Tag Archives: Karen Joy Fowler

Top Ten Unique Reads…

Standard

Once again those fine folks at The Broke and Bookish came up with a Top Ten Tuesday list I found irresistible, so I put my thinking cap on and came up with these – hopefully you’ll forgive the fact that it isn’t Tuesday…

Snowflake by Paul Gallico
A delightful story of the life of Snowflake, who was “all stars and arrows, squares and triangles of ice and light”. Through Snowflake’s special role in the pattern of creation and life, Paul Gallico has given us a simple allegory on the meaning of life, its oneness and ultimate safety.
A teacher read this one to us when I was in the equivalent of today’s Year Six and I was enchanted. I tracked down a lot more of Paul Gallico’s reads – and to be honest, many of them are unlike anything I’ve ever read, before or since. But they certainly fired up my taste for something different…

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
A carnival rolls in sometime after the midnight hour on a chill Midwestern October eve, ushering in Halloween a week before its time. A calliope’s shrill siren song beckons to all with a seductive promise of dreams and youth regained. In this season of dying, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois, to destroy every life touched by its strange and sinister mystery. And two inquisitive boys standing precariously on the brink of adulthood will soon discover the secret of the satanic raree-show’s smoke, mazes, and mirrors, as they learn all too well the heavy cost of wishes – and the stuff of nightmares.
We were on a caravan holiday in France and I’d scooped this one off the shelves to take with us. I read it one heavy, hot summer afternoon while nibbling on chocolate – suddenly very glad for blazing sunshine and comforting presence of family. And as soon as I got to the end, I started reading it all over again, wanting more of that alluring prose and dark ideas.

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan
Tricia Sullivan has written an extraordinary, genre defining novel that begins with the mystery of a woman who barely knows herself and ends with a discovery that transcends space and time. On the way we follow our heroine as she attempts to track down a killer in the body of another man, and the man who has been taken over, his will trapped inside the mind of the being that has taken him over. And at the centre of it all a briefcase that contains countless possible realities.
There is no one whose imagination works in quite the same way as Tricia Sullivan – and this amazing offering is certainly unique. I loved this quirky story and the directions in which it went, while following the fortunes of all the remarkable characters who seem perfectly reasonable – until you realise the prism through which you are looking at them has refracted into something different…

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out – but there’s more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings and into the dark heart of the Jorgmund Company itself.
Another extraordinary tale that swept me up, held me rapt and then – finally – released me with a doozy of a twist ending I certainly didn’t see coming. This roller-coaster read snaps off the page with memorable lines and exuberant characters – see my review here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
This is a remarkable book – more so as it is based on a true event. And as we follow Rosemary when she goes on a quest to try and track down what happened to Fern, we discover a heartbreaking story of loss and abandonment that started with the best of intentions and ended up blighting the young lives of all the siblings in the family – see my review here.

Touchstone – Book 1 of the Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theater, and he’s good—very, very good. With his company, he’ll enter the highest reaches of society and power, as an honored artist—or die trying.
This remarkable series is a tour de force. I haven’t read anything quite like it and I don’t think I ever will… Cayden is a remarkable, spiky character cursed with genius and flashes of prescience. No one else has ever managed to depict the cost of this type of talent so thoroughly as Rawn in this magnificent series, which deserves to be a lot better known – see my review here.

Among Others by Jo Walton
When Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.
The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. See my review here.

A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thomson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted village. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.
Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read – see my review here.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
This is the first of the acclaimed Man Booker prizewinning books about Henry VIII’s bully boy Thomas Cromwell, who oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar, we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance.
The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well. But while that is the frame and backdrop in this compelling read – it is Cromwell’s intense presence throughout that had me turning the pages and mourning the fact when there were no more pages… See my review here.

Embassytown by China Miéville
Embassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. On Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.
Miéville’s brilliant imagination produces a truly unusual alien species with a Language where emotion and meaning are inextricably linked, requiring human identical twins raised to be able to think and talk in tandem in order to keep the isolated human enclave, Embassytown, supplied with food and resources. Until it all goes horribly wrong… A fabulous examination of what it means to communicate. This book should be required reading for all prospective diplomats, in my opinion… See my review here.

Advertisements

My Outstanding Reads of 2015

Standard

It was a cracking year, particularly for science fiction and fantasy. I read 121 books this year, wrote 108 reviews and these are the best – the books that have stayed with me long after I’d closed them up and written a review about them.

Fool’s Assassin – Book 1 of Fitz and the Fool by Robin Hobb
Hobb is one of my favourite authors anyhow, so I was delighted when she revisited Fitz and took his story further. And this new adventure didn’t disappoint.

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly thesefoolsassassin many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown. But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more… On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing. Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger? Suddenly Fitz’s violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe. See my full review here.

 

The Straight Razor Cure – Book 1 of The Low Town series by Daniel Polansky
Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer, now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and straightrazorcurea way of inviting danger. You’d struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his. But then a missing child murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley. And then another. With a mind as sharp as a blade, and an old but powerful friend in the city, Warden’s the only man with a hope of finding the killer. If the killer doesn’t find him first.
I’ll grant you the blurb isn’t full of joie de vivre – but this book is more fun than it sounds. Mostly because Warden is written in first person viewpoint and his grumpy, cutting narration throughout the story is often amusing and manages to render the more revolting bits less so. This is a strong start to a remarkable trilogy, which has stayed with me throughout the year and if you like your fantasy gritty with a strong protagonist, then I highly recommend this offering. See my full review here.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This was recommended to me by a couple of my students – and it didn’t disappoint. But whatever you do, don’t look up the reviews written in The Guardian or The Telegraph because they have seen fit to provide the main spoiler which makes a big difference to how you’d read the book.Weareallcompletelybesideourselves

What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
As soon as I started reading, the surefooted first person voice pulled me in – and then about a quarter of the way in, came the revelation which I didn’t see coming. At all. This is such a clever, original book. What you think must be the themes when you start reading about the fallout surrounding Fern’s disappearance on her family, once you get past That Point, you realise there is another agenda alongside the expected issues of loss and identity. See my full review here.

 

Mars Evacuees – Book 1 of the Mars Evacuees series by Sophia McDougall
The fact that someone had decided I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and mars evacueesSORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well. I’d been worried I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm. And despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. because until you’ve been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by a laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived. If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.
Yes… I know it’s aimed at children – but this book enchanted me as well as my grandchildren and we are now all looking forward to reading the next slice of the adventure in 2016. See my full review here.

 

The Detective’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Detective’s Daughter series by Lesley Thomson
Kate Rokesmith’s decision to go to the river changed the lives of many. Her murder shocked the nation in the throes thedetectivesdaughterof celebrating the wedding of Charles and Diana. Her husband, never charged, moved abroad under a cloud of suspicion. Her son, just four years old, grew up in a loveless boarding school. And Detective Inspector Darnell, vowing to leave no stone unturned in the search for her killer, began to lose his only daughter, as young Stella Darnell grew to resent the dead Kate Rokesmith.
The theme of love and loss threads through this poignant, thoughtful book, which took me in so many different directions that I soon stopped trying to second-guess where Thomson would take me next and simply enjoyed the ride. It’s a happy feeling when I can sit back and revel in the story and the author’s skill in telling it. See my full review here.

 

The Future Falls – Book 3 of The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
When Charlotte Gale’s aunt warns their magical family of an approaching asteroid, they scramble to keep humanity thefuturefallsfrom going the way of the dinosaurs. Although between Charlie’s complicated relationship with sorcerer Jack, her cousin Allie’s hormones, the Courts having way too much fun at the end of days, and Jack’s sudden desire to sacrifice himself for the good of the many, Charlie’s fairly certain that the asteroid is the least of her problems. This could have so easily been an adrenaline junkie’s dream with constant action-packed pages of chases… scary magical confrontations ending in blood and gore – and it would have still been an engrossing read. But the cool, ironic tone of the blurb nicely echoes the emotional tenor of the books.

The aunts bake when they get together, and are often squabbling and eccentric. But as with any entity that is extremely powerful and knows it – they are also dangerous. Huff never lets us forget this. It’s a nifty trick to pull off. I love the fact that the Gale family never comes across as too cosy, or let the fact they are run by a matriarchy means they are kinder or softer… Understanding, maybe, but not kind. They can’t afford to be – they are running a family with sufficient power to level the world. And this is another trick Huff has pulled off – the Gales are something beyond human and the more we see about their adventures, the more alien they are. See my full review here.

 

Window Wall – Book 4 of The Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
For nearly two years, Cade has been rejecting his Elsewhens, the Fae gift that grants him prescient glimpses of possible futures, by simply refusing to experience them. But the strain is driving a wedge between him and his windowwalltheatre troupe, Touchstone, and making him erratic on stage and off. It takes his best friend Mieka to force Cade into accepting the visions again, but when he does, he witnesses a terrible attack, though he cannot see who is responsible. Cade knows the future he sees can be changed, and when he finally discovers the truth behind the attack, he takes the knowledge to the only man in the Kingdom who can prevent it: his deadly enemy.
Meanwhile Touchstone is poised to become the best theatrical troupe in the country, though that isn’t the end of their problems. As Cade is wrestling with his own magical talents, Touchstone still have issues of their own to sort out – domestic life collides with the demands of touring; the pressure of constantly providing new, exciting plays; betrayal by someone they thought they could trust… So there is no trace of this series running out of steam – if anything it just goes on getting better. Though whatever you do, don’t pick up Window Wall first. You need to go back to the start to get a real flavour of this original, outstanding series and it would be a crime to do anything else. See my full review here.

 

Embassytown by China Miéville
EmbassytownEmbassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerse, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.

It is a huge challenge, both imaginatively and technically to write convincingly about another species that has never been seen on our home planet. No problem for Miéville, though. He nails it. See my full review here.

 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship the-long-way-666x1024that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

So is all the buzz about this book merited? Oh yes, without a doubt. If you enjoyed Firefly then give this book a go, as it manages to recreate the same vibe that had so many of us tuning in to see what would happen next to the crew. While Rosemary is the protagonist, this tale is as much about the varied crew and their fortunes as they serve aboard the Wayfarer. Chambers manages to deftly sidestep pages of description by focusing on the fascinating different alien lifeforms peopling the ship. See my full review here.

 

The Shepherd’s Crown – the final Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
Deep in the Chalk, something is stirring. The owls and the foxes can sense it, and Tiffany Aching feels it in her boots. theshepherdscrownAn old enemy is gathering strength. This is a time of endings and beginnings, old friends and a new, a blurring of the edges and a shifting of power. Now Tiffany stands between the light and the dark, the good and the bad. As the fairy horde prepares for invasion, Tiffany must summon all the witches to stand with her. To protect the land. Her land. There will be a reckoning…

The story trips along at a good clip, providing all the unique Pratchett touches his fans know and love, including the whacky footnotes and the formerly obnoxious character that reveals a nicer side to her nature – a feat Pratchett regularly pulled off throughout this long-running series. And the ending provides plenty of action and excitement with a thoroughly enjoyable, wholly satisfying conclusion. Is this a detached, unbiased review? Probably not. I am discussing the last, the very last Discworld novel, ever. The series that has given me more pleasure over the years than any other. Wherever you are, Mr Pratchett, thank you for this last gem. The magic persists. See my full review here.

 

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Cary
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.

The viewpoint is masterful, as is the pacing. I’m not going to mention any more about the story development, thegirlwithallthegiftsbecause Carey has deliberately constructed it so the reader goes on discovering more about the world as the story progresses. I personally love that particular style of storytelling above all others and devoured this book in three greedy gulps, reading when I should have been sleeping. Or editing. Or writing lesson plans. Or organising my trip to Bristolcon. In short, I broke one of my golden rules – I read for pure enjoyment during the day, rather to relax and unwind as a present to myself after a long day’s work. See my full review here.

 

Lock In by John Scalzi
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. Most of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever lockinand headaches. A few suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1 per cent find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. It may not seem like a lot. But in the US alone that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’… including the President’s wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering. America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in, but two new technologies emerge to help. One is a virtual-reality environment, ‘The Agora’, where the locked in can interact with other humans. The second is the discovery that a few rare individuals have minds that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing the locked in to occasionally use their bodies as if they were their own. This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

Yes, yes – I know – the blurb goes on forever. But you need to know this stuff to fully appreciate and understand the world, because Scalzi doesn’t hang about giving long-winded explanations. This book hits the ground running in first person viewpoint, as Chris Shane walks into the FBI building on his first day as a fully-fledged agent. He is coping with more than the usual first day nerves – Chris Shane is a Haden, whose helpless body is back in his parents’ home being cared for, while his consciousness is uploaded into a threep – a robotic body that allows him to talk, hear, see and move. See my full review here.

 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Run away, one drowsy summer’s afternoon, with Holly Sykes: wayward teenager, broken-hearted rebel and unwitting pawn in a titanic, hidden conflict. Over six decades, the consequences of a moment’s impulse unfold, theboneclocksdrawing an ordinary woman into a world far beyond her imagining.

Right from the first page, I was drawn into this episodic narrative. Holly has run away after discovering her best friend in bed with her boyfriend. Though I was reading it on an autumn night, I was whisked away to the blistering heat as Holly has an emotional meltdown. And during this starting point, events unspool during that particular afternoon that go on having consequences for decades to come. The next five episodes that comprise the whole narrative all circle around that primary event, in one way or another as we also chart Holly’s life. It’s a difficult life. Being singled out doesn’t make for an easy time of it. But Mitchell does what he does best – provide a series of sharply written, beautifully crafted slices of action that allow us to join up the dots and provide the overarching narrative. See my full review here.

Review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Standard

I spotted this 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction winner on the shelves and scooped it up, after recalling it was recommended by a couple of my students.

WeareallcompletelybesideourselvesWhat if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.

As soon as I started reading, the surefooted first person voice pulled me in – and then about a quarter of the way in, came the revelation which I didn’t see coming. At all. This is such a clever, original book. What you think must be the themes when you start reading about the fallout surrounding Fern’s disappearance on her family, once you get past That Point, you realise there is another agenda alongside the expected issues of loss and identity. As Rosemary starts facing up to the fallout and decides to try and put things right, it would have been so very easy for this book to have lapsed into sentimentality – which Fowler manages to avoid, chiefly by giving us dollops of madcap humour.

All the supporting characters ping off the page, filtered by Rosemary’s sharp observations and interleaved with the apt and layered dialogue scenes that resonate with all the unspoken conversations. Fowler’s handling of the narrative is sophisticated and deft – given that Rosemary starts her story in the middle because she cannot face starting at the beginning, we get a ringside seat as she starts crumbling until she has to confront what happened when she was five. As she then provides the backstory, along with the extra layer of information we need to know about Fern and Lowell’s part in the story, it would have been all too easy to have lost the tension, let the narrative stray. But she keeps absolute control – this book is a tour de force, which is hardly a surprise, given it is Fowler’s sixth novel and she has also two collections of short stories published.

She is an experienced author at the top of her game and this book was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker award – with good reason. But don’t take my word for it – track it down. It is an outstanding read that will remain with me for a long time – oh, and if you do intend to read it, do avoid the reviews by The Guardian and Telegraph. For reasons best known to themselves, both reviewers have seen fit to give the spoiler regarding Fern’s disappearance that the publishers have been very careful to omit in their blurb, which is a disgraceful betrayal of their readership in my opinion.
10/10