28 June 2015

Review: Silma Hill by Iain Maloney

Silma Hill
Iain Maloney
Freight Books, 29 June 2015
PB 254pp

If you pressed me to sum this book up in a few words, I'd say "modern gothic". Or perhaps, to make it absolutely clear, modern Gothick. There is an air about it of one of those tales where monstrous, freak events abound, people are buffeted and baffled and heroes tested.

The story is set in mid 18th century Scotland, somewhere on the west coast. Abdale is a remote village on the banks of a sea loch, set under Silma Hill with its circle of ancient standing stones.

The leading light of the village - or so he would like to think it Burnett, minister of the village. Mr Burnett is the minister of the village.  Widowed, he lives with his sixteen year old daughter Fiona, whom he treats like a servant.

Though living in a backwater, Burnett has dreams of scientific glory, wishing to join the "Society" in the "capital" and contribute learned papers. (It's one of the marks of this book that while in one sense the setting is clear, in another, Abdale appears a bit placeless, or timeless, only loosely anchored in history: it's definitely an unusual place in religious terms with a - presumably ancient - cross at the centre of the village, and prayers for the departed).  His opportunity comes when old Sangster, digging for peat on Silma Hill, finds an ancient wooded statue: Burnett determines to study this - even after Sangster drops dead and villagers begin to mutter about idolatry.

For me one of the best aspects of the book was the slow burn, the way that events - and accusations - then slowly take hold, gossip spreads, old rivalries and grudges are engaged. Maloney doesn't make it completely clear what is really at the bottom of it all - like that giant armoured head in The Castle of Otranto, the reality may be too big to grasp. Rather it's the reaction that he focusses on, or, I might say the overreaction - while some pretty strange events do take place, I'm not sure there's anything that is actually threatening or harmful.  I was also absorbed by the character and contradictions of Burnett - preaching a loving God but beating his daughter; supposedly the voice of religion in his tiny parish while yearning for the scientific world of the "Society", rationalism and the enlightenment; forced by his office to lead the investigation of "witchcraft" which neither he (nor, apparently, any of the others involved) actually believes in.

While Burnett is not an admirable person his self-justifications are understandable and recognisably human, as are the no less ignoble reactions of the villagers at large. So we get denunciations, panic and a spiral of hatred. That part of the story seems more modern than anything (while this book is described as "historical", Maloney doesn't make it read as ye olde tyme speech, he's happy enough to throw in an "okay" or talk about "tuning in" to a conversation - making the whole thing more immediate, even if it might offend purists).

Overall, an enthralling and thought-provoking tale, especially once the story really gets moving. There were a couple of strands that I thought could have been given more detail - for example, the bad blood between Burnett and the local Sheriff, Dawkins, which isn't really explained although it is an important factor in what happens, and the shift in old Mrs Sangster from an almost bardic teller of ancient pagan tales to an accusing denouncer of witchcraft. However these are fairly minor points in the story overall.


22 June 2015

Review: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors
Scarlett Thomas
Canongate, 2 July 2015
Hardback, 417 pages

I'm grateful to the publisher and author for letting me have advance copy of this book . I'd been anticipating it for ages - I think Scarlett Thomas blogged the title at least three years ago.

And the wait was worthwhile.  While I would happily read a telephone directory authored by Thomas simply for the writing, "The Seed Collectors" is an extremely absorbing, readable book, funny in places, sad in places (sometimes the same ones).  Above all it is perceptive, and deeply human.

The story moves between several different viewpoints, mostly members of the rambling Gardener family: Fleur, her lover Pi, Charlie, a botanist with an imaginative sex life, his colleagues Izzy and Nicola, botanist and filmmaker Clem and Skye Turner, a pop star who has risen from humble origins, alcoholic (but coping... kind of...) Bryony and her troubled daughter.  These are distinct voices, but the twists of the plot, and the way the characters interact, means that while sometimes it's clear who is speaking, often it isn't (at least, till you catch the rhythm of the novel and see what she's doing) and there are sections in other voices altogether and parts which read as disembodied commentary (commentary, not narration: for example "Somewhere in the world there is a magical book..." or "Imagine one day... who were you, before you forgot"). These might be fragments of the narratives referred to in the book, or the observations of someone else, not in the story: it isn't clear, but the effect is one of layering, perhaps as in a painting, intensifying the reality of the characters even while distancing the text from them. There are even parts in the voice of a garden robin (I know, I know - but really, it's not twee at all, rather it is intense, conveying a realistic personality without any hint of a pseudo "person". )  

It's not all "voices". There are letters and other texts and a (long, long) list of essential characteristics for a girlfriend, written, clearly, by an adolescent male and stuffed with pomposity and misogyny and contradiction - but which is then almost heartstopping when it concludes "44. Understands what it is like to lose mother".  That is something Thomas does so well in this book - turning the mood of a passage on a sixpence with writing that is sharp, electric, absolutely on the button, often when observing flailing, failing relationships.  Another example is the bald statement that Fleur was no bother as a child to her father - because he didn't admit she was his daughter.  Or there the description of Holly, Bryony's awkward daughter, as another of her mother's failed projects.

Thomas will follow a shopping trip, a university seminar or a meal in a restaurant, sometimes digressing for several pages to tell us about walking palm trees, tennis tactics, yoga or the failure mode of the Smartguide tooth cleaning helper. But there's always something there, some bit of distracted thought or compulsive behaviour that illustrates a character better than pages of dialgue would.  That, combined with the changing viewpoints, the wide assembly of characters and the uncertainty over who's speaking means there isn't such an obvious plot as in some of Thomas's earlier books.  Consequently "The Seed Collectors" has a more diffuse air than they do which may not be to everyone's taste - for myself, I loved it: done well, that kind of digressive, sprawling story just takes root in the mind and grows, almost as thought it weren't actually written at all. 

This book is done well: the stems have been pruned and carefully trained. What's presented - however much at times it appears incidental - is essential, giving hints about the characters and about the relationships between them, actual and emotional.  And despite what I wrote above, there is plot. I said it was diffuse, and that's how it starts, but it becomes clearer: there's almost something holographic about the book, the whole story runs through every moment but the more of it you read, the sharper it becomes.  A great deal does happen in this book and has happened - only it isn't described as it happens. We see instead the impact, the ripples, and like a hologram, when you look at those the right way the events come into focus and jump out at you. 

Most immediately, at the start of the book the funeral has just taken place of a central character - Oleander, who established Namaste House, a retreat centre with overtones of Eastern mysticism, which Fleur takes over.  Oleander's funeral isn't described, instead we see members of the extended Gardener family afterwards, like fragments of debris after an explosion.  Similarly, there has been a bequest of rare (poisonous, exotic, perhaps magical, it's never quite clear) seed pods to family members, but this is never directly stated nor is it explained.until much later. Even then, it's far from clear exactly what was inherited: these seeds may not all be same. The terms of Oleander's will are only heard indirectly from a telephone conversation and so only described at second hand. Oleander herself never features either - instead we're given some sideways insight about her. For example, Pi claims that "Imagine you are a squirrel" is the kind of thing she might have said - but this is immediately followed by  the narrator/ commentator (perhaps this is Oleander, somehow?) picking up the sentence and meditating on a squirrel's life.  Then there are the references to the "prophet" who lives at Namaste House, and who is clearly an important part of the setup - but it's as though knowledge is assumed: nothing is explained. Thomas is though so good at describing one thing through its impact on another, that pretty soon we think we know what's what. So as we see how Namaste House runs and how Fleur regards it, we're nodding along, thinking, ah yes, the Prophet, just like him, that. 

The central, defining event of the book is very much part of this pattern, something that happened years before and which isn't described until a fair way into the story (and then at second hand, and who can you really trust to tell you the truth in a book like this?) when three members of the family vanished searching for those seed pods.  This is I think the root of all that happens: children are left coping (badly) with loss, and not knowing what happened, setting of trains of events down (and across) the generations.  There's a lot of low self-worth, leading to overeating and compulsive behaviour: drinking, eating, shopping, sex. Grandchildren pick up the vibes and go adrift. But it's all protectively, fiercely, managed in a very English middle-class way - that indirectness again, not stating what's right in front of you but hinting, assuming, coping.

A lot of this seems to fall on Bryony, who is an alcoholic - in a fearfully knowledgeable way, as though the fact that the wine she has waiting for is her is good wine, named wine that cost £30 a bottle, means she is, really, in control - and compulsive shopper (ditto: she knows all the brands, but she has an "e-Bay room" full of stuff she bought and has no use or desire for - shopping is, as Thomas says, like a drug in its effects). Thomas is really good at describing Bryony's relationship with food, her mind an endless fight between the intention to diet and the overwhelming will to eat, crystallised in a stream of thought that's half guilt, half justification, as well as her shopping: "Bryony has taken off and is now moving around the display of handbags like a large tornado moves around the east coast of the USA. She's only about seventy per cent predictable,  and could arrive anywhere without warning..." 

Bryony is a magnificent creation, sympathetic and horrible at the same time. However, this entire family seems pretty dysfunctional.  While a lot of what they're going through might attract the hashtag #firstworldproblems - they're all fairly well off, nobody is homeless or even poor (in contrast with most of Thomas's earlier protagonists) - they seem oddly unfit to actually cope with the pressures of the modern world.  Bryony even has trouble working a telephone at one point.  Others take refuge in syncretistic mysticism or food faddism (Charlie - when he's not having or imagining weird sex).

This inability to cope isn't limited to the Gardners.  The main non family member who features, Skye Turner, is a pop singer struggling with fame and money who comes into their orbit after having a You-Tubed meltdown on a train.  Skye shows symptoms of the same malaise.  When she and Fleur take off for the Hebrides (the family has inherited a remote hunting lodge from Oleander) Thomas has a gentle dig at their Ab Fab lifestyle - Skye and Fleur are sitting by the emergency exit, the very worst people imaginable to have control of it, ...these lipsticked, ponytailed disasters...")

So, the Gardeners stumble through their lives, getting a few things right but a lot wrong, learning something - but not everything - about that disappearance. There's a suggestion of an enlightenment there, for some of them, but it's not I think a central thing - when that blessed state is reached (or not) Thomas in effect takes a device that other writers might base a whole story round, picks it up, examines it, then simply puts it to one side and gets on with the book. Like so much else we're left to speculate about what actually happened, based on the impacts.  It's nothing like a tidy or happy ending, but it is though very entertaining getting to that untidy ending, and there is some brilliant writing too - I'll just quote one more example: Bryony, standing picking sunflowers for her husband observes that they "stand in the field like a row of Marilyn Monroes..."

That's exactly right, isn't it?  Something I never saw before.  

So maybe there is some enlightenment in here, after all.

This is, for me, far and away the best book I've read this year, and the best I expect to read for a long time.

13 June 2015

Review: The Vagrant by Peter Newman

The Vagrant
Peter Newman
Harper Voyager 23 April 2105
HB 404 pages 

ISBN 9780007593071

This review first appeared in Shiny New Books.

‘The Vagrant is his name’ runs the strapline for this book. ‘He has no other.’

In fact, the titular character is never called ‘The Vagrant’ by anybody else and he doesn’t refer to himself as such, because he never speaks. But it describes him well. He is homeless, outcast, a scavenger. But as this is a fantasy novel, he is not merely wandering – there is a quest to pursue: he must deliver a renowned sword to its keepers. Eight years before, the demon horde rose from another reality and defeated the armies of the Winged Eye. The sword’s owner then fell to the demon leader, the Usurper, and the weapon is, apparently, a key to victory or defeat: both sides now covet it.

If you’re not a reader of fantasy, that may sound like an offputting summary of a stereotype fantasy novel. I hope that I can convince you otherwise, because

this isn’t an ‘ordinary’ fantasy novel. As he strides through the demon-infested wasteland, the Vagrant also has a baby to care for: to feed (he acquires a goat to supply milk), to clean, to entertain and (when she becomes ill) to find medicine for.  And there is more, much more. Those who do read fantasy will of course know already that it’s a varied and surprising genre and that the ‘ordinary’ version, while it exists, is paradoxically not representative and that you never really know what to expect – but this book makes that point in spades.
One can only admire both the Vagrant’s determination (how DO you get out of a tricky situation when you can’t draw your sword for fear of dropping Baby and you can’t talk your way out because you can’t talk?) and Newman’s confidence in his storytelling, especially given this is a first novel.  Both do, however, pay off as the book moves through a series of ever more perilous, ever more intricate adventures.  Luckily (…perhaps…) the wasteland isn’t completely empty. There are shattered towns, and shattered people.  Food, shelter and even medicine are available, at a price. But the people are desperate and even more of a threat than the demons. There are dark trades in human flesh. There is collaboration with the occupiers. Everywhere, the struggle for survival taints the spirit as the demon-stuff taints the body.

These demons aren’t just scaly monsters from the Abyss, they are formed from an essence, an undifferentiated, fluid contagion that flows through and transforms things, bringing mutations to humans and animals and sometimes congealing dead (or living) bodies to create a new being.  Such are the Uncivil, the Usurper, the Half-Alive, the Hammer and the feared Knights of Jade and Ash.  The descriptions of some of the fully demonic – dark souls cloaked in vestments made of reanimated, fused human bodies – are vivid and truly horrifying and the transformed humans no less disturbing.

It is a strength of the book that all the creatures that the Vagrant he meets –demon, corrupted human or wretched survivor – are fully rounded and, often sympathetic, even the ‘monsters’.  The Vagrant himself senses this. As he travels among these wretched folk, he seeks to retain his own humanity and can’t but try to help – defending a village here, freeing a group of prisoners there, paying for food he recovers from a band of marauders who stole it from him.  When he cannot help, and has to abandon to death a woman who aided him, he rages (and Newman is adroit at showing, not telling, you this, even without speech).  The tone and setting reminded me somewhat of a Western: the Man With No Name comes into town, standing up against the outlaws and improbably rallying the townsfolk – but always risks losing his way, becoming one of his enemies.

And like the best Westerns, the book doesn’t deal in black and white. There are no rescuers. When we eventually meet the remnants of the force the demons overcame, the Seraph Knights of the Winged Eye, they’re an aloof, arrogant and entitled lot, obsessed with ‘purity’ and expunging the demon taint, even if it means killing those who carry it. At one level, there isn’t much to choose between the demon army and the Winged Eye, indeed in some respects the demons themselves are more sympathetic, more capable of change and possibly redemption. Some offer (dubious) compromise and try to make a reality of the new mixed world created by their eruption from the Breach. In contrast, the Winged Eye shelter behind their force barrier, maintaining their purity and waiting for the magic sword that will save them (but rather scorning the ragged man who carries it).

While most of the action of the story takes place in the present there is a series of flashbacks, describing how the demons came into the world and who, and what, the Vagrant is. I generally don’t like too much flashback but these episodes are integrated well and there are not too many of them. My only (slight) criticism of the book would be that there is a slight jarring between these events purportedly having begun eight years before, and the descriptions of the wasteland and its people which seem to suggest a much longer period of decay and decline. But that’s to nitpick.  It’s a compelling and vivid world, peopled by well rounded and sometimes tragic characters (I’d defy anyone not to cry over the fate of one, in particular, of the Vagrant’s band).

Newman explores prejudice and redemption, the need for compassion set against the drive for survival, even the treatment of refugees (regarded by one side as at best useless mouths, by the other as a source of body parts and slaves). The choice to make his central character voiceless seems risky to begin with, but pays off brilliantly in this intelligent, readable and absorbing novel.

5 June 2015

Blogtour Review! We Shall Inherit the Wind by Gunnar Staalesen

We Shall Inherit the Wind
Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett)
Orenda Books, 2015
Paperback, 262 pages

I'm grateful to Liz at http://lizlovesbooks.com/ for kindly inviting me to join this blogtour alongside a number of excellent bloggers (for a full list see poster below).

This was the first time I'd heard of Norwegian private investigator Varg Veum, hero of a series of noirish detective novels.  he's apparently famous in his adopted home town of Bergen where there is even a statue of him.  One mark down for English insularity, then, and I'm glad Orenda Books have now made some of these available in the UK.

In this book, Varg is asked to investigate the disappearance of Mons Maeland, a businessman interested in bringing windfarms to a small island in the west of Norway.  Mons has family troubles, there is oppositional from environmentalists to the windfarms, and also a fundamentalist religious faction on the island that looks upon such developments with dour disapproval.

For me, this mix of social and personal issues was fascinating. I don't know much about Norway and it's easy to assume that some very lazy Nordic stereotypes will apply - liberal, easygoing people, consensus on environmental issues and lots of pine furniture.  So it's jarring and unexpected to see Veum asking, for example, whether "Dancing was allowed then?" and getting the answer "Not in all circles, of course".  Or to see environmental campaigners resort to violence to stop wind turbines (of all things!)

Other aspects of the book are more familiar, perhaps - dodgy business deals, family tensions and inheritances.

It's less unsettling, but equally stimulating, to see cultural references such as to "the Havamal, an old Norse poem" or to the "potato pioneering priests of yore" establishing the book's atmosphere as very different from a crime novel set in England, Scotland or the US. This is a land of fjords, islands, bridges and ferries. Travel invariably requires a ferry or a boat. And our detective isn't an ex policeman but a retired social worker - but don't let that give you the impression he's any kind of pushover. "Varg" means "wolf" and Veum bares his teeth serveral times in the book, including facing up to a thug with the memorable phrase "Tell your mongrel to stay on its mat!" which I am determined to use myself one day.

In discovering what has happened to Maeland, however, Veum's greatest strength is his patient ability to unpick what he's told by wife, children, friends, the inhabitants of Brennoy and those militant environmentalists. The picture builds up, step by step: there are no blinding flashes of deduction or revelations from the forensics lab.

Veum's greatest weakness, perhaps, is his inability to leave things alone, which leads to disaster - indeed there are foreshadowings of that disaster through the early part of the book, from simple feelings of unease to the comment that a blind has been drawn has been drawn as Veum passes, as if to shut out evil.

Not having read any previous books about this detective I don't know much backstory, beyond the little given away here (an account of how he met his girlfriend and a tally, towards the end, of injuries he's suffered).  This did mean I wasn't particularly invested in Veum as a character, seeing him more as a narrator, perhaps. However while not telling the reader a great deal, Staalsen hints a lot and I would imagine Veum has a distinctly chequered past which I look forward to reading more about

A good addition not just to the roster of Scandi detectives but also to the range of crime writing available in English.  More please...