Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Books – A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s experimental and brilliant book, A Visit From the Goon Squad came out in 2010. I hesitate to call it a novel – although it was marketed as one – because it seems to lie half way between a novel and a collection of short stories. I would probably call it a collection of interconnected short stories – but I suppose if Egan had called it that, perhaps less people would have bought it. And I’m not going to complain about anything that made more people read this book, because it’s strangely and thoroughly brilliant.

In the first story of the book, we meet Sasha, PA to the CEO of a record company, with an obsessive addiction to stealing. In the second we meet Bennie, Sasha’s boss. In the third we meet Rhea, a friend of Bennie’s from his days of teenager punk rock. In the fourth we meet Charlie, daughter of Lou, who is the boyfriend of an old friend of Rhea’s. And so on and so on. Each story is linked in some way to a character we’ve met or heard of before, often in the previous story. Sasha and Bennie crop up more than the rest, and threads of families and connections weave through these stories in the most incredibly exciting way.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Books – The Age of the Five trilogy, by Trudi Canavan

The Age of the Five is a fantasy trilogy published between 2005 and 2006 (yes I know I’ve missed the boat by ten years; in my defence I’ve only just gotten into fantasy). The set-up for the first book is as follows. In a land ruled by five gods and their earthly representatives, The White, Auraya, a young sorcerer and priestess soon rises to the rank of White herself, joining four others to serve the Gods. Together they fight off the invasions of sorcerers from the South. However, this is not the only difficulty Auraya faces. There is also the problem of relations with the Dreamweavers, a cult of oppressed healers who do not serve the gods, and the distant threat dead of the Wilds, who may or may not still exist – immortals who once set themselves up against the gods.

I love the world Trudi Canavan creates. It takes a few chapters to get a sense of what’s going on, but once you do it’s a fascinating world, geographically and culturally. The ongoing battle between Northern Circlians, led by the White, and the Southern Pentadrians, led by the Voices, creates a very dramatic and interesting set-up. The Dreamweavers too are a fascinating idea, brought into focus in the first book by Auraya’s connection with her childhood mentor Dreamweaver Leiard. I find the idea of their dream links especially interesting, and complex moral issues are thrown up throughout the trilogy as the White attempt to deal with the oppression of Dreamweavers. Beyond this, I especially like the Siyee – the winged humans from Si – and the Eli – who live half in water. They create more and more layers to this complex place, and curious parts of the world for the reader to explore. The magic is interesting too. How it works is never quite explored, but having many characters able to read minds and some others able to sense emotions makes for interesting narrative perspectives.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Things – The Classics Book Tag

Subtitle: Yes I watch too much Booktube and read too many classics.

For those of you who don’t know what “Booktube” is, it’s pretty much Youtube videos for/about books. A lot of reviewers seem to be using vlogs nowadays to talk about books, and I am a big fan of this. However, like many bookish people out there I am much better at written communication than verbal communication. Besides that, I am also somewhat afraid of technology (or perhaps it is afraid of me, which is probably why it always breaks whenever I go near it), and my internet existence has only fairly recently stretched to an understanding of what on earth hashtags are for. So I think I’ll stick to blogging.

However, this morning I watched a tag video by the Booktuber Jen Campbell, who is also the author of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and other such glorious books. This tag video was ‘The Classics Book Tag’ (again, if you don’t know what tag videos are, it’s basically a series of questions, and you ‘tag’ other people to answer them; often with Booktube tags it’s picking a book or two for each question). So, as I read a lot of classics and don’t talk about them that much on this blog of mine, I thought I’d have some fun and answer the questions myself.

So, without further ado, here is the classics book tag:

1. An overhyped classic you really didn’t like

I have two answers for this. The first is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I absolutely love Victorian literature but I just found Middlemarch a bit slow. I did eventually get into it after the first four-hundred pages, but even for an-thousand-and-something page novel that’s a bit of a slow start.

The second is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I am very used to gender stereotyping and the subordination of women in Victorian literature, but Dracula takes this to a whole new level. I studied it for A Level and got rather angry at the book quite a lot.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Books with Friends – Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell – reviewed by Chris King

So today it’s time for another step back into classic science fiction – with a guest review, written by Chris King.

People lie about having read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nowadays I no longer ask people if they have read the book when it comes up in conversation but instead ask, when did you last read it? The speed of the answer – and how dismissive they are – usually tells me if they really have read it or not. Some people seem to think that you don’t have to bother reading a book that has entered the public consciousness. After all, anyone can tell you that this is the book where Winston Smith fights back against the evil government of Big Brother, who watch everyone all the time.

Unfortunately this summary is wrong. In writing this review I may only be helping those who pretend to have read Nineteen Eighty-Four by giving them information about what actually happens. Ah well – at least that is consistent with the book: the best lies are based on the truth.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is often misunderstood and certainly misquoted. If there were a real-life dystopia like it, most people wouldn’t notice. The creepy man who once tried to recruit me to the anti-feminist league said, “Bloody 1984, amiright?” when his comments were removed from a feminist forum. However, in Nineteen Eighty-Four the Party alone exists. It has no need to delete the comments or writings of others. They even broadcast the hated enemy figure of Goldstein and let intellectuals denounce him without any help from the Party. The Party only edits itself, changing original statements and removing traces of past statements to help future lies. So, they announce one day that the chocolate ration is being increased to twenty grams, removing all evidence that they’ve actually lowered, not increased, the ration.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Books – Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Published in 2013, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has taken the sci-fi world by storm. It won basically every sci-fi prize there is, from the Hugo Award to the Arthur C. Clarke to the Nebula, and has had brilliant reviews pretty much all round. And I can see why. It’s a brave and somewhat brilliant novel. Set thousands of years in the future, in a universe controlled by the imperial power the Radch, the book is narrated by a soldier known as Breq. Yet Breq has not always been what she/it seems (more on gender and pronouns later). Twelve years earlier she was an artificial intelligence controlling the spaceship Justice of Toren, and the minds and bodies of all its ancillaries. Now she’s confined to a single body and interweaved with her present mission, we discover how she became what she is now.

It’s a fascinating premise, both in terms of its narrative perspective and the world Leckie creates. We’re immediately plunged into this world, and I’ll admit I spent the first fifty pages a little confused. There are a lot of names and races and classes to get your head around – and seeing a new world through the eyes of a narrator who is both exceedingly familiar with that world and exceedingly intelligent, doesn’t necessarily help. However, I soon got very into the story and setting. The Radch run most of the galaxy, and have been annexing planets for centuries, although this process has slowed now. The Radch Empire is presided over by The Lord of Radch, who has cloned her/himself into thousands of bodies, in order to fully control her/his vast empire. Part of the Radch system involves the use of ancillaries, soldiers whose once-human bodies have been cyberneticly enhanced, and who are now controlled by their ship’s AI. It’s a great set up for a novel, and Leckie carries it off well.