Archives for category: Fiction

Victory Day is an elegant and worthy conclusion to a fascinating series. It’s been a real ride following this story’s progress since I read an early version of Battle Ground two years ago.The storytelling gets tighter and tighter the farther along we get. There’s always been tension between the twin antagonists, even when one was in London and the other in Edinburgh, but Churcher ratchets it up in this concluding volume. Bex (‘The Face of the Resistance’) and her former trainer, Corporal Ketty, again tell their sides in short alternating chapters.

In some cases, those chapters are less than a page each, and the sequence in which Bex meets Ketty for the first time since False Flag (book 2) is one of the most heart-racing things I’ve read. I give nothing away by indicating that both have guns and shots are fired.

RMC-BG5-VDI especially liked how this book succeeds in making both Bex and Ketty more sympathetic characters than they were before. Bex had become less likable the more she resisted her role in the bigger conflict at play. Ketty, on the other hand, elicits more sympathy from us the more she learns about the nature of the forces for whom she’s working. This is an especially difficult trick for Churcher to have pulled off – the sheer sadism of some of Ketty’s behavior makes her about as likable as a Bond villain. (She pays a pretty stiff price for her redemption in a sequence that’s oddly, and appropriately, parenthetical in her journey.)

While there’s the tension of the two narrators facing each other as everything they’ve worked for comes to fruition or falls apart, depending on how you look at it, there’s a roll call of supporting characters who we experience through the eyes of both of the narrators. It’s really hard to write this without giving spoilers, because when I say Ketty has an interview with Person X, you readers of books 1-4 will say, ‘Well, it’s not necessarily surprising, but wait a sec, how did we get there?’ You just have to drop a few pounds to find out.

It was really interesting to reread this in its final form, having proofread early drafts of each book. This series takes up the mantle of many other dystopian series of being a warning, not a manual. As times have started to catch up with what was initially a (more) far flung future, some aspects of the books are difficult to read. I’ll be honest: It’s taken me longer to read each book (and not just because Victory Day is about 40% longer than Fighting Back) because I can’t read these things before sleep or in the middle of the night. There’s the page-turning aspect, for certain, but also heartbreaking nearness of what Churcher is confronting. With the UK becoming, it seems, less compassionate and more like the US in how it divides the rich and poor, the idea of a conscripted home force, for example, has almost entered the realm of possibility.

Go over to Taller Books to get the whole set.

Note: I received a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

When we left Bex and Ketty, the protagonists of Rachel Churcher’s Battle Ground series, they were both relatively safe, but Bex’s mother was in Ketty’s clutches down in London.

Bex and her friends, having made it to Scotland to join the Opposition In Exile (OIE), want nothing more than to find a way to attack England’s military government and rescue those who are imprisoned.

At the same time, Ketty is trying to maintain and advance her own career without sacrificing what little integrity she has and without angering the few people who have the power to boot her from the army back to her father.

Separated by several hundred kilometers, Bex and Ketty continue to show a strange doppelgänger nature to their characters. Ketty seems to be the master of her own fate, but knows how tenuous her position is. She remains at the mercy of several military leaders who all have their own agendas. The tension in the story comes from her growing realization that everyone around her seems to know more about her situation than she does.

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Bex, at the same time, isn’t at the mercy of the OIE or the Scottish government, but is under the strict control of both.Her friend Jake, who tries to break this control, finds himself with no freedom at all for much of the story.

In this continuation of Battle Ground, we recognize that Bex is strong and knowledgeable and creative, but still very much a teenager. At the beginning she is unwilling to recognize or bow to the various binds the so-called grownups are in. As the book progresses, she finds her way into the various organizations that have control over her and begins to wield some greater influence. I found this a welcome evolution of her character.

Ketty spends a lot of time still wondering if she’s working for the bad guys, trapped in her situation, but also maintaining her ‘iron fists and steel toecaps’ attitude to the people in her own control.

Churcher does a nice job of setting the reader out at sea with her characters. They tread water, they identify the lifeboats and occasionally realize that the people in the lifeboats are feeding chum to the sharks.

Though it starts a little slowly, the climax of the Fighting Back is (like Darkest Hour), wonderfully cinematic. And as much as I’d like to delve into a proper critique, you just have to read it. Any hints I give would give too much away.

Go over to Taller Books to get all four volumes.

Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

 

I recently grabbed an e-book of Arthur C. Clarke‘s classic SF novel Childhood’s End on a whim. I remember being fascinated by the final sequence and it’s one that has stuck in my head since I was about 14.

The story holds up even if the prose doesn’t so well. The characters and their motivations are often flat. The rigid gender roles and racism are especially striking. While they may be reflective of the early 50s when it was written, they’re jarring now.

The plot is possibly well known. Aliens (‘Overlords’) come to Earth and stop humans in their tracks just as the space age begins. You won’t go into space, they’re told, but we’ll end the wars and the cycle of poverty. All of this in advance of an epochal change in humanity.

Weaving around the lives of four characters, Karellen, the Overlord supervisor; George and Jean Greggson, a couple whose children are the first exemplars of the change in question, and Jan Rodericks, a doctoral student of mixed heritage who manages to stow away on an Overlord ship to their home planet, the novel offers multiple perspectives on humanity’s last days and decades.

From the opening conflation of Earth’s first proposed journey to Mars with the arrival of the Overlords, we’re at every moment on the verge of something great that is subverted by the overarching history playing out.

As I came to the end, I was most struck by how Clarke’s story reflects how all of our predictions for business or security or war in any coming period are subverted by how reality plays out – think of our headlines about how we might support the world’s population or protect the wildlife we have left. What we thought the future would hold a decade ago or half a century ago bears no resemblance to the present we have.

Dutch edition of Childhood’s EndThe failures of the book also include an awful lot of exposition used to get across the science necessary to the plot, but these are overshadowed by the poignance that interweaves the lives of these characters. Kerallen tells us that his race has overseen the apotheosis of several other races at the behest of what he calls the Overmind, but that the Overlords will themselves never achieve the same. George experiences a double loss, that of his children to the the change that overcomes the last generation of humans and that of the possibilities with his own wife.

‘George looked down at her with sympathy, but nothing more. It was strange how much one could alter in so short a time. He was fond of her: she had borne his children and was part of his life. But of the love which a not clearly remembered person named George Greggson had once known towards a fading dream called Jean Morrel, how much remained?’

When Jan prepares to leave Earth, he sends his sister a letter in which he expresses how little holds him to the people he know, who will all be dead when he returns in 80 years. With this storyline, Clarke cleverly engineers both a witness to the Overlords position in the cosmos and a human narrator for the end of the story. If you’ve never read it, I don’t want to give anything away, and if you have read it, I urge a rereading.

The second novel in Rachel Churcher’s Battle Ground series is a real treat. The scenario is already familiar to readers of the first novel (also called Battle Ground), but now told from the perspective of Ketty, that book’s antagonist. The deal with Ketty in the first book is that we don’t know what makes her evil, we only have Bex’s perspective, and Bex is a relatively good teenager who looks after people. Ketty only looks out for number one. She, along with her colleague Jackson, applies ‘iron fists and steel toe caps’ to maintain her position as Lead Recruit at Camp Bishop, but we have little idea why.
False FlagI won’t be spoilery if you haven’t read Battle Ground, but, this book makes the most sense if you know the other side of the story. (Go over to Taller Books to get it.) Set in a near future England increasingly under martial law (and looking more and more like peri-Brexit Britain), young people are kidnapped into military service to be the government’s ‘front-line dolls’ in its fight against homegrown terrorists (also known as people who want to see Britain returned to democratic rule). The school friends who form the core of the first book’s story don’t take lightly to Ketty’s every-soldier-for-herself method of training and insist on helping one another.
Opening False Flag, we find ourselves looking at the arrival of Bex and her friends at Camp Bishop through Ketty’s eyes and quickly learn why she’s the one assigned to train up/torment new arrivals.
In contrast with the conscripted recruits we learn about in book one, Ketty joined up the first chance she got in order to get away from an alcoholic, abusive father. She learned her discipline the hard way, keeping out from under her father’s anger and violence. Whereas Bex had a loving but slightly difficult home life and friends to lean on for emotional support, Ketty knows that people are only stepping stones to get to the next level and depends only on herself as far as she can.
At its heart, Churcher shows us that Ketty is in many ways everything that Bex isn’t. Bex insists on caring for all those around her while Ketty seems to care only about herself.
The violence that Ketty and Jackson inflict on Bex and her friends is demonstrably sadistic, but we get more and more of the reasons why. Not that we necessarily find her any more likable, but that’s part of the fun.
While these books focus on young adults, the situations and the ways in which Churcher handles them are, by necessity, very grown up. This should appeal to all fans of dystopian fiction (or, as some folks are calling it: Current Events).
Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

More info at Taller Books.

 

So I’ve reread James Joyce’s Ulysses in the last couple of months. I hadn’t read it in its entirety since I’m not sure when, but I grabbed a digital copy on Bloomsday this year and it’s been my middle of the night reading. I’ve got a couple of thoughts that probably aren’t original, but the novel has struck me rather differently at 51 than it did at 22 and 35, for certain.

Usually when I write something like this, I take the trouble to add citations and build a semi-cogent argument, but I’m not handing this one in.

Ulysses men by John Conway V2Coming to the end of the Ithaca chapter, I found Stephen’s departure more mythological than I used to. The assumption (or the presentation made by more than one college professor on the matter) is that Stephen leaves his encounter with Leopold Bloom in order to go into the world and become James Joyce. I think that while there’s pedagogical merit to stating it that way, there’s more of a mythical parallel here. Homer gives us the romantic conclusion to the story (Odysseus passes Penelope’s test by knowing their bed can’t be moved because one part of it is a tree trunk), and Tennyson extends it with Odysseus rallying his troops to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and engage once again the forces of the world. In the Greek myths that Homer retells, we never learn much of how Telemachus comes into his own. Stephen Dedalus, similarly, steps from the house of this strangely parental figure, Leopold Bloom, into the sunrise, and into his own mythology. As the last act before parting, Stephen and Leopold urinating in the back garden of the Blooms’ flat, one could argue that Stephen quite literally pisses off.

The entire effort of Ulysses is about bringing the loftiness of Homer’s epic poetry down to earth, and this is another symbol of it.

Molly Bloom’s urination and masturbation in the course of the monologue that makes up Ulysses’ ultimate chapter are redolent of this same earthiness. Leopold has his own reasons for not making love to Molly that are associated with the death of their infant son, so Molly takes her desire elsewhere. We get the impression from her recounting of her loves, that it’s also in her nature to express her desire where she will. I’m not the first to compare Molly with Emma Bovary, the difference being that Molly isn’t punished for her desire. More than one professor has argued that Joyce, through Molly’s soliloquy, has successfully portrayed women’s inmost feelings and desires. What hit me in this rereading, is that what Joyce seems to have performed more successfully is to project common fears about partner infidelity and assumed lack of respect onto Molly. Or perhaps Joyce simply represented an accurate projection of his own such fears about his partners’ inner lives.

What he’s also gotten right is the estrangement between partners who aren’t open about their desires with one another. Molly, in the last bit of her fantasy delves into topping Leopold and making him do dirty things to her. What she touches on in this fantasy is right out of Bloom’s fantasia at Bella Cohen’s brothel. While it’s hard to tell whether any of that fantasia actually happened from a story continuity point of view, we are, I think, supposed to believe that what Bloom is shown to experience is at least a projection of his own desire.

What’s disheartening is the realization that with a little discussion, Molly and Leopold could have a more mutually satisfying relationship. (The reader has this same feeling when they recognise the gap between Gabriel and Greta Conroy as The Dead shifts from the party to the time the Conroys have alone together.)

It seems that while Molly loves Leopold, she neither likes nor respects him. The fear people have about what others feel about them is here writ large. Molly considers Leopold a failure at life, in terms of job security and home security, and something of a failure in the way he goes about expressing his desire. She especially mocks how he behaves around other women. While Leopold has an emotional response to Molly’s assignation on the day of the novel’s action, he also feels out of contention regarding the partners she takes on (which he enumerates in Ithaca, though possibly inaccurately) or has taken on.

There’s also the number of traumas they’ve suffered which haunt the space between them. Molly’s first lover, Mulvey, is killed in the Boer wars, and there’s the loss of their son Rudy, and Leopold’s father’s suicide. It doesn’t seem as though they have ever examined these events together.

Leopold has an intellectual, or pseudo-intellectual, approach to the world that Molly doesn’t appreciate and, in her thoughts, mocks, but which is essential to his characterization. We know a sentence or a thought of Bloom’s instantly because of its expression in his thought processes, especially in his (pseudo-) scientific examination of the world around him. Molly finds finds this ridiculous. On the other hand, when Leopold thinks about Molly’s less intellectual, more physical approach to the world, he seems to smile at it. He doesn’t berate her. He seems amused by her taste in smut, but may not even know of her love for Byron’s poetry. It’s another piece to the puzzle of their non-communication. And then there’s the matter that at the last, Molly blames her infidelity on Leopold’s redirected desire. He doesn’t want to lose another child, and so stops fucking her, and they have never yet found a way together around that.

As I said, just a few thoughts on it. Rereading Dubliners now and, again, getting a far different richness from it than I did in my first readings.