In 2014, I reignited my love of literature by reading 25 books. Then, last year, I managed to do it again! Here are four of my favourites in no particular order.
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino
Like the world’s worst Choose Your Own Adventure book, this post-modern novel makes YOU the reader the star of the story and follows your linear but by-no-means-straightforward quest to return a misprinted copy of ‘If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino and find out how the book ends.
This is not as simple a task as it may seem. The book, like its title, is incomplete and every time the Reader – er, you – gets a new version of the book, it has a completely different story in it, and every time he/she reads the new story, they put the previous story to one side and become focussed on finding the rest of the new one, and there’s another Reader who’s having the same problem, and together you get caught up in an increasingly bizarre tale that starts with a simple printing error and unfolds into a sprawling international adventure.
It’s also far more engrossing, playful, clever, funny, charming, entertaining and easy to follow than any description of its story makes it seem.
What’s most impressive about the book is how it manages to forge a connection with the reader and make the second-person narration not feel like a pointless gimmick. When writing this novel, Calvino had to somehow make thousands of unknown Readers that he’d never met and would probably never meet feel personally involved in his genre-hopping tale and all he had to go on was the fact that the person bought this book, so he could discern that:
- They read books.
- They thought that a novel about someone who has quite a lot of trouble finishing a book would be worth reading.
- They like a bit of post-modern gimmickry.
And that’s it. But he manages this difficult feat and I quickly got sucked in.
You might be wondering how a book like this would even work and it goes like this: every other chapter is ‘You’ doing something – getting ready to read, going to the bookshop to complain, meeting the Other Reader, travelling to a new place, getting the next chapter – and the rest are the chapters of the books that ‘You’ read, each one completely different in tone and genre and apparently unrelated to any that came before it.
The book is one big celebration of reading and language and it’s brilliant. Well done to the translator, too, who must have had a tricky job translating this meta-novel from the original Italian.
I would go on but unfortunately, because I read this right at the start of last year and stupidly decided to not write down any of my thoughts about it until now, the finer details of the story and the quality of the prose have become a bit smudged in my memory (not making that mistake again) but whatever I would have written would have probably ended with a summary that goes something like this:
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is one of the cleverest, loveliest books I’ve ever read and I’m looking forward to diving into this incredible Italian’s entire back catalogue.
More Than This – Patrick Ness
©Walker Books Ltd
Killing off the protagonist in the first chapter is one hell of a way to start a book. Poor young Seth drowns, dies, then unexpectedly wakes up somewhere else. Somewhere strange and familiar and empty.
Every possible theory that just popped into your head is explored thoroughly in this exciting page-turner where Ness is always a few steps ahead of the reader and delights in throwing in new twists and turns.
He strings us along expertly without it ever getting frustrating, as Seth smartly and refreshingly voices our own thoughts and concerns just as we start to worry if this is going anywhere.
Learning more about what happened to Seth when he was alive is just as gripping as learning about his new home and the book handles its heavy existential themes well.
As the end draws nearer and we learn more about where Seth ended up, the allure of the main mystery is inevitably diminished slightly, but the book balances this by building up to another distressing climax in its flashbacks as the day that Seth dies rapidly approaches.
It’s a great, powerful read all the way up to its ending, which is perfect yet still, after 470-odd pages, left me wishing there was – ahem – more than this.
I’ve kept my praise as vague as possible because the thrill of the book is seeing its mysteries unravel. Oh, and AVOID all reviews. After reading it, I went online and was astonished to find reviews from several publications which praised the suspense and mystery of the novel and suggested that it’s best to know as little as possible before reading, then went on to nonchalantly spoil at least three-quarters of the book.
Young Adult books tend to be looked-down-upon due to their target audience but it’s difficult to see why when books like this one tackle big, difficult issues in a thoughtful and mature way that would probably surprise doubters and snobby adults. Some of the best books ever written that should be read by anyone and everyone, like the His Dark Materials trilogy, happen to fall into the YA category.
Anyway, after reading this, I’ll definitely be looking at the rest of Ness’ work and I’m delighted that he’s in charge of the new Doctor Who spin-off.
Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
There have been so many books about grim futures and post-apocalyptic struggles over the years that it’s difficult for any new ones to stand out and make a convincing case for why we should bother to read them when it seems like the genre has been done to death. There are only so many books about the collapse of society and the gruelling fight for humanity’s survival which follows that a person can read before it all turns into grim, monotonous gruel.
Mandel gets around this issue by setting large setions of her post-apocalyptic novel pre- and mid-apocalypse, starting at the opening night of a King Lear production in Toronto, where acclaimed actor Arthur Leander dies on stage despite the best efforts of audience member and paramedic-in-training Jeevaun Chaudhary to save him. Jeevaun comforts a little girl called Kirsten who also starred in the play and, 20 years after the world is ravaged by a devastatingly-deadly flu epidemic, she joins a group of travelling actors and musicians in Michigan who perform Shakespeare for the small settlements and towns that remain after 99% of the population were killed by the fatal flu.
The book also follows Jeevaun as he tries to survive the crisis after receiving panicked phone calls from a friend working in the local hospital and explores the highs and lows of Arthur’s career and personal life before his final performance, often from the perspective of his second ex-wife Miranda.
The short chapters give the novel the paciness of a thriller, but to call it that would be misleading. The immediate aftermath of the outbreak is told with a gripping urgency and Kirsten’s time with the Travelling Symphony is far from dull, but much of the book would be more aptly described as an introspective character study about Arthur’s experiences with stardom, or the Travelling Symphony’s companionship, or a group of survivors who seek refuge in an airport terminal that they start to turn into a permanent home when they realise that help isn’t coming and they won’t be flown to safety.
This focus on character over conflict works to Station Eleven‘s benefit, except for a moment near the end when Kirsten’s climactic confrontation with the closest thing that the book has to an antagonist turns out to be disappointingly brief and unsatisfying. Fortunately, the final pages end the novel well enough to stop that anticlimax significantly hurting my opinion of the book.
The Travelling Symphony’s journey across post-flu America is suitably downbeat but the bleakness is applied with a light touch and there is a hopefulness to their endeavour. These sections have some of the book’s most beautiful writing. The melancholic descriptions of the survivors struggling to remember what the world was like before the epidemic, when global travel and communication was so easy that to them it now seems like impossible magic, have the unusual effect of making the reader feel nostalgic about technology that still exists.
A remarkable read.
Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett
©Transworld Publishers Ltd
My progress through the Discworld series came to an abrupt halt last year when the news of Sir Terry’s sad but peaceful death broke shortly after I finished Wyrd Sisters. The enormous outpouring of grief from lifelong fans and recent converts who spoke of their heartbreak, shared personal stories about how much the books meant to them and told anecdotes about meeting the man himself was very touching.
Despite knowing about the Alzheimer’s that he called an ’embuggerance’, I assumed, like many did, that he’d still be writing for a while longer and his Discworld series could keep on going for at least a few more years. Now his series and spin-offs and standalones are depressingly finite and I have no desire to rush through them at my previous four-a-year pace.
I don’t have any of those anecdotes or personal stories and felt like I was just getting started with his books and that maybe one day after I’d gobbled them all up and reread them countless times I could meet him and awkwardly babble about how great he was and it would be wonderful. What a shame…
Well, enough mournful daydreaming. There’s still plenty of good stuff to get through and I’m very grateful and glad that he was such a prolific writer and, from all that I’ve read about him, a wonderful human being, too.
Wyrd Sisters is as hilarious and goofy and full of delightful wordplay and imaginative invention as I’ve now come to expect from the Discworld novels since I read Mort last year and fell in love with the series after being amused but underwhelmed by the three books that preceded it.
The sixth Discworld book brings back Granny Weatherwax, here slightly different to her first appearance in Equal Rites and more confidently characterised, along with new characters Magrat and Nanny Ogg, in a tale of regicide and magic that spoofs Shakespeare and plays with the cliches of witches and witchcraft.
Weatherwax, Magrat and Ogg are all standout characters and the recently-deceased King Verence, the devious Lady Felmet, her hapless husband the Duke, and the king’s Fool that make up Lancre’s dysfunctional royal family are all very entertaining.
With Death and Granny Weatherwax becoming standout characters in the series thanks to Mort and Wyrd Sisters, I find that I’m becoming less fond of Rincewind, even though he’s starred in half of the books that I’ve read so far. Hopefully future entries in the series will give him the character development and superb stories that he needs to rise back up the ranks of my favourite characters.
But first, Pyramids, which I’ll get to… at some point. Like I said, I’m in no rush. Not anymore.