A fun little novel, I tossed up for a good ten minutes or so whether to give it 3.5 or 4 stars and eventually decided to round it up (think of...more 4 Stars
A fun little novel, I tossed up for a good ten minutes or so whether to give it 3.5 or 4 stars and eventually decided to round it up (think of it as a 3.75 if you like). This was a bit of an impulse buy – I went into Waterstones to pick up another book, had a quick browse through their special offer’s tables, marked this down as something that looked interesting, and left, walked halfway down the street, turned round, and went straight back into the shop. My wallet’s not particularly happy with me about it (I had to buy a third book to get the ‘buy one get one half price’), but I’m very glad I did. Impulse buys can always be a bit hit or miss (We, the Drowned and War with the Newts were both brilliant, The Sunday Philosophy Club was a steaming pile of shit I couldn’t even finish) but I like to make them when I have the spare cash. There’s just something about picking up a book you’ve not heard anything about that I really love. And although I didn’t fall in love with this book, I am very glad that I picked it up. I really enjoyed it and it’s probably a book that would have completely passed me by otherwise.
It’s a short, cute, little novel set in 1980s France. An accountant treats himself to a fancy meal while his wife and child are away and is stunned to find that his neighbour on the next table is the President, François Mitterrand. Eating as slowly as he can, so that he can bask in the moment, Daniel watches the President and his dining companions leave, only to discover that Mitterrand has left behind his black felt hat. Choosing to keep it for himself rather than return it, Daniel leaves the restaurant with his new hat on his head and a newfound sense of self confidence. Suddenly he’s talking back to his superiors at work, eating breakfast with very important men, and being promoted to regional director. He attributes all this to the power of the president’s hat, and when he loses it himself, he is determined to get it back.
The story follows the hat’s various different owners as it passes from person to person, changing all of their lives for the better. From a woman in a nowhere relationship to a washed up has-been perfumer, the hat seems to have some power to bring back confidence in those unhappy with their situation in life. It is, in some ways, almost a selection of linked short stories, and with limited page time all of the characters have to be painted in quite broad, shallow strokes. Daniel’s quest to reclaim the president’s hat provides a much needed bookend to the story and adds a sense of narrative drive that stops the book from feeling too aimless.
It’s a fun little book and a very easy read – I was surprised just how quickly I got through the (admittedly small) page-count. The writing flows easily and gives you just enough information to contextualise events – the 1980s in France are certainly unfamiliar territory for me at least – without getting bogged down in historical detail. For those who remember the 80s (I’m an ’88 baby, so I don’t) I imagine it’s also a nostalgic look back at a ‘simpler time’, where men still wore hats everyday, television only had so many channels, answerphones still used cassettes, and illicit love affairs were only just beginning to be arranged through online message boards. Laurin weaves in real historical events throughout the narrative and presents the story in the epilogue as something that ‘could’ really have happened.
I’m going to disagree with the ‘Reading Group’ suggestions at the back of my copy and say that this isn’t really a book I want to ask lots of probing questions about right now. Whether the hat really is magic or not doesn’t particularly matter to me. It was simply an enjoyable, refreshing, and rather charming little summer read. And probably a book that I will return to for a reread at some point too, it's certainly quick enough to get through.(less)
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-...more3 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.(less)
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...more 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.(less)
The US and most other editions of this book are subtitled ‘Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean’ and that probab...more 3 Stars
The US and most other editions of this book are subtitled ‘Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean’ and that probably gives a more accurate impression of the contents because, for a book titled ‘Pirates of Barbary‘, I really didn’t think there was much of a focus on the actual pirates.
It started off well in the foreword, emphasising the disparity in the way that history and popular culture have portrayed European/American and African pirates. ‘The white West regards them as the irreconcilable Other – not rebels against authority but plain criminals, not brave Robin Hoods (that would make us the Sheriff of Nottingham) but cowardly thieves’. Agreed, that’s pretty much why I picked up a book about them. But I thought that, by the midway point, Tinniswood had somehow shifted his focus from African piracy, to the African states that practiced (and sanctioned piracy), to 17th century diplomatic relations between Africa and Europe – told mostly from a European perspective.
Now I’m being a little unfair perhaps, it’s a very natural progression – African states did sanction piracy and you can’t talk about piracy without some discussion of the state and its position because that position is what piracy relied on to operate. A weak state couldn’t afford to upset other countries, a state at war could prey on certain foreign ships with impunity, specific treaties would limit what ships pirates could raid etc. etc. But when it got on to the detail of land battles between armies over coastal African cities I thought the book had strayed a bit far from what the blurb had sold it to me as.
I wanted more of the nitty gritty, of the actual pirates themselves. but, mostly, I found this turned out to be more about how Europeans saw and interacted with them. Of course, most of the sources an English-speaking historian is going to get are going to be European, but considering the title of the book I had hoped for more a Muslim and African slant using Islamic sources rather than predominantly British, Venetian, and American ones. It’s still fascinating stuff of course, but not quite what I was after.
As for writing style, I read it in little bits and pieces so that probably effected my opinion, but it seemed to waver between slightly dull recitation of historical facts and oddly novel-like bits of description. The sieges and barricades and the politics of treaty making were related in minutest detail but then I would get to sections like the barbary raid of Ireland and it would suddenly be
‘The men didn’t like passing through the Straits. It made them nervous.
Maud Watched as one of the janissaries tossed the little bundle of candles over the side, an offering to the long-dead holy man who still promised them protection from the safety of his shoreline tomb.
Once he would have laughed. Now, without thinking, he murmured to himself the ancient form of words, at once a profession of faith and a prayer. There is no other God than God, and Mohammad is his messenger.
The candles vanished in the rolling sea’
Did my book suddenly get replaced with historical fiction or something? Is this how mass market history books are normally written? Most of the reading for my history undergrad was very academic essays and texts (normally fascinating, but sometimes dreadfully written), so I have to say that I feel slightly thrown and vaguely uncomfortable with this approach in a work of non-fiction.
So, although I learnt a lot from this book and really enjoyed certain parts of it, I do have my reservations about both style and content – perfectly demonstrated, in fact in the very last chapter of the book. A fictionalised description of two real pirates being executed. Two English pirates – ‘the last pirates to hang by British law at Wapping‘. Relevance in a book about Barbary pirates? Then a bit about how fear of Europre both stated and ended the age of piracy in Africa and then this concluding paragraph:
‘The . . . pirates of Barbary left a thousand crimes behind them. Their one virtue, whether they were renegade Christian fugitives or devout Moslem warriors for God, was courage. Deplore the crimes, by all means.