The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie WillisTitle: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 9 July 2013
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This is one of the most likeable short story collections I’ve read. Usually I like half to three quarters of the stories, or I have to go back and skim over some before writing my review because I’ve already forgotten what they were about. But I enjoyed almost all the stories in this collection, and I hadn’t forgotten them by the time I got around to writing the review.

They’ve all won a Hugo or Nebula award (or both) and they’re all on the lighter side of science fiction and fantasy, focusing on the characters’ relationship and personal dilemmas with just a touch of something speculative. Each story comes with a few comments from Willis. She admits to being wary of commenting on the stories, as that could spoil them in the same way that a magician’s trick is ruined once you know how it works. But having taken into account the potential for her comments to undermine the story, I think Willis managed to make them insightful without being detrimental.

And the stories themselves are great reads. In a speech transcription at the end of the book, Willis talks about why she reads:

But when the interviewer asked Beatrix Potter what her greatest wish was, she said, “To live till the end of the war. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!” That’s exactly how I feel. It’s how I’ve always felt. It’s why I started reading in the first place: to find out what happened to Cinderella and to Peter Pan, to find out whether the twelve dancing princesses got caught and whether Peter Rabbit made it out from under Mr. McGregor’s flowerpot and whether the prince was able to break the spell.

I think this captures the appeal of Willis’s stories as well – they’re enjoyable because they hook you by making you want to know what happens. You could argue that this is the case for all stories, but I often find novels and short stories appealing for other reasons. Sometimes it’s the writing that grabs me, or I want to follow a quirky character. Sometimes I already know what’s going to happen but I want to see what spin the author will put on it. Other stories are about the ideas rather than any plot. These things all have their merits, and they apply to Willis too, but mostly I enjoyed her stories because they had that good old-fashioned storytelling appeal that just never gets old.

In “A Letter to the Clearys”, a young girl returns home with her dog after picking up a letter at the post office. It seems fairly mundane, except for odd hints at the dangers she faces while walking and the increasingly disturbing implications of this letter from family friends.

“At the Rialto” gives you the first taste of Willis’s wonderful humour. It’s set at the Rialto hotel in Hollywood, where a group of physicists are trying to have a conference on quantum physics but can’t get the model-slash-actress at the front desk to do anything useful, or find the right rooms for the lectures. The Kafkaesque absurdity of the whole experience functions as a reflection of quantum physics itself, with it’s counterintuitive nature and weird paradoxes.

“Fire Watch” is set shortly after the events of Willis’s novel Doomsday Book, a time-travel story where history students are sent back in time as part of their studies. In this story, a student who has been training to travel with St Paul learns that he’s actually going to St Paul’s Church to work with the fire watch during the London Blitz of World War 2, putting out incendiary bombs when they hit the building. I didn’t love The Doomsday Book, so I wasn’t too excited about this story, and it left me a bit alienated because I’m hopeless when it comes to history and had never heard of St Paul’s or the fire watch. That said, I was almost in tears by the end, all because of two simple words. Any author who can have that effect on me immediately wins my admiration.

“Inside Job” was one of my favourites and the most compulsively readable story for me. It’s about Rob, a journalist who debunks New Age therapists in Hollywood. He works with Kildy, a gorgeous actress who defies all the stereotypes of being stupid and superficial, although Rob has never quite grown accustomed to the idea that she’s really as intelligent and as interested in his work as she seems to be. Kildy finds a new mystery for them to investigate – a trendy new spirit channeler who seems to be unintentionally channelling a ghost who shares Rob and Kildy’s scathing opinions of the channeling and other New Age crap. But the whole idea of channelling a ghost who doesn’t believe in channelling involves a rather troubling paradox and Rob faces the problem of not believing in something he might actually want to believe in while finally being forced to address his doubts about Kildy.

Admittedly, my other favourites were actually the ones with less emphasis on plot, and more on humour. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is a delightfully absurd story about the poet Emily Dickinson, written as a parody of an academic paper complete with footnotes and references. The paper argues the theory that Dickinson chased away the Martians from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. After her death. It’s utterly ridiculous and loads of fun.

“Even the Queen” is also delightfully crazy, set in a world where women have done away with menstruation except for reproductive purposes. The narrator’s daughter joins a pro-menstruation movement – the Cyclists – that emphasises the essential femininity of doing things naturally. The best part of the story is a hilarious lunch meeting with a group of women and a representative from the Cyclists.

After “Even the Queen”, the collection took a bit of a dip and the last three stories were good but not great. “The Winds of Marble Arch” is a personal mystery about a man travelling around the London Underground, where he keeps getting blasted by terrible foul-smelling winds that leave him filled with fear. He and his wife are visiting London for the second time, and although they have much more money this time around, they just can’t find the same sense of fun and adventure that they enjoyed before. I liked the mystery and personal struggles at the start, but after a while it became a story about a man using the tube, and the final reveal was disappointing.

“All Seated on the Ground” is, quite surprisingly, a story about how violent and disturbing Christmas carols can be. A group of surly aliens lands on Earth, but they don’t do anything except glare disapprovingly at the people who try to talk to them. People lose interest in them as all efforts at communication continue to fail, and the most recent committee is a hopeless hodgepodge of random specialists trying whatever ludicrous thing they can think of. A journalist, Meg, finally gets on the right track when the aliens respond to a Christmas carol, and she notices how the aliens have the same disapproving gaze as her aunt.

“The Last of the Winnebagos” ends the fiction on a stronger note. It’s quite a sad story set in a world where dogs are extinct and hitting an animal with your car is a criminal offence. The narrator is travelling for work when he sees a dead jackal on the side of the road, bringing back tragic memories of the death of his own dog in a car accident, while also getting him tangled up with a somewhat authoritarian animal-protection society.

The only story I didn’t like was the surreal “Death on the Nile”, about three couples on a rather miserable trip that takes them through Europe to Egypt. The narrator has elected not to say anything about the glaringly obvious fact that her husband is sleeping with one of the other wives, one husband is constantly drunk, another always sleeping, and the third woman is always reading to them from guide books. The premise sounds fine, but I found the unpleasantness of the trip too discomfiting to read and the increasingly surreal nature of the characters’ experiences just didn’t do anything for me.

The collection ends with three short speeches – Willis’s 2006 Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech, and two Grand Master acceptance speeches. In these she speaks about her love of books and reading, and the writers that inspired her. They’re nice pieces for tugging at the heartstrings of booklovers, but I personally would have preferred something a bit more academic. The speeches must have been wonderful to listen to on the occasion, but on the page they’re a wee bit fluffy. One would have been enough for the collection.

The one downside to this collection is that, unlike other sff, it’s a bit short on ideas. Only the Emily Dickinson story and “Inside Job” really have an sff-ish idea driving the narrative. In the other stories ideas are just vehicles or catalysts for character-based stories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since sff readers often look to short stories for interesting ideas and experimental writing, some might find this a tad disappointing.

I didn’t though. It might not be the most thrilling collection but it’s got a lovely congenial sort of appeal and I think most of the stories are going to stay with me.

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Review of Doughnut by Tom Holt

Doughnut by Tom HoltTitle: Doughnut
Author: Tom Holt
Published: 05 March 2013
Publisher:
 Orbit
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, humour
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Theo Burnstein is, to put it mildly, down on his luck.

“You blew up—”

“A mountain, yes.” He shrugged. “And the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, and very nearly Switzerland. Like I said, one mistake. I moved the decimal point one place left instead of one place right. Could’ve happened to anyone.”

Once a respected and fantastically wealthy physicist, Theo now counts himself lucky when he finds a cardboard box to make his nights on the streets a bit cosier. Following his career-ending catastrophe, Theo’s fourth wife divorced him and took everything he owned with her. He would have been fine if he hadn’t lost his $20-million inheritance when the investment company went bust, and then lost all his friends, who apparently liked his money more than they liked him. Things kept going downhill from there, and he found himself completely unemployable, not only because the world in general now hates him, but also because the accident turned his hand invisible in a quirk of quantum physics, and employers find that creepy. Eventually he finds a job carting guts in a slaughterhouse, where his boss kindly allows him to sleep until he finds a place to stay.

Theo is saved by his ludicrous downward spiral by the death of his good friend and teacher Pieter van Goyen. Pieter leaves gives him $5000, and the seemingly useless contents of a safe deposit box – a small bottle, a manila envelope, a powder compact and an apple. He also tells him where to find a job – a massive and decidedly weird hotel that always claims that they are fully booked even though there are only two people staying there. With almost nothing to do all day, Theo eventually discovers the purpose of his strange inheritance – they are the means for entering and navigating custom-made alternate realities. It’s meant to be a dream come true, but Theo loathes every moment as he tumbles into worlds he cannot control and is almost killed by aliens or cute, shotgun-toting Disney animals. The only way he can return to the real world, is to find a doughnut and look through the hole in the centre.

Why did Pieter leave all this to him? And what are the strange people at the hotel up to? Why does it seem like someone wants him to do a set of calculations that may destroy the universe? Theo puts his scientific mind to the problem, and tries not to get killed in the process.

 

Like all of the Tom Holt novels I’ve read, Doughnut is thoroughly kooky and a bit chaotic. And like all the other Tom Holt novels I’ve read, it’s not really laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s amusing with a few clever moments – a decent option if you’re looking for light or humorous speculative fiction. One of the reasons I keep reading Holt, even though his novels are never quite as exciting as I’d like them to be, is that he writes about so many different things that he’s become a bit of a go-to author when I need to finish a reading challenge about, for example, werewolves or Norse mythology. And his plots always sound like a lot of fun.

Doughnut brings together sci fi and fantasy by combining quantum physics with alternative realities that draw on genre tropes. The first world Theo finds himself in is straight out of an epic fantasy novel. Another is a western, then a western with aliens. There’s a peaceful post-apocalyptic world where everyone lives in the sky on glass platforms. There’s even a reality where Theo is the Pope.

It’s fun and it’s entwined with the mystery of why this is all happening, but it’s not as good as it could be. The middle of the novel drags a bit because Theo is trapped in the hotel with no escape except for the other worlds, which are accessed through an empty bottle. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t really help him figure out what’s going on. The other people in the hotel could certainly enlighten Theo and the reader, but they don’t want to. As a result, the plot doesn’t move much for a good portion of the book. It takes Theo a while to gather a few scraps of useful information about the conspiracy he’s caught up in. Towards the end he suddenly figures everything out in one bright moment, after which he explains it all in a few conversations and quickly wraps up the story. It’s rather clumsy.

Still, I enjoyed it as a light read. The odd little worlds Theo ends up in are amusing, and I highlighted a couple of funny or snarky lines. The lack of information about what’s really going isn’t irritating in the way that I normally find these unecessarily prolonged mysteries to be. Like many of the Holt protagonists I’ve come across, Theo is nerdy and likeable, a bit of a loser in some ways but smart enough (a genius, in his case) to figure everything out at the end and give us a satisfying conclusion. The other characters tend to be forgettable, but I liked Theo’s insane sister Janine, who keeps trying to call him despite the fact that she’s got a restraining order legally forbidding Theo to ever call her back.

So, all in all, it’s nice if not great, and I’ll continue reading Tom Holt.

March Round-Up

Overall, March was a decent reading month for me. I would have liked to read a bit more, but at least it was a big improvement on February. I’ve managed to shake my Skyrim addiction, at least for now, so I can give my books the attention they deserve.

The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine is actually a leftover from February, but since I didn’t really include in that round-up, I’m putting it in now. I must warn you – it’s terrible. I hated reading it, but at least that means you can avoid the mistake of reading it too.

Luckily, that disaster was followed by the rather good Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale – a thriller/adventure set in the old American South. I loved the Southern wit in the writing, and the sense of horror that permeated the story.

Next up was The Antithesis: Book 3α by Terra Whiteman, the fourth book in her series about the war between heaven and hell. I usually lose interest in series, even when I like them, but this one has managed to keep me hooked. Look out for an interview with the author and a giveaway some time soon!

I found some comic relief in Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez. It’s an utterly ludicrous mystery adventure featuring an super-intelligent octopus from Neptune who was once an interstellar warlord but has now settled down as Emperor of Earth. Now there’s a sinister disembodied brain trying to kill him… Good light fun for sci fi fans 🙂

My leisure read for the month was another sf comedy –  Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt. In the early days of this blog I wrote a short post about how we’re always saying how we want to read something by this or that author, but we never get around to it. I wrote that after reading the first few chapters of Blonde Bombshell in a bookshop and finding it both hilarious and engrossing. At the time, Tom Holt was one of those authors I’d been meaning to read for ages, but I didn’t buy the book because it was too expensive. I later found a copy at a sale. I’ve read a few of his books since – they’re good reads, if not great. Blonde Bombshell was the same. Not as good as I expected, based on those first few chapters, and there were some huge plot holes, but it was still a nice break from reviewing.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo was a review book I received from Pan Macmillan last year. I’d enjoyed DeLillo’s White Noise at varsity, so I thought I might like more. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this one at all, although I appreciated some of the subtlety of the writing.

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente is the kind of book I always dream of reading. It was just unbelievably beautiful. I’d hoped to post the review last week already, but I haven’t finished it, thanks to a combination of laziness and finding it difficult to write reviews of the books I really love. It also meant I broke the Tuesday/Thursday review schedule I’d managed to stick to for the rest of the month 😦 There’s so much I want to talk about, so many passages I want to quote, that the review is way too long. I’ll post it once it’s refined and slimmed down. For now, just know that it’s an exquisite piece of mythical fiction.

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg is a 1994 publication that’s been re-published as an eBook this year. It’s a historical murder mystery based, in part, on an actual friendship between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is on a USA tour, lecturing on spiritualism and psychic abilities. During that time, a New York murderer is killing people in an imitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories. The victims are all linked to Houdini in some way, and Poe’s ghost starts appearing to Doyle. An interesting idea for a literary thriller, but sadly it’s not a very good book.This, and one or two other books, have made me think that maybe I should avoid books that are being re-published, because there may be a good reason they fell into obscurity. Review to follow soon.

April needs to be a really productive reading and reviewing month, as I’ll be going away for two weeks in May and won’t be blogging much then, if at all. I’ve just finished Germline by T.C. McCarthy, which I hope to review next week. On top of my tbr pile is Westlake Soul by Rio Youers, some weird fiction about a superhero in a coma, and Faustus Resurrectus by Thomas Morrissey, an urban occult thriller.

Now, time to get to work…

Review of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez

Title: Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Published: 05 March 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, comedy, space opera,
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Emperor Mollusk – the genius octopus from Neptune, home of the smartest, squishiest beings in the galaxy – has done it all. He’s destroyed worlds and conquered others. He’s pushed the boundaries of science and invented bizarre and dangerous things. He’s defeated every one of his enemies, including himself (a rogue clone). He even conquered Earth – a planet that had always resisted alien invasion – using global mind-control. He settled down to become the Terra Sapiens’ benevolent dictator, ending all Earth’s wars, solving the energy crisis and repelling the invasion of the Saturnites. No big deal for someone as smart as Emperor Mollusk.

But now it seems there might be a brain even more brilliant than his. Someone is out to get him…. Well, actually beings from all over the galaxy are out to get him, but this seems to be the plot of an evil megalomaniac and Mollusk will have to come out of retirement to stop him. At his side is Zala, his unwanted Venusian bodyguard. The Venusians want Mollusk dead too, but they want to be the ones to bring him to justice, so for the moment they’re trying to keep him alive. Together Mollusk, Zala, and Mollusk’s invincible pet cyborg ultrapede thingy, Snarg, travel across Earth and around the solar system, following the clues that they hope will lead them to the Sinister Brain behind it all. On their adventure they encounter such things as mutant dinosaurs, a giant blob monster and an immortal mummy Queen.

Good words for describing this book include “whacky”, “zany” and “preposterous”. It’s a totally tongue-in-cheek sci-fi caper, composed of equal parts action, humour and ridiculousness. It’s full of kooky sci fi tropes like death rays, giant bugs, and evil geniuses. The characters have names like “Blug”, “Kreegah” and “Snarg”.

It’s also intentionally, amusingly narrow-minded. Pretty much all the aliens come from the moons or planets in our solar system, and can speak English. They might look outlandish, but they’re still mostly based on stuff you could find on Earth – Mollusk is an octopus, the Saturnites are some kind of rock-people, the Venusians are reptiles with feathers. As you can imagine, the book is full of wonderfully silly lines like this:

The south wall disintegrated and a squad of jetpack assassins flew into the room.

 

Mutant insects were eating Kansas. Again.

 

Relations between Terra and Luna had been strained since the Lunans had eaten Neil Armstrong in 1960.

In the middle of all this craziness, are some rather good characters who you can take seriously even though everything else is a joke. I really liked Mollusk, who is the nicest intergalactic villain you could ever hope to meet. He might have conquered Earth by brainwashing all the humans, but he also stopped all the wars and prevented environmental catastrophe. Despite the terrible things he’s done in the past, his many experiences have made him a much more considerate being. He’s even making a serious effort not to kill people just for annoying him. The thing with Mollusk is that he’s not exactly evil, but rather far too smart. He’s in constant need of something to keep his mind occupied, so he goes around conquering planets, inventing things and, inevitably, taking on all the enemies he makes along the way. The only enemy he can’t defeat is boredom itself.

I also came to appreciate Zala, the Venusian soldier whose job it is to protect Mollusk so that her own species can take revenge on him. In many ways Zala is trapped by her race’s codes of honour and obedience and she finds it difficult to break out of her fearless soldier mould. However, she has a talent for unnerving Mollusk with insights into his personality:

“It must be irritating,” she continued. “To have that great intellect at your disposal and yet you’re not sure what to do with it. I’d imagine it must be quite a burden finding challenges worthy of it.

 

It’s amazing that someone who claims to be as intelligent as you are has spent more time designing doomsday machines and time radios than contemplating his own motivations.

 

Although Mollusk and Zala become reluctant allies in this adventure, I like that they remain enemies who can’t quite trust each other. It adds a bit of fizz to their relationship. Mollusk in particular is always keeping important information from Zala, with amusing results. Their banter is fun, especially with Zala’s tendency to make snarky remarks. That said, one of the downsides to the novel is that it didn’t find it quite as funny as I’d hoped. It’s a source of constant amusement but few laugh-out-loud moments. But then again, humour is a very subjective thing and I think I’m a tougher audience than most. Either way, Emperor Mollusk is a wonderfully ludicrous sci fi adventure and I’d recommend it to genre fans looking for a light read and a bit of a laugh.

 

Buy a copy of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain at The Book Depository

Review of Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Title: Edge of Dark Water
Author:
Joe R. Lansdale
Published:
25 March 2012
Publisher:
 
Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre:
 adventure, thriller, drama
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Sixteen-year-old Sue Ellen lives in a small town in the old American South, a place characterised by poverty, racism and domestic abuse. One day she and her friend Terry find the body of another friend – May Lynn Baxter – at the bottom of the Sabine river. She’s clearly been there for a while, weighted down by a Singer sewing machine ties around her ankles.  Sue Ellen’s father and uncle want to push the body back into the water and forget about it, but she and Terry convince them to call the police. When Constable Sy reluctantly drags his bulk over to the scene, he asks why they didn’t just push May Lynn back in. Everyone could just have assumed she’d followed her dream and run away to Hollywood. No one wants to go to the trouble of finding out what happened to her and no one is obliged to bother. She had no family except a drunken father who probably hasn’t even noticed she’s missing.

To honour May Lynn, Terry suggests that he, Sue Ellen and their friend Jinx burn the body and take the ashes to Hollywood. The journey will also give them the chance to escape their miserable home town and the dead-end lives they’re living there. It’s a daunting endeavour and they have almost no money, but then May Lynn’s diary leads them to buried treasure – a stash of stolen money from a bank robbery. With the money and a stolen raft, the trio head down the Sabine river, joined by Sue Ellen’s mother, who’s decided that she no longer wants to spend her days being either beaten by her husband or passed out drunk in bed.

But in making their escape, the three friends have made enemies. Constable Sy and Sue Ellen’s Uncle Gene are after them. May Lynn’s father wants the money and sends a man known as Skunk to track them down. Skunk is the stuff of nightmares, a psychopath who lives alone in the woods and can be hired to hunt people down. He finds pleasure in causing pain and death, and he chops off the hands of his victims to take back to his employers as proof. No one ever gets away from him.

It only took a few pages for me to decide that I liked this book. It’s told with rich Southern wit, bringing a very dark humour to the harsh realities of life in the American South and the dangers of the journey that the main characters embark on. Sue Ellen makes for an excellent narrator who picks up on those little details that make a good story great, like how she takes a thick piece of wood to bed at night, in case her father tries to come into her room, or how the wire around May Lynn’s ankles was tied in a bow. She also has personal qualities that immediately made me like her:

I’d already been doing women’s work for as long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers.

 

I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.

Accompanying Sue Ellen is a strong cast of characters. My favourite is Jinx, a black girl who seems to have been strengthened rather than crushed by the racism of the society she lives in – a particularly ugly prejudice that his novel frequently exposes. Unlike the other characters, Jinx has a relatively happy home life, with a loving, hard-working parents. She’s reluctant to leave them, but knows that if she stays she’s “gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life”. According the Sue Ellen, Jinx has “a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid”. She’s highly opinionated and never hesitates to share her thoughts, like when she tells a Reverend what bullshit she thinks religion is. Jinx is so sassy that she refuses to hold her tongue even when there’s a gun in her face. Terry, although he’s white, has to deal with prejudice as well, because there’s a rumour that he’s a “sissy” (gay). We also learn a bit about May Lynn, who possessed an angelic sort of beauty, but is by no means glorified just because she’s dead. We learn about her flaws as well, such as how she could be manipulative and self-centred.

I like the antagonists too. They’re all utterly loathsome men who enjoy violence and cruelty, but they’re good characters in that Lansdale really makes you feel the threat that they pose. The most dangerous of course, is Skunk. That man is creepy. The kind of creepy that makes you wonder what that noise upstairs is and double check that the doors are locked. This isn’t what I’d call a horror novel, but Skunk undoubtedly brings that element to it. He’s like a myth – some people don’t believe he exists, while the stories about him have surreal, disturbing details. We don’t actually ‘see’ very much of him, but for most of the journey he exists as a sinister presence, watching, chasing and preparing to attack. When he does attack, the results are always gruesome.

In terms of plot, the journey and the river serve traditional literary purposes as life-changing forces for the main characters. Initially I thought this would be a mystery novel (who killed May Lynn?), but it’s not. It’s more of a dark adventure and character drama with a touch of horror. My only complaints are that there are times when the narrative drags, but mostly I just enjoyed Lansdale’s storytelling. It’s well-written, detailed and has emotionally engaging characters. I’ve heard several times that this is a new direction for Lansdale, who typically writes horror and mystery novels. If he brings this kind of quality and disturbing atmosphere to those genres, I’d very much like to read more of his work.

Buy a copy of Edge of Dark Water at The Book Depository

Review of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Title: The Rook
Author: 
Daniel O’Malley
Published: 
11 January 2012
Publisher:
 Little, Brown & Company, a division of The Hatchette Book Group
Genre:
science fantasy, mystery, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

I was unsure about this at first, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted 🙂

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the rain without a shred of memory. Around her are dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves. In her coat pocket is a letter from herself, written before her memory was wiped. The letter gives her some basic information, like what her name is and how to pronounce it (“Miff-unee” rhyming with Tiffany), as well as a few instructions. The first Myfanwy (from now on I’ll refer to this version of Myfanwy as ‘Thomas’) was warned that someone would consume her memories, so she made meticulous preparations for the person who would wake up in her body.

Thomas offers Myfanwy two options. She can change her name, flee the country, and live out the rest of her days drinking cocktails on some sunny beach. Or, she can stay, pretend to be Thomas and uncover the conspiracy that put her in this situation. Myfanwy is all for running away, but another attack from latex-gloved assassins gives her the determination to take the more dangerous option. To help her, Thomas wrote a series of numbered letters to Myfanwy, and put together a detailed research file containing the most important information for impersonating her previous self. Because if Myfanwy is going to find out what happened to her and why, she’s going to have to go back to  her extremely complex and demanding job and act like nothing is wrong.

As it turns out, Myfanwy Thomas is a Rook – one of the highest ranking members in a powerful secret organisation called The Checquy (pronounced “Sheck-Eh” or perhaps ‘Sheck-Ay’). The Checquy protects Britain from its many supernatural threats, and to do so it recruits and trains the ‘powered’ – people who have their own supernatural abilities. Myfanwy herself has an incredible ability, one that’s even more powerful than Thomas ever realised. And she’s certainly going to need it because the conspiracy that Thomas was investigating reaches to the highest levels of the Checquy, pitting Myfanwy against people with powers and resources more formidable than her own.

 

The Rook is one of those lovely books that has everything a novel needs to be both classy and loads of fun to read. It has great characters. It’s got a tense investigation to uncover a large-scale conspiracy. It’s got loads of action involving people with awesome supernatural powers. To top it all off, it’s full of wonderfully quirky humour. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll gnaw your fingernails.

The Checquy, its powered employees and the supernatural aspects of the world give O’Malley a chance to be really inventive, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. The institution as a whole is nicely fleshed out, so we get to see how it works, how the training facility operates and how it recruits the powered. Only a few of the powered have commonly used abilities – there’s a vampire, for example – but even these aren’t quite the same as the ones you usually find. Most of the other powered have more interesting abilities. There’s Gestalt, who was born with one mind but four bodies. The Checquy’s training gave Gestalt the ability to allow each body to act as if it were independent, so that it can actually do four different missions in different parts of the globe and yet be connected by its single mind.

Conrad Granchester “is able to manufacture a variety of chemical compounds inside his body and then vent them through his pores in the form of a fine mist”. He can emit anything from a deadly toxin to non-lethal tear gas. There’s Lady Linda Farrier, the ‘Queen’ of the Checquy Court, who Myfanwy first meets when Lady Farrier enters her dreams to have tea. The plot has room for lots of minor characters with unique powers as well, so there’s no shortage of clever fantasy content. This is approached in a sci fi manner though – the Checquy has a horde of scientists studying these abilities, and they’re spoken of in a scientific way, but remain very much supernatural, so I put this in the science fantasy genre.

The most interesting character is Myfanwy Thomas herself. She’s a wonderful, multi-layered character, not least of all because there are two versions of her. Thomas was almost pathologically shy and her life was consumed by work. Her home and wardrobe are the definition of wealth and quality, but lack any sense of personal style. Despite her deadly powers, Thomas’s personality (or lack thereof) made her so unsuitable in the field that she ended up in admin. Luckily, her organisational skills were so impressive that she earned a position in the Checquy’s Court, but even then, she’s so timid that she commands little respect.

Myfanwy on the other hand, shares her predecessor’s talents for processing information, but is much more open and assertive. She flexes her authority in situations when Thomas would have avoided eye contact while her peers walked all over her. She’s not afraid to use her powers or go out into the field, and she often expresses disappointment in the weaknesses of her previous self. Myfanwy is a stronger version who possesses the capabilities to dismantle the conspiracy that Thomas discovered, and build a life that involves more than work.

We can also thank Myfanwy Thomas for one of the novel’s best features – its humour. I don’t think this book would have been half as enjoyable if it weren’t so funny. In Thomas’s letters to Myfanwy, she reveals herself to be a witty, engaging writer so that even though the main purpose of the letters is exposition, they still manage to be entertaining. Her wit remained even after her memory was wiped, making Myfanwy an amusing character, especially as she struggles to impersonate Thomas at work.

On the more tragic side, are Thomas’s feelings about losing her memory, which she often expresses in her letters to Myfanwy. “The body you are wearing used to be mine” – her anger and sense of injustice comes across in her very first line, even as she’s helping the person who gets to take over her life. Having her memory wiped amounts to being murdered, because the person she is will cease to exist. This isn’t the kind of story where Myfanwy will eventually regain Thomas’s memories – there’re gone forever, along with the person who possessed them.

For the plot, this means that Myfanwy can’t hope for some cliché moment where she’ll get a flashback that will reveal the villain who attacked her. This mystery must be solved through a careful investigation. Thomas already did a lot of the work, but Myfanwy must finish the job with the constant awareness that her enemies are very close. To add to that, she has to do her regular job, some of which involves co-ordinating the teams that handle the supernatural threats around the country, giving us the chance to see the powered (almost all of whom have combat training) in action.

It all makes for thoroughly gripping reading, and I was enthralled. I loved almost everything about The Rook. My only criticisms are some nitpicking about bits where the narrative dragged a little, in contrast to its other amusing or thrilling parts. I devoured it and then longed for more. If could read books like this on a regular basis I’d never find myself in a reading rut. Fantasy thriller fans, don’t you dare miss out on this one.

Seriously, go and buy a copy of The Rook.

Review of Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Title: Snuff
Author:  
Terry Pratchett
Published: 1 October  2011
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: humour, fantasy, crime and mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 6/10

His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is being dragged against his will, at the demand of his wife and to the great amusement of his colleagues, on a lovely country holiday at Lady Sybil’s family estate, Ramkin Hall. Actually, it’s now Vimes’s estate -Sybil “had transferred all the holdings of her family […] to him in the old fashioned but endearing belief that a husband should be the one doing the owning”.  Poor Vimes, however, can’t quite settle into his position as a member of the aristrocracy, as he demonstrates by trying to treat the servants as equals, to their complete and utter horror.

And of course he can never stop working. Whatever Sybil’s hopes for her holiday with her husband and young son, you couldn’t beat the copper out of Vimes with a truncheon. From the moment he arrives he can’t help but look for something amiss. And of course he finds it. And a hell of a lot of trouble. But Sam Vimes wouldn’t be Sam Vimes if he wasn’t pissing someone off in the quest for justice. In Snuff  he boots the aristocrats off their comfy cushions by investigating their suspected involvement in slavery, smuggling, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, (especially after they try to frame him for the latter).

Pratchett’s Discworld novels typically feature some kind of social commentary and with issues like those it’s particularly heavy here. Vimes has always fought against discrimination, particularly between classes and species, and thanks to him the Watch includes dwarves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, an Igor and a Nac Mac Feegle.

In Snuff it’s the goblins’ turn to get the equal rights treatment. As the Discworld’s most osctracised race, they are widely considered to be vermin. When Vimes finds out that a goblin girl has been murdered, most people assume that you can’t actually murder a goblin in the same sense that you can’t murder a rat. It isn’t even considered illegal. But Vimes knows the difference between right and wrong and he learns more about the goblins, who are revealed to a sensitive, artistic people who, unfortunately, have internalised all the terrible things others have believed about them. Goblins have always been associated with rubbish to the extent that they essentially think of themselves as rubbish. And they are a bit of a tough case when it comes to being accepted by society. They’re ugly, stinky, known for being violent, have a habit of stealing things, they live underground and their language “at its best sounded like a man jumping up and down on a very large packet of crisps”. The goblins have a strange, somewhat religious, practice called Unggue, according to which “everything that is expelled from a goblin’s body was clearly once part of them and should, therefore, be treated with reverence and stored properly so that it can be entombed with its owner in the fullness of time”. This includes “earwax, finger- and toenail clippings, and snot” (but luckily not urine or faeces) all of which are stored in stunningly beautiful pots made by the goblins.

But these oddities serve to throw into sharp relief the way difference is translated into discrimination, and how discrimination turns prejudice into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vimes is determined to change society once again, and this includes changing the way people think about goblins and taking down the local council of magistrates who have redefined the law the suit their own interests.

With all this between its covers, Snuff turned out to be the darkest of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far. It has a lot less humour than the others, and anyway the humour tends to be downplayed by the more sombre elements. My opinion on the matter was sealed when Vimes told an anecdote about a man who chopped his dog’s back legs off with an axe. I certainly hadn’t expected something that gruesome and disturbing.

Rest assured, it’s still mostly a comedy, if not quite as funny as fans might expect. Some of the best humour comes from Young Sam, who is now six years old and obsessed with poo. I feel a bit childish admitting this, but his poo comments almost always got a giggle out of me.

“Do you know,’ said Young Sam, as if imparting the results of strict research, “cows do really big floppy poos, but sheep do small poos, like chocolates.”

As always, there are some great characters too; my favourites were Willikins, Vimes’s butler and general manservant who possesses some incredible talents when it comes to weapons; Lady Sybil, whose kind but domineering nature never fails to amuse and impress me; and Wee Mad Arthur who I love for being so angry and crazy. Vimes himself has never been one of my favourites – I admire him but I just don’t find him all that funny or particularly endearing.

So what do I think of Snuff in general? It’s good, but not Pratchett’s best. To his credit, I don’t think any of his books are bad – they range from decent to fucking brilliant and hilarious. As I’ve mentioned, this one is certainly not hilarious and I’m not sure that I like it being so serious. Towards the end the novel turns into a kind of dire action sequence (with a lot of jokes based on the word ‘fanny’) and then winds down and takes a bit too long to wrap everything up, a lot like the last Lord of the Rings movie – there are a bunch of things that need to be sorted out, but somehow it still feels like the story should end now, only to have it keep going.

It might be unfair to judge a book based on my expectations of how fun and funny I expected it to be, especially as this is a good book in its own right. On the other hand this is the latest (the 39th) in a long and much-loved series that’s defined by its unique style, and Pratchett usually has a better balance of social commentary and humour. I’ve often heard people speak of the Discworld series as their go-to books when they’re in a reading slump and want something light, or just want to relax and have a laugh with a favourite series. If that’s what you’re looking  for, Snuff might not be the best choice. Rather just enjoy it as a new story in the Discworld universe.

 

Buy a copy of Snuff at The Book Depository