Annabel’s Shelves: B is for …

Ballard, J.G. – The Drowned World

ballard drowned worldHaving just read one book set in a dystopian near-future London, when I finally came to choose my ‘B’ book for my Annabel’s Shelves project, I picked another. There was one author and particular title that just leapt out at me. It had to be Ballard – and it had to be The Drowned World – especially as my edition’s cover shows another view of the London skyline. The Drowned World was Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962 – the same year as Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book about the effect of pesticides The Silent Spring. Ballard had been training as a doctor, but had given up a career path in medicine to become a writer. He had some success in publishing short stories in the late 1950s, before his first novel which was written while he was editor of a science journal.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a scientific survey team working on exploring the flora and fauna of the last cities of a mostly submerged world. The ice-caps have melted and the temperature is soaring driving those that survive ever-poleward as it keeps increasing.

As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses. Huge flies spin by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

Kerans lives alone in the air-conditioned luxury of a penthouse in the Ritz hotel. But Colonel Riggs has come to tell him that they’ll be moving out, heading north, in a few days time. Kerans and his colleague Dr Bodkin, need to pack up – and Riggs needs his help to persuade the reclusive Beatrice to come with them. Beatrice is the other last remaining Londoner in this lagoon.

The foetid jungle keeps encroaching, only the insects and reptiles can survive successfully in this world that is de-evolving back towards the Triassic. The coming of the iguanas to London combined with the super-equatorial climate brings insomnia and strange dreams. Riggs’s deputy Hardman goes mad under the pressure, running off southwards into the swamp on a raft – they search but don’t find him.

The question ‘how do you sleep?’ begins to assume a big significance, but Kerans and Bodkin feel strangely at home with this altered state, although Bodkin becomes rather obsessed by his childhood memories of pre-submerged London.

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them – and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.

When it comes to it, they opt to remain with Beatrice, engineering to be left behind – but not for long. Soon Riggs and his crew are replaced by the white-suited Strangman – a latter-day pirate in a hydroplane with a bask (I looked it up) of crocodiles snapping at his heels. Strangman’s ship follows his arrival, it’s full of raided antiquities. Like a Bond-villain, he has Machavellian plans, and Kerans and Bodkin will have to work with him to work against him to survive.

The Drowned World is certainly a visionary novel. Stylistically, it is a real hybrid – reading like Graham Greene meets Conrad via Ian Fleming with the philosophical realisation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man as Kerans accepts his fate. Kerans is a leading man typical of any Graham Greene novel – clever but burned out at forty, yet fit enough to take action. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness, but it seems to me that Kerans could be Conrad’s Marlow and Strangman a pre-illness Kurtz, together with his henchmen? Never mind all the influences, it is an effective literary eco-thriller that manages to explore the human condition at the same time, and I loved it.

The extras in this edition of the novel include an interview and an article by Ballard about the ‘landscapes of childhood’ in his writing – he remembered crocodiles from Shanghai which also used to flood each spring and co-mingled those memories with his present at the time living in London.  Both features are very well-worth reading and it is interesting in the interview that Ballard describes his work as ‘speculative fantasy’ rather than science fiction.  Although Ballard describes the science behind his version of global warming plausibly, he never attributes it with any man-made origins, this was the early 1960s after all.  Ballard’s next novel, The Burning World, revised as The Drought in 1965, takes an opposite stance with water becoming precious due to industrial pollution.

The Drowned World was certainly my kind of ‘speculative fantasy’- I loved it. (9/10)

I must read more Ballard – I’ve only read a couple, (High Rise and Cocaine Nights) so I have plenty more to go – I know I’ll enjoy them.  I note that a movie of High-Rise is due out this summer starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons – that’ll be interesting!

Now to my ‘C’ choice – as before I’ve photographed my shelves so those with eagle eyes can help me pick – or just suggest an author (or title) beginning with ‘C’ for me to explore. Thank you to everyone who has been suggesting so far, please know that even if I pick something else, I have thought about your ideas – I do intend to keep going through the alphabet with my TBR, so maybe next time around!

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From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

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‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

Riding the slipstream …

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The-Adjacent-Christopher-Priest-198x300 Today I shall direct you to another review I wrote for Shiny New Books:- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, now out in paperback.

Priest is one of those authors who defies genre, yet routinely gets categorised as a science fiction author. True his books often have some SF elements in, and The Adjacent was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (losing out to Ann Leckie).  However, to me, he’s more a spec fiction writer – riding the slipstream rather than pure SF.

Those of you who have seen the film The Prestige will have encountered the mind of Priest, (although the film did remove one whole contemporary plot-strand which would have complicated things to much for the big screen), so you’ll realise that a level of the fantastic is a part of that story.

Priest is a great ideas man. This novel with its central echoing romance, goes from a bleak future back to WWI and through WWII before coming full circle. I really enjoyed it.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, paperback 432 pages).

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’

Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent

dark satanic mills

It’s a rare thing for me to read a graphic novel – in fact the only one I’ve read since starting this blog was The Crow by James O’Barr, (see here). When I finished reading that, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to read more of such dark fare in this style, figuring I’d read Posy Simmonds instead. Well, I never got around to that, and two years later I’ve just read another dark and very dystopian graphic novel.

It was the name of Marcus Sedgwick being attached that drew me to it – I will read anything he writes, the title promised strong visions inspired by William Blake, and there’s a motorbike.

Before getting into the story proper, the front cover folds out to reveal a series of panels containing the words of ‘Jerusalem’ by Blake, and the vision of England therein gets bleaker with each panel as the colour is faded out to end in a drawing of a bluebell in monochrome. England’s green and pleasant land indeed!

Now to the story – it starts with a motorbike courier trying to deliver a package through the gang-ridden, semi-derelict and overgrown streets of London. The rider stops to help a man that was being set upon and rescues him.  The rescued man, Thomas, happens to be involved with a bunch of atheists who are enemies of the True Church – the de facto fundamentalist rulers of this defunct England. The rider is revealed to be a girl – Christy, and she’s sympathetic to Thomas’s cause.

Christy and Thomas

Through rescuing Thomas, Christy misses the timed drop, losing her day’s wages – but is not so late that she doesn’t see a man being murdered – and she was seen. She flees to the house of an old friend, and finds their son is ill and being left to die as the True Church doesn’t believe in doctors, her friend’s husband has converted. Not welcome, Christy abducts the child to take him to hospital but he dies before she gets there – now framed for his murder, she needs to get out of London. Meeting up with Thomas again, they head north towards the seat of the anti-True Church movement’s home base. A cat and mouse game ensues as they try to evade the Soldiers of Truth who are on their tail…

The Anti-Sci Gang

It’s all very grim. The picture spreads are black and white echoing the fanatical beliefs of the True Church, there is no room for grey in their credo. In this semi-drowned world protected by giant mirrors in the sky, it is always twilight, always dark. It’s never made clear whether the catastrophe that has beset this England was environmental or, dare I say it an act of God, or man-made for that matter.

The text is full of biblical quotations; in particular from the last supper and Jesus on the cross, alongside the paean to Blake’s poem. The story is bookended by words from Francisco Goya too, (as used in my title for this post) – it is crammed full of references, some of which are discussed in the afterword by Marcus and Julian Sedgwick. The story with its race to leave London for a better life elsewhere reminded me too of John Christopher’s marvellous 1956 novel The Death of Grass, reviewed here.

breaking glassChristy in her black leathers could be Hazel O’Connor (left) in the 1980 film Breaking Glass, (loved that film). Personally, I find that women, drawn in this heavily shaded style used in graphic novels often look rather mannish and over-strong of jaw but, in my limited experience, they’re given little opportunity to display any femininity. In the well-lit hospital scene in particular, Christy does get to show some vulnerability – thumbs up to illustrators Higgins and Olivent for that bit.

Given that this novel is published by Walker Books, a children’s book publisher, and aimed at 12+, I did like that the Sedgwicks chose a heroine for the lead character and I hope that girls will read it.  There is much to enjoy in this world gone bad and much to think about from the text. My main complaint (and this is good) is that at around 160 pages, it was all over too fast – I wanted more!  (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent, officially pub 7th Nov by Walker Books, softback, but available now.
Breaking Glass [DVD] starring Hazel O’Connor, Phil Daniels.
The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Christopher

A new approach to the problem of werewolves …

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

red moonInside this chunkster of a werewolf novel are at least two shorter novels trying to get out… Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.

From the opening chapters in which a Lycan manages to board a plane, transform and kill all the passengers bar one, there’s no doubting that they are far nastier than the teen-wolves of the Twilight Saga. These werewolves only need anger/fear to be able to transform, and they leave a trail of gruesomely mutilated corpses …

But not all of them. One of the central threads of this multi-layered novel is a central high-school romance between, Patrick, the teenager who survived the plane crash and becomes a celebrity, manages to fall for Claire, a Lycan, who is daughter of two former Lycan activists. This is complicated by Patrick’s father being in the Marines abroad guarding uranium mines which are under Lycan threat.

In another thread, the loudmouthed, beer-swilling, womanising, and fiercely anti-Lycan state Governor is being groomed to run for the presidency. He’s rather a puppet for his closest advisor who pulls his strings, but when something happens to him it becomes a whole new ball game.

Linking these two main stories are the Lycan, and anti-Lycan activists, and to a lesser extent, Neal, a doctor researching a vaccine for the Lobos virus, who was a friend of Patrick’s father.

Interestingly, Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel.  Lycans are infected with a prion-based virus (like AIDS, CJD, Mad cow), caught through blood or sexual contact.  The threat of being infected rather than being devoured drives paranoia, as the Government takes steps to further and further restrict the lives of sufferers, ghettoising them. As the Lycans begin to take things into their own hands, the government quickly becomes militarised and we’re into dystopian territory.

Given that Patrick and Claire’s gritty romance is largely separate from the socio-political Governor’s tale, I felt the two could have been told in companion volumes, which would give more pace. Intertwining them kept slowing things down just as they were getting really interesting. I can see the value of having the two threads together, but it made for a long read at 530 dense pages.  Remembering who was who in the Lycan and anti-Lycan groups got a little complex towards the end also as the cast-list expanded.

I did like the author’s new approach of taking the paranormal out of lycanthropy though, and thus creating a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, pub Hodder & Stoughton, May 2013. Hardback.
 

A dystopian psychodrama that packs a punch…

I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh

Set in a near future where global warming has wreaked Mother Nature’s revenge on the Earth and made large parts of the globe uninhabitable due to rising water levels, Rachel lives alone in a old mill in the Yorkshire Dales. Jacob used to live with her but he left. Rachel still keeps his study as he left it though, as if he might walk through the door again one day.

Without Jacob, Rachel survives, taking no joy from life. Rachel grows vegetables, keeps chickens and takes more care of them than herself. She had wanted children, but Jacob said they wouldn’t survive being brought into this world and persuaded her it was a bad thing – she can’t help being broody though at her age. She used to be an artist, but that’s fallen by the wayside too.It’s an effort to do anything, and her nearest neighbours are a short trek away. She prefers to keep to herself, remaining hidden within the walled compound of the mill except for her visits to the market run by Noah…

I duck into my favourite doorway, which I use as a lookout to check the coast is clear before going down to the market. Today of all days it is important I have Noah to myself because what I am about to do is something I would once have considered rash.
An intense, yellow, off-kilter stare from the opposite doorway jolts me back into the present. I step forward, whooshing air through my front teeth, and stretch out a hand to attract the attention of the mange-ridden but still charismatic ginger cat. But he fancies himself as a sphinx too disgusted with humanity to even acknowledge my existence. I straighten up and disguise my intimidation by fumbling in my jacket pocket for the scrap of paper I put there; unfold it to check its eight-number inscription is still legible: 68.36.21.51. Rachel. I refold it and pin it to my palm with my fingernails.
Reassured now that Noah is alone, I step out into the precinct. Hel-lo. One syllable per footstep, I rehearse my grand entrance.

Noah is the only man Rachel knows, and she’s plucking up courage to ask him out. Meanwhile a new man is on the scene – Jez White.  He suddenly starts cropping up when she expected to see Noah. She begins to feel as if she is being watched, or is she getting paranoid?  She needs to find out more about Jez White.

This novel manages to combine the nightmare of a post environmental apocalypse with a psychological thriller and throws in a few overtones of Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale for good measure.  Rachel being an outsider and aloner, her refusal to want to belong to any of the remaining isolated communities, makes her tough yet fragile. You aren’t quite sure how reliable she is as the narrator, and the growing sense of unease as the story progresses adds to the tension.

She is a survivor though, and that thought inevitably led me back to a favourite TV series of mine from the 1970s – Terry Nation’s Survivors, (the original, not the more recent TV remake). In this series, a killer flu epidemic wiped out 95% of mankind, leaving the remainder to fight it out, keep the species going, and impose a new world order.

McDonagh’s novel is a fine example of the spec fiction genre, the changed world she has created seems eerily real. I enjoyed reading it very much. At the moment, it is her only novel, but I do hope she publishes more.  (8.5/10)

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My copy was sent by the publisher – thank you.
I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh. Myriad Editions paperback 2012. Originally published 2006. 181 pages incl Author Q&A.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Survivors – Series 1-3 Box Set [DVD] [1975]

A renowned children’s author goes mainstream…

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Deanby David Almond

David Almond’s first novel, written for older children, was Skellig (1998). It parallels the stories of two children who find and help an ailing creature who may or may not be an angel, with that of the boy’s little brother who is ill in hospital. It won loads of prizes and has become a staple text of teacher training courses – I read it a few years ago when I was considering applying for a PGCE teaching course. It was a good story, and challenging too in its scope, but it’s true to say that although I enjoyed it a lot, I admired it rather than loved it. When I read that he had written his first novel for adults, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, as I felt it could be equally challenging, which brings me to The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean.

First off, it immediately became clear that this novel was being marketed as a crossover book rather than a purely adult one – the YA cover is on the right. Content-wise there’s moderate swearing and sexual references, and some strong violence.

Secondly, it’s a novel written as a first person account by a teenager who has never learned to read or write as we do – his spelling is largely phonetic. I thought I’d find this irritating but I quickly got used to it and, with practice, Billy’s reading and writing improves over the course of the story. There were a few inconsistencies in the spellings, particularly near the beginning where the phonetic talk is densest but I could ignore that.

The setting is a bombed out village in an unspecified war-torn country, similar to England’s north-east and Scottish borders. The time is now-ish – maybe a few years into the future. Those who remain in the village of Blinkbonny try to carry on life as normal. Veronica Dean is a home hairdresser, much loved by all her clients, but she has a big secret. She has a son – Billy. Billy has been brought up in isolation by her, living only in the back room. The only other people who know of his existence are Mrs Malone who helped to bring him into the world – and his father, who comes to visit now and then. Billy is a good little boy, waiting patiently at home for years while his mother works and looking forward to those visits from his father.

But now he’s a teenager, and it’s time for him emerge from hiding. Mrs Malone has plans for him, for she believes he’s the ‘anjel childe’ as Billy puts it, that he has a gift. Told by Billy, we find out his truths: the story of his childhood, his begetting, why he was hidden, and who his father really is. Once he is introduced to the real world outside his room, we also find out what he makes of it, and it of him. I must admit, it did bug me why Billy’s mother had appeared to teach him nothing during his hidden years in his room – what did the poor boy do all that time? It was amazing that Billy grew up to be such a compliant boy, coming to terms with his eventual freedom rather than running at the first chance, however he will show that he has metal underneath.

Comparisons abound in this novel: Billy is unknowingly imprisoned for his childhood like the boy in Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, however his mother is not incarcerated, she is at least partially free. Billy’s language and coming of age story did bring Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker to mind – but that was set millennia ahead, and the language had (d)evolved to reflect the loss of understanding of technology, whereas Billy is just technically illiterate.

The author’s decision to use the phonetic spelling may be off-putting to some readers and maybe wasn’t strictly necessary – Billy could have dictated his story rather than write it down. This also slowed down the action and it didn’t always feel that there was enough to it for me. Although Billy is no angel, they obviously fascinate Almond, and religion – for good or bad – underpinned this novel all the way through which did give a spiritual dimension that was interesting. Ultimately  this novel was another case of an intriguing read, but a book which I didn’t love. (6.5/10)

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My copy was kindly sent by Penguin – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean – pub 1st September by Penguin Viking/Puffin, Hardback, 256pp,
Skellig

The bookish equivalent of shouting at the telly!

The Testament of Jessie Lambby Jane Rogers.

This was one of the few titles on the 2011 Man Booker longlist that excited me from the short descriptions I’d read. I was familiar with Jane Rogers, having read Mr Wroe’s virgins, and Promised Land, some years ago; (she adapted Mr Wroe’s virgins for the BBC in the early 1990s; it starred Jonathan Pryce as the preacher gone mad, and was directed by Danny Boyle).

Her latest novel is one of speculative fiction, set just a few months into the future. Biological terrorists have created and let loose an airborne killer virus that causes what they call ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ to any pregnant woman. The mother –to-be and her foetus both die shortly after the pregnancy is established. No more babies will lead to the death of mankind within a generation.

Jessie Lamb is nearly sixteen. She’s yet to discover the joys of love. Her Dad is a scientist working on a cure for MDS. Jessie meanwhile, is more concerned about the environment; she’s a teenaged green policeman to her family. She joins a positive action group of other teens with her friend Baz, (whom she’d like to be her boyfriend, but she’s not sure if he feels the same way).

The world is going mad and women are dying. Cults are springing up, gangs too – it’s not safe for young girls to be out on their own in many parts of town. The battle of the sexes has reached new heights. The scientists have come up with schemes to save babies – but at a cost, the mothers still die. Who will be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? It’s a legal minefield and the protesters are on the case. Jessie is just an ordinary girl. She is conflicted – caught between her lofty ideals, her Dad’s day-job and the stress all this is putting on her parents and friends. What can she do to help?

Usually I don’t have problems suspending my disbelief at speculative fiction. I did this time though. It was fact that the book was set in ‘now + a couple of months’ and in a world which is so manifestly the same as ours. I couldn’t believe that a mega-contagious airborne virus based upon AIDS and CJD that could infect every woman in the world was possible in ‘our world’ – a strong sense of denial kicked in. As the story is narrated by Jessie, we learn virtually nothing about the virus and its effects itself – something I was screaming out for.

Jessie is not an unreliable narrator as such; she’s a typical teenager with teenager’s concerns who is rather blinkered and self-centred, not often seeing the whole picture. Adding a counter point of view from her father or mother may have stopped me getting worked up, but then it wouldn’t have been just Jessie’s testament. Of course, getting readers shouting at the book may have been the author’s plan all along – it certainly kept me reading, as I had to know if Jessie was going to do what I reckoned she would.

Comparisons have been made elsewhere with P D James’s foray into this realm with her novel Children of Men, which I read and enjoyed back when it was first published. It has the advantage of being clearly set in a world which has moved on and as such its central premise is more un-disbelievable (!).

Primarily, it was the ‘nowness’ of The Testament of Jessie Lamb together with the unexplained scenario that made me dislike this book. I have nothing to say about the quality of the writing except that it washed over me completely, I was too busy being cross with the story.

Not a Booker contender in my view, however it is an interesting love-it-hate-it type novel. I’ll enjoy reading your comments about this one … (6/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Testament of Jessie Lamb,
Mr Wroe’s Virgins, Promised Lands – all by Jane Rogers
The Children of Men by P D James

Stephen King’s Dark Tower Readalong #3

The Dark Tower: Waste Lands Bk. 3 by Stephen King

It’s the third month of the Dark Tower readalong hosted by Shelf Love.  The Waste Lands (1991) is the thickest book so far, and things are certainly starting to hot up.

If you’d like to see how I got on with the previous volumes, click here for book one – The Gunslinger, and here for book two – The Drawing of the Three.

A brief synopsis – so skip down the next three paragraphs if you don’t want to read a little of what happens …

Book three turns properly post-apocalyptic, as the trio of Roland, Eddie and Susannah follow the ‘Beam’ to the not quite abandoned city of Lud which resembles a ruined New York.  But on the way they are reunited with Jake, the boy that Roland had found, bonded with, and let fall to his death in book one. Roland is suffering mentally, as in his mind there are two versions of what happened back then, one in which Jake dies and one where Jake is saved.

Back in New York, mid 1970s, Jake is a pupil at a prestigious prep school, but just as exam week starts, he is also feeling like he is two people, and that school is not where he should be.  Some artifacts he finds, or they find him, take on a special significance – a children’s book about a train, a key, a rose – he doesn’t know how yet, but he is drawn to a ‘haunted’ house, where there is another portal through to Roland’s world.  After a demonic battle to get him through, he is reunited with his surrogate father and the mental suffering of both of them ends.

The four, along with a Oy, a semi-intelligent creature that Jake finds and bonds with, make their way to Lud, where they will encounter gangs who live in the tunnels and ruins, before reaching their objective – Blaine the train – a machine with an insane mind of its own. He agrees to take them to Topeka – the end of the line, rather than kill them, in return for riddles, and we leave them on board the train zooming through the Waste Lands, but someone else is on their trail …

Book 3 continues the character development of Roland, whom we begin to think is more ancient that he looks.  I particularly enjoyed the re-introduction of Jake, and he adds a lot to the Ka-Tet (a group brought together by fate).  The references and parallels between Roland’s world and ours continue to abound; if I had been sure in the first book that they were not the same world, just echoes, now with the post-apocalyptic Lud, I’m not so sure.

The use of ‘Lud’ for the name of the city was interesting.  I wondered whether there was more to it than an abbreviation of Luddite – as the remaining inhabitants have largely become.  There is a high fantasy novel called Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees written in 1926, could that have been an ironic influence?  I also enjoyed the deus ex machina of Blaine the mad train; the old technology that still survives in the ‘Beam’ too gives a sense of anticipation of finding the tower itself which is still to come (if it exists, of course).

I enjoyed this third volume in the series very much indeed, which means I’m still on board the readalong for book four – although I note that the page count goes up again to nearly 900!  Still, so far, these books have been easy, escapist, and page-turning. I’m definitely a fan now. Bring it on.  (9/10)

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Dark Tower: Waste Lands Bk. 3by Stephen King (NEL paperback, 624 pages).
The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass v. 4
Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees