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!

Reading: the dirty lost pilgrims of Amberghost Abbey… problem

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The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

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.

150-DirtyStreetsOfHeaven The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

This and the Dresden Files have made me suspect that daft over-the-top urban fantasy noir nonsense may be my guilty pleasure genre of choice. But perhaps that’s selling them short. Dirty Streets certainly has a strong premise, its main character being a tough-talking angel whose job is to present cases, in a sort of metaphysical courtroom dimension, for why the recently deceased deserve to go to heaven rather than be condemned to an eternity in hell. Against this backdrop, things get messy for the excellently named Bobby Dollar when souls begin to go missing; the action that follows is well-paced, the mystery theologically intriguing. That said, there is a fair chunk of junk here too, in particular a love story so unbelievable I was convinced it couldn’t actually be going to happen, and then it did. I guess that’s not much of a criticism though – it’s more like looking at a greasy chip shop pizza and noting that it’s probably not good for you, before you cram it down your throat.

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

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.

150-EmpathyProblem The Empathy Problem by Gavin Extence

One of those reading experiences where the emotional side of my brain wrestled against the intellectual side, and this time there was no clear winner; I kept finding fault with the book, but I also became invested, almost addicted judging by how I binged my way through the latter half of the audiobook in a day. The world it presents struck me early on as impossibly black and white: evil, uncaring bankers vs. the righteous protesters outside their building. Not terribly at odds with my own views, sure, but I’m at the point now where at least part of me wants books to challenge my comfortable assumptions about people. I suppose it sort of works if you view the story not as an attempt at realism but more as a modern fairytale, or an updated take on A Christmas Carol where a brain tumour plays the part of the ghosts, and cane-twirling Victorian capitalists are replaced by even slimier businessmen who’d be right at home in American Psycho. It’s a strange mix, but as a late coming of age story it has its moments, and I couldn’t help but find the lead character’s awakening sense of humanity quite moving. Not Gavin Extence’s best book, but it still shows off his talent for delving into the human mind from odd but often startlingly relatable angles.

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Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

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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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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?!

150-IAmPilgrim I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

It’s that old tale about a troubled but brilliant person being pulled back into a world they tried to leave behind. In this case he’s a superspy type, enlisted first to investigate an unusually perfect murder and then to foil a deadly terrorist plot. Like many thrillers, I suppose, I Am Pilgrim seems to have a slightly Team America view of the world, particularly when it comes to Arab nations, where the populace are portrayed as simple, unhappy and corrupt at best, terrorists and torturers at worst. Meanwhile, our hero is also not above using some morally questionable techniques when shit gets rough, but these unfailingly go off without too much unpleasantness and, in one case, a victim light-heartedly thanks him afterwards, saying that a spot of torture was probably what he needed to turn his life around. Strange how the grittiest stories can sometimes be the most naive. Setting aside these troubling elements – and I’ll give the book partial credit for acknowledging some of the reasons people may end up doing bad things – it is ambitious and decently written, its climax impressively tense, but I must admit the details are already fading from my memory.

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

Reading: dancing, darkness, daemons & depression

Hey there! I’d like you all to meet my new symbol!

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This little guy tells you that I’ve already read a book some time ago before reading it again more recently – just so you don’t think I’ve got thirty-one years into life without having experienced the magic of His Dark Materials.

On that overly defensive note, let the book rambles commence!

150-DanceDanceDance Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I’d nearly finished this book when I discovered it’s the sequel to another book (A Wild Sheep Chase) which I haven’t read, but the unexplained elements didn’t strike me as out of place, rather feeling right at home within Murakami’s usual dream logic. Talking to a sheep man on a spooky secret floor of a weird hotel? I’d expect nothing less. As ever, I had no idea where the plot was going, or which strands would turn out to be important. At one point I thought it was turning into a murder mystery, but Murakami seems to shoot down anything resembling a recognisable formula before it gets off the ground. This freewheeling style is enjoyable, but also means I never really know what to say after finishing one of his books. At some point I should probably make an effort to read up on interpretations of his work rather than cheerfully bumbling through it like someone admiring the pretty pictures in an art gallery without stopping to look too closely or read the plaques for context. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with pretty pictures for pretty pictures’ sake.

150-TheLeftHandOfDarkness The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

As indicated by the otherworldly spires on the cover, this is a proper juicy old-school science fiction novel, of the sort you feel you should read a musty second-hand paperback of – but I bought the Kindle version because that’s the boring future we’ve ended up in. The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose interplanetary union, responsible for making first contact with the inhabitants of the icy planet of Gethen. The most unique feature of this strange new world is its genderless society, in which people are neither male nor female, but temporarily take on the biological characteristics of one sex or the other for mating purposes. The oddest feature about the book, meanwhile, is that this feels almost irrelevant to the actual events that transpire. The story functions more as a guided tour of Gethen than as a particularly thorough exploration of the themes it touches upon. I suspect that, at the time of writing, even touching upon these themes was pretty radical, and I have to respect Le Guin for that – as well as for her elegant writing style and, of course, the sheer breadth of her imagination.

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Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

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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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

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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Slade House by David Mitchell

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.)

150-TheFirstFifteenLivesOfHarryAugust The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Lately, in the world of not overly literary literary fiction (book club fiction, if that’s not a pejorative term) there seems to be a glut of books with titles like this: “The Intriguing Noun Phrase of Name Quirkyname”. I tried not to let this put me off what sounded like a cool premise: people who live their lives over and over again, always carrying forward the memories of their previous lives. And I was pleasantly surprised by how convincing and well thought through it all is – how these people have developed systems to take care of each other, to deal with members of their own kind who cause trouble, and to carry messages back and forth through time. My one criticism is mostly a matter of personal taste: in chronicling multiple lifetimes, the book encompasses such a broad sweep of time that it often doesn’t bother to zoom in and give us a close-up view, a sense of place and character, a gut connection to what Harry is living through. This perhaps reflects how the fleeting details of individual lives might come to mean less in such a drawn-out existence, but it also makes it hard for a mere mortal like me to fully relate. Still, the tangled game of cat and mouse that brings the book to a close is both tense and ingenious.

150-ReasonsToStayAlive Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

I bought this book a while ago and was saving it as a sort of emergency ripcord in case I ever needed one. When that time came (damn you January), I read it in less than a day. In it, the author describes his experience with intense depression, how it affected his life, and how he got better, at least better enough to come to the conclusion that life is worth living. Interspersed with the memoir style chapters are assorted interludes such as lists of the lies depression tells you and, of course, things worth staying alive for, but even these are extremely personal, and Haig is careful to emphasise that his own experiences may not apply to everyone. On that note I’m not sure this book actually made me feel much better – while I found a lot of it relatable, in places it prodded (unintentionally I’m sure) at some of my feelings of inadequacy – but it gave me a few ideas for other ripcords to try, and my depression wouldn’t really be doing its job if just reading a book could fix it.

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

Reading: trains, storms, magicians & haunted hotels

150-agatheringstorm A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore

As an experiment, my book club decided to try out the website Blind Date with a Book, and we ended up with this – certainly a book a lot of us would otherwise have judged by its cover. It was described on the website as a mystery, and while there is an element of that, the mystery does not really unfold in stages or keep the reader guessing as you might hope. There is only really one twist, and it comes near the end; what leads up to it is simply an account of the life of a young woman, with a focus on romance and a brief, somewhat out of place diversion into wartime espionage – all given an air of nostalgia and not entirely justified intrigue by the framing device of Lucy Cardwell, in modern times, digging into her family’s history. I didn’t dislike this book – and towards the end there is some minor but welcome subversion of all the wholesome cosiness – but on this occasion the blind date didn’t really prove much; A Gathering Storm is more or less what I would have assumed it was if I saw it in a book shop.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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.

150-themagicians The Magicians by Lev Grossman

A most peculiar book. It contains a lot of what I expected it to contain, and much that I didn’t expect at all. In truth it feels rather like two or three different books smooshed together in a sort of culturally aware exploration of various facets of the fantasy genre. Most obviously it evokes Harry Potter and Narnia, with a dash of D&D and perhaps a pinch of Wonderland. The trouble, for me, is that this makes the world feel inconsistent, to some extent lacking in its own identity, and it’s never quite clear how all the pieces fit together. The characterisations are also odd; Quentin Coldwater, while I think he is intended to be moody, can be dickish in quite a bizarre and jarring way, and some of the others don’t feel fully fleshed out. But I’m sounding a little more negative than I intended, so allow me to pivot: there are some incredibly cool moments in The Magicians, some highly imaginative feats of magic, and some genuinely clever thematic material dealing with what it might mean to be able to do anything, to get what you have always dreamed of and still be unhappy. If heady concepts are what you want from a fantasy and you’re willing to go on a slightly bumpy ride to get your fix, this book may be for you.

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The Shining by Stephen King

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.

150-misery Misery by Stephen King

The story of a famous author who is kidnapped by an obsessive fan after a car crash, taken to her remote home in the mountains and forced to write a new book to her exacting specifications. I wonder how much of it appeals to me just because it’s about the writing process in all its infuriating, wonderful, soul-crushing glory. There is certainly a lot of insight here – about writing for yourself vs. writing for others, about writing as a reason to stay alive, about the unconscious mind solving sticky plot problems, about the hidden value of uninformed criticism. But surrounding the writing is a claustrophobic psychological thriller with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle horrors to offer, as poor Paul Sheldon tries to employ the limited toolset at his disposal to find a way out, any way out. And the star, of course, is Annie Wilkes, certainly the most memorable character from any Stephen King book I’ve read, who is by turns scary, sympathetic, funny, clever, stupid, paranoid, trusting, childlike, calculating, puritanical and utterly depraved. I’m sure there are more sensitive ways to depict mental illness, but for better or worse, this book, like Gone Girl, is more than entertaining enough to get away with it.

150-americanpsycho American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Perhaps more than any other book I’ve read since university, American Psycho feels like an Important Work of Literature: serious and striking, with few concessions to readability, often seeming to make an active effort to push readers away. The meanness and vapidity of its characters, the interminable inventories of what people are wearing, the constant cross-purpose conversations that go nowhere — all these caused me to put the book down early on, coming back to it months later out of a sense of literary duty and a desire not to let it beat me. I knew it also contained scenes of graphic sex, murder and mutilation, and while I didn’t expect to enjoy these, I couldn’t shake the slightly psychopathic thought that they might at least break up the mundaneness. As it turned out, they didn’t make me feel much of anything either — it all just blended together into a jarring, numbing collage, and perhaps that was the point. The main character is certainly interesting (though I can’t help but feel that writing a psychopath is a licence to give any inconsistency the air of an enigma), and the overall portrayal of the culture of Wall Street is about as damning as that culture probably deserves. As a believer in artistic freedom I’m glad American Psycho exists, but for me personally, I’m not quite sure the journey was worth the headache.

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

Reading: symphonies & graveyards, emperors & English villages

Disclaimer: I mention Harry Potter in 3 out of 6 of these rambly book paragraphs. If you have a problem with that, you should probably leave now, because I can’t promise it won’t be 4 out of 6 next time.

150-emperoroftheeightislands Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Comparisons to Game of Thrones get throne (sorry) around a lot at the moment, mostly by people who seem to think George R. R. Martin invented fantasy. But in this case, the comparison (drawn by my very fantasy-literate friend Alanna) is apt. In Hearn’s novel, a diverse bunch of point-of-view characters with various claims to various lands and titles go on long, meandering journeys back and forth across a Japanese-inspired empire, occasionally bumping into each other when they’re not busy being abruptly killed off. Most notably, we follow boy hero Shikanoko as – before our very eyes – he is shaped into a legendary figure by forces largely beyond his control, and at points it’s hard not to wonder if he may ultimately turn out to be the bad guy. The style is simple and elegant, the characters interestingly conflicted, the way magic works imaginative and very distinct from fantasy books with a more western setting – here, magical power seems primal, bound together with death, birth and sex. Another similarity to Thrones: this volume is far from a standalone book, and relies on its yet-to-be-released sequel to resolve most of its plots.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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.)

150-harrypotterandthecursedchild Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany

I have not yet seen this play in the theatre, but I think I can safely say watching it would be a much better experience than reading it. On paper (or Kindle screen) it can feel like questionable fanfiction – familiar characters in new and unlikely situations, presented in an uncomfortably bare-bones style with little of the flavour of a novel. The plot is easy to criticise as more a Greatest Hits of Harry Potter than a true eighth installment, finding convoluted ways to bring in just about every element of the wizarding world you could possibly want to see on stage. This would be thrilling if you were actually watching it, but as I read my main reaction was “oh, I guess that’ll be really cool for the people who managed to get tickets”. Having said all that, there were odd bits that made me remember why I love the series so much. The new character of Scorpius is pretty great. And Rowling isn’t afraid to take risks, portray Harry in a more negative light than ever before, and show Hogwarts from the perspective of people much more socially alienated than him. As a social alien, I appreciated this greatly.

150-thegraveyardbook The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Don’t think I’m obsessed with Harry Potter or anything, but The Graveyard Book has a lot of Potter about it: a boy grows up in unusual, magical surroundings, has a series of episodic adventures, and gradually learns more about his past and the shadowy man who murdered his parents. Of course, as it is only a single, fairly short book, it doesn’t have quite the same impact, but there is a lot crammed into these eight chapters. I enjoyed the dense, self-contained world of the graveyard, with its underground tombs, weird dream-like other planes and ghostly characters from across the sweep of history. On reflection, a few aspects of the ending strike me as cheap ways to stir up readers’ emotions while checking some generic coming-of-age boxes along the way – but they still gave me a bit of a tingle, so I guess Neil Gaiman knows what he’s doing. I only wish I could get my brain to stop trying to make literal sense of his work, because it does tend to put a bit of distance between me and his beautifully crafted worlds.

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The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

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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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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…

Note: I also reread Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere recently for my book club, and enjoyed it quite a bit more the second time round. So I’ve retroactively awarded it a star, over on the Books I’ve Read page. Don’t tell me I can’t do that! I make the rules around here!

Reading: handmaids, wallflowers, pigs & civil wars

Still plodding along with this whole reading thing, even though my brain doesn’t seem to want me to at the moment. Meh, if I did everything my brain wanted me to do, we’d all be in trouble.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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.

150-HalfOfAYellowSun Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The civil war in Nigeria is a conflict I knew so little about that I had to look it up to confirm that it actually happened in real life as well as in this book – so if you’re anything like as historically ignorant as me, it’s worth reading just to learn a bit about something rather important that few educators (certainly in Britain) seem to think is worth telling people about. Half of a Yellow Sun is a big, sweeping novel, a portrait of a fiery political situation told through the eyes of three characters from three very different worlds. Their characterisations are vivid, sharp and complex, their emotions often several steps removed from the emotions you might expect them to feel in a given situation. As admirable as this complexity is, the constant subversion of obvious emotions sometimes left me, as a (how shall I put this) somewhat less complex reader, struggling to relate. Only sometimes though. This is definitely up there with a few really great books that I’m annoyed with myself for not appreciating quite as much as I wanted to – but overall I still enjoyed it for its intricacy and intelligence, its humour and sadness. And the ending is pretty beautiful.

150-AnimalFarm Animal Farm by George Orwell

Another reread. This is the story of a workers’ revolution among the animals of Manor Farm, who chase out their human masters and seize control, before slowly realising that this new configuration of power has not resulted in the golden utopia they were promised. Animal Farm certainly deserves its status as a classic: it’s extremely well crafted and makes its points clearly and elegantly. To me, though, the directness of the allegory has always been mildly off-putting, and gives this book a bit of an educational flavour, like something designed to be taught in schools. But perhaps that’s just because Orwell’s follow-up, the magnificently terrifying Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes a lot of the same ideas and spins them into a much more complex and thought-provoking tapestry.

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

Reading: drugs, clockwork bees, dark carnivals & mayhem

So far this year I’ve been reading at what feels like my slowest rate since I started uni way back in 2008. This makes me feel tremendously guilty for some reason; perhaps because I worry that my brain is slowly turning to mush, taking everything I learned on my English degree with it. But here’s what I’ve managed to read, anyway. Don’t judge meeee!

150-SomethingWicked Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The creepy story of a malevolent carnival that shows up on the outskirts of a little American town and begins to exert some dark influence on the inhabitants. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman, to the point that I’d be quite surprised if he didn’t read this at some formative stage of his development. It also gave me unexpected flashbacks to reading Goosebumps as a child, though this is definitely more grown-up, and some of the horrors a little more abstract and existential than R. L. Stine’s tended to get. Reading it, I always felt a few steps behind the story, struggling to keep track of what was going on as Ray Bradbury danced around pulling ribbons out of everything like the conjurer he undoubtedly was. Something Wicked is stuffed with brilliant images and ideas, but ironically I may not be quite enough of a grown-up to fully appreciate it.

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Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

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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Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

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.

150-AScannerDarkly A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I think the best way I can describe this book is as a strangely enjoyable exploration of paranoia and uncertainty. It’s no rollercoaster; the plot – relating to the life of a man leading a double life as a drug addict and an anonymous agent investigating, well, mainly himself – sidles along at a leisurely pace, taking in the entertainingly mundane conversations of its drug-addled characters, philosophical musings on identity, and explanations of scientific curiosities relating to the structure of the human brain. Already I can barely remember any actual plot points, but that’s not really a criticism, since I remember it being pretty consistently interesting and funny. I definitely need to read more Philip K. Dick. Also – though it is entirely coincidental that I read them back to back – someone could write a good essay comparing this book to Fight Club. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

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

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.

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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!

Reading: meteorites, shrinking alphabets, trolls & Noise

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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.)

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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!

First draft fever

I’m giving myself an hour to write this post. That may seem like a long time, but I am a slow writer, a slow reader and an all-round slow thinker. I can easily spend the better part of a day carefully composing a blog post, or – as has happened a shameful number of times – write one in fits and starts over the course of several weeks, and quite possibly never finish it. So this is an attempt to speed myself up and, in the process, maybe find a sustainable way of updating this blog more than once in a blue moon.

This year, I’ve also adopted a similar approach when it comes to writing novels. After spending so many years painfully extracting The War of Undoing from my head like a troublesome tooth, I wanted to get on and hammer out something completely new to prove to myself that I could. So at the beginning of March (before I finalised TWOU, actually) I set myself the task of writing a first draft of a new, shortish (60,000 word) novel over the course of six weeks. This would mean writing 2,000 words a day and working 5 days a week. 2,000 words was right at the edge of my ability when I was rewriting The War of Undoing back in 2012, so this seemed ambitious but not impossible.

Two weeks later, I somehow finished the first draft of the new book – let’s call it Project Rose – having managed to churn out around 4,000 to 6,000 words a day, as well as working weekends. I was astonished at myself. I’d heard of people writing drafts that fast, but I never thought I was capable of doing so myself. In case you are interested, here are the tricks that I think helped me achieve this:

  1. I made the rule that I would not overthink what I was writing. This was a first draft, after all, and if I wrote something incredibly stupid and rubbish, no one ever had to know. So if a potentially stupid and rubbish idea came into my head, as long as it amused me, I would put it in anyway and worry about it later.
  2. Going against my natural inclination to tinker, I absolutely forbade myself from going back and making changes to bits I’d already written. If I changed my mind about a plot element or character, I would carry on writing AS IF I had made all the necessary changes earlier but without actually doing so, and make a note of the change so it could be implemented in a rewrite.
  3. I was working from a plan. Not a massively detailed plan, but a brief chapter-by-chapter outline and some more in-depth notes which I’d spent a couple of months gradually cobbling together. This meant that no matter how many weird tangents I found myself going off on, I could always look at the plan and go “oh right, I’ve got to do that now”, pick up the draft and set it down pointing vaguely in the right direction like you would a remote control car with an especially erratic remote control.

And with those helpful hints comes a rather large disclaimer: the draft didn’t turn out very well at all. I can say that confidently because I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to subject it to its first major rewrite, and even with care and attention it seems vehemently opposed to the notion of being good. The quality of the writing is wildly variable (thanks for that, trick #1), it’s riddled with inconsistencies (cheers, trick #2) and it goes out of its way to conform to the most ludicrous plot points even when it has to drag the characters along kicking and screaming in order to get there (oh, trick #3, you bastard). There are things about it that I like, but for now I think I’m going to do the classic writer thing of leaving it in its (metaphorical) drawer for a while longer, and see how it looks to an older, hopefully more mature me.

Did I mention I wrote another first draft in May and June? Yeah, a first draft of a completely separate book, this one based on Project Chippy, the aborted detective webseries I mentioned on this blog back in 2012 – let’s call its novel incarnation Project Fishy. I mostly used the same methods as I used back in March, though I got derailed a bit more along the way, by doubts, plot problems and such. I haven’t gone back and looked at that first draft yet, but I suspect I’ll find that it’s just as flawed as Project Rose.

But I’m liking writing these first drafts, even if they’re nowhere close to being in a fit state for anyone else to read. Having two first drafts sitting there awaiting my attention is a much better feeling than the one I had before, which was “oh god, once I publish The War of Undoing I’ll have nothing new on the go and I’ll probably never be able to write anything again”. I’ve at least proved myself wrong in the most literal sense there – I have written more stuff. It may not be good, but I have written more stuff. So nyah, unrelenting negative voice in my head. Plus, writing first drafts is much more measurable than fiddling with drafts you’ve already written. I can look back on 2015 so far and say “Look! There are 120,000 words that didn’t exist in that order before.” Whereas last year … well, let’s not talk about last year.

So I’ve decided to embrace this first draft fever and write another one, starting next week. Unlike the others, this one will be set in Kyland, and will be a sort of prequel, telling a story about the Raining children’s time living in Tarot before all the craziness of The War of Undoing happens. My codename for it is Project Hopeless, which may mean something to the two or so people who have read TWOU and actually remember world details. I’m probably going to use a slightly different system for writing this first draft, making more notes before each chapter to keep myself on track, but I’m sure whatever system I use will still lead to an avalanche of horrendous problems for my future self.

Actually, who cares? I have plenty of future selves, and it’ll only be a problem for some of them. I have a feeling the ones who are going to be writing this first draft are going to enjoy it very much. And that’s my hour nearly up, so I’d better stop typing before this turns into yet another novel. Blog at ya soon! (God, I really need a way to end these things.)