Tag Archives: philosophy

Book Review Saturday – ‘More Than This’

Right.

For today’s book review post, I’m going to attempt the impossible. It’s something you should definitely not try at home; I’m a trained professional, and all that.

Step back! I know what I'm doing. I think. Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

Step back! I know what I’m doing. I think.
Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

I’m going to try to write a book review without giving away any pertinent details about the story, because the book I’m reviewing is the sort of tale that you just can’t spoil. Pretty much anything you say about what happens in it may, possibly, ruin someone else’s enjoyment, and that would be A Very Bad Thing.

The book is this one, right here:

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Patrick Ness is an author who gets my blood pumping. I adored his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, so much so that I simply couldn’t wait for the third book to be published in paperback, and I had to buy it in hardback; normally, I hate having two-thirds of a trilogy in one format, and the last book in another, but I made an exception for this one. As well as that, I loved his ‘A Monster Calls’ more than I can express in words. It touched my heart in ways that no other book has ever done, or ever will. ‘Chaos Walking’ and ‘A Monster Calls’ are works of genius – I don’t think that’s overstating the case – and so it might not be a surprise to learn I expected great things of ‘More Than This’.

I’m still not sure, really, whether this book lived up to those expectations, exceeded them, or did none of the above. Reading it has put me in a spin, and I suppose that’s the point behind it. My reaction is, probably, what the author was aiming for; if so, then he achieves his writerly goals in spades.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the protagonist of this book, a seventeen-year-old boy, drowns within the first three pages. The whole point of the story is that we are reading about what happens to him after that. The description of his death is shocking and brutal – we are left in no doubt that he suffers, albeit briefly, before the cruel sea dashes him against some rocks, causing him an unsurvivably grievous injury. The opening chapter is typical of the book, employing sparse and beautiful language, with powerful and gripping imagery and characterisation. The chapters about the boy are written in the present tense, which gives them a chilling immediacy and makes the reader feel as though they are taking each step of his journey with him.

For, of course, there is a journey to be taken.

The boy wakes up in a place familiar to him, but also shockingly unfamiliar. As he puts together where he is, and why he has ended up there, we learn about his life and family, his past, and what he has suffered up to this point. The author handles all this – the boy’s thought processes, the setting, the ways in which he struggles to figure out what’s happening, the fear and isolation and crushing loneliness that start to afflict him – with sensitivity and skill, and he creates a truly sympathetic character in his protagonist. The boy wonders if he is in hell, or if he is being punished; as his story is told, we learn that he has spent many years punishing himself for something that happened when he was a child, and for a while I wondered whether this ‘hell’ was of his own making, an extension of the suffering he’d imposed upon himself all through his life.

Whenever the boy falls asleep in this weird world, he relives sections of his life. We meet his parents, his younger brother, his schoolmates. We learn of his love for one of his friends, and their tender relationship. These episodes do not feel like dreams; the boy is literally reliving these moments, and they cause him great pain. At the heart of his sorrow and grief, and his feelings of loss, the reader knows something dark and disturbing is lurking; we know there is a huge, heartrending secret – one too painful for the boy to even admit to – waiting to be uncovered.

I really can’t say much more than this about the plot. Any further detail would destroy the mystery of the book and take away from its central strength – in other words, the unknowable vacuum around which it is built. What I can do is tell you how the book made me feel.

A bit like this, sort of... Image: rgbstock.com

A bit like this, sort of…
Image: rgbstock.com

This is a thoughtful and philosophical novel. It has a teenager as its protagonist, sure, and most of the other characters we meet are also teenagers or children, but… it’s not, in so many ways, a ‘typical’ YA book. It’s a story about life, about fear, about the unknowability of another person’s mind, about hurt and loss and pain and love, and about friendship. It asks huge questions – why are we here? What’s the point of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? – and the answers it offers ask more questions than they solve. This idea, that everything we find out about ourselves or the world actually causes more problems than it explains, is a central theme in the book. Despite its subject matter, it is suffused with positivity, especially toward the end, and – like so many books I love – it shows the power of friendship and self-sacrifice, and how important the connections between people are.

Having said that, I really did feel that the book built up to a crescendo that never really happened. I was crushingly disappointed by the end, but perhaps that’s a personal thing. There were so many things I wished to have explained – and I’m not talking about ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ and ‘What happens after we die?’ because, of course, Patrick Ness knows as much about those things as I do, or as anyone does – but details within the story world, images and characters created in the book, and which could have been explained a bit more clearly. There was one image in particular, a feature of the landscape in this strange ‘other’ place, that I was convinced was full of meaning but which was left unexplored; I found that annoying.

Then, maybe what the author wants is for each reader to come to their own conclusion. If so, then that’s fine – I just wish he’d given us slightly more to go on.

I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that it might upset you if you’ve been bereaved, or if you’re particularly sensitive to reading about the sorts of thing that go in within abusive families. There are some heartrending scenes in this book, sure, and so it won’t suit everyone. However, if you want to read a book which will make you think, and ponder the reality around you, and stimulate your capacity to wonder, then maybe this is the book for you. Just be prepared to be frustrated by it, too.

The most memorable line in it, for me, is this:

Know who you are, and go in swinging.

This is excellent life advice, I think. Believe in yourself, and accept no lies. If I take nothing but this away from ‘More Than This’, then I’ll be happy.

Happy weekend! May you read well.

 

Human Nature

This evening, I had the house to myself. I don’t like being at home alone, so I took my mind off the fact that my husband was away by watching a couple of movies we’d recorded over the past few weeks. One was ‘Moon’, which I’d seen before and really enjoyed, and one was a golden oldie, ‘The Running Man’, which (somehow!) I’d managed to miss until now. If you haven’t seen these movies, you might want to be aware that there are some spoilers below.

I knew I'd find a reason to put an Arnie picture on the blog eventually

I knew I’d find a reason to put an Arnie picture on the blog eventually!

Another reason I took some time out to watch these movies was because I had a bit of a fraught day yesterday, WiP-wise. I was doing some research into submissions to agents and publishers, writing query letters, and so forth, when it struck me that my book is long. Really long. Too long, in point of fact. I had an idea that I was running a little towards the long end of the ‘accepted’ word count, but figured that most of my favourite books in the YA-fantasy genre are about the same length as the work I’ve produced. However, it would appear not. If I’m to believe what I’ve discovered during the course of my research, my book is about 50,000 words too long. I’ve been thinking about what I can do to fix this ever since, and my brain is on a loop, trying to suggest solutions to itself.

Hence, the movies.

As well as being short, both movies are tightly packed with action (‘Running Man’) and tension (‘Moon’). They both tell a good story in a small space, without wasting time on irrelevance. Perhaps I only noticed this because my mind is twisting itself in knots about this very issue at present, but it doesn’t make it any less true! Also, they both had lots to say about human nature, and what it means to be human, I thought – something that’s important to me, but also to anyone who wants to write a book. Thinking about people, and why they do the things they do, is intrinsic to creating characters.

‘The Running Man’ – at least, the movie version, as I haven’t read the book yet – is (we have to face it) very similar in message and tone to ‘The Hunger Games’. I’m not complaining about this. I found ‘The Hunger Games’ profound, at times, in its message about humanity and what it means to be a human being, too. If the world really did descend into a dystopian hell, and if we really were living through the fallout of a horrible war, or a devastating economic crisis (hang on…!), would we take out our frustrations and horrors at our own daily lives on watching others suffer and die? What would it take to push humanity over that particular precipice? As I watched ‘The Running Man’, I asked myself the question: ‘If this was real, would I be a rabid viewer and consumer of the TV show, and would I be cheering as the stalkers chased down the contestants, or would I be a ‘conscientious objector’, refusing to take part in something so inhuman?’

Of course, I’m glad that there’s no way for me to answer that question, because such a TV show doesn’t exist. Not yet, at least. I wondered why people would take such extreme enjoyment in watching a show like that, and why they’d idolise the show’s host and crave the logos, merchandise, and other accoutrements, and concluded it had to be because of their own feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. They’d crave the branded clothing and the memorabilia in order to prove to everyone that they were part of the ‘in’ crowd, not to be hunted; they were of the powerful class, and not the oppressed. But maybe it’s not even as deep as that. Maybe people, as a whole, just enjoy watching other people (or beings, maybe) suffer. I really hope that’s not the reason, though. Maybe it’s because they’re thinking ‘if those people over there are suffering, then the focus is not on me. If they’re the ones being chased and hunted and killed, then there’s nobody chasing me.’ I’d love to think I’d be the one standing outside the system, and I’d be the one running the underground resistance, but it’s hard to know. I think I have more compassion for my fellow human than the people in ‘The Running Man’ seemed to have, but even I know it’s difficult to be the dissenting voice when you’re living under a frightening regime; a regime where, to stand out and live a different message, could spell death. Sadly, we don’t have to look to fiction for those sorts of situations – those kinds of oppressive regimes are in place all over the world. Perhaps ghoulish game-shows are the next step in the process.

moon‘Moon’ is an entirely different film, but it takes on a similar question: what constitutes a human? If, in ‘The Running Man’, we were faced with a two-tier version of humanity – a tier in which people are hunted to death, and a tier that sits back and watches it happen – ‘Moon’ uses the concept of cloning to explore the same idea. We’re faced with two, and then three copies of the same person, all of which look identical and are ‘programmed’ with the same memories, loves, hates, and fears – but which, despite all that, are still seen as individuals. Even if we didn’t have the visual cues to help us distinguish one version of ‘Sam’ from the other (one has a facial wound, and quickly begins to display symptoms of illness, while the other remains healthy throughout), it would still be clear. They are very different men, despite technically being exactly the same. So, what makes them different? Is a clone merely a copy of a ‘real’ person, or is the clone a person in his/her own right? What does it take to make a living, breathing, sentient body a ‘human being’? One of the clones in this movie even offers to die to help another clone to live – an act of nobility that few ‘proper’ human beings would be able to match. Again, though this film is SF and not intended to be ‘realistic’, it has a message for our world. Who judges the fitness of others to call themselves ‘human’, and who have we placed on the pedestal, and to whom have we given the power, to make calls on others’ right to live, or exist, as they please? We live in a world in which regimes exist which attempt to argue that certain individuals are lesser than others, that whole groups of people are unimportant because of gender, race, orientation, gender identity, or whatever the case may be. Why have we done this, and who has the power to make these calls?

Well. Those are my thoughts for today. Perhaps I should just learn to watch a movie, and not take every second of footage apart for meaning. That’s what trying to write a book does to you, though – it makes you analyse everything for structure, meaning, motivation, and symbolism. It’s also hard to stop doing it once you’ve started!

So, after all my procrastinating, I still have some big book-related decisions to make. Wish me luck! Hopefully I’ll be able to take some of my analytical skills to my own book, and whittle it away to its essentials. Here’s hoping.

The Morning After

So, the world didn’t end as predicted, either for me personally or for humanity in general, which is good news. Even though it took the threat of an apocalypse to make me do it, I’m glad I exposed the bones of my WiP-idea yesterday. I was afraid, in many ways, to make it public – it felt like a world-ending thing, to me. But, of course, it wasn’t. Like so many things, it seemed much bigger before I did it, and once it was done, I realised how small it was in the grand scheme of things.

It can be hard to keep going when you realise how tiny a speck you are, a dust-mote in the cathedral of the universe. Yet, we all manage it – day after day, lifetime after lifetime, we all keep on keeping on. I’m trying to understand my own insignificance as being a good thing; everything is fleeting, and nothing is forever. So, in the long view, it doesn’t matter if you have a bad day or if something doesn’t work out the way you wanted. My favourite quote from a movie is from ‘Terminator’ (1984); it’s not my favourite movie, but the words of the quote have resonated with me for years. The quote is: ‘In a hundred years, who’s going to care?’ It’s delivered by a waitress, who’d been having a very tough day, just before she meets her untimely death. In a hundred years, who’s going to care that I was ever here – it’s a liberating thought, and that’s important. It’s good to have some perspective, because it can be easy to panic and lose sight of the big picture when things seem to be working out wrongly. Perhaps my philosophy is a bit nihilistic, or a little too bleak – but it works for me!

terminator

Anyway. I’m taking my cheery little self off to do some Christmas shopping now. I hope this will be the last of the shopping, as I’m not a big fan of it at the best of times, but when you have to elbow your way through hundreds of people just to grab the last string-bag of sprouts, I think I’d rather be in that restaurant from Terminator, just before the killer android himself bursts through the door. I bought myself some books the other day as a small present to myself, because I intend to do a lot of reading this festive season – whether or not I get time to indulge is a different thing, though. I’m currently reading ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared’, by Jonas Jonasson – it’s as unusual and enjoyable as its title suggests. I’ll then be moving on to John Green’s ‘Paper Towns’, before (hopefully) getting to S.J. Watson’s ‘Before I Go to Sleep’, Darren Shan’s ‘Zom-B’ and Alan Early’s ‘Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent’.

hundred year oldAnd then, once I’ve devoured all of those, I intend to re-read Susan Cooper’s magnificent ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I probably won’t manage to get to it all, but hopefully I’ll get through as many words as possible. I think my well of inspiration needs to be refilled a little with the writings of others, and you just can’t go wrong with Susan Cooper. If you haven’t ever read her, I recommend you rectify that situation at your earliest convenience.

Because things might get a little crazy around here for a few days, and my blogging might not be as regular as normal, I’ll take this opportunity to wish all of you who celebrate Christmas a very happy festive season, and I hope the New Year brings peace, happiness and fulfillment to all of you.

(On a side note: 2013? It feels like we’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel…)

Happy Christmas! Happy New Year!

Christmas Lights in Dublin's Fair City

Christmas Lights in Dublin’s Fair City