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I managed to get to the end of “C” without anyone asking me what it’s about.

Which is just as well because it’s not a question that lends itself to a short answer.

The answer to that question is usually a précis of the story and/or the high concept theme of the book.

But “C” doesn’t have a “story” as such. Nor does it readily lend itself to the “ideas that you can hold in your hand“, 25 word concept definition much beloved of Steven Spielberg.

Tom McCarthy is clearly no Michael Crichton in that respect.

(And he’d probably be very happy to agree with that).

“C” is less about what happens, and more about how it makes you feel.

I quickly discovered that it is no book for a few pages before bedtime. I read it in stints of at least one hour – on trains, planes and waiting in (stationary) automobiles to chauffeur my daughters home from various social events. I found that I needed that time to acclimatise to, and enjoy, the sweep and cadence of the language.

And how best to describe that cadence? I’ve wrestled with, and slept on, this. And the best I can come up with is that it’s the literary equivalent of tilt-shift photography.

Image borrowed from baldheretic.

This is a photographic technique that renders real life scenes as if you’re looking at a miniature model.

And Tom McCarthy’s writing has a similar effect. Whether it’s a garden pageant in rural England, the battlefields of WW1, a drug-fuelled party in the East End of London, or an archeological dig in Egypt, the camera of your mind views the scenes from odd angles, in slow motion, and with a smear of petroleum jelly across its lens. For instance, there’s a passage when an Allied howitzer shell appears alongside the rickety biplane from which the book’s main character is observing the German trenches. The shell is travelling at the same height, at the same speed and in the same direction as the aeroplane…

At one point a howitzer shell appears right beside them, travelling in the same direction – one of their own, surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show its underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent. It’s so close that its wind-stream gently lifts and lowers the machine, making it bob. Serge knows that planes get hit by their own shells, but this one seems so placid, so companionable – and besides, if they’re travelling at the same speed then both it and they are just still bodies in space, harmless blocks of matter. In the instant before their paths diverge, it seems to Serge that the shell and the plane are interchangeable – and that the shell and he are interchangeable…

Serge is Serge Carrefax. Inside the book’s front cover he, and his role in the book, are described thus…

C follows the short, intense life of Serge Carrefax, a man who – as his name suggests – surges into the electric modernity of the early twentieth century, transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him.

Here, having reached the back cover, I’m not much the wiser when it comes to Serge Carrefax. If I were a method actor preparing myself to play his part in the film, and seeking to understand “What’s my motivation?”, I wouldn’t get much joy from the book. He is very much the miniaturised, tilt-shift character in terms of what he feels and wants. And he drifts through each page with an air of detachment as the book is narrated around him.

He appears to place little value on his own life, bordering on a death wish. But we don’t know why.

There is the time when, despite the screamed imploring of his pilot, he elects not to fire back at the German plane that is about to shoot them down. And he experiences a feeling of ecstasy when about to be executed by firing squad, only to be saved by the end of the war.

Telling you that he gets his (death) wish in the end shouldn’t spoil this book for you.

And, tilt-shifted to the end, it’s entirely fitting than he meets his maker in fevered, hallucinatory and solitary fashion.

In his fever Serge hears…

…a word, or non-word, that itself eventually mutates, changing its provenance and status until it finally resolves itself..

And that is a pretty accurate description of the writing style throughout this book.

I’m glad that I read “C”.

But I’m equally glad that a blog post is the only time that I’ve had to attempt to explain it.

P.S. Lots of things in, and themes of, the book begin with “C”.

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I’m reviewing this book before I’ve finished it.

I’ve read just four out of thirty four “stories about people who know how they will die” but I can’t contain myself.

Machine of Death is a book of revelations.

In all sorts of ways.

Firstly I don’t read short stories or anthologies. Mainly because I instinctively don’t like the idea of them.

(“I’ve never tried Guinness because I don’t like it.”)

Well forty six pages of this book have well and truly taken the blinkers off.

And here’s why. A single high-concept idea that has already (four stories in) proved itself to be a springboard for subtlety, suspense and social commentary.

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you a date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “OLD AGE” or “CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN”. It let people know how they were going to die. [….] But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark , and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. “OLD AGE”, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death; you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.

The second revelation is that the stories are already not what I expected.

Each story takes its title from a cause of death that has been printed out by the machine. And I was expecting the unexpected. I was expecting a series of clever narrative twists whereby the exact nature of each death, despite the machine’s prediction being declared up front, would be a surprise.

In fact it wasn’t until the fourth story that anyone actually did die.

Part of the reason I decided to review the book before finishing it is that I realised that it is too easy to give too much away about short stories. You need to know enough to be convinced that Machine of Death is worth the price of the book and the shipping from Amazon in the US. But you don’t need me to deny you the repeated delight that I’m currently experiencing.

So this is all I will say.

The first story explores the impact of the machines on teenage social dynamics. You’re not allowed to use the machine before the age of 16. This creates another category of adolescent haves and have-nots, worse than any kind of mobile phone envy. It is really frustrating to be a 15 year old “no-know”.

And the other side of this rite of passage doesn’t necessarily bring any relief from teenage angst. Kids are categorised according to their cause of death predictions. “Burners” are cool. So are “Crashers”. But you really don’t want to be socially scarred by any prediction related to sickness or old age…

The other stories I’ve read explore the impact of the machines on relationships, the life insurance industry and the medical profession.

Machine of Death is like a brilliant advertising campaign idea that has spawned a series of commercials, each of which is brilliant in its own right.

As someone who has spent his entire career dealing with short-form creative content I am asking myself just why I haven’t spent more time with short-form literature.

The third revelation for the purposes of this post is the story about how this book actually came to be.

I bought the book because of this uplifting, community-based back story without really bothering to find out much about its content. I felt that the people behind the book deserved my custom purely on the basis of how they conducted themselves in originating the idea, how they crowd-sourced the content, and how, through doggedness, cunning and collective action, they turned it into an Amazon best-seller.

I’ve blogged this back story before. Read about the uplifting social success story behind Machine of Death here.

Then buy the book.

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So you think you’ve got a community, huh?

How much does your community care about you?

To what extent does your community get off on the idea of working together to realise a dream?

Would this community of yours rally round and propel your book to #1 on Amazon on a given day?

Machine of Death has that kind of community.

Machine of Death has a community.

It has a community because its originators have been producing good, original content and engaging with its audience consistently over time

It also has a community because it had a great idea.

And it invited people to be part of that idea.

The idea is explained in more detail on the Machine of Death website, but here’s a brief outline.

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you the specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper on which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.

The real darkness and intrigue of the idea comes from the vagueness of the predictions. If you’re going to die by being BURIED ALIVE, you might think it’s safe to go skydiving. But what if you land in a gravel pit….?

Having had this idea the people behind it, best known for an online dinosaur based comic, engaged their community to collaborate on writing an anthology of short stories based on the simple premise of knowing in advance (vaguely) the manner of one’s death.

They received 700 entries and eventually whittled these down to 30 favourites. The title of each corresponded to the text on a piece of paper from the machine and they ranged from FRIENDLY FIRE to PRISON KNIFE FIGHT, from VEGETABLES to FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.

With the high concept idea and the content sorted, the project then hit a wall.

The traditional publishing world was not in the market for an anthology, even though many people liked the concept and the writing.

Over two years of banging heads against brick walls led to a lot of frustration, an in-depth knowledge of the publishing industry and, finally, another great idea.

They worked out that to become the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon on a given day only requires you to sell hundreds, rather than thousands, of books.

So, once again, they sought to mobilise their community.

Not just to buy the book.

But to all buy it on the same day.

That day being October 26, 2010.

Machine of Death day was promoted as a Facebook event.

And, to cut a long story short, they did it.

And, as if that weren’t enough, they then go and further prove just how much they “get” this whole social thing by making the whole book available as a free to download pdf.

Why are we doing this? Aren’t we worried about hurting our book sales?

In a word: no. You have proven that time and again you are willing to pay for content that you find valuable. You have shown that you are driven to share material that you fall in love with. And we are committed to ensuring that you can experience our work whether you can afford to buy a book or not; whether you live in a country that Amazon ships to or not; whether you have space in your life for a stack of paper or not.

I haven’t read the book.

But these guys deserve my custom and I’m going to buy rather than download. Look out for the review.

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I always complete my own review of a book before I read anyone else’s.

Hopefully that stops me sounding like a book reviewer.

Sometimes, if another reviewer agrees with me, but expresses my feelings better than I could, I’ll quote and link to them in an edited version.

Or I’ll quote and link to someone who has an alternative and interesting point of view.

But these things are edited in afterwards rather than planned into the first draft.

For instance my first draft review of this book would never have included the word “dystopian”.

That’s because I didn’t know what it meant until I read it in another review and looked it up.

And now here I am rewriting the whole introduction to this post around this new word.

Super Sad True Love Story does indeed deliver a dystopian vision of an ultra-connected, ultra-transparent, ultra-privacy-violated not too distant future.

(From the same review that caused me to rewrite my intro)

I bought Super Sad True Love Story after viewing an interview with the author on Edward Boches’ Creativity_Unbound blog.

Like Edward my interest was piqued mainly by Shteyngart’s portrayal of social media and the role of technology in our near future lives.

For other commentators the bleakest aspects of the book are the idea of America fighting an unwinnable war in the jungles of Venezuela, its cap in hand economic subservience to China and Norway, and the almost racist attitude to LNWI’s (Low Net Worth Individuals).

For me the bleakest aspects of the book are the demise of books themselves and the slightly-too-credible-to-be-comfortable world in which the digitally projected you is more important than the real you.

On bleak aspect number one…

Lenny Abramov, the book’s lead character and one half of the true love story, marks himself out as, as best, an oddity and, at worst, a social leper for still buying and reading books (or “bound, printed, nonstreaming media artifacts” as they appear in the latest purchases section of his digital profile).

“You’ve got to stop buying books, Nee-gro,” Vishnu said. ” All those doorstops are going to drag down your PERSONALITY rankings. Where the fuck do you even find those things?”

Which leads me nicely to bleak aspect number two…

(Almost) everyone in the book is permanently glued to their äppärät. The äppärät is Shteyngart’s affirmation that the future really is mobile.

But not in a good way.

Äppäräti, and the way that people use them, make any current concerns about Facebook privacy and the impact of technology on our humanity look relatively trivial.

We might be headed that way but I’m not aware that “malicious provision of incomplete data” is a crime just yet.

And even Facebook’s Terms & Conditions don’t (yet) include phrases like “By reading this message you are denying its existence and implying consent.”

In Super Sad True Love Story you literally are what you äppärät – “I link. Therefore I am.”

Only the lowest of the low, the outcasts, don’t carry an äppärät and “normal” people find it really disconcerting when they can’t instantly access real time and revealing data about a fellow human being.

There was this one guy who registered nothing. I mean he wasn’t there. He didn’t have an äppärät, or it wasn’t set on Social mode, or maybe he had paid some young Russian kid to have  the outbound transmission blocked.

The only other people that don’t carry äppäräti are those in positions of real power. It is an us-and-them privilege and status symbol not to be permanently laid bare to everyone around you.

People form intense emitional attachments to these ultra-evolved mobile devices. (Can’t imagine where the author got that outlandish idea from).

Four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two of them wrote suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppäräti.

The media hipsters in this super sad world exhibit an American Psycho level of äppärät scrutiny and device envy. (Can’t imagine where the author go that outlandish idea from either.)

Here’s Lenny Abramov’s line manager on his outdated äppärät…

Let me see your äppärät. Good fucking Christ. What is this, an iPhone?

The most extreme form of open social graph behaviour is “FACing”.

I’ll let one of Lenny’s friends explain…

“It means Form A Community,” Vishnu said. “It’s like a way to judge people. And let them judge you […] When you see FAC, you press the EmotePad to your heart, or wherever you can feel your pulse […] Then you look at a girl. The EmotePad picks up any change in your blood pressure . That tells her how much you want to do her.”

And this is what happens when Lenny loses his FACing virginity…

The pretty girl I had just FACed was projecting my MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450, and something called SUSTAINABILIT¥ at 630. The other girls were sending me similar figures.

That’s right. FAC data isn’t just shared between two people. Everyone in the bar can see who you rate, and how you are rated by everyone else, in terms of fuckability, personality and disposable income.

A man uglier than me walked in and, ascertaining his chances, turned right around.

Dystopian or what?

In an ironic twist, a novel in which we witness the prophesied demise of books actually shows how digital channels are breathing new life into book marketing.

Here’s the promotional video for Super Sad True Love Story.

It might not be the literary equivalent of an OK Go video, but it’s an easier and arguably better way of reaching over 90,000 people at the time of writing than hitting the road and signing books for four weeks.

And it’s another example of an author exploring new interactive, social ways to find an audience. Often doing so independently of the big publishing houses.

At Blonde, for instance, we helped historical novelist Philippa Gregory to launch The White Queen on Twitter.

Is the relationship between authors and publishers going the same way as that between musicians and record companies? Interesting times ahead if so.

Oh yeah. The other half of the True Love Story is a Korean girl called Eunice Park.

I haven’t written about her or the love story because I’m more interested in the Super Sadness, which has much more to do with the way in which too much personal information creates a society based on anti-social media than with the ebb and flow of an unlikely relationship.

FACing hell.

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This is a review of the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The Girl Who Played With Fire.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest.

Millenium is a monthly magazine, based in Stockholm, with a reputation for investigative journalism whose purpose is to expose corporate wrong-doing.

The principal investigative journalist at Millenium is Mikael Blomkvist and the books track his unusual and uneasy relationship with Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With / The Girl Who) as their paths repeatedly cross during their quests to track down and bring to justice their respective baddies.

Blomkvist and Salander are both singular characters. They both live by unconventional and non-conformist moral codes. They are drawn to each other but their motivations and their definitions of justice are quite different.

The resulting tension is one of the many complex layers  that make this trilogy much more than your average best-selling series of ripping yarns.

I should say now that this is mainly a review of the Millenium Trilogy, with a little bit of The Bourne Sanction by Eric Van Lustbader thrown in for good measure.

Actually, for bad measure would be more accurate.

The Bourne Sanction is awful. God awful. A candidate for the worst book I’ve ever read.

Fortunately I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it to kill time and take my mind of the heat and the dust when I was doing my shifts in the back of the ambulance en route to Mongolia.

That’s the only reason I finished it.

It’s so bad that I was almost moved to write my first negative book review.

But I’ve decided to use it instead as a compare-and-contrast foil for the Millenium books.

(Which are a major storytelling achievement.)

First let’s compare and contrast the Girl and the Bourne.

Both protagonists have issues of the psychological variety.

Jason Bourne, as surely everyone knows by now, suffers from memory loss, headaches and debilitating episodes of guilty introspection as a result of the brutal training that turned him into a supremely efficient CIA wet-worker.

Lisbeth Salander (the Girl) is a socially inept introvert who suffered all manner of physical and emotional childhood cruelty.

Jason Bourne is a super-fit, highly trained, killing machine with the ability to think on his feet and improvise.

Lisbeth Salander is a geeky waif.

Jason Bourne, we have been led to believe, is nigh on impossible to kill.

But Eric Van Lustbader achieves what a whole string of Treadstone and Blackbriar operatives repeatedly fail to do. He takes Jason Bourne out.

He murders him.

It’s as clean and as clinical a literary hit as you’re ever likely to see.

Making The Bourne Sanction a serious contender for the book with the most ironic title.

Admittedly, Van Lustbader isn’t helped by Matt Damon’s portrayal of Bourne in the films of Robert Ludlum’s original three books.

If a personality profiling questionnaire asked me, I’d strongly agree with the statement “The book is always better than the film.” But I’ve never read Ludlum’s Bourne books. And I’m never likely to as a result of having seen the films first. I suspect that they might be the exception that proves the books-are-better-than-films rule.

Damon is the definitive Bourne.

The Bourne persona jointly created by him and director Paul Greengrass is troubled, dark, enigmatic and taciturn.

And Van Lustbader’s Bourne is sadly wanting by comparison.

Lustbader’s Bourne talks too much.

To the point of being far too in touch with his feminine side.

There’s a certain type of unthreatening guy that girls find really easy to talk to. And that’s the mental image that I get from the Bourne Sanction.

An unthreatening Jason Bourne?

Troubled, yes.

Let’s-go-for-cocktails-and-a-good-cry-with-a-friend-who’s-a-boy-not-a-boyfriend, definitely no.

So the characterisation is all wrong.

And don’t even get me started on the writing.

I’m no literary snob. In fact I’m a big fan of the underrated art of populist storytelling as expounded by the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham, Jackie Collins, Michael Crichton et al.

But Van Lustbader takes populist and then runs it through some dumbing-down filter. He writes like a 14 year old who has been asked to pen an essay in the style of a populist novel. It’s over-egged and unsubtle.

The borrowed copy of The Bourne Sanction disintegrated somewhere in the Gobi Desert. So I can only quote passages that I’ve found on the internet. For example…

Today Moira was dressed in a wool suit, a silk blouse open at the throat. Her face was strong, with a prominent nose, deep brown eyes wide apart, intelligent, curved slightly at their outer corners. Her hair fell to her shoulders in luxuriant waves. There was an uncommon serenity about her, a woman who knew what she was about, who wouldn’t be intimidated or bullied by anyone, woman or man.

Perhaps this last was what Bourne liked best about her. In that, though in no other way, she was like Marie. He had never pried into her relationship with Martin, but he assumed it had been romantic, since Martin had given Bourne standing orders to send her a dozen red roses should he ever die. This Bourne had done, with a sadness whose depth surprised even him.

Settled in her chair, one long, shapely leg crossed over her knee, she looked the model of a European businesswoman. She had told him that she was half French, half English, but her genes still carried the imprint of ancient Venetian and Turkish ancestors. She was proud of the fire in her mixed blood, the result of wars, invasions, fierce love.

Yep, you can file parts of The Bourne Sanction under “bodice ripper”. And Van Lustbader applies the same heavy-handed, gratuitous-adjective-laden approach to the action scenes.

Forget it. Don’t even go there.

Jason Bourne dies at the hand of Eric Van Lustbader. Proof that the pen is mightier than the sword, mightier than the car bomb, various automatic and semi-automatic firearms, knives and all manner of improvised shivs.

By contrast Stieg Larsson brings Lisbeth Salander compellingly to life across 1,850 pages of elegant, perfectly paced storytelling. I hoovered the three volumes in under two weeks.

If the Millenium Trilogy were a piece of music it would be Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. Relentless, rhythmic, hypnotic tension punctuated by sudden crescendos.

And Larsson’s leading lady is all the things that Van Lustbader’s leading man isn’t – properly lonely, properly hard, properly fucked up.

Salander is often described as an unlikely heroine. I disagree.

For “unlikely” read socially inept, moody, judgemental, bisexual, allegedly psychopathic, probably autistic and, at the end of the day, female.

(One of the widely remarked upon delights of the Millenium trilogy is the portrayal of women as strong, central characters.)

But all of the traits that are supposed to make Salander an unlikely lass actually serve to make her more interesting. In the books it’s her against the world, but I was on her side from the beginning.

She is vulnerable and she has super powers. What is unlikely about that?

On the one hand she is a 40kg, 1.5m slip of a girl.

On the other she has a photographic memory, she is brilliant at maths, she’s a world class computer hacker, she acts decisively (sometimes violently) and she has a black and white view of who the bad guys are.

And she is much harder to kill than Van Lustbader’s Jason Bourne.

Salander survives the violent intentions of Estonian hitmen, the Swedish secret police, the Russian mafia, a half-brother who feels no pain, a rapist guardian, a psycopathic mass murderer businessman, and a Hells Angel motorcycle gang.

Her weapons of self defence are a Palm Pilot, her laptop, some self-written computer spyware, a golf club, a taser, mace spray, a video camera, an axe, the occasional gun, a tattoo needle, a nail gun and an anal plug.

(Not necessarily in that order.)

The Millenium books are populated by complex characters, held together by an original and gripping narrative, and distinguished by their head-on approach to a series of moral issues and taboos.

And if all that weren’t enough, you have the relatively unfamiliar and therefore intriguing setting of Sweden as a canvas for the action.

Larsson’s Sweden, like that of Henning Mankell, is at odds with the ill-informed, one dimensional view of the country that I suspect I share with many people.

It is surprising and selfishly reassuring to find that Sweden, that bastion of liberal common sense, has its fair share of corruption, racism, bigotry, perversion and scumbaggery.

So, if you like a lot of makes-you-think chocolate on your damn-good-story biscuit, go join the club of people who have been entertained and edified by these books.

P.S. There is a revealing and tragic back story to Stieg Larsson and his motivation/inspiration for the trilogy that I haven’t mentioned in this review. Find our more here, here and here.

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This book moved me.

I read a lot and derive some form of pleasure from the vast majority of books.

But to be moved is unusual.

This book made me reconsider my views on an important contemporary issue.

This book made me laugh on several occasions.

Particularly the exchange early in the book between one of the two main characters and a taxi driver who looks like Brian May from Queen.

This book kept surprising me all the way through to the end.

An end which I didn’t see coming.

Which, like being moved, is unusual.

The blurb on the back cover says…

“We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.”

Having read the book, I now understand that this is not the marketing hyperbole that I assumed it to be.

Having read the book I feel the same way. Do as I have done and only read the reviews and the back stories after you’ve read the book itself.

But read this book.

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