Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Book Review | The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt


When the Supreme Being and his son decide that being supreme isn't for them any more, a new management team has to be found—and fast!

Dynamic, resourceful and always customer-focused, the Venturi brothers are perfect for the job, and keen to get stuck in. First on their to-do list is Good and Evil, an outdated system that was always a bit confusing and just made everyone feel bad about things. 

Unfortunately, the sudden disappearance of right and wrong, while welcomed by some, is a big concern to those still in favour of its basic principles. Particularly given that the Venturi brothers have replaced it with something that seems decidedly... well, evil.

***

The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt's new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it's more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.

God, the thing begins, is getting on. "Fact is [...] I feel old," (p.38) He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that "had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton." (p.37) An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.
You build a business from the ground up, you care for it, worry about it, you take pride in its progress, you're there for it when things don't go so well. But there always comes a time when you have to let go. Or does there? (p.37)
For obvious reasons, Jesus—who goes by Jay these days—doesn't disagree. After all, "they're father and son but also equal aspects of the One; it's therefore logically impossible for them" (p.35) to part ways in anything other than a philosophical fashion. It's to His credit that Jay does wonder where that's likely to leave Uncle Ghost, who's gotten a bit dotty in His dotage, before giving God the nod... but notably, nobody mentions Kevin.

Kevin is "the younger son of God, marginally less well beloved" than his celebrated big brother "and with whom his father was not always quite so well pleased." (pp.1-2) That's probably because Kevin is desperately inept. He's the kind of person who sticks to instant because he broke the cappuccino machine and everyone in a position to fix it with a minor miracle is too busy. Even celestial mechanics, "the easiest part of the business," (p.9) is beyond this poor kid, whose destiny seems to be to watch one rerun of Touched by an Angel after another, which... well, the less said about, the better.

To wit, when the time comes to hand off the heavens and the earth, Kevin isn't even in contention...

Monday, 12 June 2017

Book Review | Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott


The town of Rotherweird stands alone—there are no guidebooks, despite the fascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird's independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused. But secrets have a way of leaking out...

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothing before 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow been given permission to renovate the town's long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time—and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

***

[The Full English: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott]

If J. K. Rowling had given Jasper Fforde permission to document a decade of derring-do in Diagon Alley, the result would read rather like Rotherweird, an appetising if stodgy smorgasbord of full English fiction set in a town unlike any other.
Like everyone else, Oblong had heard of the Rotherweird Valley and its town of the same name, which by some quirk of history were self-governing—no MP and no bishop, only a mayor. He knew too that Rotherweird had a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world: no guidebook recommended a visit; the County History was silent about the place. (p.15)
Yet Rotherweird is in need of a teacher, and Oblong—Jonah Oblong, whose career in education to date has been a disgrace—is in need of a job, so he doesn't ask any of the questions begged by the classified ad inviting interviewees to the aforementioned valley. Instead, he packs a bag, takes a train, a taxi, and then—because "Rotherweird don't do cars," (p.16) as his toothless chauffeur tells him—"an extraordinary vehicle, part bicycle, part charabanc, propelled by pedals, pistons and interconnecting drums," (p.17) and driven by a laughably affable madman.

Need I note that nothing in Rotherweird is as it seems? Not the people, not the public transport, and certainly not the place, as Oblong observes as his new home heaves into view:
The fog enhanced the feel of a fairground ride, briefly thinning to reveal the view before closing again. In those snapshots, Oblong glimpsed hedgerows and orchards, even a row of vines—and at one spectacular moment, a vision of a walled town, a forest of towers in all shapes and sizes, encircled by a river. (pp.19-20)
It's here, in lofty lodgings and under the care of his own "general person," (p.41) that Oblong is installed after he's hired as a history teacher. But the position comes with one stickler of a condition: he has "a contractual obligation to keep to 1800 and thereafter, if addressing the world beyond the valley, and to treat Rotherweird history as off-limits entirely. Here he must live in the moment. Private speculation could only lead him astray." (p.43) And if you venture too far off the beaten path in Rotherweird, you might just end up disappeared—the very fate which befell Oblong's incurably curious predecessor.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Review | Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami


"I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden."

Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all. 

Marked by the same wry humor that has defined his entire body of work, in this collection Murakami has crafted another contemporary classic.

***

"If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden," muses Haruki Murakami in the materials accompanying Men Without Women. He must, then, be something of a glutton for punishment, having immersed himself in metaphorical forestry for the decade and change since his last short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, allowed the World Fantasy Award-winning author to tend to his wending trellises.

Compared to the twenty four works of fiction featured in that last, Men Without Women is a strikingly slim volume, compiling only seven stories, six of which Murakami's legion of English-language fans may well have read already. And whilst I wish I could tell you their haunting quality makes up for their wanting quantity, so many of said struck me as uneventful retreads that I can only recommend this collection with a handful of caveats.

That being said, if you come to Murakami for the cats and the cars, the deep obeisance to The Beatles and the bars choked with smoke, then come! Men Without Women has all that jazz—and oh so many miserable men and mysterious women.
The day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you're already there. But by then there's no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called 'Men Without Women.' Always a relentlessly frigid plural.  
Only Men Without Women can comprehend how painful, how heartbreaking it is to become one. (p.224)
That's as may be, but if this collection is about anything, it's about communicating that pain, that heartbreak, to the reader.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book Review | City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett


Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing. 

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve. 

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

***

The Divine Cities series comes full circle in City of Miracles, a positively action-packed fantasy about getting your own back. But revenge is not just what the hardy anti-hero at its heart is after: revenge is also what its both figuratively and literally tortured villain is interested in.

This child of the night, who shall not be named because to identify him is to invite his wickedness in, is not a divinity like the other antagonists of Robert Jackson Bennett's incomparable narrative—at least, not quite. He's really just an angsty adolescent; a "selfish kid who thinks his misfortunes are bigger than everyone else's" and has decided to take his frustrations out on everyone around him.

Unfortunately for everyone around him, this angsty adolescent just so happens to be the spawn of a few fallen gods. To wit, he has a domain—the dark—and some of his mother and father's magic. City of Miracles begins with him flexing his miraculous muscles: by outfitting an assassin to slaughter the former Prime Minister—and the first of this spectacular saga's protagonists—Ashara Komayd.

When news of Shara's shocking death reaches a remote logging range beyond Bulikov, every man around the campfire is taken aback, but only one among them takes it personally. He is City of Miracles' new central perspective, and whilst he hasn't played this role before, he's a figure folks who've followed this fiction will be intimately familiar with; a fan-favourite character, in fact, who has flitted around its fringes but never before been at its fore. That's right, readers: the focus of Bennett's barnstorming finale is finally on Shara's right-hand man, the Dreyling she saved who has saved her so often since. Good to see you again, Sigrud!

Following the death of his daughter in City of Blades, not to mention the mindless massacre that followed, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson has been in exile, none too patiently awaiting the day when Shara can at last bring him back into action. But with his dearest friend so dramatically departed, what does he have left to live for? Nothing, initially, but a need to make her murderer pay.

He does so summarily, racking up a rather improbable body count in the process. As a member of the supporting cast who crosses his fiery path puts it: "You've lost none of your subtlety, Sigrud."

But whilst raining hell on everyone who had a hand or even a hair in Shara's assassination, our daring Dreyling learns about a scheme that gives him a reason to keep on keeping on. In short, "someone is targeting Shara's adopted daughter" Tatyana, and having failed to save his last loved one, the least he can do, he reasons, is ensure that this small part of her legacy lives on.

To do what needs doing, he has to go to Ghaladesh. "Ghaladesh, the capital of Saypur, the richest, most well-protected city in the world. The place with perhaps the most security in the civilised nations—and thus the place that he, a fugitive from Saypur's justice, is most likely to be caught, imprisoned, tortured, and possibly—or probably—executed."

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Book Review | The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey


Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived...

***

Whether it's a character that captures us or a narrative that enraptures us, a situation that speaks to something unspoken or a conflict that builds on something broken—who can say, on this or any other day, what makes a book a bestseller? The quality of a given novel has next to nothing to do with its success on store shelves, that's for sure. Plenty of bad books have shifted millions, and many more deserving efforts have come and gone to no such notice. It's a blessing, then, when a truly wonderful work of fiction becomes a bestseller... but it can also be a burden.

The Girl With all the Gifts was probably the best zombie novel to have been released in recent years, and it sold hella well—well enough to spawn a movie that was also pretty swell. But while the next book to bear M. R. Carey's name was a dark delight in its own right, Fellside didn't catch on in the same way, I'm afraid.

To wit, I wasn't entirely surprised when I heard that Carey's new novel was a sidequel of sorts to The Girl With all the Gifts. I was, however, concerned; concerned that setting a second story in the same world that Melanie and Miss Justineau so wholly inhabited ran the risk of diminishing their devastating adventures. Happily, The Boy on the Bridge bears its burden brilliantly, and I can only hope it's as blessed by the book-buying public as its predecessor.

It is, admittedly, a little derivative. And I don't just mean that it tugs on many of the same heartstrings The Girl With all the Gifts did—though it does, ultimately: The Boy on the Bridge is an equally bleak book, and equally beautiful, too. But that's not it either. I'm talking about the plot, which is, at least initially, almost a mirror image of its predecessor's: it's an apocalyptic road story about the relationship between a teacher and her unusual student.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Book Review | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer


“Am I a person or a weapon?” Borne asks Rachel, in extremis.

“Yes, you are a person,” Rachel tells him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.

At first, Borne looks like nothing at all―a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.

But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel―and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.

***

Following his triumphant trek through Area X in the cerebral Southern Reach series, Jeff VanderMeer mounts a more modest yet no less affecting expedition into uncharted territory by way of Borne, a surprisingly beautiful book about a blob which behaves like a boy and the broken woman who takes him in.

Her name is Rachel, and when she was little, she "wanted to be a writer, or at least something other than a refugee. Not a trap-maker. Not a scavenger. Not a killer." (p.37) But we are what the world makes us, and no poxy author would have lasted long in the world in which this novel's narrator was raised:
Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world. (p.37)
There is hope even in this haunted hellscape, however, and it takes a strange shape, as hope tends to: that of "a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours" (p.6) Rachel finds in the festering fur of a skyscraper-sized flying bear called Mord.

She brings the titular thing, Borne-to-be, back to the Balcony Cliffs, a broken-down apartment building where she lives and works with Wick, her sometime lover and a secretive biotech beetle dealer who pushes a memory-altering product "as terrible and beautiful and sad and sweet as life itself." (p.7) Out of the gate, Rachel intends to give her purplish prize to him to pick at—but something, the beginning of some instinct, stays her hand. Instead, she places it in her room, and tries to take care of it.

"This required some experimenting, in part because [she] had never taken care of anyone or anything before," (p.17) but equally because her amorphous mass is a complete mystery. Certainly Wick has never seen its like, and having worked once for the Company, he has seen everything there is to see. To wit, Rachel treats this colourful clump like a plant to start; reclassifies it as an animal after it starts to move around her room; and then, when it shocks her by talking, she takes to behaving around it as she would a baby boy. She talks to him; teaches him; comes, ultimately, to love him—and he her in turn.