Review : The Bone Clocks

A good book leaves you thinking about it between reading sessions. A great book leaves you thinking about it after you’ve finished. A freaking spectacular book not only leaves you thinking about it, but colours everything that you try to read afterwards, and leaves you feeling slightly hollow, because the experience is over.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell falls into the ‘freaking spectacular’ category. As the page numbers started growing ever larger, I felt enormous internal conflict – on one hand, the compulsive desire to find out what happens, but on the other hand, the need to draw things out slowly, to savour every page and thought. I suspect the fact that the last book that really had that effect on me was The Luminaries is a very good sign for The Bone Clocks’ chances on the award circuit.bone clocks

Even now, days after I finished it, I think about the feeling of closing that heavy pink hardback after reading… and then opening it again, to re-read the final page – knowing that it was going to be a hard act to follow. Perhaps intentionally I have limited much of my reading since then to easily-packaged pop YA fiction (even when I have responsibilities to other books) – I don’t feel like I’m quite ready to fall into another story so deeply.

The Bone Clocks is mysterious. It contains fantasy, but you wouldn’t dream of shelving it in an SF/Fantasy section. It’s epic and complex without being incomprehensible. It visits the past and the present, the real and then unbelievable. David Mitchell is a wizard. I have heard mixed things from others about his earlier books, so I’m a little wary of dipping my toe into those waters – after all, I would hate to taint the admiration that I currently have for the man.

I’m loath to go into too much detail, because however I try to describe it, I won’t do it justice. Good and evil are more black and white than they are in some tales, and yet it takes quite some time to figure out precisely which is which. It’s about survival at any cost and in the worst circumstances. It’s about examining the way in which we treat our world. It’s about one person, and so many people at once.

It is not a book to jump into lightly. You need to treat it carefully, give it the time that it deserves. If you peck at it bit by bit, you might not be captured by it as much as it deserves. Get yourself somewhere comfortable, allow yourself a decent chunk of time, make yourself a pot of tea or a plunger of coffee. Appreciate the beautiful design, both aesthetically, and conceptually. Be prepared to have people comment on how pink it is. Laugh gently, knowing that they have no idea what this pink tome holds. Then, when you’ve finished, pass it on to someone else to read, so it can inhabit them next. It’s what Marius would do.

This is the first of (hopefully) several reviews of books longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Last year I only managed to sort out The Luminaries and We Need New Names – this year, I will hopefully manage to do the whole shortlist (all the better if this magical title makes it through to the next round – my hopes are certainly high).

the teenage dream?

Eventually, in this article/mess, I will talk about Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts. But you have been warned, it seems that it took me a LONG time to get there. Ah well. Enjoy my brand of literary ranting and raving.

In early 2010, I went to Wellington for an Amanda Palmer concert. As was tradition.* Part of my excuse for trekking down country for a musician I had seen more than a couple of times was a) I had a free ticket and b) Neil Gaiman was also in town, hurrah! I had finally actually read some Gaiman by this point, having shamefully not actually touched any of his work when I met him eight-ish months earlier.**

So I dutifully purchased a ticket to the ‘An Evening With…’ type event that was going on at the Town Hall the day after the Amanda show (if memory serves), but I still had time to burn before the gig, and discovered that Neil was doing a session with Australian author Margo Lanagan on YA fiction, chaired by Kate de Goldi. What’s not to like? I bought a ticket, and headed to The Embassy***. And it was thoroughly illuminating.****

There was a sense of agreement among the authors that kids are really good at self-censoring – that’s to say, even when reading things above their intended age, oftentimes the things that are ‘inappropriate’ will just go over their heads. I thoroughly agree with this – I can’t come up with an book-related examples off-hand, but when I look back at all the dirty jokes and suggestive lyrics in films and songs that I watched and listened to without a care in the world as a kid, it does make me think that there’s something to it.

Related to this, both authors seemed to say that despite writing for a range of ages, they don’t go into a story thinking ‘this is something that I’m writing for teenagers’  – rather it is something that is the product of publisher and editorial decisions made on something that has grown of its own accord, without working to fill some sort of age-genre niche. It makes me wonder how things would work if other authors worked in a similar system, how it would (or wouldn’t) affect the way that trends work.

Because that’s what this is basically meant to be about, before that introductory tangent happened. Young adult genre trends, and how strange they are. Really. It really does open your eyes as to just how swayed by current interests the teenage/young person mindset is when you see just how overwhelmingly trend-driven YA fiction is. There are obviously ebbs and flows in terms of what is most popular in the world of regular adult fiction, with occasional strange outliers like Fifty Shades of Grey, but as a whole, people can have specific interests in any genre, and there’s going to be new stuff being churned out on a regular basis, be it thriller, sci-fi, ‘literary fiction’ (borrowing Ellie Catton’s quote marks there), or what-have-you.

But teenagers! My goodness. At this moment, it’s perhaps not so mad as it has been at some points in recent years – it seems to be a bit of a transitional period at present – but having worked in a kids’ department in the height of Meyer-mania, the proliferation of vampire (and later Insert-Paranormal-Creature-of-the-Month – did anyone else read Switched by Amanda Hocking? Or as my former workmate Rosie and I referred to it “that troll book”?) fiction was INSANE. I mean, everyone knows that. If it’s not Twilight, it’s Vampire Academy or Vampire Diaries, or Blue Bloods, or The Mortal Instruments. Money spinners, every one – and I won’t claim to judge them for quality, because I haven’t read most of them. I did read all four Twilight books (and the companion novella The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner) and the first book of The Mortal Instruments, but, in case you’re interested, here are my excuses/reasons.
1. Twilight – I found an abandoned copy at O’Hare Airport on my way to Montreal. Made for good plane reading.
2. New Moon – I forgot to bring a book with my on the plane to Florida, and it was the cheapest English language book in the Montreal airport bookstore.3. Eclipse – I had confessed that I’d read them to a friend, and when she came to visit me she brought a copy of Eclipse with her that she’d found while cleaning out a flat or some such.
4. Breaking Dawn – By this stage, I have to admit, I did actively borrow it from a friend (thanks, Mel!), just so that I could say I’d seen it through to the end.
5. The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner – Off-site sale store, just myself and much less-than-riveting stock for company. So over the course of a few shifts I stealthily worked by way through the book (as well as a re-read of The Bad Beginning. Miss you, Botany Town Centre (not).
6. City of Bones. I don’t know if Cassandra Clare is quite in the same ‘really?!’ league as Stephenie Meyer, but still. I read this because it was on my Kobo when I was in hospital after my op last year, and it managed to make more sense than Atwood or Asimov in my morphine haze.

I’m just all about the tangents today, aren’t I? It has been a long day.

Anyway. We were talking about trends! So, as most people will be aware, the next major Young Adult Fiction Trend after paranormal romance was/is Dystopia. Which is very much more up my alley. You all of know my Atwood obsession – and more specifically my Atwood speculative fiction obsession. A good dystopia is just brilliant, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. The cautionary tale element, perhaps, or maybe I just have no faith in the future of the human race? Depends on the day. Regardless, The Handmaid’s Tale and the Maddaddam trilogy are some of my favourite books of all time. And suddenly, there were going to be new dystopic books written in such a way as to be consumed swiftly and easily. Frabjous day!

The Hunger Games was excellent, to a point. I’m not unique in my opinion that the second two books suffered because of the assumed timing/publisher pressure following the huge popularity of the first. Divergent had a similar fate, as did the Uglies books (though neither were quite on the same level as The Hunger Games) – great first book to hook you, but everything rather gets a little too big too fast, and the writing quality drops as a consequence. I tend to think that the ideas are better than the execution in some of these YA dystopias, which isn’t the end of the world, I suppose – I’m sure it fuels the imagination of fledgling writers finding their feet through fanfic.

But even the day of Dystopic Dominance seems to be drawing to an end, and John Green is perhaps the main man behind this transition. Real life is cool again – and in particular, the brand of ‘sick lit’ as it is sometimes uncomfortably known, that he seems to have kicked off with The Fault in Our Stars (correct me if I’m wrong – and obviously I know that books in this vein have existed forever, but none have had quite the same following). I really loved the book, when I read it last year while in the throes of being desperately unwell. One of his other books was one of my other post-op reads (Paper Towns, I think?) along with the aforementioned Cassandra Clare title. Now, kids with cancer are having their stories shared more passionately than ever. I just finished reading Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – but at the same time, it felt a little like I was reading the Aussie version of TFiOS, with less pretentious protagonists and a shuffle of specific cancer-locations. Love on the oncology ward, the new Love in Post-Apocalyptic Appalachia, or Love & Fangs in the Pacific Northwest.

It seems like such a strange niche to have such prominence. Is it the sparkly strands of hope beyond all odds? Is it the fact that many a child will have seen a classmate or relative suffer through the pain of cancer (or another serious illness, though these genre books don’t seem to have stepped out of that box yet)? I’m not a cancer patient, obviously, but my health background meant that there were a fair few moments while reading Zac & Mia that I felt uncomfortable with how familiar these things sounded – the bruises and scars on arms from needles, that constant whir/drip of IVs, the way in which such intensive drugs just sap your life force entirely. I’ve sat in haemotology, with my IV attached, surrounded by patients undergoing chemo. I’ve been put under, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen when I wake up, I’ve had a puffy steroid face, I’ve had slight fond reminisces of a catheter.

Basically, I can relate to some of the goings on of these characters more than I’d like to. I suppose it’s not helped by the fact that I’m currently in a bit of a flap about my health going forward, but I felt constantly on edge while reading hospital scenes in Zac & Mia, even as I felt compelled to read on, felt compassion, empathy. What does a healthy reader take from these stories? Do they zone in on the love stories, with the cancer simply part of the love story? Do they read on, knowing that one of the bright young things could relapse and deteriorate at any moment, so that they the reader can then cry along with the protagonist left alive? Is it glamourising illness, despite painting a pretty damn unhappy and unpleasant image of it?

I don’t know. I’m probably overthinking it.

Trends are strange things, guys.

Perhaps there will be a part two tomorrow when I’ve had more time to digest the book, and I’m less exhausted (funny, right? because when am I ever not exhausted?). All this being said, I would still recommend it.

*The tradition being that I had a compulsion to travel far and wide in pursuit of as many AFP concerts as possible. Last tally was fifteen, I think, including one Coachella slot, one Dresden Dolls show, one performance/reading with her and Neil at a bookstore and one performance of “Delilah” in her lounge. But I digress.

** This was the time that AFP and Neil were performing together at the Housingworks Bookstore, when I came in early with the gang, as it was in those NY-y days, and I was sitting pretty in a corner keeping out of the way when Neil walked past, then stopped and came towards me, saying “You must be the other barely legal lesbian (cf. @thebarelylegals, an on-going Twitter joke circa May 2009), from New Zealand! I’m Neil.” And he stuck his hand out to shake, and apologised for having forgotten my actual name. He had met Kayla, the other part of the boisterous Bed-Stuy  duo the day before, hence the ‘otherness’. It was possibly the most surreal moment of my life. Gods bless my bright pink hair.

***Where, in hindsight, I probably interacted with some of my now-colleagues at the Unity satellite store.

****Keep in mind that everything is being jotted down by memory, now, and this was four years ago, and those four years have been full of illness and drugs and surgery and depression and many other things which may have slightly tinkered with my memory.

nanowrimo snippet #5

Her alarm is set for way too early, she has pre-purchased a can of Red Bull so as to have instant caffeine upon waking up. But she’s like a kid at Christmas, trying to make herself go to sleep early and failing miserably, waking up before she’s supposed to. Half an hour before her alarm she gives up, and goes to get her Red Bull, downing it far too quickly. She is ready, stealing a couple of individually packaged crackers from the pantry and adding them to her little bag, dressed in no time at all, despite having three times as much dressing to do than usual.

The Gare Central is easy enough to get to, as she walks along the 7am streets to her metro station, and just sits, waiting for her stop, no changes, no running through streets she doesn’t know her way around yet. Still, the signs are in French when she hops off, and it takes a few false starts for her to successfully find stairs to lead her up and into the main station. But Petra is a powerful woman, who can do anything. This is her mantra.

nanowrimo snippet #4

“Her routine…” Petra starts to ask, and Emma starts laughing out loud.

“Every semester. My god. She has to be home early the night before, to sort out a week’s worth of lunches. While whatever thing she’s making sits in the oven, she tries to memorise her timetable, figure out the best routes between any classes that are one-after-another, make the big decision on where her ‘spot’ is going to be that semester. She always has to have somewhere fresh and new,” she explains. “My money’s on the somewhere in the architecture building again this time.”

Renée nods. “Definitely.”

Petra is confused. “But isn’t she – aren’t you all psych students?”

“Well, technically, I’m neuroscience, not psych-”

“Basically the same damn thing,” Renée interjects.

Almost the same damn thing,” Emma continues, pausing as a waiter puts down a bowl of pistachio nuts on the table, “merci, monsieur! But anyway, the architects have the best coffee on campus, we discovered early on. So the café there has always been our go-to establishment, when we’re too lazy to go off campus.”

“And Olivia drinks a lot of coffee. So it’s easier for her to set up camp somewhere by the good stuff.”

“Ja. So, she’ll be planning all that. Then she’ll need to distress, so she’ll steal my yoga mat and attempt a few half-assed poses, since I still haven’t managed to drag her to class, and she refuses to learn from me, only from hacks on YouTube. She’ll get frustrated, bundle the mat up and use it as a pillow to nap until the oven timer goes off. Then she’ll eat a whole lunch’s worth of her carefully measured meal, curse her stupidity, grab a wine cooler and call it a night.”

Petra almost feels like applauding, such was the delivery and detail in the story. “And that’s what she does every semester?”

Emma shrugs, cracks open a pistachio with the shell of another. “More or less.”

 

Promise I’ll get back to non NaNo stuff soonish – right now I’m just trying to stay ahead of the goal word count, to keep things ticking along – and it seems to be working well so far! In theory, with a constant pace, one should be up to 6668 words by day 4, and I’ve just finished up with 7596. Woo!

nanowrimo snippet #3

Everything is white with snow. Even in the dark, the world seems to glow brightly, the shelf outside her window already stacked high with flurries. Quickly she pulls out the days clothes from her laundry basket, dresses haphazardly and runs out the front door, not bothering with gloves, jacket unbuttoned. Her inner temperate climate child is shrieking with glee, and she can barely contain herself from letting it out externally. If any person were to look out their window on that stretch of Rue de Bullion, they would see what seems like a madwoman – what could well be a madwoman – spinning around with her mouth open to the heavens, letting the night’s fresh snow fall upon her waiting tongue.

 

Before long, though, her fingers start to grow stiff with cold, and she has tasted enough of this mysterious substance, felt it melt in her mouth and turn to nothing at all. “Good night, you strange, magical place,” she whispers, before gently closing the front door before her, and once in bed, falling into the sweetest sleep she has known in a very long time.

 

The next couple of days are spent in cafes drinking chai tea and reading course outlines, and in parks, throwing snowballs with her amused flatmates, lying on the ground and twitching limbs around to make angels with Sasha, another exchange student

nanowrimo snippet #2

“’Wish you were here’ postcards are a crock of shit,” Emma says, watching Petra shuffle through the small stack that she has accrued over the last few days. “The people who you feel the need to send those kind of postcards to are the kind that you’d never want anywhere near your vacation.”

“You may have a point,” Petra replies, squinting at a twilight skyline. “This is Chicago, right?”

Olivia peers over her shoulder. “Well, it’s not LA and it’s not here. So unless you took the most circuitous route ever to get to the Mont, then yes, it’s Chicago.”

Petra turns it over. Greetings from Chicago at night! “Well, I don’t know, maybe they were supporting a sister city or something.” She flips to another one. “Welcome to the shores of Lake Michigan? I barely even saw any lake. It should be Welcome to O’Hare International Transit Lounge! Over priced fast food, uncomfortable chairs! Why did I tell people I’d send postcards?”

nanowrimo snippet #1 [backdated 1st november]

“You’re, like, one of those manic depressive dream girls, or whatever.” Vanessa twirls herself around on one of the bar stools as she tells Anya this, red wine swirling precariously in her martini glass.

“Manic depressive dream girls?”

“Yeah, you know, like Zooey Deschanel.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“She means manic pixie dream girl,” Jamie says, trimming his sideburns and using the kettle as a mirror. “And you are. Well, you want to be.”

“Right,” Anya says, slowly. Petra sees her study her reflection in the kettle as well – Jamie keeps it shiny, which seems at odds with the relative hygiene of his facial hair maintenance habits. “I still don’t know what you mean.”

Jamie sighs, puts down the razor. “You’re quirky. You work in a gift shop that sells fake sugar skulls and necklaces with old-school cartoon characters on them. You’re relatively attractive, by conventional measures – waist size, shininess of hair, etc, but you’re just a little odd. You talk a lot about your vinyl collection and your penchant for children’s fantasy novels, and wear overall dresses. And you’re totally oblivious to the fact that you’re a walking cliché.” He crosses his arms. “Et voila. I hope this experience has been enlightening for you.”

Anya frowns, Petra snorts. Jamie resumes shaving.

novel concepts

It’s both a good sign – in many, many ways – and also very frustrating that I’m actually in a ‘let’s get working on this story’ frame of mind right now, when, for all practical intents and purposes, it ought to be my bedtime right now. And experimenting with caffeinated beverages again over the past couple of days has produced mixed results.

But I’m actually getting excited about how this ‘novel’ – I hesitate to call it that, because it’s still very fragmentary, and has a long, long way to go yet before it’s anywhere near pre-editing completion, but that’s what it ultimately is – is progressing. I have many documents full of bits to tie in, I actually have a reasonably workable storyboard to get my way through. And I, as of today have a ‘first draft’ document that is tying all of these bits and pieces – varying from a couple of hundred words through to several thousand – together, bit by bit.

I have no idea how marketable this story would be. But it’s important to me, and I think it could prove important to other people too. Whilst in some ways it will be a floaty frivolous hippie Brigid Lowry esque (who is pretty much my favourite YA author) tale, it’s also got the key component of a pretty damn sick teenage girl at the heart of it. Sound familiar? Given how rife things like IBS are these days, and the fact that I’ve never seen mention of Crohn’s or colitis in a novel, let alone one for teens who may well feel they are some kind of super-freak (thank god mine didn’t come along until post-adolescence), I’d like to think that there’s potential readership. Groovy reading for everyone but particularly relatable and necessary for the sixteen year old riot grrrl who’s just been told her colon’s pretty much eating itself. There’s got to be a few of them out there.

Plus, the working title makes me giggle and groan in equal measure. cool-itis. Yeah.

On your local bookstore’s shelves…. one day!