Sunday 22 October 2017

Book Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing is a novel set in 1949 in an alternative history version of England. The war with Germany is over. After the British humiliation at Dunkirk, Rudolf Hess' flight to the UK ended not in his lifelong imprisonment, but in a negotiated "Peace with Honour" along the lines that Hess proposed: the two nations no longer fought each other, leaving Germany free to concentrate on Hitler's campaign in Russia and Britain free to keep an iron grip on its Empire. Germany is still at war, but Britain is at peace, and the war never really turned into a World War...

Lucy, our protagonist, is the daughter of two of the aristocrats involved in arranging this outcome. Known as "the Farthing set", these aristocrats and conservative politicians have faded from the political mainstream after successfully outmanoeuvring Churchill and making peace with Hitler.

When Lucy married a Jewish banker working on microloans to help disadvantaged people, her mother was horrified. A Jew in her family - such an outrage! So it is a surprise when Lucy and her husband are invited to a weekend party in her parents' countryside manor.

An even bigger surprise is revealed in the morning, when one of the key Farthing Set politicians is found dead, with a yellow felt star stabbed into his chest. So begins a murder mystery unlike any other I've read. A smart inspector, supported by his earnest constable, is investigating the case. Immense pressure rides on its outcome - and keeping a bunch of very rich and powerful people restricted to a manor house quickly turns out to  be half the challenge.

Meanwhile, Lucy's husband quickly finds himself the prime suspect. Over the next few days, secrets, intrigue, and a growing number of bodies turn the investigation into an ever-more-complex mystery.

Farthing is not just outstanding because the mystery at the heart of the plot is a well-executed homage to Agatha Christie style crime fiction. Nor is it the alternative history that makes the novel remarkable. Instead, it is the cast of worryingly authentic characters. Lucy, a former socialite whose motive for loving her husband is at least in part a rebellion against her unpleasant mother, is a flighty, shallow heroine to begin with. A homosexual inspector who, like most of British society, is antisemitic, but who does not let his prejudices colour his investigation. Antisemitism and prejudice (and people's responses to both) are handled very authentically in the novel. The plot progresses very smoothly from pure crime mystery to something much more thoughtful.

To be honest, I didn't expect to like Farthing. While I generally very much enjoy Jo Walton's work, I also happen to have a dislike of fiction set in WW2 / Nazi times, and a dislike of period fiction about aristocrats flouncing about in period dress. Farthing was thus a novel that I bought (due to being a fan of Jo Walton) and then ignored on my Kindle for years (due to its subject matter & cover). I'm glad that I eventually gave it a try. It's a smart, tense, compelling novel, worthy of praise for its originality, its pace, and especially for its authenticity.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 21 October 2017

Review: Digger by Ursula Vernon

Digger is a graphic novel that started life as a webcomic. Unlike many webcomics, this was not merely a short strip of cartoon humour. Instead, Digger is a long form fantasy epic, told through the medium of a serialised comic strip, almost right from the start. And so Digger - the complete Omnibus Edition is absolutely the best way to read the story.

Digger is a wombat, from a world where wombatkind live in warrens and where wombats are a no-nonsense, practical and deeply unspiritual species, concerned primarily with feats of civil engineering. Or so we are told by Digger herself, whom we meet elsewhere.

When we first meet Digger, she's in the process of accidentally tunnelling into a different world, through sinister, magic-infested caves that induce hallucinations (and which may contain monsters who want to skin her), and out through the floor of a temple dedicated to an elephant God of compassion and peace and stuff. This is a world where no one has ever seen a wombat themselves (though the species is not unheard of, merely semi-mythical and rumoured to be extinct).

Being an atheist in the temple of a God can be a bit awkward. It's even more awkward if the statue of the elephant god in question starts having conversations with you, probing why exactly you breached the temple, through a troublesomely semi-metaphysical hole which doesn't quite seem to be part of the world, and what exactly your intentions are...

What follows is a story that finds its feet by improvising, introducing this strange world and its inhabitants to Digger, before deciding that it was meant to be a tale of epic fantasy all along, and developing a plot to suit. Except, this is an epic fantasy starring a hero who really doesn't like gods, or prophecies, or magic, and who deeply distrusts anyone who foolishly messes around with such unpredictable things.

Digger is a refreshingly different hero. She's tough, a builder (with the mannerisms and working class attitude that entails), and primarily concerned with a desire to return home. She doesn't have an ounce of nambypamby romance in her heart. There's no romantic interest, no desire to start a family or have children, and we even find out that wombat marriages are arranged through medium term contracts, a few years in length. Digger herself is often rude (especially to oracular snails) and generally selfish (quests to save the world from unspeakable evil are only of any interest if they further her goal of returning home)

The humour in Digger ranges between wry wit, subverted expectations and slapstick. However, despite plenty of chuckles, Digger is not a work of comic fiction in my mind. Humour serves and enhances the story from time to time - but the story does not serve the humour.

In her adventures, Digger encounters joy, triumph, heroism, tragedy, innocence, atrocity, wisdom and stupidity. She may have no stomach for spiritualism or romantic notions of heroism and valour, but she always has time for people (no matter what shape, species or gender those people may have). Digger is one of those works which have a certain kindness at their heart. Often in the course of the story, Digger starts out at cross purposes with a character, but eventually grows to know them. Some become friends and allies. Others don't, but are generally understood by Digger (and the reader) to be decent enough people in their own way (or at least, to be following their own moral logic), even if they happen to be trying to do evil things to Digger and her friends.

What really makes Digger work is that it's filled with show-stealing characters. Digger herself is a great centre of gravity for all the others to circle around, but those others are largely outstanding in their own right. There's tragic Ed, a male hyena expelled from his matriarchic tribe, there's the innocent but frighteningly powerful Shadowchild, and there's the very very young Hag, and perhaps most showstealing of them all, there's Sorka the Bridge Troll...

Digger is a wonderful book.

If you took Labyrinth and The Princess Bride and substracted the romance / teen notions of love, but left in everything else magical and wonderful and added a prosaic, impatient wombat civil engineer to the mix, you might - just might - end up with something a little bit like Digger. But you'd have to be a bit of a genius - and Ursula Vernon, it seems, is definitely that.

Rating: 5/5.
Super highly recommended.

PS: I am selling my copy (with a heavy heart) as I will be moving house soon. Interested in buying it? Get in touch!

Sunday 8 October 2017

Book Review: The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan

The Chicken Soup Murder is a novel told from the perspective of Michael, a primary school boy (about to move on to "Big School"). Michael lives with his nan in a cul-de-sac in a small town near the coast; his neighbours are a community, the closest neighbours virtually family.

However, all is not well in Michael's seemingly idyllic little world. Before the novel even starts, his friend Janey lost her father to cancer - which tumbled her mother into a deep and troubling depression. Then, the dog of his other neighbour, Irma, died. But it's after Irma starts dating a policeman, Shawn Bull, whose son George bullies Michael, that the final tragedy strikes: Irma herself dies, and with her death, the story begins.

Told through Michael's eyes, we experience his world in compelling detail. It's 2012: the year of the London Olympics and (later) the scandal around Jimmy Saville. The story moves through time, reminding the reader of events half-forgotten. What a washout that summer was, except for the few weeks of the Games! And, if you follow cricket, you're in for a pleasing series of reminders bringing 2012 back to life. It's not something I've come across before in a novel, yet it works brilliantly.

At its heart, The Chicken Soup Murder is a novel about bereavement. Don't get me wrong: it's not a novel of misery. Irma's death was mysterious and sudden and foul play may have been involved, so at least part of the novel is mystery and suspense. A much more important aspect of the novel is its sense of humour, which is a gentle, wry sort of humour. We never laugh at the characters, but we occasionally get chances to smile knowingly or affectionately. However, despite its gentle tone, death, grief and bereavement suffuse the story's fabric in every scene.

Janey and her mum have not gotten over the trauma of her father's tragic death. In fact, Janey almost has to mourn both her parents; her mother is that debilitated by her grief. Michael is obsessed with (the circumstances around) Irma's death to a point where his mental health suffers. George Bull, bully to begin with, is crumbling and vulnerable under the stress of his loss. All the relationships between characters become unsettled and fluid as a result of the deaths and the grief that has struck them. What used to be certain is not, and they all deal with this sudden instability in different but entirely believable ways.

If anyone told me I'd enjoy a novel about bereavement, I would have concluded that they know nothing about my reading taste at all. And yet I did enjoy the book. It wasn't a formulaic crime novel; it wasn't a whining misery novel; it wasn't a "aren't children quirky" sickly concoction of corny cheese. Somehow, The Chicken Soup Murder navigates between these pitfalls to be a warm, addictive, gently amusing novel about the unavoidable, everyday tragedy that is death. It's a literary novel with complexity and authentically human characters. It's not a navel gazing novel; lots of things happen. It's an intelligent novel which does not show off how smart it is, but makes you want to read on to find out what happens next.

Rating: 4.5/5

[Full disclosure: I happen to know the author because she taught me a university module, 14 years ago]

Sunday 1 October 2017

Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

I happened to spot a copy of Girls of Riyadh in Hoffi Coffi, on a booksharing shelf. The title intrigued me, so I downloaded a Kindle copy (the paperback is still on the shelf in Hoffi Coffi if you want it!)

Girls of Riyadh is a novel showing a side of Saudi Arabian life that people like me, a man who has never been there, will be completely unfamiliar with. It has been described as "Sex and the City in Saudi Arabia" which, along with the title and cover, should give you a hint about its topic matter. Saudi chick-lit, written by a Saudi woman writer - who'd have thought?

The book is told in a series of posts. In any other place, they might be blog posts, but here, they are delivered as email messages to a newsgroup. Communication in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s appears to be about 15 years behind communication in Europe - who still remembers the age of newsgroups? The author of the mailouts is an anonymous young woman, who prefaces each post with a little message to her readers, initially announcing her grand plan to shake things up a bit and later responding to reactions to her messages. Inside this frame (which sounds more complicated than it is), she tells the stories of four young women trying to navigate the tricky arena of dating, sex and marriage in the most sexually repressed country on Earth.

It should be said that the narrator and her friends all belong to the same class - well-off, part of the "in crowd", and with all the privileges of being upper class in a fairly rigid society. Not royalty, but wealthy and urbane. As they are not allowed to drive (the book was written a decade before this week's long-overdue royal decree allowing women to drive cars), they all have chauffeurs at their behests. The chauffeurs are virtually nameless in the book - they are obviously so far beneath our heroines that they need not be acknowledged or considered at all.

Class is important because it's pretty clear that these young women are more privileged than most. The ultra-strict laws might apply, but they never have any real terror of being caught when breaking them, because they know that they'll not get into huge trouble if they do. So, in one of the first scenes, they all decide that they want to have the most unique, trendsetting hen do for the first of them to get married that ever has been arranged in Riyadh. That means hiring a DJ and having a girls' disco and dressing up at home (apparently the standard approach) is out of the question. Instead, they decide to go the shopping mall & about town without being chaperoned by their families. One of them dresses as a boy (so she can pretend to be their younger brother), and with the help of their silent chauffeur, they go out on their adventure.

Of course, the escapades that are possible in Saudi Arabia, even for pampered wealthy girls, are comparatively tame. Exchanging mobile numbers (through car door windows) and texting with boys (or chatting online, or, if really interested, phoning) is about as far as it goes, before engagements & marriage. (The process of getting married in Saudi, meanwhile, is also something I learned a lot about through this book) But, having grown up on teen movies like Clueless, it's equally clear that these girls dream of leading less restricted - though not liberal - lives. They want to be cool, fashionable, flirtatious, desirable, and able to have fun. They yearn for drama (which means they gossip about the smallest details and spend a lot of time being overdramatic), but most of all, they yearn for something their society perpetually withholds: respect and a kind of full adulthood.

Above all else, Girls of Riyadh is a critique of Saudi culture - and Saudi men in particular. No wonder it caused a bit of a stir over there when it was published. The four women go through ups and downs, but again and again they find that the environment they live in is out to judge them, and that men are looking not for women to love, but for women to control. In the book, Saudi men all have very clear expectations of women, but won't communicate those, and then judge women very harshly if they in any way behave differently (not worse, merely differently) compared to those expectations. In short, Saudi Arabia has created a culture where relationships and love have become perverted and corrupted, making it near-impossible for people to find happiness and love, if GoR is an accurate portrayal.

The book has a serious undertone, but is written as chick lit, so it is accessible, tongue in cheek, playful, and generally light entertainment. It doesn't just criticise - it also highlights the humanity and the many ways in which young people navigate around the social minefield they find themselves trapped in.

I'd highly recommend Girls of Riyadh for getting a flavour of an experience that will be quite alien to most readers in the West / Global North. It's also a pleasant book to read.

Rating: 4/5

PS: My only other exposure to Saudi Arabia-set novels is Zoe Ferraris' excellent trilogy of detective novels. Girls of Riyadh complements those novels quite well (or vice versa), as the trilogy is set in Jeddah (apparently a more relaxed city than Riyadh, if GoR is to be believed) but in a lower class (its heroes have proper day jobs, not as luxuries, but because they need to work). In some ways, that means Zoe Ferraris' characters are more restricted (they fear genuine and harsh consequences from the judicial system if caught transgressing in any way), while in others, they are freer (they have smaller networks of family & peers ready to judge and shun them). Zoe Ferraris' novels give a fuller picture of everyday life and its problems, while Girls of Riyadh shows a more privileged perspective by putting a spotlight on Saudi Fairly-High Society. The characters in Girls of Riyadh are more likely to end up as murder victims or perpetrators to be investigated by Zoe Ferraris' characters, while Zoe Ferraris characters would be pretty much invisible to the high flying, occasionally globetrotting Girls of Riyadh...