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Archive for the category “Other Novels”

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Every so often I’m dipping back into Atwood’s back catalogue and I never fail to be impressed. The Penelopiad is a clever little novella, condensing a lot of what I love about her writing into a little over 100 pages.

The Penelopiad retells The Illiad and the Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ long suffering wife Penelope, narrated to us sardonically from the Underworld. Daughter to a king and cousin to the ship launching beauty Helen of Troy, Penelope was never able to truly compete, something Helen never let her forget. When she does marry the wily and smooth talking Odysseus, she is taken off to his island of Ithaca. As we will know, it isn’t long before Odysseus is sent to Troy and then gets a bit lost on his way home, leaving Penelope to fend off the homestead from hundreds of lascivious suitors keen for her hand.

I loved Greek Myth when I was a kid and I think at least a basic understanding of the Illiad and The Odyssey would help here. The core question of this book lies in the killing of Penelope’s 12 maids; in The Odyssey it is claimed that they were unfaithful and untrustworthy. Alternating with chapters narrated by Penelope, the maids appear as a chorus. These take many forms, such as poetry, a mock trial, show tune etc. The significance of a Greek chorus is interesting; they are associated with tragedy, which The Odyssey most certainly is not. The implication that the unjust slaughter of the maids transforms The Odyssey from a story of swashbuckling adventure to something much more sinister is interesting. The classic idea of female characters being either angels or devils is explored here; Penelope is very much a saint in The Odyssey, although this does not really reflect the real and complex woman who narrates this story. She can see her myth being written even as she lives, and watches with a sense of detached irritation from the Underworld as it develops after her death. If Penelope is the saint, the story demands female devils and, fair or not, the maids fit the bill. The Penelopiad seems to be about the rendering of complex women into archetypes, a human desire for a pleasing myth over a messy reality.

I absolutely loved Penelope’s narration. There’s a world weariness to her, a sense that she may now be impossible to surprise; she has been dead for thousands of years and some references to how she views the modern day are really funny. The Penelopiad is frequently very funny; funny Atwood is one of my favourite Atwoods. A lot of humour also comes from Helen, who is here rendered in glorious full on passive aggressive Mean Girls-style bitchiness. Odysseus himself is interesting; it is clear that Penelope did love him, as he shows her kindness and a superficial respect few others do, but he’s hugely manipulative and his motivations are quite clearly not be trusted.

I really liked this little novella. Atwood clearly understands the appeal of myth, but that doesn’t stop her from having a lot of fun puncturing it.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The concept of the ‘Great American Novel’ is a weird one, a novel which sums up the strange heart of America and its culture. Fictions about slavery are, for my money, some of the best contenders for this idea. As much as many white Americans may like to pretend this isn’t the case, the soul of America simply cannot be discussed without the sin that the nation was built upon. I genuinely despise people who will not admit this, just as I do those who deny that the horrors of colonialism and empire are at the heart of any discussion of the soul of my country. Slavery may be long gone, but it’s consequences are still ringing through to the modern day and it’s difficult to imagine an America where this is not the case.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young third generation slave. When fellow slave Caesar asks her to attempt an escape with him to the underground railroad, she eventually agrees after initial reluctance, pursued by the ruthlessly efficient slave catcher Ridgeway. Here the underground railroad is a literal subterranean train and takes its passengers to relative safety, although it soon becomes clear that any true safety for a black slave in America will only be tenuous at best.

Given the subject matter, it’s unsurprising that The Underground Railroad is bleak. Despite having experienced many slave narratives in literature, film and television, the capriciousness and cruelty of the slave owners never ceases to shock. There’s no need to exaggerate, since the most imaginative horror writer would struggle to come up with something worse than the punishments meted out to captured escaped slaves. Whitehead takes his time building up an idea of slave life before the escape; the cruelty comes paired with catharsis, as the brief moments of freedom and joy Cora is allowed to enjoy cut through the horror and darkness. A core theme of this book is that a former slave may have been able to escape physical, but the mental scars and patterns of learned behaviour are all but impossible to shift. The Underground Railroad may be the personal story of Cora, but it’s also the story of America itself. Read this book and try and tell me Robert E Lee deserves a statue, although I suspect most who hold that view don’t read.

While The Underground Railroad is certainly a fascinating exploration of America on a macro level, the core thriller narrative of Cora’s escape is very entertaining. Many may only read this book on that level, which is fine! Ridgeway is a terrifying villain; he doesn’t seem to hold the same hideous views about the superiority of the white race and the need to keep the black in bondage for their own good that some others do. He isn’t much interested in grandiose justifications for slavery; for him, they are simply property to be returned. Cora spends much of the book glancing over her shoulder and is never able to become truly comfortable, even when she finds herself in relatively safe positions. Interspersed between the chapters following Cora are shorter chapters following other characters; some are from fellow slaves and some are from the perspective of white characters, revealing the complex and insidious forms that racism can take. One seemingly benign member of the underground railroad is revealed to be motivated from a colonial desire to be worshipped and praised by the African ‘savages’ she helps.

The Underground Railroad is a fascinating book, well deserving of the praise it has received. I’m looking forward to going back and taking in some more of Colson Whitehead’s back catalogue; I think it’s going to be good.

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Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan, but there are lots of her books I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to ration them. I first became a fan of Atwood through her science fiction like ­The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake; I ended up studying the latter at university. I was pleased to discover that I like her non-genre stuff just as much. Alias Grace is classic Atwood in many ways, dealing with a woman in a situation entirely beyond her control, who nonetheless mucks through it.

Alias Grace fictionalises the true story of Grace Marks, a famous ‘murderess’ in mid-19th century Canada, who gained infamy for her part in the brutal murders of the gentlemen Mr. Kinnear and his favoured servant Nancy Montgomery. The bulk of the story is Grace, now in an asylum, telling the story of her life that led up to the brutal murders. The framing narrative is the visiting Dr. Simon Jordan, who has an interest in the insane and Grace in particular. Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, with the narrative shifting between Grace in the present day, Grace’s history and the affairs of Dr. Jordan.

Atwood offers no satisfying conclusions in Alias Grace. Her culpability in the murders remains ambiguous, even if the portrayal of Grace is clearly sympathetic. Alias Grace is written in a clearly 19th century Gothic style and owes a fair bit to the genre, although Atwood plays with the form and there’s a tinge of irony to the whole thing. There’s a strain of dark comedy throughout of men becoming obsessed, and clearly aroused, as Grace relates the darkest and most sinister parts of her story. They act horrified, but in reality they’re titillated. This combination of horror and arousal is something the best gothic stories engage with and we see Grace playing up to her audience. In her wonderfully matter of fact style of narration, she states fairly plainly that she is aware of the reactions her story elicits. There are several male characters in the story who Grace ensnares, but all become more fascinated with the idea of the infamous ‘murderess’ rather than the woman herself. Atwood is making fun of not just a general human tendency to prefer simple and exciting myths over messy realities, but also a specifically male attempt to strip women of their complexities and reduce them to one of those two classic roles; angel or demon. Violence and sex are entwined in how Grace is viewed; Grace herself is bemused by the whole thing and is just happy for anything which breaks up the monotony and drudgery.

Of course, as readers we end up getting caught up to, making us culpable as well. There’s an undeniable frisson and sense of excitement when Grace’s story nears the murders; we want all the grisly details too. Atwood holds back on indulging us. Alias Grace is also a compelling portrait of a place and time I’ve never examined before, with the sheer brutality of what it meant to be female and poor in 19th century colonial Canada being pretty tough to stomach. Grace herself remains something of an enigma, with Atwood cannily preserving the mystery which had captured the attention of the Canadian public over 150 years ago. Dr. Jordan is an interesting character, fairly callow and louche but with noble ambitions to open a more humane and modern insane asylum.

Alias Grace is a wonderful book from one of my favourite authors. Netflix are releasing a miniseries adaption in a couple of months, for which I am now very excited. Grace Marks is a figure who will lodge in your head, capturing the imagination as the real Grace did all those years ago,

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Walking on Glass by Iain Banks

Well…this is a strange one. Iain Banks’ second novel, Walking on Glass, is not quite as well regarded as some of his others, but I really liked it. Banks had a rare talent for vastly varying styles; he was capable of big, imaginative ideas but also rreveled in the dirty and the grotty, the sordid and the nasty. Published before his first sci-fi novel as Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas, we see Banks begin to flirt with the big imaginative ideas in a novel which feels like a crossover between the Banks’ with and without the M.  
 
Walking on Glass follows three storylines. First is Graham Park, a young man who is hopelessly in love with the enigmatic Sara Ffitch. Second we have Steven Grout, who is beset by paranoid delusions that he is an alien General of an intergalactic war banished to Earth by his enemies. The final and most interesting storyline follows Quiss who, along with Ajayi, has been banished into a mysterious ramshackle castle, forced to play obscure and impossible games until he can solve the riddle ‘what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?’ The three seemingly disparate stories eventually tie together in a bewitching and unpredictable fashion.  
 
I’ll mention the weakness of Walking on Glass first; if this novel has any kind of meaningful message, and it does feel as if there is one straining to get out, it’s not particularly well conveyed. The slight hollowness to the book may be the cause of its less than rapturous reception, but if you just relax and enjoy the story Walking on Glass becomes much more palatable. Although the Quiss storyline is the most immediately interesting, with more than a little Mervyn Peake thrown in, all three hold interest. The connections between them are slight and insubstantial, but taken as three separate novellas I enjoyed all of them. In earlier moments this book seemed tame by Banks’ standards, but it isn’t too long until the grim edge of cheerful horror creeps in.  
 
All three are well written, but it’s the description of the Gormenghast-esque castle that will stick in my mind. Banks wears his influences on his sleeve and makes no effort to hide them, but he also creates something which feels unique enough to make its own impact. Banks suffuses his setting with a palpable sense of despair and ennui and following Quiss as he prowls around the castle was, for me, the chief pleasure of this novel. 
 
Although the characters themselves aren’t among his most memorable, Banks does a wonderful job at articulating the neuroses and darkness which lure in the back of the human mind, particularly when in a state of shock. More than once I was left feeling deeply uncomfortable by the articulation of mental processes than I recognise in myself. I’m normally not a fan of lengthy descriptions of characters’ mental states, preferring a showing not telling approach, but Banks does it just so damn well!  
 
Walking on Glass is far from my favourite Banks novel, but it’s definitely not my least either. I’m rationing Banks, reading a couple a year because when they’re done they’re done. I’m looking forward to seeing whatever strange and twisted world Banks transfers me to next. 

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Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House is one of those books which was quite clearly just written for the sheer hell fun of it. The Bone Clocks is an incredibly ambitious book and Slade House builds on the worldbuilding done there to just have a bit of a laugh. This is one for the Mitchell superfans. 
 
Every nine years, someone is invited to Slade House and never returns. Slade House tells the story of this strange place from 1975 until 2015 as a range of people come to the house and we discover more and more about the mystery at its core. I won’t say more than that. Slade House is a tightly focused book, taking place entirely on one small road in London, with a range of interesting characters narrating their experiences in the house. Probably the worst thing about The Bone Clocks was the jargon heavy and somewhat clumsy worldbuilding, but with that foundation now built Slade House is able simply to have fun with it. Without the need to have someone explain Atemporals and Horologists you can just focus on the story, which is a doozy.  
 
Mitchell captures the camp fun of vampire movies in Slade House, whilst not necessarily pulling back from the horror. It’s a tricky balance to pull off but Slade House does it well. The range of protagonists helps keep things interesting, even though we essentially see the same thing happen about five times. The first character is an autistic boy, whose unique world view is both amusing and touching. The next is a xenophobic divorced policeman. Third is Sally Timms, an insecure and overweight student. Finally there’s Freya, Sally’s much more successful journalist sister. I won’t tell you anything about the final character because…well, if you read it you’ll see why. Every character was enjoyable to follow and was like a classic full Mitchell novel in microcosm.  
 
Slade House is a breezy and enjoyable romp, at least by Mitchell standards. I’m looking forward to Mitchell’s next epic, but I quite like the idea of him putting out the odd lighter novella between them. Slade House is definitely one for Mitchell completionists, although it may rely too much on The Bone Clocks arcana to be accessible to those who haven’t read it. If you have, give Slade House a go!

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The Bees by Laline Paull

When I first read the synopsis for The Bees, I wasn’t exactly impressed. The story of Flora 717, a rebellious young woman in the ‘Hive’ sounded like generic YA dystopian nonsense. I was much more intrigued when I found out that it was about actual, non metaphorical, bees. I kind of love the idea of a book with a bee as the protagonist and Laline Paull genuinely pulls it off. I’ll still kill any bee which so much as comes near me, but I’ll feel a little bit bad about it now, so Paull has succeeded in making me empathise ever so slightly with the horrible little bastards.  
 
Flora 717 is a cleaner bee, of a type generally unable to speak and good for nothing more than basic hive maintenance. The hive is rigorously structured, with the Queen and her attendants at the top with Flora and her ilk right at the bottom. Immediately, it is clear that Flora 717 is different, demonstrating the ability to talk and think independently so she is whisked off to a new life in the larvae nursery. Whilst slavishly devoted to her Queen, Flora’s independent streak sees her take on a variety of roles in the hive, drawing attention to herself and putting her in danger. Meanwhile, the hive is threatened by a range of problems, from immediate threats like wasps to more esoteric concerns such as climate change. 
 
The biggest achievement of this book was the way that it manages to make you empathise with something so alien. It must have been a tricky balance to pull off; on the one hand, the alienness of the bees was the main draw of this book for me but without a somewhat humanised figure it would be difficult to latch onto this book as anything more than a curiosity. Flora’s emotions are recognisibly human, but her way of perceiving and interacting with the world is very different and compellingly drawn. The actual arcs of the story are fairly familiar, but expressed in such a strange way that it doesn’t feel in any way dull.  
 
Paull shows a lot of versatility as she writes, with many outstanding scenes. There are some wonderfully tense airborne battles with wasps and other creatures, with Paull evoking fighter pilots taking down enemy combatants. There are also some really spooky scenes involving spiders which manage to be genuinely chilling, although the most unsettling moment belongs to a lone slug. There are frequent and shocking moments of truly hideous violence, with Paull showing the sudden and unthinking cruelty of nature in an unflinching manner. One of the more bizarre passages involves Flora collecting pollen for her hive, which I can only describe as unsettlingly erotic.  
 
Flora is not a memorable character in of herself, with this being a story which avoids a focus on individual characterisation, which makes sense considering that this is about a hive mind. Probably the most entertaining figures of the book are the drones, rare male bees who exist only to find a princess and breed. They’re all addressed as ‘Sir’ and are amusingly useless, hedonistic and pampered yet spraying pheromones which make the other bees adore them. One in particular, Sir Linden, is one of the more memorable and engaging figures in the book.  
 
The Bees is a strange book which keeps just enough normality to justify its novel length. This is the kind of ambitious idea which could have been unbearable, but Paull pulls it off with aplomb. If the premise interests you as much as it did me, go for it.

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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is something of an oxymoron; he is generally respected in literary circles and has achieved significant mainstream success, yet he seems to delight in crossover and references between his works like he’s Stephen King or Kevin Feige. It’s a difficult balance to pull off and I don’t know if many people could do it, but Mitchell manages it with aplomb. As good as his last couple of books were, particularly The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, they didn’t aim for the same lofty ambition of Cloud Atlas; until The Bone Clocks that is.

As with Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocks is split into several chunks following different characters telling different stories. The links between the stories of those books were largely thematic, but in The Bone Clocks each genuinely does feel like the chapter of a larger story. The protagonist of that story is Holly Sykes, our first narrator who runs away at the age of 15 in the early 1980s. She also narrates the final section and in between we are given stories from people whose lives intersect with hers. We have Hugo Lamb who Mitchell superfans will remember as the sadistic cousin of Jason in Black Swan Green and his selfish climb to the top. Next is Ed, a journalist covering the early years following the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Crispin Hershey follows, a Martin Amis esque fellow a few years past his prime. Eventually we come to Marinus, an Atemporal being who has reincarnated dozens of times, last seen as a gruff botanist on Dejima in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and now living as a doctor. All of these figures have a part to play in a grand struggle between good and evil, although the fundamental inability for humanity to learn from its mistakes causes greater suffering than any conscious malevolence.

The Bone Clocks is a sequel or sorts to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as well as a prequel to the ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ section of Cloud Atlas. Immortality has been a preoccupation of Mitchell’s for a while and The Bone Clocks jumps head first into it, with a whole thought our lore and process governing the different ways immortality can be achieved. We saw the beginning of this in the monstrous Abbot Enomoto in Jacob de Zoet and Mitchell develops the concept here. Mitchell’s style has tended more towards the realm of magic realism rather than fantasy, but Mitchell has finally committed to the genre. The result isn’t perfect; being relatively new to the genre Mitchell makes a couple of rookie mistakes. One is too much jargon, much of which is at best forgettable and at worst just plain silly. The second is an over reliance on exposition to explain what is going on rather than letting the story get there organically. This is far from a deal breaker though with the fantasy elements intertwined with the science fiction and normality very nicely. Mitchell is excellent at taking the relatively mundane and making it thrilling and entertaining; just look at Black Swan Green. 70% of The Bone Clocks isn’t about an ancient war between two feuding factions of immortals, instead focusing on more grounded and relatable exploits and it all manages to be equally interesting. The inner bitterness and pettiness of Crispin Hershey gripped me as much as the fantastical stuff and neither undermines the other. The Bone Clocks isn’t as perfectly put together as Cloud Atlas and is certainly much rougher round the edges, but for something so ambitious to succeed as much as it does is truly triumphant.

Mitchell’s dialogue and general prose is as excellent as ever, with a highlight being a nice little repeat of his Nagasaki descriptive rhyming technique seen in Jacob de Zoet, this time used to describe a bustling Cambridge bar. Mitchell is a literary polymath, seemingly able to leap into any genre comfortably. Mitchell balances lyrical beauty and literary flairs with compulsive readability; I would argue that this is one of the most important skills that a writer can demonstrate.

The characters of The Bone Clocks aren’t necessarily as vivid as those of Cloud Atlas, but that is because unlike Cloud Atlas there is a central protagonist holding the story together; the wonderful Holly Sykes. We follow Holly for pretty much her entire life and Mitchell manages to capture the perfect voice for every age. The teenage Holly we see at the beginning is probably the best though, being a genuinely flawed and believably teenager rather than the extreme monsters or geniuses we often see. Crispin Hershey is a great character as well and Hugo Lamb matures well from his cameo introduction in Black Swan Green. The one slight disappointment is Marinus, who never particularly comes alive in her current form than he did as the doctor on Dejima in Jacob de Zoet (pronouns are hard). She exists in The Bone Clocks mostly to support Holly, but I’d have loved to have seen more of her. The glimpses of her past lives we get in The Bone Clocks made me want much more.

The Bone Clocks is Mitchell at his baffling best and the kind of novel that I’ve been desperate for him to return to. There are some elements which don’t quite work as well as others but the grand ambition of it all holds the experience together. There really is no other writer out there quite like Mitchell.

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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is probably David Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, but that doesn’t make it any less striking. Mitchell’s imagination is such that he generally creates fantastic settings or makes the real seem fantastical, such as the dreamlike Tokyo of number9dream, but Black Swan Green is a tale of normality that Mitchell nonetheless makes riveting.

It is 1982 and Jason Taylor is a 13 year old boy with a stammer, living in the sleepy village of Black Swan Green. Black Swan Green follows 13 months of his life, with each chapter covering a month, from January 1982 to January 1983. Along the way we experience Jason’s insecurity, budding poetry skill, growing interest in the opposite sex and bullying.

Black Swan Green doesn’t follow a traditional narrative as such, instead reading as 13 interconnected pieces of short fiction. This kind of fractured narrative is of course nothing new for Mitchell, in fact I may go so far as to call it his trademark. As with his other books, all of the separate parts form a cohesive whole when viewed together. Where Cloud Atlas looked at grand themes such as reincarnation, or Ghostwritten at the tiny coincidences that define our lives, Black Swan Green opts to focus on the life of a British teenage boy in the 1980s. Mitchell tackles a variety of topics as he goes, such as the Falklands War, small town bigotry and the nature of poetry and he looks at all with remarkable grace.

In the wrong hands, this is exactly the kind of book which could have been excruciatingly boring. Mitchell’s writing is just so evocative and elegiac that it’s nigh impossible not to get swept up in what’s happening, even if it’s fairly mundane. This book is funny too, with Mitchell being more than willing to look at the more ridiculous sides of being a teenager. There are these wonderful moments where Jason will ponder something fairly profound and then undercut it something hilariously crude. Jason may be an exceptionally empathetic and sensitive teenage boy, but he’s still a teenage boy.

Jason is a likeable character, but the supporting cast are well developed too. His contemporaries at school, both friends and bullies are vividly drawn. In fact, one is Neal Brose who fans of Ghostwritten might remember and it’s interesting to see how he ended up the way he is. There’s also a startlingly touching Cloud Atlas connection which actually moved me to tears. It’s utterly bizarre that David Mitchell has created his own expanded universe, but I love it. 

Black Swan Green sounded like it wouldn’t be my sort of thing, but I loved it. Every single Mitchell novel is a treat and I now only have one left, which I’m looking forward to tucking in to.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

First things first; Go Set a Watchman is not the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s also not a ‘companion piece’ to use the oddly nauseating line being trotted out by the publisher. It is a first draft of material in the creation of a masterpiece and I rather think that it would have been better if it had stayed buried.

Go Set a Watchman follows Jean-Louise ‘Scout’ Finch as she returns to the town of Maycomb from New York as a young adult. More metropolitan than those around her, she is torn between an almost-engagement with an eligible Maycomb gentleman and her more free life in New York. Jean Louise’s life is thrown into disarray when she sees her heroic father Atticus attending a pro-segregation meeting, shattering the image she has held of him.

I’ll begin with the positives; there are moments in Go Set a Watchman that reminded me of just how good Harper Lee is. There are some wonderful flashbacks to Scout’s childhood which are delightful and there’s a spark and wit which is particularly evident in the first half of the novel; this began to make me believe that Go Set a Watchman wouldn’t be so bad. Lee’s prose is wonderful, crackling with energy and life. Things fall of the rails when the main plot gets going, with lengthy scenes of pro-segregationists arguing their case while Jean-Louise ineffectually tries to counter them. I’m not arguing that Harper Lee is sympathetic to their cause, but you can see why she abandoned this for the clarity of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some have criticised To Kill a Mockingbird‘s depiction of a white savior sweeping in and fighting racism and I can see how something like that would be problematic in this day and age. At the time though, Atticus Finch would be a necessary icon, a beacon of shared humanity. He may not be believable, but he’s not meant to be, he’s an idealised vision of what people could be.

Some have also claimed that Go Set a Watchman presents a more nuanced and realistic depiction of ingrained racism, but I’m not sure if that’s true. The novel uses Jean-Louise’s visceral reaction to the racism around her to further her character development and interesting relationship with her father, but in the process the actual victims of this racism are largely forgotten. There is one very powerful scene involving Calpurnia, the black housekeeper readers will remember from To Kill a Mockingbird, which undermines an idealised view of white/black relations, but it is far too brief and glossed over in favor of the relations between it’s white characters. Once again, I want to make clear that I’m not criticising Harper Lee herself; she clearly recognised these issues with Go Set a Watchman herself when she abandoned it in favor of the immeasurably superior To Kill a Mockingbird, but this novel risks tarnishing her legacy.

Atticus may be the character people always remember, but it’s always been Scout that made me truly love To Kill a Mockingbird. We get flashes of that person in the first half of Go Set a Watchman, but her character development in the second half is pretty poor. We’re asked to accept that the latent racism in Maycomb is a massive shock, one which makes her physically ill, which just doesn’t quite seem right. She winds up rather irritating by the end, viewing the racism which suffuses Maycomb as something most painful to her, not to…y’know, the actual victims. 

Go Set a Watchman may be worth a read purely as a curio, but it’s not worth much more than that. The best thing that can possibly happen is that this book fades from memory and Harper Lee’s legacy is not tarnished.

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number9dream by David Mitchell

This is my fourth Mitchell novel now and I’m getting pretty confident in calling him one of my favourite authors. I don’t quite like number9dream as much as Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but it’s still bloody good.

Eiji Miyake is a young man from the tiny Japanese island of Yukashima trying to find his estranged father in Tokyo. Filled with brash confidence, he soon finds the task to be much more difficult and dangerous than expected as he’s drawn into the brutal power struggles in the Tokyo criminal underworld. The story weaves between reality and fantasy as Eiji works to discover the secrets of his past.

There’s an ethereal dreaminess to this book that makes it quite difficult to work out what is and isn’t happening. There are some events which seem to be real but are so strange and heightened you wonder if they can be and Mitchell delights in pulling out the rug from under you. This is a bildungsroman primarily, being the story of Eiji’s journey to adulthood and it’s fascinating to watch him change. Similarly to with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, number9dream is based in coincidence, but it owns this entirely.

The novel starts out in a somewhat intimidating stream-of-consciousness ramble, but gets more digestible as it goes on. As Eiji grows up, his thinking becomes clearer and we get a better idea about what’s going on. It never quite achieves the gorgeous balance of lyrical and grounded that Mitchell achieves in his later books, but it’s also very different to everything else that he’s written. Eiji is a likeable and believable protagonist, although the most memorable characters are probably the brutal and terrifying figures he encounters in the ranks of the Yakuza. I was already fairly sure that the Yakuza are not a nice bunch and number9dream confirms that rather well. The wider cast don’t stick in the mind as some in his other books, but moreso than any other of his that I’ve read this is a solo character piece, with Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten’s multiple protagonists and lengthy sections of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shifting away from its titular protagonist. This is a book about Eiji so how Eiji perceives people is far more important than those people themselves.

number9dream is an odd book which I’m still processing. I know I liked it, but it may take a re-read to determine whether I loved it. It lacks the instant punch of genius that his later books show, but it’s still an interesting read and one I’d certainly recommend._1586448_mitchell300

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