Tuesday 26 June 2012

Talulla Rising - Glen Duncan

'the dirty truth'

Glen Duncan's conscious decision to write a commercial novel after years of writing literary fiction that 'not enough people bought...and...didn't win anything' resulted in last year's guilty pleasure, The Last Werewolf. In fact there's nothing to feel guilty about, it was simply a very nicely written treatment of the werewolf myths involving vampires, government killers, plenty of sex and a narrator whose centuries of lifetime leant him an entertaining voice as likely to turn to works of great literature for sage advice as his years of hard-won experience. One commercial decision follows another with the publication of this sequel (which in discussing I am bound to include *SPOILERS* to anyone yet to read the first) and if the first book was about the discovery that you are not alone (in other words about falling in love) then this follow up, in which the baton has been passed from Jake Marlow to the now pregnant lycanthropic object of his desire Talulla Demetriou, is a very odd take on losing love, finding it again, and motherhood.

Quick recap then: despite its title Jake discovered in the first book that he wasn't the last of his kind and even more, that his life as a werewolf could reach whole new heights with a partner with which to share the pleasures of fuckkilleat (yes, Duncan may be writing a commercial novel but that doesn't mean he has to put his trademark dark and dirty perspective on hold - on the contrary: monstrous behaviour deserves to be examined in all its filthy glory). But despite having the ability to live for about 400 years, time was not on the side of these new lovers and the chase from vampires looking to harness something in werewolf genetics that might allow them to walk in daylight, as well as the hunters of 'occult phenomena' left Marlowe dead and a pregnant Talulla finally assuming the position of the book's title. Except of course for those unborn babies...

The sequel picks up Talulla's story in the remote seclusion she has sought as her due date approaches. That quiet is shattered in the most spectacular fashion, a perfect storm of lunar activity, early labour and vampires. At the end of this her son has been abducted and what follows is driven by her need to get him back. But Duncan, keen pursuer of the perverse, doesn't give Talulla the natural animal instinct and connection that we might expect with her offspring. In fact he chooses to show how difficult she finds it to make that connection, how unnatural that bond is or how difficult it can be for any mother who doesn't find themselves feeling the magical connection they have read so much about. The last thing you might expect from a werewolf novel is an examination of modern mothering anxiety but it is most definitely in there.

Expect the absurd, Jake had warned me. Expect the risible twist, the ludicrous denouement. Expect the perverse. It's the werewolf's lot.

Jake's aphorisms are dotted about the book, Talulla is a relatively new werewolf of course and she is still learning the ropes. We might expect her to pine away for her lost love as well as her abducted son but Duncan knows that desire is a far stronger force than we might like to admit and when coupled with the extra charge of lycanthropic desire it isn't long before Talulla feels the need once again.

We looked at each other. The attraction was a stubborn softness between us. It was also the first sexual honesty I'd felt in months. It didn't mean he wouldn't kill me or I wouldn't kill him. I thought: all men and women should start from that understanding.

Duncan has always been brilliant on relationships, on their darker sides, and he has a lot of fun with a new cast of characters. He also probes some very dark territory, places which he has visited before with his novel A Day and a Night and a Day which looked at torture. Talulla is imprisoned at one point in a facility where doctors and scientists want to test the lycan's abilities to heal and regenerate. It's pretty gruesome stuff beginning with simple procedures and building up to full-blown amputations and the sense of horror is grimly realised. Another character is subjected to brutal beatings and sexual abuse and Duncan isn't afraid to show the legacy of this kind of treatment, the damage it does long after wounds have healed. Beyond that he allows Talulla, even whilst she is being defiled, to say the unsayable about her own behaviour, the crucial difference between those that desecrate her own body and her own monstrous desires.

It's only the best for us if it's the worst for them. Unlike the men in white we, monsters, wanted the person we were killing to know - through the blood-blur and the din of their own screams - not only that we knew what we were doing but that we loved doing it. We wanted our victims to see that our pleasure increased with their horror, that the horror was required, that their situation was hopeless. That was the dirty truth, the obscene heart of fuckkilleat: their hopelessness serviced our joy. In the court of human appeal the scientists were better off. At least they weren't doing it for fun. At least it didn't turn them on.

This is a book I read at quite a lick and didn't find myself making many notes on as I went through. It is an enjoyably dark thrill with enough extras to keep the more literary side of my brain relatively happy. There's no doubt that Jake with his experience, tone and literary brain was a more satisfying narrator, I may well have missed him more than Talulla herself, but with the story entering into a series of books I guess I have to accept that plot will end up dominating proceedings I will look forward to the third and final part when it eventually appears and can only hope that those who have been subsisting on a diet of tired genre staples might be tempted towards trying something a little meatier.


Tuesday 19 June 2012

Days of the Bagnold Summer - Joff Winterhart

'her beautiful boy'

I had a sneak peek of this graphic novel many months ago and there was a very warm buzz about it in the Jonathan Cape offices. Joff Winterhart was the runner up in the 2009 Observer/Cape graphic short-story prize (you can see some panels here which appear in the finished book in a slightly altered format) and this book exhibits a humility which goes beyond the page and onto its letterbox format and unassuming cover. It's a charming collection of strips that I read with a smile on my face and finished with an immense sense of satisfaction.

Daniel Bagnold is a 15 year-old fond of all-black clothing and Kerrang! magazine. The summer in question was one he was supposed to spend with his father, his father's pregnant new wife (who'd "rather be seen as a friend") over in Florida. But with that baby nearly due the plans are cancelled and Daniel instead faces six weeks at home with his mother, Sue, and dog, Maisie. What follows is a beautifully nuanced portrait of the mother/son relationship in those awkward teen years and Winterhart is equally adept at portraying both mother and son. Daniel is one of those boys you've seen shambling around, long hair, black attire, obsessed with heavy metal; his mother is a drab-looking library assistant. As the panel above says, 'You might have seen them around the town . . . shopping for shoes', Sue's quest to buy Daniel some sensible shoes for a family wedding is one of the book's constants, a useful marker in their relationship.

The time they spend together is time in which they will each discover more about the other as a person outside of their role as 'mother' or 'son'. Sue will learn how this 'big, black sad kangaroo' is related to the little boy he seemed to be just a couple of years ago but also the adult he is growing up to be. She also confronts her own ageing and spends a lot of time thinking about her past, her problematic relationships with men (particularly husband and father) and her sadness. Daniel pursues his dream of joining a band, hangs out with his friend KY and slowly, slowly begins to understand a bit more bout his mother.

The other relationships are brilliantly done too. Daniel and KY communicate awkwardly, KY's new-agey mum is hilarious, coming on a bit strong for both Daniel and Sue but helping to unlock some of those all-important emotions, and even the smallest walk-on parts (like some kids in a chip shop or some others in a band) are pitch-perfect. I sometimes find the problem with strips collated into a book is that they remain episodic and never fit together as a whole but Winterhart manages to make a virtue of this. Each vignette is beautifully observed and seems to reveal a truth of some kind or other. We smile or nod to ourselves as we read before moving on to the next page. But we are also aware of the structure, the six-week holiday, the countdown to that wedding and the return to school; and what had felt at first like an uncomfortable eternity for both of them slowly changes so that we sense they might even wish the summer holiday could be extended by the end.

The artwork, layout and approach remain simple throughout - as I said, Winterhart isn't trying to do anything clever with the graphic novel here - but there is so much to enjoy and a genuine sensitivity to adolescence and single-parenthood that makes the book a joy to read. Below is a film written and directed by Joff Winterhart to further whet your appetite. He's one to watch.


Monday 18 June 2012

And the Gold winner is...

Well, there were only three names in the hat in the end for a hardback copy of Chris Cleave's new novel Gold, but with no prizes for silver or bronze the all important thing is who secured that vital spot on top of the podium. Annabel, Dan and Kity; you were entered into the 'hat' in the order you commented and the number generated totally at random was...

Making DAN the winner. Congratulations Dan, commiserations to the others. Dan, please email me your address (just click the 'email me' button on top left) and I'll get the book off to you pronto so you can finish it before the games begin.


Tuesday 12 June 2012

Every Contact Leaves A Trace - Elanor Dymott

'a frame of sadness'

Dr Edmond Locard was at the vanguard of forensic science at the start of the 20th century helping to develop the method of fingerprint identification as well as stating the basic principle of forensic science, Locard's exchange principle, expressed in the phrase that gives this novel its title. There is a murder at the centre of this debut novel but as well as being a locked-room mystery it is also a love story. I was tempted towards reading it after some positive words from other book bloggers and the hope that it might deliver something along the lines of Donna Tartt's stunning debut The Secret History. Casual book browsers may well be tempted by its snow-white cover and scarlet-edged pages; the very book itself seems to be steeped in blood.

Lawyer Alex and his wife Rachel return to their alma mater, Worcester College, for a dinner. As they make there way out of the grounds at the end of the evening Rachel asks to take one last look at the lake, leaving Alex to wait where he falls asleep in his slightly drunken state. He is awoken by a scream which sends him running towards the lake where he finds Rachel brutally murdered. Alex is naturally arrested and questioned and it is sometime before he emerges from both that interrogation and the numbing effects of shock. Slowly (this will become an important word in this review) he begins to ask the right questions in trying to find out not just who might have murdered his wife but who Rachel Cardanine really was. - 'Something, or someone, is twisting the lens on the camera that is my memory, so that the focus sharpens, questions are beginning to occur to me that did not then and should have done.'

'How does one describe a life?' Alex asks himself at one stage as Rachel's lies in bits across his floor one night; a collection of membership cards, certificates, school reports, scribbled notes and photographs. We often tell the tale of someone's life and what this novel makes clear is that whilst we might have our own narrative of those closest to us, there may be competing narratives to contradict that picture entirely. Slowly, painfully slowly at times, Alex unearths physical clues about Rachel but it is his conversations with her old tutor Harry that provide huge chunks of information. Both Harry and Alex refer to them as stories and combined with those of her godmother Evie and Alex's own mining of his past we begin to see a picture emerge from 'the tapestry' of his grief. Depicted as something of a sexual tease whilst at university, Rachel was the subject of much muttering, with even Alex's closest friend remarking back then that 'Women like Rachel Cardanine...tend eventually to get what it is they seem to be asking for, whether they like it or not.' Might Alex discover that the woman he admits to not knowing much about really have deserved such a brutal end?

Alex's meetings with Harry happen in his rooms at Worcester College and the return to that location is important for the full immersion that Alex undergoes. 'The directions our memories take us in are so easily swayed, are they not, by our surroundings' says Harry before adding 'It's important, Alex, that things are revealed to you in the right order, so you may see them as I have done.' This insistence from Harry is just one way in which the novel drags in places. Alex's digressive narration is wilfully obtuse and circuitous at times, which may lead to a build in tension but only in this reader's shoulders as I longed for us to get closer to the conclusion. A childhood trauma of Alex's is never properly explained, the 'don't trust anybody' aspect is only partially successful because one character in particular is always less trustworthy than others, and it's entirely possible that the revelation at the end will come as no surprise to some readers.

The book is really more successful as a study of grief. This isn't just because Alex's grief dictates the pace and structure of the book but because his life is tinged with it long before he ever meets Rachel. Not only have both his parent's passed away but his family life was effectively killed before that by that traumatic event I mentioned earlier. Rachel herself literally orphaned and raised by her godmother and tutor Harry has been widowed. The spectre of loss and love hangs over nearly every character in some way. The trio of bright students that include Rachel, and for which Harry has a soft spot for, all choose the poet Robert Browning as the focus of their studies. Browning, a master of dramatic monologue, was known to probe the darker recesses of human psychology and his poem Porphyria's Lover provides not just the text for a series of letters with which Harry is taunted but also something of a thematic touchstone for the novel as a whole.

Tartt has been mentioned because this book, like hers, features an elite group of students and a  university setting. That for me is where the similarities end. Even the cabal isn't as developed and mysterious here and the distance of narrator Alex from them during their time at university and the way in which he narrates the story of the aftermath means that this book never really gripped me in the way that Tartt's did. I never felt sufficiently invested, emotionally, in what was going on; I never really connected with Alex as a narrator, or Rachel as a character. It was Harry I felt for most of all, with his loss, his devotion and his investment in someone who never got the chance to fulfill their potential. It is he who, perhaps from experience, cautions Alex about where his quest for truth might ever lead.

There is this need in us always, isn't there, Alex, to find everything out, and to judge, so that there may be some final atonement for what has passed. The mistake we so easily make, all of us, is to assume that if we achieve those things, then we will have our solace.

The principle that everywhere you go you take something with you as well as leaving something behind isn't just applicable to science as the short marriage and long relationship of Alex and Rachel shows. Each of the characters on display here have been shaped by grief or loss and the impact of that can be seen in the way the book unfolds. My only worry is that it might fall between two stools. Fans of crime may be disappointed by the pace and digression whilst those looking for a more literary treat may be equally frustrated by some obvious characterisation and a few plot black-holes. And yet, even after all that, I have to be honest and say that at the time it felt like a good read. That feeling remains somewhere, as a trace, but a little reflection has dimmed it somewhat.


Wednesday 6 June 2012

Gold - Chris Cleave

'Swifter, Higher, Stronger'

Chris Cleave has enjoyed huge success with his previous two novels; Incendiary, which with its terrorist attack storyline managed to survive being published on the same day as the 7/7 bombings in London and The Other Hand (which so many people I know have read and loved), so that his name now almost needs to be preceded by the title 'bestselling author...' Success must put its own pressure on a writer given the need to match what has come before (whether that comes from publisher or from within). His publisher, Sceptre, have certainly identified what they think makes him so popular with a collection of marmite book blurbs that test even the strongest of constitutions. These blurbs give little or no hint as to what is contained within the book's cover because 'what really matters is how they make you feel.' His new novel we are reassuringly informed will make us 'cry', 'feel glad to be alive' and 'make you count your blessings.' The timing of publication is important once again for with the London Olympics less than 8 weeks away this novel will be hoping to capitalise on the build up of medal fever.

Following a trio of world class track cyclists all the way from Athens 2004 to London 2012 as they train together, race against each other, their lives constantly intersecting my reading was enhanced in a case of genuinely good timing, coming at the same time as Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny were competing for the one available place to race the Olympic sprint. Perhaps less fortunate was my reading earlier this year of Alexander MacLeod's story collection Light Lifting which includes a story, Miracle Mile, about two world class runners. A good short story has the power to condense its themes and feeling into a heady brew, achieving in just a few pages what a novel may fail to achieve in a few hundred. MacLeod conveyed brilliant the competitiveness, danger and obsessive behaviour of professional athletes, the tiny margins that separate winners from losers. Cleave too has immersed himself in that world, even becoming a keen cyclist himself whilst writing the novel and whilst he also writes well about the limits towards which the professional athlete must push their bodies he cannot help but repeat himself occasionally in the longer format of the novel.

We first meet the three main characters during the Athens Olympics. Zoe is about to compete for gold in the sprint, her main rival and close friend Kate meanwhile is back home in England looking after baby Sophie who had been deemed too poorly to travel. Kate's husband Jack will be racing the next day. In that simple set up we have the beginnings of the major dynamics between these characters. Having met many years previously at an elite training programme they have lived cheek by jowl since. What is clear from the outset, in Kate's sacrifice to stay at home and nurse Sophie, is the difference in attitude between the two women. It is their coach, Tom, who recognises that Kate is the kind of athlete who would stop training if her dad died whereas Zoe wouldn't - 'bit by bit, race by race, year by year, a girl like Zoe would stay afloat in the sport while Kate slowly sank under the weight of real life.' When they all live in Manchester later even their choice of home is indicative with Zoe occupying the penthouse apartment 'at the top of the highest tower in Manchester' on her own whilst 'Kate lived down here on Earth with her family.'

Because they compete directly with each other the focus is very much on the relationship between the two women. Jack isn't as rounded a character; a cocky young thing who makes some bad choices in the early stages and took a while, we learn, to achieve the happy family picture we read about at the beginning of the novel. On the track Kate and Zoe have traded dominance over one another over the years but in the novel it is Zoe who emerges as the strongest character (strongest doesn't necessarily mean best), her ruthless drive exciting our interest - what is it that makes her behave in the cold way she does, employing dastardly tactics in order to give herself an edge on the track? Even their coach, who should have no favourites and treat each athlete with the same care and attention has to admit to himself that Zoe is really his girl. The answer of course is in the past, a childhood accident (on bikes) that devastated her family and forced Zoe into making some kind of unbreakable vow with herself - 'if she could ride faster than she had ever ridden before - if she could ride faster than time' then she might be able to undo what had been done. That drive remains, even several years after she must have stopped in that child's belief, now she simply must win at all costs, that is the only thing that is important and that inevitably leads her to a place of loneliness, with the dangerous prospect of what will remain when winning is no longer possible.

Her life was one endless loop that she raced around, with steeped banked curves so she could never change or slow down. It just delivered her back to herself, over and over and over.

Perhaps the novel's most successful character is Sophie. Poorly when we first meet her it is only a few pages later when the novel fast forwards to the present day with her as a eight year old that we learn that she has already endured leukaemia, remission and relapsed once again. Now, in a book whose blurb says little other than that I will definitely cry I've got to be honest and say that when you introduce a leukaemia-stricken child on page 15 then I can feel my emotional buttons being toyed with. And I don't like it. So, this poor girl is either going to die (whilst the adult characters either do or don't pursue their dreams) or she's going to survive against the odds, proving what real heroism is when compared to the athletic pursuits of the adults around her. Or perhaps the ultimate tearjerker: she's going to help inspire the adults to victory and then die.

Luckily Cleave is a bit cleverer than that. Sophie is actually the most interesting character in the book because whilst she may only be eight she is very much aware of her illness and her importance in the lives of the adults around her. So aware is she of the impact that her illness has on the stress levels of Jack and Kate for example that she has actively chosen Star Wars to be her childhood obsession because it is a strong and active pursuit, providing plenty of opportunity for her to 'show' how well she is really (I understand that there is a Batman obsessed child in The Other Hand, which I haven't read, so this aspect of her character may seem tired to those who have). The terrible truth of course is that Sophie is very poorly indeed.

That half a minute of talking with Ruby had wiped her out. It was good, though. Mum had seen it, Dad had seen it. That counted for an hour when they wouldn't worry. After that she knew she would start to see the lines creeping back into their faces, and hear the sharp edge coming back into their voices, and notice the little sideways glances they shot at her while they pretended they weren't looking. They would start to have arguments with each other, about stupid things like training hours and long-grain rice, and they wouldn't even know why they were doing it. She would know, though. It meant that they were scared for her all over again, and she would have to do one of the things that made them forget it for another hour.
Given my aversion to child narrators I was surprised to find myself so taken with Sophie. She may not narrate directly but even a child's viewpoint is usually enough to raise my hackles, so all credit to Cleave for creating a child who provides some of the most interesting insights into those that surround her, in a novel in which the adults are blind to so much about themselves. The plot machinations become almost soap-operatic towards the end but Sophie remains true to her passions and her own innate bravery, an example to her parents. The book in general is much darker than I was expecting. I say this as a good thing; so that what I worried might be a bit of light, inspirational fluff to accompany the inevitable surge in interest in everything from archery to wrestling this summer is actually an attempt to write about the dark heart of sporting excellence, where exactly the will to succeed at the limits of physical endurance comes from, and where the fundamental drive that we can only call the survival of the fittest might take us. Macleod, as I mentioned earlier, manages to cram most of that (and some other things besides) into a few pages and whilst this book may not have achieved any of the things that horrible blurb promised for me personally, and whilst my relationship with bestselling novels continues to falter, it did at least try to push itself into some unsafe territory and entertain me along the way.


Now, I'm always ready for people to disagree with me so if you're a fan of Cleave's previous novels or like the sound of this one then I am offering you the opportunity to receive your own copy of Gold, gratis, as long as you come back here and let me know what you thought. The competition is open to UK residents only and you can enter by leaving a comment below or sending me a message via the 'email me' button at the top left. You've got one week to enter. On your marks, get set....go!


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