Books – starred

Highly recommended books!

bookstarBooks that I thought were outstandingly good are now marked with a gold star. That doesn’t mean some of the others aren’t good too, so please read the words I wrote!

rereadicon1And this icon means I’d already read this book at least once before, so that may inform my perspective on it.

A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T V W Y Z

A

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Alderman, Naomi – The Power

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.

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Atwood, Margaret – The Handmaid’s Tale

I read this for uni and reread it for book club. It portrays a deeply conservative future society called Gilead, where women like the narrator are forced to work as surrogate mothers in an attempt to counteract a spate of birth defects. This catastrophe seems to have flipped some awful switch in society’s attitudes towards gender: now it is commonly accepted that men can’t be trusted with the sight of female flesh, so women have to cover their bodies and faces; women can’t be trusted with independence, so they are not allowed to read or have money or walk outside alone. With the unflinching intelligence that seems to define her writing, Atwood dredges out the darkest prejudices that probably still lurk in more minds than we care to admit, and in classic dystopian style, creates a world that takes them to their logical, horrifying conclusions. Even if you don’t buy that a society like Gilead could ever really come about — well, first of all, based on historical precedents I would respectfully disagree — but also there is more than enough of our own world in here that it would be complacent not to feel uncomfortable.

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Austen, Jane – Northanger Abbey

My first Austen – and I hope my university doesn’t take back my degree for admitting I skipped Mansfield Park when we studied it. If it makes them feel any better, I regret that now. I was wrong. Based on my fleeting exposure to TV adaptations of her books, I assumed that the people in them were so fundamentally different from me that I’d need to read up on the cultural context of the time and develop some sort of internal translation circuit to make sense of their emotions. But then I picked up Northanger Abbey, got to the early chapter where young Catherine feels awkward about not knowing anyone at a party, and went “oh, hello me”. This is why books are the best thing: you don’t get distracted by what sort of hats people are wearing, you just get to plug your brain right into theirs. And in the case of this book – much more so, I have to assume, than in the adaptations – you get access to Austen’s funny, sarcastic and (by modern standards) refreshingly self-expressive commentary on the social conventions of her time. Now I feel silly about all the years I spent feeling alienated by the society portrayed in her work; it turns out it seemed just as alien to her all along! Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

B

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Banks, Iain – The Bridge

I’m not a particular fan of using metaphor in place of plot, but my main problem is when narratives turn that way only at the end. I don’t mind when novels are open about their metaphorical intentions from the outset, and when they justify it by, for example, setting the metaphorical stuff inside a character’s mind. When a skilled author (and Iain Banks most certainly was that) takes the risk of going far enough down the rabbit hole of weird interlocking symbolism, the result can be quite thrilling and rewarding – a Cloud Atlas style puzzle box to toy with at your leisure. The Bridge is a bit like a cross between Life on Mars and Brazil, a journey into a complicated and unsettling world of steam power and bureaucracy where it’s not always clear what’s a dream – and what’s a dream within a dream. Even if the way it all fits together confuzzles you, there are enough treats along the way – the cleverly confounding world of the bridge, the hilarious barbarian bits, the ever-lively descriptive style – to make this a journey worth taking.

C

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Chbosky, Stephen – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

A coming-of-age tale which is hard to talk about objectively, because it’s probably either going to hit you like a ton of bricks or sail right past you without making an impact. For me, it was the former. This was unexpected. Early on in the book my cynicism kept chiming in with scathing comments – “oh, of course the narrator is a sweetly naive teenage genius, oh of course he meets a ragtag band of social outcasts who take him in” – but as I got more and more wrapped up in the story, that ugly side of me was left talking to himself in the corner of the room while the rest of me sat with his mouth hanging open, unable to stop reading. There were long passages that hurt to read because clearly they were addressed to me and no one else – though considering the number of people who love this book, I suppose that can’t be the case. How do you build something so powerful out of such simple pieces? It’s not as if Perks is all that original, or all that immediately striking in its style. What it is is an exceptionally kind, open and emotionally honest book, and a friendly reminder that if you really care about the people who care about you, you should try to care about yourself, at least a little bit.

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Clarke, Susanna – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

A wonderful, sprawling story about a bunch of English gentlemen who call themselves magicians, in an alternate history where magic used to exist but seems to have faded almost entirely from human knowledge. In the fashion of a nineteenth-century novel it moves quite slowly, and is a massive doorstop of a book, but the sort of doorstop you can get lost in; the footnotes and historical details make the most unlikely things feel chillingly authentic. There were points when I felt as though I was reading a new Harry Potter, which is a compliment I can’t extend to many books. There’s something about the combination of vividly drawn characters, the slow reveal of a mysterious magical world, and the sheer boundless imagination and unpredictability of the story, that fills me with inexpressible glee. Probably my favourite book I’ve read for at least a couple of years.

Ready Player One

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Cline, Ernest – Ready Player One

A book about escaping from a ruined world into a virtual easter-egg hunt created by an eccentric dead billionaire obsessed with 80s geek culture … and if that sounds like the ultimate piece of escapism for nerds, that’s because it pretty much is. But as much as that description appeals to me, it still feels like it does a disservice to the tight structure and vivid imagination of this book. There’s a real sense of adventure here, of danger, wonder and magic – a tone somewhere between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Hunger Games, if that makes any sense at all, which it really doesn’t seem to when I put it like that. Trust me, it’s great. And it’s such a massively joyful and unapologetic celebration of geek culture that even I, as someone who often feels too weird and awkward to even be a proper part of the geek community, was practically hyperventilating at certain points. In a good way.

The Hunger Games cover.

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Collins, Suzanne – The Hunger Games

Since it’s the big young adult thing at the moment, and I have an unhealthy love of dystopias, it seemed to make sense to read this. It has some very Harry Potter-esque characters (specifically Haymitch and Effie), and a few (thankfully vague) similarities to the novel I’ve been writing for years. Most of all, though, it reminds me of the creepingly delightful Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, which portrays an equally brutal world where just because you’re young and innocent doesn’t mean you won’t at some point find yourself being burned alive. Does it say bad things about me that I enjoy this kind of book? Probably. I guess that’s part of the scary thing: you’re always secretly thinking “I’d totally watch the actual Hunger Games if they were on”. No? Just me then? Oh dear.

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Connolly, John – The Book of Lost Things

I went into this book sceptical. While I enjoy fairytales, I feel like we’ve reached a point where the subversion of them is the norm, and the truly subversive thing to do would be to write some new ones instead of endlessly repurposing the ones we have. But The Book of Lost Things is an artifact of such power that this criticism melts before impact. It opens starkly, as the young protagonist loses his mother in some of the most painful pages I’ve read in recent memory. From there on, the story is effed up in all the ways you want a fairytale to be effed up, and possibly a couple more. The Crooked Man is a fantastically shudder-inducing villain, and he’s far from the only threat: poor David encounters unsettlingly human wolves, harpy-harpooning trolls, insanely twisted huntresses, massive burrowing beasts and more. It’s all most pleasing if you miss those incident-riddled “point A to point B” adventures in the vein of The Hobbit. At its core is a pretty simple message about the value of love, but most messages are simple when you boil them down far enough; I’ll be quite content if every book I ever write conveys the same message, even happier if one of them does so with as much craft and beauty as this gem.

D

A Study in Scarlet

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Doyle, Arthur Conan – A Study in Scarlet

I had read this already, but happily revisited it for the book club my friends just started. It is a good read, and a great introduction to the character of Sherlock Holmes, though if you’re used to more modern mysteries it may flummox you just because it breaks some of the rules that would later be established in the genre – for example, certain elements that would be crucial to untangling the mystery aren’t introduced until quite late in the book. But the nicely detailed and methodical description of the crime scene lets us feel as though we could work it all out if only we were as clever as Holmes, and the solution, when it comes, is elegant and satisfying. Compared to that of other books from the same period, the language is extremely accessible, and the series is definitely worth reading if you like the modern BBC adaptation of Sherlock, especially since the first episode of that kinda misses the point of the method of murder in this book.

E

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Extence, Gavin – The Universe Versus Alex Woods

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.

F

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Flynn, Gillian – Gone Girl

It all begins, with pleasing swiftness, when a woman goes missing and her husband gets caught up in the ensuing media circus. That’s about all I can say without spoiling Gone Girl. The story takes many twists and turns – the dynamics seem to change almost every chapter – yet it never loses sight of what it’s about: two fascinating, dark, well-drawn characters. It also delves rather intelligently into the ways we pretend, how we try to shape our behaviour to fit with other people’s expectations, and some of the destructive consequences this can have. I found it particularly interesting having just read The Psychopath Test, but it split my book club right down the middle, between those of us who found it a brilliant, addictive page-turner and those who found it so boring they could barely finish it. Never have I been so baffled by people’s reactions to a book, so … be aware that you might hate it, I guess. If you hate awesome things.

The Elements of Eloquence

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Forsyth, Mark – The Elements of Eloquence

A fantastic, inspiring and entertaining glossary of rhetorical techniques to make language sing – from alliteration to zeugma (though not in that order). I wish I had read this book years ago, as I now feel I could apply at least a few of the techniques it describes to my own writing – though there are some, as Forsyth notes, that come naturally to people without them even noticing. Particularly impressive is how the author manages to construct a chain of rhetorical examples, one leading naturally to the other all the way through the book – I can only imagine this involved a maddeningly complicated flowchart of some kind. But it pays off, making the book extremely readable, and if you’re me you will set aside all worldly responsibilities to blaze through it. I will definitely go back to The Elements of Eloquence, and may even pick up a paper copy for easier reference. (Also I can’t believe I never noticed the thing about proper adjective order before! What a little curious thing!)

G

American Gods

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Gaiman, Neil – American Gods

I’m pretty sure I’m a person who should have been reading Neil Gaiman for years, but somehow I’ve only just got round to him. He’s one of those writers who crams an intimidating number of ideas into a small space, casually glancing off concepts which in other hands would be whole books of their own. American Gods is a weird one, though. I certainly enjoyed the American part – the slightly unsettling small towns, the tacky tourist attractions, the road movie flavour of it all. But I found the Gods part a bit baffling, to be honest. Almost every character speaks in riddles, and even the appropriately named shadowy protagonist doesn’t often stop to question the barrage of barely explained insanity that confronts him at every turn. The ending, especially, gets a bit metaphorical for my tastes, as physical reality fades into the background and people do all sorts of very symbolic-seeming things for no clear reason (don’t ask me why I let Murakami get away with it). Maybe I don’t know enough mythology to untangle it all, or maybe this book is just for people cleverer than me. I’m happy to confirm that Neil Gaiman is definitely one of those people.

Note: since writing this review I have now reread this book and both liked and understood it a lot more. So I’m giving it a star. Just ignore past Alex up there. He doesn’t know what he’s on about.

Neverwhere

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Gaiman, Neil – Neverwhere

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman invents a world under London which bears the same sort of resemblance to the actual city that the London Underground map does – twisted into different shapes, abstracted, making unexpectedly literal sense of some of the odder station names on the tube network. This is a world of rats and labyrinthine sewer tunnels and people in ragged clothes, scraping out a living in their own vaguely supernatural world, unseen by people above. The story rolls along merrily, sweeping likeably vague and vaguely likeable protagonist Richard Mayhew along with it. We rarely return to the same place twice, as Gaiman seems determined to introduce us to as many surreal sights as possible in the time he has. He is never overly concerned with explaining how things came to be or the rules that govern magic in his world, if indeed there are any rules other than “it has to be weird and cool”. I alternate between finding this enthralling and a little hard to swallow, but overall I’d have had to be quite devoted to depriving myself of fun, to avoid falling under Neverwhere‘s spell.

H

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Harkaway, Nick – Angelmaker

A remarkable comic adventure thriller vaguely-science-fiction almost-fantasy novel, whose setting feels so unique that you occasionally have to remind yourself it’s actually set in a version of our world. But it’s the parts of our world we don’t see – undercover government organisations, the (literal) criminal underworld of London, the lairs of impressively evil Bond-esque supervillains, and generally the domain of people otherwise unable or unwilling to fit into normal society, perhaps due to their ridiculous names. Central among them is Joe Spork, son of a notorious/celebrated gangster, grandson of a quiet artisan specialising in clockwork, himself uncertain of which way to go. His inevitable journey of self-discovery begins when a retired spy named Edie Banister decides to use him to set in motion a chain of events that will threaten the whole world in an entirely original and unsettling way. What follows is a rich brew of cheerfully over-the-top characters, imaginative action sequences, witty writing and fascinating, often dark thematic material. Nick Harkaway is definitely a writer to watch and be fiercely jealous of.

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Hawkins, Paula – The Girl on the Train

One of those dark twisty modern psychological thriller mystery things. Yes, it has a hint of Gone Girl, but while that book was about characters so screwed up you could only shake your head and let out a low whistle, the characters in this one are generally screwed up in more relatable ways that allow you to root for them. At the centre of it all – or on the fringes, depending on your point of view – is Rachel, a woman with a troubled past, an alcohol problem and a habit of staring out the window of the train, projecting her dreams of a happier life onto a particular couple she sees every day. As the story goes on things get murkier, secrets come out, threads unravel and tangle together, “aha!” moments proliferate alongside “uh-oh!” moments, and readers are kept guessing until late in the game. Overall The Girl on the Train is a highly satisfying package, cleverly interweaving theme with plot, but it is Rachel’s first chapter, which draws us into the life of a character we know almost nothing about, that has stuck with me the most – a masterful example of a writer doling out information in small, addictive doses.

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Hobb, Robin – Assassin’s Apprentice

Pure, delicious, sit-back-and-let-it-consume-you fantasy. Not exactly the action-packed quest I went in expecting, but a leisurely-paced tale set mostly in and around Buckkeep, the home of the royal family of the Six Duchies, with all the intrigue and tensions you’d hope for from such a setting – along with an almost ludicrous quantity of dogs. Our mild-mannered protagonist FitzChivalry has many sides: half royal, half not, raised as a stable-boy, now a controversial figure in the royal court, now secretly training to be an assassin, and all while trying to rein in his Wit, a telepathic connection he feels with animals which his lovably gruff guardian Burrich insists is Against the Natural Order of Things. Some of the early chapters rang a little more innocent and wholesome than the fare my cynical adult brain is used to, but either I adjusted to this or it got darker and twistier as it went along. Either way, by the middle I’d resigned myself to picking up the entirety of Robin Hobb’s catalogue in future, so I suspect all of it was doing important work somewhere in the back rooms of my brain.

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Hobb, Robin – Royal Assassin

If you read and liked Assassin’s Apprentice, I’d be rather confused if you didn’t like this at least as much. Again things move slowly, but it is a purposeful kind of slow, the methodical construction of a grand story by a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing. And again, Fitz spends much of the book just to-ing and fro-ing at Buckkeep, making friends, getting into trouble, losing friends, patching up his mistakes as best he can, regaining friends, uncovering treacheries, making enemies and generally spinning plates to try to balance his many disparate responsibilities, as some of them come into painful conflict with each other. As in Rowling or Rothfuss, we feel each of the protagonist’s triumphs as a triumph of our own, each of his failings as a sinking in our stomachs. This, to me, is what’s somewhat lacking in the more relentlessly grimdark fantasy of nowadays. It’s all very well constantly slaughtering characters in gruesome ways, but if you don’t establish them as people worth caring about, how much impact does that really have? It’s not all subtle character moments though; towards the end of this volume, things get so intense that your well-intentioned plans to take a break and read something else before starting the third book may go a-circlin’ right down the toilet. Mine did, anyway.

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Hobb, Robin – Assassin’s Quest

A bit of a departure from the previous two books – if you’ve finished book two you’ll have some idea why. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more travelling in this one, taking us far away from familiar faces and into uncharted territory. It’s refreshing, though a childish part of me (the part that desperately yearned for Hogwarts throughout Deathly Hallows) just wanted Fitz to get back to Buckkeep and for everything to be the way it was. This yearning probably aligned my own feelings quite closely with Fitz’s, so maybe Robin Hobb planned it that way. Again, as I’m drawn deeper into her world, it’s hard not to suspect that she plans her readers’ every blink, since she clearly understands storytelling on a level beyond our lowly three-dimensional plane. Okay, I did put this book down for a while in the middle, as I was slowing down and needed to read other things – but she probably planned for that too, as when I came back I was all the way back into the adventure within pages. As a conclusion to the trilogy Assassin’s Quest delivers both epic moments and a few good twisting knives to the gut, but on another level all three books still feel somewhat like an introduction to Hobb’s world. Well, I’m perfectly fine with that. I have a feeling I’ll be staying here a while.

K

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King, Stephen – The Shining

Maybe my favourite horror book I’ve ever read. Not so much because it terrified me (though a couple of scenes gave it a bloody good go) but because it’s so crammed with cool creepy stuff that it almost feels like the ultimate haunted house story. Going in, I had only a vague knowledge of the plot: man takes job as winter caretaker at isolated hotel, man stays there alone with man’s family, man’s mind deteriorates, bad stuff happens. But there is more to it than that, apparently more than is in the film too. The history of the Overlook Hotel is deep and rich, the apparitions that dwell there enjoyably malevolent, and young Danny’s psychic abilities add an extra dimension to the characterisations. A couple of nits I couldn’t help picking: the third-person narrator can be pointlessly lascivious towards female characters at times, and there is some stuff involving a man dressed as a dog which I’m not too happy about from my modern, tediously PC standpoint, but at most those are small blemishes on a big, impressive novel, and ones I’m willing to overlook (sorry) for the love of a good ghost story.

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Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s strange picking up a book that’s such a classic you feel as if you already pretty much know the story — then you realise as you go along that you actually don’t know it at all, that behind the familiar names and oft-quoted passages, there’s a lot more to it than you’d always assumed. To Kill a Mockingbird is about race, of course, but it’s also about childhood, family relationships, fear, hypocrisy, demonisation and, perhaps most surprising to me, gender. Maybe everyone else knew this already, but Scout Finch is a fantastic example of a character who doesn’t fit where society expects her to, perhaps because her father has done his best to shield her from the corrupting influence of people’s stupid expectations, and … oh no. I think I’m reverting to my university self. I can’t help it, this book is just so crammed with insight. Not to mention it’s still absurdly, crushingly, shamefully relevant to the modern world. I know my endorsement means nothing at this point, but regardless: read read read.

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Mandel, Emily St. John – Station Eleven

Wonderful isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it fits this book in a very literal way. Station Eleven is full of wonder at our modern civilisation – which in the story has recently fallen to a deadly flu virus – and at the things the scattered few survivors have lived through and lost. It is a winding, non-linear tale about people trying to hold on to bits of the past, fragments of a world that is rapidly fading from living memory into the realm of myth – and at the centre of it all is the Travelling Symphony, a troupe who play music and perform Shakespeare for those other survivors who want a taste of the world that was. The sheer ambition, the interlocking mysteries and the incredible care with which every word has been chosen all remind me of a David Mitchell book, and make me happy to jot down Emily St. John Mandel’s name below his on my shortlist of authors to read everything by. (Side note: the audiobook performance by Jack Hawkins is exceptionally evocative, and will give you shivers like you’re huddled by a big fire in a log cabin out in the snowy woods, even when you’re just popping to Tesco for cat food.)

Wolf Hall

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Mantel, Hilary – Wolf Hall

I haven’t read much historical fiction, which is both a symptom and a cause of my comprehensive ignorance of history. But this sort of vicious circle can only be broken by fumbling around in the dark for a while, and that’s just what I did throughout a lot of Wolf Hall. Much of the story deals with the technicalities of obtaining a divorce for King Henry VIII of England, but the figures involved (including cunning protagonist Thomas Cromwell, jealous femme fatale Anne Boleyn, and the fascinatingly unpleasant utopian dreamer and torture enthusiast Thomas More) make this a good deal more interesting than it sounds. If you can get over the daunting size of the book, the initially confusing use of pronouns in place of the main character’s name, and the fact that about 50% of the characters are named Thomas, Wolf Hall gets pretty intriguing, and some of the descriptions alone are worth the price of admission. It may even be a good way to begin to understand British history, for people who like their knowledge packaged in a satisfying narrative form.

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Martin, George R. R. – A Game of Thrones

I love fantasy. I don’t quite know why. It can take a little effort even to work out what’s fantasy about A Game of Thrones (a lot of the usual “fantasy” elements are confined to old stories and vague superstitions in Martin’s world), but for some reason the mere fact that it’s set in a history other than our own makes it massively more appealing to me. Already I feel bad that I know and care more about the power struggle between the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, Baratheons etc. than about most of real history. This book weaves together short, to-the-point sentences (which I could stand to learn from) into an intricate tapestry that’s consistently unpredictable and exciting. If you like the TV show and are wondering if it’s worth reading the book, my answer is an emphatic yep. If I gave out MoleThrower Book of the Month awards, this would win the one for May 2012. But I don’t, so it can’t. Sorry George. Ah, he’ll get over it.

A Storm of Swords

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Martin, George R. R. – A Storm of Swords

Martin’s intimidatingly ambitious fantasy series only grows more intimidatingly ambitious in its third entry. If A Clash of Kings felt a little too much like several related but mostly separate narratives, A Storm of Swords weaves many of them back together in often unexpected ways. I enjoyed the first two books, but this one feels as if it’s firing on all cylinders, burning the fuel provided by the many diverse elements introduced in books one and two. Or perhaps it was me who changed, who finally realised I knew enough about Martin’s world to get by, that I didn’t need to keep track of the names and sigils of all the minor houses to appreciate the story. Either way, this is my favourite so far. Despite being big enough to justify splitting into two volumes, Swords feels tight, almost every chapter acting like a satisfying short story, beginning and ending in exactly the right places. There are too many highlights to mention; the latter half especially is a rollercoaster, crammed with an almost absurd number of twists and turns, not to mention an impressive body count.

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Mitchell, David – Black Swan Green

I seem to have been reading a lot of coming-of-age stories lately, and my jumbled thoughts on the genre will hopefully take the form of a larger blog post soon. This book treads some fairly familiar ground, documenting a year in the life of a 13-year-old poet and stammerer, burdened by secrets and self-doubt, as he traverses the tense tightropes of school and family life in the English village of Black Swan Green. But the journey is made memorable by David Mitchell’s inventive way with words, his talent for suddenly revealing unexpected and beautiful truths that have been there all along, and his habit of shattering his narratives into fragments which feel almost like self-contained stories in themselves, but which together add up to something much more enigmatic and affecting. As with all his books, I’d like to go through this again with a highlighter in an attempt to trace all the secret connections, in this case to figure out what exactly is going on with that moon-grey cat…

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Mitchell, David – The Bone Clocks

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.

Cloud Atlas

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Mitchell, David – Cloud Atlas

It’s hard to describe this book without descending into metaphor: it’s a rollercoaster that spends half its duration cranking you to the top and the latter half plunging you back to earth! It’s a beautiful Rubik’s cube with so many moving parts it may never truly be solved! It’s … okay, if you want to be a literal Linda about it, it’s a series of tangentially connected stories told with amazing skill in various styles, but it can feel very much like those first two things I said. If you’re not used to 19th century adventure stories, the first section might feel a little slow, but it gets more accessible to modern audiences as it goes along. The mystery grows as the layers are pulled back, until the merest hint of a connection between the narratives can set your spine a-tinglin’. If you’re like me you’ll reach the end with the uncomfortable sense that you’ve just read six better books than you’ll ever write, tempered only by the desire to read it again and spot more clues. If that’s not enough for you, it contains a hilariously and depressingly accurate account of travelling by train in Britain.

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Mitchell, David – Ghostwritten

I sort of hoped that, as his first published novel, Ghostwritten might give some clue as to how David Mitchell developed the incredible talent on display in Cloud Atlas, marking an early and educational step on his journey as a writer. But nope, the talent is already in full bloom in this funny, globe-spanning, almost Vonnegut-esque epic. Even more than his other books, it blurs the line between novel and short story collection; some of the chapters – the one set on the holy mountain jumps out – feel easily rich enough to comprise entire novels in themselves. But there are some great “aha” moments when we finally see the quiver of connective threads binding the whole together. If I have one criticism it’s that the book is so sprawling, so dense with echoes and imagery, that it’s hard for a mere mortal like me to know quite what to take away from it, other than a general sense that everything is connected. But that just makes me excited to read it again some day, and the first time round it was an extremely enjoyable ride, and exquisitely written. (Granted, that may be the fanboy in me talking; at this point I’d probably say the same about a telephone directory if David Mitchell wrote it.)

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Mitchell, David – Slade House

I often wish that authors would invent new types of supernatural being rather than plucking them wholesale – vampires! werewolves! zombies! – from the collective culture. In his last couple of books, David Mitchell has done an exceptional job of establishing his own unique mythology. Viewed from certain angles, Slade House seems like a classic haunted house story, albeit structured in Mitchell’s signature time- and viewpoint-hopping style, but his horrors possess an underlying logic that satisfies the rational side of my brain more than the vague, indistinct metaphysics of your average ghostie. In embracing the horror genre it feels a little like this author of astonishing power has decided to begin using that power for evil. Well, if it means more creepy delights like this, that’s okay by me. (Note: if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, you might have a little bit more of a clue what’s going on here, but I think picking up Slade House first would make for an equally enjoyable, if different, reading experience.)

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Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave – Watchmen

I need to read Watchmen again, because for the moment I have nothing resembling insight, only superlatives to lavish upon it. Actually scratch that – I’m not a proper reviewer, I can gush if I want to. The art is stunning, even overwhelming at times, and considering its only path of entry to your brain is through your eyes, it is amazingly effective at conveying seas of noise and long-drawn-out eerie silences. The overall effect of the whole thing is exhausting. Perhaps that’s just down to my inexperience with comic books, or perhaps the world it presents is just a little too frighteningly believable: a world which hovers on the brink of nuclear war while the heroes who were once seen to protect it can only shuffle around New York City reminiscing about the good old days and mourning their lost youth and reputations. Hmm, I may have made it sound dull there, but it absolutely isn’t – it’s astonishing, even or perhaps especially to a superhero sceptic such as myself.

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Nabokov, Vladimir – Lolita

Despite the controversy surrounding this book, the thing that struck me most about it was how beautifully and inventively written it is – certainly enough to make me feel guilty about calling myself a writer, and more disturbingly, enough to calm the sense of moral outrage stirred up by some of the early chapters. Before long, we are swept along on a strange journey in the company of pubescent-girl-fancier Humbert Humbert, a man we would be unlikely to have the chance to get to know in real life, and probably wouldn’t want to. But in the safe realm of fiction, we become desensitised to his unique way of seeing the world, worn down by his poetic vocabulary and biting sense of humour. Like a lot of morally ambiguous books, it’s hard to boil it down to any sort of message other than: “people are people, and people are complicated”. But that’s a lesson worth learning more than a few times.

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Ness, Patrick – The Knife of Never Letting Go

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.

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Palahniuk, Chuck – Fight Club

I was cautious going into this book, because although it seems to be worshipped by a certain section of the population, I got the impression this was largely to do with the theme of masculinity, a theme so profoundly meaningless to me that when people talk about it in the context of real life they may as well be talking about unicorns. Thankfully, there is a lot more going on here than a bunch of guys reconnecting with their inner man-animals through the medium of beating each other up. Each chapter is beautifully, almost musically structured, with verses and choruses, themes and variations, echoes and refrains which provide a satisfying sense of progression even when the plot is unfolding in three different places and times at once. The writing is peppered with striking, meme-ready sentences which provide a clue as to how it accumulated its massive cult following. And yes, there may be a rebellious, even anarchic streak running through Fight Club, but any reader who sees it all the way to its chilling conclusion and still thinks “yeah, we need to do exactly what those guys did” is not a person I will ever understand.

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Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil – Good Omens

An apocalyptic tale in which the forces of Heaven and Hell are portrayed as world-weary, vaguely incompetent bureaucrats endlessly pushed around and manipulated by those up(and down)stairs. This sets the stage for a witty play involving frequent meetings between the mythological (represented by said bureaucrats and four horsepersons of the apocalypse, among others) and the mundane (represented by the inhabitants of the almost-too-wholesome English village of Lower Tadfield). Yeah, this book is definitely very Gaiman and Verry Pratchett, though in terms of style it feels more Pratchett to me – so densely packed with humourous insight, pleasing turns of phrase and clever images that as a writer I go into a state of denial to make myself feel better, thinking “okay, but it can’t REALLY be this well written”, even though it blatantly is.

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Pullman, Philip – Northern Lights

From the very first page of Northern Lights we are wrapped in the rich, darkly intoxicating atmosphere of a world a lot like our own, but different in a few key ways. Most notably, people’s souls are embodied by daemons, animal companions which can shape-shift until their humans reach a certain age, at which point they settle into a permanent form. It’s a brilliant idea, sure to induce envy in any wannabe fantasy author (cough), but Pullman uses it in so many clever ways that you can’t stay mad at him. As plucky young heroine Lyra (along with her daemon Pantalaimon) leaves behind a cushy life in her version of Oxford and sets out to find her missing friend Roger – well, we go with her, in that magical but indefinable way that so few books achieve, and by the time we get to the north we are so embroiled in the ways of her world that what we find there strikes us as genuinely horrifying. Whatever you think of the later books in the trilogy – and they certainly get more divisive as they go – this opening volume is a spectacular masterpiece, and I don’t see how anyone with an interest in fantasy could disagree.

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Pullman, Philip – The Subtle Knife

Whereas Northern Lights is a fairly linear story set in one world and told mostly from one point of view, The Subtle Knife pulls back to reveal much bigger and more complicated things going on, the mere nature of which would probably constitute a major spoiler. This is where the scope of Pullman’s ambition – alongside his hatred for certain real-world institutions – becomes clear. We are also introduced to the second major protagonist of the series, a troubled but good-hearted boy named Will, who is from our world but has that uncanny children’s fiction ability to very quickly accept that he’s just stepped into a realm of daemons, witches, soul-eating spectres and knives that can cut through the fabric of reality. If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that it is very much a middle chapter: up to and including the cliffhanger ending, a lot of what transpires feels like stage setting for book three. But that criticism rings a little hollow when it is almost impossible, at any point, to tear your eyes from the stage.

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Pullman, Philip – The Amber Spyglass

There is more to criticise in The Amber Spyglass than in previous books in the series. The fragmentation of the plot which began in The Subtle Knife escalates here, to the point that it can be hard to piece it all together, even to remember which world everyone is in and whose side they are now on. Characters who once felt real become more ideas than believable people as, in a trend I generally disapprove of, the metaphorical meanings of the story begin to take precedence over the literal events. But these flaws are a perhaps inevitable consequence of the boldness of the themes, and a lot of potential disappointment is balanced by the cosmic scale and the intellectual vigour of the ideas presented. Some people won’t like these ideas. I generally do, although I’m not too keen on the way so many characters converge on the exact same point of view towards the end, finishing each other’s heartfelt lectures on the way things ought to be. Even with all these caveats I find the overall effect quite beautiful, and it’s still refreshing to see a young adult book take such a controversial stance, attacking huge real world institutions rather than just imagined baddies.

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Ronson, Jon – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

This book was both aggravating and reassuring at the same time. Aggravating because it contains so many examples of online mobs being vicious and disgusting, individual people being petty and unreasonable, and the tabloid press being their usual despicable selves. But at the same time, Jon Ronson’s tone reassured me that I’m not alone in finding public shaming and bullying, even of people who “deserve” it, deeply unpalatable. Numerous times I’ve had to take a break from the internet or unfollow people on Twitter because I was finding myself more annoyed by people whose side I thought I was on than by the transgressors they were attacking. This book at least makes me feel like this isn’t some failure on my part: perhaps I shouldn’t strive to be more blind to my own side’s flaws, more prone to tweeting out acerbic put-downs and less empathetic to other points of view.

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Rothfuss, Patrick – The Name of the Wind

I’d heard such good things about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up, despite my fear of reading straight fantasy in case it shows up my own novel. As I feared, there are certain sections that make me go “Awww, that’s sort of like that bit in my book, but way better”; at points Patrick Rothfuss seems to be taking us on a tour of fantasy tropes, going “This is how you do this one well, this is how you make this one interesting”. In some ways the setting feels like a pretty traditional fantasy world, albeit very well realised and rich in cultural detail. One thing that sets it apart is sympathy, a magic system that’s unique in that it … well, it almost makes sense. Unlike the handily vague fireball-flinging nonsense in a lot of fantasy novels (mine included), sympathy has rules which the reader is allowed to learn, so rather than feeling alienated when the protagonist pulls off a particularly badass piece of binding, you say “Ohhh, that was clever, well done!” It’s a great fun book, but if you’re the impatient sort, bear in mind that it is the first of a trilogy that is not yet finished and leaves many a loose end dangling provocatively in your face.

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Rothfuss, Patrick – The Wise Man’s Fear

Rather than starting with a bang, this book eases us back into Kvothe’s world quite slowly, but that’s okay. Aside from his wise and charismatic style and his brilliant world-building, much of Rothfuss’s skill is in wrapping us up in the day-to-day details of his protagonist’s life – stressing us out with his troubles, making us cheer whenever he wins some small victory over circumstance – until the fact that we’re not actually him seems entirely irrelevant. In that, it reminds me of nothing so much as Harry Potter. And the slow build-up more than pays off, as the latter half of the book is jam-packed with stunning imagery and moments to make you gasp out loud and prickle with goosebumps. If the third in the series lives up to the first two, The Kingkiller Chronicle will definitely join Harry Potter and His Dark Materials on the list of stories I go back to when I want to be taken on a fantastic journey away from my worldly troubles. Whatever it says about me, stories like these are among my favourite things.

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Rowling, J. K. – The Casual Vacancy

It took me a long time to get into The Casual Vacancy. It’s not that I was expecting Quidditch and Polyjuice Potion – honest! – but it seemed reasonable to expect some of the charm of Harry Potter. Instead, this book felt like a rather humdrum soap opera with a focus on unlikeable characters judging one another. To be honest I may not have kept going, except for two things: a) I had bought the audiobook and decided to let it play in the background while doing other things, and b) it was written by J. K. Rowling who is still probably, by some measures at least, my favourite author. I’m glad I made the effort. The cast may be less colourful and cartoonish than that of Harry Potter, but some – Krystal Weedon springs to mind – are no less vivid and fascinating, if you can get past all the ugly hypocrisies Rowling dwells upon so unflinchingly it feels almost unfair. And in the end, all the mundane, unpleasant, judgemental pieces come together to form something powerful, compassionate and furious. In that way, at least, this book lived up to my expectations.

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Sedaris, David – Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

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.

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Sestero, Greg and Bissell, Tom – The Disaster Artist

This book documents the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which is up there with Troll 2 in the “best worst movie” leagues. The unglamorous portrayal of small-time show business is interesting, but it is Tommy’s combination of eccentricity, passion, anger and vulnerability that makes this account so memorable (if you’ve ever acted in a weird and emotionally manipulative way, some of his lower moments may feel uncomfortably familiar). Sometimes I think any work of this type – be it documentary or memoir-type thing – is just an excuse to talk about people for a good long while, the specific subject acting as a framing device which sheds a lot of its importance once we begin to get to know the fascinating characters involved. So even if you haven’t seen The Room, this book deserves to be read by anyone interested in people – and if you aren’t, why are you reading at all?

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Spiegelman, Art – Maus

A bold attempt to capture the horrors of the Holocaust in graphic novel form. I’m sure much ink has been spilled debating whether this is appropriate, but to me this debate is not only a waste of time, but borderline offensive considering the depth and breadth of comics as an art form and the extent to which they were pioneered by Jewish artists. Also controversial was (and still is, based on the fiery debates at my book club) Spiegelman’s use of animals to depict various races of people, though how anyone can get through this book thinking this isn’t a deliberate choice to highlight the cartoonish absurdity of racial stereotyping is a mystery to me. The structure is also worthy of note, as it erases the line between fiction and non-fiction: we flash back and forth between a relatively benign present in which Spiegelman himself quizzes his understandably cranky father about his Holocaust experiences, and the up-close-and-personal story of his father’s journey, rife with betrayal, despair and an almost unbearable sense of oppression. Maus is a great book and an essential read, especially in these troubling times. If we refuse to learn from the stories contained here, what possible hope is there for humanity?

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Taylor, Laini – Strange the Dreamer

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.

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Tchaikovsky, Adrian – Children of Time

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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Vaughan, Brian K. and Staples, Fiona – Saga, volumes 1-4

My friend Euan practically shoved Saga into my hands, and I’m glad he did. It’s a big, sprawling, colourful, funny sci-fi epic about two people from opposing sides of a war that has been “outsourced” to numerous planets and moons, who fall in love, have a baby and go on the run. Naturally the authorities from both sides see their love as the most dangerous thing in the entire battle-torn, explosion-riddled universe, and enlist some shady characters to hunt them down. So begins an ongoing rollercoaster filled with complicated, flawed characters, intelligent philosophical musings, and absolutely stunning artwork. In my quest for a theme I eventually settled on lost innocence: the newborn baby whose future self provides slightly jaded narration, the alien species that resemble Earth animals — these lend both humour and an odd pinch of melancholy to many scenes. Prudes’ note: these comics contain a fair bit of gruesome death and some moderately graphic sex, so if you’re squeamish you might run into a few scenes that cause you to … er, squeam, I guess.

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Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five

Vonnegut certainly does know his way around a weird sentence – I learned that much from Sirens of Titan. But in other ways, Sirens didn’t prepare me for this book. Rather than being a funny, occasionally melancholic philosophical romp, Slaughterhouse-Five is tight and sharp and crisp and deranged and brutal – merciless in its quest to hammer home the horrors of life in general and war in particular, chilling in its amused detachment from these horrors. But it wouldn’t be half as powerful without this detachment. Rather than moralising, it peppers us with short little bullets of humour and horror, and after a while it becomes disturbingly hard to tell which is which. Don’t read it unless you’re in the mood to think about death for a while. But you probably should read it at some point.

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