The Death House – Sarah Pinborough

I heard Sarah Pinborough read from The Death House at SRFC earlier this year, and I confess I was excited.  It was immediately obvious that she is a very skilled writer and the reading and Q&A she did made me want to read her book.  So I was delighted to win a draw on Goodreads for a copy of the ARC of The Death House, kindly provided by Gollancz.  I was also really pleased when my book club selected it as one of our books (largely because that automatically pushed it up the to be read queue).

But I’m afraid my excitement ended there.

Although Pinborough is clearly a very skilled and talented writer, this is just not a style of book or story that I like, however competently it is written.  The Death House follows a group of teenagers suffering from a terminal condition that is never fully explained.  They are identified as a result of genetic testing and then sequestered away from friends and family in a remote location that is a cross between a boarding school and a hospice.  The novel is a treatment of how we deal with grief, loss and impending mortality, combined with heightened teenage emotion and an at times mawkish sentimentality.  Which is not a mix for me.

I really struggled to connect with any of the characters.  They’re a pretty predictable bunch.  There’s the clever one, who’s a bit geeky and lacks social skills.  The one who’s only function is to die early to reinforce the peril the characters face.  The one from the wrong side of the tracks who is there just to fight with the protagonist, enabling a cathartic release of emotion after which everyone is friends again.  And the Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose arrival forces the protagonist to question his assumptions and really experience life for the first time.

Pinborough is an accomplished screenwriter and she writes in the style of a certain school of screenwriting.  You can really see those cinematic beats coming through in her work, but that comes at the expense of rather unexciting characterisation, structure and clockwork plotting.  This was a well-written novel, but it was also one that cantered round some very predictable territory without offering much that was new or interesting to grab one’s attention.

So, while The Death House is probably a good example of what it’s trying to be, and I’ve already acknowledged it’s a style of novel I’m not fond of, it is not a novel I was excited by.  I was, if anything, left feeling rather unsatisfied.  Such a clearly skilled writer ought to be capable of giving us much more than she did in this book.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Self-care

I’ve been having a tough few weeks (but I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel now, thanks) and it’s got me thinking about self-care.

We all have particular ways of looking after ourselves, and dealing with adversity.  Some of those behaviours are positive ones.  Others, while providing temporary relief, can potentially be self-destructive if we’re not careful.  I’m looking at you, retail therapy, comfort eating and wine.

For me, as one of life’s introverts (albeit one of those confident, outgoing introverts) if things are proving difficult I need even more time to recharge.  I love my wonderful friends.  They can be fantastically supportive and  spending time with them definitely helps.  But if I’m feeling a bit ground down by a situation I’ll probably want to keep my head down and keep myself to myself even more than usual.  I can practically become a hermit, struggling to muster up the energy to even reply to emails.

But there’s another big aspect of self-care for me: doing creative things and being surrounded by creative people.  I’ve written before about all the evidence about the impact of creative pursuits on people’s wellbeing, but for me, they are the thing I will immediately reach for in reaction to a tough period.

Some examples of things that have helped me get through difficult times:

  • Art and colour.  I remember when I was dealing with some family health issues and had just finished a particularly challenging project at work I went to see the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern.  There’s something wonderfully peaceful and restorative about an art exhibition, even if it’s rammed with people.  I think I’m wired to respond to colour somehow – even a visit to a yarn shop to bathe in the colour and texture is incredibly soothing.
  • Making things.  I will instinctively reach for the tools to make something.  And not just knitting.  I had a particularly horrible day at work once – I’d been blamed for getting something wrong by someone who didn’t have the courage to admit they’d changed their mind about what they wanted.  So rather than wallow in self-pity, I went home and made a cake.
  • Story.  I have a pretty voracious appetite for story.  And there’s nothing like immersing myself in a narrative of some kind to help me forget my troubles, whether it’s a book (you might have noticed that I read a lot of books), film/tv or audio drama.   Talking about story helps too:  I love the book club that I go to, and going to book-related events.

What helps to keep you resilient?

A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming is a darkly comic alternate history set in the late 1930s, where Hitler never became Chancellor of Germany and was toppled in a coup.  Instead, he fled to London where he now works as a down at heel private investigator.  As the novel opens, he’s been hired by a rich Jewish heiress to track down her missing sister. But this alternative history exists only in the imagination of a pulp crime writer imprisoned in Auschwitz.

As Lavie Tidhar‘s extensive historical notes to the novel make clear, there is a long tradition of pulp fiction being used by Jewish writers to explore and address issues relating to the Holocaust.  Sometimes the approach taken can be shocking, featuring sexual exploitation of Jewish people, but it has a long history in enabling a culture to come to terms with its past.  Popular culture is as much a part of that as ‘high’ culture, and this is explicitly referred to within the novel, in the form of a debate between two Jewish writers, one based on Primo Levi, the other on a pre-eminent writer of pulp fiction.

By fictionalising and transposing real historical characters (as he did in Osama, his novel which includes a series of books about a fictional freedom fighter called Osama bin Laden), Tidhar is able to examine them in isolation from their context.  With the trappings of power removed, Hitler becomes a comic figure: all impotent rage and frustrated ambition.  A Hitler who is at the mercy of the system rather than in charge of it becomes a figure to be pitied.  His hatreds are petty and over the course of the novel his grip on sanity and rationality begins to slowly unravel.  The extensive footnotes show that this portrayal has been extensively researched and grounded in contemporary accounts of Hitler’s life and formative experiences, lending the book a high level of authenticity.  Other senior Nazi figures also feature, often at the fringes of the law: Hess runs a nightclub, Klaus Barbie is involved in people trafficking and Eichmann becomes the puppet of a US Government seeking to overthrow the Communist regimes that have taken over Europe.

It would be tempting to think of A Man Lies Dreaming as Tidhar’s Holocaust novel, but it is so much more than that.  It has much to say about contemporary society, particularly in how we treat immigrants and minorities.  In Tidhar’s alternative London, Oswald Mosley is on the verge of becoming Prime Minister.  His Blackshirts are a personal paramilitary force, engaged in violent assaults on members of the Jewish community to which the authorities turn a blind eye.  .Deliciously, much of Mosley’s major political speech in the novel is drawn from genuine UKIP speeches (as Tidhar revealed when I met him at SRFC at the end of April), showing just how little has changed in our attitudes to those who don’t conform to a narrow idea of Britishness.

Tidhar pulls off a very tricky balance in this novel.  The Auschwitz sequences are written in such a way as to highlight the brutal treatment of the Jewish community.  But if we didn’t know it was a historical reality, one would be hard-pressed to find it credible that human beings could treat one another in such a way, rendering those sections of the novel more dreamlike and less convincingly real than the alternative London of right-wing bigotry and impoverished refugees.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a difficult and dense novel to read.  Some may struggle in particular with the BDSM sex scenes featuring Hitler, however darkly funny they are written (brain bleach is definitely required).  But it is a rich and complex work that rewards thoughtful reading and stays with you long after finishing it.  It is probably my book of the year so far.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Boy With The Porcelain Blade and The Boy Who Wept Blood – Den Patrick

Den Patrick is doing some really interesting things right now.  And I’m not just saying that because I know him in real life*, though that does help.

His Erebus Sequence (the first two novels The Boy With The Porcelain Blade and The Boy Who Wept Blood are both out, and the third novel is forthcoming) provide a very counter-cultural slant on epic fantasy.  Unashamedly socialist, they provide a commentary on both the lazy assumptions of genre, and contemporary society’s attitudes towards poverty.

Most epic fantasy is ultimately about preserving the status quo. The Big Bad poses a threat to the natural order of things and our plucky hero(es) defend or reinstate that comforting, natural order. Everyone knows their place and is content with it.  It’s Downton Abbey but with magic. Peasants are rosy-cheeked, happy, healthy and always have enough to eat, and hereditary rulers are usually benevolent. Not so in Patrick’s Landfall – there is corruption at the heart of the state and it is challenged and uncovered by Patrick’s Orfano protagonists.

That message that power corrupts, dehumanises and desensitises is at the heart of these books.  Even those with the very best of intentions become corrupted by power.  Patrick uses a couple of powerful metaphors to illustrate this.  Firstly, and most obviously, the Orfano themselves are the product of experimentation by a corrupt ruler, and show the effects of that in physical deformities.  That physical corruption manifests to a much greater degree in Erebus himself, when we find out who he is in the second novel.  Secondly, the second novel features a ‘tinctura’ available only to those in power.  It  prolongs life and health, but removes empathy and connection to others.  

Demesne may be on the road to becoming a republic, but that journey is as tough as you would expect.  The interests of inherited wealth and power are entrenched and there is significant resistance to even a stronger constitutional monarchy, let alone the transition to democracy.  There are shades of the Russian revolution.

There’s a wonderful authenticity to these books.  In the first, the main character Lucien is utterly convincing as an angry and hormonal teenage boy. He is immature, inexperienced, often awkward and he makes mistakes.  In the second, Dino takes over as main character.  He is forced by circumstance into spying and assassination, but rather than being romanticised as an exciting and daring profession, Dino is left feeling grubby and the impact of this work on his personal trust is set out in detail.

Patrick also has some interesting things to say about diversity within fiction.  There are strict gender roles within Landfall, and one of his main female characters, Anea, literally has no voice.  Dino, the protagonist of the second novel, is gay and struggles to come to terms with his sexuality in a society that sees homosexuality as shameful and unnatural.  LGBT people exist, but they are forced into the shadows for fear of being cast out of society.

Patrick is clearly growing in confidence as a writer (the second novel is much more polished than the first) and is producing highly fresh and interesting work.  He’s very definitely a cut above some of the other work out there at the moment and I’m looking forward to the third novel in the series.  .

* I was at WorldCon in London in August 2014 when Den came up to me and said, “Hello, we were at school together.” I replied “I bought your book yesterday!” Apparently we’ve both been at lots of the same genre events in London and he’d seen me around, but in my usual self-absorbed way I’d completely failed to recognise him or realise who he was.  Small world, indeed!

The Vagrant – Peter Newman

Peter Newman is not one to shy away from a challenge.  His debut novel, The Vagrant (published by Voyager on 23 April 2015) has three main characters: a mute (the titular vagrant), an infant, and a goat.

What follows is a masterclass in showing, not telling.  Newman’s background in drama (according to his author bio …) really shows in the superb descriptions of non-verbal communication.  Gestures and facial expressions are written with a cinematic eye, and these help to propel the story forward with wit, energy and touching moments of pathos.

The plot follows the titular Vagrant as he travels through a post-apocalyptic world, seeking to deliver a baby and a magic sword to the rulers of the Shining City, far to the north: the one part of Newman’s world that appears to have escaped the taint of demons since an invasion that left the armed forces of the Shining City shattered.  Its elite troops, the Seraph Knights, and one of the city’s seven rulers were killed or warped by the invading demons eight years previously. 

  

When I met Newman at SRFC at the end of March (he did a short reading and Q&A from the book, as well as signing a copy for me, with doodles) he listed China Mieville as among his influences, and those influences are clear in the novel’s landscape populated by fantastic and warped creatures.  But there’s also a touch of VanderMeer in there, I think.  I was reminded of Veniss Underground, with its motifs of body modification, poverty and slavery in a post-industrial world.

Newman’s talent really shows in how that story is told.  What could become little more than an extended chase sequence, interrupted with the odd sword fight and side mission, is a thing of joyous subtlety.  The Vagrant makes choices about how and when to intervene, often against the urging of his magic sword or his companions.  The people he meets and interacts with are often left changed as a result of their interactions with him.  We see this most in the character of Harm (the companion who stays longest with the Vagrant).  Over the course of his journey with the Vagrant he gains hope that there might be a different way of living.  Less selfish, more compassionate and based on rules of justice and fairness, in a deliberate rejection of both the selfish brutality of the demons and the stagnant hierarchies of the Shining City.

But the stand out character for me in this novel is the goat.  Psychotic, violent and deliciously contrary in the way that only a goat can be, she is on her own Hero’s Journey.  She escapes from servitude and captivity and battles adversaries (including territorial geese) before finally achieving her own paradise.

GoodReads rating: 4*