Sunday, 2 September 2012

Summer Reading: Part 1

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Not the comedian but the Man Booker Prize short-listed author! This turned up in my suitcase of books and a friend asked if I'd read it. So of course I had to read it. And I wasn't sure that I liked it at first. The first section, 'The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing' - the diary of a seafarer - just didn't grip me, and when it suddenly stops mid-sentence and moves on to 'Letters from Zedelghem', one side of a correspondence between a 1930s composer and his ex-lover, I feared that it was going to be a Calvino-esque set of part-stories that would leave me frustrated and angry at the author. (Not that I was ever angry at Calvino of course. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller remains one of my all-time favourites. You should read it.) By the time I reached the third section - 'Half Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery' - I had realised that I wasn't being sold down the river and in fact was probably in for a damn good ride.

The novel sweeps ahead with three further narratives spanning different genres, each cleverly connected and with subtly linking themes, and each moving forwards in time. 'The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish' is a British farce, 'An Orison of Sonmi~451' is dystopian science-fiction, and 'Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After' is a kind of post-apocalyptic tall-tale. And then the novel snaps back and the stories continue, but in reverse order. The whole novel is something of a wild ride, and left me breathless in my rush to the end and then suddenly dawdling in a vain attempt to prolong the experience. This is an extraordinary book that would bear reading again. And - I discovered today - it has been made into a film, to be released later this year. Definitely one that has earned its place in my library.

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter
Coalescent is the first of four books in the Destiny's Children series, which itself is part of the longer Xeelee Sequence, of which I cannot be bothered to research further. It begins with a modern day quest to Rome to find a lost and forgotten sister, and travels via a cult conspiracy that smacks of Dan Brown to end with a handful of social evolution theory and an explosion. And then it tacks on a 'several thousand years in the future' coda, that may well introduce the next book but doesn't sit at all well at the end of this one. The novel is interlaced with the story of Regina, growing up in Roman Britain and with some weird ideas about family. Initially interesting, this timeline dies a death of boredom with the demise of Regina, far before it actually peters out prior to the present day. The writing is - okay - fairly basic, and with some silly errors. For example, Baxter can't seem to keep track of the age of his main characters: Regina gets pregnant at 17, with her only child, and then two segments later she is 41 and her daughter 21.

The modern-day thread switches between different points of view, and whilst the story of cult-member Lucia is gripping, protagonist George Poole's account is less so. Poole's initial suspicious attitude towards his childhood friend Peter seems unjustified, but then Peter himself is barely fleshed out as a character. And then there is the spattering of talk about the Kuiper Anomaly, a weird thing in space, that - Chekhov's gun! - is never actually explained or becomes relevant. (Until, apparently, Book 3 of the series, but it's unlikely that I'm going to get that far). So, in conclusion, what we have is middle-of-the-road writing, that starts with an interesting premise and then falls apart. Might well appeal to fans of The Da Vinci Code. I know that Baxter has his followers but I don't think that he's for me. I'm beginning to wonder if I actually like reading science-fiction. I don't seem to have very much good to say about it. And I never seem to make it past the first book of a series!

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier is rather fascinating. A secret bisexual and possibly a plagiarist, in her time she was classed merely as a romantic novelist. It is easy then, to forget that she wrote The Birds and Don't Look Now, short stories that were both made into films that are now classics of the suspense/horror genre. But she is best known for her gothic mystery Rebecca, made world famous in film version by Alfred Hitchcock. Rebecca, published in 1938, and Jamaica Inn, published in 1936, share a similar initial plot: young girl goes to live in creepy old house full of secrets. The circumstances, and the resulting drama, are however quite different. On the death of her mother, 23 year old Mary Yellan goes to live with her aunt and uncle at an isolated coaching inn. She discovers en route that something is not quite right with the place, and on arrival discovers that her aunt is a shade of her former self and married to a brutish and controlling man.

Mary Yellan is a relatively feisty heroine, determined to rescue her unhappy aunt and discover the secrets of the inn. It surprised me, this book, with its menacing atmosphere, and its painful description of an abused wife; I was expecting something lighter and more straightforward. By modern standards the solution to the mystery may seem a little predictable, but the journey is a good one, and this would be a perfect book for reading on a storm-lashed winter's night. The only thing that disappointed me was the ending, and the heroine's decision, but that too was not entirely unexpected.

Skellig by David Almond
"I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon... He was lying there in the darkness behind the tea chests, in the dust and dirt. It was as if he'd been there forever. He was filthy and pale and dried out and I thouht he was dead. I couldn't have been more wrong. I'd soon begin to see the truth about him, that there'd never been another creature like him in the world." Sounds good, right? It is.

I am an unashamed fan of children's literature, and I enjoy re-reading the books I remember from my childhood (I still own most of them), as well as anything new, or anything I might have missed. If I'm supposedly too old to read it there's probably a place for it in my reading pile! I prefer books aimed at the 8-13 age range, where mystery and adventure abound and magic is easy to believe in. Skellig is a slim volume, simply written but written well, and with realism as well as magic. It's one of those books that feels like it contains an important truth about childhood, and, as an adult, makes you remember what it was like to be a child.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Cloud Atlas, like you i was always picking it up wanting to rush though more and more, which is rare for me these days, although felt it slightly failed to sustain its dazzling quality quite to the end; will be interesting to see what they do with the film!