Wednesday, 20 May 2015


Off to new places...

This blog is now closed. I'm leaving it up to archive all the reviews I've written over the past four years!

I will now be blogging about fiction, history and writing at 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Blog under construction

The Granta, Cambridge. Photograph for reference for one of
my current novel projects (let's call it N2)
I've been having a think about what to do with this blog. Its present state of abandonment is temporary, but I'm keen to create a space where I can write about my historical research (both academic, and the research that's related to my novels-in-progress) while continuing to review both fiction and non-fiction books. I'm wondering if the best option is to host a pair of blogs on the personal website I've been meaning to create for a while, so those who don't care about historical research can still read book reviews, and vice versa. I'm also keen to stop using Blogger. When interview season is over, I will post my plans here, so watch this space!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Opening Pandora's box

[Interviews have intervened with the advertised schedule. In the meantime, have an old review that didn't make its way onto the blog when I first wrote it in 2014. Written originally for Amazon, so it's spoiler-free.]

It's difficult to know what to say about The Girl With All The Gifts without spoiling a twist that occurs early on in the novel and governs the entirety of the story from then on, but I think I'm safe to say that this story is set in an imagined dystopia, where huge population loss has decimated Britain and the few survivors hang on in military bases. On one of these bases lives ten-year-old Melanie, who spends most of her time in a cell and the rest in a classroom, where she soaks up information, especially Miss Justineau's stories of Greek mythology. But she and her fellow pupils are treated like dangerous animals, shackled to their seats and hosed down with disinfectant every Sunday. To Melanie, this is normal, but the reader realises within the first few pages that something is wrong...

This is a gripping and well-written thriller that runs along familiar lines, but manages to rise above its competitors by the sheer effectiveness of its storytelling and its careful handling of the central character, Melanie. I find that using child narrators is a very risky business, as it's so easy for the author to depict a child as twee, unrealistically naive, or sickeningly perceptive and honest. The depiction of Melanie, however, is almost entirely successful. This is partly due to her secret, which steers her depiction away from the usual cliches of childhood, partly due to the fact that she is not the only narrator, and partly because she does not narrate in first person, so MR Carey does not have to attempt the 'voice of a child'. I still had some niggles about her presentation, such as the story she writes early on in the novel, which does not read to me as the work of a ten-year-old with a 'genius-level' IQ, but as the work of a younger child with this level of ability. However, this can possibly be explained by the fact that we do not know how long Melanie has been in education. Still, I felt a little uneasy about her flawless moral code, and I could never relate to her quite as closely as I could to the other characters.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast are satisfyingly individual. Miss Justineau is the most traditionally likeable, but I found myself increasingly fascinated by the two soldiers and, especially, by the most morally suspect member of the crew, scientist Caroline Caldwell. I could never quite tell whether Caroline was meant to be the villain, fulfilling a 'mad scientist' stereotype, but I hope not, because I found her much more interesting as a 'grey' character. Although Caroline oversteps a certain moral line at least once during this novel, I found that I was still broadly sympathetic to her, and understood why she adopted the mindset she did to do the job she had to do. Her final futile discovery is a fitting end to her journey, and she performs the role of antagonist in the narrative without descending into cackling evil. This is a key addition to Carey's story, and I don't think that the novel would have worked nearly as well without her.

I would recommend this novel both to established SF fans and to those who do not usually read SF. Unlike most novels with a twist in the tale, it delivers fully upon what it promises, and does not rely on gimmicks to supply its consistently mounting tension. It should also have considerable crossover potential for young adult readers. Good stuff.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Baileys Prize Longlist, #3: 'You're always half on Station Eleven'

Miranda works as an administrative assistant at a shipping company, but she fills the swathes of free time that her job allows by sketching an imaginary world, Station Eleven, and its hero, Dr Eleven: 'Station Eleven is the size of Earth's moon and was designed to resemble a planet... The station's artificial sky was damaged in the war, however, so on Station Eleven's surface it is always sunset or twilight or night... the only land remaining is a series of islands that once were mountaintops... There are people who, after fifteen years of perpetual twilight, long only to go home, to return to Earth... They live in the Undersea, an interlinked network of vast fallout shelters under Station Eleven's oceans.' Her boyfriend, Pablo, doesn't understand her obsessive commitment to the project: 'You're always half on Station Eleven.' Miranda isn't interested in publishing the comics, seeking the peace she finds in retreating to Station Eleven rather than acclaim or recognition, but eventually, she has a few copies printed of the first two issues. These two comics make their way into the hands of Kirsten, who is a small girl when a virus devastates the world that she knows, killing the vast majority of the Earth's population. Twenty years later, as part of a travelling theatre company, the Travelling Symphony. Kirsten wanders across a largely empty Canada, with the Station Eleven comics one of her few constants: 'The first issue falls open to a two-page spread. Dr Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight... A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on earth.'

The most obvious way to read the Station Eleven story that intertwines with the major plot of Station Eleven, then, is as an allegory for the situation of the human survivors of the virus. While they are still on Earth, this is not the Earth they once knew; younger people can hardly believe that there was once a world where aeroplanes flew, linked by the magical, ethereal Internet. They are the unfortunate inhabitants of the Undersea. However, the Station Eleven references are so powerful in themselves that I found this interpretation unsatisfying. Like Miranda, I was engrossed in Station Eleven, and continuously longed, while reading this novel, to return there, away from the harsher realities of a post-apocalyptic world. (As an aside, I should say that this is an enormously difficult feat to pull off. Emily St John Mandel has somehow overcome the reader's natural imaginative resistance to truly committing to a story within a story, and that alone makes this novel special, even though it has plenty more going for it as well). The Travelling Symphony offers a similar justification for continuing to perform Shakespeare: when one of their members, 'the clarinet', wants 'to write something modern, something which addressed this age in which they'd landed', the idea is implicitly rejected, in the same way as Kirsten rejects the idea that they should perform in ordinary clothes rather than salvaged costumes to bring them 'closer' to their audience.

A lot of the reviews of this novel have seized on the Travelling Symphony's motto, cribbed from Star Trek, 'Survival is insufficient', and argued that Station Eleven is about the power of art to save us even from times of great hardship. While I think that this is part of what the novel is saying, I think this reading - which barely mentions Station Eleven - is insufficient. To me, Station Eleven had a lot to say about the relationship of art to 'real life', questioning the idea that bad art is 'escapist' while good art makes us reflect more closely on the society which we are currently enduring. Both the Station Eleven comics and the Shakespeare plays obviously have both functions for our scattered survivors. The importance of Station Eleven is not just that it tells us truths about ourselves in a narrowly-allegorical sense but because it is a deeply-imagined, alternative world which we can inhabit, and learn from that. Shakespeare isn't a joy because he also lived in a plague-ridden society, but because art is more than a series of parallels to draw. The conclusion I have to come to is that stripping Station Eleven down too vigorously, to interrogate it for what it is 'trying' to tell us, is also to rob it of some of its magic.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

April schedule

I wasn't able to post on Friday 3rd as I went travelling without the book I wanted to review, so here's a slightly rejigged schedule for this month.

Monday 6th April: Tuf Voyaging by George RR Martin [NB. Ran out of time. This will now be a Monday Musings Post on 13th April.]

Friday 10th April: Baileys Prize Longlist: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Friday 17th April: Walter Scott Longlist: Wake by Anna Hope

Friday 24th April: Baileys Prize Longlist: I Am China by Xiaolu Guo

Friday 1st May: Girl at War by Sara Novic

I'm also definitely going to write a Monday Musings post on all the discussion there's been recently about Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant making fantasy literature mainstream - once I've read it!