July 18, 2013

A Short Hiatus Before Ed Book Fest 2013!

As you may have noticed, things have been a little quiet here on The Mountains of Instead over the last few weeks.  This is largely due to the fact that my daughter is in the middle of her last summer holiday before starting school and I'm keen to spend some quality time with her.  Additionally, I'm trying to get on with some of my own writing and also appear to have some quality books that require reading.  Therefore, I'm taking a leaf out of Andrew's book.  Andy blogs over at The Pewter Wolf and recently took a month of radio silence in which he didn't blog and just read whatever he wanted.  I liked this idea.  A lot.  I love blogging but the pressure to be constantly reading or reviewing can be immense.  This does NOT mean that this is the end - merely a month of breathing space.  Both readers and publicists should be assured that all the books read during this month off will be reviewed when we return and that's not the only thing as we'll be back on 10th August this year with a bang:

We are delighted to have been approached by the Edinburgh Book Festival to promote the many exciting events that they have going on this year.  The Book Festival is a favourite of all of us here on The Mountains of Instead and we are delighted to be actively involved with the 2013 programme.  There are lots of great YA authors in attendance this year and that will be our main focus with reviews and discussions on each author appearing almost every day during the festival.  Polka Dot Steph will be our woman on the ground, although I'll be joining her to swan around and drink wine while flashing my press credentials.  Er, I mean, to talk meaningfully about literature.  We hope that you'll join us at least online but  also in person if you happen to also be swanning.  Until then au revoir and enjoy the heat wave!

July 08, 2013

Being Human (Review: Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu)

Sorry Please Thank You: Stories Charles Yu Pantheon 2012
"Is language all about desire? Is desire all about loss? Would we ever need to say anything if we never lost anything? Is everything we ever say just another way to express: I will lose this, I will lose all of this. I will lose you."
Some months ago, Charles Yu's How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe dropped into my lap (okay, hard drive) and left seismic shock-waves dissipating through my psyche for weeks afterwards. No ordinary time travel tale, it conveyed a sense of loss and desperation so palpable as to start encroaching on your peripheral vision; yet always tempered with a mischievous, self-deprecating humour. It was the literary equivalent of a puppy, rambunctious one moment and breaking your heart with its saucer eyes the next. Trust me, I mean this as the greatest compliment.
His follow-up to the widely-acclaimed novel is the short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, in which the themes of How To Live Safely... are continued and expanded upon, given life in a series of wonderfully inventive sci-fi dioramas. That his short story output vastly outnumbers his single novel is no surprise, given that at times How To Live Safely... reads almost like a series of (deliberately) barely connected vignettes, each segment floating in a timeline and universe all its own. The natural feel which pervaded that work is even more obvious in Sorry Please Thank You, allowing him to weave the storytelling and introspection together in utterly seamless fashion.
The collection kicks off with Standard Loneliness Package, a deeply haunting tale of a future world where the nuisance of negative feelings - sadness, loss, jealousy, shame - can be borne by others for a nominal fee. Using the latest technology anyone who anticipates an unpleasant episode in their future, say admitting infidelity to a spouse or attending a funeral, can transplant the experience at a pre-determined time, handing over their entire sensory realm to cubicle-bound call centre staff in India. Every sight and sound, every emotion, is experienced in surrogate, freeing the client of any unwanted suffering, deserved or not. Meanwhile the clouds of negativity and desperation pile up in the minds of those doing the experiencing, buffeting against the dam of the mind until it shatters. Yu really touches a nerve with this opening salvo, going for the jugular with his evisceration of the hollowness of modern life and the extent to which we are becoming increasingly disconnected from even our own lives.
Thankfully some light relief is never far away and the next offering sees a couple of workers in a aircraft hangar-sized WorldMart. Our protagonist and his colleague Janine are dozing their way through the graveyard shift when an atypical customer is sighted roaming the isles: a lovelorn zombie apparently killing time before a date. The humour of the situation, aside from the obvious, arises in the differing reactions of our hero and Janine, the object of his affections. "I don't think I would actually ever want to kiss her so much as I'd want to possess her", he ponders, "Consume her. Eat her, so that no one else could have her."
And so Sorry Please Thank You continues, alternating between achingly beautiful articulations of the loneliness of human existence and the most enchanting sci-fi weirdness. Pop culture fans are not left out here - Yeoman is the tale of a newly promoted redshirt on an all-too-familiar starship, one who is fully aware that his foot up the career ladder is shorthand for certain death (John Scalzi's Redshirts, anyone?). As well as the insane captain, architect of his certain doom ("He has a way of speaking in italics") our hero must also contend with his pregnant wife, who is rather annoyed at his nonchalant acceptance of his impending doom and her impending widowhood.
And for sheer inventiveness it is difficult to beat the concept of a letter being written to and subsequently augmented by one's own doppelgangers in alternate universes. Having conversations with yourself is a time-honoured device in literary history. Having said conversations devolve into a flamewar takes it to a new level.
Now I'm trying hard to be objective here, to find a way to say "You should like this book but...", only it's not happening. Even the most jaded science fiction fan will be greatly entertained by the sheer originality of many of the scenarios depicted in Sorry Please Thank You. It's one of those books where the cascade of ideas threatens to submerge you before you turn the last page. As for the rest of you? If Charles Yu's depictions of longing and searching, of loneliness and heartache don't touch you then you may need a heart transplant. It's that simple. I'll leave you with one more snippet:

"What if I found out that the real me was content, fulfilled, grateful? How could I be happy for myself, while still remembering that someday I will lose it all, everything important, and unimportant? That everyone loses everything. Everything loses itself."

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  Sorry Please Thank You is available from now.

July 04, 2013

People Are Strange, When You're A Stranger (Review: The Humans by Matt Haig)

The Humans
The Humans
Matt Haig
Canongate 2013

Dr Andrew Martin of Cambridge University is a mathematician. A pretty good one by all accounts. And on one, not particularly special day, he solves a mathematical problem almost as old as mathematics. And promptly disappears. You see, there are folks elsewhere in the chasm of space who pay particular attention to these types of developments. Folks who are advanced beyond our comprehending and feel that the sort of knowledge that Dr Martin had just uncovered may cause the human race to become a little big for it's boots. And so his body is inhabited by an alien being with the sole intention of preventing the spread of this newly discovered information. Basically, to kill everyone who knows anything about it.

Cue entirely stereotypical yet humorously haphazard E.T meets gritty crime drama? Thankfully not. Our extra-terrestrial narrator sources from a planet conquered by mathematics. A planet without death or decay, without pain, suffering or emotion leaving him with no understanding of the motivations of beings who are always on a clock. But he is smart and a lot more human than he realises.. And it is not long before our other-worldly explorer begins to deviate from his assigned mission as feelings for Dr Martin's dysfunctional family begin to form. Much to the dismay of his compatriots back home.

Matt Haig's writing is, as always, exceptional. He provides the narrator with such a convincing and accessible voice that, after only the first few pages, it is in no way unusual or distracting that he is an alien. And, even better, he is so, so funny. The narrator's objective point of view allows for some of the most humorous observations of human behaviour I think I have ever read (my personal favourites being around the habit of humans to constantly state the blatantly obvious and the merits of eating nothing but peanut butter). The juxtaposition between this observational humour and the narrator's interaction with Andrew's severely depressed son, Gulliver, is very striking and extremely thought-provoking. And our narrator's closing words of wisdom to Gulliver may be the most simultaneously beautiful, poignant and life-affirming passage in modern literature.

The supporting cast of Andrew's mentally ill son and frustrated and repressed wife make for some interesting thoughts around family life and I think this will make The Humans a great choice for the book-clubbers among us. But, to be honest, I think it will be a great choice for everyone. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and, most definitely, make you take a look at yourself and what you are really about. One of the aspects of humans that our narrator doesn't understand is how we manage to achieve anything in the constant shadow of our own mortality. Well something that I have learned from The Humans is that being an average, not particularly special, mortal human is beautiful and extraordinary and awesome. Cheers Matt. 

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph. The Humans is available now and all humans should read it. Also now.  Thank you to the lovely Caroline at Canongate for sending us a copy of this title to review.  You can find Splendibird's review of Matt's earlier book, The Radley's, here.