Neuromancer, by William Gibson

Neuromancer is an interesting book – I had to go through most of it twice before I cottoned on to what the plot was.

Neuromancer

Normally, this would be a major issue for me. After all, shouldn’t it be fairly obvious what a book’s plot is? But actually, the novel’s randomness and its refusal to answer questions works well with its themes: just as the main character can sometimes not distinguish between reality and what is happening in his own head, so it takes you, as a reader, a while to understand what is going on. And, by a while, I mean most of the book.

The novel is set in a future world in which virtual reality has grown to become a much more immersive experience. It follows Case, a young ex-computer hacker  who had his central nervous system (which is essential for working in the matrix), damaged by some previous employers he had robbed. He is searching for a way to repair that damage so that he can return to the matrix, but this seems to be an impossible feat.

MatrixCode

Not *that* Matrix! (a little bit that Matrix)

Luckily for him, he is hired by an ex-army man who wants him for “a job” (exactly what the job is is, I think, never really specified at the time). The man in question is incredibly wealthy and has the resources to fix his broken systems, as well as take him around the world, and into orbit, in order to complete the job he’s been chosen for.

Gibson’s imagination, in creating the various cities and space habitats that litter his universe, is admirable and intricate, and the book is worth reading for his descriptions of future styles and mores. The novel’s characters have the strange, slightly disconnected feel to them that I have often noticed  in high science-fiction, and which can be a bit of a turn-off (if you’re looking for people to have feelings of happiness, love, or motivations beyond themselves, this is not the novel for you).

 

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

When Thaniel, a Victorian telegraphist for the Home Office, finds a mysterious watch in his apartment, he becomes a little nervous. When the watch’s alarm sounds moments before a bomb explodes – saving his life when he goes outside to silence it – he realises that not only was he right to be nervous, but now he might be in deep trouble.

In his attempts to find out where the watch came from, and why the alarm sounded moments before the bomb exploded, he meets Mori, a Japanese watchmaker. Mori is an extraordinary man: not only is he so gifted with clockwork that he has created an entirely lifelike clockwork octopus, but he is also strangely good at knowing exactly what Thaniel is about to say…

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

This was an excellent read (or should I say “listen”, as again I have been lazy and listened to it on Audible while doing the washing up). It combines an interesting blend of history and science fiction, without sacrificing one for the other. In addition, the “science” in it, which is based on a real, although now disproven, theory, is something that I’ve not seen explored in this way before. Sadly, the novel does not always stick solidly to its own scientific rules, but this is only in a couple of small remarks which can easily be ignored. The rest of the time, it’s an incredibly interesting idea.

The friendship between Thaniel or Mori (or is it friendship?) is absolutely wonderful, as well. Pulley places a lot of emphasis on the little things which allow the two to show affection for each other, such as their drinking tea together or checking that the other is all right. The writer of this review makes an excellent point when he says that male friendship is rare in literature; I’m not sure I have read such an excellent male relationship since Lord of the Rings.

feb19_frodo_and_sam_leaving_shire

It’s like this, but if Sam didn’t work for Frodo.

The book does take a little while to get into. Thaniel’s character, before he meets Mori, is quite dull, while Grace, the main female character, is completely obnoxious. I spent the first few chapters worrying that I would have to spend all my time with these people, but rest assured that they become a great deal better and more interesting once the plot kicks in.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street comes highly recommended. It is interesting in both a philosophical and a historical sense. Also, it has made me really, really want a clockwork octopus.

Blue-Ringed-Octopus-Pictures

Preferably a cute one.

H is for Hawk and To the River – a review

As you know, I have only just begun reading non-fiction for pleasure. Already, I have found a genre I rather like, although the specificity of this genre makes it difficult to say whether it really counts as a genre, or possibly even as a sub-genre.

In both H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, and To the River, by Olivia Laing, the authors are women who, on experiencing a loss – in the former the loss of a father, in the latter the lose of a partner at the close of a relationship – take solace in an earlier, natural, pleasure.

In H is for Hawk, this pleasure is falconry. Macdonald decides that, in the wake of her father’s death, she should begin one of the greatest challenges for those who tame birds of prey – she chooses to train a goshawk. Her desire to tame the hawk is tied up with T. H. White’s horribly botched attempt to do the same thing, as he described in The Goshawk. While she, unlike White, actually knows what she is doing, their anxieties, and the desire to escape from humanity and be loved by their birds, are definitely the same, and binding.

Olivia Laing,meanwhile, chooses to walk down the length of the river Ouse. Her book has less focus on a single person who has gone before – although the spectre of Virginia Woolfe’s suicide in the river frequently hovers over the pages of the book. Instead, she relates a number of historical people and events linked with the river and its surroundings.

The reason why these two books seemed the same, in some way, is more than the semi-autobiographical, semi-historical content, and more than the desire to flee into nature: it is also, in a strong way, the tone. Both writers meander back and forth between their own lives and the lives of their subjects. Both writers also discuss strange physical reaction to natural surroundings, which seem to suggest a sort of madness that comes from leaving human society. For Laing, the effect of sunlight upon grass, for example, becomes a kind of blinding, golden glow; for Macdonald, bushes and trees become some kind of plantlike people who stand, motionless, in the background of her hawk-flying.

Both books have a slight feel of delirium to them (actually, Macdonald is diagnosed with depression at a late stage in her book, but seems to have expected the feelings she was having since they mirror White’s), and both suggest, in a way, a strange mixing of past and present in particular pastimes. They are both excellent – I have learned an awful lot about Sussex and about T. H. White from them, but most certainly not in a dry manner/ These are the sort of books that mix history, nature and the soul, and make the world seem a more interesting place when you emerge.

Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey – a review

I listened to Elizabeth is Missing on Audible, which in retrospect may not have been the best idea. The narrator, Maude, is suffering from dementia, and listening her repeatedly forget things and ask the same questions over and over again was somewhat catching. Over the last few days I have found myself concentrating extremely hard on small details like tube stops, and forgetting the names of things. This is, of course, a sign of how excellent this novel is.

Elizabeth is MissingThe plot of Elizabeth is Missing is quite sparse – Maude’s friend Elizabeth isn’t at home, and hasn’t called. Maude knows this because she make notes to remind herself that Elizabeth hasn’t called, as she notes everything she thinks might be important. She tries to go and find Elizabeth, but nobody seems to find it concerning that Elizabeth’s missing. Maude can’t remember the present very well at all, but she can remember her childhood from 1946, when her sister Sukey also went missing. Flashbacks to the months after Sukey vanished are interspersed with Maude’s hunt for Elizabeth, and she often gets confused between what she’s remembering and where she is now.

This was an excellent book. Maude is an incredibly well developed character (a lot of the time she reminded me a great deal of my grandma, who holds a number of the same opinions). She is one of the rare characters with whom you have feel incredibly sympathetic, while at the same time feeling frustrated – when she says for the tenth time that she might like a slice of toast when you know she’s not meant to eat so much – she overeats bread because she forgets she isn’t hungry – it is easy to get annoyed at her for something that’s obviously not her fault. Maude is surrounded by people who get annoyed at her for forgetting things, and she forgets why they are annoyed.

I highly recommend this book: it has a firm grasp on the nature of growing old, and of forgetfulness in particular. I also recommend that you either read it all in one day, or in a non-immersive way. While this is a book I feel everyone should read, prolonged exposure may be dangerous to the mind.

The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

It has been a while since I have published any reviews here, largely I think because I haven’t been reading too much. However, recently my brother decided to give a friend of his this book as a present, and let me read through it first. It took me about an hour, and it was well worth the time. This may be partly because I am a big fan of both Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, so frankly the combination of their work was always going to appeal to me.

The Sleeper and the Spindle is, firstly, beautiful. I have long been a fan of Chris Riddell’s work, having read The Edge Chronicles, a series illustrated by him, when I was quite young. I even got to meet him, and he drew me a picture of a troll-thing! It was very exciting.

This book takes full advantage of Chris Riddell’s beautiful illustrations, using them as borders as well as pictures, and shaping the text and pictures around each other. The illustrations are also, occasionally, filled in with gold, making the entire thing a feast for the eyes.

I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, for fear of giving too much away – it is, after all, a short story. I shall just set the scene: the Queen is about to be married when she receives a visit from her old friends, three dwarfs who have come from beneath the mountains. They tell her about a plague that is sweeping across the land, causing all who encounter it to fall asleep. The Queen, who has once slept for a year and is thus more immune to such a plague, elects to journey to the centre of this disease – a castle, where a girl lies sleeping who may only be awoken by a kiss.

If you enjoy fairy tales with interesting and satisfying twists, this book is almost certainly the book you are looking for.

The Abundance, by Amit Majmudar

Mala and Ronak are adults now. They’ve married, begun their own families and moved away from the suffocating world of their first generation immigrant parents. But when they learn that their mother has only months to live, the focus of their world returns to her home.

Having shown little interest in the Indian cuisine they eat at every gathering, Mala decides to master the recipes her mother learned at her own mother’s knee. And as they cook together, mother and daughter begin to confront the great divisions of their lives, and finally heal their fractured relationship. But when Ronak comes up with a plan to memorialise his mother, the hard-won peace between them is tested to its limits.

The cover also attracted me: it was possibly the most colourful book I could find.

The cover also attracted me: it was possibly the most colourful book I could find.

When I bought this book, from a W.H.Smith in Victoria station, I was tired. I was tired, a little grumpy from travelling and the extra one-and-a-half hours I had yet to travel on Southern Rail, and I was just looking for a simple and gentle read. Besides, I had already picked out another book, and it was buy one get one half price.
The blurb was what attracted me to this book: it looks like a typical women’s bonding book. You know the sort of book I mean: women come together and learn empathy and such. Now, this is not by any means the kind of book I actively enjoy, but it’s a safe choice for a relaxing read and a destraction from my growing terror of travelling via train.

Having made these assumptions, I was a little surprised by the actual contents of the book. First of all, I thought that it would be written from the perspective of the daughter, or in the third person, whereas actually it is written from the perspective of their mother. This makes it a great deal more interesting, especially because of the sympathy which Majmudar has for his main character. She is an Indian-born woman living in America. She is firm in maintaining her traditions, most of all the tradition of the mother literally nurturing the family through food. While I am not familiar with Indian traditions myself, Majmudar manages both to be sympathetic to his narrator and to her children (who pursue a far more Western lifestyle).

While I initially thought that The Abundance would be about a mother and daughter bonding over food and cooking, it is in fact about a family. The impending death of the mother through cancer is used as a catalyst for her to reflect on their lives together, as well as the death of her own mother. Mala and Ronak are both interesting characters as we see them grow up, especially when they are seen through the mother’s eyes – she learns things about them, which were originally hidden, all the time.

This was a beautiful book to read, one of those which feels somehow nurturing to the soul. It encourages readers to think about the way others behave with compassion, rather than judgement. I would recommend it to anyone with a horrendous train journey, or a stressful day, ahead of them.