“Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea” by Adam Roberts (2014)

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“On the 29th June, 1958, the submarine vessel Plongeur left the French port of Saint-Nazaire under the command of Capitaine de vaisseau Adam Cloche.”

The oceans of the Earth remain the last unexplored frontier of the planet. Humanity has always been sort of captivated by the seas, but also terrified of them, and often reluctant to play around with them too much. We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the ocean floors. What is lurking down there, we can only guess. Every so often a craft descends as deep as possible and brings back photos and videos of alien creatures and whole ecosystems that have never known the sun or the sky. But what if, as Adam Roberts proposes in his book, the ocean is perhaps much deeper than we thought?

It’s 1958, and France and India have teamed up to build France’s first nuclear submarine, Plongeur. Unfortunately, on its maiden voyage, something goes wrong with the vents and the sub begins to sink far deeper than the crew had planned for. And then it keeps going, and going, and going, and going…

Reaching a depth that defies the laws of physics in any number of ways, the crew have many questions. Why haven’t they been crushed by the water pressure? Where are all those breezes coming from? How can they reverse Plongeur‘s direction and head back home? When the sub seems to reach a depth that is even greater than the Earth’s diameter, things become desperate.

Trapped and sinking ever lower, the twelve men on board the ship begin to turn on one another, each with an apparently different motive and idea as to how they should solve this problem. Madness and violence set in, as they wonder if this ocean even has a bottom, and if it does, what they’re going to do once they get there…

The suspense builds nicely, and as the characters begin to turn against one another, it becomes difficult to quite know who to root for, giving us an extra layer of confusion. Only a few of the characters are particularly distinct, with some of the minor sailors merging into one. Alain Lebret, who is a non-military observer becomes quite important and it’s not always clear where his morals lie. I also enjoyed Captain Cloche, who doesn’t want to know what’s going on because his mission is to get home and that’s all he can focus on, and Jean Billiard-Fanon, the ensign, is engaging if entirely mad.

Each chapter is also accompanied by a very beautiful illustration, one of which is on the left, here. They are very simple and really show very little, but the emotion they convey is spot on and very deep. There’s an intensity to them that’s very captivating, and they don’t interfere with the story at all, just give you a better grasp of what’s going on. I like a book with a couple of pictures, and they really help present the weirdness of the situation and the vastness of the oceanscape.

Without giving too much away, there is a resolution and it’s quite a good one too in it’s own way, but as always with these things “nothing is scarier than something”, so as soon as you find out what’s going on, it loses its edge. The greatest scenes are those that focus on the submarine’s descent, as well as the growing madness among the crew. And then it all basically ends on a particularly laboured pun which made me laugh and groan simultaneously like nothing else has for a long time, and I include all the scripted jokes on The Great British Bake Off in that..

But don’t let that put you off. It’s worth reading and a really tense, engaging story of claustrophobia, insanity and fear. One thing’s for sure, you’ll think twice about getting in the water next time you go to the beach, and it won’t just be the cold putting you off.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

“The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse (2009)

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It leaves a chill, certainly.

It leaves a chill, certainly.

“He walked like a man recently returned to the world.”

If, like me, you live in Britain, you will have probably noticed how hot it’s been these last few days. The unseasonable weather, while ultimately welcome, seems to have made most of us sweaty, irritable and  uncomfortable. In a vague attempt to cool off, I hoped that a book with “winter” in the title and a snowflake on the cover might have the same effect as a cold shower. Now though, I think that “damp squib” is a better description for the book than “cold shower”. And I’m still too hot.

Giving away the twist and the main plot in the three words of the title, The Winter Ghosts takes us to France between the world wars. Freddie Watson has arrived in Toulouse in 1933 to find someone who can translate a letter he’s been carrying. When the translator, Saurat, asks where he found the letter, which may just be a priceless historical artifact, Freddie tells his tale.

Five years earlier, Freddie had gone to France after a spell in a sanatorium. He is unable to get over the death of his older brother during the Battle of the Somme and it has driven him mad. Seeking closure, he goes to France but his car gets caught in a snowstorm and hurled off the road. Travelling through the blizzard, he arrives at a town that seems deserted, but takes refuge in the hostel of M and Mme Galy. They invite him to a celebration that night that all the villagers will be attending. Deciding to go along, he finds the place in question and enters, being introduced to various members of the crowd.

One of them stands out for him though, the beautiful, ethereal Fabrissa. They talk into the night, Freddie telling her his tragic story, when the party is interrupted by soldiers carrying swords. In the scuffle, Freddie and Fabrissa escape into the mountains where, once safe, Fabrissa tells her story. The next morning, Fabrissa is gone and Freddie can’t be sure if she was ever there in the first place, but he is determined to find her.

I’ve never read Kate Mosse before so didn’t really know what to expect; I certainly didn’t expect it to turn into a ghost story, assuming, at first, the title was metaphorical. Given that the bulk of the story is supposedly Freddie telling Saurat the tale, it genuinely does (at first anyway) feel like Freddie is telling you the story personally. The imagery and the location are both beautifully handled, and Freddie’s struggle to cope with his brother’s death feels realistic. It seems rarer to contemplate how siblings feel after a death, focus instead tending to go to the parents. Here, Freddie has to cope with the loss of his whole family, really, as it’s made patently clear, both to him and us, that George was the favourite brother and his parents had little time for Freddie, even before George’s death and especially after.

For all that though, the book is flawed. It was apparently originally released as a short story, and you can definitely tell that’s the case. It feels like it’s been padded with superfluous description and dialogue, like an overstuffed armchair that’s lost its shape. Freddie is the only character who is properly fleshed out, and his heel face turn after realising that Fabrissa isn’t quite what he thought seems a little strange. He’s a dim character, apparently completely unaware for a long time that he witnessed something stranger than usual. When it comes down to it, the beautiful language cannot mask the fact that nothing really happens here. It’s immediately forgettable, chilling in all the wrong ways and I’m not tempted to read Mosse’s earlier work.

If I had a five-star rating system, something it’s too late to implement at this point, then this gets a solid three. It is neither outstanding in being either really good or really bad, and it will pass a couple of days, but it just never grabbed me. You may not agree, but you’d have to make a good case for me to change my mind.

“Generation A” by Douglas Coupland (2009)

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gen a“How can we be alive and not wonder about the stories we use to knit together this place we call the world?”

The bees are dying. No one really seems to be able to explain conclusively why this is, but the fact remains that global bee populations are dwindling. It might not sound terribly important, but bees are one of the primary pollinators of the world. Not only would a loss of bees mean a loss of honey, but we’d also lose dozens of crops, among these being watermelon, tomato, tangerine, sunflower, strawberry, raspberry, quince, pear, onion, mustard, lime, kiwi, hazelnut, fig, fennel, cucumber, cranberry, cotton, cauliflower, carrot, broccoli, blueberry, apricot and apple. I’m not going all environmental on you here, but I’m just setting up the world we’re about to enter in Generation A.

It’s the year 2024 and bees have died out the world over. Juice is synthetic, cotton clothing is a thing of the past, and everyone feels a bit guilty about the fact they let it happen. As such, most of the world has become addicted to a new drug called Solon, which gives the user a feeling of solitude that is at one calming and addictive. Once you start taking Solon, you stop caring about anything else.

Then, quite out of the blue, Zack, a corn farmer in Iowa is stung by a bee. Before he even has much time to register what has happened, he is pounced on by the authorities, zipped up into a bodybag and transported to an anonymous room somewhere deep underground where scientists proceed to conduct tests on him. Not long after this, four more people are stung. Sam in New Zealand, Julien in France, Diana in Canada, and Harj in Sri Lanka. The same fate befalls these stingees too, and once they’re kicked out of their holding cells, they find that they have become the most famous people on the planet and can barely move without being surrounded by people demanding autographs and DNA.

The five realise that they have to be together, and the opportunity comes with a scientist called Serge has them all transported to a quiet island off Canada, a place where Solon is banned and the natives only tolerate their presence because they might bring the bees back. There, not far from the site of the last hive (now a UNESCO World Heritage site), Serge has them tell one another stories, telling them that it is all part of a scientific experiment, one that may change the future for humans and bees alike.

A spiritual sequel to Generation X, this book too deals with lonely people who have tried to escape the world. It’s also all about stories and the power of storytelling, although this time suggests that the stories the characters tell actually have a physical power. It’s fun to read the narratives the characters come up with, as they start inserting in-jokes into them and making them connect with those of the others.

Zack is a reprehensible character, but actually very likeable. Sam and Harj tie for the nicest characters in the book; although she is reeling from the fact her parents have just informed her that they don’t believe in anything anymore (which may or may not be connected to the fact they’ve started taking Solon), and Harj has faced much hardship since his family were swept away by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and now idealises America and the life one can make for oneself there. Julien is the least likeable, being pretty stuck up and apparently determined to blame anyone but himself for his failings. Diana is the least interesting of the five. She has Tourettes, but it feels like it’s a trait that’s been tacked on to make her more memorable.

The drug Solon reminds me hugely of soma, the hallucinogenic drug from Brave New World. They’re both used freely by the masses who seem unable (or simply unwilling) to take notice of the fact that they’re probably doing their bodies and minds much more harm than good. The idea of a drug that placates the population is a horrifying one and almost pushes this book into dystopia territory. However, I think it maintains a little more hope than some dystopias. The world has not quite fallen apart, but things are not as they once were. It’s not really about the bees; it’s about how humanity is slowly eating away at itself and one day it will be too late to undo all the damage we’re currently inflicting on the world and ourselves. Coupland once again stands firm and shows how much he understands the world, displaying his usual frightening clarity. While not my favourite of his books, it’s a strong contender.

I’m almost done with Coupland now. I’ve re-read all his books, as I said I would way back when, and now I’ve just got one more to go, his newest novel Worst. Person. Ever. which I’ve never read. Expect that one along soon. Meanwhile, I’d like to say that if you ever think you should re-read an author you loved, do it. You’ll only fall even more in love with them and their work.

“Breaking Away” by Anna Gavalda (2009)

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breaking“I hadn’t even sat down yet, one buttock still hovering, my hand on the car door, and already my sister-in-law was on the attack.”

Most of you reading this probably have siblings. Older or younger, brother or sister, one or many, you may well have grown up with another one in the nest, seeking the same attention as you. I have a sister who is currently farming and emu-wrangling* her way through Australia and I miss her a lot. This book was perhaps not the right thing to read, then.

*possibly

Most of the action takes place in one location – a car. Garance has just been picked up by her brother Simon and his shrew of a wife Carine, and they are now off to a family wedding. The story is told from Garance’s point of view and is pretty much a review of the relationships and lives of her and her three siblings – Simon, Lola and Vincent.

Garance worships all three of her siblings, incomplete without any of them, thinking that each of them is a saint in their own ways (except Simon, who is better than a saint). It builds up a tapestry of their relationships merely through her wandering thoughts as they push through the French countryside. Lola eventually confirms that she’s coming too, so they pick her up from the station (much to Carine’s annoyance) and then head off to the wedding. Arriving, they discover that Vincent isn’t coming, so the three slip away and head to his chateau to find him.

It’s a little novella, but there isn’t a word wasted among its pages. It’s beautiful, charming, warm and above all real. You want to be able to sit with these people and it feels like an honour to be allowed to spend a little time with them. It is exquisite in its construction, given that, as mentioned, most of it takes place in the same confined location with just three present characters. It’s a book about adulthood, and how we all have to let go of our childhood, even though the real world is full of disappointments, bad lovers, mistakes and responsibilities we’d rather ignore (the throwaway line about what Garance does for a living is a bit of a shock given what you’ve learnt of her so up until that point).

It’s happy but sad at the same time, and a gorgeous little novel to finish up the year on.

Happy New Year, everyone. See you in 2014! X