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.

Harvest

hyddenworld-autumn

William Horwood, Harvest, Macmillan, London, 2012, 978-0-230-71262-1

Harvest is the third book of William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series, following on from Spring and Awakening. These three, along with the recently published Winter, mark the author’s return to writing after a considerable pause. Those that have read and loved his tales of Duncton or the very moving Skallagrigg, amongst others, will be delighted to see him back in print, especially as many of the older books are no longer available.

The flow of time of the Hydden, the little people that live unseen at the edge of the human world in William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series, might seem laborious to us, accustomed as we are to rushing from one event to another without taking the time to stop and look and listen. Maybe it is this failure to pause and savour life to the fullest that contributes most to our inability to see and appreciate the Hydden and their way of life. For the reader of Horwood’s book the difficulty is similar. Weened as we are on the breakneck speed of modern films and TV series, as well as books such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, slowing to the pace of Horwood’s narrative can be challenging. But slow you must if you want to enter this world full of unimaginable richness and delightful lightness, not to mention profound wisdom.

Or so I thought as I began Harvest! Then I was abruptly whisked off my feet and whirled away in eddies of action and a flood of emotions. All is not a whirlwind, though. The pace of Harvest varies often. The action reaches an apotheosis when the Earth heaves up wreaking vengeance on a town who citizens remain oblivious to the very last, while the main characters look on, deeply touched by the cataclysm but unable to move. Yet in those moments when the story picks up speed, and that was what intrigued me, it didn’t skim precariously over emptiness as many fast-paced novel do. It had depth to its intensity.

As an author, I couldn’t help searching from the roots of that intensity in the language. Several possibilities were apparent. The restrained use of dialogue and the brilliance of the descriptions of people and places often built around action and verbs. But above all, the power of Horwood’s writing lies in his challenge of the self-evident, in the density and richness of his imaginings and finally, the depth and delightfulness of an astounding range of main characters.

When I reached the end of Harvest, it was not the hallmark emptiness left behind by those helter-skelter, breath-taking novels that awaited me, but rather a dense and satisfying plenitude. All was far from right, Winter was yet to come and losses had to be mourned, but William Horwood’s book had nourished me in a way that left me feeling richer and more human.

Seraphina

seraphina

Rachel Hartman, Seraphina , Corgi Books, London, 2013, 978-0-552-56600-1

Reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina had me thinking about those ingredients of a story that appeal to me most, probably because her book pleased me so much. I really enjoy stories where people discover they have hidden talents or are finally able to reveal gifts that have long been kept secret, just like Seraphina, Hartman’s main character. And in so doing we share her joys and pleasures as well as her difficulties if not nightmares at having such gifts.

Another facet of Hartman’s book that pleased me is her exploration of the strange and how she weaves it into the story. Not a contrived strangeness trumped up for effect, but rather an unexpected shift in perspective similar to that born of creativity or humour. Who would think of wondering how a dragon would feel if trapped in a human body and the impact that could have on the uneasy cohabitation between humans and dragons?

Like many stories that feed on suspense, Hartman’s book is driven forward by the constant threats that hang over Seraphina, but not to the extent that she wallows in unending pain and misery dragging down the reader with her. The author avoids having the reader cringe about what horrible plight will befall Seraphina next. Yet at the same time, the story is far from tame, which is often the fate of those that spare their main character the pain and suffering.

Perhaps the ingredient that delights me most in such a story is being privy to the blossoming love between two powerful but apparently unreconcilable characters, long before they are aware of the forces at play and then the delight when that love is finally perceived and shared by the two concerned. Succeeding such a progressive flourishing of love requires deft craftsmanship.

All in all, I immensely enjoyed this book and, although there were a few moments when my attention flagged, generally when the author grappled with introducing complex story elements, I can warmly recommend it.

Feed

Feed(novel)

M.T. Anderson, Feed, Candlewick Press, 2012,  978-0-763662622

M.T. Anderson was so successful at depicting a superficial, mindless society in the beginning of his book Feed that I almost gave up reading, unwilling to plunge into such a world. The impression was reinforced by the off-hand, futuristic lingo of young people and less young people that the author had crafted. In the audiobook version I listened to, the medium was cleverly used to render the fragments of feeds in the story with music and jingles, the whole works. Feeds? Think Internet and radio and TV all combined with tailor-made ads based on people’s thoughts and desires fed directly into their brains.

One of the key questions raised by Feed is the weakening of dividing lines that define us and our world. The introduction of the Internet blurred the divide between private and public space, allowing outside influences to penetrate our hitherto private spaces. But the space that the Internet accesses is necessarily outside the body. Feed toys with the consequences of a deliberate break-down of the line between outside and inside the body, where information feeds interact directly with the mind. It also talks about the loss of self that comes from commercial interests whittling down possibilities, even though it is presented as the ultimate personalisation of choice, and the related loss of discernment about what is and isn’t of interest to a particular person and in fine the disempowerment of the individual who no longer controls who or what he or she is.

The story is built up neither on the physical world the characters live in nor on their action in the traditional sense of the word, but on the way people behave as subjects of the feed. For Titus, the main character, what the reader perceives as a dystopian world, is completely normal and self-evident. As a result, the first person narrative confines the reader to an alarmingly narrow reality, all the more so that little or no meaningful action takes place till Violet turns up with her unexpected behaviour that is both appealing and troubling. Enough said. Far be it for me to re-tell the story.

Approaching the narration in terms of behaviour rather than action produces a deceptively light-weight tale, as if nothing of consequence happens compared with such action-packed stories like Divergent or the Hunger Games. This impression is reinforced by the inability of Titus to grasp or react to the tragedy that is taking place. Rather than being connected, he is cut off from the world and the feelings around him. As a reader I wanted to shake him awake. What a jerk! Yet this story is profoundly thought-provoking and for all the apparent superficiality of the world described, the ending is deeply moving.

Divergent Trilogy

Divergent trilogy

Veronica Roth, Divergent, Katherine Tegen Books, 2011
978-0062024039
Veronica Roth, Insurgent, Katherine Tegen Books, 2012
978-0062024046
Veronica Roth, Allegiant, Katherine Tegen Books, 2013
978-0062024060

To say the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth is gripping would be an understatement. It is in the same genre as the Hunger Games, and as with that trilogy, it carries you off like a tornado, never letting your feet touch the ground, until it leaves you nerve-wracked and washed out somewhere beyond the last page. I’m still recovering!

In that helter-skelter, place is of less importance, except in the last book of the trilogy. Description of the context is scanty if non-existent. Only the occasional object necessary for the action is mentioned: a mirror, a table in the kitchen, a pole in the bus, or snatches of the city as Tris, the main character, rides through. Too much description would slow the forward movement of the story, but also a solid decor would be at odds with the precariousness of the world they live in. Although the reader may not realize it till the end, Tris’s world is by nature temporary.

The story is a single, female, first-person narrative, except in the last book of the trilogy, where there are two first-person narratives, because the end of the story cannot be told from one individual perspective. Fragments of memories mixed with Tris’s thoughts and bits and pieces of the present accompany the constant action. If there are flashbacks they are also tiny. Each of these snatches or scenes revealing Trice and the world around her.

The heart of the story is about fitting people into a rigid set categories. Once these categories established in the social order, the author works with feelings of belonging, the fear of exclusion, the pain and joy of difference and ultimately the arbitrariness and inhumanity of such a categorization.

A number of key points in the plot wouldn’t hold up if you examined them closely. But to a large extent that doesn’t matter because you are carried forward by the momentum of the story. It is that forceful transportation of the reader and the feeling of emptiness and desolation when the story finally releases it’s grip on you that have me wondering about this trilogy. Despite the fact that it deals with essential issues, in a heartfelt or should I say gut-felt way, I object to being dragged through the ruins of society, forcibly being made witness to all manner of violence and despair. Is a poignant love affair and the blundering quest for what’s right enough to offset the sinister shadow this story leaves over us?

Neverwhere

Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, Headline Review, 2005
978-0755322800

The strange and haunting tale of Neverwhere, crafted initially by author Neil Gaiman with Lenny Harry, began its life as a television series in 1996. It was subsequently adapted into a book by Gaiman and finally became a six-episode radio series on the BBC in 2013. My comments here refer to the radio version, published recently in audiobook format, available from Audible.

Neverwhere is built around an imaginative and hilarious use of the names of the stops on the London Underground in the strange world of London below. A familiar, mundane reality becomes the stage of outlandish and gripping adventures witnessed by an “upworlder” who strayed through his goodness and generosity into the world below only to become the central protagonist in a deadly quest.

The radio series Neverwhere is largely made up of short scenes that move the story on at a rapid pace. Cutting backwards and forwards between worlds also gives the author an opportunity to weave them together by his choice of words. Like when a character from the Upperworld says: “You saved my life” about a non-life threatening situation and then the story cuts immediately to a chase to the death in the sewers below.

The sumptuous world of sound in which the radio series is set owes its existence to Dirk Maggs, the same person who directed the original radio versions of many of Douglas Adam’s creations. Radio allows only a limited number of layers before sounds begin to merge and the result becomes garbled. Yet Neverwhere is rich in sounds, so much so that the story takes on added depth and breadth, literally oozing into your mind. Watery footsteps in underground wastes, the click of forks on plates in a posh social function, the gurgle of potent wine being poured into a glass, voices echoing off filthy cavernous walls, all anchor the story in a tangible, palpable world.

The radio series had me wanting to read the book, but it also raised questions about my own novel writing. I was intrigued to know if Gaiman’s book also switched rapidly from scene to scene so as to employ dramatic irony born of clever juxtaposition. It had me wanting to experiment shorter scenes in my novels with all the challenge that would mean in terms of multiple points of view. And what about the intense world of sound? How, if at all, could a book echo more richly such a sensuousness and depth born of sounds, not to mention smells and touch?

The Dream Thieves

Dream-Thieves

Stiefvater M., The Dream Thieves, Scholastic, 2013
978-1407136622

The second book of the Raven Boys Cycle, The Dream Thieves, written by Maggie Stiefvater, ends on a cadence that is so far from resolution that we are surprised to awake and realise the story is over, albeit until the next book is published. That surprise may have something to do with the sheer pace and intensity of the story. It’s a daring finish to a wild and raw, but sophisticated book.

Masculine. There is no other word for the story. It’s not just that it is about a group of young boys or the violence that explodes unbidden within and around them. The whole book is permeated with sharpness and roughness and, above all, intensity. Even the main female character, a young girl called Blue, is as sharp as a knife in her choice of words, yet she battles to find her place in the boys’ world. Maybe the gravelly voice of the reader of the audiobook, Will Patton, contributes to the profound feeling of masculinity to the tale.

The fact that there is a shift in the main character from the first to the second book also contributes to the underlying impression that this is a world for young men. Ronan Lynch is a powerhouse of raw, masculine energy and barely contained violence, but he is also a well of susceptibility and vulnerability. And Roman, like the story, is cast abreast a confused frontier between the so-called real world and that of dreams. Dreams? They lie at the heart of the story: a magnetic, irresistible, pulsing heart. The density of the language and the richness of the images deployed throughout the book have the dream world continually seeping, if not violently erupting, into the present, till neither us readers nor the characters are sure what is real and what is not.

The Night Circus

Night-Circus

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus, Vintage, 2012
978-0099554790

My initial reaction to The Night Circus was one of wild enthusiasm. Just like a young, wide-eyed spectator embarked on a magical tour, I was enthralled by the colours, the shapes and movements, by all the sounds and smells of the circus. “A feast of the senses,” the book, typically self-reflective, says of the Night Circus. Not only did the richness of the descriptions fascinate me, making me gasp at the breadth and depth of the author’s imagination, but also the elaborateness of the narrative, moving backwards and forwards in time, shifting in and out of the story and switching from first to second then to third person narrative.

There is no doubt that Erin Morgenstern’s magic worked on me. I was hopelessly hooked on the beautiful, ephemeral world of the Night Circus, wishing it would last for ever. Only when that world began to unravel and the illusions crumple, leaving me feeling bereft and equally unravelled, did I realise how much the book had swayed me.

One thing troubled me, however. A minor thing, maybe, but worrying all the same. I listened to the book in an excellent audio rendering by Jim Dale. Periodically I found my thoughts wandering, unable to remain with the story. I set myself to pondering why that should be. As a result, my enthusiasm gave way to a more wary ambivalence.

The book, like the Night Circus that it describes, is one continuous breath-taking illusion, as if the story and all that is related to it, was pulled from a hat, and in that monumental slight of hand, it becomes strangely insubstantial and disconnected, and us, as readers, with it. The form of the novel seeks to reflect the illusion of the circus itself and, like with the illusionist’s performance, we as readers are not sure if it is mastery or trickery or both.

The author seeks to engage the reader by anticipating his or her reactions, substituting herself for the reader by using the ‘you’ form and describing our reactions to the circus in a way that echoes the performance of the illusionist who manipulates spectators’ perceptions to make them see what she wants. But do we let ourselves be manipulated? The author also evokes the growth of a large and faithful following of the circus as if to conjure up, by association, something similar for the book, involving the reader in anticipation of the book’s success and suggesting how that might feel.

The narration attempts to embarks us, not so much by what happens to the characters, but rather by the intensity of the descriptions of strange and wonderful scenes. Coming as a string of exquisite cameos of the circus, these scenes, delightful and captivating as they are, rarely have anything to do with the characters and, if characters do appear in them, those people are a support for the circus, rather than the circus being the context in which the characters evolve. If a story is seen as the trials and tribulations of a number of characters, most of this book distracts from the story. It is possible that therein lies the book’s greatest slight of hand and its greatest weakness, as a story at least.

One of the outcomes of preferring the weird and wonderful of the circus, and binding the characters to that spectacular world, rather than letting them grow and develop in their own right, is that the intense emotions they experience reach us distorted and diluted, making that young man and woman seem unattainable. In comparison, the parallel story of the two twins born at the inception of the circus and their growing relationship to an outsider named Bailey, is far more touching and heart rending than all the trumpeted fears and doubts and passions of the two main characters.

Postscriptum. Having listened to the Night Circus a second time, I can only say the story is stimulating on so many different levels that any reserves I might have expressed above pale in its brilliance. Erin Morgenstern is a genius.

Raven Girl

Raven-Girl

Niffenegger A., Raven Girl, Jonathan Cape, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-224-09787-1

When I read about Audrey Niffenegger‘s Raven Girl project on Goodreads, I was fascinated and ordered the book. Here was an author/illustrator who worked hand in hand with a choreographer, Wayne McGreggor of the Royal Ballet in London, to create a book and a ballet. There’s a distinct appeal to linking across art forms in a quest for new ground. The story idea was fascinating, too: a postman falls in love with a raven and they have a girl together, who, when she grows up, longs to be a raven and fly. From the word go, it smacks of tragedy and possibly unrequited love.

The book itself, when it arrived by the post, was particularly attractive, with its clever jacket design, by Audrey Niffenegger, signifying simultaneously the girl and the raven as one. In addition, the red of the hardback cover peeking out from below the jacket matched the red lines of the girl and the gold tinted edges to the pages promised richness.

My first disappointment came when I opened the book and discovered it was a long story told short. I had expected a novel and I got a fairy tale. I suppose it is unfair to judge a book not on itself but on my expectations of it, as a reader. All the same, it was frustrating to have to sail over a multitude of story avenues that begged to be explored and developed. The story had so much potential that remained unused.

I know little of the fairy-tale genre, so I can’t judge if the frequent jumps in narrative were due to a “fairy-tale” license that allowed the author to leave gapping, often inexplicable, holes in the story. Whether that is normal or not, it disturbed me. In particular, the way the story abruptly came to a close leaving me feeling short-changed.

First Sentences

A lot of the fuss about the first sentence of a novel is born of a fixation for marketing and catchy phrases. Not surprising, you might say, at a time when the market is flooded with all manner of books vying for our attention. Do we have to be ruled by the diktats of those people who earn a living by punching people between the eyes or in the groin? My apologies to those who use more subtle methods to grab our attention. Are their methods the only way to get read as an author? Probably not! All the same, the first sentence is like the greeting handshake or the initial smile when you meet someone new. It inevitably colours what comes afterwards.

Unconvinced by examples given to us the other day during a seminar at the Geneva Writers Group, I decided to have a quick check using a few, widely different books from my own library. Here is the result.

Stephenie Meyer must have delighted those marketeers with the beginning of her first sentence to Twilight: “I have never given much thought to how I would die …” Even if you are one of those people that gets pleasure out of knocking the Twilight saga, you have to admit that first fragment of a sentence is really good. The sentence ends almost as well with: “…but even if I had I would not have imagined it like this.

There are modern authors you’d expect to play the initial “punch” line to the full, like Dan Brown. Here’s the first sentence from Angels and Demons: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” At least this is consistent with what follows. His books, with the possible exception of the Da Vinci Code, are nearly all punch and little else.

But the quest for impact can go too far, especially when it is divorced from the rest of the book. Just look at the damage it did to Scott Westerfeld’s novel Uglies which begins: “The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit.” If anything, the reader might well put down the book in disgust. That would be a shame because it goes on to tell a good tale.

Of course, you can wax mystical and rave about “The sun had not yet risen” which is how Virginia Woolf began The Waves, but, if you set aside your expectations due to the fact that the author is famous, the sentence is somewhat banal. It is an opening, though, one that promises more and which encourages to read on.

Some first sentences skillfully set the scene with apparent limited effort. Take: “Once there four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy“, CS Lewis’s beginning to the Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. Nothing like a firm handshake to start with, so you know where you are. It’s also a delightful nod at the traditional “Once upon a time…” beginning.

I personally rather like Maria V. Snyder’s beginning to Outside In, which opens with the sentence: “A vibration rippled through my body.” The books goes on to tell a gripping tale that is firmly anchored in bodily feelings, in particular touch and smell. But that beginning only really appears appropriate once you have read on.

There are, of course, first sentences that are absolutely masterly: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” I can imagine the glee James Joyce must have had in writing that first sentence to Ulysses. But I doubt if it would get the marketing prize for the best first sentence.

In a quite different register, there are those beginnings that become iconic like the following: “Far out beyond the unchartered backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Shame Douglas Adams didn’t have time to write more.

Conclusion? Well, yes! The first sentence does appear to be important both for the book that follows and getting the attention of people you want to read it. But not necessarily as a punch line, rather as a key building block in a story to come.