Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Piranesi – published by Bloomsbury, September 15th 2020

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Near perfect.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this but talking about why I loved this is proving difficult. Normally, I do not care about spoilers at all – but this time I genuinely think not knowing too much helps with appreciating the book, as then the reader’s experience mirrors the main character’s. While the mystery at the heart of this book is not the most important part, I enjoyed being able to guess and look for clues. One of the levels this book works as is as a puzzle box and I had so much fun.

I adored Clarke’s debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but I might actually prefer her second novel. The books could not be more different: the former is a sprawling, long, and dense historical novel with Austenesque wit (plus, you know, fairies), the latter is a short, vague, interior novel focused on a very small cast of characters. Written in the form of diary entries, we never leave the main character’s head – and what a wonderful head to be in it was. Piranesi is fascinating: he is kind but set in his ways, he believes the House knows best but is still able to keep looking for answers once he wants them; I do not know that I have read about a character like him often and I adored the fact that before everything, he wants to do what is right.

Pretty much all of this worked for me, from the characters to the peculiar prose to the structure; especially the first half was near perfect for me. I do admit that this just hits a lot of my pleasure buttons and I can see where it might not work for other readers but I am glad that many people are taking a chance on this.

Ultimately, on a metaphor-level I think this is a book about loneliness and about the structures we impose to deal with it. Clarke is chronically ill and you can tell she knows what she is writing about here. For me, this hit particularly hard given the slowly becoming unbearable pandamic and the intrinsic loneliness of new motherhood. I will treasure this book.

Content warnings: murder, cult-like behaviour

I am not reading the complete longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year but I will attempt to review the books I do get to. I also cannot help myself and will rank the ones I read.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani (review)
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Review: Doggerland by Ben Smith

42363317Verdict: Bleak, but beautiful.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Published by HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate, April 4th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Doggerland is brilliantly inventive, beautifully-crafted and superbly gripping debut novel about loneliness and hope, nature and survival – set on an off-shore windfarm in the not-so-distant future.
‘His father’s breath had been loud in the small room. It had smelled smoky, or maybe more like dust. ‘I’ll get out,’ he’d said. ‘I’ll come back for you, ok?’ The boy remembered that; had always remembered it. And, for a time, he’d believed it too.’
In the North Sea, far from what remains of the coastline, a wind farm stretches for thousands of acres.
The Boy, who is no longer really a boy, and the Old Man, whose age is unguessable, are charged with its maintenance. They carry out their never-ending work as the waves roll, dragging strange shoals of flotsam through the turbine fields. Land is only a memory.
So too is the Boy’s father, who worked on the turbines before him, and disappeared.
The boy has been sent by the Company to take his place, but the question of where he went and why is one for which the Old Man will give no answer.
As the Old Man dredges the sea for lost things, the Boy sifts for the truth of his missing father. Until one day, from the limitless water, a plan for escape emerges…
Doggerland is a haunting and beautifully compelling story of loneliness and hope, nature and survival.

This book is possibly a definite contender for the bleakest book I have read in years. Set in the future on a slowly breaking down wind farm maintained as much as possible by the Old Man and the Boy whose names remain a mystery for most of the book. To say that not much is happening would be unfair (there is actually a lot of action here) but everything crumbles in slow motion and there is not much either person can do against it. The comparisons to The Road are spot-on; this future is bleak and narrow in the way th world can be seen by the protagonists. The atmosphere is equally distressing and overwhelming while the language remains a sharp edge that can dazzle the reader.

That this book was written by an author who also writes poetry, is impossible to overlook – the sentences are beautiful and unusual and by far my favourite thing about this book. The way Ben Smith’s prose flows reminded me of the ocean – something that has to be intentional given that the North Sea is as much of a protagonist as the three other people in this novel.

But I don’t particularly like The Road and I feel a lot of the same feelings towards that book as I do towards this book: I can see how it is very well done, impressive even, but for me the bleakness became overwhelming and I had to force myself to keep reading. But this has everything to do with the kind of reader I am and nothing to do with this book. It is a book I can see many people loving and I hope many people will pick it up – because it is so very well done and so interestingly told.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate in exchange for an honest review.

Review: New Suns ed. by Nisi Shawl

40680117Verdict: Disappointing

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Speculative Fiction

Published by Rebellion Publishing, March 18, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Anthology of contemporary stories by emerging and seasoned writers of many races

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns,” proclaimed Octavia E. Butler.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange.  Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings.   These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and clichéd expectations, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius

Unexploited brilliance shines forth from every page. 

I have read quite a few anthologies published by this publishing house and while short story anthologies are nearly always a mixed bag, I have always found some brilliant authors to follow. This book though did not work for me. I found most of the short stories disappointing and I did not finish reading all of them. I think I would have liked this more if there had been some kind of theme here. While I appreciate the idea of publishing short stories by authors of colour, I do think more cohesion would have improved my reading experience.

There were nonetheless a few stories that stood out for me and I feel the need to highlight them. I really enjoyed Rebecca Roanhorse’ take on the Deer Woman (“Harvest”) and thought the story was both poignant and impeccably structured. She is fast becoming one of most exciting SFF authors out there (I still have not read her Hugo winning short story but will have to remedy this as soon as possible). I found Chinelo Onwualu’s short story “The Fine Print” impressive in its interesting exploration of family and the ties that bind us. As always, the short story by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (“Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister”) was by far my favourite. I really do like the way here prose flows and her imagination sparkles and will definitely have to pick up some of her novels this year.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

40908694Verdict: Fablesque and moving.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Speculative, Literary Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster UK/ Scribner, February 7th, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

The eagerly awaited new novel from the author of The Age of Miracles.

Imagine a world where sleep could trap you, for days, for weeks, months… A world where you could even die of sleep rather than in your sleep.

Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel is the stunning story of a Californian town’s epidemic of perpetual sleep.

I love literary fiction with a speculative twist (I don’t think anybody is surprised to hear that) and I heard absolutely amazing things about this book before starting it. The book does a wonderful way of depicting a potential world-ending plague without the bells and whistles of post-apocalyptic fiction. Set in a fictional college town in California where one after the other people start falling asleep and not waking up again, this book has a fairy-talesque mood that I just adored.

For me the book worked best in the overarching moments, when the narrative flits between different people and never comes close enough to add humanity to them. I found the prose in those sections stunning and the distance created worked really well for me. Here it read more like a parable than a classical science fiction book and I just loved this a whole lot. I adored how the authors opened up the closed narrative to give glimpses of the outside world and her depiction of the greater world’s reaction to the unknown illness was believable.

Karen Thompson Walker emphasizes the relationship between parents and their children, which I obviously enjoyed, but my favourite relationship was that between two sisters who were left alone after their doomsday-prepper father succumbs to the illness. Sibling relationships are a particular weakness of mine and those two sisters felt very real. I do think that the book was not always successful when changing gear from the birds-eye perspective to a more closely observed narrative style, but I enjoyed the reading experience immensely nonetheless.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK (Scribner) in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

35530073Verdict: Ugh.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, July 12 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

What are you doing to help yourself? What are you doing to show that you’re worth the resources?

In a near-future world, medical technology has progressed far enough that immortality is now within grasp -but only to those who show themselves to be deserving of it. These people are the lifers: the exercisers, yogacisers, green juicers and early nighters.

Genetically perfect, healthy and wholesome, one hundred-year-old Lea is the poster girl for lifers, until the day she catches a glimpse of her father in the street, eighty-eight years after their last encounter. While pursuing him, Lea has a brush with death which sparks suspicions. If Lea could be so careless, is she worthy of immortality?

Suicide Club wasn’t always an activist group. It began as a set of disillusioned lifers, gathering to indulge in forbidden activities: performances of live music, artery-clogging meals, irresponsible orgies. But now they have been branded terrorists and are hunted by the state.

And Lea has decided to give them a call.

This book has such a brilliant premise: in this future, immortality is within grasp, but only for those ‘deserving’ and as such suicide is illegal, anything that might be construed as bad for your health is illegal in fact. I found this idea of preservation of life being the most important thing even before individual happiness and fulfillment so very very brilliant. But I struggled with the execution to no end.

I did think that the world Rachel Heng has created here is interesting and developed in such a way that it never felt info-dumpy. But once you start pulling at the threads it does not really make sense. Innovation has led to a world where organs are augmented, skin can be built to be near indestructible, and science has found out the best ways to life long and healthy lives – but at the same time there are people who will not receive those treatments and it never did become clear to me how that works – I would have liked to have this dichotomy explored more: how is decided whose life if worthy enough to make their suicide illegal? There are infinite possibilities to make this a strong indictment on our current society and I would have loved the book more for it. There were other things that did not make sense for me: it never becomes clear how much in the future we are and as such I did not buy the fundamental changes in education that have occurred. It is a plot point that only those who have long life-spans can become medical doctors because the education takes 40 years – and I don’t buy that. Why would anybody have to study for 40 years to be a good doctor? I don’t think education would change this fundamentally. It irked me especially because I think another explanation would have worked far better: medical degrees are expensive, amongst the most expensive in fact (when considering how much a single student costs universities), so why not make the exclusion of people with shorter life spans about this?

My biggest issue, by far, was the main character, Lea. I found her to be less than convincing and unpleasant to spend time with.  She is 100 years old and even if that is young in the scheme of her potential life span she is still more than three times as old as I am but she felt like she was 20, tops. I did not get her and the weird back story she had did not work for me either. She never felt her age and never felt like a person. I had this whole elaborate theory in fact that she might actually not be human because this would be the only way her behaviour makes any sense. Also, a petty problem I had with her: she kept sweating behind her knees whenever she was uncomfortable and if that doesn’t scream ‘weirdly programmed robot’ then I don’t know (I am sorry if I am the weird one and everybody is in fact sweating behind their knees).

The second main character, Anja, was so much more interesting and if the book had been told from her perspective I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more. Her mother was one of those whose bodies were used to test new procedures and now her heart keeps going even though she is brain-dead but she is not allowed to die because life is precious even though she might be stuck and suffering. This is such a creepy, brilliant concept that I would have loved to have seen explored more. But we spend so much more time with Lea than with Anja that this could not save the book for me.

So yes, I struggled with this, and I am super disappointed because the bones of this story are so brilliant.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

35099035Verdict: Not quite for me.

My rating: 3 put of 5 stars

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Published by HarperCollins UK, 16th January, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

FIVE WOMEN. ONE QUESTION: What is a woman for?

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers.

Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

RED CLOCKS is at once a riveting drama whose mysteries unfold with magnetic energy, and a shattering novel of ideas. With the verve of Naomi Alderman’s THE POWER and the prescient brilliance of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Leni Zumas’ incredible new novel is fierce, fearless and frighteningly plausible.

My thoughts on this are all jumbled up; I thought I would adore this and it is not a bad book by any means but it took me three months to finish this. I could just not get on board and I am not quite sure where my problems lie.

I love the plausibility of the world Leni Zumas has created here, it feels organic in a way that is scary and frustrating. Set in the not so distant future, reproductive rights have been severely limited: abortion is illegal in all and every circumstances (and in fact considered murder), in-vitro fertilization is unavailable, and soon adoption will only be possible for straight, married couples. Told from five different perspectives, Zumas shows the far-reaching consequences these changes to the law might have. Her world is plausible and aggrevating and often feels contemporary rather than speculative.

My main problem were the characters that often felt underdeveloped and not particularly fleshed-out. As they are often refered to by a descriptor (“the mother”, “the daughter” etc.) this was probably on purpose: these things that are happening do not happen to these women because of who they are but rather because of the way the social structure is set up. Intellectually, I get, emotionally, I did not care for their stories at all. There was a large chunk in the middle that did not work for me because of that distance. I do think that the storylines converged nicely in the end and that the character development if slight did work.

I enjoyed Leni Zumas’ particular prose a whole lot and thought it added a nice layer of urgency and intimacy to an otherwise distant book. Her sentences are choppy but have a nice rhythm to them.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and HarperCollins UK in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Book of M – Peng Shepherd

39899065Verdict: Fairly wonderful.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Published by HarperCollins, June 28th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In the middle of a market in India, a man’s shadow disappears. As rolling twenty-four-hour news coverage tries to explain the event, more cases are discovered. The phenomenon spreads like a plague as people learn the true cost of their lost part: their memories.

Two years later, Ory and his wife Max have escaped ‘the Forgetting’ by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods in Virgina. They have settled into their new reality, until Max, too, loses her shadow.

Knowing the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to the person most precious to her, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up what little time they have left before she loses her memory completely, and desperately follows her trail.

On their separate journeys, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a mysterious new force growing in the south that may hold the cure. But neither could have guessed at what you gain when you lose your shadow: the power of magic.

A breathtakingly imaginative, timeless story that explores fundamental questions about memory and love—the price of forgetting, the power of connection, and what it means to be human when your world is turned upside down.

I love books that are not easily classifiable – and this is just that. It is speculative fiction but also incorporates a feeling of magical realism, it is a romance (and it is really not), it is just absolutely lovely. I adore the premise above all else: at some point in the not so distant future people start losing their shadows and with them, slowly but inexorably, their memories. First the small things but then bigger and bigger things until they forget to breath. With the loss of memories come weird powers: if a person without a shadow remembers something wrong, that thing becomes just so. Peng Shepherd uses this to create achingly beautiful scenes that edge on unsettling.

The book is told from four perspectives:

  • Orlando Zhang (Ory), whose wife has just lost her shadow and left him behind, is single-minded in his pursuit of his wife,
  • Max, his wife, is losing her memories and keeps recording herself speaking to her husband to make sure she does not remember him wrong,
  • Mahnaz Ahmadi, an Iranian archer, is stuck in Boston, far away from her family and most importantly her younger sister.
  • The Amnesiac has lost his memory in an accident and as such has a unique understanding of memory loss and its effects on sense of self.

My favourite parts by far were those concerned with Max – her journey into forgetting is mesmerizing and her resilience is wonderful. Spending time in her head made what was happening on a grander scale much more personal and affecting. I also loved spending time with Ahmadi – I love sibling relationships anyways and hers just made me weepy. The Amnesiac’s story at points had a feeling of fairy tale, which obviously I adored. My problem lay with Ory (and his perspective encompasses the bulk of this book) – he did not feel like a fully formed person to me. For most of the book he is single-minded in his pursuit of Max, never pausing, never considering her as a person in her own right, to be honest. I have some spoilery thoughts that might explain this but even so, I never really got along with his point of view – even though some of the most stunning scenes were from his perspective.

Overall, I adore the way Peng Shepherd structured her book – I am often a huge fan of multiple perspectives and here they are handled expertly and with a brilliant sense of timing. I thought her language flowed beautifully and her imagination is just breathtaking, many scenes unfolding cinematically in the best possible way. Her use of imagery and colour really added to this already wonderfully layered story.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.