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The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

Gollancz, 2015, 543 p.

The Promise of the Child cover

It is sometime in the 14,700s, Homo sapiens has speciated, “Prismed into a dozen breeds of fairy-tale grotesques,” Pifoon, Vulgar, Melius, Amaranthine, being only some of its descendants; Immortals wait out their time before falling into madness, a war is being waged. There is intrigue over the succession of a new Emperor. A machine called the Soul Engine can resurrect dead bodies, undamaged dead bodies, into true immortality and is an object of desire for some of the characters, none of whom engaged my interest or sympathy. A pair of long-dead space-faring dinosaurs found among the rings of Saturn also feature.

Despite containing spaceships and superluminal engines (which somehow also seem to be capable of operating at sub-light speeds) this future still has artillery which fires shells and recognisable place names and locations on Earth. Also marring it all are unconvincing fight and battle scenes, tedious information dumping and a failure to adhere to Colin Greenland’s injunction to beware the pluperfect.

I never give up on a book; but I came perilously close with this one.

Pedant’s corner:- The text mentions lifeless worlds exist where oxygen concentration is higher than that of the Old World. (Oxygen is a reactive gas; without replenishment it would swiftly be used up. Replenishment is a by-product of plant activity, ie life,) “the drilling team were” (was,) whisps, (wisps,) Impatiens’ (Impatiens’s; and this use of the apostrophe is not applied consistently, witness Sotiris’s,) fetid (I prefer foetid,) the crew were (was,) crenulated (crenellated?) metal is “soft enough to mould and carve in a person’s hand, with only a dip in salt water necessary to begin the hardening process” (no metal I know of behaves like this; each metal is either soft or not, depending perhaps on the temperature. Mind you, this metal grows on trees,) “said…. a voice in the chapel that appeared to come from everywhere” (the chapel came from everywhere?) “hoping at least one would find their target” (its target surely?) “but did nothing shade them” (nothing to shade them,) hingeing (I believe the correct form is hinging – but to someone from the West of Scotland there is a distinction between hinge and hing so I would accept hingeing in a Scottish work, which this isn’t,) the expectant trio were (was,) epicentre (centre,) master-at-arms’ (master-at-arms’s,) wollen (woollen.)

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Flamingo, 2001, 508 p, plus vii p Introduction and iv p Appendix of Works by Gao Xingjian. Translated from the Chinese, 灵山 (Língshān,) by Mabel Lee.

Soul Mountain cover

Xingjian is China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (though he has for a long time lived in France) and Soul Mountain his most well-known work. In it there is certainly a literary knowingness at work. At first it seems as if alternating chapters are being narrated in the second person, a notoriously unusual, and brave, strategy – with the intervening chapters apparently a more conventional first person – but it isn’t quite so, as the treatment is subtler than that. In fact the “you” of the “second person” chapters is an unnamed character in the novel – as are the “I” and “she” we also find within its covers. His portrait of historical China makes it seem a harsh, lawless place. The book contains an astonishing number of casually reported rapes and abductions of women.

Interspersed with innumerable tales and occasional poems or folk song transcriptions the novel is on the surface the story of a writer, unable to be published after being labelled a rightist, wandering around China in search of Lingshan, the Soul Mountain of the title, and the various encounters he has on the way, many of which are enigmatic. A blurb on the back describes it as “a picaresque novel on an epic scale” which “bristles with narratives in miniature”, and it certainly is picaresque in the dictionary definition. However, another word for it might be “bitty”.

The trouble is that the “you” and “I” are barely distinguishable and there is little in the way of forward thrust. In the writer’s voice Xingjian tells us, “I never speak of we or us. I believe that this is much more concrete than the sham we which is totally meaningless. Even if you and she and he and masculine they and feminine they are images of the imagination, for me they are all more substantial than what is known as we…. How many of we are in fact implicated? There is nothing more false than this we,” – an extract which conveys some of the flavour of the book’s reflective passages.

Xingjian’s purpose is, perhaps, laid out in Chapter 72 where a critic complains, “‘This isn’t a novel!’” and when asked what, then, it is, says, “‘A novel must have a complete story.’” Our narrator says he has told many stories some with endings, some without, and the critic responds, “‘They’re all fragments without any sequence, the author doesn’t know how to organise connected episodes.’” As to how the critic thinks a novel ought to be organised, foreshadowing, climax then conclusion are cited. Our author then asks “if fiction can be written without conforming to (that) method …. with ‘parts told from beginning to end and parts from end to beginning, parts with a beginning and no ending and others which are only conclusions or fragments which aren’t followed up, parts which are developed but aren’t completed or which can’t be completed or which can be left out or which don’t need to be told any further or about which there’s nothing more to say. And all of these would also be considered stories.’” He retorts to the suggestion that there are no characters, “‘But surely the I, you and she in the book are characters?’” The critic claims, “‘These are just different pronouns to change the point of view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters,’” and also, “‘This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short….. You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!’” (This last could easily stand as a critique of the book.) In a less ambitious work the chapter’s ending, “Reading this chapter is optional but as you’ve read it, you’ve read it,” might feel like a slap in the face to a reader. As it is we’ve known for a long time the book is not straightforward.

In the guise of his writer Xingjian also says, “in the end all you can achieve are memories, hazy, intangible, dreamlike memories which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences, the dregs left from linguistic structures.” It is as if he is saying the practice of writing is useless. “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing.” Not a sentiment I would have expected to read in a Nobel Prize winner’s book.

Pedant’s corner:- “it was annoying there was a place you’ve never even heard of” (past tense so “you’d”?) Peddlers (USian for pedlars,) eying (eyeing,) undefinable (indefinable?) “there are a series of courtyards” (there is a series,) bungers (these seem to be fireworks; so, bangers?) “this his how fights often start” (is,) “I didn’t seen anything clearly” (see,) “with no-one is sight” (in sight.) “Outside the upstairs widow” (window, I think,) “the band of shining feathers puff out” (the band puffs out,) wreathes (wreaths,) “none of the people sell tops” (none sells tops,) a fire burnt for days (burned is more usual as the past tense, burnt as the past participle,) mucous (as a noun; so, mucus,) an inscriptions (inscription.) “It is only when I stop the recorder to change the tape that, panting, that he too comes to a stop” (one “that” too many,) “came from an other” (is there a different meaning when “another” is used?) “of what consequence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written” (one book fewer?) “the totality of my misfortunes also exist within you” (the totality exists,) cockscombs (cocks’ combs,) “and you stop there and to look” (and look, or omit and,) “A unfriendly voice answers.” (An unfriendly voice,) stomaches (stomachs,) “I immediately open the rice wine right away” (immediately or right away; not both,) high-pitch voice (usually high-pitched.) “Where else can we find these songs which we should listen to while seated in quiet reverence or even while prostrated be found?” (“can we find”, or, “be found”, not both,) “Aren’t I welcome?” (Do the Chinese phrase this so ungrammatically?) “is that job?” (your job,) “‘But where is the criteria?’” (are,) “the lens were so worn they were like frosted glass” (lenses.) “The Immortal Cliffs slowly recedes” (recede,) artemesia (artemisia.) “Fragments of that hoary old voice sings” (fragments sing,) “his eyes have sunken deep” (sunk,) “striking it everywhere from its centre to their sides” (its sides,) “we… put our thumb print to it” (we; so, prints.)

Asimov’s Aug 2016

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Aug 2016 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial1 remembers her introduction to SF via the women superheroes found in comic books and the inspiration she took from them; inspiration she hopes her own daughters will also find. Robert Silverberg’s Reflections2 discusses the software of magic (spells) with regard to ancient Egyptian papyri. Paul Di Filippo’s On Books3 is complimentary about all the books reviewed but especially a reprint of Judith Merril’s critical essays on SF and China Miéville’s This Census Taker (which I reviewed here.)
In the fiction:-
Wakers4 by Sean Monaghan is set on a colonisation starship which has suffered damage to its operating AI and veered off course. Only one crew member at a time is woken to keep things going, passing on the duty at the end of their stint. The latest waker has an idea to change the ship’s fate.
In Toppers5 by Jason Sandford New York has been separated from the rest of the world. Only the tallest skyscrapers provide secure refuges above the mists. Our (unnamed) female protagonist has to walk through the mists to get supplies.
The title of The Mutants Men Don’t See by James Alan Garner of course refers to a celebrated SF story by James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon.) Here a repressed Flash Gene may be activated by some kind of shock during puberty and changes its carrier into a superhero. Menopausal Ellie Lee fears her son will try to force such a change by endangering his life and sets put to protect him. It becomes obvious very early on where this is going. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold a candle to Tiptree.
The “Kit” in Kit: Some Assembly Required6 by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is Christopher Marlowe or, rather, a simulacrum of Marlowe in a computer network. Kit achieves sentience. The slightly clichéd identity of his human “creator” is all that lets this tale down. The best story I’ve read in Asimov’s so far.
Patience Lake7 by Matthew Claxton sees a former cyborg soldier, damaged in an attack and surplus to requirements, hitch-hiking to Saskatchewan and taking odd jobs to try to meet his maintenance costs. But his spare parts could make him valuable himself.
In Kairos8 by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst, a research project has come up with a way to stop telomeres unravelling and hence halt ageing. Our narrator is married to the technology’s discoverer and suffers a crisis of conscience, apparently due to the legacy of her previous marriage. The story depicts scientists as blinkered and philistine. Well, not all of them are ignorant of the humanities.
The title of Sandra McDonald’s President John F Kennedy, Astronaut9 is a trifle misleading as the story is more about the search in an ice-cap melted, flooded future world for an obelisk found by said astronaut but whose existence was subsequently concealed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1(she) learned marital arts (that would be a good thing I suppose but I think martial arts was what was meant,) no pinic (no picnic,) 2 H G Wells’ (H G Wells’s,) 3Karel apek (for some reason misses the capital letter of his surname, Čapek,) 4 “A Masters from .. but on the next line her master’s thesis (if one Masters is capitalised I would think the other ought to be,) 5 lays (lies,) 6loathe (loth or loath; loathe is something else entirely,) 7thirty clicks outside (four lines later; “the last few dozen klicks”,) augur (auger –used previously,) 8“none of them know, none of them have any idea” (none knows, none has any idea,) “so he did he” (has one “he” too many,) 9 blond hair (blonde,) gravitation distortion (gravitational,) “where whales still roamed and tropical reefs covered with dazzling life” (were covered?) “to imagine what must have been like” (what it must have been like,) “great-great-great forbearer” (forebear.)

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2014, 241 p plus iv p introduction by Pat Cadigan

 The Long Tomorrow cover

The Destruction has come, fire has rained down, civilisation has fallen far. Nearly one hundred years on people scrape by as best they can. Society is now dominated by Neo-Mennonites as in the aftermath of the Destruction only those who did not depend on technology had the means to survive. The thirtieth amendment to the US constitution was enacted to forbid both cities and dense populations. The law is backed up by the strict Old Testament religious mind-set which pervades the agrarian culture.

Len Culter is influenced by his grandma who could not quite forget that the old days were good. He is fascinated by her stories and also by the possibility that remnants of the old times might still exist in a place called Bartorstown, whose location no-one knows and whose proponents risk execution. His only hope of ever finding this chimera is via the traders who ply across the land. He is led astray by his cousin Esau, stealer of old books and purloiner from a summarily executed trader’s wagon of a radio which by accident they manage to get to work. On being discovered and forced to flee from Piper’s Run, he and Esau make it to the Ohio riverside settlement of Refuge where a merchant is pushing against the size laws. His endeavour does not turn out well and Len, with Esau and Amity, the girl whom Esau has got pregnant, are plucked from the vengeful zealots by agents of Bartorstown. After a long discouraging journey Len finally reaches his goal where he finds it is much less but also far more than he had expected. He also finds his childhood indoctrination hard to shake off.

From a twenty-first century perspective the absence of any Native Americans in Brackett’s scenario is glaring. It might be thought that they would be equipped to thrive in a world so stripped down. I suppose that in the1950s when the book was first published such a consideration might not have occurred and would in any case probably have been rejected by an editor – and readers. (A darker explanation for their absence from a future like this is of course also possible; but Brackett’s attention does not lie in that direction. In this context I note that no black characters appear either.) Even though Brackett was one of the (very) few high-profile women SF writers of the 50s the book’s sexual politics are also of its time, with women being depicted as strictly domestic creatures – or temptresses, who are also nevertheless fated to domesticity. (I would also have thought that the US as a polity could not have survived a Destruction as complete as portrayed here. Doubtless, this is also not a thought which would have been comfortable – or perhaps even imaginable – to mid-twentieth century USians. Pat Cadigan in her introduction suggests that a nuclear war would not have been survivable at all.) Still, take it all as read for purposes of story.

Brackett’s characters are convincingly portrayed, it is easy to believe people would behave in the ways shown given their circumstances; only Julio Gutierrez’s breakdown when Bartorstown’s latest attempt to remove the threat overhanging their project failed seemed in any way unlikely. Despite the intervening years since its first publication The Long Tomorrow still bears reading.

Pedant’s corner:- Pa. hadn’t noticed it (no need for the full stop after Pa,) proselyting (apparently the USian form of proselytising,) Harkness’ (Harkness’s,) he had waked (woken, please,) “‘Good-by, Len’” (Goodbye, there was another good-by later,) “Dulinsky wiped his face oil his shirt sleeve” (on his shirt sleeve,) Watts’ (Watts’s,) “trailing of tobacco smoke from a pipe” (no need for “of”,) lay low (lie low,) Gutierrez’ (Gutierrez’s.)

Interzone 264 May-Jun 2016

Interzone 264 cover

Jonathan McAlmont1 discusses Claire Vaye Watkins’s Good Fame Citrus on the way to concluding that capitalism is similar to a cult. Nina Allan examines film adaptations of J G Ballard novels. In the Bookzone I review Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.
In the fiction:-
Starlings2 by Tyler Keevil is couched in the form of a recorded message from a mother to her child, Colum, who is one of the special children designed to leave an Earth doomed to a runaway greenhouse effect by the malfunction of the supposed remedy, the Hadron-Karensky Reactor, for a new start on another planet. Elegiac and
From the (almost) sublime to the hard to credit. Breadcrumbs3 by Malcolm Devlin posits an apartment block and a city suddenly overwhelmed by plant outgrowths and people beginning to change into animals. All of these could merely be the imaginings of viewpoint character Ellie, though.
James van Pelt’s Mars, Aphids, and Your Cheating Heart4 is told from the perspective of a God, who is addressed as “you.” Otherwise the only science-fictional elements it contains are mentions of an ice sheet on Pluto and the movement of a dust grain on Mars (with subsequent avalanche). The story is about a private eye who warms to the subject of his investigation.
Lifeboat5 by Rich Larson. Like many others before it the planet Lazy Susan is threatened with destruction by “synthetics”. A man who helps “rescue” inhabitants from these situations (for money) is faced with a dilemma over rescuing a woman carrying an unusual hybrid fœtus.
The Tower Princesses6 by Gwendolyn Kiste. The titular princesses – whose means of selection are obscure, the process is said to happen overnight – are caged (in materials of various sorts) and have to negotiate life within their restriction. Narrator Mary falls for one of them. The metaphor here is a little overstrained.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Watkins’ (Watkins’s,) “a group of activists are trying to convince” (is trying,) “the group positions itself on the edge of the dune sea and rearrange their vehicles” (“group” agrees with the first verb and not the second, “itself” is not in agreement with “their” so; rearranges its vehicles.) 2birth is used as a verb, anaesthiologist (that would be an anaesthetist, then.) Less respiratory problems (fewer,) “He told me ‘It doesn’t matter now’.” (That should be “He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter now.’”,) phased (fazed.) “He had not wept or showed any sign of emotions (nor shown.) 3”from the where she had lain” (no “the” required,) jimmy open (jemmy,) 4Written in USian – ladybug, sidewalk, skeptical, on the weekends, check (for cheque,) behavior – plus a “soundless avalanche” on Mars (Mars has an atmosphere; there will be sound,) “He must been shot” (must have been,) Tiggs’ (Tiggs’s,) cracks the entire length (cracks [along] its entire length.) 5Written in USian; “poofy” in the sense of voluminous (a usage I had never come across before. It’s not the first meaning that occurs to a Briton.) “That thing is not going to breach right.” (In the context of a birth; so “breech”?) ‘I’m smelling alkaline and vomit’ (alkaline is an adjective [cf acidic,] the noun is alkali.) 6Written in USian.

The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2013, 162 p, plus iii p Translator’s Note and iv p Preface to the French Edition. Translated from the French Le Malentendu by Sandra Smith.

 The Misunderstanding cover

This short novel, originally published in 1924, when the author was 21, examines the love affair between Yves Harteloup and Denise Jessaint. Yves is a former soldier, a veteran of Verdun, but his family’s fortunes have been ruined by the war and he has been forced to work for a poor living. Denise is married (more out of a sense of duty than love) but she is still sexually ingenuous when they meet. Crucially though, her husband is well off. The mismatch in her circumstances and Yves’s is not so apparent at the holiday resort where in Denise’s husband’s absence on business they first spend time together but comes to dominate their relationship when they return to Paris. Denise is frustrated by Yves’s failure to say he loves her, Yves by her inability to act as submissively and devotedly as he would wish. Their mutual misunderstandings lead to a dissatisfaction on both their parts. A piece of advice from her mother precipitates their relationship’s crisis.

Even at this stage of her writing career Némirovsky had a firm grip on her subject matter. There are parallels with Madame Bovary here of which Némirovsky was undoubtedly conscious. Despite this being a first novel, her insights into character and attitudes are already well developed. Quite how much force there is in Denise’s cousin’s assertion that, “In the end, there’s no woman on Earth you can’t get over ….. We men know that from birth,” is debatable, though probably true in the vast majority of cases.

Once again (though see below) Sandra Smith’s translation flows smoothly but she is working with the best of materials. Any Némirovsky novel it would seem is well worth reading.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung up (sprang up,) “and white peacocks roamed the grounds were planted with” (seems to be missing a which.)

Asimov’s Jul 2016

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Jul 2016 cover

Sheila Williams’s editorial1 discusses past and present winners of the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Robert Silverberg’s Reflections2 muses on Persons from Porlock and how he always took great care to allow no distractions when he was working but that Coleridge’s experience did provide him with the inspiration for his first ever sale (for $5) at the age of fifteen. Paul di Filippo’s “On Books” reviews retrospective collections from Nancy Kress and Gregory Benford, a contemporary one from Finnish writer Leena Krohn and novels by Christopher Fowler and Gene Wolfe.
In the fiction we have Suzanne Palmer’s Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man3 which is narrated by a poet set down alone on an alien planet where he discovers the nature of some of its alien life.
Both Filtered4 by Leah Cypess andMasked5 by Rich Larson are typical ‘push current trends to their logical conclusion’ SF stories. In the former a journalist tries to get his story about the manipulation of everyone’s communication feeds by filter programmes through the filters. The latter has teenagers constantly surrounded by a cloud of appearance created to enhance their real selves. One of them, Vera, has been affected by a virus which turned the “cover” off.
Project Entropy5, the latest of the series of stories in Asimov’s by Dominica Phetteplace, explores the ramifications of Angelina having had her Watcher chip removed and the implications of such AIs. Curiously flat in execution.
In Jack Skillingstead’s The Savior Virus6 a biologist who lost his legs in a terrorist bombing engineers a virus to remove the notion of God from people’s minds.
In Nobody Like Josh7 by Robert Thurston Josh is a town’s secret alien whose spaceship crashed before the narrator was born. This story is curiously similar in premise to I married a Monster from Outer Space which appeared in Asimov’s March 2016 issue, but isn’t anything like as affective or effective.
Webs by Mary Anne Mohanraj is set around the prejudice of ordinary humans on a colony world towards those with adaptations.
In Lost: Mind by Will McIntosh a man has to search for the missing parts of his wife’s downloaded mind after they are stolen. The story is marred by a continuity error in the last quarter page which totally undermines verisimilitude.

1 graduating with a duel major (dual,) Joan Sloncewski (the correct spelling, Slonczewski, is used later in the piece.) 2 Samuel Purchas’ (Purchas’s,) 3 beside (besides,) to not spend (not to spend,) “how good he has always been about putting off things” (about putting things off.) 4matrixes (matrices.) 5Lawless’ (Lawless’s.) 5 canvasses (canvases.) 6 symptoms would manifest in mild cold-like symptoms. 7 crashed-landed (crash-landed.)

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Penguin, 1999, 298 p, plus 4 p Glossary of Gaelic Expressions.

 Whisky Galore cover

One of the 100 best Scottish Books and also in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

The Second World War has brought hard times to the islands of Great and Little Todday. Supplies of whisky are running out as priority is given to exporting to the US to help pay for the war. Incomer Sergeant-major Odd has returned to the island from war duty to marry Peggy, George Campbell has just surprised himself by proposing to Catriona but dreads telling his mother the news. Captain Waggett worries the local Home Guard, of which he is in charge, are slacking too much and that morale on the islands has become dangerously defeatist.

The fog-induced wreck of the SS Cabinet Minister with its cargo of high-grade whisky changes everything. Suddenly all the men become bonhomous, Peggy’s father agrees to the wedding occurring soon and a fortified George tells his mother to come to terms with his plans or leave for her sister’s on the mainland.

The phrase “whisky galore” (uisge beatha gu leòir) appears even before the wreck as the locals yearn wistfully for a normal delivery. In the glossary of Gaelic expressions Mackenzie notes that gu leòir (as “galore”) is almost the only Gaelic phrase to pass into English so nearly like the original.

Gentle fun is poked in different directions. The text tries to render the muted plosives and fricatives of native Gaelic speakers, crumple for “grumble”, “Chust efferything iss a tisaster.” Sergeant-major Odd’s English speech patterns are signified by “r”s appearing at the ends of words in which they have no place (Africar, Burmar and Indiar) and his inability to pronounce Gaelic words such as rèiteach is repeatedly emphasised.

Structurally the novel is a bit of a mess. The fulcrum of the novel is the wreck but too much time is spent establishing and entrenching the situation before it. The wreck itself occurs off-stage, as does all its plundering. Too many characters’ individual stories are followed in too little depth and the book dribbles away with the experiences of Odd’s mother, whose first appearance is only in the second last chapter, on attending the wedding.

It is all light-hearted stuff to be sure and will undoubtedly have provided some leaven in those dark post-war still rationed days when the novel was first published in 1947 but it represents whisky as only a benign influence, none of its ravages receives even the briefest mention. In a Scotland then, as now, with alcohol too often a blight on too many lives, that is gilding the lily more than a touch.

But this is to criticise the book for something it was never intended to be. This is pure entertainment and written as such. No deep enduring message, except perhaps the continuing allure of Western Isles scenery, is to be drawn from it. Though he would probably have been delighted at the thought I doubt even Mackenzie would have expected it to appear on a list of 100 best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- lay down (lie down – this was in Sergeant-major Odd’s dialogue though and will be a deliberate representation of his speech; his mother also refers to a “lay in bed”,) dimunitive (diminutive – ditto so perhaps a deliberate misspelling by Mackenzie,) mcvements (movements,) if I’d only have know in time (known,) “a man with a white walrus moustache from Inverness” (moustaches come from Inverness?) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s,) “‘I though it would be’” (thought,) portentious (portentous,) ringmarole (rigmarole – but it was in dialogue,) toothe-paste (elsewhere is tooth-paste,) “dropped in Snorvig, Each with his” (each,) wating (waiting,) Coloenel (Colonel,) “would probably had said” (have said,) Miss Cuffins’ (Miss Cuffins’s,) I’l (I’ll – but in a letter so may have been an intentional error by Mackenzie,) St Enoch’s station (it was St Enoch,) Caberfèidh (had previously been spelled [unusually] Cabarfèidh,) ready for to start (no need for that “for”,) ‘I never like a place so much in all my life’ (liked.)

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Harper, 2015, 526 p plus 1 p Reading Group Questions, 6 p photos of Detroit taken during Beukes’s research and 7 p author interview.

 Broken Monsters cover

Detective Gabriella Stirling-Versado becomes OIC of a bizarre murder case (where half the body of a young teenage boy has been joined to half that of a deer) by virtue of being first on the scene. The story is narrated from several viewpoints each rendered in an urgent stripped down present tense. Some tension is lost by the fact that one of these is that of the murderer but there is no doubt throughout that Beukes is in control. All the viewpoints are compelling and Gabi’s relationship with her daughter, Layla is particularly neatly drawn as, in turn, is her friendship with schoolmate Cas. Along the way Beukes addresses issues of the prevalence, and misuse, of social media, and of sexual harassment.

The circumstances of the murder and the hints that chalk outlines of doors drawn on walls presage occult events notwithstanding, this is a straight enough police procedural thriller until the supernatural elements impinge in force at the climax. This for me was where the novel broke down. It is difficult to register my misgivings without spoilers but the details of the way in which those forces manifest and gain power were beyond my ability to sustain suspension of disbelief.

My main complaint, though, is that any hint of the supernatural is a cop-out. History has shown humans are cruel enough to each other. There is no necessity for an external force to make them so. Buekes can write well – brilliantly even – but I would contend that it is a failure of the imagination rather than its triumph to posit influences beyond humanity as causal factors in demented behaviours.

Pedant’s corner:- jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) “sounds fraught with meaning that don’t have anything to do with her” (with meaning that doesn’t – or; with meanings that don’t,) peering through the grill of an oversized hockey helmet (grille,) “where the skin of the worlds are permeable (the skin is – or; the skins are,) the lay of the land (lie,) a cluster of party people are standing (a cluster is,) the back of his hands are (the back is – or; the backs are,) lay low (lie.) He’s was trying to help. (He was,) and realises her and mistake (realises her mistake,) “she’s terrified that if she opens Gabi’s all her secrets will come flying out,” (opens Gabi’s what?) “A scattering of neon highlighter markers stand out,” (a scattering stands out.)
Plus points for “ten years’ time” though.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologist’s attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

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