Echoes in the Valleys of Perception – ‘Theatre of the Gods’ by M. Suddain

totgIf Jasper Fforde wrote space opera, it might come out a little like Theatre of the Gods. This is a rambling shaggy dog story of multiple universes, time travel and interdimensional space jumps. There are also some terrible puns based around obscure pop-culture references. If you like those sorts of things, you’ll love it. The novel is a direct descendant of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and its no surprise to discover that M Suddain is an anagram of ‘I am D Adams’, albeit using different letters…

‘…the deadly fossil squid, who sinks itself into the mud and pretends to be a fossil, waits to be dug up, then kills and eats the discoverer…’

I must confess I didn’t quite know what to expect from this book, when I opened it. Published by a new (fictional) imprint, Blacklist Publishing, purveyors of banned books and with an opening that includes the words ‘every word you are about to hear, is a lie! Even these ones!’, it certainly grabs its readers’ attention, but it took me a while to find my way in.

Chapters are comparatively short and contain a host of peculiar personalities, and at least as many different ideas and concepts, many of which are, well, a bit silly. So at first I struggled. Who was who?, what were they doing?, and why were they doing it? More to the point, I couldn’t help wondering, why should I care?

But gradually Suddain drew me in. His peculiar breed of humour is infectious; before long I was reading on, enthralled, waiting for the next set piece, the next joke. The novel is packed with adventure and daring-do. On top of the space/time/interdimensional travel, there’s mind-control, a giant worm, fantastical priests, ruthless assassins, cannibals, an insane pope and even an enormous homunculus. There is also a most wonderful life observation involving slippers.

The characters are memorable and their exploits outrageous. I have no idea whether the book is logically consistent, but it was so much fun, who cares? I certainly didn’t notice any errors, I was too busy laughing.

So I say this to you reviewers, professional and amateur: save your rancorous reviews and scarlet epigrams…’ (p517)

Theatre of Gods is a highly entertaining novel. Fans of Adams, Pratchett and Fforde will find much to love and there’s even of soupçon of Stephenson thrown in for good measure. A dazzling and audacious debut, pulled off with aplomb.

Many Thanks to Joe at Random House for furnishing me with a copy of this book

Random thoughts on Hawthorn and Child

hawthornHawthorn and Child is a difficult book to review. Opinion seems to be divided between those who think it represents the pinnacle of contemporary literature, and those who think it’s pretentious toss, claiming that anybody who says otherwise is equally up themselves. Being ever-mild and reasonable I can see both points of view.

Anybody coming in hoping for a literary whodunnit, are certainly going to be disappointed.  The book is like a mosaic of the Rothko paintings mentioned in the chapter ‘Rothko Eggs’.  Each chapter is a short story; a tessera that when combined with the others forms a big fuzzy canvas. Whether that canvas bares repeated stares or is to be greeted with a derision, very much depends on the reader.

There are elements of wonder in the book. Tantalising hints of plot and back story abound, but just when the threads are about to coalesce into something meaningful, they drop away to once again become random bits of string. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may well be the closest depiction of real life I’ve read in fiction. Stories, inevitably, don’t depict real life, even when they are about real life.  Usually in a novel, only the stuff important for narrative is left in. Even if life’s minutiae are described, it’s to show the reader something; they fit in with the overall story the writer is trying to convey.

That’s not to say the details Ridgeway has decided to portray are mundane. This is not a mere catalogue of a guy who slices fruit and takes the kids to school (things I do every day).  The events portrayed are interesting, that just don’t tend to go anywhere.  My own travails, as chairman of a cash-strapped pre-school, or fights with my parents over how best to live their twilight years aren’t tedious.  They could certainly be described in a thoroughly entertaining manner, but what they wouldn’t do is fit into a wider narrative.  I haven’t killed anybody (yet), I’m not having an affair. I don’t know the location of hidden pirate treasure.  My life intersects with any number of stories, but I am not driven by a coherent narrative, and so it is with Hawthorn and Child.

The book came to my attention through Twitter, where I follow all sorts of (mostly young) literary types. They raved about this book.  So much so, it made want to read it. After all, if so many people I admire and enjoy the writing of, love the book, surely it must be good? This leads to expectations, and a desire, a need even, to ‘get’ it. Failure to understand what the author set out to do, might trigger feelings of inadequacy.

It’s tempting to dash off a ‘this book is great’ review. I liked some passages, I could rave about those, throw in some words like ‘stylised’ and meta-fiction (maybe) and hopefully sound convincing enough to keep my literary credentials (if I have any) in tact.  It’s route one to becoming a ‘pretentious critic’.  But I don’t feel this book is great. Or perhaps it is, and I’m just not up to the task. Perhaps I’m too bound to the conventions of novels, like plot, and narrative direction. Perhaps that’s why writers like it so much. They spend their whole time thinking about plot and resolution, so ‘Hawthorn and Child’ is like a breath of fresh air. I met a pilot once, on his holiday. We were on the trans-siberian express. He loved it.

One word I avoided mentioning in the last paragraph is character. The characterisation and dialogue in the stories are exemplary. Hawthorn and Child, may only be shadowy figures in some of the stories but we come to understand them. Even in the chapters in which they feature heavily, there is little exposition. We learn about them through their speech, their habits and their actions.  The finest thing about the book is the way Ridgway used my own preconceptions, (prejudices?) against me.  He drip feeds information about his two detectives, each time forcing me to rearrange my mental picture.  Each time, to my dismay, I discovered that the picture created, was as a direct result of being a middle-aged, middle-class, white male.  I like to think I am unfettered by my background, that I don’t have many preconceptions, but this book made me realise that it can be hard to escape the way we are raised.  This revelation and insistence that I think harder about how I see the world is worth cover price alone.

So this isn’t really a review. You won’t know whether you like Hawthorn and Child until you’ve read it. You shouldn’t take anybody else’s word on it.  It’s unusual, frustrating and haphazard, but it’s also funny, thoughtful and contains some beautiful language.

Many thanks to my wife for buying me a copy of this book for my birthday. 

Patriot Games – ‘Playing Tyler’ by TL Costa

playingtyler

Every now and then a book comes along that takes me completely by surprise. Playing Tyler is one of those books. A quick read of the blurb :- Young man, combat simulator, game more than it seems; ‘Hmm so far, so Ender’s Game.’ Though the premise sounded interesting, I thought it would be a diverting but ultimately throwaway read. Far from it.

Playing Tyler is simply brilliant. The strength of the story and the depth of its characters far outstrips the basic, slightly science-fictional premise. Tyler is flying drone simulations for use in the Afghan War. As hinted in the blurb, they’re not always simulations. Obviously Orson Scott Card got there first, but in 2013, this is a startlingly real possibility.  The best gamers are school-aged children. Could an unscrupulous agency recruit them for the war on terror?

This question opens a huge can of ethical worms, and these are what make the novel so strong. Tyler can’t see the problem. He’s a patriot. His Dad flew helicopters. He was hero; a man for Tyler to look up to. To emulate. Tyler has been diagnosed with ADHD, a pilot’s licence is almost an impossibility, but this way, can he realise his dream?

The flip-side of the coin is provided by Ani. Another gamer and computer genius. She was recruited, after an indiscretion, to build the system Tyler is using. Ani and Tyler are not supposed to have contact, but, as ever, love finds a way.  Ani sees things a little differently from Tyler. Her dad too served in Afghanistan, but he returned a broken man and is now in prison, unable to control his temper. He is not a hero, merely a burden.  Ani and Tyler hold two opposing viewpoints about the rights and wrongs of what they are being asked to do. It makes for a riveting debate.

The balance of Ani and Tyler’s relationship is pitch perfect. Their awkward interactions felt real; wholly believable. As did their interactions with their families, including Tyler’s drug dependent brother (neither Ani or Tyler have normal home lives). As the novel progresses, T L Costa asks difficult questions of her readers about the War on Terror: Collateral damage, accuracy of intelligence data, the use of private contracts in warfare and the breeding of insurgency. It’s all wonderfully vital stuff and, I think, terribly important for school age children to understand that warfare and aggression are rarely black and white. T L Costa goes to great lengths to highlight war’s ambiguities.

There has been some debate in the UK in recent months about Michael Gove’s assertion that it would be better to find your teenaged child reading Middlemarch rather than Twilight. Leaving aside the fact that the question is fatuous, I would suggest to him that whilst some children may enjoy 19th century literature, most will not. Yes you can make them read it, but what is the point? If they don’t want to read it, aren’t inspired by it, they’re not going to take anything home from it.

Playing Tyler on the other hand, is written expressly for them.  Its language is (largely) their language. The characters’ emotional issues will resonate. It reveals, if not the truth about the complicated world in which they will soon be living, then the idea that the truth can be hard to find. It suggests that what is right can also be wrong. It prompts the reader to think about the world they live in just a little bit more carefully.  It does all this whilst being thoroughly entertaining.  Playing Tyler is YA fiction at its absolute best.

Many Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book for review.  

A World of Pain – ‘Fade to Black’ by Francis Knight

fadetoblackFade to Black is a solid unpretentious urban fantasy. Francis Knight sets out her stall early, sticks to her theme and delivers some good old-fashioned storytelling.

Rojan Dizon is a bounty hunter; a seeker of people. At first glance, he’s tough and uncomplicated; if the price is right he’ll take the job. He lives in the city of Mahala, a city state that sprawls vertically rather than outwards. The city is layered; the closer to the sky you live the richer you are. Dizon does most of his work amongst the bottom feeders.

Mahala is a totalitarian state. Order is kept by the Ministry and their soldiers. Their regime is based on fealty to the Goddess, a longstanding deity co-opted to induce compliance in the city’s populace. The story takes place in the wake of a toxic disaster. ‘Synth’, the source of the city’s energy turned out to be deadly. Thousands died, synth was outlawed, and a new source of energy found. Weaker but cleaner. Sort of like coal vs wind.

When his niece is kidnapped Dizon is drawn into a conspiracy that will rock the whole of Mahala. He travels deeper into the city than any normal citizen is allowed to go. Here he finds his entire world view challenged, and we discover there’s a great deal more about him than he pretends.

The novel’s strength lies in Dizon’s personal secret. He is a pain-mage. Once a powerful group, but now outlawed, pain-mages can cast spells but only by hurting themselves first. It’s an interesting concept, one that keeps Dizon’s powers balanced. He can use his magic in his quest but only by making a great personal sacrifice.

Dizon is a strong central character. His smart-mouthed PI routine is in danger of being a cliché but is rescued by a thick streak of self doubt. The ensemble cast is interesting and the villainy behind the scenes is grimly fascinating.

The novel flags a little in the middle, but just as I began to wonder where things were going, Knight slammed the pedal down. The final 100 pages are action packed and filled with moral dilemma. Dizon can save the day, but at what cost to himself and the rest of the city’s inhabitants? It’s a simple but effective device. The ending is complete but open, leaving room for a sequel, and contains some neat sleight-of-hand on Dizon’s part to help him out of a tight spot. This clever twist is worth the entry fee alone.

Whilst Fade to Black didn’t blow me away, it did keep me entertained. The world is interesting and the characters compelling. I look forward to finding out what’s in store for them in book 2, Before the Fall.

This book was obtained through the Amazon Vine Programme 

 

Whatever Makes You Happy ‘The Last King of Lydia’ by Tim Leach

lydiaI nearly passed this book up. I’m not a huge reader of historical fiction, and it didn’t quite seem my cup of tea. Then I saw this review from Kate at For Winter Nights, which immediately changed my mind. Kate is a veritable hist-fic hoover, who certainly knows her Assyrians from her elbow. She cites the Last King of Lydia as her best read of the year so far. It’s easy to see why.

Tim Leach has created a deceptively deep read. On the surface it’s a simple, readable work of historical fiction. Beneath that it’s a mediation on power, greed and happiness. Not to mention the futility of war.

‘A man who hates because he is told he should hate is a fool‘.

Leach puts these words in the mouth of a 5th Century BC ruler, yet I’m not sure I’ve read a more apposite phrase to sum up what’s wrong with modern society.

The novel opens with a man going to his death. Croesus, the eponymous Last King of Lydia. Defeated by Cyrus the King of Persia and sentenced to death on the pyre. As the smoke fills his lungs and the soles of his feet begin to burn, Croesus recalls a meeting with the philosopher Solon.

The first excellent thing about this book is that even if, like me, you’re an ancient history dunderhead, Leach eases you through it effortlessly. His story prompted many lines of inquiry that demanded further exploration outside of my reading time; it incites you to learn more. For example, I had no idea that the conversation with Solon was reputed to have happened, having been recorded by Herodutus, or that the Lydians are credited with the invention of coinage. I’ve learned a huge amount reading TLKoL.

The subject of the conversation with Solon is happiness. As the wealthiest man in the world, and ruler of the largest kingdom on Earth, Croesus is fairly convinced it’s him. Solon disagrees, stating that it can only be truly known that a man is happy by how he meet his death. This statement holds particular poignancy as we know Croseus is recalling this as he rests on his pyre.

The nature of happiness forms the backbone of the novel. Lots of interesting things happen; wars are fought, lives are saved, great wealth accumulated, and almost all of it is done because it makes a powerful man happy. Counterpoint to this is the attitude of Croesus’ slave, Isocrates, for whom happiness is ‘when nothing changes’.

The book is in essence about the selfish futility of power. Power is transient, fleeting when compared with the vast sea of history, yet rulers are prepared to condemn thousands to misery in the hope of gaining more and more of it. Croesus notes bitterly that the coinage bearing his family crest will last far longer than their kingdom. Power and accumulation for the sake of it rarely lead to happiness, only increased dissatisfaction.

The Last King of Lydia is a wonderful book. The story is a gripping tale of ancient kingdoms, yet its central theme should give warning to any contemporary world leader, or greedy corporate fat cat. As the novel progresses, Croseus comes to understand true happiness lies in the smaller things in life. His gradual epiphany gives the book an optimistic feel despite some of the story’s brutal realities.

Wholly satisfying from start to finish, Tim Leach has written a terrific novel that should appeal to all readers, regardless of whether they like historical fiction. 2013 has been a terrific year for books, and The Last King of Lydia deserves to sit right at the top of the pile.

Many Thanks to the team at Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book, and to Kate for tipping me off. If you are looking for some reading inspiration her blog is well worth following.

X+Y = ? ‘The Unknowns’ by Gabriel Roth

unknownsBeneath the jovial exterior of The Unknowns is a serious troubling core. On the surface, it’s about an awkward computer geek who makes a fortune to become a rich, awkward computer geek: Nerd do well. Eric Muller sees life as series of variables. Any given situation is a mathematical conundrum waiting to be broken down. Given enough information about the system’s inputs, Eric can provide something approximating a solution. Whether he can implement it, is an entirely different matter.

Eric narrates his tale from two points in time. His school days, and his recent past, just after the internet boom of 2002. He is a deliciously neurotic narrator and his tale put me in mind of one of my favourite books of 2012, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander. The school years sections also reminded me of Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich. The backstory fills in how Eric honed his computational skills with particular focus on girlfriend acquisition. He manages to become highly knowledgeable yet remains utterly clueless. It makes for amusing reading. In 2002, now a millionaire, Eric is still single, and money has not made the process any easier. Then he meets Maya.

‘A subtle smile in her eyes that says I see through you entirely and find you benign but a bit ridiculous.’

Maya is in a league of her own, but much to Eric’s astonishment, she likes him and his quirks. A relationship ensues, which, with humorous effect, Eric analyses to the nth degree. It is in his relationship with Maya that the novel butts up against something darker. Maya was abused by her father. Her mother died when she was young, and after some years, Maya’s father began to come to her for solace, and something infinitely more sinister. Normally the use of child abuse in a novel irritates me. Firstly, I read to be entertained, not appalled, and secondly, it’s an easy, lazy device, intended to provoke a visceral reaction with minimal effort on the part of the author. This does not apply to The Unknowns

Maya’s revelation provides Eric with a set a variables that he has never encountered before. How should he incorporate this new found information into the actions surrounding his relationship? It is a subtle examination of the terrible and lasting upheaval caused by abuse, but Roth takes it one step further. Maya’s memories of her father’s actions had been suppressed. It was only through contact with a college psychoanalyst, that she uncovered these events. These recovered memories cause Eric great anxiety. A man so competent in dealing with 1s and 0s cannot come to terms with the grey, indistinct and malleable nature of memory. Eric becomes obsessed with how the unknowns become known. The novel develops into a fascinating examination of memory and trust.

Eric’s relationship with his own parents forms an important counterpoint to his relationship with Maya. His own upbringing was normal but dysfunctional. Now he has great success, he sees his parents in a different light, and sometimes he wishes he didn’t have to. As I approach middle-age and my own parents pass into their 70s, I found many parts of this deeply affecting. We outgrow our parents, yet we are always part of them. When I look at my own boys, Roth’s words feel all the more poignant. A slim but sharp volume.

My copy of this book was obtained though the Amazon Vine program