Friday, 22 August 2014

Book Review | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami


Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance all of their names contained a colour. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning 'red pine', and Oumi, 'blue sea', while the girls' names were Shirane, 'white root', and Kurono, 'black field'. Tazaki was the only last name with no colour in it.

One day Tsukuru Tazaki's friends announced that they didn't want to see him, or talk to him, ever again.

Since that day Tsukuru has been floating through life, unable to form intimate connections with anyone. But then he meets Sara, who tells him that the time has come to find out what happened all those years ago.

***

"From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying." (p.1)

So begins Haruki Murkami's first novel since the bloat of the book many expected to be his magnum opus. Happily, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is essentially the inverse of IQ84. It's short and sweet where that last was extended in its dejection; gently suggestive rather than frustratingly overbearing; and though the ending is a bit of bait and switch, it's one which feels fitting, unlike IQ84's dubious denouement.

If you were worried, as I was, that Murakami may have had his day, then rest assured: his new novel represents a timely reminder of the reasons you fell for his fiction in the first place.

As with almost every book to bear the international bestseller's brand, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage immerses readers in the mindset of a single, emotionally crippled character; a man approaching middle age, in this case, whose major malfunction is made plain from the first page, as he reflects on his lowest moments:
There was an actual event that had led him to this place—this he knew all too well—but why should death have such a hold on him, enveloping him in its embrace for nearly half a year? Envelop—the word expressed it precisely. Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, Tsukuru had fallen into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void. (p.2)
But before this death, this darkness... life, and light. Light composed of the colours of his four best friends, with whom his life was intimately intertwined:
The two boys' last names were Akamatsu—which means 'red pine'—and Oumi—'blue sea'; the girls' family names were Shirane—'white root'—and Kurono—'black field'. Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this made his feel a little bit left out. (p.6) 
Not half as left out as he felt when, one day, they "announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn't dare ask." (p.3)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage takes place decades after this rejection.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Scotsman Abroad | Gone Goodreading

I'm sure this sounds counter-intuitive coming from a blogger, but social media and me, we... we have a somewhat strained relationship. It's true that I tweet; it's true, too, that that's been as much as I can manage—and sometimes, I'm crap at managing that. I'll either be tweeting all the time or not at all.

I'm just bad at balance.

Over the years, though, I've come to realise that community is crucial. Especially for a blogger based somewhere as out there—relative to the likes of London—as the boondocks of Scotland. So a week or so ago, an invite inspired me to give in to Goodreads. I signed up for an account, sent a few (hundred) friend requests and set about filling a bookshelf or two.


To my surprise, it's been a bunch of fun so far. I particularly enjoy having a place to put my immediate reactions to texts as they develop, and I figured a few of you might do too. So if you're interested in reading my ramblings about the books I'm reading right now—books you won't see reviews of on The Speculative Scotsman for some time, typically—feel free to friend me, folks: on Goodreads, or indeed on Twitter, Xbox Live, PSN, Steam and so on.

My username is always niallalot.

Perhaps one day I'll tell you why...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Book Review | Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre


The setting: a faded, lonely guesthouse on the Essex coast. Outside, it's dark, and very foggy. Inside there's no phone or internet reception, no connection with the outside world.

Enter Ariel Panek, a promising young academic en route from the USA to an important convention in Amsterdam. With his plane grounded by fog at Stanstead, he has been booked in for the night at the guesthouse. Discombobulated and jetlagged, he falls in with a family who appear to be commemorating an event.

But this is no ordinary celebration. And this is no ordinary family.

As evening becomes night, Panek realises that he has become caught in an insidious web of other people's secrets and lies, a Sartrian hell from which for him there may be no escape.

***

I haven't been so relieved to finish reading a novel in recent years than I was Breakfast with the Borgias

This from someone who's had to review some utter rubbish: books which tested my patience from the first page. Here, however, we have a completely different beast. Coming as it does from the Man Booker Prize winning author of Vernon God Little, it's no surprise that Breakfast with the Borgias is brilliantly written; that its themes are thoughtful, its execution deft; that its gregarious cast of characters come alive even as its slight story excites.

The trouble? The tension. It's almost intolerable. Especially in the first section, DBC Pierre's inaugural Hammer Horror is intensely stressful, like a bad blind date you can't escape.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Guest Post | "Om-Nom-Omnigenre" by Tom Pollock

"Oh really, how cool, you wrote a book?"

"Yes. Well, a trilogy actually."

"Oh cool, what genre is it?"

"YA. YA Urban Fantasy. YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia. YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia Post-Apocalypse."

"YA Urban...?"

"YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia Post-Apocalypse?"

"More or less."

At that point the conversation usually dries up. My interlocutor necks the rest of their wine, and suddenly remembers they have somewhere else important to be, but I swear it’s true. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy, my series about a teenaged graffiti artist and her poet best friend pulled into a world of runaway train ghosts, living reflections and crane fingered demolition gods, really is of all these genres, and maybe more.

Genre, you see, is a taxonomy, a periodic table for literature, but the truth is, almost all books are compounds, not individual elements. But while which genres to file a particular story under is ultimately up to the reader, it’s the writer who gets to choose the tropes they’ll use to judge it.

But how to choose? Tropes are just story elements—all that marks them out as special is the frequency with which we use them. For me, the first element in any story is the theme. Theme is just a fancy word for ‘what the story’s about,’ and my themes... they kind of snowballed.

The first thing I knew about the trilogy, you see, was that I wanted to tell a story about growing up, so YA made sense. The City’s Son was about two girls pulled into a magical world hidden beneath the skin of everyday London. This is an Urban Fantasy trope so tropey that it barely even registers—it’s practically definitional of the genre—but it’s also as neat a metaphor for one’s first, faltering steps into adulthood as I can think of: a world at once strange and familiar, exciting and frightening, that you’ve lived in every day of your life but never really seen until now.

In the second novel—The Glass Republic—our scarred protagonist is pulled into an aesthetic dictatorship, a parallel city inside reflections where the full measure of your worth is judged by your face, and the standards of beauty are set by a proud and ruthless Mirrorstocracy. Again, the core idea of a repressive regime is hardly original, but the resonance of a teen testing themselves against the rules and limits of their new world, and deciding how much they will shape those limits and how far they’ll allow them to shape them... for me that was the perfect second act.


And the final apocalyptic act? Bringing the world-that-is-London to the brink of destruction by an urban plague: streets running at 1000 degree fevers, windows and doors vanishing to leave citizens sealed up in brick, solid roads turning in an instant to a liquid so thin you can’t swim in it, just sink and let it fill your nostrils? 

All that is because when you’ve grown up—really grown up—you can never go home again.

Maybe that’s why I think of being grown-up (past tense) as a synonym for death.

Anyway, that’s how one series gets to be in (at least) four sub genres. So I’ll throw it over to you, dear internet friend, what’s your favourite genre: horror? Police procedural? Romance? And much more importantly—what do those genres say to you?

***

Inventor of monsters and hugger of bears, Tom Pollock writes fantasy, and writes about fantasy. Say hey to him on twitter @tomhpollock or by way of his website.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Book Review | Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock


Ever since Beth Bradley found her way into a hidden London, the presence of its ruthless goddess, Mater Viae, has lurked in the background. Now Mater Viae has returned with deadly consequences. 

Streets are wracked by convulsions as muscles of wire and pipe go into spasm, bunching the city into a crippled new geography; pavements flare to thousand-degree fevers, incinerating pedestrians; and towers fall, their foundations decayed. 

As the city sickens, so does Beth—her essence now part of this secret London. But when it is revealed that Mater Viae's plans for dominion stretch far beyond the borders of the city, Beth must make a choice: flee, or sacrifice her city in order to save it.

***

There was always something special about Beth Bradley; something which went beyond her quick wit, her evident intelligence. Wasn't so long ago she was one among many—a badly-behaved teenager suffering through school, as exceptional individuals like Beth tend to—yet even then she was set apart by her street art; by graffiti which came to life because of her partnership with Pen, who'd append poetry to her pictures, turning still images into stories. Stories of the city.

Stories such as those Tom Pollock has told over the course of The Skyscraper Throne: an inventive and affecting urban fantasy saga which comes full circle with the release of Our Lady of the Streets. Be prepared to bid a bittersweet goodbye to Beth and her best friend, then... but not before they've had one last adventure together. An adventure as incredible as it is desperate; as tragical as it is magical.

Why? Because Beth Bradley is dying.

You could say she's city-sick. About to bow out because she has become London, and London is all but lost. Since the manifestation of Mater Viae's mirror image, the very streets have become fevered—a sweltering mass of metal and glass.

Most of the locals have legged it, luckily. But the infection is spreading. London is "an organic city," all of a sudden, "capable of growing hundreds of miles in only a few weeks—and bringing its sickness to everything it touches." Everything... and everyone.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Scotsman Abroad | The Afterparty At Last

Some time ago, I told you all how much I was looking forward to Daryl Gregory's new novel. Well, its release date in the UK is this week. At long last, the Afterparty is upon us!


Alas, I didn't love it. In my review for Strange Horizons, written around the time of Afterparty's publication in April Stateside, I commented as follows:
Taken together, The Parable of The Girl Who Died and Went to Hell, Not Necessarily in That Order, and The Sixth Sense twist at the back of the first chapter, when it dawns on us that Dr. Gloria is a pharmaceutical figment of Lyda's lively imagination, do a terrific job of eliciting interest—intrigue, even—in Afterparty, but what follows is, if not flat, then fairly familiar. Too soon, Gregory disposes of the doctor—she has a good Christian conscience, of course, so Lyda's abuse of Ollie bothers her—and in her absence, Afterparty becomes a more mundane chase-and-escape affair than the suggestive start of the book moots: it's revealed to be a thriller as opposed to a thinker, less Philip K. Dick than Lee Child or the like. 
It's a credit to Gregory that the going is engrossing in any event, in large part because of its pitch-perfect pace: a race to the finish line, in fact, between Lyda's lot and a cowboy contract killer called Vincent—pardon me: the Vincent (don't ask)—by way of a series of exciting set-pieces, such as the party's botched border crossing after an uncomfortably close encounter with an elderly Afghan drug distributor. 
On the back of Raising Stony Mayhall, I don't suppose it should come as a surprise that the author is more interested in character than narrative, but I found it harder to love Lyda than I did the eponymous zombie of Gregory's last novel, and Afterparty's plot, though perfectly paced, proved more pedestrian than that suggested by the promising premise.

Afterparty is a good book, to be sure, but here I'd been hoping for something superlative. Do yourself a favour and read Raising Stony Mayhall instead. Now that is an awesome novel.