Thursday 8 November 2012

The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman

The Liars' Gospel is an intellectual exercise. It asks a very simple question: what might have happened, around 2000 years ago, to cause the later rise of Christianity / to turn Jesus into a mythos and God?

It is a thought experiment. Jesus - Jehoshua - is not the protagonist of this story. He is very present, as all three narratives are tangential to his own, but our protagonists are Myriam (his mother), Yehuda of Qeriot (Judas of Iscariot), Caiaphas the High Priest and Bar-Avo (Barrabas the murderer).

When I started reading the book, I expected those narratives to intertwine, to be interconnected, to pull together and, because of the title, I expected someone to start conspiring, to start forming gospels, to intentionally lie... and in the first story, there is a follower of Jesus (who also makes a brief cameo much later), and so I thought he would be crucial to the book, he'd be the author of the myths.

My expectations were wrong. This novel is comprised of separate narratives. Their intersections are so brief and tangential that they are fundamentally irrelevant.

Our first tale, Myriam's story, starts a year after the crucifixion, allows itself a flashback or two to Jehoshua's life, but is essentially the story of a woman who has to continue living with a certain trauma, and occasional reminders of her dead firstborn son.

Our second tale, Yehuda's story, also starts after the crucifixion, also allows itself some flashbacks, and is the story of a man who has the faith equivalent of bipolar disorder: he is fervently faithful, loses all faith after a crisis, rediscovers faith (as Jehoshua enters his life), has doubts, ... He's a conflicted kind of guy. And he's an intelligent, thinking guy, who does not follow unconditionally. It is his ruminating nature which dooms him to lose faith again and again and again.

Caiaphas is a high priest with marital troubles (jealousy) and a dose of lust for a young girl. His life also intersects with Jesus' very briefly. Mostly it is a story of a man whose personal life is troubled, and whose public life is all about playing politics. He was difficult to like. His story was all about big-picture exposition, and little-picture jealousy. It was the least memorable narrative.

Bar-Avo, meanwhile, is an alpha male, a physical, rebellious lad's lad; a man who knows how to party, how to fight, how to buy friends and how to stir up trouble. He swashbuckles his way through life like a pirate with a cause. His story starts long before Jesus, and the crucifixion episode is merely a brief part of his life story.

Four stories, four lives that intersect with Jesus', but Jesus himself is a shadow, an unknowable character. We hear everyone else's thoughts and interpretations, but we're never invited into Jesus' head. And rightly so, but it means that we are presented with four different Jesuses, each as much of a product of the way he is perceived by our current protagonist as a character of his own. Naomi Alderman's Jesus comes across like he has Asperger's Syndrome, but also flashes of personal magnetism. But they are flashes only, nothing sustained, and so it becomes hard to believe that he would have any following at all, let alone a few hundred followers...

There is a lot to praise about this book. The writing is elegant and slightly ornate - I found the writing voice beautiful. (In my experience, that means some others might dislike the style for being a bit purple prose-y. I think those others would be wrong: the writing here flows with flair. The beautiful phrases do not slow it down). The book is a work of intelligence and thought. Each narrative is quite believable - although Bar Avo gets to have a perhaps somewhat too swashbuckling life.

However, there are also flaws. The biggest problem is that the book is just too self-consciously clever. As beautiful as the writing is, and as interesting as the thought experiment is, this book often feels like it has a bit of a smirk on its face. It's a bit too smug. Bar Avo sounds like any Hamas or Islamic Jihad leader at times. The Romans act in every way like Zionist Israelis today. Such parallels are laid on quite thick. The recurring theme of Jesus' disappeared body is a playful gimmick that never really has any pay-off. We get some quotes from the Bible, used by characters other than Jesus, and we're supposed to cleverly chuckle at the fact that all these different moments and quotes got attached to one man, who said barely anything coherent at all... but there are no chroniclers in the book, no gospel makers. Some of the quotes are out of character to the new characters they are assigned to. I get the literary intention and the thoughts behind these things, but at those moments when the book is cleverest, it also stumbles and chokes and jars a little, because it disrupts the flow of a narrative.

It's like jokes: writers of humorous stories often spend a lot of time and energy setting up a wonderfully witty, spectacularly funny moment. Think Douglas Adams, here. And then, as we wipe the tears of laughter form our eyes, we read the next sentence, and the story picks up again where it left off. Fine. But The Liars' Gospel isn't funny. It spends similar time and energy setting up a moment, but there is no relief through laughter. Instead, there is an "a-hah", but not even with an exclamation mark, not a major plot twist "OMG!", but a sort of polite and clever and mellow "oh, I see what she did there, isn't she a clever one?"... and then the story picks back up, and you feel a little deflated because you just had a literary hiccup, not a guffaw, not a heart-stopping twist, a clever polite little hiccup, and that's what all that lead-up was about?

All in all, an interesting, clever, pleasant thought experiment, beautifully written, but just a little bit too focused on being clever, and a little too disjointed to be fully engrossing. Pleasant, rather than great.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 14 October 2012

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi is a beautiful, beautiful work of art. It is absolutely stunning. But it is also disconcerting.

Set in a fictitious Arab sultanate, this is the story of a young girl/woman and the toddler/boy/teenager/man she adopts. Our heroine is sold into marriage, then abducted by slavers, put in a slave market, where she adopts a black toddler. She escapes with the child, and forms a small family unit in the desert, never quite sure whether she acts as a mother or a sister to the growing boy. She tells the growing boy stories from the Qu'ran and other myths / fairy tales. But their life in the desert is not meant to last forever...

The graphic novel is perhaps the most beautifully illustrated thing I've ever read / beheld. It is clearly deeply in love with its aesthetic, and its aesthetic is mesmerisingly beautiful. In terms of the story, I was never bored reading this book.

But there are some things that are troubling. This book shows the Middle East through a Western prism. We get Middle Eastern aesthetic, beautiful Arabic script, myths from Arabian Nights and the Qu'ran, but we also get sultans, harems, slavery, eunuchs, beheadings, intermixed with mobile phones, dams, electricity and the modern world. The first two thirds of the book could be set in the 1800s and could have been written by a Victorian pornographer. The last third, with its hints of Dubai about it, feels like a somewhat uncomfortable add-on.

As I just mentioned the word "pornographer", it's perhaps worth talking about that, too. Our heroine spends an awful lot of time being naked, and there is a lot of sex in this book (indeed, sexuality is one of the major themes). The book is in love with the sensual aesthetic of harems and silken veils, but not really the modern focus on modesty that Islam tries to stand for. This Middle East is not the Middle East of our 2012; it is the Middle East that James Bond or Lara Croft or Indiana Jones might travel through: an aesthetic, a sensual oasis of lust. It is a comic book, pulp fiction Middle East.

So perhaps it is forgiveable that almost all characters are disgusting scoundrels (if male), or envious and bitchy (if female) or both (if eunuchs). Perhaps it is forgiveable that our heroine oozes sex appeal in every single picture, even the ones where she is a child (with a woman's curves, a woman's legs, posture, lips and hair) or about to be raped. Except, the subtext of the book seems quite judgemental: all (Arab) men are potential rapists, all the oppressed are collaborators with their own oppression, there is no kindness without a demand for something in return. Perhaps I should some it up like this: rape is not an erotic act. Drawing rape so it looks sexy is wrong. Therefore, this book is arguably amoral.

This is a story about abuse, but by choosing to draw all the abuse in the sexiest possible way, it puts the reader in the abuser's shoes, which is uncomfortable. It's a bit as if someone had taken a Todd Solondz movie script, added lots of Neil Gaiman-esque love of mythology, hired Oscar-winning arts directors to create the aesthetic, but given the result to Michael Bay to direct and cast. It's art, it's entertainment, it's rich, it's beautiful, and it's also crass, oversexed, and misogynistic.

Rating: 3.5/5. (Aesthetically, 5/5, but the seedier aspects detract a lot)

Friday 12 October 2012

Among Others by Jo Walton

I bought Among Others without knowing much about it. I knew it was set in Wales, that it had an uninviting cover, that it had won awards and that it is speculative fiction (it's a magical realist novel about a science fiction enthusiast). So, somewhat put off by the cover, I was surprised at how much I turned out to enjoy this book.

Starting out with a beautifully atmospheric prologue, the novel then skips ahead by some time, and takes the format of a diary. In our prologue, two girls try to do some magic to fight against a polluting factory in Abercwmboi, Wales. The diary, years later, is that of one of the girls, now in changed circumstances.

It is difficult to go into detail: I enjoyed reading through the book without knowing anything about the story, and I don't want to reduce anyone's enjoyment. So, instead of focusing on events and plot, I'll describe the style of the book.

It is a mellow book: don't expect cliffhangers or huge drama. You're reading the (very realistic) diary of a teenage Welsh girl going to an English boarding school. Adjust your expectations to that.

It is a book about growing up, and nervous first encounters with sexuality. But the writing is that of a very academical girl, with a mind that does not tend to over-romanticise. It is never erotic nor pornographic, but neither is it shy.

It is a story featuring fairies and magic, but not in any way I've ever encountered them before. This book is set in our world, not any other, and you may soon find yourself wondering whether it is really a book about believing in fairies and magic, rather than a book about actual fairies and magic. Things are so subtly interwoven and so grounded that I was not sure of my narrator, which made the novel very interesting.

It is a book about someone who loves books, and specifically science fiction and fantasy (and more specifically: post-1960s new wave science fiction above all else). Hundreds of books and authors get name-checked, often with just a single thought about them. It is a book for readers. You know how some novels set in London take you through the city, street by street, turning familiar geography into excitement for Londoners (and frequent visitors of the city)? You know how encountering a street or park that you know in real life in a story can liven it up? Well, Among Others is set in the geography of a voracious science fiction reader's mind, and for other readers, this name-checking makes it a very lively read: almost like a conversation with a fellow reader. It may be a little alienating for those who never or rarely read any sf/f at all.

At the start, I was a bit alienated - the narrative voice sounded slightly American to me, as the only indication of accent / localised speech is the way "grandpa" is written as "grampar", which does not sound Welsh to my (German-born) ears. However, that alienation quickly faded, and I was left reading a wonderfully pleasant novel, which did not hurry but still engaged me because our narrator is just the sort of person I would enjoy spending time around: on the fringes, not popular, but geeky, smart, well-read, cultured, able to hold down a conversation, in every possible way not shallow and not pretentious.

I can't really think of any comparable novel. I thought this was a truly wonderful read.

The novel is not entirely flawless - the very final bits are a little bit weak, but forgivably so.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 16 September 2012

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death is a novel set in Africa. In fact, it is a fantasy / science fiction novel set in a postapocalyptic Africa, but to be honest, this only became clear to me very late in the novel.

Our heroine, Onyesonwu, is an "Ewu", a mixed race girl, born as a result of a rape. Permanently an outsider, she is passionate, stubborn, quick to anger, and, it turns out, adept at using magic / juju. She is determined to learn magic and change the world.

The world, meanwhile, is a desert, populated by two tribes / races: Nurus and Okekes. Nurus rule, Okekes are slaves. There's been an uprising by Okekes before Onye was born. Now there is a slow-moving genocide (Nurus killing Okekes), ongoing since before Onye's birth, and continuing, brutally.

There is a lot of stuff in this novel that makes the reader think, and which offers itself for debate and discussion. Much of its core is about the relationship between a group of young people. The novel clearly has a lot to say about women and sex and gender politics. The shifting relationships between our questing youths (four girls, two guys), and the importance of sex, are as much part of the novel as magic and genocide.

Who Fears Death is not a young adult novel (based on the cartoonish cover, and having read only a YA novel by Nnedi Okorafor previously, I had the wrong expectations). It is a novel that feels authentically African (which is an achievement, as the author was born and lives in America). The way the story handles tribes, beliefs in juju / magic, and the strange way in which life can go on while civil war and genocide are also occurring, in close proximity - it all feels authentic, incredibly, depressing and uncanny. We witness female genital mutilation, angry, hateful mobs, weaponised rape, tribalism, execution by stoning to death, incest - at times, this novel feels like a highlights reel of the worst and ugliest sides of Africa (and families in general).

I realise that it is meant to be a novel of hope, of sorts, with a hero who does not readily accept being an outcast for her race, or being seen as a lesser person because of her sex, and who goes on to try to change things. But to me, it was a very hard novel to read. The realistic elements are brutal. The fact that the novel uses magic and prophecy as an agent of change leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. It makes me feel that there is no real hope for Africa at all, and dreaming of a magic solution is the only dream that Africa has left. Along the way, we even briefly encounter an almost utopian society in a dream-like sequence, which is founded entirely upon magic. All the reality in this book is grim, all the hope is carried in its magic.

Who Fears Death is an original novel - who else writes science fiction about Africa? It is also an effective novel, putting some of the brutality that I try not to think about into my life by embedding it in a book I chose for leisure reading. But it is not a book that makes me hopeful, or that gives me any happiness. It made me realise how my image of Africa is already postapocalyptic / dystopian - if it takes me until 80% of a book have passed before I understand that this is meant to be a post-climate-change, post-technological-collapse future, then that tells me something. It tells me I am ignorant, but it also tells me that Africa must be a grim and terrible place, to be so indistinguishable from postapocalyptic dystopias to the ignorant. Most of all, the book tells me that there is no hope for some parts of Africa ever to develop, to become something less brutal, less oppressive, more humane: even in science fiction, it takes god-like magic, and god-like prophets and messiahs for anything to change. To me, Who Fears Death is terrifying and grim.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 2 September 2012

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is a book unlike any other I've ever read. It is the story of Alif, an internet service provider / hacker, living in an unspecified City, in an unspecified Emirate, somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.

To begin with, it's just a tale of nerd-has-girl-trouble: his girlfriend is leaving him to marry another man. She tells him she never wants to see him again, never wants to hear from him again. In a fit of angry despair, Alif decides to make her wish come true, and write a programme which can identify her, no matter which computer in the world she uses, and make his own email address, web handles, avatars, phone numbers etc. forever invisible and unreachable for her. Only after some manic coding does he realise that this programme in the wrong hands could be a terrible weapon against any activists.

Soon, things get a little out of hand. Before we know it, the story involves an ancient mythical manuscript, people who seem supernatural (djinn!) and sinister state security forces / persecution.

If you took Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, jumbled it up with The Arabian Nights, injected a little bit of Zoe Ferraris's Kingdom Of Strangers' Middle Eastern atmosphere and setting, sprinkled in a dusting of Islam, and turned it all into a beautifully written novel set in the Arab Spring, then the outcome would be this. It is not a mixture I would ever have thought of. It's thrilling, original, fresh and new. Even the Arab Spring is handled with elegance, deftness and complexity. (I would almost compare it to Ian MacDonald's The Dervish House, but the prose in Alif the Unseen is much lighter and more accessible - it creates a similarly rich atmosphere, but relying less on a barrage of alien vocabulary)

The book is not flawless. For this particular reader, there is something uncomfortable about the way Islam is infused in the mix, especially in the later parts, and how faith in Islam is promoted. I'm never going to enjoy a book where anything is driven away by the power of Faith / God, Islamic or otherwise, but that aside, it's not really fun to detect an author's pet subject / propaganda sneaking into a novel that's otherwise an adventure story.

That aside, buy this book! It's hard to beat in terms of entertainment value: beautifully written, no hint of purple prose, thrilling, and full of the magic of Arabian Nights and the techy dazzle of teh interwebs, in an exotic combination you've never encountered before. A stunning debut novel, brilliant despite a small handful of preachy moments, and unusually current and topical.

Rating: 4.5/5

For another great review of this book, see Sheenagh Pugh's review of Alif the Unseen.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

Boxer, Beetle is a novel taking place in two different times: the present day, and the mid 1930s.

In the present day, our first person narrator is a Nazi memorablia collector and odd jobs man for a much richer collector. He's suffering from a genetic condition that makes him smell bad, so he lives most of his life on the internet, except, very little of that is in the novel: we join him as he finds himself tasked with resolving a mystery. Soon, dead bodies are piling up.

Meanwhile, the mystery is all about a short, young Jewish boxer and a scientist passionate about eugenics in the 1930s. This plotline follows the career and ups and downs of the boxer, and the British scientist who wants to use the boxer for experiments. Until he can achieve this aim, he has to contend himself with working on beetles.

The book is pleasantly entertaining, fast-paced and quite readable. It does occasionally allow itself a whopper of purple prose or two, though. Could there ever be a dafter sentence to start a chapter with than "The morning light peeked in through the windows of the mortuary, pasty and trembling like the sort of ghoulish little boy who would rather see a dead girl than a naked one" ?

The plot gets a little crazy, especially towards the end, when all the carefully built up attempts at authenticity go out of the window in favour of a finale that reeks of B-movie scifi. It's a book that wants to be a bit literary, but also pulp fiction, so we get repressed homosexuality, confident homosexuality, a murder mystery, a conspiracy theory thriller, a rise-and-fall chronicle of a boxer's career, a satire (with a lengthy, dialogue heavy conference of fascists, beset by petty personality conflicts and politicking), all in one relatively short book. It might aspire to be literary, but in the end it feels quite shallow. It reads a bit like a Quentin Tarantino movie, though more restrained in the first two thirds of its narrative. The book certainly squeezes a lot of ideas, anecdotes and themes into the novel.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 11 August 2012

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey is a strange beast. It is a high concept, satirical novel set in a dystopian (or, perhaps, anti-utopian) future, where human civilisation has been static for about 500 years after a "Something that Happened" apocalyptic event.

The humans in this world have tiny pupils in their eyes, and can only perceive a limited colour spectrum - or indeed, no colours at all. Their family names, their rank in life, their roles and occupations, are all determined by their colour perception. People who can see yellow become the police / enforcers. People who see violet / purple are the leaders. Greens and reds have varied roles in management and public services. Blues are librarians and guardians of knowledge. And greys are the worker bees, who do all the hard grafting in this world.

Our hero, Edward Russett, is being shipped far away from the central towns of this chromatocratic nation, into a small town in the sticks, as punishment for rebelliously having suggested an improved queueing system (original thought is strongly discouraged), and to accompany his father, who has been seconded to temporarily replace the recently deceased medical professional in that community (a swatchman, they are called). Ed is a young man, almost 20 years old, who is just about to find out his fate in life / his colour-viewing abilities. He's trying to distance-woo a young woman who is higher up in the hierarchy, and would be an advantageous dynastic choice for his family. And, on the day the story starts, he witnesses a man's collapse, near-death, and a young grey woman (called Jane) with a very cute nose who watches the incident, concerned, from a distance.

The novel is a slow reveal of the crazy world these people occupy, where colours are highly valued because of their aesthetics, but also because of their drug-like powers over the mind and body (green colours are opiate equivalents, for example). It's also a world where the lightless night holds incredible terror for the citizens, every aspect of their lives is determined by a lengthy rule book created hundreds of years ago by an obsessive, perhaps OCD-afflicted dictator, every few years the society purges itself of old knowledge and technology by a "leap back", suddenly declaring entire swathes of technology forbidden, wealth is measured in merits (earned for snitching and being valuable to the community), etc. etc. etc. - it's a world with many quirks. Some of these are satirical and vaguely amusing (spoons, forbidden from being manufactured, have become a secondary currency of sorts), others are a bit pointless.

There is so much world-building going on in this novel that it often feels like it hasn't really got anything hugely significant to say. The dystopian elements and satirical elements are vaguely familiar, reminiscent of the movie Brazil in atmosphere - a Kafkaesque, whimsical, Monty Python-esque take on the standard Orwellian dystopia. Some things make no sense at all (how do colours cause reactions, when the person staring at the colour is unable to actually perceive it? So how does a green drug work for a Red person?)

Our characters, meanwhile, are our narrating hero, the feisty, confrontational, cute-nosed, somewhat violent lady of his desires, some yellow and purple youths who are deplorably unpleasant, some red and green and blue youths who are vaguely pleasant but unimportant, and an artful dodger type who arranges many things, always with his self-interest at heart, devious, but not quite pure evil.

It takes a while to feel at home in this world as a reader, and all the way through, this is a novel of exposition, revealing different facets (and rules) of the world until the very last chapter. (Once the basic stuff is largely revealed, we still have to learn about the hidden, unknown history, the grand, rotten conspiracy at the heart of this world, etc.)

Jasper Fforde has sometimes been described as the "Welsh Terry Pratchett", but he certainly isn't. The number of jokes per page / chapter is much lower. His novels are gently amusing rather than downright funny. He is much more high-concept (Discworld, once you go past the turtle-elephant-disc construction of it, is just a satirical fantasy world, with wizards and dragons and so on). But the two of his novels that I've read so far were both, ultimately, less engrossing. From what I've read, his characters tend to be a bit less interesting, and Shades of Grey does lack strong charisma. (The artful dodger type is probably the most interesting character to be around, followed by the apocryphal man, but neither entirely steals the show).

Shades of Grey is a novel I would quite like to love, but don't. Pleasant enough, but sadly, no more than that.

Rating: 3.5/5

For another take on this novel, read <a href="">Patrick Rothfuss's review of Shades of Grey</a>

I should also add, with hindsight, that Jasper Fforde has written some much more enjoyable novels - The Big Over Easy, The Fourth Bear, and the YA Dragonslayer Novels are superbly enjoyable.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Cwmardy by Lewis Jones

So, a communist activist, miner, public speaker and thinker in the 1930s is encouraged by friends to write a working men's story of the Welsh valleys, to give the world a glimpse at what it is like to live there and then, for regular people. The result is Cwmardy. (I have not read its sequel, 'We Live', included in this double bill)

The book has a lot going for it. Or rather, it should have a lot going for it. The story is told in easily accessible language; it features sex, violence, war, intrigue, conspiracies, high drama... purely in terms of "stuff happening", the novel is not that far off a thriller.

Then why is it so boring?

The answer is simple. Unfortunately, this novel is basically a soap opera set in the Welsh valleys. Stuff happens, but it's the story of (fictional) people's entire lives - not the story of a single, thrilling part of their lives. The book simply does not have the structure of a story, but is instead a neverending, eye-on-the-wall list of events.

A thriller thrills by giving us cliffhangers (usually at the end of chapters) and plot twists, revealed with impact and panache. The author of Cwmardy does not do either of those things - in fact, each chapter title gives away what the chapter is about. Chapter titles herald the plot twists, rather than setting up any kind of tense anticipation.

Meanwhile, our characters basically just want to get on with their lives. They don't seem to have big dreams and ambitions. Their struggles are, for the most part, everyday ones rather than anything exceptional enough to make a novel exciting. Even when they experience dramatic events, these are somehow narrated in such a matter-of-fact way that they aren't brought to life. They're also fairly flat characters.

Big Jim is a friendly, strong oaf, always ready to be a bit rough. Len is a more physically fragile, political young man. His mother is a mother hen, pecking at Len and Jim but ultimately always there for them. Ezra is a leader figure with doubts. Mary is intelligent. Jane likes boys. The characters all have their functions, but rarely have moments when they come across as fully human. For me, the one outstanding moment of humanity was when Len had to deliver the news of a death to the wife of the dead miner: standing at the door, he chokes up at her expression of horror as she guesses a tragedy has occurred, and tells her that her husband had a "little tap" but would be alright soon enough (even though the miners carrying the body can't be far behind). It is a rare moment that seems complex and human and unpredictable. The rest of the novel is only rarely unpredictable.

It's a book that sets out to tell what life is like for Welsh miners in the early 1900s. It does not set out to entertain. It wants to make points, and as such, it is functional, matter-of-fact, sometimes preachy, full of characters that are walking illustrations of arguments rather than people in their own right. The end result is a boring narrative that is often predictable and never entertaining... basically, it's about as rewarding an experience as walking into a small local town museum, with its faded black and white photographs and a few pickaxes in glass cabinets. If you feel excited about Welsh mining heritage, this book is for you. Perhaps even if you like endless soap operas. I don't have any fondness of either, so it really wasn't a book I'd recommend.

(To its credit, the book has some quite harrowing / affecting passages, and, especially early on, quite a few uncomfortable scenes of brother-sister intimacy - but once Len starts working in the mine, the novel is just a lengthy slog with axes to grind and points to make. Even the worst possible workplace harrassment / bullying for people to join a Union is glorified as harmless prank / a justified way to teach a lesson.)

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon

One morning, on the way to work, the London Underground proves to take Niall Peterson to his limits - a suicide next to him, closures, disruptions, stressful phone calls to his ex-wife... no wonder he has a heart attack.

No wonder he dies.

Then he wakes up again, revived by a grey-haired elderly lady, and nothing will ever be the same again, for now he is one of the Fey, the Fair Folk, the Others, the mythical, magical races from stories.

Sixty-One Nails is a novel of urban fantasy set in London. Few cities inspire as much urban fantasy as the big smog, and Sixty-One Nails is one of the better novels set here. The atmosphere is often rich and engrossing - if Hellboy 2: The Golden Army was to your liking, or perhaps Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich, then chances are, Sixty-One Nails will be a pleasant experience, too.

Being the first novel in a series, we basically spend most of it learning the rules, receiving exposition, and following Niall as he stumbles from one enigmatic, secretive mentor figure to the next. A lot of thought clearly has gone into the meshing of myths and urban world, and it is well executed.

However, the novel disappoints a little on the editing. A lot of the dialogue is a bit clunky - treading the same ground several times over in quick succession, with repetition, questions being asked and answered the same way several times in the same scene. The amount of repetition is quite grating - it's as if the author needed to get some exposition delivered, had a go at it, wasn't quite happy, had another go, was happier, then decided to reinforce the point by having yet another go, and then, after delivering the same tidbit of explanation/exposition three times over in a single scene, decided to keep them all in the draft. I would have expected an editor to rein in this nonsense a bit. The dialogue also tends to meander a little, sometimes modern, sometimes in noble fair folk speech pattern, sometimes in enigmatic mode... the characters do not feel like they are quite settled, yet. As well done as the story is, the repetitive streak, occasional stylistic inconsistencies, and sometimes clunky descriptions let the book down - all things that a good editor should have polished away before sending the book to the printers.

As it is, this is an enjoyable read, and one I would recommend to people who like urban fantasy novels, London, or novels about the Fair Folk, but it falls a bit short of the highest standards / benchmarks. I wouldn't really recommend it to people who are not already fans of (urban) fantasy - it could have been on a par with the best, but as it is, it's just a bit too rough and unpolished.

Rating: 3.5/5

(I have since read the two next novels in the series, and to my disappointment, the lack of editorial intervention continues throughout the series. I gave up after that, as the frustrations built up)

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Under Ground is the third book in a series. I'd definitely recommend starting at the beginning for anyone interested in this series - the book largely assumes that the reader is familiar with the characters and at least some of the previous events. There isn't a huge amount of direct plot continuity, but without reading Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho first, you'll probably find this book quite bewildering.

So, Peter Grant, the Constable working on uncanny / weird / magical stuff for the Metropolitan Police, is back in action, investigating ghosts, goblins and things that go bump in the night. If this sounds like a children's series, then don't be deceived: it's a series of "urban fantasy" for adults.

This is by no means the only urban fantasy novel - this is a lively sub genre. London, in particular, is the hero of many urban fantasy tales (Neverwhere, Un Lun Dun, Kraken and many more).

However, most of the urban fantasy novels I've read so far struggled to get the balance right. More often than not, the fantasy element and the urban setting start out aligned, but slowly become separate during the course of a novel.

The Peter Grant series is the one outstanding exception: here, fantasy and urban setting stay well and truly on the same page. Mixing irreverent, funny police comedy narrative with hocus pocus and a deep-rooted, affectionate knowledge of London, the book oozes all the right things: convincing London atmosphere, fascination with urban mythology, and a world of supernatural goings-on that feels just about credible. Whispers Underground tackles the iconic tube (and sewer) systems of London - and anyone who has ever lived in London will know that there are many myths and legends about these. Londoners love knowing that there are long-abandoned stations and branch lines, WW2 shelters, and other relics of the city's organic evolution, hidden away from sight but alluringly glimpsed from passing trains if you know when to press your face against the tube window... In short, the Underground is a setting with huge potential - and Whispers Underground lives up to that potential.

Whether we're in disused tube tunnels or sewers: the darkness, smells and convincingly authentic myths we encounter with our hero, Peter Grant, are richly atmospheric and beautifully brought to life. The first person narration, meanwhile, is quirky and amusing. I laughed out loud quite a few times - I get the sense this book contained a lot more gags / humorous dialogue than the two predecessors. (The only flaw: some of the dialogue sees ALL the characters wise cracking, a bit like the cast of the movie Lake Placid, so they don't feel entirely individual when they speak). But the thing that really, really lifts the Peter Grant series above most urban fantasy is that our hero once wanted to be an architect, and has a fantastically vibrant way of telling the reader about history and describing buildings, whether ugly concrete blocks or Victorian town houses. Reading the book is almost like a tour of the city - but a tour led by a wizard policeman. What could possibly be better than that?

Unlike the first two novels, the main plotline in this one is a little more reserved. There is less scenery-churning, super-powered villainy, less operatic evil, and less of a feeling of supercharged threat. However, this only seems to make the book better. It might not build up tension in quite the same way, but it feels more grounded and authentic and pleasant than the first two novels. The series has settled into a certain rhythm and is now flowing along with joy and happiness rather than feeling the need to amp up the shock factor.

In short, it's the best book of the series so far - and a huge delight to read.

(If, that is, you like funny, fantastic, London-based supernatural magic police popcorn literature. Which I do.)

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Angela Carter is one of those writers who have been on the periphery of my personal reading radar for a while. Feminist friends revere her work. She's one of the big literary names who deal in fairy tales. And she's been massively influential.

Nights at the Circus is a novel about Fevvers - a cockney pronunciation of Feathers. She's a miraculous woman who has wings and can fly, and she's found a career as an acrobat. The book is divided into three parts. In part one, she tells her story to an American journalist, backstage in a London theatre, over the course of a night. The journalist wants nothing more than to prove her fake and burst the bubble of her fame. In part two, she starts on a world tour with a circus, and the journalist, seduced by the mystical attraction of circus life, follows along, signing up as clown and living incognito in the circus. Part three, ... well, I'm not going to spoil the story.

The novel is written in quite dense prose. It is not a quick read, and requires some concentration. The story moves in unexpected ways, and every aspect of the novel becomes more and more surreal and dream-like as it progresses. Starting with a relatively straightforward biographical narrative, the growing sense of unease is infused into the story gently: something odd is happening with the passage of time. There are unspoken things, sudden changes in the flow of conversation, meaningful glances get exchanged.

In part two, the surreal / fantastical elements become more prevalent. Animals are different. Clowns have their own mythos. Some magic appears to occur (beyond a winged, flying woman). And part three - well, all bets are off in part three, and we're deep into surreal, dream like, trance like crazy. Narrative voices change from first person to third person from one paragraph to the next (up to this point, all was in third person), among other twisted writing methods. Part three feels like a bit of an acid trip in the 1960s, in some ways. But the story still gets (largely) rounded off.

Underlying the novel are a rather large number of ideas, half-thoughts and notions about gender, women, men and feminism. Sometimes they are voiced by the author, in a carefully chosen phrase in descriptive text. At other times, characters openly discuss these themes (a particularly memorably dialogue is an argument about relationships where a maternal figure tries to convince Fevvers that falling in love might be more harmful to her self than prostitution would be). Sometimes, there are plot developments that are symbolic or metaphorical. Women, on the whole, fare best when they connect and interact with other women: even a whore house is utopian and idyllic, with no conflict between the whores, just as long as the men are not around. But as soon as men are involved, there is violence. Wife beaters, wife murderers, sinister religious oppressors, rapists... even our male protagonist at some point casually considers raping a vulnerable, almost unconscious woman who finds herself temporarily in his care, although it never goes beyond a hateful throwaway thought. Women without men (or children) flourish in this novel. Men (and children) bring suffering and complete loss of self.

No wonder Angela Carter's novels are dear to the heart of any English students tasked with writing essays about feminist literary theories.

Densely written and surreal, at times experimental - this novel is not my usual fare at all. It has some beautiful passages and chapters and ideas. Fevvers is a memorable character, cheerfully low brow, sweaty, smelly and untidy, described in vivid detail and imprinting herself in my memory.

Yet as a story, the novel is not entirely satisfying. There are long passages where I was bored as a reader. Some plot devices seem too strange to have meaning or reason. Some storylines remain unresolved. In short, by the time I finished reading, I felt only half satisfied with it.

Rating: 3/5

Friday 8 June 2012

Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris

Kingdom of Strangers is the third crime novel in a series set in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. It follows from The Night of the Mi'raj and City of Veils. Some of the characters from the first two novels make appearances, but the novel could probably be read on its own. (That said, the novel is much more enjoyable when you know the history)

By now it is clear who is the undisputed hero of this series: Katia, a female forensic scientist, working for the police, mostly stuck in a lab, but keen to have a more active role in the investigations. (The first novel centred more around Nayir, a Bedouin desert guide who got involved in a murder investigation and met Katia, but by now, Katia is the central pillar of the stories)

Kingdom of Strangers starts with the gruesome discovery of 19 dead bodies in the desert. A serial killer in Saudi Arabia - almost unheard of. And he's been busy, undiscovered, for ten years...

Meanwhile, the newly arrived inspector Ibrahim, tasked with leading the investigation, is having an affair outside marriage - and, when he turns up at his lover's flat, she is missing.

The novel is quick to set up its main plot strands, but chisels away at them at a pace that is steady, confident and not too rushed. It's not the sort of novel where each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, and each cliffhanger is more unbelievable than the last. Instead, the tension is amped up at a steady, confident pace, and the novel is engrossing all the way through. For a few chapters, I thought it might descend into stereotypes (serial killer toying with his pursuers, making it personal, etc.), but thankfully, the story stops feeling as if it were following a template soon enough.

One of the big attractions of this series has always been that it is set in Saudi Arabia - a country most of its readers might never set foot in (I doubt I ever will), and a country with a culture that is about as far away from Western philosophies as it is possible to get. The book treats its characters with a credible level of complexity, and the reader with a degree of respect. As Westerners, the readers would miss a lot of information if it was not spelled out, and so it is, but never in an obtrusive way. Exposition is handled masterfully. We are simply part to characters' thoughts and analyses - and those thoughts are often determined by the expectations of the society around them, and their own internal conflicts whenever they chafe against the limits (or when they transgress). There is an awful lot of chafing in this novel, but it seems quite credible that regular people in Saudi Arabia have to tightrope walk on a very thin line for much of their lives...

The book is not entirely without flaws. Coincidence, that cheat, does affect the plot, and one revelation is preceded by a cloaked premonition in a dream. Both are forgiveable - the novel would have worked just as well without the latter, and the coincidences are small in number, and occur early in the timeline of the novel.

Of the three Jedda murder novels written by Zoe Ferraris, this has become my favourite. I breezed through it in two days (which is fast, for me), and was completely hooked all the way through. Encountering an actual adulterous character - and his unique crises of conscience, challenges, and the threats hanging over his head - was an incredibly effective source of tension. It made the serial killer mystery pale by comparison, and turned this book into a real thriller.

I enjoyed the story so much, I would recommend the entire series to anyone. I would definitely recommend reading the first two books before tackling Kingdom of Strangers, just so this one can be appreciated fully. The preceding novels are both good books in their own right - but this one is absolutely brilliant.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 5 June 2012

HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH. At first, I thought I was looking at cyrillic writing, or, perhaps, sanskrit. The same inscription, etched into the pages on the side of the book, adds to the mesmerising effect. A closer look, and I find myself realising that I am seeing Latin script after all - to be more precise, one letter, four times, in four fonts. I am intrigued enough to pick up the book, read the blurbs, read the back, and ultimately, intrigued enough to buy it...

The book, I am told, is a historical novel, about the (attempted) assassination of an important Nazi. It is an almost untold story of derring-do, resistance, and pluck. It is also a novel about the writer, trying to write his historical novel. In short, it is new, fresh, original, different.

Well, I am only partially deceived by this description. It is indeed a (presumably autobiographic) novel about a young Frenchman trying to write a historical novel about an assassination. Except, it is never a novel about the assassination - instead, it is also a novel about Reinhard Heydrich, the Blonde Beast, the Butcher of Prague, competent, cold and ruthless Nazi bureaucrat and leader.

Some assassins do appear - they are mentioned, in passing, in the first few pages, then forgotten until more than a third of the way through, then they disappear again until we are two thirds of the way through, and finally, about three quarters of the way into the novel, they make another appearance.

They are ghosts in this novel, barely there at all.

How come?

Well, this writer is obsessed and serious and wants to use only material that he has historic references for. No invention. No improvised line of dialogue. No description that is not taken from eye witnesses or photos or other historical record. No fiction in his history at all. (But even as principled as he is, he cannot keep this up, so he makes up some details, some conversations, here and there... and then, promptly, points them out in the next scene, points an accusatory finger at his own work and declares: this is where I lied, and thus, exonerates himself in his own eyes)

A lot is on the records about Heydrich. But his (wannabe) assassins - well, the Nazis took great care to eradicate anything and everyone to do with their deeds. Little survived. Barely enough for an interesting anecdote at a dinner party. Barely enough to fill a five thousand word novelette. Not even remotely enough for a novella, or a novel...

So the balance, in the historic bits, swings towards Heydrich. Brutal, calculating, almost idol-like Heydrich. Aside from his "Negroid" lips and his "hooked" nose and his "falsetto" voice, this imposing, tall, blonde, efficient bureaucrat is the ultimate Nazi, and our author cannot resist being ultimately "impressed" with Heydrich. Sure, he berates him physically (see the quotes above), spouts fury about his deeds, but, when all is said and done, we are left with the image of a fascinating, dominant man - perhaps the closest embodiment of the sort of Nazi that Christoph Waltz portrayed in Inglourious Basterds that exists in the historic record. Brutal and cruel, yes. Cold and ruthless, yes. Cultured, too: he plays the violin "better than Sherlock Holmes", we are told. And, in his own twisted way, principled: all the underlings he hires are chosen based genuinely on merit, rather than connections and belief in Nazism.

Perhaps to balance this growing sense of fascination with a dark lord, we are offered the odd vicious adjective or noun ("monster", "beast", "butcher", "perverted") and Heydrich's wife is described rather like a hysterical dominatrix. Other Nazis become animals (Hitler is a hamster, Göhring and Röhm are pigs). And no shortage of venom is poured over pacifists, appeasers and collaborators.

It is hardly intellectually challenging to read. Some sentences are so dripping with the author's judgement, they might just as easily have found themselves in the Daily Mail...

But even Heydrich is not allowed to be the dark (anti)hero of this novel. No, at its heart, this is a novel about writing novels. In a move that Charlie Kaufman might have been impressed by (see Adaptation), it is the author who really takes centre stage - him and his changing girlfriends, who meekly tolerate his historical obsessions and have little other than "passion" and a name each, but no real personalities or influence on his mind.

This author likes to quote other writers - up to seven lines from each, so he does not violate copyright and can claim "fair use" - and (largely) he likes to deride their methods, their clumsy prose, their expositionary dialogue. More rarely, he will offer praise (though usually a backhanded sort of praise). When not comparing his own approach to that of other, more established writers, we sometimes get a fiery rant, about writers or politicians or later, fame seeking murderers. And when not being ranted at, we get scenes bemoaning his challenge, and the importance of getting this right, to pay homage to those nearly forgotten heroes...

This writer is in love with himself and his own voice. But he does not have a high opinion of anyone else.

The book is fast, each chapter / scene merely a snippet, some no longer than three sentences. It is a book of polaroids - no, a book of tumblr entries, just a bit longer than Twictions, but not long enough to lose the reader's attention. Some scenes are entirely in one place and one time, others, barely half a page long, are transitions from present time to history or back again. This is not a novel in any traditional sense, after all. It is a collection of flash fiction. It just so happens that there is some interconnectivity between the pieces.

I did not dislike this book. I often enjoyed it, and breezed through it. But I did not feel as if I got what I had thought I'd bought. This was not a book about resistance and attempted assassination. It was not a novel. It was not historical fiction. Original, fresh, interesting: yes, but not wholesome - it does not make a whole.

In the end, the writer was too in love with himself, and not enough is known about the assassins and their lives and times to fill a novel without creative licence.

The book was not bad.

But neither was it great.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 11 March 2012

This is Life by Dan Rhodes

This is Life is a novel set in France. Correction, it is set in Paris. Correction, it is set in the cartoon version of Paris that movies like Hugo,The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec and Ratatouille are set in. (I know Amelie is missing on this list, but that's because Amelie has genuine magic, whereas the other movies just have the right sort of colours and tone, without feeling really magically French at heart.)

The book centres around Aurelie and various acquaintances and connections. Aurelie is an arts student, who, for her project, throws a pebble into a crowd find a subject she intends to draw pictures of for a week. The pebble hits a baby. After a brief telling-off, the mother of the baby hands it over and tells her to meet her again, exactly one week later, to return it, while she takes the week off.

Other stories are about an artist who is about to spend three months nude on stage, storing every bodily excretion in visible jars, and the story of Aurelie's friend Lilian who is so amazingly attractive that all men fall in love with her. Lilian breaks their hearts while searching for the one true love.

There is no shred of reality in this book: it's all sugarcoated and coloured with cartoonish glee. Which can work (and did, in Dan Rhodes' Little Hands Clapping), sometimes.

In This is Life, it does not work. There is a constant smirk on the narrative voice's face, a distant and slightly annoying tongue in cheek, lambasting artists, academics, arts students, the French, the French president, the Euro, women, the Japanese, romantically inclined men, ... basically, anyone and everyone in this book. More than once you will find yourself reading characters having conversations or thoughts that are basically an author, making a point / having a rant. The only character who is not annoying or being mocked is Herbert, the baby, and he has immaculate comic timing, blowing raspberries at just the right moment. (A strangely happy baby - he rarely seems to fuss and whinge and cry). In short, we are reading something that is written with a slightly superior tone throughout, and this grates.

It's all perfectly readable and not boring, but it lacks real joy. This is the sort of book that, were it a movie, would feature lots of music to induce the emotions it wants you to have, and a warm and cosy, but rich, colour palette, and somehow, in all the hubbub and cutesiness, some people may be convinced they are having a good time. And maybe, for other readers, it will work. For me, it did not. (Neither, I should say, did Hugo, the film. I get the strong sense that anyone who likes Hugo would also enjoy This is Life).

Rating: 3/5

Monday 5 March 2012

Konstantin by Tom Bullough

The Serbian cover is so much prettier
than the ones used in Britain...
I'd been keenly awaiting this book thanks to hearing snippets of it at a reading.

Konstantin is a book inspired by a real historical character. It isn't quite a biography, but rather a novel that takes known data, and fleshes it out with plenty of imagination and details and narrative flair.

Now, I am not entirely sure how much to give away of the historical role Konstantin would play. I realised near the end of the novel that I may have known far too much before I started reading it: I knew something about the nature of his work, I had heard a scene from the book (which, in the text, is actually about 80% into the book, i.e. rather close to its end), and I had assumed this would be a traditional biography, with a hefty focus on the man's achievements.

It is not. It is the tale of a boy, growing up in Russia, and becoming an oddball young man. The narrative ends before his main body of work really starts - only a final chapter that is far removed in time from Konstantin tries (ineffectively) to give us a glimpse of the relevance of his work. We get (exciting) hints at embryonic ideas, but we never get the full picture.

So, for the sake of this review, I will try to imagine that I knew nothing of Konstantin at all before reading the book. (Sorry for not using his surname - I really, really struggle with Russian names, and, at any rate, it is different in the book from the historical figure, presumably to indicate narrative freedoms that were taken).

Konstantin is a boy with a huge imagination, and a fascination with technical things. Falling ill, he nearly dies and loses most of his hearing. As a result, he spends the rest of his life a bit removed, a bit of an outcast, a bit different from everybody else - and struggling to find his place.

This is not a misery book - rather the opposite. Konstantin is full of infectious enthusiasm, permanently fascinated, and brave, even foolhardy. He can be headstrong (it is as if everyone else is not entirely sure what to do with him, but he somehow has a sense of his purpose, even if no one else can see it, and even if he cannot really put a name to it himself). He has that peculiar tunnel vision that great minds often have, where his imagination takes him away from the immediate surroundings. He is never boring.

Reading this novel is a joy: the writing is confident and not afraid to draw attention to itself. It allows itself dramatic, poetic, aesthetically stunning sentences (the most fanciful of which is at the end of the very first scene, gloriously announcing: this book is not afraid to dazzle), and almost every scene is like a beautifully crafted little gem of its own. This is not a book where each scene ends on a cliffhanger, or a harbinger of the next scene. Rather, each scene finds a perfectly crafted, beautiful ending for itself, and, if the reader so chose, he/she could read the book one scene at a (bed)time, slowly, and enjoy it immensely, without ever feeling a need to speed-read, to reach desperately for the next scene before turning out the lights...

All that said, there are some areas where this particular reader felt a little let down: I felt a bit let down by the ending, partially because the book does not really show the lasting impact of Konstantin. Here is a man whose thinking was years, even decades ahead of his time, and yet, if all I had to go on was just this novel, I don't think I would have got a sense of the full scope of his genius. But to be fair, the novel consciously chooses to be about a boy growing into a man, rather than about a man growing into a shaper of history.

The other main criticism is that, for me, the descriptions were a bit unbalanced: huge focus on details, but often revealing the bigger picture so slowly (or sparsely) that I felt a bit disoriented. It's as if the book had been written by a photographer with a macro lens, always a few centimetres away from Konstantin's hands, but rarely stepping back for a wide angle view. On the one hand, this may be authentically how human perception, deprived of one sense, works. On the other, it can be a bit confusing.

Despite those minor niggles, I would heartily recommend this novel for its beautiful writing, its infectious energy, its loving portrait of a young person coming of age - it is a joy to read. But I would also recommend checking out Wikipedia after reading it, to find out a bit more about the historical Konstantin.

Rating: 4/5

PS: The working title of the novel was, apparently, 'Celestial Mechanics' - and many of the translations have chosen that title instead of Konstantin. Apparently, the publisher worried it might be mistaken for a textbook, so the title was changed. I must admit, I would have been more intrigued by the title 'Celestial Mechanics'... and much more intrigued by the Serbian cover (included above) than the UK covers.

Friday 24 February 2012

The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw

Ali Shaw's first novel, The Girl with Glass Feet, mixed magical, fairy-tale-esque materials with a surreal island and a story about melancholy, obsession, love, emotionally stunted men...

All in all, I enjoyed it, but started noticing that it was a very, very emo read.

The Man Who Rained amps up the emo sensibilities to eleven, squeezes in even more magic, moping, wallowing and melancholy, and, somehow, falls completely flat (for me). In fact, it was so disappointing, I started to wonder whether I might have been completely misguided about liking the Girl with Glass Feet.

The rest of the review covers about a third of the plot, so if that is too much, then consider this a SPOILER WARNING.

The premise: young woman, after the death of her father, dumps her boyfriend, decides to start a new life in Thunderstown (a remote place she has only ever happened to see from a plane, and where all the streets are in a spirally layout making it look like a weather system / vortex from above). Her father was "weather powered" - a man who only ever felt alive when watching weather, and whose time in prison crushed the life force and sanity out of him.

In Thunderstown, there are weird things going on: stray dogs are meek creatures, executed by the culler by means of breaking their necks in a hug. And there are strange charms dangling everywhere. People are a bit sinister, or gentle old souls, but rarely in between. She walks up one of the four mountains around the town, and a young, grey, hairless man strolls into view just as she's hidden away in a ruin, gets naked, and turns into a cloud. She's naturally fascinated by this cold, clammy, grey skinned person. The rest of the story is all about how weather materialises as living things around town, and how townspeople are scared of weather, trying to control it by having it killed...

Far-fetched doesn't come close. But I can live with far-fetched. It's inconsistencies in internal logic that I find difficult (this book has a few), and, ultimately, the fact that hard as it might try, the magic spark just wasn't there. I never felt very involved or engrossed, and all the wallowing and moping ended up being quite annoying. Some of the final plot twists made no sense at all, while other plot developments were so obvious in advance that I wanted to slap the characters for not seeing them coming...

Perhaps one needs to be in a certain mood or mindset to enjoy Ali Shaw novels. Or perhaps the first novel is simply miles better than the second. I don't know.

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday 11 January 2012

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

A rich, mysterious, cantankerous uncle. A hint about cards. Was I the only reader who, forgetting the blurb on Amazon, briefly thought I was about to read a book about a magician (stage or otherwise)?

But nope, The Cardturner is a book about the card game Bridge. It also has a story - a very neat and nice story about a teenager and the uncle he is meant to endear himself to for the inheritance. But primarily, this is a book trying to get young people interested in playing Bridge.

Well, I thought a lot of the Bridge stuff went way above my head. It's a bit like the latter chapters of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother in that regard: you sort of feel you've been learning and understanding a lot, some of it quite complicated to envision in your head, and then it just breaks through the threshold of "I can follow this" and into the territory of "I'm a bit lost, but carried along by the story".

There are various questions that formed in my mind (how much dialogue can there really be, in the bidding process - it only goes through two or three iterations in all the examples in this novel, so hardly enough to make meaningful communication possible! And how can it be rewarding to play a turn based strategic battle game that can only last through 13 turns? Etc.) - but there is enough excitement in the story, and a sense of the panache involved in some of the Bridge manoeuvres, that I really enjoyed the novel.

OK, so like Holes (the other Louis Sachar novel I've read), there seems to be a bit too much affection for neatness. Holes had various back stories that all tidy up nicely in a way that makes the novel feel like destiny. The Cardturner allows itself a rather large dollop of creative freedom in its interpretation of schizophrenia / ghosts...

But it's a beautiful novel, nonetheless. It's for young people, but I loved reading it, even if I felt that the story was a little too neat and cute for its own good. (That said, there were some jolts that I felt quite acutely as a reader, moments when the story had big impact in not entirely the expected way).

One flaw were the asides to the reader - each time the author writes something like "if I were a better writer, I'd have..." or otherwise acknowledges the writer / reader interface, I feel a little annoyed.

Still, I'd recommend this book. It's a cracking read.

Rating: 4/5