Reading: machines, Horologists, all-knowing valets & the plague

150-CompanyOfLiars Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

An interesting and very readable novel that takes us on a journey through Medieval England, as a ragtag band of people decide to travel together in an attempt to escape the encroaching plague, and another, less earthly threat that begins to stalk them. The most memorable of these characters, aside from the moral but inscrutable narrator, are the exceedingly creepy horror-child Narigorm, and the consistently objectionable, intolerant, hypocritical, whinging, sexist, racist bully Zophiel, who somehow manages to be dislikeable in quite an enjoyable way, and therefore not actually as dislikeable as he really ought to be. As it is set at a time when elaborate superstition pervaded society in place of science and rationalism, this book made me empathise with non-scientific ways of thinking in a way I hadn’t before, and gave me a clearer (whether entirely accurate or not) sense of Medieval England than any history lesson could. Despite the memorable characters and intriguing plot, I think that’s the main thing I’ll take away from Company of Liars.

150-EenyMeeny Eeny Meeny by M. J. Arlidge

One of the first audiobooks I’ve listened to in a long time. I have an annoying habit of tuning out of them and having to rewind, so I chose something that seemed like it would be fairly generic and easy to follow. As it turns out, generic barely covers Eeny Meeny. Just about every gritty detective trope ever invented is present and correct here. There’s a brilliant but haunted female cop who indulges in a secret vice because she blames herself for a dark incident in her past. There’s another cop who is an alcoholic, and a few who may or may not be corrupt. There’s a shadowy psychopath playing grisly games with people’s lives. There’s an oppressive, humourless tone that occasionally makes you question why this is the fantasy world you’ve chosen to escape into. I suppose the Saw-like psychological horror of it, when removed from the off-putting gore of those films, appeals to the dark side of my brain. Somehow it kept me engaged enough to finish it, but if this had involved the effort of having to move my eyes, I may well have felt differently.



The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Had this been my first David Mitchell book, it would have totally astounded me. But having already got my “wow, this is a writer of unworldly talent” moment out of the way, I just enjoyed Bone Clocks a whole damn lot. As in Cloud Atlas, the story is told in six sections, all very different in terms of setting, character and style. We begin in 1984 with teenager Holly Sykes running away from home and stumbling upon something huge and incomprehensible, and as we traverse the other sections we gradually begin to comprehend it. The threads that connect everything are a little less oblique than in Cloud Atlas, once we get past some enjoyable misdirection: at the start of each new section it can take a little while to find the main storyline again. I can see this putting some people off, but I just found it tantalising, and besides, the writing is so good that I could happily soak in it for hours even if it didn’t go anywhere. There’s a great deal more that I don’t want to give away, but if you are in the mood for a big, juicy, mysterious, beautiful book full of vivid language, interesting and amusing characters, grand metaphysical themes, and so many moving parts you could spend weeks taking them to pieces and admiring their intricacies – yep, this is one of those all right.

150-ThankYouJeeves Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

My first Wodehouse book, but the characters felt familiar straight away, which is probably a testament to how interwoven they are with British culture by this point. If you don’t know, the central characters are rich idler Bertie Wooster, whose good intentions are matched only by his complete inability to translate them into advisable actions, and his valet Jeeves, who seems to know more or less everything there is to know and will patiently bail his employer out of whatever situations he gets himself into. It all feels very innocent and benign, to the point of being naive, and as such it runs the risk of picking up and playing with certain cultural elements from the time it was written, without stopping to ask if they might be harmful. But throughout the book there’s an absolute lack of malice that makes it hard to take genuine offence; it’s something to shake your head at with a slightly disbelieving smile before moving on. Despite the fact I’ve heard all the books in this series are basically the same, I am tempted to pick up another one some time, and let the convoluted plots and winding conversations waste my time in a pleasant way.

150-TheAskAndTheAnswer The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

As a rule, series tend to get less colourful as they go along, and such is the case with Chaos Walking, apparently. The sense of wonder and discovery from the first book is largely replaced with an oppressive dystopian darkness; the many and varied locations are replaced with one town and its surrounding locales; and the humour is mostly gone. I’m not entirely fond of this trend, but regardless, The Ask and the Answer is a skilfully woven story, and there is plenty here still to like. The pace remains breathless but just possible to keep up with, the world continues to tease us with its secrets, and even the most loathsome characters become three-dimensional people before our very eyes. (This is of course one of the oldest of all narrative conjuring tricks, but it can still be miraculously affecting to be reminded that every human being is a human being.) To cap it all off, the cliffhanger ending of the first book is surpassed by an even crazier one! Book three will definitely appear here in the near future.

150-StoriedLifeOfAJFikry The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

On the surface, this story about an embittered bookshop owner learning to love again after a child is abandoned in his shop should be the sort of thing that reaches into your heart and squeezes unbearably tight. But – and I don’t know why this is – it did very little for me. One problem I can actually put my finger on is that the change in Fikry’s character seems to happen almost as soon as the child shows up. There is little reluctance on his part to let someone new into his damaged heart, and once he has, it is pretty much smooth sailing from there on. No major setbacks, not much struggle to adapt to the idea of loving again – just all the pieces of a happy and fulfilling life appearing one by one and falling neatly into place. If there is a message here, it feels a naive and rather alienating one. Also, I wasn’t sold on some of the thematic stuff – I got the sense the author was trying to suggest that stories can interweave with people’s lives in all sorts of subtle but profound ways, but I can’t think of many ways this was actually demonstrated, aside from the literal fact of the main character’s occupation. I will say this though: the rest of my book club loved A. J. Fikry, and they are clever and discerning people. Perhaps parts of it were targeting receptors that are missing from my messed up brain.

150-TheMachineStops The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

I won’t lie: I read this partly because it’s short and I needed another book to achieve my Goodreads reading target for 2015. But it had been sitting on my shelf since I was writing my dissertation on dystopias four years ago, so it was probably about time I got round to it. It has that odd combination of qualities that old books set in imagined futures tend to have: a few really prescient aspects combined with stuff that now comes across as rather over-the-top and silly. But the prescient stuff hits home far more than I am comfortable with, especially since that home for me consists primarily of a small room in which I spend most of my time staring at various screens, talking to my friends (and strangers – hello to both!) via technology. Worth a read for those interested in partially fulfilled, concerned-frown-inducing dystopian prophecies.

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

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