Books mentioned in this post:
Korakas by Anne Holloway
After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Slade House by David Mitchell
Complicity by Iain Banks
2015 ended with a flurry of reading activity, much of it quality stuff. Here’s my very quick re-cap of a few things that didn’t make the Proper Review List from last year:
“My mother raised me on fairy stories.” I’d said the line countless times, to countless people. Whenever I was questioned about my birth place, or my father, I would resort to that. “My mother raised me on fairy stories.” An attempt to divert attention from the fact I knew very little at all.”
A tale of paranoia, fear and infatuation laced with Greek legend, Zorakas is the story of a mother and daughter caught under the spell of the same man, separated by 20 years. When Ally’s mother Anna disappears suddenly, her house torn apart as though her departure had been violent and involuntary, the young woman senses immediately she must return to the islands of Greece in order to find her.
Growing up protected from her past and shielded from her mysterious, absent father, Ally witnesses her mother’s very real fear and periodic lapses from sanity. Whatever, and whoever, her father was, she’s aware only of a dark secret her mother goes to extreme lengths to hide. Yet, despite the fear, the islands continue to exert a deep pull on her mother, the islands as well as shadowy stories of crows, dark birds portending ever-present danger lurking. Where she’s gone, and why, must be connected with Ally’s father. She knows this and cannot rest until she’s found her mother, no matter the risk. What she finds is more astonishing than she ever could have dreamed.
I am crazy about all things Alice and have been a Gregory Maguire fan since publication of his Wicked. Unsurprisingly, his latest novel is a satisfying romp through Wonderland, taking the story we know, adding an outcast friend of Alice’s who – seeking relief from the misery of her neglectful family and their single-minded attention to her sickly infant brother – follows down the rabbit hole after her.
Then, a young boy and former African American slave from the States, trophy of a well-intentioned though naive British man who longs to save him from a dark past, escapes accusations of theft and a life of freedom he’s not ready for, just in time to take the plunge right after the girls.
Though loads of other writers have attempted to follow in Lewis Carroll’s footsteps, few manage it with the skill and grace of Gregory Maguire. I’m wary of books that mess with iconic favorites, avoiding and disdaining nearly all sequels and prequels and fan fiction but this one’s earned my hard-won seal of approval – though not without small reservations.
While it’s true he flirts with the line of political correctness, choosing new characters who are, one: handicapped and two: of color, I got beyond his obvious need to showcase his own inclusivity, though barely. If I didn’t think about it too closely, consciously not noticing these two new characters are held apart from white, middle class, iconic Alice in a way that screamed LOOK HOW DIVERSE I AM, the story worked. Mostly.
Maguire’s insertion into the story is, if not flawless, at least largely graceful. There are ripples, imperfect moments reminding the reader this is a mere riff on the masterpiece but my love of Wonderland and yearning to have more of it got the better of my curmudgeonly nature.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for Alice.
I’m less enthused about David Mitchell’s most recent book Slade House, a novel that promises much more gothic yumminess than it delivers. Twins Norah and Jonah Grayer live a fiendishly parasitic life, presiding over eerie, amorphous Slade House through the course of several decades. People start disappearing from modern-day London, then a pattern emerges it takes years to identify. Once the truth is discovered, then accepted as oddly plausible reality, It’s a race against the clock disrupting the tyranny of the supernaturally evil pair.
Clever premise and above-average writing granted, the story doesn’t quite crack David Mitchell quality. I’m a hair-splitter, what can I say? To whom much talent is given, much is expected and I expected one hell of a lot from Mitchell. Readers unaware how much genius he’s capable of bringing to the table would find much to love here. For me, it was a bit meh.
I do give him full credit for the core, the basic premise involving evil twins with a need to use common people as a means to their own diabolical ends. It’s a good device on which to build a story. The setting’s grand, a wonderfully gothic home that’s there but not there. Where it loses it irretrievably is when Mitchell goes into a very long-winded backstory explanation as to what’s happening and why. If he’d found another route to achieve the same end it could have saved the book.
As it is, the story bloats. And when a story bloats, attention lags. It’s almost as if Mitchell was in a rush to finish, taking the curious action of writing too much instead of honing, A pity. I’d looked forward to this one from the moment I read the first reviews, only to be let down ultimately.
Iain Banks’ 2013 death from cancer at age 59 sent his friend and fellow writer Ian Rankin into a tailspin, prompting his temporary retirement from writing while he took time off for a good, long think about life, death and the meaning of it all. Not the first of his friends to die far too young, the loss of Iain Banks hit hard.
Though I’ve long known about Banks’ reputation as a fine storyteller, as well as his grim masterwork The Wasp Factory, I hadn’t read anything of his previous to Complicity. And it’s true knowing how his death affected Ian Rankin brought the other Iain’s works to the fore for me, reminding me this was an author who’d been on my list a good while. While in Edinburgh for the Book Festival, I saw Complicity on the shelf and grabbed it.
The story is deliciously dark. Main character Cameron Colley is a reporter with a drug habit and not the best moral compasss. A man willing to have an affair with the wife of a friend, as well as bend the rules a bit when it comes to getting the scoop on a good story, Cameron finds himself the main contact person for a mysterious man who knows things about a string of murders happening to several high profile, politically well-connected men.
Who’s on the other end of the phone, feeding him bits of information in a synthesized voice? Why Cameron and is he capable of figuring it all out before the killer strikes again?
As he races to connect the dots, the murders continue. When his connection to the crimes and coincidental proximity at all the wrong times becomes suspicious, suddenly the tables turn. Prime informant becomes prime suspect in a darkly twisted story of delayed revenge.
And the writing? Perfect. It’s tight, tense and does the sex thing well. Yes, I’ll add more Iain Banks to my queue.
Now I’ve done a bit more justice to 2015, I feel better. Still not at 100% but closer. Embroiled in 2016’s reading, last year’s is still somewhat fresh in my memory. Actually, a lot of it’s literally in my bed. Literally.
More to come, including Ian Rankin, Rick Moody, Edwidge Danticat (I have an interview with her in my queue) and others. It’s trickling out but slowly, like a pipe that could use a good routing. Having given you that mental image, I am off to, guess what, read.