Monday, September 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book, and that should be enough of a review to read it. I'm a big fan of his work, for all the reasons I'm about to tell you.

This book is about Holly Sykes, whom we meet in the 1980s. She's a teenager and she's dating a much-older man, who definitely loves her. Angry with her mother, who disapproves, she runs away to his house, convinced he'll take her in because they're true love. Unfortunately, he's lying in bed with Holly's best friend, so then she really runs away from home. After a strange hallucination, she finds out her younger brother Jacko, an eccentric, hyperintelligent child, has gone missing.

And then we jump forward into the next decade. This is the thing that everyone's buzzing about. The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections, each one jumping forward to the decade after the previous one. We start in the 1980s and finish in the near-future, and we track Holly through it all. Sometimes she's a main character and sometimes she isn't quite so central, sometimes appearing toward the end of a section. As her life progresses, we are also slowly learning more about a group that Holly calls the Radio People, a cabal of psychically-powerful immortals who are waging war with another group of similarly-endowed people.

I'm hesitant to say more, but like the other Mitchell books I've read, the book is less about plot and more about...well, everything. He's really a great writer. I think people sometimes get too caught up in his metafictiveness, in the interconnectivity of his novels (which is only as annoying as you let it get--I've seen several reviews that bash the author for trying too hard to make his novels all part of the same world, but I was never once bothered by it; the more you focus on it, the more frustrated you might feel, but if you let it feel organic, you won't even notice), and in his penchant for telling stories innovatively. People praise him for his to perform unending narrative acrobatics. Of course, these are all reasons to love Mitchell, to shout his names from the rooftops, but it's important to acknowledge his talent in telling every one of his tales so precisely, so perfectly.

This book is, in terms of setting, all over the place. '90s Switzerland, 2000s Iraq, a futuristic Ireland after the world has started to fall apart. The narrators are all kinds of people: a sociopathic young man, war reporters, a self-centered writer (and Martin Amis parody?). Never once are these novellas unconvincing. Mitchell slips into each voice fully, devotedly, believably. as if every perspective were his own that he has spent his whole life living. It's dazzling to have him throw an entirely new scenario at us and watch it unfold rapidly and credibly. These novellas are populated with a wide array of characters, and not once do they descend into painful, boring stereotypes.  It's fascinating, and clearly not something every writer is capable of.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review!

One of the things I truly, genuinely loathe in this world is "scary stuff." Movies about hauntings, demonic possessions, and the like have always really bothered me, partly because I know these things aren't real, that they don't actually happen, but despite that, I still get freaked out. I avoid the movies as best I can, spent high school avoiding Halloween parties because of everyone's desire to watch them. The year Paranormal Activity came out, I had trouble sleeping for three days after I overheard someone summarizing the movie. I still haven't seen it, but hearing about it was enough to leave me frightened.

So leave it to Jonathan Stroud to dish out exactly this thing I hate so much and make it--not just once, but twice--an engaging, carefully-constructed book that blew me away. Last year's The Screaming Staircase was one of the best books I read in 2013, and the word I used to characterize and define the book was "fun." I had no doubt that Stroud was going to be able to easily and masterfully sink back into this world for a second volume, and my lack of uncertainty was well-founded. It's a winner!

In the Lockwood & Co. books, we are living in a parallel world, one in which ghosts and hauntings are very much real, regular issues that people deal with. Adults aren't particularly sensitive to the phenomena--that is, they can't see or hear the ghosts--but they can be killed by them; only young people have a sixth sense for spectres and phantoms, and as a consequence, greedy adults have capitalized on their talents and formed agencies of youth who work diligently every night to eradicate ghosts. But our protagonist, Lucy Carlyle, doesn't belong to one of these groups; she is a member of the three-person company run by Anthony Lockwood (the other member is George Cubbins).

Six months after their adventures as detailed in book one, the company is called on to be present for an exhumation of the tomb of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor from a long time ago who developed a reputation for trying to communicate with the dead. A mysterious mirror that he was buried with--one that ensnares anyone who looks at it, and with dire consequences--disappears not long after they exhume him, so naturally, Lockwood & Co. are on the case hoping, to increase their notoriety.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters)

Thanks to the Penguin First To Read program for the opportunity to read this book early in exchange for my unbiased review.

Historical fiction is, for me, a dangerous game. Too many times have I been sucked into books that force heavy amounts of period detail down your throat, prose that wants to emphasize that its setting is so different from the present that it hurts. There are references to contemporaneous culture and repeated descriptions of old technology or perhaps scientific understanding of the world that, while perhaps initially engaging or surprising, grows stale by the end of the novel.

I was nervous but intrigued by The Paying Guests, so I gave it a shot. It's set just after World War I, in England, which is a time period I don't feel has been written to death (like World War II has, for example). It's the story of Frances Wray and her mother, two women left heartbroken by the loss of the men in their family to war and illness. Because Frances' brothers and father are gone, she and her mother are struggling financially--their rather oversize house is too expensive for them to afford, but they don't want to get rid of it.

With no other options, she opens her home to renters, which she refers to as "paying guests," from which we derive the title and also an idea of some of the pride and class distinction Frances has. The lodgers she brings in are a married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, and though it is difficult for her and her mother to adjust, the Wrays begin to accept the Barbers as a part of their daily lives. But then Frances, a closeted-by-her-time-period lesbian, falls in love with Lilian, and that's when it all starts to get interesting.

The first thing I want to address is, of course, what I mention at the beginning of this review, the danger of historical fiction. Fortunately, oh so fortunately, The Paying Guests does not sink into the trap. There are details that contextualize us, but they're written so naturally into the story that I never once felt slapped in the face with authenticity. It's the small, day-to-day things: having to heat bath water, an outhouse in the backyard, a mid-20s woman being considered a spinster. The storyworld of Waters' book is very textured and realistic, but never gets in the way of the plot.

Speaking of which, what an intricately-spun tale! I am afraid of spoiling what lies in wait for anyone who reads the book, but suffice it to say that Frances' amorous feelings for Lilian really complicate their living situation. The novel starts as a fairly straightforward (but dazzlingly-told) story of unrequited, forbidden love, but in turn morphs into a suspense novel and then a legal thriller. It also serves as a fantastic meditation on guilt: should I feel guilty about my own feelings? What about the actions my feelings have pushed me toward? It is magnificent no matter what kind of tale it's trying to tell.

What really anchors the story is the characters, especially with regard to Lilian and Frances. They are beacons of what it really means to be well-written: they're complicated characters who grapple with their emotions and the constraints placed on them by society. Their interactions are incredibly emotionally evocative: at times I could feel the burning desire, the horror, the panic as though it were my own. It is truly marvelous.

The Paying Guests is a long book--nearly 600 pages--and my only criticism is that it would have been slightly pruned. There are sequences that drag, sequences that the book probably could have done without, but it's still a gorgeous work. If you love subtle historical fiction, Sarah Waters' newest is certainly a go.

My rating: 5/5
The Paying Guests on Goodreads
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