The Quiet Apocalypse – ‘Things we didn’t see coming’ by Steven Amsterdam

Steven Amsterdam’s ‘Things we didn’t See Coming’ is a curious tome on a number of levels. For a start, we never find out the narrator’s name. Not a new device, but one which the author carries off well. The structure is unusual. Each chapter is a snapshot of the narrator’s life. The time frame in each moves forward an unspecified amount of time from the previous one, and each jump picks up the story with the narrator deep in the middle of a peculiar predicament. The novel opens on the eve of the millennium (1999), when he is nine years old. He’s packed into the family car, as his paranoid father tries to save him and his family from the millennium bug. Something we saw coming, that never came to pass.

As the novel continues forward we see a civilisation that is crumbling. Our narrator is doing what he can to avoid falling through its cracks. He is at the whim of unpredictable changes in global circumstances that have altered millions of lives; things we didn’t see coming. Amsterdam’s decline in civilisation is piecemeal. Small changes have large implications globally and for the individual.

Much of what has happened to the narrator between the chapters of his story is left to the reader to try to piece together. This gives the novel a fragmented feel; making it a series of vignettes of a world in decline, rather than a traditional dystopian narrative. This broken form of storytelling will not be to everybody’s tastes, but whilst I enjoyed some chapters more than others, I liked the extra wiggle room the device allows. It prompts the reader to think about what the chain of events might have been, and how they relate to our world. The majority of modern dystopian novels are published with the young adult market in mind, so tend to be narrative driven. It was refreshing to read one propelled by characterisation and the human response to adversity.

Despite the bleak events of the book, I found it to be a hopeful tale. Humanity is burdened but not crushed by a tyrannical government, by terrible changes in climate or ravaging disease. Not all the characters are noble, but the tenacity with which they cling to life in this book is uplifting. The world is not bleak and grey as in ‘The Road’; humanity is on the ropes but it is fighting hard, with a heartwarming tenacity. Amsterdam’s view of humanity appears to be brighter than Cormac McCarthy’s. At the centre of the piece is our narrator. A flawed but likeable character. A survivor. His moral code is malleable, but never corrupted.

This is a novel without sensation. It’s a plausible ‘What if?’ An analysis of humanity in the future and an appraisal of society today. ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’ is a slender volume but one that packs a strong emotional punch, particularly during the closing stories. Many dystopian novels will be released to a greater fanfare than this novel; very few of them deserve greater attention.

The Day I Killed Ray Bradbury – ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

I was in my local Waterstones (again) when an amazing cover caught my eye. The neon green on black cover of this reissue certainly has appeal. I picked it up and read the first line.

‘The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.’

Wham! What a way to start a novel. One line and I was hooked; desperate for more. I think it might be the finest opening line of all time. Being a sensible thrifty chap, I resisted the temptation to purchase there and then. Instead I added it to ‘the list’, promising myself I would return soon. When I arrived home, the news was just in. Ray Bradbury had died.

My mind reeled, was this just coincidence or had I inadvertently caused the death of one of science fiction’s greatest authors? OK, he was ninety-one, but did I have that sort of power? Well obviously not, but even now a small part of me wonders whether I should have checked out Jedward’s biography whilst I was there.

In honour of the great man’s passing I bought the book.

It takes as its subject that stalwart of gothic fiction, the carnival troupe. Like clowns, carnivals are something that are supposed to entertain children and adults alike, yet in reality they are macabre and scary. There is something other-worldly about them, with their freak-shows, bunko artists and silver-tongued magicians. Bradbury adds a touch of the supernatural and a pinch of wish fulfilment to produce something truly terrifying.

The prose in ‘Something Wicked…’ is stylised, and has its own mystical quality. Bradbury’s evocative description manages to be rambling, yet feels as though not a single word is redundant. Fans of modern horror may not find the style to their liking. Contemporary writers of the genre tend to use more direct, visceral prose. Description tends to be an accurate depiction of what is happening. Bradbury’s meandering descriptions are filled with metaphor and allusion. This doesn’t always make for an thrilling read, but soak yourself in his language, and the reward is entrancing.

The tale is wrought by melding time-old themes:- Coming of age, the regret of a life unfulfilled and the perils of getting what you wish for. The carnival owners are deeply sinister, and the novel’s teenaged protagonists, full of the vim and certainty that comes with being fourteen. This book is a clear influence on Stephen King, but not just his writing of horror. ‘Something Wicked…’ very much reminded King’s novella ‘Stand by Me’. Both are beautiful and accurate portrayals of boys on the cusp of adulthood.

This is an amazing book. A prose masterclass by an author at the peak of his powers. No word is unnecessary. A meditation on youth and longing, ‘Something Wicked…’ is a book with multiple textures and layers. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

The Grain Delusion – ‘Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living’ by Carrie Tiffany

This month my book group have dug back in time, a small way, to read Carrie Tiffany’s ‘Everyman’s Rules For Scientific Living’. It was featured as part of a Waterstones best of the Orange Prize promotion. Reading the back cover it seemed to be right up my street (i.e. it was about science and featured a train). Shortlisted in 2006, I couldn’t understand how it has slipped under my radar. Now I’ve read it, it’s all too easy to see.

ERfSL isn’t by any means a bad book, it’s just an unremarkable one. There is little here to distinguish it from the pack of book-club worthy books. The novel is set in the Australian outback between the wars, but as a chronicler of Australian social history, Tiffany is no Kate Grenville.

The story is narrated by Jean Finnegan, a young seamstress aboard the Australian government’s ‘Better Farming’ train. At the outset, this is fascinating. I had no idea such a thing had existed. The train consisted of a number of coaches, each one devoted to a branch of rural living. So there was a poultry coach, a livestock car and even a plants and grains carriage. There was also a coach devoted to women’s roles, offering advice on sewing, cooking and midwifery. The train’s ensemble cast were an eclectic bunch of well-drawn characters and the opening sections were the novel’s strongest.

It’s when Jean disembarks that the novel becomes flat. On the train she meets soil and grain expert Robert Pettergree. There is an instant attraction and the two marry in undue haste. Jean becomes caught up in Robert’s vision, where the land bows to scientific rigour, and he revolutionises Outback farming with chemical fertilisers.

Of course things don’t work out as planned. Jean and Robert find all sorts of obstacles in their way, and each one saps a little bit of their spirit. The problem is the air of inevitability about it all. All the travails have occurred in countless novels before, making it all too easy to guess what was going to happen. The problem is exacerbated by bland characterisation. The vivid portraits drawn earlier in the novel are replaced by flat, cut-out, smalll-town stereotypes.

There are some things I liked about this book. Each year, Jean faithfully carried out a scientific grain test, which she writes up with experimental rigour. The decline in her results provide a dispassionate account of an ongoing tragedy. The reader fills in the gaps and it’s a clever device. I also liked that it was science that brought these people low. In these types of novels it is normally ardent adherence to religion that causes so many problems. Here Tiffany shows the perils of dogmatic rhetoric, no matter what stands behind it.

All in all I was underwhelmed by this novel, which promised more than it delivered. Already I am struggling to recall its details. This is not a bad book, but with so many good books out there, I find it difficult to think of reasons why you should devote time and money to this one.

Forces of evil on a Bozo nightmare – ‘The Teleportation Accident’ by Ned Beauman

If I had to provide a one word review for the cover of  ‘The Teleportation Accident’ it would be ‘picaresque’.  This is a meandering involving novel, with a host of peculiar and frankly, detestable characters. That the ‘hero’ is called Loeser, might give you some idea of his capabilities.  Egon Loeser is possibly the most incompetent man in literature.

Anybody who has read Beauman’s first novel ‘Boxer Beetle’ will know that he is a unique talent.  If you haven’t read it yet,  you might want to start there.  It has a more straightforward narrative, but still showcases the author’s unorthodox world view.  Beauman is a funny writer, but I’m not sure all readers will get the joke.

To try to describe fully what the Teleportation Accident is about would take many many words and I would still fail to do it justice.  It follows Loeser as he crosses the globe trying to catch up with the women he is infatuated with, Adele Hitler.  The novel opens in Berlin in 1931. Loeser is, in theory, a set designer, but his obsession with Seventeenth century Italian set designer Lavincini, means he does little in the way of real work.  He hopes to stage a play about Lavincini’s death. A theatre collapsed on Lavincini during opening night of his play. A play that featured an engineering marvel; a teleportation device.  This is just the first reference to a teleportation accident in the book.

Loeser is a bottom feeder of the Berlin art scene. His work is almost entirely without merit, yet he is contemptuous of just about everybody.  He has no friends, but is vile to anyone who approaches him with friendship.  He is entirely devoid of any sense of self-awareness or empathy. Yet hapless and selfish as he is, it is impossible (as a character) not to like him.  He travels from Berlin to Paris, then New York and Los Angeles, trying to track down the object of his affection.  He crashes from scrape to scrape, causing havoc, and missing out on golden opportunities.

Beauman’s novel is a masterclass in creativity.  There are masses of literary references, and philosophical musings.  Characters disappear only to resurface when you least expect it.  Much of the novel feels like an aside; like an aimless ramble in beautiful countryside. Engaging but without purpose. It’s only as the novel draws to a close that you realise there is nothing extraneous in what has come before. Beauman weaves his threads to form a glorious whole.

Accusations of being overly clever could be cast in Beauman’s direction. A smug sense of satisfaction at his own cleverness does occasionally threaten to peek through, but ultimately the author delivers.  The ending is truly unexpected (some might say frustratingly obtuse), and in keeping with the absurd nature of what has come before.  The plot is multi-layered, and also double backs on itself,  reminding me of Adam Ross’ Mr Peanut (though I greatly preferred TTA). A great piece of slight of hand leaves the reader wondering just exactly when the teleportation accident occurred. Reading this novel certainly exercises the brain.

‘The Teleportation Accident’ is as fresh and original as fiction can be.  It requires close attention, and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but there is much to enjoy here for those prepared to run with it. It’s witty and laugh-out-loud funny in places; Loeser may become literature’s best-loved anti-heroes. If you are looking for something different from the norm, this book is well worth a look.

For another glowing review of this book read Dan’s at Dog Ear Discs

Lamb to the Slaughter? – ‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’ by Jane Rogers

‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’ is a dystopian novel, comparable with the finest in the genre. It particularly reminded me of Meg Rosoff’s excellent ‘How I Live Now’. It explores the effects of a global catastrophe on a single family as well as the society in which they live. It balances the two perfectly, playing out a family tragedy against a solid and believable background of the world in crisis.

Like all good dystopian novels, the change in society is a simple one. Pregnancy has become a fatal condition. A dormant virus has spread across the globe, that means when a woman becomes pregnant, her suppressed immune system makes her susceptible to a fatal ‘mad cow’ type affliction. It is called Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS. The act of creating life brings with it death. It’s a simple premise but its manifestations are manifold, going well beyond the obvious halting of the human race.

The proposal by scientists of a ‘Sleeping Beauties’ solution, polarises the nation (the novel is set in the UK). The solution involves pregnant mothers being kept in a coma until their babies reach term. The babies can be delivered healthily and the mothers are then allowed to die. Although new naturally conceived babies will be infected with MDS, there are millions of uninfected embryos held for IVF programmes across the globe. These embryos are the great hope of the world, though bringing them to term will mean death for their carriers.

Opinions on the virus, its origins and how to treat it are split on religious, political and ideological grounds. A number of factions appear, all convinced their interpretation of the situation is correct. All, to a greater or lesser degree, have a militant wing. The various viewpoints are well thought out. It is possible to sympathise with each, and their interactions with one another are wholly credible.

Jessie joins the disaffected youth; those who are the least responsible for the world’s predicament, but who will bear most of the burden (it’s like a more drastic banking crisis). Yet even here there are divisions and agendas. There are also lots of hormones. No novel featuring teenagers can pass without sex being on the agenda, and with potentially fatal consequences there is an added frisson to Jessie’s clumsy relationships with the opposite sex. Rogers is spot on with her description of the stumblings and fumblings of adolescent love. The assumptions made, the mistakes, the regrets and the missed opportunities, are all perfectly captured.

Much of the book centres around Jessie’s relationship with her Dad. Sixteen-year-old girls and their dads are always going to clash, but with the world collapsing around their ears the family arguments take on additional meaning. Jessie’s surly despair of her father’s lack of understanding of her predicament took me right back to my own teenage days. In her interactions with her dad, Jessie is exasperating. She is selfish and uncaring of how actions affect her family. Her self-absorption threatens to spoil the book, but does not. Jessie is unlikeable, but Rogers gives her a vulnerable core that redeems her. Rogers cleverly makes Jessie’s decision making process reasonable on one level, yet entirely unreasonable on another; she is real and believable in a way that is rarely found in dystopian fiction.

‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’, is sure to be popular with fans of dystopian fiction, but I think it has many elements that transcend genre. It’s central theme of childbirth and the role of women in society give it added weight over many ‘end of days’ novels. This is an excellent novel, and one that I can see generating masses of discussion in book groups across the land.

Let’s Face The Music… – ‘The Troupe’ by Robert Jackson Bennett

There aren’t too many books like The Troupe. It’s a deliciously macabre tale of old-fashioned American vaudeville. There is a large idiosyncratic cast of performers, and sitting at the novel’s heart is a delightful creation myth. The book reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ with a huge dollop of Stephen King (in tear in the fabric of the universe mode) thrown in. The overall effect compares favourably with both, making Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel a diverting piece of imaginative fiction.

The mystique of vaudeville lends itself perfectly to this type of gothic fiction. There are dingy theatres, crumbling flop-houses and a set of players with some decidedly creepy acts. Puppeteer whose marionettes don’t have strings, anyone? The ‘troupe’ are what make this book. They are a beautifully drawn set of comrades in arms, each with a dark side.

The story follows George, a gifted young vaudeville pianist, who wishes to join a particular troupe. A troupe that proves elusive. A troupe that everybody agrees are wonderful performers, but for which no one can quite recall their finale. A performance that engenders an enormous sense of well being, yet is impossible to recall; how’s that for sinister? George is convinced he was conceived when the ‘Silenus’ troupe passed through his home town sixteen years ago. Harry Silenus is their charismatic leader who hides a host of mysterious talents. George believes Harry is his father. When he finally catches up with Harry, George discovers there are many reasons for his father’s peripatetic life. Harry is searching for something older than time, but more importantly, he is running from something very bad indeed.

Each chapter of ‘The Troupe’ fills the reader with an increased sense of foreboding. Bennett’s prose engenders a wonderful sense of unease. The troupe are grotesque without ever becoming clichéd. George peels back his father’s life like an onion. Each layer torn away leaves him more and more disillusioned.

I did feel the novel was a little too long. There are many good ideas in ‘The Troupe’, possibly too many. Some ideas could have been kept back for future novels.   Interesting as they were, they added little to the novel overall. When my attention wandered I began to notice that George could be really irritating. Fair enough, he’s a teenage boy, so some self-absorption is justified, but I found his whinging woebegone attitude irksome. Of course, this could just be great character writing! The exact mechanics of the story’s central mystery didn’t completely convince me either. It was certainly atmospheric, but I couldn’t quite get a grip on how it was all supposed to work.

The novel’s denouement is a masterclass in pacing and misdirection. The novel, it turns out, isn’t quite about what you thought it was. Beyond the mystery and the mythology is a tale far more mundane. It’s about the power of family. I found the closing chapters surprising and deeply affecting. Bennett could easily have screwed his ending up, but he manages that difficult task of giving his readers what they need, rather than what they want. He avoids cloying sentimentality and delivers an emotionally pitch perfect conclusion. The Troupe is atmospheric and stuffed with ideas. It is filled with sparkling prose with a host of real and grotesque characters. This is the first Robert Jackson Bennett book I’ve read, and it surely won’t be the last.

Coptic Nerves – Azazeel by Youssef Zieden

Azazeel is an historical novel set during the formative years of Christianity. It is narrated by a Coptic monk, Hypa, who states plainly that he is driven to tell his tale by the devil. This is a scholarly text, dealing with the granular distinction in forms of worship during the 4th century. It is a story about humanity, the perils of believing too strongly that you do the work of God and the horrors committed in his name.

Azazeel was a much more difficult read than I had anticipated. I found Ziedan’s prose dry and often unengaging. There is a great deal of interest in the book, but little excitement. I haven’t read very many Middle Eastern authors, so don’t have much to compare Zeidan too, but I found Azazeel reminiscent of Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’. In both books the devil is in the detail. Both require a great deal of concentration to read, both are rich and vivid in their portrayal of the culture in which they are set. Whilst I had to force myself to continue reading both books, when I may have preferred to give up, they rewarded my perseverance with powerful and thoughtful conclusions.

There are two main narrative strands to Azazeel. One centres around its narrator, the other on the circles in which Hypa resides. Hypa is the subject of continual temptation. He grew up in very poor rural Egypt, and he has seized the opportunity to escape his upbringing. He is a Coptic Christian with a burning desire to be a physician. Many distractions lie in his path. Pagan religions and beautiful women, books and philosopher queens are just some of the temptations he is confronted with.

The other strand is probably the most interesting, and certainly the most contentious. Azazeel has attracted a certain amount of controversy about its heretical depiction of the genesis of the Christian faith. The book portrays some of the most important tenets of Christianity as being the result of political infighting and one-upmanship. The players in the creation of the divine are fallible and human.

Not being terribly impressed by organised religion, I find nothing surprising or contentious about the author’s assertions. What impressed me is the clarity with which Zieden deconstructs the birth of Christianity. There are countless quotes in this book that should be compulsory reading for anybody convinced of Christianity’s superiority, or those who use right-wing religious rhetoric to justify their actions. The book is a sermon on the absurdities of intolerance.

Despite its scathing analysis of the church Azazeel remains a deeply spiritual book. Hypa tries his best to lead a holy life. He makes mistakes, he is fallible, but distinct from other characters in the book, he understands this. He devotes himself to God, whilst continually questioning exactly what God is. His understanding of God may be ambiguous, but his faith in Him is not. His bewilderment and humility gives the book its strength.

Azazeel is not the easiest book to read. It requires concentration and perseverance, but its rewards are great. Steeped in early history, it offers a fascinating window on the formation of Christianity, whilst its moral and philosophical observations chime with the modern world. The unusual subject matter and the skill with which it’s handled, make Azazeel a wholly worthwhile read.

The Long March – ‘The Mongoliad’ by Neal Stephenson et al

There is a theory, put forward in the film Clerks II (I think) that the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is about little more than walking. It’s a theory with some validity. For ‘The Mongoliad it’s a cast iron truth. Whilst not entirely without merit, this is essentially a story about some heavily armoured knights doing little more than walk across two continents.

Regular readers of Neal Stephenson will know that many of his novels are slow to begin with. They offer long, detail heavy introductions, with asides and digressions. Plot seems secondary, yet Stephenson’s novels are peculiarly compulsive; you find yourself gripped. As his novels progress, the depth of his storytelling becomes apparent. Narrative threads appear that you never saw coming, that leave the reader dazzled by his brilliance. During the Mongoliad,when nothing much had happened for two hundred pages, I wasn’t overly concerned. I assumed that its threads would draw together in the final third to deliver a satisfying conclusion. This the first instalment of a new series, so perhaps I am being unfair, but this volume lacks any coherent conclusion at all.

The story starts with promise. Cnan is a ‘Binder’, one of a group of mysterious female spies. She tracks down a group of Christian Knights, with a message for their leader. From there a quest is born. Europe and Christianity are under threat from the rampant Mongol hordes. The knights decide the best way to neutralise the threat is to send a small detachment onto the Steppe to assisinate the Khan. The remainder of their force stays in a conquered city, to take place in a tournament. The tourney prize, the Mongols say, is the freedom of Europe. The third narrative strand is set inside the Khan’s palace. It follows a rough but intelligent Mongol warrior, and the Chinese slave who is forced to tutor him in court protocol.

The blurb to this book talks of ‘powerful secret societies that had been shaping world events for millennia’, and ‘uncovering hidden knowledge’. This knowledge is so well hidden with in the text, it seems not to exist at all. Neither does it feel like an alternate history as described in the blurb. It is merely a story, and a pretty dull one at that. The characters may not have existed, and the templar’s order may be fictitious, but, so far, one could hardly argue that history was being rewritten. Instead, we have a long journey punctuated by fights. The fight scenes are very realistic, and described in great detail, which some readers will love, but I found them too long and drawn out. Realism has been allowed to win out over excitement.

I find it hard to sum up this book. I’m tempted to suggest it’s flat because it was written by committee. It has no spark; blandness by collaboration? Maybe, but would I have noticed if I hadn’t known in advance? Stephenson’s books normally clock-in at around 1000 pages, this is 400. I would never have returned to Quicksilver if it had stopped at page four hundred, so perhaps is it too early to form a proper opinion of the Mongoliad too?

This does not feel like a book that was meant to be in a series. It’s not a neatly packaged first volume, but a larger book carved up. Whilst there are many loose threads, there is no climactic finale. Tolkien ended the Fellowship of the Ring with the scattering of the fellowship. This book fizzles out with a whimper. There are no characters/situations I am desperate to go back to; no cliffhangers begging resolution. All of the threads are cut off, apparently at random, with no apparent thought to maintaining tension.

All in all I was very disappointed with ‘The Mongoliad’ it contains some interesting characters and detailed combat scenes, but it is a monotonous read. I will carry on with book two, in the hope some of its promise is fulfilled. Stephenson likes to start slow but burn bright, I hope the Mongoliad does too.