Thursday 29 October 2015

Book Review | The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett is delivered to her new school: Drearcliff Grange in Somerset. 

Although it looks like a regular boarding school, Amy learns that Drearcliff girls are special: the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians. Several of the pupils also have special gifts like Amy’s, and when one of the girls in her dormitory is abducted by a mysterious group in black hoods, Amy forms a secret, superpowered society called the Moth Club to rescue their friend. They soon discover that the Hooded Conspiracy runs through the School, and it's up to the Moth Club to get to the heart of it.


It's a credit to Kim Newman that he only rarely writes the novels you think he will. Just look at his last book: An English Ghost Story indubitably did what its title described, but it was—weirdly, wonderfully—as comical as it was creepy, and as interested in depicting the dysfunctional family it followed as it was the spectral presence that pushed them to the inevitable precipice.

Newman's newest—which purports to be the start of a series by Louise Magellan Teazle, the previous occupant of the haunted house at the heart of the aforementioned narrative—is not dissimilar in its evisceration of expectations. The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School appears to be one thing, namely a classical magical academy narrative along the lines of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. And it is! And it isn't.

"A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett was delivered to her new school. Like a parcel," (p.13) with exactly as much love and care as that imagery entails. Mother, you see, is not best pleased that her daughter has developed such particular Abilities:
In the months since she first came unstuck from the ground, Amy had been subjected to cold baths, weighted pinafores, long walks, hobbling boots and a buzzing, tickling electric belt. Leeches and exorcism were on the cards. Mother's whole idea in sending Amy to Drearcliff was to clamp down on floating. (p.22)
As it happens, however, Amy's new school—"a rambling, gloomy, ill-repaired estate on top of a cliff" (p.13)—is not at all what Mother had imagined. Instead, it's a place where unseemly tendencies are accepted. Encouraged, even, since Headmistress considers it Drearcliff's responsibility to help Amy and the other Unusuals she'll meet in the year Newman's novel narrates to find Applications for their array of Abilities.

Needless to say, not all of the students studying at Drearcliff are as welcoming as Dr. Swan...

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Book Review | A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.


Gene Wolfe continues to play with the nature of narrators in his mostly notional new novel, a middling murder mystery explicated from the perspective of a posthumous author pretending to be a detective.

The story starts with Colette Coldbrook: sweetheart teacher, well-spoken socialite and, in the early parts of the narrative, something of a survivor. A year or so ago, she suddenly lost her mother; a little later, her father suffered a suspicious heart attack; and in the aftermath of that latter's passing, her beloved brother was straight-up strangled. She has no-one to turn to, now, and so many questions—not least about the unassuming book Conrad Coldbrook Junior found in Conrad Coldbrook Senior's safe.

Colette believes—with good reason, even—that Murder on Mars may be the key to understanding what happened to her family, and perhaps why, but beyond that, she doesn't have a clue what to do. The thought of reading this fictional fossil doesn't cross her ultra-modern mind for a minute. Instead, she does the other obvious thing: she rents out a so-called "reclone" of the author of the novel, E. A. Smithe, from her local library, and asks him to do the dirty work.

Now it might be that Smithe comes complete with most of his long-dead predecessor's memories, but he doesn't remember much about Murder on Mars—and to make matters worse, he's a copy of a crime writer rather than anything resembling a detective himself:
I was not the man I thought I was, the one whose name I used—whose name I still use right now, for that matter. I was somebody else, a kid who had been grown from that guy's DNA and loaded up with his memories, phony memories of things that never happened to me and never could happen to me. (p.36)
Thus, the investigation into the curious case of the Coldbrooks proceeds in frustrating fits and stuttering starts, regularly interrupted by Smithe's soul-searching and set back substantially when Colette is (apparently) kidnapped. "The more I thought about it the surer I got that there was something funny going on, but I could not even guess what it was." (p.106)

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Book Review | Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Bats of the Republic is an illuminated novel of adventure, featuring hand-drawn maps and natural history illustrations, subversive pamphlets and science-fictional diagrams, and even a nineteenth-century novel-within-a-novel—an intrigue wrapped in innovative design.

In 1843, fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas must leave his beloved in Chicago to deliver a secret letter to an infamous general on the front lines of the war over Texas. The fate of the volatile republic, along with Zadock’s future, depends on his mission. When a cloud of bats leads him off the trail, he happens upon something impossible...

Three hundred years later, the world has collapsed and the remnants of humanity cling to a strange society of paranoia. Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope from his grandfather, an esteemed senator. When that letter goes missing, Zeke engages a fomenting rebellion that could free him—if it doesn’t destroy his relationship, his family legacy, and the entire republic first.

As their stories overlap and history itself begins to unravel, a war in time erupts between a lost civilization, a forgotten future, and the chaos of the wild. Bats of the Republic is a masterful novel of adventure and science fiction, of elliptical history and dystopian struggle, and, at its riveting core, of love.


In a world where the Powers That Be have deemed any and all secrets illegal, Zeke Thomas must go against the flow he's always followed when he inherits a sealed envelope containing information which could sink the system that's kept humanity alive since the Collapse.

Meanwhile, in the year 1843, Zeke's time-removed relative, Zadock, has to leave his one true love languishing in her sickbed to deliver a highly sensitive letter to a legendary general embedded deep in the disputed territory of Texas.

An incredibly presented "illuminated novel" which, like last year's S., blends form and function with history and mystery to realise a reading experience that amazes from the first page, Bats of the Republic comes from the co-founder of a small press specialising in "strange and beautiful fiction and nonfiction" with a sideline in detail-oriented design, so the unusual shape Zachary Thomas Dodson's debut takes shouldn't be such a surprise.

And yet, the metatextual elements that make this reflexive narrative remarkable are so utterly abundant that they create a state of fantastic stupefaction. In advance of the actual start of the story, we're treated to an exquisite endpaper mosaic, two discrete family trees, a meticulous map charting Zadock's ill-fated flight, a selection of handwritten letters, the first of a few newspaper clippings, and the title page of a whole other novel, namely The City-State by E. Anderson—all of which is as good as guaranteed to make one go um. 

And Bats of the Republic has hardly even begun!

Thursday 15 October 2015

Book Review | Little Sister Death by William Gay

David Binder is a young, successful writer living in Chicago and suffering from writer’s block. He stares at the blank page, and the blank page stares back—until inspiration strikes in the form of a ghost story that captivated him as a child.

With his pregnant wife and young daughter in tow, he sets out to explore the myth of Virginia Beale, Faery Queen of the Haunted Dell. But as his investigation takes him deeper and deeper into the legacy of blood and violence that casts its shadow over the old Beale farm, Binder finds himself obsessed with a force that’s as wicked as it is seductive.

A stirring literary rendition of Tennessee’s famed Curse of the Bell Witch, Little Sister Death skilfully toes the line between Southern Gothic and horror, and further cements William Gay’s legacy as not only one of the South’s finest writers, but among the best that American literature has to offer.


As his friend Tom Franklin notes in the intimate introduction with which Little Sister Death begins, the late, great William Gay's lost horror novel "is the most metafictional thing [he] ever wrote—it's about a writer, obsessed with a haunting, who moves his family to the site" (p.xvii) of said unearthly events.

Gay, for his part, didn't go quite as far as that, but he had "long been fascinated with the Bell Witch phenomenon in Tennessee, and even had his own encounter with, perhaps, an echo of the Bell Witch herself." (pp.xvi-xvii) That true tale acts at a capstone on the unsettling story at the centre of Little Sister Death, but there's a goodly amount of truth, too, in the several hundred posthumously published pages preceding the author's authentic account of his own eerie experience.

Like William Gay, whose fearsome first novel won the 1989 James A. Michener Memorial Prize, the debut of Little Sister Death's central character David Binder is something of a success. Not necessarily commercially—it's no bestseller—but it wins enough awards to keep Binder and his kin in business.

Sadly, the critically acclaimed young author's second novel does not cement his literary legacy in the way Provinces of Night did in Gay's case. Instead, it's rejected, and rather than redrafting the manuscript, a briefly defeated Binder takes his agent's advice to "write a genre novel [...] something we can sell to the paperback house" (p.22) to heart. A trip to his local bookstore later, he has his subject: the Beale Haunting—Gay's thinly veiled rendition of the so-called Curse of the Bell Witch, which, for what it's worth, The Blair Witch Project is believed to have been based on.

Monday 12 October 2015

Book Review | The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

What if you aren't the Chosen One? The one who's supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you're like Mikey, who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school—again. 

And what if there are problems bigger than this week's end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life? Even if your best friend might just be the God of mountain lions...


In the suggestive sentence attached to the first chapter of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, "the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate." (p.9)

The world is ending again, evidently. But never mind the Messenger—the impending apocalypse its presence heralds is not the point of Patrick Ness' latest revelation. There are indeed dark times ahead for the friends of indie kid Finn—this Immortals nonsense will lead to any number of melodramatic deaths—but the household heroes of The Rest of Us Just Live Here are safely outside of said circle.

That's not to say their days lack drama, or tragedy, but like you and me, reader, rather than the saviours at the centre of so many Chosen One stories, just living keeps them plenty busy.
We yearn the same, wish the same. We're just as screwed-up and brave and false and loyal and wrong and right as anyone else. And even if there's no one in my family or my circle of friends who's going to be the Chosen One or the Beacon of Peace or whatever the hell it's going to be next time around, I reckon there are a lot more people like me than there are indie kids with unusual names and capital-D Destinies. (p.35)
"Your humble narrator" (p.55) Mikey Mitchell has hit the nail on the head, here, and the notion that normal is not the same as insignificant informs every last aspect of the new novel from the mind behind A Monster Calls.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Book Review | The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of economic and social collapse. Living in their car, surviving on tips from Charmaine's job at a dive bar, they're increasingly vulnerable to roving gangs, and in a rather desperate state. So when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience—a "social experiment" offering stable jobs and a home of their own—they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month, swapping their home for a prison cell.

At first, all is well. But slowly, unknown to the other, Stan and Charmaine develop a passionate obsession with their counterparts, the couple that occupy their home when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire take over, and Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.


You can buy a bunch of stuff with money. You can buy board games, boxed sets, hot hatchbacks and huge houses—an assortment of objects and accessories and investments likely to lift your spirits for a few minutes and, if you're lucky, a whole lot longer. But, The Heart Goes Last asks, does that mean you can buy happiness? Its answer: hah!

Stan and Charmaine wouldn't have had any need to, till recently. When they were first married, their futures were bright; their futures were right. "They were so happy then. It was just like an ad." (p.276) The newlyweds were even considering kids when the bottom went out from under the economy and civilised society practically collapsed.
They were so sweet then, so hopeful; so young, not like the way [they are] now. And then it hadn't worked out, because of circumstances. And it was a strain, so many tensions, what with the car and everything, but they'd stayed together because they had each other and they loved each other. (p.153)
At the start of Margaret Atwood's first standalone work of full-length fiction for fifteen years, Stan and Charmaine have almost nothing but their love for one another—and even that bond has been stronger. Then they hear about something called the Positron project, an experimental private enterprise which promises a new way today and, if it works, a new world for the future:
Rather than festering in some deserted condo crawling with black mould or crouching in a stench-filled trailer where you'd spend the nights beating off dead-eyed teenagers armed with broken bottles and ready to murder you for a handful of cigarette butts, you'd have gainful employment, three wholesome meals a day, a lawn to tend, a hedge to trim, the assurance that you were contributing to the general good, and a toilet that flushed. In a word, or rather three words: A MEANINGFUL LIFE. (p.42)
The only trade-off is that participants must spend every other month in a prison—and while they're away, their so-called "alternates" come out to play...

Thursday 1 October 2015

Book Review | Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

The Moon wants to kill you. Whether it's being unable to pay your per diem for your allotted food, water, and air, or you just get caught up in a fight between the Moon's ruling corporations, the Five Dragons. You must fight for every inch you want to gain in the Moon's near feudal society. And that is just what Adriana Corta did.

As the leader of the Moon's newest "dragon," Adriana has wrested control of the Moon's Helium-3 industry from the Mackenzie Metal corporation and fought to earn her family's new status. Now, at the twilight of her life, Adriana finds her corporation, Corta Helio, surrounded by the many enemies she made during her meteoric rise. If the Corta family is to survive, Adriana's five children must defend their mother's empire from her many enemies.,. and each other.


I spent a little less than a week reading Luna: New Moon. The first hundred pages took me five difficult days; the remainder I sucked up like a sponge in a single sitting on the sixth; and on the seventh day, I rested, not because Ian McDonald's new novel is exhausting—though it is, initially—but because its denouement is so devastating I was rather a wreck by then.

Rarely have I finished a book feeling so differently about it as I did in the beginning. If I'd tried to review Luna: New Moon while picking my way through its tremendously dense first third, I'd have struggled to recommend it in any respect. Now, it's all I can do to resist shouting GAME OF THRONES IN SPACE, as I did on Twitter when I put paid to its last masterful chapter, and signing off with a statement of its unadulterated greatness. 

But maybe I should explain.

Though I can see this story taking a lot longer than intended to tell, just as George R. R. Martin's bestselling fantasy saga has, Luna: New Moon is, at the time of this writing, the first volume of a proposed duology that should do for Earth's only natural satellite what McDonald did for India in River of Gods, Brazil in Brasyl, and Istanbul in his last adult narrative: The Dervish House.

In the five years since that latter won both the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the BSFA for Best Novel, McDonald has been busy with the Everness trilogy: a reality-spanning romp written for young adults but read by any number of readers older even than me. And perhaps that was the root cause of my problem with this novel; after Planesrunner, Be My Enemy and Empress of the Sun, I'd become accustomed to the aforementioned author at his most approachable. 

Luna: New Moon is no such thing, sadly.