Category Archives: review

“The Guest Cat”, by Takeshi Hiraide (2015)

My wife and I have lived with cats for twenty years now which is a shocking realisation. This book, an unexpected birthday present, is a meditation on how the relationships between ourselves and our cats (and neighbours) form and the ways in which we negotiate the fiddly, fussy social barriers defining the spaces and transitions between us.

A couple rent a property and find a cat begins to visit them regularly. She (the cat, Chibi), becomes more and more important as the narrator and his wife negotiate a major change in their lives, the Showa era ends and the Japanese property bubble of the late 80s begins to evaporate.

I suspect something of the flavour of this book has been lost in translation, though more through the unbreechable gap between the Western language of subject-object and that of Japanese (something the book explicitly addresses), where the distinction all but dissolves, rather than through any fault of of the translator. 

What we have, however, is still a touching mediation on loss and marriage and the kind of love that descends like snowflakes overnight. 


Romance and bromance and YA fiction

I struggle with romance.

That is to say, I struggle with the idea that YA without romance is coffee without milk. For one thing, coffee without milk is actually a pretty undiluted coffee experience. For another, whilst teenagers seldom get through the next ten minutes without thinking about sex and relationships (not unlike your average ‘middle-aged adult’), they seem to be able to function for weeks on end without plummeting into a crisis featuring either.

That isn’t to say that romance doesn’t spring up in the strangest of environments but can it please be credible romance? Especially in a war zone full of flying live ammunition? There is romance a plenty in a war zone (they aren’t call the Baby Boomer generation for nothing, you know) but it isn’t high school. I mean, was I the only person who felt that elements of the love triangle in the Hunger Games trilogy were a teeny bit flown-in?

There’s actually a technical term for this problem, which YA seems to suffer from more than any other genre – Sex in a Submarine. Let’s say you have a story where five male and two female (or vice versa) teens are trapped on a space satellite high in orbit with the air running out. They have six hours left. The whole focus of your thriller is the frantic rush to cobble together a rescue mission, the tension felt by the waiting families, the mid-plot turn-around as its revealed that one of the crew actually sabotaged the ship etcetera, etcetera…

And then an editor somewhere asks “Where’s the romance? Teenagers live for that frisky stuff. Can’t two of them have an affair or something?”

They’re on a spaceship. A small one. With no air. They are all going to die if they don’t spend every second working on a solution. They have to keep breathing slowly and evenly and not get excited. “Frisky” is out of the question.

That isn’t to say that one can’t approach the issue in a more creative way. The crew have back stories and those back-stories might be fairly intense. Two of them might be twins separated at birth. Another pair might going steady (and one might have to make a life or death decision about the other). Otherwise, you know, spaceship.

Lastly, why aren’t there more proper boy/girl bromances in YA? Because that’s the secret. Mulder and Scully, Cagney and Lacey (sort of), Starbuck and Apollo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot…And the secret to a good bromance is that, no matter what the frisson (and we want frisson), they must never, ever kiss. Especially (see below) if one of them is a skeleton.

Six recent YA (or close as dammit) reads which do and don’t resort to the Submarine Stratagem in one form or another. There may be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk etc.

  1. All You Need Is Kill by Sakurazaka Hiroshi. I’m cheating already. It isn’t strictly speaking YA (too much of that horrid swearing) but with a big Tom Cruise movie based on this imminent and a large manga following, it’ll find itself shelved in the same zone. This is a book where this is nothing but shooting and killing. Lots of killing. There’s a romance if you look hard enough but it’s a wistful, between-the-lines, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of romance that belies the unsubtle nature of the rest of this novel. And observe the male/female bromance factor!
  2. Artemis Fowl vol 1-4. Artemis really has other things on mind – chess, crime, being a super-genius, winning Nobel-prizes as a hobby. Is it a coincidence that the moment Eoin Coifer began (for me)  to feel that he needed to explicitly address adolescence, the series began to lose a little steam And the switch from the marvelous ‘bromance’ between Holly Short and Artemis to icky inter-species snogging? Eww!
  3. The Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson started out so promisingly! Arranged marriages! Hopeless husbands! Weight issues! Then the heroine goes all Keira Knightley in the dreadful King Arthur (ie skinny, likes pointy things) and the hot boys are suddenly all over her. Sigh.
  4. Red Shift by Alan Garner. I’ve written before about this short, brutal take on love, sex and adolescence (with a side order of mysticism and genocide). I don’t think love, violence and dystopia – even if the dystopia is the caravan park in our heads – have ever been integrated as well as here.
  5. Firebrand (Rebel Angels #1) by Gillian Philip. Now this isn’t perfect (though I thoroughly enjoyed it) but one thing Gillian Philip does very well is evoking the almost constant physical ferment of adolescence without letting it get in the way of the ferocious action at the core of the book. Plenty of bromance but we are, after all, dealing with a book about two brothers.
  6. Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. I do love me a good Skulduggery novel and Valkerie is a genuinely original heroine. Are there boyfriends, romance? Yes. Do they drive the story convincingly? Yes. Do they occasionally come to satisfyingly, sticky, messy ends? Yes, quite literally. And there’s also another wonderful bromance, between Skullduggery and his sidekick Valkerie.

Book – “Red Shift” by Alan Garner (1973)

Back when I was in secondary school, I tore through Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor. Red Shift, along with its immediate predecessor, The Owl Service, was tougher stuff altogether. His earlier novels were full-blown fantasy of a particularly intense and mythic kind. Back then, they left one feeling that the reality of the world could at any moment be torn away. Nowadays, I’d understand that as a visceral sense of the sacred, the wildness and the connectedness inherent in the world around us and within ourselves, and the power that stories and words have over us. The power that almost anything has to become, and wield power as, a myth.

Red Shift confronts that wildness and connectedness head on, without recourse to fantasy but through the interlocked stories of three couples dominated by the myths of their own times. The first couple, a Roman deserter in early Roman Britain and a tribal ‘corn goddess’ survive through capitulation to the mythic discourse shaping their world. At the time of the civil war, conflicting political myths bring nothing but death to a village in the same part of Cheshire and the couple there are nearly destroyed in the process. In the ‘modern’ Cheshire of the early seventies, two teenagers struggle with discourses of science and class – contributing myths of our own time – and ultimately break up. All of this is held together by a sacred axe passed from age to age and a mysteriously sacred landscape.

As was becoming typical of Garner, all this is communicated through intense, elliptical dialog and starkly visionary evocations of time and place (and the reality is that he’s always thought this way). It’s hard to believe Red Shift was written for a teenage audience and it suggests that YA fiction hasn’t exactly progressed in the last few years in comparison. Mind you, most fiction suffers in comparison with Garner.

Some things about Red Shift sting a lot more today than they did then. The smothering nature of modern-day Tom’s family  is both poignant and horrifying and uncomfortably reminiscent of my own awkward relationships with my father and mother. The incessant jargon and in-jokes and the atrocities committed by the gang of deserting Roman squaddies (survivors of the lost Ninth legion?) are a little too obviously paralleled on American actions in Vietnam but the violence is economically and brutally evoked.

It’s not an easy read but those of you who remembered Garner from your childhoods and felt bemused by Boneland‘s challenging ‘completion’ of the Brisingamen trilogy may find it a bridging work that helps you make a little more sense of his most recent novel (which I loved, by the way).


Alan Garner’s Boneland

How on earth am I supposed to respond to Boneland, Alan Garner’s completion of a trilogy begun with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath nearly 50 years ago?

Boneland  tells a the story of Colin, one of the siblings at the centre of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. Colin is an astro-physicist and clearly a genius whose life centres around the radio telescope of Jodrell Bank and a dimly perceived mission as a kind of guardian of Cheshire’s Alderley Edge, the scene of certain events in his childhood that have vanished from his memory. He also has Asperger’s syndrome and we meet him on the edge of a titanic personal struggle against mental breakdown. Colin’s story is juxtaposed against an early, prehistoric inhabitant of the Edge with an explicitly mythical or metaphysical mission in maintenance of the landscape. This unnamed figure is fighting a far more literal kind of breakdown, one that threatens to swallow not only his life and future but the whole of his world.

The earlier books were written for children (would the modern marketing classification be ‘young adult?) but Boneland is definitely written for grown-ups, not so much because of any inherent sex and violence, but because of its density and unashamed difficulty. This is quite a gnarly text. Its centre-piece, for example, is thirty or pages or so of intense dinner table conversation between a man who is about as psychologically damaged as it is possible for a human being functioning at a high level to be and his therapist. They touch on myth, archaeology, geology, physics and much else. They also drink a great deal of wine. There is hysteria and a sort of geographical menstrual flood.

And yet, this is expecting no more of us, the readers of those earlier texts, now twenty, thirty, forty years older, than the Weirdstone and The Moon did of us as children. If the earlier books, written at the inception of Garner’s career, were full of folklore, information, terror, gnawing dark and, yes, violence, the violence and terror at the heart of Boneland is yet darker. It is the fear of utter dissolution.

That isn’t what shook me most about Boneland as a narrative, however. The real, heart-rending core of the book is an express of unbelievable grief and loss so powerful that, half way through, I wondered if I’d be able to finish it. What’s trickier to engage with are the mythological underpinnings to Colin’s story. There are nods to the Triple Goddess, prehistoric humanity’s relationship with the stars and a compact, granite like erudition over such a hugely ranging area of subject matter that I could really have done with a text two or three times as long to help me make sense of it all. Like Alderley in winter, this isn’t a book that suffers fools gladly.

Still, perhaps I should remember the admonishment of Stevie Smith and simply ‘read it again then’. Ultimately, this is a book carved out of three landscapes – that of the modern Alderley of Colin’s experience and his struggle to maintain it in a wider context, the beautifully rendered Alderley of the deep, mythological past and behind these, the relentless challenge of Garner’s intellect. It isn’t a novel that has much time for character development – the business it is about is too urgent for this. At worst, the characters are placeholders for larger meanings. At best, as with Colin, they are beautifully, precisely-expressed cyphers to themselves. If nothing else, it left me convinced that there was the serious business of someone’s soul at stake here.

Would I recommend it? Unreservedly. But don’t expect any elves or goblins. They’re still there but they’re buried deeply and digging them out will demand a lot of you.


Bad parenting and TO THE LIGHT: Yoko Ono and Ai Wei Wei at the Serpentine

Somehow, supermum had managed to convince herself that the Princess Diana Memorial Playground was in Hyde Park as opposed to the best part of a mile’s trudge across Kensington Gardens. I was grumpy and still weirded out by various work-related miseries. Dudelet was on a mission to annoy everyone and little elf was taking full advantage of this with a sickening display of decent behaviour. Sarcasm is instinctively written in her bones. I just wanted utter silence and to contemplate the abyss of my working life. Supermum was probably quite happy to be where we were but no doubt devoutly wished the whole crew of us on Pluto.

Then we realised that we’d accidentally parked outside the Serpentine. So we wandered over to look at the Ai Wei Wei/Herzog & de Meuron pavilion. It was twenty metres away and I managed to squeeze in two more instances of appallingly bad parenting along the way. Dudelet burst into tears. I burst into tears and simmered at the same time. Little elf skipped obliviously into the pavillion’s shady depths and I followed her, hoping it would swallow me up.

In a way, it did, a little. The photographs available don’t really do its odd presence, at once chthonic and airy, justice. A flat round roof overlays a partly below ground-level space full of curved walls and gently stepped levels heading in different directions and rather ugly IKEA lights. It’s like a deconstructed amphitheatre. Cork stools shaped like giant button mushrooms or champagne corks – champagne being something at once rooted in earth, permeated with air and emblematic of all things playful and extravagant – are scattered here and there. Little elf and dudelet ran back and forth and dudelet ran over and hugged me. I hugged him back. We all peered over the edge of the pavilion’s flat roof. It was covered in water and mosquito larva but one sense of it was clear. Earth, sea and sky.

Then we went in to see the Yoko Ono exhibition. First, dudelet and little elf had their pictures taken to join her #smile project then they attacked the all-white chess set which was attracting a large quantity of equally puzzled young people. I asked dudelet why he thought it was white.

“So that people don’t know if they’re winning,” he decided. Little elf, showing a flicker of little goblin, then tried to win by knocking all the other pieces over and we made a hasty exit for the galleries.

In there, we queued to walk around a perspex maze after watching other visitors wander around it, arms outstretched like blind men or women. It’s a simple maze and (I think) a simple point – how easy it is to see how others are on a wrong path and taking the wrong turn, not so easy for oneself – but one that’s made quite powerfully. Dudelet and I went in together and we found our way to the centre. Once inside, you forget that other people are watching you. We reached the centre, a simple square plinth, hollow, with a still pool of water at the bottom. It was inside a small, private enclosure. I told him I was sorry and kissed the top of his head. Then he led the way out and we watched little elf lead supermum around the small labyrinth looking absolutely delighted with herself.

There were other pieces (“Look! Bums!”) but the maze meant the right thing at the right time, as did the Ai Wei Wei pavilion. Later, we were all grouchy with each other once more – it’s been a long summer with too much change – but at least we all know how to make up when we need to.