Reading: meteorites, shrinking alphabets, trolls & Noise



The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Lent to me by a friend who wanted to correct the slightly negative impression I had of Patrick Ness following More Than This. And happily, it worked! I lost myself in this story in a way that’s upsettingly rare these days, but which took me right back to the fantasy books of my childhood. The world, beginning with Prentisstown (a primitive religious settlement where people’s thoughts are constantly audible to everyone else and girls are unheard of), is beautifully realised, the themes (empathy, gender, secrets, religion) are complicated and deftly handled, and the style is much more flavourful than the gritty but bland stream-of-consciousness of so much YA. There are some quietly beautiful moments, but overall it moves about as fast as a book can without making you forget the stakes — there is just enough time, at points, to go “phew, maybe things are finally going to be okay now — OH JESUS CHRIST”. I only hope the rest of the trilogy lives up to it, seeing as the twists and tension and emotion have already been cranked up to potentially unsustainable heights. But having seen now what this author can do, I’m hopeful.

150-EllaMinnowPea Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea is set on a small island whose residents, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, find themselves having to express themselves in an ever-shrinking alphabet. As they do so, their classical letter-writing eloquence is replaced by a different sort of eloquence, as they bend language in all manner of creative ways to get around the new rules. This leads to some laugh-out-loud moments and genuinely ingenious constructions — and a funny sort of slasher movie thrill, as we anticipate which letter may be killed off next. While the island’s slide into tyranny is interesting (beginning with what seems a quirky and inconsequential ruling, ending with neighbours grassing on each other, Nineteen Eighty-Four style), there is not much of an emotional thread, and the ending is perhaps a bit too quick and neat to be entirely satisfying. Still, this is an enjoyable example of what a storyteller can do when s/he makes the very deliberate decision to discard realism – there’s a lot of cool stuff that can only be done without that millstone around your neck.

150-SmokeAndMirrors Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

If there’s an unsettling way to blend the everyday and the mythical, Neil Gaiman has probably thought of it. Even his novels can read like short story collections sometimes, as he crams ideas into every available space until I can barely keep up with them all. So in some ways, an actual short story collection is an ideal format for him. The styles contained in Smoke and Mirrors are wildly diverse: there are stories written in iambic pentameter and other forms of verse; there are stories which achieve (for me at least) an almost T. S. Eliot level of incomprehensibility (I’m looking at you, ‘Cold Colours’). And then there are my favourites, which are essentially modern fairytales: ‘Troll Bridge’ and ‘The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories’ spring to my mind as highlights. Also worthy of note is the amount of disturbing, gruesome and sexual stuff going on in these pages, meaning you should only buy this book for your granny if your granny is exceptionally awesome. (In my case this book was a gift from an exceptionally awesome friend.)



The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

I thought the main character in The Mirror World of Melody Black reminded me of me, but that was before I met Alex Woods, who is almost scarily like me on a number of levels. He’s socially awkward! He’s called Alex! He has an unhealthily puritanical attitude towards alcohol and drugs! He’s self-deprecating and constantly bemused by situations! Okay, a lot of these attributes are fairly standard ‘nerdy kid’ tropes, but written in Gavin Extence’s wonderfully relatable style, they were quite striking to me. What I appreciate most of all is that this is a coming of age story that isn’t afraid not to check all the usual ‘coming of age’ boxes. Instead, it checks much more interesting boxes like ‘bonked on the head by a meteorite’ and ‘starts a Kurt Vonnegut book club’ and (here comes one of those scarily-like-me things) ‘is home-educated after dropping out of school due to bullying’. Ultimately it celebrates honesty, kindness, and all the strangeness and mystery of the universe. Which is nice. And it made me cry – which felt natural and familiar but on reflection I can’t remember the last book that did that.

150-MrMercedes Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

I would have expected that when a writer as experienced and prolific as Stephen King gets his hands on a new genre, he would want to do something weird and different with it. But instead we get something that feels fairly by-the-numbers: Bill Hodges, a washed up ex-cop haunted by his past, receives a taunting message claiming to be from the Mercedes killer, one of the perps who got away. And of course he goes behind his department’s back in a desperate attempt to solve this one last case and give his life meaning again. The most disappointing thing is the portrayal of the villain, who feels like a grab-bag of psychopath cliches rather than a portrait of an actual human being. King never encourages us to feel what he is feeling, and we are therefore free to dismiss him as a horrible, racist, misogynistic monster. This not only feels like a wasted opportunity, limiting the story to being fairly hollow genre fiction, but it makes spending time in his company not particularly enjoyable. Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative here, but overall Mr Mercedes is a solid enough thriller, with that addictive cat-and-mouse dynamic that always keeps me turning the pages. Just don’t expect anything more.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

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