Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Alex is preparing to enjoy a weekend alone. All by himself. Without his pesky little sister. His parents have decided he’s old enough to stay by himself while they drive off a few towns over in Iowa to visit relatives.

Unfortunately this is the weekend that the volcano underlying the caldera that we know as Yellowstone Park decides to release some pent-up tension, thus distributing several inches to several feet of ash across the majority of the United States.

Alex sets out to find his family, gone to a neighboring town that’s close enough if you’re able to drive, and a long hike in ideal circumstances. But cars can’t function with all the ash in the air, and the mix of ash and snow on the ground makes walking unfeasible. He slogs along on foot for a few miles, before he rigs himself a pair of skis, and traverses this newly transformed alien society, meeting a range of people. Some organized. Some scrabbling helplessly on their own. Some cruel. Some humane.

…and I’ll stop there, except to say that while the ending is not wholly bleak and inconclusive—he doesn’t find his parents and sister, but he does find a safe refuge, which welcomes the capable Darla on the pair’s own terms—it’s clearly a setup for a sequel or two.

I have to admit this was one of my favorite post-apocalypse books yet.

Mullin picked a more-or-less plausible trigger for the apocalypse. Yellowstone is a long-dormant but still-active volcano; hence all the pretty geysers splurting about. Its caldera is so huge that for decades and centuries, we’ve thought it was just a really wide indentation. He also thought through the physical effects of that much ash being dumped, with cataclysmic rapidity, into the upper atmosphere.

Anything with an internal combustion engine will cease functioning with appalling rapidity. Anyone who remembers driving through the ash cloud after Mount St. Helens erupted can attest to the effect that even a comparatively small amount of volcanic ash has on automobile engines, though in fairness to the likely readers, this is something that even their parents might be too young to remember.

The ash cloud’s effect on food crops and animals is also plausible. Plants can’t grow since the clouds block the sun permanently—no photosynthesis, not to mention the precipitous drop in temperature plays merry bleep with their ability to grow at all. Animals start getting silicosis as the ash erodes their lungs. Kale is the only plant that survives, and that only if the people are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse. (But I’ll stop there to avoid including spoilers in the review.) The absence of plants means the onset of something we haven’t seen since the advent of reliable canning: scurvy. I’m not entirely convinced that it’d get to the stage Mullin describes as rapidly as he describes it; he is, however, correct that it’s swifter than we might think, especially if the person’s diet hasn’t been great pre-apocalypse. Though I’ll draw a veil over the survivors’ solution again to avoid spoilers, I have to admit I think it’s an ingenious one.

I really liked how Mullin handled the relationship between Alex and Darla. (sorry. yes: that is slightly spoilerish) Darla’s not a screamer: she’s a tough survivor who has considerable mechanical ability.

I wasn’t too crazy about the FEMA camp; its corruption and pettiness is in disconcertingly stark contrast to the more plausible range of human reactions. It’s only a couple of months since the volcano erupted. I know we’re on more of a knife-edge, in terms of actual food supplies, at any given moment than most people realize. Also, there’s an issue of transportation: cars only go a few miles before the engines choke with ash. Rather, the rest of the book seems so well thought out, and so well realized, that stumbling into that morass struck me as a more than slightly unsubtle social commentary on the Woez and Ebils of Big Gummint. Especially since the local and municipal governments seem to manage to arrange things more peaceably and equably.

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne

Poor Barnaby! Not just because he’s born with the tendency1 to float up and away, free of Earth’s gravity. Not because this means he must struggle to stay down on the planet’s surface as the normally weighted people do, but rather because his parents find it deeply humiliating to have a child who cannot keep his feet on the ground. (His siblings don’t have a problem with it.) As his parents are relentlessly normal, Barnaby spends his infancy and toddlerhood kept strictly at home; it is not until he reaches Australia’s mandatory minimum school age that his parents reluctantly allow him to mingle with non-immediate family members, and even then, they’re careful to select a school which none of their acquaintances’ children attend, one which can control the children attending…a reform school in short.

One day his mother can take no more embarrassment over the “public censure” she’s sure her son’s “disability” is causing the family; she takes poor Barnaby out for a walk and when he isn’t looking, slits open the backpack full of sand he’s wearing in order to keep him grounded. Inevitably, poor Barnaby drifts away as the sand drains out of his pack…and here we begin the more than slightly “Perils of Pauline” portion of Barnaby’s life.

As he rises this first time, he fortuitously bumps his head on the basket of a pair of adventuresses who ran off together to a Brazilian coffee plantation after their families declared them to be ‘abnormal’; they loved coffee and they loved each other, but periodically they set off in their hot air balloon for a bit of a vacation, and it is during one of these jaunts that they meet Barnaby. They take him to their plantation for a week, then put him on the train to Rio de Janeiro, where he is to fly back to Sydney and his family.

Unfortunately, he forgets to set his alarm, oversleeps, and wakes up in New York, at the end of the line. Here, someone steals his weights and he floats off into the sky…only to bump (literally) into the cage of someone washing the windows of the Chrysler Building. This kind young man dresses Barnaby’s bruised forehead in his own apartment then sends him off to the airport…but forgets to give him cab fare in addition to arranging the flight. Pushed out of the cab by the irate driver upon discovering that his “fare” hasn’t the necessary fare, Barnaby drifts upward and away, only to be rescued at the tip of a whip of a ringmaster looking to expand his freak show.

And so on. Eventually he does make it home, to his family in Sydney, only to realize that he would much prefer to be floating away into the sky to take his chances with the people he meets there.

It’s an interesting tale of accepting yourself and the difference between us all, of finding your “family” in the sense of the people who will love and support you rather than your biological family. As for the writing style, at various points the text reminded me of Roald Dahl, in the horridness of the adults, and at others, of Lemony Snicket, in the more than slightly purple prose and improbable situations. (Floating off into space, only to bump your head on the cage of a window washer?) As I suspect with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, many readers will have issues with this book, for a variety of reasons. For starters, Barnaby sounds both younger and older than his eight years, though in this case, his isolation from the outside world would plausibly result in his naivete. The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket may be a little easier to accept because it’s so clearly a fantasy parable while The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a real setting.

1I hesitate to say “ability” as he has no control over it

The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

Combining philosophy with travelogue with phantasmagorical playing cards? Doesn’t always work, but Gaarder does a pretty good job! I’ll try to describe the book fairly without giving too much away about the plot twists.

The framing story is narrated by a boy named Hans Thomas; his mother, Anita, took off eight years prior to ‘find herself’ and hasn’t been back since. One day, an aunt sent them a fashion magazine in which Anita appeared as a fashion model, and as the novel begins, Hans Thomas and his father have set off from their home on Hisoy Island off the coast of Norway on a road trip down through Europe to Greece, where Anita’s most recent photoshoot was located. In Switzerland, we begin to pick up the story-within-a-story when the two are sent on a detour by a mysterious midget with ice-cold hands to a minuscule town in the Alps called Dorf; there, Hans Thomas befriends an old baker who gives the lonely boy four sticky buns, admonishing him to eat the biggest one only when he is alone.

Inside the sticky bun is a minuscule book1, readable only with the magnifying glass given Hans Thomas by the mysterious midget. At first deciphering the minute writing is only an amusing way to pass the time while his father drives, and pontificates, and drives some more2, but as he reads, Hans Thomas realizes that this story, and therefore the baker, may be connected to him. It’s told by the baker, Ludwig, now an old man, about how he came to be the baker in such an isolated town far from his own home: as a young man, he came to rest there after World War II, and was invited to take over the shop of the baker at the time, Albert. The villagers are wary of this seemingly cracked old man, but Albert shows Ludwig enough to convince him of the truth of his story.

I’ll stop there, not least because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but also because to do a proper job of describing the plot of that convoluted ‘sticky bun’ book would take several blog entries of the length I’ve been making. Just a note, though, as it took me a couple of readings to straighten this plot point out: the ‘sticky bun’ book is actually four stories nested one within the other like a matrioshka doll. Ludwig is the baker who spoke to Our Narrator; he was the German soldier in World War II. Albert is the baker from whom Ludwig took over the shop; he was the youngest child of an alcoholic. Hans is the baker from whom Albert took over; he’s the second sailor to be shipwrecked on the mysterious island in the Atlantic from which the midget came. Frode is the original shipwrecked sailor, and the one who dreamed up the playing-card beings. Confused yet? Don’t worry; just enjoy the book. Really.

Through the vagaries of international publishing, especially where the literature requires translating, this was written (and published in Norway) a year before Gaarder wrote Sophie’s World, but Sophie’s World, being an international bestseller, was published before The Solitaire Mystery in the United States. At this point, I’d suggest readers in any country read them in publication order. One is not the sequel to the other, nor is there any structural connection between the two; it’s more that The Solitaire Mystery is the simpler story. In a manner of speaking.

1presumably itself also crumby and more than slightly sticky; I’ve always wondered how the baker got the book in there without harming the book in any way.
2Don’t worry: Hans Thomas does get his nose out of the book long enough to not only engage with his father frequently but also notice some of the glories they’re passing in their trek

The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

Since this is actually a sequel to MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, I’ll start with a bit of backstory:
     Princess Irene, the widowed king’s only child, has been raised in a manor house in the mountains which run along the periphery of the kingdom of Gwyntystorm. While humans mine the portions accessible from the mountains’ surface, a malicious race of goblins, and their cobs (domesticated animals), live not too terribly far below these humans’ scratchings. The goblins, led by their King and Queen, are planning to break out of their imprisonment under the humans; Curdie the brave, honest miner boy and the Princess Irene must thwart this without the aid of the adults, other than the princess’s “great-great-great-grandmother”, also named Irene, who lives in what the adults believe to be an abandoned tower along with her doves and pigeons, emissaries of her soul.
     This adventure brings Curdie to the attention of the king himself, who offers the boy a place in his court. Curdie refuses, preferring to remain with his beloved parents.

The Princess and Curdie picks up about a year later, when the elder Princess Irene summons Curdie to her tower, in order to task him with travelling to the capital of the kingdom, where things have begun to go awry. Curdie sets off for the capital, armed with a pure heart, his mattock and a magical gift given him by the elder Princess, the ability to tell a person’s inner nature by grasping his (or her) hand, and accompanied by Lina, one of the gargoyle-like goblin’s creatures1. Along the way, they collect a band of phantasmagorical creatures, from a meters-long snake with four near useless legs clustered at one end and rudimentary wings at the other, a tapir-like creature with a flexible nose more hard than Curdie’s mattock, to a ball-like creature which can only roll about.

They arrive in Gwyntystorm, only to find the city in a grave state of moral decay–greedy, lazy, corrupt and distrustful of strangers to the point of setting vicious dogs on anyone from outside the city. Curdie takes refuge with one of the honest city residents, only to be captured and tossed into a subterranean cellar to await trial…but little do they know that the underground holds no barrier that Our Brave Miner Boy cannot overcome. He and Lina work together to escape into what turns out to be the castle’s wine cellar. There they find a castle whose lower levels are awash with more filth and corruption2, save only the quarters in which the ailing king is tended by his faithful daughter, wise beyond her years.

The two, aided by the few remaining honest servants and town residents, begin to nurse the king back to health with wholesome bread and wine, and refreshing sleep unbothered by medicines3. However, the corrupt councilmembers and courtiers, having fled to the neighboring kingdom of Borsagrass, return backed by the (armed) forces of that kingdom…but are thwarted by the noble king, his stalwart colonel, and Curdie and Lina’s army of cobs….oh, and a housemaid with a penchant for pigeons.

Like many of the Victorian-era “children’s” books, these two do have a moralizing streak in them, although they’re not nearly so sanctimonious as, say, The Water-Babies; they’re closer to The Wind in The Willows in this regard. In MacDonald’s case, it’s more that he stops periodically to insert maxims of proper behavior for kids: true princesses are uneasy if they’ve done wrong but not had the chance to admit their fault and make it right, or children must respect and love their parents. Lina and her beastie followers are collectively another example; MacDonald strongly implies that they were all human prior to taking on these monstrous forms as a punishment for the evils they have done; in aiding Curdie, they are redeeming themselves.

What to read next? Well, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series are a good choice for kids who love fantasies set in a slightly archaic world of legend, but don’t care for the multisyllabic Victorian vocabulary of this one. And for those who do, try The Wind in the Willows, for a slightly simpler take or William Morris and Lord Dunsany for a more complex one.

1Lina resembles nothing more than the ugliest of all wolfhounds, with a tail the size of a carpet runner and a lower jaw full of icicle-like fangs.
2moral and physical
3modern hospitals might want to make note of the ‘uninterrupted sleep’ and ‘good food’ aspects of this care, though somehow I doubt that wine will make it to the menu any time soon

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford

A young and talented though not yet entirely established painter, Piambo, is approached on the street by a blind man, who relays the message from his employer: Paint me, but without ever seeing me. You may be in my presence only if on the other side of a screen, and you may not see images of me, ask me to describe myself or ask anyone who has seen me to do the same. All you will have upon which to base your sketches is what I tell you about myself.

Intriguing concept, most definitely. Piambo takes on the commission, though it proves as difficult as anyone with a grain of knowledge of how painting and painters work could imagine. The sittings last for several weeks, an hour at a time, while Piambo sits on one side of an opaque screen and Mrs. Charbuque on the other. The stories grow more enthralling, yet Piambo is no closer to envisioning his subject despite the snowstorm of words she throws to him. In the end, desperate for more concrete visuals, he searches the community for information on this mysterious woman and at last her own house. It is here that he finds a stack of paintings, done by other artists, of Mrs. Charbuque: all different, and all poles apart from what he himself is attempting to do.

To heighten the drama, there is a strange epidemic spreading among the women of New York; periodically, one will be found swooning with her eyes dissolved into rivulets of blood. To compound Piambo’s own struggles, he is pursued by the jealous husband of his subject, as mysteriously unseen as his wife; Charbuque speaks from shadows in the depths of alleys, from behind while clasping Piambo in a chokehold to the neck. The message is always the same: leave my wife alone.

…and yes, there’s a plot twist, so I’ll stop here.

The book’s an interesting take on the art and technique of painting, or rather of making a living at one’s painting while alive. The process of creating a portrait such as the one in the title, the tightrope balancing of following ones’ muse and remaining true to one’s own artistic vision with that of, bluntly, making a living. Holbein wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if he’d painted Henry and Anne of Cleves exactly as they were, and Piambo’s in the same fix.

I’d call this Gothic Lite; while modern authors such as Dan Simmons ‘improve’ on the original in the sense of including a greater number of more lavishly supernatural details, Ford has stripped down the genre to its barer, and therefore more straightforward, underlying structure. Less circumlocutions. Fewer clauses, both subordinate and independent. And decidedly less purple; I’d call this no more than palest lavender. Recommended for people who like historical fiction, New York and the complexities of the Victorian Era but without the entangled fevered prose so popular at the time.

Now, back to Melmoth the Wanderer and Pride and Prejudice for me…and not least The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (sorry, did I say that last out loud? no plot spoilers here, please move along.)

The Grey Horse by R.A. MacAvoy

It’s a typical day in Carraroe: grey, soggy, and windy…but green. Anrai O Reachtaire1 is walking back from delivering back to its owner a horse he’s trained. A bit out of puff—he’s no spring chicken—he pauses to investigate an unfamiliar grey horse, standing loose up atop a rocky outcrop. Despite the horse’s lack of any tack or gear, Anrai ends up attempting to ride the creature, though it turns out that the horse is in fact the one with an agenda.

He’s a puca, in this case one which takes the form of a grey horse, and he’s fallen in love with the daughter of the local shipping magnate, herself no kin to the magnate but rather half fay as a result of her mother’s misguided love affair. In proper mythological style, Ruari give Anrai the ride of his life, tricky but without real malice, and delivers him safely to the doorstep where Anrai’s wife, Aine, has been keeping the pig’s trotters and mash warm on the back of the stove. Here, Ruari explains that he needs, not money or a job as such but rather the umbrella of Anrai’s respectability in order to persuade the object of his desire that he is a worthy husband of her.

This first thread of the book follows this puca as he establishes himself in the human society and woos his Lady Love, but given the time and place, it should come as no surprise to readers that there’s a considerable political (for the sake of brevity) subcurrent. Ireland at the time was a land of absentee English landlords, many of whom rarely if ever set foot on their estates; the local laird, however, is one Blondell who pays at least lip service to the lands which produce his income, and indeed genuinely believes that he does have an affection for his tenants which is reciprocated3.

The primary story arc culminates with the steeplechase between the English rider and English Thoroughbred stallion, and the Irish rider and “of unspecified ancestry” stallion; at the race’s end, Anrai and the foolish English stallion have both killed themselves with the effort of the race. After tying up the threads more or less as one would expect (Maire and Ruari marry, Seosamh and Eibhlin get what they deserve…) we get an epilogue, set fifty-odd years later during World War II, with an agent of the Inland Revenue Service coming to track down the MacEibhir family as they have not paid their taxes for several years running. The investigation comes to naught, as so far as the agent can tell, the family (father, mother and three sons) have vanished without a trace; it is no fault of his own that perhaps “into thin air” might have been a better description…

If you prefer modern writing styles, or fantasies that involve medieval settings and lots of swords, this is not for you. If you like horses but think that a pleasant afternoon involves climbing aboard a pre-groomed pony for a pleasant trot around a pre-groomed trail, this is not for you. If you like gentle romance, but think that love is only for the young, and beautiful and fortunate…also not for you. (The English, human or equine, don’t come off terribly well either; they’re pretty much across the board foolish at best and at worst, neurasthenic, nervy, over-bred, and tending to bad habits thereby, such as cribbing and attempting to be friendly with the people whom they subjugated a generation or so before.)

If, however, you think that love ought to be for a lifetime, and that a proper afternoon with horses involves getting sodden, bog-spattered and coated with hair and sweat..definitely for you2. Keep in mind, however, that despite being a romance and a fairy story, this isn’t entirely a romantic tale. Set in the late nineteenth century, “decimated” is still a fairly accurate way to describe the land when the book is set. As with Tea With the Black Dragon, there is an elderly couple, for whom love still blooms despite their hardships, but here there is considerably more political subtext here than in MacAvoy’s previous books. The population is still noticeably reduced from the starvation and emigration resulting from the potato blight, and anti-English feeling is running high, to say the least, among the locals. There’s a fair bit of sub-plot involving the political machinations of the local populace.

Ultimately, I suspect that this will be no more than mildly entertaining “beach and bathtub” reading for a good many people, but it may prompt a few readers to delve deeper into Irish mythology than Riverdance or deeper into its history than “The Troubles”. If you liked MacAvoy’s writing style, start with Tea With the Black Dragon or her Damiano trilogy.

1I apologize: I’m going to butcher the spelling…
2Certainly I appreciate horses that are allowed to behave like horses. None of this “Noble Beast” stuff. They sweat. They snort. They have neuroses. And so on.
3Stop laughing. I’m sure the white landlords thought the same of their sharecroppers in the United States.

The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

“Bluebear” (for indeed he is a blue bear) does not know where he was born or to whom; his first real memory is as a cubling, tucked into a shell, hearing a roaring noise but as yet too young to understand that he is about to be sucked into the “Malmstrom”. Rescued just in time by the “MiniPirates”, six-inch-high buccaneers who come equipped from birth with two hooks, two peg legs, and an eye-patch, and our protagonist is off through a dizzying range of “lives”. Talking waves, hobgoblins who live off strong emotions, hypnotic spiders, Reptilian Rescuers, getting an education from a three-brained (and therefore handicapped compared to others of his race) Nocturnomath, flying with the “just-in-time” Reptilian Rescuers, tale-spinning contests that would put Scheherazade to shame, and more creatures than even Baum could think of.

And just think, this is only the first half of his life; chromabears have 27 lives…though I hope that Moers takes the time to develop a slightly more cohesive plot for the second half of Bluebear’s life, should he choose to write about it. Coming up with an entire population of fantastical fairy-tale creatures for this created world is half the battle, true, and Moers does well with that! However, plotting and characterization are the other half and then some for any novel. Bear, if you’ll forgive the pun, with Moers, and try one of his other books. Overall, I’m not sure whether they’re books for adults who haven’t lost their childish playfulness and delight in spiraling carousels of plots, or for children whose reading ability has surged far beyond their capability for tear-provoking plot arcs. (Do The Yearling and Old Yeller reduce you to a puddle of tear-sodden tissues? Try Moers’ books.)

There are a few reasons I can see why even fans of fantasy might not like this one. This is the first of the Zamonia books and so therefore, as with any ‘first book’ in a fantasy or science fiction series, the author must do a bit more world-building than is necessary in subsequent books written…and Zamonia is one of the more involved fantasy worlds I’ve read about. Secondly, so far as I can tell, it is Moer’s first book in any language; any new author must develop zir own authorial voice over time. Thirdly, it doesn’t help that I had to read the book in translation; “lost in translation” is a truism for just about everybody, and it adds an additional skim of awkwardness with even the most gifted of translators. Lastly, the structure of this book means it reads (at least to me) rather more like thirteen (and a half) loosely connected short stories, each of which might well have been developed into a novel of its own; as it is, I ended up feeling as if Moers was rushing from one interesting idea to the next.

…and yet…I liked it enough to try his “City of Dreaming Books” sequence of novels…but that’s an entry for another day. Indeed, if you’ve come across this book first and liked it well enough to finish it (and indeed it’s a fast read for all its length) but weren’t quite sure what to make of it, don’t give up: try one of Moers’ subsequent books. What to read if you’ve read all of Moers’ books? To remain specific to this book, try Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga books, for the wild swirling through a series of fantastical situations and creatures. Or perhaps Baum’s (and to a lesser extent Ruth Plumly Thomson’s sequels) Oz books for the inventiveness, but with a bit more plotting.