You see that wave of what is currently hot? That gleaming zeitgeist machine? That trend that everyone will be following soon? What you probably won’t see is me anywhere nearby. To (slightly mis)quote the much-missed Douglas Adams I’m so unhip it’s a wonder my bum doesn’t fall off. (This is also my weight-loss strategy…). Take the whole psychological thriller genre, for example – I read Gone Girl about two years after everyone else and I still haven’t got round to Girl on the Train. I enjoy this kind of story – I’m very fond (if fond is the right word) of an unreliable narrator – but I keep being distracted by shiny post-apocalypses and warts-and-all historical fiction. I’m also slightly worried by the fact that, in most of the books I’ve come across, the unreliable narrator is female. I mean, I’m sure the male equivalent exists but the most popular titles give us women we can’t quite trust even as they appear to be in terrible danger. I don’t have a real problem with this but I’d like to think there is a new trend coming with unreliable male narrators in psychological thrillers…
In Ross Armstrong’s The Watcher our narrator, Lilly, is both female and, it soon appears, pretty unreliable. She lives with her husband, a writer called Aiden, in a swish new apartment block within sight of the areas still in need of ‘gentrification’. A keen birdwatcher, Lilly watches her neighbours in both the upmarket and lower-rent buildings, giving them names and back-stories but when a woman from the soon to be demolished estates is found dead she starts to become obsessed with finding the killer. As I said it quickly becomes clear that Lilly is often happy with telling less than the truth but there are still plenty of surprises in the story. Because the story is told purely from Lilly’s point of view there is a surprisingly pleasing feeling of panic and paranoia – we feel her panic but can enjoy it because we know we are noy actually Lilly, we are just temporarily in her head.
If you like psychological thrillers then give this one a try. It is a gripping read while we are waiting for those fragile-minded male narrators to come along.
I don’t really like reality tv. To be honest, I don’t find it very, well, realistic. The situations that contestants are placed in are often very unnatural, the type of characters chosen by production companies to take part in the programmes can seem deeply unpleasant and the way that audiences can forget that the people they are watching are actually people too (with feelings and a right to dignity) is, frankly, scary. Although what is most worrying is that if I do find myself forced to watch celebrities eating bugs and unmentionable kangaroo parts in the jungle or unknowns pretending they are business hot-shots I find myself being drawn in against my will…I’m only comfortable with the kind of ‘reality’ show which involves cakes or dancing (although not both at once – that would either be very silly or absolute genius). But would a novel about a reality show be any better for me? I’d had a good experience with the Terranauts so would the Last One work too?
The show in The Last One sounds like the mother of all reality shows, to be fair. A dozen carefully selected contestants surviving in the wilderness, completing tasks as teams and as individuals. The selection process seems to be as cynical as it was calculated – the producers making sure that there were those who were going to contribute sex-appeal, brains, medical and wilderness know-how and, of course, one person that everyone would hate (or love to hate). We concentrate, however, on a young woman the audience know as Zoo. She seems to be relatively normal – a real person – and, like the producers, the audience seem to like her. So far, so Bear Grylls, but then things get darker. In fact they get downright dystopian (yay!) and we realise that no one is watching – but Zoo doesn’t…Slight Spoiler alert. The contestants have been told that there are cameras everywhere, in places they wouldn’t suspect, so when Zoo finds bodies she is sure they are just props. She doesn’t realise that the world has far bigger problems than who is going to win a reality tv show.
I really enjoyed this book. It certainly made me realise that there could be situations which make us question what reality actually is. Zoo’s experience is, in part, to do with her quest to find out who she is, to have one last adventure before she settles to life as a wife and mother. But it is also an exploration of how the human mind can resist admitting that what it sees is the truth.
P.S. If you enjoy this sort of book but also like something a bit historical then, when you finish this, try one of my favourite books ever, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Same thing, different century…
I think we have established over the course of this blog how much I enjoy a good post-apocalyptic novel. I seem to love any world which exists because of the traumatic ending of the one before it and am endlessly fascinated by the people who learn to cope with the transformation. Of course, almost all of the worlds which have ended are familiar to me – the Wool trilogy, Station Eleven, Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy and the Mandibles are all about the end of the world which I live in. Western, modern worlds with very realistic economics, cultures and sociopolitical structures – the thrill of these stories is partly that they just may become true in the near future. And I suspect I mean thrill in an ‘oh my god, we’re all going to die’ kind of way…
When it comes to apocalypses, however, I think we can agree that Ragnarök is probably the daddy of them all. All the gods killed, all the worlds drowned and then reborn to be repopulated by just two human survivors. That’s pretty final. However, in Joanne Harris’ Runemarks it turns out that Ragnarök, while being pretty disastrous for Loki, Thor, Freya and the rest of the Norse deities, wasn’t quite so bad for humanity. After five centuries they have what seems like a fairly good life with farms, families and futures. They have, however, replaced magic, dreams and imagination for order. And not just order but Order – a new regime to replace that of the old gods with one which the Puritans might think a little harsh. In this world we meet Maddy Smith, who bears a ruinmark – a mark of the old gods – and who discovers an ability to use magic frowned upon by her society (although it is winked at if it keeps the goblins out of the beer cellar).
This book swiftly moves from Maddy’s life in the village into the world of the gods themselves (who were not so much dead as sleeping/incognito/generally keeping a low profile). We learn all about their rivalries and battles (surely it isn’t a spoiler to say that pretty much all of them want to hurt Loki in more or less imaginative ways?) and about the prophecies which could still come true. There is drama and intrigue and a final battle which could have greater consequences than Ragnarök itself. This is a great book for anyone with an interest in Norse mythology and would probably be particularly good for younger readers wanting to move on from Rick Riordan and Kate O’Hearn.
I am a very contrary sort of person. If there is one thing likely to make me not indulge in some aspect of popular culture (be it a book, film or tv show) it is being told by lots of people, and the media, that I really must read/watch/listen to x. For me x has equalled Dan Brown novels (although I did eventually relent in the interests of research), the entire 50 Shades phenomena in all formats, ditto Game of Thrones and just about all films based on Marvel/DC comics. I’m sure the loss has been more mine than any of those massively successful franchises but I’ve always felt that life is too short to make commitments to series (either of books, films or tv shows) that you may not love. Maybe one day I’ll give in and go on a reading/box-set spree of GoT but until then I shall float like a butterfly from author to author, rarely getting beyond book one of any series. But that does mean that I really ought to try authors at least once – even if they are writers, like Paulo Coelho, who I have been aware of for years without having any urge to read them. Not that I think there is anything wrong with his books (over 65 millions purchasers can’t be wrong, surely?) but I’ve never really felt they were my kind of read.
Trawling through the offerings on Netgalley recently, however, I was struck by the cover for Coelho’s latest, the Spy, and decided to give him a go. The image suggested something with a period setting and an air of the exotic (for some reason I didn’t bother with the blurb…) – the reality, a novel about the life and death of Mata Hari, suggested that my book-jacket radar still works. We hear the story in the form of letters written by Mata Hari herself from prison just before her execution and by her lawyer. Mata Hari’s letters are intended for her only daughter (who, I later read, died only a few years after her mother, possibly as a result of her parent’s syphilis) and aim to explain her life as well as her death.
This isn’t a serious historical exploration of the facts around Mata Hari’s life and death but the little details of fashion and general society seem pretty accurate. I don’t feel that I know the truth about whether she was a spy or not but the story hangs together very well. I was less comfortable with the letter by the lawyer at the end – for me it added little beyond an understanding of Coelho’s own philosophy. But if you are already a fan of the author then you’ll love this bit as well. What I liked most was the personality of Mata Hari herself – a strong, determined woman aware of her faults. Even if she were being untruthful about her spying activities the charm and allure of the woman would be enough to make this an enjoyable read.