Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe

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February was a hellish month so as this was my first weekend off in ages I went on a mini splurge to reward myself for surviving it. I’d like to say I felt guilty for spending so much money on so few books (new, shiny, good-smelling books … Mmmmm), but I just don’t.

 

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Splurge!

 

I’m too excited by everything I bought. Not only had I completely missed (how???) that Neil Gaiman had written a new Sandman last year, I also didn’t realise the next instalment of Rat Queens was available. These two things just made February a distant fuzzy memory … so, so exciting! Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

The first volume of Rat Queens was on my wish list forever and when we finally got it it was so worth it. Hannah, Dee, Vi and Betty were an utterly badass blast. They were beautifully drawn, their banter was brilliant and the story was great. I loved too that it was really colourful (in every way) after having read through quite a pile of moody, dark, mostly apocalyptic comics from Thumb’s collection. I also enjoyed reading about four funny, sassy girlfriends who got all the best lines, and a cast of secondary characters like Lola and Sawyer, Tizzie, the four Daves, that are all distinctive and cool in their own right. So to spot a new Rat Queens in a bookstore when I was feeling poop was like being given a puppy to hold.

And Bilford Bogin! it’s good. The artwork in volume two is really pretty, Stjepan Sejic’s style is just gorgeous and there were so many pages I’d have happily mounted and framed. The story carries straight on from Sass and Sorcery and the energy doesn’t let up as the four friends bounce from a fight with mushroom people (with Betty naturally trying the goods and then trying to eat Vi’s head) straight into a battle to stop the end of the world. Weird alien beings that mess with reality give us glimpses into the pasts of Violet and Hannah, and Dee’s past literally comes to her front door. Considering there have only been two slim volumes of Rat Queens so far I feel like I’m much further along with these characters that I really am. I think maybe it’s because as soon as you start reading you catch up to where they’re at, you don’t start at the beginning with them meeting and becoming friends – the history’s there already. And everything you see just makes you want to see more.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to curl back up on the sofa and start again from the beginning …

 

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Like I said, all the best lines 🙂

 

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

acollegeofmagicsLast week I was home with the head-cold-from-hell and feeling very sorry for myself, none of my library books were looking friendly, and A College of Magics kind of winked at me from the middle of the tower of books at the bottom of our stairs. I bought it as a catch-and-release from a local charity shop when I was still panic-buying books like people do bread and milk when they think it’s going to snow. Suddenly it looked like exactly the right kind of bright and shiny that I needed, so I took it off to bed with me along with a very large mug of ginger tea and a box of tissues, and got lost in the world of Greenlaw and Galazan. I expected a kind of chipper tale of school girls learning magic and getting into high jinks. What I read instead was something far more marvellous and beautiful. Stevermer writes with a combination of humour and wit and utter loveliness. I’ve never read anything like her before, and I kind of hope I don’t find anyone else doing this, Stevermer should be the only person writing this sort of thing because she does it so wonderfully well.

On the surface A College of Magics reads light and fluffy: girl gets sent by evil uncle to school of magic where she meets her best friend; they proceed to travel around Europe having adventures and saving the world. And I would have been happy enough with that, if that’s all it’d been. But there were some beautifully written bits (often revolving around Faris’ strong connection with place) and some cracking dialogue and good meaty plotting, and the whole thing became more than a sum of its parts. I found the historical setting unusual for a fantasy, (it took me a while to work out when it was supposed to be with all the talk of stage coaches and Baedeker travel guides, but I settled on 1902-ish after a Minerva limousine was mentioned – thank you Google), and I wasn’t at all sure how magic was going to fit in (the magic’s a little slow in making its appearance, and the moment when Jane shows Faris magic for the first time I did a little one-person-Mexican-wave for the joy of it), but the magic system is one of the best things about this book. It’s magic the way Diana Wynne Jones writes magic: subtle and tricksy, with an underlying logic that reveals itself slowly. The snow in the quad, the not-a-hat, the jinxed coal, the labyrinth at Sevenfolds, the patterned rug – some of the most interesting bits of the story were all tied up with this magic like presents tied with sparkly ribbon. I loved every second of it.

The jacket blurb gives not a hint of any of the real story. It establishes only that Faris is sent away from her home in Galazan (somewhere in Europe) to Greenlaw College in Normandy by her Uncle Brinker, for vague, nefarious reasons, (it won’t fit in anywhere else, so I’ll say here that Uncle Brinker gave me the run around nearly the whole time I was reading this – is he evil? Or not evil? Maybe I was particularly dense because of germs, but I just couldn’t figure him out, such a frustrating character!). Greenlaw is a sort of finishing school but with magic. Only there are no practical magic lessons, and students are not permitted to practise magic. However, you cannot graduate from Greenlaw unless you have grasped the magic you couldn’t be taught. It’s like some sort of puzzle. When you do graduate, however, you can call yourself a witch of Greenlaw. And while Faris’ time at the college doesn’t even take up half of the book’s length, it’s nonetheless vital to the rest of the story. It is where we learn about this tricksy magic. It’s also where we meet most of the main players, the shining star among them being Jane. Jane is wonderful. Jane is going on my list of greatest characters ever. She is beautifully British, she is charming, she is intelligent, she is funny, (there are lovely on-going jokes about tea and three-volume novels that start with Jane). And it’s not that Faris isn’t a wonderful character in her own right – she’s brave, forthright, sensible and (I’m sorry, I just can’t think of another way to put it) has balls of steel – it’s just that without Jane Faris doesn’t have anyone else that shows her off to advantage. The dialogue practically crackles when the two of them get going – it’s fantastic stuff. Also, (and this only really occurred to me just now) I’ve not before read a SFF where the two lead characters were female. A male and a female yes, but two women driving the story/ saving the world? … off the top of my head I can’t think of another book that does that …

Anyhow, A College of Magics is tightly plotted and fast paced. While I’d have quite happily stayed in Greenlaw for rest of the book (and another couple after) Stevermer soon has Faris and Jane, Tyrian and Reed (bodyguard and henchman respectively), charging off to Paris and from there deeper into her Europe of Galazan and Aravis. While in Paris Faris is followed through the night-time streets by sinister unknowns before being rescued by that Minerva limo; there is an attempted bombing in her hotel, followed by an assassination attempt on the Orient Express; She meets with bandits on a coach trip through the wilds surrounding Galazan; she dances with the king of Aravis at a fancy-dress ball (of course!), finds the secret hideout of a pack of revolutionaries who attempt to hold her hostage, and is chased by the king’s guard. Her adventures come to a head in an actual lion’s den, with Faris trying to mend a hole in the world. You’d think that all the above would have been the biggest spoiler ever, but that’s not even the half of it – I haven’t mentioned the menacing Menary or the ghostly Hilarian or any of the political troubles in which Faris is tied up. And even if I had blabbed on and on about all of that too, it still wouldn’t really spoil the book. It’s the journey that matters here, and Stevermer is a master conductor.

And if that doesn’t make you want to read this book, nothing will!

 

 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

womanontheedgeofbtimeI find them odd, these little serendipitous links that occur when I’m reading. When I first read the Wondla books by Tony DiTerlizzi I’d just finished Simon Barnes’ Ten Million Aliens which weirdly turned out to be the most perfect thing I could have read to prep for the Wondla trip, (I’m not telling you why, read Ten Million Aliens and then the Wondla books for yourself if you want to know what I’m on about!) Likewise, recently I enjoyed Robert Llewellyn’s vision of a beautiful supergreen future, News From Nowhere, and privately lamented that he didn’t go into as much detail as I’d have liked, only to start Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and find myself in a similar future with vastly more depth (no criticism of Llewellyn’s book intended – each book is a different thing, a world unto itself, and I’m no judge to set one up against the other; also, it’s only ever my opinion I’m giving, and who the heck am I anyway?).

I’m excited about Woman on the Edge of Time for so many reasons. Most trivially, it was first published in 1976 (before I was born, but also, more than ten years ago, which is the relevant thing), so it can count as the first of my Book Bingo 2017 goals and I love being able to tick something off a list – yay! Secondly, it was lent to me by my fabulous friend S, which makes me feel all warm and cuddly towards her because she’s someone I admire, and she said it was good, and it was good, and that makes me irrationally happy; (incidentally, S has an awesome blog about green and friendly things that I love, and you might love it too, she can be found here). Thirdly, this book stands the test of time – I’ve just read it forty-one years after it first hit the shelves and I found it believable, compelling, heart-wrenching, beautiful, stirring. And topical. Nothing felt out of date for me, and the two visions of the future that Piercy presents during the course of the story were both still plausible and fascinating. And most importantly/fourthly, this was one of those books that reminds me just why I love to read so much. I use the word awesome a lot, but with reason, I do feel in awe of authors who can create such complete, alternative worlds; can communicate them so perfectly that I can see and touch and taste that world. It is an awesome power that authors have, and an awesome thing that books can do.

I don’t think this book would be all those things if Connie weren’t such a great character. She is literally the beating heart of the story. Piercy reveals Connie to her audience in such a way that you could, if you chose, question her sanity throughout the book. I chose not to. I read a lot of SFF, and it just didn’t work for me to believe the whole thing a figment of her imagination. I could argue quite successfully that I’m right about this, but I won’t because there’s much more interesting stuff to talk about. Anyway, Connie is a wonderfully watchful and sensual character. Living in near-poverty, having lost pretty much everyone she’s ever loved and everything she ever had, a second-class citizen as much because of her sex as because of her heritage and her personal history, and having little education, she nonetheless appreciates beauty where she finds it. During her first interactions with Luciente, her visitor from the future, she pays attention to Luciente’s physical grace and beauty, as she does to that of fellow mental hospital inmates Sybil, Skip and Alice. And she is still open to love, despite the life she’s had. I think that’s what I liked most about her, what kept me reading on, was her capacity for love and connection, (and her smacking that snake Geraldo in the face with a wine bottle – gotta love her for that too).

Piercy’s main vision of the future, Mattapoisett, is all about connection: Humanity’s connection with the earth; our connection with our past; our connections to one another. The mind-body connection has transformed how we work and how we heal so that drugs play very little part in this future’s medicine; also, interestingly, women have given up that ultimate connection, childbirth, in the interests of balancing out the power between men and women. Nobody gives birth, children are born in a building. Everybody and anybody can be a mother (there are no fathers), and every child has three. Humanity has gone back to the land and life is as much about getting in the harvest as it is about connecting with ourselves, finding our happy and following our passions. And sleeping with whoever we want pansexually. I suppose it is very much a product of its time, when I type it all out like that it certainly sounds very Summer-of-Love-ish, but it reads way better than it sounds, I just can’t do it justice. All I can say is that this is a future I very much want to believe in and that I enjoyed immensely. We’ve even learned how to talk to animals – for real!

Connie’s struggles in her own time seem at first to have very little to do with this rather lovely future she can visit at will. As things progress, there are a couple of comments made about time and Luciente’s future not being a set thing but one of many possibilities, and then Piercy turns the knob on the microscope and things kind of slide into focus a bit, and you maybe feel a little chill as you start to put things together. In her own time, Connie is part of an experiment. Possibly as a result of that she visits a second future very different from Mattapoisett, where things have not gone so green. And partly as a result of that Connie sees how it may be up to her to ensure that the better future happens – she sees her own connection to the future of Luciente, and she sees too how she maybe has a little power when throughout the book she’s had none. Because that’s the other thread running through this whole story: power. Those who have it and those that don’t. And the two futures reflect the two extremes that humanity can take.

 

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME AND THINK YOU MIGHT, STOP HERE. IF YOU’VE ALREADY READ IT, OR DON’T PLAN TO, CARRY ON AS YOU LIKE …

I try not to spoil things. I try not to write anything that I think will ruin a good surprise or an excellent development for anyone thinking about reading a book I’ve decided to write about … on the off-chance that anyone is actually reading anything I have to say of course! But I’m not sure how I felt at the end of this book. Connie has taken a powerful action, something I applauded her for in the same way that I applauded her assault on Geraldo at the beginning, but she has also seemingly lost her way back to Mattaposiett – she can never go there again. She can never know the results of her actions. We leave her knowing that she no longer has even that temporary escape, and she will never be going home again. And then the final chapter gives us some of the clinical notes made about her, and they reduce her down to a nothing, a nobody. It’s going to sound melodramatic, but it broke my heart after getting to know Connie in all her love and humour and guilt and rage to see her reduced back down to, not a patient, not someone worthy of attention and support and help, but an inmate, little more than an animal. And I don’t quite know what Piercy intended, what I’m supposed to do with it. Am I supposed to be angry at the end? Scared? Is it supposed to incite me to riot?

All I felt was sad. I liked Connie so much. I hated how she was treated by Dolly, Geraldo, her brother Luis (I kept hoping she’d bottle him in the face too) and all those doctors and nurses; I felt her powerlessness. And after everything that happened to her I just wanted her to have some sort of happy ending, one where she was happy and able to rest.

Fasure.

The Wondla Trilogy by Tony DiTerlizzi

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I had to stay in today for a parcel for Thumbs and I’ve been in a funk. It’s been cold and overcast, raining on and off all day – a perfect day therefore for reading under a blanket or three by the window (rather than cleaning, hoovering, cooking, sorting, sewing or any other ‘–ing’ that sounds like work).

I read the Wondla books first a couple of years ago. They’re a children’s sci-fi trilogy, magically, wonderfully, beautifully illustrated by the author Tony DiTerlizzi, and I read them when I was feeling a bit blue – children’s books are a go-to when you feel that way, no? Must be something about the way they’re told, nothing can ever go so wrong that it can’t be fixed in a kid’s book. But please don’t dismiss Wondla because it’s primary audience is junior, this is a great scifi romp and in the same way that Hayao Miyasaki’s films have more to them than their animated exteriors might suggest, so too does Wondla have far more to offer. They are also the most successfully illustrated books I’ve ever read, the gorgeous two-colour artwork and the story being two halves of a whole – each enhances your enjoyment of the other.

 

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I’d upload every illustration if I could, but this gives a flavour … so, so pretty!

 

It’s difficult not to give all the good stuff away, but roughly speaking Wondla is the story of 12-year-old Eva Nine’s journey from her secluded underground Sanctuary into the wider world above of Orbona. It’s the story of Eva finding out who she is, and finding a place for herself in that world. It’s by no means as simple as all that, however. There are power-crazed bad guys, fantastical alien beasts, carnivorous plant life, giant insects, robots, clones, lost cities, an alien ark, walking trees, spaceships… oh, and tech to die for. Sanctuary, where Eva’s story begins, is awesome and the technology that has protected and sustained Eva as she’s grown up owes something to both Star Trek (the Omnipod, the holo-room and Rovender’s vocal transcoder) and Star Wars (mostly Muthr, but also the Boomrod and the Bijou and Goldfish later on in the books). When she emerges from Sanctuary after it’s ripped apart by an alien marauder (still not giving anything away – that’s right there in the blurb) we also learn about her oh-my-god-when-will-we-get-these??? smart clothes: the jackvest, utilitunic and sneakboots that keep her warm and dry and monitor her health, and have been designed to break down into medical aids, like when Eva uses the toe-cap of her boot and the cuff of her tunic to make a splint for her broken fingers … now see, isn’t that already the coolest thing ever?

As Eva discovers the world above so do we, and maybe we work some things out a bit quicker than she does (what are those mysterious ruins for instance? And what happened to Earth?), but that’s only because she’s been in a tech-cave her whole life, poor kid, prepared for a world she is no longer on. This new world is a masterpiece, fully-realised, splendid in its scale and variety, and completely satisfying. Eva encounters plants, giant insects and flocks of birds that all try to eat her, but she also meets with Rovender Kitt and with Otto who accompany her throughout most of the book and become a part of the family she’s never had. She learns to live within this challenging environment, and the planet’s character, its terrain, its ruins, its forests, are all as important to the story as any of the other protagonists.

I mentioned Miyasaki before and the Wondla books have a lot in common with his 1984 film Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind – an alien world, a planet trying to right itself, a brave female protagonist (who just maybe has a whiff of prophecy about her). The first book is all about Eva’s search for other humans, and she meets plenty of the planet’s other inhabitants while she travels. They’re a mixed bag, some trustworthy, some rather less so (I liked this, that if an individual turned out to be bad or misguided it was through personal choice, not just their nature as aliens), and all brilliantly drawn, both in words and pictures. As in Nausicaa the one thing that marks Eva Nine out as hero material is her desire to understand both the people and the creatures she meets and the situations she finds herself in. And she only fulfils her role of uniting the old world of humanity and the new alien world because of this understanding.

And then there is Time. Time is palpable throughout this trilogy. At the beginning of the story so much time has already passed, Eva is one of the last of her kind; the very reason for Eva’s existence is time and humanity’s struggle with, and fear of, it (now I really am giving things away). As Eva learns more about the world we (and she) discover just where her story sits in time thanks to the Royal Museum at Solas, and the epilogues at the very end of the trilogy take us onwards in time, far into the future. If a story is a pattern, some more pleasing than others, then the pattern made by this story pleased me greatly – I liked the feeling of drawing out from Eva at the end, and then out again, like a longshot at the end of a movie that says ‘there, we can leave them now, everything will be alright’.

After deciding I was going to write something about Wondla, R and I took a look the other day at scifi for children. Or rather, we searched for scifi for kids on the junior shelves and found only five books. Just five that met our scifi criteria (i.e. science is fundamental to the story, not applied as a coating; actual science, not chocolate aliens; and not time travel using a glowing *magic* rock rather than an actual time machine or something else that makes a bit more sense). Wondla feels pretty special to me, and after our search I’m not inclined to change my mind. There were quite a few books where aliens infiltrated schools for comedic shenanigans, and I’m not saying these don’t have their place, I’m really not, I just would like to see more adventures like Wondla, where there’s a bit of weight to the story, and … well … maybe, actually, I wouldn’t like to see more of that kind of thing, because then Wondla wouldn’t be quite as special as it is. But I do feel there’s a lack there. As soon as you move into the Teen area there’s a whole section dedicated to scifi (and distinct from the fantasy books too), so what happens to the brain between the ages of, say, ten and thirteen that suddenly scifi becomes a thing? Seriously, if anyone has any answers I’d love to know.

 

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

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China Miéville sits firmly at the top of my ever-changing list of super awesome writers on the strength of the only other book by him that I’ve read, Kraken – a book I borrowed from the library for Thumbs rather than myself because Thumbs has a fascination/obsession with Giant Squid (and all things deep sea) and I thought he’d like the cover art if nothing else. When he got halfway through and wouldn’t stop talking about it I started reading the darn thing just to shut him up. Neither of us has shut up about it since. Miéville blew me away with one book so completely that I’ve been almost scared to read anything else by him. He is both an intimidatingly intelligent gent and a game-changer. In fact, the thought of writing down, in black and white, what I (the only-a-reader-absolutely-not-a-writer ‘I’) think and feel about anything Miéville has written actually makes me feel physically sick.

Please bear that in mind as I continue.

Perdido Street Station is phenomenal. It opens with some brilliantly Dickensian descriptions of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants, the city as much a character as a location:

“The knot of architectural tissue where the fibres of the city congealed, where the skyrails of the militia radiated out from the Spike like a web and the five great trainlines of the city met, converging on the great variegated fortress of dark brick and scrubbed concrete and wood and steel and stone, the edifice that yawned hugely at the city’s vulgar hear, Perdido Street Station.” (page 28)

and some kick-ass place names: Canker Wedge, Aspic Hole, Brock Marsh, Griss Twist; and character names: Mayor Bentham Rudgutter, Mr Motley, Lemuel Pigeon, Montague Vermishank; which all have that fantastic sayableness that Dickens has. Just speaking the names out loud conjures up something of the character or the place named. A lot of my favourite books read aloud really well, and Perdido Street Station is up there with the best of them. I’ve been gleefully reading bits out to Thumbs as I’ve gone along, unable to contain myself, (seriously, how could I keep the summoning of the Abassador of Hell to myself? Or the Construct Council and its avatar? Or Derkhan Blueday’s visit to the communicatrix Umma Balsum? – gotta love those names – Or the Weaver?).

Reading this book was like being slowly sucked down into darker and darker waters, filled with beautiful, nightmarish things. At first I was just revelling in the world building as Miéville mapped out his vast city, and the larger world of Bas-Lag; then I became entranced by the sheer variety and seeming absurdity of the characters that moved in and out of the story; eventually I just gaped, in awe, as the various storylines were brought together and the book’s Big Bad raised its very scary head (and wings! And tentacles!) It’s the kind of book that – when first faced with its doorstep size and weight – you feel a small shiver of anticipation (and maybe just a tremor of fear) at the prospect of reading, but once it got going it really didn’t feel that long. Every single word felt necessary. New Crobuzon is a massive, complex, completely-realised city. There’s no sketching-in of details, it doesn’t feel like Miéville is saving anything for later, when you peer in you can see all the way to the back.

So, I think I’ve made it clear that I liked it, right? But I’m not done yet. You see, while it’s well-written and it’s got some very interesting lead characters (Isaac and Lin are particularly cool – talk about star-crossed lovers – damn), and great set pieces and an awesome Big Bad (or two, or more), it’s also very clever. I mentioned that Miéville was smart, right? So the theme of transformation runs through the whole book, sometimes obviously, as caterpillars transform into moths; sometimes more subtly as a machine burgeons into consciousness; and leading the charge is Yagharek, the mutilated bird-man who wants Isaac to help him regain flight. Yagharek begins the book, already transformed (from a flying man to a non-flying man), and it is from his POV that we first see New Crobuzon. As the book progresses we occasionally check in with him, first-person, to see how he is being changed by the city and the people he meets. We build up a picture of him as an exile from his race, out of his element, weakened and less than he was. We feel pity for him and his flightless plight. And as the book goes on, and larger problems take over, we still hope that Isaac will be able to help Yagharek achieve his goal. And the clever part is that Miéville lets you feel that way, and then at the end he releases just one more piece of information, nothing much, that recasts Yagharek – and your opinion is transformed, along with Isaac’s, about what the right thing to do might be. But you have to have read all about what happened to Isaac and Lin and the others to feel the way you do at the end. Of course, I could be barking up completely the wrong tree. Miéville could have intended none of what I’ve just read into his novel, but it felt clever at the time, and I’m going to attribute it to him until he tells me otherwise.

Whether the above is intentional or not, Miéville has still written a beautiful book. There’s magic (multiple types) and science, and a place in the middle where the two comingle. There are semi-mythical races like the Garuda bird people, Wyrmen and Vampires, and alien races like the Handlinger, and strange half-and-half races like the Khepri and the Cactacae. There are flintlock guns and gas lamps, and other planes of existence, and even a god “devoted to the collection, categorisation and dissemination of information” (p. 84). And there is the Weaver (I know I’ve already mentioned it, but it bears repeating in case you didn’t realise just how cool the Weaver really is): terrifying and wonderful; poetic and as mad as a bag of spanners, cutting peoples’ ears off and dressing them up in silly outfits because it makes the world web prettier; obsessed with the beauty of scissors, and a tad unpredictable; a tic-tac-toe playing, riddle-talking, world-crossing creature. And absolutely my favourite character in this book.

If you like a good adventure – read this book. If you like a bit of horror – read this book. If you like really well-drawn characters, good plotting, now knowing what’s coming next, anything out of the ordinary, then guess what? Read. This. Book.

News From Gardenia by Robert Llewellyn

newsfromgardeniaSeeing this book in the library was the first I knew that Kryten from Red Dwarf had done anything other than be Kryten from Red Dwarf and the dude in the long dirty coat on Scrapheap Challenge, (that’s how switched off I am to the world outside my head). And it’s a pretty cool book. Robert Llewellyn pays tribute to William Morris’ utopian vision of our future, News From Nowhere, instead of the usual dark and dingy future fictions where everything’s gone down the pan and we’re savages/ zombies/ cannibals/extinct. And after a little online investigation I see that the positive future tech thing is something Llewellyn is invested in, which is pretty cool too.

Anyhow, News From Gardenia revolves around Gavin Meckler, our slightly Aspergers, accidental time-traveller, who finds himself 200 years in the future. Instead of having a breakdown, Meckler is our guide around this vision of the future as he negotiates new relationships in a socialist society of gardeners (yeah, gardeners take over the world!). Plot-wise that’s it, but this is not a book about plot. It’s not so hot on characters either, but that’s only because this is a book about ideas. And some of the tech described makes me so excited for the future. (I lovelovelove that my phone is basically a little computer, that OneDrive and iCloud are a thing, that my brother can sit at home and play online with friends from other continents, that Microsoft have created a Translation app (my new favourite toy) only one step away from Star Trek’s Universal Translator, that the internet is such a beautiful, world-encompassing, collection of ideas and people and knowledge – I mean, if this is now, the future’s going to be amazing!) So I had quite a few moments while reading this book where I just revelled in this wonderful place where electricity is free and universally available without the need for plugs and sockets, where we can travel to other continents via pods that shoot up into space and back down again, where a kettle can be boiled in seconds, and yet the mega-metropolis has not devoured everything, at least not in the UK … instead there are vast gardens (oh, and everyone’s vegetarian – Woo! In fact, they could actually be vegans, there’s no mention of milk or cheese now I come to think of it. Double Woo!).

Llewellyn’s future society isn’t problem-free however. While he doesn’t dwell on it overmuch, his gardeners have become deeply ignorant of the technology that sustains them. At one point Meckler helps them to fix a machine that mines plastic from the ground (our waste) for reuse. The machine is technologically advanced enough that he finds the job a challenge, but for the people who rely on it it’s an old machine and one that they no longer understand. We also learn that the gardener approach hasn’t been adopted the world over. Parts of the US have walled themselves off from the rest of ‘Merica’ as it’s now known, and are separately ‘Midwest’. In Midwest they still have money and government, religion and guns, and have still got strong ideas about who should be on which side of their wall (in light of recent events this actually gave me a little chill). It is seen as a sad place filled with angry people, but it was at this point that I started to wonder about some of the things Llewellyn chooses not to address, such as: where have all the criminally-minded people got to? I mean, is it cynical of me to think that in a world like this there’s bound to be someone somewhere taking advantage of all these beatifically co-operative gardeners?

I discussed the book with a favourite customer-friend of mine (she reads anything I recommend and it’s hard not to like someone who has such faith in your opinion), and she found the human elements of the story too unbelievable (and Meckler too annoying) to enjoy it as much as I did. While Meckler is certainly a bit cardboardish (it felt like it was more important to the author to get the mechanics of the society right than worry about painting realistic, nuanced characters, which was fine by me here, but isn’t always ok), I think the utopia that Llewellyn shows us is technologically plausible and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that all the tech described has already been realised. It is, however, hard to believe that people will be able to keep pace.  Not that Llewellyn doesn’t know this, he says himself in his introduction that “dystopia is so much easier” and you only have to check out the daily newsfeed to see why that is. But talking to Mrs M and rereading Llewellyn’s introduction to News has made me realise just how many of those grim future visions we’re bombarded with in TV, movies, games, graphic novels and books. Does the dystopian abound because we know ourselves so well? If utopian visions became the predominant stories we told about our future, would we all become more Star Trek? (In my nerdy little heart Star Trek will always be the dream and in my bright and shiny moments I believe that we can get there). It’s been awesome to read a book that gives a clue as to how we might achieve a healthy, abundant, supergreen future, but I’d like to have been able to see a little deeper into that world; Llewellyn only scratches the surface before he whisks Meckler back up into the clouds.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

I first csuddenappearanceofhopeame across Claire North in her earlier incarnation as Kate Griffin, creator of blue-angel-possessed magician Matthew Swift. The series quickly became one of my favourites. I’d never read anything like it before as I don’t really go in for urban fantasy so much, (because of all the kissing … and the manly-yet-sensitive werewolves/vampires – yes, I have something against vampires, pale, sparkly-in-sunlight, designer-sunglasses-wearing drips that they are!), and haven’t since – Griffin has now spoilt me for all other urban fantasy series.

After reading the Matthew Swift books, and then the associated Magicals Anonymous books and the books Griffin wrote under her first pseudonym, Catherine Webb, I got distracted by something shiny and forgot about her for a while. In the meantime, I was attracted to a book called The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August while going through the new books trolley one day, and started to read it. Halfway through I found a promotional postcard for the book with a quote written on one side and out of curiosity I googled the author, and discovered that Claire North was Kate Griffin in disguise –The serendipitous forces of the universe strike again! Woo!

 

So, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the third book North has written under this new name (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was followed by Touch), and was one of the last books on my soon-may-not-have-my-unlimited-renewal-library-powers-so-read-it-quick pile, (it’s since become my sheesh-have-you-still-got-this?? pile).  Like the previous two novels, it is a different kettle of fish from the full-on urban fantasy of Matthew Swift’s world (hence the pen-name change), dealing instead with a kind of real-world-with-a-twist story of a girl, Hope, who is so easily forgotten she has dropped out of her own official life, and leads an odd, lonely existence as a jewel thief. When a ‘friend’ (as far as you can have a friend when no one remembers you from one interaction to the next), commits suicide, Hope makes a crusade of destroying an interfering app called Perfection that she discovers on her dead friend’s phone.

North’s writing style in these newer books is appropriate to the lonely characters telling their stories – a man who lives his life over and over again in, aware of his previous lives in Harry August; a being who can pass from one body to the next simply by touching someone’s skin in Touch; and a girl who has been forgotten – it is impressionistic and occasionally disjointed and quietly beautiful. She is a joy to read … but I do have to be in the mood for her. There was, for me, a lack of pace to The Sudden Appearance, which was perhaps only because I was feeling the pressure of trying to get through a pile of books as I was reading it, but had me feeling a little impatient at times.

Not that there isn’t some great, suspenseful scenes in here – my favourite being when Hope escapes from her kidnapper by hitting him over the back of the head and hiding in a cupboard until he and his team have forgotten her, only to get locked in when the kidnappers torch the building. And Hope is an international jewel thief, so there’s a lot of travelling to exotic locations and usual thriller-ish stuff. I may not have felt fully engaged with Hope and her plight, but I kind of feel that’s not the point. It’s like North is writing a thought experiment – she explores what it would mean to be completely forgettable, how a person would live, how they’d get medical attention when they needed it, what relationships would be like for them, what it might do to their sense of self. This is kind of how I felt about North’s previous two books too. They’re good stories, well-told, full of interesting details, but primarily they’re explorations. What if a person lived the same life over and over, but remembered doing so? What if someone had no permanent physical form, but could flit from host to host at a touch? I am in awe of Webb/Griffin/North’s writing and imagination, and my low-key grumbling about any lack of pace is really just because a part of me is always comparing them back to the Matthew Swift books I first discovered, which moved at a cracking pace and barely left me chance to breathe; and that’s a fault in me as a reader. I would still recommend the North books to everyone (and have done). I will still watch for whatever she does next (in whatever guise). She is still on my list of super awesome writers. I just think that these ones are one-time reads for me, not return trips.