Shelf-Life

Books, reading & writing


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Dark Eden: Space is dark, really dark…

Those applying for the Mars One mission might first want to have a read of Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. It tells the story of a small colony of humans stranded on the ironically dubbed Eden. The catch is that the colonists are all descended from the original two astronauts, setting up an Adam and Eve story only with all the impacts of a concentrated gene-pool included.

 

The planet itself is brilliantly realised and brilliantly alien. Eden is, as you might imagine given the title of the book, dark: both in the lack of light sense and the plight of its inhabitants. A planet cast adrift, with no start to orbit, Family’s world is a harsh, cold place where the only warmth is pumped from the planet’s core by humming trees and the only light comes from bioluminescence and the periodic appearance of Starry Swirl in the obsidian night.

 

We join Family in their sixth generation with the ravages of restricted genetics staring to manifest. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the alien animals hunted for food in the forest of Circle Valley are gradually being over-exploited. Family are stagnating and one teenage boy – John Redlantern – takes it on himself to challenge the status quo by suggesting splitting up Family and exploring more of the world, rather than waiting on Earth to come and save them.

 

Beckett does an excellent job of creating a truly alien world, where leopards sing to their prey before attacking and trees act as nodding donkeys, draining energy from the planet’s core. The action is told from many different viewpoints, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the different motivations, fears and hopes of all the characters.

 

As John struggles with the technical difficulties of crossing the freezing mountains to reach the next valley, there is a real sense of being right at the start of human civilisation. The end of the story brings resolution of a kind, but, like the best tales of exploration, it also left me feeling that there are far greater adventures to come. For all its alien environment and the strange basis of the civilisation living there, it is a world I hope Beckett lets us return to in the future. Even if, in some ways, humans seemed to have made Dark Eden that little bit darker.

 

 

Next up is China Miéville’s The City & the City


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Frankenstein: the beast in me.

 

Whether or not Frankenstein is truly the first science fiction tale (I went to a great exhibition at the British Library a few years ago that charted sci-fi’s history much further back than the 19th century), its giant footprints are stomped into so much that has come after. How surprising then to find that the original story lacks many of the popular culture touchstones associated with the myth.

 

There is not lightning scarred castle; no deformed assistant to aid the good doctor; the monster is not a stumbling, moaning zombie, but an articulate, thoughtful creature. There aren’t even any pitchfork carrying villagers trying to smoke the Doctor out of his hellish keep. And no-one ever shouts ‘It’s alive!’

 

Likewise, if it was meant as a cautionary tale I’m not sure what it is that Shelley wished us to be cautious of. Even after his life is brought to ruin Frankenstein implores the headstrong sea captain and scientist who rescued him to continue with an ill-advised voyage of exploration to the Arctic. This is despite Frankenstein recognising the captain shares the motivation – the unquenchable thirst for knowledge – which led him to misery and exile.

 

It may be a caution against the runaway parent, since it is Frankenstein’s rejection and abandonment of his creature that sows the seeds of woe. It could also (and this is my preferred reading) be a demand to greet those you do not know with kindness rather than fear. Ultimately, it is Frankenstein that creates the man, but fear that creates the monster. It is the repeated rejection and persecution visited on him by the humans that he meets that turns the monster to the dark side. Man creates his own enemy not through science but through intolerance and ignorance.

 

It is notable that the unsavoury attitudes expressed in Dracula, my last book, towards the lower classes are absent here. While the monster is turned away and harried by rural people he meets, they are not made into beasts themselves. The old blind man, the only person to show the monster kindness, is key to the story. If others saw the monster as he did (or did not) tragedy would not have followed. I wonder if Shelley ever wrote a counterpoint to the story picking up this possible thread and working it through to its end. That is a story I would like to read.

 

If the creature turned his will to good, what could it have achieved? Would it grow old, decay, fall apart? How long would it live? Could it rebuild itself? Would it ever find the companion it sought? Would it live cloaked and cowled and fight against evil like some 19th century superman? Hmm there could be a story in that . . .

 

Next up is Chris Beckett’s new sci-fi tale of an abandoned astronauts and incestuous civilisation, Dark Eden.

 

 


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Dracula: Horror that has real bite

 

If place is important in creating the right mood for reading, few places could have been more appropriate than where I spent the first half of Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale (other than Transylvania of course). At my parent’s house in the Highlands of Scotland, I spent a week cocooned in thick Scotch mist. The weather completed the isolation of an already remote location and it wasn’t long before the shadow of the Count was drifting through the cloying fingers of fog.

 

The story starts with young solicitor Jonathan Harker already on his way to Castle Dracula. Having assisted the Count in buying a house in London through correspondence, he travels to the heart of the Carpathians to finalise the sale and transfer ownership to his mysterious client.

 

A sense of mystery and dread builds as Harker’s route weaves through small, huddled villages populated by hushed, superstitious locals, and towering, snow-tipped pine forests echoing with the howls of wolves.  He quickly arrives at his destination, the eponymous Castle Dracula, finding it perched like a black vulture over the shadowy valleys and jagged cliffs. Welcomed into the castle by the Count, he quickly realises that Dracula is not so much his host as his jailer, and that to let this fiend travel to London would be the ruin of many a life.

 

The pace of the opening act is fast. Dracula’s web draws around Harker as preparations for his own departure gather pace. Soon the story shifts to England, where the Count begins to ensnare the friend of Harker’s fiancé, Lucy. So begins a trial of strength between Dracula and the protectors of his victim.

 

The narrative plays out in correspondence and journals of the main characters, giving the reader several points of view of the unfolding  horror. The only main character not to contribute to the narrative is the Count himself. I wonder what his take on events would be as his centuries of preparation are constantly frustrated by the intrepid band arrayed against him.

 

While an engaging story (I devoured it in around nine or ten days) it does lag in the middle. Similarly, the pacing of the final act is uneven, first rushing forward and then settling back to a steady jog before a sprint to a blink and you’ll miss it finish.

 

The scares are timeless but at times the Victorian characterisation is grating. There is swooning aplenty from the women, despite the many attempts by their gallant male protectors to preserve their ‘gentle dispositions’. Likewise, servants and the lower classes are all either stupid, drunk, dishonest or unhelpful. It’s a good thing the heroes have an aristocrat in their number, or they might have been left paupers by all the bribes paid out to exhort information from the poor. In some cases the lower classes are looked on by the heroes as even more wretched creatures that their pointy-toothed foe.

 

These nibbles aside, the story is an enjoyable and genuinely frightening read. Next up is another Victorian classic: Frankenstein.

 


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Discworld: It’s much more important than that

If there is such a thing as World Cup fever I must have genetic immunity, so it’s a rare day that I find myself reading a book about the beautiful game. But then, as all wives and bookish brothers know, football is more than just a game. That is doubly true when the football in question is taking place in Discworld.

This is the second time I’ve been drawn to the terraces by this novel. Like much of Sir Terry’s best work, there is great joy to be found in a return fixture (okay, I’ll stop with the football terms; I can see they’re bringing back uncomfortable memories of PE teachers and laps round the field). When re-reading a Pratchett, now that you don’t have the power of narrativia urging you ever onwards (pleasant though that is), you get to wallow in the word play, dig deep into the subtext, search out new jokes and new satirical pokes at that thing we call civilisation. Like sex, Discworld is often better the second time around.

So, onto the story. Set not this time in the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork, but in it’s equally colourful crab bucket (knowing Ankh-Morpork this is probably because someone stole the melting pot and melted it down for scrap) this Discworld outing begins with the wizards of the Unseen University discovering that their grant funding – and, much more importantly, their snack funding – is under threat. A forgotten condition in the will of an ancient benefactor stipulates that the wizards must play one game of foot-the-ball every hundred years or lose that considerable financial support. Time is almost up and there is a real risk second breakfast will have to be cancelled.

Not ones to take such things lying down – perhaps because their rotund forms might make it difficult to get back up again – the wizards arrange a match against the best (and worst) Ankh-Morpork’s rough and ready street teams have to offer. In amongst the build up to the sporting face-off, Pratchett weaves stories of redemption, of self-discovery, of Shakespearian love, and of one very special candle dribbler, who finds out what it means to mean something.

Like all the best sporting stories, Unseen Academicals is about the people, not the game. It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts. And of those taking part, while Mr Nutt can be said to be the player of the day, it was the matriarch of the Night Kitchen, Glenda Sugarbean, that stole the show for me. At the start of the tale she is trapped by tradition and the perceived expectations of those around her, always trying to be who she thinks she should be, rather than who she really is. Fear of the unknown has caged her spirit, but when that cage is broken and the clunking hammer of convention is banished from its Damoclean position she becomes an unstoppable force, brave enough to give even the Patrician of the city a stern ticking off.

Last time, I wrote about reading the right book at the wrong time. If there is a right time for this book it is when self-doubt creeps over you, when it tries to pull you down and make you feel small. The key to the appeal of football, as Pratchett rightly picks out, is to be part of something bigger, something united. It lifts you up and gives you strength: they aren’t called supporters for nothing. Those who enjoy Sir Terry’s writing draw that same strength from his work.

To be a Discworlder is to be part of a team. It is to belong. On simple numbers alone, you’ll never meet even 1% of that team, but there’s strength in that all the same. I for one will proudly wave those colours for long years to come.

 

From Discworld to Transylvania: next up is Dracula. I’ve actually already finished the book so my next post should be up in two flaps of a bats wings.


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Reading into the Sunset

Another one bites the dust in the battle with my to-read pile, and in All the Pretty Horses there is plenty of dust to go round. I approached this book with some caution, owing in part to the proud endorsement on the front cover as ‘One of the greatest American novels of this and any time’ and in part to previous McCarthy experience telling me that the road ahead was likely to be darker than the inside of Neil Gaiman’s wardrobe.

On the second point I was wrong. While the story of two teenage Texans, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, travelling south to Mexico to find work as ranch-hands progresses over some rough and inhospitable terrain in the boys journey to adulthood, it does not delve into darkness in the way that the other McCarthy books I have read do. Rather, in keeping with the hard realist position of its protagonists, it meanders through these ugly vistas in a matter of fact way, recognising the hurt and horror that can pepper existence, but not dwelling on them, not shading out the light. And that light is one of the most potent images I have retained from this book. The image of Mexico and Texas invoked in my mind was of a parched, cracked land, rising red cliffs, all constantly being baked under a blast furnace sky. Even the night seems to glow with the stored heat of the day. You can feel the grime in the fingernails of every character and smell the sweat of the horses.

And yet, as vivid as the setting was, and as well draw as the characters are, the story didn’t grasp me in the way I hoped. I’m not sure if this was due to the quote on the front but I think it might have been. Perhaps its promise acted as a barrier between me and the book, causing me to look for what others had said was there rather than simply letting the words pull me into the page. Sometimes the classic can be a crutch. You read with a sense of expectation, always on the lookout for the gold, and in doing so you forget to look up, to let yourself escape into the literary landscape. But I also I wonder if the way I read the book held me back. I have been quite busy recently, so my progress was made in fits and starts: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. This stop-start approach is in stark contrast to the style of the book. Split not into chapters but into five long parts, it feels like a book that you should make time for. It is a book for a long, hot summer night. Ideally, the reader would sit on the wooden porch of an old farmhouse. The paint on the house would be mixed with the dust of the plain and the roof would sag from the burden of generations. It would be an endless sunset, fiery and red. Dust would fall on the pages and a gentle sweat would trace the well-worked lines of the reader’s face. It is a book of the earth, to be read with dirt-caked hands.

 

Next up on the list I’m going back to Discworld. This time it’s Unseen Academicals: a book about football and much more besides. Due to my lateness in posting this entry I’m already past half-time on this latest fixture, so the final results should be with you shortly.


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Angelmaker: Spring is here and the bees are coming

 

What to say about Nick Harkaway’s Anglemaker that hasn’t already been said. Given that the first 10 pages of my copy are filled with sparkling reviews (as are both covers – inside and out), it’s hard to know what to add.

 

I guess I’ll start by saying it is good. That’s simple enough. It is also delightful. It is complex. It is powerful. It is gentle. It is surprising. It is frightening. It is a golden web spun from pure narrativia.

 

Nick Harkaway starts by introducing us to Joe Spork, son of the infamous gangster Mathew ‘Tommy Gun’ Spork, as he hides from his father’s shadow in a cavernous warehouse on the banks of the Thames. Joe spends his time repairing clockwork and defending his workshop against invasion by his neighbour’s cat, Parasite. But, as we all know, hiding from a dark past is, in fiction at least, the best way to ensure it comes looking for you. It is not long before a simple commission to repair a rare item launches Joe Spork into a world of mad monks, shadowy civil servants, serial killers and supposedly dead eastern warlords. Luckily for Joe, he has a motley band of his father’s old friends to call on for help, not to mention the legal backing of the much esteemed firm of Noblewhite and Cradle – for if there is one thing the Sir Humphries of the civil service fear it is matching machinations with a good lawyer. So the scene is set for a showdown between the good guys (who are also technically bad guys – but do it with style) and the bad guys (who are split into the mad guys and the murky greys). Oh yes, and there is the small matter of a doomsday device ticking away in the background. Joe is very determined to turn this off, mostly because he was the one who turned it on in the first place.

 

The pacing of the book is excellent, as is the way it weaves the narrative between the different characters and time periods, taking us back and forth between the present and the past, no matter how much the various characters would like to escape their own particular pages in history. Similarly the attention to detail is, as is fitting for a book about delicate machines, very high. Minor characters, which at first glance might appear as a little bit Basil Exposition, are built up, fleshed out, and often hold a hidden key to the next part of the mystery.

 

All in all a very enjoyable read. There’s humour, there’s fear, there’s action, there’s even a little bit of romance, and, of course, there is a great baddie. Dip into this book and once it’s wound up to speed it sets of running, and you’ll do all you can to keep up.

 

 

Next up in the pile, I’m going to go across the pond for Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Those following me from the start will know there are two of McCarthy’s books in the to-read pile: the other is Blood Meridian. Having already read The Road and No Country For Old Men, I think it’s best to split up my McCarthy’s. Like Edinburgh’s weather, murk and dark and grim can be nice for a while, but hiding from the sun for too long tends to leave me withered.


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An Island in the City

 

 

‘Attention’

 

This single word is the heart of Aldous Huxely’s Island. Though the book is full of messages, reading in many ways as a personal reflection, shared with the reader (lecture would be too harsh a word for its gentle tone), where the story takes a back seat to the ideas it hopes to demonstrate, the skill of the work is that it can be compressed into this single, simple word. When Will Farnaby is washed up on the shores of the idyllic island of Pala, it is the first word he hears, sang from the throat of a beautiful mynah bird. As he is nursed back to health, and as he learns about Palanese society – Huxely’s utopic counterpoint to the shallow consumerist horrors of Brave New World – it is this word that guides him to recovery.

 

It had been my intention to finish Island today and then write a review. Free from the pressures of work, I went to the George Square Gardens, a small copse of trees and solitude that catches the sun and cusps it between the twisting boughs. It is a place I often go to read, when the weather is right (this being Edinburgh and pages not, as a rule, being friends with rain drops, this is less often than I would like – but perhaps that is why it is so nice when chance plays a hand in my favour). But on reading the closing pages I found myself taking up Huxely’s advice. What was it that I focused my attention on? The process of reading, and, in particular, reading in that place.

 

The sun strolled from cloud to cloud; its light, falling on the pages through differing thicknesses of sky held moisture, changed their colour from dull table-top brown to a glowing, golden yellow. Its heat, waxing and waning in a way that makes the body feel physically touched, was such a difference from the uniform mild warmth of the modern buildings I have been spending so much time in recently. Even when cold, with the thickest cloud between us, and with the catch of wind gently rushing along the bottom of my back, where my jumper didn’t quite meet my trousers, exposing a thin strip of skin to the bare elements, it was not uncomfortable – merely different. The noises of the city, a drill cutting into a nearby street, the rise and fall of traffic, mingled with the noises of the gardens, the cooing of pigeons in the trees, the scurrying of tiny feet in the undergrowth, the rustling of branches as they lean to and fro, and, when focused on, each one had a depth lost in the mad rush of modern living. I have filled the last month or so doing things, but I wondered, sitting there, how many of those things I had stopped to actually experience.

 

As if to show me how simple breaking the cycle of rushing and doing and pressure and deadlines could be, a young girl – probably 10ish – ran into the centre of the Gardens, where three old trees form a dome over a sanctuary of green leaves, and began to climb. With expert dexterity and not a jolt of fear of falling (or a thought that these trees might not be for climbing) she scaled the first hunched trunk and then switched mid-canopy onto the second. She quickly reached the top, straightening up for a second on the highest thick branch to poke her head out of the bare wooden crown, and then, just as quickly, slid and swung to the ground again, disappearing round the corner, arms outstretched to touch the bushes on either side of the path. I used to be a tree climber too. There was a good one just in front of my house. It was young and still springy, so you could bounce on it, and it leaned over a small stream me and my brother used to build dams and lose toys in. I haven’t climbed a tree in a while. The scene reminded me of a line in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, about how adults stick to the path, but children, not yet burdened with a need to conform, explore their surroundings squeezing through fences, creeping through bushes, jumping on walls just to see what is on the other side. He puts it better than that but my copy is at my parent’s house so you’ll just have to believe me for now. Or, if you’ve read it (and if not, you should), you’ll already know.

 

Perhaps this is because adults have stopped paying attention. Not just attention to what is around them, but attention to what is inside them. I enjoyed reading Island but I enjoyed it much more when I gave it my full attention.