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

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Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword cover

“‘Considering the circumstances, you could use another lieutenant.'”

Usual vague spoilerish warning: this is the second in a series, so even mentioning a character from this book might serve as a small spoiler for events in the previous installment. But hey – Ancillary Justice is marvellous, so stop reading this and go read that first! 🙂

Following on from events at the end of Ancillary Justice, Breq finds herself in a very odd position. Whose orders is she ‘supposed’ to obey? Who is pulling the strings – of herself, or anyone else around her? Which side is ‘right’ – if any, of course?

Being given command of a ship, Mercy of Kalr, is a blessing and a curse. It’s a little closer to her old self, but always with that ‘not quite the same’ dagger to the heart. No one quite knows what to make of her, either, as she arrives in Athoek Station still trying to win over her own crew, with a very personal mission in the face of galactic mayhem, and ready to take on any perceived injustice in the isolated system. War may be raging further afield, but here things are cut off and proceeding as normal. But can Breq leave ‘normal’ alone, when it seems so very corrupt?

Following the brilliance of the opening volume of this trilogy, introducing a universe with a default female pronoun to challenge our little brains, and a character trapped in a single human body after millennia as a ship’s AI, Ancillary Sword is perhaps unsurprisingly a little less loved. The main complaint is that the scope of the story is quite a lot smaller. It’s a much more personal tale, in a rather constrained space given the scope of the whole.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I was still hugely impressed reading the book, still loved the writing and the world building. But on reflection, it is harder to give it quite as high as mark, as the events are just a little less impressive and a little more… preachy?

For, Breq is apparently on a mission, even if she doesn’t entirely mean to be. There is a touch of self-indulgence from the author, I think, in setting up a character with just enough power to stomp all over every injustice she sees, and of course her logical ex-computer brain sees everything so black and white. Indeed, all the situations are rather written as black and white, so…!

This is still one of the best books I have read this year, so it’s pretty churlish to pick too many holes. I think expectations after the first book were very hard to meet. However, while not quite hitting those highs, I did still very much enjoy reading this and am about to pick up the final book of the series. And waaaa at it being the final book, tbh!!

Paperback: 356 pages / 21 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Imperial Radch book 2 (of 3)
Read from 20th-26th November 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

“They said the only folk who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good.”

Amani is desperate to escape. From the one-pony dustbowl of a town she lives in, from the cruel upbringing by her aunt, and from the local treatment of women as possessions. She’s got a head full of stories. She’s taught herself to shoot better than any boy. All she needs is a way out.

But when her plans go awry it leaves room for her world to be turned upside down by a foreign troublemaker – and it seems that the wider world may turn out to be nothing like the stories – and all the more wondrous for it.

There was a huge amount to recommend this book to me: the exotic middle-eastern-ish setting, where Djinn are real and mythical creatures abound, and a strong female lead. Plus, I’ve grown to like ‘YA’ as a type of story-telling, usually quicker reads shorn of waffle superfluous to the story, and often high on imagination and drama. Unfortunately, also often high on the teenage romance, which is where this book slightly fell down for me – not that there was a dose of that, but because by the midpoint, it was overshadowing the magic, imo. Amani’s journey becomes far less about strength, and more about puppy-dog eyes – and that rather irritated me. Also, although not entirely the fault of this book, I’m getting rather fed up of world building that retains women being treated rubbishly and it’s the job of the heroine to overcome hideous sexism.

However, while the second half of the book took a turn that didn’t entirely suit me, the first half was easily inhaled in a few sittings. This is very much an opening chapter, and my hopes are high for the subsequent books to fill in more of the wonders of the world that includes shapeshifters, sand horses, and all manner of creatures we might in another realm class ‘mutants’ 😉

Paperback: 358 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Rebel of the Sands trilogy, book 1
Read from 21st-26th January 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

“Freya and her father go sailing.”

After generations have lived and died aboard the ship, Freya’s generation will be the ones to finally make it to Aurora: the planet chosen to be mankind’s first outpost beyond the solar system. That is, if they can keep the ship running for the last few years of the journey – both mechanically, and biologically, as ‘island devolution’ starts to affect everything on board, from bacteria and plants to mammals and the human pioneers.

Despite ‘book of the year’-type reviews, or perhaps because of too-high expectations generated by them, I really wasn’t that fussed over Aurora. I found the pacing rather odd, going from a very human-level exploration of life in such a closed system, to the challenges faced by finally reaching the destination they’ve been so long chasing. And then… well, I can’t really say any more, except I really wasn’t as intrigued as I would have expected.

Other reviewers talk about falling in love with the narrator, but again I just wasn’t that enthralled – in fact, I found it a bit irritating when we went off on some philosophical musing. Nor did I empathise overly much with the characters, who might do some interesting things, but ultimately I wasn’t fully convince by any of the development (or lack thereof).

Overall, I just found this to be a bit sprawling, trying to zoom in on some elements before zooming off again to try and encapsulate some ‘big picture’ that didn’t strike any real chords with me. Meh.

Paperback: 466 pages / 7 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: none
Read from 27th November – 19th December 2016

My rating: 6/10

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 First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

“The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996.”

Harry August is born in a railway station bathroom in the middle of winter. After a long and largely uneventful life (don’t worry, not detailed in the story!), he dies. Harry August is born in a railway station bathroom in the middle of winter… no, not a typo. Harry lives and dies and starts over again and again. The obvious comparison would be to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but with the difference that Harry remembers everything from all of his previous incarnations.

This changes the scenario entirely, of course! Although it takes a few years for Harry’s infant brain to catch up with all of his memories, and a few years more to be old enough to be able to do much about any of it (this reliving of childhood being the main discouragement to ‘resetting’ yourself on purpose), the ability to carry forward knowledge and skills is a rather amazing one. Certainly, it appeals massively to me – imagine, all those lives to be able to try out any and every occupation, hobby, or pursuit that could ever take your fancy.

And this is exactly what Harry does, learning engineering, medical and a host of other skills that he carries over to his next ‘reincarnation’, although that’s not quite what it is. Of course, for a few lives it’s far from that simple, as he tries to figure out what’s going on. Eventually, though, he discovers that he is not the only one, and indeed a chain of ‘ouroborans’ (after the snake eating its own tale, representing infinity) stretches both back and forward through time, passing messages via stone carvings, hidden caches, or its own members at the point of rebirth.

And then one day, one of these messages sends a chilling warning: the world is coming to an end.

I really enjoyed Harry’s adventures, particularly the scope of imagination around the possibilities of a groundhog day life. It’s tough not to compare the book to the aforementioned Life After Life, but I’d say the story line here is a little more concrete – you’re not left wondering ‘what was all that about’ quite so much – but the rich historical detail isn’t present, despite the similar time periods used. In that respect it was far less immersive, and probably won’t stay with me as long except perhaps as a rather ingenious concept. On the other hand, I liked that – despite the looming end-of-all-existence threat! – it was a lot less bleak of a read.

Hardback: 405 pages / 82 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 8th-22nd October 2016

My rating: 8/10

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge

“The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth.”

Occasionally a book comes with just so much praise that it can only be a disappointment – right?  And so I started the much-hyped The Lie Tree with a little trepidation.

Faith is in that awkward phase – no longer quite a child, not quite a woman. She also rather awkwardly has a brain, not something that’s looked kindly upon in the times that she lives in, and far more of a taste for adventure (i.e. any) than her class breeding allows for. She’s caught between a mother who seems self-centred in the extreme, and a father who’s cool and distant – and apparently in some kind of trouble, as we start the book with the whole family being moved away from society to escape some unnamed disgrace.

But since “All knowledge – any knowledge – called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen”, it’s not too long before she figures out what’s going on, and that at the root of it all is a tree. A fantastical, impossible tree, which shuns daylight and feeds on lies whispered to it. Feed the tree, and the fruit it bears will show you a truth – the bigger the lie, the bigger the revelation. How far would you go to uncover the ultimate truth?

I’m not going to suggest that this book is perfect, by any means, but boy does it give it a good go at getting there! If anything let it down just a little, it was perhaps that the overall story couldn’t quite live up to my expectations – not from others raving about the book, but from the amazing tension and darkness and mystery that builds up over the course of the telling.

It’s a deliciously dark book, full of the frustration of being a young girl/woman in a century that is more constricting than the corsets Faith is ‘training’ to wear. The way that she’s dismissed as less – well, everything – than her young brother left me wanting to claw someone’s eyes out! It’s so fitting, then, that it is Faith who gets to make the discoveries, to seek out the truth – even if she has to do it behind everyone’s back and by telling the blackest of lies.

While the story is only 90% there for me in the end, despite or possibly because of some of the later twists and turns, the world building is spot on. I was utterly sucked in to the atmosphere the author creates. This is not a book you can read in small doses – it’s the kind that demands a curling up on the sofa with plenty of refreshments, while you devour as much as you can in long sittings!

Recommended. Duh! 😉

Paperback: 410 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: none
Read from 26th-29th August 2016

My rating: 9/10