Roses are Meh – Research by Philip Kerr

researchResearch by Philip Kerr has raised an interesting question in my mind, that I’d never really thought about before. How do author’s feel when they release novels that are inferior to previous works? Do the even know? With Bernie Gunther and his original Berlin Noir trilogy, Kerr created one of modern crime fiction’s finest characters and gave him stories to match. The subsequent Bernie Gunther novels, whilst a couple of them approach the original three, simply aren’t as good. I was interested when I learned Kerr had written a new non-Gunther novel. I’ve read a couple of his others, (Dark Matter and Hitler’s Peace), which I’d mostly enjoyed. How would Research compare? To be honest, at best, it’s mediocre.

Successful pop stars with long careers, are generally carried by their early work; their seminal albums. They might still be going thirty years later, but nobody especially wants to hear their new stuff. Who wants to listen to high-flying birds, when you could be having a champagne supernova? Outlaw Pete is not Born to Run and let’s not even start on Wings vs The Beatles. Obviously it’s not always true, but I often wondered how artists feel about consistently producing work that’s poorer quality than their old stuff. Perhaps they don’t care if the money keeps coming in. Perhaps they believe it is just as good, after all public popularity is hardly the yardstick of high quality.

With authors though I imagine the effect is more marked. Popular music is catchy hooks and memorable lines. Writing novels is heart, body and soul; hours of hard work, lovingly polished. That’s not to say some songs aren’t painstakingly crafted, but nobody wrote a bestselling novel in under 10 mins. If you’ve lived and breathed all your novels, surely you know would which ones are good and which ones are just OK.  Unless of course you were James Patterson and somebody wrote your novels for you. Then perhaps you’d have no idea.

One of the narrators of Research novel might be similarly clueless. John Houston is an ideas factory. He churns out plots and a team of anonymous writers turns them into novels. They sell millions. Houston is filthy rich, his writers comfortable. He lives the high-life in Monte Carlo, they live in bitter resentment. His wife has just been killed. They all might be in the frame if Houston didn’t look so open and shut guilty. The other narrator is Don Irvine, the closest thing the unlikeable Houston has to a best friend and the first writer employed in the ‘atelier’. The basis of the novel is, did Houston kill his wife? If not, who did and how an earth did they do it? It’s like something James Patterson didn’t write.

The novel is fairly entertaining. Lots of jokes about the publishing industry, which are funny if you like that sort of thing. Plenty of literary references to enjoy or endure, depending on which way your mind is set. There are some witty rejoinders, though Kerr seems to have forgotten that whilst his authors might write quips into their novels, if they speak that way all the time, they sound like the result of a bad creative writing exercise.

The main problem though is that the central story just isn’t that interesting. By the end I couldn’t remotely care whether the perpetrator got away with the crime or not. The story leading up to it was far-fetched yet hum-drum ordinary. The reveal in the middle was as exciting as sitting on punctured whoopie cushion. This sort of novel, with a mystery running through it’s core, lives or dies by the twist in the final pages. The one that turns the novel into something else entirely. You’ve seen the Usual Suspects, you know what I’m talking about.

Kerr neglected to put it in.

The novel bumbles along, with cloak, daggers and duplicity. We’re treated to a few extra bodies, and then pffft; nothing. The novel closes and the reader wonders why he bothered. It feels like somebody forgot to print the last fifty pages, where all the trickery is revealed. I have no idea whether Kerr thinks this novel is as good as his others. It’s so much weaker it’s hard to believe that he does. Writers have to earn a living, they need to keep producing novels. Not every book can as brilliant as the last, but this one is a massive disappointment.

Many Thanks to Corinna at Quercus for sending me a copy of this book. 

I know your face – Glow by Ned Beauman

glowThis is the third, and most straightforward Ned Beauman novel I have read. After the description defying Boxer Beetle and the looping swooping picaresque Teleportation Accident, Glow is almost run of the mill. Had it been written by somebody else, rather than describing it as straightforward I’d be saying it was a psychedelic mind-bending crime caper, because, well, that’s what it is.

Raf, a young man with a sleep disorder and a penchant for experimental drugs is at a rave in a laundrette in Peckham. Here he meets the enigmatic Cherish. He proceeds to give her some dodgy ‘Glow’ before she disappears leaving Raf wondering whether she ever really existed. After that things fall apart.

The head of the pirate radio station that Raf listens to disappears in unusual circumstances, and curiously, the station starts broadcasting a Burmese culture segment. When a crumpled man claiming to be from M16 starts talking about silent white vans plucking strangers off the street, Raf finds himself embroiled in a complicated corporate plot.

In the main I enjoyed Glow a great deal. It has that same askew world-view that Beauman brings to his other novels. It’s the world I live in but it’s described in a manner I’ve never contemplated before. His prose brings a freshness to the old and tired, and there are few things tireder than a inner London suburb. There is a wonderful theme running through the book of circadian rhythms. Various characters, for different reasons find their body clocks are out of sync with the rest of humanity. The way Beauman depicts these disorders makes them feel other-worldly. A great number of words are devoted to the psychotropic nature of drugs such as MDMA and the fictional Glow. Tied into this is a plot involving American corporations operating in Burma. This SE Asian theatre, the drugs and the multiple strands of misinformation put me in mind of Dennis Johnson’s multi-stranded novel ‘Tree of Smoke’.

The plot tends towards the preposterous, which again is typical of Beauman’s novels, but there is big enough vein of truth to make the events plausible if improbable. The thriller aspects of the novel entertain, the descriptions of the effects of the drugs inform (sometimes overly so) and the writing often dazzles. Occasionally I found the rarified language used grated, sometimes feeling out of context from setting and narrator, but it doesn’t derail the novel as a whole. With Glow Beauman has written a novel based upon a common premise and given it a fresh and unique flavour. I’m not sure if this will convert Beauman’s detractors or gain him a new following, but if you’re a fan there is much to enjoy here. If you’ve not read Beauman before I think I’d recommend starting with Boxer Beetle.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme. 

So, he’s handsome then? – A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A-Discovery-of-WitchesThis book is too long. The story is interesting, but there’s about three hundred pages of redundant description. To make matters worse it’s not even a complete story. I did know there were follow up books, but I had thought this volume stood in its own right, which it don’t.

I’m prepared to concede this book isn’t aimed at me. The numerous references to Twilight and the words, ‘illicit’, ‘sexy’ and ‘romp’ in the blurb, should have tipped me off.

Brooding and wonderfully handsome vampire Matthew Clairmont, I assume, has female readers swooning. He certainly seems to have an affect on narrator Diana Bishop; we’re told he does over and over again. We’re told he is handsome, that he broods, that he wears grey clothes. He’s an animal, he’s caring, he’s protective. His skin is cold. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s brooding, he wears grey clothes.  He’s handsome, his skin is cold, he’s brooding, he’s lived for a long time, he’s an animal, he’s clever, he’s handsome, he’s protective, he broods, he wears grey clothes; and, oh yes, he’s cold. Not sure about blood-sucking, but DoW certainly sapped my will to live.

She’s a witch, he’s a vampire. Two races, naturally mistrustful when not outright hostile. She’s in denial about being a witch. He’s lived for centuries. He’s a monster, she’s…er… a history professor. He has cold blood (did I mention that), and is, apparently, above averagely handsome. For reasons that are vaguely explained they fall madly in love with one another almost immediately, but it’s a forbidden love. Mixed race relationships definitely frowned upon. The scene where Matthew takes Diana back to his family castle to meet his centuries old witch hating mother is like Twilight crossed with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Anyway he’s all arcane knowledge, pent up aggression and ice cool control. Imagine George Clooney as a salt-water crocodile.

OK – I exaggerate. The romance stuff did take up too much of my time, especially as it’s so overblown but the fantasy/magic via academia thread eventually lured me in. The three races of creatures living amongst us, daemon, vampire and witch, is hardly original, but the evolutionary biology standpoint that Harkness takes does give a fresh angle. Science vs supernatural is always a blend I enjoy, and the author lends it some academic rigour that feels plausible whilst it entertains. Origin stories are nearly always interesting and so it is with the root of Diana’s power, particularly whilst she is investigating what she can do. The various branches of her witchy talents are interesting and well thought out.

I know this book is very popular and has a large following, but I can’t fathom why. It’s like Twilight but more grown up, the Da Vinci Code with more rigour, but it’s little more than that. There was enough in it to keep me reading, though I was sorely tempted to stop a number of times. There are places where it’s just plain boring and, as I may have mentioned, repetitive. It is intermittently readable and exciting, but templars, witches and old books aren’t enough on their own to make a brilliant story, no matter how many times you tell me how handsome the lead vampire is. Perhaps its academic leanings have dressed the book up to be something more interesting than it really is (probably in enigmatic monochrome), but I found it little more than average.

Many Thanks to the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of this book. 

One Sided? – The Circle by Dave Eggers

circleI’m quite torn by this book. It’s certainly readable and makes some persuasive arguments about the perils of an increasingly connected society. It is also over-simplified and one-dimensional, with allegory as subtle as being smashed across the face with a house brick.

Google, Twitter and Facebook have all been swept aside by ‘The Circle’. It’s the unifying piece of social media that just about everybody uses.  It was created by a Mark Zuckerberg figure, and led to the founding of a company that everybody in the world wants to work for. The novel opens with Mae Holland’s first day as a ‘Circler’. She’s thrilled and more than a little overawed. Her role is in customer satisfaction. Her aim, to ensure everybody rates her and the company 100. Anything below 97 is cause for concern. Mae has the perfect job in the perfect company, where her employers fulfil her every need and every night is party night. What could possibly go wrong?

The more I think about the book, the more I remember what I liked in it. Eggers is very good at stripping down our social media habits and examining each part. With a small amount of extrapolation he shows them for the absurdities they are. For example, the fact that 95% satisfaction is something to be concerned about; job threatening even. Clearly ridiculous, yet in the online age, anything less than 100% on feedback is considered a slight. And we’re encouraged to feedback on everything all the time.

So it is for Mae, only more so. When she fails to feedback, she finds she has upset her colleagues and friends at the Circle. She becomes obsessed with liking the right stuff, and ensuring she ‘smiles’ enough of her Circle’s posts, to at least give the appearance of engagement. Sound familiar? Further to that, much of The Circle is devoted to the idea, that seeing/hearing about somebody else doing something is the same as doing it yourself. Seeing pictures of a World Heritage site is as good as experiencing it yourself. This too is barely fiction.

The novel is set in the near future where the increased availability of cheap cameras, microphones and data storage, make it possible for complete access to a person 24/7.  The aim of The Circle is greater access to information and data, all the time. Transparency of thought, action and desire.The company claims it makes the world a better place, whilst at the same time, they use the data to monetise just about everything. It’s a world view very similar to the one created in Aleana Graedon’s The Word Exchange.  Mae is chastised by her superiors for taking some private moments. She is preventing countless others from learning from her experiences. Secrecy causes the world’s problems, one of the company’s three CEOs claims in a persuasive polemic. The technology anaesthetises us into going along with him.

The novel highlights the possibility of the world sliding into a capitalist totalitarian state, with the hearts, mind and wallets of the population ensnared by degrees. It does all sound frighteningly plausible, yet I’m not convinced. The novel is delivered very much from a single perspective. There are almost no dissenters, and the one person who does dissent is too rabidly anti The Circle. He’s a caricature.

I agree with Eggers that many people are sleepwalking to the point where they’ll no longer be able to find their way back from the shops without their phones, but there is a large slice of population, old and young, who are wide awake and fighting off the digital chloroform.  The book is over long. Perhaps this is to make the gradual erosion of Mae’s common sense in the face of her employer plausible. Death by a thousand cuts maybe, but each slice takes us over the same ground and it becomes tedious.

Worse is the reveal that isn’t a revelation, and a aquarium based interlude that contains the least subtle allegory since the resurrection of Aslan. Not only is this a breeze-block to the nose, I strongly suspect it would be impossible in reality. I’m not a marine-biologist, but even a rudimentary understanding garnered through watching the Octonauts, tells me the impossibility of the fish-tank Eggers created. To have something so fundamental so glaringly wrong threw the whole book out of kilter for me. With something so transparent and stupid included it’s hard to take the rest of the novel seriously.

Whilst I liked many of The Circle’s assertions, I was left disappointed by the novel overall. By the end Eggers sounded a bit too much like a madman standing on his soapbox in Hyde Park. Yes I think he has legitimate concerns, but his portrayal of them is not the measured, balanced response I might have expected. In the parlance of his creation, this is neither Smile nor Frown. I’m just bemused that the good and indifferent can lie so closely together.

For similar reads this year see also:

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

Glaze by Kim Curran

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

(and the already mentioned Word Exchange)

A Murmuration of Gods – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsIf I was writing the tagline for City of Stairs, I’d be tempted to go with ‘China Mieville meets Alif the Unseen‘. In the SFF world this is a pretty potent combination. The only problem is I didn’t wholly enjoy Alif and I seem to be the only person in the science fiction community who doesn’t like Mieville. After reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s accomplished and thought-provoking novel, I can’t help wondering whether perhaps I have a problem with the new and interesting…

The themes and concepts here are manifold and have great depth. The end of the book left me reeling with its examination of the fluidity of history and the power of fable, but at times I found reading CoS something of a chore. It didn’t really pull me along. The novel is essentially a political whodunnit set in a complex secondary universe. There seemed to be a lot of information dumped on the reader. The complexity of the world and its systems overwhelmed the story set inside it. Just processing the political aspects of the book took up a great deal of my attention, so I struggled to find a sense of story. Things happened, but I didn’t feel it compelled to read. There is little driving force to the narrative and, at times, I felt things happened to the characters rather than them being the architects of the novel’s events.

And yet…

The complex artifice of the city of Bulikov is essential for the novel’s wider themes. Such is the strength of the allegory in City of Stairs, I had a peculiar sense that it was a reworked The Master and Margarita. Using a world similar yet wholly different from ours Jackson Bennett tells a fascinating fable of modern attitudes and beliefs. By subverting traditional genre ideas of race and gender (i.e. not viewing everything from the perspective of white males), the author wipes the slate clean, erasing his readers’ preconceptions (well this one’s anyway). I think it’s the rebuilding process that made the novel a bumpy read for me. Nothing is certain, everything is new and open to interpretation. There’s work to be done by the reader and that’s tiring. I found reading Bulgakov hard work too…

City of Stairs is a novel better than my enjoyment levels give it credit for. It reveals the perils of accepting religious dogma as truth, but also the importance of attempting to understand why a group believe the things they believe. With layers of story built up over centuries and mixed agendas by those writing those stories, the true intention of a religious practice may have been lost. City of Stairs stresses how vital it is to understand those who are different to us. Knowledge may be power, but it can also be used to set us free. The real-world parallels are abundant. Whilst I didn’t fully enjoy City of Stairs it is a book that has resonated deeper than almost any other than I have read during 2014. Its splendours may be subtle but they burrow in, refusing to be dislodged. An important, thought-making work of speculative fiction.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

How to Make an American Quilt – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven proof.inddTake one large nation. Kill 99% of the population. Leave for twenty years. See what happens.

That’s essentially the premise of Station Eleven. As the fear factor surrounding the Ebola outbreak in Africa increases this may be the perfect time to read this book. Or perhaps the absolute worst time. Either way, the possibility of a global pandemic has never seemed more terrifying than it does now that I’ve finished this understated and emotive novel.

Emily St. John Mandel clearly subscribes to the ‘less is more’ approach to her storytelling. It’s hard to imagine a gentler, less sensational apocalypse. This is just about the quietest way possible to deal with the end of the world and it makes it terrifying, real and deeply moving.

Humanity is destroyed by Georgia Flu, a highly virulent strain that rushes through the world’s population killing all but 1% of it. We follow several survivors in a patchwork of stories that flit through time and location. Many of the narratives are linked. Some directly, some more oblique but they all offer up more information about the downfall of civilisation and humanity’s stuttering attempts to rise from the ashes. The whole time, as we read there is a nagging question – what is the significance of the graphic novel Station Eleven?

The book reminded me of Stephen Amsterdam’s Things we Didn’t See Coming, another quiet apocalypse tale. These books deal with the human side of things; the difficulty of living a normal life when no such thing exists. Realistic travails of survival, rather than overblown zombie attacks or crushing overlords setting up implausible living conditions. There were passages in this book, that made me weep. This is partly due to be being a parent. Nobody with children likes to imagine the destruction of humanity (well maybe just at bedtime), but the simplicity in which St John Mandel, describes the gradual decline and isolation is gut-wrenching.

If I have a small gripe about the novel, it’s I’m not sure that the backward state of the new America is realistic. But then what do I know? I just feel that whilst everybody may have been dead, the survivors would have lots of practical information accessible; how to generate electricity for example. If Faraday could do it in the early 1800s, I think some of the more upwardly mobile characters in the novel could have managed too. To be honest this was just a small question at the back of my mind, and is largely irrelevant to the quality of the story told. Whilst I might be able to argue that the rate of recovery would have been greater, it easy to see counter arguments to say that Station Eleven pitches it just right.

All in all this is very good read. There are few resolutions, which may frustrate some readers. Instead we have a snapshot of humanity in a state of flux. A disaster like this could feasibly be around the corner. Many of us will die, but humanity will find a way. Life often does. I imagine Emily St John Mandel’s depiction of how we made it would prove to be scarily prescient. This is a understated and beautiful study of humanity in crisis and a valuable addition to the genre.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Program 

Small is beautiful – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

the-miniaturist-978144725089001I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Miniaturist. Now I’ve read it, I’m still not quite sure what I got. It’s part gothic horror, part historical novel, part feminist treatise and all fragile beauty. Every page of the Miniaturist shimmers, its sparkling prose gently evoking seventeenth century Amsterdam. It’s a period and setting I know little about, and was fascinated by the male dominated society ruled equally by the tyranny of a puritanical God and the slavish pursuit of the Guilder. I’m used to seeing Amsterdam as the banner of permissive society, yet in the seventeenth century, oppression was its watchword. Even the baking of gingerbread men was banned to prevent idolatry.

The novel opens (more or less) with Nella Oortman arriving on the doorstep of her husband’s house. Married in haste in the countryside, she has travelled alone to Amsterdam to take up residence in her marital home. Things don’t start well. Eighteen year old Nella sees little of her husband and is instead treated to the hostile disdain of her shrewish sister-in-law, Marin. The house is also occupied by two servants. Cornelia, a maid and orphan, bold and contemptuous, and Otto, a black man, not a slave, yet not free; purchased by Nella’s husband in Suriname. The husband, Johannes, is older; a wealthy business man, almost above the law. He has little time for Nella, and far from home, she feels isolated and alone. Johannes’s one gesture to his wife is to buy her an expensive replica of the house in which they live. Bored, with little to do, Nella sets about furnishing her new present. And that’s how she discovers the miniaturist.

The novel then switches into gothic horror mode. The miniaturist seems to have deep knowledge of Nella’s home, yet Nella knows nothing about the model builder other than that she is a woman.  The miniaturist seems to be able to preternaturally predict events that are yet to happen, making Nella paranoid she is being watched and observed. Things start to go wrong, tensions in the house gradually simmer towards boiling point and we are left to wonder if the miniaturist is predicting or causing the family’s problems.

All this time, secrets come tumbling from every wall. Nella is faced with problem after problem but she gains strength through every setback, gradually growing into the role as woman of the house. Her relationships with the other members of the house ebb and flow. Alliances are forged, broken and remade and with each pitfall Nella becomes stronger. The story plays out across the beautifully described back-drop of Amsterdam, a city of commerce and religious diffidence, ruled over by the powerful and feared Burgomeisters.

Amsterdam may be a city ruled by men, but The Miniaturist is centred around its women. There are five at the heart of the plot, and they are women out of time; progressive and independent. Questions of equality in marriage and in business permeate the story. The book may be set in the seventeenth century, but many of its attitudes survive today. The women here fight battles that should have been left behind centuries ago, but sadly still go on. Much of the novel is devoted to the idea of forging your own path, something women of the time were almost never able to do. Nearly every character is impeded by the social mores of the time. Nobody can truly be themselves.

The book also asks interesting questions about whether we are defined by our expectations.  Much mileage is gained in the plot by having people make assumptions about others. The whole question about whether the miniaturist is clairvoyant boils down to whether humans see what they want to see, rather than what is there. Is the miniaturist a wielder of magic or simply a closer observer of human nature? We all telegraph our aspirations and attitudes on to others, and Burton illustrates this with mesmerising effect.

My initial reaction to reading the Miniaturist was one of slight disappointment, mainly because the novel didn’t go where I expected it to. Instead Burton constructed an altogether more subtle tale than the macabre gothic horror I’d anticipated. She has a created a story that lingers in the mind.  One of fractured connections and shattered dreams. The Miniaturist is a very interesting début, that should appeal to many readers. With memorable characters and evocative settings, it is a book that demands you keep reading. If you’re looking something fresh, without being too out there, The Miniaturist should appeal, no matter what your usual fare.

(Kim Stanley) Robinson Crusoe – The Martian by Andy Weir

the martianIt’s about twenty years since I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Three detail heavy, science rich, political novels about the colonising of Mars. Since then nothing, and now two Mars novel in a week. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising was a grown-up Hunger Games clone set on the red planet. The Martian by Andy Weir is pure Robinson Crusoe.

During a manned mission to Mars something goes wrong and Mark Watney is left behind. His fellow astronauts thought he was dead, but due to a complicated (unlikely) set of circumstances, he survived. Now he’s on his own. It’s not all bad. He has food and equipment meant for six and NASA will lead another mission to Mars, eventually. All he has to do is survive for four years in a habitat designed to work for a month. What could possibly go wrong?

I must confess to being rather late to the Martian party. There are already over 1000 almost all superlative reviews on Amazon, so this review is just another drop in an ocean of praise.

A lot of this book is about the science. It is, in the truest sense of the word, science fiction. If you didn’t enjoy physics and chemistry at school, you might struggle with The Martian as it is detail heavy on chemistry, botany, electronics, astrophysics and much more besides. But there is a very human element to the novel too. There has to be or it wouldn’t work.

The novel essentially breaks down into a set of challenges that Watney has to solve. Andy Weir’s depth of knowledge and research is staggering. Not only can he write convincingly about the technology and processes required to support life on Mars, he details how they may fail and be repaired, or reverse engineered to be used to maintain life in an entirely different way. Beyond that there is a rich vein of humour running through the book. This lightens the potential science overload and makes Watney an intensely likeable character. You absolutely want him to survive this. Well I did anyway. By the end of the book I was quite emotional.

To say more would give stuff away that is best left to the author to reveal. I was slow to pick the Martian up, but I’m so glad I did. It’s an almost perfect piece of tense science fiction. Lo-octane thrills, but utterly breathtaking. It’s a masterclass in storytelling.

Many thanks to the team at Del Ray for sending me a copy of this book. 

Strife on Mars – Red Rising by Pierce Brown

redrisingAny dystopian novel that involves children killing one another is inevitably going to be compared to the Hunger Games. This is probably not a terribly useful thing to do, as the popularity of the Hunger Games far outstrips its quality. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the travails of Katniss when I read them, but the themes and ideas in the Hunger Games have been explored better elsewhere, before and since.

Red Rising does have the pace and excitement of HG, but it also has a better handle on human psychology, making it more reminiscent of Julianna Baggot’s Pure series. Unlike the regime Katniss is subjected to, the striated dystopia that exists in Red Rising is credible. You might actually set up a society that way if you were hell-bent on enslaving sections of the population. It might even work. In this respect the book is far more like Koushun Takami’s masterwork, Battle Royale.

The novel opens with Darrow drilling at the bottom of a very deep mine shaft. Darrow is a ‘Red’, the lowest strata of Mars society. Red’s are manual workers terraforming Mars for the rest of humanity. It’s not an easy life. The Reds sit at the bottom the rainbow. Society is made up of a full spectrum of colours, with each one having its own specific function, most of which are designed to ensure the Reds keep digging.  Sitting atop the chromatic pile are the Golds. To Darrow they are almost living gods. Cruel, impersonal and ruthless.

After Darrow and his wife are sentenced to a brutal whipping, for a minor misdemeanour, events quickly spiral out of control. Before he knows it Darrow is wrenched from his old life to become a cog in the machine of a clandestine group of freedom fighters. A cog maybe, but a vital one. Darrow has been chosen to infiltrate the Golds.

That summary offers little more than the blurb, and it’s hard to review much further without spoiling things. In order to become a Gold and then work his way to the very top, Darrow must enrol in their most deadly games.  What follows is a brutal capture the flag type game that echoes the titles mentioned above. It’s compelling stuff, particularly in the early stages. Darrow must face test after test and even tests within tests. There are several factions, each mirroring aspects of a particular god. The rivalry between factions gives the book and additional dimension, as does the in-fighting within Darrow’s faction. With a group of alphas all vying for control the result is pure Lord of the Flies.

Further tension is added by the need for Darrow to keep his identity secret.  He must trust and be trusted by Golds, the people he hates most in his life. Leaving aside whether it makes sense to run a recruitment process that kills over half of your golden generation and mutilates most of the survivors (though you might wish it when watching the Apprentice), this is an exciting read. I would imagine post traumatic stress disorder most be very common amongst Mars’s upper echelons. The book does require some suspension of belief and the final stages of the trial didn’t really work for me. Having managed so well to keep his story on a human emotional level, Pierce’s final chapters descend into an amorphous melee, which is a shame.

So the book didn’t quite deliver on the promise shown. I’d probably give it silver rather than gold, but there is lots of great stuff here. It’s moving in places, exciting and keeps you guessing as to what’s going on. The final chapters set up nicely for book 2. Unlike the Hunger Games, Red Rising feels like it was always conceived as a multi-part story. Based on the strength of Red Rising, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what Darrow does next.

Many Thanks to Hodder and the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of the book.

Nothing Else Compares – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

boneclocksSince reading Ghostwritten many years ago, I have always been unfeasibly excited at the prospect of a new David Mitchell book. Sometimes this didn’t quite work out for me (Number9Dream and Jacob de Zoet) and other times, I just lapped it up (Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas). I reread Cloud Atlas recently and was blown away by its layers of meaning, and of course, there is that often mentioned sublime structure. So Bone Clocks then? What was it going to do?

I deliberately tried to avoid reading too much about the book before reading it, in the hope of not colouring my expectations (a big problem I had with Jacob de Zoet), but from glancing over this thoughtful review from James Smythe, I knew that this was Mitchell’s most fantastical outing to date; a thought that filled me with a soupçon of trepidation and huge dollop of excitement.

The novel pretty much defies reviewing. It’s similar to Cloud Atlas, in that it has lots of different entwined stories that inform one another. There is a general progression of story through the book, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Bone Clocks is multilayered and has numerous voices, locations and timeframes. It starts in the past (in the 1980s, using a tone very similar to Black Swan Green), before travelling through the present into a possible near future. There are definite science fiction and dystopian themes here, and that will sink some readers’ battleship from the outset. Blend in some paranormal aspects and that’s probably another couple of frigates down. But I loved it.

I didn’t always love it. There were times when I thought Mitchell was meandering to who knows where. Some sections of the book are too long.  Without a strong and coherent overreaching narrative, I was sometimes left with the feeling that whilst I admired each page, the whole was lacking something. What’s clever about the book however, is that with future sections informing the past, what seemed like an inconsequential aside takes on great significance later in the book. Remembering what has gone on can be something of an issue. Not only because so much happens in this book, but also because Mitchell references aspects of his other books in this one. More than once, I had the nagging feeling that the author was alluding to something external and I had the pleasure of trying to piece together what it was.

There is an amusing tone of self reference in the book.  A fêted author, who previously wrote a book of dazzling structure, has a reviewer dismissing his latest book with ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look…’ Mitchell perhaps pre-empting his own critiques, or at stating clearly he knows where his book falls. For Bone Clocks is indeed a fantasy book with state of the world pretensions and frankly, that it is, is its strength.

There are sections that tackle war-correspondence, the absurd situation in Iraq and its fomentation of animosity towards the West (and as we set out with air-strikes once again, this could not feel more relevant). Our over-reliance on technology and the somnambulance it induces, causing the human race to drowsily stumble into disaster. This book has a huge message on the perils of climate change. Woven through all this is a story of highly imaginative fiction, tying each theme together. It’s fantastic in every sense.

This being a David Mitchell novel, use of language is peerless. Whilst some may be tempted to dismiss his fantasy/paranormal conceits as silly, they are rendered in such quality prose, they feel as real as the gunfights in Baghdad. There is something to love on almost every page. There were times when I wondered where this book was going, but I was frequently struck by how much I was enjoying reading it. This is quite an unusual phenomenon. Some books suck you in; you read without noticing the passage of time. This one would often leave me dazzled. I was taken out of story, slightly breathless, caught up in the beauty of expression and ideas.

Much like Cloud Atlas the only way you’re going to find out if you’re going to like The Bone Clocks is to read it. No amount of review reading will be able to tell you the relationship you’ll have this book. If I could, I’d marry it. At the very least I’m looking forward to shacking up with it somewhere quiet again soon.