The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

The Preague Cemetary Publisher: Random House
Published: 2012
My rating: 3.5 stars

The 1800s was possibly the most tumultuous century in history, full of revolutionary idealism and religious plotting. Fired by Romantic idealism and a love of the Gothic, secrets abounded and subterfuge was rife; this was the century which brought the world firmly into the modern era, via violent revolutions and rampant anti-Semitism, including the Dreyfus affair. Governments plotted against each other and their own people, creating unrest and promoting rebellion in order to achieve their own ends. Mistrust of anyone different was ubiquitous and rumours of dastardly plots by Jews and Masons were common. At the centre of it all, with a finger in every pie, is Simone Simonini, the main character and creator of The Prague Cemetery of the title. He reaps advantage from sowing discord and creating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports to describe a Jewish plan for world domination, casually disposing of anyone who threatens his work.

With a plot like this, what could go wrong? It has all the elements of a ripping yarn, written by a very well-regarded author and was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. However, I felt that Eco had over-reached himself on this occasion. The scope of the plot was far-reaching, spanning many decades and several countries. In trying to create a single story which could tie together disparate elements from European history, I felt that The Prague Cemetery lacked clarity and cohesion.

I found this a difficult book to read, and therefore to rate – which is reflected in the fact that I have deviated from my standard rating system to give it 3.5 stars. There is no doubt that Umberto Eco is a talented author and I have thoroughly enjoyed several of his previous works. However, The Prague Cemetery just didn’t do it for me. Perhaps it was the protagonist, who is one of the most unpleasant that I have come across, or it could be that my knowledge of this period of history is somewhat lacking (although I do now have a better understanding of France in the 1800s, due to reading Les Miserables). Whatever it was, I struggled to get through the book and couldn’t wait to finish it, which was a red flag since I am a voracious reader. My rating, therefore, reflects the struggle between my esteem for Eco as an author and my feelings about this specific book.

Verdict: Packed full of historical detail, The Prague Cemetery will appeal to a certain kind of reader. It just wasn’t for me.

Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool Publisher: Broad Reach Publishing
Published: 2012
My rating: 5 stars

In the future, the world has been struck by an unspecified ecological disaster and is uninhabitable. Most of the population has been killed off and the remaining people live in a giant underground silo, entirely reliant upon those they live with and a vast system of rules and regulations known as The Pact. Any rulebreakers are sent outside to clean the lenses of the sensor towers which provide views of the outside world, complete with a crumbling city and clouds of toxic gas, in an attempt to maintain order and sanity. While most inhabitants of the silo are content to live in their underground home, some question the entire regime. Deemed too dangerous to live, these are the people who are sent out to their deaths. But what if someone sent to cleaning didn’t die? What if they came back with stories of the outside world?

I chose to read Wool for several reasons. This was in part due to reviews I had heard of the plot but also, as a result of my publishing studies, an interest in the way it has been published. Both of these informed my reading of the text and have factored into this 5 star review.

Plot-wise, Wool is far from original. Recently there seems to have been an explosion in books exploring dystopian futures. While many of these are YA titles, such as the Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies, some are are the sci-fi/fantasy genre. However, in a genre which risks over-saturation, Hugh Howey has managed to create a storyline which is refreshingly original.

The publishing history of Wool and the rest of the Silo trilogy is interesting. Howey initially self-published the stories on Amazon, where they proved to be a hit. Print rights to the series were picked up by Random House but Howey has managed to retain electronic rights to the series. In an age when many more authors are turning to self-publishing in an attempt to get past the barriers imposed by traditional publishing, Howey is definitive proof that this method works and may be the future of publishing.

Verdict: If you are interested in well thought through science fiction, this is definitely worth a read. While the plot is not entirely original, Howey has managed to set himself apart from other authors in this genre.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Published: 2013

My rating: 4 stars

The Goldfinch follows the story of Theo Decker over more than a decade. It starts with him as a thirteen-year-old, who somehow survives an accident that kills his mother. With his father out of the picture, Theo moves in with the Barbours, the family of a wealthy school friend who live in a world completely detached from his former life. Stumbling through this new world of money, and further detached from normality when his father suddenly reappears and whisks him off to a new and debauched life in Las Vegas, Theo clings to the only thing which reminds him of his old life and his mother – a small painting called The Goldfinch. A chance encounter with Boris, the existential son of a shady Russian businessman, sends Theo down the path of drinking, drugs and theft, issues which will follow him into his adult life. Only Hobie, an intellectual furniture restorer, provides Theo with the care he needs.

This is Donna Tartt’s third novel (after The Secret History and The Little Friend) and, following in the footsteps of her previous works, is a weighty tome full of rich descriptive passages and Tartt could justifiably be regarded as a 21st century Charles Dickens. As with her other novels, she deals with themes of drinking, drug taking and human relationships. These relationships can be inherently flawed (as with Theo and his father), mutually destructive (Theo and Boris) or caring (Theo and Hobie). The overarching question of the novel is whether we are shaped by our circumstances, subject to the whims of Fate, or whether we can choose our own destiny.

Although the skill of Tartt’s writing meant that I was tempted to give this book 5 stars, I didn’t feel able to. I felt it dragged somewhat and found myself getting bored towards the end. Perhaps part of my reluctance to give full marks stems from the fact that I listened to the audiobook of this title and really disliked the narrator, but there were times when I found it difficult to engage with the story. However, there is no doubt that Tartt is an impressive writer and at 773 pages she has created a richly complex world within this hefty tome.

Verdict: This is not a quick read, but it is immersive. As with her other books, many of the characters are thoroughly unpleasant, however there are glimmers of hope. Read this if you want something which will draw you in and make you think, with writing which will captivate you with its complexity.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

TheLongEarthPublisher: Doubleday

Published: 2012

My rating: 4 stars

In the year 2026, mankind discovered that the planet we inhabit is not the only one capable of generating life. But the planets they find are not in this universe. Instead, they are millions of iterations of Earth, existing in parallel like a deck of cards, and differing from each other only as the result of different outcomes of various events in the history of (these) Earth(s). On some, the dinosaurs weren’t wiped out. On another, the asteroid collision which created the moon never happened. On yet more, there is a massive inland sea in the middle of North America. In order to reach these millions of new Earths, known collectively as the Long Earth, you have to step. Some people do this by means of a stepper box, whereas others can do it without the aid of technology, and are therefore called natural steppers. As our Earth, known as Datum Earth, fills up with more and more people, many choose to leave this crowded planet and strike out on their own, either to set up new settlements or to endlessly wander between worlds. But something big is coming. Something which strikes fear into the other hominid species which inhabit the Long Earth. And it is up to Joshua Valiente, a natural stepper born on another Earth, and Lobsang, a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic reincarnated as an AI, to find out what.

I am generally wary of collaborative novels, feeling that they in some respects detract from of both authors while failing to live up to their potential. However, these fears were unfounded in the case of The Long Earth. Here, Pratchett contributed the plot while Baxter brought the more serious science fiction aspects to the table. I feel that the two writers styles married well together and that Baxter managed admirably to write a book where the initial idea was not his own. However, as seems to be the case with many of the books I read, this one has split opinion (reviews here). I think this is due to the prominence of Pratchett in promotion of this title. Those who expected it to be more comic, in the vein of Discworld, seem to feel let down by the harder sci-fi. However, Baxter is well-renowned in his genre and has created a thoroughly thought through set of worlds, which benefit from Pratchett’s somewhat lighter touch. The character of Lobsang is immediately recognisable as a Pratchett creation, but many of the more interesting aspects of the book, such as the concept of the probability tree, may well have come from Baxter.

Verdict: If you are a diehard Pratchett fan who feels uncomfortable at the idea of him writing something which is not a comic fantasy maybe let this one pass you by. However, if you are interested in a sci-fi novel which seriously addresses the issues of overpopulation, resource poverty and parallel universes, this is definitely worth a read.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

northern lightsPublisher: Scholastic

Published: 1995

My rating: 5 stars

Lyra Belacqua lives in Jordan College, Oxford with her dæmon, Pantalaimon. She has a semi-feral existence, playing and fighting with the servants, the town’s children and the gyptians. However, her idyllic lifestyle is to change, as someone is stealing children throughout the country. When her friend Roger disappears, Lyra determines to rescue him. Her ensuing adventure takes them to the frozen splendour of the North, where armoured bears prowl the ice and witches fly through the skies – and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments on the stolen children. Having overcome all the dangers she encounters, Lyra is forced to come to terms with mortality and the nature of Dust.

I first read this at the age of 11 and enjoyed the adventure elements of it. Re-reading it again at 25, I still enjoyed these elements (since I am a big fan of children’s fantasy fiction). However, I would argue that while Northern Lights is overtly a book aimed at children, there are many elements which can appeal to an adult readership and it should not be simply discounted as a “children’s book”. There are many nuances I picked up on this time round, reading it again over a decade later. Firstly, there are a lot of theological issues which will go straight over most children’s heads, but will ring true for anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of the Bible, as well as being a modern re-telling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (full interview here). By creating a world which is similar to ours but different, Pullman can explore concepts of religion and the soul in an environment sufficiently distant from our own.

There are clear parallels to be drawn between His Dark Materials (the trilogy of which Northern Lights is the first instalment) and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Both authors create alternate universes in which they can explore issues of theology. However, while Lewis approaches the topic from a strongly Christian point of view, Pullman is a staunch atheist. Pullman has attracted a number of negative comments due to his depiction of religious extremism and the fact that he has, in a Nietzsche-like fashion, killed God. However, I would argue that this is an overly simplistic point of view and, as much as Pullman may protest otherwise, Northern Lights is in fact a remarkably clear-sighted account of medieval theology.

Given the number of positive reviews and awards Northern Lights has won, it was almost inconceivable that it would not be adapted into a film. As such, many people will have first encountered Northern Lights via its film adaptation, The Golden Compass, which came out in 2007. However, this is not the best representation of the story as many of the important themes were diluted in order to make it more attractive to a younger audience. In doing so, many of the most compelling aspects of the book (at least from an adult point of view) are lost. Therefore, if at all possible I highly recommend reading the book before seeing the film. Firstly it will make the film adaptation make a lot more sense and secondly it contains a lot of important themes which are glossed over in the film.

Verdict: If you haven’t read this already, read it. If you have, read it again. And don’t judge the book by the film!

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

Look Who's Back Publisher: MacLehose Press

Published: 2014

My rating: 4 stars

Berlin, Summer 2011. Adolf Hitler awakes on a patch of waste land, in a world he no longer recognises. Gone are the glory days of the SS and national socialism; this Germany is multicultural, multi-lingual and, worst of all, run by a woman. Trying to understand the world in which he has woke up, Hitler befriends the owner of a newspaper kiosk who manages to get him a slot on a television show as a satirical impressionist. Embracing the potential of the internet as a vehicle for propaganda, he becomes a YouTube star as his charismatic personality begins to stir people and, as in the 1930s, he begins to gain followers in his attempt to restore the country to its glory days and to reinvigorate its Germanic and Aryan history. Although he suffers some set backs, we are led to believe that Hitler has gained enough loyal followers to kickstart his political ideology in the 21st century.

I was initially skeptical of a book which purports to be a comedy about Hitler and the Nazis. Given the events in Europe during the 20th century, I felt it to be in very poor taste to write something which made light of the Holocaust and the work of Hitler’s armies. Shortly after beginning Look Who’s Back I seriously considered giving up on it, since it seemed to be in incredibly poor taste. However, I persevered and benefitted from doing so. Rather than simply poking fun at the Nazis or ignoring the atrocities committed in order to achiever cheap laughs, Vermes has made a concentrated effort to produce a satire on the state of modern global politics. Although I am no expert on the state of Germany at this point in time, I feel that many of the comments which were being made hold equally true for the UK.

While this is a book which has really split opinion (if you have the time and inclination, go and have a look at the reviews on Goodreads), I feel that Vermes is trying to make a very important point: we need to remember what has happened in history. It is when we forget and begin to slide into apathy or, at the other extreme, allow right wing political groups to rise to power (as appears to be happening in Europe at the moment), that such atrocities can not only be committed but sanctioned by governments and the people they purport to represent. The fact that the author is German also adds to the book’s power, since he is critiquing his own country’s history and present politics, rather than an outsider poking holes without really understanding what they’re writing about.

I don’t usually discuss cover artwork in this blog, however I was particularly taken by the cover of this book. While it is minimalist, it also manages to grab the attention of a potential reader and to instantly convey the subject matter of the book. I read this book as the direct result of it appearing in the picture round of a book quiz which I attend (1st Monday of the month in Edinburgh Blackwell’s, should you wish to attend). The fact that it managed to attract my attention and for me to then remember it long enough to go and find the book surely means that the cover designer has done their job properly.

Verdict: Don’t be put off by the subject matter or fall for it being simply a comedy book. This is actually a very well considered piece of writing, using the figure of one of the most hated men in history to draw attention to failings in our society.

The Blackhouse by Peter May

The Blackhouse Publisher: Quercus

Published: 2011

My rating: 5 stars

A gruesome murder takes place in Crobost, a small village in the far north of the Isle of Lewis. Due to its similarity with a murder which took place in Edinburgh, Detective Inspector Fionnlagh (Fin) Macleod, a native of the island, is sent to Lewis to investigate the murder. Returning to the island almost 20 years after he left, Fin tries to remain objective while he investigates the death of Angel Macritchie, a man who turns out to have been his childhood tormentor. However, he is swiftly drawn back into the life he left as a young adult, with the community ties and all the long-forgotten secrets that come with it. In solving the murder, Fin is forced to take stock of his life and come to terms with his own past.

The story is presented in alternating chapter, which recount the current murder investigation and Fin’s childhood, with the former chapters written in the third person and the latter in the first person. As the mystery unfolds, it becomes clearer to the reader that rather simply providing a background to the character of Fin Macleod, the childhood chapters instead provide a crucial piece of the puzzle of who murdered Macritchie. Throughout the pages, we are introduced to a cast of characters who have influenced Fin’s life and through them are forced to question what his life would be like had he stayed on Lewis rather than going to Glasgow University and then entering the police force.

I picked this book up for £2 from a charity shop and devoured it in two days – it has been a while since any book held my attention the way this did. This seems to be a book which polarises opinion (as evidenced from the reviews on Goodreads). Many of the people giving it low ratings seem to have been attracted by the cover. This has a blurb which reads:

A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.

A MURDER. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.

A SECRET. Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.

A TRAP. As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.

Yes, this does describe the book. However, it does not accurately portray the book I read and I can see why people found themselves disliking it. I think that Quercus have done the book a great disservice – by setting it up as a horror novel, they have drawn in a readership which may not be entirely appropriate. Rather than a horror book, what May has created is a very detailed depiction of a murder investigation within a small island community and much of the narrative’s power lies in descriptions of boredom, claustrophobia and fear within the community. Additionally, the description of the Hebridean guga hunt provides both a vehicle for plot progression and an insight into an ancient Highland tradition. The only low point of the novel is the somewhat rushed denouement and the overly fanciful final 10 or so pages. In my opinion, these let down an otherwise brilliant novel.

Verdict: While I may be somewhat biased since I tend to prefer books which provide a lot of backstory to the events they describe, I think that many of the reviews on Goodreads are unnecessarily harsh. Despite a few issues outlined above, I really enjoyed The Blackhouse and it is thoroughly deserving of 5 stars. If you like a mystery novel with a little more thought put into it than the typical commercial trash, then this book is for you.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and SteelPublisher: W.W. Norton and Company

Published: 1997

My rating: 4 stars

Have you ever wondered why it was Europeans that colonised the rest of the world rather than Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians? Europeans clearly had a distinct technological advantage over those they subjugated – when Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire he managed to defeat an army of 80,000 Incan with only 168 Spanish soldiers. How could this happen in the face of overwhelming numbers? In Guns, Germs & Steel, Jared Diamond set out to explain why world exploration and conquest has been dominated by Europeans. While many might assume that this is due to an inherent genetic superiority within Europeans, a theory which has been popular with many proponents of racial purity, Diamond instead suggests that the European advantage was a due to the fact that the geography of Eurasia was better suited to farming, the domestication of animals & the free flow of technologies between different groups of people than that of, say, Africa or the Americas. While food production, rather than a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (which is generally agreed to be the first step towards cultural growth from small bands of people to fully fledged empires), was invented independently in several different parts of the world, it was in Eurasia that it really took off and spread throughout the different communities. Likewise, the political disunity of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, as opposed to the very strong political unity and policy of isolation in China at the same time, meant that inventiveness and exploration were fostered through competition between different European states. What could easily be put down as a result of European racial superiority is attributed by Diamond to a combination of socio-economic factors which started with Eurasian adoption of food production over 11,000 years ago.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a very interesting read. Diamond is aware of many arguments in the field and draws upon his experiences as an anthropologist in New Guinea to illustrate his arguments. His writing is both interesting and compelling, however, I did find that after a while he was repeating himself. Yes, it is clear that the development of food production and animal domestication is what leads a society to grow and become more complex and powerful. The final five pages, whereby he discussed the differing technological developments in different countries, were some of the most interesting in the book. However, I felt that with some judicious editing the book could be made more pithy and concise.

The biggest problem I had with the book was a technical one, so does not factor into my rating of Diamond’s writing. I read this book on my Kindle and, although there are sometimes some issues with the typesetting of Kindle books, that was not the case this time. However, due to the type of book this is Diamond makes frequent reference to tables which illustrate his point. This is all well and good, but these tables either made no appearance in my Kindle edition or, if they were present, they were cut off at the edge of the screen, spread across two pages or otherwise did not present the information properly. This is an issue at the publisher’s end rather than the author’s, yet it did have a big impact on my enjoyment of the book.

Verdict: This is an interesting work, which surveys the reasons behind European cultural dominance. Since it is aimed at the interested lay person, it explains anthropological theory at several points, but in a manner which is easy to understand. However, as mentioned above there are some issues with the typesetting of the Kindle edition. Therefore, if you are to read this book I urge you to find a physical copy so that you can see the tables and how they add to Diamond’s prose.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's CallingPublisher: Sphere Books

Published: 2013

My rating: 4 stars

Very early one January morning Lula Landry, a troubled supermodel, falls to her death from her penthouse. The police rule it a suicide, but her brother isn’t so sure and hires Cormoran Strike to investigate her untimely death. An injured Afghan war veteran and son of a famous musician, Strike is an unlikely choice to investigate this death. Together with his temporary assistant, Robin, Strike delves into Landry’s murky life and in doing so enters a world full of glamour, pain and danger. His investigations lead deeper and deeper into Landry’s tempestuous life and puts Strike, Robin and those around them in grave danger.

The premise of The Cuckoo’s Calling is not a particularly new one – a marginalised detective with severe personal problems is called upon to enter into another world in order to solve a crime which has been written off by the police. While these are tropes which have been utilised by many previous authors, Galbraith manages to bring them up to date and to create a cast of characters who are simultaneously despicable and pitiable. Forced into high society, we see this world through the eyes of the jaded Strike and the idealistic Robin, who at the outset of the book is newly engaged and cannot wait to look through bridal magazines in her lunch break. However, as the narrative unravels both characters become more rounded individuals as we learn more about them and their individual skillsets. While it is clear from the outset that we will find out that Landry had been murdered, the revelation of the killer was well orchestrated. There are clues from the outset and a gradual tying together of strings to result in the final moment of showmanship when Strike confronts the murder in his office.

Initially marketed as a work by a new author, described by the publisher as “a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry”, it soon emerged the Robert Galbraith was the pen name of J.K. Rowling, who is best known for the Harry Potter series. Whether this information was inadvertently leaked or was a considered marketing ploy is up for debate, however it is likely that knowing that Galbraith is really Rowling cannot have had a negative effect on the book’s sales figures.

While there are many things to commend The Cuckoo’s Calling, including Rowling’s brave attempt at breaking into a new genre of fiction, I have several issues with the text. Firstly, the plot exposition is somewhat clunky. There were several instances where things are repeated or characters spell things out in an unnecessarily long-winded and self-satisfied fashion. Secondly, many of the characters are two dimensional and come across as caricatures. Thirdly, as mentioned above, the theme of a disillusioned detective taking on a case which will make or break his career is an old one. However, putting these complaints aside for the moment, Rowling has made a solid attempt at a new style of writing and the story she has come up with is engaging.

Verdict: Having been aware of the author’s true identity prior to reading the book, it is difficult to tell whether this affected my view of it or not. While Rowling has managed to break away from Harry Potter and enter into a new genre of fiction, it is difficult to separate knowledge of her as a fantasy writer from this book and not to view it in light of her previous works. However, as a piece of standalone fiction it holds its own and marks a departure from Rowling’s previous work. While it will never be regarded as high literature, it is entertaining and better than much of the mass-market pulp fiction which is available.

 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralinePublisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 2002

My rating: 4 stars

The day after moving into her new flat, Coraline Jones went exploring. Having found the abandoned tennis court and the disused well, and forced indoors by the rain, her father suggests she count all the windows and doors in the flat. There are 21 windows and 14 doors, 13 of which open and close normally. The 14th is locked and opens onto a brick wall, but one day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house exactly like her own. Only it’s not. At first, things in the other flat seem to be much more to Coraline’s liking. The food is better and the toy box is filled with exciting books and games which move. But with this comes another mother and another father, who want Coraline to stay with them forever and be their little girl. Other children are trapped there as well, held hostage by the Other Mother. Coraline is their only hope of rescue and will have to fight with all her wits if she is to free these children and be able to return to her old life.

In only 163 pages, Neil Gaiman has managed to create an entire self-sustaining story. The setting is fleshed out and the important characters introduced early, so that when we get to the main crux of the narrative there is time to devote to developing it without feeling that anything has been left at the wayside. In Coraline, we have a strong female protagonist. While, from an adult perspective, she is a slightly irritating character (rejecting the “recipes” her father creates in favour of microwave pizza and chips), she is a refreshing change from the pathetic and overly girly characters found in many books aimed at younger readers. She relies on her wits to get out of situations rather than brute force, and beats the Other Mother at her own games. The fact that she is committed to saving the ghost children as well as herself and her parents is endearing.

Coraline is a much creepier book than I was expecting. Although it starts as a fairly typical magic/fantasy book aimed at younger readers, it soon morphs into a horror story. While it is not disturbing in the same way as Stephen King novels, there is still something about it which made me distinctly uncomfortable. However, the narrative is compelling and the characterisation is impressive – as the only characters able to span both worlds, Coraline and the Cat are the only ones who are convincingly three-dimensional. The others all act as two-dimensional backdrops to aid the plot progression.

Perhaps the best way to describe Coraline is as a warped version of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. There is the same motif of entering another world via a normal looking portal (here a door, in the others a rabbit hole and a mirror). Gaiman has brought to the fore all the creepier aspects of Lewis Carroll’s works, which can be quite uncomfortable to read as an adult, while retaining the fairytale elements and the all important conclusion in which the heroine vanquishes the forces of evil and returns to her own world having saved the other characters.

Verdict: Although aimed at younger readers, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as well and is an excellent introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work. Read this if you have a taste for fantasy and horror but still enjoy a happy ending.