‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell

slade houseThis post first appeared on GeekDad on 10/12/2015

Having started with an author I’d never read for my first literary SFF read, my second choice of writer put me on much more familiar ground. David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors.

Ever since I first read his masterpiece of interlocking short stories, GhostwrittenI wait impatiently for his next book to arrive, devour it almost instantly, and then start the wait again.

The sudden arrival of Slade Housea little over a year since I read The Bone Clockswas a very welcome surprise (the usual wait between novels is around four years). When the book arrived, the comparatively fast turnaround time was explained. Compared with previous novels, Slade House is a slim 233 pages, and the print is fairly large too.

The basis of the stories in the book came from Mitchell’s storytelling tweets from around the time that The Bone Clocks was published. Whilst Mitchell’s internet presence is fairly low key, he’s not afraid to harness its story-telling power.

I said that Slade House contains “stories,” so is this a novel or a set of short stories? Both. Mitchell is the master of morphing short story collections into novels. He most famously employed this device in Cloud Atlas, a novel in which the stories are nested inside one another, and where the whole novel has an axis of symmetry through its central tale.

There’s nothing so complicated here. What we have with Slade House is five stories told sequentially in time. Each story takes place on the 31st of October when, every nine years, the mysterious Slade House magically appears in the middle of a suburban street. The final story takes place on Halloween 2015.

Mitchell’s stories are ghost stories in the grand tradition. All are spooky, menacing, and a little bit scary. All set in the eponymous, haunted, Slade House. Whilst each story in the books could probably stand on its own, each one builds on what came before. Little bits of information are drip fed to the reader as each set of characters enters the house to challenge the horror behind the small black gate in the wall.

Slade House exists in the same world as Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Does this matter? Ultimately, yes. The first four stories would be fine, but number five, the one that contains the novel’s denouement, would be greatly diminished were you not familiar with the concept of what exactly a Bone Clock is. I frankly think you’d be baffled and a little cheated that the novel ended they way it does. If you haven’t read The Bone Clocks yetit’s a fine novel that will most certainly reward your attention.

Slade House is probably less SFF than both The Bone Clocks and Cloud AtlasThere are supernatural elements, and certainly something fishy going on, but until the final pages there is very little of the science fiction motif that underpins The Bone Clocks.

Why do I like Mitchell’s novels so much? Partly it’s the audacious structures he uses, but mostly it’s his use of language. It probably helps Mitchell is about my age and his upbringing in “The Midlands” is similar to mine. His semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, a story about a teenage boy, is set about twenty miles from where I spent my teenage years. Needless to say, I loved it. Mitchell’s cultural grounding feels like my cultural grounding.

But you don’t have to have lived just south of Birmingham (UK) to like his books. Like all great writers, Mitchell has that knack of pulling a short concise metaphor out of the air, that perfectly encapsulates a feeling or notion you’ve had, but can never quite describe. He notices the small details in life that you don’t notice you’ve noticed. Things you don’t realize you’re aware of until Mitchell points them out to you.

I very much enjoyed reading Slade HouseIt is certainly one of his most accessible novels, and I would recommend it for those who had never read him, were it not for its dependence on having read The Bone Clocks to get the most from it.

Whilst the books is certainly enjoyable, I don’t think this is a novel that will extend Mitchell’s legend as a writer. It’s an entertaining story, well executed, but it doesn’t play with genre or structure in the way Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks does. A good novel then, but not a great one. 

Many thanks to Nicky of Hodder Books UK, for sending me a copy of this book for my literary SFF project. Next up is Iain Pears’ multi-dimensional, time travel novel Arcadia.

Salman Rushdie -Two Years Two Months & Twenty Eight Days

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 29/11/2015

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I’m not a fighter he told her. I’m not a hero. I’m a gardener”

As I mentioned in the introductory piece to my literary science fiction-fantasy investigation, I’ve never read any Salman Rushdie. He’s an author I’d been inclined to shy away from, but the mixture of epic tales and superheroes promised in the blurb for Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights, piqued my interest. The desire to try the book formed the inspiration for this series of posts; could traditionally “high brow” authors write accessible and entertaining science fiction? This is how I fared on novel number one.

First up, I did fall asleep several times when reading Two Years… This was partly due to my youngest reintroducing pre-5 am alarm calls and partly because, as well as telling a tale of epic heroism, Rushdie likes a bit of flowery contemplation too.

I am, however, glad to have read the book. It may have occasionally sent me to sleep, but it’s full of the themes and ideas that have underpinned superheroic fiction for decades.

The book displays many genre conventions and references yet more. There are Jinn, the mythical and magical creatures that provide the main source of fantasy in the book. They live in an alternate world, parallel to our own.

One of the novel’s human heroes is a comic book artist (described as being “sub-Stan Lee”). The book’s narrator does so from somewhen in the far future, from a hinted-at, super-technological world. The story is an end-of-days tale culminating in the arrival of Armageddon. At one point, Rushdie invokes sub-atomic particles and Lewis Carrol, via the Cheshire Cat principle. There is much here for the geek.

Standing against four tyrannous super-beings bent on laying the world in ruins are a band of disparate heroes who come together to fight the incursion. This central stand-off evokes images of Superman 2 and The Avengers.

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On the surface, Two Years is a fairy tale about the love of a Jinn for her human, philosopher husband, and the countless children they had; Jinn, it seems, are eye-wateringly fecund. It is these demi-jinn that will fight the incursion when it finally arrives.

Dig deeper, and, as one might expect, there’s quite a bit more going on. The original philosopher Ibn Rushd fights a philosophical/religious battle with another, more devout philosopher. These exchanges cannot be read without bringing to mind Rushdie’s own significant brush with organized religion. Not that he isn’t above poking fun at his own predicament.

“You mean,” she said, “that because we are not married our children cannot carry their father’s name.” He smiled his sad crooked smile. “It is better that they be the Duniazat,” he said, “a name which contains the world and not been judged by it. To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.” 

Beneath that, as you might expect for a novel that’s a riff on 1001 Nightsthis is a book about the power of stories.

“[T]o tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present. To recount a fantasy, a story about the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual. If this were not true then the deed would be pointless…”

The novel is laden with allegory, some obvious, others less so. The baby that gives deceivers boils is the stuff of politicians’ nightmares. There’s a beautiful passage highlighting the plight of the migrant, even a welcomed successful one, that details the pain of being separated from one’s culture.

A dystopian fable warns against the glory of capitalism and the perils of grasping always to build the future. Another powerful passage decries western foreign policy, whilst simultaneously putting the boot into religious fundamentalism. This fable within a fable depicts the situation in Syria and the rise of IS with depressing accuracy. The blend of fable and hard-edged truth are what gives Two Years its power.

Rushdie’s language is sometimes overblown. Some of the esoteric and ethereal romantic pontification are what sent me to sleep, but other sections are beautiful and compelling. The story is suffused with humor and it wears its references lightly. There are a number of subtle riffs on superhero and comic book culture.

I’ve reread a number of sections of the book in order to write this piece and, in doing so, I have developed an even greater respect for it. Removed from trying to piece together the story, I have found it easier to immerse myself in Rushdie’s use of language; to enjoy each of his set-piece vignettes.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights will not be to everybody’s taste, but I have found it an invigorating read that has made me think about the stories we tell and how they fit into the world in which we live. It is a novel that will bear repeat reading and, as the first book of my literary science fiction investigation, it represents an unqualified success.

Next up of my Literary SFF reads is a slimmer, more conventional novel, Slade House by David Mitchell.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes from the team at Penguin Random House UK.