Archives » Reading Reviewed

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga Book I. Angry Robot, 2014, 541 p.

 The Mirror Empire cover

In a series of planets with twin hour-glass suns and strange satellites named Para, Sina and Tira from which certain inhabitants can draw power when they are in the ascendant, an invasion from a parallel world is taking place. Transit between the worlds (which have differently coloured skies) is by means of something resembling a mirror but isn’t possible if the companion person is alive on the other side. The most powerful satellite, Oma, has not been ascendant for 2000 years but its influence is being felt more strongly.

Now, this parallel worlds and weird suns scenario could have been an intriguing SF setting but the author lost this reader’s sympathies when it turned out early on that the shedding of blood could also open gates between the worlds. Cue gratuitous bloodshed on a wide scale. I would submit this is laziness on the author’s part. Couldn’t we have had something a bit more inventive, a bit less sanguineous?

Add to this the fact that the characters have very little agency beyond advancing the plot, which itself takes a long time to get going, and you end up with a less than satisfying read. Oh, there is some jiggery-pokery about different gendering and women tend to be in power; but when they behave as powerful men would in our world is there any point?

Plus I really don’t see the point of Fantasy when its characters wield strange powers, even when they do have to endure for a while before growing into them. How does that illuminate the human condition?

It may be that I am committing the error of wishing to read the book that I might have desired Hurley to have written rather than the one she actually has, but when a book revels in so much gratuitous slaughter more or less for its own sake it’s time to call it off. I won’t be taking The Worldbreaker Saga any further.

Pedant’s corner:- Admittedly mine was an advance reading copy – I have my sources – but it was so full of typos, verb/noun disagreements, misspellings, missing words, repeated words, malapropisms (or near malapropisms which are perhaps better described as dyslexisms – scarified for sacrificed anyone?) awry punctuation and errors in lay-out etc that I gave up counting them after page 63. It may be she was under pressure to hand this in quickly but to my mind Hurley’s manuscript hasn’t been looked over critically enough before submission. And did no-one at Angry Robot seek to check it? Such things make the whole more difficult to read you know. I’m left harbouring a sense of disappointment with all concerned. And there was the use of drug as a past tense of drag which may be a niche USian habit but reads absolutely horribly.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2012, 411 p.

Bring up the Bodies cover

From its opening words, “His children are falling from the sky,” to its final ones – a warning that there are no endings, only beginnings – this second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is a consciously literary endeavour. (The “children” are in fact falcons named after Thomas Cromwell’s offspring.) Not that it is in any way difficult. The narration is still in the third person but the use of “he” to refer to Thomas Cromwell does not induce as much confusion as in Wolf Hall – perhaps because the reader is more accustomed to it but also since Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,” more often than in the previous book. There are occasional flourishes of poetic language to leaven proceedings and emphasise the literariness of the endeavour.

The action covers the events surrounding Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution. The phrase “Bring up the bodies” is uttered to call her supposed lovers (all of whom have been in Cromwell’s sights since they mocked his patron Cardinal Wolsey during a masqued ball at court) in to their trial. Mantel does a fine job in portraying all this history (whose outlines are well known but for which few documents remain.) Her hero, Cromwell, is instrumental in securing confessions but the text still leaves open the possibility that Anne was innocent of the charges laid.

Anne’s crime, if any, would not have been adultery (though for her lovers it would have been.) Rather, her offence was “imagining the King’s death.” This tickled me since Mantel was herself recently criticised for imagining a Prime Minister’s death – some idiot Tory MP said Mantel ought to be prosecuted for it – even though the PM concerned had already died, and crime writers imagine people’s deaths all the time.

In the book, apropos of Thomas Wyatt (the poet) Cromwell muses, “You must believe everything and nothing of what you read.” Mantel is believable. Reading Bring Up the Bodies, a much better and more rounded book than Wolf Hall, may be the best substitute for being at Henry VIII’s court. (Better even; since there is no risk to life involved in the experience.)

And only one contender for Pedant’s Corner: when he had rode. Plus not a single typo anywhere. Remarkable for these times.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2000, 384 p. Translated from the Spanish La tia Julia y el escribidor by Helen R Lane

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter cover

Eighteen year old Mario is studying law at San Marcos University but wants to be a writer. To hone his skills he has a job preparing news bulletins for Radio Panamericana in Lima. The events of the novel kick-off when his uncle’s wife’s recently divorced Bolivian sister, the Aunt Julia of the title, comes to Lima to seek a new husband. At the same time another Bolivian, Pedro Camacho (the scriptwriter,) is taken on by Panamericana’s sister radio station, Central, to write soap operas – which are soon highly successful.

Up till chapter 20 the novel consists of alternate chapters; odd numbered ones relating Mario’s dealings with both Aunt Julia and Camacho and even ones the contents of the soap operas. These latter tend to be told to us rather than shown, end with a succession of questions as to what may happen next (think Soap without the “Confused?” after the questions,) become increasingly bizarre and represent a neat way of smuggling a series of more or less unconnected (but see below) short stories into the overall compass of a novel. Chapter 20 is from a time many years later. The contents of the soap operas tend to poke fun at Argentine nationals and their customs. Mario is amazed by Camacho’s devotion to his craft leading him to wonder who is the more worthy of being called a writer, one who thinks deeply about it yet produces only a few works, or one who churns them out but whose whole life is dedicated to nothing else.

Since the family will disapprove, Mario’s relationship with the fourteen years older Julia has to be clandestine. As the complications increase so do those of the soap operas, where characters’ names alter and events from one leech into others. As the crux of Mario’s romance approaches this is mirrored in the even-numbered chapters, prefiguring the mental breakdown of Camacho, There are two ways of looking at this. Either Llosa has admirably illustrated mental breakdown in literary form or he has avoided the need for consistency in his own novel. The latter could be seen as cheating. On the other hand it could be genius at work.

Camacho gives a caution to the young Mario, “Women and art are mutually exclusive,” and in a later writerly interposition Mario realises that everyone, without exception, could be turned into a subject of a short story.

The novel seems to be closely based on Llosa’s own young life. He did marry Julia Urquidi, his maternal uncle’s sister-in-law. Personally I think writers ought to avoid any hint of biography in their fiction – unless it is so disguised as to be all but impenetrable – as it leads some to believe that no fiction is made up. How much of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is actual autobiography I have no idea. Not that it really matters I suppose. The novel can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the author’s life.

The literary canon is full of works which feature doomed, thwarted or inappropriate love affairs. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter aspires towards that condition. Chapter 20 may not be the best resolution though. Better maybe to have left the love story at the traditional ending point. I will read more Llosa, though.

The translation is of course into USian and so we have “jumped rope” for skipping, flutist (flautist is more common in the UK but apparently it derives from a derogatory term) and a series of awkward phrases to do with what the text calls soccer; players “butting” the ball with their heads instead of merely heading it, making goals (or points) rather than scoring them, goalkeepers blocking penalties in place of saving them, referees “call fouls or impose penalties” instead of giving fouls and handing out bookings (or sending players off.) Strangely there was also an instance of the Scottish formulation “a wee bit.” In dialogue Camacho implies a tortoise is a marine animal and in one of the serials that a dolphin is a fish but he is supposed not to be well educated. A phrase new to me but whose meaning was immediately obvious was “do things up brown.”

For Pedant’s Corner we had “the hoi polloi,” (hoi already means the,) dumfounded and motived. I was amused by a glossary of “unusual” words in the novel (linked to from its Wiki page.) Fair enough proparoxytones, mimeticosemantic, cyclothymia, oligophrenic, acromegalic, chrematistic, paropsis, apocopes and pignoration; but lugubrious, punctilious, phlegmatic, captious, greenhorn, forensic et al? And huachafo is explained in the text.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2005, 137 p, plus iv p of introduction by Ian Watson.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne cover

This handsomely produced novella was published to coincide with the centenary of Verne’s death in 2005. In that sense I’ve come to it about ten years too late. Part pastiche of Verne, part typical Eric Brown fare, this is an entertaining diversion, in which Verne is wheeched by means of a time-portal off to the Upper Cretaceous and the far future in a time machine which has the unfortunate drawback of leeching power from the sun and so causing Earth to freeze. Here too are a megalomaniac dictator, along with his nubile antagonist, not to mention ant-like interstellar aliens and strange gadgets. These adventures spark in Verne ideas he will later incorporate into fiction. What’s not to like? While there may be no profound points here – but neither were there in Verne’s fictions – what there is is an engaging adventure story with nods to the work of one of SF’s founding fathers.

Pedant’s corner:- gasses (gases,) panatela (panatella,) “hoves” as a present tense (heaves,) had take its toll on his reason (taken.)

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

Review:-
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

Read Scotland 2014 Overview

Twelve months gone and 29 books “Scottish” books read. (Or 30 if The Member and The Radical count as two; then again perhaps only 27 if A Scots Quair is treated as a single book.) That’s 2½ per month, give or take. And, if you discount the exceptions already mentioned, not a repeat author in the list.

2 were non-fiction; 4 outright SF/Fantasy; 18 were written by men (20 if the trilogy is separated) and 9 by women. (That gender disparity is lessened by 50% if you consider only authors still alive in 2014, though.)

I’m pleased to have caught up with John Galt and have already bought two more of his novels, delighted to have read A Scots Quair at last, made acquaintance with William Graham, Neil M Gunn, Carole Johnstone, Jackie Kay, Agnes Owens, Muriel Spark and Alan Spence and refound Naomi Mitchison. My main discovery, though, was Andrew Greig whose That Summer is the best book by a writer new to me (Scottish or not) since I first encountered Andrew Crumey.

My review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is still to appear. See later this week, or even tomorrow.

There is apparently a Read Scotland Challenge 2015. I don’t think I’ll make 29 this year. I’ve got a lot of other reading to catch up on.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Orbit, 2014, 407 p. Reviewed for Interzone 252, May-Jun 2014.

There is a potential problem with the central premise of novels broadly comparable to this. It is one which also besets any work of fiction set either in virtual reality or a computer game. To wit: if a character cannot die – or can be resurrected after death – where, then, is the jeopardy? Why ought readers invest time and energy in sympathy or empathy; why should they care? Here that problem is encapsulated by the title (and for the reviewer is exacerbated by the accompanying promotional material.) We know before the outset that Harry August has at least fifteen lives. Why, then, for example, should the grubby circumstances of his conception and initial upbringing matter to us? However, “North” – the publishers emphasise that the author is pseudonymous but has experience – neatly sidesteps the issue by beginning “her” story at the end of Harry’s eleventh life, thus making it clear that any single life journey is not of itself crucial. And the jeopardy is not to Harry alone, but to human existence. “The world is ending.”

This idiosyncratic book reads at various points as if the author could not quite decide what sort of beast it actually is, first like a literary novel, then a thriller, a historical tract, a spy story and a tale of revenge – all the while riffing on Alternative History. And, yes, it does veer (rather suddenly) into more straightforward Science Fiction about halfway through, then morphs back again before returning to SF for its dénouement. As befits a tale of someone with more than fifteen lives the narrative is not linear but skitters about, incorporating vignettes from Harry’s existences, encounters with others of his kind. Yet it does manage to come together as a more or less coherent whole.

Harry is one of the kalachakra, an ouroboran, humans whose consciousness and memories of previous lives recycle back to birth after their death. In subsequent lives these memories begin to resurface after infancy. Before the lives accumulate this can lead to madness, later there can be advantages. Perhaps even worse for Harry, he is what the kalachakra call a mnemonic: he forgets nothing. Kalachakra are few enough at any one time but are scattered throughout history, sometimes leaving messages in stone to their successors. No explanation is given for their unusual attribute; their reincarnations just happen. Their knowledge of past lives ensures that no new one is a carbon copy of a previous existence. The Cronus Club, an organisation kalachakra have set up to succour their kind, can help remove them from the boredom of a re-lived childhood. And it turns out that the circumstances of Harry’s birth do matter. Kalachkra can be excised from the world, if they are prevented from being born. Harry’s obscure origins are a shield against any such calamity.

In each of his lives the broad sweep of history is similar but it is not emphasised in the text, except where the differences are obvious, that the detail means subsequent lives cannot be lived in the original but instead take place in parallel worlds. In a stance reminiscent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, the Cronus Club tries to ensure that kalachakra do not interfere with the course of history. Such activity has led to cataclysm at least once before.

Harry’s parallel existences have allowed him to learn many languages. His various employments take him all over the world, mainly in iterations of the 1950s, the primes of his lives, to a research establishment in the Soviet Union, the China of the Great Leap Forward, and to the USA. In one of these lives Harry is a physicist and meets the charismatic Vincent Rankis, subsequently becoming involved in Rankis’s project to build a quantum mirror – a device which will bestow a God’s perspective on the world.

While the writing is effective and for the most part reads smoothly, out of kilter phrases such as, among others, “a skill as much valued in the incompetence than the mastery,” (about punting on the Cam) might suggest that English is not actually “North”’s first language. There is also a lack of fine tuning in the last chapter where the readership to whom the narrative is addressed shifts from where it had lain up to then, the general (you and me,) to the specific. In addition the resolution comes a little too easily and strikes against the established character of Harry’s antagonist.

This book may well become an award nominee but for all its apparent ground-breaking aspirations and apocalyptic overtones The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is in the end a rather conventional tale. But, then, in all of literature, there are said to be only seven distinct plots.

The following entries to Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-

Again I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may be amended in the actual book but we had Ecstacy for Ecstasy, periphery nervous system for peripheral nervous system, neckless for necklace, a human stimuli, solice for solace, “her success (in finding a very few) cannot be underestimated” (overestimated, surely?) “did not less to see the end of his dream,” (live) “where he had began,” “at which all intercourse seeks” (ceases,) “azures of wisdom,” “I had never fully understand the..,” “the sense of unity that all these hardships create,” (creates) “illustrating the momentous dead,” “passer-bys,” “we do not need hide much deeper than in plain sight,” “the single most existing time of our lives,” “points of origins,” “we would not with to inconvenience you,” “would have bought the Cronus Club tumbling down on their creator’s head,” “an vastly more effective spy,” “dot.com,” “he has been a present through my life” (presence,) “chaffed” (chafed,) “knowing full well that all these things …. it would be enough,” [not to mention that use of mnemonic.]

Surviving the Shipwreck by William McIlvanney

Mainstream Publishing, 1991, 253 p.

Surviving the Shipwreck cover

This is one I read for completeness. (And it counts for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.) McIlvanney is one of the most prominent Scottish writers of the second half of the twentieth century, with a string of highly regarded novels to his name, all of which I have read with immense pleasure and admiration. Despite his output being mostly outwith genre (unless the Scottish novel is a genre) he is credited as being the “onlie begetter” of Tartan Noir – not an accolade he sought or even necessarily agrees with – but many Scottish writers of crime fiction speak of him as an inspiration. (And not only writers of crime fiction.) Surviving the Shipwreck is a collection of his journalistic work from the 1970s and 80s.

It starts with an preface setting out the thread of the pieces within – the shipwreck of the book’s title is the loss of social idealism, of belief in our ability to reconstruct society more fairly, of that strand of left-leaning thinking that isn’t Marxist (McIlvanney says the Scots always found Marxism/Communism to be wrong-headed) but had been submerged by the prevailing political climate and, despite the banking crash of 2008, still is.

The first piece was written in the run-up to the first referendum – the one that was won in 1979 but was also lost due to the requirement for more than a majority to bring a Scottish Parliament about. (In effect dead people voted no.) In it he lays out the hopes and fears that Scots had about the prospect, many of which were repeated in the referendum of 2014. In a particularly brilliant phrase he describes the displacement of what might have been political energy into other areas, the most recent example being “the B picture remake of the Darien Scheme that was Scotland’s World Cup sortie into Argentina.” He also predicted the eventual (typically Scottish in its lack of resolution of the problem) result. What struck me on reading this in 2014 is the change that actually having an extant Parliament in Edinburgh has made to the Scottish psyche. There is much less anti-English feeling, much less fear of being too wee and too poor, much more confidence in Scots’ ability to do things for themselves. The displacement of energy into football too is much less pronounced (but that may have been due to the fact that Scots came to realise that by and large our footballers are – at least at present – mediocre at best.)

Then there is a piece on the city of Edinburgh’s manifold dualities, which made me reflect on how perfect that then makes it as a capital for a nation of so many divisions; another on the corrosive effects of poverty and how the benefits system traps people in it; the mysteries of disco and its differences from the dancin’; the experience of the dog track; the delights and miseries of following the Scottish football team, “The train standing at Platform One is the Wembley Football Special. This train has an Inferiority Complex Car where light traumas will be served throughout the journey. This train goes by way of Paranoia, calling at Little Dependency, National Neurosis and Ultima Thule,” not least to Argentina in 1978, when McIlvanney, along with five companions, undertook one of those epic trips through the Americas and remembers most of all the kindnesses received everywhere, but especially in Argentina; the dispiriting experience that is Las Vegas; the reduction of life to personal economics; the accepting nature of old fashioned pubs; the necessity of highlighting the plight of those left behind in the wake of materialism; the mutual incomprehension of men and women; the resorts people will turn to to alleviate their lack of funds; the haunted nature of living in North America, the lack of inter-community feeling; the more humane socialism of Scotland compared to Eastern Europe; the necessity for teachers and pupils to reach a meeting place; the challenge both to the cosy detective novel and also to the dismissal of a fiction if it can be labelled genre that his novel Laidlaw represented; the defining characteristic of the Glaswegian (humane irreverence); cultural elitism in T S Eliot’s poetry criticism, and more generally; the manifold losses – not just of jobs and worthwhile lives – that monetarism inflicted on Scotland; the genesis of his novel Docherty in the lack of presence of working people in literature.

In Gulliver’s Last Voyage McIlvanney essays a Swiftian look at Scotland’s attitude to its history, a series of forgettings and inventions underlain by the fact that, at some time in the past, the country was sold against the will of its people.

Notable insights were:-
(We have) “a society where the government is dedicated to ignoring the damage its policies inflict on ordinary lives.”
“Everybody can understand selfishness and greed, and Thatcherism has constructed what passes for its political philosophy out of these two brute instincts. The dignity of just complaint must never be lost. Without it, we accept what we shouldn’t accept.”
“The greater radicalism that has at least nominally persisted in Scotland may be partly attributable to the fact that the country (was) virtually powerless. It is easier to have noble ideals when you are not obliged to live according to their terms day by day. But that greater radicalism is also partly attributable to a tradition of taking ideas seriously. We must not lose that. Taken seriously, ideas are dangerous but not as dangerous as the absence of taking them seriously.”
“The policies of this government resolve themselves into one basic premise: they are a licence issued to the wealthy to exploit the poor… Margaret Thatcher is a cultural vandal. She takes the axe of her own simplicity to the complexities of Scottish life. She has no understanding of the hard-earned traditions she is destroying. And if we allow her to continue she will remove from the word “Scottish” any meaning other than geographical. (There will be) incalculable damage to the future – the loss of belief in society, the anti-social tendencies encouraged, the lesson branded on thousands of minds that you are alone and your society doesn’t care.”

These criticisms are still relevant I fear.

Pedant’s corner:- they didn’t use to be there (the phrase is “used to be”) and that bad (badly)

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2014, 266 p. Published in Finnish as Teemastarin Kirja (The Tea Master’s Daughter.)

 Memory of Water cover

In a far future Scandinavian Union run by the military dictatorship of New Qiao, the seas have long since risen, fresh water is a scarce resource, water crime a capital offence, insect hoods have to be worn outdoors and travelling is difficult. Noria Kaitio is the daughter of a tea master, the latest in a long line. Despite being female she is apprenticed to him. Her life is changed when her father reveals to her the secret spring which allows his tea to be the best his clients have tasted – anywhere. The implications of this follow Noria throughout the novel and it is a mark of Itäranta’s handling of the story that our sympathies for Noria’s fate are not lessened by its inevitability. In parts I was reminded of Margaret Elphinstone’s The Incomer – mostly by the more or less rural setting – but I have seen comparisons with the writing of Ursula Le Guin and in its evocation of a quiet life carried out quietly Memory of Water does bear some similarities with that great Mistress’s work. There are no epic scenes here, no large confrontation between Noria and the soldiers, but the details of a small life are beautifully rendered.

A plot complication occurs in the plastic graves (rubbish dumps) wherein can be found all sorts of oldtech, most of it useless, other parts salvageable. Noria’s friend Sanja has an ability to tweak broken artifacts into workability. Their joint discovery of a set of discs that tells the story of an expedition into the Lost Lands and sheds light on the Twilight Century that is now long gone history propels them into a scheme that promises escape and yields the only consolation the book provides.

The story tells us that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that’s ever happened in this world. And the nearest the story has to a “baddie” says when asked why he behaves the way he does, “Because if this is all there is, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.”

For a first novel, this is very accomplished, especially as Itäranta is a Finn. She apparently wrote Memory of Water simultaneously in English and Finnish.

Pedant’s Corner – most of these may be due to the fact that English is not Itäranta’s first language:- I followed Sanja to a circuitous route, Mhz for MHz, Xinjing might have burned to ground, it was only a matter of time when my suspicions would be confirmed.

Way To Go by Alan Spence

 Way To Go cover

The novel starts arrestingly with the narrator, Neil McGraw, sitting up in a coffin, reading a comic and eating a sherbet straw. Neil is the son of an undertaker whose business motto is Rest Assured. Neil’s mother died in childbirth, the child in question being him. Despite his profession, Neil’s father has never come to terms with his loss. His favoured punishment is to lock Neil away for the night with the (empty) coffins. The novel is from the outset, then, dealing with the Big One, death – one of the great triumvirate of novelistic concerns. As the first sentence indicates it does so in a strikingly non po-faced way. Funeral urn contents are referred to as cremains, an embalmer come from Kirkcaldy to demonstrate this up and coming method of dealing with the recently deceased is dubbed by Neil the “Wraith Rover” and the book probably contains all the jokes you have ever heard about death, and a few more besides.

Despite him asking nearly everyone he meets the question, “What happens when you die?” Neil is not enamoured of the prospect of taking over the business and scarpers to London at the first opportunity. One of the bohemian types he falls in with dies unexpectedly and in a sequence emblematic of Spence’s approach is sent through the crematorium curtains to the sound of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s Fire!.

Unable to settle Neil makes a peregrination around the world taking in the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, an IRA funeral in Dublin, a cremation in Bali, phases out at the funeral pyres in Varanasi, the city where he meets Lila, the woman who will become his wife.
His life undergoes a U-turn when his father dies and he returns home to organise the funeral. While there a widow comes in and asks him to bury her husband. Neil is reluctant but is persuaded and steps into his father’s footsteps offering a bespoke service of unusual colourful funerals under the motto “Way to Go”.

Spence’s Scottish credentials are apparent from the off with words such as wersh and winching peppering the text, but he feels the need to define smirr – somewhat erroneously – as a fine drizzle (it’s thinner than that) and spells the word as “hotching,” which I have seen but I am more familiar with “hoatching”.

I suspect I shall remember Way To Go for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- a “shrunk”, “had poured half he wine,” stedfast, AIDS uncapitalised.

free hit counter script