Saffy’s Angel – Hilary McKay

Saffy’s Angel is well-written young adult fluff. It has the bohemian arty family, an adoption, and a strict family to put the artists into context.

Fundamentally, Saffy discovers that she should inherit an angel, and most of the book revolves around her quest to try and recover it. But there are side plots, with sister Caddy’s torturous learning to drive with Michael Darling, the father who spends most of his time at his London studio and other adventures of the rest of the family.

There is lots of rich humour, with some children allowed to do what they want, and some much more constrained, and not a single one of them being set up to be taken seriously. It forms a nice light book, touching on serious topics. However I don’t feel any great need to read the other three in the series.

The King’s Justice – Stephen Donaldson

The King’s Justice is a short and punchy novella, with the mysterious character “Black” who turns up in town shortly after an unsolved murder. But this book is not really about that murder, but about the balancing of forces and the understanding of who makes up “The King’s Justice” and how they become who they are.

“Very well,” begins Black. “You are aware, I hope, that you are both charlatans.”
The priests stare…

As so many fantasy novels are, it is in a pseudo-medieval setting. My only complaint is the origin of the enemy, but at least that is not gratuitous, but rather necessary to explain how he has access to magic that the King’s Justice doesn’t.

Well worth reading

The Seventh Sword Trilogy – Dave Duncan

Another trilogy lent to me during recuperation, this one is one I’d read before. This trilogy brilliantly subverts genre tropes, with a modern chemist catapulted into another world during the Age of Legends. Wallie Smith has to understand both how this world works and what is happening to fulfil a mysterious quest set to him by a god.

We have the trials, the faith and the work to drive the world to a better place. But we also have “magic” and strategy and leadership. Of course there is a culture clash, as Wallie has to get used to social norms in the World.  How it ends is inspired, and I love that the big picture the gods view includes the purpose for souls, and the need for that soul to be the right age at the right time.

The characters are both strong and flawed, just how I like them! And the world-building is brilliant as we understand the geography and what the Age of Legends means in this world.

Looking for other work by Dave Duncan I am torn to discover that he has added a fourth book to this series. Unlike the existing books, which happen in swift succession, this one is set 15 years into the future. Such a distant epilogue feels like cashing in on a successful trilogy rather than having anything interesting to say

Wicked – Gregory Maguire

I am a big fan of musicals, including Wicked, and wanted to revisit the novel that inspired the musical.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West does not have the same plot as the musical, but the same starting premise. Elphaba is given a stronger destiny, and Galinda more socially constrained in the novel. Not to mention the stronger political tones with genocide and murdering dissidents.

This is a full story of a life, starting with a difficult childhood, and an escape to university which is more complex than expected, and full circle being reached again with family links. She has life-long friendships throughout this in the flawed but loving Nanny and Boq, her partner-in-crime. But fundamentally it is about the life of a woman who faces discrimination and battles it to try and be a force for good in the world.

Maguire’s reimagining of Oz manages to be magical and political. He weaves together complex characters with a range of motives, each of them flawed, but so many driven by a higher purpose or destiny.

And of course, it being Wicked, we need a video. I’ve had a good few weeks of concerts recently, and have heard Defying Gravity at both Idina Menzal’s world tour and at an orchestral performance sung by Ashleigh Gray.

Persuasion – Jane Austen

With the second centenary of Austen’s death there are many events going on to commemorate her and celebrate her works. This runs from appearing on banknotes to plays and other cultural events. I went to a modern “retelling” of Persuasion at the Manchester Royal Exchange, which was both true to the original language and hilarious in its modern interpretations. I confess I didn’t recall a foam party in the text.

Having seen the play (at short notice) I then returned to the book, to take in the depths and layers that a play with limited cast and a short timeframe couldn’t include. Cousins are added, the full detail of who Mrs Clay is and a bit more detail that makes the courtship make more sense.

It is of course beautifully written, humerous in places and shows Anne Elliot manoeuvring her position to navigate through life and find a suitable future for herself.

Have you recently revisited any classics?

Daughter of Eden – Chris Beckett

The third, and feels like the final, book in Beckett’s Eden series. Daughter of Eden takes place so far into Eden’s future that the earlier characters have firmly passed into mythology. He also still has something to say about human nature,and our need to believe in something. Through the characters he introduces he frames religious wars as the ridiculous ideas that they are,

But no one else looked at it that way. How can you ask if the story is true or not, if you’re in the story yourself?

I find it interesting that for the last two books he has focussed on female characters, with the surrounding male characters being two-dimensional at best. The women avoid the nurturing trap as well, and instead are powerful characters who have ambitions and leadership skills, despite the way that the society created on Eden has limited them. And the importance of the relationships between those women is central to this world.

I liked how the story was brought full circle without taking the easy escape. Of course Earth would eventually return, but how that was resolved was imaginative.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki has spent his entire adult life in the shadow of the expulsion from his friendship group in his late teens. Now in his mid-thirties, he is given the impetus to go and find out what has happened to his friends since then, and why they cast him out.

This was not what I expected, and every twist took this in a different direction. Throughout though, I found myself rooting for Tsukuru and hoping that he would be satisfied with the outcome of his pilgrimage. It also offers a view on contemporary Japanese life, with the ordinary everyday, and social structures, being visible alongside the emotional journey Tsukuru has to travel. Of course he doesn’t really take ownership or drive, but I am learning that that is typical of Japanese literature. He at least makes his own decisions about his life in the end, and any lack of resolution is balanced against the complete absence of any clarity at the start.

The Ninth Circle – C. A. Harland

The Ninth Circle is a fast-paced journey though the fantastical criminal underworld of Dublin, and its parallel in the circles of hell. There are a pair of sisters who are at odds with each other, and another sister who is missing, presumed kidnapped.

Although the concept, setting and even the writing style itself all appealed, the use of “episodes” instead of chapters, which each episode felt as though it was a stand-alone TV programme was disjointed. I don’t expect each chapter to have its own full story structure and be brought to nearly full-resolution. This structure stopped the story from flowing as well as it could have, as well as making the whole book feel like a failed pitch to a TV network.

This book was supplied to me by Netgallery in exchange for an honest review.

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Guylain Vignolles is an unlikely central character in a book. He lives a reclusive life, with a job he hates and few friends. But he has one saving grace: he reads. Not only novels at home for pleasure, but aloud, without invitation on his morning train ride. This has gained him a small following, and along with his lunchtime friend’s habit of alexandrines, gives this lightweight novel an pleasantly pseudo-intellectual feel, perfect for Sunday morning reading.

He stumbles through life, guided by instincts and the colourful characters he finds himself alongside. There are a few bumps, and echoes of an earlier traumatic incident, but mostly he is just bumbling through life with Roger, his goldfish, for company. Until….

Of course a change has to be made for their to be any story to hand on Guylain, but his ordinary life is what makes this book so readable. Well worth a lazy morning with tea.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Alderman’s The Power well-deserves its place in the Bailey’s Shorlist. An Atwood-style utopian/dystopian future. I did though have a little less respect for the Atwood quote on the front cover when the acknowledgements make it clear that she mentored Alderman. I’m very keen for writers in a genre to mentor upcoming writers, but then providing public feedback seems misleading.

Onto the book though: I like the concept, a reversal of all gender-based power. It places misogyny into context, whilst questioning just how much is due to essential shared human nature, with the flipping of the power merely changing who abused it.

I found the introductory letters confusing, until I read the epilogue letters as well, at which point the whole story clicked into much clearer context. The setting of the main book is a near-future science fiction, in which all women have gained a new life and death power. We follow four characters, and see how the changing world shapes them. Each central character is given depth, and has their own voice throughout. Their stories twist together and apart through this, done perfectly smoothly.

A must-read, and my favourite so far to win the Baileys, although as a science fiction fan I may be biased!

Is anyone else reading from the shortlist?