas about narrative and identity is intriguing. I found one or two of the deliberate metafictive “tricks” somewhat tiresome, however; to be honest, I couldn’t really see the point of a deliberate destabilization two-thirds of the way through, and it seemed to be something “authorly” rather than anything that developed naturally from the character of the narrator. It’s one that I’d like to discuss with someone else who has read it, though, just to explore some of the ideas and devices in it.

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

And I’d LOVE to talk to someone about this one! Particularly the ending, which I can’t say anything about because of potential spoilage, except to say that I really, really want to know what others thought about it.

This novel involves a group of young academics, mostly archaeologists, in Greenland to do research on a Viking settlement, with the intention to discover what caused it to disappear. While they are there, news reaches them of a pandemic in the “real” world, and eventually communication breaks off and they are stranded.

It is written in the form of letters or journals from the various members of the dig. The first, last, and most interesting voice is Nina’s – she is the only non-archaeologist in the group, seems to have signed up more or less on a whim and brought because the group’s leader has a crush on her. She appears to be being haunted by the ghosts of the dead Vikings, and gradually her fears, and possibly her experiences, are passed on to the other members of the group.

The novel is ambitious in its ideas, but falls short in the execution of them. The parallel plot about the pandemic is intriguing. Moss creates real tension and atmosphere in the early build-up of the ghost story element. Apart from Nina’s, I didn’t find any of the voices particularly distinctive, and although each of the characters had some aspect that was interesting (one appears to be a closet lesbian, another is in mourning for a dead partner, another is a devout Christian who finds his certainty unsettled), they are never developed enough. There is enough here to fill out a book twice as long, and I felt that everything was rushed, particularly towards the end. And the ending … well. As I said, I’d very much like to hear what someone else thought about it, but discussion needs to be protected from spoilers.

Janice Hardy, The Pain Merchants

I got this free at the DWJ conference, as an ARC, and read it from start to finish on the train from Penzance to London. I’m ashamed to admit that I left it on the Heathrow Express because of luggage weight issues – I hope someone found it who will read it and enjoy it!

The setting is a world in which Healers take pain away from people and deposit it in a mineral called pynvium, where it can be stored, discharged, or used as a weapon. Nya has the powers of a Healer, but thinks she can’t heal because she can’t discharge the pain into pynvium; she can, however, transfer the pain to another person, a skill that is forbidden and which she thinks is useless. Of course, it turns out to be more useful than she had suspected. The pleasures here are not from the pretty predictable “useless person saves the day” plot arc, but from the very interesting world, revealed through showing, not telling, and very interesting complexity of politics. The characters are well-drawn and the writing is good. The voice is humorous without being tiresomely anachronistic. I’ll look forward to reading the inevitable sequel (once again I bemoan the fact that no one these days writes stand-alone fantasy novels).

I have never found Brad Pitt attractive. I know we’re supposed to – he represents that brand of “all American” clean cut wholesome good looks that is the “ideal” for the rest of us – but there is something curiously bloated about his eyes and his lips that has always repelled me. And there is nothing going on behind his eyes. I would far rather sleep with Angelina Jolie, but that’s another story.

There’s another story buried somewhere in Brad Pitt’s curiously bloated star vehicle, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, one that is never allowed to surface, any more than any real character surfaces from under the immaculate CGI or makeup effects that propel the plot, and this applies equally to both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. There are hints of something about how time is fleeting and how we need to appreciate every moment of our lives. How it’s possible to have a love affair with life itself, no matter what fate hands you. How age doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter. But those are all different movies, not this one, though this one is trying desperately hard to be profound.

It’s all about how we’re meant to respond. We’re meant to think that Brad Pitt going from an octegenarian babyhood to a time-worn teenager is a brilliant acting job. He’s being touted for an Oscar, and if he wins it there’ll be no justice in this world. One of the things that is so profoundly wrong about this movie is that he doesn’t age, or change, at all under all that makeup. It’s always Brad Pitt, with that smug, curiously bloated, smile, looking out.

We’re meant to get caught up in the great Romance at the heart – the lovers living life in reverse who can only meet in the middle (where, of course, Cate Blanchett is maybe just past her prime, and has anyway had her leg crushed and can’t dance, but Brad is at the height of his gorgeosity). I would have been more moved if there had been the least bit of chemistry between the two stars. There is far more chemistry between Brad and the exquisite Tilda Swinton. The brief romance between those two gets the movie nowhere but at least provides us with a glimpse of some real feeling. The romance between Cate and Brad takes forever to get going and then is over too quickly. And the really profound and interesting period where Cate gets to look after the toddler and baby Brad is just another wasted opportunity.

We’re meant, I think, so see Benjamin’s life as some reflection of “America” itself, much as we were with Forrest Gump (no coincidence, then, that the screenwriter is the same). The movie, like Brad Pitt’s performance, is one of the front-runners for an Oscar (“run, Benjamin, run!”), and if it wins, which it could well, it will be because, like Brad Pitt, the movie reflects back to Americans how they want to see themselves. Homespun, folksey, noble, beautiful, tolerant. Empty-headed.

Apart from the failure at the core of this film, there were other annoyances. The bushman who comes out of nowhere, apparently having been an exhibit at a zoo, to stay conveniently in the all-purpose, all-race, oh-so-tolerant old-folks home where Brad is brought up, presumably there to make gnomic utterances and signal how tolerant everyone is (oh, look, there’s white Brad Pitt sitting at the back of the bus with the short black guy! I mean, wtf?).

There’s the fact that Benjamin and his ship-mates are in Russia when Pearl Harbour is bombed, without anyone apparently noticing that several years of World War 2 had been going on – IN RUSSIA !!! The setting allows some more nice CGI effects of snow and streets with neon writing in cyrillic alphabet and for Brad and Tilda Swinton to eat caviar and drink vodka. And the war, of course, allows more demonstration of how brave and patriotic and generally wonderful our American hero is. And not only Russia, but Paris and the ocean battles and all the other settings are CGI and as fake as the emotions we are supposed to feel while watching the film. And Brad refers to the exquisite Tilda Swinton as “plain.” Of course, she’s British; she couldn’t be beautiful.

There’s the fact that Cate Blanchett doesn’t walk like a dancer. I normally love Cate Blanchett, but her performance here is mannered, as if an accent and some pointy toes make up for the fact that she has no character. As she got older, her accent slipped once or twice into Katherine Hepburn. I found myself wishing for Kate to blast in and wake everyone up.

There are the heavy-handed symbols: the clock, that blasted hummingbird. (symbols of what, I’m not quite sure…) And the thunderstorm that seems to follow Brad around. And why the blazes does the movie end with Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters wooshing in??

Ultimately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a well-meaning, beautiful and empty-headed mess of a movie, and no doubt will make millions and win dozens of awards for its star.

Sigh.