Welcome to the second volume of “Tales From the Paper Mountain,” my new regular column about my reading month. If you missed the first post, which covered the first six weeks of the year, you can find it here. I wasn’t as captivated by my February books as I had by those in January. I think that’s partly the books and partly a slothful start to the new year suited the consumption of books. In February, family life roared back into action, and suddenly it’s already mid-March. Where does the time go?
The standout book this month has been The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak, which is probably the best geek novel since Ready Player One. The Impossible Fortress is a story of friendship, coding, and true love. The novel is Rekulak’s first and, if I have any criticism, it’s that it’s a story you’ve heard a hundred times before. This matters not. Despite knowing the novel’s final destination from the outset, I was riveted whilst I discovered they route it would take to get there.
Part of the novel’s appeal for GeekParents is its nostalgia trip. Set in the late ’80s, the book is filled with pop culture references. The novel centers around the creation of a computer game “The Impossible Fortress,” and is an ode to the early days of home computing and programming. I never came close to the heady heights that Billy and Mary reach in the novel, but I did spend many hours typing lines of BASIC into my old Acorn Electron. In The Impossible Fortress, it’s a Commodore 64 that’s being programmed, a choice bound to appeal to millions of us of a certain age.
Billy and his two friends make up a classic trio of hapless boys. Mary is a somewhat stereotypical misfit girl. You can imagine what happens. Despite much of the action being from the point of view of the boys, Mary is a strong character; the driving force of the coding project. The importance of women during the birth the computer age is highlighted through Mary’s knowledge and passion.
Despite being a traditional boy meets girl story, Rekulak throws in enough twists to make the novel feel fresh. Whilst the destination was never in much doubt, Rekulak took me down some unexpected avenues. The Impossible Fortress is a joy to read. Each chapter pulls you into the next, in part because of the wonderful chapter headings, which are subroutines written in BASIC or machine code. Note: Do take in the subroutines; the titles are not insignificant.
I thoroughly recommend The Impossible Fortress–it’s published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster and, in the UK, by Faber and Faber. If you need a nostalgia trip, right now, do check out Rekulak’s website where you can play a version of the game. It’s great!
My book group choice this month caused a huge amount of discussion. It’s not remotely geeky, but much like It Can’t Happen Here, last month, it’s a book that seems strikingly relevant to 2017. The Little Red Chairs takes its name from the 2012 20th Anniversary commemoration of the siege of Sarajevo–a siege in which 11,541 people died.
The story is most definitely in two halves. The first half is set in rural Ireland. A mysterious stranger arrives in a typical, peaceful Irish village. Handsome, charismatic, and enigmatic, New Age Doctor Vladimir Dragan causes a stir amongst the residents of Cloonoila. In particular, he turns the head of Fidelma, a local woman who leads an unfulfilled life. The arrival of Vlad gives her the spark she needs and the promise of realizing her greatest desire–to have children.
There is always a hint of the sinister about Vladimir and, given the subject of the title, it soon becomes clear he is a man with a dark past. Things start to unravel for Fidelma and culminate in one of the most distressing scenes I think I’ve ever read. Truly, this is not a book for the faint of heart.
There is then a break. Fidelma no longer lives in Ireland but in London, a refugee among refugees. And it is here where the book begins to resonate with today’s political climate. I found the second half of the book stronger than the first. It becomes a meditation on the nature of home and belonging. Many of the characters in the story are dispossessed. What the novel brought home for me was how humans, driven by their need to belong, can do terrible harm. It’s easier and better to band together against the outsider rather than welcome them into your home, life, country.
The Little Red Chairs is a book I hesitate to recommend, but it is the most thought-provoking book I’ve read in quite some time. It certainly generated a large amount of discussion during our book group meeting. Edna O’Brien’s prose is a thing of rare beauty. She has a deft eye for detail, whether describing human atrocities or the taste of a cup of tea on a damp morning.
Another chronicler of modern life in the UK is novelist Amanda Craig. Her full novels are few and far between, and this month, I read a short story published under the Reading Agency’s “Quick Reads” Scheme. This initiative is to help promote adult literacy and sees the annual publication of new short fiction books, available for £1. Craig’s story, The Other Side of You , is about a teenager growing up on an estate in London. Chased away from home by gangs, he stumbles into an abandoned garden, which he makes his home.
I loved this story; it packed so much into relatively few words. Firstly, the reminder that even in 21st Century Britain, deprivation is very real. In one of the richest cities in the world, there are still children who don’t have access to the basic necessities of life. There are areas where a complete education is almost impossible to access. It brought home to me how privileged my life is. Second, the novel explores the idea that everybody has a talent–it just needs to be allowed to shine. This dovetails with my first observation. Some children never get to show what they are capable of. In a modern, first-world society, this is criminal.
The Other Side of You is an almost perfect short story. It takes you through a host of emotions, before delivering a little twist in the tale.
Bookburners, by comparison, is 750 pages of other-worldly fantasy. It’s The Da Vinci Code by way of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The book is a collaborative effort between a host of authors, each contributing what are essentially short stories, but ones that bind together to make a collective whole.
The Book Burners are a covert operation, working out of the Vatican to investigate paranormal disturbances. Magic and demons are real. The book is a really good palette cleanser. I didn’t read it all in one unbroken chunk. It’s a little large and little samey for that, but the short story structure makes it perfect for dipping in and out. Easy to read, sassy, and wonderfully, demonically descriptive, Book Burners is a book to look out for if you like some paranormal in your storytelling.
Wintersong by S Jae-Jones is Labyrinth re-imagined. It details the dealings between Liesel, an Austrian girl on the cusp of womanhood, and the Goblin King. Wintersong is a book steeped in folklore tradition. It’s set in Central Europe during the 1800s, with the music of the time running through its core. Liesel has a strong musical talent, but she is overlooked in favor of her younger brother. He can play but doesn’t have his sister’s raw talent for composition. The two have another sister, a beauty, leaving Liesel with only the play the role of plain sister to a prodigy.
Railing against the sides of the box she’s finds herself in, Liesel’s thoughts return to her childhood games and hunting for the Goblin Grove. Her sister goes missing after an encounter at the market with some malicious traders and a handsome stranger. Hunting for her sister, Liesel begins to think there is more to her childhood fantasies than she ever imagined.
In order to win her sister’s return, Liesel must overcome the Goblin King’s challenges, and so, she finds herself trapped in his subterranean kingdom. She makes trades and deals with the King, repeatedly worsening her own position to improve that of her family. The central theme of the novel is being trapped, both literally or metaphorically. Liesel is trapped in her own self, unable by the constraints of the times to express herself as she would like. The concept of constraint features over and over in the novel.
“Over and over” does highlight the novel’s weakness for me. It’s about 200 pages too long, clocking in at just over 500. There’s a lot of moping, navel gazing, and unrequited amour in the book, and I tired of it after a while. I was ultimately hoping for something darker. The Goblin King is not terribly menacing and, apart from a couple of moments, the goblins rarely felt threatening. Also, it occasionally felt like Liesel was being wilfully stupid.
One excellent thing about Wintersong is its portrayal of music. Music, particularly the sound of it (whether the hills are alive with it or not), is exceptionally hard to convey with the written word. Especially to somebody borderline tone-deaf like me. S Jae-Jones’ musical passages really came to life, and you definitely pick up a sense of the importance of music to Liesel and the vibrancy of her composition.
My least favorite novel of the month was Nagash: The Undying King. This is a Black Library novel that ties into Games Workshop’s Warhammer: Age of Sigmar game. I must be honest, I’m a little wary of books that are game tie-ins because, all too often, they rely on the reader’s foreknowledge of setting and character. And so it was with Nagash. I will write more on this in a dedicated Warhammer post, but GW have freshly reworked the Warhammer setting, and so far, it doesn’t feel like a real place.
I had little understanding of the motivations of any of the characters. The book seemed to exist for the sake of existing. To make matters worse, the author seems to have been given a thesaurus for Christmas. The description was so overblown as to be painful. This book, I think, is for die-hard fans of the Warhammer world, amongst which it has garnered favorable reviews.
So that’s what I’ve plucked off the paper mountain this month. Definitely check out The Impossible Fortress. It’s a fun, compact nostalgia trip that will have you wishing for simpler times. Next month, I should hopefully have some more high fantasy, the latest book from a literary giant, and tales of Russia under Stalin. Until then, happy reading!
I received review copies of all of the books mentioned in this piece, except The Other Side of You.