Reading! It’s hard to get a lot of it done when you’re also writing a novel. I suspect this is partly evolution’s fault. Over the last few thousand years it could have been preparing us to stare at electronic screens all day, decoding long sequences of symbols and putting new sequences together in slightly different configurations that might hopefully convey meaning to someone, somewhere, some day. But instead it was teaching us to forage for berries, spear sabre-toothed tigers and shiver in caves scraping bits of metal together over piles of sticks. What use are those skills in today’s job market, evolution?! Anyway, in defiance of my ancestors’ way of life, I’ve been forcing myself to make time to read, and that’s good because it means I read some lovely books like these:
|Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
It’s hard to describe this book without descending into metaphor: it’s a rollercoaster that spends half its duration cranking you to the top and the latter half plunging you back to earth! It’s a beautiful Rubik’s cube with so many moving parts it may never truly be solved! It’s … okay, if you want to be a literal Linda about it, it’s a series of tangentially connected stories told with amazing skill in various styles, but it can feel very much like those first two things I said. If you’re not used to 19th century adventure stories, the first section might feel a little slow, but it gets more accessible to modern audiences as it goes along. The mystery grows as the layers are pulled back, until the merest hint of a connection between the narratives can set your spine a-tinglin’. If you’re like me you’ll reach the end with the uncomfortable sense that you’ve just read six better books than you’ll ever write, tempered only by the desire to read it again and spot more clues. If that’s not enough for you, it contains a hilariously and depressingly accurate account of travelling by train in Britain.
|John Dies at the End by David Wong
This book is a comical sci-fi horror … thingumy which proves that humour does not have to come at the expense of things like tension, empathy, poignancy and fear, and can in fact heighten them. Much of what transpires is disarmingly silly. Supernatural forces are painted as immature teenagers with a destructive streak, but this makes them somehow more terrifying than the solemn and restrained phantoms of most horror stories. The eponymous John is one of the most memorable characters I’ve read lately, mostly because he seems like exactly the sort of person you’d have gone to high school with – almost too ridiculous to be made up. It can also be so politically incorrect that it seems pointless to even point it out – in that way, and in its grotesque imagination, it reminds me more of South Park than of anything else. South Park mixed with a cheap B-movie mixed with Douglas Adams mixed with god-knows-what. I feel like either I or David Wong (probably me, to be honest) slightly lost the plot somewhere in the middle, but I certainly enjoyed it enough to stick the sequel (This Book is Full of Spiders) on my reading list.
|Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
After reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I knew I had to go back to Murakami at some point, as he’s one of the few writers who genuinely inspires me to paint pictures in my head of the things he describes, as readers seem to be expected to but I rarely do. Kafka on the Shore recounts two cryptically interlinked stories: the vaguely Oedipal tale of a teenage runaway, and the strange adventures of an even stranger old man. It shares certain elements with Wind-up Bird: awkward sex, lost cats, surreal vision quests and bizarre events from the past whose consequences echo to the present. In a certain frame of mind – if I were trying to write an essay on the book, say – I might find the muddling of metaphor and reality frustrating. Even reading it for pleasure, the art-sceptical part of my brain sometimes chimes in “What does any of this mean? It’s just a load of random weird stuff happening. I could write this” before the rest of my brain sardonically responds “Oh yeah? And it would be this beautiful and disturbing and downright hypnotic, would it? Now shoosh and enjoy the ride.”
|Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
A book I happened to pick up because it was 99p on Kindle, and I’m glad I did. It’s a series of short stories detailing different imagined afterlives. Few of them involve us being judged by the criteria of any existing religion; instead there is an implied new religion to be found embedded in each story. In other words, we could choose to live our lives based on the assumption that any one of these accounts is true; if we believe ‘Metamorphosis’, for example, we may want to spend the latter years of our lives systematically erasing all evidence that we ever existed. If you think you have a good sci-fi idea tucked away in your brain, it’s worth reading this book just to see if David Eagleman has already written about it. Damn you ‘Conservation’! (On a related note, here is another thought-provoking afterlife story, which seems to do the rounds on the internet every so often.)
|The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
I’d heard such good things about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up, despite my fear of reading straight fantasy in case it shows up my own novel. As I feared, there are certain sections that make me go “Awww, that’s sort of like that bit in my book, but way better”; at points Patrick Rothfuss seems to be taking us on a tour of fantasy tropes, going “This is how you do this one well, this is how you make this one interesting”. In some ways the setting feels like a pretty traditional fantasy world, albeit very well realised and rich in cultural detail. One thing that sets it apart is sympathy, a magic system that’s unique in that it … well, it almost makes sense. Unlike the handily vague fireball-flinging nonsense in a lot of fantasy novels (mine included), sympathy has rules which the reader is allowed to learn, so rather than feeling alienated when the protagonist pulls off a particularly badass piece of binding, you say “Ohhh, that was clever, well done!” It’s a great fun book, but if you’re the impatient sort, bear in mind that it is the first of a trilogy that is not yet finished and leaves many a loose end dangling provocatively in your face.