Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Books – Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

So every now and then I read a book that is so utterly brilliant I want to stand on tall buildings and shout loudly at people that they should read it. This is one of this times.

Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven, was published last year to great success and acclaim. The book opens during a production King Lear. Hollywood actor Arthur Leander dies on stage, while a child actress watches from the wings. That night, a deadly virus spreads through North America and the rest of the world, and the majority of the human population is wiped out within weeks. Technology and governments subside, communities break down, civilisation collapses. The book then oscillates between the worlds before and after civilisation, between the lives of Arthur Leander and the people he knew, and the aftermath of the epidemic. Two decades after civilisation breaks down, we follow Kirstin, the children actress, now twenty-six years old and living with the Travelling Symphony, a theatre company who tour the leftover communicates, preforming Shakespeare plays – ‘because survival is insufficient.’

So, Shakespeare in the face of the end of the world. I had high expectations and I was not disappointed.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Books – The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, was published two months ago, and is an interesting, touching, beautiful book. It revolves around three different alternate stories, three different possible lives of its protagonists. So in Cambridge in 1958, a young student named Eva Edelstein gets a puncture in her bike, and meets Jim Taylor when he stops to offer her help. Or alternatively, in Cambridge in 1958, a young student named Eva Edelstein swerves to avoid a dog while on her bike, and cycles past by a young man who looks vaguely familiar. Or alternatively, in Cambridge in 1958, a young student named Eva Edelstein falls off her bike, and meets Jim Taylor when he stops to ask if she’s alright.

Each version is different, and we follow three alternative lives of Jim and Eva, through decades of career dreams, marital problems, children, love, death and deceit and pretty much everything you could want in a novel. The concept really appealed to me. I love the idea of possible futures diverging from one moment, of exploring what might have been, and how one small insignificant detail – a nail in a road, for example – can change someone’s entire life.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Books with Friends – Triumff, by Dan Abnett – reviewed by Chris King

Today, another guest review by Chris King. 

Reviews tend to be positive. We read books that we think we would enjoy and because we are selective then there is usually very little that we can find wrong. We pick a book because it ticks boxes – boxes like: well-known recommended author; author we have read before; genre we are familiar with; appealing plot described by the blurb. Usually there is very little we are not going to like. But there can be the occasional shock when it doesn’t go right. This, as you guessed, is one of those times.

And so this review is bad, very bad. Other people may well disagree with my verdict – curse us for all being individuals and not one unified collective mind, but it explains why when people give reviews out of 10 they normally give a 2-3 or 8-10. Either it was more of what they liked, surpassed it to be a favourite book, or they were disappointed. (People don’t give 1’s or 0’s, at least not British people; it isn’t kind and you look unreasonable).

I loved another of Abnett’s books, Blood Pact. It had believable characters and a wonderfully explored back stories, even for the minor characters. The villain was not some generic Big Bad but a believable human. No one was super-human (which is nice to see in a Black Library book about the 41st Millennium), and there was not an excess of warp magic to perform plot actions. But it would be wrong to review an author generally instead of a specific work – even if the inside cover of my edition of Triumff was filled with praise for the author’s science fiction…  in a fantasy book.
Let me take you through the reasons why I did not enjoy Triumff, after a rough overview of the setting and plot premise. Shall we?

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Books – The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

Published in 2001, The Eyre Affair is the first in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, a series of comic fantasy detective novels. It’s set in a rather nonsensical but also rather wonderful alternate1980s, in which literature is so significant in the society’s culture that there is a particular branch of the police who deal solely with crimes involving books. Wales is an independent Republic, and England has been at war with Russia for over a hundred years. The narrative focuses around the adventures of one particular Literary Detective, a woman named Thursday Next.

Suffice to say, I did enjoy The Eyre Affair. Any book that begins with the theft of a valuable original manuscript of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit is bound to win me over. The details of this strange book are simply wonderful. I like that Thursday’s father can randomly stop and jump through time. I like that in this world literature seems to run people’s lives, that all the biggest admirers of Paradise Lost have legally changed their name to John Miklton. I like that they travel by airship. I like the intense discussion over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I like every literary reference. And, let’s be honest, it’s just fun that the protagonist is named Thursday Next.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Books – Down the Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Published in 2010 and translated the following year by Rosalind Harvey, I think Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole is the first Mexican work of literature I’ve read. It tells the story of Tochtli, a seven-year-old boy growing up in a palace. He gets everything he asks for, from a room just for his hat collection to new animals for his private zoo. His latest wish to get a pygmy hippopotamus. Yet beneath the surface, something much darker is going on. Tochtli’s father, Yolcaut, is a Mexican drug baron, and Tochtli knows much more than most seven-year-olds about guns, gangs, and corpses.

This is a very powerful and often unpleasant book. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that I enjoyed reading it, just because it’s at times very unsettling, but I do think it’s a brilliant book and an impressive first work. I hesitate to call it a novel because it’s so short (just 74 pages) and there’s something in the shape of the story makes it feel more like a novella or short story. What I really admire is the way the child’s perspective on these darker events is handled. Such narrative perspectives can and do work well (take, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), and Villalobos deftly handles the divide between what Tochtli sees and understands, and what we see and understand.