It’s rare for me to read a book that was published recently as there are so many classics and modern greats for me to catch up on that there’s not much room on my shelves for new fiction. So, none of these books are from 2016 but they were so good that I felt compelled to write a little post about them anyway. Here are my four favourite reads of last year.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami
What does a futuristic city with a mad scientist, a hapless middle-aged loner, and an economy that thrives on the big business of data protection have in common with a mystical fantasy land where unicorns graze near dark forests outside a walled Town with townfolk that discard their memories and shadows when entering through the Gates that keep them safe?
Well, more than you’d think, as the two locations anchor the seperate stories of Murakami’s weird and wonderful novel where the narratives of the city and the Town unexpectedly intertwine with and echo against each other. Alternating chapters in each setting give the novel a fast pace and plenty of cliffhangers, turning this bizarre book into an unexpected page-turner.
The futuristic Hard-Boiled Wonderland sees its nameless protagonist begin what should be a fairly simple job that becomes a complex conspiratorial headache which then escalates into a matter of life and death. The hero of this story is an unremarkable everyman with a monotonous life that is thrown into chaos by the eccentric characters he meets.
The fantastical End of the World has its protagonist, a stranger in a strange land, try to learn more about his new home and begin a new job of reading dreams from the skulls of dead beasts. The mysterious new resident reveals little about his past and his reasons for moving to this generically-named Town but is still an interesting character. The prose in these chapters is often slow, vague and abstract, which suits the beguiling but baffling place it describes, though it did force me to slow down a little as I often had to reread paragraphs to wrap my head around what was happening.
One of the best things about the book is that it’s so easy to get invested in each individual story that you’re not waiting impatiently for the two to mix. Good thing, really, as you’d be waiting quite a while, but reading about the polar-opposite lives of the book’s comically confused and quietly determined protagonists is so enjoyable that any thoughts about why or when or how HbW and EotW will connect are shoved firmly to the back of your mind. Having said that, there’s still an undeniable thrill when the first reference to the End of the World finally appears in a Hard-boiled Wonderland chapter.
Murakami is undoubtedly the most widely-known Japanese author and I’d read a lot of praise for his work over the years. This book was a nice mixture of the mad and the mundane that he’s famous for, a good starting point for a newcomer looking to jump into his vast back catalogue. The short-story collection I read next, After the Quake, was less encouraging but hopefully whichever novel of his I read next will live up to the high standard set by this one.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
This gripping and alarming glimpse into a dystopian future where those who own books get their houses and literature burned to ash is a sci-fi classic that deserves all the praise that it’s been given since it was published more than 60 years ago.
It’s a short but powerful story about a fireman – that is, a man who starts fires – that begins to question why exactly he and his colleagues have to find and destroy the few houses that still have illegal books in them, and why are they illegal anyway? How could a book be considered dangerous? Why was one homeowner willing to die trying to protect them?
A confrontation with the Fire Chief reveals how this society came to be and his explanation acts as a clear warning to the reader about technology becoming a distraction which encourages complacency and prevents critical and independent thought.
This warning appears to have been somewhat ignored, as reality has become slightly closer to the world described in his novel. Of course, no books are banned or burned, but it’s rather unnerving and oddly impressive to read a description about the formation of a supposed dystopia which was written decades ago and notice several similarities with modern-day life.
A few examples: In the book, everyone walks around with earbuds in ignoring each other and the scenery. Everyone stays inside watching enormous TVs and learning nothing, distracted by empty spectacle and quizzes that reward knowledge of useless trivia. People want to seem clever and cultured without putting any effort in so they look up one-page summaries of a subject and pretend to know all about it. Complex political and societal issues are reduced to a sentence or a headline and everyone’s attention span is, to put it bluntly, fucked.
The most worrying detail about Bradbury’s imagined society is that the government’s banning of books was not a contentious issue for most of the population because when the ban was introduced most people no longer bothered to read anything, they watched TV or listened to audio-dramas and no longer saw the point of reading. The revamped fire service was created to tackle the small number of people – academics, librarians, scholars, etc – that still cared about it.
It’s a quick read and it’s wonderfully written. Bradbury’s descriptions tend to turn into poetic digressions that make the grim future which he has imagined come vividly to life.
There is anger and compassion in his storytelling. The actions of his wife and the Fire Chief cause big problems for our hero but they are still written with empathy. Bradbury is sympathetic to Mildred Montag’s sorry state, addicted to her TV ‘family’, and the boo-hiss Fire Chief is surprisingly intelligent, well-read and persuasive.
A brief note on the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 that I read: It features almost 100 pages of short essays and notes about the creation of the novel and its film adaptation. These essays, histories and critical analyses are written by Bradbury himself, famous admirers of his novel, and the director of the film. They were informative, interesting and added a lot to my understanding of the novel, its critical reception, its inspiration and its influence.
Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
In this hilarious novel co-authored by the dearly departed Discworld creator Sir Terry Pratchett and scribble-haired gothic fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, the Rapture is rapidly approaching but things aren’t going to plan. The Antichrist has gone missing due to a careless baby-swapping error made by Crowley, a stylish demon who isn’t entirely happy with his boss’s plans and is rather fond of the planet he’s called home since the Beginning. With the help of the foppish angel Aziraphale – his best friend and also, technically, his oldest enemy – Crowley must find the missing deity before Judgement Day or all hell won’t break loose.
Meanwhile, the Four Horsemen are gathering, a demonic hell-hound is heading to Earth, the last member of a witch-hunting society is close to finding a new target and the ancient prophecies of a mad old dead woman are turning out to be bang on the money.
Hidden amid endless jokes, sharp bits of satire and footnotes poking fun at religion, the clichés of apocalyptic fiction, and life in the UK is a surprisingly complex rumination on the nature of humanity and our ongoing inner battle between being good and being bad. Don’t worry, this never comes across as preachy, as both authors care more about making you laugh than making you think, but it is there and it gives the book an unexpected depth.
Neither Pratchett nor Gaiman can remember who wrote which bit of the book and their writing styles blend together so perfectly it’s often difficult to tell. People who have read the work of either author before know what to expect but it’s also an ideal starting point for those who haven’t.
Another review I read compared this novel to being like the Book of Revelation if it were written by Douglas Adams and I’m struggling to think of a better comparison. It’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, playfully clever, subtly serious and has a distinctly British way of imagining Armageddon. A must-read.
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
This quirky Western has a very simple plot: Notorious bounty hunter brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters are tasked with travelling to California and killing a man. The execution, as it were, is what really makes this novel stand out.
During their travels, the two bickering brothers (are there any other kinds of brothers?) meet an assortment of odd and dangerous characters that test their friendship, their loyalty and their patience.
Some of these people wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen brothers movie and the novel has plenty of other things in common with their films, like the meandering idiots-on-an-epic-journey storyline of O Brother, Where Art Thou? that’s full of entertaining digressions, and the dry, dark humour of True Grit and Fargo.
The relationship between grouchy arsehole older brother Charlie and his kind, sensible younger brother Eli is, speaking as an arsehole older brother, very convincing. The novel does a good job of using their reactions to the increasingly perilous and unusual situations they stumble into to demonstrate their differences and suggest that their tenuous alliance has been slowly disintegrating long before we peeked into their lives.
DeWitt’s dialogue is fun to read and his prose is nicely descriptive and wryly observant. I impulse-bought the book based mainly on its striking cover and odd title and enjoyed it so much that I bought the rest of the author’s works soon after finishing the final page.