Review: Slade House

slade-house_coverMuch of the praise I’ll heap on Slade House will sound as though it’s been lifted from my review of The Bone Clocks. The two books share a character, a general theme, and an impressive range of voices.

Back cover:
Down the road from a working-class pub, along a narrow brick alley, you just might find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find you can’t. Every nine years, the residents of Slade House extend an invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently-divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside? For those who find out, it’s already too late…

At 238 pages split across five sections, Slade House is ideal creepy bedtime reading. Each section’s abrupt end is chased by a nine-year gap, so they’re the kind of cliffhangers that let you close the book to get some sleep (in theory). Each is narrated by a radically different voice: a 12-year-old boy, a retired cop, a student, and so on. As in all of Mitchell’s books, each voice is natural and convincing. He doesn’t just alter the tone of his writing to create a new voice; he tweaks phrasing, word choice, cultural references, and idiosyncrasies.

The type of monster in Slade House isn’t new, but Mitchell’s portrayal is. Much of the suspense and many jump scares come from the way he subverts expectations of the haunted house genre. Visitors to haunted houses are typically presented with clues or tests that offer an escape or warning, but Slade House doesn’t offer these amenities. I was continually surprised by the cruelty and inevitability that frame each encounter. I don’t find haunted house stories particularly menacing because I tell myself that a) I wouldn’t go into that creepy house in the first place and b) I’d leave at the first indication of weirdness before the walls started bleeding, because c) I’m smarter than these people. But in Slade House, the tricks are nasty and hard to see coming. Being perceptive isn’t a guarantee of safety. Your best bet? If you see a small, black, iron door, don’t go in.

The only tedious part is the villain’s backstory. It’s the only section in which the pacing slows and the weird jargon feels affected and disruptive. Until this point, I had been following the gist of the story even without knowledge of the minutiae and technicalities. I was okay with the level of mystery. Initially, I was excited to get some clear answers, before it veered into let me tell you the particulars of my evil plan, Mr. Bond territory. This is a fine line; I’m surprised Mitchell crossed it.

This paragraph contains a spoiler, but it’s something I knew before reading and it increased my enjoyment. The last section features a deus ex machina in the shape of a character from The Bone Clocks. If you’ve read The Bone Clocks, the instant you see the name (M) you’ll know what’s about to happen. If you haven’t, you’ll say, “Who is this and why are they able to fix things so easily?” Because I knew this going in and was braced for a “cheap” ending, it didn’t bother me even though I hadn’t yet read The Bone Clocks. (If you haven’t read either book, I’d recommend starting with Slade House; it’s a great tease and will give you patience for The Bone Clock’s long tangents.)

Overall: 4.7 Taut, scary, and a great set-up for The Bone Clocks even though just about everyone will tell you Slade House is meant to be read second. I hadn’t warmed to Mitchell before reading it and, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have found The Bone Clocks half so satisfying.

Translation: Read it. Not by candlelight though.

Review: The Bone Clocks

the-bone-clocks_coverWow. The toughest aspect of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books isn’t the reading, it’s the blogging. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is mind-blowingly layered and fantastic. “Wow” pretty well covers my reaction, but I suspect you’d like more information…

Similar to Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks jumps around and contains six solid narratives told in first person by five narrators (one gets two sections). If you recall, my biggest complaint about Cloud Atlas was the way each story was cut in half just when it began to get interesting and not resumed until hundreds of pages later. In The Bone Clocks, each story is a complete arc. Though all arcs end as they become interesting, they end in less of a cold-shower way because they build on each other. Each answers questions from the previous sections, often in teasingly subtle ways. Many people compare The Bone Clocks‘ structure to Cloud Atlas which isn’t fair—The Bone Clocks is much better.

This is a tough one to summarize. The Bone Clocks begins with the story of 15-year-old Holly Sykes, who wants nothing more than to spend time with her much older boyfriend, Vinny. When her mother catches them together, Holly runs away to a fruit farm. When she learns that her younger brother, Jacko, has gone missing, the POV switches and time leaps forward. Each of the following sections is told from the perspective of someone close to Holly: a hook-up, an ex, an acquaintance, a horologist—together, they tell Holly’s story of overcoming her brother’s disappearance and sorting out the Radio People.

Once again, Mitchell stuns with a set of unique voices. Though the lives of the supporting cast overlap with Holly’s, she’s not always the focus of their narrative. Mitchell requires patience from his reader. He doesn’t mind setting up a character via a long detour from the central plot. Each time you feel a pinch of irritation that the narrative has shifted just when the latest voice has grown on you, keep with it. Mitchell pays off every digression and tangential detail. Even the moments that don’t directly underpin the plot form key motivations and impressions. Mitchell’s characters feel like real people and it’s possible for their trajectories to change on the basis of a single exchange.

What helped me keep patience was reading Slade House not very long ago. It shares a character and theme with The Bone Clocks. Because of this, I knew a little of what horologists are capable of and I knew how creepy all the psychic business would become. Speaking of the psychic stuff, I’m so impressed by how well the supernatural elements are handled. The psychic battles come through as rugged and tangible with genuine physicality. They’re not at all cheesy. Reading Slade House first also boosts this—it taught me Mitchell doesn’t mind bumping off main characters. In his world, no one is safe.

About all those spectacularly unique voices… Here a sampling:

The Teenager:

When Sharon’s left, Mom takes up the attack again: “All alone, were you, on your ‘walk’?”
Why this nasty feeling she’s setting me up? “Yeah.”
“How far d’you get on your ‘walk’ then, all alone?”
“What—you want miles or kilometers?”
“Well perhaps your little walk took you up Peacock Street, to a certain someone called Vincent Costello?” The kitchen sort of swirls, and through the window, on the Essex shore of the river, a tiny stick-man’s lifting his bike off the ferry. “Lost for words all of a sudden? Let me jog your memory: ten o’clock last night, closing the blinds, front window, wearing a T-shirt and not a lot else.”
Yes, I did go downstairs to get Vinny a lager. Yes, I did lower the blind in the front room. Yes, someone did walk by. Relax, I’d told myself. What’s the chances of one stranger recognizing me? Mam’s expecting me to crumble, but I don’t. (5)

Holly is 15 and Vinny is 24. Guess how excited he is when she shows up and asks to live with him after running away. Even though his reaction is predictable to the reader, Holly can’t see it coming. Mitchell wiggles into her head and voice so tightly that I felt 15 again just reading her words. Oh, the vicarious embarrassment!

The Posh Student:

She says, “Cambridge has met your expectations?”
“If you don’t use Cambridge well, you don’t deserve to be here. Erasmus, Peter the Great, and Lord Byron all lodged in my rooms. It’s a fact.” Bullshit, but I love to act. “I think of them, lying on my bed, staring up at the very same ceiling, in our respective centuries. That, for me, is Cambridge.” And that’s one tried-and-tested pick up line. “My name’s Hugo, by the way. Hugo Lamb.”
Instinct warns me off attempting a handshake.
Her lips say, “Immaculeé Constantin.”
My, oh, my. A seven-syllable hand grenade. “French?” (99)

Yes, that Hugo Lamb from Black Swan Green. Hugo meets Holly in Switzerland. So much has changed that the reader no longer feels privy to her inner life, despite having just been there. Exchanges between her and Hugo are layered with meaning as the reader teases out answers to questions from the opening: What happened to Jacko? What was all that psychic business? Who is Constantin?

The Reporter/Father:

Aoife turns, tugs the balloon string off and threatens to let it go.
“Go ahead.” I know how to handle Aoife. “But be warned, if you let go, I’ll never buy you a balloon again.”
Aoife twists her face up into a goblin’s and—to my surprise, and hurt—lets the balloon go. Off it flies, silver against blue, while Aoife dissolves into cascading sobs.  “I hate you—I hate Dora the Explorer—I wish you were back—back in Bad Dad—forever and ever! I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate your guts!
Then Aoife’s eyes shut tight and her six-year-old lungs fill up.
Half of Sussex hears her shaken, sobbing scream.
Get me out of here. Anywhere.
Anywhere’s fine.

In the third section, Holly’s ex is freshly returned from Baghdad (which their daughter pronounces ‘Bad Dad’) and struggling to participate in ordinary life.

The Has-Been:

Truly, Dear Reader, I could weep. Kingsley Amis boasted how a bad review might spoil his breakfast, but it bloody wasn’t going to spoil his lunch. Kingsley Amis lived in the pre-Twitter age, when reviewers actually read proofs and thought independently. Nowadays they just Google for a preexisting opinion and, thanks to Richard Cheeseman’s chainsaw massacre, what they’ll read about my comeback novel is: “So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Richard Cheeseman has hung a KICK ME sign around Echo Must Die‘s neck, at the very time I need a commercial renaissance. (293-4)

Crispin Hershey is trying to revive his flagging literary reputation and runs into Holly on a book tour of her own.

The Horologist:

The passenger-side window exploded into a thousand tiny hailstones, and the mirror above my head was a brittle supernova of plastic and glass. One shard of plastic shrapnel, the size and shape of a fingernail clipping, lodged itself in my cheek.
I crouched, afraid. A logical portion of my mind was arguing that if the marksman had intended to kill me I would now be staring across the Dusk. But I stayed down for several minutes longer. Atemporality neutralizes death’s poison, but it doesn’t defang death, and old habits of survival linger on, even in us. (445)

The best section, a.k.a. when all the crazy questions get answered.

The Epilogue:

It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted; the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of Earth’s Riches knowing—while denying—that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid. (560-1)

From this point on, I skimmed to learn whether certain characters made it or not. This scenario (being old/vulnerable, living in a backward, unsafe world with wars and scuffles over the few remaining resources) really freaks me out. Even if it didn’t, all my questions were answered in the previous section. Though this section isn’t technically an epilogue or labeled as such, it still feels like one. I don’t mean that in a good way.

Overall: 4.7

Translation: Read it.


Previously On:

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Review: Cloud Atlas

cloud-atlasI don’t care for capers or artichoke hearts. One night, my husband made Chicken Piccata with heaps of these ingredients. Despite this, I knew it was an objectively good dish: the chicken was well cooked, it had an interesting balance of flavors, etc., but I still asked that he not rush to cook it again. I feel the same way about Cloud Atlas. David Mitchell is uncommonly talented and there’s nothing “wrong” with his latest book, but it’s difficult to enjoy. Unfortunately, it’s one of those books you’re not allowed to hate, because if you hate it, people say: “you’re stupid; you only disliked it because you didn’t get it.” It’s an overstuffed, self-important book, and this has engendered self-righteousness amongst its more ardent fans.

Cloud Atlas is composed of six loosely intertwined stories. Each is written in a different style and genre: a journal from the 1800s, letters from the 1930s, a pop-fiction mystery in the 70s, a memoir from the 90s, a futuristic interview, and an oral narrative in a bizarre dialect. The stories come together when the letter writer reads the journal, the mystery story chick finds the letters, and so on. A unique birthmark appears on several characters which might suggest reincarnation, but there’s enough to wade through without trying to determine who might have been who in another timeline.

Five of the stories are told in two parts, the sixth is told straight through from beginning to end. If the first story is “A”, the second “B” and so on, the pattern of the book would be: A B C D E F E D C B A. What sells this book (and what would impress anyone) is Mitchell’s mastery of so many genres. Taken side by side, the stories showcase his incredible grasp of period appropriate dialogue and style. However, when you’ve finished and look back over the whole, the stories hang together tentatively and the structure feels gimmicky. The first story is split mid-sentence; you read down to the end of the page and when you turn it – poof – different story. I was convinced this was a misprint and it wasn’t until flipping around the book that I saw the sentence resumed much later. Each story is split at the point it begins to get interesting so the process of reading is: bored –> mildly interested, bored –> mildly interested…three more cycles…then the sequence of conclusions.

To begin the second half, you must slog through the only story told straight through beginning to end. It’s 70 pages of strange future-speak titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.” I’d be lying if I said I completely understood this story. To a point, you get used to the dialect, but even when you can understand it without effort, it’s distractingly odd:

His body stood lonesome for a beat like a babbit learnin’ to walk, then…dumm-fff! See, he’d errored the shooter’s mouth for its ass and flashbanged his own head off. Our myst’ry Kona rescuer sat up, rubbin’ elbows tendersome, plucked off his helmet, an’ stared mis’rably at the five died uns.

The stronger stories of the six aren’t diminished by the weaker ones, but the weaker ones are borne up by their placement in the larger structure. If you could shave 100 pages from this book, streamline each story, and smooth the gratuitous cliffhangers, I’d push this book on more people than I am now.

Full disclosure: I read this book after I saw the movie and I’m sure this affected my opinion. Jim Broadbent was an absolute riot as the publisher Timothy Cavendish; Sloosha’s Crossin’ was tainted by mental images of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry’s wooden acting and inane babbling. There’s something insurmountably ridiculous about two people, one in bad make-up and the other with a gel headdress saying:

Zachry: Who tripped the Fall, if not Old Georgie?
Meronym: True-true? The Old Uns.
Zachry: That’s just a rope o’smoke. Old Uns got the Smart.

Taken singly, some of the stories aren’t bad. If there’s one that appeals to you, go for it:
–Journal written by Adam Ewing as he travels across the ocean in the 1800s while afflicted with a mysterious illness and treated by an overeager doctor.
–Letters between the composer Robert Frobisher to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, as he composes his masterpiece while working for (and cuckolding) a master composer.
–Hackneyed thriller as Louisa Rey uncovers a conspiracy surrounding a new nuclear facility after Rufus Sixsmith tips her off.
–Memoir written by Timothy Cavendish who is trapped in a retirement home and plotting his escape.
–Interview with the clone Sonmi-451 who has been freed from restaurant service, sentenced to death, and now dispenses philosophical proclamations.
–Whatever Sloosha’s Crossin’ is supposed to be.

The overall theme is that everyone is bound together, history repeats, yada yada, and each of the stories expresses this so blatantly that you don’t have to read the collection in order; you can hop around as needed to stave off boredom.

Overall: 2.7. Mitchell can write, but this book gets caught up in its own perceived profundity.

Translation: A lot of people, myself included, have reading queues too long to get excited about a book that is somewhat enjoyable in retrospect, but tedious to read.