Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Book cover of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett ThomasScrawled on the page of my review notebook dedicated to Our Tragic Universe in huge red letters are the words 'This will be a BITCH to review!!!' And you know what? It really, really is. I really did love it though. I've never read a Scarlett Thomas book before, despite Bex's continuous prodding, but I saw this in the charity shop all pretty and shiny (literally, it looks like it's made out of gold tin foil) and I just had to give it a go. It's one of those books where you know you absolutely adored it but just can't work out why. Ah well, want to bare with me while I have a go? :)

Plot summary - If Kelsey Newman's theory about the end of time is true, we are all going to live forever. For Meg - locked in a hopeless relationship and with a deadline long-gone for a book that she can't write - this thought fills her with dread.

Meg is lost in a labyrinth of her own devising. But could there be an important connection between a wild beast living on Dartmoor, a ship in a bottle, the science of time, a knitting pattern for the shape of the universe and the Cottingley Fairies? Or is her life just one long chain of coincidences?

Smart, entrancing and buzzing with big ideas, Our Tragic Universe is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, and how a story might just save your life.

I was completely hooked on this book from the very few pages, even though I hadn't worked out where it was leading or even what it was about. I still haven't actually. I think that's part of its charm though - it's very normal on some levels. It's just Meg, going about her daily (and fairly mediocre) life while thinking in exactly the same way we all do - pointless and rambly musings heading off in tangents in all directions.

It never gets boring though, that's the thing. There's virtually no action and there are a fair few lengthy essays about philosophy, but somehow Meg's voice saves it. The prose is jumpy, rambling and... well, completely amazing. It's not always relevant to the plot (to the extent that one actually exists) but it didn't bother me - I just got lost in Meg's world and her thoughts. It's like being inside a real person's life, not a book person's life.

How do you end a story about a Beast? We'd discussed that for hours. Chekhov said if you have a gun in a story it needs to go off. If you have a Beast in a story, does it need to 'go off' too? When? How? My novel, my bloody albatross, The Death of the Author, deliberately had no such symmetry, and I was constantly in turmoil because one minute it would have too much narrative: people desperately in love, or waking up from their comas, or lying in ditches contemplating great life cchanges and so on - just like a formulaic genre novel - then I'd fiddle with it and it would die: a species extinct before it has even begun. 
 There's a lot of book talk in Our Tragic Universe, both specific and vague. The former is great - Meg mentions Anna Karenina a lot, amongst other books, and I loved relating her thoughts to my own. The latter though? Not so much. She's desperately trying to write a literary novel and run classes on genre formulation and, despite being reasonable well-read and informed on the literary world, a lot of it went way over my head. It's also occasionally quite snide about teenage books - sometimes I got the feeling that Scarlett Thomas would never deign to write anything other than literary fiction. To be fair, she's very, very good at it!

Nothing is too obscure for Meg and Scarlett Thomas to muse over - placebos, the end of the world, evolution, memories, veganism, homeopathic remedies... It's great; I've never read a book like it. Even the damn Cottingley Fairies get a mention... *sighs* God, I loathe fairies. I live within walking distance of Cottingley Woods where the whole thing took place so there's an awful lot of fairy-ness around here. Although, judging by how excited I got when it was mentioned in the book, I don't hate the very source of where my fairy dislike originated. A bundle of contradictions, that's me.

You may have gathered by now, but not a whole lot actually happens in Our Tragic Universe. There is an over-riding objective (wonderful, I'm inserting legal terminology into reviews now...) but it was over-shadowed for me by the general prose. I think I'd have prefered a few more answers by the end, but I suppose that that's kind of the point.

Well, it's looking like the copy of The End of Mr Y that has been sat on my TBR for more than a year will eventually get read, along with everything else Scarlett Thomas has ever written ever. 

Visit Scarlett Thomas' website here, or find her on Twitter. 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Unnatural Issue (Elemental Masters series #7)

Book cover of Unnatural Issue by Mercedes Lackey
Every time I start a new book in Merecedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series, it feels like someone's giving me a great big hug. It feels like coming home, I swear. She has such a distinct yet elegant writing style that means I almost don't want to continue reading because I know it has to come to an end eventually.

Plot summary - Richard Whitestone is an Elemental Earth Master. Blaming himself for the death of his beloved wife during childbirth, he has sworn never to set eyes on his daughter, Susanne. But when he finally sees her, a dark plan takes shape in his twisted mind- to use his daughter's body to bring back the spirit of his long-dead wife.

That summary doesn't do Unnatural Issue any justice in the slightest, but then again the actual blurb takes up both sides of the dustjacket, so perhaps brevity is better in this case. The point is, the actual plot is much more complicated and interesting than that. Think necromancy, romance, revenants, magic... It just does not get any better than this.

This is the seventh book in the Elemental Masters series, although they really don't need to be read in any particular order. It revolves around a small group of early 20th Century magicians who each deal with the magic and creatures of any particular element - Earth, Fire, etc. Not only that, but each book takes a fairy tale and intertwines that story into its pages. The Fire Rose was Cinderella, Phoenix & Ashes was Cinderella, and finally, at a bit more of a stretch, Unnatural Issue is Pygmalion. Apparently. I don't really see it, but hey ho.  

What is interesting is an American's view on how we in Yorkshire speak. Except...not. We talk, apparently, much like pirates. One day I'll do a vlog on how to talk like an actual live Yorkshire person, but until that point please dear God do not use this book as a reference! It was slightly strange (and a little annoying) how sometimes the characters would speak in an accent and sometimes they wouldn't. I know they put on an accent to disguise themselves sometimes, I'm not an idiot, but I mean other than that. A little more consistency would have been nice. YAARRRR.

Still, I can deal with an annoying accent here and there if I get to read an Elemental Masters book! This isn't the best of the series, but it's still absolutely wonderful. The main premise could use a little tweaking as it seems a little unrealistic that her father would hate Susanne quite that much, but hey - fiction.

I think the reason I like these books so much is the perfect blend of historical fiction and adult fantasy. There's no out of place 20th Century woman saying "Cool guys!" or anything equally teeth-clenching. Ms Lackey clearly does her research thoroughly  for every book (aside from on the Yorkshire accent perhaps). This book is set slightly later than the others as it's during the First World War and it actually does get slightly distracted from the main plot because of it, but not too much.

The romance isn't amazing - it's not bad bad, but Susanne does switch allegiance a little too quickly. It's not a huge part of the book at all though, as thankfully, like in most of Mercedes Lackey's books, it's only a small sub-plot carrying on quietly in the background.   

I genuinely can't recommend this books highly enough - they're what I read when I don't want to read (I said that out loud once and a friend replied "Why don't you just NOT read!?" ... Huh.) because they're so easy to get into and the prose is just so elegant.

Read my reviews of The Wizard of London and Reserved for the Cat - my favourite book in the Elemental Masters series. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

In My Mailbox #37 OR 'Hey look, I haven't died.'

New book collection - Caitlin Moran, Brent Weeks and pseudo-psychology!
Wow - apparently I haven't posted an IMM since my birthday way back in August. Since neither you nor I want to sit here and trail through the huge list of all the books I've got since then, I figured we could draw a line under it and we'd start again this week.

So. At the top is Pride and Prejudice #49 - so called because it is, naturally, the 49th edition of it that I own. Obviously. It was brought back from the US as a present for me, and as it's one I'd never even seen before, I was more than thrilled. One more to fifty!

Under that there are two books that I bought on a whim from King's Cross today (incidentally, has anyone else noticed that they've moved the Platform 9 3/4 sign?) as I was killing the hour and a half before my train. Station bookshops generally tend to only stock the so-called bestsellers, but I managed to find two that vaguely interested me.

The orangey-yellow one is called You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney and theoretically it's a look at how we delude ourselves in everyday life - like how our memories differ from what actually happened or how we convince ourselves we must appear to others. I had heard of it before, but it's not my usual type of book so it really was a whim-buy (I know, buying books on a whim... who'da'thunk, right?).

Signed copy of The Blinding Knife by Brent WeeksThe one underneath that, if you tilt your head upside down due to my half-asleep photography skills, is Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre. This actually seemed a strange book for such a small WH Smiths to carry as it's quite obscure, but that's fine by me. I've had enough badly-chosen treatment and medication from the NHS to be willing to read up on it. Worst case scenario  - even if it's not helpful, it's heavy enough to quite literally throw at my case-team.

Under that... *jiggles with glee* The best piece of luck I've ever had when it comes to book buying. I was wandering aimlessly around Leeds one lunchtime between classes, and I found my way into Waterstones, as is so often the case. Only this time there was an empty desk set out with a fairly long queue snaking away from it, and so I asked a nearby shop assistant about it... and Brent Weeks was due any second. Brent Weeks!

Signed copy of Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
If you haven't read his books, you need to. The Night Angel trilogy starts with The Way of Shadows, continues in Shadow's Edge and finally concludes in the masterpiece of adult fantasy that is Beyond the Shadows. This is easily, easily my favourite fantasy series of all time - I've read it twice through and each time I've ended up a whimpering wreck swearing that she would never read anything else ever again.

So imagine how amazing it is to absently wander into a bookstore, and right in front of you is your favourite author, ready and willing to sign his new book for you. Surprise! I swear I nearly died, sobbed and threw up at the same time. He's a really nice man too and took the time to chat properly to each and every person in front of him. I was so excited by my sheer good luck that I came away with not only personalised, signed copies of The Black Prism and The Blinding Knife (his new series), but also a signed copy of The Way of Shadows. Well I wasn't not going to get the first book of my favourite series signed, was I?

Funnily enough, the same Waterstones also had signed copies of Caitlin Moran's books in store too. I adored How To Be A Woman and while I wasn't technically going to buy her new book, Moranthology, straight away.... hello? Signed? *shrugs* I don't know if the Leeds branch saw me coming and frantically whipped out a marker pen to scrawl signatures on all my favourite books, but I've pretty much filled my spend-£100-stamp-card just on that day.

So not a massive haul, all told - Lord knows I've done much worse. I'm more than happy with it though - five signed books (including new copies of the ones I already owned) due to sheer luck and a new Pride and Prejudice? Sounds like an amazing week to me!

What arrived in your mailbox this week? Have you ever been as lucky in a bookstore as I was?

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