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.

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/

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Book Review

Ernest Cline | Ready Player OneIn his USA Today article published 21 August 2011, Don Oldenburg praised Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One as ‘Willy Wonka meets The Matrix‘. As strange and mismatched a comparison this first sounds, I actually think Oldenburg got it pretty bang on, with one glaring exception: if you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash the following will sound rather familiar to you…

Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts is your typical modern-day antisocial genius teenager. Having become painfully aware of the injustices of living in a modern world ruled by corporations where people live in slum-like compounds known as ‘the stacks’, Wade shuns reality in favour of a fully rendered virtual utopia known as the OASIS – kind of like a cross between the internet and an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game).

Now here’s where things get interesting. The creator of the OASIS, one 1980s-obsessed James Halliday, hid an Easter Egg inside the game’s programming. Upon his death, he announces that whomever finds said Egg will inherit not only the OASIS, but also Halliday’s multi-billion dollar fortune (that’s the Willy Wonka part). Wade, like many other Egg hunters (or gunters as they are known in the novel) has completely devoted his miserable existence to immersing himself in the OASIS and the life and loves of James Halliday. Still, years go by with no success, and it becomes increasingly likely that Halliday may have taken the secret to his grave after all…

And then Wade stumbles upon the first clue.

Pacman Level 256As someone who grew up in the 90s rather than the 80s, I was a little bit apprehensive going into this book, thinking perhaps I wouldn’t get any of the in-jokes or understand all the references. I soon discovered however that these fears were completely unfounded, as the 1980s were actually a pretty pervasive era, and I actually know far more about them than I first thought. It helps that Ernest Cline doesn’t just stick to the 1980s, but also incorporates other milestones and phenomena of ‘geek’ culture – The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Matrix, World of Warcraft, Playstation, Xbox, blogging, vlogging, YouTube gaming etc. – to make the book feel more current. On top of that, Wade (i.e. Cline) was always there to hold my hand and explain some of the more obscure background details, or at the very least point me in the right direction of an appropriate internet search (I had particular fun looking up the intricacies of level 256 on Pacman – see right).

Whilst Ready Player One makes an attempt at high concept (like The Matrix) and social commentary (like Snow Crash), what it actually is is more of an excellent, rollicking soft sci-fi love letter to the history of video games, computer engineering and geek culture, with a dash of adventure, high stakes and romance thrown in for good measure. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there are no grey areas in between. The main protagonist, Wade Watts, is pretty much the best at everything he does (I sincerely doubt the plausibility of some his claims to have watched/played/read so many films/games/books x amount of times), and whilst his supreme knowledge can sometimes come across as over the top and arrogant, the reader knows he is merely acting as a mouthpiece for the author’s own loves and obsessions to guide us through the story. The plot may be predictable, but it still manages to be engaging and thrilling, and whilst the writing is quite dense, it is very visual and easy to follow.

Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that there is nothing new in Ready Player One. It’s all been done before, but that’s the point. The aim of the book is not to intellectually challenge, but to thoroughly entertain, and to resonate with every nostalgic bone in your body. In this, it succeeds brilliantly.

Verdict: 4/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Ernest Cline, please visit his official website:

http://www.ernestcline.com/

Also, because I really do think the two books are very similar and because I absolutely love it, check out Neal Stephenson’s website and Snow Crash in the ‘Books’ section whilst you’re at it too:

http://www.nealstephenson.com/