Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in nominated-for-just-about-everything-ever-between-them Chaos Walking trilogy. It starts in the ''New World" town of Prentisstown where Todd Hewitt is the last boy in town. Since the war, Prentisstown has no women left and when a boy turns 13 something happens to him which means he becomes a man. It must also be mentioned that in Prentisstown, everyone can hear the thoughts and memories of everybody else- the 'Noise' that spills out of every man in inescapable waves. Even animals have noise, from the most private to the most inane, there's no getting away from it.

Out collecting apples with his intellectually challenged dog Manchee, life changes dramatically for Todd a month before he becomes a man. Todd discovers an impossible silence, a gap in the noise, in the swamp outside Prentisstown. Returning home that afternoon, he finds that his guardians, Ben and Cillian have his bags pre-packed, no proper answers and a lot of meaningful looks and hurried goodbyes for him. Running from sudden gunshots towards the swamp, Todd is about to find out for himself that though the life he has led has been hard and miserable, it is not the truth. He and Manchee are forced from home for reasons unknown, with only a rucksack and a book he can't read to begin a journey across a world that until that morning, Todd had thought was absolutely empty of any other settlement. Blindly making his way to where he's guessing he's supposed to go, Todd meets a lot of people- one that stays through thick and thin, some that help, some that heal and some that hurt. He faces prejudice, impossible decisions, tests of strength and faith, but his resilience, bravery and constant need to do the right thing keep Todd and his companions running from their enemies.

Like all the best Young and not so Young Adult novels, The Knife of Never Letting Go touches on some of the most universal elements of humanity. Themes of love and loss, family, loyalty, doing the right thing, sacrifice, death, bravery and most things in between. It's fast paced, engaging and has some brilliant characterisation. Ness knows exactly what balance of made-up dialect, phonetic speech, grumpiness and personality idiosyncrasies to use to create a believable character that comes across as both ordinary and remarkable at the same time. I loved the handwritten fonts that revealed who's noise was being heard at the time- the mixed up jumble of fonts in loads of different sizes reveals to the reader how angry up upset a Prentisstown resident is and shows how oppressive and overwhelming it must be to hear that all the time.

I had to read a book club title straight after TKONLG, but all the way through I was desperate to put it down and start on the sequel, The Ask and the Answer. The first book ends on such a cliffhanger that it's impossible to wait. Todd is not the only person with questions that he needs answers to.

Throughout A Monster Calls, also by Partick Ness, I was constantly impressed by the emotion and the warmth in Ness' prose. This book is the same- it's the idea of hope dragging a person through the worst experiences in the world, even when it looks like there isn't any end to the misery. He's soooo good at creating characters that the reader empathises with- despite being inexperienced, beaten up, ruthlessly pursued and emotionally ruined, Todd still shows so much strength of character, and I think that is, in part, what makes the pages of this book turn so quickly.

The Bodysnatchers, by Jack Finney

This is a re-read for me, one I nominated at my book club and it won the vote! Yaaaay.

I really enjoyed re-reading this- one of the easiest, creepiest and most swiftly-paced Science Fiction books I can think of.  I can't say as there was anything profound and important that could only be discovered on a second read...but that's sort of the beauty of the style of this book- it's so easy and quick to read and the pages just fly past.

If Philip Marlowe is a hard boiled Private Detective and Walter Neff is a hard boiled criminal/insurance salesman, then Dr. Miles Bernell is very much the hard boiled GP. Born, raised and Doctoring in the small Californian town that his father practised in before him, Miles knows every soul in Santa Mira, knows their business, their jobs, their characters. He knows every hill and path through the valleys and every field on the edge of town. When he starts getting patients visiting his surgery telling him that their relatives aren't really their relatives, he doesn't know what to make of it. First it's just one. Then it's half a dozen. All convinced that despite looking, acting and remembering to the last detail like they always have done, they're just different.  When Miles and his neighbours discover something impossible and undeniably horrific in the basement, something that looks like a dead body but has never been alive, never been completed or had the finishing touches put on it, they know they've got a potentially species threatening disaster on their hands. It's just a case of finding out how far it's invaded so far...

It has to be said, this book could be considered a tad dated in areas when it comes to gender roles- the women fix a lot of coffee, cook sausages, go into shock quite a lot. The men smoke cigars, make decisions and speed around in cars...Miles is certainly the gung-ho saviour dreamboat that was apparently so ubiquitous in the 1950s. His one-time sweetheart, the recently re-appeared future squeeze Becky has to constantly remind Miles that women can do more than stand clutching their faces frozen in horror at the sight of anything, which she proves later on. I'm not convinced this book would be published today, it's not gory enough, it's ending might be seen as a bit of a cop out and the horror of being turned to dust in your sleep just seems too subtle.

The story of the space spores drifting to Earth and perfectly replicating humans, turning the originals to dust in their sleep is always thought to be a metaphor for communism or free will or something...the idea of the doppelganger is nothing new, but this novel combines the uncanniness of the doppelganger with deadly organisation skills- a recipe for the end of humanity. Whatever it is, it's chilling, slick, in places quite funny, and generally a really enjoyable entertaining and highly original Science Fiction novel. Soooo some of the characters' actions and decisions are questionable... yeeees some of the science might be a bit made up...I knooooow the ending is a bit too convenient...It's a fun, hammy, B-Movie fan's dream come true and I love it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

1984, at Nottingham Playhouse

I read this book over 10 years ago, so I can't recall if it's a faithful or literal adaptation of the novel, but faithful or not this new play, a collaboration between Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company and Headlong certainly captures the stiflingly oppressive atmosphere of one of the English Language's most important books.  I remember there being more roaming in the Ghettos and Ulcers in the book but that's probably best left out...

Using a combination of high-frequency noises, static, floodlights and really innovative live projection equipment, the production makes it feel less like you are watching a play of 1984 and more like you are in it. The lights and noises are uncomfortably intense and disorientating and do an incredible job of showing Comrade 6079, Winston Smith's mental state and his confusion- it becomes impossible to know what's real, what's new and what's repeated, what's memory, what's imagined and what's just plain old lies.

This  adaptation focuses not on the gigantic eyes of Big Brother, surveillance personified, gazing down on the individual but on the tiny and insignificant eyes of the minority of one, gazing up.  Looking hard at Big Brother, being baffled and full of silent rage.  It's not about the watchers, it's about the watched.  Or the possibly watched, or the threat of being watched.  Personally I don't know what's so special about Winston. I don't know why the Party are so interested in him and why they become so intent on his destruction.  He's one man.  Yes, he believes himself to be a part of the Brotherhood, the organisation dedicated to destroying the Party that may or may not exist, but he knows he will never meet any other members. There's no way that his rebellious fire could possibly burn any body else.  He associates with few people, none of whom he likes, and he's hardly a leader of men.

For the unfamiliar, the world of 1984 is one of paranoia, propaganda and fear. 'Newspeak', the only language in the world with a shrinking vocabulary, is being rolled out by The Party, its intention is to eliminate rebellion and anarchy. If you have no terms in which to describe these behaviours and to discuss the acts themselves, anarchy and rebellion will cease to exist. To even think in terms of non-conformism is punishable by death, or more commonly, disappearance. That's Winston's job. To modify historical records, newspapers, documents, photographs, all physical evidence of existence to match the preferred history of the Party. If you are ever wiped from existence, it will be Winston or one of his colleagues that presses delete.

Not to give too much away, Winston's own personal act of rebellion is to fall in love, something which is forbidden. It's dangerous and it's life threatening and it's the beginning of a series of events that will lead to betrayal. double agency and to the most famous room in literature.

Excellent, intense performances, particularly from Mark Arends who progresses from bored malcontent to ruined mess and some of the most creative production I've seen. The nightmarish sequences in the Ministry of Love and the destruction of the last piece of unobserved haven in the world are done so, so effectively it's impossible to explain. The Henry James-esque contextualisation bookending the narrative were excellent, if that's an addition made by the director it was a stroke of absolute genius- people do have a tendency to over analyse the historical words of the miserable and this was acknowledged so stylishly.

Go see it, then you'll know what I mean. At Nottingham playhouse from Friday 13-Saturday 28 September -

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I was very prepared to like this book. Having already proven to myself that I do not thoroughly hate historical fiction by going mad for The Marlowe Papers, I was expecting remarkable things from Winner of ALL THE PRIZES Ms Mantel.

Set in the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Blacksmith's Son and former runaway, has abandoned his beloved but disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and earned himself a place in the King's court.  He's good at talking people into and out of things.  He gains and loses assorted familiy members. It's backstabby, it's got some women in it. They storm around in dresses and look at tapestries. The king likes to have his own way...some people get put in prison for being Lutherans...

Oh god how I raged at this book. It starts off well enough, in the beginning I quite liked ragamuffin sailor escapee young Thomas Cromwell. The first of many Thomases...Tomi, if you will. He's promising, ruthlessly building himself out of the role of 'blacksmith's son', to cloth merchant, to landed douchebag to second most powerful man in the land. As with many books, I don't know if it's my history that lets me down...I'm not reading it to learn history though, so I don't care if this isn't accurate or this couldn't have happened, I'm reading it to go on some sort of courtly rampage with some of history's most outrageous characters.

I think it's the characters I felt most let down by in this novel, actually. I found Henry VIII to be sort of sad and easily manipulated, Anne Boleyn to be a spoiled diva and Thomas Cromwell to be the king of all suckups. Katherine of Aragon was some sort of mournful martyr and I really couldn't work out why everyone hated Wolsey so much. Or Thomas More. Maybe this is historically accurate. Maybe the characters not being as you expect was what Mantel was going for. I just didn't care about what happened to any of them, really. Apart from Jane Seymour. She seemed nice* 
*yes I am aware she gets the chop, historically.

The style of writing was the source of most of my rage. In fairness, it was probably ok. I finished the book at least, so something must've kept me going, although I really can't work out what. Refusing to follow my own advice and give up on books I'm not enjoying once more. Mantel's use of language and turn of phrase is occasionally genius- she is very good at creating beautiful moments that sort of last for an instant and then are gone. Many of the meetings between Thomas Cromwell and Mary Boleyn felt like that, I felt that was a story strand that was going somewhere. However, her reluctance to use proper dialogue signposts was infuriating. Some authors choose to not use speech marks and paragraphing to be cinematic, or to disorientate the characters and/or reader, but I really can't see why Mantel chose to not use speech marks or indication as to who was speaking.  Or thinking.  Or mixing their speech with thought. I didn't care enough about what was going on to try to work it out. Which brings me in a roundabout way on to: "He, Cromwell, went for a walk.". "He, Cromwell, entered the room". WHY?! Why keep doing this?!!? Why set such signposts in a scene that involves one man, and then omit them entirely from multi-men scenes?? Argh!!

It was very much a novel of ups and downs. Paragraphs of brilliance ruined by odd editorial choices, lacklustre characterisation and poor signposting. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to not knowing when to give up. But you can't really moan about a book unless you've read it.