27 May 2015

Review: The Way Out by Vicki Jarrett

The Way Out
Vicki Jarrett
Freight Books, 2015
Paperback, 159 pages

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

The Way Out contains 22 of Jarrett's (sometimes very) short stories. There are many gems: they reminded me of those moments when a glimpse of sunlight brightens a dull day... or when the cloud suddenly darkens a sunny one.

Sometimes this is literal, as in the first story where a papergirl on a rainy, dreary morning gets an unexpectedly straightforward, sunny welcome. Then she's back to a depressing life - we don't know if the glimpse of sunshine will sustain her, but hope exists. In others it's more a mood: for example in Home Security 1 and Home Security 2, which form a whole, there's an unwanted presence in the house that darkens the mood of a young woman - then she plays the same part herself for another.

We see heedless husbands and mothers, missing that moment of clarity or joy in the life of a child (How Not to Get eaten by Tigers, Rubble). We see the moment as one of gentle or not so gentle triumph, as in White Pudding Supper or (my favourite), 10 Types of Mustard where a waitress communicates perfectly - but wordlessly - with the girlfriend of a boorish customer. And we see in in gentle friendship as in Bingo Wings.

There are desperate people here - predominantly women - suffering loss, bereavement or simply being ground down. There is as much darkness as light, but between the two, Jarrett illuminates the world in a jumpy, flickering sort of way, like one of those 19th century animated toys. It's a kind of view that gives intense focus to small details which then prove to contain the whole.

These are delicious stories, if not always easy reading.

22 May 2015

A stranger in a foreign country

Yes, I literally was that.

This week I had to go to Paris for work - the third or fourth time since last summer. And I found it pretty stressy.  And I have been thinking about why.

Yes, I know.  A tough job but someone has to do it.  #Firstworldproblems.

How can that be stressy?

Well, it wasn't the work. The work was sitting at the back of a conference room, taking notes, waiting for them to get to my stuff then occasionally feeding in a point or checking something. No, what was stressy was the being there, the getting there.

I am not a natural traveller. As a student, I never went Interrailing (does that still happen). Never did a gap year. Given the choice, I'll always stay at home. I am boring, boring boring. I know that. But I enjoy travelling - getting on the Eurostar, the faff with passports and security, waiting at St Pancras, going through the Tunnel, watching the fields go by.

What challenges me is simply being there, in a foreign country, a foreign civilisation (France is a civilisation, not a country, isn't it?) Part of it is being absolutely crap at French.  Yes, I got an O level many years ago.  I learned to give memorized answers to memorised questions, in an appalling Cheshire French accent. I learned to little essay including as many as possible of the clever constructions that scored extra points. I read a Maigret book, in French, over the summer holidays and summarised it, in French. None of that equipped me, though, to sit in a restaurant and order a simple meal, or go into the hotel and ask for my room. Instead I cope with such things by pointing at the menu, walking up to reception and offering my work-booked room reservation and saying "Merci" a lot.

It is OK, just about, but really it's OK because the French are (in my experience) wonderful people and put up with bumbling English clots like me who don't speak their beautiful language and insult them by bringing English into their capital. In other words they make allowances and adapt, and therefore enable me to survive when otherwise I wouldn't (well, that's a bit over dramatic, but you get the point).

Nevertheless, in some situations I'm adrift. When the Metro train I was on stopped between stations and the driver explained what was wrong I hadn't a clue.  Was he saying we were being held at a red signal to regulate the service and would be moving shortly, or had a rail broken up ahead and we would be stuck for hours?  When, on my last trip, there was a security alert at Gare Du Nord and we were kept outside, just how serious was it, really?  I didn't know and had no easy way to find out.  To a degree I read these situations because I am familiar with urban travel and they are common ones.  If I'd been from a bit further afield I'd have been even more baffled, and without someone to make allowances, it would have simply been bewildering. No way to communicate, no idea what's going on, basically no way to function.

Which was why I was struck, this time and for the first time, by a comparison with my daughter.

My daughter is an adult.  She has autism,with learning disabilities. She is nonverbal (does not speak*). We don't know how much speech she understands, but it is quite a bit. Like any human being, she is a complex person with preferences, needs and opinions. Like me in Paris, she isn't able to articulate these well and so is, much of the time dependent on the forebearance, the grace, the common sense of those around her to understand her needs and let her in, as it were, to make a space and enable her.

Except, of course, it's not really the same at all.  It is a thousand, a million times harder for her. And she can't just hop back on the Eurostar to a country where all those issues go away.

We are so glad that Daughter has a supportive place to live and that her life is, generally, good. She moved away from home a year or so ago and we miss her dreadfully (we see her most weekends) but that separation does bring perspective.  I can't say - it would be so arrogant and wrong to say it - that I understand what the world is like for her (not sure I'd even dare say that for another neurotypical) but by analogies like this I sometimes think I can imagine, at least, the faintest outlines of how it might sometimes be for her.

And that includes (though to an almost homoeopathically diminished degree) the this-is-all-too-much/ what-now/ too-much-sensation/ make-it-stop-now panic and meltdown which I saw so many times when daughter lived at home but which (and it's galling, but true) doesn't seem to happen to her these days.

All of which is very humbling.

Anyway, hopefully we'll be taking Daughter to see Pitch Perfect 2 this weekend.  It's going to be good.  I hope you have a great weekend too!

*She did use a few words: "Guck" for any bird, "gog" for a dog, "an'dat!" as a general exclamation. And she could name the Teletubbies, in order. (If we were in a shop with toy Teletubbies and they were out of order, she'd rearrange them).  But that all went.

17 May 2015

Review: Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters
Amanda Downum
Solaris, 2015

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.

"Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa..."

Before HP Lovecraft, there was Robert W Chambers whose short stories featuring The King in Yellow manage both to be spine chilling and to drip with a fin de siècle decadence that Lovecraft's later stories dropped in favour of out and out cosmic horror.  In returning to the spirit of Chambers, and jettisoning much of Lovecraft's gambrelled language, Downum has created an impressively scary, world-weary narrative.  While it's not perfect, this is a great read.

The story follows a group of artists - another Chambers trope that occurs in both his horror and other stories.  It opens at Hallowe'en.  There is an atmosphere of costume, of masks, of carnival.  We're introduced to Blake and his partner Alain, two of the artists, and their mentor, Rainer.  Downum skilfully portrays the tensions within the group and hints - with the appearance of those shadows - that more may be going on than simply artistic rivalry. And so it proves, and Blake's old friend Liz Drake, worrying because she hasn't heard from him for a while, arrives in Vancouver to investigate.

From that point the narrative is pretty much breakneck, involving devils, angels, ancient gods, a crime syndicate, the mysterious drug 'mania' which apparently gives access to a dreamworld that Liz has walked before, and much, much more.  There is a cast of supporting characters - Liz's partner Alex, Rae, the mysterious Lailah - and my one criticism of the book would be that at times it can be hard to remember who is who: for me, Rae and Antja, Rainer's girlfriend, were too similar in character and motivation, to keep clear in my head, at least to begin with.  But Liz in particular is so well realised that didn't really matter much.  She's the one who has to perform the hero's quest, penetrate to the centre of the labyrinth and rescue the sleeping prince in a story that mashes up the tales of Theseus and the Minotaur, Orpheus and isis and Osiris with Chambers' original hints about the Yellow King.  With regard to the latter, Downum successfully avoids saying too much about the King -  much of the power of Chambers' stories is in hints and fragments and I've read other stories that totally ruin the effect by giving too much detail.

Another mistake she avoids is letting the story go too far into urban fantasy - which would, I think, make the supernatural enemies seem too neatly categorised and therefore not scary enough.  There was a moment when I thought is was going that way - when we are told that 'like many younger cities in the new world, Vancouver lacked entrenched magical order...' and a Brotherhood is mentioned, but Downum handles these elements carefully as part of a whole which really works well.

She's also pretty erudite - we get chunks of Beowulf quotes as a sheer breadth of vocabulary which kept my Kindle looking up new words (Liz is a linguist, so this really makes sense).  I now know what limerence, Deucalion, Utnapishtim and lagniappe are: I didn't manage to get a specific answer on witch boots but that one I can guess. There are also sly allusions to Lovecraft (the café Al Azrad, references to planes and angles) beyond the obvious subject matter.  But apart from games like that, Downum can write - describing a "voice veined with smugness" or Liz's arrival in the dreamworld:

"...darkness ebbed, washing Liz ashore like so much driftwood. Her limbs were heavy, her head soft and dull and dream-sticky. Cold stone gouged her shoulder blades and leeched the warmth from her flesh: her hands and feet were numb. Her skin was tender and sunburn-raw. The rush of her pulse deafened her."

Downum generally manages though to avoid over-purple prose and has a nice way of brining her characters back down to earth (or whatever planet they're on).  Liz "wore the T-shirt and underwear she'd fallen asleep in. Tourists never knew how to dress fot the local weather."

In short, this book is readable and engaging, with a well realised setting, good use of language and a driving, relentless plot.  Strongly recommended.

8 May 2015

Review: Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction

Collected Fiction
Hannu Rajaniemi
Tachyon Publications, 19 May 2015
HB, 240 pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a preview copy of this book from Netgalley.

I'd previously read Rajaniemi's three Jean le Flambeur novels, but I was aware that he'd also written short stories so - now that Flambeur is completed - it was good to see these collected and have an opportunity to explore what else this writer has done.

They are impressively wide ranging.  While some cover similar territory to the novels - far future advanced tech transcending any division between "real" and "artificial" intelligence, others explore horror, the supernatural and even fairytales.   There are also a couple of experiments in writing, including a story in blocks that can be read in different orders (these were originally selected for the reader via a brain activity monitor) and a collection of Twitter sized "microstories".

Far from being mere expositions of technological futures or other tropes, the writing, as  a whole, display a real facility for developing and conveying characters.  For example, "Deus ex Homine" is set in a near future where an AI plague can give people godlike powers and the urge to express these capriciously. While a war rages against the "godplague", love and desire still flourish among both changed and unchanged humans.  "Elegy for a Young Elk" shares this background, I think, developing the theme of humanity and human-ness continuing in an apparently alien setting. "The Server and the Dragon" is another beautiful, if sad, story that explores what happens when a self-aware but lonely relay beacon makes a fried.

Other stories have something of a fairytale atmosphere, for example "Tyche and the Ants" which focuses on a young girl growing up on a moonbase surrounded by a crowd of imaginary (?) friends. The titular "ants" - metallic, robot intruders - disturb this life, forcing her to grow up very quickly. And "His Master's Voice" follows an intelligent self-aware pair of animals - a dog and cat - whose master has been imprisoned.  Apart from the pun in the title - the dog has a singing career and name which echo the famous HMV logo - the story is played straight, and Rajaniemi manages to make both animals authentically animal but also more, reflecting the enhancements and changes that have been applied to them. "The Jugand Cathedral" is another markedly SF story, but like the others in this volume, it has real heart, exploring how restrictions on the use of technology to help a woman with disabilities might be creatively flouted.

"The Haunting of Apollo A7LB" is either a ghost story, or science fiction, or probably both. Apollo A7LB is a space suit displayed in a museum, and it seems that it's not as empty as you'd think.
"Ghost Dogs" is, as the title suggests, very much another ghost story but it's left teasingly unclear who the ghosts are and what has produced them

"Fisher of Men" is a haunting yet satisfying story drawing on Finnish myth (as do a number of the others in the collection - an interesting contrast to the stark futurism of the three novels).  "The Viper Blanket" is another in the same vein, as is "The Oldest Game" which describes what happens when a young man, running from trouble, seeks death.

"Invisible" Planets, inspired by Italo Calvino, is composed of tales, fragments of descriptions of varied worlds collected by a "darkship" on its travels.  Why, and what they amount to, only becomes clear when the ship itself interrogates its memories and allows them to transform it.

"Paris, In Love" is simply a delightful love story - in which the City of Love herself falls for a young man.  Not an admirer you would want to spurn, or provoke to jealousy.  Rajaniemi handles this idea brilliantly, making what happens both weirdly improbably and deeply believable at the same time.

Those are just some of the highlights of this volume.  Impressive in both its range and sympathy, it's also - where required - devastatingly hard in its SF.  The stories stand up in themselves and are extremely readable, yet it also serves as a dazzling introduction to the author's range and capabilities.

4 May 2015

Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 7 May 2015
Hardback, 385pp

I'm very grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book.  Reading it was an utter joy.  Reviewing it is much harder, because it is simply so good.  Part of me just wants to say "you must read this".  Trying to put into words why you should is difficult.  In fact it almost seems absurd.  Kate Atkinson has written the words, they are A God in Ruins, and those words stand for themselves and tell you why you should read them.  Any alternative words won't convey the same meaning.

But that wouldn't be much help, so here goes:

First, if you read Atkinson's Life After Life, you will want to understand the relationship between the two books.  In Life After Life we saw repeated, alternate versions of the life of Ursula Todd.  Each ended with her death, sometimes as a child, sometimes as a girl, sometimes as a woman. And then the story began again, with the silver hare on the chain dangling in Ursula's view.  We came to love Ursula as she suffered through the 20th century in a story centred, always, on the London Blitz but ending - in some versions - decades later. We learned about Ursula's family - her beloved brother Teddy, her parents Hugh and Sylvie, her wayward aunt.  Each iteration of her life cast new light, showed a new dimension, a new viewpoint until like a Cubist painting the different angles produced a full and rounded picture of the whole.

If that earlier book was Ursula's, this is Teddy's. It is told more simply, without alternate timelines, and therefore (presumably) corresponds to a particular Ursula: but though we see her she doesn't feature that much, so it's not possible to slot Teddy into a particular version.  That, and the slight haze of time since reading Life After Life, meant I ended seeing the Ursula presented here as a composite Ursula, a kind of superposition.

Teddy is - was - a bomber pilot.  Running like a red thread through the heart of his book are the nightly missions, the tours of duty, the near misses, the fear and darkness as he flies to Berlin - the "Big City" - to Nuremberg, to Hamburg, in his Halifax, destroying those below.  In one Life After Life variant Ursula was trapped in Berlin, not living in London, so there is a dark symmetry between the two books.

The wartime bombing campaign was, and is still, controversial.  Was it justified, morally or even in military terms? Were the courage of the airmen, and their horrendous losses, wasted? Atkinson touches on these questions, but says little about them directly (there are a couple of exchanges between the older Teddy and former comrades).  Rather, she shows how it's not all bombs - Teddy lives a long life and the consequences of his wartime actions remain with him and pass down through the generations. We see Teddy postwar, and his daughter Viola, always raging, always suppressing her rage. We see her own children, troubled Sunny and self-sufficient Bertie, and the book explores the impact of the war on them, the reaction and counter-reaction to what Teddy did. Cause and effect tumble from troubled generation to troubled generation. Haunting the story - more strongly for being mostly implicit - are those questions of guilt and responsibility, awful things done and required to be done.  Atkinson never leaps to easy judgement, or to easy absolution, allowing her characters to face the issues, never hectoring them from a seat of authorial certainty.

So, a straighter narrative, in some ways, than Life After Life, and one with, perhaps, a more overt theme: yet also not.  One triumph - among many - of the earlier book was its allusive, decades-leaping style where events, phrases, incidents, characters were echoed and examined from different viewpoints. Atkinson uses a similar approach in this book and indeed the effect is perhaps more powerful for the knowledge that the events described exist in a single reality.  Sometimes it can be dizzying as we hop from Bertie in the 2000s to her childhood in the 1980s to her mother in the 60s or 70s and then surface again.  But always, always, there is a point, a juxtaposition.  Sometimes it isn't clear for another 100 pages: sometimes it makes sense of something that happened in Life After Life (Sylvie's walk down the Strand, the fiction of Augustus). Some of it only becomes clear in the final few pages, as we see what Atkinson was really doing with her intricate story of cause and effect, running forward and backward through history and tying individual lives into a rich pattern with that red thread.

Rereading what I've said above I doubt more than ever the wisdom of trying to describe this book.

I'm afraid, for example, I've made it seem like a cold, clever, tricksy book, a thing all technique and form, and really it's not.  It is a warm, human book, a book with heart as well as head. Terrible things happen, but generally they are not done by terrible people (though there are a couple).  They are done by sympathetic people, people you'd be happy to share a long train journey with.  Those people have their own dilemmas, their own sadnesses and they bear the guilt of what they did (or not).

Atkinson's characters step off the the page, sit down next to you, and ask about the weather and where you are from.  And, as in real life, some of them them tell you about themselves, and what they tell is heartbreakingly sad, or funny, or both.  So it's a startlingly vivid, compassionate and above well realised slice of life.

I give up. Just read this book.  That's all.

(And no, you don't need to read Life After Life first - but if you don't you'll surely want to read it after).

2 May 2015

Upcoming stuff: The Vagrant by Peter Newman: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Hannu Rajaniemi collected stories

Just a short update on what i'm going to be doing here over the next few days...

I've been reading The Vagrant by Peter Newman for Shiny New Books - don't want to anticipate that but I have say a little: this is a book you must read if you're into SFF, or if you're not: it is a really clever twist on what you might imagine is routine fantasy.

The Vagrant is homeless, outcast, a scavenger. And he has a quest. But as he strides through the demon-infested wasteland, he also has a baby to care for: to feed (he acquires a goat to supply milk), to clean, to entertain and (when she becomes ill) to find medicine for.  And he does not (cannot?) speak.  In this debut novel, Newman doesn't make it easy for himself - or his protagonist - how DO you get out of a tricky situation when you can’t draw your sword for fear of dropping Baby and you can’t talk your way out because you can’t talk? - but the risk pays off.

Battling against demons on the one hand and desperate, shattered people on the other, the Vagrant's resourcefulness and compassion are tested again and again. Everywhere, the struggle for survival taints the spirit as the demon-stuff taints the body.  The tone and setting reminded me somewhat of a Western: the Man With No Name comes into town, standing up against the outlaws and improbably rallying the townsfolk – but always risks losing his way, becoming one of his enemies.

And like the best Westerns, the book doesn’t deal in black and white. There are no rescuers, no army of eagles or simple, if difficult salvation, only the working through of the Vagrants's struggle among the fallen remnants of humanity.  Newman explores prejudice and redemption, the need for compassion set against the drive for survival, even the treatment of refugees (regarded by one side as at best useless mouths, by the other as a source of body parts and slaves).

It is really good and you mustn't miss it.

I'll be posting a review in a couple of days of A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson's follow up to Life After Life.  I think it is as good, or even better.  A God in Ruins revisits some of the same characters, and in dwelling on the choices made during one life, and their consequences, it perhaps digs deeper than the earlier book.

And I'll be reviewing Hannu Rajaniemi's collected fiction, published on 19 May, as soon as I can process the stories in my head and come to conclusions.  They're much wider ranging than his three novels published so far, but that makes them hard to sum up.

After that, next book to start will be All That Outer Space Allows, the 4th and final part of Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet.  These books, exploring alternate timelines, outcomes and extrapolations of the Apollo space programme, are short but packed with juicy, hard-SF detail and plausible speculation.