22 April 2015

Review: The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills

The Field of the Cloth of Gold
Magnus Mills
Bloomsbury, 2015
HB 207pp

I bought my copy of this book.

The real Field of the Cloth of Gold was where, in 1520 the kings of England France (Henry VIII and Francis I) met to negotiate peace in Europe. It was a lavish affair, with a desire by both monarchs to impress.

Despite the name of the book, this isn't a historical epic about the 16th century - Magnus Mills isn't, I think, after a slice of Hilary Mantel's readership.  Rather this is another of his books which have very little concrete connection with any real place or time - just as his last, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, was set in a kingdom vaguely located, this focussed exclusively on the Great Field itself.  We learn nothing of the surrounding landscape or where or when the story takes place. The field is, simply an area, indeed rather a mundane place (though several times different characters tell us that the field is somewhere special, "the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition" (one character had envisaged "a vast sea ofd tents billowing in the breeze,with flags flying and pennants fluttering aloft").

The field does, perhaps, resemble its historical model in one respect - it hosts, clashes of will between self-aggrandising potentates, if on a local rather than international scale, as to the field come a number of characters - the (never named) narrator, Hen, the man of the West, Brigant, Isabella, Thomas and more - to pitch their tents.  They claim their places, and they wait. (For what?).  They watch each other (a great part of the book is observations, first hand or reported, of what the other characters were up to). They bicker over which part of the field is superior (one declared scornfully that the northern part is best and that those living in the southern part are "soft").  Priority is contested (who really arrived first?)  Here is that vagueness again - though the book only spans a few weeks (I think) the characters forget the earlier parts and reshape their memories to suit current politics in the field, a [process that reaches its climax on the very last page.

Not all of the settlers in the field are solitary. The pecking order is disturbed early on by the arrival of a small advance party, followed by a larger contingent, a militarized group with "marvellous organizational skills, iron discipline; proper plans and surveys; spacious thoroughfares; sophisticated drainage systems; monumental earthworks; communal kitchens; bathhouses with hot water freely available..."  However, after building a ditch and embankment across the field, this group departs in haste: in their place come less sophisticated boat borne settlers...

It's fairly clear, I think, that events are loosely modelled on British history - the arrival of the original inhabitants, followed by later settlers and then that disciplined military force, the Romans who don't, though, stay and are in turn replaced by waves of Saxons and Vikings. But it's all scaled down to the one field, all - apparently - dialled down from bloodthirsty combat to irritated bickering and sulks: as though a group of children were playing at "history of Britain" in the summer holidays.  That impression is heightened by some of the detail - there is precious little mention of food, for example, apart from milk pudding and biscuits - all very nursery.

I don't think, though, that this book is meant as an allegory.  While some of the correspondences are very close, you would be hard pressed to make exact correspondences throughout between book and history (perhaps Mills is playing a game of his own here, challenging us to interpret the copper bath, the missing spades, the coming and going of Isabella and so on as historical when these details may be there for quite different reasons, or none).

Whatever, it's a fascinating book - and beneath the apparent whimsy and those distracting details there is a steely core to the plot that only slowly becomes visible.  In the end, it seems, momentous events may indeed be unfolding and coming to fruition - but not necessarily pleasant or glorious ones.

It's a great read, very different to anything else you're likely to come across - and I'd strongly recommend it.

21 April 2015

Review: A Few Words for the Dead by Guy Adams

A Few words for the Dead
Guy Adams
Del Rey, 2015
PB 292pp

I bought this book from my local independent bookshop.

Warning - this review contains spoilers (and some speculation about the writing you may prefer not to see before you read the book).

This is the third volume in Guy Adams' Clown Service series, based on the activities of a branch of the British security services dealing with arcane and supernatural threats to the realm.

Like the first book, The Clown Service, the book turns on the past of August Shining, head of Section 37 - indeed for most of the story he's being debriefed on events that too place in Berlin 30 years before. Meanwhile, Toby Greene and his new wife Tamar are on honeymoon. They have dealt with the Rain Soaked Bride, featured in the second book, but its creator has raised a new demon to destroy them.

Into this gap comes an old enemy of August's. Long ago he promised it something, and now it wants to collect...

I found it really difficult to sum this book up. At one level it is, I think, the most successful of the Clown Service novels - bringing together an atmospheric trip back to the Berlin of Le Carre and Deighton with a chilling dash of the occult, and wrapping up a number of loose threads from the previous two books (could this be the last of the series, or at least mark a pause?)  The story is tight, the action scarcely lets up and you could easily devour it in one session of reading.

However, there is a problem which I wasn't able to get round (this is where the spoilers come in).  About half way through the book, the antagonist goes on a killing spree, scything through those August knows and relies on.  It's a calculated act of revenge and provocation that makes sense within the terms of the plot. But. But. As part of this a woman is bludgeoned to death in a fridge. I stopped here and debated with myself whether Adams intended an overt reference to "fridging" (killing sympathetic characters to give the hero motivation for revenge). I'm pretty sure he did, but either way, it bounced me out of the story. You may not have heard of this particular trope and it may not trouble you - or may not have before I laboured over the point - if so, I apologise.

Thinking this over afterwards I wonder, though, if there isn't a deeper problem here.  The book is very polished and the plot done very nicely (see if you spot how things are going to work out - I didn't!) with distinct echoes of classic British horror alongside the spy stuff. But without that killing spree it would essentially come down to Shining telling his old story, and then... and then, what happens after.  I sense that the other thread is there, as much as anything, simply to provide another thread to the story with that fridge stuff simply Adams' way of saying "I know what this looks like".  Really not sure what to think about that. I may be being over harsh.

To set against that, there are some really well written, creepy parts - for example, the puppet theatre: I'd challenge anyone to read that without a glance over the shoulder and a shiver.  So, for me, successful but also not successful.

18 April 2015

Review: Fishnet by Kirsten Innes

Kirsten Innes
Freight Books, Glasgow, 2015
PB, 266 pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this book.

This book - Innes' debut novel - is thoughtful, sometimes angry, sometimes funny, always well written, and deserves a wide readership.

Fiona Leonard, a young Glasgow office worker, splits her life between work and caring for six year old Beth.  Hovering over the family is the unspoken presence of Rona, Fiona's younger sister who disappeared several years before.  Neither Fiona nor her parents have come to terms with this, but the time is now coming when Rona could be officially declared dead.  So Fiona's chance discovery of news about Rona offers her a last opportunity, perhaps, of tracing her sister.

Fiona doesn't imagine a lovey-dovey family reconciliation. She wants to confront Rona, make her realise what her absence has cost the family, what - as Fiona sees it - she has taken on for Rona, what she has given up: "That world I missed out on whilst living someone else's middle-age."

It's a complicated situation, made more so - as Fiona renews her search for Rona - by what she discovers. Rona had been a sex worker.  The fact makes Fiona hyperaware, of course, of all those signs around her that she would normally screen out, of the ordinary details of a side of life she would choose to ignore.  At the same time, Fiona's employer, a construction firm, wins a contract to redevelop a building used as a drop in centre for sex workers.  She has both a reason to find out more, to try and locate Rona,  and an opportunity to ask questions.

This is where the book's political purpose comes to the fore.  That's not meant as a judgement, Innes has written a passionately committed book which argues strongly against shaming, stigmatisation and criminalization of sex work, against the assumption that it is inevitably degrading that participants are victims.  She uses the events around the redevelopment, around what is for Fiona a journey of discovery, to illustrate the theme and give voices to those involved.  There's always a risk when a book takes a strong position like this of a book coming over as preachy, propagandistic, of the story and characters being made to serve the message but Innes avoids falling into this trap. She draws convincing, three dimensional characters and has constructed a plot that hums along and draws the reader in, taking various viewpoints and moving back and forward through events (mostly in paired narratives: now/ then, public/ private, back/ forth and so on).  And the writing, as I said above, is excellent, coupled with razor sharp observations on work, life, women and men.

As you would expect given the themes the book is fairly explicit in places but - and this perhaps shouldn't need saying but I will anyway - doesn't set out to offend or titillate: it is about something that happens, deal with it, and get on, don't judge is the message (both implicit and explicit).

An enjoyable, even uplifting, book.

6 April 2015

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic
VE Schwab
Titan Books, 2015
PB, 400pp

I bought this book from Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh

VE Schwab's new book is action almost from the start, introducing two spiky, resourceful and confounding protagonsists who rampage through London - indeed all three Londons - on a quest combining self preservation, revenge and discovery, ending in an epic battle.

Kell is a young magician, one of a very few who can cross between the worlds, between "Grey" London (our world, bare of magic, enchanted "Red" London and bone- hued, dying "White" London. As a magician, he serves the King, carrying messages between the worlds. And he dabbles in carrying other things, too, which is where the problems begin.

Lila is a swashbuckling heroine, a thief and would-be pirate stalking nighttime Grey London in male attire and running rings round the constables.

When Lila and Kell meet, she attempts to rob him - but robbing a magician isn't easy, and Lila only steps into the trouble following Kell. Together they have no choice but to face potentially world destroying magic and hellish enemies

This was a refreshing story, told with verve and pace. While the physical detail of the fictional world is perhaps scanty, its moral and magical landscape is well mapped. As a result, from the start - even before they meet - there's a sense that Kell and Lila walk in shadow, that part of them is somewhere elsewhere, so it hardly seems surprising when they attract attention from... but that would be telling. At the same time Schwab makes them real characters - understandable, infuriating at times, but always real. They dominate the plot of the book (which in many ways is basic: sort of what Lord of the Rings might have been if the Fellowship was only two and they had hours, not months) and drive events, rather than being puppets in the hands of the author.

An excellent read, and I'm glad to see that there will be sequels.

Review: Disclaimer by Renee Knight

Renee Knight
Doubleday, 9 April 2015
HB, 295pp

I was sent a copy of this book to review by Amazon as part of Amazon Vine.

This is a devilishly clever debut novel from Renee Knight.

Amidst the chaos of moving house, Catherine picks up a book from her bedside.  It's a gripping story, about a young man travelling Europe... gripping, and no more - until Catherine recognises herself there, recognises something that happened to her years before. But it's also not what she remembers. Her life has been rewritten, spun, retold. But nobody else should know about those events.  Who does?  Why are they telling the story - and why now?  And what will the consequences be?

As the book - "A Perfect Stranger" - begins to spread, it threatens Catherine's marriage, her integrity as a successful TV producer, and her family.

Knight spins an enthralling tale, moving between 2013 and 1993, to show the effect on Catherine and her family both of what happened all those years ago and what is happening now that it's being revealed. It's raw and gripping, seeing her battered down by whatever - whoever - wishes her harm, and not always easy reading: at times I was torn between having to know what happened next and being reluctant to. Some pages, especially towards the end, are almost painful. A powerful book.

The characters are superb: Catherine herself carries a burden, she doesn't seem, at the start, to realise: Nick her son, who was with her in 1993, remembers nothing but has lost himself. Stephen Brigstocke the retired teacher who is, in the end, a tragic figure. None of them are nice or likeable people but all carry a burden. Some sink, and some swim.  (The only one who, in the end, I'd like to have seen go under was Catherine's husband Robert, a particularly chilly and self-centred man).  And Knight is skilled at the small details that make everything real - Stephen approving a dog owner's efficiency at scooping up his pet's mess; Catherine's mum, mind slipping, still recognising that her daughter is distressed and trying to make it better; or Catherine herself spiralling into parental guilt about whether she feels enough love for her son when she's tired, stressed and alone.

I strongly recommend this book.