Friday, 28 March 2014

Cuckoo Song - Frances Hardinge

  I've bought a Kindle and against all the odds I'm loving it. Easy to use, easy to sit with the Kindle in one hand and write notes with the other wherever I'm sat. I've also signed up with NetGalley to help with the day job and so I can blog more. The first advance copy I've read is Frances Hardinge's new novel Cuckoo Song (Pan MacMillan), out on 8th May.

 I’d read three of Frances Hardinge’s novels up till now – Fly By Night, Twilight Robbery and A Face Like Glass. More than anything else reading a Hardinge novel is deeply pleasurable - on every page you’ll find a sentence, a figure of speech, a line of dialogue, a joke, an observation or a brilliant idea that will give you pause for thought or astonish. Moreover her characters aren’t inherently good or evil, motivated by abstract ideas, intent on world domination or driven by ‘destiny’; rather they exist in worlds - the Fractured Realm and Carverna - with traditions and social conventions we can recognise and where laws, institutions and ideology put fetters on people’s imaginations, happiness and freedoms. Her characters have political, economic and social motives. Struggles for power or money, self-preservation and idealism are all at the heart of her plots. Hardinge brings sophistication and literariness to children’s fiction whilst never skimping on the entertainment and satisfaction quotient.

    Her new novel Cuckoo Song is different. It doesn’t have the same huge canvas or extraordinary feats of world-building as the other novels but is instead rooted in 1920s Britain. Aptly, in this centenary year, it’s a story about World War 1 and its aftermath as the social mores and attitudes of Britain began to be questioned and transformed. That makes Cuckoo Song’s canvas, without wanting to sound too grandiose, modernity and I’m happy to report Hardinge is up to the different kind of task she has set herself. It’s a dark, potent and heady tale of doubles and doppelgangers, monsters and mayhem, courage and conviction.  I loved it and am still a little giddy and euphoric over it. Readers Cuckoo Song is the bee’s knees.

   Triss wakes up ill and discombobulated; she can’t really remember what has happened. Her mother and father, Celeste and Piers Crescent are in the room to reassure her. She has fallen into a large pond and become feverish. They reassure her that her memories will fully recover as she regains her strength. More puzzling is the reaction of her younger sister Pen who seems to hate and distrust Triss to an extraordinary degree. The reader finds it hard to understand why however – the narrator keeps very close to Triss so that we appreciate her kindness and honesty. However the novel quickly becomes mysterious, eerie and horrific. The first sign is food. Triss is hungry and Hardinge describes her first meal as something straight out of classic children’s literature – hearty, wholesome and delicious. Later that night Triss wakes up famished. She spies the apples on the tree outside her window and sneaks out to eat. She is ravenous:

She snatched at them, tearing them from their stems and cramming them into her mouth one by one, feeling her teeth cleave into them with a shuddering relief. They were unripe and so sharp that her tongue went numb, but she did not care . . . she dropped to all fours and scrabbled at the early windfalls. Some were recent, merely speckled with rot, others caramel coloured and slack, riddled with insect holes. Their pulp squeezed between her fingers as she caught them up and crammed them into her mouth. They were sweet and bitter and mushy in all the wrong ways and she did not care.

 The first quarter of the novel is an uneasy read as Triss questions her sanity and becomes increasingly uncertain and fearful. Hardinge plays this particular literary game with aplomb so that it feels true and convincing rather than manufactured – how much is real? How much is Triss imagining. What is really happening? In fact this first quarter is so successful I wasn’t sure Hardinge would be able to provide satisfactory answers and still drive the narrative forward. I shouldn’t have worried. As the story gathers momentum the sense of the uncanny does slip away a little but becomes instead an adventure with three marvellous heroines.

 The novel is rich, in associations of all kinds but especially with fairy tales and classic children’s literature and you’ll think about the way Hardinge is interrogating various tropes and stereotypes. As is always the case with a Hardinge novel I also thought of countless things whilst reading, some intended I’m sure and some purely subjective: Pinocchio, The Box of Delights, the Spanish films of Guillermo del Toro especially Pan’s Labyrinth, the novels of Alan Garner, a BBC serial from 1985 starring Susan Gilmore called Maelstrom – remember the dolls(!) and much more.

   People often focus on Hardinge’s world building – the incredible dynamism of her worlds, their social and political authenticity and logic – and her abundance of ideas, but reviews don’t always acknowledge the depth and quality of her writing. Maybe they think they’ll turn younger readers off if they extoll her extraordinary literary skill. Take her similes – I don’t know of anyone that writes similies with the skill, imagination and range of purpose that Hardinge manages. Her comparisons capture sensations and moments in time, create a sense of period and history and generate mood and atmosphere – sometimes you’re astonished by their accuracy, sometimes by their insight, sometimes by their attentiveness to detail and exceptional thoughtfulness. They also slow down the reading process a little because they ask you to reflect and assess, rationalise and discuss. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Hardinge isn’t read quite as widely as some of the fast paced, plot dominated novels that populate the YA bestsellers lists.  

   Are there any negatives you may be asking? Well, kind of – towards the end there is a degree of sentimentality and a tendency to over explain a little that gave me some doubts. That said since the novel isn’t aimed at 42-year-old men I don’t really want to complain, especially as it fits with the mood and tenor of the novel. Cuckoo Song is more emotionally powerful than Hardinge’s other work, sad and heart-breaking, inspiring and fierce, whilst never losing the moral complexity that characterise her novels.

   Reviewing Verdigris Deep in 2007 Farah Mendlesohn wrote that “Frances Hardinge is the best new fantasy writer for children since Diana Wynne Jones. There is simply no one to match her, and I include within that constituency the likes of Philip Pullman.” Seven years later and I’m confident that is still true and for me she stands with Margo Lanagan, Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, and Patrick Ness as authors whose books I couldn’t bear to miss. What is more astonishing, and downright weird, is that Hardinge hasn’t picked up an award or three along the way and isn’t being heralded up and down the land as a national treasure. Hopefully that will change soon.

There are insightful reviews of all Hardinge's novels at Strange Horizons (in the reviews archive). There's a nice little interview with her over at Pornokitsch here.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Clarke 2014 and more

Arthur C Clarke Award 2014
The Clarke shortlist is out and it looks like this:
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
  • The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)
  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (Orbit)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
  • The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)

There's already a bit of coverage at the Guardian and short posts by Nina Allan and Martin Petto, who has given us some odds, fairly acccurate I suspect. It's already obvious that UK writers and reviewers are a little surprised by the inclusion of Naam and Mann, but since neither can be as bad as Ack Ack Macaque I'll happily read both. I'm chuffed that The Machine has made it.

Carnegie Award

The Carnegie Shortlist is out too. It looks like this:
  • All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry (Templar)
  • The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks (Puffin)
  • The Child's Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston (David Fickling Books)
  • Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper (Bodley Head)
  • Blood Family by Anne Fine (Double Day) 
  • Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Faber & Faber)
  • Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead (Anderson Press)
  • The Wall by William Sutcliffe (Bloomsbury)

As a secondary school librarian I should probably read them all but life is too short . . . though I've been meaning to read The Wall for some time. There's coverage here with links to reviews of all 8 books.

It made me look back through recent shortlists. I'm glad that authors like Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, David Almond and Philip Reeve have all been celebrated and that Sally Gardner's fantastic Maggot Moon won last year BUT . . . and this is the biggest BUT I've had to consider for eons . . . why hasn't Frances Hardinge ever made the shortlist. This is just wrong and I don't quite understand why. I'm going to have a serious think and attempt an explanation in the near future.

Other stuff

Simon Ings reviews Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, as does Nina Allan.

Annihilation-Fourth Estate UK


Jonathan McAlmont takes Ender's Game to task here and links to a great column by Cory Doctorow on Locus Online. There's a good short essay by Kameron Hurley there too.

At SF Signal there is a short video interview to celebrate Women's History Month and the page has links to other good stuff too.

I'm going to read The Luminaries at Easter so I was interested to read David Hebblethwaite's thoughts here and here. This review is well worth reading too.

I'd missed this great review of Ancillary Justice by Gwyneth Jones.

Check out Patrick Ness's blog for the news that A Monster Calls is getting a film adaption. 

I'm currently reading this:
It has a fantastic short introduction by Farah Mendlesohn and John Clute's chapter on current SF is, unsurprisingly, sharp and thought provoking.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Highway and Chennai Express


On the Road

  As so often after watching a half-decent Bollywood film I feel caught off guard. Imtiaz Ali, director of Highway also made Jab We Met (2007), one of my favourite Hindi films, a delicious romantic comedy come road movie, distinguished by a great role for Kareena Kapoor.  He also made Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Rockstar (2011). Highway though is very different –it’s SERIOUS. Veera (Alia Bhatt) plays a rich young woman about to get married. Stifled by all the attention at home she sneaks out to meet her husband-to-be and insists on a car ride so she can chill out for a while. The couple stop for petrol and encounter an armed robbery. Veera is taken, brutally, as hostage but the gang are aghast when they realise how rich Veera’s father is – they realise he will use his power and wealth to ruthlessly track them down. One of the leaders of the gang, Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) is remorseless however, insisting he will take Veera and demand a ransom. This all occurs in the first ten minutes, but what follows is neither a thriller nor a cops-and-robbers story. Instead it develops into a meditative road movie come character piece. Mahabir and a couple of the gang take Veera, bound and gagged, and set off on the road.

   Both Veera and Mahabir have endured terrible childhood traumas that are revealed as the movie progresses, and that explain some of their behaviour, though crucially you never feel that it completely defines their characters. Bhatt is extraordinary at conveying a miasma of difficult, changing emotions and, especially, the joy of testing out new sensations and freedoms. Hooda’s Mahabir is equally good, though in the first half you might give up on him – his gruff tortured brute seems a little too one-dimensional. It’s the way he unfurls incrementally however that is so well judged and his performance in a scene towards the end is almost unbearably moving.


   There’s clearly something of the Stockholm Syndrome in their relationship –which the film acknowledges, but which still feels a little awry and misjudged – perhaps due to the obvious difference in age. I’m not sure I felt any chemistry between the 20-year-old Bhatt (often looking younger) and the 37-year-old Hooda. I also objected mildly to some of the contrivances in the plot. Yet as so often these contradictions and problems just make the film even more interesting. It’s as though there are things that can’t be said, emotions that can’t be shown and this creates a film more discursive than any Hollywood equivalent. The pair never kiss for instance and I wonder if it’s because it would have underlined the difficulty of the reality Imtiaz Ali has tried to construct, exposing troubling binary oppositions – protector/protected, father/daughter, kidnapper/victim.
   What’s perhaps more amazing is that the film largely succeeds in diminishing such doubts. The men, brutal and brutalised, frightening and frightened start to see India and themselves through Veera’s eyes and start to open up to the world. Mahabir learns quickly to let Veera be (herself); some of the movie’s greatest pleasures come when Veera simply expresses herself. One glorious sequence sees Veera and one of the gang, Aadoo (Durgesh Kumar), dancing to a track on the car stereo. Another is when she sits on a rock, laughing uncontrollably, watching melt water cascade noisily down from the mountains. Does this mean it's another of those 'manic pixie girl teaches bloke to live and love' plots? No way Hosé. It's Bhatt that has the screen time and gets to spread her wings.
   Furthermore the film never lets you forget Mahabir’s criminal past but gives you a sense of how he and many real Mahibirs around the world try, and often fail, to deal with their guilt and low self-esteem.  The film gives you a wonderful and powerful sense that courage, friendship and understanding underline any reasonable hope for redemption and renewal.  Finally, whilst many Bollywood movies are beautiful, they are often pretty in a weird look-at-this-beautiful country-wouldn’t-you-like-to-visit-it kind of way. And I’m not immune to that, not at all, but Anil Mehta’s cinematography gets it just right – it’s as if you’re seeing the country’s character emerge through Veera’s eyes.  A.R . Rahman’s score is perfect too.
I look forward to seeing it again.
   Kisses for King Khan
   As far as I can tell Shah Rukh Khan has only kissed once on screen, in Jab Tak Hai Jaan with Katrina Kaif. It’s not because kisses aren’t common any more – they are; the new generation of stars are all too ready to pucker up but he and Salman Khan have always been pretty consistent in their no kissing policy. Why do I mention this? Not entirely sure, since many Bollywood films have managed to convey passion, romance and sex without (many) kisses for decades but it seems to me the game is changing fast. That said, Chennai Express was still the third highest Bollywood grosser in 2013, making Rs 226.70 crore (with production costs of around Rs 70 crore) but scores nil pois for romance and sex appeal - and blimey it’s awful. Shah Rukh gurns away obnoxiously for the first half of the film before getting some some ridiculous fight scenes towards the end. Deepika Padukone (20 years his junior – just saying*) hardly has to bother until about halfway through when her character realises how loveable Khan really is and has to start mooning around after him. It’s not funny and it’s not clever and is in stark contrast to something like Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani that offered genuine romance, charisma and great music. Writing this makes me realise, unsurprisingly, how out of tune I am with the cinema going public in India. Looking through the other films that made the Bollywood top ten grossers of the year wouldn’t give any discerning movie-goer much hope though hardly any appeared in critics 'best of 2013' lists either: same old, same old.
Chennai Express trailer stars funny Shah Rukh, funnier Deepika
   Anyway, despite the fact he would probably die of laughter reading this, my advice for King Khan would be to pair up with any one of those amazingly talented and beautiful women vaguely his own age - Madhuri, Kajol, Sridevi, Tabu, Preity or Aishwarya to give us a proper, bona-fide comedy romance. With kisses. Otherwise I genuinly wonder if he’s going to have trouble reinventing himself that many more times.

* Its not that I'm becoming a prude in my old age or that I don't think on screen chemistry is possible between protagonists with significant age differences - Bogart was 25 years older than Becall, Pacino 15 years older than Ellen Barkin in the smouldering Sea of Love and of course Ruth Gordon was significantly older than Bud Cort in the wonderful Harold and Maude. It's just that Shah Rukh's romances are in danger of becoming lifeless and impotent.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

February reading

   I started off February determined to read 100 pages of fiction a day and I'm pleased to say I did it. I read seven and a half novels - I'm looking forward to finishing Hild this coming weekend - without feeling that I was merely consuming and managed some reviews too. I'm going to try to keep it up in March too. I'm really enjoying it.

   Less impressive is the effect it had on film viewing - only 17 movies, down from 37 in January (though this was, by any standards, a little excessive). It also impinged on other reading: I managed very little history, film theory or politics.  
   How do people do it? I read blogs where people read well over 100 novels a year, write loads of thoughtful reviews, whilst seemingly having jobs and a rewarding home life. Advice please! I need more hours in the day!

Monday, 3 March 2014

February films.

Dallas Buyer's Club and Only Lovers left Alive were the highlights at the cinema. Ain't them Bodies Saints was surprisingly brilliant; Moon and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind helped me survive the hangover of doom (again) whilst La belle noiseuse was every bit as fascinating, and compelling, as when I first saw it 20 years ago.
Also, Mangal Pandey is better than Lagaan!


At the cinema:
  • Out of the Furnace
  • The Book Thief
  • Her
  • Dallas Buyer's Club
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Cuban Fury
On DVD/Blu-ray:
  • The Circle (2000)
  • Bombay Talkies (2013)
  • The Rising: The ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005)
  • Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)
aint them bodies saints 2
  • Veer Zaara (2004)
  • Byzantium (2013)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
  • Source Code (2011)
  • La belle noiseuse (1991)
  • I've heard the Mermaids singing (1987)