Review: The Honours (2015) by Tim Clare

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I’ve been a fan of Tim Clare’s poetry for a while now. In fact, it was one of his poems (‘Noah’s Ark and Grill’) that converted me into a fan of performance poetry. But that said, there really isn’t much of a connection between ‘Tim Clare the poet’ and ‘Tim Clare the novelist’. The Honours feels completely seperate from his poetry; if I didn’t know it was the same person, I never would have made the connection. The Honours is a pretty serious fantasy novel – though there are flickers of humour here and there – and demonstrates that Clare is skilled in more than one area of writing.

The story focuses on thirteen year-old Delphine, who’s just been expelled from boarding school. Her family accept an invitation to stay at the large and remote Alderberen Hall in an effort to improve the health of her father, Gideon. But soon after arriving, Delphine discovers there is a secret plot unfolding. Out of the Hall’s many residents, she finds an ally in Mr Garforth, the estate’s gamekeeper. In order to protect her family, as well as England, she must uncover the truth about the Hall and those that reside in it…

Delphine has a bit of an obsession with war stories, guns and ‘Bolsheviks’ – though most of her knowledge seems to come from books like The Boy’s Bumper Treasury of War. Her view of war is very romanticised – until she actually has to start fighting herself. She’s a really strong protagonist, and seems to subvert the norm for ‘war’ stories that take place around the 1930s: it’s really nice to have a female lead. Delphine is a perfect concoction of arrogance and likeability. She’s incredibly relatable in the way she often thinks herself to be invincible, just like many of us did at hr age.

The rest of the characters are strong as well. Clare does a good job of making pretty much all of them ‘morally grey’, rather than simply having a good side and a bad side. Most of the novel seems to function as a ‘whodunnit’ – in the sense that we’re trying to work out who Delphine can safely trust. Characters that stood out include Mr. Garforth – the shotgun wielding, gnarled old man who acts as a great contrast to Delphine. I also really liked Miss DeGroot, and think Clare captures that ‘cool adult’ vibe with her really well.

Though I haven’t really noted it yet, this is a fantasy novel… It just takes a while to really get to the fantasy elements. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, and in many ways it reminded me of China Miéville’s novels: the first half being a slow build and the second wall-to-wall craziness. (Good crazy.) Though The Honours takes a while to reach its pay-off, it’s incredibly rewarding when it gets there. I won’t talk about the fantasy elements of the novel – just because they appear late enough to feel like spoilers – but Clare handles them really well.

I would also like to mention what a good job the author does with regards to juggling plots. God, there are a lot of plots here, but the book never feels over-stuffed. The only possible downside of this is if there isn’t a sequel. Clare leaves a large amount up in the air by the novel’s close, with some plotlines getting forgotten a bit. I would be very surprised if The Honours wasn’t the first of a trilogy, simply because of how well a sequel is set up. (Clare has since confirmed a sequel, so no worries here after all.)

A solid first novel overall. I’ll definitely be reading anything else Tim Clare comes out with.

Review: The Scar (2002) by China Miéville

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My last China Miéville review more-or-less consisted of me gushing over the novel, so let’s see how this one goes. To cut to the chase, The Scar is an incredibly solid fantasy novel. It’s got a great storyline, some interesting characters and an abundance of weirdness. But is it as strong as its predecessor, Perdido Street Station? Let’s find out.

Bellis Coldwine, a New Crobuzon citizen, escapes the city due to fear of being accused of a crime she did not commit. To get away, she joins the crew of a small ship heading to the Nova Esperium colony on the other side of the sea. Also on the ship are prisoners below the decks, due to live out the rest of their lives as slaves in exile. Out of nowhere the ship is boarded by pirates and all of its passengers taken captive to Armada: a floating pirate city made up of hundreds and hundreds of ships. Along with some other captives, Bellis tries to find a way to escape.

Of course, I’m portraying the book as a lot simpler than it actually is. There are a lot more twists and turns in this book than Perdido Street Station, and its story is a lot harder to predict overall. It took a long time before I knew what the various characters were planning – or who was actually on who’s side – or what the eponymous scar actually is. Of course, things still move at a pretty leisurely pace, because it’s Miéville. There were parts that felt a bit like padding and filler, but then there were also moments where I couldn’t read faster enough because there was so much happening. The big moments are so good that it’s worth, getting through the slower bits – which really aren’t as bad as I’m making them out to be. Though this novel is about 800 pages long, I finished it quicker than many books that twice its length.

The characters are also strong. Bellis is an enjoyable lead, and also a nice little link to the events of Perdido Street Station. She’s perhaps a bit weak compared to some of the novels other more colourful characters, and doesn’t actually have that great an effect on the plot overall (often relying on others to do things). Tanner, pretty much the novel’s second lead, is brilliant and offers a unique perspective on Armada (being a remade criminal). Since Perdido, I’ve had a desire to see the perspective of a remade person – as they are largely faceless henchmen in that book – and Tanner has fulfilled that desire. It’s impossible to touch on every character, just because of how many there are… but I’ll also give a shout-out to Uther Doul. He and his weapon are just absolutely wonderful creations. There’s a lot more moral grey in this novel than Perdido, which seems to construct a team of good guys to go against the bad guys. There aren’t really any good people in this novel, except maybe Bellis, but just people with conflicting interests.

Though I wouldn’t say this is a flawless novel, as there are a few small problems I had with it. In addition to my issues with Bellis and plot being a bit slow sometimes, the ending is a little lacklustre. Perdido’s ending, for me, was pretty much perfect, but The Scar’s is a little bit ho-hum. I suppose the issue that Miéville faces is that he spends most of the novel building up to this big moment, and then he either has to go through with it (which will probably be underwhelming after the build-up) or subvert it in some way (which might feel like a cheat). But the novel doesn’t suffer because of it, because the build-up to the ending and the many diversions that the author takes to get there are so enjoyable.

So yes, you should definitely read The Scar… It’s a great novel – as I said in the first paragraph – and pretty much exceeded all my expectations. But is it the best China Miéville novel I’ve read? Probably not, though that’s only because his other ones have set the bar so damn high.

9/10

Review: Where the Serpent Lives (2010) by Ruth Padel

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Ah, Ruth Padel. Reading Darwin, A Life in Letters last year showed me how superb a poet she is, and now, with Where the Serpent Lives, I can see how well she writes fiction. Does the introduction of plot have a positive or negative effect on Padel’s frequently beautiful writing? Let’s find out.

Rosamund is unsatisfied with her current life. Her husband spends his nights with other women, her son frequently gets mixed up with the wrong crowds, and her best friend lives far off in Devon. When it’s recommended to her that she goes on a trip to India – the place where she was raised, and where her estranged zoologist father lives – a possible escape from her life opens up.

Where the Serpent Lives at times feels like poetry that’s simply had a storyline thrust upon it. Though animals dominate the novel, they often feel superfluous to the various plots – suggesting that Padel started with these beautiful encounters with different creatures, and then worked backwards in terms of story. And that isn’t completely a bad thing. Scenes such as these animal focused ones were definite highlights of the novel for me – the foxes that visit Rosamund’s garden, the poisonous snakes that characters encounter… Many of them read like short stories.

It feels strange to say that the novel’s biggest problem is its plot. Though there are definitely some good bits to it, and I found myself really connecting to some of the characters. For example, Rosamund’s son, Russel, who we see go through a pretty unconventional coming-of-age story. Rosamund herself is also a strong character, but seems to flitter between sympathetic and annoying much too often. I also enjoyed spending time with other characters such as Richard and Anka, but unfortunately this is where problems begin to crop up: there are too many characters. Padel chooses to have multiple points of view in the novel, which is fine, but the five or so characters we follow just seems like too much for a fairly short book. Besides, many of these plotlines just aren’t needed. Rosamund and Russel are central to the novel, but other characters – Anka, I’m looking at you – as interesting as they are, feel very unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Padel’s writing style is enough by itself, and so the intricately plotted storyline at times feels very needless. It’s the small moments that make Where the Serpent Lives great.

Another issue I had with this novel was Rosamund’s husband, Tyler. While the majority of the characters are portrayed as well-rounded, flawed yet relatable people, the author makes little attempt to do the same with Tyler. He’s the cheater, the guy that it’s easy for everyone else to pin their troubles on – the villain. Given just how many leads the novel has, it seems like a missed opportunity that Padel didn’t show us Tyler’s point of view – a more vulnerable and broken side of his character. As a result, he sometimes feels villainous to the extent that he’s nothing more than an obstacle for other characters to overcome.

Though this review has been quite negative, that’s only because it’s easier to say what’s wrong with the novel. As much as I would love to write paragraph upon paragraph about how great Padel’s prose is, it would basically just boil down to me saying ‘beautiful, beautiful, beautiful’ over and over again. With Where the Serpent Lives, its strengths definitely overcome its flaws.

7/10

Short Story: So Famous

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Here’s an old short story I wrote a couple of years ago (probably pre-dating most of the stuff I’ve posted on this blog). I don’t plan to do anything with it, so I thought I might as well chuck it up on here for you guys:

The woman clipped on her bra while he watched her from the cream bed, propped up on his elbow. There was a greasy smile on his face. She offered one of her warm grins in return before turning away, trying to avoid his gaze. She focused on an oil painting of a meadow hung up on the far side of the room. A dank, stagnant smell lingered in the bedroom.

“Oh God, that was amazing,” he said, stressing every syllable of the last word. He collapsed onto his back, soaking up what had just happened.

“Mmm, yeah, it really was,” said the woman. “Really can’t wait to do it with you again sometime.” She picked her blue blouse off of the floor and began to slip her arms through the sleeves.

“You can bet there’ll be another time Molly.”

“It’s Mary.”

“Yeah, Mary, of course,” he said, the mistake causing his smile to falter slightly. “So Mary, how does it feel to shag a future celebrity?”

Mary bit the inside of her mouth, tracing her memory for anything he said earlier relating to celebrities. She was midway through buttoning up her blouse. “Oh yeah, really, really great. I mean you’re just so good at… sex.”

“It’s gonna be a bestseller, I know it. With films rights and stuff I’m gonna make tons.” She heard him slip out from under the sheets and shuffle towards her. He placed his thick arms around her and took over buttoning duty. She could feel his naked body pressing against her back and could smell his post-sex sweat. She kept her plastic smile on and he continued to talk. “Everybody’s gonna know my name, I’m gonna be bigger than J.R. Rowling.”

“You mean J.K. Rowling?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Sure.” She looked over her shoulder and allowed her warm smile to soothe him.

“I’m gonna be able to buy you all kinds of stuff.”

“How sweet of you.”

“I can take you anywhere you want.”

“How lovely.” Mary untangled herself from him and went to pick up her heels from beside the door.

The man moved over to his desk and rummaged through the stack of papers on top of it. He pulled out a collection of stapled A4 sheets. “Here,” his arm was stretched towards her, “Give this a read.”

Her smile waned. “Oh, maybe next time. I’m in a bit of a rush…” She began to slip on her red heels.

“Come on,” his expression reminded her of a dog waiting to be fed, “Gonna be the next big thing.”

She continued to smile and slip on her shoes for a few seconds, hoping that the situation would resolve itself. It didn’t. “Ok then,” she said, “I’ll give it a quick look.”

Mary accepted the sheets, swept back a loose strand of hair and began to read. She was a fast reader, the first few paragraphs devoured in under a minute. As she finished the first page a slight snigger escaped from the corner of her mouth. There was a pause while both of them realised what the sound she’d just made meant.

“What’re you laughing about?” The man’s smile dissolved.

“Oh it’s, um, nothing. Really.” I just, you know, get the giggles sometimes.” She produced another one of her sweet, effortless grins and stared at him with her deep hazel eyes.

The man’s face grew tense, darkening in colour. “God, were you laughing at me? Were you laughing at my book?”

“No, it’s…”

“What makes you think you have the bloody right to do that?”

“Baby, I was just… You know how silly I am sometimes.”

“You can’t just win me over by fluttering your eyelashes and trying to act cute. What’s wrong with it, why’d you laugh? Why’d you laugh at my book?”

Mary bit her lip, cursing herself for letting that laugh escape. “Well it’s, uh… I mean I really enjoyed it, it was really, really good but… Like, it’s just that it’s about a guy that builds a time machine to, um, stop cats from taking over the world and…” Her voice trailed off, ceasing to be audible.

It’s a very deep and very complex science fiction novel,” he said, gritting his teeth. “What the hell do you know anyway? I mean, why the hell would I want advice from someone like you?”

“I’ve read plenty of books actually.”

“Yeah? Bloody Fifty Shades of Grey?” He laughed to himself.

She shook her head, “No, you’re right, what the hell do I know? You’re the writer.”

“Right.”

“I don’t know the first thing about writing a book.” She turned away from the man and dropped the sheets of paper down on the floor. The woman began to unbutton her blouse. “How about we just forget all this and I do something nice for you instead? Something really nice…”

The man’s sickly smile slowly re-emerged. “Yeah. Yeah, I’d like that…”

Mary was down to her bra now, she walked towards the man and took his hand. “Would you like it if… I kept the heels on?” The man nodded mutely like a small child and she led him back to the bed. The woman propped herself over the man, their faces almost touching. She smiled at him alluringly.

“I’m gonna be so famous,” said the man, “So bloody famous.” Mary slipped below the covers, managing to suppress the urge to laugh this time. She couldn’t even remember his name.

 

 

‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ by Raymond Carver

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Hemingway and Carver are pretty much toe-to-toe when it comes to the best short fiction writer. As I’ve already posted a story by the former, I thought it was about time I shared some Carver-y goodness. Here’s ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’.

Like Hemingway’s best stories, Carver’s gain their power from what they leave off the page. The author leaves us insinuate how the protagonist feels – and what she fears. There’s an underlying darkness to the story surrounding the dead girl that her husband finds. But it is less the dead body that makes things unsettling, and how her husband and his friends react to finding it. There’s something unnerving about how they leave it for the night, enjoying themselves instead of getting to the police station.

And the title. ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ may be one of my favourite titles ever because of how well it encapsulates the story. When I first started reading it I had no clue what the title meant, but by the time it showed up as a line in the story it came as a chilling gut-punch. Truly Carver at his best.

Other great Carver stories: everything from ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is just fantastic.

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014) by Rachel Joyce

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Although I  pre-ordered this book, it’s taken me a year to get around to reading it. Despite being a – let’s call it a ‘spin-off’ – to a novel I thoroughly enjoyed, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I didn’t feel that much compulsion to read it. There’s two key reasons for this that I can pin down: 1.) Having read a lot of novels since Joyce’s last book, Perfect, the appeal of her style has faded a bit in my mind. 2.) I didn’t really feel like there needed to be another novel set in the Harold Fry universe. Now that I’ve finished the book, these two points still stand.

The novel tells the story of the woman that Harold Fry walked across England for, Miss Queenie Hennessy. Stuck in a hospice without much time left, Queenie decides to write a letter to Harold telling him the truth once and for all. With the help of one of the nuns at the hospice and the support of some of the other patients, she begins to write her story all the way from the beginning, from when she and Harold first met.

For me, retellings of stories from different angles hardly ever work. Although it can be interesting to see another perspective, it can also be really restrictive – there are certain facts and certain plot-points that must be stuck to no matter what. Despite Joyce’s best efforts, Queenie Hennessy suffers from this quite badly at times. It is simultaneously a book that you have to read Harold Fry to follow and one that has to repeat so much of the same story. There are points where the author chucks Queenie into scenes that she wasn’t in in the first novel and has to be certain that Harold doesn’t see her so she doesn’t contradict herself. The novel’s final scenes, which repeat those from Harold Fry, are particularly frustrating, as they have to make Queenie act like she did in that book rather than this one. In short, it doesn’t often feels like the novel stands up on its own, simply living in the shadow of its predecessor.

Though this doesn’t damage the novel an incredible amount, it’s still irritating. At times it makes Queenie feel like a character without any real agency, being trapped in somebody else’s story. She spends most of the novel pining after Harold Fry – often to concerning amounts – but the book never really explains why that well. Queenie has to act a certain way for everything to add up. And because of this, it’s when Joyce moves away from the plot of her first novel that the book’s protagonist really comes into her own. The time that Queenie spends away from Harold, mostly in the hospice, is what really elevates everything for me. Without any of the cast of Harold Fry around, the character really comes into her own – the supporting characters are also wonderful. I have a lot of respect for Joyce in how she manages to generate such fantastic writing from a setting as bleak as a hospice. It’s odd to say that most of the book’s most cheerful scenes take place there.

Another thing Queenie Hennessy has going for it is Rachel Joyce’s brilliant writing. While the story overall didn’t work for me – I didn’t feel like there was enough plot to fill a novel – it is stuffed with loads of lovely moments and lines. A couple of them:

‘I’ve never trusted an exclamation mark, especially a whole batch of them.’

‘I accepted that sometimes you cannot clear the past completely. You must live alongside your sorrow.’

It’s the tiny moments that I think she excels at. There are a few one or two page chapters in here that feel like they could easily work as pieces of flash fiction. Perhaps this is why I’m slightly excited that the author’s next book is a short story collection.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is, for me, a novel that never seems to fully justify its existence. There is good stuff in it, but only just about enough to outweigh the bad. How much you like this one, I think, will depend on your enthusiasm for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

7/10

British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition

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I have excellent news to share – I’m going to have a short story published! I submitted a piece to the BFS short story competition a few months ago, it’s called ‘The Crows’, and it ended up coming in first place. A very nice bit of confidence boost for my writing. I’m not 100% sure when the publication will come out, either this year or the next, but I’ll keep you guys posted.