When I get a new book, I always read the first couple of pages straight away. This is not because I have any intention of actually reading the book in full; it's just a habit (and, on Kindle, I do it to get rid of those 'new' badges that sit next to the titles if I don't). When I received the electronic ARC of Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, I scanned the opening, as I routinely do - but that was all it took for me to be completely and utterly hooked. By that night, I was almost a third of the way through, and I'd finished the book within days.
The titular Well is a house, an idyllic country retreat discovered by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, a harassed fortysomething couple seeking escape from London. So idyllic that you just know the place can't possibly be as perfect as it seems. But we're not in the realm of horror or gothic fiction (and while that initial set-up might seem mundane and domestic, that's where the normality ends). In actual fact there is nothing wrong with The Well - it really is 'paradise' - and that's the problem. While the rest of the country suffers ceaseless drought, The Well flourishes. Rain continues to fall on the house and its land, crops are abundant and livestock thrives. Antipathy towards the Ardinglys starts with the locals - lifelong farmers jealous of the newcomers' effortlessly huge harvest, while their enterprises fail - but the longer the drought lasts, the more notorious they become. They have, as Mark comments, what everyone else wants but can only dream of, and those benefits come at a high price: their ostracised status gradually becomes total isolation.
Eventually, Ruth and Mark let in some visitors: first Ruth's flighty daughter Angie, a former drug addict, with her young son Lucien and a band of hippyish travellers; and second, a small group of nuns. The nuns are the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho - this being a 'resurrection plant' capable of surviving long periods of drought, which comes 'miraculously' back to life when brought into contact with moisture. (It really exists, although apparently the name 'Rose of Jericho' is used for several species with the same attributes.) It isn't really clear where they have come from or how the group formed, but they (quite literally) worship Ruth, and advocate a totally female-focused form of Christianity which she starts to find persuasive; the men, they say, are poisoning the land. Their arrival is the beginning of the end. Mark is frustrated and desperate; he becomes embittered and violent. Ruth is torn between her devotion to Lucien, the son she never had, and her new-found faith, the ecstasy she discovers at worship with the Sisters. And through all of this there is Sister Amelia - calm, ruthlessly dedicated, and incredibly sinister.
What's most intriguing about the story - and here I can loop back to what I found so immediately compelling about the first few pages - is that in the present day, all of this is gone. Not only is Ruth alone, she is returning to The Well from a short stay in prison, and is to be kept under house arrest. It is from the vantage point of this situation that Ruth tells the story of this place, all of it seen through her eyes, and all pieced together around her new life: reacquainting herself with this house that's been both heaven and hell for her, getting to know her three male guards, forming an unlikely friendship with a visiting priest. The Well is Ruth's narrative, a patchwork of memories too painful to forget and those too painful to remember. It is a curious mixture of a story being told, a personal history being recalled, and a reminder being related to a close friend, or even to oneself; that is a person who already knows many of the most important facts. Ruth rations some of the details, and sometimes talks as if the reader or listener will naturally know what she is referring to. This bitty doling out of information can seem frustrating at first, but this is a book in which patience is rewarded, although in some areas - the nature of Ruth and Amelia's relationship, the questions surrounding Mark's behaviour with Lucien - ambiguity persists through to the end.
There's a passage I want to quote because I think it is a perfect example of Ruth's voice, but I can't because my copy is an uncorrected proof. If I remember, I'll come back here and add it after the book is published. This passage is nothing important in terms of the plot - it's just Ruth describing a sunrise - but it just seems like a very exact distillation of everything that makes her distinctive: it's so strange and idiosyncratic, and quite odd and a bit flowery but it just works. That voice, for me, was crucial to the success of the story, and I think it will be something other readers either love or hate. It is the biggest part of what makes the book so incredibly unique, but it probably isn't what many will expect to find behind this particular cover.
The Well slots in well next to a crop of vaguely similar books I've read in the past year or so, books I can't quite fit into any existing sub-genre, though slipstream and transrealism come the closest. They typically have an element of fantasy, and they typically focus on a handful of ordinary lives quietly attempting to carry on in the face of some disaster or significant environmental change, rather than exploring the science of whatever this disaster is, rather than attempting to depict a dystopian society in detail. A thread of this type of everyday realism runs through The Well. The 'magic' of the house and its environs is clearly evident, and we know the media and public are obsessed with it - but we're confined to Ruth's view, cut off from most of this speculation, just trying to hold her family together in much the same way as anyone would in the midst of any emergency. Later, when that falls apart, she is enraptured not by her extraordinary surroundings, but by the love and friendship offered by a group of women. The story bears similarities to a number of other memorable books by female authors, namely Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood (set during a drought, clear religious influences and overtones, an otherworldly feel); Paula Lichtarowicz's The First Book of Calamity Leek (explores the effects of (unorthodox) religious belief, insular living and the damage done by intensely close-knit bonds within an all-female community); and Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief (one woman's personal testament, told in order to unravel the truth, with a marriage at its centre but a friendship as its pivotal, and most destructive, relationship).
The Well is perhaps done a disservice by its thriller-like cover and synopsis (and that bloody inane 'I loved this book!' quote, which I'm hoping to god doesn't end up on the final cover). But then, how could you accurately summarise this book? I've written well over a thousand words and still don't feel I've captured it at all. I'm certain it won't be to everyone's taste - it sits in a weird and wonderful niche between commercial, experimental, literary and fantasy fiction - but I couldn't get enough of it. I'll be keeping an eye out for it (and urging everyone to try it) when it's published in March.
TL;DR - The Well is comparable to lots of other books in various small ways, but ultimately stands on its own as something totally unique. It confounds expectations and is a stunning debut. ...more
Skimmed. The problem with something like this is that you need to be familiar with all the books referenced to properly appreciate the humour. Also, tSkimmed. The problem with something like this is that you need to be familiar with all the books referenced to properly appreciate the humour. Also, the way the ebook version is laid out, the 'texts' read much more like poems than text conversations. I've really enjoyed some pieces I've read on The Toast (although overall I think it's hit and miss), and I'd hoped (having not actually read the blurb or anything...) that this would be a broader range of writing linked together by the texts. As it stands, it's not of much interest to me....more
I've been interested in Laura Lippman's work for a while, but I'm trying to avoid psychological thrillers at the moment, and as a result of that I'veI've been interested in Laura Lippman's work for a while, but I'm trying to avoid psychological thrillers at the moment, and as a result of that I've put the couple of books I have by her on the 'decided against' shelf for now. When I spotted this standalone short story - a Kindle Single type of thing - on NetGalley, it seemed like the perfect way to sample her style without having to commit to a full book.
While it's set in the US, Five Fires centres on a town with a bonfire tradition*: Belleville, Delaware, a nowhere place most people just drive through on their way to the beach. Every year, before Halloween, there's a bonfire in honour of the Belleville school's football game against their local rivals. The bonfire forms the nucleus of the story - everything revolves around an incident that took place at this event - but it's not one of the five fires of the title. Those happen in the present day of the story, in August, an oppressive, silent month which the teenage narrator, Beth, whiles away her time between a part-time job behind the counter in a deli and nights alone at home while her mother works late shifts.
Beth is a skittish, tricksy narrator whose voice jumps from subject to subject in such a way that it becomes obvious, albeit gradually, that something's not quite right. There is a stream-of-consciousness feel to her narrative which sounds... not exactly younger than she's supposed to be, but just somehow wrong. 'Off' in a way you can't necessarily put your finger on. Especially in her speech:
'Well, the vacant lot is where we have the bonfires in the fall. For pep rallies. And, and, for other things. Langley's is a seafood restaurant. It's owned by the Stone family. Daniel worked as a waiter there, modest as you please. He didn't need to work. But his family has what my mom calls good values. They believe in work. Daniel waited tables there in the summer. They have a really good fried oyster sandwich. My mom and I went there for her birthday once. But it was March, so Daniel wasn't there.'
This is mostly a collection of statements, not sentences that necessarily follow on from one another. In this example, Beth is talking to police officers, but the style is typical of her speech in various scenes and of her narration too. It's really disconcerting, almost quite disturbing, and the insidious creep of this uncanny feeling brought to mind the character of Merricat in Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
This is a very short story, but its handling of suspense is masterful. I read it in one go, and then the next day I read it again, and while it's not quite the same once you know the twist, it stands up really well. The characterisation is strong; the revelations unexpected. Beth is a perfect creation, and the story as a whole retains a wonderful level of tautness throughout. I probably won't read any of the author's books in the near future, but I've certainly been left with a very positive impression of her ability to evoke atmosphere and shape a character.
* Only the next day, when I went to mark it as read on Goodreads, did I realise I'd read a story called Five Fires on Bonfire Night... It wasn't intentional, but it's a nice coincidence....more
Bought the paperback when I spotted it cheap in a supermarket, then re-read the stories I'd originally enjoyed plus the new additions. This edition coBought the paperback when I spotted it cheap in a supermarket, then re-read the stories I'd originally enjoyed plus the new additions. This edition contains two new stories, both very short and originally published in magazines: neither are anything to get excited about, but (in my opinion) that kind of story rarely is, regardless of who it's written by. Memorable more for specific moments and feelings and bits of scene-settings than for any of the stories as a whole....more
I can't remember when and how I first became aware of this book, but I had always assumed - mainly, I suppose, because of the title, and the subjectsI can't remember when and how I first became aware of this book, but I had always assumed - mainly, I suppose, because of the title, and the subjects covered within the book - that it would primarily be about the deep web. In fact, only one chapter is really about that, and the rest of the book is actually about broader categories of online activity and behaviour encapsulated by the subtitle - 'inside the digital underworld'. Topics covered include trolling, political extremism, camsex, online currencies, buying drugs on the internet, child porn, pro-ana sites, and various ideologies and movements arising from either deification of the internet or rejection of it.
In the introduction, Bartlett talks about the 'Assassination Market' service (or rather, experiment) available on the deep web, but then emphasises that this is an extreme example of the 'dark net', a term he expands to include hidden content, pages not indexed by Google, members-only forums and the like. The introduction also positions The Dark Net not as a comprehensive account, but as the product of personal research - although it is also very neutral, to the point of not attempting to condemn any of the many deviant behaviours it describes (harrassment, racism, consumption of child abuse images and so on). Instead it acts as an impartial report of the facts.
Chapter one: Trolling - the history of flaming and trolling from the Arpanet to bulletin boards to Usenet, through to student websites of the late 1990s and Anonymous, 4chan and /b/ today. Chapter two: Extremism and the 'lone wolf', exploring the spread of (almost exclusively right-wing) politics online. Referencing the EDL and Anders Behring Breivik, Bartlett goes on to explore the idea that a) the internet is giving groups like the EDL much more of a platform, but b) it is also creating a large number of isolated individuals who are 'leaders' of this movement online but 'nobody' irl - his recurring subject in this chapter is a 'handsome, polite, attentive' British guy who runs a blog about 'White Pride' and has a following of thousands, but in reality is unemployed and largely friendless. Chapter three: Bitcoin, a short history of internet cryptography and the cypherpunk movement; guest appearance by Julian Assange. Unlike the rest of the book, some of this is quite technical (no, I'm not going to pretend I really understand the 'blockchain'), but it also mentions some of the political beliefs behind cypherpunk and crypto, and culminates with Bartlett visiting a hackers' commune in Spain. Altogether, very interesting (and probably the only subject I hadn't really read anything about prior to reading this book). Chapter four: Child pornography. Touches on the ways in which the internet has facilitated the spread of child porn, compared to its scarcity in the early 1990s (some quite shocking statistics here), and the distinction between real and virtual sex offenders. Bartlett examines child porn using the idea that it's always 'only three clicks away' from legal porn available on the surface web. Chapter five: Buying and selling drugs online. As I previously mentioned, there is only one chapter that really deals with the deep web, and this is it. It looks at the drugs market Silk Road 2.0 (which has just been taken down by the FBI) and similar services. Chapter six: Mainly focused on camgirl websites, but Bartlett's observations on camming also form the basis for a short discussion of online identities and the rise of the 'personal brand' on social media, the linked increase in 'presentation anxiety', various perspectives on online privacy, and the phenomenon of revenge porn. Overall, though, this is probably the least interesting chapter: much of it is focused on the financial side of camming and the hierarchy of 'tipping' from viewers - which doesn't seem like the most interesting angle to take on this subject - and descriptions of the sex itself are so bloodless they actually make it boring. Understandable that the author wouldn't have wanted this chapter to seem salacious, but it ends up being rather dull. Chapter seven: Pro-anorexia websites and those that encourage self-harm and suicide. Discusses the idea of 'behavioural contagion' - the idea of such sites leading to a rise in this behaviour as it's seen as a way to get attention and be part of a community - but also recognises that some sufferers have drawn strength from these communities, and used them as a form of therapy.
In the conclusion, Bartlett contrasts the beliefs of prominent members of two movements - transhumanism (those who predict and aspire towards the merging of human biology and technology - cryogenics, 'uploading' your brain, artificial intelligence overtaking human intelligence, and so on), and anarcho-primitivism (who oppose technology altogether and advocate a return to a type of pre-civilisation collectivism).
I'm surprised The Dark Net isn't more widely read - there's only a handful of reviews on Goodreads - and not just because of the subject matter, but because it's an extremely accessible and compulsively readable book. I've been struggling through another non-fiction book (which is no less accessible) for over a month now, and had been worrying that I was so accustomed to reading non-fiction in bite-sized internet chunks that my mind couldn't cope with a full book of it. The Dark Net dispelled that notion immediately - I read it with the same urgency I apply to compelling novels. That isn't to say it is especially brilliant as an in-depth study of the subjects it covers. There isn't really anything covered here that I haven't already been aware of through various articles and stuff on forums etc, but I still found it incredibly interesting (particularly anything about the history of the internet/its existence prior to my own introduction to it in the late 90s), and it's useful to have all these topics covered in one volume. Really, it's a primer rather than an in-depth academic text: the 'endnotes', containing extended quotes and numerous links and suggestions, take up more than a quarter of the entire book. There's plenty to explore here should you want to look into any one of these topics in greater depth.
I could happily have read a longer version of this book, or one that covered more subjects related to the 'dark side' of the internet - the weirder corners of fandom are conspicuous by their absence. But I think the best way to read The Dark Net is as a series of short essays, with the endnotes to each chapter as a goldmine of references, links, and further reading. If you're looking for a comprehensive, detailed study of these subjects, this is probably not the book for you, but it's fantastic as an introduction, and it also manages to be brilliantly easy to read while not being patronising towards the reader. Recommended. ...more