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

The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North

“They said, when they died, that all they could hear was the screaming.”

When Hope Arden was 16, she started to disappear. Not literally, but from people’s memories. It wasn’t long before she was being greeted as a new student in school every morning, but when her parents started redecorating her room she knew she had to leave. How can a person survive when no one remembers you from one moment to the next? Unable to take a job, she turns to theft – and with her unique skill she’s pretty good at it.

That’s already more than enough intrigue for any book, but Claire North isn’t done yet. No, she’s intent on asking: Do you have Perfection?

Perfection is an app. A lifestyle improvement program that is sadly not as far-fetched as you’d like it to be. From tracking your fitness and diet efforts, it starts to make suggestions on where to shop, get a haircut, who to date. It wants access to everything – and chillingly, that’s only one more permission than Facebook Messenger (have you looked at those? Really – do, and then delete in horror!) in real life. Following the ‘advice’ earns points. The more points you have, the more perfect you must be, right?

The two plot threads play off each other brilliantly, as Hope is ensnared in a global cat and mouse game over the goings on behind Perfection. What is it really doing to people, to society? Harmless search for happiness – or something more sinister? And either way, can it help Hope overcome her crippling ‘superpower’ curse?

I requested a copy of the text on something of an intrigued whim, and boy am I glad I did! The writing is compelling, each of the twin plots utterly fascinating. This is the kind of book that made me think – about the fallibility and tricks of memory, about happiness and the quest to be ‘better’, about how we define ourselves based on reactions from others, and how hard it is to be so isolated from the rest of the human race.

Recommended wholeheartedly, especially if you want something a bit different, and a lot thought-provoking!

NetGalley eArc: 480 pages / 106 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 3rd-10th May 2016

My rating: 9/10

All Their Minds in Tandem – David Sanger

“Veterans: Are you fixing to forget?”

A mysterious man appears in a small town in West Virginia. Both seem haunted by the (American Civil) war, not so long over. As the stranger’s life mingles with those of the townsfolk – three sisters hiding their varying griefs, families torn apart by violence, the town bully and more – can his gift, the manipulation of memories, help them? And what of the strange doctor, the only man in town with too few memories – what dark secrets lie in his past?

I really wanted to like this book, it sounded so quirky and mysterious and the 1800s setting was a nice change (and fairly well done, I thought). But… it really was only ‘ok’, not great. The story never lives up to the promise of the blurb (“Twin Peaks in the 1800s” – just, no), rather meandering through the entangled lives of several of New Georgetown’s residents.

At first, the book is excellent at setting up various mysteries. Who is the strange figure above the bar, never seen but playing the most beautiful music? Why can’t the doctor remember his past? What dark family secrets sent the Marianne sisters’ uncle into seclusion in the woods? It’s not that these aren’t answered, mainly, but I just never felt the answers lived up to the initial hype.

It seemed to me like the author had a lot of ideas (possibly too many), a lot of (sometimes very cool!) images in his head – like the locomotive train rusting in the forest – that are introduced as if they will have great importance, but then never do. Why is the main character introduced as ‘The Maker’, a title which is dropped early on and never repeated or explained? We circle back to some events, sometimes via flashbacks, but overall the tapestry was just a little too loose for me – perhaps I’m expecting too much plot, when this is more of a ‘literary’ novel? Certainly the flowery language – more than a few rather overblown descriptions, alas – suggests that was the aim. Hmm, says I.

Either way, I do object to the biggest, climatic event seemingly happening at the three-quarters mark. This leaves quite a large chunk of novel tasked with not-really-tying-up some of the lesser ‘mysteries’. The ending is… well, I’ll go with partly satisfying, more than I was expecting given the oddness of the tone.

Overall: if it had lost half of the twirly descriptions and poetic meanderings, I probably would have enjoyed this more as a quirky little tale rather than a slightly over-long, possibly overly-ambitious, and ultimately a tad disappointing novel.

NetGalley eARC: ~464 pages / 42 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 21st-28th March 2016

My rating: 5/10

The Quarry – Iain Banks

“Most people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.”

I held off on reading this book, for several reasons. For one, I’m meting out the last few unread Banks’ books on my shelves, saddened by the knowledge that there will be no more. And, even less happily, because I’d heard less than good things about this one, his last. Unfortunately, those things are largely true, and I was pretty disappointed with this, Banks’ last, book.

It feels incredibly mean to criticise a book like this, which was allegedly rushed out to make it into print before the author died. I’m also amazed to read that it was supposedly written before Banks received his cancer diagnosis, in which case it would be eerily precogniscent: in it, a character is facing his final days/weeks/months, slowly wasting away from the disease and losing every dignity along the way. His last times are spent ranting about the woes of the world, and it’s hard not to see those character-rants as author-rants, too, and in horribly all-too-similar circumstances.

The book describes a gathering of old university housemates around their dying friend. A less likeable bunch is hard to imagine: idealists turned yuppies (I found it hard to read these characters as 1990s students in 2013, as they were meant to be, and not from a decade or so earlier), grand visions turned to mundane existences. Two ‘McGuffins’ spice the plot: first, the hunt for a home-made video whose contents threatens the cosy little lives of all involved. Secondly, the narrator – Kit, son of the dying Guy and ‘on the spectrum’ – hopes to discover the identity of his mother. Is it one of the gathered group? And what awful secrets are on the missing tape?

The set up has promise, but sadly I felt it lived up to none of it. No spoilers to say both of the above issues are wrapped up, but with disappointing lack of ‘Ah-ha!’ feelings. Instead, we have a long weekend of this merry band drinking, doing drugs, and whining about the world, all the while revealing increasingly unlikeable aspects to their personalities.

Other than the main character, Kit, who just didn’t gel as ‘real’ or consistent in his voice, as a character study the book is actually very good, if not in an overly enjoyable way. As a story – well, not so much. Perhaps with time for another draft… but then, that in itself is a chilling take-away from the book, both in story and in reality. Urm.

On the plus side, I didn’t leave it ’til last in my reading of Banks’ books, so this doesn’t have to be my enduring memory of a body of work that has sometimes puzzled but more often amazed and entertained me.

Hardback: 326 pages / 8 chapters
First published: 2013
Series: none
Read from 6th – 13th March 2016

My rating: 4/10 – not a cheery read, in any regard

A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson

“He walked as far as the hedge that signalled the end of the airfield.”

Kate Atkinson has stated that she thinks of this as a ‘companion piece’ to Life After Life, and perhaps one of the untold episodes from Ursula’s many lives. This time, the story follows Teddy, Ursula’s beloved, youngest brother. And in contrast to the earlier work, Teddy only has one life (in this book, at least), but the narrative skips back and forth in his timeline, often within the same paragraph!

If you’ve read the earlier work, you might remember that Teddy joins the RAF during the (Second World) war, and meets different fates (good and bad) in Ursula’s various attempts at life. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that he survives here, as much of the book is set in his old age. In fact, (one of) the theme(s) of the book is about the treatment of the elderly, and is particularly poignant when we’ve previously followed Teddy through childhood and as a vigorous young man.

Much as I admire the book, and was rushing home to sit and read more of it, I have to admit that I found it kind of depressing. Life After Life was, for me, a huge tale of hope; conversely, A God in Ruins seemed to me to be about the futility of life. Not the cheeriest of reads, but still a very good and thought-provoking one.

Hardback: 394 pages / 16 chapters
Series: The Todd Family book 2 (sequel to Life After Life)
First published: 2015
Read from 12th-25th November 2015

My rating: 7/10