“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

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“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and on day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

“The Seven Dials Mystery” by Agatha Christie (1929)

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It's murder o'clock...

It’s murder o’clock…

“That amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger, came racing down the big staircase at Chimneys two steps at a time.”

Agatha Christie was absolutely known as an expert at plotting tight mysteries but it’s also hugely accepted that the woman couldn’t write thrillers. I beg to differ as anyone who has read The Secret Adversary knows (although perhaps not those who have seen the recent TV adaptation, which was good but very different from the original text). The reason for this reputation is because of this novel, The Seven Dials Mystery. A sequel of sorts to The Secret of Chimneys, containing the same location as the original and a return of a number of the characters (including one of my favourites, Lord Caterham), it is not your average thriller, simply because it is a parody of thrillers. No one at the time understood this and so Christie was written off as a thriller novelist, possibly simply because the big boys at the time couldn’t believe someone – let alone a woman – would mock them.

The novel opens with a group of young friends staying at Chimneys, a grand country house, as guests of the current occupants Lord and Lady Coote. One of them, Gerry Wade, has enormous trouble in waking up and getting down in time for breakfast so the others decide to play a prank on him. They purchase eight alarm clocks and, when Wade is asleep that night, set them up in his room to go off at intervals starting at 6.30 the following morning. Happy with their prank, they retire to bed.

But the next day it’s lunchtime and Gerry still hasn’t arrived downstairs. There’s no way he couldn’t have heard the noise as it woke everyone else up, so is he just stubbornly ignoring it? No. He’s dead. The group feel guilty about their prank, but there’s a further twist in the tale – the alarm clocks have been lined up on the mantelpiece and one of them is missing, leaving just seven. And when another member of the party is discovered dead, things begin to look very sinister, with everyone wondering if they’re next.

Gerry’s half-sister Loraine Wade, his friends Jimmy Thesiger and Bill Eversleigh, and the daughter of Chimneys’ owner, Bundle Brent, take it upon themselves to work out what happened. Bundle contacts Superintendent Battle who was so helpful to them when there was last a murder at Chimneys but he advises her to keep out of it. When she refuses to do so, she and her fellow amateur sleuths stumble into a world of secret societies, highly valuable political secrets, and more trouble than they quite know what to do with.

So why is this not considered a thriller? It contains a secret society, eager young girls, fast cars, loaded guns and the threat of Communism looming over everyone’s heads, so surely it perfectly fits the bill? Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Christie was, to put it bluntly, pretty much taking the piss. Oh, she was definitely not a revolutionary figure by any stretch of the imagination – she spoke poorly of the lower classes and there are definite racial undertones to some of her earlier works.

But above all, and what people forget given her reputation as a private individual, is that she was very funny. She had a hugely dry sense of humour, notable in both the Poirot and Marple novels in particular. Christie here takes the basis of what we expect from a thriller, and with the sleight of hand of the finest magician inserts her own twists and turns into it, meaning that by the end what we expect to happen doesn’t and, once again, the rug is pulled from under our feet and we are left in awe at what she manages to achieve. If written today, this would be considered postmodern and meta-fictional, so it’s way ahead of its time. It’s even something of a feminist piece, with the men routinely having to be saved by the more daring and intelligent women.

Above all, though, this does work as a thriller, a mystery and a comedic piece of work. The laughs start as we chuckle at the hapless aristocracy, and the narrator’s asides about what does and doesn’t need to be mentioned. It isn’t actually unlike a Jeeves and Wooster story, the language being more akin to that of Wodehouse. Perhaps the funniest moment comes when Bundle is proposed to by someone she’d rather not marry, and not knowing how to say no without breaking the rules of etiquette, merely gives a flat response of “no” and jumps out of the window. The only thing perhaps funnier than that is her suitor’s message to her father saying that she is merely coming around to the idea.

It’s an early one, but it’s one of the best. Christie has hit her stride and she’s away, with no end in sight for a good fifty years yet. And I’ve only got nineteen left to go…

“A Series Of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket (1999 – 2006)

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unfortunate

Unlucky for some.

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

This year I have so far read eighty-eight books. Seventy-five of them were new to me and had never been read, but thirteen of them had been read before. I scattered mentions of them throughout the year, but now it’s time to review the series as a whole, which feels like one hell of a job. I am, of course, talking about A Series Of Unfortunate Events, the masterpiece series of Daniel Handler or, as he’s more commonly known, Lemony Snicket.

The series is presumably known to you in some degree or another. The first one came out in 1999 and they appeared speedily after that, meaning that the series was complete just seven years later. It is the story of three orphaned siblings, inventor Violet, bookworm Klaus and food-loving Sunny Baudelaire, who are given the bad news that their parents have been killed in a fire that has destroyed their family mansion. They are now alone in the world and must go to be looked after by their guardian, Count Olaf, thus beginning the titular series of unfortunate events that follow the children. Their parents left behind an enormous fortune and Olaf wants to get his hands on it, and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. No one believes that the Baudelaires are in danger until it is almost too late, but once they’ve left Olaf’s house, things just go from bad to worse.

The series progesses, thusly:

It opens with The Bad Beginning, which features the plot I’ve mentioned above. Olaf and his troupe of actor friends are hungry for the fortune, but since no one can get hold of it until Violet, the eldest child, comes of age, Olaf comes up with an alternate plan – he will marry Violet (who is a distant niece of his – yep) and then kill her, bequeathing the money to him. The plan is scuppered at the last minute, and the siblings are whisked away.

the bad beginningThe second book is The Reptile Room, in which they meet perhaps the only guardian that gives a damn about them and appears to be a genuinely nice person, Uncle Monty. A herptologist, he studies and collects rare reptiles and amphibians from across the globe, including the Incredibly Deadly Viper, a snake with the friendliest temperament of any so far found. Olaf returns in disguise and kills Uncle Monty, meaning that the siblings are once again sent to a new guardian.

In The Wide Window, they stay with the very nervous Aunt Josephine whose true passions are grammar and remembering her late husband. She lives on the edge of a lake and a huge storm one night blows the house away and out across the water, leaving the Baudelaires struggling to sail a boat home in the waves. As you can assume by now, Olaf is not far behind.

The series progresses with The Miserable Mill, where the three begin working in a lumbermill with nothing to eat but chewing gum and a strange hypnotist living across the way. They are then sent to boarding school, which is the focus of The Austere Academy. Here they are tortured by weird rules, school bullies, a violin-playing vice prinicpal and Count Olaf in disguise as a PE teacher. The series deepens here when the Baudelaires meet the Quagmire triplets (well, two of them) who inform them that there is a secret afoot and that the children must all find out about “V.F.D.” and their questions will be answered. With nothing more to go on than those initials, the two families are split. The Quagmires are kidnapped, and the Baudelaires are sent to their next guardian, the vile Esme Squalor.

In The Ersatz Elevator, the three are back in their home town but living in a penthouse of a huge towerblock, their problems exacerbated when Esme teams up with Olaf and the two run away together to cause more mayhem, the Quagmire triplets in tow. With no suitable guardians left, the siblings are then sent to a village, The Vile Village, where they run with the logic that “it takes a village to raise a child”. The already dark series becomes darker here as the whole thing turns on its head. Arrested and charged with murder, the siblings are soon on the run and they are now all alone in the world with no one to protect them, while more and more nonsensical clues about V.F.D. pile up. From now on, it is the children who begin to disguise themselves and perform nefarious deeds.

In The Hostile Hospital, the siblings find potential evidence that one of their parents has survived, but they are unable to do anything about it when Violet is kidnapped by Olaf and nearly killed. The three eventually escape in the boot of Olaf’s car and they end up at The Carnivorous Carnival, where they pretend to be circus freaks. After dealing with a dodgy psychic and a pit of very hungry lions, their sorrowful adventures continue across the Mortmain Mountains, the events of which are covered in the tenth book, The Slippery Slope. In this one, previous characters begin to reappear, more and more of them over the next three books, and the siblings find the remains of a V.F.D. headquarters, learning more about the strange organisation that suffered a schism that split its members into volunteers (such as the Baudelaire parents) and villains (like Count Olaf).

hospitalIn The Grim Grotto, the siblings are aboard a submarine and then have to deal with a fungi of extremely deadly properties as Sunny battles for her little life in an underwater race against time. Once above water again, the three meet Kit Snicket, sister to the “author”, who takes them to a hotel for The Penultimate Peril, where the last eleven books begin to tie themselves together and events begin to make a little bit more sense than before, but only a little.

Finally, in The End, Violet, Klaus, Sunny and Count Olaf are castaway on a strange island where Ishmael rules over his people, advising them to stay safe, do what he says, and avoid the trechary of the outside world. And it is here that the Baudelaire siblings get some more answers, and also where the story finishes.

Whew.

People who compare this book to Harry Potter in its success are missing the point entirely. This isn’t Harry Potter – this is modern day Roald Dahl at its finest. Handler is a master of the absurd, mixing the hilarious with the harrowing, the daft with the dark. His style is mesmerising and he is fond of using ridiculous concepts, such as informing you how or when a character is going to die many pages before they do, or taking time out to explain what the bigger words mean (often with very strange definitions) or telling the reader about some strange event in his own life. His style is tangential and bizarre (there’s two pages containing nothing but the word “ever”; another two are totally blacked out; one book explains the water cycle multiple times) but you’re hooked because he’s so insistent that you shouldn’t read the very sad story he is laying out that you know you have to.

The books are all about right and wrong, and how sometimes it is impossible to distinguish between the two. The children believe that they are doing the right thing all the time, and that they know what Olaf does is evil. However, the siblings later are responsible for death and arson and subterfuge, much like Olaf was before them, leading them into questions of moral relativity, and how sometimes good people can do evil, and evil people can do good. Even in the final pages, Olaf himself is revealed to be probably not as clear-cut villainous as was previously suspected. Most of the characters have had horrible histories, but they end up choosing whether to be good or bad, showing that our choices matter more than our backgrounds, which is a theme recurrent in much modern literature. There’s also a lot of talk on the nature of secrets – how some matter and some don’t, how some can protect and some can damage. But who are they really protecting, and why?

the endThe series is strong, intelligent (there are dozens of references in each book to literature and literary figures), funny, incredibly dark (one particularly memorable moment is having Olaf stroking a knife against 14-year-old Violet’s thigh under the dinner table) and above all moving. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are strong role models, continuing in the face of adversity and never giving up, despite whatever horrors the world throws at them. The idea of having Lemony Snicket as an actual character in the books also adds a meta level to the whole thing and works wonders, as he is as cowardly as the Baudelaires are brave – or is he? We know so little about him – not even why he is recording these events – but he is always there, several steps behind or ahead of the action.

Perhaps my only complaint is the ending. It ends rather abruptly and there are hundreds of questions that remain unanswered. However, that is in keeping with the series. Snicket is careful not to reveal too much, or he assumes the people reading will know what he’s talking about. Much is never explained – a sugar bowl that the siblings chase for half of the series doesn’t even get a fleeting mention in the final book – but the whole thing works magically. Daniel Handler is a madman to have concieved such a convoluted plot as this, and maybe even he doesn’t have any answers to some of the questions.

It most definitely is a series of unfortunate events, but I feel fortunate that I have read them. And I think you should too.