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The Murdstone Trilogy, The Power and Invisible Monsters: Book Corner 4.1

It’s time for The Book Corner season 4, part 1, loosely themed around books that had shaped our writing journeys. With nine very different titles, I’ll give my tuppence-worths in three instalments.

Title graphic for part 1 of The Book Corner season 4, featuring The Murdstone Trilogy, The Power and Invisible Monsters.

What is the book corner?

Each month, our writing group takes a break from critiquing WIPs to examine a complete, published novel. Everyone picks a book, based on a loose theme connected to making us better writers. If nothing else, it’s a great way to broaden my reading beyond the SF I’d probably choose.

In season three, we looked at award-winning genre fiction to find out what literary awards can teach writers. For the book corner season 4, we took a more relaxed approach.

The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet

The cover of The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet shows a writer slumped over his keyboard, with a ghostly wizard's hat floating above his head. It's the first book in The Book Corner season 4.

My notes for The Murdstone Trilogy begin with three words: “MEAN MEAN MEAN.”

It’s a very clever but horribly mean-spirited dark satire on creativity, publishing, genre fiction, social media and even Peet’s own novels. Yet this satirical take on fantasy isn’t simply mean, it’s outdated and narrow. It’s no surprise that The Murdstone Trilogy was lauded by literary critics who sit outside genre fiction. It’s a poor take compared to the joyful genre satires created by authors like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.

The bitterness is less surprising when you look at Peet’s career. He was a decorated children’s author whose success dried up after several books. The Murdstone Trilogy was completed and published not long before he died from cancer, aged 67. The protagonist is an author insert, settling scores with people and places, even denigrating his own work. With death on the doorstep, Peet was apparently unafraid of being attacked for racist, transphobic and ableist characters. It’s another question how critics in 2014 ignored tropes that would have been unpleasant in the 1980s.

Read without context, The Murdstone Trilogy is often wonderful, with landscapes that reminded me of Alan Garner. There’s an extremely effective conceit that shows the protagonist receiving entire books from one of his characters, used to great effect as the plot develops. Vivid characters and unique voices populate a Faustian tale of authorial desperation, which twists ever darker towards a nihilistic ending that allows no redemption.

My fellow readers described The Murdstone Trilogy as a “bile dump” and “writing to spite the reader”. I can’t help feeling sorry that Peet’s life led a talented writer to pen a final novel that’s so embittered. Neither can I imagine Pratchett leaving such an tragic legacy.

If you liked The Murdstone Trilogy, I’d love to know why.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The cover of The Power by Naomi alderman features a red hand covered with branching lines that resemble lightning or a tree. It's the second book in The Book Corner season 4.

Disclosure notice: I have a soft spot for Naomi Alderman. She’s the lead writer on Zombies, Run, a story-running app which has kept me going for well over a thousand kilometres since 2013.

The Power is a dystopian SF tale, a feminist take on superpowers which might be pitched as The Handmaid’s Tale meets A Canticle For Leibowitz via World War Z. It’s the story of young women around the world who gain the power to shoot electricity from their bodies, told retrospectively by a male historian in a matriarchal future.

The framing narrative is essential to understanding the story, and in itself critiques both the story and the act of writing. Alderman’s narrators and protagonists of both genders are unreliable, broken and betrayed. Their actions and choices are consistent to her world, and she’s not afraid to show that power corrupts women as much as men.

On this second reading of The Power, I was struck by its prescience. She describes too well a Qanon-style conspiracy group that inspires terrorism, while both states and organisations undermine peace for their own aims. As for a nuclear apocalypse beginning in the Caucuses, I hope that’s not too accurate.

It’s not a perfect novel, but it is bold, unflinching and original. Did The Power electrify you? Let me know in the comments.

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

The cover of Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk, showing a sketch of a princess with blood spatters across her mouth, and the title of the novel written upside-down and back to front. It's the third book in The Book Corner season 4.

Chuck Palahniuk is one of those authors who manages to be Marmite on a book-by-book basis. I started Invisible Monsters in a good mood, thanks to a dedication which every writer will recognise: ‘…my editor, Patricia, who kept saying, “This is not good enough.”’

Invisible Monsters is difficult to review without spoilers. It’s a story about identity and deception in which everyone is telling lies or withholding information. I can reveal that it’s shocking, funny, sad, sharply satirical and thoroughly non-linear. If you find it too straightforward, there’s now a Remix that’s so non-linear it comes with instructions.

The cast is small, but it’s often hard to keep track of because everyone has at least two identities, so it rewards at least one re-reading to see how the story emerges and how it’s disguised. I enjoyed the ride, although I sometimes feel like Chuck Palahniuk is a small child, telling very rude jokes in the middle of a crowded room to make sure everyone knows how naughty and clever he is.

But he is both very clever and very naughty. I’d love to come up with a basic story as sick and brilliant as the linear narrative of Invisible Monsters. I get a headache imagining how he chopped it up and nested the pieces into a Russian doll of reveals, each of which tells you the previous layer was an illusion yet maintains the wit of the characters, dialogue and situations.

How did you feel about Invisible Monsters? Too shocking? Too confusing? Let me know, below the line.

Buy the book

More reviews coming soon

The Book Corner season 4 continues with:

  • The Shore by Sara Taylor
  • Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

The Book Corner season 4 concludes with:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams,
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake,
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

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9 replies on “The Murdstone Trilogy, The Power and Invisible Monsters: Book Corner 4.1”

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