Category Archives: unreliable narrator

Review of Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

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oddWell, you won’t find a book more aptly named. Odd by name and odd by nature… Twenty-year-old Odd Thomas takes pride in his work as a fry cook. His fame has spread, bringing strangers to the restaurant in Pico Mundo. Odd cannot say what it is that disturbs him about this particular stranger, but his sixth sense is alert… This is a man with an appetite for operatic terror. The violence he craves is of the extreme variety: multiple untimely deaths spiced with protracted horror. Tomorrow.

Odd’s fears are first for Stormy Llewellyn, his one true love. Stormy believes that our passage through this world is intended to toughen us for the next life – that the many terrors we know here are an inoculation against worse in the world to come. But Odd Thomas knows more than Stormy about this world. Many people in Pico Mundo think he is some sort of psychic, perhaps a clairvoyant, a seer, something. None but a handful know that he sees the restless dead, those with unfinished business and sometimes, plenty of post-mortem rage.

Now, I generally don’t do too much Horror – I dream far too vividly to be able to cope with anything liberally gore-drenched. But this offering was vetted by Himself, who assured me that it was both worth reading and reasonably spatterless and I thoroughly enjoyed this accomplished, well-written book. There is a touch of Gothic otherness in a small-town American setting that had me feeling fiercely protective of the likes of Stormy Llewellyn, Odd’s girlfriend, Police Chief Porter, Mrs Sanchez and Little Ozzie – characters who bounce off the page with their eccentricity and niceness. Writing nice without descending into sentimentality takes skill, which Koontz amply demonstrates in this slow-burn thriller than had me reading far too late into the night/early morning, given I had a poorly grandson to tend.

I enjoyed the fact that Odd’s facility for encountering ghosts has kept him in his hometown, away from busy city streets where sudden deaths are far more frequent, so that he appears to be under-achieving. Whereas in actual fact, he strives to be the best breakfast cook he can be – while keeping track of the creepy black shadows that gather when something terrible is about to happen and trying to avert the impending catastrophe.

Yes, I know it’s not staggeringly original – but Koontz’s particular handling of this plot device is slick and accomplished. I love Odd’s first person narration – that as a bookish, nerdy kid, he is rather wordy. That his terrible upbringing has left him… odd – with a strange innocence alongside his otherworldly gifts and a knack for making friends. It is a refreshing change when so many young protagonists spend their time angst-ridden over their own emotions and feelings, to encounter a character who rarely will address his own pain – turning his emotions into trying to keep everyone he cares about safe. Which brings its own terrible urgency, as a terrible evil continues to circle the heartbreakingly vulnerable community of Pico Mundo.

If, like me, you’re a tad allergic to horror that describes dead bodies in loving detail, but appreciate a tension-filled, paranormal thriller of above average quality, then track down this 2004 offering. You won’t be sorry if you do.
9/10

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Review of Glasshouse by Charles Stross

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I’m a fan of Charles Stross’ writing – his work is intelligent, sharply witty, often funny and always enjoyably engrossing. So when I unexpectedly came across this offering on the shelves, I snatched it up with delight.

When Robin wakes up in a clinic with most of his memories missing, it doesn’t take him long to discover that someone else is trying to glasshousekill him… It is the 27th century: interstellar travel is by teleport gate, and conflicts are fought by network worms that censor refugees’ personalities and target historians. Robin is a civilian now – demobilised following a civil war – but someone wants him dead because of something his earlier self knows.

Fleeing from his ruthless pursuer, he volunteers to participate in a unique experimental polity, the Glasshouse. It seems the ideal hiding place for a posthuman on the run, but in this escape-proof environment, Robin will undergo even more radical change, placing him at the mercy of the experimenters – and of his own unbalanced psyche.

If that seems rather a lot of blurb, it is. Because this book carries a large amount of backstory that immediately impacts on Robin’s current plight. Problem is, he cannot exactly recall what it is about his past his would-be assassins are objecting to, because he has undergone memory surgery…

Posthumanity regularly crops up in far-future science fiction and the problem I generally have with it, is that these very old, highly evolved beings often appear so alien and different I find it difficult to really care about them. Not so Robin. He is short-fused, argumentative, judgemental, occasionally violent, amusing and suspicious of everyone to the point of paranoia. He is also very damaged. In order for Glasshouse to work, we have to care for this tricky protagonist, because in a shifting, difficult world full of secrets and treachery, it is Robin who guides us through this landscape. And I found myself immediately drawn into his worldview, his problems and this apparent solution.

But the Glasshouse isn’t all it seems, either. Neither is Robin… I’m not going to continue as I’m allergic to spoilers and the plot to this book corkscrews off in all directions. Maybe other cleverer souls who read it realised where it was going – but I regularly found there was yet another shock as the storyline revealed yet another layer of surprise. Robin finds it hard to keep up, too. And the damage he has sustained becomes all too apparent just at the time when he needs to be at his shiny best – and he isn’t. So as well as a flawed uncertain world, reeling from the savage wars when reality itself melts taking with it the pockets of humanity caught up in the folds, Stross also provides an unreliable narrator through whose first person viewpoint we access this world. It’s an almighty big task – and in many ways, Stross manages to pull this off.

I really cared about Robin – and when he undergoes major physical and gender changes, while the depiction isn’t as visceral and raw as Richard Morgan’s sleeved protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, there is still a strong sense of confusion and anger. It was interesting to note that Robin never seems fully comfortable in a woman’s body, any more than he is happy wearing silk, which s/he describes as ‘bug vomit’. The steady trickle of amusing asides, while Stross ridicules our way of life through future eyes, adds to the pleasure of this thriller as it steadily builds towards the climax.

If you’re sensing a but, you’d be right. As to the major plot denouement, I have no problem – the climax and reveal are all enjoyable and satisfying. If only the final couple of pages weren’t there… For me, Stross’ final solution to Robin’s misery strikes an entirely false note and seemed utterly unrealistic. We’re into major spoiler country here, so I won’t go into details. But suffice to say, given Robin’s history, where he ends up and with whom simply didn’t convince me, which was a real shame.

With many other books, this would be sufficient to have given the book a 5 and not bother reviewing it – I don’t review books I don’t like – but despite the wrong ending, there is so much about this novel that is excellent, I’m still going to recommend you track it down and read it. Who knows? Maybe you’d even like the ending…
7/10

Review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

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This book was on my ‘To Read’ was a looong time – and finally I got around to it…

Christopher Boone is fifteen and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human curious incidentbeings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour’s dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down.

This short book caused a huge fuss when it first came out in 2003 – and having finally read it, I now know why. Haddon has managed to masterfully inhabit the skin of a teenager who cannot cope with human emotions, suffers from sensory overload and compensates by retreating into mathematical formulae and logical list-making. As a result, when confronted by major events – like being told of the death of his mother, for instance – Christopher tells us what he had to eat that evening and that he went to bed and fell fast asleep.

This doesn’t mean that Christopher is incapable of loving – but that he finds it difficult to understand or relate to his feelings. So when he discovers Wellington, the standard poodle who lives next door, skewered by a garden fork to the lawn, he resolves to find out who murdered it – even when told repeatedly by his father that he mustn’t interfere. He even overcomes his reluctance to engage with strangers in order to ask if anyone has seen anything suspicious – trouble is, he cannot process the heavy hints that a well-meaning neighbour gives him about his own domestic set-up.  His inability to process information that the reader clearly understands gives us greater insights into Christopher’s capacity to engage with the world, while also providing some comedy, albeit the darker, lump-in-your-throat variety. Books that make me both want to weep and laugh hold a special place in my heart – and this one joins that select few.

Haddon not only manages to give us an idea of what it must be like to experience the world while coping with Asperger’s – he also provides us with the daily challenges facing Christopher’s carers. I found myself wondering how you’d survive when the strong-willed, highly intelligent individual in your life retreats into black silence when he encounters a series of the wrong coloured cars on his morning bus ride…

But don’t go away with the notion that this is some worthy, high-mindedly literary attempt to give the rest of us an appreciation of what being born with Asperger’s can entail – the story that powers Christopher’s narration is a mystery. And while we learn who did do it, we also learn what the strains were that led up to the deed and Christopher’s unwitting role in the whole affair. It will be a book that will stay with me for a very long time – and if you want an outstanding example of character-led fiction, then this is a must-read book. Come to think of it – this is a must-read book, anyway.
10/10

Review of The Last Family in England by Matt Haig

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After reading The Radleys, I picked this offering off the library shelves thinking that I’d appreciate an amusing, smart read at the start of 2012. Hm. Well that didn’t work out…

lastfamilyinenglandPrince is an earnest young dog, striving hard to live up to the tenets of The Labrador Pact (Remain Loyal to Your Human Masters, Serve and Protect Your Family at Any Cost). Other dogs, led by the Springer Spaniels, have revolted. Their slogans are ‘Dogs for Dogs, not for Humans’ and ‘Pleasure not Duty’. Mentored by an elderly Labrador called Henry, Prince takes his responsibilities seriously, and as things in the Hunter family begin to go badly awry – marital breakdown, rowdy teenage parties, attempted suicide – his responsibilities threaten to overwhelm him. And down in the park it’s even worse. Henry has disappeared: Falstaff the Springer Spaniel wants to lead Prince astray… What will he do next?

I got sucked in by the comedic cover and Jeanette Winterson’s description that the book is fabulous and moving and funny and strange. And – yes – she’s absolutely right, it’s all of those things. It’s also poignantly sad.

Haig writes in first person viewpoint as Prince, the idealistic youngster, straining every nerve to live up to the lofty ideals of the Labrador Pact. His depiction of the world from a dog’s view with the emphasis on scents, hearing and decoding human body language certainly allowed me to suspend my disbelief for the duration of the book, which is crucial to the success of the story. And there’s plenty going on – we see a slice of family life just before the Hunter’s world starts to spiral away into crisis mode.

Haig holds the tension masterfully, allowing the series of secrets that rock Prince’s world to surface, one after the other. Nothing is as it seems. Prince finds himself surrounded by mounting difficulties at home; Henry is no longer around to give him advice and Falstaff’s carefree joie de vivre becomes ever more tempting… Even the family cat advises him to step back, not to get too involved in human affairs. But Prince is still driven on by his sense of duty.

This isn’t a long read. Each chapter is only a couple of pages long and event move along at a breathless clip. The language is pared down and the short, simple sentences allow a great deal to be packed into the modest word count and it can easily be read in a single sitting, if you so wish. As with The Radleys, the action is interspersed with extracts from a how-to manual – in this case it is The Labrador Pact that Prince has learnt by heart. The denouement isn’t a shock, Haig has heavily foreshadowed it, but I was surprised at the final twist which adds an extra slice of sadness to the ending.

The simple writing style is deceptive – Haig is dealing with some hefty issues in this slight book. At what point does loyalty become a lethal liability? Is unrealistic idealism a dangerous luxury in a world where cynical selfishness appears to be the norm? Because, of course, this book is actually nothing at all to do with dogs – it is about choosing how to live your life. Are you going to bounce through like a Springer Spaniel, carefully avoiding any commitment? Or shoulder responsibilities even if they buckle you in the process? Even those of us who have knocked about the world for a while should sometimes take the time to reconsider their choices – and I personally think that this should be required reading for every teenager in the land.
10/10

Review of Worldstorm by James Lovegrove

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Elder Ayn doesn’t really know why the Worldstorm comes to wreak devastation on the world any more than the next man. But, being a previsionary, he does know the exact time and nature of his death. He will be murdered and he will do nothing to prevent the killing blow.  Elder Ayn also knows why he has left the splendid academic isolation of Stonehaven and gone out into the world. He knows where his quest will take him. But he’s not about to tell his scribe, Khollo.

And meanwhile the world’s order is breaking down. In the country of Jarraine, war is brewing between the Earth and Fire Inclined, james-lovegrove-worldstorm-hbkbetween people who can shake the ground with a fist or pull fire out of the air with a simple thought. A storm is coming.

This being Lovegrove, the classic Fantasy template is tweaked more than a tad – so before you roll your eyes at the clichéd old Quest plotline that emerges from this intriguing world, I’ll reassure you that Lovegrove is a far too talented and original writer to fall into this overused trope without knowing exactly he’s doing. Elder Ayn is definitely the main character in this tale – again – a spin on the setup that has our plucky young hero mentored by a wise, all-knowing scholar/wizard who supports him because said scholar’s Second Sight has divined that this particular individual is crucial to the success of the mission… Ayn is driven by his previsionary powers to collect up Yashu and Gregory, the other two protagonists and is so convinced that he has the answer to the problem of the Worldstorm, that he also decides to hire Khollo for his powers of absolute recall to record the trip for posterity – as he also knows it will end in his murder.

Needless to say, the journey is uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous. But no one other than Yashu and Gregory will suffice – and I’m betting right now, that scenario of staple Fantasy fare is sounding very familiar.

Lovegrove depicts a fascinating conundrum surrounding these superhumans – Ayn is able to deceive Yashu and her lie-detecting skills by simply avoiding telling an outright falsehood. And increasingly, as we hear Ayn’s self-important justifications regarding his interference in Yashu and Gregory’s already difficult lives, the reader is encouraged to wonder about the extent of Ayn’s previsionary powers. Just how much of this adventure is fuelled by his drive to leave his mark on the world? We are left in no doubt of his drive, knowledge and supreme self-confidence – but how much of his belief that the Worldstorm is caused by the rise of humanity’s extra powers is based on his ability to see into the future, rather than the need to find evidence to fit his favourite theory?

Ayn is the classic unreliable narrator – and, as the plot unfolds, we begin to realise that Khollo also has his own agenda. Indeed, the interaction between Ayn and Khollo gives rise to most of the humour in the book – which is also counter-balanced by some of the graphic action scenes during the battle. I’m conscious that so far, I’ve managed to give the impression that this is a rather dry book concentrating on the characters’ motivations and Lovegrove’s subversion of the classic Fantasy tale. However, the staple of said Fantasy tale is adventure and Worldstorm provides it in spades – right down to the evil villain whose selfishness morphs into obsessive madness. The plot whips along at a clip, only slowing for Ayn’s narration to Khollo – which is just fine. Ayn is a wonderful character whose moods ranging from complacent smugness to grumpy annoyance leap off the page.

Any niggles? Well, when Lovegrove switches viewpoint several times, he reprises some of the events in the new point of view. Given that he’s already successfully established the characters along with their differences and conflict points, all this serves to do is silt up the narrative pace and undermine the importance of the one or two occasions when this ploy is actually necessary near the end of the book.

Apart from that, this book is an utter joy. Lovegrove is an intelligent, perceptive writer who delivers a cracking adventure, and (mostly) assumes that his readership can cope without having all the dots joined up. My one sorrow is that this is a stand-alone book as the world is a wonderful one with so much further potential.
9/10