Monday 3 February 2014

REVIEW: The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham (4*)

(Penguin, 2008)

"... if it were a choice for survival between a triffid and a blind man, I know which I'd put my money on."

This was my second John Wyndham novel (my first being The Chrysalids - read my review here) and once again I found myself in the grip of an absorbing, well-plotted, complex and all-round interesting story.  It didn't scare me stupid - not after the first chapter, at least - like it did some people, but it did make me think and I thought the triffids were fascinating.

Let me also just say that the plot wasn't at all what I was expecting.  I thought there was some kind of alien conspiracy at work, and that the triffids were something akin to the tripod thingies in The War of the Worlds.  In actual fact, they are bio-engineered carnivorous plants with long stings that lash out at their victims, delivering a deadly welt to the face or hands.  They can also, bizarrely, raise themselves out of the soil and 'walk', lurching across the ground, and even seem to communicate.  Probably the biggest surprise for me as I started reading was the fact that the triffids are already a huge presence on earth before the book begins.  In some areas they're a menace; in others, large nurseries exploit their potential for scientific and medicinal use, and in affluent countries, properly tethered and with their stings regularly docked, they're a popular garden novelty. The events of the novel don't in themselves create a triffid rampage - they just send them to the top of the food chain...

The novel opens with protagonist Bill waking up in a London hospital the night after a brilliant green meteor shower.  Not only has he not been able to watch the freak cosmic firework display that the rest of the world's been raving about, thanks to having treatment after a near miss in his job working as a triffid researcher, but the entire hospital seems to have shut down since he fell asleep.  It quickly becomes apparent that something's very wrong, and when he plucks up the courage to remove his own eye bandages he realises he's the only person who can still see.  All around him, other patients are waking up blind, and chaos ensues as panicking people stumble through the streets.  Within hours order has broken down and Bill has already witnessed several suicides by people who have understood the futility of their situation.  These early chapters are perhaps the most harrowing of them all, as despair sinks in and people realise that there's no one to help them survive and that at best they're probably going to starve to death in their homes.

Aaaand then the triffids begin to arrive, lurching in from the surrounding countryside, breaking out of their nurseries and homing in on their suddenly vulnerable sustenance of choice.  For Bill and the companions he acquires, still sighted, well aware of the dangers triffids pose at the best of times, a little care is all that's required.  For the blind, there is no such chance of survival.  Actually, the triffids are probably less scary than I expected them to be.  The stings are instantly lethal, so they're actually quite merciful as far as horror-novel monsters go.  For people who are helpless and waiting to die, death by triffid - especially a death that can't be seen coming, can't be anticipated and feared - is almost a better way to go, I'd have said.  There are still some horrendous attacks, some really heartbreaking and heartpounding moments, but I should have known better than to think Wyndham would resort to cheap thrills and relentless carnage...

Mostly the dystopian element of the novel comes from the blindness, the disintegration of society and the attempt at rebuilding something from the remnants of life as we know it.  The triffids are a menace, but they're almost a side-plot a lot of the time, and in some ways that's probably what makes Wyndham's novels more subtle and less scary than some of his sci-fi-horror peers.  As in The Chrysalids, the writing is fantastic, the plot is thoughtful, the characters (and their reactions to the crisis) are complex and varied, and the story feels surprisingly modern given that it was first published in 1951; it has that timeless era-vague quality that makes all the best books so enduring.  I'm not sure which of these books I've preferred so far, but I still have The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos on my shelves and there are more at the library, so I'm definitely not done with Wyndham yet!

For a more coherent review I recommend checking out Ellie's thoughts over at Lit Nerd!

Notable Quotables:
  • "It's humiliating to be dependent... but it's a still poorer pass to have no one to depend on."
  • "Absurd it undoubtedly was, but I had a very strong sense that the moment I stove-in one of those sheets of plate-glass I should leave the old order behind me for ever: I should become a looter, a sacker, a low scavenger upon the dead body of the system that had nourished me.  Such a foolish niceness of sensibility in a stricken world!"
  • "The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts, and obliterated by the jungles of Asia.  Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them.  But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modern city seemed to me...  It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that 'it can't happen here' - that one's own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.  And now it was happening here.  Unless there should be some miracle I was looking on the beginning of the end of London."
  • "Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary....  That day I had learned that it was much more.  It was something that could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind.  Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care... it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly..."
  • "Growing things seemed, indeed, to press out everywhere, rooting in the crevices between the paving stones, springing from cracks in concrete, finding lodgements even in the seats of the abandoned cars.  On all sides they were encroaching to repossess themselves of the arid spaces that man had created.  And curiously, as the living things took charge increasingly, the effect of the place became less oppressive."

Source:  I bought this book in an epic pre-birthday buying spree in 2011.

Saturday 1 February 2014

January: What I Read, What I'm Reading

One of the things I've really been enjoying about my recent headfirst dive into the world of BookTube is the way vloggers can just chat about what they've been reading recently without having to necessarily delve into everything at length.  I like the way they can share their TBR piles gleefully and describe what books they've been buying and reading, and their monthly wrap-ups in which they share their books for the month all in one go.  Given that I'm definitely not feeling like reviewing much at the moment, and box sets are taking up more space in my life than books, I thought I'd follow the BookTube lead and do a January round-up of what I read and what I bought.  I hope you like it!
~ What I Read ~
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
by Holly Black
This was my first Holly Black novel, and I really enjoyed it.  It takes every vampire novel you've ever read, old and new, scrambles everything up and lays it out with a fresh new twist.  The writing's excellent, the characters are interesting, the setting is very intriguing, and the romance between Tana and Gavriel is just the right balance between old-school seduction and modern flirtation.  I gave it 4 stars, and you can read my review here.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter
by Jeff Lindsay
The first book in the Dexter series, which is maybe better known for its TV incarnation starring Michael C. Hall.  I didn't really expect that much from this, especially after a couple of people mentioned they didn't rate it much.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I loved it - I loved the unique premise, I loved Dexter's voice and the pitch black humour, I loved the insight into a sociopathic mind... it was fascinating.  I gave it 4.5 stars and you can read my review here.

Casino Royale
by Ian Fleming
Another first-in-series, this time the first of the iconic 007 James Bond novels.  I've read a couple of the others already, but I didn't rate this one much.  I knew the outline of the plot already, thanks to the movie - but the movie was better.  The characters are so flat in the novels, and setting aside the 'but CONTEXT!' argument, Bond is a stone-cold bastard.  There's no humour in him, no spark to offset his arrogance.  I gave it 2.5 stars.

Opium: Reality's Dark Dream
by Thomas Dormandy
I'd been reading this one way before the New Year, but I finally cracked on in January and finished it during Bout of Books.  It's not the lightest of history books, but it made up for it by being absolutely fascinating.  It's incredible to think how one humble substance from one humble flower has literally shaped our entire history, from medicine to literature, and continues to have an enormous effect on world economics, politics and health.  The modern chapters were perhaps the most jaw-dropping (about heroin, obviously), because I had NO IDEA of the sheer scale of the heroin trade.  I gave this book 4 stars.

The Day of the Triffids
by John Wyndham
This is another one of those books where I thought I knew the general deal, but I didn't really.  I already knew that most of the world is blinded by some sort of freak meteor shower; the big surprise was that triffids are already a big presence on the planet before the dystopian element begins, and that they're bio-engineered plants, not aliens.  Despite the havoc they wreak, they're really just one more problem for the few who can still see.  It's the blindness that's the main focal point, and the way both sighted and sightless have to find their own ways to survive in this new landscape.  Beautifully written and an intriguing premise - I gave it 4 stars and you can read my review here.

Anna and the French Kiss
by Stephanie Perkins
Yup, I finally read Anna!  It's about time I read it, because I won my copy so long ago.  It's a signed American hardcover, and as I was reading more stuff kept falling out of it - a signed bookmark and a bunch of leaflets from the event.  Very cool.  It's a lovely, funny YA contemporary novel about a girl whose father ships her off to an American boarding school in Paris, where she gets to know the city, makes new friends and falls head over heels for a seriously crushworthy young man who seems to be taking a shine to her too.  Shame he's taken...  BUT FOR HOW LONG?  Sweet, funny, evocative, romantic, a bit Rainbow Rowell-esque... I gave it 4 stars!
~ What I'm Reading ~
Right now I'm reading Lightning Rods by Helen deWitt, a bizarre American satire about a salesman who decides that an amazing way to increase office productivity and reduce sexual harassment lawsuits would be... to install anonymous sex playthings in every office.  That is, people who work in the office doing regular office stuff, but also play an added role as outlets for sexual tension.  I'm not entirely sure yet how this is meant to be completely anonymous for both parties, but the rather odd protagonist is determined that this is a product that will make his fortune.  The hints at his future fame suggest that this will, in fact, be the case, so I'll be interested to find out where the hell this strange premise is going...

Aaaand that was January!