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Three Disappointing Books: John Wyndham, Belinda Bauer, and Samanta Schweblin

Today I bring together three reviews of books which I expected to enjoy, but which I found disappointing.

 

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham ** 9780141032993
I have read and enjoyed several of John Wyndham’s books to date, despite the fact that his plots and science-fiction focus are not part of my usual reading fare. I found the storyline of The Kraken Wakes intriguing, and was expecting that I would be pulled into the story quite quickly.

However, this novel feels like a real anomaly in Wyndham’s oeuvre. It took too long to get going, and I did not connect at all to the story. The narrative voice was relatively dull, although it is perhaps fitting that it mimics the style of an article of sorts throughout, given protagonist Mike’s profession as a journalist. The plot is meandering, and the writing stodgy.

Had The Kraken Wakes been the first book of Wyndham’s which I had picked up, I doubt that I would have sought out any more of his work. I got halfway through the novel, before acknowledging that any interest that I had in it had completely disappeared. I expected The Kraken Wakes to be engaging and thought-provoking, particularly with regard to the current climate crisis which the world is facing, but I feel as though a real opportunity has been missed here.

 

9781784164034Snap by Belinda Bauer ***
I purchased Belinda Bauer’s Snap on a whim whilst browsing in a local Oxfam store. It has received a lot of hype – and quite a bit of criticism, too – for being long listed for the Man Booker Prize last year.

Snap was not quite what I was expecting, if I’m honest. I found it an easy, quick read, and it did not always feel as though there was enough substance in some of its chapters. The writing was rather matter-of-fact – perhaps too much for my personal taste – although it does fit with the general style of thrillers.

The different threads of the story caught my interest enough that I read to the end, but I did not feel as though the mystery element was strong enough. I’m unsure whether the novel disappointed me, as I came to it with a few reservations, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t pick up another of Bauer’s books at some point in future.

 

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin ** 51jifqcd9ml
I really enjoyed Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s novella Fever Dream, her first book to be translated to English from its original Spanish.  I was therefore keen to get my hands on her short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, a copy of which I found in the library.  These tales have been translated by Megan McDowell.

Publishers Weekly calls Mouthful of Birds ‘canny, provocative and profoundly unsettling’, and the Library Journal deems it ‘surreal, disturbing and decidedly original’.  I felt as though I knew, therefore, what the collection would hold.

The twenty stories here are incredibly strange, on the whole.  The first story, ‘Headlights’, is about new brides abandoned by their husbands by the roadside; the narrator of ‘The Test’ is tasked with killing a dog (I was unable to read this gory story in full); in ‘Olingiris’, six girls have to pull out every single hair on a woman’s body, only using tweezers.  The premises are odd, and a lot of the imagery caused me to feel queasy, rather than in awe of the author’s imagination.

There is little emotion to be found within these stories, and I felt rather detached from them.  I imagined that Mouthful of Birds would be highly immersive and unsettling, as Fever Dream was, but most of it simply did not sit right for me as a reader.  The writing is largely matter-of-fact, and I found it impossible to connect with any of Schweblin’s characters.  Whilst I might pick up a longer work of the author’s, and perhaps another novella, I am certain that her short stories do not work for me.  The characters and scenarios were flat, and I was unable to suspend my disbelief.

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Penguin Moderns: Stanislaw Lem, Patrick Kavanagh, and Danilo Kis

9780241339398The Three Electroknights by Stanislaw Lem ** (#9)
I would not have picked up Stanislaw Lem’s The Three Electroknights had it not been collected as part of the Penguin Moderns series. The stories here rest in the genre of science fiction, which is not one that I enjoy. They feature ‘crazy inventors, surreal worlds, robot kings and madcap machines’. Originally written in Polish, they have been translated by Michael Kendall. Collected here are the titular story, along with ‘The White Death’, ‘King Globores and the Sages’, and ‘The Tale of King Gnuff’.

Lem’s tales are well written and translated, and it cannot be said that they are not highly inventive. As I suspected, the collection was not to my taste, and I read it through to the end only because it was short. The final story was by far the most interesting to me, but I was left feeling largely indifferent by the others.
The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh *** (#10) 9780241339343
These poems, selected from the oeuvre of the man said to have ‘transformed Irish verse’, span the period between 1930 and 1959. I do not think that I had read even a single poem of Kavanagh’s before picking up <i>The Great Hunger</i>. I enjoyed some of the poems here more than others, but was mesmerised throughout by the lingering presence of the Irish countryside, which so many rely upon for their livelihoods. Kavanagh’s poems are heavily involved with nature, as well as the turning of the seasons; some of the corresponding descriptions are absolutely lovely. Whilst I did enjoy reading this collection, it has not made me want to rush out and read the rest of Kavanagh’s oeuvre immediately.
9780241339374The Legend of the Sleepers by Danilo Kis ** (#11)
In these two stories, ‘sleepers awake in a remote cave and the ancient mystic Simon Magus attempts a miracle’. The blurb also heralds Kis as ‘one of the greatest voices of twentieth-century Europe’. I was unsure as to whether I would enjoy these stories, as I’m not the greatest fan of magic, but was suitably intrigued. Throughout, I found Kis’ descriptions to be rather sensory ones, which certainly helped to build the mysterious elements of his stories. The first story, ‘The Legend of the Sleepers’, held my interest throughout, but the second, ‘Simon Magus’, was a little too religious in tone and plot for my personal taste. The collection was interesting enough, but I do not feel eager to read more of Kis’ work in future.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Year of the Runaways’ and ‘The Paper Menagerie’

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota **** 9781447241652
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.

The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.

 

24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu ***
So many reviewers have loved The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and as I am always keen to discover new short story authors, I borrowed a copy from my local library. I am neither a fan of science fiction nor of fantasy, and so wasn’t sure if I would enjoy these tales as much as a lot of my friends have. I found some of the inclusions to be quirky and inventive, and preferred Liu’s writing when the magical realism was present, and no robots, etc., were. Some of the tales here engaged me far more than others, although I half expected as much when reading the blurb before I began.

The Paper Menagerie is varied in terms of its content, but I found it rather a mixed bag. I adored the rather beautiful title story, but a lot of the others fell short in comparison. However, his voice has a wonderful consistency to it regardless of the perspective used, and each tale is nicely told. Liu clearly has an expansive imagination, and comes up with some fascinating ideas, but a lot of them were too firmly rooted in science fiction for my personal taste. The Asian culture which is dispersed throughout was fascinating, however, and was one of the real strengths of the book for me.

 

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‘Speculative Japan 2: “The Man Who Watched The Sea” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy’ ****

Fantasy fiction is one of my very favourite genres to read since I grew up with it, and I’ve been trying to find some Japanese fantasy for the longest time. However, my search had been mostly fruitless until I stumbled upon a fellow blogger’s review of the “Speculative Japan” series of fantasy and science fiction short stories. Needless to say I was more than happy to finally acquire a volume for myself.

This second volume consists of 13 short stories by a different author each. Even though all of the stories fall under the category of fantasy or sci-fi, they are so diverse and they handle their themes in such a different yet interesting manner.

In the Introduction of the book, Darrell Schweitzer accurately observes that most people expect samurais, geishas, kimonos and “a ritual suicide or three” whenever they think of inherently Japanese elements and while I do agree with this remark, I also felt like those stories couldn’t be more Japanese, even though most of those elements which first come to one’s mind were absent.

Whilst fantasy and science fiction do not seem to be very popular in Japanese fiction (at least when translated into English), they dominate the anime/manga and video game world, which I believe makes such an interesting contradiction. For instance, Kitakuni Koji’s “Midst the Mist”, a story revolving around a specific breed of aliens that lived inside human bodies as parasites, strongly reminded me of the anime/manga series “Parasyte”.

Most of the stories contained in this collection were focused mostly on sci-fi rather than fantasy, but it was still great to read them as they offered a very fresh perspective and approach on the themes they chose to follow compared to the sci-fi stories that I have read so far, which are mainly American. Moreover, some of the stories such as Tani Koshu’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk”, a space story about ghost ships, and Ogawa Issui’s “Old Vohl’s Planet”, a story about the evolution of (alien) species, contained quite a few scientific terms and it was evident that the authors had conducted a very thorough research before writing anything down. I can only imagine how challenging the translation of these stories might have been!

Of course, in short story collections it is very rare for all the stories to equally be of one’s liking, and therefore there were some stories I didn’t enjoy as much as the others. “Freud” by Enjoe Toh was one of them, which I found rather uninteresting. On the other hand, some of my favourites were “The Whale That Sang On The Milky Nework” by Ohara Mariko, “Emanon: A Reminiscence” by Kajio Shinji and “The Man Who Watched The Sea” by Kobayashi Yasumi, which was also featured in the title of the collection.

The translations were also all very good and they had a very natural flow. Even though I read Japanese literature often, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors featured in this collection, so I was very happy to discover some new authors whose work I would very much like to follow. It would have been nice, though, if some information about the authors were also included in the collection.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading these short stories and I definitely discovered some gems in there. It was very well put together and I will definitely seek out the rest of the series’ volumes in the future.

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American Literature Month: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeleine l’Engle ** (Classics Club #38)

The 38th book on my Classics Club list is prolific author Madeleine l’Engle’s children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time.  Most people have read this already, I am sure, but for some reason, I never got around to it during my childhood.  Rather than purchase a copy, I decided to borrow it from my local library, as I really wasn’t sure whether the tale would be to my taste or not.  I tend to steer clear of time travel and science fiction in all guises, but I’ve heard from a few trusted reviewers that A Wrinkle in Time is well worth a read, and decided to give it a go regardless. 

First published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time deals with the disappearance of a young girl’s father, a scientist, whom nobody seems to know the location of: ‘Charles and Meg, and their friend Calvin, travel through a ‘wrinkle in time’ in search of their missing father.  But can they beat the evil forces they meet on their dangerous journey through time and space?’  All that the Murry family knows is that ‘”he’s on a secret and dangerous mission… [and] he won’t be able to – to communicate with us for a while.  And they’ll give us news as soon as they have it.”‘

Margaret Murry, known as Meg, is a typical child protagonist, I suppose; she is picked on at school, has various issues continually preying upon her, and often gets into trouble with her teachers.  Her brother, six year old Charles Wallace, is a peculiar construct; he is bright and unusual.  He did not begin to speak aloud until he was four years old, and tends to remain mute around a lot of people: ‘”Thinking I’m a moron gives people something to feel smug about…  Why should I disillusion them?”‘.  His main struggle is ‘how to be like other children around him when he knows he is much smarter than all of them’.  Their friend Calvin, too, is beset by problems; he is the youngest of eleven children, and finds it difficult to fit into his own family: ‘”That’s the funny part of it.  I love them all, and they don’t give a hoot about me.  Maybe that’s why I call when I’m not going to be home.  Because I care.  Nobody else does.  You don’t know how lucky you are to be loved”‘.

In the extra material included within the Puffin edition which I read, l’Engle’s inspiration for the story has been written about.  She was ‘passionate in her search for answers to the big questions about the universe and after she read Albert Einstein’s theories of time and space, [this story] began to take shape.  Her aim was to make a world that was “creative and yet believable” by setting the magical aspects of the stories in actual theories of physics’.

A Wrinkle in Time is quite moralistic and conceptual, and even profound in places.  Meg’s mother, a scientist, for example, says: ‘”I think that with our human limitations we’re not always able to understand the explanation”‘.  In this manner, there is a lot of food for thought within the novel’s pages.  The story is nicely written, and l’Engle moves it along well.  It is rather peculiar, granted, but due to the genre, I expected as much.

Elements of A Wrinkle in Time were not really my thing at all, and I doubt that I would have enjoyed it as a child either.  With all of the scientific information which has been included, it felt as though I was reading a textbook at times.  In places, the story seemed to be a little too grown-up for its intended child audience; it is a strange work to classify in that manner.

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