The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. But we’ve met before-a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of a girl no one remembers, yet her story will stay with you forever.

Review: Claire North writes some amazing genre-defying books. They seem to exist in that small range that can only really be called “speculative.” It’s not really sci-fi, it’s not really urban fantasy, it’s not really anything other than some amazingly-written “what if” stories that always engage me and get me thinking about things differently.

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, we see through the eyes of Hope Arden, a woman who, for some reason, can’t be remembered. Once she’s out of sight, your brain will just filter her out, leaving you with the impression that you ate dinner alone, didn’t meet a fascinating person, just generally went on with life without interacting with anyone. A few moments and gone are your memories of her.

Which is why she’s such an excellent thief.

But Hope gets in a little over her head when she encounters Perfection, an app that transforms lives by incentivizing socially-approved improvements. Link your bank account so the app knows you’re only purchasing vegan non-GMO food? Have 5000 points! Get a nose job so you look more attractive? Here’s a coupon for an hour at the spa! But Perfection is insidious, and Hope’s interest is sparked after it contributes to the death of someone she knew. She goes on a mission to steal the information and coding behind Perfection, to unravel its secrets, and in so doing, unleashes something terrifying and deadly against the app’s most successful users.

If you’re not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing, then there’ll be a lot about this book that doesn’t appeal to you. We’re seeing it all from Hope’s perspective, not so much sitting on her shoulders and being inside her head, privy to her thoughts, and, as thoughts sometimes get, things aren’t always coherent. Stops and starts, run-on sentences, inappropriate humour and random song lyrics, the rules of punctuation flying right out the window at times. And it’s intentional. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of thought, especially when someone’s frantic or stressed. Personally, I’m a fan of it. It’s refreshing, especially after seeing so many first-person POV stories where characters notice too much random detail or think extremely coherently, which makes for a very clear mental picture for the reader, but never actually reads as if it’s all coming from insider someone’s head as it all happens. This stylistic choice may not appeal to everyone, but it definitely appeals to me.

North has superb ability to write a complex story with brilliant realistic characters who exist outside the mainstream for various reasons. When she wasn’t tackling different kinds of immortality in Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, here she’s writing about not only someone who’s not only an accomplished thief, but someone who by definition cannot exist within the mainstream when nobody ever remembers her. She goes into detail about the trouble this causes, from not getting service at a restaurant to not getting care at a hospital, to the constant loneliness caused by not being able to make friends or by having your own family forget you were ever part of them. Her story is heartbreaking, and her fire understandable. You may not always agree with her actions, but you can always see the motivation behind them.

This is an amazing book, and in the manner of amazing book, it’s incredibly difficult to unpack. You’ve got themes of social engineering, racism, sexism, loss, suicide, risk-vs-gain, what people will do to survive, economic class struggles and the opportunity for advancement, whether it’s right to encourage people toward a damaging ideal even if they want to be that damaged… There’s a lot here about taking life into your own hands, for good or for ill, and it presents no clear side as unambiguously right or wrong. Morality wars with survival, advancement wars with acceptance, with all sides of the arguments having their pros and cons. North presents some interesting debates here, and over and over again I see it comes back to limits. What’s the limit on what somebody should do to further their goals? Where do the lines get drawn?

Also interesting is that The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t really get a resolution at the end. You see the end of Byron’s story more than you see the end of Hope’s. Hope ultimately doesn’t get what she wanted, and goes through hell in the process. It’s less the story of Hope and more the story of how Hope participated in the destruction of a problematic app and social movement. Less her story and more her part in something else’s story. Which is an uncommon approach to take, I think, but for my part, I think it worked well. Even if it left me feeling horrible for Hope in the end.

North tells the story well, captivates the reader and draws them in with vivid details and fascinating realistic characters. It’s the kind of story that gets under your skin and forces a perspective shift, forces you to confront uncomfortable issues and face down the things you take for granted, pushing you outside your comfort zone. It’s a story that stays with you long past the final page, keeping you asking questios and reconsidering what you once thought. It’s a book that, similar to North’s other novels, defies categorization, with the exception of being firmly in the You Should Read This, It’s Good category. It’s uncommon, special, and very much worth the time and effort you put into it. My hat’s off to Claire North once again for telling so poignant a story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Touch, by Claire North

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – Feburary 24, 2015

Summary: Kepler had never meant to die this way — viciously beaten to death by a stinking vagrant in a dark back alley. But when reaching out to the murderer for salvation in those last dying moments, a sudden switch takes place.

Now Kepler is looking out through the eyes of the killer himself, staring down at a broken and ruined body lying in the dirt of the alley.

Instead of dying, Kepler has gained the ability to roam from one body to another, to jump into another person’s skin and see through their eyes, live their life — be it for a few minutes, a few months or a lifetime.

Kepler means these host bodies no harm — and even comes to cherish them intimately like lovers. But when one host, Josephine Cebula, is brutally assassinated, Kepler embarks on a mission to seek the truth — and avenge Josephine’s death.

Thoughts: North has this wonderful knack to turn idle daydreams of mine into full fleshed-out stories that are darker and more complex than I ever tend to deal with in my own mind. First with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and now with Touch, I think it’s safe to say that I’m hooked on North’s insightful and downright poetic writing, and her ability to turn a simple “what if” into something brilliant.

Kepler is a ghost, transferring from body to body by a touch, flitting from one person to another and leaving them with no memories of the time when someone else was in control of their body. Kepler has been around for centuries, sometimes inhabiting a host for years, sometimes only a few mere seconds. This is how it’s always been, until one day everything changes, and Kepler is being hunted by a group that wants to eliminate ghosts and their takeovers. Only it’s not quite as simple as all that, and there’s a larger mystery afoot.

For all that pains are taken to leave Kepler’s original gender out of things, to me, Kepler reads as very much male. I can’t quite put my finger on why, and possibly I’m dead wrong, but that’s how the character came across to me. Very little is said about Kepler’s origins, only their mode of dying, and that heightens the mystery and leaves you with no concrete answers by the end. And what I love is that it doesn’t really matter. Kepler is Kepler. Even by their own definition. Kepler is whoever is being inhabited at that moment. Male or female, it makes no difference. There is no preference. It seems to be quite similar for many of the other ghosts that are encountered through the novel, too. I like that notion, that gender is a thing that ceases to mean anything after numerous decades and numerous hosts have passed. When you can jump into any body and live whatever life you choose, having one hard-and-fast gender that you must be for any length of time does seem a little bit too rigid a notion to keep around for long. North did wonders with expressing that without saying it outright, or trying to beat the reader over the head with the idea.

The mystery itself, of who is behind the attempted assassinations of ghosts (for ghosts can actually die if their host bodies die and there’s nobody else to jump to), is interesting, though for all that there are assassination attempts, the book isn’t a very action-heavy book. There are a few scenes, yes, but most of the novel involves discovery and contemplation, with plenty of flashbacks for context and to keep the reader jumping around almost as much as Harry August did. It’s not quite as nonlinear as that, but it does have a large number of flashbacks, all of which do provide wonderful context and backstory and flesh out the characters and the situation a lot, and the way North handles it is skillful and deft, so while it may be a little tough for those used to more linear stories, I find that it works very well to tell numerous branches of a long story that are all coming together at pivotal points.

I mentioned earlier that North has twice written novels about concepts I’ve daydreamingly entertained myself with over the years. I’m somewhat obsessed with the notion of immortality, in the sense that there are multiple lives I would love to live and remember, so many things that I want to do that I don’t think I could reasonably fit them into a single life. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August tackles one aspect of that, while Touch tackles another. Living your own life over again versus being mentally immortal and being able to take over a body and living whatever kind of life you can make for yourself. Both involve large amounts of money (which translate to freedom, in a sense, because some things you just can’t accomplish in a timely fashion without a lot of funds on hand), which is handled as well in this book as the one before, and just as realistically. So thus far North has written 2 books that appeal to me on a very deep and personal level, and she explores the ideas in ways that I hadn’t previously considered and that are far more complex and realistic than my little daydreams ever allowed for. I kind of love these books for that reason alone, that they feel like they were almost written specifically to appeal to someone with exactly my kind of mindset, and as such there’s a lot of wisdom and things to reflect on that I take away from Touch. Perhaps more than the author even intended.

All this is why even when the plot slowed down or got a little too tangled in itself for a while, I loved Touch. It’s a fascinating exploration of character, of what people can do when they’re given the chance to live forever and lead any kind of life they want, from any point, so long as they can find the appropriate person to take over and be. The writing is beautiful, the story intricate, the characters endlessly fascinating. It questions what we accept as normal and forces us to bend our minds around an entirely new viewpoint. Utterly amazing, and well worth reading for anyone who wants to submerge themselves in a unique and powerful story.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 8, 2014

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.”

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

Thoughts: It was an interesting coincidence that I read this book when I did, picking it at random from my To Read pile, since at that time I had been considering revisiting an old story idea that was very similar to the concept in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The idea of living your life, then going back and doing it all over again, memories intact and being fully aware of the fact that you’re living it all over again… What would you change? What would you keep the same? What responsibility would you feel to society and to the world, preventing damage and creating gains, and is it really your right to decide?

This is what Harry August experiences. Every time he dies, he is born again into the same life, still himself, still in the same circumstances forced on him by childhood, but always with the memories of his previous lives intact, always with the awareness that all of this has happened before. And because of these memories, his life is different each time. He’s able to use past knowledge to advance himself further, to skip past the tedium of a typical life that he has already lived in order to improve himself. Then he discovers the Cronus Club, a world-wide organization of people just like him, who are reborn time and time again with their memories intact, who live their lives over and over again and who have vowed, among other things, to not alter the course of history so drastically that the future becomes unrecognizable.

The end of the world is coming. But now it’s coming faster than ever before.

Someone has broken that rule.

Claire North is an absolutely amazing writer, able to take small things and extrapolate the consequences and make a fantastic story out of them. Not only that, but the story forces you, by its very nature, to stop thinking in a linear fashion, A then B then C, and to contemplate cause and effect in a way that I don’t see done very often. Reading it twists your mind in interesting new directions, trying to keep track of timelines and relative perception and really, I need more books in my life that give my brain such a good workout, because it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. For all that the premise for this book is relatively simple, it’s not a light read, and it’s worth taking the time to puzzle over and properly digest.

But it’s also for that very reason that I see a lot of people talk about The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August just wasn’t to their taste. If you’re expecting a light read, you won’t get it. If you want something that’s just fluffy and straightforward, you won’t get it. If you want something that’s fast-paced and full of tension and good action, this isn’t the book you should be picking up. It’s one of those books that I highly recommend people look into reviews of first, because this isn’t the book for everyone, no matter how good it is. Whether you enjoy it is probably going to be based very much on what you expect when going into it.

For my part, though, I loved it. The characters were beautifully real, flawed and selfish and diverse as anything! People like Harry, whether you call them ourobourans or kalachakra or non-linears, can occur anywhere, at any time, and thanks to memories of the future and the assets of the Cronus Club, they’re able to live comfortably wherever and whenever they are. So you’ll see the years of Harry’s life, from the early 1900s onward, in different countries, different regimes and governments, different ways of living and thinking, and it gives you a great perspective on world history, looking at the large from the viewpoint of the very small. It’s such an intelligent novel, well-researched and amazingly written, even if it’s a little bit dry at times.

So, long story short, if you’re in the mood for thought-provoking smart novel that takes an interesting approach to history and perception, then get your hands on a copy of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It may not be the kind of novel that everyone will enjoy reading, but if you’re the right type, it will trip so many of the right triggers and be a very satisfying literary adventure.

(Received for review from the publisher.)