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Nicholas Royle – Ornithology

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Anthologies for birds, now in 140 characters or less.

Publisher: Cōnfingō Publishing
Pages: 177
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-59660-3
First Published: 2nd June 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A man obsesses over a woman he meets on Twitter whilst his neighbours seem to follow each other around. A man puts up shelving with his girlfriend as a man in a second block of flats across from him puts up shelving with the same girlfriend. A person who admires the ever-rarely seen birds about his house gets sick and finds an unknown entity inside him.

Ornithology is a collection of short stories on variations of the concept of birds and what they are. Individuality, identity, the modern world and phrasing, and the difference and likeness between birds and humans are all considered in what you will come to find a strange, weirdly horrific collection.

The collection bares a resemblance to Max Porter’s recent Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, in fact for those of you who’ve read that book referring to it is a fairly good way to describe Ornithology. That eerieness of Porter’s book and its is-it-really-happening factor is here, too, in Royle’s collection. It’s a weird mix of respect for wildlife and the destruction of it, in many ways presenting an extreme version of the mix of protection and moves towards extinction we see today, with its often literal gobbling up of animals and transposing of what birds do to their prey onto the human condition. Different levels of strangeness appear throughout with the stories arranged in such a way that you start with the hint of magical realism and end up in the realms of science fiction and literal horror.

Some stories barely approach the main subject, using it more as a lean-to, whilst others are heavily invested. The first story, Unfollow, is a particular highlight and its placement sets the tone for the rest of the book; it’s a story in which social media and our appropriation of an onomatopoeic word are at the forefront of a tale that looks at a person’s worry that they are stalking someone online against a backdrop of people physically stalking each other. The Obscure Bird, a few stories in, looks at our relationship with each other and with birds, in a literal, all-consuming, way.

When it comes to the horror stories – in particular – some are better than others. There’s a reason for this – the book is a collection spanning years of work. The unfortunate fact is that these works on a theme inevitably include plots that are similar, resulting in a lessening of impact as you go along; on their own, each story is very good, with the usual slight differences in literary enjoyment you’d expect. It’s best to read this book slowly; it favours a dip in, dip out approach.

Overall, this is a top notch collection that keeps you thinking and provides a lot of literary pleasure. Consumed more slowly than a rogue human eating birds – it’s a strange beast, but there’s much beauty in it.

I received this book for review.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Herland

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This is a difficult book to write about!

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1915
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2017
Rating: N/A (Historical value is significant but it’s not the best book out there)

Van and his friends are exploring new regions and during their travels they are told of a land bereft of men. Highly intrigued, they make for that country for different reasons. Terry thinks he’ll conquer the ladies, Jeff thinks it all sounds marvellous, and Van is simply interested. It might not turn out as they expect, particularly for Terry.

Herland is a science fiction utopia novella – a sociological text – that looks at what might happen if men were not around. Understandably based around early 20th century American society – and a lot of academia – there is much to recommend it today both in terms of the history of feminism and eternally relevant concepts. There is also a lot to be said for reading it in our modern day where, in our further cultural and scientific progress, some of the concepts are more poignant and relevant than they were in Gilman’s day.

Herland asks many questions under the umbrella subject of womanhood. What is a woman? What is femininity and how much is nature versus nurture? How much should motherhood (back then almost an inevitability) impact upon a woman’s life?

Gilman’s narrator is a man, Van, and he is joined by two others. In the trio, the author makes use of different personalities in order to be able to fully explore her ideas in the context of her fictional world as well as to pull it apart both in favour of it and not so. Van is somewhere on the middle of a scale; he’s critical of both his friends who in turn represent viewpoints at the extremes, one of them loving Herland a lot. Jeff doesn’t take long to align himself with the country, indeed he is presented, once the trio get there, as a major ally of it. Gilman, through narrator Van, questions the wisdom of falling completely for the female-only society, always leaning towards equality for both genders. Jeff takes Herland in his stride and as the novel continues you can see Gilman’s questions – is Jeff’s a complete submission, his almost ‘mummy’s boy’ approach a good one?

Then there’s Terry. Granted, Terry goes through a cycle of changes that’s in favour of Gilman’s ideas – which I’ll get to in a moment – but on the whole in Terry you have a ‘man’s man’ who thinks all the women will love him and submit to him. Gilman wants you to see that both Terry’s and Jeff’s views are problematic – Van, too – to various extents.

Terry’s change, from ‘man’s world’ to a bit more ‘woman’s and man’s world’ is never completed – Gilman does make him more amenable for a time but it’s in her continued decision to not change him completely (she shatters his good progression to major effect) that you can see her thought that equality is best – and in fact Gilman uses him to show the increasing realisation that women can do just as good a job in traditionally male work. It’s a slow development but there is a distinctive span of time between Terry’s reckoning that the female-only country will be ‘savage’ and his statement in which he terms the people ‘highly civilised ladies’.

On the question of what femininity is, there is much. Gilman builds it up, as she does her exploration of ‘people’, speaking of Terry’s description of ‘real women’ (those in his society) and using character development to say the following through Van:

This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity – developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfilment of their great process.

Gilman looks at the differences between Herland women and American women, the way Herland’s are the equivalent of American men. She doesn’t go too far into the idea that Terry, Jeff, and Van should do the housework, too, but the point is made: a woman doesn’t have to conform to societal expectations to be a woman.

Where Gilman looks most critically at her creation is on the subject of motherhood. She uses the real world expectation in her fictional one, taking it to the extreme so that becoming a mother is the absolute be all and end all of life, it’s just that they happen to live full lives otherwise. (She has by this stage built up your imagination of the world enough that you can see the patriarchy and western concept of manhood aligning perfectly with this taken-to-the-extreme concept of motherhood.)

The country revolves around motherhood. It’s the highest, best thing, a woman – a person – can live for; it’s a religion. It’s both a clever criticism of the west and a criticism of itself:

“The only thing they can think of about a man is Fatherhood!” said Terry in high scorn. “Fatherhood! As if a man was always wanting to be a father!”

Motherhood is where the novella meets its biggest present day opposition. The basic history of the land is science fiction – it might even disappoint you because Gilman takes a giant definite leap towards fantasy, away from real world concepts. Herland women started experiencing immaculate conceptions and this reproduction produces only females. The contention today is in the continual effect of that propagation (because it’s now natural) – in order to not become overwhelmed by overpopulation, the highest people in Herland decreed that some women must ‘suppress the urge’ to reproduce and leave it to a select number of chosen women. Some women are so favoured they have more than one child.

The criticism itself comes in where Gilman places what we would now call a cheeky child outside of the circle of those chosen to later be mothers. If you combine this concept with Herland’s success at eradicating disease, illness, harm, it’s not the happiest picture, despite that this eradication of suffering is for the benefit of everyone in the land.

(The interesting thing about the views of children, in general, displayed here is Gilman’s view of how the west treats them: ‘no Herland children ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children’.)

So disability and mental illness become suspect, too. Gilman does not speak of it outright – the illnesses she mentions read as cold and flu – but it creates unease, particularly in the context of today. It’s much like the situation surrounding Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre – you have to consider where prejudice as we view it meets what were average societal thoughts back then and come to your own conclusion.

Gilman says little directly about race. Terry calls the people who reside next to Herland ‘savages’ but given his character in general, in the context of the book it’s hard to say that this is Gilman’s view. Gilman’s Herland could be ethnically mixed; again it’s down to the reader. (I will note here that the question of the author’s views on race are answered in the next book. Since I wouldn’t recommend reading the next book I’d propose you read essays about her instead.)

Herland is an enjoyable read on an entertainment level, at least in terms of being entertained by history and barriers being broken, but it’s not something to read to escape daily life. It demands you think – that is it’s very purpose – and it’s a book you’d be hard pressed not to take a thousand notes on. It has its faults, it has its dated aspects, but it is a triumph in terms of progressive thinking. The only thing really amiss is the ending – the book finishes almost mid movement, but there’s a sequel that continues where the flying machine takes off.

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Jessie Greengrass – An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It

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A long title well worth typing out.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 179
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-61085-9
First Published: 30th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 18th November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

A sailor/explorer tells the story of a species’ extinction; a child wants to go back in time, further than the years spent in a neglectful home; a visit to the zoo reiterates just how little a girl’s father cares.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is an incredible collection of short stories that share basic themes – some, human intervention, others, choice. Spanning from the medieval period to some decades into the future (2050, to be exact), Greengrass’s book is one of beautiful writing and subtle shocks.

The overall reading experience of this book is one of ‘clicks’, or ‘ah ha!’ moments as we often call them. Light bulbs over heads. Greengrass’s general process, the ‘subtle shocks’ referred to, means that after a few stories have been completed you get into the habit of looking closely at the narrative to see what the nub of it all is; even the few unassuming tales in this book have at least a small moment behind them. Sometimes you get answers, a more or less bluntly-spoken meaning. Other times you have to piece it together yourself. The storytelling means that there is always something there to keep you reading; even at those times it seems the story is lengthy (in relative terms) you know that there’s a reason.

And these shocks, these points, that Greengrass includes… they could never be called brilliant, exactly, because they tend to be harrowing, but they do lean towards the exceptional in their telling. A few stories tell of cold climates and the harm done to them so you get those tales of extinction in all their violence; the author spares nothing.

To collect the feathers, there were different ways. We could not take the bodies all the way back across the Atlantic because they would spoil. At first we killed the birds and plucked them, and we tossed the corpses off the cliff and they fell into the sea. The birds looked so much smaller without their feathers on. Then we told ourselves this method took too much of our time.

The title story does this best, containing precisely the sort of information you would think it does. A report of how the Great Auks fell into extinction, which echoes the stories of the sailors of 1840; Greengrass writes from the explorer viewpoint but her thoughts of protection, environmentalism, seep out from the text. The story is full of human destruction, how in exploring and charting we are inevitably, for all our good intensions, bringing harm to places humans had never previously been and, it could be argued, should still stay away from. Echoes of the future abound – will this happen more in time? Greengrass gets to the point, and yet the story is purposefully vague. And full of excuses of the sort seen constantly – it’s not the humans’/this particular group of people’s fault this happened!

Another standout is On Time Travel, in which a child speaks of her longing for the distant past whilst recounting episodes in her dysfunctional family’s life. Rose-tinted glasses abound as the girl explains the benefits of that past time; the reader sees the flaws but then it doesn’t seem to matter when it’s just a dream. It would spoil the effect to discuss anything further, but it’s enough to say that Greengrass’s ending is surprising and incredibly poignant.

Although I am not able to deviate from the set scripts, I do sometimes alter my voice when I speak to the people who call premium phone lines in the thin hope that I will be able to help them. I do this on the occasions when I am for some reason unable to dissociate my mind from my body to the extent that time can pass over my unhindered. On these occasions, my awareness of my existence within the warehouse as unbearable comes in waves; it throbs in my temples and fills my mouth with the taste of sour milk…

Something that may or may not work in the book’s favour depending on what you think of it is Greengrass’s use of the same basic voice and writing style throughout. It’s an incredibly literary style that harks back to Victorian monologues, first-person narratives – her words are not historic, rather it’s a gentle, flowing style, full of beauty. The potential issue then is not in the style itself but in the constancy of it. Some may enjoy the stability of it as well as the way it can suit a person looking back on their life, using adult language to explain their childhood. Others may not find the maturity of the vocabulary matches the ages or personality of the narrators and that that is problematic. It’s very subjective – Greengrass has a lovely style, but does it fit the book as a whole? In regards to the first-person, on occasion the author defers to third. It appears a choice made in order to tell the story in the most expressive way each time and the switching points of view do not seem out of place.

This book warrants your attention but never demands it. It has a lot to say but it can be wistful, both an escape and a work-out for the mind. If you like the sound of the narration you will most likely find it a wonderful reading experience that is difficult to sum up – the way it can leave you speechless has a real-world impact.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is a very fine collection by a very talented and thoughtful writer. One to savour… and potentially scribble all over.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Rick Yancey – The 5th Wave

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Not the happy Mexican one.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 461
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-34583-3
First Published: 7th May 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th July 2016
Rating: 3/5

The alien ‘waves’ arrived with only ten days warning. For those ten days, a vast mother ship hovered in the sky; humanity went about life as normal, wondering if the aliens would make contact and either becoming excited or remaining indifferent to the idea. Like the other kids, sixteen-year-old Cassie continues going to school and it’s during a lesson that the lights go out, mobile phones go dead, and a plane falls from the sky. Suddenly excitement about alien contact goes silent, as silent as the waves of death the aliens begin to spread.

The 5th Wave is a Young Adult science fiction book that is an easy and often well-paced read but unfortunately suffers due to its formulaic nature and writing.

The story begins well and with much promise – this will not be your usual alien-invasion story, says Yancey, and Cassie quickly quashes her misgivings over using a gun. She will shoot if she has to. It’s all rather exciting. Get past the first section, however, and the true concept reveals itself: The 5th Wave may not be your ‘usual’ alien story (or at least not too usual) but it is your usual dystopian. After that first section wherein Cassie was a character you were fully looking forward to spending a vast number of pages with, two things happen.

First thing: Cassie’s personality changes. She meets a boy and suddenly it’s no longer a question of guns and survival and aliens outside the door (the humans have considered the possibility of infiltration) but looking nice, washing her hair… you get the idea. That Cassie falls in love in a desperate situation is understandable, but that she suddenly pushes the apocalypse to the side isn’t exactly realistic. She’s just survived tsunamis and a plague that wiped out billions, people are dead and every second counts in saving someone only she can save, but let’s have a cuddle first.

Second thing: the narrative switches to other characters. This isn’t a problem in itself, even if it does mean the book leans ever more into that formulaic territory, it’s that Yancey doesn’t tell you he’s switching and the lack of names mean it always takes a bit of time to work out who you’re reading about. The first new point of view matches Cassie’s in that the situation is one you naturally think is hers – Cassie was hurt so turning the page to read about someone being given first aid sounds like a continuation of the narrative. (I myself thought the referrals to this person as ‘he’ amounted to some sort of alien female-led society, which would’ve been rather awesome.)

Following on from this narrative change is the way Yancey goes about answering questions. He doesn’t really need to say anything, the book is entirely predictable once you’ve figured out what his plan is, but as it trickles out you see the influences – The Hunger Games, a certain vampire series, and notable bits and pieces from other books that it would spoil the ‘reveal’ to list, blended together (there’s even some sort of inner goddess spin-off going on). If you’ve read any of those books or seen the film adaptations, you won’t find anything new in this book.

Are the aliens exciting? Not really. They’re said to be very advanced but they’re conveniently limited by our technology at times. They make choices that allow Yancey to keep the story going. And there will be no epic battle with them later on in the series because of the way Yancey has constructed their civilisation.

There is one very good thing about this book and that is the atmosphere, or slight commentary, Yancey includes of political historical situations. Many other reviewers have noted the Colonial era, the British invasion of America and subsequent trampling of the Natives; I myself found a study of the Holocaust. Suffice to say there is something subtle at work where Yancey is looking at invasion, human against human, and showing how awful it is by pitting the whole of humanity together against another species. There’s no real conclusion to it here and indeed it seems more the general assumption of readers that there is this subtext (rather than an obvious sign from Yancey) but as many have seen it it’s something to bear in mind and, whatever it really is, it lifts the book above its narrative, at times giving it an air of literary fiction. It’s just that it’s not enough to keep the book above the narrative in the long run.

The 5th Wave is worth reading if you want something easy and if you’ve read other dystopian Young Adult trilogies and want more of the same (it is fun in that way – the pages fly by), but if you’re after a good alien invasion story you’ll be disappointed.

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Ashley Stokes (ed.) – The End

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They didn’t all live happily ever after.

Publisher: Unthank Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-06127-5
First Published: 1st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th August 2016
Rating: 4/5

The End is a collection of short stories inspired by scratch-work paintings. Nicholas Ruston created the paintings in the style of old film ‘end’ cards – all black and white – and the writers went off and wrote what they would. The titles of the stories have become the titles of the paintings. It’s an intriguing concept that promises variety – there’s the simple link between them of the paintings but beyond that they are very different meaning there is wide appeal.

To my mind the absolute stand-outs in this book are the stories that have taken endings literally – they’ve written the literal end of what could well have been a longer story. Suffice to say there’s a lot of extra thinking you can do after finishing them, whole novels to imagine. The Slyest Of Foxes by Angela Readman details the end of a gunman’s visit, a woman who sees what’s going on in her neighbour’s house, choosing to go round with a bowl of soap that continues a hint of razor. Harbour Lights by AJ Ashworth details the aftermath of a relationship, a very sombre note. Ashley Stokes’ own, Decompression Chamber, looks at the non-ending of the world. Crow by Aiden O’Reilly, a political-sounding ending.

But perhaps the winner is All The TVs In Town by Dan Powell. It focuses on the very end of whatever apocalyptic situation (or is it The Truman Show?) it’s talking about. Various genres within a whole, the mainstay is science fiction/dystopia with a liberal spritz of literary fiction.

The paintings themselves are rendered small but the composition and overall creation is such that that’s all that’s needed. It is indeed true to form – the aspect ration fitting cinema, the frames sporting an almost Hitchcockesque atmosphere. There’s a deliciousness in the blend of old and new – a car in one of them, for example, is mid-twentieth century, but then there’s a psychedelic design in another, with other paintings being decidedly more modern – old base, new ideas. One suspects that for the paintings… it’s hardly the perfect analogy, mass-produced as they were, but consider those foil and copper art packs your parents bought you when you were a child – the finished works were quite something.

So in this book there’s a lot to enjoy, and that there’s a base theme but no other means it’s a lovely break if you like short stories but have had enough of all the connections. The introduction to the book, which includes the background to the pictures and the commissions, is a short story in itself. The book could have done with another proof-read but overall this is a great choice for an evening’s read or perhaps even better if spread over the course of a few days.

Dark in many definitions of the word, The End offers a special experience and an introduction to a plethora of authors you may not have heard of.

I received this book for review from the editor.

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