100 Books in 2011: Others

This is the last book in the 100 Books in 2011 challenge and it is Others by James Herbert. A man’s soul is in Hell, tormented, and is given a chance to redeem himself. He accepts the offer.

Nick Dismas is a private investigator running a small, successful business in Brighton. He happens to be mishapen and ugly and so encounters much of the worst of humanity. A woman approaches him and asks him to find her long lost son. She was told that her baby didn’t survive but she believes that he is still alive and now wants to find him.
After he takes this commission he is plagued by nightmares which he tries to explain away as the result of the drugs he takes to deal with his condition. The woman is revealed to have been recently widowed, requiring a son in order to benefit from her husband’s will, and acting on the advice of a psychic. Dismas tells the woman he can’t help her, but a combination of psychic phenomena, intuition and pressure from the psychic pushes him into following up the one lead he has. He thinks it’s pretty tenuous but it leads him to a place where deformed and mutated children are kept secretly from the world, experimented on and exploited.
Dismas rescues them and comes to remember who he was in his previous life. Then, having redeemed himself, he dies.
This is definitely a book on the warm end of the spectrum of writing technique. We spend most of our time in Dismas’ interior world as he ruminates on what is true and what is not, follows his intuition, and explores his feelings for the people around him.
Much of Others feels more like a thriller than a horror. Dismas is trying to find a missing person whilst battling personal demons. It’s ok. It’s pretty readable but I didn’t find the characters that engaging. There is a motif of ‘ugly but good’ and ‘beautiful but evil’ running through the book like a freight train, which I found unsophisticated and heavy-handed.
As a thriller, it was alright until the ending, which was Dismas remembering the bargain he had struck and then all the loose ends being tied up in a couple of expository pages. It felt hurried, especially as the final escape from the burning building had taken over sixty pages to play out. The action was tense and exciting in places but the pacing was a little haphazard. As a horror, I didn’t really get it. I suspect the horror lies in what has been done to the ‘others’, how they have been treated and how society has effectively erased them. The horror is in how easily we decide people aren’t people. But choosing to tell the story from the POV of the private investigator distances us from that for most of story. Unless, of course, you’re freaked out by the idea of demons invading your nightmares. I don’t believe in an afterlife of any kind and so I find it hard to be afraid of that sort of thing.
Anyway, it’s alright. If you enjoy mild supernatural horror, you might like this.

100 Books in 2011 challenge: Reflections

I read 86 books in 2011. Not quite the 100 I was aiming for, but not an insignificant number.

Out of those books 50 were by male authors and 36 by female authors. That’s a slightly more even split than I expected. I tend to read types of fiction dominated by male authors and while I have thought that I should make a point of seeking out female authors in these genres, I haven’t yet done so. Next year I plan to prioritise female writers.

Sci-fi – 7
Fantasy – 12
Horror – 5
Romance – 7
Literary – 5
Classic – 9
Historical – 2
Thriller – 6

I read 32 non-fiction books, which is more than I thought, and makes me feel like I should break that down a bit.

Self-help/Psychology – 5
Philosophy – 1
History – 5
Current affairs/Politics – 4
Feminist thought – 5
Comedy – 3
Auto-biography – 2
Writing craft – 4
Paganism – 1
Science – 2

I noticed at points during the year that I was actively choosing to read books I perceived to be short and easy in order to achieve the goal of 100 books in a year. Whereas, if I hadn’t been trying to reach that goal I might have gone for a more challenging, edifying, (and for me, more satisfying) reading experience. It’s a bit like dieting, in that it drives bad behaviour. Books are chosen for being low-calorie (short/easy) rather than healthy (quality) and so the choices you make are not the ones that are best for you but the ones that will satisfy an arbitrary number.

On reflection, I have quite enjoyed doing the 100 Books in 2011 challenge but I won’t be doing a reading challenge again next year. I still have 166 books on book mountain and I think I can make more space by focussing on reading the really big ones. My reading intentions for next year are to read more female authors and get through the large hardcovers on book mountain. I did like keeping a list of everything I’ve read though, so I think I will maintain that.
Finally, my favourite books of the year. In non-fiction, my favourite was Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, with an honourable mention for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. In fiction, it’s very close but I think Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks was the best novel I read all year. There are a few others that were very close: All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear; Gridlinked by Neal Asher, The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie and A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin.
And that’s the end of 2011. Happy New Year everyone!

100 Books in 2011: Line of Polity

Line of Polity is the second in the Ian Cormac series by Neal Asher, which is sci-fi spy thriller, basically James Bond in space.

A rogue scientist is experimenting with ancient alien technology far more advanced than that of the Polity, and his intention is to use that technology to make himself all-powerful.

The outlink station Miranda has been destroyed by a fungus that appears to have been deployed by Dragon, a mysterious alien being. The refugees from Miranda are picked up by a ship from Masada, a world outside the Polity which is ruled by a theocracy and keeps most of its population as slave labour. There is a rebellion on Masada led by Lellan Stanton, the sister of John Stanton, an arms dealer.

Because of Dragon’s involvement, Ian Cormac is sent to investigate.

Describing this as James Bond in space is not doing it justice as Neal Asher’s books are much richer and more complex than Ian Fleming’s were. Cormac is a more rounded creation and the supporting characters are much more real as well.

Gant is back. He was killed in the first book but it turns out he had himself backed up and so was downloaded into a golem body. Gant and Thorn were my favourite characters from the first book and I was happy to have Gant back. He spends a lot of time wondering whether he is still the same person as he was. When he is reunited with Thorn, who had not known Gant was backed up and so had grieved for the loss of his friend, there is some awkwardness in the relationship. The way Asher uses this relationship to explore what constitutes a person is really well handled and he portrays a deep, intimate friendship between these two men.

Many of the central characters are from the first book, allowing much development. Cormac is much less centre stage than he had been, but he is still struggling with being disconnected. As well as excellent characterisation, and the great dialogue that goes along with that, Line of Polity has plenty of plot. This is an action driven novel as Cormac chases both Dragon and Skellor about the universe. The ending is a bit of a shock. Cormac pulls off a clever trick, forcing Skellor to choose between destroying Masada and killing Cormac. Skellor chooses Cormac and runs into an outpost world run by arms dealers, who Cormac fools into thinking he is attacking. Their defence system is the only thing that can destroy Skellor at this point and it does so. It also seems that Cormac dies in the process. Right up to the last page I was waiting for Asher to reveal how Cormac survived, but he didn’t. Which leaves me desperate to read the next one. Genius. (There are currently three more Ian Cormac novels, so he has to have survived, right?)

I thoroughly enjoyed this. If you like space opera, particularly Iain M. Banks, then you’ll enjoy this. It’s exciting, entertaining and well written.

100 Books in 2011: Surface Detail

Continuing on with wrapping up the last few book reviews for the 100 books in 2011 challenge we have Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks.

Lededje Ybreq is an indentured servant who is killed by her owner. She is revived on board a Culture ship, courtesy of a neural lace given to her by a passing eccentric ship when she was younger. Once she is used to the idea of being alive again, she seeks to return home to kill him.

Meanwhile, several lesser civilisations are engaged in a virtual war over the right to have virtual hells. The Culture is profoundly anti-Hell but felt that it shouldn’t participate. The war has been raging for decades and the anti-Hell side is losing. Because of this it is about to break out in the Real.

Lededje finds herself travelling home with the warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, a delightfully psychotic mind created to be a weapon but knowing it will almost certainly never get the chance to show its full capability.

Lededje’s journey home takes her right into the middle of the outbreak of war in the Real, giving Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints the opportunity it never thought it would get.

I love the Culture and I want to live in it. With Surface Detail, Banks has created a new Culture novel that is possibly one of the best. I love the ideological discussions presented by the existence of virtual Heavens and Hells and what that means for civilization. One hell world is explored through the POV of two activist characters who voluntarily go to their world’s Hell to support the anti-Hell movement. The pain, despair and hopelessness is vividly brought to life. I found myself profoundly anti-Hell.

Characterisation is excellent, and my favourite of the many memorable characters was Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. I love ship minds in the Culture novels; they’re so very entertaining. FONMC was wonderful. It is the mind of a ship created to be the ultimate deterent and loves destruction and mayhem, but is aware that it may never get to truly express itself. So it’s avatars are cruel, mean, spiteful and sadistic, and charming, elegant and manipulative, like the psychopath that the ship really is. And when FONMC gets to destroy an entire fleet of warships all by itself, it is so joyful that it is hard not to be happy for it.

In Surface Detail, Banks does not disappoint. It is full of interesting characters, sparkling dialogue, and rich with intellectual concept. It will make you think, and laugh, and cry. Highly recommended. This is a contender for best book of the year.

100 Books in 2011: Heart of Darkness

I’ve not read many classics this year, due to a perception that they take longer to read that modern novels of the same length, and I’ve been conscious of having a target. Towards the end of the year I stopped picking short books in order to meet the target because I wanted to read books I could get my teeth into. One of those was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

It’s the story of a man, Marlow, who takes up an ivory trading post in the Congo. While there he accepts a commission to travel into the jungle to find and return Kurtz. Kurtz was a trader, like Marlow, but has been in the jungle for a long time and there are disturbing reports.

Marlow is confronted with the venality of his fellow Europeans and dismayed with their treatment of Africans. When he sets off to find Kurtz he is deeply conflicted about what he is doing. His inner turmoil is increased when he finds Kurtz, who he experiences as a very charismatic man, and discovers that Kurtz has set himself up as a King. His hold over the Africans is derived from his willingness to present himself as a supernatural being; he encourages them to worship him by participating in their rites.

Kurtz is ill, so Marlow is able to take him from the tribe, to the great distress of the woman who was his mistress, but he dies on the way back down-river. Back in Europe, Marlow is sought out by people who knew Kurtz and has to decide what he will say about the man’s final years.

I found this surprisingly easy to read. Surprising, because I picked it up a few years ago and had trouble getting into it. That’s the benefit of a long commute – you have time to get into books that require a bit of time and effort. Once I got going, I found it quite hard to put down. It uses the frame narrative technique, a story within a story, which I find quite tedious. It’s a slow way of getting into a story and I’m glad it’s fallen out of fashion.

I liked the sense of oppression. The world Conrad describes is indeed dark, things happen at night, inside dark buildings and under the canopy of the jungle where the light rarely penetrates. He shows European colonists as small and greedy as they claim the Africans they’re enslaving are. The European characters, including Kurtz, talk about the civilising influence that empires bring to Africa while demonstrating behaviour that belies the claim. Conrad doesn’t pull any punches about the nature of colonialism. Marlow’s confusion and disillusionment is well drawn.

This is a book with a big reputation and is definitely one of those books you should have read. Fortunately, it’s pretty good and I really enjoyed it.

100 Books in 2011: Worth Dying For

Ah, Jack Reacher, I just can’t stay away from you. And in Worth Dying For, Lee Child’s taciturn alpha male itinerant troubleshooter/maker is on good form.

Reacher is hitching across the US, as is his wont, and is dropped off in the middle of the desolate plains of Nebraska. He finds a motel and walks into a village terrorised by the Duncans, a family of thugs who deal in human trafficking.

The battered wife of the youngest Duncan calls the drunken doctor drinking at the motel bar and Reacher, having a chivalric moment, drags the unwilling doctor to assist, then tracks down the husband and breaks his nose. As things start unravelling, Reacher discovers that the Duncan’s are implicated in a thirty-year old case of a missing girl.

Meanwhile, the Duncan’s are waiting for a shipment that is late. The buyers have sent a couple of guys to find out where it is. There are further buyers in the chain, who also send thugs to expedite the process.

After much chasing around windy, flat farms and the grisly, violent deaths of many a criminal, Reacher solves the case and the bad guys get their just desserts. 

I think Lee Child is getting better as a writer, Reacher seems a more complex character than when I first picked up one of these books, and as he gets more complex he gets more likeable, which was definitely missing at the start.

I also appreciate the short time span the novel is set in. All the action happens over a few days, maybe a week. With Reacher able to have many adventures in a short space of time, he doesn’t age at the same rate as the reader. Which can be a problem with your action hero. Worth Dying For has all the strengths and weakness I’ve come to expect from Lee Child. What’s good is the plotting, the pace, and the creation of a insulated little world wrapped up in its own problems. Not so good is the dialogue and Reacher’s god-like powers. Still, all in all, it was fun and if you’re looking for an easy, relaxing read, you could do worse.

100 Books in 2011: Definitely Dead

The sixth in the Sookie Stackhouse series, Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris, is a bit of a return to form.

Sookie is left an inheritance by her cousin Hadley, former ghoul of the Queen of Louisiana. She has to go to New Orleans to collect.

At the same time, Eric Northman wants her to go to the Queen’s wedding to use her telepathic powers for him. She’s dating the were-tiger Quinn and they are attacked by werewolves.

So, there’s quite a bit of plot here, which has been lacking in the last couple of Sookie stories. The Queen’s marriage is a political one and her fiance is looking for an excuse to kill her. Such an excuse might be provided if a jewellery gift if missing – and the Queen asks Sookie to find it for her. Hadley stole it in a fit of pique and it’s hidden amongst her belongings. Meanwhile the werewolf attacks turn out to be the revenge of relatives of Debbie Pelt, killed by Sookie in a previous book. It was nice to have some action going on and Definitely Dead is a return to the style of the first two books.

The sexual tension between Sookie and Quinn is pretty hot, which I liked. The relationships between Sookie and the other characters has developed a bit and they were more real. In previous books the supporting characters have been a bit flat, with Sookie the only one with real personality. This has been addressed a little and so the book was a bit more satisfying.

100 Books in 2011: The Post Office Girl

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig was the last Book Club book of 2011. I didn’t think I would enjoy it, but actually I loved it.

Christine is a young woman living in Austria in the years after the first world war. Life is hard, there’s not enough money and the rooms she lives in with her mother are permanently damp.

Her aunt, who emigrated to the US before the war, is touring Europe and invites Christine to join her in a ski resort for a week or so. Her mother is too ill to go, so Christine goes instead. Her aunt and her husband are very rich and Christine is catapulted into a world of luxury.

But it comes to an abrupt end when gossip starts that Christine is not wealthy and is in fact a poor girl dressed up in her aunt’s clothes. Christine returns home to find her mother has died and everything seems so much grimmer now.

Life goes on and Christine feels ever more estranged from the village. She decides to spend weekends in Vienna to try to recapture the glamour of her holiday. While she is there she visits with her sister and brother-in-law, Franz. On one occasion her brother-in-law runs into Ferdinand, who he had known in the war. In a quirk of fate, Franz got sent home and Ferdinand spent two years as a POW in Siberia. Ferdinand is bitter and disappointed at the arbitrariness of life and Christine finds her soul mate in him.

Their affair is made grim and joyless by their consciousness of their poverty and eventually begins to fizzle out. Then, unexpectedly, Ferdinand comes to see Christine in the post office because he has been laid off. He has a plan for them to commit suicide together and Christine agrees, but then Ferdinand discovers how much money is kept at the post office and hatches a new plan to steal the money ad flee to France. The book ends with him presenting his plan to Christine and asking if she wants to go along with it.

From a slightly slow start, this develops into a really fast-paced book. The pace is achieved by a POV tight into the head of the POV character resulting a stream of consciousness type narrative that is quite breathless. The emotion is ramped right up and it borders on melodrama at points. For me, that worked brilliantly. The swirl and joy and freedom of the two weeks Christine has in an environment where money appears to be limitless leave the reader as giddy as Christine. And then the plunge back into the grim, grinding, drabness of her life without money is just as all-consuming.

I liked the depiction of the relationship between Christine and Ferdinand. They didn’t seem to like each other much, but the fact that they understood each other in a way no one else could bound them together. They shared despair and a sense of unfairness.

The ending was a bit strange, and lost the tone of the rest of the book. I suspect this is due to it having been published post-humously. Despite that, I really enjoyed this. It was difficult to put down, moving and the social commentary is still, tragically, relevant.

100 Books in 2011: Watchers

Watchers by Dean Koontz is a story about the consequences of genetic engineering. A little bit. Mostly its a creepy horror story of nice people being stalked by horrible things.

Travis Cornell is hiking when he meets a dog. The dog is quite keen to get him away from the woods and he realises they are being stalked by something large and dangerous. They get away and Travis takes the dog home. Later they meet Nora Devon who’s being stalked by a sexual predator. The dog convinces Travis they should go to her house at the moment her stalker attacks her, and they are able to save Nora. A relationship develops and they become a family of sorts.

Vince Nasco is a hitman who has been hired to kill several scientists who were working on projects to genetically engineer a super-intelligent dog and a super-soldier baboon. He gets the idea that if he can find the dog he can get a lot of money in ransom for it. So he starts searching for Travis and his family.

National Security are searching for the baboon creature and the creature is searching for the dog, because it hates the dog.

I liked this quite a lot. It’s tense, well-paced and compelling. The section at the start with Nora and her assailant is toe-curling. The mystery of what the scientists have been creating is revealed carefully. Characterisation is good, dialogue is good. This is evidence that best-selling pulp fiction can be really well written. It’s the third of Dean Koontz’s novels that I’ve read and easily the best. He’s a prolific author and that can sometimes mean that some of his books aren’t up to the same standard as others. This one though, is definitely worth reading.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the wholesome, god-fearing, family values American ideal is a little heavy-handed. But that is taken in balance with the way that he portrays the creature. To start with it is the stuff of nightmares, a relentless killing machine driven by irrational hate. But over the course of the book we learn how it was created, what was done to it, and how it became aware of what it was and how it experienced the digust of the people who had created it. It’s quite heartbreaking and at the end, I cried for the monster. It’s an achievement to create a chilling horror story and make your audience empathise with the monster. Highly recommended.

100 Books in 2011: No Place for a Lady

Somewhat disturbingly, I rather enjoyed No Place for a Lady by Louise Allen. I’ve grown so used to not enjoying Mills & Boon that at first I wondered if my critical faculties were on the fritz.

Bree Mallory runs a stagecoach company. She has aristocratic relations but has to make her own living which she does quite well. One night a driver lets her down and rather than cancel the coach, Bree drives it herself. On the way she is caught up in a race between members of a gentlemen’s club. One of the racers is Max Dysart, a handsome, rich and eligible aristocrat.

Rather nicely, the conflict in their relationship is not driven by internal insecurities, but by the differences in their social status and by Max’s uncertainty over whether his first wife is dead. Unfortunately, the plot twist at the end where someone pretends to be his dead wife is rushed and never really becomes a threat to the inevitable wedding.

Well, I sort of enjoyed most of it, because Louise Allen gets right something that really bugs me about Mills & Boon. She provides her romantic leads with context. There are lots of other characters, several of whom are well drawn and rounded, and the Regency set in London is brought to life quite effectively. Bree is genuinely an independent woman and that’s quite refreshing.

Obviously, I’m not really recommending this as it’s still a romance and not really my thing, but it was ok.