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.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

England has no practical magicians. Of course, schoolboys are given basic lessons in magic, and there are a number of distinguished societies of magicians that study the history of magic, but no-one has been able to put this magic to any use for hundreds of years.

That is, until the 1800s, when the Learned Society of York Magicians encounter Mr Norrell, a retiring gentleman with an enormous library. Unlike the members of the Learned Society, Mr Norrell is a practical magician. He is convinced by members of the Society and by his servant Childermass that he should go to London and restore English magic to its former glory.

Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_cover

This is an absolutely fascinating book, with glorious characters. Mr Norrell is the most petty and particular hero I have ever encountered. He’s totally obsessed with his books, to the extent that he finds it hard to allow even Jonathan Strange, his student, to read them. He is also insistent that there is only one way for English magic to become respected – and it is his way.

Jonathan Strange, despite forming the first half of the title, doesn’t turn up for absolutely ages. He is also a gentleman, although one who comes to magic in a rather different way. He meets a disreputable magician (who can’t do magic), who gives him two spells he’s taken from Childermass. Strange tries them, and finds that they work. Since he wants a profession to impress Arabella, his fiancee and later his wife, he takes up magic, hears about Norrell, and goes to London to become his student.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The universe for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a wonderful one, a place that I didn’t really want to leave at the end of the book. It is set in an England that differs from our own only in that magic used to play a bigger part. The north of England was ruled for three hundred years by John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King. He then left, and magic has been impossible ever since. This fact is not really shown upfront at all – instead the narrator and characters keep referring to Uskglass, and previous magicians, as though it should be obvious to the reader that these things have happened. The effect is as though a book from an alternate universe fell through to ours, and it is both beautiful and interesting.

There are so many things I could say about this book, but I feel I would give away too much of the plot. Just – read it. If you like classic novels you will like this (it is written as though by an author of the 19th Century). If you like fantasy, this is also a good choice. And, if you don’t like to read at all, try watching the adaptation the BBC has just finished. It’s very nice, absorbing, and best of all it comes with BBC special effects.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. One of my favourite films is the adaptation made of it in 2006, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking. For years, however, I’ve been under the impression that I would really dislike the novel. The film has a sort of slow, ponderous beauty to it which I thought might be stodgy and dry when written down.

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Oh, how wrong I was.

But to get to the matter of the story. It is the tale of a youngish woman in the 1920s who, realising that she is running out of time to make a successful marriage, marries a government bacteriologist who works in Hong Kong. He loves her, but is incredibly awkward and shy, and we never really get to grips with what he is thinking.

Being bored, she has an affair with a far more attractive man. Her husband finds out and makes her a deal: either he will divorce her (which would have been a massive disgrace in those days), or she can come with him to Mei-tan-fu, a part of mainland China which is suffering from cholera. She chooses to go with him.

At this stage the film and novel somewhat get away from each other: in the first, she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* falls in love with her husband, in the second she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* begins to find a sense of herself which is independent from men and from what her mother has told her. She also does not fall back in love with her husband, seeing him until the end as somewhat malevollant.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I've put on this blog.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I’ve put on this blog.

Maugham (who, by the way, seems to have had an amazing life, being first a doctor, then a novelist, an ambulance driver in WWI, and a spy), writes at the beginning of the book that the story is based on another story which he learned from a young woman called Ersilia who was teaching him Italian. There are some lines in Dante’s Purgatorio which Ersilia told him related to Pia, a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband suspected her of adultery and who took her to his castle in the Maremma where he was sure she would die of the noxious vapours (when she did not, he threw her out of a window). Sometimes the inspiration which authors get for their stories is really fascinating, and while it seems that Maugham’s book fits more closely with his original inspiration I think that the film is still well worth watching. Nevertheless, and surprisingly to me, I think I prefer the novel to the film.

The Castle in Transylvania, by Jules Verne

I found this delightful little book when I was wandering aimlessly around the Forum library in Norwich. The Forum is fantastic, by the way, and if you live in the East of England (or are visiting) it is well worth going to.

It kind of looks like a glass aircraft hangar

It kind of looks like a glass aircraft hangar

In any case, the book confused me at first. I haven’t read any Jules Verne before, but I was pretty convinced that he wrote science fiction. And yet, here was I, reading a book with a title that sounds like gothic horror, with a plot that reads like gothic horror, and with characters who could only belong in a gothic horror story.

To be fair, most of what I know about Verne comes from Hark! A Vagrant

To be fair, most of what I know about Verne comes from Hark! A Vagrant

The Castle in Transylvania is very short, and I will try not to give too much of the plot away. It takes place in a village in Transylvania, which is near to an abandoned castle. The villagers maintain all of their superstitions, which include a deeply-rooted fear of the castle. None of the villagers would dare to go near it.

Also, it takes six hours to get there.

Also, it takes six hours to get there.

That is, until the local shepherd notices that there is smoke coming from inside the castle. He becomes convinced that the castle is inabited by spirits. A forester and the local doctor (who has always pretended to be immune from the villagers’ superstitions) go to find out what is going on – with dire consequences.

I really loved this book. It’s a fairly easy and quick read, with some pretty standard gothic themes. However, the twist at the end makes it all rather wonderful. If you can find a copy, definitely go for it.

Also *SPOILERS* it’s not actually a gothic horror story. It’s science fiction. I knew I could depend on Verne.

Yay for Jules Verne!

Yay for Jules Verne!

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is one of the great science fiction writers of the last century, and it is easy to see why. He created loads of different worlds, both futuristic and contemporary, for readers to enjoy, which (like all good science fiction) reflect back on our society. At least two of his books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly have been made into films. Today’s review, The Man in the High Castle, won a Hugo award in 1963 for best novel. I want to stress from the outset that I admire Philip K. Dick and his work a great deal. But for some reason The Man in the High Castle  just was not for me.

The Man in the High Castle
The premise of the novel is very interesting. It is set in an alternate universe in which the Axis powers won WWII. America has been divided between the Germans and the Japanese, with a small buffer zone in the mountains. There are several different plotlines going on: more political ones including a German man who is attempting to give German secrets to the Japanese, and very everyday ones such as an antiques dealer who realises that many of the antiques he has been sold are fakes. In addition, many of the characters refer to a book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by Hawthorne Abendsen. This novel is supposed to be about an alternate reality to the one in the novel, in which the Allies won the war, but in a different way to that which actually happened. Meta.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

I found a lot of things about the novel interesting. For one, the majority of the action happens in the Japanese section of America, rather than the nazi-occupied section. This was quite interesting to me partly because in the UK we tend to learn a lot more about the European aspects of the war and partly because it is a culture which I am just starting to learn things about, and would very much like to know more. Philip K. Dick also places a lot of emphasis on the I Ching’s ability to tell the future. In this universe, it works, and the characters who use it have absolute confidence in it.

However, I had some problems with the novel. It follows the tendency of some science fiction to make all reality quite bleak: none of the characters seem to have actual relationships with one another, instead using one another to obtain their own desires. I would suggest this is due to the cultural differences which are being imposed upon the characters, but it is no different with Julia Frink, a character set in the US zone, and it is a style which the author has also used in the other book of his I have read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. This makes it quite hard for me to have empathy for the characters; they feel more like chess pieces than people.

The ending also felt very rushed and a little confusing. It is difficult to tell whether, by the end of the novel, anything is actually achieved, or whether the author merely intended to give his readers a glimpse into this world.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, originally published under a pseudonym. Its title refers to the feeling which the narrator has of being trapped under a bell jar, and unable to breathe. Credit for this artwork goes to lazykitsuneReading The Bell Jar was a very odd experience for me. It begins with Esther Greenwood, the main character and narrator, recalling her experiences in New York. She is a poor girl, who won an opportunity to live in a hotel in New York, working at a magazine. The beginning chapters of the book are all, in my opinion, terribly dull – tales of dinners that Esther attends, her friends getting up to no good, steering her down the wrong path and so on. Frankly, it reads like a kid’s TV show with a moral to it.

Then, the tone changes. Esther returns home from New York, and finds that her life lacks direction and meaning. It was at this stage that I realised the first chapters had not, in fact, been an after-school special, but had been dull for a reason. Esther’s unhappiness and depression was, to an extent, present the whole time, and can be read from the beginning.The rest of the book, detailing Esther’s downward spiral, is wonderful. It details the experiences of depression in an incredibly realistic manner – as might be expected, given that Sylvia Plath suffered from depression, and tragically killed herself a month after The Bell Jar was first published in the UK. Sadly, the book’s theme, that of a young person being depressed, has made it a symbol of teenage angst, and a quick search on google shows that this is not entirely unfounded.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

This could be a good thing, or a bad thing.

One of the reasons why it stikes such a chord with the angsty teenage crowd, among others, is because it reflects the ways in which so many people can feel alienated, and find difficulties with life’s demands. It is far from a cheerful read. Indeed, it so vividly portrays the detatchment of depression that the reader is at risk of becoming detatched and gloomy themselves. It would not make for good bedtime reading, but for a greater understanding of the mind, and the serious problem of depression with which a number of people today still struggle, I believe that no book written can match it.