Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Books read in January 2012

Below are short reviews of the books that I read in January 2012. The numbers in the brackets are the marks I have given them out of five

Kraken – China Miéville (3.3)China Mieville’s Kraken is a revelation. It’s different from most books; blindingly well written and absolutely bonkers in a fantasy apocalyptic world. Billy Harrow is minding his own business as a curator of a giant squid, his museum’s prize exhibit, but when it mysteriously disappears he is drawn into a wonderfully weird world as he attempts to recover it. He soon discovers that he is not the only one trying to find it, and that it is worshipped by a bunch of Krakenists.

Billy is soon involved with Marge (his friend’s girlfriend) in a frightening parallel world in which all seems normal but really isn’t. There are streets which no-one knows exist, and which don’t feature on maps because they are sort of folded in on themselves: Everything is unusual.

And the characters are fantastic. Goss and Subby are hideous ciphers from macabre nightmares that turn people inside out or kill them in other violent and gruesome ways. They may or may not work for Tattoo, who is exactly as his name suggests; a moving ink face carved into his enemy’s back. Collingswood is a sort-of policewoman, although her uniform is unkempt and her manner downright rude. She works for a ‘special’ branch, can hear people’s thoughts and owns an invisible pet pig that snuffles out information.

Billy has an angelus ex machine watching him, to avenge him and protect him from evil pursuers. It is physical remains and/or specimens in a bottle, which rolls around the floor and follows him with a grinding noise. He teams up with Dane, a renegade double agent from the Kraken cult, whom everyone thinks stole their colossal leader, and a union-leader who cannot assume his own form but has to fill an empty vessel such as a Captain Kirk action figure or a St Christopher medallion.

What all of these disparate groups have in common is a belief that things are coming to an end. To each, however, the ending will be different because although all Doomsday cults believe in revelations and apocrypha, they are all fascinatingly individual. In any holy book, it’s only the last chapter where it gets interesting.

There is a depth to this novel that surpasses the usual fantasy/ good-versus-evil/ quest fodder, with some serious issues addressed. They are hidden in humour and intelligent writing as the author refuses to accept the standard cliché. Mieville’s black comedy and sense of the weird combine to make an imaginative riot – surprisingly fun for fantasy – and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is the biggest achievement in this genre.

The Little Shadows – Marina Endicott (3)
The novel focuses on the performing world through which a trio of sisters is shepherded by their mother, Flora, after their father’s death. Set in the run-up to the First World War it trips across Canada with pauses at theatres and boarding houses as the family struggles to get by. They perform a singing sister-act (all totally decent and nothing even slightly burlesque) and are taught vocal dexterity and audience manipulation. The chapters are introduced with snippets from manuals such as How to Enter Vaudeville, which give the novel an instructive flavour. As the girls are taught, so are the readers, and although initially interesting, it becomes a little tedious as if the author has to explain her position rather than allowing the reader to discover it.

Although the sisters work well together and depend on each other, they have separate characters and concerns, endearing them to different admirers. They have a special bond as sisters tend to do, especially in novels like this. Bella, the youngest, wants to make a name for herself, and she has talent in that direction. She is the one with the acting talent and sees herself as different from other people; she loves the life and the spontaneity of the theatrical circuit.

Being a novel about three girls, men and relationships with them are doubtless going to be introduced. Flora, the mother, has many occasions to throw herself on the mercy or sympathy of former male acquaintances. Aurora, the oldest daughter, feels a responsibility to marry well, to keep the family out of poverty. She aims for men of position in the world of vaudeville (although that doesn’t necessarily work out so well) and treats affection as a business transaction. Clover, the middle sister falls genuinely in love but her man leaves her for a war on another continent. It was a highly restrictive world for women, and while the stage marked them with a subtle stain, it also briefly set them free.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan (4)
Percy Jackson is the new children’s hero – literally. His mother may be mortal, but his father is a God, and not just any God; he is Poseidon, God of the Sea and one of the big three (the other two being Zeus and Hades). This first book in the series begins in the real world, and Percy finds out who and what he is, as we do. There are many similarities with the Harry Potter franchise, but magic is substituted for the power of the Gods, and the (primarily Greek) mythology is learned almost by osmosis as the adventure races along.

Percy lives with his loving mother and repulsive step-father; this story-book set-up is superficially explained later in the book. He is confused and hurt, bullied, disorientated and suffers from dyslexia and ADHD. These turn out to be special gifts: the letters float off the page because his mind is hardwired to read ancient Greek, he can’t sit still in the classroom because of his “battlefield reflexes”, and he has attention problems because he sees too much, not too little.

When the attentions of the monsters gets too alarming, Percy is sent to a summer camp – Camp Half-Blood – where all the orphaned or unwanted children are like him; half-bloods with a god as a parent. Here he forms friendships with a girl called Annabeth, daughter of Athena, and a satyr called Grover. The three of them go on a quest to recover the stolen lightning bolt of Zeus. Zeus is not at all happy about its disappearance, and is prepared to wage a cataclysmic war to retrieve it.

The book is packed with fabled beasts and mythological figures. Percy notes that, “In a way it’s nice to know there are Greek gods out there, because you have somebody to blame when things go wrong.” All the gods are the same – they move with Western Civilization, so now they are in America, and the entrance to the underworld is (obviously) in LA.

As well as thrilling exploits, interesting knowledge and relationships between characters, the book also has elements of humour. Percy Jackson is a great new hero and his adventures will be keenly followed as children gets to grips with his world.


Anonymous said...

How do you decide on a 3.3? what would make it a 3.4?


Kate Blackhurst said...

It's a scientific system worked out with technical precision which takes into consideration plot, language, characterisation, dialogue and descriptions; details of which are then fed into the highly complex matrix. In other words I think of a number out of ten and divide it by two.

I don't keep anything on my bookshelf that doesn't make it to a four.

Kate x