Thursday 12 August 2010

The City & the City by China Mieville

The City & the City is a crime thriller set in a slightly alternative reality, in the cities of Besz and Ul Koma. It is also a work of significant imagination: Besz and Ul Koma are two cities that cover the same ground, but choose to act as separate, independent city states. People in Besz "unsee" people and buildings that are in Ul Koma and vice versa. Enforcing this strict regime of selective tunnel vision is a mysterious force called Breach.

One day, a murdered woman's body is found in Besz, and a police detective from the extreme crime squad is set on the case. But there is something strange about it, and her, and soon he finds himself in over his head in conspiracy theories, corruption, and international liaisons...

China Mieville has an enviable imagination. Perdido Street Station was a benchmark, and while his other novels are not always up to the same standards of tour-de-force-ness, The City & The City is absolutely, on many levels, a work of genius. The satirical premise is almost credible, the detail is impressive, and the story is gripping.

The things that work against it, in the end, are the resolution of the crime (I was a little disappointed), and the fact that he does stray from a perfectly realistic world into the borderline supernatural (especially when it comes to Breach), without being entirely consistent about it. In some scenes, reality is stretched in the same way that a wire-fu action scene in a movie might stretch it, or Watchmen the comic book. Not all the way into definite super-reality, but enough to make suspension of disbelief an issue in an otherwise painfully realistic novel.

I'd definitely recommend this book as a fantastic, standalone example of Mieville's power of imagination, and a decent noir crime thriller. For anyone who has never read any Mieville before, this novel might be a perfect one to try - it's not as intimidatingly huge (nor as linguistically adventurous) as Bas Lag, but it still sizzles with ideas and intelligence.

Rating: 4/5

Monday 26 July 2010

Review: Off Road To Everywhere by Philip Gross

I will be honest: I am neither a child, nor am I a habitual poetry reader. So I am a little surprised to find myself reading - and really adoring, a book of poetry that is written primarily for a young audience.

Off Road to Everywhere wants to grab children and tell them it's okay to play around with words. It's good to have an imagination, and wonderful to use it. It's okay to be a little silly sometimes - but also okay to be serious. It is a book written with genuine, heartfelt affection for children, for words, for the rythm and music of language, for poetry and creativity. It's a book that, in no uncertain terms, declares that using one's imagination is a great adventure. It's probably the most life affirming book of poetry I've ever read - but admittedly, I don't read many.

As an adult, I do wonder whether I should put this book into the "guilty pleasure" category. After all, shouldn't I be all grown up and read poems that have dozens of layers, without resorting to something as simple as musical language or rhymes or, heaven forbid, humour? Ach, who cares. Give me a poem that mentions "the 100 watt light / might look happy and bright / but it may be afraid / to be switched off at night" any day.

Which is not to say that the book is not poignant or serious. It does have its grim moments and its sad moments. This is not a book that talks down to children. But neither is it a book that talks up above people. (The thing that puts people - or rather, me - off poetry is that so much of it feels as if it is written primarily for the appreciation and consumption of other poets, so consumed with the need to be art that it sometimes forgets that entertainment, too, can be a worthy aim.)

As an introduction to poetry, this is lovely. Whether rhyming poetry, free verse, narrative poetry, or poetry that uses up the area on the page in creative ways, you can all find it here. As a book about creativity and the power of imagination, it is a magnificent achievement. As a source of laughter, joy, and poignancy, the book works beautifully. In short, if all poetry were like this, well, I would be a much more regular reader, and much less reluctant to pay for a thousand words sprinkled in a thin volume a similar price to a 100,000 word novel.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 14 March 2010

Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes

Little Hands Clapping is a novel that is quite unlike anything I've read recently. Told as a dark fairy tale, it has been compared to the movies of Tim Burton - although I am not sure the comparison is entirely valid.

Largely set in a Museum of Suicides in Germany, it tells the stories of the old man who works there, a doctor, a young couple of unusually beautiful villagers in Portugal, and various other people. Some drift in and out of the story in a quick dash of fairy tale prettiness, others appear again and again.

Throughout the book, a musical voice is maintained. Stories move quickly through plot, and the characters are archetypal (though not necessarily archetypes you've encountered before in fairy tales), simple, and all the more beautiful to read about because of that. The one thing that cannot be found in this story is a hero. Every character in this story has something dark or quirky or twisted in them, or in their past. No one is simply heroic.

Compared to Tim Burton's movies, this book is much more willing to break taboos, and when its characters are perverted, they are perverted to a point that not everyone may be comfortable with. Which is not to say that the book ever approaches the effect that someone like Glen Duncan can have - in Little Hands Clapping, the horrors of sinister minds are dealt with in a quaint, pretty way, perhaps delving into the Gothic and magical realism, but never handled as complex psychological, harrowing, real world matters. And it gets away with it.

Perhaps fittingly, then, the theme of the book is beauty. Above all else, there is beauty, and the alluring, mesmerising effect it has. Two of the main characters are iconic beauties. Another character has such heartbreaking beauty that no one can refuse her. Another character has such sad beauty that a thousand men are touched to the point where it changes their lives. Another beauty crushes the life out of one of the main characters, and his own subsequent actions are driven by a beautiful peace he feels inside when he does certain things...

With beauty as main theme, is it any wonder that the writing is also intentionally achingly beautiful? Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillermo Del Toro - they are all well known for painting stunningly beautiful pictures on the silver screen. Dan Rhodes does the same on the page, with musical, melodic writing, and a fair dose of cruelty - for cruelty, too, can be mesmerising and grimly beautiful to behold.

Rating: 5/5