Thursday, 24 January 2013

Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve

Such an unusual and ingenious concept for a novel.  Large, preadatory cities traverse the bare and empty earth looking for smaller cities (prey) to 'eat'.  Their reason is to capture their population as slaves to work their engine roomes and to scavange their fuel, resources and technology.  Municpial Darwninism, Reeve calls this, the survival of the fittest, most technically advanced settlements.

London, the city we deal with primarily, is one of the more kitted-out cities.  Its population is divided into guilds, who work to improve and advance their city.  The engineers, the most renowned and admired, study pieces of 'old technology' from the 20th century in the hope that one day they will be able to regain the weaponry and technology of the 1900s and 2000s.  The Historians and archaeologists record and store relics of historical importance and the aviators and navigators steer the giant city on its way accross the hunting grounds.  The story begins when Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian who has always daydreamed of adventure, finds himself cast out of the city of London into the outside, static world.  For the first time in his life he is on terra-firma with only a horribly disfigured and emotionally unstable assassin girl, Hester Shaw, who has just failed to murder one of London's most respected and important Historians (and also Tom's hero), the influential explorer Thaddeus Valentine.

I really do think that this is YA writing at its best.  You know you're on to a winner from the first sentence...
“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”
Not only is the world so brilliantly created, Mad Max via Dickens' London, but the characters are crafted to perfection; flawed, complicated and on most occasions stuck between a rock and a hard place. Which members of a post nuclear society have it easy?  There really is no difinitive line between good and evil, there are only decisions and their consequences.  The adult characters are exciting and full of stories of adventure, they're charming and energetic, but are almost always proven to be not what they seem.  What does it take to trust a person? 

We oversee a moral education, thanks to the unexpected experinces of Katherine Valentine, micro-socialite daughter of Thaddeus.  She learns to question her sheltrered, comfortable life and begins to learn about the death and exploitation of the disadvantaged for the comfort and health of those of a higher social standing, the horrors that result from the over consumption of resources and the dangers of greed, technology and entitlement.  She also learns about sacrifice and about living with the consequences of out actions.

I really did enjoy this a lot, Reeve's an excellent storyteller.  He reveals just enough information at just the right time to keep you wondering and he has a very streightforward but engaging style of writing.  It's certainly fast paced and full of advetnure and mystery, full of action, fights, chases and flames, revenge- also, PIRATES!  If you like steampunk, Phillip Pullman, Cybermen, the futuristic dog-eat-dog survival element of the Hunger Games and/or monster wheeled cities wheeling around the desert, you will probably like this.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

I've always felt sort of sorry for Anne Bronte. Despite being the youngest sibling, she never made it to 30, and she seems to have had it pretty rough.  She's constantly described as meek, retiring, shy, sweet and the like.  Hardly the ideal temperament for a governess.  It's also said though that she was unusually resolute, so very much like Agnes. 
Plus you kind of get the idea that sister Charlotte wasn't that keen on her. I arrive at this based on a couple of pieces of evidence.

1) This fairly horrific portrait. I assume it's bad drawing on CB's part, rather than Anne having the misfortune also to have an obscenely long neck.
2) Charlotte was the one who decided to bury her sister where she dropped, Scarborough, rather that to bury her at Haworth, with the rest of their family.
3) Charlotte would only agree to publish Emily and Anne's poems anonymously  as they referred to their made up world that she was not part of, Charlotte being closer to her older brother than her younger sisters.  She refused to republish the Tenant of Wildfell Hall After Anne's death, as she didn't think the book very consistent with her idea of her dead sister "'(Wildfell Hall) it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistakeit was too little consistent with the charactertastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer".


Agnes Grey is based partially on Anne's own experiences at home and as a governess.  She paints a complex and depressing portrait of 'the governess', a familiar character in 19th Century fiction.  Often a fairy Godmother, or a Wicked Stepmother to their pupils, we see life from Agnes' perspective in unfamiliar houses- not a servant as such, but certainly not a relative.  Coming from a loving, sheltered, but impoverished background, she is completely at a loss to discover the spoiltness, mean-ness and vindictiveness that exists in the children of the upper middle classes.  Expected to mould, influence and improve, but not to scold or to discipline in any way, Agnes struggles to win the goodwill of her employers or the affection of her charges.

Bronte states at the beginning that she's not aiming to entertain, to enchant or amuse, she just wants to speak to people to whom her writing is relevant- presumably governesses, those aiming to enter the governing profession and those who employ them.  Anybody who has ever found themselves out of their depth or doing something difficult out of necessity will be able to relate to Agnes' story.  Her feelings of isolation, the impossible expectations placed on her by her unreasonable employers and her absolute inability to please them, no matter how reasonable, enthusiastic and appropriate her behaviour are also pretty relevant to the modern reader.

Agnes Grey isn't an exciting book, it was never intended to be.  It's lacks the romance, suspense and adventure of the novels of the other Brontes.  It is however well written, quite lyrical and very honest.  Short and sweet, if lacking in plot.  It is what it says that it is from the beginning, the Diary of a Governess.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

One of the benefits of being in a book club (The Broadway Book Club, to be precise) is that you are encouraged to read books that you would never normally have read.  I rarely read anything be people that are still alive, let alone debut novelists.  It's a mixed bag, really.  I'm not saying that you have to be dead to be good, but comparitively few contemporaty authors have set my world on fire.

Shalom Auslander is no different, really.  I enjoyed the book, it raised the odd titter, but I'd never make an effort to seek out any of his future work.  It's just not the sort of thing that I usually go for.  The essayist/short story writer sort of comes through- it's conceptual, kinda like an essay, but the feel of the book has more than a sense of a funny short story that's been expanded to novel length.

Auslander raises some interesting points about the nature of hope, dissappointment and expectation, perceptions about how society interprets the behaviour of certain social groups towards one another,  the errrm flexability of history, the nature of martyrdom in various forms and the constant presence of death, and people's way of dealing with mortality.  Solomon Kugel, opetmistic nihilist, is someone who handles mortality in pretty unusual ways.  Not particularly helpful ways, really.

It's an unusual book, written from an intensely Jewish perspective, which is something I've not really expereinced before.  Not being of any religion myself, I found it weird how much being Jewish appears to affect every single aspect of narrator Sol's life.  It's almost like he's a Jew, first and foremost, and a person, husband, father, son next. So he can't possibly evict the decrepit, intensely disgusting Anne Frank who's been living in his attic for the last few decades.  Can you imagine what the papers would say?  And his martyr of a mother?  After all she falsely claims to have experienced in German death camps? As the concept for a novel, you can't fault it for its outrageous originality.  Or its capacity for accusations of 'offence' or 'poor taste'.  Personally I've never been offended by the concept of offenciveness.  In imaginitive works, anything goes really.  If you don't like it, put it down and walk away.

Moving on to mamma Kugel, who definitely steals many of the novel's scenes.  Fraudulently claiming to have survived horrific ordeals at the hands of the Nazis (but actually enjoying an idyllic upbringing in the more suburban part of Brooklyn), Kugle's cantankerous, given-two-weeks-to-live-a-year-ago mother is initially a very funny character, who becomes sort of tragic for inexplicable reasosns.  She must behave like she does for a reason that's never really explored.  She appears to be unhappy, but nobody seems to be bothered.  She's frustrating, invasive and hard work, but the reasons for her behaviour are only ever hinted at, as Sol's so wrapped up in his own problems.  He's a Jewish Basil Fawlty, or a fictional Woody Allen.

In conclusion, Hope: A Tragedy is unusual.  It has a strong, consistent life philosophy of "Don't worry too much about what you can't change, see what happens, it probably won't be too bad."  It's a tragical farce, which won't be to everyone's taste.  I still can't tell if it was to my taste or not!  It's not supposed to be realistic, but I'm not sure what it is supposed to's not that it's dull, or badly written, or just didn't produce much of a reaction from me really.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Book of Dave, by Will Self

I finished this about a months ago, but bits and bobs are still lining themselves up in my's weird when that happens. The language in this book is ridiculous- at first it seems so impenetrable, with strange alien characters such as the Ö and the ë, written in a weird phonetic cockney, but as with Trainspotting and A Clockwork Orange, it's surprising how quickly you get used to it. As you read on it becomes apparent, gradually, where some of the terms originate from: Some are adopted from cockney, some adopted from Dave's mentally-disturbed rants. Self has not only created a language, but created a history and a source for it too. 

Anyway.  This novel tells two stories.  We start off in about 500 years' time, when widespread flooding has destroyed much of London and the UK and (as far as we know thus far) only small hamlet-village communities survive.  The initial story takes place in Ham, what we assume was once Hampstead Heath.  The "Hamsters" live a strange lifestyle, one laid down by their god, Dave in The Book.  The "Mummies" and the "Daddies" live on separate sides of Ham and divide childcare responsibilities straight down the middle.  Dave says that's the easiest.  To co-habit with a Mummy or a Daddy is considered "Flying" a type of futuristic blasphemy.

Now we come to Dave, an overworked, overweight London cabbie, who goes from a loveless marriage to an even more loveless divorce and sees what little life he's amassed for himself fall apart.  In an enraged fit of psychosis, he writes a book.  A book that sets the world to rights and rearranges the world, its customs, laws and facts as Dave would have them.
Self manages to pull off something that is quite hard to achieve, which is to create a novel that's massively intricate  satirical, thought provoking and most importantly and anomalously, entertaining.

It twists, it spirals.  It will constantly continue to slather on new layers of meaning and weirdness with every chapter.  The more we learn about Cabbie Dave, the more the islanders' behaviour, 500 years later, begins to make sense.  Their speech, their beliefs, their behaviour, whilst still being somewhat unusual, is traceable to various incidents that contribute to the destruction of Dave's world and the eventual mental health.  The Hamsters show us that it's a case of being careful what you wish for when setting the world to rights.

To create two worlds, to develop the religion of one from the collapse of the other, to destroy said religion and to essentially ignore its destruction and carry on anyway is insane.  It's amongst the most unique, ambitious and definitely among the weirdest novels I have ever read. 

And for those reasons alone it's worth a look.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Firstly, can I start off by saying "Wow".  I read this in a single day, because it's impossible to leave off.  Such a unique story and a beautifully written book.

What's so impressive about Ishiguro's writing is his ability to drip feed you tiny pieces of information at a time.  A single piece of information never gives the game away- but together, we start to understand what is happening.  This technique, the importance of things said, things understood and things withheld plays an important part in the plot and leads up to a shocking revelation about half way through.  Because we experience the withholding of information as readers, initially struggling to work out what seems to be odd about the apparently idyllic countryside school, the behaviour and the manipulation of the pupils at Halisham seems more and more believable.

Essentially, the book is about a group of children at boarding school and their coming to terms with going their separate ways at the end of it.   Narrated retrospectively by Kathy, an ex student and former carer, we hear rose-tinted sotories of the school's Guardians efforts to encourage creativity within their charges, of the petty squabbles and tribulations of teenage life and eventually, of the pupils' gradual realisation of their purpose in life and their role in the future.

What I feel is unusual about this novel is its apparent lack of agenda.  Many 'apocalyptic' or alternate future novels are inherently preachy, whether it's cautionary tales about climate change, over population, the indiscriminate use of the world's resources.  The author is almost always offering us a warning.  Ishiguro writes of organ-farming, genetic manipulation, unhindered scientific discovery and the way it affects various people without appearing to reveal any opinions of his own.  Never casting judgement or making any comment.  These things simply are.  It is left to the reader to moralise and to consider the emotional, medical and ethical implications of this world.

I don't want to spoil this, but I'll leave you with some questions it raises:
Do we ever really think about where the things that we need come from?  Do we feel better when we don't know? 
Aren't we all just living on borrowed time, really?  None of us will live forever, how is knowing you have a definite expiration date worse than vaguely knowing you will have one eventually? (say, at the age of 86, or tragically, violently and unexpectedly at 31?)
Is artistic expression the best/only way to demonstrate the existence of a soul?

It will stay with you.  It will tear your heart out.  It will make you ask questions.