Monday, 9 February 2015

'Changed Souls' by Harriet Truscott

I was bought this for Christmas because I was seen to be enjoying dystopian fiction and my surname was in the title. I must admit I was a bit dubious at first, as I realized the book was published by the author: Sound and Fury Press. Should this alter my judgement? The blurb, however, intrigued me: an authoritarian regime, incinerating bodies, rationing, a murder and a virus. What more could you ask for in a dystopian novel? Therefore I put my doubts aside and got round to reading it. And I must say I'm glad I did. I raced through the first chapters. It read like the best of thrillers, although it is genre unspecific. Thriller, horror, dystopia, crime, alternative history, science-fiction, take your pick! It is completely engrossing in its indefinable otherness.

The story centres on Lucille, a seventeen year old Patroller in an alternative 1920s American metropolis. With her experienced partner Hank, Lucille's job is to collect the dead bodies of those contaminated by a deadly virus, causing horrifying skeletal mutations. But on a routine pick-up Lucille and Hank stumble on a murder scene, with sinister connections to the Mayor. Is there a cover up? Is there corruption at the heart of the city's governance? Is there more to the virus than Lucille knows?

The premise reads like a typical crime set-up, but as a whodunit set in a well-realized dysfunctional alternative America. Truscott expertly balances the realization of her own dystopia with the pace and tension of a taut, atmospheric thriller. It whips like the very best modern crime novel but frames itself like a film noir: viral prohibition meets Fahrenheit 451. It is as if Truscott has spun an experiment on us using all the horrible, troubling troupes of our own times: recession, Ebola, corruption, class divide and political instability. It creates a unique nightmarish vision. And Truscott does this with aplomb. Her writing is specific and sensual. I especially admired the smells she describes: the bleach and gas and other chemicals. The virus stinks from the page. But you cannot turn away...

The ending was perhaps unexpected, at first a little strange. However, on discovering that this is Book 1 of a Lucille Harker series, I am very much interested to see where Truscott goes next. She has created a richly imagined and very different world and so I look eagerly to exploring more of it.

Come on! Bring on the Sound and Fury!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeliene L'Engle

This children's classic was on a recent list of the top children's/YA books ever in Time magazine. Intrigued by the title I quickly found the book and devoured it immediately. It is strange, though a surprising joy to read. I would even argue it is a forerunner to Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' as here is a children's novel, written in the early 60s, that references Einstein, atomic theory, God and quantum physics. If 'His Dark Materials' and 'The Chronicles of Narnia' could be warped to meet like two disparate ends of space-time, then 'A Wrinkle in Time' is the point of intersection.

Imagine Lucy is called Meg. Instead of going through a wardrobe she 'tesseracts' through space-time to other planets. On these other worlds the concept of God and love remains, although there is a cosmic resistance against the 'Black Thing'; a force of evil across the universe.  Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, friend Calvin and three witches (Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which) find themselves part of this fight, which includes resisting the evil mind-bending attraction of a giant brain called IT.

If the plot sounds bonkers, you are right, but this is not to suggest that it is without meaning or moral. Like the best of children's books this operates on two levels; the superficiality of the story and the deeper understanding which tugs and gnaws at you, probing for greater answers. L'Engle, unlike Pullman, is spiritually searching for God in the complexity of the cosmos. What binds us and creates us is love. What pulls us apart and destroys us is hate. According to the story there is one such 'Black Thing' overshadowing Earth. It is only through the quest for enlightenment and understanding, ultimately love, that the darkness can be pierced with light. Jesus Christ is cited as a figure that holds this darkness at bay, but Einstein is also noted among other figures of history. This is what makes the book so interesting. If Lewis found God in Narnia and in the form of a lion, then L'Engle finds God in the folds of dimensions and through the language of history.

All of this may go over children's heads. Indeed most children will read 'A Wrinkle in Time' and make comparisons with Doctor Who. After all, there are tesseracts, a Mrs Who and a city of geometric weirdness. However, there is much to debate. Some may say the book is dated, but I would love to know what Pullman and L'Engle might have said to each other today. Or perhaps Lucy, Meg and Lyra are simply opposing points of space, triangulating and folding into one complex beast.

If you love Narnia and 'His Dark Materials' then leap into 'A Wrinkle in Time'.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

'A Monster Calls' By Patrick Ness and 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' by Neil Gaiman

I read 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' last year but inadvertently I forgot to include it on my list of best novels. It is one of those books which excludes classification. It is dream-like, magical but intensely real in its childhood themes. In a similar way, 'A Monster Calls' is heartrendingly honest, driven by a story that is imaginative and magical while facing up to the reality of pain and grief.
A Monster Calls.jpg
'A Monster Calls' concerns a 13 year old boy, Conor, who one day wakes from a nightmare to be confronted by a giant, talking yew tree at his window. The yew tree 'monster' demands Conor's attention and will, over three stories, teach Conor that life is not black and white. And this is important for Conor, as his mother is terminally ill with cancer. As her condition worsens, Conor has to learn to accept the inevitable. Only with the help of the monster, who appears every 12:07, can Conor understand the complexities of his feelings and find a way to let go.

Ness writes simply but beautifully. The illustrations by Jim Kay are enchanting but gritty; bleeding at the edges of the page as symbol of the anger and pain felt by Conor. They are stark but beautiful images. Although the story is about the inevitability of death, our own mortality, the book is full of life and hope. That even though life is not black and white, that fairy tale endings are not always possible, there is still hope to be found in the grey areas. This is what the monster teaches through his stories to Conor: life is a wild and complex creature, but this is okay.

I highly recommend 'A Monster Calls'. It made me choke up and not many stories do this. A very adult message for children- go read it!

Comparing 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' may be contrived, although there are parallels. Both stories deal with the pains of childhood in a whimsical, adult way. In Gaiman's book it is the isolation of the young boy, dealing with the aftermath of a suicide and a horrible babysitter, that is the emotional thread. There is a similar blurring of what is real and what is fantasy, but this again seems a way of understanding the complexities of reality. The imagery is fantastic: the babysitter comes through a wormhole from the boy's foot; the ocean is just a small pool but inside lurks the answers to the universe; the sky crackles and speaks like a God. Just as Conor learns to deal with his pain and anger through his relationship with a talking tree, the protagonist in 'Ocean' also learns to overcome such emotions through supernatural encounters.Both are excellent, highly imaginative with a sense of the macabre and the fantastic.