S.D. Tullis, ‘The Return’ (2010)

A girl who disappeared to who-knows-where, for who-knows-what reason, returns home as mysteriously as she vanished. She is different – withdrawn and unresponsive; nothing her parents try is able to bring their old daughter back. And then they discover that she has changed in ways far stranger than they could ever have imagined. I can’t quite piece together in my mind a conception of everything that goes on in the story; but Tullis’s writing is wonderfully unsettling.

Rating: ***½

Jess Walter, The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009)

It seemed like a good idea at the time to Matt Prior: to leave his job as a financial journalist and set up a website focused on providing financial writing of a higher literary quality  than usual – financial advice in the form of poetry, anyone? The site proved unpopular, and Matt is now just a few days away from losing the home he shares with his wife Lisa, sons Frankiin and Teddy, and his ailing father Jerry – not that he’s told any of them. What’s more, Matt thinks Lisa has reconnected with her ex-boyfriend online. It’s a pretty dire situation, then; but a chance encounter with some youths at a 7/11 leads Matt to think of a way out of his problems – dealing in dope. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…

The Financial Lives of the Poets is, above all, a very funny book. Much of the humour comes from Matt’s narrative voice, which is dense with observation. For example:

The advice you get when your mortgage is in danger is to “contact the lender.” The last time I contacted my lender, some twenty-five-year-old kid answered the phone and talked me into forbearance, this six-month amnesty of procrastination. I should have known it was a bad move when I contacted my lender the next time and found out the kid had been laid off, that our mortgage had been bundled and sold with a stack of similarly red paper to a second company, and that the second company had been absorbed by a third company. Now I have no idea how to “contact my lender.” I seem to spend hours in automated phone dungeons (“For English, press one”) desperately looking for a single human voice to gently tell me I’m dead. (29)

Walter achieves a nice balancing act with Matt’s voice and character, I think: there are wisecracks, but there’s also enough desperation in Matt’s narration to keep him grounded firmly in the messy business of the story, rather than floating freely above it where a quip and a raised eyebrow could save the day.

Matt is (appropriately, I’d say) simultaneously sympathetic and unlikeable. There’s something almost endearing about the way that his attempts to dig himself out of a hole end up pushing him further into one; but we can see that he has the best intentions at heart – except that, sometimes, he doesn’t. He’s under pressure from about five or six different angles and, though his responses aren’t always commendable, they ring true emotionally. There’s also an undercurrent of poignancy when Matt confronts issues like his father’s dementia, which acts as a counterpoint to the humour.

The Financial Lives of the Poets feels very much like a novel that belongs to today: it’s a story that grows out of the current economic climate, and examines the lengths to which someone might go to deal with a bad situation – and there are plenty of laughs along the way. Warmly recommended.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Financial Lives of the Poets: Just William’s LuckBookmunch; Raging Bibliomania.
Jess Walter talks about the book
Jess Walter’s website

Peter Watts, ‘The Things’ (2010)

A new season of the Torque Control Short Story Club begins this weekend, and I thought I’d take a look at the first piece up for discussion, especially as it’s by Peter Watts, an author I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I glanced at the comments before reading the story, which gave me some useful context – Watt’s tale is a response to John Carpenter’s film The Thing, which I haven’t seen; but reading a plot synopsis gave me an idea of the background. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to know about The Thing to understand ‘The Things’, but it did deepen my appreciation of the story.

So: a research station in Antarctica has been attacked by a creature able to take on the forms of its victims; only two survivors remain at the end of the movie, Childs and MacReady. Watts posits that ‘Childs’ is actually the creature in disguise, and tells his tale from its point of view – and what a beautifully unsettling depiction of a non-human intelligence this is. The creature in ‘The Things’ is no mindless monster, but a highly intelligent being whose awareness is suffused throughout its being, which is what allows it to assimilate others. There’s a certain grandeur, even a kind of nobility, about the way this being presents itself:

I was so much more, before the crash. I was an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary. I spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. I was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. I was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.

And now, here it is on Earth, faced with humans who can’t partake of its ‘communion’, because their intelligence is held within a specific part of the body. The whole concept of this is abhorrent to the creature, who views the human brain as a kind of tumour. And so, the creature becomes a monster to the human characters, because its motivations are as unfathomable to them as theirs are to it. All is very effectively done by Watts, and the second Short Story Club is off to a great start.

Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May On the Loose (2009)

On to my third choice for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge, selected because I’ve been meaning to read Christopher Fowler again for ages. I first really became aware of him when he was a Guest of Honour at FantasyCon in 2003, where he gave a brilliantly impassioned speech about the field (I believe a transcript was printed in an issue of Postscripts). During his interview, Fowler mentioned a novel of his called Disturbia (1997), which sounded interesting; I tracked a copy down, and enjoyed it – but I remember having to adjust the way I was reading it part-way through, when I  what I thought was a straightforward contemporary London setting turned out to be something slightly different.

I had a similar experience with the present book, in that it really has to be approached with an awareness of what the author is seeking to do – which is to set a Golden Age detection in the present day – and the particular technique he uses to achieve that. Bryant & May On the Loose is the seventh novel featuring the titular detectives (though I’m sure at least one of them was in Disturbia), octogenarian but still active in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, set up to handle all the crimes that were just too odd for the mainstream Metropolitan Police.

At the start of this book, though, the PCU has been closed down, and its members have gone their separate ways. But then a headless body is found a freezer, there are sightings of a man dressed as a stag, with knives for antlers., and it all looks to have something to do with the building work taking place at King’s Cross. Sounds like a job for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which reforms, albeit without official sanction, and with far fewer resources and rather less comfortable accommodation.

The first thing to say about Bryant & May On the Loose is that, even though it’s the seventh volume in the series, I didn’t feel disadvantaged at jumping straight in. There were inevitably going to be some references to back-story, but from my perspective, Fowler did a good job of balancing those with making the novel stand alone. And it makes me want to read the others so I can appreciate this one in context, which is no bad thing.

Before I started reading, I was half- expecting Bryant and May to be parodic, larger-than-life characters; but, actually (and I think this is a more interesting approach) they’re more low-key than that.

Arthur Bryant is the ‘Golden Age detective’ figure,  steeped in knowledge of (and looking for clues in) local history and folklore; he’s subdued to begin with here, with the closure of the PCU, but soon gets back into his stride (I’d love to see him in ‘full flow’, which I guess I’ll find in other Bryant and May books). John May takes a more conventional approach; the differences between the two are summed up in this passage, spoken by May:

You always want to think [you’re searching for] twisted geniuses…You long to pit your wits against someone who hides clues in paintings and evades capture through their knowledge of ancient Greek. Forget it, Arthur; those days have gone. (362)

This highlights another key aspect of Fowler’s technique: though Bryant gets his time in the sun (e.g. the chance to explain everything to his colleagues at the end), his Golden-Age style is constantly being interrogated (pardon the pun) and shown to be an ill fit for the modern world – even when it has apparently been vindicated.

Above this level, we have a novel which is – in true Golden Age tradition – a great pleasure to read.  There are a few moments where I feel the exposition is overly dense; but, mostly, the book rattles along. I’ll be reading more Bryant and May novels in the future, no doubt about that.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Bryant & May On the Loose: Chasing Bawa, Notes of Life, Five Minutes Peace
Christopher Fowler’s website

D.P. Watt, ‘Apotheosis’ (2010)

One of the contributors to Null Immortalis has suggested I might find that William Meikle’s story gains greater resonance once I’ve read the book, because of the connections brought about by its context in the wider anthology. I suspect that will indeed happen – and here’s a story whose affect is certainly amplified by its context.

In Watt’s tale, S.D. Tullis is an enormously prolific and celebrated writer, whose secret is that his work is assembled from the solicited contributions of who-knows-how-many others. Our narrator is one such writer, who received a letter from ‘Tullis’ and responded with a short paragraph – and now obsessively checks Tullis’s output for signs of his contribution. ‘Apotheosis’ works enough well on its own as a character study and a story that hints at a hidden view of the world; but it works even better in Null Immortalis, whose structure echoes that of the work in the story.

Rating: ***½

Daniel Pearlman, ‘A Giant in the House’ (2010)

I love this kind of fantasy story, where the fantastic  elements slide from metaphor to concrete reality and back again, and can be read just as fruitfully either way. Pearlman’s narrator looks back on his relationship with his father, which began with him viewing his dad as a giant of a man, and grew worse as the protagonist his father’s shortcomings. At every stage, the father’s stature diminishes – figuratively and literally – in his son’s eyes, and the intertwining of reality and fantasy results in a very fine tale.

Rating: ****

William Meikle, ‘Turn Again’ (2010)

A shared interest in the building of a wind-farm leads Patty to begin conversing with the enigmatic Mr Tullis, who has much to say about the symbolic significance of the wheel shape described by the turbines’ blades, and is – of course – more than he seems. This is a short (four-page) tale that doesn’t quite pack all the emotional intensity for which I think it aims. Mr Tullis’s talk of ‘wheels within wheels’ successfully creates a frisson of wonder that there’s more to Meikle’s fictional reality than the world we know. But I feel that the emotional heart of the story takes off a little too late in proceedings for it to have quite as strong a pay-off as I’d have liked.

Rating: ***

Elsewhere
William Meikle’s website

Null Immortalis: Nemonymous Ten (2010)

It’s the end of the line: after ten years and as many volumes, Nemonymous has come to an end. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the stories in each volume were published without bylines, with the authors’ names being revealed at a later date. Null Immortalis is a little different: as it’s the final Nemonymous anthology, bylines are already assigned to the stories — which gives us the following contents list:

William Meikle, ‘Turn Again’

Daniel Pearlman, ‘A Giant in the House’

D.P. Watt, ‘Apotheosis’

S.D. Tullis, ‘The Return’

David M. Fitzpatrick, ‘Lucien’s Menagerie’

David V. Griffin , ‘Violette Doranges’

Ursula Pflug, ‘Even the Mirror’

Andrew Hook, ‘Love Is the Drug’

Joel Lane, ‘The Drowned Market’

Tim Casson, ‘The Scream’

Tony Lovell, ‘The Shell’

Gary Fry , ‘Strings Attached’

Derek John, ‘Oblivion’

Margaret B. Simon, ‘Troot’

Mike Chinn, ‘A Matter of Degree’

Richard Gavin, ‘Only Enuma Elish

Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., ‘Icarus Above…’

Reggie Oliver, ‘You Have Nothing To Fear’

Rachel Kendall , ‘Holesale’

Roy Gray, ‘“Fire”’

Cameron Pierce, ‘Broom People’

Stephen Bacon, ‘The Toymaker of Bremen’

Mark Valentine, ‘The Man Who Made the Yellow God’

Steve Rasnic Tem, ‘The Green Dog’

Bob Lock, ‘Haven’t You Ever Wondered?’

Tim Nickels, ‘Supermarine’

I’ll be blogging these stories one at a time, with links appearing in the list above as I go.

(One last note before we start: last year, Nemonymous editor/publisher D.F. Lewis ran a competition to see who could match the greatest number of authors to their stories in the previous anthology, with the prize being the chance to appear as a character in every story in Null Immortalis. The winner was Scott Tullis, who is also a contributor to the book; I’m particularly intrigued to see what he’s written…)

Elsewhere

D.F. Lewis & Nemoymous website

Firestation Book Swap on Tour @ London Review Bookshop, 5th August 2010

Yesterday, I caught the train down to London, to go to an event that I’ve wanted to attend for ages: the Firestation Book Swap. Hosted by publisher Scott Pack and author Marie Phillips, with a couple of guest authors, this is held every month at the Firestation Arts Centre in Windsor; but they’ve also had a few tour dates, and last night the Book Swap came to the London Review Bookshop.

The format of the event is a literary evening with a twist: no readings, but plenty of questions – some posed by the hosts, others written by the audience and drawn at random from a basket; the only catch is, the questions can’t have anything to do with books. There’s also cake, and plenty of it; you can actually get in for free if you bring a homemade cake. And, of course, there’s the swapping – everyone brings a book to swap, with opportunities to pitch yours (or have it pitched by the hosts) throughout the evening). So, with my copy of Tim Davys’ Amberville in hand, I went along.

My evening got off to an unplanned start when I managed to trip up in the road outside and cut my knee; my thanks to the shop’s first-aider who supplied the rather dramatic-looking bandage which I spent the rest of the night holding against the wound (to think I nearly took this book to swap, which would have been mildly amusing).

Anyway, the guest authors for this session were Patrick Neate (whom I’ve been meaning to read since I saw him at Cheltenham last year, and still haven’t) and James Miller (of whom I hadn’t heard before, but whose near-future thrillers sound interesting). Both were highly entertaining (as were the hosts), and the discussion ranged widely, from the question of whether reading was a dying art (Neate was fairly optimistic about this, Miller less so; certainly I found it dispiriting to hear about undergraduate literature students who haven’t read anything) and whether it’s more accepted in publishing for authors identified as literary to draw on elements of genre than it is for genre writers to break away from the ‘genre’ tag (unfortunately, I suspect this is the case, though it shouldn’t be), to the subject of the guests’ favourite cake.

Ah yes, the cake. This gets passed around the audience, and includes the traditional Firestation Book Swap cupcakes (decorated with the letters of ‘Firestation Book Swap’), of which I got the last one. It was delicious, as was all the other cake I tried.

And the swapping? I ended up swapping with Scott afterwards, and now have a copy of Geisha by Liza Dalby; a very different book from the one I took with me, and probably not one I’d have chosen to read otherwise – but, to me, that’s the whole point of going to an event like this. All in all, I had a great time, and would heartily recommend the Book Swap to anyone. If you can get to one, do.

Stories: Conclusion

Having reached the end of Stories (click here for the index of my posts), it’s time for a few remarks in closing. I’d characterise this as a solid anthology — a broad range of material, and nothing particularly bad (Gene Wolfe’s is probably the weakest story, and even that has a certain amount of interest). However, more stories fall into the ‘quite good’ bracket ( as opposed to the ‘good’ bracket) than I’d have liked, and this is what makes the anthology solid rather than spectacular for me.

What, then, are the best stories in Stories? Roddy Doyle and Jodi Picoult do interesting things with fantasy, and demonstrate how fruitful the results can be when ‘mainstream’ writers try their hand at the fantastic. Michael Swanwick, Jeffrey Ford, and Joe Hill contribute perhaps the best-told tales; and Kat Howard’s piece is a strong debut.

Finally, how far does the anthology meet its stated aim: to collect stories that encourage readers to ask ‘and then what happened’? Quite well, I think — for all the criticisms I might make of some 0f these stories, they’re rarely dull. I’m wary of saying that any anthology has ‘something for everyone’ — but I think Stories comes close.