Nod by Adrian Barnes: Book Review

nod-adrian-barnes“In theory it was, around now, Literature. Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.” – Susan Sto-Helit, Soul Music (1994)

This nugget of wisdom from the late Sir Terry Pratchett is the first thing that came to mind once I’d turned the final page of Adrian Barnes’ refreshingly original take on a zombie apocalypse, Nod.

The concept is fantastic: protagonist Paul wakes up one morning to discover that the whole world, including his wife Tanya, did not sleep the night before. The very significant few who did manage to sleep, Paul included, all dreamed the same golden dream of a magnificent light. The next night comes and still no sleep. The world begins to panic. Scientists are baffled. The media is in full-blown scaremongering mode. Then comes the next night. And the next. And the next. Gradually over the course of approximately one month, those who cannot sleep fall victim to the side-effects of absolute sleep-deprivation: lank hair; poor hygiene; irritability; decreased motor skills, hallucinations; psychosis; and eventually, death. Society breaks down, and those who lived on the fringes of the old world step up to herald in the new.

In Nod, the apocalypse comes not in the form of a cataclysmic event, but something far more sinister. In this sense I was reminded strongly of one of my favourite books, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, which also depicts the end of the world in the form of gradual starvation and decay (oh, and killer plants, but they’re mostly an afterthought). Suffering myself from a severe lack of sleep whilst reading Nod on my arduous daily commute, I found myself getting a headache, so easily was I able to put myself in the characters’ positions. Like The Day of the Triffids, there is something so creepy and unsettling about the end of the world coming along in such an understated, chillingly relatable way.

But — and this is a big But — despite a great concept and being so fantastically well-written e.g.

Life’s a scab, and it’s our nature to pick at it until it bleeds.

Nod had one fatal flaw: it was boring.

etymology
Sounds like a fun game…

After civil order breaks down and Paul well and truly finds himself in the land of Nod, it soon becomes clear to the reader that there isn’t much of a plot. Paul embodies the ultimate ‘hood ornament’ character archetype as he is driven around from one crazed group of Awakened to another, presumably so that Barnes can showcase as much of his apocalyptic landscape as possible. The etymology theme that permeates, nay dominates the novel, whilst objectively interesting, seems a bit tacked on and doesn’t really fit or help explain anything. Lastly, if you’re expecting some kind of payoff or answers to any of your questions, prepare to be disappointed. Paul is possibly one of the least inquisitive characters I’ve ever read and seems to feel no desire to learn how Nod happened, why, or even how to resolve it.

Nod‘s author, Adrian Barnes has spoken of how he wished to explore the fragility of civil order versus disobedience in Nod. For me personally, I think he failed; this was not clear enough. I interpreted Nod to be more an exploration of the use and history of words that just happened to be set in the midst of a rather bizarre and surreal zombie apocalypse. Whilst I cannot stress enough how beautifully this book is written, I just can’t help but feel disappointed that such an original concept was seemingly wasted on trying to be too ‘literary’. The end result is a disjointed, meandering novel that I found really quite unsatisfying to read. I am thrilled to be moving on to something else.

Verdict: 2/5 stars

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Adrian Barnes and Nod, please visit his (short!) blog:

https://theauthorabout.wordpress.com/

There’s a really interesting video where he talks about the role the city of Vancouver played in Nod and offers a bit more background on some of the locations.

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Under The Skin by Michel Faber: Book Review

Under The SkinMichel Faber’s debut novel Under The Skin is a reviewer’s nightmare, because it’s one of those books that you cannot really adequately cover without giving too much away. The book defies all categorisation, masquerading as a thriller, science-fiction and horror all at once. There are also elements of allegory and satire woven throughout. Suffice to say, as far as the plot is concerned, it is about a woman called Isserly who is obsessed with driving around the Scottish highlands and picking up well-muscled male hitchhikers. What starts out as a run-of-the-mill sexed-up thriller soon descends into a malebolge of unsettling and repugnant horrors that stole my sleep and left me unnerved for days.

The first half of the book – where revelations are slowly drip-fed to the reader – is the strongest. Michel Faber does a fantastic job of ratcheting up the suspense and the ever-permeating sense of dread by revealing just enough to send the reader’s imagination running wild without fully satisfying their questions. This makes Under The Skin compulsively readable, despite the repetitive events of Isserly’s daily grind; find a hitchhiker, pick him up, find a hitchhiker, pick him up…

Comparatively, the latter half of the novel does not maintain this momentum. Climaxing roughly in the middle with a truly horrific midnight hunt in the dark, after this I had the facts necessary to piece together enough of the truth that my interest waned. A couple of latter attempts on Michel Faber’s part to gross me out failed, and whilst some of the debate surrounding speciesism, classicism and what makes us human were truly interesting, it didn’t quite seem to fit with the ambiguously eerie and unsettling beginning and had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It is also worth noting that if you – like me – are the kind of reader who looks up words they don’t understand, there are a couple of made-up words thrown in here that I would advise you not to investigate; words like ‘icpathua’ and ‘vodsel’. Never forget that the web is dark and full of spoilers…

The Woman
Scarlett Johansson stars as Isserly’s equivalent – The Woman – in Under The Skin (2013)

Despite these quite major sticking points, I really did enjoy Under The Skin. There’s definitely no other book like it, and its opaque ambiguity and downright weirdness is what makes it simultaneously so fascinating and frustrating to read.

Shortly after I finished reading Under The Skin, I watched the 2013 film of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson. I thought the film – which is only a very loose adaption of the book – was just as good, if not better; a fantastic transition from page to screen. Honestly, I would recommend both, so if you cannot bring yourself to read the book based on my rating, it’s definitely worth checking out the film.

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Michel Faber and Under The Skin (2013), please visit the below links:

http://www.canongate.tv/authors/michelfaber
http://undertheskinmovie.com/

 

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb: Book Review

Fool's QuestFool’s Quest is the second book in Robin Hobb’s latest epic fantasy trilogy, Fitz and the Fool. It is the eighth book told from the perspective of protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer, and the fifteenth book in the Realm of the Elderlings series as a whole (excluding the novellas and short stories). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work of Robin Hobb, I highly recommend that before you read another word of this review, you go away and read all preceding books in the Realm of the Elderlings series, including The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles (though please do not be put off by The Rain Wild Chronicles‘ far inferior quality). Each book is of a rather mighty and intimidating size, but I can assure you that you will become so engrossed in Hobb’s exquisite characters and beautifully engaging writing that you will soon be finished in no time! You can thank me later.

Fitz has been reunited with the Fool at last, albeit under devastatingly violent and harrowing circumstances. Whilst a blissfully oblivious Fitz attempts to heal his friend within the confines of Buckkeep Castle and dissuade him from his quest for vengeance, his daughter Bee has been abducted by the mysterious Servants and their hired Chalcedean mercenaries, who believe her to be the long-awaited ‘Unexpected Son’ of the Fool’s prophecies. With Withywoods in disarray and a drastic political upheaval at Buckkeep Castle that will likely have every long-term Robin Hobb reader punching the air for joy, Fitz has much to contend with if he wishes to get Bee back. It may also mean that he will be forced to take up the Fool’s quest for vengeance after all…

The title is somewhat misleading, as said quest does not actually begin until the Third Act of the narrative. Similarly, the plot (like many of Robin Hobb’s previous works) is a slow-burner, the focus firmly upon the characters’ fears, loves and motivations. Despite huge chunks of seemingly nothing happening (Fitz continues to agonise endlessly over his decisions), these passages are rarely ever boring to read, and do not feel unnecessary. This is testimony to Hobb’s excellent grasp of wordsmithery. Her writing is as sprawlingly beautiful as ever, with the power to illicit incredible amounts of feeling and emotion in her readers with the simplest but most devastating of sentences. As a veteran reader, it is simply breathtaking when you take a step back and realise exactly how much has changed and developed since Assassin’s Apprentice, when Fitz was still Nameless the Dog Boy, the Skill badly practised, the Wit utterly forbidden and dragons nowhere to be found.

Despite this, things do sag in the middle when the reader is forced with Fitz to wait an age before any action can be taken to rescue Bee. Whilst this frustration is echoed within Fitz himself and encourages the reader to empathise with his position, it makes for some pretty exhausting reading. Real effort must be made to continue wading through the sheer hopelessness of the situation, particularly when combined with the dramatic irony that the reader knows precisely the danger that Bee is in. Whilst some might argue that this as a writing strength, personally it just got on my nerves, especially with so little pay-off in terms of story/quest progression. Those of you who have read my 1/5 star review of Blood Of Dragons on Goodreads (click here) will perhaps have some idea of my disappointment when things come to a head in the city of Kelsingra of all places.

On the subject of Bee (whose point-of-view chapters were such a pleasant surprise in Fool’s Assassin) her appearances are far fewer here. She has perhaps maybe five point-of-view chapters in total, and all of them are much, much shorter than a standard Fitz chapter. Given how much I loved Bee’s narrative voice in Fool’s Assassin, this did not bother me anywhere near as much as I thought it would; it was lovely to spend so much time in Fitz’s head again. Unbelievably stupid and hellishly frustrating he may be, one cannot help but love him as a character; we as readers have been through so much with him already.

All in all, this is a typical middle-of-the-trilogy Robin Hobb book, which is to say that it is not her best, but still excellent. The groundwork has been laid, the catalyst has been set in motion, the emotional fallout from the first book’s events have been dealt with, and there is a promise of great and exciting things to come in the conclusion – Assassin’s Fate – due out later this year. I simply cannot wait!

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


 

Disclaimer: For some reason, I found this review really, really difficult to write, so apologies that it is so long-coming and not up to my usual standard.

For more information on Robin Hobb and the Realm of the Elderlings, please visit her official website:

http://www.robinhobb.com/