Category Archives: Book Reviews

One Month In; Two Books Down

Right.  I finished both Idoru and Miranda Hart’s first literary romp, Is It Just Me? this week. This may sound like I am a powerhouse of reading, but the truth is that I burned through at least half of Miranda’s book over a couple of days during the Christmas season.  It had been bought for me and I didn’t have Gibson’s to hand to finish first before starting it.  That’s right, I have been polyamorous with my books.  Polyliterate, if you will.

It was a good book, but has been something of a bad influence.  There are now just too many new ways to wreak havoc now.  I am quite competent at being insane by myself without help, ideas, a role model or instructions to go about being insane in public.  Soon the mental hospitals of the world will be filled with Mirandites, mistakenly picked up by people in white coats for galloping in art galleries and hiding in the stationery cupboard.

So!  What’s a girl to read next?  I’m a bit sci-fied out right now, if I’m honest.  I’m also somewhat serioused out after Miranda’s incredibly dark exploration of the psyche.  Looking at my predominantly sci-fi and/or serious collection, I have decided to opt for May Contain Nuts by John O’Farrell.  It’s a funny look at extremely over the top middle class parenting, and it’s already made me giggle to myself one chapter in.  Teach me the ways of comedic timing, John!

Meanwhile, next week I am starting my internship and going to a meeting of journalists for a local paper.  This makes May Contain Nuts my very first commuting book.  Oh yes.  How professional of me.  Just have to hammer out that accursed Christmas story before my articles take up all of my attention.

Good news, though.  I have concocted the characters on the other side of the door to my carol singers…


Idoru

The snow has arrived with the force of a billlion snowflakes.  Because it is a billion snowflakes.  The implications of this for me are a morning shovelling snow and the writing group being postponed for another week at the least.  Which is really bloody convenient because, quite honestly, I am way behind in my assignments!

I blame William Gibson, in part, but in a loving way.  I’ve been reading his novel Idoru as part of my resolution to read a book a month.  I almost finished it twice in the past three years or so before biting the bullet this time.  It’s a good book, but it just seems to catch me at points in my life when it is destined to not be finished.

Gibson writes sci-fi I assume is classified as soft but refuse to verify online at this point for fear of spoilers.  It is stunning in that the future he paints is something feasible and well-conceived; it’s modest enough in its projections that it doesn’t age itself but makes big enough leaps to be an interesting read.  In fact, it didn’t dawn on me it had been written in the late nineties until I suddenly noticed they were all jacking in with wires rather than without them.

There’s a Ghost in the Shell edge to it, for sure, but it doesn’t slap you around the head with cyborgs – normally the first calling card of the dated sci-fi.  .  He also paints a future which is neither dystopian nor utopian, which is immensely refreshing.  The world he shows us just is, the same way the present day world is, with its good points and its bad points.  Though I’ll admit, the good points are very good.  He makes me wish I owned a Sandbenders computer like Chia’s, or could see nodal points in a sea of internet data like Laney.

I’m most impressed with the representation of Japan.  Gibson captures the feel of the place incredibly well: the manic Japan of bright colours and cutesy things and the Japan of feverish overwork and obsession with technology; the orderliness and reservation of its traditional culture versus its capital, the insomniac metropolis.  Even the obliqueness, almost opaqueness, of its bureaucratic circles comes through.  He shows Tokyo being rebuilt with nanobots after an earthquake, which sounds quintessentially Japanese.  It’s truly impressive to properly capture a foreign culture, anyway, but to predict its future in a way which makes someone who knows a lot about Japan, like me, go, “Yeah, probably.”  That’s in a whole other class.

His style is very distinctive, too.  Sentence fragments standing alone.  Whenever he describes any person or small action, it makes you feel that you are his character, observing details as they are happening in a split-second communication between the optic nerve and the brain.  There’s something almost passive about it which makes it feel more real.

His characters are also first class.  Chia, a fourteen-year-old fan of a band, is delightfully competent, thoughtful and not obnoxious in the slightest, and yet Gibson doesn’t forget she is a teenager at any point in his portrayal of her.  Maryalice is completely awesome, the flighty, slightly crazy southern belle of whom we just don’t get to see enough.  Not to mention Kathy, the orchestrator of celebrity at TV network Slitscan, who believes avidly in a natural order of fame and its decline.

I knew Gibson was a legendary sci-fi writer, but reading his stuff really raises my ambitions.  I want to achieve what he does in his work and take what I can from his very distinctive and gritty style.  My only problem right now is that his very distinctive and gritty style is all that’s in my typing fingers when I’m trying to write a comedy!

With that, I shall leave you.  But only with my favourite quote from Kathy Torrence:

“[Slitscan’s audience] is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.”


The Black Cat

When I was about twelve, I watched an episode of Charmed in which an entity called the Demon of Fear used a witch’s worst fear to scare her socks off.  And when I say, “scare her socks off,” I actually mean scare her to death.  Her hair would go white and she would die from a heart attack.

Although in that instance the white hair was pretty laughable, and I wasn’t positive why someone with a fatal fear of earthquakes would inhabit San Francisco, sometimes I reckon that fear-induced heart attack could happen to me.  I don’t want to take drugs.  However, if anything makes living clean a necessity it’s the strong suspicion that, if I took a paranoia-inducing substance, I’d get myself in such a fearful state I’d exhaust either my heart or my adrenal glands and keel over.  (Trivia: did you know you actually cannot survive without adrenal glands?)

I am an intensely paranoid person, and almost always over completely irrational things.  Anything supernatural weirds me out – especially anything involving ghost children.  The Ring truly traumatised me as a teenager.  Ten years on I can barely stand to sit in the living room after everyone else has gone to bed because I still get the heebie-jeebies thinking about it.  The Sixth Sense got me too, and I’ve seen enough screenshots of The Exorcist to want to steer clear.  The body bag in A Nightmare on Elm Street freaked me out too.  And the baby on the ceiling in Trainspotting.  Okay, that one wasn’t strictly horror, but it still was not pleasant.

It is for this reason that I have speculated upon my capacity to write horror fiction.  I do like the idea of it.  I’m just a big scaredy cat and worry I’ll get sucked into the darkest recesses of my mind and never pull myself back out.

This is one of the reasons I have been casually delving into the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  When I was in Year Nine, I remember having a great substitute teacher who got us to read The Black Cat.  As a result, I used the infinite power of the Kindle to bag a copy of Poe’s works for 77p or some similar crazy amount and began to mooch through a couple of his short stories.  (The other reason I was having a read is because I am adapting to the short story environment and was hoping for some guidance from one of the greats.)

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The Black Cat is fantastic.  Poe writes a narrator’s account of a series of strange coincidences – perhaps supernatural occurrences – in his life as he yields to a drinking problem and he allows his affection towards his loved ones to turn to abuse.  His beloved cat, which he kills, appears to be haunting him for his betrayal, and eventually it is another black cat who reveals his murder of his wife to the authorities.

I think what Poe’s works have made me realise is this: I prefer general eeriness to out-and-out terrifying scenes.  I thoroughly enjoy a subtler tone; something more psychological.  I’ve always been a fan of unexplained events or mysterious circumstances, like the Bermuda Triangle, tales of haunted buildings or unsolved murder cases.  As a kid I loved programmes like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and It’s A Mystery.

What I’m saying is, I’ll probably always be a wimp.  I’m never going to sleep after I watch some girl with a green complexion turn her head all the way around.  But, thanks to Poe, I am three pages into an eerie short story and feeling good about it.


Was Noah’s Compass Also Laura’s Compass?

No.  Not particularly.

Let me back up and start again with this one.  When I said I was going to be reflecting on books to help improve my writing, I said so having recently joined a book club.  I reckon it’s a better place to start, in a lot of ways, because it means I’m reading something I would normally never dream of picking up.  I personally need the book club because before I joined, although I was an avid reader as a child, I hadn’t finished a fiction book in ten years.  I know how terrible that sounds on paper, so now I am making up for it.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler is the second book I have read on our reading list.  The book is about a 60-year-old man named Liam whose bout of memory loss causes him to question his current life and purpose in the world.

For the most part I enjoyed the book.  It was well-written and easy to become immersed in its universe.  At one point, as a sat down again and opened to the bookmarked page, I remember consciously feeling myself submerge back into this other universe.  It was genuinely very enjoyable.

Then something unfortunate happened.  Namely that I got to the final thirty pages and started to get a sneaking suspicion that the lead character was not going to have evolved as much as I hoped he would.  In fact, scratch “hoped”: I wanted to see Liam evolve because, after 250 pages with him, I felt I deserved to see him evolve more.  I do understand that the point of the book is to keep afloat in life rather than hunt for personal fulfilment or change, but the writing style flowed so well at times that honestly if there was a major eureka moment regarding this idea I must have glanced over it.  It’s all personal taste, but for my thick noggin it was a bit too subtle.

I can’t take much away from Noah’s Compass, not least because our genres are so different I don’t think there’s much comparison.  One thing it has got me thinking about, however, is that change needs to occur in proportion with the length and pace of a book.  As a reader I won’t be thrilled if I read through 450 pages just for the deadbeat dad to eventually have the sense to buy his infant son one ice cream.  The same is true in reverse: if, at the end of twenty pages of sitting on the couch, Ben the Capitalist suddenly flips his entire world view and makes the sickle and hammer his Facebook picture it won’t be very believable.

No-one is saying that all of a character’s problems should be magically resolved by the final chapter, but an audience generally wants to feel that something has been clearly achieved by the characters during the course of the plot – whether that something is external, internal or both.

To conclude, my writer’s resolution here is to make absolutely sure my lead character takes something away from her experiences in the novel and makes peace with some aspect of her identity.