May wrap-up

As spring comes to an end, it’s time to look back over the month of May…

Book of the Month

It’s tough to narrow it down to one title this month, so I’m going to declare it a tie between two. Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys was a very fine debut, while Conrad Williams’ Loss of Separation was another great read from a favourite author. (And this was nearly a three-way tie, because Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine is not far behind them at all.)

Reviews

Features

Book notes: Jackson, Hall, Lelord

Mick Jackson, Ten Sorry Tales (2005)

I liked this book from the very first sentence: ‘Lol and Edna Pierce liked to keep their own company, which was just as well as their nearest neighbour lived nine miles away.’ That sentence establishes the wry, playful quality of Jackson’s writing; and the rest of the story, ‘The Pearce sisters’ – in which Lol and Edna finally gain some companions, albeit by taking some rather extreme measures – sets the cautionary, macabre tone of the collection as a whole (I was reminded of Roald Dahl and Dan Rhodes when reading these stories).

Other characters to be met within the pages of Ten Sorry Tales include a boy who finds an antique kit for revivifying butterflies, and tries it out; a rich couple who employ their own hermit, and pay the price for neglecting his welfare; and a man who spends his retirement building a row-boat, then devises an ingenious way to get it out of the house. Jackson tells all their stories with the same sense of dark glee; it’s a delight to read.

Links
Mick Jackson’s website
Other reviews: Annalisa Crawford; Bookmunch;

Catherine Hall, The Proof of Love (2011)

In 1976, a Cambridge mathematician named Spencer Little travels to the Lake District for the summer, intending to work on the proof that will secure him a fellowship. He takes a job on the farm of Hartley and Mary Dodds, and finds a friend in their ten-year-old daughter Alice. It takes a while for the locals to warm to Spencer, but they do when he rescues Alice from a fire. Even then, however, life doesn’t begin to run smoothly, because Spencer gets caught up in the tensions between Alice and her father; the secret he left behind in Cambridge still haunts him; and he gains a new secret to keep when he falls in love in Cumbria.

Catherine Hall does two things particularly well in The Proof of Love, which combine to create the spine of the novel. The first of these is to evoke the rawness of life in her setting (with effectively precise description) and the way it has literally left its mark on the inhabitants (including Spencer, who starts off far more used to focusing on his mind than his body, and is made physically capable and stronger by the farm work). The second is to dramatise the conflict between different ways of life, as represented by the characters. This is not a straightforward case of intellectualism versus physicality; it’s more about showing how the farming lifestyle has taken over the Dodds family. Hartley reveals that he had the intelligence to go to university, but that path was closed off from him because he was required to inherit the farm; in his turn, he refuses to allow Alice to do anything that might open up new possibilities for her life—and the friction this causes is only exacerbated by the arrival of Spencer, who is emblematic of precisely such a different kind of life. (Spencer, of course, finds his own kind of freedom in the very life from which Alice dreams of escaping, thus highlighting the complexity of the situation.)

As the final page approaches, the sense increases that things are going to end badly. Hall deftly builds tension of the kind that comes from seeing the pieces of the story falling, but not knowing where they will land—and where they do land has both an inevitability and a final twist. The Proof of Love is tough on its characters, but rewarding for its readers.

This review first appeared on Fiction Uncovered.

Links
Fiction Uncoverd interview and reading.
Other reviews: Stevie Davies for the Guardian; Cornflower Books.

François Lelord, Hector and the Secrets of Love (2005/11)

I’ve not read the first of Lelord’s ‘Hector’ books (Hector and the Search for Happiness), but I’d suggest on the basis of this second one that they’re an acquired taste. Lelord’s professional background is in psychiatry, which is also the career of his protagonist. Hector is pondering the nature of love when he attends a pharmaceutical conference with his girlfriend Clara, where he is sent on a mission to track down an old acquaintance, Professor Cormorant, who had been working on a love drug. On his travels, Hector – whose relationship with Clara is already under strain – meets a beautiful waitress named Vayla, and falls in love with her; but how much of that is real, and how much down to the drug that Cormorant persuaded them to test – and what difference does it actually make either way?

I suspect that a reader’s reaction to this book will depend on how he or she takes to the prose (the translation is by Lorenza Garcia). It has a faux-naif, ‘storybook’ tone, which allows for some wry humour (“because countries like [Hector’s] had invented psychiatry, they were the ones who decided what was normal and what wasn’t,” p. 191), but which can also be quite irritating. I appreciate the complex picture of love that unfolds as Hector’s journey progresses; but, at the same time, the observations Hector makes don’t feel particularly fresh or striking to me. So, I’m ambivalent about Hector and the Secrets of Love – it’s good in parts, but not enough to overcome my misgivings.

Links
The publisher, Gallic Books.
Other reviews: Lizzy Siddall; Katie Byrne for Running in Heels.

Fiction Uncovered: the list

The Fiction Uncovered list has been announced. The idea behind this initiative was to highlight books from the past year by eight established UK writers whose work may not have had all the exposure it deserves. You’ll be seeing displays of these titles in bookshops; let’s look at what the judges have chosen…

Lindsay Clarke, The Water Theatre (Alma Books)

Clarke is the only author of the eight whose name was completely unknown to me, though I understand now that he has written seven novels. I’m not sure that the synopsis of The Water Theatre (a war-reporter searches for two old friends, without knowing that they harbour a secret) instinctively appeals to me, but I am pleased to have been alerted to an unfamiliar writer.

Robert Edric, The London Satyr (Doubleday)

Edric is one of two writers on the list whom I’ve already read, albeit a different book in this case. I had mixed feelings about Salvage, but would certainly read the author again. The London Satyr sounds rather different in setting and subject matter, as it examines the dark underbelly of Victorian society in the 1890s.

Catherine Hall, The Proof of Love (Portobello)

A mathematician spends a summer working as a farmhand in the Lake District, and gets tangled up in the lives of the locals. I have The Proof of Love to review next for the Fiction Uncovered site; now I know that it’s on the list, my anticipation has only increased.

Sarah Moss, Night Waking (Granta)

I’ve heard interesting things about Moss’s previous novel, Cold Earth. This new novel, which interweaves the stories of a mother and her young family on a Hebridean island in the present day, and a midwife attempting to address infant mortality on the island in the 19th century, alaso sounds intriguing.

Chris Paling, Nimrod’s Shadow (Portobello)

I experienced an ‘Aha!’ moment when Paling’s name was read out, when I realised I’d seen his work being recommended before, but had forgotten about it. At the time, I was convinced it was Scott Pack I’d read enthusing about Paling’s books, but actually I was thinking of this piece by Stuart Evers. Anyway, Nimrod’s Shadow — the tale of an Edwardian murder and its investigation in the present day by an office assistant who finds clues in paintings from the time — has gone staright on my to-read list.

Tim Pears, Disputed Land (Heinemann)

Pears is one of those writers of whose name I’ve been aware without really knowing anything about his work. Again, Disputed Land is not a novel that grabs me just from its synopsis (a man looks back on the childhood Christmas when his grandparents summoned their family to discuss their inheritance), but I’ll look into Pears’ bibliography.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (Heinemann)

The only book on the Fiction Uncovered list that I’ve already read; one of my very favourite reads of last year; and a novel that absolutely deserves its place here. Emma Donoghue’s Room has received plenty of attention, and Forgetting Zoë (which likewise deals with the long-term captivity of a child, though otherwise the two books are quite different) rather less so; but I think Robinson’s novel is the better of the two, and I hope more people will now take the time to discover it.

Jake Wallis Simons, The English German Girl (Polygon/Birlinn)

In the 1930s, a girl is sent from Berlin to England on the Kindertransport, but loses touch with her family when war comes. I’d already heard of this novel, but was undecided about reading it; its appearance on this list might just spur me on to do so.

***

Overall impressions of the list? I’ve no reason to doubt the quality of the books (and if Forgetting Zoë is the standard, then that’s great); but, structurally, it feels something of a missed opportunity. For one thing, Fiction Uncovered was open to prose novels, story collections, and graphic novels; but there are no books from the latter two categories on the final list {*}. 75% of the authors are male, all are white, and all (as far I’m aware) English. There are no books published as genre fiction on the list. Half the titles do come from independent publishers, though, which is good to see.

Whatever the shape of the list, though, I do wish the best to all the authors featured, and hope they gain more attention as a result of Fiction Uncovered.

[*Since posting this originally, I have heard from Fiction Uncovered that relatively few story collections were submitted by publishers, and no graphic novels at all.]

Book notes: Benedictus, Ward, Medvei

Leo Benedictus, The Afterparty (2011)

Here’s a good example of a book which didn’t sound instinctively like something I would enjoy, but which turned out to be well worth a read. The Afterparty tells the overlapping stories of four people over the course of one night: Hugo Marks, an actor whose birthday celebrations provide the backdrop to events; Mellody, his supermodel wife; Calvin Vance, the young pop star to whom Mellody takes a shine; and Michael Knight, a journalist who’s attending the party reluctantly after being given a colleague’s invitation. The actual text of the novel is framed as the work of one William Mendez, whose emails to a prospective agent, Valerie Morrell, alternate with the chapters. Mendez has plenty of ideas for aspects of his novel’s marketing (all of which have made it to the finished version), but is reluctant to reveal his identity; so Morrell calls on a columnist named Leo Benedictus to stand in for him…

A novel as self-referential as The Afterparty risks getting lost in its own cleverness; but there’s such charm (and a certain audacity) in the way Benedictus lays bare the workings of his book that it won this reader over. It also adds another layer to what seems to me the novel’s main theme: the gap between reality and perception. That theme is reflected in the main text by the subtly different glosses which each viewpoint character places on events (the use of a different font for each viewpoint emphasises that, in a way, we’re reading four different stories). It’s also echoed in the novel’s treatment of modern celebrity culture: Calvin is shown not really to understand the world he’s entered (a world exemplified by Mellody, who has been through it all and bears the scars); Hugo is frustrated at the way celebrity has caused him to be perceived to an extent as ‘public property’; Michael is about to find out what it’s like to be in the limelight, when he gets caught up in a tragedy in which perceptions of reality will be all-important.

Add to this some skilful prose (Benedictus is particularly good at creating striking images of rather mundane phenomena), and you have a fine debut in The Afterparty.

Leo Benedictus’s website; Booktrust interview.

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

Turning now to another fine debut, though one rather different in subject matter and approach. In Girl Reading, Katie Ward imagines the stories behind a number of portraits of girls and women reading; the portraits range in past time from Simone Martini’s Annunciation (1333) to a photograph on Flickr in 2008, and a concluding chapter set in 2060 provides context for the previous six. Ward has a distinctive writing style that creates a strong atmosphere for each of the time periods, and allows her to weave in details very subtly. I’ll single out her portrayal of Gwen –  a girl in love with an artist in 1916, and who sees a rival for her affections in a visiting woman – as one of my favourite moments, but there are plenty more from which I could choose.

The chapters of Girl Reading are not linked overtly (though some of the portraits do appear in later chapters, and it can be nicely disconcerting to see the gap between what later characters think of the subjects and what we’ve seen of them previously); it’s more that there are contrasts and connections in theme and content. For example, Ward shows the variety of functions which the portraits might fulfil – an expression of a political alliance, say, or a tangible reminder of what has been lost. Similarly, literacy represents different things to different characters; the act of creating each portrait has varying significance; and so on. Girl Reading is an intricate tapestry of a book, and one that leaves me with little notion of what Katie Ward may write next, though I do know that I’ll want to read it.

Katie Ward’s website; East Anglian Daily Times interview.

Cornelius Medvei, Caroline: a Mystery (2011)

A journalist is contacted by an old school friend named Shaw, who wants to tell the story of Caroline. This Caroline is the donkey Shaw’s father first encountered on a family holiday and who soon filled a void in his life that he didn’t know existed. The father became devoted to Caroline: took her home, looked after her, taught her to play chess (she turned out to be rather good at it). It was a wonderful period in his life; but, of course, there was always the danger that it wouldn’t last.

Cornelius Medvei’s second novel has a folktale quality about its telling; the city in which it’s set is never named (neither, for that matter, are most of the characters), and there’s a timelessness to its depiction (it’s probably set in the 1980s or thereabouts, but there are few specific details). Nobody bats an eyelid at the outlandish events that take place, which is just as it should be; the novel depends on our ability to take its absurd premise seriously, and it is imagined so solidly that we do.

But where Shaw’s narration pushes the tale one step out of reality, the journalist’s voice which frames the account brings it back in. There’s not much of that voice, but it is subtly different enough to provide a real jolt when we step from one to the other and begin to doubt what we have read. Caroline the donkey may fruitfully be interpreted as a metaphor for an all-consuming interest, under which light Medvei observantly illuminates his protagonist’s situation.

Then again, Caroline may just be a donkey; as the journalist concedes, ‘in this city, private and public life, the ordinary and the fantastic, are mingled everywhere you look.’ Strange things happen, so why not this? In Caroline, Medvei leaves the question open in a small but finely wrought – and very enjoyable – read.

This review first appeared on Fiction Uncovered.

Cornelius Medvei’s top 10 talking animals in literature (Guardian).

In case you ever wanted to hear me speak about short fiction…

…you now have a chance to do so. On 16th July, the Bristol Short Story Prize will be hosting ShortStoryVille, its first festival of short stories. And, at 1.30, you will find this item on the programme:

1.30 – 2.30 Reading Short Stories - panel discussion chaired by acclaimed short story writer Tania Hershman. Is there an art to reading a short story? Is it very different from other forms of fiction? Does it depend on where a story is read: a collection, single story in a magazine, on an ereader? Tania is joined by three passionate short story readers- book reviewer and blogger David HebblethwaiteClare Hey, former editor at HarperCollins and founder of trailblazing, digital-only short story publisher Shortfire Press and Scott Pack, publisher at The Friday Project, influential blogger, commentator, reader, creator of the popular meandmyshortstories blog and all-round book-billy.

The rest of the schedule is here; it includes writers like Helen Oyeyemi, Stuart Evers and Sarah Salway — sounds a good line-up to me.

The ShortStoryVille festival will be held on Saturday 16th July from 12.00 to 6.00 at the Arnofini arts centre, Bristol. Expect to see more short fiction coverage on here during the run-up.

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five…

This is a little questionnaire with which Simon from Stuck in a Book came up last week, to provide a little snapshot of one’s reading. So let’s see what my books are…

1) The book I’m currently reading

Cornelius Medvei, Caroline (2011)

The story of a man who becomes smitten with a donkey. I’m not yet far enough in to be able to form a useful opinion, but it has started off well. I’ll be reviewing this for Fiction Uncovered in due course.

2) The last book I finished

Leo Benedictus, The Afterparty (2011)

A tale of tragic happenings at a film star’s birthday celebration, wrapped in the email correspondence  between a fictional author and his prospective agent, discussing the very book in one’s hands. This is probably the most self-referential book I’ve ever read, and to be honest I wasn’t sure whether I’d get along with it. The Afterparty turned out to be a delight, though: nicely written, and a smart commentary on celebrity culture and the gap between public perception and private reality.

3) The next book I want to read

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

So I’m reading a lot of 2011 work at the moment. Girl Reading is structured as a series of novellas on the painting portraits of girls and women reading. It seems an unusual subject for a debut novel, and I am intrigued.

4) The last book I bought


Colin Greenland, Seasons of Plenty (1995)

Strictly speaking, the last book I bought was The Afterparty, but I want to list five different books here; so we’ll go for this — which was on the book-swap shelf at work, instead. I loved Take Back Plenty when I read it last year; now I’ll get a chance to see what the sequel is like.

5) The last book I was given


Ian McDonald, River of Gods (2004)

This was a birthday present, which I was very grateful to receive. My introduction to McDonald, The Dervish House, was one of the very best books I read last year. River of Gods comes with a very high reputation, and I look forward to seeing if it lives up to that; I am confident that it will.

***

There we go. That was quite interesting to put together, and actually it’s not a bad encapsulation of the kinds of books I most like to read. Speaking of which, I have at least two books to be getting on with, and plenty more to follow after that…

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation (2011): The Zone review

Now online at The Zone is my review of Loss of Separation, the latest novel by Conrad Williams. I think Williams is one of the smartest and best horror writers around at the moment; this time he’s produced a sharp psychological study of a former pilot trying to rebuild his life after a car accident, whilst dark secrets wait in the wings. I’d say Loss of Separation is a fine introduction to Williams’ work, and also a good book to try if you think you don’t like horror.

Click here to read my review.

Elsewhere
Conrad Williams’ website

Faith, Love, and Hatred: Chris Beckett and Naomi Wood

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine (2004)
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys (2011)

The two books I’m discussing today revolve around small atheist communities in worlds dominated by religious belief. Though they take their stories in different directions, both examine what kind of role faith may play in someone’s life (and what may fill a similar role in its absence), and offer fascinating studies of characters caught at the intersection of faith and non-belief.

Chris Beckett’s 2004 debut The Holy Machine is narrated by George Simling, a translator in the Balkan city-state of Illyria, a nation founded on the principles of rationalism after the rest of the world was taken over by religious extremists. George’s only company is his mother Ruth, a former scientist who has retreated from the world and now spends most of her time in the virtual reality of SenSpace. As a result, for all the material comforts in his life, George is missing true human contact (‘I spoke eight languages fluently, but I had no one to talk to and nothing to say’, p. 3).

George finds himself getting involved in radical groups who feel that, in its hard-line take on rationalism, Illyria is becoming as oppressive a place as the world’s fundamentalist states (and, indeed, the Illyrian government begins to persecute its foreign ‘guestworkers’ purely because they are uneducated). But even this does not provide him with what his is seeking; instead, George falls in love with Lucy, a syntec (a robot designed to be indistinguishable from a human) programmed for sex. Slowly, Lucy is becoming self-aware, and when the authorities announce plans to reprogram syntecs every six months to prevent their going out of control, George decides that he must escape from Illyria with the robot, even though syntecs are considered blasphemous (and therefore to be destroyed) in the outside world.

The Holy Machine examines several complex issues, and refuses to draw neat conclusions about them. One such issue is the relative merits of religion and science, and Beckett creates no simple opposition between the two; I’ve already described how Illyria is shown to be pretty much as intolerant and repressive as the religious nations of the book, but the issue is also explored through the character of George Simling himself. George is not religious, and his conversations with some of the believers he meets show how shaky the foundations of their beliefs really are. Yet George’s reaction to Lucy has a similarly flimsy basis, and his journey through the world beyond Illyria increasingly takes on the character of a pilgrimage, as he searches for the ‘Holy Machine’ of the title, a robot which is said to have a soul. ‘You’re actually just like an Illyrian atheist!’ George shouts at one priest. ‘You look at the appearance and not at what’s inside!’ (p. 221) Neither faith nor rationalism can entirely give George what he is looking for, but aspects of both are important to him.

Another key question posed by Beckett’s novel is that of just what it is that makes us human. The whole way in which George falls in love (or believes he does) and decides to run away with Lucy is clearly impulsive; he knows that Lucy is really an ‘it’ rather than a ‘she’, that the syntec will never belong to the natural world however much it comes to comprehend – but he can’t bring himself to admit this, and becomes shocked and angry when forced to confront the fact of Lucy’s mechanical nature. Contrasting with this, we have the character of Ruth Simling, who in a sense is the opposite of Lucy; whilst the syntec is a machine which at least appears to be turning more human, Ruth is a human merging with a machine – she spends so much time in SenSpace that her body wastes away and her consciousness has to be wired directly into the virtual reality. What is it, then, that makes characters human in The Holy Machine? Body? Sentience? The ‘human spirit’ championed by George’s radical associates? The question is left open.

By novel’s end, the principal characters have found a peace of sorts, and George might even have filled the gap he felt in his life. A search with a more concrete objective provides the impetus for Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys. The Church gained political power over its alternate England in 1950, and a series of riots led to members of the Secular Movement being sent to ‘the Island’, where they and their children now live in isolation. The Malades, a gang of boys born and bred on the Island, have taken it upon themselves to root out any English spies or believers; they’ll attack the houses and persons of anyone they suspect.

In the last week of November 1986, a girl named Sarah Wicks stows away on the last boat of the year bringing supplies from England; she intends to find her mother Laura, who was involved in a church-burning ten years previously, and may have been deported to the Island. Sarah is discovered by Nathaniel Malraux, one of the Malades, who falls in love with her, and tries to keep her existence a secret from his fellow gang-members; inevitably, though, he can’t do so forever.

Wood creates a wonderful sense of place in her novel. Cut off from the technological advances of England, the Island feels like a community out of time, one that’s almost hermetic (an impression reinforced by the fact that we don’t actually see life on the mainland, nor even hear mention of the other countries in our British Isles). It’s a community where the glorious optimism of independence has been replaced by inertia (‘Now the Islanders were free to do what they wanted, and they did very little,’ p. 189). Wood evokes the drabness of this place through the detail in her prose; and her careful use of dialect words (all the Islanders speak a north-eastern dialect; as a rebellion that would have been at least as much political as religious, the Secular Movement appears to have been a largely regional phenomenon) also goes a long way towards constructing the novel’s atmosphere, in a nicely subtle way.

The issue of religious faith itself impinges on The Godless Boys in a different way than on The Holy Machine; we see much of Wood’s novel through the eyes of characters who don’t truly understand what religion is, but they do know that their parents were against it; for those young people, it’s as much a political issue as anything, or even a matter of tradition. Nathaniel emphasises to the Malades the importance of knowing their history (‘You have to go [to the Island’s museum] often…so you can ken your past…You’ve got to go so you can understand who you are,’ p. 17); but one of his fellow young Islanders, Eliza Michalka, finds the letters INRI in the Island’s ruined church, and doesn’t know what it signifies.

The only truly religious character in the novel is John Verger, one of the original exiles, who later found God whilst wandering through the remains of the very church he helped to burn down. Verger’s faith is shown to be a guiding hand and source of comfort in his life, which is elastic enough to hold, whatever the circumstances. To the Malades, in contrast, what religion really represents is the opposite of the wild freedom offered by the Island; as one of them, Jakob Lawrence, reflects:

Jake had felt sick when he’d first seen these paintings of Christ. To be so coddled, he thought, with blurry distaste, to be so watched, was as abhorrent to him as his rare imaginings of what went on in England, with its damp and girlish God, and its feeble, pandering folk. (p. 209)

As with The Holy Machine, there are pairs of characters who may be seen as opposites: Sarah comes to the Island in search of answers; Eliza yearns to leave it for the life that she wants. Nathaniel’s love for Sarah and fondness for John Verger (who brought his parents together) leads him to feel conflicted over the gang’s activities; Jake, on the other hand, takes a much firmer stance. All these matters come to a head in the finale of The Godless Boys, which is brilliantly tense.

Both Wood and Beckett create worlds through which their characters negotiate with some difficulty. Some find their way, others don’t; some get what they wanted, others don’t even know what that is. It all makes, though, for a pair of very interesting and compelling novels.

Links

The Holy Machine
Chris Beckett’s website
An extract from the novel at Infinity Plus.
Other reviews: Michael Levy for Strange Horizons; Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman; Paul Graham Raven at Velcro City Tourist Board.

The Godless Boys
An extract from the novel at Litro.
Metro interview with Naomi Wood.
Other reviews: Harry Slater for Libri Populous; Karen McCandless for Bookmunch; Mary Fitzgerald for The Observer.

Book notes: Gale, Nesbø, Wodehouse

Patrick Gale, Tree Surgery for Beginners (1999)

Okay, so it took eighteen months between my seeing Gale at Cheltenham Literature Festival and actually getting around to reading him, but I got there in the end. But the book I’ve chosen seems quite an oddity. Tree surgeon Lawrence Frost is under suspicion of murder when his wife Bonnie and daughter Lucy go missing, until Bonnie walks into a police station and identifies herself. But the Frosts had rowed with each other, and Lawrence did hit Bonnie in anger; these issues must be worked through before the family can return to normal. Lawrence goes on a personal odyssey of sorts, reluctantly joining his uncle Darius on a bridge cruise and then going even further afield, during which he learns how to relate to women,  transforming his life in the process.

I like some aspects of Tree Surgery for Beginners very much: Gale handles some major plot developments in a strikingly (and effectively) low-key fashion; and he also draws contrasts between characters very well (such as the differing ways in which Bonnie and Lawrence view the latter’s love of the outdoors). But the plot itself has one or two coincidences too many for my liking, and that’s where I think the novel falls down. I’d read Gale again, though, and have a copy of his Notes from an Exhibition on my shelves; I don’t think it’ll be another eighteen months before I get around to that.

Patrick Gale’s website

Jo Nesbø, The Redbreast (2000/6)

Nesbø is being trumpeted asthe latest Big Thing in Scandinavian crime fiction, so I thought I’d check his work out by going back to the first of his Harry Hole mysteries to be translated into English (though actually the third in the series overall; the translation, I should say, is some fine work by Don Bartlett). Detective (later Inspector) Harry Hole is on the trail of a Märklin rifle (‘the ultimate professional murder weapon’) which is reported to have been smuggled into Norway; unbeknownst to him (the reader is privy to some, though not all, of the villain’s story) an old Nazi sympathiser, dying of cancer, has some unfinished business.

The first half of this very long book kept me reading without truly taking off; the second half, however, had me gripped. Nesbø is great at creating tension, though the best part of the novel is very different in tone – a brilliantly affecting series of short chapters just after the halfway point. I’ll most certainly be reading more Harry Hole books, and I hope there are even better reads to come.

Jo Nesbø’s websiteNesbø’s UK website.

P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954)

I’ve never watched the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, but even so, it was hard not to imagine the voices of Fry and Laurie whilst reading this. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit sees Berte Wooster having to contend with a threat from one G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright to break his spine in four places (because Cheesewright’s fiancée has left him for Bertie, even though Wooster wasn’t keen), and his Aunt Dahlia’s desperation to keep her husband from finding out that she pawned her pearl necklace to raise funds, and replaced it with a string of imitation pearls.

In the end, I find myself unsure about the novel. I liked the humour – the farcical situations, and especially the limitless patience of Jeeves, the unspoken thoughts behind every ‘Yes, sir’ – but somehow the prose didn’t really gel with me. I am now curious about seeing one of the TV adaptations, though, because I suspect I might appreciate the screen versions better.

P.G. Wodehouse website

Apex Magazine, February & March 2011: The Portal review

My latest review for The Portal is now live, and it marks the start of my tenure as the site’s regular reviewer of Apex Magazine. This first review is of issues 21 and 22 (from February and March), where I select my favourite stories from across both issues. The authors of the pieces I discuss are Cat Rambo, Nalo Hopkinson, and Darin Bradley.

Click here to read the review.