Book review: Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco

ocean_seaSome books I read for the excitement, some books I read for the clever plot twists; I’ve even been known to read some books just to study the punctuation. Alessandro Barrico’s works I tend to read just for the sheer pleasure of looking at the words. Ocean Sea is no exception. I think the stark way to describe it is a very long Italian poem translated into English (and it’s in the translation that many books like this fail in my view). If you go much deeper then Ocean Sea is a work of magical realism. It tells the story of some quite ordinary people who share desires and life experiences  that drive them to this magical inn by the sea. Sometimes I need a bit of a firm grounding when I’m reading the book; I thought that I would have liked to have been a little more certain what this place actually was. But as I often find with Barrico’s books, it’s best to stop worrying about the intracies of the story and just let yourself get carried along by the prose and the subtle humour. I liked the idea, though I wasn’t sure there was enough there for a book of its length. It did tend to meander a lot through the characters lives, and so I think I was mostly lost in the use of language and phrasing than the story itself. There were some moments in the book that were quite moving; I was fascinated by the man writing love letters to a woman he was yet to meet, and the man who was researching the nature of endings. It really did go off the deep end in a few places and I found myself struggling to keep up; this is where the book lacked the smooth storytelling that the author/translator demonstrated in Silk (still my favourite book of all time). But as a study in the use of poetic prose, Ocean Sea is stunning.

Seven out of ten.



Book review: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

the_city_and_the_stars.pngIn case you’re wondering how I decide which book to read next, it’s usually just a random stab on the internet. If it’s got a interesting cover, proper punctuation and decent typesetting then I’ll give it a go. Oh, and if the Guardian doesn’t like it then there’s a fairly good chance I will.

The City and the Stars falls into the interesting cover category, and it is also part of the SF Masterworks set, and that alone means it probably won’t disappoint. The book (written by the late SF demi-god Arthur C. Clarke) falls into what I call extreme Science Fiction: pushing the boundary to pretty much the end of everything. Another book in the same vein was the weighty but brilliant Seveneaves, a book that looks at what mankind will become five thousand years from now. Clarke takes it a wee bit further.

The City in question is Diaspar (a name uncomfortably close to the word despair), the last city on the desert planet Earth… a few billion years in the future. The population is content, if not happy, being able to conjure anything they need from thin air and having, after a fashion, overcome the inconvenient business of death. Well, not everyone is happy; one person in particular, Alvin, can’t settle with the idea that he’ll live for a thousand years, then after being stored in a computer for a few centuries, he’ll be reborn to do the same thing again for another thousand years. No, for Alvin, this will never do, so he decides to leave Diaspar and look for something beyond…

The genius of this book is that it’s entertaining, and at the same time, a little bit depressing. As I read it, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, is that it? Billions of years into the future and we’re still pretty much alone?’ I’ve always had a hankering to look at mundane speculative fiction: the idea that in the far future, we’re still alone and in the scheme of things, not much has changed. I think the City and the Stars fits the bill while still being a very absorbing page turner. The viewpoint is a close-in omniscient one, with Clarke jumping quite cleanly from character to character, reading his mind and then jumping out. It’s pretty seamless, and it’s rare to see it done this well. The dialogue is workable, but nothing to really write home about, but the sense of place you get from Clarke’s writing is stunning. Yes, the city of Diaspar is perfect, in a clinical, computer-generated sort of way, and although it’s large enough to hold ten million people, there’s this overriding sense of claustrophobia, especially when you’re following Alvin on his quest. The prose is somewhat stark which again lends itself well to the sterile, unchanging nature of the environment.

Not a cheery read, but very difficult to put down nonetheless.

Eight out of ten.


Book review: Try Not To Breathe by Holly Seddon


Yes, I finished this one a few days ago and I’m still in two minds about it. On the whole, I think it’s a good read; the pace is a little slower than I prefer (that is, of course, a personal preference) but the prose flowed nicely without too many hiccoughs (though I did feel the author was trying too hard in a couple of places) and the characters blended and bounced off each other in a very natural way.  The book is written from multiple view points and for the most part that worked extremely well for me; it’s hard work to pull off something like that, especially when you’re dealing with four or five protagonists. Still, I was glad that the name of the character was given at the start of each chapter; I didn’t feel the characterisations were strong enough to make the players easy to separate. After a while, their personalities seemed to blend to a point I might have had trouble picking them out if the chapters hadn’t been dedicated to a single viewpoint. I also wasn’t getting much sense of the environment, but this is a minor detail and could be do with the fact the author couldn’t expand on the locations (because it’s best to keep books short these days) or that the book was set in Tunbridge Wells.

There were one or two technical aspects that niggled me, but they certainly wouldn’t draw anyone else’s attention. Someone needs to have another crack at formatting the iBooks version for a start: lots of the chapters didn’t start on a new page, lots of sentences were cut needlessly and fell to the next line, and this:


is not a punctuation symbol I’ve ever seen before.

Anyway, that’s just me being a little pedantic, because the main problem was that I was being asked to suspend disbelief a little too much for a book of this nature. I knew who did it as soon as his name came up, so I had a hard time believing that the police didn’t go pick him up straight away. But again, I can’t really say whether this is a shortcoming of the book, or having read so many novels like this, I have an idea of how the writer thinks. If it’s the latter then perhaps not many other people will pick up on it.

Still, overall, the quality of the writing is superb, and this kept me going to a masterful conclusion, when I might have otherwise have given up on it.

Five out of ten.



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