Heaven or Hell? – Kimberly’s Capital Punishment by Richard Milward

kimboKimberly’s Capital Punishment is the strangest novel I have read in some time. It is roughly 5 parts genius, 3 parts peculiar and 2 parts revolting. It’s not a book I could possibly recommend because the last chapter is so gross, gratuitous and borderline misogynistic, that it almost renders what came before obsolete. Which is a shame.

Whilst the of the book is not without gut-churning sexual-violence, it did at least seem to be mitigated by the narrative and themes of the novel. The final pages of the book say nothing at all, and add nothing of value to anything anybody might ever say about anything, ever.

In places Milward’s turn of phrase and observation take the breath away. He is clearly a man with writing talent to burn. The novel opens when Kimberly Clark finds her boyfriend hanging from the bars of a children’s playground. Her role in this tragedy? She wilfully made her beau’s life a misery, and now he’s killed himself.

Not surprisingly this has a detrimental effect on her well-being. Just as she hits rock bottom she has something of an epiphany, and decides that in recompense for hounding her boyfriend to death, she will start to do only good deeds. A brilliant plan, only it turns out being altruistic can get you into a lot of bother.

Milward’s depiction of the grimy streets of North London, is vivid, almost tangible. He captures the voice of young adults trying to make the best of life on limited funds and a surplus of time. It’s an accurate snapshot of twenty-first century urban living. (I think; I’m forty and live in Surrey). Kimberly’s attempts to make other people’s lives brighter, are funny and filled with pathos. If there is a wider point here, it may be something as simple as ‘nice girls finish last.’ Her attempts to cheer up the lives of seven men by juggling dates with them ends with predictable disaster.

Whilst elements of these dates are entertaining and make valid comments on contemporary society, it was at this point that Milward started to lose me. Some of the events start to turn unsavoury and downright peculiar. I don’t consider myself a prude, but perhaps I am; I certainly I found some passages in very bad taste. The rough and not-entirely-consensual sex Kimberly undergoes as she does her penance, began to make the novel tawdry and uninteresting.

Just as the novel begins to lose its way, there isn’t so much a change in direction as a leap off a cliff and plummet into a parallel dimension. With this abrupt turn of events, the book becomes something else altogether; a ‘choose your own adventure’.

Well it doesn’t really. There are multiple endings, which can theoretically be read in any order, but you’ll probably still read them straight through. From here the book becomes wildly inventive before crashing down in an unholy mess.

I really enjoyed some of these section. There is a disturbing, entertaining and freakishly plausible rendering of heaven. A wonderful depiction of reincarnation and a mind-bending post-modern court room drama that pulls the reader and writer into the narrative. It had me in thrall until the end of the court scene when then wheels start to come off in a very bad way.

I wish I could have the time back I spent reading the final chapter of the book. Until then, this was a greatly inventive novel. Not all of the ideas worked, but enough of them did, brilliantly, to make this a invigorating if uneven read. I just don’t get what the author was trying to show at the end here (well I sort of do, but he fails), and it left me with nothing but the bitter taste of disappointment. There is some excellent writing of great value here but the destination was definitely not worth the journey. Proceed with caution.

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You are What you Tweet – No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

noharmJames Smythe’s books are strongly about identity and what defines us as humans. Is it our thoughts or actions? With his latest book he takes things a step further, asking whether we could be defined by actions that have yet to happen.

Smythe’s previous books have to a greater or lesser degree been science fiction, a moniker that will inevitably put some people off. This book is set in a future so close it’s practically contemporary, with science slight and plausible enough to make the fiction seem like fact that hasn’t got around to happening yet. The plot centres around a computer app, ClearVista, that predicts the future by trawling through and processing information found on the internet. The technology is 100% plausible and feels eerily close to becoming reality.

This is not a science fiction novel, and is Smythe’s most accessible yet. He’s recreated Stephen King’s small-town America and thrust it onto the stage of the presidential thriller. It’s like a reverse Dead Zone, where everybody can see the future except the person it’s happening to. Smythe delivers an excellent political thriller, where the sanity of the main contender is at stake. The story is compelling and exciting on its own, and that’s what gives it its position in the centre of the mainstream. But this is a James Smythe novel and they are always layered like the finest French mille feuille.

You don’t have to have read Smythe’s previous novel The Machine (a dystopian Clarke award nominee) to enjoy No Harm… but they dovetail seamlessly to make a fascinating portrait of what defines us as humans. They complement each other beautifully. The Machine is about memories. Are we the sum of our memories?  Without them, are we the same person? Take away memory of a terrible experience, what do we become, stronger or weaker?

In No Harm… the questions are external.  They are based on society’s over-reliance on the internet as a source of information. We have have reached a watershed where an opinion or thought, correct or not, can gain a huge global following. The very existence of this following gives the original ‘fact’ credence, and its provenance becomes warped or forgotten. There are countless numbers of such truths doing the rounds on social media every day.

The ClearVista software at the heart of the novel can predict the future based on your activity on the internet and the activity of everything that is pertinent to the question you ask.  In its simplest form, it can answer should I bet in this horse? Will I like this car? What job should I apply for? All simple discrete questions, with fairly straightforward answers.

Laurence Walker wants to be President, most of the Democratic Party want him to be President, most of the country wants him to be President. He’s a shoe-in, until a family tragedy strikes. After he re-enters the race Laurence fills in his ClearVista questionnaire, and when the results are returned they are disastrous. Despite Laurence being overwhelmingly popular, ClearVista does not rate his chances. Images being infinitely powerful than words – the software makes a composite video of what the future might hold. When this hits the media all hell breaks loose. A world used to believing everything it sees, reacts badly to Walker’s montage. He is assumed guilty of what it shows. ClearVista is everywhere, it is trusted, it is believed. Laurence Walker’s career stands on a knife edge.

The thriller elements are all there. Where did these results come from? Is Laurence being set up? Who gains from his downfall? Is the software as trustworthy as it seems? ClearVista is as ubiquitous as Google and Smythe poses interesting questions about taking it too much for granted. We accept more and more of this tailored technology into our lives with little thought of the consequences. As Laurence becomes more and more frantic trying to prove his results are anomalous, the more they look like becoming the truth.

Can he overcome his destiny? This is the nub of the novel. This sort of technology could be here within a decade. If everyone can can ask the possibility of success for absolutely everything, surely this will have massive effect on how we live our lives. Could you affect the answer to your question, merely by asking it? Would our predicted future shape our actions? Laurence Walker spirals out of control as he becomes caught in a whirlwind of self-appointed prophecy.

As ever, Smythe’s prose is economical. This is a lighter read than his previous books; a true page-turner. The novel’s final chapters are classic Stephen King; with the community of an american small town consuming itself. It’s Smythe’s trademark; not ending a novel quite how you expect it to, often with great ambiguity.  Those who like their thrillers tied up neatly with a bow are probably going to howl at the end of this one, but I think it’s inspired. Smythe is an author unafraid to give the reader what they need, rather than what they think they want. I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, James Smythe is carving himself out a fine, thought-provoking career. All of his books are good and No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is no exception. As it’s his most accessible to date, it might just be the perfect place to start.

Thanks to Jaime and the team for sending me a copy of the book. James can be found on Twitter as @jpsmythe. 

 

There and Back Again, Again – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

the-hobbit-unwin-paperbackI recently launched my limited-interest, single-member book club, based on Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book so Great.  I’ve focused on the books Walton discussed that I’ve yet to read, which is ironic as the basis of Walton’s essays is the rereading of books. I hadn’t planned to reread any. I completely forgot that even at the time of writing the original post, I was reading my oldest son the Hobbit. So here is a bonus post, about Tolkien, fatherhood and where my love of reading began.

But first here’s Walton’s essay.

She talks about the wonderful rhythm of reading the Hobbit aloud, and it’s instantly recognisable. From the moment I started with,

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’  

we were both mesmerised by the beautiful cadence, and richness of the language. I was immediately transported back to the time I was eight and my dad sat on the edge of my bed reading me exactly the same words. That magical introduction is the very reason I’m sitting typing these words. In these nineteen chapters my love of books was born. Not only that, a love of fantasy and a lifelong addiction to boardgames and roleplaying games.  

I must confess, although having the book read is one of my most cherished childhood memories, my respect for The Hobbit had waned over the years. Whilst I remember being read to with crystal clarity, my recollections of the story were rather hazy. I berated the film version for messing up the bit with the trolls, but actually it was closer to the book than the version I’d remembered. I was amazed how quickly the dwarves arrived in Rivendell and how little they did there. Did Beorn always have animal servants? I realised for the first time that the path on the map the cleaves straight through Mirkwood, that’s not the one they take. (Considering how many maps and atlases of Middle Earth I own this proves my mum was right; it was all a waste of money.)

I think the biggest spike in my love of the book came from a terrible stage production I saw many years ago. From necessity it stripped out all of the travel, so Bilbo and the dwarves crashed from one unlikely escapade to the next. The whole thing was condensed to a procession of incompetent pratfalls followed by implausible escapes. It showed the limits of the story. If you rip out the history and description there’s not much left. (As a digression, I think the 2nd two LOTR films do this too.) Now having reread it, I was surprised how sophisticated the story is. Bilbo’s sleight of hand with the Arkenstone, I’m sure was lost on me in my early readings, likewise, the cleverness of the thrush being instrumental in Bilbo saving the day. I had to explain both to Ethan, as they had passed him by, although he did guess what Bilbo was going to do with the stone.

I worried about reading him The Hobbit, more specifically concerned about how it would compare to the mighty juggernaut that is Harry and Hogwarts. My recollection is that in 1980 I’d had zero exposure to fantastic literature. The Hobbit was unlike anything I had ever encountered. These days just about every kid over five has heard of Harry Potter. Ethan has read them all, and loved them, consuming them like an addict. I was afraid the more verbose language of the Hobbit would feel leaden compared with that of JK Rowling’s books.

Beyond that, the commercialism of everything popular could well dent his love of the books. When you can buy a Lego Gandalf with a key chain sticking out of his head, it rather ruins the mystique. I need not have worried, by the time the dwarves were threatening to ‘Chip the glasses and crack the plates!’  he was hooked. There’s nothing like having a child begging you to read just a bit more to tell you how much they are enjoying it.

He loved it from start to finish, quite possibly because I was so animated reading it to him, but everything interested him. The maps (clearly a chip of the old block), the place names and the battles. He was practically jumping off the bed when Bilbo was creeping down the passage towards Smaug, and he was fascinated to know where Gandalf had gone. I seem to remember being disappointed once the wizard had left, because he was one of my favourite characters.

So, that’s one child indoctrinated with a passion for Tolkien. Just two more to go. It’s hard to sum up just how much pleasure reading his books has brought me over the years, but nothing compares with sharing them with my children. At the time of writing, we have inevitably embarked on a bigger project. We stand at the beginning of chapter 3 of The Lord of Rings. With Ethan, myself and one of the finest books ever written, three is definitely fine company.

 

 

Emperor’s New Clothes? – The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

achillesI was really looking forward to reading The Song of Achilles. It has sold well and is highly regarded, even winning the Orange Prize in 2012. One of my favourite books of 2013 was Tim Leach’s excellent Last King of Lydia – a retelling of Herodotus, that informs and reflects modern day political and social discourse. I was expecting much the same from Achilles, such was the acclaim. Leach’s book hasn’t won any prizes, and I don’t imagine it’s sold by the bucketload from supermarkets, but it is by far the better book.

Perhaps I have been victim of my own expectations (a problem I have often written about), but I found the Song of Achilles little more than ordinary. Having grown up on a diet of swords and sandals (admittedly more often with wizards), I feel the book offered little more than your average genre fare. Manfredi and Gemmell have delivered equally interesting reads set in similar circumstances. Being a retelling of Homer, obviously the story is sound, but whereas Leach’s Lydia is multi-layered and thought provoking, Miller’s Achilles is a simple, flat retelling.

There is nothing wrong with the book. It gets you from A to B via violent filicide. Yes, there’s a wonderful loving relationship in trying circumstances, there’s a tragic ending, there’s pride (so much pride) and there’s a fall (well many falls), but I didn’t find any of it more remarkable than anything I’ve read before. It’s well written, but bar a few of the more colourful details, it could be a retelling for 11 year olds. I guess, it seems a bit churlish to bemoan a book for doing little more than telling a good story, but seeing as it’s not an original story, and it won a prestigious prize, I feel justified in expecting a little more.

 

The Great Dictator? – Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

lookwhosbackIt’s almost impossible to review Look Who’s Back without talking about the state of contemporary society and the role of the media plays in informing our opinions. For that reason alone it’s worth reading.

A book in which Hitler materialises in modern day Germany is bound to draw attention. One in which he gains not only acceptance but also garners respect and admiration is sure to be controversial, but is it worth the fuss?

On balance, yes. But only just. Humour is subjective. I have a fairly liberal attitude to comedy and when it comes to laughter, I think most things are up for grabs. If you can make emotive subjects funny that’s a talent. If you can’t, and you piss a lot of people off, then you’ve misjudged your audience. Whether you’re branded ‘sick’ or’edgy’ merely depends on a complicated formula based on the number of people who have heard of you and what newspaper they read. Timur Vermes is obviously charting choppy waters with this book, but I think anybody offended by this book probably hasn’t read it, or at least failed to look for anything other than what they expected to find.

Having said that, the book would be funny whoever it was that had travelled in time. Anybody plucked from WWII and thrust into the 21st century is going to find the place absurd. We all carry computers around in our pockets that are capable of accessing the sum total of the world’s knowledge. We can communicate with almost anybody anywhere on the planet, and what do we do? We send them pictures of cats. Given that Hitler stood at the head of a massive propaganda machine, having him flicking from channel to channel of daytime TV does have a certain appeal, but replace him with any temporally dislocated person from the 1940s and the effect would be much the same.

Where this book becomes uncomfortable, is in its examination of the ‘never again’ aspects of the Third Reich. We all like to imagine we would never have taken part in Hitler’s regime, but Vermes gently suggests we’re all one forceful personality from committing the unthinkable. Gentle though it is, I think his assertion is a little off the mark. Hitler is treated as a comedy act. The other characters in the book find it impossible to see him as anything other than a comical curiosity. This is human nature; how could one do anything else? Nobody could seriously pretend to be Hitler in 2014. So it is that Hitler is feted by media types as a bold comic, fearlessly crossing boundaries. Yet there seems to be very little intelligent dissent about this mysterious ‘comic’. Considering the shit-storm kicked up by the idea that Jonathan Ross might present some awards, enough to make the national press, it’s hard not to imagine Twitter spontaneously combusting and television studios being picketed. Yet none of this seems to happen.

So whilst Hitler’s forceful personality wins over the people he meets, I’m not sure it necessarily means the world would goose-step in his wake. To be fair Vermes, doesn’t suggest this will be the case, but he does imply lots of people might think about it. Hitler as painted by Vermes (Dictator with the Pearl Earing?) is a pin up for UKIP voters. It would be an interesting exercise to take quotes from the book out of context to see what UKIP members make of them. You could sell tickets to watch them beat a hasty retreat when you reveal where the observations came from.

This is where Vermes has been clever. The views Hitler expresses, or rather the way in which they are expressed, one has to grudgingly admit do make some sense, and therein lies the novel’s power. Even monsters can be appealing. Yet I feel this is disingenuous. Extreme views of any stripe can find credence somewhere. Vermes contention is that even people with moderate views (or perhaps no views of their own) could fall under Hitler’s spell. To an extent this is irrefutable but in reality the character here is not Hitler, he’s a fictional character created to make a point. The circumstances under which Hitler rose to power are very different to those we find today, and I’m not sure the amused tolerance Vermes’s Hitler enjoys is a realistic picture.

Part of this time-travelling dictator’s acceptance comes from misunderstandings. I think it’s that true that it is human nature to see best intentions and to ignore the improbable, if a more palatable explanation is offered, but all too often Vermes relies on his characters talking at cross purposes. One of the most quoted passages of the book is,

“There’s just one thing I want to get straight,” Frau Bellini said, suddenly looking at me very seriously. 
“What is that?” 
“We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter.” 
“You are absolutely right,” I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.

On it’s own this is funny, but it is the first and best example of Hitler’s double meanings. I guess there might be something here to be said about the duality of language; we hear what we want to hear, but the repeated use of this device means that by the end of the novel it starts to feel like a very long episode of Neighbours.

So, all this is a very long-winded way of saying I have mixed views about Look Who’s Back. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking idea, that gives rise to some laugh out loud moments. It’s an acerbic take on modern society, but the overall concept is stretched a little thin by the end. I imagine a lot of people will read this book, but in a couple of years time I suspect it will be little more than a literary curiosity. Finally, if you enjoyed this book or are wavering about reading it, let me point you in the direction of a similar and in my opinion superior novel Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander. It’s not really same, but it is dark, satirical and more subtle than Look Who’s Back.

Many Thanks to Corinna at MacLehose Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

Kindred by Octavia E Butler

kindredThis book is the inaugural read for my Jo Walton Book Club. Books I want to read, inspired by Walton’s book of essays, What Makes This Book so Great. By happy coincidence, those nice people at Headline have reissued one of the books that piqued my curiosity most, Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Kindred is a time travel book, though the mechanics of temporal dislocation are largely irrelevant. The point of the book is that a black woman from 1976 travels back to the 1800s, where she interacts with one of her forebears. She travels back in time to save his life. As Kevin is a careless belligerent fellow Dana finds herself a frequent traveller.  Unfortunately, the only way for her to travel back to her own present,  is to come close to death herself. Since Kevin lives when the yoke of slavery gripped the United States, this happens all too frequently.

The story here is almost irrelevant. What’s important about this book is its depiction of slavery and the debilitating effect it had on those held under it. Dana, an upwardly-mobile young woman in her own time, soon finds herself adopting the role of slave, or at least tolerating oppression at a certain level to avoid something else altogether darker and more violent.

Whilst on the surface Kindred is about slavery, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines that to see it’s about oppression generally. The psychological effect of being forced to exist contrary to one’s will, either through violence or emotional pressure is rendered in brutal detail. Butler’s prose is simple yet effective.

As a white middle class male who grew up in the white middle class heartlands of the UK, I am supremely unqualified to comment on many of the issues examined on this book. I have never experienced racism practised against me and never will. None of my ancestors have ever been persecuted for the colour of their skin. All I can say I was deeply moved by it. Before reading Kindred, I was aware of the slavery in historical terms; a humanitarian travesty on a grand scale. I had very little exposure to the consequences of slavery on a human scale. The effect on individuals and on families. As Walton says in her review By wrenching a sheltered modern character like Dana back to the time of slavery you get to see it all fresh, as if it’s happening to you.’ It’s a hard book to read without flinching. 

Published in 1979 there is very little context to any prejudice Dana found in her own time. As Walton says, Dana’s 1979 seems idealised. I imagine in reality a mixed race couple would not escape being plagued by the narrow-minded. 35 years on this lack of context feels like a missed opportunity to document attitudes across two time-frames. Of course at the time of writing that is not what Butler was aiming to do.

Kindred is an excellent book. Apart from the time-travel device it’s not really science fiction. It’s evocative and compelling historical fiction. Books this good should never disappear and I am glad Headline decided to reprint it.

This book was sent to me by the publisher through their Bookbridgr programme.