Saturday 27 October 2018

Review: Nondula by Ana Salote

Nondula is a children's fantasy novel and the sequel to the amazing Oy Yew. So, before you read this review, check out my review of Oy Yew - it's such an awesome children's book.

Now, Nondula. After their narrow escape at the end of Oy Yew, a handful of waifs are blown into a different land by a tornado. Specifically, Oy, Alas, Gertie, Gritty and Linnet. The land they arrive in is Nondula, and it is something akin to a utopia, only its neighbour is a dystopia, so there's trouble brewing ahead.

Nondula is a land of vegetarian peaceful academics, who live peacefully, discover their inner jenie (spirit) and are driven mainly by self-realisation. Their neighbours, Fellund, are carnivorous thugs, short-sighted, short-tempered, abusive, violent and greedy. They abduct Nondulans (and people from other lands), enslave people, and are entirely villainous. Soon, Oy and his fellow waifs are caught up in the conflict.

Nondula is a very different book to Oy Yew. There is still a gentleness around the way the waifs are written, but other than that, everything has changed. Even the characters have changed: Alas is now standoffish and paranoid, in a way that felt like it was exaggerated compared to his characterisation in Oy Yew. That change in particular made me wonder whether the book was written after a long break rather than immediately after its predecessor.

There are also changes in the pacing, plot, and atmosphere. Oy Yew was a masterpiece, even if it was sometimes bewildering and disorienting. It built an atmosphere of peril and threat, but did so by using dread more than anything else. Nondula tries to be less bewildering. We spend the first third of the book in a utopia where everyone has a bit of a rest after the grand adventures of the first book. The slow and gradual start is then followed by adventures in Fellund, but those adventures feature more violence and physical abuse than the first book, and less ominous dread. Torture, executions, animal abuse, children being hunted with dogs (and, it is implied, being torn apart by them)... if Oy Yew was a novel comparable to Krabat, Momo, The Owl Service, then Nondula is more like Gulliver's Travels or the Wizard of Oz, a travelogue through weird lands, but distinctly more violent.

There is still a richness and a gentleness around the way the book sees the waifs. Poor Linnet's illness is heartbreaking throughout the story. But the kid gloves have come off  - Oy gets thrown around, injured, tortured. Slaves and dogs and animals are whipped, tortured, abused, killed en masse. The first book was about something fragile and kind trying to survive in an ominous and cruel world. This book is about fragile and kind things being abused and kicked around and damn near pulverised. For me, dread and threat are more effective in a story than brute force, so Nondula didn't bewitch me the way that Oy Yew did.

Much as I loved Oy Yew, I must admit that I struggled through Nondula. With unsteady pacing and a totally different atmosphere, it didn't feel like a continuation. I still wholeheartedly recommend the book Oy Yew: it works fine as a standalone and needn't be a trilogy. Nondula... well, I don't know if my expectations were too high after the first book, or whether having a case of man-flu was affecting my enjoyment, but I wasn't engaged by it in the same way. That said, other reviewers rate Nondula as highly as Oy Yew, so I may well be the odd one out on this one.

Rating: 3/5

Friday 26 October 2018

Review: Snowflake by Heide Goody & Iain Grant

Snowflake is a comic fantasy novel about Lori, a young millennial woman who finds, upon returning from a holiday, that her parents have sold the house, moved out, and kicked her out in absentia. And then magic shit starts to happen...

As comic fantasy novel, Snowflake gently bumbles along as Lori flounders from one disaster to another, raising chuckles and smiles. Lori is an amiably inept protagonist, likeable because she is naive and silly. The story, meanwhile, is a bit bewildering. For a long time, the plot can't decide whether it's about Lori's troubles with adulting, or about the magic stuff that adds a different dimension of chaos. It tries to do both, but with the result that it feels like neither strand is driving the story forward.

"Snowflake" is a term used a lot these days, often in online flamewars. My understanding was different from the authors' - I thought it's a derogatory term about overly sensitive, overly PC people who go on about trigger warnings and safe spaces a lot. The authors seem to have interpreted it as a term about young millennials who don't grow up, don't move their life into the phases of job-marriage-housebuying-children that traditional adulthood expects, but who loiter somewhere in a post-uni limbo of living in houseshares or with their parents, halfheartedly chasing dreams but ignoring careers, having relationships but nothing too serious or long-term. Lori certainly never seems to have any strong opinion or any obsession with safe spaces, which was a bit of a relief.

Comic fantasy is a genre that lives in the shadow of Terry Pratchett. I remember trying to write like him back when I was a teenager, and the huge plethora of books that were touted as "the next Terry Pratchett" at the time. Snowflake is one of those books that reads like Pratchett-light. It's amusing, but not a substitute for the master.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Review: Oy Yew by Ana Salote

Oy Yew is a children's novel set in another world. It's not a world of magic or dragons or aliens, but a world much like ours around the time of Charles Dickens' stories.

Oy is a tiny boy who grows up sustaining himself on crumbs and the smells of food. He's mostly unnoticed until one day someone does spot him. Then, he is quickly caught and forced into servitude, first in a factory, then in a country mansion. His comrades in slavery are other waifs, children from Poria who arrived on the shores of Affland as boat people on tiny rafts, sent across the sea by desperate parents during a famine.

Oy is the smallest waif, the quietest waif, the one who listens and offers nothing but kindness and intuition to those around him. His presence gradually improves the lives of the other waifs, but it also brings with it an intuition that something is wrong. How come there have been more accidents than usual lately, always befalling the waifs about to be freed? What secrets lurk in the sinister Bone Room? And why is Master Jep, a bone collector, suddenly so interested in Oy's thumbs?

Oy Yew is a fantastically atmospheric novel. It reminded me of Otfried Preussler's Krabat, and of Michael Ende's Momo. (Oy is quite similar to Momo in many ways). Or, in more British terms, of Alan Garner's scary children's novels - except that the atmosphere in Oy Yew is richer, the story more lovingly told. There is a tenderness in Oy Yew where Alan Garner goes for grand drama, and that tenderness makes it a more beautiful story. Basically, it's a superior novel to The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

It's not flawless: at times, the text moves too fast, in a disorienting way. Some of that disorientation happens early on, which could discourage some readers. I don't know whether the author was trying to create an atmosphere of hectic movement, or whether she saw the story in her mind and left out some words that might have helped me as a reader to follow it. All I know is that there were quite a few times when I was a little bewildered over who was there, who was who, and what was going on. I imagine child readers are likely to get confused, too. Those moments of bewilderment are literally the only flaw, and it's very much worth persevering if the text befuddles you momentarily.

The prose is beautiful, the story is filled with atmosphere, creepiness, tension, kindness and joy. The waifs are lovely and the characters around them include quite a few memorable personalities. Even as an adult reader, I was on the edge of my seat at many points, and I felt the peril in the story was real.

To my mind, this is one of the finest children's novels ever written. It's so good that I consider myself an instant fan of the author and immediately ordered the sequel.

Rating: 5/5

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 subtly by 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