As various bits of the world crumble beneath the weight of the Tangerine Behemoth, I read. It’s partly escapism, sure, but it’s also processing. Reading helps me think around corners. Now is a reading time.
I usually wait until the last day of the year to publish my reading list for the past twelve months, but in doing so I’m probably doing a bit of a disservice to some fantastic books, and also to you who may be seeking them. Who scrolls through thirty badly crafted reviews in a single sitting in New Year’s Eve, after all?
Well, I would. But I’m muchos freaky, and have way too much time on my hands.
This year I’ll try updating you monthly, and hope you find something you want to pick up as we go along. Little bits of escape. Tiny chunks of processing.
Here then is what I read in January.
The Last of the Winnebagos, Connie Willis – A beautifully understated tale of mystery, consequence, memory, guilt, and state surveillance that’s absolutely nothing like what you think a story nominally about the last dogs on Earth is going to be. The pacing is slow but melodic, scattering in an array of directions before sucking everything back together by the close, and I found myself startlingly moved as the emotional landscape spread across the story’s canvas came into sharp focus at the close. A very finely crafted tale, full of delicate nuance, and a wonderful way to be introduced to this author (with thanks to Sara for that introduction!).
Home Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari – An often unsettling or outright startling macro-level look at what might be coming for our species. The first part of the book speeds through a lot of ground previously covered in Harari’s previous volume Sapiens, taking a second look over the history of humanity and how we got to where we are. For some this repetition might be cause to grumble, but the author shifts his perspective on many of those ideas sufficiently to allow you to consider them from new angles, and by the time he’s done you’re ready to better understand where we are now. From there things get unsettling as Harari quickly and with very charming efficiency begins to debunk individual identity, free will, and consciousness, reducing us to collections of decentralised biochemical algorithms telling stories to ourselves that seem to have little purpose or meaning. From there it’s into the future – one in which humanity is increasingly unnecessary in the greater scheme of things, save as a collective of secondary data processing points.
While it may sound like the framework of any number of science fiction dystopias, the thinking behind it is extraordinary – and ultimately that is what this is, a vast thought experiment in which Harari presents a selection of possible futures that we may be walking blindly into. He is at pains to also point out that the future will in all probability be none of these things, for it is almost impossible to understand a post-human universe unless you are already post-human. The ancestors of Homo Sapiens would have had no frame of reference to conceptualise what Homo Sapiens has become, and we have as little ability to picture what we will be in a couple of centuries time.
Where the book has real value is as a wake-up call. While the future direction may be informed speculation, the identification of the current trends that will take us there are eye-opening and evident all around. That we are embracing those trends as a species, on the individual and societal level, without any true understanding of their significance or potential outcomes is something that we can do something about. You can bet that governments and corporations are aware of these trends, and anybody who really wants to ‘take back control’ of this runaway world should make themselves aware too.
In A Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware – Less an explosive thriller, and more a pacier update of Agatha Christie’s classic, character-driven murder mysteries – a genre I haven’t dipped into for a very long time. The actual reveal is less important than the slow build, which is at times disconcerting and at times utterly charming. Ware’s characters – gathered in a remote cottage for a hen night – are a discordant bunch, brilliantly depicted, and for much of the time I found myself sitting back and just enjoyed the hen party in its own right.
When things take a more malevolent turn you realise how effectively the author has put things in motion. The denouement and reveal made perfect sense, and were perhaps a little obvious, but there are enough red herrings along the way to make you keep doubting whether you have it right. I listened to the audio version of the novel, and should commend narrator Imogen Church for bringing the characters so distinctly and separately to life. They each have their own natural tone and energy in her reading that make them entirely unique from one another, at times making it feel more like a full cast at work than a single narrator. In all, a really enjoyable book – and in this instance the audio adds whole layers to the experience.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne – As with all scripts, what we have here can only be an indicator of the experience the authors are hoping will be created in a full stage production. It’s one cog, and examining it in isolation exposes you to only a fraction of the intricate mechanism that is the finished product – without the director, set design, musical cues, lights, actors, and in this case what I assume are very complex practical illusions, it’s extremely hard to appreciate the whole from this one bit. I’m used to reading scripts and imagining the possibilities. If you’re not, and are not prepared to do some considerable imaginative legwork creating your own versions of all those things so that some approximation of the thing can spin out in your mind, then you’ll find this a very flat and soulless read.
I’m used to reading scripts for the stage (though it’s been a while), and this is an odd one. The structure – lots of tight short scenes with fast transitions, is more cinematic than theatrical, and there’s not a lot of nuance to the dialogue. A strong cast could no doubt add layers of depth and pathos that don’t necessarily spring off the page, but it’s a fast and manipulative movie sort of depth rather than something more suited to the intimacy of the stage. You would need a lot of money to stage this effectively, which of course the full production has.
All I’m left to really look at is the story itself. It’s not really the eighth book, but nor is it a post-script. It sits somewhere in between. Where the long shaggy dog story of The Boy Who Lived was an earthquake, this is something slightly seperate happening during a minor aftershock. While Harry and other familiar faces – including, thanks to the play’s time-travelling intersection with events from the earlier stories, some unexpected ones – are in play, the principals are their offspring, particularly Harry’s own son and that of his sort-of-nemesis Draco Malfoy. Both are struggling beneath the weight of legacy and expectation created by the myths and legends around their own parents, and the simple coda of the plays lies in how they try to come to terms with this. It’s a smaller and more intimate theme than the pyrotechnics of the production seem to demand, and it would be interesting to see whether all the dashing about and spell-casting drowns this best and truest bit of the tale in the theatre.
I picked these scripts up because I wanted to know what J.K. Rowling thought might happen next (and I am unlikely to go and see the show in London for the proper experience), and now I do. It didn’t disappoint, and made a virtue of some of the failings in her characters (Harry as an inadequate father, struggling with that knowledge after his own horrible childhood, etc), but nor did it have any real impact. I do respect the multi-medium approach Rowling has chosen to use in expanding her Wizarding World though – long may she continue to make interesting choices.
The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman – A brightly coloured, semi-steampunk, trans-dimensional yarn about magical spy librarians curating the oddest and rarest fiction from the far corners of the universe. Because BOOKS. This is tremendous fun. There’s little depth, only the scarcest explanation or backstory, no pretension, and a great deal of exuberance. If you’re in the right mood for it, this breezy fantasy will whistle you along breathlessly. It’s the first part of a series, but it ends well if you choose to stop here. I bounced straight into the second book.
All The Birds In The Sky, Charlie Jane Anders – A beautifully spun yarn of misfits, near-future catastrophe, superscience, magic, and friendship, All The Birds In The Sky ignores genre boundaries to create something almost unique and entirely warming. It begins as a sort-of familiar YA story exploring the developing childhood friendship of a young girl who discovers magic and a young boy who invents a supercomputer in his bedroom closet. It’s a semi-familiar tale given spiky edges, and it’s here that the story dwells most purely in the realm of Magical Realism (for even the science at this stage is informed by fantasy and wish-fulfilment).
When the novel shifts to catch up with the two misfits in later life, Lawrence is part of a secret pool of scientists seeking ways to escape a dying world and Patricia has become a member of a magical order which instead attempts to heal the damage done, or at least alleviate some of its consequences. By this point the science has sharpened up into something which (for the most part) is recognisably from a near future (this was particularly interesting, having read Homo Deus earlier in the month, which strays into similar areas here and there), and as the story weaves between and blends magic and science all ideas of genre fall away. Patricia and Lawrence – each immersed in their separate ideologies – meet again, clash, fall deeply in love, and accidentally rush the world towards annihilation.
It’s sweet, really.
No, I mean it. For all of the dystopian trappings the book ends up wearing, at its heart is a simple and lasting friendship which might bloom to romance if a few misunderstandings can be wrinkled out. The story is as much about ‘feels’ as ‘stuff’. What prevents it from ever being reductive is that Anders writes this very recognisable dysfunctional/functional relationship to focus not so much on the big things that every book about a relationship concentrates on, but about the idiosyncratic details and oddities which (when you read them) are instantly recognisable, but which rarely form the structure of a narrative in this way. The emotional roadmap is familiar, but the handcrafted detailing is so exquisite, unusual, and funny that it feels brand new. I’ve read reviews comparing Anders to various authors, and her genre fusions invite extensive comparisons depending on what aspects leap to the foreground for you, but for me she feels like a welcome intruder in Neil Gaiman’s natural territory, casting fresh eyes over an already compelling landscape.
Funny and deeply engaging – I’ll be surprised if, come the end of the year, I don’t look back at this as one of my favourite books.
The Masked City, Genevieve Cogman – A second deeply enjoyable caper in the Invisible Library series that jumps between a steampunk London and a masked, mysterious Venice. I’m at a loss for how to actually review these books. They’re tremendously energetic, fast-paced, and unchallenging. They’re primarily fantasy stories, pulling in bits of myth and legend from all over the place and repackaging them as an engaging potpourri that doesn’t worry too much about backstory and depth of character as long as everybody’s having fun. So far, I am.
Alice, Christina Henry – Not the dark retelling of Alice in Wonderland implied by the book’s description so much as a murderous and often unpleasant quest story that loosely repurposes some of Carroll’s iconography to little particular purpose save as a ‘hook’. Well fair enough, for this is a novel that sorely needs one. When Alice and her mad friend Hatcher (mad Hatcher, Mad Hatter, geddit?) escape from an asylum into a chaotically grim semi-Victorian undercity they are both suffering from near total amnesia regarding the circumstances that took them there in the first place. In effect, two confused characters with no idea of what they’re doing or why undergo a series of unpleasant trials that don’t yet have meaning, to pursue aspirations that are largely unclear. It’s a tough place to put a reader, and I found the first half of the book really hard going. The violence was sporadic, brutal, and seemingly meaningless, the characters hard to like, and the quest itself difficult to accept as important.
And then there’s all the rape. If you’re a female in Alice then you have been raped. Or you will be raped. Or the threat of rape will hang all around you as the ultimate implied threat. There will be no respite. Adult or child, rape is on the menu. Yet the author doesn’t allow the story to pause and really examine that, which made it troublesome for me. Rape is repeatedly rolled out as the ultimate bit of grimdark, but given no context or meaning. It’s used continually as a lazy shortcut to horror, which initially leaves a foul taste and ultimately desensitises.
This is a shame, because the writing’s good, the setting interesting and full of potential for creative horror, and when the Alice and Hatcher finally regain their memories it turns out there’s a relatively engaging backstory in play (it’s just a shame it’s treated as a final act reveal rather than a framework for the preceding wanderings). I liked the end of the book a lot more than what led to it, but the cheap use of sexual violence throughout makes it difficult for me to actually recommend this one.
Tagged alice, all the birds in the sky, book reviews, charlie jane anders, christina henry, connie willis, escape, genevieve cogman, harry potter and the cursed child, homo deus, imogen church, in a dark dark wood, jack thorne, jk rowling, john tiffany, processing, reading list, ruth ware, the invisible library, the last of the winnebagos, the masked city, yuval noah harari