Ambitious, Original, Flawed – ‘Alif the Unseen’ by G Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is as a refreshing and original book as you’ll come across this year. Whilst I admired much of it and was entertained by a lot of it, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I’d hoped.

First the premise. Alif lives in an unspecified Middle Eastern country. A country held in the grip of an authoritarian regime. A computer genius, Alif is part of an underground movement dedicated to spreading information and fomenting change. He is a young man in love with the wrong woman. Alif’s family is not wealthy, not part of the elite, but his girlfriend’s, Inistar, is. The two are secretly married.

As the novel opens Inistar tells Alif that they can no longer see one another. Her father forbids it, and intends to marry her to a powerful man close to the heart of the regime. She insists that Alif never see her again. Alif takes her at her word, by attempting to create a computer program that can determine a person’s identity by the words they use and the way they type them. An impossibility Alif thinks, until it works. The security implications of this are manifold. Can this algorithm give Alif and his coven of hackers an advantage over the mysterious ‘Hand’, their government employed adversary?

The opening 100 pages of Alif the Unseen read like a Cory Doctorow novel (in particular, For the Win) set during the Arab spring. The dialogue between hackers is snappy, and the oppression felt by the nation’s youth is articulately conveyed. Added to this blend is the enigmatic Dina, a devout Muslim who has donned the niqab. For many reasons Dina is the star of the novel, but her initial role seems to be to help western readers realise how little they know about life in the middle east.

With government forces closing in, Alif and Dina are forced to go on the run. It is here things take a peculiar turn. A unseen parallel world emerges, in which Jinn and Efreets exist, and, at the centre of the tale, lies a book. ‘The Thousand and One Days’ is a Jinn penned counterpart of the ‘1001 Nights’. Alif finds himself in possession of the world’s only copy. He struggles to find meaning in text, whilst his enemies relentlessly hunt him down. If he evades capture he may liberate a nation, but failure will doom his countrymen to total subjugation.

Alif’s world is full of layers; the political elite and the hoi-polloi exist alongside one another with almost no interaction, as does Alif’s underground digital network. Then there are the disappeared (political prisoners); another layer of unseen people. Layers of cloth conceal Dina from the world and layers of meaning in the Koran and the 1001 days are pivotal to the plot. In essence the hidden city filled with Jinn and demons is just another layer, but the novel’s other-worldly elements weren’t entirely convincing.

There are some great elements to this book but I didn’t find they combined to make a satisfactory whole. There are a number of confusing dream/hallucination scenes that are vital to the novel, that were so ethereal I found it nigh on impossible to work out what was supposed to have happened. The whole novel hinges around of Alif’s invention of a new type of computer code, based around metaphorical interpretation of program code, but I couldn’t for the life of me fathom how it was supposed to work. Maybe I was being dim or perhaps the ‘how’ was unimportant, but considering it was vital to the story I felt a more exhaustive explanation was necessary to hold the novel together.

Wilson has crafted beautiful blocks with which to build her story but failed to supply the mortar that binds them together. The book functions well as an insight into feelings on the streets during the Arab Spring, nicely as an Arabian folklore primer, brilliantly as a treatise on the power and malleability of the written word, but it fails as a coherent story. Whilst I usually have no problem with an other-worldy presence in my fiction, I can’t help feeling this novel would have been more powerful without its supernatural characters. The central jinn character is a well-drawn enigmatic rogue, but the Jinn nation, and how it interacts with ours, was under-powered and confusing.

I also feel Wilson took a soft option with her denouement. Without giving too much away, she leads the reader to believe one thing, before revealing that it’s not quite so. The reveal changes the novel’s tone dramatically. Without the switch, the novel would have been darker, more realistic and ultimately stronger and more thought provoking. What is left feels a little bit Hollywood.

I am disappointed that I didnt enjoy Alif’s adventures more. Wilson writes brilliant, incisive and observant prose, but I was unable to suspend my belief long enough to fully recommend it. Whether this is the reader’s or author’s fault I’m not sure. ‘Alif the Unseen’ has many things going for it, not least of which is its originality. It wasn’t quite the novel for me, but I do feel I’ve learned things from reading it, and feel richer for having done so.

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The Thinks You Can Think – ‘Shift’ by Kim Curran

Shift, Kim Curran’s debut novel, is a triumph from start to finish. Like all good Science Fiction thrillers it has a simple premise, sets clear defined rules and (mostly) sticks to them. It is one of the best YA novels I have had the fortune to read.  If you have a reluctant reader at home, stick this under their nose; Curran’s immediate, exciting prose will have them hooked from the very first page.

Ever regretted a past decision? Wished you could take it back? Well, what if you could? That is the simple premise that Shift is based on. Shifters are rare group of individuals, who can alter their own time streams. Every conscious decision they have made, dumping a girlfriend, picking up a penny or running from a fight, can be remade. Bad deciscions can be undone, but with what consequences?

When social misfit Scott Taylor starts shifting uncontrollably it turns his life upside down. By wishing himself small happinesses, he finds himself in a living nightmare. Much as Marty McFly finds he’s destroyed his future by leaving a Sports Almanac in 1955, so it is for Scott after he wishes he were braver. When mysterious government operatives try to capture Scott for reprogramming, his life becomes even more complicated.

‘Shift’ is constructed along traditional YA lines. Scott is at school, not terribly popular and in need of an image overhaul. Shifting can only be carried out by children, and as they approach adulthood the ability to shift fades. Scott is mentored by an attractive and confident female. He finds himself caught between two factions, both claiming to be acting in humanity’s best interest. With reality now a malleable construct, who should Scott trust?

Whilst at its core Shift is similar to many other YA novels, there are a host of things that set it apart from the rest of the field. Foremost is Curran’s deft prose. The book is exciting throughout. Clear crisp sentences drive the action at a breakneck pace, with each page demanding to be read. The plot is sound, and its internal logic is maintained throughout. There are rules to shifting, and with one exception, they are upheld throughout the book (this exception I found slightly disappointing, but within acceptable artistic licence tolerances!). Characterisation is excellent.

Curran uses her device to explore the fragility of what we take for granted. How, seemingly inconsequential decisions can have unexpected consequences. Lives can be made or lost, due to the smallest things. As the novel takes a darker turn, Curran reveals the importance of self-censorship; those little decisions we fantasise about but don’t actualise so as to function as reasonable human beings. It’s an acute perception and one that I think will strike a chord with the author’s target audience.

The villains of the piece are both credible and menacing, and there are enough curve balls thrown to keep the reader guessing until the end. The novel stands in its own right but there are plenty of opportunities for a sequel. A sequel that I would happily read.

Shift is the best YA novel I have read since Neal Shusterman’s Unwind (a book I love). Full of quality from start to finish, Shift is an exceptional read. Best of all, reading Shift has solved the problem of what to buy my neighbour’s teenaged son for Christmas. It’s the perfect gift.

Too many plots? – ‘The Mongoliad book 2’ by Neal Stephenson and co.

If you’ve read my review of the book of  The Mongoliad, you’ll know I didn’t think much of it. In two words, it’s aimless and pedestrian. Since these adjectives could describe the opening four hundred pages of most books written by Neal Stephenson (an author I greatly admire) I thought I’d give book 2 a try.

My thoughts seem contrary to most others that I’ve read. I think the series improves with this volume (although it would have been difficult for it not to have done). There are still a frustrating number of disparate threads, but I found them more satisfying than those in the previous novel. Whilst something resembling a resolution seems frustratingly out of reach, the stories at least feel like they are building up a head of steam.

The novel opens with an entirely new thread. A fevered priest and young Magyar hunter arrive in Rome. They hope to gain audience with the Pope to warn of the impending invasion of the Mongol horde. Their plans are thrown into disarray when it turns out Pope Gregory IX has died. Bishop Rodrigo finds himself enmeshed in the election of a new pontiff. Fascinating though this is, it’s just another story-tree in a forest of plots.

The biggest problem with these books, for me, is that there is nothing binding the multitude of threads together (this despite two of the characters being ‘binders’). There is no unifying story propelling the reader on. As a result, if you were to pick up volume two without having read volume 1, I doubt you would struggle to work out what was going on. Certainly, a five page synopsis could fill in what you’d missed. There are even some events from book one that are barely referenced here, giving the unsettling feeling that the work as a whole is haphazard and under-edited.

The stories do strengthen towards the end, but not before a flabby middle section. Once again, people talk, walk and fight a lot, without doing very much. And yet… As the novel draws to a close the influence of Neal Stephenson starts to exert itself. The detail heavy seeds sown throughout the book, start to flourish. In contrast to volume one, each of the story threads are left at pivotal moments, and the novel finishes with a true sense of suspense.

The understanding built up between reader and author(s), over hundreds of pages, gives meaning to the slow burning machinations of the plot. It’s starting to feel like the series is a metaphor for the Steppe: immense, bland and featureless, but with an undeniable compelling beauty.  Having said that, much as few people take time to visit the Mongolian Steppe, you have to wonder if reading 800 pages of (often) lumpen prose makes the Mongoliad a place worth visiting.

A Series of Implausible Events – Jonas Jonasson’s Word of Mouth Bestseller

‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who…’ is the sleeper hit of 2012. It has steadily climbed towards the top of the charts, delighting more and more readers every week. It is the Shawshank Redemption of the book world. (Although strictly, Stephen King’s ‘Different Seasons’ was first to that claim). The best thing about word of mouth is that it tends to be reliable, no publishing hype, no media hysteria. This book has been read by book lovers, loved by book lovers and passed on by book lovers. And it is quite wonderful.

For a start it’s effortless to read. I’m not good at picking up the nuances of good/bad translated fiction, but this in no way feels like a translation. Much of this stems from its dry understated humour. It is narrated in a self-depricating tone that is quintessentially English, yet of course it isn’t. Still, no matter how good a translation is, it can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, and the story and characters in this novel are delightful.

Allan Karlsson is 100. Unable to face the mayoral visit to his care home that is to celebrate this landmark, Allan climbs out of the window. Soon he is boarding a bus with a suitcase that doesn’t belong to him. From there almost anything can happen, and it soon does. Alongside Allan’s luggage pilfering exploits, the reader is treated to Allan’s life story. A tale that takes in Mao, Stalin, Truman and Nixon, scandal, riots and atomic bombs. Both tales are shaggy dog’s stories. Both are thoroughly entertaining.

THYOMWCOOTWAD is a literary version of Forrest Gump. The story is stitched together between various historical set-pieces. Allan finds himself dragged into many key events of the twentieth century. The gem of the book is that despite being entirely apolitical, (merely wanting a bit of peace and plenty to drink), Allan inadvertently influences pretty much every poltical event of the last sixty years. Here Jonasson over plays his hand a little, stretching his idea beyond credulity and indeed, beyond my attention span. Each historical reimagining is pitch perfect, but there are too many of them.

If there is a message to this book, it’s that it’s never to late to change your life; there are always opportunities to climb out of the window. Other than that it’s just an entertaining yarn. This is quite refreshing. It was nice to read a well-written novel that’s so inventive, without worrying about subtext and deeper meaning. Effortless to read from start finish, this book would make an ideal gift; it’s hard to imagine somebody who wouldn’t fall for its many charms. Read it and you too will spread the word.

Snopperink in my Woodootog or The Goldilocks Variations by Allan and Jessica Ahlberg

Allan Ahlberg has created some of our family’s favourite books. Now, teaming up with his daughter to create ‘Goldilocks’, he has provided another. There is nothing not to like in this book. A riff on the classic fairy tale, it’s warm, witty and beautifully produced.

Walker Books have worked wonders with the production values. The various flaps and tabs work perfectly and easily. Both my 7 year old and 3 year old have been in fits of giggles with this book, though as with many Ahlberg books it is probably too fragile to be left in the hands of younger readers. Much to my children’s delight there is a book within a book, an idea that always seems to be a winner (my favourite being Colin Mcnaughton’s ‘We’re Off to Look for Aliens’). The book inside even has its own pop up flaps. It’s a triumph of cardboard engineering.

There are 7 stories in the book, all offering a variation on the original story. There are multi-storey houses with multiple bears, furniture-eye views, aliens, large numbers of buns and a bun-fight. The final story is reminiscent of Ahlberg’s ‘Each Peach Pear Plum’. The Goldilocks Variations is a triumph from start to finish, a beautiful book, filled with magical stories that will entrance children and adults alike.