Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

Published by Scribner, this novel came to my attention only when it popped up on the Booker Prize longlist for 2016. Ostensibly, it is about loss, endeavour and opportunities for redemption. Sadly, the lasting impression of this book is one of bitterness and human pettiness. The prose is consistently elegant and at times, entirely enchanting, which is probably why this review sounds like one big whinge, because this novel could have been brilliant.

Set in the 1920’s, Roscoe T Martin lives on a failing farm in Alabama with his wife, Marie, and their son, Gerald. It was her father’s land which she has dragged him to, when he would rather live where he can get work as an electrician. He is curiously, and not quite credibly, obsessWork Like Anyed with electricity itself. Thus, his ingenious plan to save the farm involves the installation of power lines which siphon electricity from Alabama Power’s grid. He does this without asking and after a brief time of prosperity for the farm, tragedy ensues.

The bulk of the novel concerns itself with Roscoe’s time in prison, where he undergoes various horrors before ingratiating himself with some of the guards and the warden. His decline, however, is mostly physical, and through various flashbacks provided both by himself and by Marie, we find that he was always somewhat lacking in terms of empathy. He is, however, if not sympathetic, largely credible as a character.

Which is more than can be said for Marie. The chief issue with the novel is her unwarranted resentment, which leads to cruelties unbefitting of her personality. This is not to say that her grief from a previous tragedy, or her disappointment in Roscoe, are unimportant, unsubstantiated or even uninteresting. Just that her resulting actions are badly justified, by herself and author alike, and that she perhaps earned more of my disdain than I felt necessary or beneficial to the novel. Her coldness is not, as implied, a logical, tragic outcome of her sufferings.

The real heroes of the novel are Wilson and his family; free people of colour hired to labour on the land from Marie’s father’s time. They remain constantly human, even while embodying that most challenging of virtues, mercy. They are the flickering glimmer of hope in a dark world, and thanks to them the novel comes to a vaguely positive conclusion, which was almost as satisfying as it was bizarre.

Curiously, despite my complaints, I still consider this a good read, having wolfed it down as I did, that I would recommend to anybody willing to form their own opinion of it.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted+PB

This won the Nebula Award for Best Novel this year so I thought I’d give it a read, stake a claim that my opinion is just as important as the judging panel’s, and put my critic’s hat on for the first time in too long (it’s quite a plush felt fedora, greenish brown with a flamboyant purple feather tucked into the slim, black headband). It was published by Pan Macmillan in May 2015 (in the UK), here’s their blurb to handily save me summarising it:

Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in a peaceful valley. But the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. The villagers depend on an ageless wizard, the Dragon, to protect them from the forest’s dark magic. However, his help comes at a terrible price. One young village woman must serve him for ten years, leaving all they value behind.

Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choosing, for she’s everything Agnieszka is not – beautiful, graceful and brave. Yet when the Dragon comes, it’s not Kasia he takes.

Guess who he takes! Yes, got it in one: our intrepid first-person narrator, Agnieszka. Very convenient. Why? Because she’s a witch who can do magic herself. Interestingly, rather than jumping for joy and imagining the endless possibilities now open to her, like those of us from the Harry Potter generation no doubt would, Agnieszka is too consumed by her mistrust of the Dragon to do so. For the first half of the novel, his taking a 17 year old girl of his choosing from her village every ten years, sequestering her in a tower for that period of time and supposedly having his wicked wizardly way with her, somewhat gets in the way of Agnieszka warming to the Dragon, and therefore of learning much magic. It is only when her village is threatened that she comes to the depressingly obvious realisation that she now has power, and therefore responsibility.

Perhaps I’ve been a little unfair, but my main, and almost only complaint about the novel, is how far ahead I was ahead of Agnieszka. A more discerning reader, however, may well keep in mind that she is young, and that if she motored around, maturely solving problems without a hiccough before they even arose, the novel might be quite dull, and we’d miss out on what is in truth, a very well-handled coming-of-age story. Besides, she is a very headstrong, credible, female protagonist – a welcome rarity for Fantasy in my view – who courageously blunders her way through a mysterious, and at times genuinely scary, world.

Having spent quite enough time in the Dragon’s tower, Novik sends our heroine to the city to try her hand at court politics. She is predictably terrible at it, having grown up a country peasant, but then I’d certainly loathe her if she’d been any good at it. The city threw up quite enough characters which fully deserved my disgust, and plenty of just comeuppances are served up for readers to greedily gobble. Mmmm…catharsis! That said, there’s plenty of delicious pain for the goodies to endure too.

The system of magic devised for this novel is brilliant and entirely appropriate to the plot. I have read complaints that it is underdeveloped, but to my mind, this is its main strength. No time is wasted describing complicated hand movements or prerequisite breath-holding, emotion-stifling or toe-waggling. The magic remains mysterious, and changes character to align beautifully with the character of its caster. The Dragon’s magic is precise and formal. Another’s is as hard and practical as the anvil she uses to forge magic swords on. Agnieszka’s is wild, natural, and less easily explained. Magic can’t do everything, it doesn’t always do what you want it to, and if you try to overstretch your bounds, it’ll kick down those invisible wattle-and-daub walls which hold our tenuous reality together.

The ultimate confrontation between good and evil in the novel is, in the end, not so black and white as all that. The right thing to do turns out not to be particularly simple or obvious, and it makes a fitting, mature end, to a compelling and wondrous novel.

A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson

Many thanks to the team at Arcadia for my copy of this gorgeous book. And to Edward Wilson, whose hard work never disappoints.

A Very British EndingThis is the latest in a series of deeply intelligent, well-researched spy novels following grammar school educated spy, William Catesby. If you have read any other of the wonderful books in the series, you may be pleased to hear that he is haunted by yet further ghosts of the past, and that we are given tender insights into the relationship with his wife, from whom he is separated. She herself works for MI5, and the way in which the two of them engage in tongue-in-cheek spy games with each other is fascinating, not least because the playful tone of conversation belies the gravity of their discussions as they keep each other (dis)informed.

The book starts by informing us that Catesby has been summoned to appear before the Cabinet Secretary. He doesn’t yet know which of the bodies he didn’t bury deeply enough, and as parts of the novel reveal, there are a few of them which were rotting before he tried. This happens in 1976, but we are left hanging, the novel jumping back to 1951, leaving the sword of Damocles over its protagonist’s head. In an odd kind of way, this suits both Catesby’s character and the plot. He is generally pessimistic about the direction his country is taking, becoming more so as his political views evolve, and at one point he admits to himself that, after all the espionage and counter-espionage, the double-bluff and disinformation, he sometimes can’t be sure of the effect he’s having. The plot centres on Harold Wilson’s deposition, and the part which the American secret service played in it. Already knowing that the plot succeeded, impending doom is the primary reading mode; it’s only added to as Catesby becomes more and more sympathetic to the Labour Prime Minister.

The event is placed in its larger Cold War context as the novel spans twenty-five years and jumps to various different settings. It is incredibly likely that this book will teach you how little you knew about the period, as well as fleshing out what you thought you did know. That said, you have to be paying attention. Much of the novel is very cinematic, leaving you to infer the political repercussions of interactions between various spies and assets. This might not be new to Wilson’s work, but I do think that this latest is the hardest to follow. Unfortunately, I have fears that it is, at times, so intelligent that it could prevent the series from achieving the popularity it deserves. On the other hand, it is so intelligent in its weaving of fiction and reality, of entertainment and poignancy, and of shock and sensitivity, that Wilson’s work must undoubtedly be considered the most masterful of its genre.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

AnnihilationAnnihilation is the first part of The Southern Reach trilogy published by Fourth Estate over the course of 2014. It amassed some impressive critical acclaim which drew my attention to it, and I’m glad that it did. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it; I might usually put that down to still being young and having plenty to read, particularly in the realm of sci-fi, but this time I know that Annihilation disturbed, repulsed, intrigued and delighted me in a way that nothing else might. That’s not to say, of course, that it is the most disturbing, repulsive, intriguing and delightful book ever written. (Aren’t superlatives a bore?) Just that the blend of these responses are perhaps – don’t be surprised that I’m hesitating to use this word – unique.

At just under 200 pages it’s not exactly lengthy, which is a good thing considering how heavily its story could weigh on a reader. Since Fourth Estate have agonised over a succinct and helpful summarising blurb already, you might as well read theirs:

‘For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border – an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those who have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.

Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.

But they soon find that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.

Here, all will discover what it truly means to face the unknown. In Area X they must adapt or die.

Facing the unknown is, in fact, quite a good way to sum up Annihilation in terms of reading experience. Despite many revelations and twists, most of which are unnerving if not terrifying, the list of unexplained phenomena remains lengthy even to the end of the novel. If, like myself, you enjoy engaging with books, rather than being told what to think, then you’ll enjoy how this adds to the pervading atmosphere of unease. And Area X is packed full of unusual phenomena … most of which are spoilers. Boo! Suffice to say that you don’t have to wait long for mysterious disappearances, insanity, death, and a morbid, seemingly endless sentence made from other-worldly flora and written in psalm-like language which covers one wall of the descending tunnel, or ‘tower’ as our biologist protagonist insists on calling it. And well she might. Confused? Disturbed? You will be.

The biologist and her companions are all nameless. They all volunteered for this expedition, and they have all, to some extent, been prepared for Area X through hypnosis. If they didn’t have enough trouble trusting their nameless companions before, this clinches the lack of any corporate-team-building-exercise-like shenanigans. They guard their thoughts and impressions jealously, only writing of their experiences in journals. Annihilation seems to be a retrospective narrative which the biologist compiled from her journal: a highly unreliable first-person narrative. Self-consciously so, as she admits to withholding her true motivation for volunteering for some time. She also gets infected by something in Area X quite early on which brings about some kind of change in her. It seems to give her a strange affinity to the very place which seems intent on torturing them. I’d say that the nature of the first person narrative is one of Annihilation‘s greatest strengths, along with the biologist’s character. It seems odd to say that, because in many ways she is rather dull as far as literary characters go. But, she is insightful, self-reflective, ballsy, and through her, we see Area X through a biologist’s eyes, which adds another dimension to it. I found myself wondering if Area X’s flora and fauna had an agenda, or was it just the biologist’s anthropomorphising them through her knowledge?

So many questions. So few answers. Lots of craziness. It all left me excited to read the next two instalments. Which means that Annihilation has to be pronounced a success. And an enjoyable one at that.

Tomorrow, Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane

Many thanks, first off, to the Arcadia Books team for publishing this beautiful little book, to George Miller whose translation from the French is a work of real excellence, and to Oscar for continuing to write such great novellas. It’ll be out on 17th September, so keep an eye out for this gorgeous little hardback!

9781910050460Having read Oscar’s first prize-winning offering, Zenith Hotel, which is simply fantastic, and having met him, drank with him, and smoked many cigarettes with him, it was with some trepidation that I started Tomorrow, Berlin. Think of how many times you have read one work by an author, likely their début as well, been bowled over by its skill and delighted by the story, only to be left feeling flat by their next offering. Now think how relieved I must be to find that this was even better than the first.

I usually include it anyway, but this time I think the publishers’ blurb gives you a great idea of what you get in this novella:

‘Berlin. A city where nightclubs stay open from Friday night til Monday morning. A city with an underbelly as dark and addictive as the 24-hour drugs, drinking, dancing and sex in filthy toilets that it serves up. Three young men, from different backgrounds, meet here by chance, struggling to find a future and to escape from the past.
Tobias was violated as a child and tossed from one city to another by separated parents. Now he’s got AIDS and can find only fleeting happiness with a new lover.
Armand fled from his middle-class family home to live as a painter and set up house with a high-school sweetheart. Tugged between expectations, desire and responsibilities, he flees to give release his artistic soul. But at what cost?
Franz was raised in a good, wealthy German family and believed he was capable of achieving anything he wanted. A job in a nightclub leads him into the Berlin underworld, where his life takes an unexpected turn and he is threatened with ruin.
Berlin promises both escape and salvation for these three young men, in a stunning coming-of-age story by award-winning author Oscar Coop-Phane. With grace and affection, he depicts a cast of flawed characters whose lives spiral downwards, their lifestyles drawing them into a grimy abyss that threatens to eclipse them. A literary masterpiece, Tomorrow, Berlin is a compelling ode to youth and desire, and a stark reminder that escape can only ever be an illusion.’

‘A literary masterpiece’. A bold claim, but to my mind, an accurate one. The writing, its style in particular, is the real star of this work. You can see in it the author’s former ambition to paint; the characters are outlined, then built upon layer by layer by the distanced third-person narrator. ‘Show, don’t tell’ might be a somewhat tired aphorism of authorial advice, but here it encapsulates Oscar’s technique rather neatly. Scenes are shown, and readers are given a window into the characters’ lives as they live them. They seem real, not just in their flaws, their hypocrisies and their humanity, but in the way the author treats them: with affection and in celebration of their natural dignity. This is quite an achievement when talking about three lost young men who turn to drugs and the techno scene. *Sidenote: Techno is completely loathsome; I’m not surprised that people need to take drugs to enjoy it.* In particular, it is the ability to do all this without showing sympathy, or advocating selling drugs, letting your partner take the fall with the police, or abandoning your family. Oscar never tells you what to think of his characters, but gives you everything you could possibly want to think and imagine for yourself.

What I particularly enjoyed about Tomorrow, Berlin is the serenity experienced in its reading. There is something reassuring about being placed in the hands of an author with reliable quality. Further, the voice, which remains delightfully French thanks to a great translation, is fresh and engaging to an English reader. You’ll easily read it in one enraptured sitting, and you’ll be left wide-eyed, partly because the ending feels like a swift knee to the gut … but in a good way, but mostly because it will be difficult for you, no matter how much you’ve read, to believe how good it is. You’ll want to read it again straight away; you’ll want to keep it on your bookshelf forever; you’ll want to boast that you read Oscar Coop-Phane before it became cool. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait long to do that.

Touch by Claire North

I wanted to review something published by Orbit, and since I can’t bring myself to tackle the daunting challenge of addressing Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series (epic is an understatement; I’ve read 8 out of the 14 and each one is massive) I thought I’d tell you about Touch. It was published in February, and the great news is that the paperback comes out on the 27th of this month. Great news, because it’s a great story!

Touch coverTouch starts with an interesting concept, and it’s this: there are entities referred to as ghosts, who have the ability to jump from one human body to another by merely touching them. They transfer their consciousness and personality to the new host – or ‘skin’ – during which time the host’s own mind is effectively asleep. When the ghost jumps to another skin, the host wakes up with no recollection of what happened while possessed. The protagonist, referred to as Kepler, though that might not be her real name, is one such ghost. I’m going to continue calling Kepler ‘she’ and ‘her’, even though she ‘wears’ many men in the novel, because it’s just going to be easier for me this way. Not so many he/she’s to contend with. Are you with me? Good. Now let’s delve further.

The author’s concept allows her some great luxuries which she takes full advantage of. Since Kepler uses many hosts in the novel, and since she has seemingly been around since the 18th century, she, as the first person narrator, gives us fascinating descriptions of inhabiting different bodies. The descriptions are unusual, because unlike us, Kepler has the benefit of comparison. She wonders whether her host realises that he habitually holds his shoulders so tensely, or that another’s gums shouldn’t feel that way, or that another is wearing the wrong shoe size. The descriptions are many and varied, and when you’re reading this book, it really does make you look at people differently; it adds another element to people-watching (oh, come on, we all do it from time to time), it adds the compulsion to imagine what it’s like to be that tall, or to have a bushy beard, or wear high-heels and a heavy rucksack simultaneously, or to walk around the underground with jewellery which is obviously that expensive. The lives of others: this novel explores them from a unique vantage.

Touch is not, however, a meandering, philosophical treatise subtitled ‘How Marvellous the Multitudinous Diversities of our Species‘. Kepler might be from the 18th century, but North (pen name for Catherine Webb) is not. Touch is in fact an incredibly fast-paced, action-packed thriller. The chapters are short – there being 88 in 426 pages gives you an idea – and the scenes lurch from the present to flashbacks of Kepler’s previous lives, which are as interesting and entertaining as they are informative of her character and her current predicament.

That predicament goes thusly: a secret organisation which knows about ghosts is after her. She is almost killed at the beginning of the story, but jumps out of her host to avoid being shot. The agent chasing her shoots her last host, Josephine, anyway. It becomes apparent that this is not the first time in history that ghosts have been hunted, but while Kepler usually just avoids their notice – concealment is easy when you can be anybody – this time she is compelled to discover more about this organisation. This time, they killed Josephine, a host whom she loved, and she wants to know why.

Why she loved Josephine, the ways in which ghosts love, and how they maintain constant personalities (or don’t) when always changing into somebody new, are the most pertinent questions to arise from this unique set of circumstances. The most subtle strand of the narrative, and the one which interested me the most, is Kepler’s self-analysis, the questioning of her own identity which changes through the course of the novel. What I feel was slightly lacking – though I accept that this is more a question of taste than a criticism of craft – was a bit of flesh to the scenes. The story spans many locations, but Kepler’s seen it all before, and so we as readers don’t get to, because she is uninterested. In any case, despite usually being jaded by the modern penchant for writing episodic novels which are so punchy in style (I always end up considering society’s dwindling collective attention span and therefore feel somewhat patronised), despite this prejudice of mine, Touch is very well written and well worth your time. One thing I will say for the style … when combined with an excellent idea for a story, it makes a book very difficult to put down.

Déjà Vu by Ian Hocking

Deja Vu coverDéjà-Vu is the first of three books published by Unsung Stories. I’m pleased to report that their record remains an impressive 100%, as I loved this one too. Many thanks to George Sandison for my copy, and to Ian Hocking for providing such a compelling and entertaining read.
Here’s the publisher’s blurb for your perusal:

‘In the year 2023 Saskia Brandt, detective with the European FIB, comes back from holiday newly single and exhausted. She finds her receptionist dead, herself implicated, and she only has 12 hours to clear her name.
David Proctor is just an academic eating his breakfast when he discovers his prototype computer – Ego – is now the only one left. The rest have been stolen. Meanwhile someone has broken into his house, someone who wants him to go back to the lab where his wife died 20 years before.
Whilst across the seas David’s daughter, Jennifer, finishes work on project Déjà-Vu, an invention that will change the course of human history forever. Something her employer is planning on.
This is Déjà-Vu where Saskia and David must rediscover the past. Because the choices people make, the memories they have, aren’t as they seem. What makes a person when the past could be your future?’

We’re in heavy Sci-fi territory, but don’t be afraid, Hocking will be your guide. I know that sounds platitudinous, but I mean it. The author embraces his role of benevolent god, unfolding the plot before you with gentle care, making sure that the technologies he has dreamed up don’t confuse the story. This, I think, is done masterfully. At no point did I feel patronised by having anything over-explained. As a result, Déjà-Vu is incredibly compelling, because as well as hunting for a satisfying conclusion to numerous mysteries, the reader must search for the novel’s meanings and significance, the nature of which remain unclear until late in the novel. Fortunately, the search itself is as satisfying as its reward.

That’s due in part to the pacing of the novel. Yes, there is a good deal of action which tears you through the chapters, but I think Hocking’s writing style is the true culprit. As well as revealing himself to be quite a wordsmith – always appealing to me – he is impressively succinct when tackling concepts of no small complexity. As often happens in this genre, the human experience is altered by advances in, and amalgamation with, technology; in Déjà-Vu, this leads to many fascinating, thought-experiment type questions. Hocking manages not to get bogged down in explanation, but allows the characters’ experiences to inform us just enough to feed our own discoveries. Moreover, our imaginations are given a highly enjoyable workout, not only through thinking about how cool it would be to have the computer chip in Saskia’s head which allows her to learn self-defence by just thinking about it (very much reminiscent of Trinity’s learning to fly a helicopter by downloading the knowledge in ‘The Matrix’), but also through empathising with characters who are working out how to feel about things which are as yet unknown to the human experience.

There are several very interesting plot strains to the novel. *I know a review’s structure might usually treat them first, but I was so worried about giving too much away that I left them ‘til last. Deal with it.* David Proctor is coerced by forces unknown to him to revisit his past, but it turns out that this isn’t something he is so reluctant to do, and so two lines of interest intertwine. He is later rescued by another unknown party, and his actions begin to feel guided by fate.
If you hadn’t guessed it already from the book’s title and its blurb, there is an element of time travel involved. Whether it affects the subject or the plot, I won’t reveal, but I will say that the revelation in the dénouement is powerful enough to change the book from start to finish. By that incredibly vague and poorly crafted sentence, I mean to say that you could read the book again straight away and see one hundred little, and some very major, things with new significance.
Most interesting to me was Saskia’s search for identity. Without spoiling too much, she is not herself. In fact, in a way, she is nobody, and in that sense has the freedom to forge her own identity. However, she is under a very strict degree of control – something to do with the computer chip in her brain – which means that her choices are ultimately limited. Further, though we don’t find out how or why until near the end, her actions are in some way inevitable, though she can deviate along certain parameters.

Confused? Sorry about that. Making anything clearer might spoil it for you, and believe me, I don’t want that for you, because this is a really interesting and very well-written book. All that’s left now is for you to buy it and enjoy it for yourself!

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

This book was published in the UK by Gollancz – a big favourite of mine – on 28th October 2014. I pre-ordered it, and was so glad that I gave it a chance; I think you should do the same. *DISCLAIMER* I’m sorry that this is such a long ramble.
Hang on, I do this primarily for me. Turns out I’m not sorry.

Slow-Regard-Silent-ThingsIf you haven’t read Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (consisting thus far of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, two of my favourite all-time books) then you might struggle to understand parts of this novella. That’s because it’s a 150 page vignette of just one character, Auri, from the as yet incomplete trilogy, and because her actions are driven by the expectation of seeing Kvothe, the protagonist of the series, in seven days’ time. Then again, I don’t think that this slight lack of understanding matters too much. The Slow Regard of Silent Things doesn’t seek to advance the plot of the series, and if you’re going to enjoy it, you’ll likely do it in spite of not knowing a single thing about its author or his work. After all, many who are familiar with Rothfuss hate this book with the vengeful passion that fantasy author hero-worship seems, unfortunately, to engender.
Unsurprisingly, he was aware that he might enrage a few people. In fact, his first line in the author’s foreword reads: ‘You might not want to buy this book.’ Ballsy, huh? Gotta love it. And again in the endnote, he reveals that he had reservations about publishing the book. When in conversation with Vi Hart, who read an early draft of the story, the dam holding back his doubts apparently burst:

‘”It doesn’t do the things a story is supposed to do,” I said to her. “A story should have dialogue, action, conflict. A story should have more than one character. I’ve written a thirty-thousand-word vignette!”’

Ok, yes, that is exactly what he’s written, but it does have dialogue, action and conflict. The dialogue is just with heavily anthropomorphised inanimate objects and a few animals (they don’t speak back so it’s not technically dialogue, but it serves much the same purpose), the conflict is all internal, and the action … ok there’s not much action. Naughty self-deprecating author, leave that to us Brits!
It sounds like very high concept work, but it’s really very accessible. If you’re in love with words – ‘burning days were flickersome, too frangible by half’ is just lovely – or have a poetic / artistic disposition, or if you’re seeking a read which has the kind of mood and atmosphere which provokes a small, serene, smile to play across your lips throughout the whole book, then get yourself a copy! It’s something you’ll love to just have on your shelf as a reminder.

Let’s talk about Auri, because that’s who this is all about. Auri is a very child-like young woman who lives in the Underthing, a network of tunnels which exists under the magical university where Kvothe studies. She seems to have been a student there once, and there are hints that she has since unlocked secrets in alchemy which were unknown to the university’s masters. What happened to make her retreat to a subterranean world of her own making, away from others, is unclear, though there are again hints that she suffered some abuse. This and a hundred other things make her one of the most sympathetic characters ever created. What makes her so interesting is the way she looks at her world.

According to Auri, everything has its proper place, and she sees it as her job to keep the order. Most of the ‘action’ of the book involves her finding places in the Underthing where her objects will be happy or content. Yes, that’s right, I did say that this was interesting. We’re not dealing with OCD here; Auri has strong, synaesthetic intuitions which she uses to order her world in quite a Taoist way. It’s not exactly Taoism of course, but certainly akin to a philosophy of its own as it contains some transferable wisdom. Example: ‘First set yourself to rights. And then your house.’ Very proverbial; quite universal. In her mind, the order is greater than herself, and at one point she is willing to sacrifice her own life for it. So there is some tension in this book, it just doesn’t last for long.
For a very self-disciplined little thing – she constantly reprimands herself for having her own desires – she can also be delightfully impish. Her cheekier moments, for me, tipped the balance from being empathetic towards Auri to being totally in love with her. At one point in the novel, she is spotted above ground, through a window, by a little girl. Auri’s reaction, after doing a few cartwheels, is to put on a mystical faerie-like display to amuse herself. And when she laughed wickedly at a bottle of perfume with a dedication on it, I was laughing along with her.
Auri is also incredibly generous. This comes out particularly in her dedication to finding Kvothe a gift. I don’t want to ruin it for you (as much as this story could ever have a *spoiler*) so I’ll just say that what she comes up with is heart-achingly beautiful and insightful as ever.

I think ‘beautiful’, despite a much over-used word, is nevertheless the best way to describe Auri and Rothfuss’s story. In only 150 pages (some of which are taken up with gorgeous illustrations which really integrate with and add to the story), there is so much to The Slow Regard of Silent Things, that I’m just going to have to bullet-point the rest! (This I am truly sorry about)

  • Names – they have great significance in Rothfuss’s world, and his use of them is intriguing.
  • Days – Auri feels the nature of the day upon waking. Have you ever had that? You wake up and feel you know exactly what kind of day you’re going to have? Productive or successful or fun or difficult or painful?
  • Rothfuss’s original imagery – no clichés here, Orwell would be proud: ‘Auri laughed in delight, and every piece of the laughing was a tiny bird come tumbling out to fly around the room.’ If you don’t love that, get off my blog!
  • Humility – Auri accepts that she is not the centre of her world, and she takes responsibility for the way her actions affect it. We could all learn a lot from her I think.
  • Wisdom / truth – Auri knows the difference between the truth and what seems to be true. It’s quite a Hamletesque theme!
  • Emotions – Auri experiences loss, laughter and much in-between and I felt them all alongside her. That there’s only one character doesn’t matter, because as a reader, there’s a real willingness to get lost in her, and I found it very rewarding to do so.

I could probably write reams on this book, but I’m going to pretend that I have other things to do now, so I’ll leave you with this conclusion:
You don’t have to put much in yourself to enjoy this book, but if you do, you’ll be richly rewarded. And that, for me, is what reading’s about; I hope it is for you too.

For your enjoyment, here’s the last, and my favourite, of Nate Taylor’s stunning illustrations:

Final illustration in book by Nate Taylor

Final illustration in book by Nate Taylor

The Last Days of Disco by David F. Ross

Last Days of Disco Cover

Many thanks to the wonderful Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books who gave me my copy. She has recently started up for herself and is predictably doing brilliantly; if my HTML skills are what I think they are, you should be able to visit the website by clicking here!

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

‘Early in the decade that taste forgot, Fat Franny Duncan is on top of the world. He is the undoubted King of the Ayrshire Mobile Disco scene, controlling and ruling the competition with an iron fist. But the future is uncertain. A new partnership is coming and it’s threatening to destroy the big man’s Empire … Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller have been best mates since primary school. Joey is an idealist; Bobby just wants to get laid and avoid following his brother Gary into the army. Their new mobile disco venture seems like the answer to everything.
The Last Days of Disco is about family, music, small-time gangsters … and the fear of being sent to the Falklands by the biggest gangster of them all. Witty, energetic and entirely authentic, it’s also heartbreakingly honest, weaving together tragedy and comedy with uncanny and unsettling elegance. A simply stunning debut.’

It is a wonderful thing to be transported elsewhere by a novelist’s skill. Whilst the setting is a consideration for any novel, many stories have the feeling that they could have been told anywhere. Not so in The Last Days of Disco. Here we find ourselves in Ayrshire and everything about this novel is decidedly Scottish – a very good thing in my opinion. This isn’t due to stereotypical references to deep-fried food, bagpipes and Rangers. Nor is it entirely due to the characters’ speaking in Scots (you pick it up easily so don’t be put off). This novel feels Scottish: Scottish idiosyncrasies galore, Scottish humour and, perhaps the most difficult to describe, Scottish sentiment. It’s the success with which David Ross communicates these that made me realise how well-written this book is.
The humour is frequent – it occasionally made me laugh out loud – and often wonderfully crude. The small-town atmosphere and its host of characters make it entirely appropriate, never gratuitous. Think about the charm Billy Connolly uses when telling a story about, for instance, a shit taken in a violin case which made his eyes water, and you’ll know what I mean. Here we learn what Gary did for his little brother’s eighteenth birthday:

‘”So whit did Gary end up gettin’ ye?” said Joey Miller.
“Eh? Ach, bugger all,” Bobby replied. “Cunt got me a magnifying glass an’ a satsuma. He told me to look through the glass. When ah did, he says, ‘Look, ah got ye a Space Hopper’.”
Joey laughed and folded his arms. “Aye, ah’ve got a family like that as well. For ma sixteenth, ma dad got me ‘Hide and Seek'”.’

Much of the humour comes from Fat Franny Duncan, a small-time gangster who fancies himself to be Don Corleone (The Godfather). When juxtaposed with an announcement from an MOD spokesman about a British Navy destroyer being torpedoed near the Falkland Islands, his worries about his entertainment ’empire’ are made to look all the more foolish. It is usually the case, however, that the various announcements interspersed throughout the novel, usually made by PM Margaret Thatcher herself, serve to highlight the folly of the conflict-turned war, when compared with the serious issues at home: three million unemployed and working-class poverty. As an epithet, ‘The Iron Lady’ is far from complimentary in this light. Bobby and Gary’s father, Harry, highlights this nicely when he vows never to read The Sun again:

‘Harry folded his newspaper calmly, but inside he was raging. This jingoistic propaganda was obscuring the deficits of one of the most extreme and immoral governments in Harry’s memory. Why couldn’t others see it?’

The first half of the novel deals with the rise of Bobby and Joey’s mobile disco, Heatwave. You don’t have to have been a mod to buy into some of the nostalgia employed here. I wasn’t even alive in the eighties, but I do remember being a teenager, and Ross’s treatment of that tricky time – affectionately patronising almost – is fantastic. The second half becomes more serious; as the Falklands War escalates, so do the tensions and worries in the Cassidy household. Will Gary be sent to war? Will his already fragile mother be able to cope? Will his father be able to break through his stoicism long enough to admit that he regrets the distance between them, and to tell his son that he is proud of him? … And a host of other concerns which are huge spoilers.

It is very unfortunate that, since there are a few twists and startling revelations, I cannot, without spoiling the novel for you, explain how or why The Last Days of Disco is quite heart-breaking, and ultimately very profound in an understated, modest sort of way. SO, you’ll just have to read it yourself so that we can talk about it. Please. Go on. It’s not long.

Dark Star by Oliver Langmead

I wish every book cover were this good

I wish every book cover were this good

Dark Star is the third offering from fledgling SFF publisher Unsung Stories. Their remit is to publish ‘fiction that defies categorisation. We want to tell stories that you’ll never forget.’ The first question that needs to be answered then, did they deliver?

HELL YES! Dark Star is a science fiction, crime noir, epic poem. Yup, exactly. To some, that might sound somewhat confused, but since SF and Crime fit together fairly naturally, it’s just the poetry that desires questioning. And believe me, it holds up to the toughest of inquisitors. One hundred odd pages of pentameter lends this tale a relentless intensity which not only whips you through at an excitable pace, but embalms you in the moody, broody darkness of Vox. Here’s Unsung’s tantalising blurb:

‘The city of Vox survives in darkness, under a sun that burns without light. In Vox’s permanent night, light bulbs are precious, the rich live in radiance and three Hearts beat light into the city. Aquila. Corvus. Cancer. Hearts that bring power to the light-deprived citizens of the city of Vox whilst ghosts haunt the streets, clawing at headlights. Prometheus, liquid light, is the drug of choice. The body of young Vivian North, her blood shining brightly with unnatural light, has no place on the streets.
When Cancer is stolen, the weaponisation of its raw power threatens to throw Vox into chaos. Vox needs a hero, and it falls to cop Virgil Yorke to investigate. But Virgil has had a long cycle and he doesn’t feel like a hero. With the ghosts of his last case still haunting his thoughts, he craves justice for the young woman found dead with veins full of glowing. Aided by his partner Dante, Virgil begins to shed light on the dark city’s even darker secrets. Haunted by the ghosts of his past and chased by his addictions, which will crack first, Virgil or the case?’

Form – Epic poetry.
Hero – Virgil.
Hero’s partner – Dante.
Appreciation of reference – High

So there’s no sun. Well, there’s a star, but it’s gone dark. Those who have read it might be reminded of Jasper Fforde’s incredible world in Shades of Grey, only here we have a world without natural light rather than colour. One interesting similarity is the resulting reliance on, and therefore value placed on, the artificial. It has the effect of singling out main characters as the sane few who see through to reality.
Virgil’s reality however, is one he continually seeks to escape. Constantly haunted by a previous case in which he made his name, and from which he received a hanging scar round his neck, he habitually injects himself with Prometheus, Vox’s appropriately named drug of choice. His partner Dante, straight-laced by comparison, drags Virgil out of his funk long enough to investigate the body of Vivian North, whose veins are ablaze with a light not of this dark world. Could her death be drug related? A most unusual murder?
Before having time to really investigate, Virgil is brought in to investigate the disappearance of one of the three Hearts which illuminate Vox. He knows he’s a washed-up junkie, so why is he on such a crucial case? This question which he asks himself is central to Virgil’s conflicted character. Since it also drives the plot, we learn about the two side by side. In case I’m not making it clear, I’ll say it outright: the structure and pacing of this story are fantastic. As with all the greatest tales, it seems to have a life of its own, with the characters driving the story, and the story driving the characters in equal measure. The story’s internal tension is again mirrored by Virgil’s struggle to trust his usually reliable, now drug-addled, instincts.

On top of great character exploration, an originally imagined world and an intoxicating and intense mood, Dark Star gives you a beautifully planned conspiracy, a trip to a vast spaceship and an ending that doesn’t disappoint. Better than simply unique, Oliver Langmead’s debut is brilliant.