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Laura Barnett – The Versions Of Us

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The eternal ‘what if?…’

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion Books)
Pages: 442
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-474-60016-3
First Published: 4th June 2015
Date Reviewed: 10th March 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Eva takes her bicycle; she’s on her way to her university tutorial. Whether it’s a nail in her path, a dog she must swerve to avoid, or a dog she tries to move around but cannot, this day is accompanied by the presence of a boy she could meet. We follow three possible futures: one in which Jim and Eva meet and go for a drink, one in which they don’t, and one in which they do but then continue their day apart.

The Versions Of Us is a fine novel that takes its time to reveal its point. A decidedly average, run of the mill, set of lives, you will be forgiven for the times you wonder whether you should keep reading and will be rewarded at the end with a small yet very important thought. Indeed it’s not a lesson or message, as such, that Barnett wants to leave us with, it’s a notion. A notion and a reminder that whilst we can have regrets, few will ever have a perfect life no matter which choices they make.

Barnett favours a style of writing that is simple on the surface. Stripped of embellishments, the prose often reads as a bullet-pointed list, yet it is nevertheless detailed and literary. It’s the sort of writing that may take a few pages to get used to but urges you to read on. Yes, of course, every author wants you to keep reading, to keep turning those pages, but there’s a subtle difference here that is hard to pinpoint exactly. “Read,” Barnett seems to be saying, “not because I think you should love my book but because I know what you wonder about and I think I’ve found a way to help us all.”

It would be silly to deny that a reader will never be confused by this novel. Barnett doesn’t set her ‘versions’ out to be too different to each other – whilst there are differences, the basis is the same – and this was obviously a decision made to match the aim of the book. She’s not showing how wildly different our lives could have been if we’d said ‘yes’ to that man at the bar, or if we’d said ‘no’, or if we’d danced with the girl at the party or turned her down – she’s showing that our regrets shouldn’t have so much of a hold on our lives. She reminds us that yes, it could have been awesome, but it might have been mundane or even bad. Too often we look through rose-tinted glasses.

So you’re going to muddle these versions as you read, and that’s okay; it’s expected. Barnett ensures you know everything that’s important to know – when the versions match up (for example, an event that was always going to happen because it’s to be hosted by a third party) she includes the most pertinent details in at least one version so that you’re always up to speed. If there’s anything to gripe about, it’s the oft-repetitive nature of the book – Barnett is dedicated to keeping the stories in the same time frame, never jumping ahead. However the repetition itself is a good reminder that some things are out of our control. Obviously more time is spent on some versions than others at any given time, and the version that deals with Jim and Eva together at Cambridge often makes way for the versions in which they are apart so that both sides can have their say.

Barnett never suggests there is a right way to live; in keeping with the notion of possibilities she shows that there will be flaws and unhappy moments in even the best lives. She delves into the fact that something can look amazing on the surface whilst being fraught with difficulties behind closed doors. One good choice is unlikely to set the tone for the entirety of your life.

And this is why the story itself is average. Jim and Eva’s three versions are meant to represent lives that you can relate to. There may be the riches and fame, but they’re accompanied by the everyday, and likewise there are silver linings to the dark days. There is Cambridge and then your standard art college. There is the well-known author and the low-wage copy-editor.

Whether you prefer one version to the others is entirely up to you. Barnett doesn’t seem to have a favourite; she is simply studying a concept. It’s likely you will change your thoughts as you continue, as you see the various good things that can happen when the assumed best route is not taken.

The Versions Of Us is super. It takes the film it is compared to, Sliding Doors, and provides what that story lacked, showing that it’s not just the conclusions that may be humbling but the middle part, too. It’s confusing and you may want to put it down sometimes, but doesn’t that just echo life?

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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H G Wells – The Time Machine

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Perfection, utopia, would be our undoing.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1895
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Gathering together various types of people, the time traveller tells them of his plans for a time machine and later his experiences of the year 802701.

The Time Machine was the first science fiction book to feature a machine for time travel. It’s short without seeming so, brimming with messages, and, almost shockingly, impossible to read without taking the author into account. It’s also a very, very, good book.

Told in the same way as More’s Utopia, The Time Machine is the report of a person who was at both gatherings and who provides the details and dialogues from those evenings. This means that you get both a first-hand account and the benefit of various opinions (even if they may not actually be benefits in the literal sense). You do not witness the time traveller’s adventures for yourself, however the story is engrossing all the same as Wells spares no details.

The messages at the heart of the story are about the future of humanity (the moral, emotional, sympathetic kind) and humanity as a society. Also studied is the eradication of the world’s woes, intelligence, and any sort of work. Wells, a socialist, looks at an extreme version of communism and speaks of the shocking consequences, but later draws back a little. It is interesting to note how the time traveller’s perceptions change the longer he spends in the future and how easily he fears a secondary people perhaps, simply, because he just happened to meet the others first. It’s ironic to watch how a man so bent on moving into the future suddenly realises he should have stayed in his own time – it begs the question of whether time travel should remain a fantasy.

There are no aliens in the book, no wars or fights for survival. The book is rather unique except for the very end of the journey. It’s the case that you may have read a lot of futuristic science fiction, but you won’t have come across anything quite like this.

Of special note is the conversation leading up to the time travel discussion during which Wells looks at philosophy, physics, mathematics. Questions are asked, interesting answers as well as supposedly true (I’m no scientist) answers provided, and even if your takeaway will be the future, the physics makes interesting reading.

There is fun to be had in the conversation. The Medical Man says ‘our ancestors had no great tolerance for anachronisms’ which he might as well have extended to the present day. Someone points out that investments could be made in the past and the rewards reaped in the present. And there is the fine point made that we already travel in time when we remember past events from our lives.

The Time Machine delves into the future only to long for the past. It portrays a possibility that is as relevant to consider today as it was in the year the book was written, and it looks at the way misunderstandings can occur, even between people who do not exist. It is an excellent work that provides much food for thought and much to study and all this for only a couple of hours of your time – you could visit and return from 802701 in less.

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Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen – The Rabbit Back Literature Society

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Write what you know, having made people tell you about themselves.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 335
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-227043-0
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Finnish
Original title: Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta (Lumikko and Nine Others)
Translated by: Lola Rogers

Ella Amanda Milana, owner of lovely curved lips and defective ovaries, is a substitute literature and language teacher in Rabbit Back. Whilst the town boasts many writers, only nine have ever made it to Laura White’s Literature Society – but now Ella has been invited to join as the tenth member. Little is known of White, but everyone reads her children’s books. Little is known of the society but the writers are now famous. Nothing is known about the strange goings on in the library wherein the content of books is being changed.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a novel in a similar vein, atmospherically, to The Night Circus and The Snow Child and given its complexity, bizarreness, and otherworldliness, comparisons work best when trying to describe it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it works, much as it’s difficult to say anything definite about Laura White, but it just does. It’s all rather brilliant. The writing isn’t so brilliant, but as it is a translation one can’t really consider the writing the way they would normally.

There are many elements in this book, many themes, and most answers you have to decide upon for yourself, making the story ripe for discussion. It’s dark, the sort of dark that deliberately tries to hide itself and is all the more dark for it.

It’s probably best to start with what is apparent from the start – this is a book about books, about writing. It is a book for readers in that specific sense, in fact it could be said that the entire book is a plan for a book, for many books. You could in theory, ironically, take ideas from this book for your own, and I would say that this is one of the points. Jääskeläinen looks at the different concepts, the writing process, with a certain honesty than is nevertheless soaked in the strange fantasy world he has constructed. It is thus somewhat satirical.

The author turns the notion of writing what you know on its head. The writers of the Society, these geniuses identified as children, get all their ideas from the other members. A crucial part of the novel is The Game, a somewhat sadistic ritual in which each member may ‘challenge’ another, instructing them to answer a question about themselves or something they likely know about with complete honesty. To spill, as they put it, for fodder for the other’s next book.

So here we are with these ‘geniuses’ who seem to lack inspiration, ideas, and possibly the talent to even form the words. The questions ‘what is talent? What is special?’ are asked on a constant basis. Similar are questions of plagiarism and the extent to which a person should be allowed to write about what they hear. Jääskeläinen cleverly looks at his discussions from various angles, rather as his characters literally look at angles, pulling you along and back and then leaving you to laugh, or to be shocked at where he ends up. What does all of it mean? Are the authors really lacking in their own ideas? Where do ideas come from? And is there a point at which placing people on pedestals, seeing them as untouchable by our inferior selves becomes ridiculous?

And what of children, these young people who White writes for, whom the characters in turn give birth to for the sake of their partners, have but do not love, are incapable of having? Children in general form a large part of the book as Jääskeläinen studies the idea of children from an adult’s viewpoint, a particular viewpoint that conflicts with the wholesome way we are supposed to look at it. It makes you feel sympathetic, it makes you cringe and feel bad for the fictional children, and it makes you think. Detached from the usual emotions that surround the idea of having children, this book really makes you think and it’s really quite uncomfortable.

The theme of the infested, plague-ridden books continues throughout. You are completely on your own for this one, for it is never formally answered. It just continues, words keep being jumbled, stories are changed, and therefore books are burned. A version of a book should never buck the trend of the previous, it should always be the same.

Can you like anyone in Rabbit Back? Similarly to the characters themselves you may find someone you like for a short while before you inevitably end up sitting at a different table. But this book is not about liking people or getting on, and it’s safe to say that Jääskeläinen is using them as much as anyone else. In the hierarchy the author is surely top dog and that is a big part of what makes the book a crack in the fourth wall.

Is it all a metaphor for ideas and writing, a metaphor for story creation and difference? What’s real? See for yourself.

You won’t get any answers, perhaps there aren’t any. But you will have a fantastic few hours studying this book.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

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Before it’s too late… (Incidentally, before it’s too late to post this review!)

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-52973-6
First Published: 1843
Date Reviewed: 15th December 2013
Rating: 5/5

Please note that this novella is often published with the inclusion of other stories by Dickens. The edition I read was Vintage Classics, which includes The Chimes and The Haunted Man, but this review only deals with A Christmas Carol.

It’s Christmas Eve and, the same as every year, Mr Scrooge isn’t interested. Hating Christmas and preferring money to people, he declines his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner, tells his clerk he can have the day off but to be in earlier on Boxing Day, and leaves work to spend the evening on his own in his dingy suite. But his evening is far from quiet. He is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner who tells him he will be visited by three spirits and that he has to change his ways before it is too late.

A Christmas Carol is a riveting story that far surpasses, as you might suppose, any of the film adaptations and abridged versions that have been created since.

As most people know the story it is probably best to comment on the book with this in mind and say that the writing itself is a real treat, the book is very funny, and there is the inclusion of the author himself in the story that is simply worth knowing about. This inclusion is mostly to show how Scrooge could change, though there is a particular statement which, in our present day, comes across as from the grave and thus rather spooky.

Unlike, for example, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol is not jammed-packed full of words. The text flows beautifully and the pages pass quickly and easily. The story is not at all spoiled by prior knowledge of the work – if you like the story but do not read the book it must be said that you are missing out.

Although society in general isn’t a theme of the book, the modern reader can learn a lot about Dickens’ time. Whilst Scrooge’s tale may be somewhat escapist, you can read through the lines, read through Dickens’s descriptions, to find out a lot about life and, of course, Christmas.

A short story with a firm message, A Christmas Carol is an excellent novella. And the fact that it is from this story that the greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ entered general use makes it more than perfect to read this book during the holiday in which it is set.

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Julie Kagawa – The Iron Knight

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The quest to be her knight in shining (iron) armour.

Publisher: Mira Ink (Harlequin)
Pages: 352
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45060-8
First Published: 25th October 2011
Date Reviewed: 6th December 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

To be with Meghan, the new queen of the Iron Kingdom, Ash needs to become human. His traditional faery self will never stand being in the kingdom for long and now he has made an oath to Meghan he cannot break it. There must be a way to gain a soul, and together with Grimalkin, Puck, and the Big Bad Wolf, he is determined to discover the way. He might discover someone, too.

The Iron Knight is the fourth book in The Iron Fey series that is technically a spin-off as the series was satisfactorily completed by The Iron Queen. As a spin-off from a different viewpoint it will likely interest some fans and irritate others.

And it must be said that although the reader already knew that Ash wanted to find a way to be with Meghan, there is a lot in this book that could be considered clutching at straws. There is very much the sense that this book was written to keep the series going when it didn’t need to be, and there are some elements that bare questioning besides the basic reason d’etre.

This may be considered a spoiler but at the same time it must be discussed because of the way it changes everything you have read and believed previously: Kagawa has chosen to bring back a character who had died before the series begun. The reason is obvious – it creates angst, conflict – but it is undeniably unnecessary. And due to the events that occur, the emotions renewed, it ultimately means that the reader may feel short-changed by Ash and Meghan’s relationship; Kagawa, whether deliberately or not, makes a great case for Ash not being with Meghan. Furthering this the end of the book ensures that he pretty much has his cake and eats it – but not in a way that shows immortality, rather it confirms the supposed suggestion that Ash should not be with Meghan. It sets up a situation that no partner wishes their beloved was in, and means that the reader will likely close the book wondering how long Meghan would put up with it if she were a real person.

It must be said that if you’ve found Puck’s constant chatter and stupidity to be annoying previously, this book is not for you. In times of great anguish there is Puck being sarcastic, in times of death there is Puck being disrespectful, and so on. Puck is a constant source of ‘pulling you out’ of the story.

A great deal of the book is reigned by the above three points. But although they continue from beginning to end there comes a point where they are of no consequence.

Kagawa’s skill undeniably lies in the themes she creates, the studies and messages she proposes, no matter whether she follows through on them or not. (A previous example may be found in my discussion post about the use of technology in the series.) In The Iron Knight, this skill is shown in the author’s study of what it means to be human. This section of the book is fantastic – it is thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, and grounding, at the highest level. In order to gain the right to become human it is inevitable that Ash must contempt the meaning of mortality and humanity, indeed if he hadn’t the book wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on for the concepts the reader would want to bestow on Ash. This part of the book is lengthy, Kagawa details so much but not necessarily in the way you would expect. She ‘shows’ in every way, and explores the little things so easy to forget. It of course has the additional effect of making you feel sorry for what Ash will lose before you remember that you yourself will be going through the same, being what Ash wants to be; thus the book has an extra sobering effect. True to form, despite the extremely real impact this part of the book has on the reader, it is still fantastical. In fact this section is more magical and fairy-like than the rest of the book.

Once you’ve been through this section it is difficult not to feel that the rest has been worth it. It may not be in literal terms, but if this section was the swan song of the series then it would practically be a suite.

The ending does lessen the effect a bit. On one hand you could say that Ash’s eventual fate is a peace-offering, on the other hand it can be considered an opportunity wasted. Undoubtedly the overall atmosphere and tone of the series suits the ending Kagawa has written, but many readers affected by the study may feel as though an ending that suited the study would have had a profoundly moving conclusion.

In brief, The Iron Knight is unnecessary as a sequel, and the ‘revived’ character may dampen readers’ feelings in general. However as a study the book is excellent. This is a story that truly has something for everyone however each person must be willing to journey through that which they consider a trial to reach it, and it may not be considered enough of a reward to do so.

And as much as that may be a little off-putting it is irrefutably apt as it is exactly what the characters must do on their quest.

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