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The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay (2018) 201 p.

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This is one of those thrillers where the blurb sets the scene pretty well. It’s a basic premise, opening from the point of view of seven-year-old Wen, a Chinese adoptee daughter of a gay couple who are vacationing in a remote cabin in New Hampshire. She’s catching grasshoppers out the front when a stranger approaches her – a big friendly man, all smiles, whose mere presence is threatening to an adult reader despite no overt signs of trying to lure her away. Soon his “friends” show up, bearing makeshift weapons, and Wen runs for the cabin, and even though all four of them are apologetic and polite, their message is horrifying: in the home invasion stand-off that ensues, the interlopers tell Wen’s family that one of them must be sacrificed to avert the apocalypse.

That’s the elevator pitch. You’d assume that given the scenario, a lot of the novel’s impact would hinge on the are they/aren’t they question of whether the four horsemen of the apocalypse are telling the truth, or whether it’s all a mindfuck. Except we get point-of-view chapters from them fairly early on, and so we know that as far as they know, they are telling the truth. Which makes it tedious, but not as tedious as the page-in-page-out waffling, padding and bloat that results from Tremblay stretching out a concept for a short story – or maybe, with a talented cast and crew, a film – into a 200-page novel. The vast bulk of The Cabin At The End Of The World consists of astonishingly repetitive internal monologues, thought patterns, and back-and-forth arguments between the thinly drawn characters on both sides of the conflict. I started skim-reading it not long after Tremblay thought it was a good idea – in the middle of the intruders’ initial siege of the cabin – to digress from the action at hand and instead give us several pages of expository background about one of the main characters and his upbringing, including (I shit you not) the kinds of authors his parents enjoyed reading. That fact alone should tell you everything you need to know about this book and about Tremblay’s baffling inability to create or maintain narrative tension.

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The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary (1942) 221 p.

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One of the things that’s struck me – looking back at history as an adult with fresh eyes, rather than with the received background wisdoms we get through early schooling or pop culture – is an appreciation of looking at past events through the eyes of people alive at the time, and how those events then compared to their own past. World War I, for example, seems to us like an inevitability, and a rather old-fashioned sort of war compared to the blitzkrieg of World War II; but for those living through it, it was the point at which the future started looking bleak instead of hopeful, the unhappy dark conclusion to the industrial revolution, the optimism of the Gilded Age and the green agrarian fields of Europe turned into the muddy, rusty, mechanical hell of a machine war. It must have felt like the end of the world.

Similarly, the Battle of Britain is such a proudly-remembered, immortalised landmark of history that we ironically don’t appreciate it as much as we should. It was the first great air battle in human history. For thousands and thousands of years human beings had killed each other across Europe, and for nearly a thousand years Britain’s geographic fortune meant it was largely protected from foreign invasion by sea. When the British Expeditionary Force packed off to France in 1939, they expected this war would turn out largely like the last one: a stalemate in the muddy trenches of the Low Countries. They certainly never expected that Britain’s sovereignty might be threatened, or that the skies above London – the ultimate home front – would play host to a battle between flying machines that simply hadn’t existed two generations ago. (One of the most striking images of the Battle of Britain, to me, is the contrails in the sky above St Paul’s Cathedral.) The flyleaf of my copy of The Last Enemy has the oldest inscription I think I’ve ever seen in a book I own: “To Les, March 1943.” The worst of the danger had passed by 1943 but it’s still strange to think Les received this book as a gift from somebody while the war was still ongoing, when the outcome was still in play. It certainly makes history feel less far away.

Richard Hillary was an Oxford student in the 1930s who signed up to the RAF when the war broke out. The Last Enemy is an interesting first-hand description of what it was like to be one of the men so rightly idolised these days, the fighter pilots who defended Britain against the Luftwaffe and a potential invasion. Hillary was by calling a writer, though it’s fair to say that this is one of those books (like Alive by Paul Piers Read) which is compelling not because it’s told with any particular flair but simply because the events it describes are so compelling.

It’s also very much a book of two halves. Hillary was shot down over the North Sea during the Battle of Britain and was badly burned on the face and hands, and the second half of The Last Enemy details his hospital treatment and recovery. In many ways this is the more interesting story: going straight from being a glamorous hot-shot fighter pilot to a pitiable and broken thing, blinded, awash on a tide of pain and morphine in a hospital bed, rendered a helpless bystander in a war he desperately wanted to go back to fighting. It also, at great length, details the kinds of things which put the lie to any notion of glamour. It’s one thing to die for your country. It’s quite another thing to get your eyelids burned off, have crude replacements cut from the skin of your forearm to replace them, spend months immersed in 1940s healthcare, undergo saline baths, listen to the screaming of the other patients, incubate a terrible infection in your burns, and eventually leave hospital disfigured for life to face a society that doesn’t quite want to look you in the eye anymore. Hillary would certainly never say it, and maybe it’s just my own medical squeamishness, but the feeling I got was that this kind of ordeal was a far worse experience than anything active combat could put you through.

One remark of [my mother’s] I shall never forget. She said: “You should be glad this has to happen to you. Too many people told you how attractive you were and you believed them. You were well on your way to becoming something of a cad. Now you’ll find out who your real friends are.” I did.

Hillary himself is quite an introspective fellow, though strangely for a memoir I couldn’t say I really got to know him. It very much feels like he’s building his own image up. More telling, I think, than any aspect of his personality he shows to the reader is the truth of his fate, which obviously isn’t included in the book. He eventually managed to pass the medical board and go back to flying – not in combat, but still flying for the RAF – even though, by the account of his fellow officers, he could barely hold his knife and fork in the mess hall, got splitting headaches and had trouble reading the altimeter. Clearly there was some burning drive within him to risk his own life (and that of others), to ignore his own medical condition, to go back if not to battle than at least to the skies. He inevitably crashed and died on a night training flight in Scotland in 1943. He was twenty-four years old, which, to me these days, seems terribly young.

An interesting memoir written by a hero. A hero who joined the RAF for self-admittedly selfish reasons and was probably a bit of a narcissist, but a hero nonetheless.

Just before dawn the rain began: fine misty rain blowing cold and clean in soft mountain air. Buford’s pickets saw the dawn come high in the sky, a gray blush, a bleak rose. A boy from Illinois climbed a tree. There was mist across Marsh Creek, ever whiter in the growing light. The boy from Illinois stared and felt his heart beating and saw movement. A blur in the mist, an unfurled flag. Then the dark figures, row on row: skirmishers. Long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist. He had a long paralyzed moment, which he would remember until the end of his life. Then he raised the rifle and laid it across the limb of the tree and aimed generally toward the breast of a tall figure in the front of the line, waited, let the cold rain fall, misting his vision, cleared his eyes, waited, prayed, and pressed the trigger.

– From “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994) 432 p.
Discworld #16 (Death #2)

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I remembered very little of Soul Music from the first time I read it, and now – about a month after I reread it – I remember very little of it again. It’s not a memorable book. It is, easily, the weakest book in the Discworld’s teen years and probably one of the weakest overall.

Soul Music is a story of two halves, and they’re both variations on themes we’ve seen before. One of them is something from our real world taking spark as a brief fad on the Discworld – we saw this with film in Moving Pictures, and we see it now with rock music in Soul Music. As before, this is mostly an excuse for Pratchett to jam as many jokes and references in about the subject in question as possible. The second plot is the third story in the Death arc, and is about – you guessed it – Death going AWOL and experiencing the real world, resulting in somebody having to step up to take on his duty; in this case his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabel from Mort.

The gem at the heart of this story is Death’s grief over his adopted daughter’s death, which occurs at the beginning of the novel as she and Mort go over a cliff in a runaway carriage. It’s never outright stated, it’s never even suggested by any of the other characters, but grief is clearly what Death is experiencing – a new and frightening concept for him, and one which jars against his duty to guide souls into the new world. He does this without question, only briefly entertaining the possibility that, yes, he could have done something to stop her death from happening, but Death nonetheless abandons his duty henceforth and spends the rest of the book trying to forget all about his daughter to end the pain of having lost her.

It’s easy to miss that this is his motivation – I don’t think I picked up on it when I read it as a teenager – not just because it’s the third time we’re going through the motions of Death Takes A Holiday, but also because it’s drowned out by what’s going on in the foreground of the novel, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We have a story about a magical pawn shop sidling into Ankh-Morpork from another dimension, an aspiring young musician finding himself in the possession of a magical guitar which begins to possess his soul, and a new kind of music launching itself onto the Discworld. Cue predictable jokes like the avaricious CMOT Dibbler becoming the first rock band’s manager.

All of the interesting stuff in Soul Music – Susan’s repressed childhood memories about visits to Death’s Domain, Albert’s carefully hoarded precious seconds of time in the hourglass hidden beneath his bed, a flashback to the showdown at the finale of Mort – is divorced from the main storyline, much as the touching fairytale at the heart of Reaper Man bears no resemblance to the oddball story about predatory shopping trolleys that felt like it made up more than half the bulk of that book. The dissonance isn’t quite as jarring, but at the same time the Death storyline doesn’t feel quite as good as that in Reaper Man. I’m not surprised I’d forgotten most of Soul Music’s plot – forgettable is the right word for it.

Next up is a return to Rincewind’s story arc in Interesting Times.

Rereading Discworld index

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008) 473 p.

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I was lukewarm about Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space but recently found myself going down a Wikipedia wormhole of his fictional universe while I was bored at work, remembered that in terms of sheer creativity and ideas I actually quite liked him, and figured he was worth another crack. The Revelation Space sequels are exactly the kind of books I was happier to read the Wikipedia synopses of rather than slog through hundreds of pages of more padding and thinly drawn characters, so I thought I’d jump ten years further into his career and read House of Suns.

I’m glad I did, because it’s really quite good. Revelation Space took place in a universe a few thousand years into human colonisation of the galaxy: a cold, bleak and frightening place full of extinct alien civilisations, decaying cities and autocratic governments, where humanity is clinging to life rather than prospering. House of Suns takes a rather different tack: humans are still the only intelligent life to arise in the galaxy, but after six million years we’ve splintered, evolved and gene-tweaked our way into a million daughter species who have flourished in every corner of the galaxy – a steady tide of thousands of different stellar empires rising and falling. The novel is built around the concept of “shatterlings,” the thousands clones of wealthy industrialists who – back in the solar system, six million years ago – sent them forth to explore the galaxy. Thanks to the time-dilating effects of near-light travel, cryogenic freezing and generally advanced medicine, these clones operate on an entirely different timescale than other human civilisations; at one point a different kind of near-immortal describes the protagonist as “a bookworm who has tunnelled through the pages of history.” The shatterlings have powerful starships, conduct engineering feats on grand scales, trade with other civilisations for their immense amount of accumulated knowledge, and are generally perceived by lesser human civilisations as something like angels or gods.

Plotwise, House of Suns revolves around the shatterlings Campion and Purslane of the Gentian Line, i.e they are both clones of a woman named Gentian. They’re engaged in a taboo love affair and are on their way to one of the regular reunions held by the Gentian Line  every few hundred thousand years. Upon their late arrival at the designated system they discover their Line has been ambushed and nearly wiped out. Most of the book is a mystery, as Campion, Purslane and the other surviving Gentians try to figure out who tried to annihilate their Line, and why.

House of Suns grabbed me right from the beginning. Over ten years of his writing career Reynolds has really improved: there’s far less bloat, the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and information is never brazenly withheld from the reader (a repeated sin in Revelation Space). The characters are still a bit flat, but I found it nice to read about people who are friendly and helpful to each other, rather than the cast of Revelation Space, who were bafflingly hostile and suspicious of each other even when they were natural allies. The plot gets a bit complex towards the end, but most of the loose ends are tied up and the conclusion is really quite nice. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1974) 270p.

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It took me about fifty pages to realise why I was finding it difficult to get into Ragtime: there’s no dialogue. Which is not to say the characters don’t communicate with one another, bur rather that the entire book is summary, not scene. When there is dialogue it’s of the free-flowing, single-paragraph, no-quotation-marks sort of style, which absolutely drives me up the wall. It makes me feel as though the entire book takes place in a dream – underscored by the fact that none of the central characters have names, referred to simply as “Mother” or “Younger Brother.”

Which is a shame, because Doctorow writes quite beautifully in other ways, painting an evocative picture of New York in the very early years of the 20th century: the Lower East Side slums, the communist meetings, the power of the great industrialists. Probably not since Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have I read a book which so joyfully celebrates the zeitgeist of another era without ignoring its moral failures, its racism, its poverty.

It’s not bad. It’s fine. I just wish Doctorow had written Ragtime as more of an actual, you know, narrative. One with characters and talking and other shamefully passe concepts.

The North Water by Ian McGuire (2016) 326 p.

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A novel set on a whaling ship in the 19th century, especially one longlisted for the Booker Prize, will inevitably draw comparisons to Moby-Dick. You can forget about that; The North Water is completely different. Sure, it still focuses on the dark heart of man and ineffable temptation and all that, but this is more Jack London than Herman Melville. I was actually quite surprised, given all the broadsheet praise it got, how plot-driven and gripping it was – not that that’s a problem.

Patrick Sumner, a disgraced Army surgeon, signs aboard the Volunteer out of Hull, as does Henry Drax, a brutish and violent harpooner. There are various threads at play: a corrupt owner and skipper plotting insurance fraud, and Sumner’s valuable gold ring coveted by his unscrupulous shipmates. But the main story here is about Sumner and Drax, a principled man versus a monster, and the crimes and rivalry that play out between them.

This is one of the most compelling page-turners I’ve read in quite a while, which is a pleasant surprise when you’re going in expecting a Moby-Dick knock-off. It can sometimes be a little too neat; the conclusion in particular feels a bit perfectly Hollywood, with the story coming geographically full circle and the guilty being punished for their crimes, although this is tempered somewhat by a melancholy epilogue. I can see why it didn’t make the Booker shortlist; it’s a cut above most historical thrillers, but still lacks that certain something to make it truly great. But for its sense of adventure, its intricate gears of plot, of cause and effect, of going in entirely unexpected directions – I liked it a hell of a lot.

Sleepwalk and Other Stories by Adrian Tomine (1998) 102 p.

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Fuck me dead, Adrian Tomine was a depressed young man. Sleepwalk is his first published collection, put out when he was just 24 and collecting material from his early black and white comics. It clocks in at just over 100 pages but it took me a couple weeks to get through it because virtually every story is has the bleakness and melancholy dialled up to 11. Break-ups, deaths, divorces and violent assaults punctuate a world in which the overriding theme is one of a complete failure to connect with other human beings; a pervasive sense of loneliness and depression in which all relationships are fleeting and the gulfs between individuals are ultimately unbridgeable.

Stand-outs (I can’t bring myself to call them “highlights”) include “Layover,” about a man who misses a flight and spends the day until the next one mooching about his hometown, feeling awkward about going back to his housemate or his girlfriend, wondering if anybody’s really going to miss him; “Supermarket,” about the forced interaction between a blind customer and a grocery clerk who shops for him; and “Drop,” a one-page comic about a man falling from a high road in Japan. (Interestingly, this was one where I thought I picked up a hidden layer of meaning; the narrator is describing the death of his father, who “accidentally” fell from the road; but since the father was alone at the time, how could the son know what happened? Is it perhaps an explanation he’s made up for himself to avoid the idea that his father committed suicide?)

It feels a bit unfair to criticise the stories here for being bleak, since Killing and Dying isn’t a barrel of fun either; but Killing and Dying manages a lighter touch, a sense of humour, a sense of hope, while Sleepwalk is full of the angst we all remember and love from our teens and early twenties. The constant use of a narratorial voiceover bothered me as well; Tomine hadn’t yet learned to let his art speak for itself. It’s a good collection, but clearly the work of a younger man.

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.

– From “Grief is the Thing With Feathers,” by Max Porter

Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey (2004) 121 p.

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In 2002 Peter Carey felt like taking his manga-obsessed son on a paid trip to Japan, so he pulled some strings in the publishing world and wrangled himself an advance to go interview some famous Japanese anime creators and then scratch out a book about it. (That’s not me being harsh; he openly admits his motive.) The result is Wrong About Japan, a fairly slim volume which has about enough material for maybe a feature article in the Sunday papers, but not really a book

The interviews within – ostensibly the purpose of the whole thing – tend to run along the lines of misunderstanding, of Carey’s assumptions about the artists’ intentions being sometimes flat-out wrong. I particularly liked his time with Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of Mobile Suit Gundam, in which Carey repeatedly asserts that there must be something intrinsically Japanese about the notion of children at war, particularly for a manga/anime franchise which was developed by people who were children during World War II. Tomino seems bemused by Carey’s questions and says that he specifically avoided giving Gundam any specific cultural elements at all, in order to make it more globally popular and sell more toys. Then Carey is informed by his translator:

“Mr. Tomino thinks,” said Paul, “that there is maybe something in your own character which is interested in national identity.”

Which I thought was hilariously perceptive; there’s no indication Tomino had any idea who Carey was before their meeting, but there’s no doubt that the author of books like Illywhacker and Jack Maggs is indeed obsessed with the concept of national identity. (On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if Carey simply made that line up.)

But despite a few good moments like this, Wrong About Japan doesn’t really have the legs to be worth a full book, and I certainly preferred his other travel memoir, 30 Days in Sydney. Worth reading for Carey fans if you find it in a library or a thrift shop, but I wouldn’t bother seeking it out.

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