Tuesday, 30 June 2015

'Darkmouth' by Shane Hegarty

This is a lot of fun!

'Darkmouth' by Shane Hegarty is funny, monstrous and refreshingly different. It whips along at a cracking pace. There are unusual guns, bombs, vortexes, other-worlds, weird characters, lovable characters, twists and turns and of course... monsters! I love reading children's books, as much as adult ones, but 'Darkmouth' made me feel especially like a child again. It is just simply exciting and imaginatively stimulating.

Darkmouth is a small remote village in Ireland. It is also the last village on Earth, it seems, to continue to suffer monster attacks. Every so often monsters, or Legends as they are called, arrive through vortexes from another world, ready to cause havoc. Only Legend Hunters (a position decreed by birthright) can stop these monsters. And a twelve year old boy called Finn is the next in line to become a Legend Hunter... but he's a bit useless. He wants to be a vet.

There is enough mystery and excitement to entertain but I am hoping the next in the series will deepen its emotional pull and become far darker. It is perhaps an error to compare any new series to Harry Potter, but there is enough interesting back stories, potential back stories and mythology to warrant the comparison here. Personally, I would like it develop in a similar manner; to probe harder into the psychology of Finn and to expand its universe and themes in grander fashion. Perhaps it will.
Otherwise, 'Darkmouth' is just simply fun, and sometimes that is all that matters. Plus, the illustrations are fantastic and compliment the text perfectly.

Bursting with ideas, adrenaline and big teeth, 'Darkmouth' is a riveting new series. Let's hope the sequels can match it!

Saturday, 27 June 2015

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Epic, sad, poignant and magnificently realized ; 'We Are Not Ourselves' certainly delivers as a book longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Apparently it took ten years to write; it justifies the effort with a narrative which spans five decades. It is wonderfully written and ceaselessly engaging. At over 600 pages, it could be easy to feel overwhelmed by its sprawling narrative, its intricate portrait of family life and its study of a degenerative disease. But the characters are memorable and lovable; you invest your time in them. It is humble and compassionate in its exploration of family, memory, the American Dream and the limits of human ambition and knowledge. Without being overly sentimental, it is powerfully moving and emotionally credible.

A daughter of hard-drinking Irish immigrants in a rough area of New York, Eileen Leary dreams of having more. She wants a bigger house, a better job and a happy family. She marries a young scientist and everything seems to be going in the direction she desires, until her husband, Ed, is diagnosed with a condition which will change their lives forever...

I don't want to spoil the story by writing here what illness Ed suffers. But to suffice to say Thomas brilliantly details the slow, debilitating nature of Ed's disease with tenderness, realism and great understanding. Eileen is such a well-realized character. I felt that there could have been other books written about her; she just leaps from the page. We grow up with her, we share her pain, her ambitions, her frustrations, her struggles with Ed's illness. And this is what makes it such a wonderful read. As one review put it: 'It's all here; how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on... It's humbling and heartening to read a book this good.' I cannot help but agree and can find no other superlatives to express just how much I enjoyed 'We Are Not Ourselves.'

It is a huge book but it has a huge heart. Take your time and invest in its achievement. An amazing debut novel!

Saturday, 6 June 2015

'Island' by Aldous Huxley

An antithesis to 'Brave New World', 'Island' is an absorbing philosophical novel concerning the possibility of a utopia, or close to it. Optimistic, enlightening, troubling, polemic; it is a novel of the 1960s but is still, if not more, relevant today. It is Huxley's last novel and suitably so, as it deals with the whole of life, spirit, learning, experience and finally death in an inquiring, fascinating way.

Will Farnaby deliberately wrecks his boat on the isolated island of Pala in south-east Asia. He is a journalist but is there to help seal a deal to gain rights to obtain Pala's oil reserves. Pala, however, is a paradise; a place opposed to the materialistic west and its forward march of progress; of its warring, commercial, lethargic, irreligious nature. In Pala the happiness of individuals, of the community, is regarded as more important than war, or products, or even oil. Meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga-love, controlled drug-taking, communal parenting and holistic education are the backbones of Pala's daily life. At first skeptical, Will is slowly enchanted by the island's life style and alternative philosophies. Will he succumb to its pull or find a way to exploit its oil reserves?

Granted, the plot is simple and most characters are half-formed and mostly used as vehicles to explain or signify some philosophical notion. But the dialogue brims with ideas. Unlike any dry philosophical treatise, 'Island' takes us on a whimsical, stimulating journey, exploring what it means to be human, how the psyche works, how humans can organize themselves, educate themselves and love one another. While it is demonstratively a product of the sixties, it remains highly relevant today. And it is evident Huxley has a dim view of humanity's progress. Growing populations, war armaments, pollution, television, consumerism clearly trouble Huxley. Unlike 'Brave New World', however, 'Island' offers an alternative vision; a possible utopia. And there are points reading it that you really wonder why the world hasn't sorted itself out in the way Pala illustrates.

I particularly liked comparisons between western and eastern philosophies: 'Western philosophers... they're nothing more than good talkers. Eastern philosophers are often rather bad talkers... but their philosophy is pragmatic and operational... When we make statements we back them up with a list of operations that can be used for testing the validity of what we've been saying.... The operations are called yoga... or Zen...' I am inclined to agree. As many people, including myself, are turning to 'mindfulness' as a way of coping with the frantic nature of modern life, I cannot help but think that eastern philosophies, although more mystical and ambivalent, give more instruction, more useful advice on how to live than western doctrine or religious statements. I found Huxley's musings insightful. The west may advocate the statement 'I think therefore I am' whereas the east actually tells you how to be. 'Island' offers an illustrative example of this difference in living.

Image result for LOTUS FLOWERConcurrently, 'Island' addresses issues of education. As a teacher, I found this especially interesting and think Huxley is not far off the mark on what constitutes the future of education; the best way children can learn. Children at the school in Pala are taught holistically. Experience or understanding experience in relation to the self, body and the environment takes precedence. Meditating on the experience first is important. As Huxley writes: 'Children are... taught to pay attention to what they see and hear, and at the same time they're asked to notice how their desires and feelings affect what they experience of the outer world, and how their language habits affect not only their feelings and desires but also their sensations.' In the story children in the classroom are learning about flowers. Formal education may only get children to learn the mere words, the talk, of the flower. Pala's alternative is that children need to meditate on, experience the flower first in a kind spiritual, osmosis-tic relationship: 'Never give children the chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the first that all living is relationship.' Unfortunately, this is the problem for Pala in the story. A paradise, or at least a different way of living, cannot continue indefinitely, in isolation, when the rest of the world, locked in on-itself, is marching ahead without a moment's reflection.

In the end, Huxley remains pessimistic. Even if an island like Pala were truly to exist, whether you agree or not with its principles, it could never survive in a world predestined for conflict, consumption and corruption. Reading 'Island' gives us hope. It is always highly illuminating, intelligently written and disturbingly prophetic. Give it a read and see if you don't think the world could do with some reorganizing in a similar vain...