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

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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

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Adding to the, “What year is this?!” (see what I did there? 😉 ) feel of 2015 (alongside Mad Max and Jurassic World), the Terminator franchise gets a new installment. It overlaps – at least to begin with – the original movie, and indeed reproduces several of that film’s opening scenes. Time travel makes all things possible – a blessing and a curse in stories. I’ve read that this one was inspired by the recent Star Trek reboot, where going back (even earlier) in time allows for a story reset. It works, too – at least, I think so. We start where we started, but nothing is quite the same…

That goes especially for the cast. I loved the way Jai Courtney, as Kyle Reese, replicates Michael Biehn’s arrival in 1984 near enough exactly – it’s very well done. Alas, he has too much of a buffed, action hero look, matched by the performance, rather than the original’s feral, hunted creature feel.

Sarah Connor is now played by Emilia Clarke, best known from Game of Thrones these days. She has an odd take on the role, somewhere between the hard-ass fighter from the second movie and the innocent from the first – indeed, some of the biggest flaws for me were inappropriate moments of the latter showing up at key scenes and getting a little over-emotional. Hey, Sarah – world ending, remember?!

Of course, Arnold Swartzenegger IS the Terminator, and it’s good to see him back (eep!). Indeed, we get three ‘ages’ here, from the CGI ‘original’ through to grey hair – the story works it all very well.

Said story starts out strong, then gets a little convoluted as it goes, but the pace is as relentless as the title character. That does lead to a few plot holes – like, why time travel to right before the key event, and not just a tad earlier? – but the aim was clearly action. And when that’s good, the movie is a lot of fun! A few elements seem a little underserved, but I get the feeling some of these things will also ‘be back’ in the two planned sequels. Personally I think it could have stopped here, and my favourite moments were more the nods to the past than what’s next. Still, it’s fun-filled adrenaline action, just don’t think too hard!

Released: 2nd July 2015
Running time: 126 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10 – I enjoyed it more than it deserved