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