The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

I have a weakness for well-told fairy tale, particularly stories out of the Western European tradition.  And Katherine Arden gives us that in spades with The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, review copy through NetGalley).

Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna is a child of the frozen, Russian countryside.  A child with an interesting heritage: her mother was the daughter of a mysterious woman who walked out of the Russian countryside and captured the heart of a Russian prince, becoming his second wife.  Vasya’s mother and grandmother were steeped in Russian magic, a heritage increasingly in conflict with the Orthodox church and its strict version of Christianity.  The Bear and the Nightingale is part an exploration of that tension between religion and the world of Russian myth, and part a coming of age story.

Vasya herself grows up learning her folk heritage.  In particular, she is fascinated by the stories of Frost, the winter-demon who takes the lives of the unwary, but occasionally  rewards with riches brave young women who are offered to him as tribute.  She feeds and nurtures the household and wild spirits of her village as she grows up, all unaware that she has already caught the attention of Frost himself.  Vasya is thrown into conflict with her father’s second wife, a devout Christian who also sees the local spirits but dismisses them as hallucinations sent to tempt her, and a new local priest obsessed with Vasya and determined to convert the local population with his hellfire preaching.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a glorious story of growth and personal self-discovery.  Vasya is an unconventional young woman, pushing against the boundaries of the community she lives in, for the sake of that community.  Even if it means she is forced into a position of conflict with that community.  Arden has a beautifully rich and evocative story-telling style.  This is a fantastic and very readable piece of fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

I am an unashamed fan of Grayson Perry and his work as an artist and cultural commentator, so I was delighted to receive a copy of his latest book, The Descent of Man, from the publishers Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint.

Gender politics is a very live and current issue.  Many of us who are passionate about equality are fearful of a mood in the world that seems determined to row back on much of the progress that has been made by successive waves of feminism.  For some the battle appears to be won, and the struggles necessary to secure what has been achieved are forgotten and the results taken for granted.  Those who continue to agitate for further progress to tackle the remaining hidden and cultural barriers can often be perceived as extremists, our accounts of the lived experience of being on the receiving end of sexism (personal or institutional) discounted or seen as hysterical exaggeration.

Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man looks at the impact of this changing social dynamic on men.  He rightly points out that men have been as much the victim of narrow gender stereotypes as women have.  A macho culture that prizes men as dominant bread winners, sexually promiscuous but emotionally repressed is just as damaging as the one that limits to domestic caring roles as wives and mothers, denies them career opportunities and judges them primarily by their sexual attractiveness.  That impact is there if you look for it, present in indicators such as the high rates of suicide among men.  But it is not widely talked about, particularly by men themselves.  Instead, perversely, a small group of men seek to cling on to those outdated and narrow roles, railing against the loss of power and privilege that inevitably comes from a rebalancing and opening up of gender roles.  As always, for a rebalancing to occur, some of those who have historically had power and privilege will lose it in favour of others, so it is in many ways unsurprising that so much anger can be directed against women and other groups seen to be benefitting.

Perry’s central premise is that rather than engaging in blaming others, men should acknowledge the problems of the past and articulate a new, more inclusive identity that embraces contemporary society and exploits the opportunities of the contemporary world.  It’s a laudable aim, but Perry himself never quite manages to lay down the essentials of what that identity might be, or how to persuade people to buy into a more positive view of masculinity.  Regardless, this is a powerful and timely book, excoriating in its criticism of aspects of contemporary masculinity and the damage that a narrow patriarchal view has on us all, men and women.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Empire V – Victor Pelevin

Victor Pelevin’s Empire V (English translation published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) aspires to be a 21st Century The Master and Margarita.  It follows a young man called Ram, who is drifting through life in modern Russia.  He follows chalk marks on the floor to an apartment where he is offered a bright future.  He is transformed into the vampire Rama, and is gradually educated about vampires and the controlling role they play in the world economy.

Pelevin paints a harsh and nihilistic view of contemporary Russian society.  It’s a very cynical view of commercialisation: the vampires are a literal parasitic class exploiting the labour and hopes and dreams of ordinary people.  They are not productive in themselves, but instead create a culture of discontent, ambition and greed that fuels the economic activity that creates the conditions for the vampires to thrive.  Strange rituals link the vampires to a secret society of the rich and powerful in society, as if the Bilderberg group were participating in scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut.  The theatre the vampires create preserves their position of dominance.

The reader follows the naive Rama as he learns more about the new world and society he finds himself in.  Like the worst social climbers out of water, he over-compensates in order to convince that he belongs as a member of the group.  Pelevin contrasts Rama with another new vampire, the worldly-wise Hera.  Achingly cool and very well-informed, Hera navigates vampire society with an ease and facility that Rama envies.  Although regularly humiliated by her, it only fuels his attraction  and desperation to please and impress her: a microcosm of vampire society’s control over the rest of the world.

Empire V is a cynical and disturbing read, but thought-provoking.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Easy Way Out – Steven Amsterdam

Assisted suicide is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Steven Amsterdam‘s The Easy Way Out (review copy from Quercus through NetGalley) is warm, darkly comic and very life-affirming.

Evan is a nurse who has drifted through life and relationships without ever putting down roots.  His mother’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s and her increasingly frail health force him to settle to look after her and help cover her medical bills.  He takes a job as a nurse in a new pilot hospital programme that takes advantage of the recent legalisation of assisted suicide.  His role is to help with the assessment and treatment of participants, assisting them and their loved ones to make decisions about end of life within the confines of the law, and to help them to carry out their wishes.  As his mother’s health declines, Evan is forced to confront the question of whether he would be willing to help his mother end her life when the time comes.

At its heart this is a novel about compassion and the human spirit.  Evan is found to be unsuitable for his role in assisting the dying because he seeks to make emotional connections with patients and their families, showing compassion and engaging with them as people rather than patients.  The hospital’s programme is motivated as much by the desire to save money on end life care costs as it is by the desire to give people control over the timing and manner of their deaths.  The zest and passion for life shown by Evan’s mother as she enjoys a temporary reprieve from her degenerative illness illustrates the importance of autonomy and control over one’s destiny.  Her individuality manifests itself in surprising and delightful ways, in ways that the healthcare system would otherwise stifle.

For all its dark subject matter, The Easy Way Out is a sweet and warm book.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Faller – Will McIntosh

A man wakes up in a strange world with no recollection of who he is.  All he has on his person is a toy paratrooper, a photograph of himself with a woman and some pictures scrawled in blood on a scrap of paper.  He must piece together what has happened to find out who he is and why the world appears to be broken.  Thus opens Faller, Will McIntosh‘s new thriller (Tor, review copy from NetGalley).

At its heart, Faller is a novel about arrogance, ambition and hubris.  Peter is a talented, Nobel-winning scientist, but he’s also reckless.  He’s invented a machine to duplicate living matter, to help heal the sick.  The Government want to use it to help heal soldiers fighting a global conflict.  But in a misguided attempt to help his terminally ill sister-in-law, Peter creates a rift with her husband, Ugo, his best friend and a talented bioscientist.  Ugo becomes hell bent on revenge.  Between them, Peter and Ugo break the world into fragments occupied by people with no memories.

Faller is a fun, well-paced thriller that rattles along with a lovely mix of action and plot revelation to carry you through to the end.  But it does little more than entertain and I struggled to connect with the two big egos at the heart of it.  Neither was terribly sympathetic, and the women in the book were largely relegated to supporting roles.  In the case of the many duplicates, they were literally interchangeable.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Eleanor Wasserberg‘s debut, Foxlowe (Fourth Estate, review copy from NetGalley) is a chilling portrayal of physical and psychological abuse, and the legacy they can leave.  Set in a Utopian but poverty-stricken New Age commune of artists and bohemians, it follows the Family, and their shifting power dynamics and relationships, as people arrive and leave.

The story is told through the eyes of Green, a young girl growing up in the commune.  All she knows is Foxlowe, the Family, and its rules and customs.  She’s received no formal education, with her parents, Richard and Freya (two of the Founders of Foxlowe) firmly believing that it is better to raise Green and the other children off-grid and more closely in tune with nature.  Green’s existence is bounded by the seasons and rituals built around the local ley lines, standing stones and a strange phenomenon whereby at the solstice the sun appears to briefly rise again after setting behind the local hills.  Above all, Green has been raised to fear The Bad, an existential evil that contaminates and can only be driven out by the proper rituals.

As a child Green secretly puts Blue, the new baby, outside a supposedly protective salt circle, leading Green to believe she is responsible for infecting Blue with The Bad.  Green’s mother, Freya, is an abuser.  There is a truly horrifying description in Foxlowe of the time Freya makes Green take the ‘Spike Walk’: walking along a narrow passage lined with old, rusty picture nails that scratch and tear the flesh.  Freya is not satisfied until sufficient blood has been shed to punish, cause pain and supposedly hold The Bad at bay for a while.  Desperate for Freya’s love and approval, Green comes to believe she deserves the abuse she experiences, and becomes complicit in the abuse of others, with inevitable tragic consequences.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way Wasserberg conveys the horror of Foxlowe through the perspective of a limited first person narrator.  We see the horror, but Green does not comprehend it.  When Green eventually leaves Foxlowe she struggles to adjust to life in the outside world.  Her sheltered upbringing means she is ill equipped to navigate it, and, carrying extreme levels of guilt, she cannot see herself as victim, or her beloved Freya as abuser.  There are few things as taboo in our society as a mother who abuses her children, and we instinctively recoil from Freya, but Green forces us to see her creativity and compassion (albeit it manifests in a twisted way).  Rightly or wrongly, Green loves Freya.

Foxlowe is an accomplished and thought-provoking debut.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Phyllis Socks

One of the first skeins of yarn I bought from Third Vault Yarns, at Nine Worlds in 2015, was in a colourway called Gallifreyan Sunset.  It’s a measure of how fabulous Lola’s dyeing is that she has me falling in love with colours and dyeing styles that I would normally never contemplate.  Orange is just one of those colours that doesn’t agree with, much as I love its perky cheerfulness.

img_2945But I fell in love with this subtle blend of orange and terracotta, with its flashes of bright yellow and the occasional dusty purple.  And not just for being based on Doctor Who.  Lola tells me that this is such a difficult colourway she can’t reproduce it.   I have one of the few skeins that will ever exist.

img_2947I’d been saving it for the right project, and these socks were the perfect project.  The pattern is Phyllis, by Rachel Coopey, one of the patterns from her collection Coop Knits Socks Volume 2.  I love the textured cabled diamonds, and the definition provided by the twisted stitches.   The long chart meant this wasn’t the quickest of knits.  And it wasn’t helped by a catastrophic case of yarn barf that meant I had to untangle and completely recake the yarn at least twice, once during the middle of one of the panels at this year’s Nine Worlds.

img_2946Hand-knitted socks are perfect for these cold, wintery days.  And it brings me a great deal of knitterly and geeky pleasure to know that under my sober work outfits with their sensible winter boots I’m flying the geek flag with bright and cheerful socks.