Tom Fletcher, The Leaping (2010)

Reading Tom Fletcher’s short story ‘The Safe Children’ was all it took for me to place his novel The Leaping on my to-read list. Now that novel is here, and it was worth the wait.

The Leaping centres on a group of twenty-something housemates who all work in the same call centre in Manchester, and particularly on Jack, who also has a sideline in writing articles about the paranormal. One day at work, Jack meets – and falls in love with – the beautiful and enigmatic Jennifer, though she warns him that it’ll be an open relationship, as she believes in the free-love ideals of the Sixties. This leads to certain complications involving Jack’s housemate, Francis (who shares the book’s narration with Jack).

Jennifer has recently come into some money after her mother died, and uses it to buy Fell House, a creaking old mansion in Cumbria, where she moves in with Jack. Back in Manchester, the remaining housemates plan a surprise birthday party for Jack – but some uninvited guests turn up, and everyone discovers that there’s some truth to the old tales of werewolves, after all.

One of the first things I noticed about The Leaping is how good a writer of voice Fletcher is. I like the narrative voices to be differentiated in stories with multiple first-person narrators, and Fletcher does this very well indeed.  Francis’s voice is particularly striking, revealing an earnest  personality and an obsessive eye for detail (he lists all his friends’ favourite books, films and music because, he says, ‘the only way of working out the true personality of a person, their true soul, is by their taste’ [42]). Those same character traits are used to brilliant effect later in the novel, when events take a horrific turn.

And it’s the horror where Fletcher’s prose shines its brightest.  The best of his passages about the werewolves are as good as one could wish horror writing to be, as Fletcher captures both the profound horror of having one’s very self undermined and transformed, and the primal attraction of the lycanthropes’ existence. He also gives his werewolves an air of genuine strangeness, which makes even this hoary old staple feel fresh – no mean feat.

Where I think The Leaping is less successful is in its treatment of the larger dichotomy it seemingly aims to dramatise – broadly speaking, that of modern life versus nature. Jack expresses disillusionment with urban life – and, with what he and his colleagues have to put up with at the call centre, it’s no wonder – but the ‘push’ of this doesn’t seem to me to be as strongly felt by the novel as the ‘pull’ towards the wildness of nature. When Jack talks about wanting to run with the werewolves, he does so with a deep yearning that’s woven into the very fabric of his words. But Jack’s comments about city life don’t come close to that, and this imbalance dilutes the impact of the theme.

Even taking this into account, though, The Leaping is still a very good piece of horror fiction. That puts an interesting spin on a venerable motif. After years in the wilderness, horror currently seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence; as long as there are writers like Tom Fletcher working in it, the field is in good hands.

Links
Tom Fletcher’s blog
Kamvision interview with Fletcher

M.G. Preston, ‘Extreme Latitude’ (2010)

A short tale, told in diary form, of a scientist working at a polar weather station, who is slowly driven mad by a constant humming noise. The story works well enough in showing how the protagonist loses his grip on reality, as his diary entries become ever more frantic; but I think it falls down towards the end, because the supernatural interpretation that’s offered doesn’t quite convince, making it hard to accept the ambiguity for which Preston seems to be aiming. Almost there, but not quite.

This story appears in Black Static 16. Read all my posts about that issue here.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe (2010)

Given that I rather disliked the two Scarlett Thomas novels I’d previously read (Bright Young Things and PopCo), you might reasonably wonder why I even contemplated reading a third. Curiosity, I suppose — I just wanted to see if I could find one that I liked. And, well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I particularly liked Our Tragic Universe, but certainly I found it a more worthwhile read than those earlier novels.

Meg Carpenter is a struggling writer, trying (and largely failing) to make ends meet with genre novels and reviews of science books. Her latest book for review outlines a theory of how we might all live (subjectively) forever when the universe ends – or, indeed, might already be doing so without knowing it. All nonsense, thinks Meg, and she’s not keen on the idea of living forever anyway. Events take a strange turn, however, when it transpires that her editor didn’t send Meg this book at all – so where did it come from? Is it coincidence, or a sign of higher purpose in the universe? Does Meg even care? Should we?

In some ways, it’s hard to know what to say to a novel that more or less tells you that it’s not going to play ball. There are repeated mentions of concepts like the ‘storyless story’, and Meg comments that she’d prefer it if the universe didn’t have meaning – one can pretty much see where Our Tragic Universe is (or, rather, isn’t) going. This is resolutely a novel of anti-discovery, where the mysteries of the world will not only not be solved, they’ll hardly be investigated; where characters would rather evade their personal problems than tackle them head on (as an example, near the beginning of the book, one of Meg’s friends takes the extreme step of pushing her car into the river to cover up the fact that she’s having an affair); where life goes on, but doesn’t necessarily progress (Meg is supposedly working on a literary novel, but all she ends up doing over the course of Thomas’s book is scrapping more and more of it). But, fair’s fair, we were warned it’d be like this.

As for me, I see in Our Tragic Universe some of the characteristics that irritated me about PopCo and Bright Young Things, notably quite a lot of awkwardly-inserted exposition. But… somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much this time. I think that’s because the book is so single-minded and open about its intentions (and successful in achieving them) that I’m happy to sit back and let it all unfold. So, I can appreciate that Our Tragic Universe is very good at what it does – as I said earlier, though, liking it is a different matter.

Link
Canongate Books

Tim Casson, ‘The Overseer’ (2010)

Depression-era London: our narrator, Darius, was born into a wealthy family, but is now having to deal with the hard economic times and has taken a job in a factory. He discovers a dark secret at its heart, in the form of the mill’s mysterious masked overseer. Casson evokes the atmosphere of the factory particularly well, and the ending takes the story takes the story off in a fascinating new direction. But the metaphorical underpinning doesn’t seem fully coherent, leaving me with the sense of a story containing two or three ideas that sit quite uncomfortably alongside one another, good though Casson’s writing is.

This story appears in Black Static 16. Read all my posts about that issue here.

Bobbie Darbyshire, Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones (2010)

Friday, 18th February, 2000: a meeting of the book group at Inverness Library. It’s notable because the reclusive writer Marjorie Macpherson is leading a workshop; but three people are making their way to Inverness with agendas that will make this truly an evening like no other. Henry Jennings, a single, middle-aged financial adviser, became infatuated with Marjorie (or, at least, with his mental image of her) from reading her books; now, his chance to meet her has come. Henry’s estranged brother, Peter, has been sent a manuscript of a recent poem in Scottish Gaelic by one Angus Urquhart, with mysterious instructions to return it by hand; as Peter translates the poem, something clicks – could Urquhart be Calum Calum, the subject of Peter’s thesis, whose last known work was composed sixty years previously? And Elena Martìnez also has business with Angus Urquhart, as she believes him to be the veteran of the Spanish Civil War who betrayed her grandfather and brought shame on her family.

Well, this is a very enjoyable book. Bobbie Darbyshire has put together three intertwining storylines that, first of all, are told in very engaging styles. The narration may be third-person, but it nevertheless evokes the different characters of the three protagonists. This happens most strongly in the passages told from Peter’s viewpoint, whose terse sentence-fragments convey a rather irritating personality; but it’s there with the others, too – Henry comes across as essentially a nice man who gets a little too emotionally attached to certain people; Elena’s ‘narrative voice’ is more neutral than the others, but it does capture her hesitancy and feeling of being slightly adrift from the rest of the world, wherever she goes. These voices are highly effective in bringing the reader into and through the story.

But the plot itself is no slouch when it comes to doing that, either. There are some neat twists that reconfigure what we thought we already knew; and, beneath the light exterior, there’s an interesting look at what can happen when a truth you held close to your heart turns out to be less true than you supposed. Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones is a fast, fun read, but not a superficial one. Well worth a look.

Link
Sandstone Press

Steve Rasnic Tem, ‘The Glare and the Glow’ (2010)

A man with a penchant for quotations  (though he can’t always remember who said them) buys some unusual light bulbs that illuminate rather more than he had bargained for. Rasnic Tem pitches the voice of his narrator just right (borderline insufferable, that is), and the tale is short — but it works.

Link
Melanie Tem’s and Steve Rasnic Tem’s website

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

China Miéville, Kraken (2010)

In the heart of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum lies its star attraction – a preserved giant squid. Curator Billy Harrow prepares to take another party of visitors in to see it, only to find that it has, impossibly, been stolen – even the squid’s tank has disappeared. Subsequently, Bily is drawn into a world of feuding cults, where he discovers that some believe the giant squid to be a god, that magic works, and that the end of the world really could be nigh.

After the tight focus of The City & the City, China Miéville returns with something very different: the sprawling, restless imagination that characterised his Bas-Lag novels is back, this time applied to a contemporary London setting. As you may expect, then, Kraken is fizzing over with fantasy notions: talking tattoos, origami that works on more than just paper, unionised magical familiars, to name but three. The whole foundation of the magic in this novel involves persuading reality to take on certain shapes by finding similarities (however tenuous) between things – or, if you believe it, maybe you can turn it into truth. One of the greatest delights of reading Kraken lies in seeing all the different ways Miéville deploys this.

But there’s more going on here than a story about a giant squid god. Well, actually, there is and there isn’t. I’ve read a couple of interviews with Miéville in which he advocates literalism in fantasy – by all means make your monster a metaphor if you wish, but let it be a monster first and foremost – and I think he’s woven that idea right into the fabric of this novel. The fantastic happenings might be based on metaphors at root, but even the most outlandish of them are still real in the world of the book. ‘How was you going to deal with that, Billy?’ asks one character when Billy has encountered the talking gangster tattoo. ‘How you going to get the police to deal with that?’ (96) In other words: this is beyond what you know, and the ways you know can’t help, so face up to it. Miéville lends a perhaps surprising amount of gravitas to even some of the most comical fantasy ideas in Kraken.

Which is not to suggest that there’s no fun to be had; on the contrary, there’s a great sense of playfulness mixed in with the seriousness – but the two can’t always be separated out with ease; the idea of familiars being politically aware and going on strike, for example, made me smile even as it had important consequences in the story. I particularly enjoyed some of the dialogue in Kraken – the banter between Baron and Collingswood, two coppers from the specialist cult squad; and the words of the whimsical-but-dangerous Goss, who, along with his boy, Subby, is after Billy.

There is much to enjoy in Kraken, then, but I can’t shake the feeling that, beneath all the pizazz of the fantasy, is a fairly ordinary chase/detection plot – and that is what’s stopping me from being fully enthusiastic about the novel. But I think it would do Kraken a disservice to end this review on a sour note, because to do so would be to understate just how enjoyable a read it is; this may not be Miéville’s very best, but it’s good all the same – and a good Miéville book is always worth reading. Kraken is no exception.

Link
China Miéville’s blog

Chris Beckett, ‘Johnny’s New Job’ (2010)

Chris Beckett’s professional background is in social work, and (he says in his guest editorial) he was inspired to write ‘Johnny’s New Job’ by reactions to the Baby P case. In Beckett’s story, a girl’s ‘wicked stepfather’ leaves her to die down a well. This is judged to be the fault of Welfare, and a Welfare Officer is denounced in public by the Chief Accuser. A crowd of people (including the titular Johnny) is soon out for the Welfare Officer’s blood — and so events move inexorably on…

As a satire on kneejerk reactions, the flow of this story may not be too difficult to anticipate — but I suspect that’s rather the point. Beckett constructs his tale as a kind of larger-than-life fable: many characters are identified en masse or by role, rather than by name, so they come to represent more than just individuals (and even Johnny is something of an everyman), and the telling has a folk-tale quality about it. ‘Johnny’s New Job’ is swift, sharp, and very good indeed.

Links
Chris Beckett’s website
My review of The Turing Test, Beckett’s Edge Hill Prize-winning collection

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

Some other bookish folks…

There was a meet-up of UK book bloggers in London at the weekend — including me. It was great to meet everyone there in person, but, of course, you can do so virtually through their blogs. And here they are:

Annabel (Gaskella)
Boof (The Book Whisperer)
Claire (Paperback Reader)
Guy (Pursewarden)
Hayley (Desperate Reader)
Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
Katy (5th Estate)
Kim (Reading Matters)
Kirsty (Other Stories)
Lizzy/Marcia (Lizzy’s Literary Life)
Naomi (Bloomsbury Bell)
Polly (Novel Insights)
Rachel (Book Snob)
Sakura (Chasing Bawa)
Simon (Savidge Reads)
Simon (Stuck in a Book)
Verity (The B Files / Verity’s Virago Venture)

Why not go and visit them?

Thanks to Simon of Stuck in a Book for organising the event (and for compiling the above list!).