Book Reviews (4)

Scythe – Neal Shusterman

In a post-singularity world where poverty, war, and even death has been conquered, the population is kept in check by scythes, the only people able to kill. Citra and Rowan are chosen to become a scythe’s apprentice, but only one can succeed.

After reading Coffee Stars Books’ review I thought this sounded great, and I wasn’t disappointed. The world is so interesting – thrill-seekers ‘splatting’ off buildings for fun, knowing they’ll wake up in a revival centre; the ennui of having nothing left to achieve; the way people fear, respect, and celebrity-worship scythes. The characters are strong, and there’s plenty of action.

It’s refreshing to have a world that could’ve been a boring utopia contain such tension and drama. Looking forward to reading Thunderhead.

An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

Recommended by Phil Ebersole . The story of a murder in 17th century Oxford, told by four unreliable narrators: a Venetian Catholic, the son of an alleged traitor to the Royalist cause, the chief cryptographer to Cromwell and Charles II, and the antiquary Anthony Wood. Each present a different version of events, spiralling out into schemes at the highest levels of government.

Pears has really done his work. The political, religious, and scientific ferment of the Restoration seeps from every detail. Characters occasionally think in ways alien to the modern world. Early figures of the Royal Society don’t know things that we all do now, like what blood is for. Minor things in one version of events take central roles in another. Getting the timeline to fit together across all this must’ve been quite a headache to plan, but the result pays off.

This is extremely intricate and realistic, full of twists and turns. A compelling mystery that makes excellent use of unreliable narrators, combining deeply intelligent historical fiction with an ambitious thriller.

Anything You Do Say – Gillian McAllister

Joanna hears footsteps behind her on the way home. Sure it’s the man from the bar who’d been harassing/groping her, when she hears the man speed up she acts, pushing him, sending him falling down steps to lie, motionless, at the bottom.

From here the narrative splits in two. In ‘reveal’ chapters she calls the police, while in alternate ‘conceal’ chapters she hurries home and hides it. The ‘psychological’ part of ‘psychological thriller’ is taken with gusto – Joanna’s avoidant but well-meaning personality is highly developed, both irritating and sympathetic as the book raises social issues with a deft touch.

Joanna doesn’t get much chance to work through what she’d faced at the bar, too busy addressing the fallout of her own crime (crime?), in the double role of victim and – criminal? Is there any point punishing her? What is the justice system for – retribution, or rehabilitation?

At first she irritated me a bit too much, with her poor adulting and excessive adoration for her husband Reuben. But as the dual narratives progressed she developed, and I understood more where her flaws came from. The ending didn’t fully work for me, but on the whole this was engaging.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

Probably the weirdest book I’ve ever read. It’s about as metafictional, postmodern, and self-aware as a thing can be.

It begins, ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.’ You read the opening but are stopped by a printing error as it gets interesting, and when you go to replace it, you end up reading another book entirely, which is also interrupted early on, and so on. You read the openings of ten novels, alternating with a second-person narrative unravelling what’s up with these books via the activities of a troublesome translator, international book fraud, and shadowy organisations.

‘If on a…’ is a playful and unique exploration of the relationship between readers, fiction, meaning, and life. I like what Calvino was trying to do – it’s inventive, clever, and will appeal greatly to fans of things being meta. This is a rare example of second-person being used well. There were some quite funny and self-deprecating passages, and the writing at its best is richly eloquent.

However, it can be dense. It’s not an easy read. Some stodgy, opaque passages were definitely a thorny struggle, and the greatest weakness was that Calvino writes in much the same style throughout – a style that has its worth in poetic imagery, ironic humour, and wordplay, but can be hard to plough through for 260 pages, and gets too pretentious. Another issue was discomfort with how the female characters came across – objectified props for men, particularly the assumed male ‘you’ of the story.

Not at all a beach read, and I have quibbles. But if you’re up for something playfully self-aware with a highly original approach, give this a go.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

Harry August is born in 1919, and every time he dies, he lives his life again. He and people like him, kalachakra or ouroboran, cycle between birth and death knowing what will happen because they’ve seen it before. At the close of his eleventh life, a girl comes to pass a message conveyed from the future, child to adult. The world is ending, and it’s ending increasingly sooner.

Ouroboran pass messages to their future kind through inscriptions on stone and hidden messages, and receive responses sent back through their generations. They’ve set up systems to have money, rescue each other from the tedium of repeated normal childhood, and leave jokes on historical artefacts. Their often blasé attitude to ‘linears’, people who live and die normally, was both realistic to their situation and disturbing – it doesn’t matter, everything gets reset when you die anyway.

There was some real darkness here. The soviet regime is terrible, but there’s also the British spy resorting to torture while desperately saying he’s one of the good guys. Harry inevitably has a certain cynicism, and is in some ways an anti-hero, but he goes to extreme lengths to do the right thing.

The way time gets used here is a great alternative to standard time travel, avoiding much of the confusion that tends to come with it. North chose a good slice of time for Harry to cycle through. His lives take us to Soviet Russia, to China during the Great Leap Forward, to the Blitz. A great concept and well executed.

2 thoughts on “Book Reviews (4)

  1. The Harry August novel seems interesting. I read a novel some years ago based on a similar premise called REPLAY by Ken Grimwood (1986). The central character dies in 1988 and wakes up as his 18-year-old self in 1963, but with knowledge of the future. He sets out to relive his life without making the mistakes before, armed with knowledge of future events. And does it again. And again. And then tries to alter history.

    Liked by 1 person

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