The Magic of Clockwork

The Watchermaker of Filigree Street

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Bloomsbury Circus, 2015, 978-1-408-85428-0

I have no choice but to write about Natasha Pulley’s new book The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. If not I will be obliged to listen to the book narrated by Tomas Judd over and over till I do. Not that listening to it is unpleasant, it isn’t, but there are other things I would like to hear or read. In fact, that I ever bought the book was a stroke of luck. Someone somewhere suggested I read it. You know: a headline saying it was one of the best books of the year. The kind of touting I generally ignore. I had heard neither of the author nor the book. The title meant nothing to me. It sounded like a Victorian historical piece. Not really my genre. Anyway, when I discovered it was available on Audible I listened to an extract and was fascinated… So I downloaded it and haven’t stopped listening to it since.

This novel is steam punk, without the steam or the punk. All cogs and wheels and clockwork in a battle between fee will and determinism, between the fundamentally human and the predictably programmable. There are some delightful flights of fantasy that stretch our imagination, like the clockwork octopus that is more alive than the suited clerks that people Victorian London. It accompanies its watchmaker maker, but is beyond his control thanks to its random gears. Or there is the watch that knows where it’s owner is and can warn him merely by cogs and springs and a little gunpowder not to mention a hint of magic between the folds of the book.

Magic? Why is this book so captivating? What strikes foremost is the richness of the description, giving many details I wouldn’t dare to as an author for fear of slowing down the action or distracting from the story. But it doesn’t, they don’t. Maybe because that description is an integral part of the story rather than extraneous to it. Hold on. That doesn’t make sense. Thoughts, feelings, surroundings, have a real texture. They are in full colour with sounds and smells that are woven into the story. Sounds are cunningly given colours and objects are attributed colourful sounds in a world that has a thickness and a texture so that even the mundane swirls and whirls with hidden life like one of Van Gogh’s paintings. The description brings depth and richness to the characters and places alike, making the story pulse with life. It would be untrue to say there is very little action, but unlike many modern novels, the story is not driven purely by action. Action is born up by an undercurrent of throbbing veins and a nervous electric tension that never let the reader stray from its grip.

Luna

Luna

Julie Anne Peters, Luna, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2004, 978-0-316-73369-5

Having read Julie Anne Peters’ book Keeping You a Secret, I was looking forward to reading Luna, especially as it treats a subject I too have written about (Boy & Girl  and In Search of Lost Girls), a boy wanting to be a girl, or rather, in this case, not ‘wanting’ but absolutely ‘needing’ to be.

Although the two books are from the same author and are only a year apart, they are quite different. Keeping You a Secret has moments of intense joy and the main character is eminently likeable (see my thoughts about the book). She is constantly learning and moving forward. The situation in Luna is much darker, more oppressive, if not desperate. Luna is torn between the suffering of having the wrong body and a dreamworld in which she has become the girl she knows she is. Her sister, Regan, is devoted to and absorbed by Luna, being her only confident and lifeline, to such an extent that it is destroying her. Hardly surprising then that Luna is less of an euphoric read.

Part of the challenge in Luna in terms of writing is the point of view. The book is written from one perspective, that of Regan, Luna’s younger sister, whereas a good deal of the story is about Luna and her thoughts and feelings. This complicates the storytelling, because ways and means have to be found to relate Luna’s thoughts and actions through Regan without it seeming to be narrated by an outside and less engaged voice. As the story moves forward this becomes less important, as it is more and more clear that the story is as much, if not more, about Regan’s difficulty with her self effacement and the resulting disempowerment that springs from being convinced she holds the delicate balance of her family in her hands and she can’t let go. The way Peters resolves this dilemma is both clever and insightful.

Another risk that Peters takes in Luna is the frequent use of flashback. Such returns to the past can slow the narrative and even loose the reader. This is not the case in Luna. Coming as prolongations of Regan’s thoughts, they are part of the current action. This anchoring is strengthened by a clever inversion in which the flashbacks are written in the present tense whereas the main narrative is told in the past.

The story teeters on the verge of disaster with Regan struggling to avoid her whole world plunging into the abyss. There seems little hope of resolution, especially as the main characters have great difficulty in learning from their mistakes. No wonder that the reader should get frustrated and urge the protagonists to move forward. To counteract the feeling of stasis, the author uses momentary accelerations that heighten the tension. In a story that might intrinsically be repelling, this variety of pace is refreshing and engaging.

Keeping You a Secret

Keeping You a Secret

Julie Anne Peters, Keeping You a Secret, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2003, 978-0-7569-7326-1

Somewhere a reviewer compared Julie Anne Peters’ book, Keeping You Secret to Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden. The latter haunted me for ages, so I had high hopes for Peters’ book and I wasn’t disappointed. The story is delightful, heart wrenching even, and the writing of it is well worth reading the book an extra time to get a closer look.

This is not a book about a theme. Julie Anne Peters is not content just to tell the story of the love between two girls and the difficulty of coming out in a hostile environment, she brings a whole world to life in a way that is both credible and engrossing. She plays skilfully on the readers’ emotions, suspending our expectations, as the limits of current society and that which cannot be said or done, keep resolution tantalisingly at a distance. Literally, the play on proximity and distance and the intense emotions it evokes are summed up by Holland when she prays silently but unsuccessfully to Cece: Touch me. Just once.

I think one of the main reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I really like Holland, the main character. She’s funny, she’s intelligent, she’s thoughtful, she gets things done, she’s admired by others yet she is sensitive to people’s feelings. Just to give one example, and at the risk of it not being understood out of context, take the moment when Cece hands Holland a note in class inviting her to a concert. Despite the undeclared attraction she feels for the girl, Holland dares reply with a note saying: only if you can keep your hands off me. Causing Cece to burst out laughing. Yet, far from being portrayed as perfect, Holland is confronted with her own limits and in her vulnerability and through her struggle, she becomes all the more likeable.

From the point of view of writing, what I find exemplary is the powerful way the author evokes without going into details, such that the writing remains tight while the story stands enriched as the reader is given leeway to complete the picture. The sound of a match striking, for example, that indicates, without saying so, that Holland’s step-sister has lit another stick of incense. Followed by Holland’s reaction in two words: Damn her. And the story moves on. Or another example, in drawing class, when Holland wonders what she will draw as she stares fascinated at the back of Cece’s head. When we read: I flipped open my sketchbook and began to draw. No more is needed. We know exactly what her drawing will be about.

I also found very effective the author’s use of truncated sentences to depict thought and express the urgency and intense emotions Holland feels. Had to see her. Talk to her. Apologise about the locker room incident. About the assholes in our school. Try to make it right…. This shorthand style gets across a wealth of meaning in so few words: To think. About him – not him. Her. Me. Her and me. Excellent!

None of the Above

None of the Above

I.W. Gregorio, None of the Above, Balzer & Bray, New York, 2015, 978-0-06-233531-9

I.W. Gregorio’s idea in writing None of the Above is a potent one, that of discovering you are intersex in a world where being so is neither understood nor tolerated. I looked forward to being swept away by the story, but that wasn’t to be the case.  A word of warning about my disappointment. I would not wish what follows to be seen as a condemnation of the book, but rather an attempt to understand my personal reactions to it as both a reader and a writer.

First of all I had to run the gauntlet of a bevy of American teen girl markers, each striving to grab the attention of potential girl readers. Ok. I’m neither a teen nor a girl nor am I American, but none of that would normally be a barrier, on the contrary. My guess is that these don’t work because the reader senses an intention to force identification and this repels rather than attracts.

The second problem I encountered was the unidimensional nature of the story. None of the Above centres around one story line. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, lest it be my personal taste for more complex stories that are closer to the complexity of real life. But when all the other characters come across like the backdrop to somebody else’s problem, the story lacks depth and is less engaging. As a result I had read the first two hundred pages (so something must have kept me reading) and yet I was still not engrossed in the book.

Then quite unexpectedly I found myself caught up in the story and was unable to put the book down. My guess was that the author eased up on trying to get across the trials and tribulations of an intersex girl and, in doing so, finally let the characters emerge. That and a hint of mutual understanding and potential love did the trick.

As if to confirm my hypothesis, my interest abruptly waned when the author set the two girls up with a chance to talk about their ‘condition’. And again when the author used a visit to the therapist to add further insight about intersex. My conclusion? An author pushing an idea, however poignant or touching it might be, is not good for the story. If an idea is your starting point, as a novel writer, you need to break free of that and let the characters live their lives.

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, Faber & Faber, London, 2010, 978-0571258246

Ishiguro’s book, The Remains of the Day, is undisputedly rich and full. Maybe full is not the right word. Solid, perhaps, or dense might fit better. Whatever the word, my impression as a reader was one of physical repletion. So much so, I set out to understand why or rather how.

The author has adopted a language befitting the time of the action, most of which takes places between the two World Wars and shortly afterwards. But beyond the choice of language, it is the time and effort granted to description and even more so to the thoughts of Stevens, the butler, that contribute to the fullness of the narration. Nowadays, when time is taken to be at a premium and all expression is cut up into ever shrinking fragments each driving the story forward, with the narration full of gaping holes, Stevens’ pondering and the preciseness and correctness, without being pedantic, of his way of expressing himself, appears not only antiquated (which was no doubt the authors intent) but also unfamiliarly dense. This impression is so strong as I reflect on it now, that I wonder if our changing attitude to language and to the flow of time and its impact on our lives is not the major theme of Ishiguro’s book.

While that richness is seductive and works extremely well at drawing the reader into the spotlessly dust-free world of Darlington Hall, it also limits our room for manoeuvre as readers. In lieu of imagining worlds and expanding on character details as I might in a modern novel or rushing helter-skelter to the denouement, I found myself adopting Stevens’ wordy, albeit cautious, voice as I reflected on how much the characters were bound by a culture and a way of behaving that, without the self restraint imposed by the book, would have had me screaming but which, instead, I found charming.

It is those very words, used by the butler to reflect on his life and his work and to perform his duties to their utmost despite the extreme circumstances that assail him, that both convey the intimate fabric of the world at that time, and reveal by omission that which is steadfastly left unstated by Stevens, the underlying emotions that animate the staff and visitors in this stately hub of English society.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the whole book hinges on one sentence that takes a very long time in coming and when it comes you wonder if that was really what you had been waiting so long for or whether you might have misheard and need to go back and check. A moment’s distraction and you could well have missed it. How could such a life, given as being rich and fulfilled, be crowned by a single, but monumental missed opportunity, if ever there was such an opportunity at all?

The Buried Giant

The-Buried-Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, Faber & Faber, London, 2015, 978-0571315031

The central theme of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant is forgetfulness. Not the forgetfulness that is the result of modern life which leaves the elderly untethered from the past and disconnected from society around them, but rather a magically induced loss committed then forgotten in the name of peace that preserved medieval society in a restless present. When fragments of the past surge from the mists, significant but as yet unconnected memories surrounded by doubt, the protagonists and reader alike are left to wonder if the return of memory might not be such a good idea. By a cunning use of repetition and returns to the past, Ishiguro, weaves a mist around the reader who, at the slightest moment of inattention, loses track of where she is and flounders in an undivided sea of impressions. It is in those moments, cut loose from time, that a panic seizes the reader leaving her grasping for familiar landmarks.

A secondary theme lurks beneath the surface of Ishiguro’s novel, that of thought. The author hints that thoughts were much fewer and far between than nowadays. It is difficult for us to imagine, cluttered as our modern minds are by a mass of unbidden thoughts. Back then, in the days following the fall of Arthur, when a thought came to someone it was an unusual and surprising event, surging from a sea of unnamed impressions and emotions. Mind was rather like the land at the time; largely untraced by lanes and hedgerows, it was covered with sprawling areas of what the author calls ‘desolate uncultivated land’ offering no reference points for the would-be traveller. No wonder then that the modern reader should feel alarmed by this undivided and indistinct world and be fascinated by the struggle of the heroic few to trace out paths back to the past and forward to the future.

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Thief’s Magic

Thief's Magic

Trudi Canavan, Thief’s Magic, Book One of Millenium’s Rule, Orbit, London, 2014, 978-0-356501-10-9

As with many of Trudi Canavan’s earlier books like The Black Magician trilogy and The Age of the Five trilogy, I really enjoyed reading her new novel Thief’s Magic, book one of Millennium’s Rule.

The story, or rather stories, for there are two of them, were gripping. The interweaving of the two is cleverly done, with the author taking her time to establish the characters and the context in the beginning, only to leave the reader with a cliff-hanger when she shifts to the other story. As the stories progress, shifting from one to another becomes more frequent, but never too hastily that the reader doesn’t have the time to plunge into the action. The familiar wish to continue with one of the stories to the detriment of the other did not occur here as both stories, one with a female main character, Rielle, and the other with a male one, Tyen, are well balanced and of equal interest.

I did find myself continually wondering when and how the two main characters would meet, seeing as they lived in quite different worlds, and was surprised, but not upset, that their two paths had not crossed by the end of this first book of the series. There was no shortage of possible clues  that a meeting would eventually take place, but that meeting will be quite a narrative challenge. How will the author manage the shift from two very strong but unrelated perspectives to a situation where both meet and interact?

Sustaining the reader’s interest while switching between stories when those stories are apparently unconnected is a real achievement. Unconnected? Well they do handle a similar theme: the nature of magic and its role in society, in particular with relationship to women. As with her earlier books, a great deal of thinking must have gone into the workings of the societies in which her story takes place that makes it all the more credible and engrossing.

As a writer, one of the interesting aspects of Trudi Canavan’s work in this novel is the way she provides insight into characters by subtly revealing the reactions of one to another, like Tyen noticing a twitching muscle in the professor’s face that he takes to be an indication of envy; a perception to be seen in terms of Tyen’s changing view of his professor. With only a few words, like a finger of light probing the page, a whole vista opens up to the reader as deeper layers of the characters are made apparent through their interactions with each other. That depth brings the characters alive and contributes to our delight as we read on.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of Thief’s Magic for me is that it echoes my own preoccupations as an author: the development of the knowledge and abilities of a young, apparently ordinary person into someone quite exceptional despite adverse circumstances and the disbelief if not opposition of those around him or her.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Percy-Jackson

Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson and Lightning Thief, Puffin, London, 2005, 978-0-141-32999-4

Before I begin, let me say I enjoyed Rick Riodan’s Percy Jackson story. According to my local bookseller, Mathew Wake, the book has had quite a success with young people. I listened to the audio version twice. The gleeful helter-skelter of action kept the story and me as reader moving forward. But the book left me unsatisfied and I wanted to know why. The first thing to spring to mind was the boy’s age.

How old are you Percy Jackson? Twelve, sir.

This is not a quote from the book, but it could have been. As I read the story, the question of the main character’s age kept niggling at me. The action didn’t necessarily require him to be twelve. Why did the author choose that age? To have a character with a certain naïveté or innocence? Not really, judging from the boy’s past. A spontaneous if not reckless way of reacting? Possibly. A license for playfulness if not tomfoolery? Probably.

In terms of age, there is considerable leeway about what young characters can and cannot do in a novel compared with reality. It is part of the appeal of YA for fiction writers. Tolerance can be stretched quite far, before the reader is forced out of the story by doubt and then incredulity. I am not sure that Percy Jackson being twelve was essential to the story.

Another facet of the book that may have contributed to my dissatisfaction was its limited perspective. Rather like a one-street town, all the action in this first person narrative was strung out along one single thread. If action drove the story forward, what could give it depth? Why bother? You might ask. Why indeed? Because as an author I believe we owe it to our (young) readers to go beyond excitement and entertainment.

Rick Riodan uses a heavy dose of cultural backstory from the life of Greek gods that, although it is pertinent to the story and often cleverly introduced, works a bit like a souped-up history lesson, but is not sufficient to provide an impression of depth. He also tries to engage the reader by referring to familiar situations in a young reader’s life, but these work more as markers of age and place rather than as an opening for deeper insight into the character and ultimately oneself.

Beyond all that, though, I think it is the flippancy with which many potentially deeper subjects are treated that leads to my dissatisfaction. I wonder if such an approach is not condescending towards young adults. I cannot help but compare Riodan’s comic-book description of the passage through the underworld with Philip Pullman’s majestic prose in the last volume of His Dark Materials. Riodan punctuates the story with anachronous nods and winks at modern American life that are meant to be funny or possibly reassuring. No wonder I was dissatisfied. I expect more than just excitement or entertainment from a story.

Cruel beauty

Cruel-Beauty

Rosamund Hodge, Cruel Beauty, Balzer + Bray, New York, 2014, 978-0-06-2 22473-6

Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty is a retelling of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast. Divided into three parts, the first part deals with the period before Nyx, alias Beauty, goes to join her new husband, the ‘Beast’, ironically named the Gentle Lord. The second and most substantial part portrays the evolution of Nyx’s feelings for her monster husband. And the final part, unravels a number of complex threads and draws the story to a conclusion.

The first part had me struggling not to set the book aside. The author constantly delays the fatal moment when Nyx meets the beast. This is done by stretching the narrative, filling spaces between moments when Nyx harps on her fear and hatred of the beast and her tense relationships with her family by digressions about the past and chunks of back-story. Although all these anecdotes are pertinent, they do not heighten the suspense, they flatten it.

The author’s basic premise in this part makes her work all the more difficult. Firstly she portrays a family that has singled out and trained one of its two daughters as an instrument of revenge. That fact turns them all into unfeeling monsters, making the writer’s task of winning the reader challenging. Secondly, although the characters do not lack strong emotions, they have all opted not to show them. As a result, they end up resembling cardboard figures or caricatures.

The story finally breaks out of this straightjacket with the arrival of the second part. Oddly enough, it’s when the monsters come out that people actually become human. I really enjoyed this portrayal of the evolving relationship between Nyx and her Gentle Lord. It is well written. As is their relationship to the castle in which they are imprisoned. The author excels in inventing creative ways of interacting with the house which has a mind of its own. Whether the descriptions are beautiful or terrifying, they are well crafted and creative.

In the final part, the author returns to the earlier setting in Nyx’s family, much to my regret. Despite the fact that Rosamund Hodge has the family members undergo radical changes of character, they are still not convincing. What’s more, a number of narrative sleights of hand to get us to the end had me troubled. But then maybe all these trials and tribulations were worth it for us to reach the final smile of relief.