Thursday, 24 July 2014

#CBR6 14: You Had Me At Hello, Mhairi McFarlane

Page count: 436 pages
Time taken: 3.5 hours

Rachel has been with her fiancĂ© Rhys since before she went to university, until an argument over their wedding DJ sees her ending their relationship and moving out. This coincides with an old friend (Ben) moving back to Manchester, and Rachel finds herself examining her life in detail, both past and present. Her work as a court reporter, her friendship group, and Ben’s wife, all serve as complications which she has to juggle. As the layers of concealment and deception build up, she has to decide which truths to reveal, and which to bury for good.

I love this book. Every part of it is perfect to me. The only criticism I have about it is that it makes me nostalgic for university. That’s it. Everything else is great. The characters are engaging, flawed, and well-rounded; the relationships are all believable; there’s no fat-shaming, or slut-shaming, or stupid frothy girly twee bullshit. It’s one of the few books I own in more than one format, purely so I can lend people the book so that they can love it as much as I do. (Also, I had a voucher for Sainsbury’s and it was perfectly priced to use up the rest that wasn’t spent on a stockpot, which was also a very good purchase.)

I was reminded a lot of Jane Austen – not in terms of the plot, which is very different, but in the pointed observations of people, subversive humour, and tidiness of the story. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud funny bits – I suspect it helps to have a dry, dark, and occasionally twisted sense of humour - and the book is a fast and compelling read.

This is McFarlane’s first book, and it really announced her as a rising new star of contemporary romance in Britain. I’ll review her second book once I finish it (for the second time), and she’s on my “buy immediately and keep forever” list. She’s also on Twitter ( @mhairmcf ) and is just as funny in 140 characters. I hope that it marks a watershed moment in romance fiction as well, where more authors try to avoid the worst tropes of the genre – if you want any examples of those, feel free to browse my Alpha’s Touch boxset reviews, which range from the depressed to the disgusted. YHMAH is the perfect cure for all such shit.

5 stars: reaffirms faith in humanity whilst being, to quote the book, a proper lol.

#CBR6 13: Metro 2033, Dmitry Glukhovsky

Page count: 464 pages
Time taken: 6 hours (I spent a lot of time looking up stations)

Artyom is a young man living in VNDKh, the northernmost inhabited station in Moscow’s metro system. The past few weeks have seen terrifying new creatures, “dark ones”, invading down the lines from the irradiated and lethal outside world, and Artyom finds himself on a mission to warn the near-mythical Polis of this new and lethal threat. On the way, he meets a motley collection of people who variously help and hinder him, and uncovers secrets of a world he barely remembers. Can he save the Metro, or is the presumed last bastion of humanity doomed to die in the dark?

This is a classic post-apocalyptic piece of fiction, which if the writer were British I would say owed much to John Wyndham’s legacy. Given that he’s Russian though, I have no idea what his influences were. The action mainly takes place within the confines of the Moscow metro system – there are handy maps at the front and back of the book for readers without familiarity, although I still found it difficult to work out where the action was actually taking place because the names are all long and I have very little familiarity with Russian.

The pacing is superb, which really adds to the race-against-time theme, and Artyom’s journey, both physical and spiritual, is a really good variant of the hero’s quest. I enjoyed the slow reveal of what happened to the world above, and I loved the various different social structures which exist in various different stations – the ideologies and how they interact are really well thought through and investigated. I’m not a huge dystopia fan, but I enjoyed this one a lot, and the black Russian humour that seeps in is very welcome. There’s also a surprising amount of Pilgrim’s Progress style allegory, which breaks up the dark and claustrophobic imagery of the action sequences, and the nature of humanity is thoroughly explored.

I have two criticisms of the book: firstly, very few female characters at all, the plight of women in this world being almost entirely ignored, which for my money makes it a much less in-depth thought experiment than it otherwise aspires to be. And secondly, there is no way that radiation alone could account for all of the mutants in the time stated since the nuclear apocalypse – one generation is not enough time for such vast speciation. There are hints in the book that more esoteric weapons were used than just nukes and explosives, but no-one really talks about it, which annoyed me because I like a certain amount of accuracy in my science fiction. That being said, this is a really good read, and deserves to be on everyone’s post-apocalyptic depressing dystopias reading list.

4 out of 5: a classic example of the genre, pity about the sexism.

There is a computer game based on the novel, which I own but have not yet got round to playing, and I'll link to that review when it's done. I'm curious to see how it compares, I'm pretty excited about the ways that games can reinterpret extant worlds.

#CBR6 12: Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold

Page count: 456 in the large paperback edition
Time taken: 4 hours

Ista, dowager Royina of Chalion, has finally been released from the toxic influence of the curse which affected the royal house for generations. With her mother recently dead, she finds herself able to take charge of her life for the first time, and sets off on a voyage of discovery disguised as a pilgrimage: Ista has no desire to speak to any of the gods, ever again. Unfortunately, the gods have other ideas, and she finds herself on an all-too-familiar path. Will this one, too, lead her into death and madness, or will she find a way through the darkness?

The second of three books set in a late-medieval world where gods, demons and souls are all real, Paladin of Souls follows on pretty directly from The Curse of Chalion, and contains spoilers for it. However, you don’t have to read them in order as enough exposition is given. The theme of the series is the five gods of the world: Father of Winter, Mother of Summer, Son of Autumn, Daughter of Spring, and the Bastard, god of things out of season. This book is primarily concerned with the Bastard, although there is another cameo appearance. My understanding is that Bujold intends a series of five books, one for each god, but has only made it through three so far – the third one, The Hallowed Hunt, is set a couple of hundred years before Chalion and Paladin and can be read as a stand-alone with no spoiler concerns.

I love the gods of this world, who are all characters in their own right. Bujold is, I believe, quietly religious herself, although she neither proselytises nor evangelises in her works, and if she’s a practising Christian she’s definitely a modern one who likes birth control and gay people. The sense of the spiritual I get from this series is not something I would associate from a lifelong atheist, certainly, and the theology of the world is well thought-out and examined in all three books.

The secondary theme in this book is recovery from mental health issues, and as such it can be a bit of a difficult read. In the parlance of the time and place, Ista was driven mad by grief, and rage, and guilt, and a mystical curse. When the curse is lifted, she is still heartsick and depressed, albeit no longer actively suicidal and occasionally raving. Her journey to whole-ness is convincing and filled with all of the pitfalls one might expect, and the occasional flashes of her former thought patterns and processes are both worrying from a reader’s point of view, and entirely on the money from a sufferer’s perspective – again, I suspect personal knowledge from Bujold, although I do not know any specifics. As a chronic depressive, Ista is both mirror and aspiration.

This book is my favourite book of all time. I cannot read it without tears and laughter, and it warms my battered soul to the core. It deals with a wide variety of topics which are personal and constant headweasels: family, religion, depression, self-hatred – pretty much all of my worst thoughts are covered in this in one way or another. Despite the difficulty of the subject matter (for me personally, I don’t think it’s as on-point for everyone), I return to it again and again. If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, it would be this book. If I lose the ability to read, or hear, or feel my body, I will still find my way back to this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough: it has genuinely enriched my life, and I hope it does yours too.

5 stars, obviously.

#CBR6 11: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold

Page count: 422 in the hardback edition
Time taken: four hours

Ivan Vorpatril is working in one of the domed cities on Komarr when an old frenemy asks for his help. As the help in question is picking up a beautiful woman, Ivan agrees with very little hesitation, a decision he quickly comes to regret. Tej is a refugee from Jackson’s Whole, fleeing the destruction of her House with her only surviving companion Rish. Pursued across the wormhole Nexus, several planets still to go from her eventual destination, she finds herself on the planet Komarr working a dead-end job, trying to scrape together enough money to make it to Escobar and avoid the assassins still on her trail. Ivan quickly proves himself a solution to her problems, but is she the solution to his?

This book is the latest in Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, taking place a couple of years after Diplomatic Immunity and before Cryoburn. Ivan has been a character voice before, in A Civil Campaign, but never the main character, and this book shows him at his most complex to date. He has always previously been the foil to either his cousin Miles or the brilliant Byerly Vorrutyer, so it’s a welcome change to see him stretching himself and actually being the hero he has clearly always wanted to be.

I'm not sure how good this book would be for a first-time reader. Bujold does a good job with exposition of previous stories, but not all of the details are given, and it’s definitely a book with a lot of in-jokes. On the other hand, taken at face value it’s still a much better romance than a lot of the other romances I've read recently, with complex and realistically flawed characters, a fast-paced and engaging plot, and a liberal sprinkling of dry humour. Bujold always fades to black whenever her characters are doing anything more than kissing, but she still fits in plenty of dirty jokes.

As far as the science fiction elements of the book go, they’re pretty light on the field, no more complicated than the average fantasy novel which references faraway places and a couple of esoteric weapons. Bujold mainly concerns herself with genetic engineering, solutions of biological conundrums, and the occasional piece of large-scale engineering. This, in my considered opinion, has given her an unfair reputation as a genre-SF writer rather than a “proper” SF writer, in a combination of scientific snobbery and common-or-garden sexism. Biology has always been seen as the science that women do, the easy one, and engineering doesn't count as a real science either, as there’s not enough theory and too much practical application.

Despite this attitude, Bujold consistently tops the bestseller lists when a new book comes out and she has won numerous prestigious awards, so you always know you’re in safe hands. I highly recommend this book: it’s lighter and fluffier than a lot of her works, but a welcome one nonetheless.

4.5 stars: A fun read, good romance, great chemistry.