Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (2009)

This is a story about growing up, but also one about stories: the stories we tell about people, and how the image held of a person in the mind’s eye may not be the truth of who they really are – or might be all the truth there is, as far as someone else is concerned.

The year is 1965; the place, Corrigan, a mining town in Western Australia. Charlie Bucktin is 13, a bookish, studious boy – which doesn’t make for an easy life amongst his peers, for whom  sporting prowess is the key measure of status. One night, there is a knock on Charlie’s bedroom window; it’s Jasper Jones, the half-Aboriginal boy  considered the town’s main troublemaker, asking for Charlie’s help.

Jasper leads Charlie to his secret clearing, where he has found the body of Laura Wishart, daughter of the shire president – hanging from the very rope Jasper uses to swing across the river, and about which nobody else is supposed to know. Jasper swears he had nothing to do with this, but is well aware that no one is likely to believe him; so he wants Charlie’s help in uncovering the truth (Jasper is convinced the culprit is Mad Jack Lionel, a bogeyman among Corrigan’s children, who lives alone in a cottage on the edge of town). So, Charlie becomes burdened with a dark secret he can’t disclose to anyone, and the problem of working out how he can talk again to Laura’s sister Eliza, on whom he has a crush.

There are two aspects of Jasper Jones that make it stand out as one of my favourite reads of the year so far. One is Craig Silvey’s skill with characterisation and dialogue. Charlie in particular leaps off the page as a character: a boy who finds that he’s suddenly lost part of his innocence about the world, and wishes desperately that he could have it back; whose frustrations that the world is unfair on other people have selfish undercurrents that Charlie might not care to acknowledge (and perhaps he doesn’t even realise they’re there);  who knows he’ll take a beating from the bullies for being too clever, but continues to provoke them anyway, because it’s the only power he has. The banter between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey Lu, is a delight to read; the flow of it rings absolutely true, to me – and the way Charlie gets tongue-tied when talking to Eliza Wishart is just as good.

The second aspect of Silvey’s novel that I particularly like goes back to what I said earlier about the images we have of people. Almost every character in the book has a story believed about them which is shown to be not quite the truth; even Charlie’s parents are different from the idea he had of them, so perhaps it’s no wonder that Jasper (of whom Charlie thinks he can see past the popular perception) comes to be such an anchor in his life. Over the course of the novel, we see how pernicious these myths about people can be (for example, Jeffrey may be a superb cricketer, but his Vietnamese family still face abuse), but also how they can change things for the better.

Jasper Jones is Craig Silvey’s second novel; it makes me keen to check out his first – and to recommend the present book to you.

Links
Silvey talks about the novel
Windmill Books

Clarke Award 2010: And the winner is…

It was a full house last night at the Apollo Cinema on London’s Lower Regent Street, as a bunch of interested parties (including your correspondent) attended the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony. Clarke Award history was made as China Miéville became the first author to win three times (and all in the same decade, no less).

This could be a major year for Miéville — The City & the City had already won the BSFA Award for Best Novel, and I’m almost certain it will win at least a couple more awards. And deservedly so — it’s a very good book, genuinely unique (as far as I can judge), and one of its author’s best.

A good winner of a literary award should, in my view, be a book that you could give to any reader interested in quality fiction and say, ‘You must read this.’  The City & the City is such a  book. You won’t read another book quite like it, you won’t read the same book that I (or anyone else) did — but you should read it.

Index of my Clarke Award 2010 posts

Nikki Dudley, Ellipsis (2010)

Well, how could I resist a novel that shares its name with the punctuation mark I overuse the most?

At 15.32 precisely, Daniel Mansen is pushed into the path of an oncoming train by Alice, the young woman who has been following him covertly for several weeks. As he falls from the platform, Daniel says one thing:  ‘Right on time’ – as though he were expecting it.  After the funeral, Thom Mansen begins to find out more about the cousin he never really knew, and uncovers evidence suggesting that Daniel somehow knew in advance that he was going to die. Alice enters Thom’s life under an assumed name, searching for answers of her own;  by novel’s end, both will uncover truths that they might wish had stayed hidden.

Ellipsis is an interesting debut from Nikki Dudley that (happily) never quite settles into the shape you might expect. It has its flaws:  for example, and particularly towards the beginning, the prose is can be weighed down with so many metaphors and similes that the impact of the imagery is diluted. But, once the novel hits its stride, we discover not only how fragile is Alice’s state of mind (her first-person voice is marvellously disconcerting), but also that Thom’s character isn’t as straightforward as it appears to be at first (I’d say that this becomes apparent a little too slowly, leading to a couple of moments where one thinks, ‘Why did he do that?’ – but that’s a minor problem).

Dudley also makes some neat observations about character; for example, here’s Thom reflecting on his choice of job (working in a call centre for an insurance firm), and his difficulty in talking about his parents’ death: ‘Perhaps that is why he has a job where he always knows what to say because there is a handbook.’ (27)

What’s particularly striking about the central mystery is less the actual events of the plot than the way Dudley plays with the reader’s perception; one is led to conceptualise the story in a particular way, then finds that it’s not the right way – but it’s hard to shake off the original interpretation, so strongly has it been established. And the ending produces a further twist that leaves us on shifting sands once again.

As its title suggests, Ellipsis revolves around gaps in knowledge – in the reader’s knowledge of what happens, and in the characters’ knowledge of events, people, and even of themselves. And those gaps add up to an intriguing, satisfying read.

Links
Nikki Dudley’s blog
Contrary Life interview with Dudley
Sparkling Books

Clarke Award 2010: in review

The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.

The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.

I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.

There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.

So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.

Jim Hawkins, ‘Chimbwi’ (2010)

Sometimes, I read a short story and find that, for whatever reason, I can’t put together any proper thoughts on it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is at fault, just that I didn’t manage to connect with it. And there’s no problem with this — unless I’ve undertaken to write something about the piece in question. That’s the situation I find myself in now.

‘Chimbwi’ is the story of Jason Johns, a physicist who has left behind a Europe devastated by environmental change, and travelled to Africa, because Zambia is the global centre of advances in physics. I don’t know what I think about this story, and I feel it would be unfair to make any kind of evaluative comment; so this post is here, for the sake of completeness, to record that I’ve read ‘Chimbwi’, and I apologise for not blogging about it properly.

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls (2009)

When first we meet Darian Frey, freebooting captain of the Ketty Jay, he is being held captive by a smuggler. That can’t last for long, of course, as there’s a story to get underway; sure enough, a bit of artful escaping later, and Frey is back on the run with his raggle-taggle crew of misfits. Over the course of the novel, the Ketty Jay will be drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy, which will see her crew being hunted by some of the world’s most feared individuals, including the pirate captain Trinica Dracken, who just happens to be an old flame of Frey’s.

The stage is set for Retribution Falls to be a fine adventure story, and Chris Wooding does not disappoint in that regard. He imbues his prose with the requisite amount of energy and colour, and knows just when to move the plot in another direction. Quite often, a significant event may happen in between chapters or scenes, which is a neat way of sustaining momentum, as it constantly shifts events beyond the reader’s understanding (albeit for only brief amounts of time). Although the characters aren’t overly fleshed out (this being primarily a plot-driven novel, and the first in a series), they have their share of flaws and interesting back-stories. And Wooding’s world of airships, electricity and magic, is not without its quirks (magic in this world takes the form of ‘daemonism’, a semi-scientific practice in which all effects are achieved by binding daemons, who take a little of the practitioner’s energy for their trouble). There is enough here to keep one engrossed to the end of the book.

The thing is, though, that Retribution Falls lacks that certain something which would take it beyond being a fine adventure story. The plot is not so surprising, the characterisation not so rich, the setting not so distinctive, as to make the book truly shine. In other words, the novel is good as far as it goes, with both the positives and negatives that stem from that. But, if you’re looking for an entertaining tale of swashbuckling adventure, Retribution Falls is most definitely a title you should investigate.

Links
Chris Wooding’s website
Ketty Jay blog

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

Mercurio D. Rivera, ‘Dance of the Kawkawroons’ (2010)

A pair of human scientists visit a world occupied by the Kawkawroons, sentient bird-like creatures. They communicate with one through a translation device, and ask to see its nest — but what is their real motive? I found this a breezy, enjoyable story: Rivera tells the tale from both human and Kawkawroon viewpoints; the contrast of mentalities is interesting and nicely evoked — and there’s a neat twist at the end. A fun read.

Link
Mercurio Rivera’s website

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Jon Ingold, ‘The History of Poly-V’ (2010)

In Jon Ingold’s story, Poly-V is a drug that enables people to relive their memories, recalling events in much greater detail than in the conventional process of remembering. The narrator, Will Sheppard, is one of the scientists who developed the drug and tested it on themselves; his account of that development is interspersed with scenes of his memories, as experienced under the influence of Poly-V. But can Will trust what he remembers?

Ingold is especially good with voice in this piece; Will’s character comes through strongly in the matter-of-fact, slightly detached narration, and I particularly liked the way the author retains the essence of Sheppard’s voice in a scene narrated by the four-year-old Will, even as it adopts a more child-like tone.

However, I’m not sure that the story is successful at a more structural level. Its secrets are revealed in a pattern that makes the tale less disorienting than I think it aims to be, though I appreciate the way it treats the fallibility of human memory.

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Interzone 227: Mar-Apr 2010

Another issue of Interzone, and six fresh stories:

Jon Ingold, ‘The History of Poly-V’

Mercurio D. Rivera, ‘Dance of the Kawkawroons’

Jim Hawkins, ‘Chimbwi’

Nina Allan, ‘Flying in the Face of God’

Chris Beckett, ‘Johnny’s New Job’

Steve Rasnic Tem, ‘The Glare and the Glow’

UPDATE, 14th May: Nina Allan’s story edges into first place as my favourite in this issue, with Chris Beckett’s contribution a very close second — but both are excellent.

‘Mainstream’

There was a discussion panel at Eastercon this year called ‘What do we mean by “mainstrean”?’, with particular reference to the works of Iain Banks – the reason behind it being that, even though it seems fairly straightforward to say that Banks publishes science fiction with a middle initial in his name, and mainstream fiction without, when you actually look at the range of what he has published under the name ‘Iain Banks’, he becomes a difficult writer to pin down (by the end of the discussion, the suggestion was that he’s often a gothic writer).

This topic is of interest to me, not because I’m particularly widely read in Banks (I’ve read only three each of the two ‘groups’ of his books), but because of how I’ve changed as a reader over the last few years. Even five years ago, I was primarily a reader of science fiction and fantasy; now those are just two aspects of what I read. What has happened is that, over the last few years, I have ‘discovered’ – grown to appreciate – mainstream fiction.

Or have I?

To explore what I mean, I’m going to refer to my list of favourite books read in 2009 (the first year when I both recorded everything I read, and made a properly considered list of favourites). Five of these twelve clearly fall within the field of the fantastic; two more are part of that field (by my definition), but were not published as such (and perhaps were not conceived as such, either); and five fall outside it. Of the five non-fantastic novels, there’s something unusual about the style or structure (or both) of four of them, and I’d suggest that even the fifth is not straightforward.

When I look at those latter five books, the term ‘mainstream’ doesn’t seem right for them to me.

(Interestingly, when I look at the sf/fantasy/horror works on my list, I find that they’re also quite unusual in their own ways, and I actually see quite a lot of commonality across the twelve. I’m clearly to drawn to that kind of book in general, a thought that’s borne out by my favourite reads so far this year.)

So, how would I define ‘mainstream fiction’? One could define it as ‘not genre fiction’, but I think that’s an artificial opposition, because it seems to me that genres overlap and merge into each other so much. One could define ‘mainstream’ in terms of popularity, but (though I haven’t any sales figures) doesn’t ‘genre fiction’ tend to be the most popular? The more I think about the term ‘mainstream’, the more elusive it seems to be.

Over to you, reader: what does ‘mainstream’ mean to you, and where does it sit in your personal reading spectrum?