Two Tribes – Chris Beckett

two tribes cover

“Harry Roberts describes a shallow valley, like an indentation in a quilt, with green pastures and tress on either side.”

When a 23rd century historian discovers journals from two people writing about each other and the same events in 2016, she’s inspired to try to tell their story, pieced together from writings and an abundance of social media records. Harry is an architect and ‘remainer’, Michelle is a hairdresser and pro-Brexit. Can two people from such different ‘tribes’ ever get along? And what of the alienness of life before the Warring Factions conflict, global warming, and all the other things that have changed life in our future?

To be honest, I didn’t really like this book. And yet, I didn’t hate it enough to stop reading. It was, despite the subject matter, easy to read and well enough written, with the exception of some very false-sounding, clunky dialogue near the beginning (not quite “Hey sis, you know our deceased parents who…” kind of level, but shades of it).

The sci-fi framing tale felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch for what turned out to be a particularly long diatribe about Brexit. Sorry, but yawn. Harry is dangerously close to a ‘Gary Stu’, having all of these revelations about how he must examine his default view, that there are two sides, it’s not pro-this and anti-that, middle versus working class, education versus prejudice, blah blah, aren’t I so reasonable and the only person actually thinking! This is balanced by making him somewhat of a pathetic character, and the main story is some tortured love affair that is probably meant to be very Romeo and Juliet, or at least West Side Story.

Meanwhile we get regular little glimpses into the future ‘now’ of the narrator, and discover that as well as obsessing over these two opposite characters, she’s decided to add a layer of fiction with groups of leavers and remainers who may or may not develop into those ‘Warring Factions’ that broke the country. Anything interesting in how things pan out, however, is covered in a few lines of exposition at best.

The last line almost makes it all have a point, albeit rather suddenly, but to be honest it just wasn’t that interesting getting there. I’m surprised it wasn’t more of a slog to read, although it was irritating rather a lot of the time. I’m sure the author was aiming for being impartial, and he does have a few good observations, and yet there are still not-quite-subtle prejudices in the viewpoints, some of which I’m not entirely sure weren’t slightly offensive to at least one group, if not all.

So… can’t recommend. There are interesting moments of how a future society might view our obsession with the likes of social media, or our unthinking privileges, but overall it’s a thinly dressed up attempt at expounding some ‘clever’ viewpoints, shoved into the mouths of some fairly unlikable characters who in the end I just really wished would shut up.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2nd July 2020
Series: none
Read from 25th-29th June 2020

My rating: 4/10

The Glass Hotel – Emily St John Mandel

glass hotel cover

“Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain-“

Vincent is the child of her father’s infidelity, leaving her with a strange relationship with her half-brother, Paul. The pair’s lives take very different turns, but again and again crossing paths. Drug addiction, stolen artwork, sham marriage, fame, ponzi schemes and the financial crash – all of these and more weave through this tale. And the Glass Hotel itself, in glorious isolation in the wilds of Canada.

I’ve been meaning to read the much-lauded Station Eleven for the longest time, and perhaps should have taken more care to read the blurb on this one before jumping at the request! Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good read – in fact, it’s brilliantly written with such a skill with words – but to be honest I found it all a bit too ‘literary fiction’ for my tastes. I prefer stronger plots rather than haunting imagery. Still, I found it a bit reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, which is no faint praise!

Vincent is the main character, mostly, although the story goes back and forth both in time and between her and other characters impacted by some of the same events. It was fascinating, seeing ripples spreading out from incidents large and small.

A large chunk of the narrative involves a thinly disguised version of Bernie Madden’s ponzi scheme and the global financial crash. I suppose I have more interest than most in such things (I worked in finance, albeit a tech side, during those events), but it’s still not quite what I was expecting. I think I would rather have spent more time understanding Vincent, or even Paul (not that I found him likeable). Or, actually, something that gave the amazing ‘Glass Hotel’ more reason for being the title.

Overall: I’m glad I read this, but not my preferred genre. If you like lit-fic more than I do, this seems like a stonkingly well-written slice of it!

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 30th April 2020
Series: none
Read from 16th-23rd April 2020

My rating: 7/10 – deserves better, but for my tastes

The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

mercies cover

“Last night Maren dreamt a whale beached itself on the rocks outside her house.”

On Christmas Eve in 1617, almost the entire male population of the tiny fishing village of Vardo, Norway, is lost in a terrible storm. Left behind in grief, the women of the village have to find a new way to survive.

Eighteen months later, their fragile new order faces a terrible threat in the form of Absalom Cornet, a Scottish witchfinder. His religious fervour has no place for independent women, and the horrors of the storm will seem like a mercy compared to what’s ahead…

This is a beautifully written, wonderfully evocative piece of writing. The author captures so much of the lives and hardships, the fear and jealousy, and unexpected passions. However, even though I was engrossed, this is far from an easy read. It is deeply unsettling – as it should be, given that it’s based on real events. History was rarely kind, and this is some of the worst: women deemed ‘unnatural’ for stepping into so-called men’s roles, forced to for survival and damned for it anyway. The horror of the ‘righteous’ and their wielding of power.

And so, while I praise the writing, I can’t wholly recommend the read: it’s dark, it’s terrifying. Hopefully not too much of a spoiler, but I’d hoped for more of a sense of redemption, somehow. Overall: powerful, but not a little upsetting.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 40 chapters
First published: February 2020
Series: none
Read from 26th January – 3rd February 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Power – Naomi Alderman

power cover

“The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree.”

What if… women developed the ability to generate electricity, enough to shock or even kill. Such a power would surely tip the gender balance – men no longer dominant. How would civilisation adapt?

This is a very cleverly told story, one that is ideal for dissection in a book group. And just a really gripping read. It starts off full of intrigue – what ifs and how and what next – but gets darker and darker.

I can imagine men and women reading such different things into this book. For men, it’s a chilling dystopia, a horror scenario. For women, though, as things get worse it’s less and less fiction and more “yup, this is what it has been like throughout history to be a woman”. Fear of being physically overwhelmed and hurt or raped. Treated like the lesser half of the species; a commodity, or a plaything. I’d love to think a man might read this and realise that this is not some far flung fiction – this is a slice of what it’s like to be female even in the modern age. I was about to say, maybe not on my doorstep – but you know what, pretty much everywhere. Being lucky not to experience the extremes of this gender bias doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

And yet, this isn’t just a feminist book, or a political book. And it’s not all women = good, men = bad. It has as much to say about religion, and history. And yes, power and its corrupting influence.

The framing chapters are excellent, too: letters between two writers (Neil and Naomi), discussing this semi-fictional history of the ‘time before the cataclysm’. The book is then split into a countdown: 10 years to go, 7, 1… What will happen? How?

It wasn’t an easy read – it made me angry, some scenes are extremely shocking (no pun intended!) – but it was indeed a powerful one.

Kindle: 331 pages
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 17th February – 16th March 2019

My rating: 8/10

Daisy Jones and the Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

daisy jones cover

“This book is an attempt to piece together a clear portrait of how the renowned 1970s rock band Daisy Jones & The Six rose to fame – as well as what led to their abrupt and infamous split while on tour in Chicago on July 12, 1979.”

Where to start with this review? How about how much it caught my imagination, how keen I was to curl up with the intertwined interviews of various band members, to find out just why Daisy Jones & the Six broke up after the most amazing show of their sell-out tour?

The interview-reportage style is oddly catchy – I thought it would be annoying after a while, but it’s handled perfectly. We switch back and forth between (labelled) character’s answers to off-book questions, rearranged by some unnamed interviewer to tell a cohesive story. The story of a fledgling band and a gifted but damaged singer. Their highs and lows, fame and fortune and booze and drugs, and of course, their relationships.

I absolutely loved the juxtaposition of answers from ‘different’ interviews. How two people could say the exact opposite about the same event. The reminder that even the most amazing or devastating events in one person’s life can be a “they seemed fine” to another.

Through it all is the story of the making of an album – an amazing, seminal, sadly fictitious album. It’s like getting a behind the curtain peek into the creative process, in a way I haven’t seen done so well before. Love love loved it!

If I’m knocking one mark off it’s for the ending – which is great, don’t get me wrong, but very much made me realise this book was a journey not a destination, and about people and love more than I usually go for. Still, what a ride! Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 3rd-9th March 2019

My rating: 9/10

84K – Claire North

84k cover

“At the beginning and ending of all things…”

In the future, not too far from now, everything has a price. Crimes are paid for in cold hard cash. Caught shoplifting? Six grand might keep you out of jail. Murder? Well, that depends on the ‘value’ of the life you took. Just don’t commit fraud against the Company – there’s no paying for that.

Theo Miller knows the value of every crime, every life. That’s what he does. Until one day a face from his past disrupts his life of quiet despair. Forced to do what the rest of the country so desperately avoids – to really look at the state of society – Theo is about to make a final entry on his balance sheet.

I have mixed feelings about Claire North’s work. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August wowed me, for instance, whereas The End of The Day was a bit… hmm. This was unfortunately a bit more towards the latter, for me, with an intriguing ‘what if’ going on but the dystopia was a bit of a downer and the lit-fic style (unfinished sentences, half-thoughts) really started to irk. I got to the end still unsure how some of the switching timelines related, too.

I wouldn’t say ‘don’t read this’ – but, I think I’m not the best audience for it, at least not right now. I felt like I slogged my way through this a little, despite the fact that the writing was, as ever, very good. My biggest interest, however, was trying to figure out the inspiration: perhaps, The Handmaid’s Tale, but with the poor being treated as disposable resource rather than women – as I said, not exactly cheery.

Hardback: 452 pages / 83 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 9th-23rd June 2018

My rating: 6.5/10

The End of the Day – Claire North

the end of the day cover

“At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”

Sooner or later, Death visits everyone. Before that, they meet Charlie.

So goes the intriguing tagline for The End of the Day, the latest book by the author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. This is a little bit of a departure from her style to date, I would say, and if I’m honest it didn’t appeal quite as much to me. It is a very well-written, very very thought-provoking book, but a shade too ‘literary fiction’ for my tastes, perhaps.

Charlie is an affable, entirely normal young Englishman, who goes to a job interview to be the Harbinger of Death. His role is to precede the Grim Reaper, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as a courtesy. Death comes for ideologies and status quos as much as any individual, and Charlie soon learns that he is there to honour the living and also witness the passing of things.

And… that’s kind of it, plot-wise. Big concepts die. There is a LOT of political statementing, albeit done without much judgement (thankfully), but still. Some things do happen to Charlie, but I confess I was rather left by the end thinking, “And…?” As I said – literary fiction, where plot is not really the point. Hmm.

Still, as a thought-provoking exercise about society, about humankind, about perception, and of course about death – it’s definitely got a lot to offer. I was genuinely moved at several points. I read it in huge galloping gulps. I won’t not recommend it – but it does come with caveats: know what you’re getting in to.

Paperback: 432 pages / 110 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 27th November – 6th December 2017

My rating: 7/10

The Museum of Extraordinary Things – Alice Hoffman

“You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever see before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous.”

I was expecting something in the ‘magical realism’ genre from this, something hopefully a bit like Sarah Addison Allen’s work, which I find sweet and charming and heartwarming. I suppose this isn’t a million miles away, and yet I didn’t warm to it all that much. Possibly because I found the story so dark: death and tragedy, people being treated horribly, and at least one completely evil character.

The style is also a little odd. Each chapter has a dreamy ‘introduction’ section, told from one of the two main characters’ point of view. We then switch to a third-person, more conventional story telling. Which is fine, but didn’t entirely work for me. For a start, the tone between the two didn’t always mesh, and the introspective musings could be as much of an irritation as a glimpse of character psyche – in fact, it seemed just a little like lazy character development.

I was also really surprised when the second chapter switched characters. Of course the two are linked eventually, but to begin with it was a little jarring to suddenly be reading an almost completely different story.

It’s not all awful. The stories are interesting, the writing flows well and can be quite lovely. Overall, though, my main dislike of this book was the dark tone, and quite frankly awful treatment of women – and none more than the sexual exploitation of an under-age character. Perhaps realistic to the time, but given my lighter expectations going in, I really couldn’t stomach it at all.

Paperback: 365 pages / 10 chapters (plus epilogue)
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 5th-20th November 2016

My rating: 6/10

The Gradual – Christopher Priest

“I grew up in a world of music, in a time of war.”

Being a musician in the midst of war is a tough thing. Alesandro’s muse is the chain of mysterious neutral islands known as the Dream Archipelago, a few of which are visible from his coastal home in a dismal, military dictatorship. The exotic lure of the islands is to shape, destroy, and eventually remake his life, as he follows the pull of the music into the strangest journey through time.

Having recently enjoyed the first book in the Dream Archipelago series, The Affirmation, I jumped at the chance to try the fourth – The Gradual – when NetGalley offered a free ARC copy. Perhaps I should have tried the intermediate volumes first: I ended up quite disliking this book. Not enough to give up, but it was more than a bit of a slog, mainly driven by curiosity to find out what was going on – and the disappointment at the weakness of the reveal is what turned to a large dose of ‘meh’.

The main problem for me was the pace. Between the title and the opening chapter talking about music, I thought the ‘gradual’ being referred to was probably a clever (ahem) reference to a musical chanted response. But no, I can attest that ‘gradual’ is very much about how slow the story is! It was fully a third of the way through the (not short!) book that something finally happened. But hold your excitement, it doesn’t last, and there’s another interminable trudge through the main character’s doleful thoughts until anything particularly interesting happens again.

Even then I might have forgiven the pace if the narrator hadn’t irritated me quite a bit, or if the actually interesting ‘what’s going on’ had been handled better. Crammed into the last several chapters, the ‘reveal’ sort of stutters out, almost telling you something, then not quite, then… hang on, you’re introducing what now? And what about..?! I frequently reread parts, trying to grasp the sudden jumps and looking for a proper explanation that I either missed or wasn’t actually there. Again – perhaps if I’d read books 2 and 3, or if music was something I felt as passionately about as I do writing – which is what carried me through the first volume?

Those more into their literary fiction than me might rave about all of this pacing and slow building of a character’s inner thoughts. Personally, though, I’d rather have had a better story.

Netgalley eARC: ~400 pages / 79 chapters
First published: September 2016
Series: The Dream Archipelago book 4
Read from 29th August – 19th September 2016 (yes, I kept moving onto more interesting reads!)

My rating: 4/10 – just not for me, ymmv

The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

“This much I know for sure”

When a series of events casts Peter Sinclair adrift from his dull life, he is overcome with the urge to write his memoir and in doing so find some understanding of his life. The more he writes, however, the more he realises that simple fact cannot capture the complexity of life. With each draft reality ebbs a little further but ‘truth’, as Peter sees it, draws a little closer.

Peter Sinclair has won the lottery. The prize is a trip to one of the myriad islands of the Dream Archipelago, there to receive medical treatment which will make him effectively immortal. As he journeys through the islands, however, he begins to doubt the safety of the procedure. Even if it is successful, will he still be himself on the other side of it?

Which Peter is ‘real’ and which is the dream (if that’s even the way to view it) is less the point than the idea that reality isn’t as straightforward as you might think – or like.

So yes, The Affirmation is a book about mental illness, about schizophrenia, and memory. But as I read the book, I also found it to be about writing and writers. Sitting in one room, but seeing a whole different world as the words spill out onto paper; using friends and family to create other characters, and recasting life events, making them less true but somehow allows us to grasp truth and meaning more easily – this is the book, and also Peter’s story. Priest even writes about the many redrafts Peter needs!

The writing style here is a little dry, perhaps – a lot of telling over showing. However, that fits with the first person narrative which is in itself necessary for the story, to be inside Peter’s head. Still, the lack of excitement or much variation in the pace can feel a little bit of hard work and both story and character remain rather emotionally distant.

The Affirmation is quite unlike my previous experience of Christopher Priest’s work, The Prestige, and if you’re hoping to find more like that (I think I was, really) then you’re likely to be disappointed. The Affirmation is more a literary fantasy, which is an odd mix, making for a ‘marmite’ book: you could love it or hate it. That perceived link to writing was what grabbed me, though, and for that I loved it.

Paperback: 247 pages / 24 chapters
First published: 1996
Series: Dream Archipelago book 1
Read from 14th-10th August 2016

My rating: 8/10