I miss reviewing stuff. There was a time – in another life, but spanning several years – where I’d churn out (sorry – lovingly craft) three or four album reviews a week. Hundreds and hundreds of the buggers. Hours and hours, words and words. It’s a mental jigsaw puzzle that goes together in a very different way to creative writing, and I used to enjoy it a lot. I’m not sure that book reviews will scratch the same itch. I’ve never been able to develop more than a passing tolerance for Goodreads, and I’m way more chilled (read: unsnobby) about books than I am about music; “whatever you enjoy must be good (for you)” is a zen state that comes more naturally when I’m talking about fiction. Still, I’m reading a lot this year, and so maybe I’ll have a go at scribbling about what I read. If nothing else, it’s a wee record for me. In that spirit, here are some scribbles.
Mark Lawrence: The Red Queen’s War trilogy (Fantasy)
“Prince of Fools”, “The Liar’s Key”, “The Wheel of Osheim”
Read in quick succession earlier this year, like lighting a fresh cigarette off the butt of the previous one. For real, I finished “The Liar’s Key” at 1 AM, and immediately fired into the first two chapters of “The Wheel of Osheim”. They are… addictive. Saying books are “page-turny” sometimes feels like a back-handed compliment, like if you blast through them, they must be an easy, cheap thrill. That’s just bollocks in the case of Mark Lawrence.
The plot here is gorgeously constructed, the characters are multi-dimensional and engaging, the language is often very beautiful (the descriptions of the cold of the Bitter Ice and the heat of Umbertide spring to mind). There’s a recurring Wilfred Owen reference that made my heart sing the first time I stumbled upon it. The first person narrative obviously keeps us tucked up tight with the protagonist, and the pace is fairly break-neck, but as they’re handled so well, both of these things are positives. If every book was a glacial, hundred-POV epic – much as I love those – I’d curl up in a corner and cry. Lawrence finds some cunning ways to offer up narrative variety, too. Various devices (I shan’t spoil) let him pen chapters in third person past and first person present. It’s smoothly done, and gives opportunity for rich characterisation.
And what characters. Our narrator is Prince Jalan Kendeth, grandson of the Red Queen, a dandy and a coward, ripe for a transformational character arc, but determined (in an archly self-aware way) not to have one. He finds his lot chucked in with Snorri ver Snagason, a deep and honourable Viking, Jalan’s polar (har har) opposite in nearly every aspect. Together they gallop/sail/trek/hobble/crawl around the world, trying to work out what to do with Loki’s key, which, in the wrong hands, could untangle reality. The stakes are perfectly pitched, the conflict – both between and against the characters – teased out with the skill of a master musician. Supporting and opposing Jalan and Snorri are witches, trolls, bankers, automatons, drug dealers, royals, angels, torturers and necromancers, none of whom are anything like you’d expect. As in Lawrence’s first trilogy, dialogue sparkles (maybe… snarkles?), bringing this myriad cast to life.
I really love Jalan, sort of in the way I love Sterling Archer, to whom he bears a passing resemblance, and in complete contradiction to my real-life feelings about “bad boys” or “men who need saved from themselves” (BLEHHH). Jorg Ancrath, Lawrence’s narrator in the Broken Empire books, I also loved, but more in a ‘aw man, what a fantastic literary creation, I die of envy’ way. Jalan, I have trouble remembering isn’t someone I actually know. The barely-there skirting around the edge of Jorg’s (concurrent) story is subtle, and will raise a wry smile for fans. The near-miss Jalan has when reeled in to drinking with the Brothers in “Prince of Fools” is gold: the little glimpse we get of the tall, brooding, dark and deadly teenager in the corner is brilliant too. And there’s an important meeting sketched with the lightest of touches in “Wheel of Osheim”. But that’s enough. Lawrence clearly stated at the end of “Emperor of Thorns” that he was retiring Jorg on purpose: I loved this when I read it, and still do.
A little more is uncovered about the post-apocalyptic world of The Broken Empire, though, and this is a good thing, after all the unanswered questions of that trilogy. The technology Lawrence envisages humans developing is at the crux of the drama, with the Red Queen’s War trilogy gradually peeling back the layers of mystery about what the Wheel of Osheim actually is, and what brought about the disaster that changed the advanced Builder civilisation into the medieval-fantastical setting in which we’ve spent so much time. This’ll be a relief if it’s all been bugging you since “Prince of Thorns”, and means that the fantastical/scientific elements of the books aren’t just there for window-dressing, which I feel is kinda important.
Red Queen’s War being technically ‘far future’ allows Lawrence room for post-apocalyptic humour, too, and who doesn’t like a bit of that? I laughed far more than I should have about Skilfar’s shop mannequins. Sometimes dad-joke territory might be toed. I dunno, the homemade ship Ikea made me groan, but I have the kind of dad who would think that’s hilarious, so… maybe I’m just conditioned to groan. I started to get a pained look when Jalan was examining the symbols of his father’s office. “REALLY, Mark Lawrence?” I said to myself. Then I actually pictured what a cardinal would look like, bearing aloft the two objects I’m not going to spoil for you. Then I chortled. Damn it, it’s a fantastic visual. “That’s going to come back later,” I continued (I speak to myself a lot). And it does. And it’s explosively satisfying.
Reading these books was an absolute pleasure; it refreshed my love for the genre. “Red Sister”, first in a wholly new trilogy, has been on my bedside table for shameful weeks, and now it’s the summer holidays, I’m very much looking forward to diving in.
David Ashton: Shadow of the Serpent (Crime/Historical)
I went to see David Ashton speak at last year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, and he was fabulous: charismatic, masterly and wry. I quite fancy writing something historical and criminal (and magical) set in Edinburgh, so I knew about Ashton’s McLevy radio scripts and novels through poking around on that topic, but I wasn’t prepared to want to adopt him as my spirit animal/long-forgotten uncle. He had everyone in the room eating from the palm of his hand.
Anyway, “Shadow of the Serpent” is the first of the McLevy novels. James McLevy was a real police detective, serving Leith in the Victorian times. He’s sometimes given the honorific ‘The Father of Forensics’, and he left behind a diary. David Ashton has made McLevy entirely his own, however. In many ways he’s the quintessential literary crime-solver: he’s smart, he’s antisocial, he gets up everyone’s nose and he has a dark and complex backstory that starts to unfold itself over the course of the series. He has the same mischievous twinkle as his creator, though, and although we spend less time watching the world from his perspective than we might expect (more on that in a second), it’s hard not to get quite attached.
I love the language in “The Shadow of the Serpent”. Not just the delicious Scots inflections – all the haar, and scunners, and dreich, and wheesht and the rest of it – but the very cadence of the prose. Given his credentials, it’s totally unsurprising that Ashton is very, very good at imagining his prose spoken aloud. Characters are painted beautifully in just a few strokes: the first appearance of madam Jean Brash is brilliant. The setting, too, is resplendent in Ashton’s linguistic dressing, the glittering New Town just as evocatively portrayed as the filthy, foggy vennels of the Leith waterside.
But most people don’t come to a murder mystery for the similes. What of the thrilling crime itself? Well, “Shadow of the Serpent” creates an interesting flavour of dramatic irony, in that the reader knows the main suspect couldn’t possibly be the true villain of the piece, because he’s a really real historical person, and history just might have noted it down if such a figure was a sister-fiddling murderer of sex workers. To make this work, to make us start questioning our understanding of history, the reader – along with McLevy – has to be deftly led astray. The Inspector seems set for a professional calamity if he and the reader can’t get to the bottom of the crime; the manner in which the conflict is ramped up for him to a terrifying subterranean moment of truth is handled very slickly.
The point of view Ashton adopts in “Shadow of the Serpent” is interesting: chapter or even scene breaks are no guarantee that we’ll stay anchored in the mind of any one character; I’d send such larks back to my school pupils as “head-hoppy”, but here I think it’s a swerve towards a more omniscient style of narration, which of course was all the rage in the 19th century when the novel is set so… ok. It grated on my nerves a little to begin with, but my tastes run to either close-POV or whole-hog Tolstoy “let me tell you, reader…”, so that’s maybe on me. It is rather chilling to get to spend time behind the Serpent’s eyes, and the brief flitting to the shoulder of Lieutenant Roach, for example, is vital to understanding just how infuriating McLevy can be.
As a little aside, I’m usually apathetic about chapter epigraphs, but the ones in “Shadow of the Serpent” really resonated with me. Lots of Shakespeare, lots of John Donne, some Old Testament, and little snippet of the Lyke-Wake Dirge that I’d completely forgotten learning about at some dim time in the past, but which set my synapses whizzing. Great stuff.
In all, I did enjoy racing through this book, thought the setting was fantastic, ended up intrigued if not entirely satisfied by the explanation for the crime, and still wanted more of the characters. In fact… since I started putting together this blog post, I have actually blasted through “A Fall From Grace”, “A Trick of the Light” and “Nor Shall He Sleep” as well. I love the way Ashton keeps introducing actual historical figures: I know this is fairly standard in steampunk, for example, but Ashton’s version of the trope is lively and interesting. My favourite ‘actual person’ is the infamous poet William McGonagall, who featured worryingly prominently in my Scottish primary school education, and was every bit as eccentric and shit as Ashton portrays him. Having read more of the series, I see the obvious patterns (basically, if you’ve got an attractive, passionate couple, watch out – they’re probably the baddies) but I also see that the writing of each book gets stronger, and that McLevy and Mulholland’s character development is fantastically expanded from the starting point in “Shadow of the Serpent”.
I also wondered if Ashton would do more with madam Jean Brash and her nightingales as time went on: they start off as cardboard cutout ‘tarts with hearts’, but would they get more interesting? They absolutely do, as characters, as humans, with identities that don’t just equate to their profession. My next stop is “Mistress of the Just Land”, the new series that Aston was talking about when I went to see him. Here, Jean is the main protagonist, solving mysteries of her own.
In all, I’m really fond of Aston’s books, and they’ve been excellent ‘company’ so far this year.
Ever Dundas: Goblin (Magic Realism/Weird)
Hoorah for more than one serving of Scottish writing in my recent diet. Ever Dundas is a writer of the weird and wonderful, with many publications and award nominations to her name, and “Goblin” is her debut novel, published by Freight Books. More prosaically to me, she is my-friend-Dan’s-friend-who-is-an-ACTUAL!-author (to be said in a tone of hushed wonder), which is how I got to hear about this delicious text. When I started reading articles and previews about it, I was smacked in the face with colossal ‘premise envy’. Oh, wow. Just… you read the blurb, or a summary, and there’s no possible way you’re avoiding reading this book. Hook, line, sinker.
The novel intertwines two weaving time threads, each telling the story of an elderly woman called Goblin. In the past, Goblin survived the Blitz, and was a witness to the Pet Massacre, a little-known but utterly devastating snippet of WW2 history. In the modern day, Goblin has been summoned to London during the 2011 riots, because she knows about a momentous crime, and the blood that was spilled cries out for justice. I’m being purposely vague, because the whole joy of reading “Goblin” lies in uncovering all the little quirks and twists of the character’s life story. She goes to Cornwall and befriends a pig. She rambles about the countryside, picking up lifts from soldiers. She climbs through bomb craters. She trains chickens to do tricks. She runs away with my favourite circus since Erin Morgenstern’s, has heart-crunchingly poignant adventures in Eastern Europe, and then emerges in a gorgeous, sun-warmed, red-wine-and-shady-bridges Venice. It’s not a case of Goblin’s present being bland while her past is vivid, though: they’re very different, but actually, the sections with 81-year-old Goblin were amongst my favourites, especially when she’s interacting with her homeless friend, Ben (their dialogue is superb). The prose is rich, sumptuous, colourful, but also earthy and intimate. It boils down into something boldly experimental when it needs to, when Goblin is trying to take psychic flight from the traumas and darknesses she’s encountered (and boy, there are a few).
Two more things delight. One is that “Goblin” is a novel about identity. Goblin is… a goblin. Sometimes she, sometimes he, sometimes they, in a sensitive, nuanced, fairly visceral and bodily portrayal. It’s not forced, it’s just lovely. What I like about it is that it’s not ‘the point’ of the book, but it is ‘the heart’. Goblin ‘narrates’ her gender and sexuality, by which I mean she conjures them into being and endlessly twists them via language, but then again, she also narrates herself a voodoo familiar called Monsta, and she narrates the inner lives of her animal companions, and she narrates fantastical folklore beings like Amelia and Queen Isabella, who may or may not be wholly imaginary. In the same way she ‘narrates’ (spins, twists, casts, conjures) World War Two, and this is interspersed with her own re-narration of HG Wells “War of the Worlds”. It’s all story-telling. What a beautiful, psychologically real way of showing up social constructs, and illuminating both the slippery and powerful nature of words.
The other is that “Goblin” is a novel predicated on a deep understanding of how a human can love an animal (or a whole collection of animals, in Goblin’s case). That might sound a bit twee, the way I’ve expressed it, but it’s not: it’s profound and very moving. Ever writes animals so well. I already knew this from hearing her read a short piece, “Northern Lights”, at a spoken word event: the way the cat moves and communicates in that story is so accurate, and in “Goblin”, chickens, crows, pigs, dogs and elephants all spill off the page in a similar fashion. The fierceness with which Goblin loves her animals, the ‘value’ they have (to give it so crass a term), and the meaning they give her life, are all extremely compelling elements of the book.
There are themes and, for lack of a better word, issues explored in “Goblin” that kinda creep up on you, and I’m not entirely sure how to write about them without spoiling aspects of the story, so expect vagueness here again. The issue of performing animals arises, and with this, plot and characterisation meld cleverly to ‘deal’ with it. Of course Goblin would have a view on the matter, and of course she wouldn’t just sit on her hands, but there’s no soapbox proselytising or easy fix here: just one person’s convictions gradually layering and fraying to a snapping point. Within Goblin’s highly unreliable narration, there is also the issue of how she perceives the ‘feeding’ of Monsta, and later how James (I’m not telling you who James is…) perceives this feeding, when it comes to light. So utterly sold was I on Goblin’s rendition, I hadn’t at all clocked how another character would interpret her actions (sorry, so vague! Read the book…). James ‘confronting’ Goblin – dispelling her magic as she’s literally casting a spell on him, grounding her back in the mundane – with his quiet empathy and care, was therefore a total suckerpunch. It was the second time during “Goblin” that I cried like a wee baby (the first being the central scene, where the pet massacre is revealed). For this reason, the reason of those ‘creeping themes’, this is such an important book. I wish I’d had it when I was a teenager.
I think “Goblin” is the ‘most real unreal’ book I’ve read. It has a beautiful truth, despite being so expressly a mermaid’s treasure trove of lies. Really, really special.
Owen Sheers: Skirrid Hill (Poetry)
My poetry habit usually takes full flight in the summer months, when I’m not working and can properly relax my mind into ‘grown-up writing’. I teach several lessons of poetry a week during term time, however, and although I’ve got a wealth of ‘firm favourites’ I know will do the trick for my teenagers, sometimes I fancy a change. It was fancying a change – and reading the poem Hedge School on an exam paper and loving it – that led me to “Skirrid Hill”.
Gee, this is gorgeous stuff. I mean, of course it is – it won a Somerset Maugham award, and was critically acclaimed all over the shop. But being heaped with silverware and lavished with praise doesn’t always mean poetry will connect: this does. While I find Sheers’ earlier work patchy sometimes, pretty much every poem in “Skirrid Hill” is like an arrow to the heart.
A good example would be Amazon. The first time I read the final line I ugly-cried at my desk for a full five minutes, and I still struggle to get through it without welling up (I promise I do enjoy reading..!). It’s a poem you fold away, darkly, ‘in case I need it one day…’ Marking Time is stunning, too – so sensual, so economically narrative. I wish I could write lovers so convincingly.
I really liked The Farrier: muscular and taut and rich in the manner of Sheers’ spiritual forebears, Heaney and Hughes. I ended up using this in class to make my pupils read punctuation more closely – you know, the kind of thing that sucks all joy out of literature for kids. I had found it super-interesting in preparation. It’d be easy to write this poem with a regular thunk-clink of the hammering of nails, but of course Sheers doesn’t do that: there’s an extremely sophisticated ebb and flow of rhythm underpinning the poem’s emotion, like the countryside breathing. I guess I’ll work harder at conveying my enthusiasm for that to ‘the youth’ next year. “It’s not magic, Miss, it’s just stupid semi-colons,” I was told, this time around. Sigh. They were warmer towards the lovely ambiguities of the poem, though, where the horse is both sacrificial bride and worn-out car, a thing to be touched lovingly, and something into which metal will be hammered.
However, my most favouritest favourite (“Hmm, SK Farrell, why aren’t YOU a poet?” asked no one, ever) was Winter Swans. Again, I read it with my teenagers, mostly because we were arguing about whether tercets are good (they ARE!). They said they understood the poem, and I replied that while they probably did, I wanted them to come back to it in their 30s, then write to me with their thoughts. Maybe they will. A lot of the time I read poetry just because I want to drown in language, but every so often, I read it and it touches on an emotion or experience I have also had, but have never tried to put into words. I wouldn’t have got Winter Swans at 15, but oh hell, do I get it at 30. It’s about silently making up with someone you love, and the tiny gestures that can thaw the cold war of a relationship. It’s a far vaster story than its 20 lines might suggest. It reminds me that I really must read more poetry…