58. The Shadow Rising 

It has taken a while to read, but at a hefty 974 pages the Shadow Rises and the 4th in the Wheel of Time series begins to mark a change in how this series will continue. So far we have had three novels that present a problem and attempt to solve it, this novel gives you character arcs and tasks but finally Jordan lets his characters go off on their own a little and he doesn’t shoe horn them into the same location by chance at the ending. He lets them (and us) go and see a bit more of the weave of the world and really stretches his Epic Fantasy legs.

The Shadow Rising – Robert Jordan

Overall I enjoyed this one the most it has been the most complex of the four and it has a little more to bite into than the previous novels and generally I feel as if Jordan has finally grasped the story he wants to tell and is commanding it the way he wants to. His writing is still not without its flaws, again men and women argue like they are different species, sometimes women fight over men and men stand by idly shaking their heads at the curiosity of ‘never understanding’ the fairer sex. But there are a lot of reasons to hang in there.

The novel starts with a little bit of a drag. We spend about 200 pages in Tear while characters catch some well deserved rest but also try to figure out what they are going to do. Luckily this little hiccup is minor and is peppered with interesting twists and the sudden appearance of Trollocs. But Jordan brings a new element into the threat of violence and tension into his character’s lives which is the Bubbles of Evil that are now appearing around Mat, Perrin, and Rand. These Bubbles are supposedly leaking out from the Dark One’s prison as the seals that hold him there fail.

These scenes are some of the most surprisingly surreal I’ve read from Jordan yet however, Perrin’s axe suddenly has a will of its own and that will wants to murder him, the characters in Mat’s playing cards come alive and try to murder him and of course, Rand faces mirrored versions of himself trying to murder him. It seems as if the Shadow Rising has taken this series on a turn for the darker and it certainly does amp up some of the tension of the novel. After everybody has discussed it and Rand has threatened the High Lords of Tear to behave themselves the group splits off in different directions.

They hear that Trollocs and the Children of the Light are terrorising Two Rivers and that the latter are still loudly searching for Perrin. Faile bullies her way into going with Perrin by tricking Loial into taking an Oath and a few Aiel go along for the journey too. ‘Trapped between a rock and a hard place’ is the best way to describe Perrin’s struggle throughout the novel, he is conflicted with keeping Faile safe and rescuing his friends and family and also with doing the right thing. But I really enjoyed his storyline, he really going a chance to shine and develop in this novel and got a chance to prove that he is also a leader in his own right. We also see little bit more of Loial who gets to swing an axe or two and even runs off of his own accord to do something only an Ogier could.

Finally Rand has stopped being annoying again and this next storyline I really loved. Rand, Egwene and Mat march out in search of the waste and the fabled Aiel city, and surprise surprise find all twelve clans of them and the city. Finally we see a little bit more of this weird people who thrive off an unforgiving land waiting for He Who Comes With The Dawn. Aeil are reminiscent of the natives within Dune, but the Fremen seem to only scratch the surface of the complexity Jordan delivers about Aiel culture in the Shadow Rises. Their celtic complexion already places them oddly in this Middle Eastern-like waste but soon some of their history is revealed that points bizarrely in the direction of the Tinkers and the Way of the Leaf. I need more Jordan. I just… must know more.

This part of the novel is also dedicated to Egwene quietly learning about Dreams, and Moraine and Lan being remarkably quiet for a change. Rand is keeping an eye out for the Forsaken and Mat has been stupid and gotten more than he has bargained for again and is keeping it quiet. Mat is rapidly becoming the character I roll my eyes about. Again? Really? Can’t you just stop and do the thing like them instead of being a blockhead.

Meanwhile Elayne and Nynaeve take a fast ship to an awful city called Tanchico. They are still following the Black Ajah and trying to determine what they plan to do to Rand. Thom and Julian tag along and navigate the grittier parts of the city while Elayne and Nynaeve meet a new character who they have very mixed feelings about when they realise her origins. Elayne gets drunk for the first time and realises she knows Thom from … somewhere. Nynaeve is her usual angry self and forgets herself when she has a face off with one of the Forsaken (who seem to be everywhere now) at a risky moment. But she is more awesome Nynaeve then annoying Nynaeve.

Back at the tower Min is hiding in plain sight under the orders of the Amyrlin Seat. After warning the Seat of some horrible visions she’s had ultimately they come true when some of the Red Sisters cause an uprising and in a terrible turn of events depose the Amyrlin Seat. Honestly there is a moment here where I wanted to throw the book across the room. Why Jordan…. WHY WOULD YOU LET THEM DO THAT.

This novel is awesomely complicated. There is a lot going on, it was a little understated but I really enjoyed the Sea Folk and seeing the Tinkers a little more. Jordan has also started daring the reader to decide if new characters are friend or darkfriend and I really like that.

Out of the four I think this one I have enjoyed the most, the weave is getting more complicated but stresses the importance of Rand rising to power. The Shadow Rises stresses what it takes to claim leadership and who has the right to claim the power of authority. But the biggest difference between this novel and the other three is instead of weighting sole expectation on Rand’s shoulders to defeat evil it is about Rand growing into the man who is capable of uniting the forces of good against the forces of evil.

Which in my opinion, is a far worthier narrative.

57. The Thing Around Your Neck 

I often forget that literature can be a good means to emotionally challenge yourself. But it is not often that I pick up a novel wanting to face that kind of challenge. I’ve read a few good feminist texts that have redefined the way I think of womanhood, The Vagina Monologues for example, but not many that achieve something like a melodic undertone. Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck is beautiful in it’s multitude of definitions, it is human, it is feminist, it paints stark realities about corruption. But it also feels honest, but in a quiet way. The Thing Around Your Neck does not point at the root of evil at your door while screaming, instead it withholds judgement while it demonstrating injustice.

This is a novel that like so many people could fall into that trap of getting angry and arrogant and dismissive of those who do not share it’s core views. But instead it seems to take a step back and steel itself. Around Your Neck is a considered set of narratives, handled with apt dexterity and no where does it run away from the author and shatter it’s own integrity or dignity.

The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The short story collection moves around some themes you’d expect, immigration, sexuality, infidelity, unhappy marriages, sibling rivalry and the ugly faces of corruption and violence. There is a lot of displacement and an incredible amount of female narrators. Some of these women desperate to find pride in their culture but are forced to shed it when they immigrate to America. Some of these women are experiencing terrible tragedy and loss. Some of these women are from either side of waring religious groups yet find a strange sort of peace in a life threatening situation. But more than anything there is a lot of unhappy characters and in particularly unhappy women at the mercy of their male counterparts in this collection.

There is a stark frankness to Adichie’s writing, it is uncomplicated which adds to the harrowing kick of some of these short stories. Rape is handled like an offhanded norm, as if Adichie’s characters are speaking of going to get apples and oranges from the supermarket. It is an almost desperate reality for many of these characters that they half expect to always to be something less significant. Their bodies seem like public property to be graffitied upon and owned by who ever chooses to. They are the socially subordinate sisters who tell their brother’s stories and not their own and sometimes, a minority of them take small revenges. But these feelings cascade throughout the collection.

When we do come across empowered characters, they are usually women our narrator is warned against, or they appear in ways we do not anticipate such as the subject of same-sex desire. Or they live with guilt, from past actions that they should never have been forced to undertake.

The culture clashes in this collection are perhaps more poignantly felt through the young women in the collection who are visiting Nigeria from the USA or where women escaping Nigeria find themselves faced by an oppressive individual elsewhere. It as if Adichie dangles the hope of change and autonomy in front of a lot of her characters and then snatches it away. There is very little space or time for grief, because in many of these stories survival is the focus and there is no room to slow down or stop. Or there is no worth given to grief or magnitude of emotion that they experience because they are women and some how less important than their male counterparts.

This is my first real taste of African literature and as I expected it was an emotionally fraught experience and I did find it challenging. But it was only a challenge because this is a topic that I am passionate about and I empathised with these women, fictional or not. Adichie’s candid writing hasn’t made me feel any less convinced that feminism is important. Around Your Neck has only strengthened my convictions that this is a global issue and that feminism isn’t something that is over and ‘old news’.

I think you should read this novel. I think that if you are in a position of privilege and believe that feminism is only important and relevant when it is concerned with the west and is entirely whitewashed, then you should really try to read this novel. I think that if you want to emotionally challenge yourself and the staying power of your convictions on this topic then you should also really read this novel. It will give you a lot to think about.

56. Slade House 

I’ve been really feeling I need to read something that isn’t weird and wonderful lately. Literature is a wonderful buffet and I have a tendency to pick at what is already comfortable to my palate. I read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas a few years ago and thought it revealed a lot about Mitchell as an author attempting something dynamic and different within his novels. Slade House is again an unusual read and I prefer it to Cloud Atlas as it is sophisticated but retains an air of engaging simplicity.

Unfortunately this novel doesn’t really fit the bill of not being weird and wonderful. Slade House is one of those novels that really enjoys itself and goes to great lengths to keep itself believable and interesting. It is the moreish minted pea dip, or the good beetroot humus at the buffet table that you can’t keep your fingers or breadsticks out of. It’s a little bit ghosty, there’s a bit of soul-thievery, there’s a little bit of reality bending, there are some creepy twins and you know, that staircase. That staircase you see in every horror film that you should never run up no matter who or what is chasing you through the house.

Slide House – David Mitchell

But even though it has that staircase and a slight Amityville Horror feel to it, I didn’t find it terrifying because I believe Slade House aims for enjoyable-creepy and that vending machine of horror tropes that are stirred in with hilarity and cultural nods. Honestly all that is missing from this novel are small children staring blankly and bleeding walls. Slade House uses tropes very well and seems to make them a little fresher or to hum to a new beat. It was a difficult book to put down and perhaps that is because it is very different to some of the things I have read lately but it is very well written and a joy to read.

The novel is built on 5 short stories staggered in 9 year intervals. Each short story has Slade House itself at the epicentre somehow, a woman and her son invited to the house, a group of paranormal nut teenagers stumble into finding it, a police officer finding it by chance during his investigation for example. But each time the discoverers of the house find themselves at the mercy of the occupants, twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, and they disappear without a trace.

Norah and Jonah Grayer are the only two characters that feature throughout the novel in a big way. They are a little like the archetypal bad-guys, they just want to live forever and party around the world, but they have to commit to a ritual on the same day once every 9 years to do it. To begin with they seem a little like menacing caricatures, and had this novel been formulaic in its method of capturing innocent people they would have remained so. But Mitchell gives the twins some diversity once you have a handle on what is going on in this novel.

I feel as if Mitchell’s timing is handled really well in this novel, he never reveals too much to give the game away but keeps the reader interested until the last page. Particularly with the way he handles his characters. Mitchell seems to have really nailed down the separate voices of Slade House, but he does work with familiar characters that you have seen hundreds of times in other novels. The odd Nathan Bishop who is aware he is peculiar thanks to his highly strung newly divorced mother who is broke, timid Sally Timms who is has a desperate crush on her friend, and the rough around the edges cop, Gordon Edmonds are all brilliant examples of this.

These characters are so easily found that perhaps Mitchell has banked on a lot of the characterisation being done for him as they are familiar faces. I have met Nathan Bishop at least twice recently. They may be easy characters to pull out of a writer’s toolbox but Mitchell doesn’t make them seem cliche or boring. They are also really easy to summarise into sentences which I’ve done below just for fun:

Nathan takes his highly strung mother’s valium because he believes it makes him act more appropriately. Sally is riddled with self loathing and is terribly jealous of her older sister and her insecurity has made her shy about approaching her crush. Gordon is racist, divorced, brow beaten and presumably henpecked from his previous marriage.

Running throughout Slade House is the investigation into the disappearance of the Bishops and other characters in a who-dun-it style. The reader knows who the culprits are and the curiosity of the novel is how or if, the other characters of the novel will find out. Of course there is also mystery around Norah and Jonah and the truth of what Slade House is.

This is a great novel and difficult to put down and extremely surprising. I was not expecting to enjoy this as much as I did or it to be this novel. I highly recommend it if you’re feeling your to-read pile is getting a little like the same plate over and over from the literature buffet.

55. Slapstick or Lonesome No More 

“Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the moon?”

I have been meaning to read more Vonnegut since reading Slaughterhouse 5. It was a novel that made a big impression on me and Slapstick is really no different. I am not sure what I was expecting from Slapstick but it certainly threw me off balance. The prologue welcomes you into this novel as the closet attempt at an autobiography that Vonnegut will ever try to write and outlines his family history. This family history and his relationship with his sister has, I suppose, influenced Slapstick. The novel reads like a daydream fantasy, it is effortless in it’s storytelling and often breaks the fourth wall with a very conversational style. It is a rapid bombardment of short paragraphs that gives a really easy read but doesn’t leave you disorientated. And it is so very weird.

Slapstick or lonesome no more – Kurt Vonnegut

Slapstick is set up as the memoir of Dr. Wilber Daffodil-II Swain and follows his life from a strange childhood with his twin sister to his Presidential term to, what appears to be, the end of the world. Wilber is quite a character, from his senile hiccup of ‘hi ho’ ending at least a third of the novel’s paragraphs to his pink toga and strange ideas about middle names. He is memorable, silly, and endearing.

The novel begins with Wilber and his sister, Eliza, living out their lives as they know it as deformed monsters that are seen once a year by their parents and are assumed idiots. However the twins have a secret, they have learnt to read and together have compiled all of the knowledge they can in the house and together they have become very bright children on the quiet. Until, one day they over hear their parents talking and wishing they would show some sign of intelligence.

The children give their parents their wish and it is deemed by doctors that they should be separated at once as the children appear to have an odd telepathic link while together. Wilber begins his life as a mediocre individual without the brilliance him and his sister have as a combined force. He becomes a doctor and drug addict and then runs for President. While Eliza is incarcerated in a sanitarium which of course she is released from and she then sues him and their parents for the unjust incarceration before her death in a landslide on Mars. Wilber is shortly to become the last President of the United States thanks to outbreaks of illness that is destroying half the population and turns the Island of Manhattan into ‘the Island of Death’.

I am really not sure what I thought of this one. Weirdly, Wilber and his sister are very much freaks and somehow seem the most normal. Humanity seems grotesque in comparison, as dysfunctional Wilber is in his drug addiction and failed marriage he admits his shortcomings freely and without resentment. It is an absurd plot that seems to be trying to make fun of things but I don’t really think it ever gets to the punchline.

Despite the shrinking Chinese spies and the lighter gravity and the two weirdly intimate siblings I found very little to giggle about. This is, I think, intended to be a satirical novel but instead it read to me as a bleak comment on society, where kinship is more strongly felt and fought for when families are randomly assigned rather than formed by blood and marriage ties. Where the fear of ‘going to the Turkey farm’ – death – and becoming a collector of candle sticks are equated to something akin to background noise.

This is a surreal read and perhaps I’ve missed the point of it, but from the reviews I’ve read you either love it or you hate it. It’s a quick read though and I couldn’t help but wonder if behind all the whimsy and frequent flying erections in light gravity, there was an undertone that I just couldn’t grasp. This novel has the plot of a fruit fly at a full picnic table, it is a weird read, it’s an unsettling read. It’s a novel full of ‘heavy gravity days’, but somehow I feel less at home in this fantastical meandering than I did in Slaughterhouse 5.