September 2008


On my last day at the literary agency, I was given a signed copy of The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway as a thank-you present.  It has taken me until now to finish it because it is a big fat beautiful hardback version, far too heavy to take away on holiday.

I’m not quite sure where to start with it.  It is one of the most amazing books I have read in recent memory, and like nothing I have ever read before.  Harkaway writes with such exuberance and imagination it really does take your breath away.  His style is epic and he combines incredible lyrical skill with precise colloquial language to create soaring descriptive passages.  These descriptions make the book long, yet somehow they do not slow it down or detract from the plot, but are an integral part of it.  Without them, the unusual characters who populate the weird world he has created would not be as vivid as they are.

As for the plot… I don’t want to say too much because I really want you all to read it.  The book follows our unnamed narrator and his friends, retelling his life story up to the point at which the book starts, when they (The Haulage and HaxMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County) are called upon to put out a fire on the Jorgmund Pipe.  The Jorgmund Pipe is what keeps the world alive in the aftermath of the mysterious Go Away War, pumping out FOX to create a habitable zone along its path and keeping the unspeakable horrors of the borderlands and the Gone Away world at bay.  As we go back into the narrator’s past and discover more about the Go Away War and the origins of the Jorgmund Pipe, it gradually becomes clear that all is not as it seems.

The plot bounces forward at an incredible pace and takes unexpected twists and turns that really took me by surprise and kept me hooked.  I accidentally stayed up until half one in the morning finishing this, and if that isn’t a high enough recommendation, I don’t know what is!

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Hello after another long silence due to holidays, work, birthday, and general life organisation… I’ve got a few things lined up to write about here but for the moment I thought I’d do a few short reviews of a few of the best books I read whilst I was away this summer.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulkes: every single member of my family read this one after the other and none of us could put it down.  It tells the story of Mike Engleby, a boy from a working-class background who wins scholarships first to an ancient boy’s public school then to an ‘ancient university’ – Cambridge.  Whilst at Cambridge, he becomes obsessed with a girl named Jenny, who mysteriously disappears one day…

Engleby is the narrator of this diary/memoir and Faulkes’ skill is in brilliantly conveying Englby’s personality and idiosyncratic view of the world.  You get completely swept up in his point of view whilst still being very aware that the way he views things is probably not the way others do, creating a strange paradox of sympathy and distrust of the narrator.  This method of narration allows the author to play with the ideas of truth, fact, fiction and memory, especially as the novel gathers towards the grippingly poignant conclusion.  Elements of this book reminded me of The Catcher in The Rye by J. D. Salinger.

Faulkes is also fantastic at creating a real sense of place and era.  Most of the book is set in 1970s Cambridge or 1980s London, and for anyone who knows Cambridge the evocation of the town is hauntingly familiar; similarly, the politics and culture of the 80s are seamlessly woven into the story un-self-consciously.

I cannot recommend this highly enough, it is a fascinating exploration of personality, thought, action, memory and truth, and it reads like silk.

The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham:  John Wyndham’s books have recently been reissued with gorgeous new cover designs by Penguin.  Most people are probably more familiar with other books of his, such as The Chrysalids or The Day of The Tryffids, both of which are also fantastic reads.  John Wyndham was an early science-fiction writer of sorts; I would recommend him to anyone who enjoyed 1984 by George Orwell or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The Kraken Wakes explores the idea of an alien invasion of creatures who can only survive at very high pressures taking over the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans.  As ships and submarines are destroyed without a trace, as seaside villages are mysteriously attacked in the middle of the night, and as sea-levels start to rise, a journalist couple get drawn in to investigating this sinister threat.

The scientific ideas in this book are pretty well-thought out and it is a good read overall.  However the narrative is a little pedestrian and not overly-plot driven, which can make it hard to keep going, despite it being a short book.  Like his other works, it is very much a book of its time – the Cold War era – and Cold War politics permeate the book.  Written in the era before space-travel, it also doesn’t really deal much with the questions of where these creatures came from.  It is briefly postulated they came from Jupiter, then nothing more is said of it.  Maybe it is just because I am used to modern, space-faring science-fiction, but I found it a little odd that the idea of destroying the creatures on their own ground (because destroying them is shown to be the only viable option) or finding out more about where they came from to prevent them coming again, was never considered.

I could make the same criticisms of The Midwich Cuckoos, which is written in a very similar, although more detatched, style.  A mysterious silver object lands on an English village and renders all the inhabitants unconscious and an area of 2 miles radius inpenetrable by the outside world.  Several months later, it is discovered that all the women of the village are at the same stage of pregnancy – with children not genetically their own, but identical to one another.  As these golden-eyed children grow up, their astonishing intelligence and collective mind mark them out as a potential danger to the human race.  The story is told by an inhabitant of the village who happened to be away on the night of the event, and subsequently moved away.  Consequently, the story jumps time-periods quite significantly, and there are relatively few characters directly involved in the village’s life with whom we gain any sympathy.  I felt there were a couple of characters who were introduced and then pushed aside, when it would have been interesting to know more of their viewpoint.

Nevertheless, John Wyndham is definitely worth reading because the ideas and hypotheses he comes up with are very interesting.  His books can be a little philosphy/politics/social theory heavy at times, and I would suggest The Chrysalids as the best one to start out with, but he is definitely a classic author who deserves his reputation as a pioneering science-fiction writer.