Book review: The City and the City, China Mieville

The City and the City pretty much boils down to “the old versus the new”. First, the old: this is, at heart, a detective novel of the hardbitten classic variety, wherein world-weary investigator probes violent death of seemingly mundane woman and stumbles into much larger mystery which shadowy forces conspire to stop him solving.

China Mieville’s detective here is Inspector Tyador Borlu – a rather affable chap, especially by the hard-drinking, hardboiled standards of the genre – a life-long resident of Beszel, a history-rich Eastern-European city that’s falling to pieces as it absorbs bits of the modern world. Borlu speaks on his mobile phone while dodging trams and street vendors, struggles to fire up the internet in his crumbling apartment block. (Mieville’s descriptions of Beszel are marvellous, evoking dark blues and concrete greys; the place feels so vivid.)

The old in The City and the City would, on its own, add up to a great-if-not-especially-memorable read. But it’s the new that is so dazzlingly clever and effortlessly complex: Borlu occupies the same physical space as another city, Ul Qoma. One location, two cities. They overlap, blurring into one another while maintaining separate identities: Ul Qoma’s culture is different, its economy wealthier, its skyline punctured with shiny skyscrapers.

Here’s where it gets interesting (well, more interesting): the respective citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma can see each other, but they’ve learned to “unsee” each other. Acknowledging the other city, or crossing between the two, is a srious crime that invokes Breach – the shady agency that comes down hard on rule-breakers.

This makes Borlu’s investigation tricky. It’s unclear which city the victim was actually murdered in. He believes the whole case should be handed to Breach – though someone is refusing to move it up the chain, forcing Berlu to stick with an increasingly perilous investigation. In the hands of a less capable writer the unfolding plot of The City and the City would have become hopelessly byzantine, but Mieville keeps the details nailed to the page. I admire his creativity – the book has one hell of a premise – but his plotting and style are just as admirable.

Now I gotta go read The Windup Girl, which tied with The City and the City for best novel at the recent Hugo Awards. If it’s as absorbing and impressive as City it’s a must-read.

 

Book review: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Don’t pick up Mockingjay if you’re feeling down, because: sheesh. I don’t mind my books bleak, but this one punches through “bleak” and into the depths of some cold, hopeless void on the other side. (Spoilers ahead, for all three instalments of The Hunger Games trilogy.)

This is probably why, when I finished Mockingjay, I thought: “I did not like that.” A little later: “No, I did. Kind of. For a certain definition of ‘like’.” It’s a pretty brutal read, much more so than the previous two instalments – and that’s saying something, given they were about children forced into a sickening battle to the death.

So, as the book opens, life is pretty shitty for heroine Katniss Everdeen: her home in District 12 has been vaporised, she’s living with the rebels in the militarised District 13, and she must decide whether she actually wants to become the Mockingjay – the face of the revolution to overthrown the Capitol and the nefarious President Snow.

Katniss spends a lot of a time faffing over whether she really wants to be the Mockingjay. Boy, does she spend a lot of time faffing: when it’s not about the Mockingjay thing, it’s whether she prefers Gale or Peeta (who, by the way, has been tortured to insanity. Told you it was a cheery book). Much of the first two thirds of the book aren’t especially memorable, plot-wise, though the ever-increasing cynicism is sometimes shocking. Katniss, it transpires, is not a hero – no matter how much she’s told she’s vital to the revolution, she’s really just a pawn to be manipulated, by political leaders, by the media, and even by her nearest and dearest. Mockingjay is not a straight-up goodies vs. baddies book, because most of the characters fall square into “grey”; it’s a step beyond the black-and-white morality of Harry Potter, though not as complex as Chaos Rising.

The story builds to a climax as Katniss and her friends invade the heart of the Capitol (which is conveniently laden with traps reminiscent of the morbidly compelling horrors in the Hunger Games’ arenas), and honestly, it’s this part of the book that really brought Mockingjay down for me. I’m about to totally, explicitly spoil it, so quit reading this review now if you ever plan on reading the series.

Seriously, last chance to get out. … 

 

Book review: Simpsons Confidential, John Ortved

It’s cliche to say “X is a must-read for every fan of Y”, but: Simpsons Confidential is a must-read for every fan of The Simpsons, aka, The Greatest Show in the History of Television.

The book spawned from an oral history of the show published in Vanity Fair, and is more or less a super-expanded version of said article (which is itself highly recommended): in both, John Ortved unravels the story of the very early years of The Simpsons, in the words of the people who made the show.

Not all the people. Simpsons bigwigs apparently either refused to speak to Ortved or forbade their lessers from speaking to him. So the likes of Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon are conspiciously, unfortunately absent.

Surprisingly, that doesn’t really hurt the book – Ortved uncovers what happened, or some version of what happened, anyway. Groening, we’re told, shouldn’t get as much credit for The Simpsons as he does; Brooks comes off as somewhat avuncular but mostly megalomaniacal; and Simon is brilliant (he missed out on the kudos that instead goes to Groening) but unpleasant.

Hank Azaria, Conan O’Brien and even Rupert “Billionaire Tyrant” Murdoch talk on the record, so there’s really a lot of insight into the development of The Simpsons both on The Tracey Ullman Show and as it went to series, the back-and-forth between the producers and the Fox network (it’s amusing, and not very surprising, how many interviewees claim the show happened thanks to them), and the glorious, crazy anarchy in the writers’ room. Much of it is just trivia (for example: Springfield might have been called Lincoln, but Groening thought “Springfield” sounded funnier. He also wanted Marge to have rabbit ears under her hair. I know, right?!), but if you’re a super-fan, those details are fascinating.

I don’t have any real memory of television  pre-Simpsons – I have vague memories of the initial Bartmania, though I’m pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to watch it when it first premiered – so it’s engrossing to relive the early years of the show. I have a new appreciation of the first couple of seasons (the animation, though crappy in hindsight, is endearingly crappy), as well as a better understanding of why the show has been so overwhelmingly meh for the last couple of years more than a decade. (Ortved, clearly a devoted fan of the show’s consistently amazing first nine seasons, spends much of the final chapters offering his pretty-convincing theories.)

It is, as noted above, the greatest show in the history of television, and this is a pretty great tribute to it.

 

Book review, Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

It’s not often that I label a book “repellant”, but Her Fearful Symmetry is a repellant book. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

Books don’t need to be likeable for readers to derive enjoyment from them – the characters don’t need appeal, and the plot doesn’t need to go in a satisfying direction, but there’s got to be something there for you to latch onto. And Symmetry does not have that something.

I liked Audrey Niffenegger’s previous novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife (though I enjoyed the time-travel knottiness of the plot more than the romance, and I can’t tell you the number of arguments I’ve had ((I must’ve had that argument… twice!)) with fans of the book who insist it’s not sci-fi, even though it totally is), and I thought I was going to like Symmetry a lot more than I did. It starts off well: middle-aged Elspeth dies, leaving her London flat to her American nieces Julia and Valentina, the twin daughters of her own identical twin sister, Edie, whom she’s been estranged from for 20 years following a mysterious falling out.

So Julia and Valentina leave the US for the UK, move into the flat and eventually meet their unusual neighbour Robert, Elpseth’s grieving lover, who’s writing a thesis on the next-door Highgate Cemetery. The opening chapters are slow but dreamy, promising a delicately unfolding plot… which never comes.

Halfway through the book steers off Whimsical and into Stupid, and it’s possible to pinpoint the exact moment this happens: it’s when Elspeth, who’s been reincarnated as a ghost but confined to her flat, gains the strength to communicate with Robert and the twins. None of these characters are especially flabbergasted by this, and it’s the first in a series of bung notes.

After that, they come thickly: Valentina hatches a profoundly boneheaded plan to escape the clutches of the gregarious Julia; Niffenegger takes disastrous shortcuts with her characterisations, dubbing Valentina “suicidal” and Elspeth discompassionate even though us readers hadn’t previously seen any traces of those things; and the plotting becomes laboured and detached.

And the finale – blech. Really. Blech. It’s  contrived, especially when it’s revealed why Elspeth and Edie fell out, and worse, the resolution of the main storyline is so horribly off-putting. Like I said in the first paragraph: repellant.

It’s not all bad. Julia and Valentina’s upstairs neighbour is Martin, an obsessed-compulsive crossword compiler whose disease has alienated his wife, Marijke, who’s fled to her native Amsterdam and left him alone in his flat which he refuses to leave. He’s an eccentric, genuinely appealing character.

The other appealing character is Highgate Cemetery and London itself. Niffenegger worked as a tour guide in the cemetery while researching the book (and her devotion to the place is evident), and she nails what it’s like to live in a historically, culturally rich place like London.