Recent books, fiction

A group book post since I never got around to posting up recent reads individually. To be frank, none were amazing so I may as well bundle them together. First up, A Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington, one of the books Daunt sent me last year as part of the fiction subscription. It took me a while to get through it, I stopped half way a month or so ago and only picked it up again last week in order to get it done, not because I was particularly enjoying it. It takes place in East Berlin during the early/ mid eighties and deals with fear, paranoia, insecurities – the usual sort of Eastern Block stuff and love. I found it tough going because there wasn’t anything particularly redeemable or interesting about the main character. I hoped this would change but it didn’t and there was no real depth to any of the other characters, even the love interest. Afraid I get bored with inner monologues that go on forever and this book felt like a one long inner monologue. It’s not meditative or poetic like a Kundera book and I just found it lacking depth overall.

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Beloved gave me S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst for Christmas, which I enjoyed a lot more than the above. This story within a story within a story is a bit meta and took a while to get into and focus but once I did, I read it pretty quickly. It’s had quite a bit of press for the innovative design – it features a ‘book’ called Ship of Theseus by a chap called V.M. Straka, which a college girl finds in a library with some handwritten notes, she writes notes of her own and thus begins correspondence with a postgrad student to whom Straka’s book belongs. The pair also leave ephemera for each other in the book as they attempt to unravel mysteries and conspiracies surrounding the identity of author, his translator and various other interwar figures. As they correspond, their relationship deepens.

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The outer packaging and the inner book. The relationship in the notes, ‘written’ in different colour pens over time (photo below) I found more interesting and engaging than the story of  Ship of Theseus, although this was pretty good too. The actual search for Straka’s identity I found less plausible, mainly because here the fiction (Straka and the circle of people presumed to be Straka) is occasionally interwoven with real events and real characters. The historical elements, I thought, could have been better researched. The search for Straka’s identity then also slowly develops into discovery of a love story so on top of everything else there are several layers of love stories and not all of them work equally well. On top of that (see, full on meta!), the authors have left a few unsolved mysteries for readers to look into. So we’re in Lost territory and I was not a fan. Otherwise, I liked the idea of S, it reminded me a little of William Boyd and the trick he played on the gullible art world with the imaginary artist Nat Tate – although I am not sure whether Boyd deliberately set out to trick anyone. I liked the interactive elements and I liked the commitment it required of the reader. Example of the ‘interior’ below.

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Finally, some quick sci fi/ fantasy kindle reads. Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson won several awards last year and sounded interesting: Arab spring, hacktivism, religion with elements of fantasy. Interestingly, I liked the religion bit the most – place of faith in modern society. The story revolved around a manuscript, a sort of an opposite of A Thousand and One Nights and I wished the manuscript text featured more, also the djinn, the ‘unseen’ supernatural characters. They were more interesting than the main characters, who were not particularly well developed and neither was the ending. An OK read I guess.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I found out later, has been dubbed ‘biopunk’. This book, too, won awards a few years back and I enjoyed the concept although it wasn’t too original: Earth with fossil fuels used up, rising water levels and temperatures a la Drowned World, corporations engineering foods and AI and everything else. It’s fast paced and fun although it was running out of steam towards the end. Same with Redshirts by John Scalzi – this I haven’t even finished because it was running out of steam half way through. Struggled to about 70 something percent (on kindle again) but there’s no point in continuing. Beloved had to explain what ‘redshirts’ meant in Star Trek terms but Scalzi also does this, it seems unnecessarily. No idea why this book also won awards and that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Just read, Dune by Frank Herbert

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I’ve a bit of a sci fi/ dystopia/ fantasy/ YA reading obsession at the moment, which shows no signs of abating. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read some quite bad-to-average novels in the style of The Hunger Games, none of which came close to it (Mortal Instruments, The Bone Season and Divergent, which was a little more enjoyable as far as these types of books go) and also The Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence, which I enjoyed a lot. Then it dawned on me that I should probably have a look at The Guardian’s 1,000 novels list and pick out some good sci fi books as I got all YA’d out.  If I’d only looked at the list first, I would have saved myself a lot of time… I wander now why I’d never read Dune before, it’s exactly the type of book I love reading and getting lost in: a complex universe with amazingly well realised worlds, great mythology, strong characters, good story. It was written nearly 50 years ago and these ladies writing today’s dystopian fantasies (not that Dune is a dystopian fantasy) should really read a classic or two before attempting to emulate the success of The Hunger Games or reaching anything like the complexity of His Dark Materials. I guess complexity is of little interest. What surprises me is that Hollywood seems to be throwing money at them because they sell – the reason I read Mortal Instruments in the first place was seeing the trailer for the film and thinking it could be fun. Yet I wander how many younger people would read Dune? While it usually features on sci fi classics lists, I wander how many people buy it nowadays. The main character is of a similar age but I suppose that’s where the similarities stop. A quick look at Goodreads.com shows both Mortal Instruments and Divergent having higher scores than Dune, which is a bit sad. Perhaps I should blame Kyle MacLachlan but my memory of the film (it has been a while) is that it wasn’t too bad. Beloved informs me that we have it so I’d like to watch it again, having read the book.  Anyway, glad I finally read Dune, I devoured it really and enjoyed it very much.

Just read, The Day of The Triffids, John Wyndham

I picked up The Day of The Triffids in an antiquarian bookshop on last trip to Lake District and thought I’d read it now as a break from background reading for my course on history of empires (currently re-reading Niall Ferguson’s Empire). What a marvellous little book it was. It was a little quaint perhaps, in the sense that some books from the 50s that I’ve read in the past few years are, in style of writing and language but that’s not a bad thing. It reminded me a little of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, which I read a while ago and loved because it dealt with the end of the world scenario in a very human way. I liked how here, the breakdown of the society was seen through very normal, everyday characters and how, what followed the breakdown, was described by presenting different attempts at survival by different groups of people. It made me think of bad books I sometimes read, like Michael Crichton’s which set up an interesting scenario and then spend hundreds of pages not really developing it much and not really making much of a point either. Triffids was much more economic and simple and more powerful for that. Clearly quite influential too, am making a mental note to look into more sci fi books from the period.

Antiquarian bookshop finds

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I keep going on about the large stack of books waiting to be read and then what do I do? Buy more books… Think I can be excused this time, these came from a lovely antiquarian bookshop in Keswick, mentioned in my last post. Why these books in particular? When I have time to read fiction, I try to catch up with some new and good-sounding new releases and I am also working my way, very slowly, through Guardian’s list of 1000 novels everyone should read. I know there are lots and lots of ‘must read’ and ‘100 best’ type lists around, I just found The Guardian’s pretty comprehensive – all those classics you never get around to conveniently placed on one list as well as many 20th century authors that people of my generation or younger may not be aware of any more, Barbara Pym being a good example. I also add comments and other recommendations to the list, India Knight came up with a very good list of comfort reads a couple of years back and the Rosamond Lehman was one of her recommendations, looking forward to reading it. Am currently reading Howard’s End and very much enjoying it. Have read A Passage to India before and I love how Forster’s writing seems measured, perhaps that’s not the right word, proper, maybe with all these tensions and insecurities bubbling up underneath. Wonderfully realised characters, boxed in by their own and the society’s expectations and codes of behaviour according to class, is your money new or old – can they ever mingle and ‘how to help the poor’, being a favourite topic of the ladies debate club the sisters in Howard’s End belong to. Wouldn’t it just be fabulous if you had the time to read great books all day long…