Immense, artistic and exciting – American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods book review

American Gods by Neil Gaiman is a truly immense work of art. Like all of Gaiman’s writing, it feels like more than a simple fictional yarn. It feels like the story itself has history, and it’s difficult to see where real life (in this case, American locations and popular mythologies) stop and the make-belief begins. He has a unique talent for weaving his own creative ideas together with lasting traditional tales, making the craziest stories come to life. It’s something he continued to do well in Anansi Boys, but I’m glad I read that, the vague sequel to American Gods,  first – because American Gods would’ve set the standard too high to follow. Continue reading

Roots: a short story anthology book review

Short story anthology book review

I’m not great with short stories, and haven’t had much to do with them in the past, so I’m always happy to have an excuse to expand my horizons. In this case, I acquired Roots, a short story anthology, from a local writing group (local being Chichester, which is close enough – definitely local by Russian standards).

The stories and poems in this book all follow the theme ‘reclaimed by nature’, and from there diverge into a great variety of original ideas. There are carnivorous plants, a universe shrinking apocalypse, Mountain Gods and asparagus growers, to name a few… Continue reading

Do you always finish reading a novel?

should you finish reading novelsI’ve encountered more than a few people who say they don’t. Who believe it’s only polite to see a book through, no matter how unenjoyable you find it or how dull it seems. I’ve seen a few such books all the way through myself, but I usually end up skimming sizeable parts of them. And even then it’s only so I can fairly go away and explain why I didn’t like the novel. But it’s bad practice, I think, to keep reading a novel you don’t like, for completion’s sake, for one simple reason: it cheats you of time you could be spending on a good book.
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Trudging through the Moscow underground: Metro 2033

Metro 2033 book coverMetro 2033 is an awkward book for me to criticise because I’m sympathetic to it for many reasons. For one, it gave me a lot of nostalgia for when I lived in Moscow. For another, I loved the computer game. For a third, it’s a novel twist on that most-loved post-apocalyptic genre. And for a fourth, it’s hard to be harsh on a text that’s been translated from its original language. But for all its charm (and I did essentially like the book) it is far from perfect. If you’re after a dark romp through a creepy apocalypse, you could do worse, but you could also do a lot better. Here’s why: Continue reading

Why Hugh Howey’s Wool is a doubly inspiring novel

Wool hugh howey, a book review

Hugh Howey‘s Wool has been knocking around for a few years, as shorter novels and in omnibus form. It’s as accomplished and affecting a story as any on my post-apocalyptic novels list. As a self-published novel it’s a marvel of independent success from a highly respectable author. Both are stories worth telling, so for this novel I’m not just going to talk about how good the book is – I also want to talk about what the book represents for the self-published author. Continue reading

Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things: an exercise in extended misery

in the country of last things, book reviewOn its surface, In the Country of Last Things is an out-of-character post-apocalyptic novel from the ordinarily contemporary chronicler Paul Auster. That’s how it was lauded to me, in response to my post-apocalyptic novels list, but in fact this story is timeless, without a defined apocalypse. It is more accurately a dystopian novel, and an eerily intangible one at that. Not that the world Auster has created isn’t realistic or easy to grasp – quite the opposite, it’s a substantial and vivid vision – but the nature of the setting and the story give a sense of timeless decay. Continue reading

Classic apocalyptic fiction: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

day of the triffids, book reviewAnother in my series of post-apocalytpic novel reviews, The Day of the Triffids is known by many as not only an archetype post-apocalyptic story but also one of the all time great sci-fi books. From the very start it’s easy to see why – it’s written in an easily accessible way and the theme is immediately novel and gripping. Coming into it raw you’re led to believe it’s a disaster story about the attack of giant plants, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s about a lot more than that. In fact the titular triffids play only a small role in a story of survival that questions human conventions.

Briefly told, the story follows Bill Masen, one of very few people left in London with the ability to see after the effects of an alleged comet. As he bowls about the city trying to make sense of things, he makes friends with a young lady and realises that humans without sight will be helpless against the rise of the triffids, a new species of carnivorous plant apparently engineered during the Cold War. Whilst the triffids are crucial in providing the lasting threat of the new world, in fact it is the blindness that creates the post-apocalyptic landscape of this novel, and it does so in a unique way. In questioning what would happen if the human population suddenly went blind, Wyndham builds a frighteningly realistic portrayal of how quickly society would decline. There are no zombies, there isn’t even a weapon that effectively kills the masses – there is simply the loss of one of our human senses, and it completely transforms the world.

The story is expertly crafted for the most part – the considerations of survival Wyndham makes are spot on, his attention to detail admirable and his characters all well-defined. Croker, in particular, is a superb character, a subversive orator used as a voice-piece for exposing theories about what the disaster means for the world, and what civilisation needs to survive. It’s a novel with many carefully plotted themes, including Cold War paranoia, the damning effects of miss-used technology, gender roles and social consciousness – however it is one that Croker dwells on that comes across strongest. The theme that without leisure time, the human race cannot advance. In fact, it is destined to regress. That is, knowledge cannot exist without the free time to foster it, and that is the ultimate damning point for a human race beset by the need to survive.

The triffids themselves are an inspired feature in the post-apocalypse, but the strength of the story, the details of survival and rebuilding society, are almost universal, and could be ported to any post-apocalyptic story (28 Days Later, Danny Boyle says, was partly inspired by this novel). In fact the plants themselves aren’t in the story anywhere near much as you would expect – the human influence is far more important in the way things change. That’s why the book remains so popular, and the story has been recreated so many times, including for radio and film. It’s not a horror story, not a tale of giant plants taking over the world, it’s a story of how easily the human race could fall apart with one luxury removed from us, and what it might take to keep going.

If you haven’t read The Day of the Triffids, I highly recommend you do. It’s not long, either. Available from Amazon here.

2 books to help you with clear, concise writing

improve writing skills

If you’re reading this from America, you probably know both these books. Otherwise they might have passed you by. Personally, I discovered them quite late, by which time I already adhered to most of the principles in them. However, they summarise a lot of my views on writing clear and concise English language, so much so that I thought it worth blogging them here.  Already famous in America, The Elements of Style was labelled one of the All-Time 100 Nonfiction Books by Time magazine – that is, one of the most influential books written in English since 1923. Otherwise called the Strunk and White (after its authors), this prescriptive language book is often forced upon students for its simple and effective rules. They are sometimes contentious, but mostly on point. The second book I want to highlight is Writing That Works, a business writing guide that novelist Louis Begley called “the Strunk and White of business writing” and famed advertiser David Ogilvy gave as his number 1 advertising tip: “read it three times”. Writing that Works is a similar style guide, from some of Madison Avenue’s most successful advertisers, and gives rules specific to communication. Continue reading

Don’t judge a book by its cover – The End of Mr Y

don't judge a book by its coverThe old phrase don’t judge a book by its cover works two ways. Mostly people use it to stop you judging something negatively on appearances alone. But sometimes something looks lovely and turns out to be a steaming pile of animal faeces. The End of Mr Y is very much a literal embodiment of that phrase in its most heinous alternative form.

I defy anyone to look at the book, at least in the popular edition pictured left, and not be enticed. Rich colours, crazy text, it even has black-trimmed pages. A fascinating fantastical journey, you might reckon, like a carnival or a circus in book form. You’d be wrong. Very wrong. Continue reading

Carrie by Stephen King – book review

horror book review

Before I read Carrie, the only book of Stephen King’s I’d read was On Writing. Which is an excellent piece of non-fiction, but didn’t endear me to his fiction writing. Having seen so many films based on his work, it never seemed fair to dedicate more time to the man by reading his books. You’d think anyone who can write that prolifically and please so many people, after all, must be writing to please crowds. But Carrie is such a uniquely solid little horror novel that it showed me the error of my ways. There are elements of this book that no film can really do justice to. Continue reading