Reiew. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

Being dyslexic I have always found non-fiction, with its impossibly small and curly fonts difficult to read.  Audiobooks being really expensive to buy I had accepted that this was a genre that was mainly off-limits, apart from the occasional graphic novel.  However I’m now able to plunge in thanks to the excellent service Edinburgh City Libraries offer in downloads.

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Review: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

As soon as I heard about The Outrun by Amy Liptrot I knew I had to read it.  Liptrot is around my age.  Like me she was brought up in rural isolated Scotland.  Liptrot on Orkney, me on the Black Isle. Liptrot always felt like an outsider, English in the Highlands and Islands when the term was used like an abusive word.  I never felt I fitted well with my peers on the Black Isle, and I to had “English” thrown at me as an insult – despite the fact I am born and bred Scottish.  Like Liptrot I escaped south, and like her I returned to Scotland.  I also felt that the story of her descent into alcoholism and recovery to sobriety may have some emotional match with the issues dealt with in my pamphlet of poetry.  Oh, yes.  We’re both writers too.

The tone of The Outrun is thoughtful, and reflective. Liptrot spends her time on the Orkeny islands exploring all they have to offer, sea swimming, snorkling, attending festivals, walking the coast, building dry stone dykes, visiting other islands, learning about geography, gazing at stars, whipped by wind and searching for wildlife.  Liptrot not only returns to Orkney but decides to live on one of it’s furthest islands, Papay.  A self imposed exile on which she not only becomes deeply intimate with the landscape around her, but also with herself.

Throughout the book Liptrot returns to the theme of The Outrun, a coastal field the furthest away from the buildings of the farm she grew up on.  It represents being on the edge, being an outsider.  Despite her references to feelings of otherness in many ways her story could not be more Scottish. The bright lights and temptations of Edinburgh, Glasgow and London have pulled the young people out of the north for generations.  Alcoholism is the mental health issue of choice.  What really makes The Outrun stand out as a work not just of Scotland, but one fundamentally of the Highlands and Islands, is where Liptrot finds her redemption.  All Highlanders know, and much Highland literature tells us, that there is only one place where we can find salvation.  The land.  In that way Liptrot is at root very much, one of us.


Review: Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

From the start Yoon Ha Lee’s début collection of short stories Conservation of Shadows is strikingly inventive.  Lee mines her knowledge of maths and her Korean-American heritage and hits a rich vein of narrative mingling myth and science, art and the military, creativity and destruction. There is a freshness to her stories, partly because they do not rely heavily on Eurocentric events or westernised cultures as their base and inspiration. Her view of the world, of time, history and the universes she creates is vast and at times unnerving.

Similarly Lee blurs boundaries between thing often assumed to be solid.  In some worlds the most life threatening thing there are words, written or spoken.  The arts are not just creative, but also agencies of destruction, magic, order and chaos – although what is politically considered order or chaos is, as always, open to interpretation.

Lees stories are also brim full of women.  Women who act.  None of them are the “strong woman” that can often be written into genre, where strong is wrongly assumed to mean violent.  Instead they are women who often think deeply and act decisively.

There is a slight unevenness in Conservation.  Several of the stories were so stunning I felt compelled to re-read them immediately.  While some came up against the perennial problem of short stories – the ending.  These stories fell a little flat, and did not quite live up to the promise of the set up.  A promise which leaves expectations high due to Lee’s stunning imaginary worlds.

The book also contains notes on the stories.  In them we gain a glimpse of Lee’s light and playful personality, someone who finds joy in details and the perversity of humanities behaviour and ideas, all tempered by a keen and inquiring intelligence.  Lee is an easy person to like.

Lee has also published a book of flash fiction, and this year has a novel due.  So far she is one of the freshest voices in science fiction – to the extent that her work is both inspirational and terrifying.  I’m looking forward to being awed by her again.

Review. Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code

My daughter and I have just finished reading Artemis Fowl:  The Eternity Code, it is the third book in the Artemis Fowl series, the first I’ve read and the second my daughter has.

Artemis is a fourteen year-old boy from Ireland. However, he is not like most boys, he is heir to a large crime empire, he’s a genius, and he also has connections with “the people”. Fairies who live underground and hold vastly superior technology to anything we “mud people” have.

Artemis has used the fairy technology to build a super computer, unfortunately it falls into the wrong hands and it is up to Artemis, and his friends to make sure that knowledge of the fairy world and their brilliant inventions does not escape.

Eternity Code manages to deliver the slickness and pace of a good heist story, the drawl one liners of Raymond Chandler and an imaginative contemporary take on magical people’s with not a wizard or powdered wig in sight.  Eternity Code makes no profound statements, but then it doesn’t have to.  It’s fun, imaginative and full of energy.  I would recommend it as a good book for all children, but particularity for those who you wouldn’t necessarily consider a “bookish” type.

I interviewed my daughter about the book, but I don’t think it was really the right time.

Me:  What made you chose this book to read?

Milla:  Because I’ve read others in the series.  There’s actually nine of them.

Me:  What is it that you like about the series?

Milla:  Well, what is it that you like about any book?

Me: Well, different books can have different things that attract you to them.  Like the setting, or characters.  So what was it that made you like this one?

Milla:  It.  It’s ok.  I’m really tiered and I want to watch the TV.

Me:  Just two more questions?  Who do you think would like this book?

Milla:  Kids.

Me:  What type of kids?

Milla:  Kids.  Are we done now?



Review: Black Hole by Charles Burns

I’ve had a nasty cold recently, which has at least allowed me plenty of time in bed with books.  I’d got Black Hole by Charles Burns out the library as it is widely touted as one of THE graphic novels to read.

Black Hole is set in 1970s suburban Seattle. There is a sexually transmitted disease rife among the teenagers of the area. It manifests differently in everyone, but does include skin shedding, tail growing,  lumps, boils and tiny mouths in your neck that speak. In some people it is mild enough for them to be able to “pass” but in others it is written all over their faces, and they find themselves shunned from society, living in the woods and scavenging for food.

Despite being fictional, it reminded me strongly of my favourite non-fiction graphic novel, My Friend Dahlmer by Derf Backderf.  It’s the same era, has the same secrets hidden in woods, adolescents going through or witnessing trauma that they either can’t or won’t express to the adults around them.  Both relied on an extremely bold black and white artwork, which serves to underline the seriousness of the issues they deal with.   They also have a horrific story unfolding slowly in what many would assume is a safe suburban environment.

Black Hole is a portrait of the alienation that many teenagers feel.  Struggling to find their individual selves, while also deeply compelled by the childhood survival mechanism of fitting in.  Almost everyone has to negotiate this dichotomy at some point, and some do it with more success than others.  My expectations of Black Hole is that at some point something would happen, the kids would get the help they needed and the people who had ostracised them would learn a lesson – that’s how it works in my chaotic good aligned moral compass.

This is not what happens.  The children try to negotiate their problems on their own.  Some of them do so badly, some incredibly badly, and others find a modicum of success.  The success that they appear to have is not to do with how badly they are disfigured but how much they let their feelings of alienation dominate their interactions with others and the world.  While it appears that Black Hole is going to be a thinly disguised metaphor for aids, it is in fact a way of giving physical expression to the pitfalls of adolescence.  As many young people’s distress is displayed in their relationships with their bodies – self harm, binging, starving – the metaphor works well.

As a parent what terrified me most was the way none of the children seamed to think there was any adult they could trust and talk to.  It made me wonder if the punitive, authoritarian and inflexible parenting styles of ages gone by meant that barriers are created between children and all the adults around them, not just between the child and the parent.   Given the rising tide of mental health problems among teenagers it is probably more important than ever that we look at and dissect what goes on in the minds of young people.  Black Hole is a thought provoking example of how the arts are in a unique position to do this.  Like all the best art it does not give us any answers, but presents us with a lot of questions and inspires us to think.

Review: Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse

With her Christmas money my daughter bought a copy of Goth Girl by Chris Riddel.  Goth Girl is Ada, the daughter of the famous Lord Goth who lives in Goth Hall.  She meets Ishmael, the ghost of a mouse, and realises something is wrong with Lord Goth’s indoor game keeper.  Ada and Ishmael investigate and take us on a journey in which we meet a host of whimsical servants and guests, many of them a humorous pastiche of historical or literary characters.  The profusion and detail of the characters belie the simple plot, and allow the adult reader as much fun as the child.

The story and characters are delightful the book itself is beautifully presented.  It’s purple, black and silver cover holds a wealth of excellently rendered illustrations.   All in all a delight to read.  However I am not the target audience for this book, so I decided to interview my daughter…

Me:  What made you chose Goth Girl?

Milla: Because it was suggested to me.

Me:  Who was it suggested by?

Milla:  A bookshop assistant.

Me:  Do you think that was a good suggestion?

Milla:  Yes.  A great one.

Me:  What is the best bit about Goth Girl?

Milla:  I had to write this in my book review at school homework.  Em, I said the same thing.  I said… it’s so good, I have to say all of it, all of it’s the best part.

Me:  Do you have a favourite character?

Milla:  Well, oh, this is a hard one.  It’s really hard.  They’re all so good, but I think my favourite character is Mal… No!  I think it is Mrs Beat’em.

Me:  Why?

Milla:  Because she’s big and scary and kind of funny.

Me:  Do you think anything could have been done better?

Milla:  My book review had the same exact questions!  But I answered, what could be better is…nothing.  Nothing could be better it’s the best book in the world!

Me:  Would you read other Goth Girl books?

Milla:  I’ve already read others.  And I’m just about to read the red one, the pink… the yellow one.

Me:  Who would you recommend this book too?

Milla:  I don’t know.  I’m tired.

Me:  What sort of person do you think would enjoy this book?

Milla:  Everyone.

Jago by Kim Newman

I loved An English Ghost Story so much I decided to leap straight away into another book by Newman, Jago.  While Jago deals with some of the same themes it is a very different book altogether.

Jago is set in the fictional Somerset village of Alder.  It is a baking hot summer and the temporary and permanent residents of the village, including a local cult headed by the titular Anthony William Jago, are preparing for an annual large music festival.  Alder contains a mix of characters, some who’s families have been in the area for generations, others are incomers for the season, and several thousand descending for the festival.

Of course, it’s not all going to go smoothly, you find this book in the horror section after all.  I was in no way prepared for quite how badly it would go.  The area around Alder has a history of supernatural manifestation.  There are several locals who could be described as pshycopaths before anything unusual starts to take place.

At the centre of all that happens is Jago.  We meet him for the first time half way through the novel, and he only speaks once.  His silence and inaction while unusual for a central character, perfectly fit Jago.  After all he makes things happens, he doesn’t need to talk to people or make connections, he doesn’t need to explain himself – his greatness should be evident to all.  As with all people who believe themselves great, the only thing that is evident is an imbalanced mind and a possible personality disorder.  However Jago has more abilities than most self-serving narcissistic cult leaders – he literally can make your fantasies come true.  He’ll bring out the worst in you.

This is the major theme  in both Jago and Ghost Story.  The evil, it’s inside you.  There are no monsters, other than the ones we create ourselves.  However while Ghost Story illuminates this point with elegance and restraint, Jago does exactly the opposite.  It’s kind of like Hironimous Bosch on the worst trip possible.  Two thirds through the 678 pager and I felt confused, disorientated, wasn’t sure what was going on, or where to turn to for help – like 98% of the characters.

Really good horror isn’t just about fear.  The genre would be called Fear if it was.  It’s a potent mix of fear AND disbelief.  It’s the disbelief that Newman really mines in Jago.  If he’d told the story of just one of his characters, there would be miasma, but the multiple view points result in miasma and discombobluation.  It’s a binge of disbelief, and like all binging, you’re going to feel icky afterwards.

Ultimately if you want to feel more comfortable with your horror, go for Ghost Story.  If you want to feel impossibly lost in a vision of the world that is relentlessly overwhelming with no chance of stabilisation, Jago is you man.