Normally, when I dislike a book as much as I disliked this one I get a sort of perverse pleasure out of going over all its flaws but not this1.5 Stars
Normally, when I dislike a book as much as I disliked this one I get a sort of perverse pleasure out of going over all its flaws but not this time. This time I just feel bad. I desperately wanted to enjoy this book, there was so much in there that I liked and admired. The author is a woman of colour in a genre (sci-fi) that is still disproportionately dominated by white men, and an author I’ve read widespread praise for too. It’s sci-fi set not in Britain or the US, but Nigeria (how often does that happen?). Almost the entire cast is black, the primary leads are both women (a scientist and an alien), and it touches on a hell of a lot of social issues; some that are topical specifically in Nigeria but many that are applicable everywhere (evangelical christianity, LGBT rights, prostitution, domestic violence, military rape culture, internet fraud…). There are so many elements I was looking forward to exploring but, in the end, and despite attempts to like this book, the only part of it I really enjoyed was the cover design.
I tried, I really fucking tried. And I still don’t want to completely dismiss the book because it’s at least interesting and experimental and different, even if it's not for me. But I still could not make myself like it. The characters fell flat, the narration felt dull, there was a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, the sic-fi elements were completely unbelievable, and nobody seemed to react to aliens in any way I would expect an actual human to.
Apparently this novel, and the more welcoming attitude the characters have to the aliens is a reaction to District 9 and its portrayal of Africa’s reaction to an alien arrival there. I’ve not seen District 9, so perhaps I would have liked this book more if I had, but I do admire the book for having a variety of reactions rather than everyone jumping instantly to the ‘invaders!’ scaremongering. Its just a shame that the reactions people have instead are so damn weird. almost everyone was all just a bit too credulous and accepting and some of the reactions were truly bizarre. At one point, on viewing secret footage of an alien shapeshifting, one character’s reaction is to rhapsodise about what this will do for LGBT rights…wut? Absolutely no character felt true to me, they were all rather one dimension characterisations of whatever issue they were there to represent. And yes, some people exist who are essentially caricatures – I do not doubt for a minute that their are crazy evangelical pastors like Father Oke obsessed with driving out witchcraft, but when every character feels like a one issue caricature that’s a problem. And most of these threads are only picked up for a few chapters each and then dropped completely without any resolution. What happened to the minor characters? Who really cares?
Worse still, I didn’t care for any of the main protagonists either. I still don’t even know what Anthony brought to the group or how him being a famous rapper was relevant. When we get glimses into any of the character’s thoughts and monologues they all seem to be basically the same person. At one point, after the aliens go public, there are three chapters of reaction told in first person from three very different people; a young male internet fraudster, an older male commuter, and a visiting female african-american hip hop artist. Yet all of these chapters follow exactly the same formula that lends exactly the same voice to each character. At one point Agu and Adaora kiss a few hours after meeting each other. It’s rarely mentioned again until near the end when Agu envisages a life with her an omniscient narrator invites the reader to speculate as to whether Adaora left her husband for him. One kiss! Insta-love! And zero fucking chemistry.
The main problem with the book though is that it’s just crammed too full of stuff, any of which could make an interesting novel on its own but when smooshed together just creates a big smoosh. Aliens transforming the sea life in Lagos into terrifying monsters protecting their borders from human fishing and oil rigging? Awesome! three people coming together to convince the world that alien integration is the way of the future? Less awesome, but you know I’d roll with it. People with poorly defined super powers? Maybe! A secret LGBT society going public in the face of evangelical Christian hatred? Yes. Figures from Nigerian religion and folklore walking around modern day Nigeria? Right back to awesome again! A road that comes alive and eats people? That’s batshit off the wall awesome! All of these in one book? Way waaaaaay too much.
So many ways I could have loved this book, but I didn’t. I half want to give Okorafor another go at some point because people seem to love her and I can definitely see things in her work that do appeal to me. But somehow I have a feeling that she’s another Neil Gaiman – critically acclaimed, loved by fans, and with absolutely great ideas that I really really want to read, but executed in a way that I just simply don't enjoy, And all the more frustrating for that....more
How to rate this book… Gone turned into one of my favourite finds of last year, I pretty much devoured the first five books in the series back-3 Stars
How to rate this book… Gone turned into one of my favourite finds of last year, I pretty much devoured the first five books in the series back-to-back and am eagerly waiting for the paperback release of the final installment. I would happily rate the series as a whole in the 4 to 4.5 star bracket. But it’s one of those series that is somehow more than the sum of its parts and each individual book falls more within the 3-3.5 range for me, with book one starting a bit bumpy and taking me a little while to get into. So I’m going to try to ignore hindsight and rate according to my first reaction on finishing the book. So 3 stars (I liked it but nothing special).
Trimmed down to its very basics, Gone, is a modern, sci-fi, teen-fiction version of Lord of the Flies - children without adult supervision descend into anarchy. It’s brutal and it’s nasty and has all the graphic violence and emotional reactions to it that The Hunger Games should have, but doesn’t.
Set in a seaside Californian town in the fallout zone of a nuclear power plant, one day all the adults, all the older children, everybody above the age of fifteen, simply disappears into thin air. The narrative follows several characters, but primarily the hero Sam, as they try to adjust and adapt to a world without adults and uncover the mystery of how and why they disappeared. And there’s a lot more weird stuff going on than just the adults disappearing.
Now I say it took me a while to get into this book and, I’m afraid, that was partly because I found the writing in the first few chapters quite poor. It’s third person limited, but somehow it read as if it should be first person. It felt almost as if it had originally been written in first person and then simply had the pronouns switched. I have no idea if this is the case or not, but it felt odd and jarring for a couple of chapters until the point where either I settled into it or it stopped happening. I’m going to assume the later because I didn’t have any problems with the narrative voice in the rest of the series.
The main protagonist, Sam Temple, is from the reluctant hero mould. He’ll step up when it’s needed, but he wants to slink back into being a normal teenager the minute the crisis is over. At the start of the story he’s known as ‘school bus Sam’ because of the time he took over the steering wheel when their bus driver had a heart attack. But reorganising society and order over a townful of fourteen-year-old and younger kids who just want to eat junk food and play computer games is a lot harder than steering a school bus and, understandably, Sam doesn’t want that responsibility. And with his birthday coming up he has other things to worry about - nobody knows what happens when you turn fifteen.
Step in Caine (and if you can see where this is going you’ll know why I rolled my eyes at this point) a charismatic boy from the sinister Coates Accademy, a private boarding school for ‘troubled kids’, who rolls into town with an entourage of supporters and a determination to become sole leader of the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone, as the kids have started calling it) and rather unpleasant methods of establishing and cosolidating this control.
While I really enjoy this series I found the first book just a bit much in places. The initial set up was good, I liked most of the characters, I liked the fact that they had and are dealing with real teenage issues not just the weirdness of their situation, I loved that the cast and the setting was as multi-racial as I expect a town of that size should be, that there were characters who were autistic, anorexic, or depressed but who weren’t reduced down to just that one stereotype. That’s the sort of stuff I want to see more of, much more of, in not just teen fiction, but all fiction.
What I didn’t like, reading it the first time without knowledge of the later plot, was when the writer threw in a whole kitchen sink full of weird at around the half way point. It still seemed just a bit too early for all of that. I would have preferred a slower burn with the weird; reveal the X-Men style mutations some of the kids have (if it’s in the blurb it’s not a spoiler!), but maybe hold back most of the other really weird shit for book two, or have it as an end-of-book reveal/cliffhanger.
Still, if you enjoy teen-fiction and you don’t mind it nasty and gory and morally grey, I would recommend the Gone series....more
We is the earliest and least famous (at least in the UK) of the 'big three' 20th century political dystopias; Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, a 3.5 Stars
We is the earliest and least famous (at least in the UK) of the 'big three' 20th century political dystopias; Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, and Huxley's Brave New World. It is also the only one of them to be written by an author who actually lived in a Police State (two in fact: Tsarist Russia followed Communist Russia). And, to be honest, those are really the main two reasons for reading it - its literary significance and its historical context. Take that away and it's a very dated and rather hard to relate to bit of sci-fi that I would probably never have picked up, let alone stuck with to the end. With both of these factors in mind, however, I found it utterly fascinating.
We tells the story of D-503, in fact it's presented as an account written by D-503, the head architect on the first OneState rocket to be sent into space. It starts, several days prior to blast-off, with D-503 picking up his pen to write an account of OneState society for any 'inferior life forms' the rocket may encounter. However it quickly turns into a more personal diary chronicling D-503's growing dissatisfaction with OneState as he falls in love with the mysterious I-330 and finds himself unwittingly swept into the plans of an underground resistance group to try to topple the regime. If you've read 1984 (and I have, though a very long time ago) it's impossible not to see the connections and to realise how much Zamyatin's work must have influenced Orwell's. Where 1984 had a strong cast of characters, however, Zamyatin's seem strangely blank and completely unrelatable.
Part of this is, of course, due to the nature of the story. It's a dystopia; society is different, and in OneState individuality is a disease. People are simply numbers, cogs in the machine of state. There is no real concept of 'I', but only 'we' and the narrator can't ever quite break away from his conditioning. But also it's a dystopia and in this case that means an 'ideas over characters' plot and try as he might, Zamyatin can't make me find his narrator very interesting. I-330 is probably meant to be the standout character of the book, she's strong, charismatic, politically active, and sexually promiscuous, but she always felt too much like a necessary 'part of the plot' for me to get a grip on her as a character. Much more compelling, for me, was O-90, D-503's plump state assigned sex partner who's hopelessly in love with him - why, however, I never quite worked out.
And then there's the thing that made me really lose sympathy for the main character. Not his OneState 'I am a cog in a machine and I like it' socialisation, but the racism. As the black character is sympathetic I hope this is just another example of how OneState is a horrible horrible place - but I do struggle with a narrator that keeps describing his friend as having 'african lips' with 'spittle flying from them' every time he speaks or 'moving like a gorilla'. I just... it's not nice to read.
The plot too, it has to be said, isn't always the most compelling, though it certainly has its moments. It fluctuates between serious political concepts and actually quite comical B-movie black and white sci-fi. You can practically imagine the rocket scenes being done by dangling a toilet roll dressed up as a spaceship in front of a piece of card painted black with stars, and the sex scenes are just - well the comedy has to be deliberate. And it is funny, not just 'oh dear how dated' funny, but genuinely funny in places - it just all gels very oddly together leaving me unsure what the tone of the book was really meant to be. The narrator himself is also so naive and confused by events that the story itself feels confused in places and I wasn't always sure what was actually going on - I'm still not sure exactly what was going on in some parts actually. It was a fascinating read, utterly fascinating, but not always quite as enjoyable a read as I was hoping for.
I'm glad I read it, but I won't be reading it again. To be honest I found it more interesting for its historical and literary significance than its own merits and I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone I know as a casual read, unless I happened to know that they were interested in either Russian Communism or early 20th century science-fiction....more
A short but absolutely excellent novel. H.G. Wells is one of the fathers of science fiction and The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those e 4.5 Stars
A short but absolutely excellent novel. H.G. Wells is one of the fathers of science fiction and The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those early blends of science-fiction and horror that (like the best of both genres) also offers an uncomfortable insight into human nature. A bit like Frankenstien but better paces and without the tedious bits. I’m generally more of a horror person than a sci-fi one, so this was probably a good place for me to start with H.G. Wells too – it reads rather like a Robert Louis Stevenson.
Now, for a classic, I had heard relatively little about the plot of this book beyond ‘mad scientist performs horrible experiments, creates human-beast hybrids’ and I was surprised by just how genuinely well written and creepy this novel proved to be. Unlike my experiences with Jules Verne, H.G. Wells’ writing has actually aged pretty damn well. The story almost races along – most chapters are only four or five pages (which makes it very easy to read even when the bloody phone won’t stop ringing) – and the tension is admirably ramped up and up right until (and then past) breaking point.
After being shipwrecked and then rescued, the narrator, Edward Prendick, finds himself on a mysterious island where the disgraced Doctor Moreau and his alcoholic assistant, Montgomery, run a secretive research centre. It soon becomes apparent that Moreau is vivisecting and experimenting on animals and that the results of these experiments are the bestial creatures that inhabit the island. Creatures that can walk and speak but are neither quite human nor quite animal. To keep their instincts at bay the Doctor has issued his creations a set of commandments, the chief of which is that none of his creations ever eat ‘fish or flesh’, lest they develop a taste for it and turn against their masters. But with creatures created from leopards, wolves, hyena’s and puma’s, the introduction of rabbits onto the island to feed the scientists proves a really bad idea.
It’s not just a horror story, though. It touches on a whole host of very real issues, most obviously the morality of scientific research; animal testing, the eugenics movement and the extent to which certain types of experiments can ever be justified by mere curiosity. Doctor Moreau’s hubristic experiments are, obviously, impossible, but the questions they raise are very real. But it manages to raise them (and touch on religion as well) without being preachy about it or disrupting the flow of the story. It's perfectly possible, should you want to, to ignore the subtext and just enjoy the plot.
What I didn’t like about this book though, in common with lots form this era, was the treatment of race. The use of words such as ‘savages’, the way certain of the beast-men were at first assumed to be black or eastern, and that the Gorilla-man, upon his creation was deemed to be (albeit by a mad scientist) ‘a fair specimen of the negroid type’. 'Little things' like that. The overall story, however, I really enjoyed.
This was my first Wells and I enjoyed it enough that I will definitely be trying some more of his stuff now that I have a taste for his writing style. War of the Worlds is sitting on my bookshelf and I believe there might be a copy of The Invisible Man lying around the house too…...more
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking5 stars
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking what to say about this one. It really is true that positive reviews are harder to write than negative ones. Add to this that this is a very complex novel – touching on themes of slavery, fascism, racism, capitalism, exploitation, class conflict, the european arms race, economics, trade unions, human experimentation, the ‘civilising’ mission, the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, Nazi theories of ‘Lebensraum’ and a hell of a lot more – plus the unconventional way it’s written and, well…there’s either too much to say or too little. There’s simply so much stuff I feel I should be better informed on before I could possibly talk about. And then the blurb goes and tells me that it’s an allegory for 1930s Czech politics in and I start feeling even more inadequate in my ability to comment!
Since I don’t feel qualified to talk deeply about the historical specifics I’m going to try to go for the more general approach. Although that extra knowledge and context would have been nice you really don’t need it to understand and appreciate the novel in itself. The themes, although tailored to reflect the political situation of the 30s are sadly still all too relevant and relatable today. And even with only the broadest and most basic knowledge of its historical context it’s very understandable as an allegorical satire of Europe’s own brutal history of oppression, from the slave trade (where the wild newts are beaten senseless, kept in slimy oil slicked tanks, and those that survive the journey sold for extortionate prices) right up to Nazi expansionism (where the newts have propagated so much that they start demanding their territories be expanded into human lands to provide space for them all). It could so easily have come off heavy-handed and trite but the way Čapek handles it, blaming neither side exclusively but criticising both and explaining the political and economic reasons such things came to be with incredible dark humour, stops the book from feeling remotely ‘preachy’. It’s a book that made me think, that absolutely horrified and appalled me in places, but was so spot on with its analysis and caricatures of human nature that you just had to laugh – even as you saw the ‘war with the newts’ becoming ever more inevitable.
It’s a heavy going book, not only in the themes but in the very writing style. It’s one of those books that’s more about ideas than characters and as such there is really no single protagonist. Captain van Toch – who uses frequent racial, national, and anti-Semite slurs but is utterly devoted to the welfare of his newts – is used as the primary character in the first ‘book’ to introduce us to the context of the newts – the size of a child, vaguely humanoid, incredibly intelligent and able to work tools, develop complex skills, and even learn human speech. After that though, as knowledge of the newts becomes widespread and humanity turns to exploiting their abilities for slave labour, the closest thing the novel has to a ‘protagonist’ is a minor character who collects any and all newspaper clippings he can find about the newts. The majority rest of the book up until the final chapters is written almost more as a history textbook than a novel, drawing on these clippings as primary sources to illustrate its points. Far from finding this dull (as I sometimes do when other books try similar things) this was my absolute favourite section of the story, I loved reading all the different newspaper articles Čapek had come up with to illustrate the different attitudes towards the newts in various times and places. Some were funny – Indians demanding lifesaving newts leave for touching members of the higher castes, others were horrific – the report from a scientific conference where the experiments on newts were outlined but none felt unnecessary and they all contributed to making the premise feel fleshed out and ‘realistic’ – and to show the unfolding path both humans and newts both took to get to the war of the title. The formating was occasionally a little irritating – several articles were multiple pages long but because they were all in the footnotes you had to flick back afterwards to find where you had left off the main text – but the writing was so solid I could totally forgive it that. What really got me though was the last chapter ‘The Author talks with himself‘ where Čapek breaks the fourth wall to have an argument with himself about if and how the final war could have been avoided. It’s a powerful chapter on its own even if you ignore the context it was written in and the impending Nazi threat to his own country.
I really wish Penguin had deigned to provide an introduction or afterword for this novel, there’s so much in here that could be discussed and contextualised that the non-inclusion of one really is a massive oversight (which their online reading notes don’t really make up for). The extent of my own (and I suspect a lot of British readers) knowledge of Czech politics in this period is only the very very broad context for the Nazi takeover given at GCSE and A level lessons but just Googling and Wikipedia-ing the author’s name brought up so much that would really have been relevant. Far from just being a science/speculative-fiction author and the inventor of the word ‘robot’, Čapek was very involved in Czech politics, an outspoken critic of fascism and number two on the Nazi’s list of ‘public enemies’ in the country. In a book where one of the main themes is an allegory of the lead up to World War II (though Čapek died before it came to that) it seems kind of astounding that a publisher like Penguin, well-known for providing insightful scholarly introductions, didn’t bother to include one here.
Probably not a book that is universally approachable or has ‘mass appeal’, it quite possibly it requires an interest in modern European history (with some of his depictions of the war against the newts it’s almost astounding to hear that he died before WWII ever commenced). I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want anything too heavy going – but it’s made it onto my list of absolute favourites and I will be tracking down any more Čapek that I can and checking out the rest of Penguin’s ‘Central European Classics’ (something I planned to do anyway since I’ve had such success with translated fiction in the last few years). Love, love, love....more
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by DaphneCrossposted/tweaked from my blog.
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne du Maurier. They’re a bit of an odd bunch – a mix of the supernatural and the mundane. Some of them embrace the ‘unknown’ with psychics, pagan worship, and life after death, while others seem to be building you up towards that only to tear it away by having the explanation something completely grounded in reality. Whether you find this second-guessing rewarding or frustrating, though, is probably personal preference. One theme that runs through all the stories, however, is the idea of taking the protagonist away from their home and putting them into an unfamiliar environment, where the setting itself serves to increase the sense of suspense and the character’s own alienation. It’s a collection of stories about how people react and adjust when taken out of their comfort zone and thrown into creepy situations they have very little control over. And it has to be said, most characters don’t do so well…
The first story in the collection, Don’t Look Now tells the story of a married couple holidaying in Venice as they attempt to get over the death of their young daughter and repair their own relationship. It is by the most famous story in this collection, having been made into a classic horror film in 1973 with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Now I haven’t yet seen the film but my big sister has, and I still remember how freaked out by it she was when she came back from her friend’s sleepover and told me about it. With that in mind and my dad’s explanation of the storyline and constant ‘this reminds me of Don’t Look Now‘ and ‘watch out for little girls in raincoats!’ whenever we ended up wandering round Venetian backstreets and canals at night on family holidays (which happens surprisingly often actually), I had been building this expectation for years that the book must be something truly atmospheric and full of suspense. It wasn’t. I did my best to make it so – I read it while I was in Venice, in the evening, on a poorly lit bench in a small square off a load of little backalleys that I had to wander back through to get to my hostel – and it still didn’t evoke the slightest sense of unease. Maybe I did it wrong, maybe if I had read it at home with only my imagination and memories of Venice I’d have found it creepier. And there’s also the fact I had the plot spoilt for me by hearing about the film – which actually changes a few key details in ways that actually improve it. In the book the explantion for John’s obsession with the little girl in the raincoat is never really that satisfactory and the psychic old women just seem random, disconnected and kind of silly – the film’s decision to make the raincoat girl resemble the dead daughter would have done a lot to improve the sense of suspense and unease both about the supernatural elements and the character’s mental health and just well...make the whole story a bit less random. The ending though, the ending I actually liked in all it’s silly, unintentional hilarity. I’ve seen other reviews claim that du Maurier does a great job of building up suspense only to fail with sudden endings – it’s a criticism I actually agree with in many cases, but in this story I think there was the opposite problem. The ending, though silly, would have worked really well if the build up of suspense had been better done in the main body. As it was, the story just seemed to have too much of John and Laura going out for diner and days out and having rather dull marital disagreements and not enough taking advantage of the creepy setting to explore the grief of losing a child.
The second story, however, does suffer from the sudden ending negating the atmospheric tension of everything that came before, and in a pretty bad way. Not After Midnight tells the story of a ‘lonely teacher’ who goes on holiday to Crete to get some painting done and ends up involved with the mysterious American couple over in one of the other holiday homes. I’d actually take issue with the back cover (and Wikipedia’s) description of the main character as ‘lonely’ – he doesn’t seem lonely to me, he seems like someone who likes being alone to get on with his own thing and doesn’t actually want to be bothered – especially by constantly drunk, boorish Americans. Surely nobody who’s ever experienced being next to one of them on holiday can blame him for that? The loneliness is there, certainly, but it’s something that he develops afterwards and as a result of his holiday and that’s actually pretty important – he wasn’t particularly damaged before the events of the story. To miss that is almost to miss the point. But onto the story… I liked the build up of atmosphere and suspense here a whole lot better than I did in Don’t Look Now. Where it fell down though was the ending, which was frankly pretty rubbish. It felt way too sudden, rushed and dropped in there without any explanation purely for ‘shock factor’. I had to go back and spend a few minutes trying to piece how it all fitted together with the rest of the story – and not in the fun ‘oooooh, I get that now!’ way but the ‘that really should have been a little clearer, and I still don’t get why she said that if what was going on was actually this...’ way. Just a little longer drawing out the ending and making sure the pieces all fitted together a bit more neatly would really have improved this one, because the actual story, though hardly ‘serious literature’ wasn’t that bad.
A Border-Line Case was much more solidly written and probably, if I was being completely objective, the best of the bunch. I can’t rate it too highly though because it uses several tropes that I’m frankly a bit bored with. And, though I was surprised with the twist in the middle, I saw the end ‘twist’ coming a mile off. The heroine of this story is aspiring actress, Shelagh, travels to Ireland to visit Nick, an estranged old friend of her father's, because of an off-hand remark her dad made shortly before his death about wanting to make up. Of course Ireland and England don’t have the best of relations in the 1970s so Shelagh, a little out of her depth, uses her actress skills to disguise her identity. And…well…she must be a damned good actress because the lies she makes up are totally transparent bullshit to anyone simply reading them on the page. People buy (or pretend to buy) them though and she eventually gets ushered in to meet Nick on his mysterious island of mysteriousness where he is surrounded by young men and likes digging up iron age burial sites and not reporting them to trained archaeologists to make proper surveys of (yes, that is something that bugs me in real life, proper archeological surveys are important damnit!). We get some wonderfully 1970s PC ‘oh my god, he might be a homo‘ thoughts from Shelagh as she tries to puzzle out the reason for Nick’s reclusiveness which made me laugh a little. Which was good, as her other thoughts made me want to bash her head in for being a fucking idiot with no ‘creep creep, stay away from this person’ sense of self preservation. She’s only 19, I know, but really; everything about the situation says ‘run for the fucking hills’. A solidly written story, though. Definitely the most consistently well written of the first three stories, but I found neither main character relatable, likable, or particularly believable, enough for me to enjoy it very much. The ‘twist’, though possibly relatively shocking in the 70s, was pretty predictable and, by now, majorly overdone. I’ll give it the fact it has a good title than can be interpreted in a number of ways though – that was pretty clever.
And now my favourite, The Way of the Cross, and I’ll admit this is probably because I have a bit of a fascination with Jerusalem. This story has a far larger cast of characters - a whole tour group of pilgrims - all given about equal attention. The story kicks off with poor Rev. Edward Babcock, a relatively young, urban cleric away on his own holiday, having to step in, last-minute, to be a tour guide for a group of snobby village parishioners he doesn’t know. It takes a while to get into it and I have to admit to being frustrated by du Maurier’s use of the whole ‘young attractive women cannot resist dreadful, boorish, middle-aged men’ theme. It just drives me batty, these men (and I include Mr. De Winter from Rebecca here as well) are so absolutely dire. I don’t know why anyone, regardless of age, would ever fancy them ever. There were enough characters, however, that if one storyline bothered me it was quickly moved away from to feature somebody elses. The basic plot is quite a simple one – all the characters get separated from each other, overhear unpleasant truths and gossip about themselves, and have an absolutely horrible time – mostly in karmic and amusing ways. There’s a sense at the end though that maybe, just maybe, they learn something from their experience and emerge better people for having visited the Holy City. Given the limited page and large number of characters it’s all a bit superficial, but it’s not bad. I actually liked the ‘annoying’ know-it-all kid, who has a great time approaching Jerusalem’s depiction in the bible and the reality of the present city as an archeological problem, rather than desperately seeking spiritual guidance or forgiveness. Questioning whether an important historic site really is where, or as old as, the tourist board claims it is, is something me and my dad often do on holiday and I appreciated the fact that somebody was culturally aware and respectful of the other religions that also live and worship in Jerusalem . A fairly simple, quite formulaic little story, with rather two-dimensional characters. But the prose did by far the best job in this book of evoking a strong sense of location.
The last story, The Breakthrough, is probably an acquired taste. It’s pretty much an unpfront science-fiction/supernatural crossover. Our ‘hero’, Steven the computer guy, is moved to some arse-end-of-nowhere government research facility run by a nutter who the whole scientific community mocks and peopled by about two equally secretive underlings. The machines are all called Charon 1, 2 or 3 so if you know your Greek mythology it’s no surprise what the ‘secret’ aim of the research is. It’s…I dunno. It’s not bad but it isn’t an especially original idea and the execution feels incredibly dated… There’s state of the art giant talking computers, hypnotism, ‘idiots’ (not my wording!) possessing untapped potential abilities to move things around with their emotions, a dog obedience-trained to the point of brainwashing, twins that have a special bond that continues even after one dies… it’s as if du Maurier’s throwing in absolutely everything she can think of - and it’s only a forty page story! It’s just too much, too crowded, everything's competing for attention and it only really serves to undermine the actual themes and questions the plot is trying to raise. Maybe if I was more of sci-fi fan than a gothic/supernatural/suspense person, I would find this more to my taste but it just felt…inelegant I suppose. Unpolished. Not really thought through.
Overall an interesting collection. Although I didn’t rate all the stories too highly, I found something to enjoy about all of them and I don’t regret spending time reading this. Yeah, it’s not the best and not quite my thing but it was interesting at least. My main problem wasn’t that the stories weren’t good, but that I got very frustrated that a lot of it could just be so much better if only it had been more vigorously edited and reworked. Both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight had the potential to be a hell of a lot better than they actually were....more