Riding the slipstream …

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The-Adjacent-Christopher-Priest-198x300 Today I shall direct you to another review I wrote for Shiny New Books:- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, now out in paperback.

Priest is one of those authors who defies genre, yet routinely gets categorised as a science fiction author. True his books often have some SF elements in, and The Adjacent was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (losing out to Ann Leckie).  However, to me, he’s more a spec fiction writer – riding the slipstream rather than pure SF.

Those of you who have seen the film The Prestige will have encountered the mind of Priest, (although the film did remove one whole contemporary plot-strand which would have complicated things to much for the big screen), so you’ll realise that a level of the fantastic is a part of that story.

Priest is a great ideas man. This novel with its central echoing romance, goes from a bleak future back to WWI and through WWII before coming full circle. I really enjoyed it.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, paperback 432 pages).

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’

Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent

dark satanic mills

It’s a rare thing for me to read a graphic novel – in fact the only one I’ve read since starting this blog was The Crow by James O’Barr, (see here). When I finished reading that, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to read more of such dark fare in this style, figuring I’d read Posy Simmonds instead. Well, I never got around to that, and two years later I’ve just read another dark and very dystopian graphic novel.

It was the name of Marcus Sedgwick being attached that drew me to it – I will read anything he writes, the title promised strong visions inspired by William Blake, and there’s a motorbike.

Before getting into the story proper, the front cover folds out to reveal a series of panels containing the words of ‘Jerusalem’ by Blake, and the vision of England therein gets bleaker with each panel as the colour is faded out to end in a drawing of a bluebell in monochrome. England’s green and pleasant land indeed!

Now to the story – it starts with a motorbike courier trying to deliver a package through the gang-ridden, semi-derelict and overgrown streets of London. The rider stops to help a man that was being set upon and rescues him.  The rescued man, Thomas, happens to be involved with a bunch of atheists who are enemies of the True Church – the de facto fundamentalist rulers of this defunct England. The rider is revealed to be a girl – Christy, and she’s sympathetic to Thomas’s cause.

Christy and Thomas

Through rescuing Thomas, Christy misses the timed drop, losing her day’s wages – but is not so late that she doesn’t see a man being murdered – and she was seen. She flees to the house of an old friend, and finds their son is ill and being left to die as the True Church doesn’t believe in doctors, her friend’s husband has converted. Not welcome, Christy abducts the child to take him to hospital but he dies before she gets there – now framed for his murder, she needs to get out of London. Meeting up with Thomas again, they head north towards the seat of the anti-True Church movement’s home base. A cat and mouse game ensues as they try to evade the Soldiers of Truth who are on their tail…

The Anti-Sci Gang

It’s all very grim. The picture spreads are black and white echoing the fanatical beliefs of the True Church, there is no room for grey in their credo. In this semi-drowned world protected by giant mirrors in the sky, it is always twilight, always dark. It’s never made clear whether the catastrophe that has beset this England was environmental or, dare I say it an act of God, or man-made for that matter.

The text is full of biblical quotations; in particular from the last supper and Jesus on the cross, alongside the paean to Blake’s poem. The story is bookended by words from Francisco Goya too, (as used in my title for this post) – it is crammed full of references, some of which are discussed in the afterword by Marcus and Julian Sedgwick. The story with its race to leave London for a better life elsewhere reminded me too of John Christopher’s marvellous 1956 novel The Death of Grass, reviewed here.

breaking glassChristy in her black leathers could be Hazel O’Connor (left) in the 1980 film Breaking Glass, (loved that film). Personally, I find that women, drawn in this heavily shaded style used in graphic novels often look rather mannish and over-strong of jaw but, in my limited experience, they’re given little opportunity to display any femininity. In the well-lit hospital scene in particular, Christy does get to show some vulnerability – thumbs up to illustrators Higgins and Olivent for that bit.

Given that this novel is published by Walker Books, a children’s book publisher, and aimed at 12+, I did like that the Sedgwicks chose a heroine for the lead character and I hope that girls will read it.  There is much to enjoy in this world gone bad and much to think about from the text. My main complaint (and this is good) is that at around 160 pages, it was all over too fast – I wanted more!  (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent, officially pub 7th Nov by Walker Books, softback, but available now.
Breaking Glass [DVD] starring Hazel O’Connor, Phil Daniels.
The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Christopher

A new approach to the problem of werewolves …

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

red moonInside this chunkster of a werewolf novel are at least two shorter novels trying to get out… Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.

From the opening chapters in which a Lycan manages to board a plane, transform and kill all the passengers bar one, there’s no doubting that they are far nastier than the teen-wolves of the Twilight Saga. These werewolves only need anger/fear to be able to transform, and they leave a trail of gruesomely mutilated corpses …

But not all of them. One of the central threads of this multi-layered novel is a central high-school romance between, Patrick, the teenager who survived the plane crash and becomes a celebrity, manages to fall for Claire, a Lycan, who is daughter of two former Lycan activists. This is complicated by Patrick’s father being in the Marines abroad guarding uranium mines which are under Lycan threat.

In another thread, the loudmouthed, beer-swilling, womanising, and fiercely anti-Lycan state Governor is being groomed to run for the presidency. He’s rather a puppet for his closest advisor who pulls his strings, but when something happens to him it becomes a whole new ball game.

Linking these two main stories are the Lycan, and anti-Lycan activists, and to a lesser extent, Neal, a doctor researching a vaccine for the Lobos virus, who was a friend of Patrick’s father.

Interestingly, Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel.  Lycans are infected with a prion-based virus (like AIDS, CJD, Mad cow), caught through blood or sexual contact.  The threat of being infected rather than being devoured drives paranoia, as the Government takes steps to further and further restrict the lives of sufferers, ghettoising them. As the Lycans begin to take things into their own hands, the government quickly becomes militarised and we’re into dystopian territory.

Given that Patrick and Claire’s gritty romance is largely separate from the socio-political Governor’s tale, I felt the two could have been told in companion volumes, which would give more pace. Intertwining them kept slowing things down just as they were getting really interesting. I can see the value of having the two threads together, but it made for a long read at 530 dense pages.  Remembering who was who in the Lycan and anti-Lycan groups got a little complex towards the end also as the cast-list expanded.

I did like the author’s new approach of taking the paranormal out of lycanthropy though, and thus creating a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, pub Hodder & Stoughton, May 2013. Hardback.
 

A dystopian psychodrama that packs a punch…

I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh

Set in a near future where global warming has wreaked Mother Nature’s revenge on the Earth and made large parts of the globe uninhabitable due to rising water levels, Rachel lives alone in a old mill in the Yorkshire Dales. Jacob used to live with her but he left. Rachel still keeps his study as he left it though, as if he might walk through the door again one day.

Without Jacob, Rachel survives, taking no joy from life. Rachel grows vegetables, keeps chickens and takes more care of them than herself. She had wanted children, but Jacob said they wouldn’t survive being brought into this world and persuaded her it was a bad thing – she can’t help being broody though at her age. She used to be an artist, but that’s fallen by the wayside too.It’s an effort to do anything, and her nearest neighbours are a short trek away. She prefers to keep to herself, remaining hidden within the walled compound of the mill except for her visits to the market run by Noah…

I duck into my favourite doorway, which I use as a lookout to check the coast is clear before going down to the market. Today of all days it is important I have Noah to myself because what I am about to do is something I would once have considered rash.
An intense, yellow, off-kilter stare from the opposite doorway jolts me back into the present. I step forward, whooshing air through my front teeth, and stretch out a hand to attract the attention of the mange-ridden but still charismatic ginger cat. But he fancies himself as a sphinx too disgusted with humanity to even acknowledge my existence. I straighten up and disguise my intimidation by fumbling in my jacket pocket for the scrap of paper I put there; unfold it to check its eight-number inscription is still legible: 68.36.21.51. Rachel. I refold it and pin it to my palm with my fingernails.
Reassured now that Noah is alone, I step out into the precinct. Hel-lo. One syllable per footstep, I rehearse my grand entrance.

Noah is the only man Rachel knows, and she’s plucking up courage to ask him out. Meanwhile a new man is on the scene – Jez White.  He suddenly starts cropping up when she expected to see Noah. She begins to feel as if she is being watched, or is she getting paranoid?  She needs to find out more about Jez White.

This novel manages to combine the nightmare of a post environmental apocalypse with a psychological thriller and throws in a few overtones of Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale for good measure.  Rachel being an outsider and aloner, her refusal to want to belong to any of the remaining isolated communities, makes her tough yet fragile. You aren’t quite sure how reliable she is as the narrator, and the growing sense of unease as the story progresses adds to the tension.

She is a survivor though, and that thought inevitably led me back to a favourite TV series of mine from the 1970s – Terry Nation’s Survivors, (the original, not the more recent TV remake). In this series, a killer flu epidemic wiped out 95% of mankind, leaving the remainder to fight it out, keep the species going, and impose a new world order.

McDonagh’s novel is a fine example of the spec fiction genre, the changed world she has created seems eerily real. I enjoyed reading it very much. At the moment, it is her only novel, but I do hope she publishes more.  (8.5/10)

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My copy was sent by the publisher – thank you.
I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh. Myriad Editions paperback 2012. Originally published 2006. 181 pages incl Author Q&A.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Survivors – Series 1-3 Box Set [DVD] [1975]

A renowned children’s author goes mainstream…

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Deanby David Almond

David Almond’s first novel, written for older children, was Skellig (1998). It parallels the stories of two children who find and help an ailing creature who may or may not be an angel, with that of the boy’s little brother who is ill in hospital. It won loads of prizes and has become a staple text of teacher training courses – I read it a few years ago when I was considering applying for a PGCE teaching course. It was a good story, and challenging too in its scope, but it’s true to say that although I enjoyed it a lot, I admired it rather than loved it. When I read that he had written his first novel for adults, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, as I felt it could be equally challenging, which brings me to The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean.

First off, it immediately became clear that this novel was being marketed as a crossover book rather than a purely adult one – the YA cover is on the right. Content-wise there’s moderate swearing and sexual references, and some strong violence.

Secondly, it’s a novel written as a first person account by a teenager who has never learned to read or write as we do – his spelling is largely phonetic. I thought I’d find this irritating but I quickly got used to it and, with practice, Billy’s reading and writing improves over the course of the story. There were a few inconsistencies in the spellings, particularly near the beginning where the phonetic talk is densest but I could ignore that.

The setting is a bombed out village in an unspecified war-torn country, similar to England’s north-east and Scottish borders. The time is now-ish – maybe a few years into the future. Those who remain in the village of Blinkbonny try to carry on life as normal. Veronica Dean is a home hairdresser, much loved by all her clients, but she has a big secret. She has a son – Billy. Billy has been brought up in isolation by her, living only in the back room. The only other people who know of his existence are Mrs Malone who helped to bring him into the world – and his father, who comes to visit now and then. Billy is a good little boy, waiting patiently at home for years while his mother works and looking forward to those visits from his father.

But now he’s a teenager, and it’s time for him emerge from hiding. Mrs Malone has plans for him, for she believes he’s the ‘anjel childe’ as Billy puts it, that he has a gift. Told by Billy, we find out his truths: the story of his childhood, his begetting, why he was hidden, and who his father really is. Once he is introduced to the real world outside his room, we also find out what he makes of it, and it of him. I must admit, it did bug me why Billy’s mother had appeared to teach him nothing during his hidden years in his room – what did the poor boy do all that time? It was amazing that Billy grew up to be such a compliant boy, coming to terms with his eventual freedom rather than running at the first chance, however he will show that he has metal underneath.

Comparisons abound in this novel: Billy is unknowingly imprisoned for his childhood like the boy in Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, however his mother is not incarcerated, she is at least partially free. Billy’s language and coming of age story did bring Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker to mind – but that was set millennia ahead, and the language had (d)evolved to reflect the loss of understanding of technology, whereas Billy is just technically illiterate.

The author’s decision to use the phonetic spelling may be off-putting to some readers and maybe wasn’t strictly necessary – Billy could have dictated his story rather than write it down. This also slowed down the action and it didn’t always feel that there was enough to it for me. Although Billy is no angel, they obviously fascinate Almond, and religion – for good or bad – underpinned this novel all the way through which did give a spiritual dimension that was interesting. Ultimately  this novel was another case of an intriguing read, but a book which I didn’t love. (6.5/10)

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My copy was kindly sent by Penguin – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean – pub 1st September by Penguin Viking/Puffin, Hardback, 256pp,
Skellig

The bookish equivalent of shouting at the telly!

The Testament of Jessie Lambby Jane Rogers.

This was one of the few titles on the 2011 Man Booker longlist that excited me from the short descriptions I’d read. I was familiar with Jane Rogers, having read Mr Wroe’s virgins, and Promised Land, some years ago; (she adapted Mr Wroe’s virgins for the BBC in the early 1990s; it starred Jonathan Pryce as the preacher gone mad, and was directed by Danny Boyle).

Her latest novel is one of speculative fiction, set just a few months into the future. Biological terrorists have created and let loose an airborne killer virus that causes what they call ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ to any pregnant woman. The mother –to-be and her foetus both die shortly after the pregnancy is established. No more babies will lead to the death of mankind within a generation.

Jessie Lamb is nearly sixteen. She’s yet to discover the joys of love. Her Dad is a scientist working on a cure for MDS. Jessie meanwhile, is more concerned about the environment; she’s a teenaged green policeman to her family. She joins a positive action group of other teens with her friend Baz, (whom she’d like to be her boyfriend, but she’s not sure if he feels the same way).

The world is going mad and women are dying. Cults are springing up, gangs too – it’s not safe for young girls to be out on their own in many parts of town. The battle of the sexes has reached new heights. The scientists have come up with schemes to save babies – but at a cost, the mothers still die. Who will be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? It’s a legal minefield and the protesters are on the case. Jessie is just an ordinary girl. She is conflicted – caught between her lofty ideals, her Dad’s day-job and the stress all this is putting on her parents and friends. What can she do to help?

Usually I don’t have problems suspending my disbelief at speculative fiction. I did this time though. It was fact that the book was set in ‘now + a couple of months’ and in a world which is so manifestly the same as ours. I couldn’t believe that a mega-contagious airborne virus based upon AIDS and CJD that could infect every woman in the world was possible in ‘our world’ – a strong sense of denial kicked in. As the story is narrated by Jessie, we learn virtually nothing about the virus and its effects itself – something I was screaming out for.

Jessie is not an unreliable narrator as such; she’s a typical teenager with teenager’s concerns who is rather blinkered and self-centred, not often seeing the whole picture. Adding a counter point of view from her father or mother may have stopped me getting worked up, but then it wouldn’t have been just Jessie’s testament. Of course, getting readers shouting at the book may have been the author’s plan all along – it certainly kept me reading, as I had to know if Jessie was going to do what I reckoned she would.

Comparisons have been made elsewhere with P D James’s foray into this realm with her novel Children of Men, which I read and enjoyed back when it was first published. It has the advantage of being clearly set in a world which has moved on and as such its central premise is more un-disbelievable (!).

Primarily, it was the ‘nowness’ of The Testament of Jessie Lamb together with the unexplained scenario that made me dislike this book. I have nothing to say about the quality of the writing except that it washed over me completely, I was too busy being cross with the story.

Not a Booker contender in my view, however it is an interesting love-it-hate-it type novel. I’ll enjoy reading your comments about this one … (6/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Testament of Jessie Lamb,
Mr Wroe’s Virgins, Promised Lands – all by Jane Rogers
The Children of Men by P D James

Stephen King’s Dark Tower Readalong #3

The Dark Tower: Waste Lands Bk. 3 by Stephen King

It’s the third month of the Dark Tower readalong hosted by Shelf Love.  The Waste Lands (1991) is the thickest book so far, and things are certainly starting to hot up.

If you’d like to see how I got on with the previous volumes, click here for book one – The Gunslinger, and here for book two – The Drawing of the Three.

A brief synopsis – so skip down the next three paragraphs if you don’t want to read a little of what happens …

Book three turns properly post-apocalyptic, as the trio of Roland, Eddie and Susannah follow the ‘Beam’ to the not quite abandoned city of Lud which resembles a ruined New York.  But on the way they are reunited with Jake, the boy that Roland had found, bonded with, and let fall to his death in book one. Roland is suffering mentally, as in his mind there are two versions of what happened back then, one in which Jake dies and one where Jake is saved.

Back in New York, mid 1970s, Jake is a pupil at a prestigious prep school, but just as exam week starts, he is also feeling like he is two people, and that school is not where he should be.  Some artifacts he finds, or they find him, take on a special significance – a children’s book about a train, a key, a rose – he doesn’t know how yet, but he is drawn to a ‘haunted’ house, where there is another portal through to Roland’s world.  After a demonic battle to get him through, he is reunited with his surrogate father and the mental suffering of both of them ends.

The four, along with a Oy, a semi-intelligent creature that Jake finds and bonds with, make their way to Lud, where they will encounter gangs who live in the tunnels and ruins, before reaching their objective – Blaine the train – a machine with an insane mind of its own. He agrees to take them to Topeka – the end of the line, rather than kill them, in return for riddles, and we leave them on board the train zooming through the Waste Lands, but someone else is on their trail …

Book 3 continues the character development of Roland, whom we begin to think is more ancient that he looks.  I particularly enjoyed the re-introduction of Jake, and he adds a lot to the Ka-Tet (a group brought together by fate).  The references and parallels between Roland’s world and ours continue to abound; if I had been sure in the first book that they were not the same world, just echoes, now with the post-apocalyptic Lud, I’m not so sure.

The use of ‘Lud’ for the name of the city was interesting.  I wondered whether there was more to it than an abbreviation of Luddite – as the remaining inhabitants have largely become.  There is a high fantasy novel called Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees written in 1926, could that have been an ironic influence?  I also enjoyed the deus ex machina of Blaine the mad train; the old technology that still survives in the ‘Beam’ too gives a sense of anticipation of finding the tower itself which is still to come (if it exists, of course).

I enjoyed this third volume in the series very much indeed, which means I’m still on board the readalong for book four – although I note that the page count goes up again to nearly 900!  Still, so far, these books have been easy, escapist, and page-turning. I’m definitely a fan now. Bring it on.  (9/10)

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Dark Tower: Waste Lands Bk. 3by Stephen King (NEL paperback, 624 pages).
The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass v. 4
Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Dystopias R Us – Book Group Report

We had a  new first for our book group last night.  Because we just couldn’t choose a book to read in August two months back, we decided to try reading to a theme. You could choose whatever book you wanted to read as long as it featured a dystopian society.

Firstly, what is a dystopia?  One on-line source defines it thus: ‘A dystopia  is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being Utopian, as characterized in books like  Brave New World and 1984. Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity’s spiritual evolution. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens.’ (Wikipedia).  A counterpoint to Utopia – as in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book.

What makes a good dystopian novel though?  One of our group put their finger on it nicely when he said that they need a Eureka-moment – where a character (or the reader? – Ed) realises that the society they thought was Utopian, isn’t.  This goes along well with the premise that Utopias are not actually reachable; instead there exists a kind of ‘Social Entropy’ in which societies will break down over time bringing chaos!

So what did we read?  Most of the group stuck to some modern classics (pictured above), and those who hadn’t read them were at least vaguely familiar with some of them.  Other members had read books with dystopian elements, but were not known to the rest of the group, so I’ve concentrated on the ones we knew below:

  • Three of us read Lord of the Flies, (see my review here). We all found the violence shocking but utterly believable.  How would a group of girls have fared in a similar situation I wonder?
  • Two of us read Brave New World, (see my review here). Fiona and I were both rather shocked at the amount of sex alluded to for a novel of the 1930s.  This society founded on nurture, having tried to eliminate nature totally from its development, but not quite succeeding, could only ever fail in the long term. It was the conditioning of the children that particularly sent shudders down spines with this one.
  • Our group had previously read 1984, and one member followed that up with Animal Farm; another had started but not finished We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which people are known by numbers and live in a glass world where little goes unseen.

All these novels above were written in response to other novels or world events and regimes,  and were published between 1921 and 1954. As such they are more satirical rather than speculative, seeking to poke holes in other Utopias, or criticize the world order.

Which brings us to the purely speculative Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Several of us had previously read this book and enjoyed it, but it turned out to be more of a ‘marmite-book’.  Georgia didn’t enjoy Ishiguro’s detached, sparse style, and couldn’t believe in the main relationships between the characters at all – she found them all too accepting and bland. But we did agree that in a world of saviour siblings and stem cells, that the premise of this novel was not so far-fetched, and because of it rather creepy.

So was reading on a theme a success?  Mixed feelings.  While we all agreed that discussing the same book is ultimately preferable, the fact that most us had at least a vague familiarity with some of the books read, meant that it largely worked.  We felt that if we’d chosen a broader theme say e.g. Books set in Italy, the range of books we could have read was too diverse to make a meaningful discussion.  But we might try it again – next year perhaps…

Has your book group ever tried theme reading discussions?
How does it work for you?
Do you enjoy this way of doing things?

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Brave New World
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Penguin Modern Classics)
Lord of the Flies
Never Let Me Go
We (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics)

‘Guantanamo UK’ & the Hotel California

The Facility by Simon Lelic

Simon Lelic’s first novel, Rupture, was such a breath of fresh air last year that when I was able to get my hands on an advance copy of his second, I could hardly wait to read it and for the publication date to get near.  Would it be as innovative as his stunning debut, Rupture, (which I reviewed here), or would it be a ‘difficult second novel’ ?

I’m please to report that it’s rather good. While lacking its predecessor’s way of interleaving a good police procedural with striking first person statements from those involved, The Facility is instead a thriller, and it does have a style all of its own…

As the book opens a prisoner called Arthur is being interrogated in violent fashion immersing us in strong language, torture and crudity on the part of the questioners. Immediately you are aware that reading the book will require a degree of stamina to cope with it. Chapter two switches to a secret government establishment; the Governor, Graves, is showing the a minister from the home office around the as yet unoccupied building…

Jenkins jabs his chin towards the centrepiece of the quad: a fountain, depicting Neptune in a chariot  behind three horses. ‘A touch extravagant, would you not say?”
‘It is hideous, I know.  The whole building, really, is an architectural chimera. His Majesty, for one, would not approve. There’s Gothic here, Romanesque there, Palladian  and Tudor in the outbuildings. None of it original, of course. Except for the staff quarters, which were  built in the fifties.’
‘You got it working, though. You left the damp but fixed the fountain.’
‘It was no great expense, minister. We felt it would be beneficial. The sound of running water, a place for the men and women to gather. You understand, I’m sure.’
‘They are prisoners, Graves.’
‘They will be imprisoned, minister. It is perhaps not quite the same thing.
‘Guff,’ says Jenkins. ‘Of course it’s the same thing.’

The scene is set, we’re in the near future – King Charles would appear to be on the throne.  The government du jour have put in place ‘The Unified Security Act’ which was designed for terrorists, but in practice let’s them do whatever they want to whomever they want.  ‘Guantanamo UK’ as a newspaper headline says in the book.

We’ve still one more thread to pick up – Arthur’s wife visits an investigative journalist, Tom, convinced her husband has been ‘disappeared’ wrongly by the police. They’re not telling, so Julia implores Tom to take up the case, and against his editor’s better judgement of it all being a conspiracy theory, he does.

The thriller then works out through these three voices – Arthur, the wrongly imprisoned man; Graves, the former prison Governor who is not happy being involved in this top-secret work; and Tom, searching for answers.   It soon becomes clear that most of the inmates are sick, but that Arthur is not. Government doctors arrive talking of trials for a cure, Graves finds himself overruled, largely impotent to help and essentially trapped – ‘you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave’ as the Eagles sang in Hotel California. I found Graves the most interesting character by far as he comes to realise his own guilt at being part of this plan.

‘What if’ novels always have big questions at their heart.  For all we know, we could already have a dormant ‘plague-hospital’ in a sparsely populated area of the country. The author shows some anger at the way people who have not been charged with anything can be treated; at homophobia and racism; political double-speak; and so on. For the most part, he doesn’t attempt to answer any of the questions, leaving them hanging, keeping you thinking about them. In this way he subverts the thriller genre with this pessimistic view of the near future.

This is a bleak and unsettling book which I really enjoyed reading.  Rupture was a ‘Whydunnit'; The Facility is a ‘What if’ – I wonder which question his third book will pose? (8/10)

I picked up this book as my Quizmaster’s perks last autumn. For some other reviews, visit Farm Lane Books and Follow the Thread.

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To purchase from Amazon UK, click below:
The Facility
Rupture
Hotel California by The Eagles