Giveaway: The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Morning everyone! As promised I’ve got another giveaway for you. This one’s a mystery with dark family secrets to uncover, and the book is valued at R145.

The Silent Sister

The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain (Pan Macmillan)

What if everything you believed was a lie?

Riley MacPherson is returning to her childhood home in North Carolina. A place that holds cherished memories. While clearing out the house she finds a box of old newspaper articles – and a shocking family secret begins to unravel.

Riley has spent her whole life believing that her older sister Lisa died tragically as a teenager. But now she’s starting to uncover the truth: her life has been built on a foundation of lies, told by everyone she loved.

Lisa is alive. Alive and living under a new identity. But why exactly was she on the run all those years ago, and what secrets are being kept now?

As Riley tries to separate reality from fiction, her discoveries call into question everything she thought she knew about her family. (Goodreads)

To Enter:

1. Share this post on Twitter or Facebook.

2. Leave a comment on this blog post and link to the shared post or your profile so I know you’ve completed step one. If you use Facebook, you also have the option of just clicking “share” on the relevant post on my page; as long as I can see that you’ve shared.

Rules:
 – South Africa only.
– Entries are open until midnight on Monday 12 June. I will announce the winner on Tuesday 13 June.
– Just to be clear, you’re only entered if you leave a comment on this post, AND I can see that you’ve shared on Twitter or Facebook.

Thanks to the team at Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy of this book, and good luck to the entrants!

SIlent Sister detail

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Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison SquaredTitle: Harrison Squared
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 24 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: YA, horror, adventure
Rating: 8/10

Thirteen years ago, Harrison Harrison was out on a boat with his parents, and a tentacled monster attacked them, killing his father and ripping off Harrison’s leg. He nearly died from an infection, and in the years that followed he covered up his memories with a more rational explanation than a Lovecraftian monster.

Now Harrison is sixteen and accompanying his mom on a scientific expedition to the little coastal town of Dunnsmouth. Rosa Harrison is a marine biologist who specialises in massive creatures like whale sharks and sperm whales, and her latest obsession is the colossal squid.

Harrison (H2 – Harrison Squared – to his mom; scientist humour) thought tagging along would be better than the alternatives, but Dunnsmouth is set to prove him wrong. The town takes the concept of “parochial” to new levels of creepy. There is no internet connection or cellphone reception (Harrison complains about being “involuntarily Amished”), so there’s no way of calling for help from the outside world. The school Harrison has to attend looks like a giant tomb, he sometimes hears chanting as he wanders through the labyrinthine hallways, and the swimming pool is in a subterranean cave. Some of the staff members look kind of… aquatic. The principal also happens to be the priest of the town’s arcane religion, and while Harrison is “used to being one of the few public atheists in school” he’s a lot less certain about being “an army of one against the One True Faith of Dunnsmouth”. Also, all the kids look weirdly similar, they’re unnervingly quiet, and they’re all white, which is worrying for a mixed-race kid like Harrison in a small town.

And what Harrison’s mom hasn’t told him is that this is the same town where he lost his leg and his father thirteen years ago, and that she’s returned to find the monster that attacked them. This is something that Harrison is forced to discover on his own when Rosa goes missing at sea on their second day. The townspeople don’t seem to think there’s much hope of finding her (or don’t want to), but Harrison is convinced that she’s still alive so he mounts his own investigation. No matter how distorted his memories of the attack thirteen years ago, he knows that his parents saved him, so he refuses to abandon his mother. Along the way, Harrison finds some unexpected allies, including a boy from a race of aquatic humanoids; encounters a terrifying murderer known as The Scrimshander; and finds out exactly how creepy Dunnsmouth’s weird religion is.

 

I jumped at the chance to read this after reading the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which features an adult Harrison in group therapy with several other people who’ve had to deal with monsters in their lives, including a woman who’d had images carved on her bones by the Scrimshander. That book had its flaws – most notably an unimpressive ending that didn’t do the rest of the book justice – but I was seriously impressed by the characters Gregory wrote, and that was more than enough to make me want to read this book.

It didn’t disappoint; Harrison Squared has a fantastic cast of characters and even the minor ones are well-written. Sixteen-year-old Harrison is an even more enjoyable character than the adult version, perhaps because he’s funnier and more optimistic. He’s got a great sense of sarcasm and is generally a nice, well-rounded kid. He’s so capable with his carbon-fibre prosthetic leg that his disability never seems like much of a disability, although it’s still very much a part of who he is and how he functions. He does, however, have two serious problems – he’s afraid of going in the water, and he has a “volcanic” temper in contrast to his otherwise “calm and analytical” nature. His water phobia has never been an issue in daily life, but of course he’s going to have to deal with it if he has any hope of saving his mom in a place like Dunnsmouth. His temper has been more problematic, and although he’s learned to handle it over the years, the current situation threatens to break his control.

I also loved Harrison’s Aunt Sel, who comes to stay with him after his mother disappears. Selena was initially dismissed as a potential caregiver for being a snooty urbanite with no interest in kids. When she turned up I was expecting her to be an uncaring bitch, but she was superb. She’s definitely not the mothering type, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about Harrison; it’s just that she doesn’t show it in any kind of conventional motherly way. She strides in, dramatic and impeccably dressed, effortlessly gets her way with almost everyone, and refuses to take shit from anyone. Harrison eats well if only because she’s used to having the best (lobster dinner?) and he’s warmly dressed on some of his later night-time excursions partly because she finds his one-hoodie style tiresome and is dying to buy him some new clothes.

Sel also doesn’t care if Harrison doesn’t go to Dunnsmouth’s weird school or that he sneaks around at night, which is perfect in these circumstances because it means Harrison is free to do whatever he needs to do to find his mother.

As far as the plot is concerned, Gregory does a better job than in We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared reads like the best kind of YA adventure horror, which is to say that it’s wonderfully fun and creepy, thanks in part to the immense pleasure of being able to root for a character like Harrison. The climax felt a bit abrupt, but no matter; I had a great time with this and I want more books like it. The ending provides the setup for a possible sequel, so I can only hope that there will be one.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyTitle: The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translator: Lola M. Rogers
Published: first published in Finnish in 2006; English translation published in 2014; this edition published 20 January 2015
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Rating: 7/10

The little Finnish town of Rabbit Back is famous for being the home of world-reknowned author Laura White, who penned the Creatureville series of children’s books. Laura White is also famous for having started the Rabbit Back Literature Society – a small group whose members she personally selected in childhood and trained to be writers. The Society was meant to have ten members, but as far as anyone knows it never had more than nine. Now, three decades later, all the members are all well-known authors themselves, but the search for a tenth member continues.

Ella Milana is shocked when she is offered this prestigious position. Having just returned to her home town, she works as a substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature at a local high school. She wrote her PhD thesis on the Creatureville books, but has only one piece of published fiction – a short story in Rabbit Back’s literary journal, inspired by her recent experience of finding out that she can’t have children. Apparently Laura White was so impressed by the story that she offered Ella the tenth membership, which includes a stipend to support her during the training.

However, the whole thing turns out to be decidedly odd and more than a little bit disappointing. At the party where Ella is supposed to meet Laura White, the author is only seen for a few brief moments before she falls and disappears in a whirl of snow. With no one around to give her the training she expected, Ella turns to her first love – research – to uncover the hidden truths of the Society. No one knows what Laura White’s methods were. Although the members were once close, they no longer seem to talk to each other. Ella quickly realises that there was once a tenth member whom no one outside the society has ever heard of. She also notices that there are books from the Rabbit Back Library whose words are changing (thereby altering their plots) and one of the society’s authors seems to know about it. So, while the town searches for Laura White’s body, Ella uses her new membership solve the mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Ella seldom finds what she expects, and you, the reader, probably won’t either. Rabbit Back is quite a strange place thanks to the influence of Laura White and her books. There are also lots of otherwordly phenomena – lapses in memory, disturbing sightings, inexplicable animal behaviour, and of course the altered books in the library and the manner of Laura White’s disappearance. These things set the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy, but it’s not the kind of book where one or two knowledgable characters eventually reveal all. None of the characters know what’s really going on; the best they can do is try to speak truthfully about the things they’ve seen and experienced and it’s up to Ella – and the reader – to piece that information together.

This sort of thing can be frustrating, but I think Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen hits the right balance, revealing just enough to keep the reader satisfied, while keeping a few secrets that you continue thinking about the story once its over. For me, it also helps that the story is wrapped in folklore and mythology; that sort of thing always piques my interest. It seems that myth and folklore formed an important part of Rabbit Back’s heritage, and the Creatureville books tapped into that, ensuring that it remained a major part of the culture. If you were familiar with Finnish folklore you might get more out this novel; I often felt that the plot and characters drew from tales I, unfortunately, hadn’t heard of.

Overall though, I thought the novel wasn’t just about the various mysteries at play in the plot and but also about the mystery of literature itself, which can never be unravelled. It frequently portrays authors, fiction and the creative process as something alien and enigmatic. People desperately want to understand it, but understanding remains elusive.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the cult that’s grown up around Laura White. She’s like the god of Rabbit Back: people treat her with a sense of awe and reverence, and being chosen for the Society is considered the greatest of honours. The culture and businesses of the town have all been heavily influenced by Laura and her books, often to a bizarre degree. For example, residents can pay €80 for “mythological mapping”, which involves getting a detailed explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property. Early in the novel, Ella notices a news story about a farmer who found a potato shaped like one of Laura White’s characters. This is crazy enough, but it gets creepy after the author disappears: people start having nightmares about Laura White’s body climbing into their bedrooms and reading their Creatureville books aloud.

Notably, we never “see” the author herself in the narrative, except for the few moments before she disappears. We only hear about her through other people, so she remains remote, obscure. Mythical, you could say, especially since many of the town’s unexplained phenomena are related to her.

Some of the other writers have large roles in the narrative, but thanks to Laura White they all share an elevated status. They joke about being demigods, and on several occasions, non-members are referred to as “ordinary people”. Those “ordinary people”, of course, buy into this idea as well.

Jääskeläinen, I think, is taking a playful dig at the celebrity and mystique surrounding famous authors. The worship of Laura White becomes almost laughable, while the Society authors tend to have a sardonic attitude toward their own fame.

Of course, there’s also a darker side to this, not only because of the nightmares about Laura White, but because of what all this implies about her life, and what being in the Society meant for its members. It seems unlikely that Laura White had any friends; she was intensely loved and admired in a way that also left her completely alienated. No one seems particularly upset about her disappearance and possible death; this incredible mystery isn’t even a major subject in the novel and Ella actually gets tired of the whole thing because it has nothing to do with her research.

I agreed that her disappearance didn’t feel all that important; the past is far more interesting than the present, with all its murky secrets. Here Jääskeläinen explores some of the more questionable aspects of crafting literature, particulary the way authors use the lives of others to create fictional ones. To help them write, the Society has a secret practice known as The Game. Invented by Laura White, it has strict rules and regulations, and basically involves forcing other members to answer any question as truthfully as they possibly can, even if that means taking drugs to help them overcome any inihibitions. For Ella, this presents the perfect opportunity to gather material for her research paper, but for the rest of the Society it has been a way of mining human experience to find material for their books.

It’s a brilliant idea, and probably taught the authors far more about humanity than they would ever have learned otherwise. However, it also raises quite a few ethical issues and has had serious consequences for the members’ relationships with each other. How much can you take from other people? What happens when life and fiction start to intersect? The book plays around with that question throughout, and I’ll leave you to discover the many ways in which it does that. It’s certainly not a conventional mystery novel, but if you like a bit of fantasy, folklore, mythology and metafiction in the mix, then check it out 🙂

 

Up for Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Hmm, creepy bookish mystery, yes please.

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyThe Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join “The Rabbit Back Literature Society,” an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, a young literature teacher. Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried start to come to light… In Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s chilling, witty novel, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, the uncanny brushes up against the everyday in the most beguiling and unexpected of ways.

Originally published in Finnish in 2006, then in English in 2014 by Pushkin Press, The Rabbit Back Literature Society will now be published by Thomas Dunne Books on 20 January 2015.

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The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural EnhancementsTitle: The Supernatural Enhancements
Author: Edgar Cantero
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: gothic, mystery, adventure
Rating: 6/10

Our protagonist – known only as “A.” – inherits a huge mansion from an American “second-cousin twice-removed”. A. had never even heard of Ambrose Wells until after the man committed suicide by throwing himself from his bedroom window at the age of 50. Incidentally, Ambrose’s father threw himself from the same window, at the same age.

Now A. finds himself incredibly rich, having gotten Axton House and all its contents. He moves in, along with his ‘companion’ Niamh (pronounced “Neve”; it’s gaelic), a mute teenage punk with blue and violet dreadlocks. Since A. is only 23 he figures he’s got 27 years before Axton House can drive him to suicide, and he and Niamh enthusiastically face the building’s many mysteries – the strange deaths of its previous owners, rumours that the House is haunted, the disappearance of the butler who worked there all his life, the coded messages left by Ambrose Wells, a secret society that met at the House. It’s a House with “supernatural enhancements” (an Edith Wharton quote). Soon, A. starts having disturbingly vivid dreams and nightmares, always featuring the same people, images and events, and these gradually start to affect his health and sanity. There is also an unexplained break-in at the House, after which Niamh gets a dog who she prudently names Help.

A. and Niamh go to great lengths to record their experiences. A. keeps a diary, a dream journal, and regularly writes letters to an Aunt Liza, detailing everything that happens to them and the steps they’re taking to solve the mystery. Because she’s mute, Niamh communicates using a notebook, and in her spare time she fills in the other speakers’ parts of the conversation, so that she’s basically got a written record of all her conversations. She also buys a voice recorder and video camera, and – when the situation in the House gets more threatening – she sets up surveillance cameras everywhere. These documents, as well as transcriptions of notable audio and video recordings, are what make up the narrative of The Supernatural Enhancements.

The blurb claims that “[w]hat begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in Cantero’s wholly original modern-day adventure”, and this is one of the few occasions where I’d say the blurb is spot-on.

At first the book has a creepy tone, when A. starts to see the rumoured ghost in the bathroom. However, the ghost turns out to be a relatively minor issue, an entry point to grander schemes. As A. and Niamh investigate, the creepy ghost story gives way to mystery and adventure with a bit of action and quite a lot of danger.

What makes the book “wholly original” is, I think, the strangeness of the story that unfolds, a kind of charming metafictional humour (more on that in a bit), and partly the way virtually everything about this book adds to its mystery – the plot, the setting, the characters, the narrative structure, the writing style. I’ve already explained as much of the plot as I can without starting to spoil it. The size and grandeur of Axton House alone gives it an air of mystery, but A. also notes that the house seems to exist in a different time:

when you’re near enough to touch it with your fingertip, it just feels old. Not respectable old, but godforsaken old. Like a sepia-colored photograph, or Roman ruins that miraculously avoided tourist guides. This house ages differently. It’s like those bungalows that endure decades, but are awake only three months a year in summer, so that they live one year, but age four. This happens to Axton House and the things within, “all of its contents.” They stand on the brink of the twenty-first century, but their age pulls them back. Maybe that’s why everything in it is or seems anachronistic; a newspaper in it is outdated; any accessory falls out of fashion; Ambrose Wells lived in 1995 looking like a gentleman from 1910s London. I am starting to feel it myself—like time is running faster than me, and I have to catch up. Like I’m stuck on the bank of a river while the space-time continuum keeps flowing. Like I’m being forgotten from the universe.

A. and Niamh are rather mysterious themselves. We don’t know what A. was studying when he left university in Europe for the States, or where exactly he’s from, although apparently Niamh’s English is better than his. We don’t know exactly why he’s only referred to as “A.” while Niamh gets a name rather than just a letter. We’re told that Niamh comes from Dublin and that she’s had a shit childhood, but little else. It’s not even clear what their relationship is. They sleep in the same bed, but for safety rather than intimacy.

Then there’s the fact that the story is composed only of documents – A.’s diary, his dream journal, Niamh’s notebook, letters to Aunt Liza, transcripts of audio and video recordings, excerpts from academic journals, and news articles. Who compiled this and why? Do these accounts differ from ‘reality’? What would we be reading if we got an omniscient third-person POV? Also, why does A. write so many letters to Aunt Liza? She almost never replies, and it’s not stated whether she is A.’s aunt or Niamh’s, although both seem to have a good relationship with her.

The writing style or voice is also very odd – a somewhat pretentious old-fashioned style used by A. and whoever did the audio and video transcripts. The story is set in 1995, but A. writes like a character from a 19th century gothic novel. This is not a flaw – Cantero does it self-consciously, as a kind of joke that happens to put you in the right frame of mind for a gothic mystery in a giant haunted house. Niamh actually laughs at A.’s prose too, declaring his opening paragraphs to be the “[w]orst beginning ever written and saying he reads too much Lovecraft (he’s not that bad, and he’s quite funny, but you get the point). A. himself mentions several times that this whole story is a bit overdramatic, but it’s clear that this is the point – it’s entertaining.

I have to say though, that the writing style doesn’t always work for me. Some parts of the book were enjoyable to read, while other bits were tedious. The scenes composed mostly of dialogue read very quickly and clearly, even when characters are infodumping. A.’s letters are good too, focused but also amusing. His diary is ok. I found his dream journal tedious, but I generally find dream sequences a pain to read.

The occasions when I completely disliked the writing style were in some of the passages of description provided for the video recordings. The style is very similar to A.’s and sometimes it gets far too lavish for the content. It tends to draw your attention away from the action, and can be very boring to read. Here are some examples:

An extremely indecisive second lingers by, pondering whether to elapse or not, and finally does.

Droning brightness saturates all whites in the image, swelling in a luminous aura like icy embers.

An autumn carpet of white and sepia paper sheets lies over the gallery like war propaganda from an enemy fighter.                              

This style is ok when it’s just a line or two, but for the longer descriptive passages I would have preferred clear, simple prose to allow the action to take centre stage. If Cantero is trying to imply that A. wrote this, with his signature verbosity, then purple prose makes sense, but it still hurts the story. Other pieces of writing dragged the story down too. The academic articles were a bit dull, and there were some very long, dense explanations of code-breaking that I eventually gave up on and just skimmed through.

On the whole, I thought the book was… ok.  It could be playful, exciting and tense, but at other times it dragged or just lost my interest. I liked A., Niamh and their utterly adorable dog Help, but it can be difficult to keep track of other characters. The big reveals didn’t resonate with me much, although I enjoyed the climax and the way Cantero leaves you with fresh questions to ponder at the end. If you’re looking for a gothic adventure, thrilling but not too dark, you might enjoy this.

Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

Talus and the Frozen KingTitle: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Series: Talus #1
Published: 26 March 2014
Publisher: Solaris
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: historical fiction, crime and mystery
Rating: 4/10

Talus and the Frozen King has a very nice selling point – the world’s first detective. According to the blurb anyway. The novel doesn’t openly make the same claim, but it’s set in the second or third millennium BC, and Talus is the only person around who thinks like a detective – observing the world around him to pick up clues and use them to draw conclusions about people, situations and crimes. 

Talus and his companion Bran are travelling to the source of the Northern Lights. Talus heard that the source of the Northern Lights is where the world intersects with the afterdream (their version of the afterlife), and he’s on a quest to see if the afterdream is real. Bran hopes to meet his dead wife Keyli there, but he’s on the verge of giving up. Before he can discuss it with Talus, they are drawn to Creyak, a small island where the inhabitants have just found the body of their king, naked and frozen in the snow (the fully clothed figure on the cover is totally inaccurate). Although the king’s death is mysterious, it is simply assumed that “his time had come”, and burial preparations are about to being. Talus convinces the shaman and the king’s six sons that it was a murder and if they allow him to investigate, he can identify the killer. His methods are strange and often shocking to them, but Talus is smart enough to prove his worth.

One thing that worried me about the story was the idea that the people of Creyak need Talus to solve this murder because no one else would consider the possibility of murder, let alone investigate one. But Edwards is quick to provide an explanation – killing the king is unthinkable so it’s assumed no one would ever do it. According to their culture, the king

would have been a living vessel for the spirits of all the tribe’s ancestors. To strike out at such a man was to strike out at every Creyak villager who had ever lived and died, all the way back to the first dawn. Killing a king wasn’t just murder; it was genocide.

Genocide might be the wrong word, since the murderer can’t actually kill those who are already dead, but he’d still be committing some kind of extreme violence against them. After death, the murderer would be horribly tortured by the ancestors for eternity. Thus no sane person would kill a king. Even when Talus raises the possibility of murder, the king’s eldest son Tharn is not particularly interested in an investigation because, according to their beliefs, the murderer will inevitably suffer greater punishments than any living being could deal out.

I thought this was an interesting concept, and it ties in nicely with the issues of faith and the afterdream that are also driving Talus and Bran. So I got off to a fairly good start with the book, although there were some issue that I had with the worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding issues are quite serious. Also the characters aren’t compelling and eventually the story faltered and fell flat, so the whole thing ended up being a huge disappointment. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, and you can stop reading right here if you’re happy to take that opinion at face value, but I will, of course explain myself.

Firstly, Talus and Bran. They are very obviously modelled on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Talus is very smart and curious, but he can be extremely condescending, especially to Bran. LIke Watson, Bran has a handicap (a crippled hand) and he’s a big brawny guy. Bran states that Talus isn’t very good at understanding human nature, and Talus admits he’s baffled by certain things, like the way love can drive people to do terrible things. Of course they’re not exactly the same as Holmes and Watson. Talus can’t actually work as a detective; he’s a bard. Bran was a fisherman, not a doctor, and was never in a war.

I don’t have a major problem with Edwards using the Holmes/Watson model, but there does seem to be a kind of laziness to it, particularly since the similarities don’t always feel natural. I’m not sure why Bran puts up with Talus’s rudeness. Watson puts up with Holmes because he’s fascinated by him, considers him a good friend, and accepts that he has mental problems (at least in the BBC TV series), but it’s not the same with Bran. Also, Talus doesn’t seem to have serious problems understanding human nature as both he and Bran suggest. Talus can be insensitive, but he’s not as dysfunctional as Holmes. There’s a scene where he’s quick to notice that a man and a woman are having an affair, while Bran doesn’t catch on until later. And as a successful bard, Talus is adept at picking stories that his audience would like to hear, which implies that he’s very good at reading people. This idea that Talus doesn’t understand human nature is something that only seems to be trotted out when it suits the narrative.

Then, the case. As I said, it’s intriguing at first, and it briefly got more interesting as we learned more about the king Hashath and why people wanted to kill him, but then it just wilted. It lacks tension, it doesn’t have the brilliant deductions that you get in a Sherlock Holmes story (I consider it a fair comparison, since Edwards insists on basing Talus on Holmes), and the resolution is simultaneously mess and dead boring. Of course Talus solves the mystery, but not in a way that makes him look as smart as he purports to be. At the beginning, Talus points out that the killer could have been a woman, which is something Bran hadn’t considered. It makes Talus look quite open-minded, but afterwards he never really views any of the female characters as suspects even though they had very clear motives. The issue of faith comes up so often that it seems key, but at the end it has little to do with the story. I understand that maybe Edwards was throwing out red herrings to get the reader more engaged, but they turn out to be frustrating more than anything else. At the end, the truth is far less interesting than the other possibilities.

And, the worldbuilding. There’s no fantasy here, but like any novel set in the past, the author needs to immerse us in the context. My friend Barbara bought the book and joined me for a read-along, and I was very glad for her company because she’s an archaeologist and provided some valuable insight into the historical details, whereas I am a complete twit when it comes to anything historical. That said, I was deeply suspicious or critical about lots of things before Barbara even said a word.

For example, we’re told that Talus went to Egypt, saw the pyramids, and had philosophical conversations with the a queen named Tia. In fact it was she who told him about the Northern Lights intersecting with the afterlife.

Would an Egyptian queen know about the Northern Lights? Would Talus have gone to Egypt? It seems unlikely, given the difficulty of travel and the relatively short life spans of people at the time, that Talus would have had the chance to travel from his birthplace, to Egypt, and then all the way to Creyak, which seems to be in The Orkneys of Scotland. But that’s merely implausible; what seems virtually impossible is that the shaman Mishina says he’s seen the Egyptian pyramids as well as the pyramids in the jungles of Central America. So he’s not only travelled to Egypt but to Central America and back.  

I very grudgingly allowed for the idea that he’d gone on some kind of expedition but Barbara quickly put paid to that, explaining that it was theoretically possible but that there was no likely reason for it to have happened given the resources required, the time it would take, lack of knowledge about their destination, likelihood of survival, etc.

Barbara brought up other issues. The concept of the afterdream is aboriginal, not European. She felt that the concept of a king was too modern (a different word for the leader would have been better), while the idea of killing him wasn’t that outlandish, since lots of people sacrificed their chiefs or killed unsatisfactory rulers. I have to agree with the use of the word “king” – it sounds nice in the title, but Hashath only ruled over a small island; hardly what you’d consider a kingdom. There are also much more serious issues with the time period, which I’m glad Barbara mentioned because otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered checking the dates.

The Egyptian queen Tia (Tiye) places the story in the 14th century BC, but at this time they were burying their kings in tombs, rather than pyramids as Talus claims. The Central American pyramids that Mishina saw weren’t being built until around 500BC, and most were built in AD. The press release I got states that the novel is set in 3000BC, although I’m not sure if the publisher checked that with Edwards, because in the author’s note he specifically states that he’s not going to give us a date. The novel is all over the place anyway.

I also had a huge issue with the writing style – it’s very modern. Too modern even for a Sherlock Holmes story. The only thing about the language that’s supposed to give us some idea of the context is that the word “justice” apparently doesn’t exist yet, and people don’t understand what Talus means when he tells them to “prove” something. And that’s pretty weak. The writing is easy to read, but it completely dissociates the reader from the context. I’d happily choose a strange and difficult style over easy reading that fails the story.

Edwards uses his author’s note to make excuses for the lack of historical accuracy, and he sums it up as such:

Thought is made not of stone, but of story. To really understand the humanity of the past, I think you have to put aside the facts and indulge in a little fiction.

That sounds nice enough, but it hasn’t worked in practice. More research and greater accuracy would have done wonders for this book.  Instead, I find myself thinking that I’d have a more authentic – and enjoyable – Neolithic experience going north of the Wall with George R.R. Martin’s wildlings.

Basically this book is a mess, and a boring one at that.

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.