Reading: The Power of the Strange Denim Monster-Children

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

A crooked, nostalgic tale centering around a young man working at a video rental store, where disturbing video clips begin showing up on some of the tapes without explanation. Stylistically, Universal Harvester has a lot in common with the author’s debut Wolf in White Van – non-linear, cryptic, unsettling, and interested in people with unusual obsessions – but because of its horror story setup I can see many people (including me, to some extent) going in expecting something it has no real interest in delivering. Darnielle seems quite aware of these expectations, acknowledging other possible “versions” of the story even as he subverts them. And that’s fine; I would certainly never want to say to an author “forget this strange, original thing you clearly want to do; you should write something more generic and immediately accessible just for me”. Granted, it didn’t connect with me in any profound way, but you might appreciate this book if you’re in the mood for a bit of quiet meditation on the transitive nature of people, places and things.

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Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The elevator pitch for Children of Time would make it sound pretty silly and unbelievable. A civilisation of super-evolved spiders slowly rises on a terraformed planet while their godlike accidental creator watches perplexedly and the last remaining band of humans in the universe bumbles around in space wondering what the hell to do about them? Okay there buddy, sounds like the movie would make for a decent MST3K episode at least. It is therefore doubly impressive that this book is so brilliant, profound and moving – a beautiful, utterly engaging depiction of the era-encompassing journey from the dawn of a civilisation to its apex and of what it means for a species to truly comprehend its own place in the universe. Particularly interesting are the implications about which aspects of our modern world are the inevitable products of the rise of civilisation, and which are flukes that wouldn’t necessarily arise elsewhere: the way in which the spiders read is a particularly clever example of how they diverge from us, believing their way to be the only natural, logical one. For every one of these carefully sculpted details and for the breathtaking scope of the story as a whole, Children of Time is a masterpiece of rigorous world-building and easily one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.

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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Any story that involves a shy, bookish individual setting off on a journey into fantastical unknown lands is going to tickle a certain childish part of my brain from the get-go, and more so even than most, Strange the Dreamer continues to surprise and delight for most of its length. It feels like a fairytale spun out into a novel, pitch black in places but rich in wonder, serendipity, magic and romance – a kind of metaphysical romance so absurdly romantic that you can only look on with envy, cursing our own world’s relatively constrictive set of physical laws. My only real criticism is that the ending, in a manner that has become a little too familiar in modern fantasy, opts for a big straight-down-the-middle cliffhanger rather than attempting the messy business of wrapping up any of its plots. Apparently the story was originally conceived as a single volume, and the lack of closure at the end makes me wish it had remained that way – I’d have been perfectly happy with a twice-as-thick doorstop edition of this book with a proper ending.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash opens strong – so strong that I was sure I was about to fall utterly in love with it. How can you not love a book following a samurai-sword-wielding-pizza-delivery-guy-slash-super-l33t-hacker and his sassy teenage sidekick, both employed by the mafia, as they zoom around the neon-tinted corporatised dystopian fragments of fallen future America? Even if knowingly pulpy cyberpunk nonsense wasn’t my thing, which apparently it is, I always respect authors who go for it to the degree that the opening third or so of this book goes for it. But then… I wouldn’t say it goes off the rails later on, but it certainly begins to feel more like a standard thriller, with guns, helicopter chases and more messing about in boats than The Wind in the Willows. Given the times in which we live, there are also some uncomfortable passages regarding a flotilla of refugees, though perhaps this reflects the exaggerated amoral vision of America that the book conjures; in places it feels like a twisted satirical collage almost in the vein of American Psycho. In the end, reluctantly, I settled for merely liking Snow Crash. It’ll do. I’ve been starring too many books lately anyway.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

I left it way longer than I meant to before getting round to this final volume of the Chaos Walking trilogy, mostly because I’m a bad person but a little bit because The Ask and the Answer felt more like standard YA fare than the heart-pounding imaginative genius of The Knife of Never Letting Go. For me, Monsters of Men falls somewhere between the two previous books; the story is well constructed and the writing quite beautiful in places, but it still lacks some of the shine and variety of book one, and there are some fairly predictable YA beats along the way. Like the third Hobbit film, it seems to take place almost entirely on and around a flat grey battlefield – at least it did in my head, and there wasn’t much in the way of colourful description to dispell this impression. Still, I’m only focusing on the negatives out of love for Knife – this is by no means a bad conclusion to the trilogy, and looking back there is a power to all three books together than even the first does not possess on its own.

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Maybe I loved this book only because I’m weird in a few of the same ways David Sedaris is weird – several of his stories, for example, resolve with the familiar realisation that’s he’s not quite as good a person as he’d like to think – but given his popularity I have to assume a lot of other people also relate to him, which is comforting. Not that his specific circumstances match mine: I was never kicked out of my parents’ house for being gay, I never fantasised about buying the Anne Frank house, my brother is generally more functional than Sedaris’s siblings, and I certainly haven’t landed in the sheer number of absurd and hilarious situations related here. Or maybe I have? It’s hard to tell if Sedaris has particularly great stories to tell or is just great at telling them. Either way, this collection is moving, insightful and incredibly funny, especially in audiobook form, where it is complemented by the author’s own mournfully deadpan delivery. Within a few stories I’d already added him to my “must read everything by this author” shortlist.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The first in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger takes a while to show its hand. Much of the book is a fairly standard, if wild west-tinged fantasy, a lonely trek across a wasteland, not entirely dissimilar to the postapocalyptic minimalism of The Road. And I won’t give away too much (not that I feel like I know everything, not by a long shot) but if after the first few chapters your concern is that the whole series is going to be this and nothing more… I think I can say with some confidence, it’s not. That’s not to say I’m totally sold on the series yet; this does very much feel like an introductory volume, in which before our eyes the impish author weaves a rug, tells us to stand on it, then immediately pulls it out from under us to reveal what the series really is. I’d forgive people for feeling annoyed. But after – well, after that bit where it gets all crazy, you know the bit if you’ve read it – I can’t help it: I want to know more, even if I’m not especially in love with the characters or the style of writing. Maybe I’ll just read book two and see if that answers anything… (And that’s how he gets you.)

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power is really something. By that I mean, in spite of its flaws it is big and important and powerful – not only fierily relevant to right now, but possessing an assuredness that gives it the air of a classic in waiting. If you don’t know what it’s about: imagine a superhero story where all the women in the world get superpowers at once, and there’s your starting point. From there on, the book primarily focuses on four very distinct characters, and does a pretty slippery job of slithering out of any genre you try to cram it into. Dystopian… apocalyptic… sci-fi… action… political… satire? This uncertainty may be the biggest turnoff to some readers, but to me it is a strength. The Power is startling, disturbing, complicated, thought-provoking, and even catches you off guard with a laugh now and then. At times you might feel it’s taking shortcuts to get where it wants to go; you might wish it would zoom out to give you a broader overall picture of what’s going on in the world, or zoom in to explain some of the characters’ nuttier decisions. But even if you disagree with its message entirely (which I don’t) – well, you might rant about the things it gets wrong about people or politics or gender or biology, but you’re still talking about it; you’re raising your voice, and look, you’re digging your nails into the arm of your chair. Don’t tell me this isn’t art.

Note: I also reread American Gods for my book club and enjoyed it much, much more than when I first read it a few years back. Given that the same thing happened with Neverwhere, maybe it’s time to admit that I’m not quite clever enough to properly appreciate Neil Gaiman’s work on my first go-round. Looking back on my original review of Gods, I feel my indifference was mostly born out of frustration at not entirely following some of the mythological stuff, as well as having my expectations set wrong. I’ll keep my original impressions up, but I’ll add a star and a little note to reflect my new feelings on it, over on the Books I’ve Read page. Where, incidentally, you can also find over a hundred of my other rambly (and quite possibly entirely wrong) book paragraphs!

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