Flashback to a Favourite: ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver

Flashback to a Favourite is a regular feature where I look back at books I’ve previously given 5 stars and chat about whether the love has wained or lives on.

January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely, and desperate to change his life, so when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year, Gruhuken, but the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice: stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return–when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark…

Thoughts in 2019:  As I mentioned in my recent review of Paver’s latest novel, Wakenhyrst, I still vividly remember how I felt when I read Dark Matter. My slightly tired looking paperback copy has survived many culls because I can’t face getting rid of it and I just want to know that I still own a copy. I read a lot of historical fiction and even more ghost stories and this remains one of my absolute favourites. It isn’t only the sense of the unknown and the creeping unease, it’s the staggering level of detail about the otherworldly environment of the Arctic. I still can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Thoughts in 2012:  Earlier in the year, when my village in Yorkshire was being snowed upon, I had a sudden craving for curling up next to my fire and devouring a book.  I didn’t want to just read, I wanted to be completely immersed in a story and only come up for air when absolutely necessary.  Dark Matter was without a doubt the perfect choice and I read it in a single snowy day.

The story opens with a group of intrepid explorers setting out for the Arctic, jauntily taking photographs of themselves in their special clothing and engaging in the kind o f British public school banter that I have fortunately not had much direct experience of.  As with so many great ghost stories, there’s a pervasive sense of hope and excitement that you know is being crafted so that the ultimate descent into horror is more shocking.  The setting is fantastically mysterious.  I’ve always wanted to visit somewhere like Norway, see the Northern Lights and experience that other-worldliness that this book excels at describing.  So too, do our merry band of scientists.

Of course, where would we be without a few wisened old characters along the way warning of the great dangers lying ahead?  Dark Matter has an ageing sailor tasked with taking Jack and his group to Gruhuken, grimly warning off the dangers hiding in the perpetual night.  From that moment on, the story takes a turn for the creepier and I was hooked.  Honestly, I only stopped reading to make dinner and eat it.  I was fascinated by the setting but most of all I was captivated by the occasional glimpses at the mysteries of Gruhuken.  Snippets of its history and hints at its secret were doled out sparingly but often enough that it feels as though the story is never going to let you go.  When I was finally “in the know”, everything fit together and I was left staring at the pages in shock, with a faint look of disgust no doubt on my face.

Paver has spent a lot of time travelling in the Arctic and it shows.  The environment and the atmosphere are so detailed and breath-taking that you feel as though you can hear the ice creaking around you and feel the crisp, frozen air swirling.  There’s a fantastic article on the author’s website here that describes how much she put into making this book as perfect as it is:

“I went in summer, at the time of the midnight sun, and Jack’s experiences on first seeing Spitsbergen are mine: the sinister, black-faced polar bear who’d been eating the walrus from the inside; the abandoned guillemot chick; Jack’s solo walk to the small, cold lake; and those brief but desperate moments when he thinks he’s lost… All this is what I’ve seen and experienced myself”

The unravelling of Jack’s hopes, dreams and sanity in the icy wilderness is utterly heart-breaking. I desperately wanted him to give up, take his way out and leave the shadows alone and, even with everything else that was brilliant about this book, it was that that kept me reading.  Jack is such a wonderful narrator and his vulnerability is disarmingly charming right from the opening chapters.  As the story is largely told through Jack’s diary entries, there is plenty of time to get to know him.  He is a complex character who is so darn real that it’s impossible not to be sucked in. His naivety and desperation to fit in with his fellow explorers at the outset is tinged with a bitterness that he has to try so hard and his later decisions are constantly coloured by his life experiences.  Nothing he did seemed out of kilter with the character I felt I’d come to know and I wish that more authors knew their characters well enough to make that work.

My only complaint about this book is that it made me agree with the Daily Mail.  No good can come from agreeing with the Daily Mail BUT their reviewer was right, Dark Matter is “a blood-curdling ghost story, evocative not just of icy northern wastes but of a mind turning in on itself”. Read it.

Overall: As a ghost story, Dark Matter is exceptional.  As a description of the dangerous beauty of the Arctic, Dark Matter is also exceptional.  In the end though, the beauty of the novel lies in that age-old haunting question: “What’s waiting for you, just beyond the edge of the light?”

Flashback to a Favourite: ‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope

Flashback to a Favourite is a regular feature where I look back at books I’ve previously given 5 stars and chat about whether the love has wained or lives on.

Where love is your only escape…
 
1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Thoughts in 2019: Remembering the beauty that is The Ballroom makes my heart hurt a bit. Anna Hope writes stunning historical fiction. Character focused historical fiction that worms its way into your heart until you genuinely believe that you know how it felt to be a disadvantaged woman stuck in an asylum in the early 20th century or a woman grieving over her son in post-WWII England. It’s been three years since I read The Ballroom and I can still remember the characters vividly and just how much I wept over the ending. It’s a real corker and it’s clear that my love for this book has absolutely stood the test of time. While pulling this post together, I found out that Hope has another novel out in July this year. I will absolutely be picking that up and I would whole-heartedly recommend that you read both The Ballroom and Wake in the meantime. Both are incredible and deserving of a lot more love.

Thoughts in 2016: Wake by Anna Hope was one of my favourite books of 2014.  I remember being amazed at how a story that was so quiet could be so impactive; how Hope could tell a story of the lives of three women over the course of five days and manage to say so much about post-war Britain.  The Ballroom manages to do just the same thing.  Through Ella and John’s story, Hope manages to weave a commentary on the treatment (or lack of treatment) of mental health in the early 20th century without it weighing too heavily on the plot or leaving it feeling laboured.

The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a desire to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute.  There are other ‘residents’ who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today’s standards (Ella’s friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior.  Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance.  A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance.  Ella and John’s meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt.  Their story isn’t melodramatic.  It’s gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.

I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters.  The way that they grow and change subtly until they’re someone entirely different from who you thought they were.  Alongside Ella and John’s narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer.  Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn’t the way to prevent the “spread” of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental ‘deficiency’ are quite capable of productivity.  Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era.  Gradual and utterly believable.

The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates an increasingly frazzled atmosphere. There’s an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate.  Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard it hurt and I was just willing both the characters I loved and the characters I hated to get the endings they deserved.  I closed the novel in tears.  Admittedly, that’s not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.

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Date finished: 18 December 2015
Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader’s Copy)
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Doubleday!
Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday

Flashback to a Favourite: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Before starting She Reads, She Runs, I had another book blog. I loved that book blog but I felt like it had got a bit stale, too narrowly focussed and, to be honest, glitchy in a way that I lacked the technical ability to fix. While I’m still really happy with that decision, I do miss having all of the reviews of my favourites, those elusive 5 star reads, in my current blogging space.  And so I’ve decided to carry them over in Flashback to a Favourite! Each will be my original review, with a few thoughts on whether or not I still think of them as a favourite.

First up: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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It’s the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We’re out of oil. We’ve wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS – and his massive fortune – will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation. 
 
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the culture of the late twentieth century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle. Suddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions – and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed. 

A world at stake. 

A quest for the ultimate prize. 

Are you ready?

Thoughts in 2019: I still remember this so clearly that I was genuinely surprised to see that I first read it in January 2015! I almost never reread books but this is one that I could see myself picking back up at some point – I haven’t found anything like it in the years since I picked it up so it seems like if I want that heady mix of 80s pop culture, computer game madness and RPG-like adventure, I’m going to have to go back to the best. If you’re in the market for something that’s an unabashedly fun read, this would still be at the top of my list. I actually haven’t seen the film adaptation (or even read Ernest Cline’s subsequent novel) because I didn’t want it to “ruin” the book for me. If you have seen it, I’d definitely be interested to hear what you thought and whether I should brave it!

Thoughts in 2015:

I don’t even know where to start with this.  Maybe with the reason I even picked up Ready Player One?  I’d heard of it maybe a couple of years ago when everybody started reading it, mentally noted it as something to pick up one day if I happened across it and then forgot all about it.  I was reminded every now and then when I saw it on the occasional list of favourites but it was never something I felt like I had to go out and buy.  Until a friend texted me in January at nearly midnight on a Sunday with much upper case enthusiasm and said that I HAD TO READ READY PLAYER ONE.  So I did.  Because I am nothing if not easily led by enthusiastic reader friends into reading pretty much anything.

I was promised that it would be amazing.  And it is.  Absolutely, unrelentingly, unputdownably amazing.  Reading it was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in years and I didn’t ever want it to stop.  It manages to be both completely niche in its unashamed geekiness but also completely accessible.  I was born in the late 80s (ok, fine, 1986 is probably “mid-80s” but whatever) so I’m really more au fait with 90s popular culture and missed a few of the computer game references but I knew enough about the music and films of the time that I could still feel connected.  Even if I hadn’t got those references, I honestly believe that I would still have loved it because Cline just writes with such an obvious love for all things “nerdy” that it’s infectious.The text is quite small and there’s a lot on a page so when I opened it on the 10th of January, I thought it would maybe take a couple of weeks.  I finished it on the 12th.  I was travelling quite a lot in that couple of days, sure, but I was obsessed with it.  And not in a general “oh, this is a good book” way.  The kind of all-encompassing obsession with a book that means that you eat reading it, read it when you’re stood waiting for anything that will take any longer than 2 minutes and just generally ignore everybody else in your life until you’ve finished and can look to them for consolation over the gaping hole the book has left.

Ready Player One may well be an homage to 80s pop culture but it’s also a gripping science fiction adventure story that’s grounded just well enough in reality that it doesn’t take long to lose yourself in.  I don’t read a lot of science fiction because I don’t like reading long descriptions of technological advance or political background or, heaven forbid, actual science.  Cline has managed to write something that is both undeniably science fiction but without the tedium.  Somehow, you completely understand both the real and virtual world that Wade lives in without having to suffer through any dry explanations.  It’s impeccable and not really all that much of a stretch of imagination.  I remember when Second Life was launched about 10 years ago and the media was filled with tales of women leaving their husbands for men they’d met while building their perfect life.  You don’t have to read the news for too long to see endless stories about bankruptcy, environmental disaster and how badly we’re damaging the world.  Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine a world where everybody is crowded into small spaces without any money or natural resources, seeking refuge online?  Add in an adventure story and you’ve got something golden.

The online contest and the bedlam that ensues when Wade happens across the first clue is so, so much fun.  Like everything else about this book.  The pace is pretty hectic but not so much that it seem rushed or overwhelming.  When I could feel that the story was starting to wrap up, I was genuinely sad.  I could still be reading about Wade and about his friends two months later and I’m pretty sure I’d still be happy.

The story is amazing.  The characters are amazing.  The writing is amazing.  The whole damn thing from start to finish is AMAZING.  Consider this your midnight text.

Overall:  My biggest problem with Ready Player One is that finishing it and knowing that I’d read one of the best books I was going to read all year.  Nothing since has even been close to being as good.  Just read it, already.

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Date finished: 12 January 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Science fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in June 2012 by Broadway Books