Natash Pulley Double Bill Review: The Bedlam Stacks & The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

It’s easy to think that nobody could really arrange the world like clockwork. All sorts of things would get stuck in the mechanisms … But clairvoyants have a knack for arranging time, and it was not without a sense of irony that Keita Mori was a watchmaker.
In his workshop, it was difficult to see what he was making until it was done. A sort of organised chaos characterised the way he worked, so much so that he could be constructing something for months or years and it would it only look like a tangle of something generically worrying – right up until it got up, walked off, and turned out to be an octopus.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, “Prologue”, Natashy Pulley, pIX

I have read Natasha Pulley’s full catalogue of published novels to date – 3 in total: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. I loved every single one and whatever comes along next, you can bet I won’t be waiting for the paperback. Hardbacks ahoy.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, with The Bedlam Stacks being an expansion of the same world with cameos from Keita Mori – the eponymous watchmaker. And the world is intoxicating. When I read The Watchmaker, I would have called it magical realism, but The Lost Future and The Bedlam Stacks have leant more deeply into fantasy and sci-fi. The Watchmaker alluded to magic while the storyline was still very firmly rooted in the human experience. But in these two subsequent novels, the storyline is far more affected by the magic and its mechanics that I would change my classification. My old bookseller pal will be pleased – he insists that fiction steals all the good stuff due to intellectual snobbery… but I digress.

You can read my full review of Watchmaker here.

Let us first turn more specific attention to The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. We return to the tale of Keita Mori, watchmaker, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman, and Nathaniel Steepleton, telegraphist, pianist, translator and Londoner. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow takes Mori back to his roots – Tokyo. Thaniel gains a position at the legation as a translator and so their new adventure begins.

Returning home isn’t an easy experience for Mori, as politics of family and government rake up the past and obscure the future.

Natasha Pulley does a fantastic job of creating mystery and intrigue throughout this novel. Unlike her key character, you cannot predict what’s going to happen and in spite of all you know about Mori, you are guaranteed nothing.

New characters bring new dimensions – unknowns are a must for any sequel, but even more so when clairvoyants are part of the mix. Recurring characters are used sparingly but effectively – their familiarity to the readers being undercut by their function in this story, primarily as providers of instability and narrative upset.

As the story progressed, I was pleasurably distressed by the events. I had fear and hope jostling against this magical world’s complex mechanics.

The only thing that falls down is the science. I recall this was the same in The Watchmaker. When Pulley’s characters start going into detail about how and why this world is the way it is, it fails to elucidate the reader effectively. However, I don’t hold this against the reading experience; it is notoriously difficult to explain physics with verbage.

As with The Watchmaker, the story is carried by enigmatic characters and challenging relationships.

Superhuman, preternatural Mori might be, but he is not immune to fallability – is perhaps the most fallible. He might be able to organise the machinations of governments; but try as he might, he cannot overcome his personal fears and shames. Is it brave to live in a world where you know exactly what’s going to happen? Or to live in a world where even the smallest possibility of disaster plagues your every waking moment? Exactly what characterises Mori’s insecurities or his feats is never revealed to the readers. Pulley allows us to see through the eyes of his companions, his lovers, but not Mori’s own. And there is nothing favourable about the perspective of a lover – who else is more likely to fret and fray, to find fault and worry at all the possibilities. Is he evil? Does he love me? Can he love anyone? Is he invincible? These are the questions we are asked to consider.

He’d always thought that Mori was brave because he always knew what was going to happen, but that turned out to be a serious misjudgement of character.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, p458

The Bedlam Stacks is a separate narrative, but if you read them in order of publication, the overall timeline is consistent and there are lovely nuggets and easter eggs for the keen observer to discover and smile conspiratorially.

The Bedlam Stacks takes us to Peru, where smuggler and horticultural expert Merrick Tremayne is sent by the East India Co. to find Cinchona trees. These trees are the only source of quinine – a vital component for malaria treatment.  But Peru is guarding its resources, so smuggling is the only route out.

When Tremayne arrives, the settlement he stays in during the expedition becomes far more interesting than quinine. The native religion, the way of life in this place so removed from western civilization, called uncivilised by western travellers, is nothing but. This is an ancient and reverential place; living simply does not mean being unsophisticated. Call it folklore, magic or religion – the history here is undeniable.  But put history up against the frantic appetite for “new” and “more” that characterises the EIC and the sprawling destruction and appropriation of the British Empire, and folklore will struggle to stand its ground.

The wooden statues that guard this place are emblems of a timeless culture and a civilisation that began hundreds of years before our own. But these guardians are far more than that. The way of life in the region – as with the country – is being eroded by the west. And the people of the Bedlam Stacks are the bridge between the old and the new. They live in contradiction, the result of generations before being forced to leave behind tradition. But while habits are easily broken and forgotten, the induction of thought and emotion engendered by the generations before is not so easily taken away.

It’s a miracle, actually; sickly prematurely ageing worrying inbred horsey idiots have managed to convince everyone else their way is best by no means than firmness of manner and the tactical distribution of flags. I can’t believe no one’s called our bluff yet.

The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley, p300

In The Bedlam Stacks, folklore fights back.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that immense good humour that froths on every page Pulley writes. Her characters are brimming with it and I cannot but hope for them, live for them, turn hundreds of pages for them.

Review: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen

northanger 1

It was about time I had another classic in the bag and Northanger Abbey has been sat on my shelf since university – part of an extensive reading list that was never completed. I’ve read several of Austen’s novels before and I’m sure we are all familiar with the formula: husbandless female meets handsome rich male; complications ensue; yada yada yada; bish, bash, bosh; wedding bells.

I hope I won’t be revealing any big spoilers for anyone when I say this (look away now if you’d prefer not to know): they end up happily ever after. And yet…

I got genuinely riled up when the douchebag characters screwed things up for the heroine.

Having had a considerable break from Austen, I am now able to read her with fresh appreciation. She is truly a master of narrative prowess and impeccable characterisation. Yes, her works are filled with stereotypes and archetypes. But what is so enjoyable about her characters, is that they are as true to life now as then. I know people like the characters of Northanger Abbey in my life. I was particularly amused by the conversations shared by our heroine and her new best friend – a girl she’d barely known a day. Their chats bare all the marks of quickly made teenage friendships. The idioms of intimate conversation, the subtleties of social interaction are the same as they ever were.

“The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was as quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves.” – 26

But besides her characters, I quickly warmed to this novel because it is very aware of its own formula (i.e. girl meets boy and so on). Northanger Abbey was released posthumously, as was Persuasion, and as such, have a degree of maturity to them that I personally do not find in her earlier publications. By the time she was writing Northanger Abbey, she had established herself well enough to be able to play with her form. And while all her works feature a degree of social satire, it is twice heightened in Northanger Abbey by taking on another genre: gothic romance.

From the outset, Austen is doing her best to unseat the conventions of her genre. The opening pages are strongly advising us not to think of Catherine Morland as your classic heroine: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” (1)

And besides an unfortunate appearance, “not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.” (1-2)

Of her mother: “She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.” (1)

Making fun of the epistolary trope:

“Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenor of your life in Bath without one? … My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.” – (17)

And Austen herself has some things to say to her readers:

“I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding – joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, for whom she can expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk with threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body” (26-7)

I think my dear Jane has said all that need be said on the matter. I shall simply add that I found Northanger Abbey a delightful read. Intelligent, self-critical and highly amusing.

 

Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Harper Press (Harper Collins Publishers Ltd)
ISBN: 9780007368600

Book Review: “A Horse Walks into a Bar” by David Grossman (MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE 2018)

Featured

A Horse Walks into a Bar

By David Grossman (Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen)

man book internation 2

This book slaps you in the face with every page – sometimes quite literally – with its palpable tension and heartbreak. Powerful storytelling and jokes that make you snigger in spite of yourself, David Grossman is an artist of black humour and a well deserving winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018.

In the city of Netanya, Israel, Dovaleh G is doing a stand-up routine. He’s been doing this a long time, but tonight is different. Dovaleh is going to tell some jokes, yes, but mostly, he will tell a story. And reveal a dark and painful truth. As the night wears on and the audience thins, his strange story intensifies and you can’t help but feel that you are part of his audience. I watched this man bare his soul on a lonely stage and I now know what it feels like to watch a man relive the most horrific moments of his life. In this theatre of (comic) cruelty, explosive self-abuse sees punchlines become punches to the face. This book, this performance, is cracked, fragmentary and broken – just like the man on stage.

Grossman takes the power of performance art and instils it in this novel. One man, a stage, a spotlight and a powerful story. The darkness, the loneliness, the commitment and the power. This performance, this one-man/stand-up/freak show, is painfully awkward but deeply engrossing. It speaks to that dark part of us that seeks out, will pay to watch, someone fall apart at the seams.

“The temptation to look into another man’s hell.”  (82)

Theatre, art, books, have the power to unite people. Whether that be in a moment of joy or despair, it is a comfort and a thrill to feel connected to those around us. Grossman whips the rug from under our feet repeatedly, in A Horse Walks into a Bar, by using his comedian to show us all the fetid nature of this desire we all feel. Dovaleh will make you laugh, but it’ll come with a price.

“It starts with an awkward hum, with sidelong glances, then something makes their necks swell, and within a second they’re up in the air, balloons of idiocy and liberty, released from gravity, rushing to join the one and only camp that can never be defeated: Hands together for death!” (69)

Continue reading

Quicky Book Review: “Alice in Brexitland” by Lucien Young

Alice in Brexitland

by Leavis Carroll (aka Lucien Young)

 

alice in brexitland

(I received an ARC from NetGalley, in return for an honest review.)

A clever little satire that sums up Brexit in witty and not too pessimistic terms.

As a young voter, still developing a political opinion, there is a lot to be confused and frustrated by in this political climate. Reading a satirical take on Brexit just before bed could have been a really bad idea. It could’ve thrown me into a funk of existential, millennial depression. But thankfully, Young’s clever little satire is the perfect amount of cynicism and optimism. Often satire errs very hard on the side of pessimism, but I am grateful to Mr Young for avoiding that pitfall… or rabbit-hole. It succeeds in being entertaining and not just another series of clever traps and ruses designed to confuse or to lull you into a fall sense of security – as others are wont to do…

The illustrations are apt and really add to the entertainment value, giving a feel for the original Lewis Carroll. The playful use of verse was also very Carrollian, and by bookending the story with his poems, the piece feels rounded and satisfying. Thanks to the eponymous Alice, trademark bluntness and plain-faced frustration is a refreshing change in Brexitland. In the absence of sanity and honesty, it isn’t harsh attack that is needed but plain speaking and legitimate indignation. (I know how Alice feels!) Carroll’s Alice is just the ticket, and Young has done well to remind us that it doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. You can read it in the hour before bedtime, and happily doze into your own wonderland.

Sharp-tongued but also sympathetic, I found Alice in Brexitland to be a highly enjoyable read. I hope Young is planning to write another for the approach of this snap election in June, so that he might continue to be the balm for this particular citizen of the world.

Nonetheless we can resist:
Though the liars tweet and twist
Light still penetrates the mist

(P101)

alice in brexitland cards

Title: Alice in Brexitland

Author: Lucien Young

ISBN: 9781785036965

Buy it here

Book Review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

gentleman in moscow

A book that soothes and warms you with its infectious geniality. A book filled with optimism, verve, self-belief and, incongruous though it seems, Communism. A gorgeous story, whose luxury comes not from the fine dining, orchestral music and room service of the best hotel in Moscow, but from its generosity of spirit.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a gentleman in every sense of the word: not just thanks his to family name, but to his undying optimism and good humour. He is a gentleman in the age of Bolshevism, he is a “Former Person,” he is a prisoner of the state. Once accustomed to all the finer things in life, a gentleman of distinction and leisure, he is now under house arrest till the end of his days. The Hotel Metropol must now become his world.

But there are worse places to be put under house arrest than the most glamorous hotel in Russia. And besides, one can never predict who might stroll through the elegant revolving doors and change your life forever: a forthright girl, a brooding poet, an elegant movie star, an American ambassador, a prissy hotel manager, a one-eyed cat, a cantankerous chicken…

Despite Rostov’s confinement, the story does not feel the slightest bit confined. Where better to accommodate important committees on commerce and industry than the grand halls of the Metropol, while a curious girl and a Count can quietly observe? Outside the hotel, queues of people line the streets to get a new pair of shoes, and city monuments are brought down to make way for something more utilitarian. We peer into the Kremlin offices and travel out to rural farms; we hear stories of a rich man’s past and a loving husband’s broken home.

A world of experience, sprawling outwards and curling back inwards; a spiralling map that leads back to the Hotel Metropol and the ever charismatic Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “the luckiest man in all of Russia” (p313).

 “Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” (p441-2)

“The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” (p417)

(I really tried to delete one of these quotes for the sake of brevity, but I just couldn’t.)


ISBN: 9780091944247

Publisher: Cornerstone

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow

Author: Amor Towles

Book Title: “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde”

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hyde

Thanks to over a century of interpretation, the story of Jekyll and Hyde has been retold over and over. Thanks to TV, film and generations of school teachers, this classic novella is part of our national and, indeed, global culture. Everyone knows the basics: a scientist, Dr Jekyll, creates a formula to separate his evil qualities from himself. But rather than purging his evil, he gives it a face and a body to call its own. As a result, Jekyll periodically transforms into his evil doppelganger, Mr Hyde. As Hyde gains more and more control over Jekyll, terrible consequences follow.

“Street after street, and all the folks asleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a  church – till at least I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and beings to long for the sight of a policeman.” p.3

It is a classic for a reason: it keeps you turning the pages, it makes your heart beat faster. It makes you want to ask the questions you’re not sure you want answered. The gothic atmosphere is timeless and potently imagined. Seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and solicitor, much is kept from us and more still is never truly revealed. We only catch glimpses through closing doors and hear footsteps down dark alleys. The rest is up to us.

Born of Gothic Romanticism, Stevenson’s novella focuses on themes of morality and human folly. Cloaked in the shadowy alleyways of Victorian London, deliciously grimy and decadent, Jekyll has embarked on a dangerous game. Despite the warnings of his fellows, he is wont to delve further into the mysterious existence of morality than is wise, upsetting the delicate coexistence of the soul and the human body.

I have read and studied a fair amount of Gothic literature, but “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” never featured on the reading list, so I have only just got around to reading it. I wish I had read it before, because it compounds huge amounts of that era’s nuances into such a small space: doppelgangers, shadows, mad scientists, tragedy, morality, suspense, murder, mysticism – all in fewer than 100 pages. Understanding the ideas and devices that define Gothic Romanticism is in no way necessary to read and enjoy this novella, but if you do have some understanding and have yet to read it, I would heartily recommend it.

ISBN: 9780141389509

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

3 Reviews!

I failed to post a review during February, so have three to make up for it:

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

 My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunion

In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophy

Does what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses are likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

Save

Book Review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Featured

Ashes of London

By Andrew Taylor

ashes-of-london

It’s 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging, but bodies are being found that have nothing to do with the flames. The burnt landscape of 17th century London is wonderfully grimy and decadent. Through the eyes of young Whitehall clerk, James Marwood and Catherine Lovett, the disgraced daughter of a once rich Regicide, we see people from all walks of life.

The charred London landscape is made richer by plenty of well researched history into the political landscape. Charles II is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s execution and the disaster of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. There are still those who think of Charles II as a usurper; those who still await the return of the true king – King Jesus. Such believers, known as Fifth Monarchists, were supporters of Charles I’s execution, and have all but disappeared since the fall of Cromwell. Though most were pardoned by the new King, those men considered to be instrumental in his father’s death, have been charged of treason and sentenced to death.

James Marwood’s father was lucky and escaped execution. Catherine Lovett’s father is still on the run. Now, more and more of Lovett’s friends are turning up dead. And Catherine and James’ lives are getting more and more complicated. Cat and Marwood are complete strangers to one another and their individual plots run parallel throughout the novel, almost crossing many times. By keeping them divided, their apprehension (and therefore ours) keeps mystery, confusion and foreknowledge at the edge of the frame. These sensations – like the characters – chase, run and hide from each other constantly. While Taylor’s imagery isn’t the best, his plot development is first-rate. This is a novel chock-full of action and plot twists. Together with a hearty dollop of political intrigue, you are compelled to keep turning the pages.

“Dear God, I thought, my life is haunted by these religious fools.”