The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos The Midwich Cuckoos begins as our narrator, Richard Gayford, and his wife, Janet, attempt to return to their home in the quiet English village of Midwich after a trip to London to celebrate Richard’s birthday. As they approach the village they discover that the road has been closed by the police; something very strange is happening in Midwich, a place where, as Richard tells us, things just did not happen. That night, Monday 26th September, everyone within the boundaries of Midwich has fallen asleep and anyone who tries to enter the village also loses consciousness.

The next day this phenomenon, which becomes known as the ‘Dayout’, disappears as suddenly as it arrived – the invisible barrier is lifted and people begin to wake up. At first it seems that most of the villagers have been completely unharmed by the ‘Dayout’, but a few months later they make a shocking discovery. Something did happen during their twenty-four hours of unconsciousness and it’s going to have a big effect on the lives of everyone in Midwich.

I’ve decided to end my summary of the plot here rather than tell you exactly what happened to the people of Midwich. I’m sure some of you will already know (maybe you’ve seen the film based on the book, Village of the Damned, or maybe the title of the book and the cover of my old Penguin edition pictured here have given you some clues) but I don’t really want to spoil things for anyone new to the story so I won’t go into any more details. All I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end!

I don’t often choose to read science fiction (looking back through my blog archives I can only see five or six that I’ve read since 2009) and I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but The Midwich Cuckoos was probably the perfect type of science fiction for me – instead of being filled with too much action or violence, it’s a subtle, thought provoking portrayal of a small, seemingly normal community trying to cope with something that is threatening their way of life. I think it was the ordinariness of the setting that made the story so effective; this, combined with Wyndham’s thoughtful, undramatic writing style, made it possible to almost believe in what happened in Midwich, while also creating quite an eerie atmosphere.

The only problem I had with this book was that I didn’t feel any connection with the characters. The narrator himself doesn’t have a big part to play and is actually absent from the village for long periods of time, leaving large portions of the story to be told through second-hand accounts, particularly through the philosophical musings of one of the Midwich residents, Gordon Zellaby. It was also disappointing that despite the women of Midwich having such an important role in the story, we never really get to know any of them and they are rarely given a chance to participate in any of the discussions or decisions being made by the men. But although there were a few aspects of the book that I thought could have been better, I did love my first John Wyndham book and am now wondering which one I should read next.

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

The River of No Return If you met Nick Davenant you would probably think he was a normal, unremarkable young man, enjoying life in 2013 as the owner of a dairy farm in Vermont, whose biggest worry is a visit from the cheese inspector. But once, Nick Davenant was Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, an English aristocrat who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

With an enemy soldier about to kill him on a Spanish battlefield one fateful day in 1812, Nick jumps forward almost two hundred years into the future and finds himself waking up in the twenty-first century. Here he learns that he is now a member of ‘the Guild’, a secret society of time travellers like himself. With the help of the Guild, Nick is able to adapt to modern life and accepts that there can be “no return”. Then one day Nick receives a letter from the Guild summoning him to London, where he is informed that they are going to break their own rules and send him back to his own time on a very special mission…

Back in the nineteenth century again, Nick meets his old friend, Julia Percy, who lives at nearby Dar Castle. In Nick’s absence Julia’s grandfather, the fifth Earl of Darchester, has died and her greedy, brutal cousin Eamon has become the new Earl. Grandfather had a very unusual ability: he could manipulate time, and Julia appears to have inherited this special gift. And when she discovers that Eamon is searching for the Talisman, an object he believes will give him the power to control time, Julia decides not to tell anybody about her secret talent.

I’ve always enjoyed books with a time travel element and The River of No Return is one of the most original and imaginative I’ve read for a long time. This is a time travel novel where the manipulation of time forms a big part of the plot – jumping forwards in time, jumping backwards in time, freezing time, speeding time up and slowing time down. However, after Nick’s initial jump into the future and then back again, which all takes place during the first third of the novel, we don’t actually see much movement between the centuries. The majority of the story is set in Regency England, a world where people travel by horse and carriage, where girls look forward to going to London for the Season, and where the Corn Bill is being debated in Parliament. As a fan of historical fiction who enjoys reading about the Regency period, I was very happy about this and in fact, it wasn’t until Nick left the modern day behind and returned to the past that I really found myself being pulled into the story.

The book did feel a bit too long and I thought there were too many lengthy conversations about the mechanisms of time travel, but overall, after a slow start, I thought this was a great debut novel – not purely science fiction, fantasy, romance or historical fiction, but a mixture of all four. The ending felt very abrupt and left me wanting to know more, so I hope Bee Ridgway is planning a sequel. I would happily read more of Nick and Julia’s adventures.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for review.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale This is the first book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. I was starting to feel slightly embarrassed about never having read any of her work, so when Yvann, Iris, Ana and Alex announced that they were hosting an Advent with Atwood event this December it seemed a perfect opportunity to finally read one. I decided to start with The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s a modern classic and the most well known of her novels.

Our narrator Offred lives in the Republic of Gilead, which was once the USA until the president was assassinated, the government overthrown and a totalitarian religious group took control. In this new dystopian society, women no longer have any of the rights or freedoms they had before; they’re not allowed to work, not allowed to have their own bank accounts, not even allowed to read in case reading leads them into temptation. Reproduction is a problem in Gilead; for some unspecified reason, possibly a nuclear disaster, the birth rate is now very low. Offred belongs to a group of fertile women known as ‘Handmaids’ whose job it is to provide children for the Commanders – the leaders of the new community – whose wives have not been able to conceive. If a Handmaid repeatedly fails to do this, she will be declared an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste.

The Handmaids are part of a new hierarchy and supposedly less powerful than the Wives; however, we soon discover that life is not easy for the Wives either. They have no real freedom and resent sharing their husbands with the Handmaids. The Handmaids themselves have been deprived of many of the most basic human rights and are valued only for their bodies and for the role they play in bearing children. Their individuality has been stripped away; they all wear the same long red dresses and even their own names have been taken away from them as they are now considered to be the property of their Commander, hence Offred’s new name (Of Fred).

At first I assumed I was reading about a society far into the distant future but it quickly became obvious that was not the case, because Offred remembers living a normal 20th century life with a job, a family and friends, just a few years earlier. We only gradually learn how the Republic of Gilead came into existence and how in such a short period of time everything changed and people were forced to adapt to an entirely different way of life. What makes this book so disturbing is that the type of community Atwood is writing about is not completely far-fetched or implausible. Many of the things she describes are things that have actually happened in some part of the world at some time in the past, or that might even still be happening at this moment, and so the depiction of Gilead is terrifyingly believable.

I really liked Atwood’s writing, I loved the book and I know I haven’t been able to do it justice in this post. Some books are much easier to write about than others and this, for me, is not one of the easy ones. I’ve found it very difficult to say what I wanted to say about it without giving too much away to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. While I was reading the book I was making notes of all the things I wanted to mention but when I started to type them up I decided it would be fairer to leave future readers to discover all the little details of the plot for themselves. And so I hope I’ve said enough to convince you to give this book a try if you haven’t already! I will definitely be reading more of Atwood’s work, not during Advent but certainly in 2013.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic novel set nine years after life on earth was almost entirely wiped out by a flu-like illness. Among the few survivors is Hig, a pilot from Colorado who lost his beloved wife Melissa to the disease and has been left alone with his dog Jasper and his Cessna plane. He spends a lot of his time flying over the mountains surveying the area and searching for food for himself and his nearest neighbour, Bangley, a tough, aggressive man who is obsessed with guns and killing.

Under normal circumstances, Hig and Bangley would have had little in common, but to survive in this new world they have decided to work together to protect the abandoned airport compound they both call home. Then one day Hig hears a voice on his radio and is intrigued. He wants to find out who else might be out there, but there’s one big problem – if he flies too far he might not have enough fuel to get back…

I have read very few novels in this genre so The Dog Stars was not the type of book I would normally choose to read and at first I didn’t think I was going to like it, especially when I discovered it was written in an unusual, disjointed, almost stream-of-consciousness style. I expected to pick up the book, read a few pages then put it down again – so I was surprised to find how completely I was drawn into Hig’s world and although I didn’t love the book it was certainly an interesting experience.

The writing style is very different and it took me a while to get used to it. The sentences are short and often incomplete and don’t seem to follow the normal rules of grammar or punctuation. I usually hate this kind of experimental writing and often I can’t see any reason for it, but with this book it did seem to suit the story and I think I do understand why the author chose to write it in this way. I can accept that a man spending most of his time alone with only his dog for company, rarely interacting with other humans, may eventually begin to think differently; another possibility is that Hig’s command of language has been affected by the illness he suffered from (and was lucky enough to recover from, unlike most of the population). Either way, Hig’s story probably wouldn’t have been nearly as effective or memorable if it had been written in normal prose. However, it did make the book much more challenging to read than it would otherwise have been!

I found it depressing that almost all of the other characters who appear in the book are so mindlessly brutal and violent. If you’re living in isolation and come across another survivor, why not talk to them and see if you can help each other, instead of immediately attacking them or stealing from them without even trying to make contact first? I realise that people were competing for dwindling resources and worried about running out of food, but it was hard for me to understand their behaviour. It could be realistic, I suppose, but it seemed such a sad and pessimistic outlook. That’s why I liked Hig, who even in this lonely, desolate world manages to retain some of his compassion and humanity. He kills when he needs to in order to protect himself or when he is threatened by intruders, but he doesn’t take the pleasure in it that Bangley does. He also pays regular visits to some families of Mennonites nearby who have become infected with the disease, and takes them food and supplies.

We are only given brief descriptions of how the flu and the blood disease that followed led to the destruction of most of the world’s population – I would have liked to have learned more about what happened, but that was not the focus of the novel. Instead this is a story about people trying to survive in the wilderness that remains. And in the end, the novel does take a more positive, optimistic view and leaves us feeling more confident that there might still be hope for the human race.

The Dog Stars has been compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy which I haven’t read so can’t comment on how similar or different they are. With my very limited knowledge of dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction I would recommend that fans of the genre give this one a try, but I think it was a bit too far out of my comfort zone for me!

I received a copy of The Dog Stars from Headline for review

The Map of Time by Felix Palma

The Map of Time, translated from the original Spanish, is an interesting mixture of historical fiction, science fiction and romance. The book appealed to me as soon as I read the synopsis and saw that it was set in Victorian London, involved time travel and featured several real historical figures including Jack the Ripper, Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) and the authors H.G. Wells, Henry James and Bram Stoker. It sounded fascinating and it was, though there were a few aspects of the book that didn’t work for me at all. I thought it was too long and ambitious and tried to do too much.

The starting point for the story is 1896, shortly after the publication of H.G. Wells’ novel, The Time Machine, which captured the imaginations of his readers and convinced them that time travel could become a reality. One of the people hoping to travel through time is Andrew Harrington whose lover, Marie Kelly, was killed by Jack the Ripper eight years ago. Andrew believes that if he could go back to the night of the murder it might be possible to save Marie’s life – so he decides to approach Wells and ask his advice.

Wells also becomes involved in the life of Claire Haggerty, a young woman who has trouble conforming to Victorian society and longs to escape to the year 2000 where the ‘brave Captain Derek Shackleton’ is thought to have saved the world from destruction by evil automatons. But is it really possible for Andrew and Claire to travel through time or is time travel something that only exists in fiction?

I’ve read a lot of novels that involve time travel as a part of the plot, and while all of them obviously require the reader to suspend disbelief, some of them manage to make it seem more plausible than others. There are a number of theories put forward in The Map of Time and it all started to become very confusing, but for anyone with an interest in the intricacies of time travel, parallel worlds, paradoxes (is it possible to meet a future version of yourself, for example?) and the effects our actions have on history, you should find it interesting.

The biggest problem I had with this book was that the pacing and structure of the story didn’t feel quite right to me. The book is divided into three very distinct sections: the first deals with the Andrew Harrington story, the second follows Claire Haggerty and the third concentrates on H.G. Wells himself. This had the effect of making the book feel almost like three separate books in one and it took me a while at the start of each section to get used to the new characters and completely different direction of the plot. Then there’s the omniscient narrator who intrudes into the story at times in a mock-Victorian style. This can work well in original Victorian classics, but here I thought it felt forced and unnatural and it ended up annoying me.

I realise I’m making it sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book at all, but that’s not true. There were parts that I found fascinating and times when I couldn’t put the book down. I thought the quality of the writing was good overall and I probably wouldn’t have guessed it was a translation. But for a book which sounded so exciting and original, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

After reading my first H.G. Wells book, Ann Veronica, in March I mentioned that I now felt ready to try one of his science fiction books. The Island of Doctor Moreau is the one I chose to read, and it certainly couldn’t be more different from Ann Veronica!

The story is narrated by Edward Prendick who, having been shipwrecked, is rescued by the crew of the Ipecacuanha. Whilst on board, he becomes acquainted with one of the other passengers, the mysterious Montgomery, who is transporting a cargo of wild animals home to the island where he lives. When the drunken captain of the Ipecacuanha attempts to have Prendick thrown overboard, Montgomery takes pity on him and invites him to accompany him to the island. Here Prendick meets the famous vivisectionist Doctor Moreau, who is carrying out some secret experiments on animals – and as the true horrors of Moreau’s island are revealed, Prendick begins to realise that his own life could be in danger.

I’ve never been a fan of science fiction and wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The opening chapters were a bit slow, but things became much more interesting when Prendick arrived on the island and after that the pages flew by.

I didn’t think the story was frightening, although I did feel a growing sense of disgust and repulsion. Some of Moreau’s nightmarish creations were truly horrible to read about. Whatever your personal views on animal testing may be, the way Wells describes the unnecessary pain and suffering Moreau inflicts on his animals is very sad and disturbing. Like Frankenstein and more recently, Jurassic Park, The Island of Doctor Moreau can be seen as a warning of the negative effects of science and the dangers of ‘playing God’. When this book was published in 1896, the kind of technology Wells described only really existed in fiction. But during the 20th and 21st centuries the advances scientists have made in areas such as genetic engineering and cloning mean that Wells’ ideas are no longer so far-fetched. And that’s what really is frightening!