Monday, 22 October 2018

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a high concept crime novel. Its one-sentence pitch is "Groundhog Day crossed with Agatha Christie".

Our hero wakes up without memories, with a single word on his lips: "Anna". He's in a forest and witnesses a young woman being chased by a villain. He hears screams and a gunshot. And then someone pursues him, gives him a compass, whispers a word in his ear, and allows him to flee to the nearby country mansion Blackheath.

In Blackheath, he finds people who know him, but his memories stay out of reach. All he recalls is the violence he witnessed that morning. The day progresses with an unsettling feeling that there are dark secrets lurking in the house and the people who are gathered here. However, he manages to make one single friend, Evelyn Hardcastle, who sees possibility and potential in his blank state. A promise of renewal, a new start, a chance to become a better man (for there are unpleasant rumours about his profession...)

The next morning, our hero awakes again, but in a different body, reliving the same day, looking at it through different eyes. It is the day of Evelyn Hardcastle's murder, and our hero's task is to solve it.

Seven Deaths is a novel that manages to build up intrigue and tension relatively gradually. If it weren't for the title, a reader might find the first chapters a bit slow, confusing and frustrating. (We don't even find out that Evelyn Hardcastle dies until he has gone through the day several times!) Fortunately, the title tells us the grand drama that the narrator does not know, and therefore adds tension even in moments when the narrator is bumbling along gormlessly.

Each body he inhabits is different, and each body comes with different emotional patterns, instincts, and physical limitations. After the first day, our narrator is in a constant battle between his own mind and the habits of the person he occupies. Short-tempered people, calculating people, flighty people, sometimes his hands do things before his conscious mind notices them. It's a very interesting idea, and I think in the hands of a virtuoso, it could have been gobsmackingly brilliant to read. Stuart Turton is a good writer, but not a prodigy, so he tackles this deftly but not very immersively  or subtlyby having our narrator tell us about his struggles. The same goes for the rest of the book: it is written well, but the genius is in the concept, not so much in the execution. Characters may have secrets, but they don't tend to have much complexity. The basic crime story has peril, but is thin on authenticity. The end result is a book that is immensely readable and good fun, but which feels like you can glimpse a hint of a magnificent could-have-been through the text that is. A good novel that feels like it might have been great.

Definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4/5


Sunday, 21 October 2018

Review: Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

Apocalypse Cow is a book that has two massive things going for it:

1) It was the winner of a contest run by Terry Pratchett when he was alive. (Its theme was "anywhere but here, anytime but now")
2) It knows how terrifying cows are.

I mean, 500kg horned beasts with four stomachs and a tendency to stampede... forget wolves! Cows are what you should be worrying about!

As I rarely see evidence that anyone else shares my moophobia, it was perhaps inevitable that I would buy the book. I hoped for an udderly terrifying reading experience, as a horror novel about cows is pretty much guaranteed to scare any sensible person half to death.

Unfortunately, it turned out not to be a book I enjoyed.

Our heroes (if one can call them that) are Geldof, a horny teenage boy with a constant rash, Terry, a slaughterhouse worker who cannot wash off the smell of dead meat, and Lesley, a journalist with big daydreams but little talent. When a bio-weapon starts turning mammals into man-raping, man-eating rage-beasts (i.e. horny zombie critters), they all struggle to survive (and maybe find out what happened).

Our main characters may be not particularly interesting, but they are surrounded by characters so annoying that the readers is clearly meant to want them to die. Geldof's mother is a leftwing vegan extremist and terrorist sympathiser who walks around naked all the time, harangues neighbours and bystanders about their lifestyles, forces her son to wear materials he is allergic against, and spends most of her time having lengthy noisy sex. Her husband is a stoner whose main function is to be a penis for her to shag, without a shred of a brain cell or the ability to string a sentence together. Their neighbours are a meat-obsessed abusive right wing xenophobe nutter, his twin bully sons and his wife / their mother, a maths teacher whom Geldof is in lust with.

Pretty much every character is written with disdain, which is quite offputting as it's clear the author simply cannot imagine a pleasant human being and has nothing nice to say about anyone.

So, a cast of annoying caricatures who aren't funny. Not a good place to start with.

Then, as the animals run amok, the plot meanders along without having anything smart or unique to say. It does not feel tense because every character is odious, so it's impossible to care about any of them. There are chases, narrow escapes, gory violence, etc. etc. etc., but the story does not pack a punch. Instead, it feels like a comic strip written by a 13-year-old misanthropic boy, with roughly the same sense of humour (immature and witless) and the same level of empathy (none).

Finally, for a novel named after cows, featuring a cow on the cover, and mentioning cows a lot on the back cover, there are actually precious few cows in the book. All animals become a threat, and aside from cows we see murderous cats, rats, sheep, pigs, squirrells, etc. - cows draw first blood, but after that they only make a few cameo appearances. So the book isn't even scary - who would be afraid of a fast-moving mountain of rabid man-eating rats when there could be a cow instead?

I have no idea how this novel won a contest. I'm vaguely surprised it was published. Don't waste money on it: it's a load of cowpats.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Review: Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell

Soulbinder is the fourth novel in the Spellslinger  YA fantasy series about Kellen, a young mage trying to get by as an outlaw.

I've been reading this series since it began, but for reasons I can't quite fathom, I have never reviewed any of the books yet. Shame on me.

The Spellslinger series is fun. It's made of fun. Our hero may be a self-deprecating young man, but his companion is a fierce and murderous squirrell-cat, his mentor is a gypsy frontierswoman hustler, and his adventures are fast, swashbuckling and exciting. At the same time, the books do have high drama, pathos, tension and enough peril to ensure that boredom is never an option.

Soulbinder starts off the way they all do: Kellen is in mortal peril and great trouble. This time, we meet him after he has defeated and killed an enemy, but he and Reichis (the squirrell-cat) are gravely wounded, in a desert, unable to move, and far from any chance of rescue.

Their plight moves from cliffhanger to cliffhanger until Kellen finds himself in a new place, where other people afflicted by the Shadowblack have come together to find sanctuary, and to fight when necessary.

If you haven't been following the series, then go and read it from the beginning. Spellslinger is a fantastic novel, and the books that follow it are highly readable. The previous (third) novel was perhaps a little confused about its direction, but Soulbinder has laser-sharp focus. The characters it introduces are interesting, Kellen's attitude is surprisingly adversarial and filled with bravado, and the plot is tight, fast and dramatic. What makes it so dramatic is that we see Kellen on his own for the first time since the series began, and it's clear that he is more competent than he thinks he is - but also reckless, foolish and panicky, so the reader is never quite sure whether he's ready for this.

The Spellslinger series is great, but books two and four are, essentially, perfect. If you like your fantasy fun, filled with heart and wit and affectionate bickering, if you like fierce and mean cute animals, if you like swashbuckling adventures, great derring-do and larger-than-life characters, if you enjoy a little bit of terrible heartbreak and cliffhangers, then the Spellslinger series is a must, and I'm glad to report that Soulbinder is another of highlight of the series.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 5 October 2018

Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road is a literary science fiction novel about a young girl and a young woman, journeying towards Ethiopia. The young girl, Mariam, crosses the African continent as a stowaway on a lorry, while the young woman, Meena, crosses the ocean from India, on foot, walking on top of a wave energy generator that connects Djibouti to India. Both are running from personal crises, and neither has any idea what to expect in Ethiopia.

I like reading science fiction set not too far in the future. If it's set outside the standard American / Western Europe setting, that makes it all the more enticing. So I had high hopes for The Girl in the Road, even though it is a book with one of those awful "The Girl..." titles.

Unfortunately, the book turned out not to be enjoyable at all. It starts in a breathless panic, as Meena wakes up with five snake bites in her chest and goes on the run. Fairly quickly, the reader begins to suspect that all is not as it seems, that Meena is hallucinating or mad or both, but for a while, there is a lot of rushing around. Once she's on the trail (the wave power generator), the sense of movement slows as she walks for thousands of miles.

Similarly, Mariam returns from the beach, where she has been given a chunk of sea snake meat, to find a "blue snake" in her mother's shack, so she runs away knowing she can never return. Shocked by the sight of the blue snake, she mis-swallows the chunk of snake meat she was chewing, which settles in her chest and bothers her forever after, becoming an internal demon she calls "the kreen".

This is the sort of book written for literature students to analyse. Even I, who didn't enjoy English Lit in school, can spot the snake motif, the way the phrase "snake bite" is used by Meena and by Mariam (one refers to a wound on her chest, the other to a bite of snake meat stuck in her chest), the many snakes in the story (the blue snake, the sea snake, the wave generator, the road, etc. etc. etc.), and the ouroboros-inspired structure of the story and think "that's clever!"

But clever literary gimmicks don't necessarily make for a joyful reading experience. And "clever" is a smug kind of thing, anyway, it's not the same as "intelligent" or "wise"...

The book reminded me of other ones I've read. It is as seedy as a Glen Duncan novel, but without wit or humour. It has a setting & future that could be from an Ian McDonald novel, but without the breathless energy. It's as literary / clever / pretentious as a Salman Rushdie novel, but without the musical prose. I've seen Haruki Murakami mentioned as a comparative writer: this could well be true as I never got more than a few pages into the one Murakami novel I tried, because it was too seedy too quickly. The Girl in the Road takes a bit of time before it gets really sordid.

What baffles me is that many of the authors and other works this novel reminded me of are ones I enjoyed - some years ago. Perhaps my taste has changed. Perhaps this book is a brilliant achievement and I am just no longer receptive to the sort of thing it is trying to do. Or maybe, just maybe, the book is not just clever, but also a little bit stupid. There were many weird things in the book, but aside from a very disturbing sexual encounter involving a prepubescent child and a slightly disturbing scene where a horny woman contemplates raping a gay man, here's a quote of one that seemed a bit silly to me:

"I start thinking of the first woman I ever slept with, Ajantha. She was eighteen. I was fourteen. She was my peer counselor at D.K. Soman International. It was a scene from a lesbian pulp comic. One night at school we were sitting across from each other cross-legged and she leaned over as if to whisper something in my ear but instead she sucked on my earlobe. I remember my vagina made an actual noise, an un-glocking, because my labia got so swollen they unsealed. Ajantha heard it too and pressed her palm over my pants and things went from there."

OK, so the author is in possession  of a vagina and I am not, so I guess I should not doubt her description of noises vaginas make... but really? Are vaginal un-glocking noises a thing? WTF did I just read? It does feel at times like a novel that is so convinced of its own genius that it oversteps into the realm of nonsense.

Lots of ideas went into this book, but the whole lacks joy, pleasure, and vim. Most plot twists are obvious long before they happen. None of the characters are likeable. Both first person narrators are mad. Sexuality is casual (nothing wrong with that) and icky and messed up in ways that match the worst predictions of previous generations' shame-obsessed "socially conservative" religious zealots. The book predicts a future where gender equality doesn't make people safer, but rather, a future where women commit all the same horrors that male abusers do: child molestation, rape, jealousy murder...

The Girl in the Road left me feeling hollow, as if my soul had been soiled a little by the reading of it, the way binging on too much Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones will do. Ultimately, I found the novel joyless and icky. I would not recommend it to anyone who doesn't have a strong stomach for explicit sex and child molestation.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God is the story of the recent discovery of ancient ruins in Honduras. It's a book about archaeology and adventure, but also a book about the past and the future.

The story starts when Douglas Preston attaches himself to a wealthy hobbyist who hopes to find a mythical lost city - Ciudad Blanca, also sometimes known as The City of the Monkey God. That city was mentioned in the chronicles of early conquistadors, and its myth had grown over time.

Early in the 20th century, another hobbyist funded several attempts to discover it, including one which claimed to have resulted in success, but which kept the coordinates secret. Reportage about those attempts would inspire other wannabe adventurers for nearly a hundred years.

The attempts and efforts which resulted in this book were different from previous ones: they used lidar technology to scan four sections of the jungle where the city was suspected of being, based on research of the records left behind by other people who claimed to have found it. When lidar revealed patterns that suggested human construction, in the deepest jungle, expeditions went out to find the ruins on the ground.

There are some aspects of the story of the discovery that might be a little troubling. The "dancing with the devil" that the organisers decided to do (hiring a criminal with good connections to support their efforts in Honduras in the early stages) makes for uncomfortable reading. Then, once the expeditions become more serious and involve reputable scientists, the criticisms flung against their work by a charlatan who uses the language of social justice campaigners as a weapon are utterly depressing. Especially since said charlatan is a disreputable self-promoter, guilty of everything he accuses the expedition of: it's a sad example of the way social justice theories have become weaponised, used not to bring about improvements, but as a tool to attack individuals, heavily used by con artists and trolls to fire up angry insta-mobs.


I was a little worried that the book would be either boring, or over-sensationalised. Fortunately, it was neither. Douglas Preston managed to breathe excitement into a non-fiction account where the reader would know the outcome before picking up the book. He brought the landscapes and the people vividly to life, while taking care to write factually and objectively about everything that was found, and everything that happened before and after the discovery. More importantly, when later chapter deal with diseases, he quickly and efficiently summarises things in ways that were eye-opening to the point of feeling like new information to me. It's a highly readable, interesting book - and even educational!

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Review: American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations

This Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World is a fascinating reference work. Listing inventions, innovations, ideas and policies, the book offers a glimpse into the past that most of us will be completely ignorant of.

As a reference work, the book is very well organised, and most importantly, completely credible. Each invention is listed in alphabetical order, along with a short list of which tribes / Indian cultures made use of it, followed by a description offering background, and finally, references to source materials. For readers who are not just browsing, there are sections in the back listing the innovations by tribe / Indian culture, and by subject area. So, whether you want to know "what sort of things did the Inca invent / use" or "what was medical knowledge like in pre-conquest America", the book will help you navigate the listings. This is enormously useful

The writing is neutral, objective, accessible. The information is credible. But what makes the book outstanding is, ultimately, the wealth of information and the subject matter. For a layperson, almost everything in its pages will come as a surprise. After all, we're mostly used to Indians being shown as half naked hunter gatherers in pop culture, or as noble savage shamans in touch with nature. Perhaps we read about Aztec gods and human sacrifices, but who knew that the Aztecs were centuries ahead of their time in their dentistry practices, that they invented toothbrushes and practiced preventative care to avoid cavities? Everyone knows about tomahawks and totem poles, but, outside America, who realises that the US constitution and the system of federal government instituted by the founding fathers in the Constitution was heavily inspired by the Iroqois confederacy? (Probably, even in America, it might not be a universally known fact). Sterile surgery, freeze-dried food, fertilisers, almanacs, ... the list of inventions is surprising and delightful. 

Of course, the book cannot be a complete work. The destruction of Indian cultures was so complete that many things were never really documented. Entire tribes, languages and ways of life were wiped out. Prior to that, civilisations rose and collapsed without necessarily passing on knowledge. I've heard it said by better educated people than myself that the Roman Empire was not all that far off from reaching an industrial revolution: various inventions existed sprinkled throughout the empire that, had they caught on and had information sharing been better, could have changed history in ways we can barely imagine. Yet, until the Enlightenment and the printing press, information travelled slowly - too slowly for the Romans to industrialise. And, clearly, throughout the Americas it travelled too slowly for any one culture to pull together all the various ideas, innovations and inventions. 

So we are left with a glimpse that only reveals a tiny fraction of the innovations that Indians had come up with. Many of my questions about everyday life were, inevitably, not answered by the book, perhaps because many of the details are simply not known, or perhaps because two authors can only collate so much information, can only fit a certain amount into one (sizeable!) volume.

Regardless of the limitations, this encyclopedia is a stunning achievement, and anyone interested in pre-conquest American cultures should have a copy on their shelf.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Review: The Otherlife by Julia Gray

The Otherlife is a novel about two boys, Ben and Hobie, at two points in time: 2011 and 2008. And, of course, it is a novel about the thing Ben christens "the Otherlife" - an intrusion of elements of Nordic mythology in his vision and life.

Tip: Don't read the back cover, as that gives away plot details that take the book about 80% of its length to reveal.

We see 2011 through the eyes of Ben, teenager and metalhead, cramming for his GCSEs while struggling with migraines, a habit of taking pills he steals from his mother, and a re-incursion of the Otherlife into his everyday life. It had been absent for two or three years. What kicks the story off is that he receives news that "He is dead", only he does not know whom. For 2011 Ben, it's a story of finding out who dies, and how, and why. But with the return of the Otherlife comes the return of memories, of that fateful time in 2008 which set his fate on its current path.

We see 2008 through the diary of Hobie, then-12-year-old rich kid and class bully, who encounters Ben at his elite school and becomes fascinated with the quiet, broken boy who talks of Ragnarok and Viking gods, and eventually, with wanting to see the Otherlife himself.


The Otherlife is described as a YA novel, but I have to admit, I did not think it was YA at all, in the same way that I don't think Lord of the Flies is a YA or children's novel.  It is a novel about kids, but not, I think, for kids. The Otherlife is serious, hyper-authentic, literary, with an sprinkling of the fantastic that is a lot subtler than the stunningly beautiful cover might make you think. It is also complex, complicated, deep, subtle, and patient.

As very authentic literary novel, it is a slow-moving beast. We are immersed in Ben's and Hobie's world, which is one of enormous privilege and substantial academic pressure. Ben, whose parents are divorced, can only stay in his school if he exceeds academically to the point of gaining a full scholarship. Hobie, whose parents are multi-millionaire, high society types, is spoiled rotten with material things, brought up to be terrifically arrogant and selfish, but not very academically minded or gifted. He, too, is under pressure to be a scholarship student, but for reasons of (family) pride rather than need.

The elite school Hobie and Ben go to is an educational pressure cooker. The kids are stuffed with useless knowledge and exam preparation, most of their conversations are serious and about studying, and they seem utterly dehumanised by the system. At the same time, it is difficult to feel too sorry for them: Hobie reads like a young Boris Johnson, his classmates are the David Camerons and Jacob Rees Moggses of the future, and their lives of mansions and nannies and tutors are made of entitlement and privilege. They are loveless and emotionally cold childhoods. Hobie, especially, is not just a harmless joking toff: he is a vicious bully, who leaves lifelong scars on the souls of some people. His fascination with Ben allows a friendship to bloom, but we're never blind to the horrific psychological abuse he heaps on his sister, or the anger broiling just beneath his skin most of the time.

The world the author describes is completely believable. The kids hang around South Kensington, Notting Hill and Camden, complete with visits to shops that actually exist. The people around them are authentic. The school atmosphere felt very familiar. I imagine the author must come from a background quite similar to that of these kids, or she must have spent a lot of time surrounded by kids and people like them.

But what about The Otherlife? I admit, I was not expecting to read about the lives and times of some privately educated rich kids quite as much as I did. I thought there would be more fantasy stuff. Ben has certain visions ever since an accidental whack to the head with a cricket bat, which partially blinded him for months, and which resulted in his vision returning with added shiny stuff. It is his tutor who first mentions Viking mythology to him, and Ben starts to fit the colours and visions he sees into a framework he reads about obsessively from that point onwards. It's not quite as simple as "it's all in his head", but for much of the story, the Otherlife is a very passive thing: Ben sees things, but he almost never interacts with them. That said, the Otherlife is very important to the story, and its frame foreshadows and rounds up and completes aspects of the story.

The Otherlife isn't the escapist romp I expected. It's slower, more complex, and unflinchingly true to life (even if that includes an intrusion of Viking mythology into our reality). It's an intelligent, well-written novel. It is very satisfyingly rounded off. I doubt I would have enjoyed it as a kid, but patient readers will find a novel that is both a subtle art work and a dramatic masterpiece in its pages. (It reminded me a bit of Luca, Son of Morning, so fans of one might enjoy the other.)

Rating: 4.5/5

I can't find a book trailer for The Otherlife, but the author is a singer as well as a writer, and though it's not the heavy metal music that features in the novel, this video somehow seemed to be appropriate: