Though somehow, it would have passed me by completely if not for the Richard and Judy autumn list. I don't usually like many of their selections, but the title and idea of this stopped me in my tracks. And I was impressed.
Written under a pseudonym (of a previously sci-fi fantasy writer - one I haven't tried), 'Harry August' is a Groundhog Day without the romance, without the comedy, but sprinkled with a little Edge of Tomorrow and a good helping of Source Code, a little torture, megalomania, some philosophical thought and a great deal of intriguing writing.
Harry lives his life. Born to a raped mother in a 1920s railway station, raised not knowing his father, his life is fairly unremarkable despite enlisting in World War Two, his eventual demise from bone marrow cancer does not end his story. He is born again.... at the railway station in the 1920s... With all the knowledge of his previous life floating back to him as a toddler. And so it continues. While the first couple of pages are confusing, once this pattern and idea is set up within a half dozen pages, you're hooked. It's almost wish fulfilment - what would YOU do, living your life again with the chance to make different choices?
It's not a book about 'whys', how this might happen. It's about what we would do with eternity, what we would see and do, what we would change - and not only about ourselves. The book does veer from one life to another, though roughly in sequential order with segues to add context.
Absolutely fascinating stuff. Simply the regeneration alone would be novel-worthy, but more than one adversary pops up for Harry to deal with. Of course, other people's reactions to Harry's uniqueness are mixed - from the wife who commits him to the spies who want a scoop on future twentieth century history. Torture scenes are uncomfortable but not long or graphic (and Harry narrates them with little emotion, from a future incarnation).
The thought that's gone into this is stunning - the idea of passing messages backwards and forwards from young people to old and visa versa as they meet in their timelines. The knock-on effect of changing world history early. The 'club' of ouroborans/kalachakra (those who loop perpetually through their lives) who aid each other at important times in their lives. It's just so well described, it could be real. I loved Harry's changing relationship with his adopted parents and those he finds he is biologically related to, how he can't escape his eventual cancerous fate, how he can become a spy, a professor, a scientist with so many years to play with.
The villain of the piece is scary - a calm madman, insidious and frightening in his genius and reach. You ache for Harry to find a way to win, to stop the madness and save the world, as it seems to come down to.
It's such a good read, so cinematic inside my head, I wanted to read about Harry's next lives. I would in fact, if there were a sequel.
Great to see this kind of book on the Richard and Judy list, it's refreshing, incredibly thought-provoking and thrilling, a twisty read that plays with your mind and reality, and would make an excellent book group choice.
on 15 October 2014
When I received this book to review my first thought was “oh no not another time travelling novel”, having not really enjoyed the last one I read, Atkinson’s Life after Life. Thankfully, however I found this novel far better.
It’s an original story of a man repeatedly born again trying to come to terms with what his purpose in life is, as in each recurring life, he is born having retained all his knowledge and experiences from his previous lives. Imagine being 4 years old in the 1920’s and knowing everything that happens in the future like knowing winning lottery numbers, the names of future murderers, future world leaders and events like war breaking out, AIDS, the advance of technology and the progress of science and ultimately the big question Why Me? What am I supposed to do with all this knowledge.
The first part of this novel sees the main protagonist Harry coming to terms with who he is and learning about the special ability he has. Clare North skilfully takes us through this tumultuous journey of confusion and understanding with brilliant, controlled writing. Big ideas and topics are discussed with enough depth and scope to keep the reader thrilled and entertained but not too much to make your head spin and lose the sense of the where the novel is going.
When Harry finds a meaning for his recurring lives, a key character is introduced, Vincent. I felt that both Harry and Vincent were so creatively fleshed out they came alive off the page and I was absolutely engaged in their story which became pacey and dramatic in the second half of the novel.
I thoroughly recommend this book, already have lent it to a friend. It’s so stimulating it has stayed in my mind still and I am sure I will reread it again as it had so much depth and fascinating ideas.
on 22 August 2015
A real curate's egg. I liked the concept, and it takes some getting your head around. To summarize: because in consecutive lifetimes people you met in the previous lifetime remember that as their last lifetime too, it seems that the entire world must reset when every single ouroboran from the dawn of time to the end of the human race has completed one life. Which was kind of fun to think about.
This means that you can send messages forward as far as you like in one instantiation of the world, but you can only send a message back by one generation at a time. Nonetheless, our narrator gets a message that the end of the world is happening sooner than it used to. He soon twigs that it's because of a rogue ouroboran in his own lifetime (1919 to the early 21st century) who is meddling in the old Things That Man Was Not Meant etc.
Now here's the biggest flaw in the book. We are asked to accept that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, just as long as ouroborans do nothing to try and improve the human lot. Create antibiotics 50 years early? Why, you fool, there'll be a dotcom crisis in the 1960s and nuclear war before 2020.
[Spoilers here on in...]
There's nothing wrong with SF taking a reactionary view. What would paperback sales be like in Boko Haram territories if it couldn't do that? But the dramtic flaw here is that we are presented with this intriguing, unexplained phenomenon of reincarnation, and one of the characters is trying to build a magic mirror - sorry, quantum mirror - which might well tell him and us what lies behind it all. But he's the bad guy. We're supposed to root instead for the plodding narrator who is doggedly trying to stop him so that dotcom crises and humanitarian disasters can happen when they're supposed to as ordained by - whatever, whoever. Personally I think the story would have worked better if the narrator was trying to cause change and reveal truths rather than putting all the genies back in their bottles.
The author does well at evoking the sense of many different lives lived. Less so at the emotional journey. The narrator's relationship with his real and adoptive fathers interested me far more, but was much more sketchily covered, than his struggle to stop anything different or interesting from ever happening. At one point his nemesis marries the woman he himself loved a dozen lives earlier. The reaction s both too little and too much - "I crawled into the bushes and wept." Dude, it was like 800 years ago. I can pass old flames in the street without going nutso, and that's just a matter of decades.
But then, our hero is an eidetic. Or rather, to use their own terminology, a mnemonic. He remembers everything. Often these eidetics are troublemakers, because they take vaccines and gunpowder back to earlier times. But wait a mo', every message passed back down from the future must do that... Moving on.
The style is rather uncomfortably prosaic and stilted. An attempt to render how somebody born in 1919 would write? Perhaps, but some poetic licence would have made it more tolerable. The ending is a little rushed, the bad guy all but throwing himself onto the pyre. It had the smack of author fatigue to me; time to wrap up and work on something else.
Still, an interesting concept - even if it is never actually explored either emotionally or scientifically. Maybe that will be in the sequel, but 400 pages was quite enough for me.
on 11 February 2016
I read the synopsis of The First Fifteen lives of Henry and was immediately excited. It is such a great idea; a man lives his life and when he dies he gets to do it all over again, with all of his memories intact. So simple (all great ideas are), yet it resonates against so many of life's fantasies; a chance to go back and fix the past, regrets for the paths not taken, what if i could have my time again, knowing then what i know now? Eternal life! Just the types of fruitless and futile desires we all torture ourselves with. It reminded me of a quote i first read in Paul Astor's Book of Illusions 'Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.' And that's always been one of my favorites.
It's an idea so good that you kick yourself for not having thought of it yourself, indeed as so often is the way with these things someone else did think of it. The protagonist of Kate Atkinson's Life after life is similarly destined to relive the same life over again but the treatments of the two novels are so different that it's pointless to compare them, whereas Atkinson uses the device to bring perspective to life's seemingly insignificant moments, Claire North uses it to open up a world of science fiction possibilities. To answer the question of what we could achieve if we got to build on a life of experiences, knowledge and wisdom. It's a question with so many possible answers and so many differing directions that the author has seemingly been bewildered and tried to go down them all at once. It really is a crying shame, but i think that the great synopsis has been pretty much wasted by an author drunk on the power of that initial idea.
The first problem i had with the book is the writing style, it has a smug grandness to it, not an ounce of subtlety or humour. The second problem was Harry himself, again he is surfeit with a smugness that kinda made me want to punch him in the face, you'd think a man who lived a bunch of lives would have learned a little humility but instead we get a character forever congratulating himself on how amazing he is. I was actually quite pleased every time he got tortured (it happens a lot). Yet for a character with such levels of self satisfaction he is completely void of personality, certainly he is completely lacking any humour to which the reader could warm. The third major problem was a nagging sense that none of it quite works, time travel is tricky enough as it is but the author pours on so many layers of complexity that by the time she's done you can drive an articulated lorry though the holes in the logic. This is not so much Terminator as it is Terminator Genisys (and that is one baaaaad movie). The one saving grace is the pace of the story, with so much going on it really is breathless, i would be scratching my head thinking 'hold on a minute, you just told us that certain events like the 2nd world war cannot be stopped from happening, and now you're saying the whole course of the future has been altered? Or hang on i thought there were alternate timelines going on, how can what happens in the past of one timeline affect the future of another??? Just when i was thinking these issues were too problematic something else happens to drag your attention away and suddenly Harry is being tortured again (honestly it's ridiculous, there's pages of it, i was barely skimming through them by the end) That is i think the best complement i can pay to the author, apart from congratulations for having the idea in the first place, is the sheer balls it must take to just keep ploughing forward, who cares if it doesn't make any sense, don't think about it too much and keep the faith. It seems to have worked for her, there are loads of positive reviews, it's sold really well and it seems plenty of people enjoyed it. Perhaps i just got my hopes up too high, maybe i'm the cause of my own misery but i thought that the bad outweighed the good, it's a great idea, maybe one day a book will do it justice. Just not this book.
on 15 November 2014
This is for the book club read, I'm struggling if I was honest, so it's a little too heavy for me I'm skimming through it quickly to get to the end. I was hoping it was going to be a bit like time travellers wife, which is one of the best books I have read. But it's too complicated and too many strange names in it to keep track. Can't. Wait to finish to be honest. Sorry. Just. Not my thing but may be yours
on 1 May 2016
This book has the same basic premise as Life after Life, once that's rather different from usual stories of reincarnation or time-travel: whenever the main character dies, they are born again in the same time and place and relive the same life again. I felt this book did a much better job with this premise, both in terms of building up the rules and mythology and really imagining what it would be like to be a child again with all the memories and knowledge of adulthood in your head.
The first half of the book mostly play this straight, going through the first few lives more or less sequentially, exploring different choices and showing what it's like to live that way. I really enjoyed this. Too many books don't properly explore their unique premise before launching into an adventure narrative. The second half becomes much more dramatic, focussing on a showdown over several lives with someone with the same ability as Harry. It's also very well done.
I did have a few questions, most notably how anyone can claim the linears (those who don't reincarnate in this way) only get one shot at life, when they are appearing in each life and making different choices. The only real difference seems to be how much of a memory of earlier lives they do or don't have. Any similarly, I couldn't understand how all of the Ouroborns (those who do) were consistently on the same timeline as each other in each successive life, despite potentially dying decades apart. Still, books are at their best when they get your mind whirring like that and overall, I'd highly recommend.
Harry is one of an elite group of people that can live over and over again. He lives his first life in somewhat obscurity and then is reborn in exactly the same circumstances only to commit suicide with madness. It is only when he gets to his third life that he realises what is happening and then he is contacted by another of the group and begins to use each life to its potential. This is an excellent idea, it is clever and very well worked out and the author seems to have thought of all the ramifications for how you would live and what would be important to you in this situation (as well as the boredom of living through childhood again and again).
A message then comes back through the years that the end of the world in coming sooner than it should and those who relive their lives are finding that their memories of past lives are being wiped and that the structures they have built to preserve themselves are being destroyed. Harry ends up being the person who has to do something about this and he needs to use all his powers and his intelligence to survive past fifteen years.
I loves this book. I felt very attached to Harry and to what was happening to him and I loved the way that the author developed the story. I enjoyed the various ways that those in Harry's situation lived and also the fact that he, and others, took it upon themselves to right certain wrongs in every life that they lived. I did find that I had some difficulty in working out exactly what the "villain" was up to and what his machine would do but apart from that detail I enjoyed what Harry had to do in order to foil him and I thought that teh author was very clever in working this out.
This is an excellent five star read. It is unusual, clever and engaging. One for those who enjoyed "The Time Traveller's Wife" or "Unhappenings" as it is similar.
Claire North's (who she?) wonderful page-turning mind-mangle across, primarily, the mid to latter part of the twentieth century is dizzying, disorientating and dazzling!
North is already a successful author with a couple of pen-names, within particular genres - YA and fantasy. This book is so very very different that it seemed sensible to use separate names, for different audiences, and to avoid preconceptions
Harry August, is a `Kalachakra'. This concept (if not the word itself) can be found in philosophical thought from both the European Classical Philosophical Tradition, and, (where the term comes from) from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (sometimes written as Kalacakra) It refers to the concept of time being circular, the wheel of time, as opposed to linear The circularity of time is a concept within which many ideas, from the nature of matter/time and their connections, to the idea of parallel universes, forking time/choice, re-incarnation and the transmigration of souls, can find a home. The Kalachakran is also aware, and has memory of their prior incarnations
North has taken the idea of a kind of repetition of time/choice (say, in filmic terms, Groundhog Day AND Sliding Doors) but has come up with a very clever and mind blowing concept - linking classical thinking and the future - that, from recorded history, there have always BEEN those who were reborn, again and again, within their own time frame - not, as it were, time travellers from the future or from the past - if you were born, as Harry August is, in his first life in 1918, and are then reborn, you are reborn into your own life and your own time - still, where you were born the first time, in the same place, but you will have awareness of that earlier life, and may perhaps make different choices, parallel choices, choices which may be occurring in a parallel universe. The clever twist is, there will be other Kalachakra, born perhaps half a generation or a generation later, who may be able to bring you awareness of the future - and `messages' can be passed, next generation child to dying elderly person back and forth through time. Confused? Dizzy? Its like walking in one direction on an escalator travelling in the opposite direction.
A club, (dating back thousands of years, reflecting all those thousand years back circular timers) the Cronos Club, a secret organisation, passing messages back and forth in time, exists to protect its own. The law, the rule, which must not be broken is that the large events of past and future must not be changed - to seek to bring future knowledge back into the past is to irretrievably change the nature of the past and thus the future, with potentially cataclysmic effects.
Unfortunately someone, or more than one someone, is subtly doing this. Small scientific changes begn to happen, from some time in the 1920s, which should not have happened at that time. Very very subtle technological changes, opening the possibility for earlier discovery of yet more changes. And some members of the Cronos Club are aware of this.
North keeps a wonderfully firm hand on her inventions, technologies, theories of physics, and marries this to a very human story. This is absolutely a `literary' novel full of authentic psychology, believable people and relationships in time and space, friendship, betrayal, greed, thirst for power and domination, with a very well thought through twist. There really is plenty for those who like their science fiction to have science within it, not just fiction. There are no aliens, no spaceships, no intergalactic battles - just us, within a period from 1918, comprising most the last century, and a little into this - but with a deeply unsettling, deeply plausible twist - the world is ending (as it will, one day) but, it appears that it will be ending faster as knowledge from a little in the future, gets used a little earlier.
The book is full of brilliant pull-the-rug-out twists, which had me absolutely shouting Oh NO Oh YES in shock and recognition. And, as a not so often used driver of `what is the central relationship here' - it is not a romantic one, not a parent/child - it is friendship, and its glues and sunderings.
This was, quite honestly, a book I could not bear to put down, It permeated my dreams two nights in succession, so much so that I woke and had to do some middle of the night further reading, driven by the page-turning (faster and faster, not just the world ending faster!) mind-mangling workout North was whipping up
5 star and then some! Hugely enjoyable, most entertaining, and with lots of really good stuff to chew on
on 23 December 2014
This was recommended to me by two colleagues so I gave it a try. Wow, am I glad that I did! I've read a few time travel books before but nothing like this; it's like a cross between 'Groundhog Day' and 'The Tale of the Ancient Mariner'. Harry August is born on new year's day 1919 and dies, after an average span of years, from a form of cancer. Then he's born again, on new year's day 1919 and he lives another life. And again. And again. Each life is slightly different from the last but Harry remembers everything from every life so he might be six years old and also 300 years old at the same time.
This simple premise is expressed with such logical clarity and detail that you, as reader, just accept that, of course it's true. There are others in the world like Harry, born again and again but always within roughly the same time frame and only very few of them have Harry's ability to remember absolutely everything, from every life. No one can actually time travel but the mechanism for passing information forwards and backwards in time is ingeniously logical.
Then the news arrives that, not only is the end of the world due at some point in the future, but that date is getting earlier with every passing generation or 're-birth'. Someone is tinkering with time. The arch villain is also Harry's closest friend and the immensely gripping plot centres on the question of whether Harry can stop the end of the world or will his nemesis destroy Harry first?
The writing style here is superb; emotional and engrossing without descending into mawkishness. The descriptions range from fulsome to spare but are always exactly appropriate for that part of the story. Characters are vividly portrayed and seeing some of them change as they move through their multiple lives is fascinating. All of the strongest emotions are here; love, hate, betrayal, trust, devotion and jealousy among them. Buried within the plot is a detective story but, here, Harry can pursue his adversary not just across the planet but also across several consecutive lives; it brings a whole new dimension to patience.
The final ending to the story, following a chaotic conclusion to Harry's 14th life, is so inevitably deadly and coldly precise to be chillingly disturbing and satisfying at the same time.
Claire North is just a pseudonym for another author but I don't really care who wrote this; it's simply brilliant and, by far, the best book of its kind that I've ever read. I have thanked my colleagues, profusely, for their excellent recommendation and I pass that recommendation now to you; read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; you won't be sorry.
When this book first appeared, I was rather ambivalent about buying it. I'd tried a couple of others by North (under a different pseudonym) and not got on with them. However, the endnote promises that this is very different from the author's earlier works, the book got massive praise, and I did buy it. I am really glad I did because - while not perfect - it is extremely readable, bold in concept, enjoyable and thought provoking.
All that despite a theme - the central character lives his life over and over again - which has been used recently in two very high profile stories (Kate Atkinson's "Life after Life" and the film "Edge of Tomorrow", based on "All You Need is Kill" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka). North's book, however, avoids imitation of either since she concentrates very firmly on the consequences to her protagonist of his repeated lives. Ostensibly this book is about Harry August and his attempt to prevent a future disaster inflicted on the world by him and his fellow "ourobons". Really, it's an insightful study of the weariness, ennui and spiritual despair of someone destined to repeat life over and over, with only minor variations, coupled with a study of friendship and rivalry.
Harry August is born in 1919, in doubtful circumstances, and has a harsh early life. As with all of his kind, his first few lives are spent coming to terms with living again and again. It's only when he discovers the Cronus Club, a worldwide federation of similar beings, that he really gains some equilibrium. And then, a whispered message from the future warns that the world is ending...
The book is generally very well written - although in places it is perhaps slightly overwritten: sometimes North seems to try just that bit too hard. For example, when she describes the reincarnated August - who has lived a couple of full lives, died, and ended up again as a six year old boy - she has him say that he "...wore my child's body as an old woman might wear a skinny bikini bought for her by a fragile friend." (Why a "fragile" friend?) That had me reeling, slightly. The wonderful, sprawling concept gives her a perfect licence to illustrate her themes by hopping back and forward between Harry's lives, picking incidents from here and there to show the different ways the ourobons try to make their endless, repeating existence tolerable. So one adopts a life of debauched excess. Another is a mercenary, following wars from continent to continent. Still another organises a massive scientific programme to try and understand his own nature). Several devote themselves to helping newly reincarnated ouroborons, who grow to full adult understanding by the age of five or six, to escape long and tedious childhoods. She's thought through the consequences of these repeated lives very well.
I was less convinced by the scraps of physics used to back up the motif, and there are one or two "with one bound he was free" twists (for example, the cunning escape North contrives for Harry from a cell in a Soviet camp - so cunning I couldn't quite see how it worked) but to complain about that would rather miss the point, I think. I'd recommend this as a cracking good read, and an excellent contribution to the repeating-lives subgenre.