“The True Deceiver” by Tove Jansson (1982)

Leave a comment

“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.”

With the weather finally beginning to show signs that it’s remembered what spring should look like, I inexplicably took it upon myself to dive into a book full of snowscapes. As a kid, I loved snow, but as I got older it just became more of an inconvenience. I remain somewhat enchanted by it however – especially if I have nowhere I need to be – and am always fascinated by how quiet it seems. Rain and wind both come with noise, and even a sunny day will ensure some noise as people cut lawns and have barbecues, but snow is entirely silent. It blankets the world in sheer nothingness and hides a multitude of sins, and when it thaws, who knows what may be revealed…

Katri Kling is an unusual young woman in many ways. She has no time for the niceties most people engage in, is short and sharp and seems only to have meaningful relationships with her brother Mats and her nameless dog. Anna Aemelin, an elderly book illustrator, however is respected around the Finnish village the two call home, even if no one much sees her. Katri has decided that she and her brother should live in Anna’s house, known around the village as the Rabbit House, and sets about putting her plan in motion to convince Anna she’s not safe alone.

Once in, the two women begin a strange and somewhat aggressive relationship. Neither completely comfortable in the others company and having very different views on the world means that soon it’s not quite clear who’s telling the truth. As the Finnish winter begins to move into spring, they realise that their lives have changed, but whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

The novel is written by Tove Jansson who is more famous for creating The Moomins, but there is little here to compare the two works save for perhaps a fondness for nature and open spaces. There are no earth-shattering events taking place in this novel, merely two women with very different aims and a small flurry of nosy villagers who all have their own opinions on what’s going on and aren’t afraid to share them. The snowscape setting is somewhat unnerving and there is a sort of eerie chill to a world like this. I find snow gives a sense of mystery and almost menace to a plot, and the book is chilling in more ways than one, despite the lack of extreme drama. As we all know, nothing is scarier than something. And there isn’t anything scary here – not that Jansson is writing anything that’s meant to be a horror story. In many ways it’s quite a sweet tale of loneliness and expectation. It is, however, about so much more. It’s about where we belong and more importantly it’s about truth, lies and how flexible the line is between the two.

An interesting novel – the sort that will suddenly come back to mind inexplicably on a quiet, snowy morning several years from now.

Advertisements

“Life, The Universe And Everything” by Douglas Adams (1982)

Leave a comment

“The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let the recap begin.

Since we left everyone at the end of the last book, they’ve all very much gone their own ways. Arthur has been living in a cave on prehistoric Earth for five years, occasionally chatting to trees. Marvin has spent a million and a half years turning in a slow circle on a marshy planet with only a mattress called Zem for company. Zaphod has been moping around since completing the mission he’d been trying to put off, and Trillian got so sick of him she teleported off the Heart of Gold without even bothering to set any destination coordinates. And Ford has spent some very productive time going mad.

However, there are eddies in the space-time continuum and once Arthur and Ford have chased a sofa across a field, they find themselves transported to Lord’s Cricket Ground, two days before the destruction of the planet. Inexplicably, things become even weirder when Slartibartfast arrives in an Italian bistro to whisk them off on a mission to save the universe. The people of the planet Krikkit, once the most violent and destructive race in the galaxy, are gathering the materials required to escape from the slow-time envelope that encases their planet, and if they succeed in getting out it will spell certain doom to life itself. Along the way, Marvin loses a leg, Arthur learns to fly, Agrajag fails to exact his revenge, and the English are proved to be about the least sensitive race ever to exist.

And if any of that made any sense to you, I advise you seek medical help immediately, if not sooner.

It’s completely bonkers and despite the fact the main premise is that of seeking a solution to save the universe from certain destruction, it actually feels like not a lot happens. That is, there are many events, but most of them don’t feel pertinent to the main event. That doesn’t stop them being hilarious, insane and altogether welcome. The scenes where Arthur learns how to fly – the trick being to throw yourself at the ground and miss – are rather sweet among everything else, and he remains a character I have a lot of affection for. He didn’t ask for any of this to happen, but he’s handling himself terribly well. There are some great references to the first two books as well, and we also get to meet Agrajag, perhaps the most tragic figure out there. Every time he is reincarnated, it is Arthur Dent who causes his demise, and as such, he is very, very annoyed.

Whereas the last book seemed to focus more on Zaphod, here Arthur is back at centre stage. Last time I said that Trillian barely got anything to do, and here, while she is only in a handful of scenes, she’s a much more interesting, pivotal and engaging character, easily the sanest of them all. Adams is, of course, on great form with the universe he has created, with its many ridiculous and improbable events. If you stop to question any of it, you’ll just give yourself a hernia. His use of language is, as ever, beautifully precise, unique and incredibly creative, my favourite line probably being, “He got a large and extremely disreputable cocktail party in the small of the back.” What a wonderful image. The book also manages to handle the idea of immortality by showing us a character who, with the entirety of time to work with, has decided to personally insult everyone in the universe. It’s just the right side of funny and it’s a good enough use of immortality as any.

Utterly bananas. And yet still so brilliant.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

3 Comments

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

1 Comment

“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

2 Comments

“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology is becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

“Not Dead Yet” by Peter James (2012)

1 Comment

“I am warning you, and I won’t repeat this warning.”

I’ve been working my way through Peter James’ series for a few years now, slowly but surely. If you want reviews for the previous ones in the series, then they’re here, and because they’re a continuation, there may be some spoilers here regarding the series as a whole. If you’re not interested in the underlying plot – and the books are enjoyable enough without it – then feel free to carry on, but you have been warned.

In the eighth installment of the series, we meet another collection of colourful characters all involved in a series of plots that, at first glance, have very little to do with one another. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace has found himself leading a new case wherein a body has been found on a chicken farm, missing its head and limbs. The police are struggling to identify the body, with little to go on but a swatch of a very unusually patterned fabric. Elsewhere, Brighton is preparing to host a film crew ready to shoot their new movie about King George IV and his mistress Maria Fitzherbert, but the producer Larry Brooker is facing difficulties from a man who claims that Larry stole the script from him, and his temperamental lead actress, the pop star Gaia Lafayette.

Gaia herself has some problems, as one of her assistants has just been murdered outside her Bel Air home, and the police there believe that the perpetrator was intending to kill the star. And this is still all before we’ve got to Gaia’s number one fan, Anna, who has convinced herself that Gaia is communicating secretly with her; Eric, the strange and insular auditor who is beginning to rub the police up the wrong way; and two figures from Roy’s past that are back on the streets of Brighton, each with their own reasons for keeping an eye on Sussex Police’s golden boy.

As ever, James makes good use of the environment of Brighton and Hove, one of my favourite cities. His attention to detail is brilliant and his research is meticulous. He manages to combine a very rigorously described police inquiry with genuinely sympathetic characters who we grow to care about. After eight books now with many of the same faces, each of them develops more and more depth. Although they all could easily be written off with a singular defining trait – Glenn is a movie buff, Bella is consigned to a life looking after her mother, Norman is an old-fashioned copper with old-fashioned ideas – each of them has three very remarkably played out dimensions, and very little in this world is black and white. Some of the new characters are great too, including Gaia, a global icon in the vein of Lady Gaga, who shows real humanity beneath her public persona, and Larry Brooker, the Hollywood producer who can’t see why a dead body should hold up his production schedule. He’s so oblivious, but you just know that there are people out there like that. The kind of people who say “time is money” without irony.

Eight books in, we also begin to see some old plot threads begin to weave themselves together. Kevin Spinella, the ruthless and slimy journalist who always seems to immediately know what the police know, finally meets his match. There are unexpected relationships slowly being exposed, thus bringing about more depth and character development, and some long-held secrets from early in the series are finally revealed to the reader, but they only further some mysteries and don’t necessarily wrap things up as neatly as you’d hope. Fortunately, I’m not bothered – it just makes me even more intrigued.

The crime story is wrapped up well with a reminder to never ignore coincidences, but the ending itself is really rather sinister, but definitely builds up the interest for carrying on, which I undoubtedly will be.

Book Chat: Sarah Dunsworth

5 Comments

Sarah Dunsworth of Walnut Creek, California is something of a polymath away from her administrative day job. A talented storyteller, poet, singer, songwriter and painter, there doesn’t seem to be a creative outlet she can’t turn her attention to. I grabbed a few minutes with her to ask her about the books that mean the most to her.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. It poses, quite possibly, the most difficult question in the world for man to answer: “is life worth living when there is no proof of purposeful existence?” I’m still in the early parts of the book, but decided to read it when a friend of a friend said reading it saved his life.

Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Harlan Coben, as he was someone who encouraged me in my writing as a teenager. After reading two of his books, I contacted him by e-mail to thank him for his work and also to request he read one of my poems and give a critique. He wrote back, to my shock, and said though poetry wasn’t his forte, he thought it was very good and told me to keep on writing. I’ll always be grateful for his time and kindness in responding so thoughtfully.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up?

At home on a quiet Sunday morning, on the couch with a blanket; a steaming mug of Earl Grey in hand, and two cats curled up at my feet.

Can you tell me about a book that scared you?

The Shining by Stephen King was terrifying. I was shaking at one point. Being able to create that level of horror with words is mastery. Seriously, the man wrote about topiary coming to life and had my palms sweating…HOW?

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

That’s nearly impossible to say! My initial thought was Nineteen Eighty-Four by by George Orwell, but could very well change tomorrow. Actually, I’d say Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I read it fifteen years ago and it still brings tears to my eyes when I think on it.

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?

Is it strange to say hardback at home and paperback everywhere else?

Can you tell me about a book that made you laugh?

I’m just now realising I haven’t read many funny books. Shamefully, I’ll admit I laughed at I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by (the painfully vile) Tucker Max. It’s so gross. Please don’t read it. If you have, I’m so, so sorry.

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

When I finished Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, I held the book to my chest and wept.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

Every book I read teaches me something about the world by experiencing it through new eyes. I can’t think of a single book that hasn’t taught me something, even if that something is that some men are horrendous (I’m looking at you, Tucker Max). George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four taught me to never dismiss the possibility of fiction spilling off the page and into the real world. I wrote a report in school where I said Orwell’s dystopian creation could never exist. My bad.

Have you read any books translated from a foreign language and how did you find them?

I have and do often, actually. I don’t find it difficult to understand, but I think the text must lose a bit of its original sparkle in the process of translating.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Don’t do this to me. I refuse to answer.


You can peek into Sarah’s personal life and read her poetry over on Instagram: @tinyquill.

Older Entries Newer Entries