Ancient cities. Why haven't we seen more stories exploring ancient cities? They have existed in various shapes and forms for perhaps 10000 years, depending on what you count as a city. And yet, fantasy mostly looks like a choice between something looking a lot like medieval Europe or a contemporary metropolis.
Urban fantasy is a term that is often used to mean fantasy that intersects the world we know (and nowadays also very often used as a synonym for paranormal romance, even when they are not exactly the same). But what makes urban fantasy urban is the city, the urban landscape as a setting that is important for the plot and for the feeling. Cities are really fascinating, and it's also the kind of landscape most of us inhabit nowadays. I think we yearn for the fantastic here, among us, as a counterpoint to the stories where we get to visit other strange places.
Some urban fantasy works are explicitly set in real, more or less contemporary cities, that we can recognize in different ways. The Malmö of our Swedish author Nene Ormes comes to mind. There are often hidden parts, worlds beneath or beyond the normal streets and buildings – think of the London in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. Or for that matter the secret parts of the historical London in The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
Other authors prefer stepping sideways into normal but invented cities, like the Newford of Charles de Lint. Or Bordertown, the shared world – or shared city – on the border between our world and The Realm, Faerie.
Then there is The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin, which gives me the strong feeling that there should be more fantasy inspired not only by the cities of our modern world but also older history and pre-history. It probably exists, but I have missed it completely, with the exception of Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts, which has a feeling for ancient Rome (and and a future reincarnation of it). And now that I'm looking for it I discover that Aliette de Bodard has written a series, Obsidian and Blood, set in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
I'll have to keep my eyes open for more like this after reding Gujaareh in The Killing Moon, a city-state strongly inspired by ancient Egypt, but in another world. A world with two moons, and where there is strong magic powered by dreams. Dreams, and death. There is a special source of magic, dreamblood, that can be gathered from the final dream when the dreamer passes from life to Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams. This is very dangerous and heavily regulated, since taking dreamblood will also kill the dreamer. But on the other hand, dreamblood is used to heal the mind, and bring peace. In other lands this is forbidden lore, but in Gujaareh it seems to work well. There is almost no crime, and no doors or locks.
The story grows, from the personal problems of the Gatherer Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri to something that threatens all of Gujaareh and its peaceful culture. We get to know some spies and traders, and the dynamics of the interactions between Gujaareh and the surrounding cultures. I'm fascinated by this world.
This is the kind of story I put down thinking that I hope to read it again. There is enough substance in this story: complex plot, interesting and distinct personalities, and a rich depiction of a strange world. It's very well written, and Jemisin never overexplains things or breaks the illusion – but that is probably also why I had problems to actually start reading the book. When I finally read it it was because it got on the short list for the World Fantasy Awards and I decided that it was time to give it a chance. I don't regret it. And if I feel like visiting Gujaareh again I might pick up the sequel: The Shadowed Sun.
And I'll look up the Obsidian and Blood series. The next thing I would love to see is a story set in the ancient circular cities of the Amazon, described in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and The Lost City of Z – but not used as fantasy settings yet, as far as I know. The difficulty is the lack of written sources, which makes it different from what Jemisin could do with the use of Egyptian myths and lore. On the other hand I would guess that there is a lot of room for the imagination to play.
But Jemisin sets a high standard in several ways. Having visited Gujaareh I will not be happy with anything that feels less rich and textured.
Bletchley Park is to my mind one of the most fascinating places in history. It was here that the British broke into German, Italian and Japanese codes and ciphers during the Second World War, among them the most famous, Enigma, the cipher used by all German Armed Forces. Through the intelligence collected through reading these signals, it was possible to reroute convoys in the Atlantic away from German wolf-packs, which saved Britain from starvation. Rommel's supply lines in the Mediterranean were successfully cut, leading to military victories in North Africa. In preparation for D-Day, the Allies learned through intercepted and broken messages that the Germans had accepted the misinformation of the landing-sights as true, making it possible to go ahead with the Normandy landings. Bletchley Park also played an important role in technological development. Huge leaps were done in the field of cryptanalysis (although details are sketchy, as plenty of material from after 1945 is still classified). Also, it is not an exaggeration to say that the discipline of computer science has its roots at Bletchley Park. It was here that the world's first electronic computer, Colossus, was built, and the ideas of many early computer scientists, most notably Alan Turing, were formed by the war-work done there.
On top of this, Bletchley Park is fascinating because of how little it is like most war-stations. In the early years of the war, it was more like a displayed Oxbridge college. Academics of all imaginable disciplines, but especially linguists, Classicists and mathematicians, made up a large proportion of the staff. People who displayed a useful kind of intelligence, whether through their academic work or through a passion for crossword puzzles, were recruited. Many of the early recruits were and remained civilians, but there were also much uniformed personnel, both men and women. However, this did not make the place any more disciplines. No saluting, no parading and no kit inspections for the servicepersons, and open-necked shirts and first names only for the civilians made Bletchley Park a remarkably relaxed war-station. It is no surprise that much has been written about Bletchley Park, both in fact and fiction. For now, I will concentrate on the factual side, and will attempt to do the fiction about Bletchley Park justice in a later post.
Bletchley Park remained a secret for almost thirty years after the end of the Second World War. In the mid-1970s, books started being published, and the secrecy was slowly lifted. However, because of the strong internal security and this continuing secrecy, many of the published works are of varying quality. One author's mistake easily finds its way into the work of other writers, eventually turning it into a general truth. An example of this is the story that Churchill learned through intelligence from Bletchley Park that Coventry was going to be bombed, but did nothing to stop it, as that would have revealed that the British had cracked Enigma. It was first told in the very first book on Bletchley Park, The Ultra Secret by F.W. Winterbotham, but has since been proven to be wrong. Even if it has been refuted since the late 1970s, it is sometimes still quoted (and even became a minor plot point in the episode "Scandal of Belgravia" of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattiss' Sherlock, although they had the good sense of presenting it as uncertain).
But there are some books which are both reliable and entertaining. I read most of the non-fiction written about Bletchley Park when working my master's thesis in history this year, and the one of the popular books offering a master narrative of Bletchley Park throughout the war was The Secrets of Station X by Michael Smith (2011, Biteback Publishing). Michael Smith has long been considered one of the authorities on Bletchley Park, having written several books on the subject. The Secrets of Station X gives a comprehensive picture of an organisation which, due to its motley origins and hastily organised structure, can be incredibly confusing. Smith strives to give a historical view of Bletchley Park, rather than a cryptological one, and tells the story of GC&CS from the 'mobilisation of the dons' in the late 1930s to its abandonment of the estate of Bletchley Park at the end of the war. Using the war as a background to the British codebreaking efforts, he relates the work done at Bletchley Park to bigger events, touching upon its impact on the war as well as the war's influence on the station and its personnel. The picture he gives is a broad, sweeping one, but he does not lose sight of individuals either. The history of Bletchley Park has always been actor-based, and most probably it will remain that way, because of all the eccentric, interesting characters to be found there, but Smith manages to diversify the voices well. He has interviewed several men and women who were at Bletchley Park as well as read many accounts by veterans. These personal stories are skillfully interweaved with the larger historical narrative, making The Secrets of Station X both well-written and well-researched.
However, if you feel that you know the basics, and want something heavier which goes deeper, the book you want is Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park, edited by F.H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp (1993, Oxford University Press, reissued 2001). Codebreakers is an anthology, with chapters written by thirty-one contributors, all of whom served at Bletchley Park during the war. In short essays, they give their view of what Bletchley Park was. The focus is mainly on the work, and some essays are very technical (if you want to know how the wirings of an Engima rotor work, Alan Stripp's essay is for you), but this does not make them dry and dull. Instead, this enterprise captures the huge variety in the work done at Bletchley Park. By asking cryptanalysts, intelligence officers, translators, even machine-minders to contribute, it gives a far more thorough picture than any of the popular history books ever could. Also, many contributors offer insights into life at Bletchley Park, through describing everything from billeting to leisure activities. The question of the historical importance of Bletchley Park is also addressed, especially in F.H. Hinsley's introduction. Codebreakers might not be the best book to start with if you know nothing about Bletchley Park, so it is worth of forming at least a rough understanding of the organisation, through The Secrets of Station X or some other source, before tackling it. However, it remains the best book ever to have been published about Bletchley Park.
The effortlessly genre defying Joyce's new novel takes place in the blistering summer of 1976. David, a young student, has come to the coastal town of Skegness to work at a holiday camp and, hopefully, watch his life begin. No sooner has he arrived than he begins to notice strange occurrences, all somehow connected to the resort: a man in a blue suit keeps appearing at the beach carrying a rope, a young boy in tow, and his colleagues drag him to late night meetings where emotions run high. As the heat wave intensifies and ladybirds begin to swarm the premises, political tensions rise while David is forced to confront certain traumatic childhood events. It is the year of the ladybird, the summer of love, the last days of the working-class summer idyll and - literally and figuratively - the beginning of colder times. The Year of the Ladybird works on so many different levels. As the title implies, it is indeed a ghost story, but also a coming-of-age story, a love story, a politically acute tale of the last (pre-Thatcher) glory days of the working class... This is the second book I've read by Graham Joyce and I'm very impressed with the range he has been showing so far. His writing will undoubtedly please the horror/fantasy crowd as well as fans of contemporary British novelists such as Ian McEwan. One objection, though: I wasn't crazy about how the (very few) female characters were portrayed. Still, as 1976 UK goes, I'm guessing it might be depressingly accurate. Okay then, she muttered. The novel as a whole is, after all, way beyond the realms of okayness, with the simmering heat and nightmarish quality of David's wanderings lingering long after the last page has been turned.
I am very much in agreement with Jan over this impressive debut - and no, that is not just my old horse loving, camp going self talking: truly, this is so much more than a story of a girl being sent to riding camp. Despite being set in the decorum obsessed South of the early 1930's, this is a fresh, bold, sad, and poignant tale of a girl coming into her own self, body, and sexuality in unforgiving times. DiSclafani's writing is exquisite and somewhat reminiscent of Curtis Sittenfeld, whose enthusiastic blurb made me curious in the first place (I love it when literary worlds collide like this!). Anton diSclafani is definitely one to watch!
A beautifully eclectic and delightfully eccentric read, this one. It begins in the 1960's in an Italian coastal town, where a beautiful, supposedly dying, actress emerges from the set of Cleopatra to get some well needed rest. Cut to modern day La-La Land and the crazed world of pitches and movie deals and an unforgettable cast where past meets present. This is the kind of novel that benefits from a very short plot description, so I'll be scant on the details. Suffice it to say that I truly enjoyed it. There are so many talented, diverse writers out there who deserve a larger audience; Jess Walter, whose previous works include The Secret Lives of the Poets and Citizen Vince, is one of them.
By far Jewell's darkest and most engrossing book to date, this is the story of a seemingly picture perfect family whose lives take a tragic turn one Easter. Years later, the eldest daughter is back in her childhood home, unearthing the dark, dark secrets and sad, sad consequences of that day. If you think Lisa Jewell is a chick lit writer, think again. While her novels have an emotionally rich and satisfying streak, this is far darker and more mature than anything typically encountered in the chick lit section. Think mashed potatoes served with vodka, straight up. (Is that a weird analogy? I hope you understand what I mean: that while this is a novel visiting some pitch black places, it is also, ultimately, redemptive and comforting.) I raced through this.
Speaking of chick lit: here's the sequel to Devil Wears Prada and if you're looking for something light and entertaining, with a near perfect fluff to edge ratio and plenty of fabulous New York apartments and the odd Hamptons sea front villa, you could do a lot worse than this. Deeply enjoyable in an escapist sort of way.
Heartbroken and Black Out by Lisa Unger
Last summer, I read almost everything Lisa Unger had published to date and fell in love with her strong sense of place and almost Harlan Coben-esque way of blending the mundane with the terrifying. As frequent blog readers will know, I have previously praised her two Hollows novels, Fragile and Darkness, My Old Friend. Her latest effort, set on a remote island in the Adirondacks, just may be her best standalone novel yet. I also recently read Black Out, which had a great, slightly gothic Florida setting (she is so good with settings - secretive small towns, sweltering Florida trailor parks, the pulse of New York City, you name it, Lisa Unger will make you see, feel, and smell it!) but had a few plot twists too many (more of a quirk than a flaw, really). Black Out had a certain late 90's vibe to it that made me think about Joy Fielding, a Florida based thriller writer whom I read religiously ten, fifteen years ago. I wonder if she's still got it...? Only one way to find out.
The Wall and Bad Influence by William Sutcliffe
As you may have seen on English Bookshop's Facebook page, I will be interviewing British writer William Sutcliffe during this year's installment of Culture Night and as part of the preparations, I have been reading up on his back catalogue over the past few months. Such a treat for a book geek and former student of literature, getting to read everything by one particular author in chronological order, looking for recurring themes and influences, a way into the very "themness" of their writing! These are the two books I liked the most - am very much looking forward to discussing them with him in person! I am currently in the process of preparing questions for William based on his entire body of work (no small feat, but fun!) and should you have anything you would like me to ask him, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org - or, better yet, come to the shop and ask him yourself after our chat!
After attending a funeral, a tired and somewhat confused man finds himself driving towards his childhood home. While mulling over the place where he grew up and the times he grew up in, he stops at the end of the lane, outside of the Hempstock's farmhouse...
Warning: This lovely homage to the new Neil Gaiman is immensely readable, but it might contain so-called spoilers, so it might be better if you read the wonderful book first!
There's this anticipation, when I get my hands on a new book by Neil Gaiman. I know it's because I, along with many many others, make up for a quite devoted fan-base. I laughed at its accuracy when Locus Online made their April fool's joke some years back revolve around a group of people heading out to Gaiman's private home in the U.S. on a pilgrimage. His fans, or should I say we, are notoriously dedicated.
Though, I wouldn't say I've never been disappointed... And I have no qualms about admitting that I find most of his short stories utterly forgettable, that American Gods was a good book but not as great as Neverwhere despite the hype, and that I didn't like Interworld, though I did appreciate the idea behind it. In other words, I was pretty confident that I wouldn't be enthralled by just anything because it was new and shiny and had 'Gaiman' written all over it. But then I got my hand on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and lost track of that initial thought completely.
A short story that couldn't contain itself in its original format, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman's literary comeback to an adult target group in eight years. It doesn't hold the tell-tale wry humor of his earlier works. It's the subtle and beautifully told memory of a man, who sits by a pond and recalls the horrific summer of his seventh year on earth. It is not nostalgic, which is perhaps what I like about it the most. It puts no glamour on memory and makes nothing prettier than it was, but instead captures the essence of a seven-year-old; the certainty of being the center of all creation, a child's fascination with stories and maggots and adventure but incomplete understanding of adult relations and their betrayals. The sure and unbreakable loyalty of a kid who's made a true friend, or the terror of losing your family despite not always liking them. It's all there, masterfully written in, as the repressed memories wash over a man one late evening:
It's at the Hempstock farm, that the man recalls his seventh summer as the one where an opal miner ran over the family cat, and replaced it with a monster. Later, the same miner killed himself in the family car, and his unhappy and regretful last thoughts called upon something stronger and older than the boy believed imaginable. It was the summer when Ursula Monkton showed up, all pink and grey and pretty, with nothing but vicious promises to make. It was when a small boy found that he had nowhere to go and no place to hide, except at the end of the lane with Lettie Hempstock and her pond that was an ocean.
In many ways a horror story, the slow and chilling sensation of something being wrong that follows you from the first page to the last, makes The Ocean at the End of the Lane a simultaneously sweet yet sad tale. And though the protagonist remains nameless and faceless, his saviors and caretakers throughout this nightmare stand tall: The three Hempstock women carry with them the mysteries of creation, the wisdom of the long-ago's. Maiden, Mother, Crone – dressing your wounds, fighting your fights and brewing you tea from before you ever knew them until long after you've forgotten.
Jinsuk. Zora. Willie. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Nine female names written on the bedroom wall in a house outside of time. Nine shining girls Harper Curtis is compelled to kill. One young woman, scarred from wounds she should not have been able to survive, hunting a murderer who cannot be real.
Not being much of a thriller fan, I would probably never have picked up The Shining Girls if I had not already been introduced to Lauren Beukes writing through her two previous novels – the cyberpunk-flavoured SF novel Moxyland and the alternate reality urban fantasy Zoo City, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thriller was not what I expected to see from her next, but Beukes did definitely not disappoint with The Shining Girls.
The back of the book promises “A thriller which breaks all boundaries,” and while it certainly breaks the boundaries of time, the main concept of the novel is pretty standard: there are murders and a perpetrator to hunt down. In charge of the hunt is Kirby, the only one of the victims to survive. Marked forever by the violence of her would-be murderer, the hunt for justice and revenge has become as an obsession to her. Privately investigating every stabbing of a woman in Chicago during the last two, she is desperate to find any clue of the man that hurt her and how to catch him. However, Kirby finds that it is not an easy thing to get a lead on him – he flits away like smoke, impossible to get hold of – but she refuses to give up.
It is not only the fantastical elements that set this thriller a little bit apart from others of the same genre. The Shining Girls is not only about Harper Curtis and his “shining girls” and Kirby’s hunt for justice, but also a novel about men’s violence against women in general. Harper knows nothing about these women except that they shine and that he needs to put that glow out: “She was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.” It is not his own fault that he is cutting up women, of course; if they would just keep from shining the way they do, he would not have to kill them. The time travel helps with adding this dimension to the story, turning it from one lone madman’s killings into an unbreakable loop, replicated endlessly through the decades, of death and violence aimed at women. The nine women whose names are written on the wall are “dead girls, who are not dead yet, who are perpetually dying or marked to die.”
The killings are described in grisly and bordering on morbid detail; Harper hacking these women up like so much meat, because that is all they are to him once he starts making them stop shining, but it is does not come across gratuitous or sensational as such scenes have a tendency to do. Rather, they are painful to read – Beukes twisting the knife (pun intended) to drive her point home further.
If I have made this book out to sound like a heavy read, I’ll stress that it is definitely not. It deals with heavy subjects, certainly, but it is still an enjoyable read, made so to a large extent by Kirby. Despite all the suffering she has gone through and the many scars, mental and physical, she bears, she is not ruined by it. Changed, yes, but not broken, and she refuses to stop fighting and is constantly kicking back, unwilling to accept that something like this can be allowed happen, demanding justice for what has been done to her, even if it means that she has to take it upon herself to get it.
This book was exactly what I expected it to be. Plus a bit more. In fact I was a little surprised when I put it down, surprised that this turned out to be a story that lingers in my head. I keep thinking about it.
The structure of this novel is a bit unusual, and could have failed completely. But I think it works.
What I expected was a lighthearted kind of revenge for all the Redshirts – a way of poking fun at some kinds of stereotypical TV writing. You know about the original redshirts of course? The extras (in red shirts, duh!) that used to accompany Captain Kirk on the missions to weird places, in the original Star Trek series. They were really very often killed or injured, to create dramatic tension without sacrificing any of the important characters. Similar things have been known to happen in other TV shows.
The starting point of John Scalzi's Redshirts is that the redshirts on the starship Intrepid start thinking about their weird situation. They realize that something is really strange. Why the many unnecessary deaths?
Actually, many things happen on the Intrepid that should not be possible, including exceptions to the laws of nature.
Among the crew of the Intrepid, some have coping strategies, but these don't tend to work very well. And someone always gets hurt. That's why some of them decide to do something about it, and get to the heart of the problem.
So far it's all great fun, up to the action-filled resolution.
Then comes the coda.
At first I thougt this was an unnecessary addition, a way of extending a story that is already good, stretching it to 300 pages. But when I put the book down I almost think of it the other way around. Perhaps the coda was the really interesting part, and the adventure only a lengthy backstory. It's here, at the end, that some of the deeper ideas are developed about story and narrative and how they interplay with real life.
This unexpected turn is what stays in my head, and this is what I talk about and mention to my friends.
I hope you like it, too.
There is comfort in the predictable. When picking a book to read, the title, the cover, the blurb, sometimes even the name of the author, send us signals of what to expect. Plots will often follow recognisable paths. Even good books, which do not fall prey to the use of clichés, will still contain recognisable tropes.
But very occasionally, one encounters a book which breaks all those unspoken rules. The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (2012, Sceptre) is such a book. It is difficult to describe the plot, probably because of how it breaks the rules. It all starts in Berlin in 1931, where we meet the main character, the neo-expressionist set-designer Egon Loeser. Loeser is passionate about the theatre, or at least his own little obscure corner of it, but neurotic about everything else (especially the lack of sex), and he is convinced that politics will never impact his life in any way. Saying that in Germany of the early 1930s is a strong case of foreboding. What one would expect to happen was that after the Machtergreifung, the character sees his mistake and tries to work against the Nazis, alternatively that he gets sucked into it himself and realises just in time the evil he is supporting.
But no. Loeser remains apolitical and insular. The point where he realises that something is happening if when the good drugs disappear from the parties, not the discrimination and the book-burnings. Even when the world is on the brink of war, Loeser is still happily unaware. The book, however, is not. The reader will recognise many references to contemporary events, something that adds a serious dimension to this absurdly funny novel. One is shocked at Loeser's ignorance of what is happening before his very eyes, but at the same time guiltily relieved, and possibly even jealous, because few people are simple enough to refuse to be concerned with the troubles of the world, which can weigh heavily on the shoulders of the powerless individual. Ultimately, one is happy not to be Loeser, whose ignorance isolates him from the rest of the world. But how often is the main character of a novel such a hopeless case, especially when their redemption is not the main plot?
The Teleportation Accident is difficult to place in a genre. It is historical fiction, as it is set between the 1930s and late 1940s in Germany, Paris and America. The seventeenth century is also constantly present, due to Loeser's obsession with an Italian set-designer, Adriano Lavicini, whose Teleportation Device, an advanced theatre set, lead to the first of many instances which the title may refer to. The events often feel absurdist, both in the telling and the plot-twists. Confidence men, quacks and failed authors abound, but the reader is often on their side. Through the eyes of Loeser and other characters, whose equally skewed point-of-view is sometimes adopted, the odd schemes and the right-down frauds seem just as real and ordinary as society at large, which is going increasingly mad as the second world war approaches. Throughout the novel, there are hints of science fiction, but it would be simplistic to say that this is a sci-fi novel. In fact, it is not quite clear which events are real and which are made up within the narrative. The Teleportation Accident twists out of the grip of assumption, and manages to be funny, entertaining, disturbing and comforting all at the same time. Most of all, it is a very refreshing read.
It's strange that the older I get, the more I tend to surround myself with books targeting a much younger audience. And as of late, I often find myself defending young adult (YA) literature in a way I used to defend comics and graphic novels, fantasy literature or SF-shows, when most of the people around me ridiculed it or had no interest in it.
I guess what bothers me the most is that a great deal of the criticism puts down YA, calling it simplistic and without depth. That either the characters lack tenor, or the writers just aren't doing a very good job of actually writing something intriguing. But really, isn't that something you'd find everywhere in the literary field? On rare occasions do we get a Harry Potter, which crosses over and gathers readers undefined by age and instead engaged by story.
YA literature has, despite quite the array of genres and topics that it encompasses, become a genre label of its own, much like children's literature. And much like its younger literary sibling, it's struggling to find a satisfying place in the lime light.
Young adult literature has been part of the publishing world for 70 or so years. It's had its ups and downs. It's struggled, much like many of its teenage protagonists, to find its path and acceptance. YA's been everything from books for 13-19 year old teens or specifically marketed to junior high students, to what we more commonly see today: literature with a target audience ranging from 15 to 30-year-olds, depending on the needs of the publishing house, library recommendations and the fancies of blogger.
What I like so much about young adult literature is that it tends to delve into a certain time of life: the teen years or the early 20's. This is when the characters struggle to find themselves, understand their place in the bigger picture and confront the emotional turmoil of being treated as not-yet-good-enough-adults, while either running away from or longing back to a more black-and-white childhood. Like every other time in life, it's not really that easy when you're smack-dab in the middle of it. And you seldom know anything else.
As a reader, I find these portraits fascinating. And like all other well-written literature, quality YA leaves an impression, it makes you care for characters and question set orders. It gives you heroes and villains, as well as regular folk just trying to get on with their regular or irregular life. Good YA knows what it is, or at least what it wants to be. It wants to be the looking glass through which we experience all these rich, funny, silly, tragic or dark portrayals. It knows that a lot of people might sneer a bit at it, lumping it all together until what's left is a mess most easily described as "this kinda fantasy story about a girl and a zombie/vampire/werewolf boyfriend, and she's really special and maybe they'll be together forever. In space. After the apocalypse. Also, there's magic." But really, that's not even remotely close to all there is to partake of (though it should be mentioned that that specific category has quite a lot of happy shippers as well).
To me, young adult literature is about survival. It's about pulling through your parents' divorce or a recent heartbreak, trying to graduate high school with the least amount of manageable emotional damage, overcoming and succumbing to disease, or fighting fairy queens for the continued life of the human race. It's about getting through in one piece, and the price you pay for it.
So whenever someone tells me they find young adult literature unsatisfying because the plots seems plain and the protagonists lack in substance, I think of characters in books that stay with me for years. (Usually, this is said by adults who think maturity is a kind of line drawn in the sand, clear as day and easy to define by a number printed on a sign or dust-jacket). For a starter, there's Salinger's Holden, and his few lonely days of roaming in New York before he can go home to see his sister. Then there's Hazel and Gus from The Fault in Our Stars, trying to be with each other while fighting time and cancer. One that always comes to mind these days is Temple, the main character of Alden Bell's The Reapers are the Angels, a story that gathers many of the trends within young adult and crossover literature from recent years, yet manages to be utterly unique. If anyone asked me what these trends were, I'd say strong young heroines and the end of the world.
And so enter Temple, a 15-old gurkha-wielding illiterate girl, with darkness in her that coils round and round as she travels the wasteland that is America. She isn't a heroine. In fact, she's done things she rather not talks about, and she knows that where she's going no Angels will be greeting her. She's filled with loss, but she's seen and cherishes miracles in this world no one seems to remember and the fight in her rings strong way beyond the printed words on page. She sees no evil in the zombie apocalypse because the meatskins are animals to her, and they just do what they have to. "Evil's a thing of the mind. We humans got the full measure of it ourselves", she says.
Temple stayed with me long after I stopped reading. Sometimes when I watch a movie or read another book, I'm reminded of her, and I miss her and her strange Tennessee accent with a sharp pang.
It's funny to think that something like that would be called plain and without substance.
For this month, I thought I'd try something new and post shorter reviews of some of the books I've been reading lately/am reading at the moment. All of the titles are, I daresay, ideal for the warmer season, whether you're looking for spine-tingling horror, light, fun beach reads, or simply a plain old good book. Enjoy! I will be writing all about my summer reading plans shortly, so stay tuned for that!
NOS4R2 (UK title) by Joe Hill
Ever since his debut novel Heart Shaped Box, Joe Hill has been a force to reckon with in the horror genre. His books, while genuinely creepy, are tinged with a dry wit and an excellent eye for the morbid and the strange. His works are often very touching, too, especially when treading into coming-of-age territory. One could, of course, argue that his flair for the macabre yet heartfelt runs in the family, seeing how his father is a certain Stephen Edwin King. In NOS4R2 – you work it out... – his heritage is more evident than ever. It is a big old sweeping horror story in the classical sense with plenty of references - obvious as well as more thematic ones - to the old man's oevre. Still, Hill manages to pull his own weight, drawing the reader into the terrifying world of Christmasland (note to self: so glad that I didn't read this at Christmas time!). If you're a fan of fun, epic horror with a nice coming-of-age streak to it (think IT or indeed Hill's previous novel Horns), you will devour this. At just over 700 pages, it is a hefty read, but one that you will undoubtedly breeze through. The antagonist, diabolical, freakishly ageless Charlie Manx is almost as scary as Pennywise the Clown, while the protagonist, Vic, is relatable and human both as a child and an adult. Hill's previous novels, while deeply enjoyable, have been very laddish in their outlook on life with very little female representation. Therefore, I was particularly pleased with the character of Vic – that, and the fact that Hill dedicates the novel to his mother Tabitha King, the storytelling queen. Now he just needs to pick up his dad's publishing pace!
You just have to love Lauren Graham, right? She seems just as sympathetic outside Stars Hollows, and as a massive Gilmore Girls fan – well, Lauren Graham fan in general, really – I was pleased to learn that she has written a novel. Someday, Someday, Maybe tells the tale of struggling young actress Franny, who has six months left on her deadline to make it in New York City. Between the odd detergent commercial, endless auditions and acting classes, she is no way near her dream and occasionally longs for a quiet normal life with her highschool sweetheart. Still, she does not want to give up just yet - or does she...? Someday, Someday, Maybe is a light, fun read with a nice wit and several laugh-out-loud moments, very much what you would except from Graham. Ideal for lazy summer days.
Okay, so the concept of lazy summer days (and lazy summer reading) may be a bit of a paradox when you have two four-year-olds at home, but on those rare occasions when I can actually sit down and relax during the day and when sun is shining, I love settling down with a new Lisa Jewell novel. She is the queen of comfort lit, always sympathetic and engrossing, light yet substantial, with a large heart in the centre of her stories. Before I Met You, just out in paperback, is no exception. I haven't finished it yet since a ghost story on orphan choir boys came in the way (as they tend to do...) but so far, I am very satisfied. Looking forward to reacquainting myself with Jewell this summer, when her new novel The House We Grew Up In is published.
Fans of supernatural horror in general and spine-tingling chillers in particular ought to do themselves a favour and get acquainted with Hammer Books, which is also the UK home for Sara B Elfgren's and Mats Strandberg's Engelsfors books (yay!). So far, I've read and enjoyed Helen Dunmore's The Greatcoat and Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate (Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, reissued by Hammer upon its theatrical release, is an old fave) and Sophie Hannah's The Oprhan Choir is another good choice for fans of old-fashioned ghost stories. Hannah, who normally writes tense, page turner-y thrillers, balances the mundane and the supernatural very well in this novella about Louise who is tormented by her neighbour's constant music playing at night. When she relocates to the countryside, she finds that the music has continued to haunt her - only now the pop tunes are replaced with eerie choir music, hitting particularly close to home for personal reasons.... The Orphan Choir is a fast read, ideally devoured in one tense sitting. It does not quite reach Susan Hill's exceedingly high standards, but it is thrilling, atmospheric, and - frighteningly enough - very real in its depiction of bleary-eyed reality versus something far more sinister. Hopefully, this isn't a one-off for Hannah as I would very much like to read more by her in this vein. I am also eager to read Hannah's latest (non-supernatural) thriller The Carrier.
I have always thought that among visual medias, the tv-series is best at telling a story. Because of its length, it has time to develop both plot-line and characters in a way that a film never can. But at times it's just not enough. Some tv-series leave me wanting more. Sometimes it's because the world it has built up is so huge and intricate that the series doesn't have time to explore all of its own possibilities. At other times, I want to learn more about characters, to get into their heads and hear their thoughts. I want more stories than television can ever provide. The answer to this is spin-off novels, and to my mind, no tv-series has better spin-off novels than Doctor Who.
2013 is a good year to be a Whovian. Among all the other celebrations of the 50th anniversary, from the upcoming anniversary TV episode to Penguin's publication of eleven newly written short stories, BBC Books has decided to republish one novel for each Doctor. For the Eighth Doctor, they have chosen the novel EarthWorld (by Jacqueline Rayner, 2001), where the Doctor and his companions Fitz and Anji come to a world so obsessed with Earth that they have converted parts of their planet into a theme park, based on dodgy historical records.
The Eighth Doctor is the perfect example of where a story needs fleshing out. His only onscreen appearance, superbly portrayed by Paul McGann, is confined to the television movie from 1996, the first installment on screen since the cancellation of the tv-series in 1989. The movie was meant as a pilot, but it was not thought successful enough and the idea was dropped. For ardent Whovians, the Eighth Doctor Adventures (often abbreviated EDAs) became the remedy for their dashed hopes. Starting in 1997, BBC Books published roughly one book a month during the next seven and a half years, breaching the gap between the TV movie and the new revived series from 2005 with as many as seventy-three books.
The Eighth Doctor Adventures are engaging and clever, at times funny, at others heart-rending (for those of you who have read the last arc of the EDAs: pun intended). At their very best, they are as literary as they are true to the series. Many of them are not just spin-off novels, but novels in their own right. The Adventuress of Henrietta Street (by Lawrence Miles, 2001) is written in the form of a work of non-fiction, where the author takes the persona of a scholar wading through documents, letters and diaries relating to curious events around a London brothel in 1782. Throughout, he is torn between believing the mysterious Doctor's claims of being an alien with two hearts, and writing him off as a charlatan who makes these claims to seem interesting. The Turing Test (by Paul Leonard, 2000), consists solely of accounts written by three historical persons - Alan Turing, Graham Greene and Joseph Heller - something which makes the story completely subjective. By the end of the novel, nothing feels certain, not even the Doctor's intentions. Camera Obscura (Lloyd Rose, 2002) is a wonderful adventure in Victorian London, spiced with subtle references to famous works of nineteenth century literature, often indiscernible to those who have not read the books in question. The Blue Angel (Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad, 1999), which is partly set in an alternative universe where the Doctor is not a time-travelling alien but a schizophrenic human with a rare heart-condition, experiments with postmodernist narrative techniques, and adds a splash of magical realism.
Because books do not need budgets, the events in them are only constrained by the imagination of the author and the reader. The Year of Intelligent Tigers (by Kate Orman, 2001) features a space colony almost entirely populated by musicians and an alien race which resemble tigers. The Ancestor Cell (by Paul Anghelides and Stephen Cole) deals in complex paradoxes and - an event which will sound familiar to fans of the 2005 Doctor Who series - the destruction of Gallifrey. But books can also to go into the really small details, by sneaking inside characters' heads and watching them react to situations and to each other. As the narrative is not confined within less than an hour, where trains of thought can be difficult to convey unless they are vocalised, the reader gets to see companions' reactions to the new, strange world the Doctor opens up to them, as well as their opinions of the Doctor himself. Sometimes we even find ourselves inside the Doctor's head, which does not make him any less mysterious, but often makes events more unsettling. When even the Doctor is terrified, what should the rest of us be?
Unfortunately most of the Eighth Doctor Adventures are out-of-print, but a handful have been released for Kindle, and most novels are possible to get hold of second-hand. Hopefully the reprinting of EarthWorld, which is one of several good starting-points in the series, will lead to more people discovering the books. (Another common suggestion of first book to read is The Taint by Michael Collier, which, like EarthWorld, introduces a new companion.) If you crave more of the Eighth Doctor, if the wait between episodes feels too long or if you just want to broaden your Whovian horizons, the Eighth Doctor Adventures come warmly recommended.