So it’s been slightly over a month since I last posted here and something similar over at Bride of the Screen God. This was an unplanned break due largely to dealing with a range of health issues (all diagnosed and manageable but nevertheless unsettling), a heavy workload and then disappearing for three weeks on holiday in Scotland with the Book God. So I now find myself with a backlog of ten book and five film reviews which I’m hoping to sort out so that I can get back on schedule by early December. Lots of good things to read and see while I was away from the blog and although the reviews may be a wee bit shorter than normal I do want to try and cover everything if possible. Will be very interesting to see how much I’ve retained about some of the older stuff; at least one of the movies goes back to August Bank Holiday which doesn’t seem that long ago in some respects but the gap will certainly weed out those that had a lingering impact. I hope you’ll enjoy what’s coming up, especially all the RIP reads!
I was very lucky to get a ticket to hear Margaret Atwood speak about her new novel MaddAddam at the Hatchards Bloomsbury Book Club in Bedford Square at the end of August (and of course to get my copy of the book signed). (Apologies for the fuzzy photo!)
I have been an Atwood devotee since I was a teenager but this is the first time I’ve heard her speak in person, and what a thrill it was. She is such a presence, so articulate and willing to engage and debate, and I took piles of notes which I don’t intend to repeat here you’ll be relieved to note.
- I was interested to hear that she hadn’t originally intended Oryx & Crake to be the first in a trilogy but when she finished it she realised that the abrupt ending would lead to questions and that she would have to revisit the world she had created.
- She talked about the distinction between speculative and science fiction. She said this wasn’t about one being better than the other but about accurate labelling; when she sees something described as science fiction she expects rockets and planets and feels cheated if they aren’t present. She distinguished between two pioneers – Jules Verne (close to reality, might happen, potentially true) and HG Wells (fantastic, not real).
- She reads the back pages of science journals to see what people are working on (and encourages us to do so too)
- One of humanity’s first technologies was telling stories, and the ability to understand stories begins in children at an early stage, within the first year.
- “We speculate what Spot the Dog is thinking, but he’s probably not thinking about who makes dogs”
All fascinating stuff, and the promise of more to come. I left the event even more of a fangirl than when I went in!
Earlier this year I enjoyed watching a series on BBC4 about Flemish painting written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon. One of the paintings featured was the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck, one of the most recognisable pictures in the world, and a firm favourite of mine. A few days later I happened to be in King’s Cross station and spotted Carola Hicks’ Girl in a Green Gown: the history and mystery of the Arnolfini portrait and just had to buy it.
I’m so glad that I did.
What I hadn’t realised is that, unusually for a painting this old, its provenance can be tracked from the date it was painted right up until it became part of the collection in the National Gallery in the 1840s. What makes this book so fascinating is that it alternates the stories of the various owners (including one of my favourite historical figures, Philip II of Spain) with various detailed aspects of the picture itself – the mirror, the clothes, the chandelier, the dog etc. – explaining both the symbolism and the technical skills involved.
There is heaps of information in this book but it’s presented in a light and engaging way which certainly held my interest and had me looking up further information elsewhere. there is also a fascinating chapter on how perceptions of the picture have changed over time and how it has ben adopted and adapted for satirical and advertising purposes among others.
Sadly, Carola Hicks died from complications relating to cancer before she had put the finishing touches to the book, but her notes and amendments were incorporated by her husband so that her work could be published. I’m so glad he was able to do so because this is just a delight and if you are at all interested in art you should seek this one out.
About time for another National Gallery visit I think!
So, MaddAddam is the final volume in the eponymous trilogy by Margaret Atwood which began with Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood which I have reviewed separately here and here respectively. At the end of the previous volume the various threads of narrative came together and we are now moving forward into the future.
After the man-made plague a small group of humans have survived and we watch them come together and try to form a community and find a way to live in a world where supplies are dwindling, there uncertainty about just how many other people are still alive, and where they have to adapt to sharing the world with the Crakers, a genetically designed species of people who were designed to replace humanity which should have been wiped out. In amongst all this there are two threats: a few extraordinarily unpleasant men who seem to enjoy nothing other than inflicting pain and misery and, more interestingly, the pigoons, genetically modified intelligent carnivorous pigs who become really key to the survival of our little group in quite unexpected ways.
Although the novel is primarily focussed on establishing a new society (albeit a very localised one) there continue to be flashbacks to the past told through the eyes of Zeb who has become the partner of my favourite character Toby, and in telling her his life story illuminates us further on the background to the creation of the plague and the founding of God’s Gardeners, a sect which turns out to have been more than it seemed.
I enjoyed MaddAddam, was pleased to find out more about characters I had come to feel strongly about, but I’m not sure that it really comes to a conclusion, unless the conclusion is that no matter how well you think you have designed something (in this case the Crakers) you cannot plan for everything and once things are out in the world they will develop as they must. And it is very amusing in places.
I’m glad I took the time to read the trilogy so close together as I feel that I might have got lost if I’d read them as they were published; I found them dense (in a good way), lots to think about and jeep track of. If you enjoy speculative fiction you should give these a try.
And I was thrilled to get my copy signed by the great lady herself; more of that in a future post.
The Year of the Flood is the second book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It takes us back to the events described in Oryx & Crake (my review of that is here) but where the first novel told the story of the events around the man-made plague which devastates the world from the inside through one character, Snowman, The Year of the Flood addresses the same events from the perspective of two women in the outside world.
Though it comes as no surprise that, as we work our way through the stories of Ren and Toby, we become aware of links and connections with Snowman’s tale, some more obvious than others.
Ren is an exotic dancer who finds herself trapped in quarantine in the club where she works. Toby has taken refuge in an abandoned health spa and watches and waits on the building’s roof garden. The book alternates between the stories of each woman, and within their individual tales between the present and the past. This helps us build up a picture of the society destroyed by the actions of Crake, and gives us some clues as to why he thought it all had to be wiped away. The segregation, casual violence and exploitation of technology is vividly described in the novel, and the voices of the two women are strong and affecting.
I became particularly fond of Toby as a character, especially her involvement with the sect known as God’s Gardeners and her habit of noting the sermons and saints days and rituals that they practised. And of course her tending of the bees. Inevitably she and Ren come together and the book ends at almost the same point as Oryx & Crake, bringing the two narrative strands together and setting us up for the final instalment.
I loved this book and read it very quickly; middle books often suffer (just like middle films) from being a bridge between the set-up and the denouement and being unresolved in themselves, but I didn’t feel that was the case here at all. Perhaps it was the female point of view, perhaps it was the greater understanding it provided of the world the story is set in, perhaps it was just that I loved Toby so much, but for me (and without pre-empting my review of the final novel) this was the strongest instalment in the trilogy and the one I can see myself going back to. Very enjoyable.
I have been reading Margaret Atwood since I got a hold of Lady Oracle when I was 15 years old and was totally smitten; that was *gulp* 36 years ago, which is really hard to have to acknowledge, so let’s move swiftly on. I have always wanted to see her in person so was thrilled to get an opportunity to hear her speak about her newest novel, MaddAddam (more of that in another post). Then I realised that I hadn’t read the previous two volumes in what has become known as the MaddAddam trilogy, so I decided to put that right.
Oryx and Crake is set in the not terribly distant future and is seen through the perspective of Snowman who believes himself to be the only survivor of humankind after a man-made plague has wiped out all but the Crakers, a genetically engineered species of humanoid. The book alternates between the difficult present where Snowman struggles to survive, and his memories of the past where he was Jimmy, the best friend of the man who would become Crake and in love with the beautiful Oryx. Before the great catastrophe, the world (or at least the world that Jimmy knew) was split into the Pleeblands, where the majority of the ordinary population lived, and the various Compounds in which the elite lived and worked for corporations and were involved in experimentation in genetic engineering, producing strange hybrid animals which are now roaming free. Snowman is a sort of guardian to the Crakers, for whom the world was swept clean. Sort of.
I thought this was a wonderful piece of speculative fiction (Atwood doesn’t like this novel to be referred to as science fiction, which I’ll pick up on in a future post). Typically I found the build up to the dreadful events more interesting than Snowman’s current struggles and if I’m honest I found the Crakers a bit irritating at first, but it as it becomes clear that their designer had not been able to remove those human traits that he considered destructive (he was not a fan of speculative fiction) they grew on me, as did Jimmy/Snowman himself.
The ending of the book is inconclusive but I quite liked that, the uncertainty of what was going to happen next seemed to me to fit well with the tone of the novel, although I don’t believe at the time that Atwood had a trilogy planned, though se has said that she realised that readers would have questions which she aimed to respond to in the later books.
This had sufficient impact for me to start the sequel immediately, something that I hardly ever do (in fact I can’t think of the last time that happened). More of that anon.
So it’s September tomorrow and that means the start of one of my favourite blogging event’s, Carl’s RIP VIII and the opportunity to read scary and thrilling stuff along with lots of other members of the book blogging community.
As is traditional I have pulled together a book list out of which I hope to be able to meet Peril the Second, where I need to read four books that fit the description of perilous. I’d love to be able to read them all, but we’ll see how that goes.
- London Falling by Paul Cornell
- NOS4R2 by Joe Hill
- Horowitz Horror by Anthony Horowitz
- Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood by Christopher Fowler
- The Night Eternal by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
- Nocturnes by John Connolly
- Through Dead Eyes by Chris Priestley
- Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough
- Drood by Dan Simmons
- The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
A pretty good selection I think, and I’m looking forward to all of them.
I may also take part in Peril on the Screen but no real plans on what that might involve, though it is really about time I re-watched one of my Desert Island Films, Son of Frankenstein with *sigh* Basil Rathbone.
Every so often a book comes along that everyone seems to be reading and talking about all at once, and because I can be a bit perverse I tend to avoid them until the puff dies down a bit, then I dive in when no-one else is looking and often fall in love with them quietly in a corner. I did that most recently with Gone Girl (which I thought was great as you can see here) and was going to do the same this time round with Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls which only came out in April. But something drew me in, possibly the tagline; after all who can resist the idea of “the girl who wouldn’t die hunting the killer who shouldn’t exist”? Certainly not me.
So the book opens in Chicago in the 1920s where we meet Harper Curtis who I think its fair to say is not a nice man at all. He’s in pretty dire straits when we first come across him, beaten and hunted, but he finds himself in possession of a key to a very particular House one that allows him access to other times (and for that reason really deserves to be capitalised). Harper is a killer, hunting down the shining girls, young women of promise and vitality whom he taunts and murders rather brutally. But he meets his match in Kirby Mazrachi who astonishingly survives his horrendous attack and when the police cannot (understandably) find her would-be murderer begins to investigate and comes across evidence which points to a situation which cannot possibly be true. But of course is. And she goes after him.
The Shining Girls is absolutely brilliant, a fabulously clever idea and a wonderfully constructed book which twists and loops through time as we follow both Harper and Kirby. The structure of the novel is complex but never confusing though it must have required a phenomenal amount of organisation to keep the various stories straight over 80 years of events. The young women whom Harper kills are all proper characters; we learn quite a bit about each of them and that makes what happens to them so awful. Kirby is a wonderful character, trying to make sense of the terrible thing that was done to her but still flawed and damaged as you would expect. Harper is just a dreadful human being; it isn’t clear whether the House “makes” him do these awful things or whether he would have done something like this anyway, it’s just the spread of his attacks over time which keeps him hidden. But totally totally odious.
I really loved the mix of time-travel and serial killer and I appreciated that not all of the answers are handed to you as a reader. The situation is just as it is and I found that was good enough for me. Definitely a book worthy of re-reading.
This is a really sad review to write, because as everyone will know The Quarry is the last book completed by Iain Banks before his untimely death a month or so ago, a real loss to the world of books. And as everyone probably also knows, one of the main characters is dying of cancer, a fact that Banks made much of in his last interviews, lamenting the lateness of his research amidst a lot of gallows humour. I was very lucky to have met him briefly at a book signing in London where the Book God and I queued to get our copy of Excession signed and had a little chat about The Culture and Michael Moorcock. He was a twinkly man with a dry sense of humour and a lot of interest to say and he will be missed by his fans.
His last book centres around Kit who is 18 and somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He is also in the middle of the last weeks of his father Guy’s illness, cancer which is at an advanced stage and, with only the help of a sort of housekeeper, Kit is the main carer. the events of the book take place over one weekend where hid father’s closest friends come to visit, say their last goodbyes and, which seems to be important for all of them, look for a video recording of them when they were students which if it got into the public domain would have a real effect on all of their lives. Kit assumes that it is a sex tape but that isn’t made clear for quite a while, because of course the tape is the McGuffin that kicks off a book which is about family, death, grief, friendship and growing up different. Kit doesn’t have effective people skills and some of the humour in the book is watching him work out how best to interact with the people around him, what is and isn’t acceptable to say.
I really liked The Quarry, though some of the characters in the book are quite unpleasant, not least Guy himself who is suffering physically and mentally and takes every opportunity to launch invective at the people around him. Thankfully Kit is a superb character, complex and simple all at once, trying his best. The thing he wants to know most of all is who is mother is, something that has always been kept hidden from him.
This is a very funny book in places, and although the subject matter takes on a whole new significance when you factor in that Banks got his diagnosis as he was coming to the end of the writing process he doesn’t hold back, and some of the passages where Guy lets loose how he feels are astonishingly bitter though you don’t get that sense from Banks that he necessarily agrees, because it is a book with quite a lot of hope in it.
So, a story that is really worth reading, sad as I said that there will be no more written, though I have two or three of his works that I still haven’t read so something for me to look forward to at least.
It is no secret to anyone who reads this blog regularly (and there must be someone out there, surely?) how much I like Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London series, and how thrilled I was to get my copy of Whispers of Underground signed at an event last year. Sadly I couldn’t make the London event this year but no matter, as soon as my copy of Broken Homes arrived I dived (dove?) right in and devoured the thing in short order.
So much as before we have Peter Grant, PC and wizard, his boss Nightingale and colleague Jenny still on the hunt for the rather nasty Faceless Man, still interacting with the various incarnations of the Thames and its tributaries and still being dragged in to any case with a whiff of the supernatural. This story starts with an odd car crash, some mutilated bodies and *gasp* the need to go south of the river to work out exactly what, if anything the connection is with a particularly unusual housing complex designed by the somewhat eccentric Erik Stromberg.
As you might expect I really loved this and its mixture solid police work and, well, magic. The story really clips along. As always (and its perhaps a bit of a cliché to say this, but hey, this is how things become clichés) London itself is a significant character and also as always I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know about the city that I live and work in. Although I think all the books are strong this seems to me to be the best since Rivers of London itself.
And the end was Oh!
Followed by Ah!
Followed by a rush to the web to find out when the next volume is due because I want to see where this is all going.
Absolutely great stuff.