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China Miéville is an English writer of (urban) fantasy/sci-fi/ steampunk and a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the one who coined the phrase ‘weird fiction’ in literary discourse, primarily to describe his own works, but also in relation to other writers who influenced him (H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood,  Arthur Machen etc.). He claims that the term ‘weird fiction’ can be applied to all literary works which cannot easily fit into just one niche category (such as horror, sci-fi, or fantasy) but make use of many elements from many categories instead. Miéville has won several awards for several of his novels: he won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for sci-fi three times, the British Fantasy Award twice, the Locus Award for sci-fi and fantasy three times and the Hugo Award for sci-fi twice. This year, he has been shortlisted for the fourth time for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his Kantian sci-fi novel, Embassytown. Miéville is also one of the most prolific niche authors of the last decade, with currently eight published novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, King Rat, Un Lun Dun, The City & the City, Kraken, Embassytown), one collection of short stories (Looking for Jake and Other Stories) and another novel announced for publication in May 2012 (Railsea).

Given that China Miéville is such a prolific author, and given that each of his novels is written in a different style using a different mix of elements, deciding which of his books to review proved quite a difficult task. But in the end, we turned our attention onto his next to latest book, Kraken: an Anatomy, which strays away from the dark steampunk setting of his Bas-Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council), as well as from the outlandish atmosphere of The City & the City. Kraken is an unusual mix of urban fantasy, crime fiction and Lovecraftian horror, focusing on the strange and improbable disappearance of a giant specimen of squid from the inner sanctum of the Darwin Centre of the British Museum of Natural History in modern-day London. The protagonist, Billy Harrow, curator at the Darwin Centre, is suddenly faced with the unbelievable reality of a hidden London after the disappearance of the specimen which he used to take special care of. Thus, Billy unwittingly stumbles into a city torn between religious sects which agree on nothing but a single fact: that not one, but several different apocalypses are about to erase  London off the face of the earth – unless the giant squid is found and brought back. Billy finds himself kidnapped, by turns, by the Church of Kraken Almighty – which claim Billy as their Messiah – by the fearsome Tattoo and his gang – a band of villains with gruesome powers who care for nothing but supremacy over London – and chased by the special brigade of the London police – the one which employs officers with ‘knacks’, special powers that allow them to bend bits and pieces in the structure of the universe and converse with ambiguous spirits from beyond.

As, day by day, London becomes more unstable, more dangerous, and less familiar, Billy eventually has to accept that something terrible might, indeed, be about to happen, and in order to stop it he must find out who and why has stolen the fifty foot squid reminiscent of the archaic threat of the kraken. In his improbable quest, he gets to ask the advice the of the Londonmancers – modern-day druids and prophets who can read the bric-a-brac of the city for signs – and to accept the bewildering help of the terrible and mysterious Angel of the Darwin Centre.

Miéville’s novel is thus a fascinating mixture of the realistic and the improbable, the gruesome and the miraculous – all carefully balanced for suspense and wittily sprinkled with a healthy dose of humour and irony here and there. Kraken is a compelling read, thrilling and surprising every step of the way. In his story, Miéville has taken all the traditional concepts – of witches, mythical beasts, warlocks and familiars – and has transformed them into something utterly new, 100% compatible with the setting of modern-day London, buzzing with life and enriched by technology.

Has any one of you read Kraken, or any other books by China Miéville before? What did you think? Did you enjoy his ‘weird fiction’? If you haven’t read anything by him before now, would be willing to try? As always, you can find China Miéville’s books at Nautilus, and we are looking forward to your feedback!

(And here is an interview where China Miéville talks about Kraken: )

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For the aficionados of crime fiction set in the era of changes and mysteries that was the fifties, the ‘Flavia de Luce’ series by Canadian writer Alan Bradley should be just the thing. The series numbers four volumes at present (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, A Red Herring Without Mustard and I Am Half-Sick of Shadows) with a further two volumes scheduled for publication over the next couple of years (Seeds of Antiquity, The Nasty Light of Day). The books are set in the early 1950’s in the British countryside, and one element that sets them apart from other crime fiction is that the story is recounted from the point of view of their young protagonist, impromptu detective Flavia Sabina de Luce, an eleven year-old girl with an outstanding passion for chemistry.

Flavia is the youngest daughter of an old blue-blooded family, the de Luces, now on the edge of bankruptcy and whose last representatives are Flavia herself and her two older sisters – Daphne, thirteen years old and a bookworm, and Ophelia, seventeen years old, with a passion for mirrors and the piano. The three girls live in a state of almost ideal freedom, allowed to do whatever they please, in a household formed by just the three of them and their father, Colonel de Luce (an introvert and a philatelist), their butler Dogger (a veteran of the World War II, very discreet and knowledgeable, but sometimes plagued by his war traumas) and their cook, Mrs Mullet (a gullible and innocent old lady). The girls’ mother, Harriet, is said to have died in a skiing accident in the mountains, when Flavia was only a baby – but is that the truth of the matter?

Throughout the series, Flavia somehow always ends up as the first person to unwittingly stumble upon gruesomely murdered bodies – and a great many murders seem to occur in and around the sleepy village of Bishop’s Lacey. And besides feeling compulsively drawn to unravel the mysteries surrounding each case, Flavia has to also put up with the constant bullying of her two sisters, allied against her. The question that always bothers Flavia is: why are her sisters so bitterly set against her? And why is her father such a taciturn man, allowing his daughters to run loose, aware of little else beside his love for stamps?

But Flavia’s humour, innocence and, most of all, wit, eventually allow her to get to the bottom of each and every mystery that crosses her path. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she has to find out what happened to the man who lies murdered in her family’s cucumber patch (of all places!). In The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, a travelling puppet show sets camp in the village graveyard, and all sorts of heavy questions lie behind the lifelike puppets of the master puppeteer. In A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia encounters the mysterious Gypsies and has to decide where her loyalties lie: with the old Gypsy woman who foretells ghouls and shadows in Flavia’s future, or with the villagers who accuse the woman of kidnapping and possibly even murder? Finally (for now, at least), in I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Flavia has to investigate how and why a beautiful and popular actress was killed – right under Flavia’s nose, while shooting a film in the de Luce manor!

Alan Bradley definitely knows how to write a good mystery – his plots are intricate (but not confusing), and he presents the reader with a vast array of well-rounded, credible characters. His every page holds enough suspense to make the reader want to turn it and see what comes next. And he always has an ace up his sleeve…

Moreover, another good thing about the ‘Flavia de Luce’ series is that it needn’t necessarily be read as such. All the books are connected in some ways, but their plots are self-contained enough to allow being read independently. So each volume can be enjoyed as a satisfying mystery all by itself.

We heartily recommend these books to everyone who loves a good detective novel with a twist! (And we should probably also mention that the latest volume in the series, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, has recently been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for the best Canadian crime and mystery fiction!)

If we have piqued you interest so far, you can listen to a couple of extracts from the first volume here, on the publisher’s website. You can of course find the books at Nautilus.

We’ll leave you with a few words about the author, from the first page of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie:

Our first author of choice is Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), American writer of modern gothic and uncanny fiction. She wrote a total of six novels (of which the best known are The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle) and dozens of short stories, all collected into four volumes. Her best, and most chilling short story, which was subsequently dramatised three times (in 1969, 1996 and 2007), is The Lottery, pièce de resistence of the 320 page collection from Penguin, The Lottery and Other Stories.

The Lottery caused a real stir when it was first published, in 1948, in The New Yorker. The editorial board of the magazine received hundreds and thousand of intrigued and indignant letters and phone calls after the story was published. The readers, at the time, were absolutely shocked by Jackson’s choice of subject, especially since the story was told so convincingly that they believed it to be true. The Lottery depicts a small rural town in North America, quiet and settled, seemingly ordinary on all levels. However, a gruesome, inhuman rite traditionally takes place in the town in summer, when the land is arid and the dry weather threatens the crops. That is the quasi-modern, quasi-pagan rite of ‘the lottery’ (and I’ll stop here, as I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot for you!).

In an essay Shirley Jackson herself wrote about  The Lottery in 1960, called Biography of a Story, the author surprisingly declares that the idea for such a twisted and shocking plot came to her naturally as she was performing some of the most trivial of routine activities:

The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller – it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day’s groceries – and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause.

Jackson’s writing style is crisp and subtly atmospheric; she isn’t one to go for purple prose, yet relies on character and dialogue (or sometimes monologue) instead in order to create that unique mental space. All of her stories have a way of starting with the mundane, the ordinary, and soon after to twist into something uncanny and blood chilling. Some of her prose is refreshingly ironic in tone, but then again some is sober and self-assertive. Shirley Jackson is a confident and surprising writer and her fiction is definitely worth a try. Her perfect balance between a controlled style and unsettling plots is what makes her prose original and mesmerising, just like those ghost stories where you’re scared of turning the page and yet you feel the compulsion to find out what the horror actually is.

We hope you will give Shirley Jackson a try! If you won’t take our word about how amazing her writing is, then just go ahead and Google her; you’ll see. 😉 And if you do decide to get immersed in her stories of mystery and the macabre, then you can always find the collection here at Nautilus!

We, that is, the team here at Nautilus, have decided to update and improve our long-stagnant blog. First of all, we’ve decided to carry on posting in English from now on, because we want our blog to be accessible to as large a range of readers as possible, no matter their mother tongue. (However, you may all continue leaving comments either in English or in Romanian, as suits you best –  we will definitely read all feedback and reply as soon as we can!) All our older posts – in Romanian – will still be accessible via our archive. Rest assured, we aren’t deleting anything you may wish to refer to!

Secondly, you will have noticed we have switched to the WordPress platform – that is because we find it more flexible, easier to navigate and more interactive. We hope that will make your browsing experience a lot easier!

So what else have we been doing lately? Well, we’ve just been to the London Book Fair, where we had some very exciting chats about all the new releases with a range of amazing publishers! What we can say for now is – expect some succulent literary novelties to sink your teeth into very soon! 😉

At the Romanian literature stand at the London Book Fair. We were admiring the eye-catching and quirky installation and cheering on Romanian authors!

So what exactly should you expect to read on this blog? Reviews of books from various genres, news from the English-language writing world and occasionally maybe even a few hot literary debates for you to join in! Hope you are all looking forward to these things, as we certainly are!

In the meanwhile, if you want to stay up-to-date about what we have in store for you and which authors we heartily recommend, why don’t you like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter if you haven’t done so already? And please do leave replies with your comments and suggestions about what you would like to see on our blog!

Love,
The Nautilus team

© Nautilus English Books

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