Slade House by David Mitchell

CBpZPA4XIAEohhRThere’s a small iron door in a narrow alley. Beyond it lies a sumptuous garden that surrounds the titular house – Slade House. Through the years, several people enter the house and none check out.

Slade House is a sequel-in-spirit to David Mitchell‘s previous novel The Bone Clocks; set in the same universe, it tells a smaller story, with smaller villains and in a considerably shorter length, but with a similar fragmented structure. Yet it can also be read on its own, as a haunted house story of sorts.

The chapters, set at 9-year intervals, recount the fates of the house’s victims; first a mother and her child, then a detective, followed by several others over the years. Some of the segments are genuinely creepy, such as the increasingly frantic text messages in the second-to-last chapter, slowly revealing that the character has already become trapped in the house. There’s a slight risk the structure of the book might become repetitive, but Mitchell’s solid writing keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a slow build-up to the finale, featuring one of the familiar faces from The Bone Clocks, swooping in like a proper paranormal investigator.

At about 150 pages Slade House is more like a novella than a novel, but it’s stacked with ideas. A small book it might be, but it’s significantly bigger on the inside.

***** (5/5) 

Published in October 2015. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site!

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

thefirstfifteenHarry August lives and dies and is then born again, always restarting his 20th century lifespan with all his memories intact. Not alone with his predicament, the ouroborans (as they’re known) have created societies (the Cronus Clubs) to help their kind through the first difficult years of their new lives. At the end of one of Harry’s lives, he receives a message from the future (handed down from a child to an old person and so on, in a strange chain of death and rebirth) that the world is going to end.

The culprit, it seems, is a fellow 20th century ouroboran hellbent on changing history beyond its usual course – something that tends to throw things out of whack. For its latter half, the novel switches gears from a scifi/fantasy mix to a sort of spy fiction, a welcome change that keeps the story fresh throughout.

There’s a lot of background to cover in the novel (how does it all work and so on) but all the exposition never feels too cumbersome; the timey-wimey logic of it all can induce headaches, but it’s best not to think too much. The idea has legs and the story runs with them through the 20th century, in a most fantastic fashion, several times over.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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UK paperback cover

It’s Captain Trips all over again; with a sneeze and a fever the world comes to a crashing halt, and only a handful of survivors are left to pick up the pieces. In this desolate landscape a ragtag band of survivors (actors, musicians) travels from settlement to settlement, performing Shakespeare, because mere “survival is insufficient”.

And that’s the idea that lifts the novel above the common postapocalyptic drudgery; sure, there’s a tight spot or two with all the familiar craziness the end of the world brings, and that keeps things exciting. But beneath the usual trappings the message is positive and hopeful. Not only will humanity survive, but so will some of its cultural achievements, from Shakespeare to a lowliest self-published comic book. Little by little things keep getting better: a newspaper appears, and a town is seen on the horizon, lit up by electric lights.

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US cover

The postapocalyptic narrative is interrupted by scenes from before the fall, featuring a famous actor who dies suddenly on the eve of the calamity. Not all parts fit as elegantly into the whole as well as they should, but the realistic, feet on the ground optimism of the novel is, no pun intended, rather infectious.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

The Long Walk by Richard Bachman

TheLongWalkKids in America take the Long Walk in a 1979 sports novel (of a sort) by Richard Bachman. One hundred boys set out, and they will walk day and night, in rain or shine, until one by one they are (literally) eliminated from the competition for slowing down or stopping. Whoever endures the longest will be the winner – everyone else will be dead.

The story focuses on 16-year-old Ray Garraty, who falls in with a small group of other Walkers – “The Musketeers”, they call themselves. Their motives for signing up for the race are stunningly vague; most of them seem to be in it just because they have a death wish, implying that in the ultra-conservative future of the Long Walk youth suicides are made into a spectator sport (perhaps in order to improve statistics, to show how mentally healthy the society is under the new regime?).

The novel follows its simple countdown structure doggedly throughout, not once deviating from it. There’s very little backstory, and none of the outside world is fleshed out in any detail, except for the big brother style figure of “the Major” who runs the Walk, and the seething, bloodthirsty crowds, who are almost an entity unto themselves. But basically there’s just the Walk, starting from the Canadian border and snaking its way down through Maine towards Boston, and the patter of 100 pairs of feet on the asphalt.

It does get a bit tedious after a while. That may be the point; the competition is explicitly made out to have a psychological aspect as well, and it’s hinted that some winners have gone insane. No wonder, watching 99 fellow walkers get blown away would presumably trigger a hell of a survivor’s guilt (there’s no doubt some symbolism with the Vietnam war at the root of the novel). The novel’s severely limited approach is structurally great; as entertainment, however, it doesn’t quite maintain its sparkle throughout, with the latter half visibly dragging (like some of the Walkers by that point).

While the novel is the first one Stephen King ever wrote, it does contain some strikingly well-written passages. The landscape of Maine as the road twists and turns is brought vividly to life, and most of the Walkers are given personal characteristics, even those who only appear for a sentence or two. There are some odd details – some walkers apparently wear leather and jeans – making sports of the future seem decidedly retro.

*** (3/5)