July wrap-up

Another month ends; here’s what was on the blog…

Book of the Month

In July, this blog was mostly concerned with short stories, and it’s a collection of those which takes the top spot this month: Stuart Evers’ Ten Stories About Smoking.

Reviews

Features

Man Booker Prize longlist 2011

The Booker longlist for this year is out, and it is full of books (and authors) I haven’t read. So I thought I’d take a look at the chosen thirteen to see which appeal…

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape)

A short novel  about a middle-aged man discovering that the truth of a weekend in his childhood may not be quite as he remembered. I’m torn here, because I like the idea of the “mutable past” (to quote the blurb) as a theme and plot device, but the actual synopsis sounds less interesting.

Anticipation rating: ***

Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side (Faber)

The life of Lily Bere, who left Dublin after World War One to live in America, and is now (in the novel’s present) in her eighties. Again, not something I’d probably pick up from the synopsis alone; I’d have to research more opinions first.

Anticipation rating: **½

Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate)

This one was already on my radar, the tale of a Victorian boy who joins a seafaring menagerie. Simon Savidge really enjoyed the book, and it does sound a proper rip-roaring adventure story.

Anticipation rating: ****

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (Granta)

A Western that sounds intriguing, but not at all like something I’d expect to see in contention for the Booker:twoo assassins travel to California, only to find that their intended target has an invention that could be the making of them.

Anticipation rating: ****

Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail)

A novel revolving around the arrest and ‘disappearance’ of a black jazz trumpeter in pre-World War Two Berlin — not an aspect of history with which I’m familiar, so this could be interesting.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Yvvette Edwards, A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)

Over the course of a weekend, secrets are revealed concerning the killing of the protagonist’s mother. I think I’d want to see other opinions before I decided whether to read this one.

Anticipation rating: ***

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Picador)

This is title I was most certain of seeing on the longlist (owing purely to the reputation of its author). I’ve heard great things about The Stranger’s Child (a journey through the 20th century with a particular poem at its heart), though the synopsisi alone wouldn’t cause me to read it.

Anticipation rating: ***

Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)

Rather like Emma Donoghue’s Room last year, Pigeon English seems to have been on some high-profile lists — the Waterstone’s 11, The Culture Show‘s New Novelists — and now here it is on another. When I read an extract earlier in the year, I was undecided about the book, and that opinion has not changed.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days (Seren)

A novel set in Bucharest at the end of Caeucescu’s regime. As with the Edugyan, I’m not familiar with the background, which is what catches my interest.

Anticipation rating: ***½

A.D. Miller, Snowdrops (Atlantic)

A crime story set in contemporary Moscow. Sounds good for the portrait of its setting as well as the plot.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Alison Pick, Far to Go (Headline)

The tale of a Jewish family fleeing Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion.Another one that I’d want to read about further before it went on the to-read list.

Anticipation rating: ***

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone)

The Booker has a reputation for overlooking works of science fiction, but here’s one (admittedly not published within the genre, but still). I’d already intended to read this near-future dystopia; perhaps its being longlisted will spur me on to actually do so.

Anticipation rating: ****

D.J. Taylor, Derby Day (Chatto & Windus)

A Victorian-set mystery with as the title suggests) the Epsom Derby as its backdrop. Once again, I’m inclined to reserve judgement about reading it until I’ve heard more.

Anticipation rating: ***

===

So, of that baker’s dozen, I’m most interested in reading the Birch, deWitt, and Rogers; and I think the Edugyan would be my first choice out of the rest. What strikes me most about the list as a whole is how many of the books — at least six, and I think seven — are from independent publishers, which is great to see. The shortlist will be announced in September; for now, though, congratulations to all authors and publishers on the longlist.

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011)

Peter Grant is an ordinary police officer, until he finds himself interviewing a ghost about a mysterious death. Pretty soon, he’s working for DI Thomas Nightingale, the Metropolitan Police’s one-man bastion against supernatural crime, which seems to be on the rise again after several decades. So, in between learning magical secrets that haven’t been taught for fifty years or more, Peter has to contend with an entity apparently causing normally placid individuals to commit violent murders, and with a feud between rival spirits of the Thames.

Its author already a television and tie-in writer, Rivers of London is Ben Aaronovitch’s first non-franchise novel, and the first of a projected series (with two sequels to follow later in 2011). It’s a promising start, but one not without flaws: there are times when the narrative momentum loses out rather too much to the establishment of the world and characters. Aside from the occasional dry quip, Peter Grant comes across as largely anonymous, both as a narrator and character; and the secondary human characters, even the eccentric Nightingale, don’t fare much better. The descriptions of London tend to focus on bald geographical details — the names of streets and landmarks — a technique I didn’t find particularly evocative.

Beneath and between all this, however, is some interesting fantasy. When Grant encounters the river spirits, there are tantalising hints of magic lurking behind the everyday, the deep archetypes these beings represent:

I felt the force of [Father Thames’s] personality drag at me: beer and skittles it promised, the smell of horse manure and walking home from the pub by moonlight, a warm fireside and uncomplicated women.

The way that Aaronovitch reaches back into history for the book’s mystery and its solution is very satisfying (one gains a strong sense that this novel could only have been set in London); and I like the practical approach to magic — for example, if you change shape in this fictional world, it damages the tissues ofyour body — which gives it a real sense of consequence.

That last point links to a subtext which may prove a key dynamic as the series unfolds: the clash of old and new. This is represented in the characters of Nightingale (the fusty old wizard-figure who has no truck with technology) and Grant (the young mixed-race copper determined to reconcile magic with his knowledge of science). In the present volume, it’s also there in the contrasting portrayals of the river spirits,with Father Thames an Olde-Worlde fairground showman, and Mother Thames a Nigerian matriarch. Indeed, in Aaronovitch’s fictional reality, magic itself is an old phenomenon brought into the modern world; the theme of old versus new is suggested in Rivers of London more than it’s explored, but it will be interesting to see if and how it develops over time.

Aaronovitch’s series may not quite have hit the ground running with Rivers of London, but there are clear signs here that a real treat may be in store in a book or two’s time.

This review first appeared in Vector 267, Summer 2011

Elsewhere
Ben Aaronovitch’s website
Some other reviews of Rivers of London: Duncan Lawie for Strange Horizons; Ian Simpson for Bookgeeks; Sharon at Vulpes Libris.

ShortStoryVille and the Bristol Short Story Prize

Last Saturday was the inaugural (and, I’m sure, not the last) ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol, in which Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize had kindly asked me to participate. When I arrived in Bristol that morning, the weather was grey, miserable and damp—in other words, perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. But it was great to see how many people had instead made the trip to the Arnolfini arts centre to hear short stories being read and discussed.

In the day’s first panel, the writer and critic Bidisha interviewed Sarah Salway, Alison MacLeod, and Janice Galloway about the art of writing short fiction. The three authors also read from their work, which really brought home to me how much their work seemed intended to be spoken; with Galloway’s piece especially, it was a completely different experience hearing the rhythms of her prose read aloud. Following on from the writing panel, we flipped it around to discuss reading short stories, and this was where I joined Scott Pack and Clare Hey in conversation with Tania Hershman; I think (and hope!) that we managed to say something interesting and useful.

The second half of the day began with Joe Spurgeon of the local magazine Venue interviewing Helen Oyeyemi and Stuart Evers about their latest books; if you haven’t read them, do, as both are very good indeed. Then came a series of readings from local writers, compèred by Bristol Prize chair of judges, Bertel Martin; the authors involved were Sarah Hilary, Patricia Ferguson, Gareth Powell, Emma Newman, Tania Hershman, and Amy Mason. Between their readings and recommendations, I have yet more books I want to investigate.

And after ShortStoryVille came the presentation of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. Congratulations to Emily Bullock, who won for her story ‘My Girl’; I read it on the train home, and it is a worthy winner. My thanks to Joe Melia and everyone else involved in ShortStoryVille for superb day; I am pleased to have been a part of it, and hope that it will turn out to have been the first of many. At a time when the BBC has announced plans to reduce the volume of short fiction programming on Radio 4, it’s good to have an event like ShortStoryVille to reassert that the short story is a vital art form.

Elsewhere

Some more write-ups of ShortStoryVille…
Vanessa Gebbie
Clare Hey
Tania Hershman

Apex Magazine 24, May 2011: The Portal review

My review of the May issue of Apex Magazine is now up at The Portal. It’s a very strong issue, with great stories by Jeremy R. Butler, Annalee Newitz, and Will Ludwigsen. Unfortunately, Apex are currently switching servers, and the stories are not available to read online at the time of writing (though you can still buy the issue as an ebook).

Click here to read my review in full.

Book notes: Hershman, MacLeod, Galloway

Tania Hershman, The White Road and Other Stories (2008)

One of the good things about short story collections is that they help give shape to an author’s work as a whole in a way that’s not necessarily apparent from individual pieces in isolation. Reading The White Road, I gain a sense of two main strands running through Hershman’s short fiction: first, there are a considerable number of short-shorts in the book. I think this is a particularly tricky form to do well, because the prose has to be so much denser to have impact; the short-shorts in Hershman’s collection are amongst the strongest I can recall reading, and having them together in the same volume only reinforces that impression.

Perhaps the main concern of the stories in The White Road, however, is science; many pieces begin have an epigraph from New Scientist, the subject of which may then be explored directly or more tangentially. ‘On a Roll’ begins with an epigraph about the randomness underpinning casino games, then tells of a woman who first has a dream in which she puts up an expensive pair of shoes as a stake at the roulette table, then seeks to enact her dream in reality; it’s a study of how the protagonist’s understanding of randomness enables her to make peace with her life.

‘My Name Is Henry’ employs a fairly straightforward reverse chronological structure to great effect, as it depicts a young man who knows his name, and goes backwards in time to uncover the cause of his amnesia; that progression is both affecting and chilling. The story ‘The White Road’ is set at a truck stop on the way to the South Pole, whose owner, Mags, travelled down there to escape a tragedy in her past; when that tragedy catches up with her, she knows it’s time to take drastic action. As so often in this collection, the human story is firmly to the fore; but the scientific underpinning gives the tale an added dimension of inevitability.

Tania Hershman’s website
Salt Publishing

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (2007)

As the title suggests, the stories in this collection are populated mainly by lovers, at various stages of their relationships. Macleod’s tales are at their most striking for me when organised around a central metaphor or structure; for example ‘so that the land was darkened’ portrays a couple at three moments of literal darkness, showing the different moods of their relationship: the rush of new love during the 1999 eclipse; tension during a power cut in Toronto in 2003; and a realisation of deep love and concern after the London bombings of 2005. ‘Radiant Heat ’focuses alternately on a physicist taking a flight to a conference, and a long-haulage driver joining the effort to wreckage of the physicist’s plane. The concept of entropy, of heat in the universe dissipating, becomes a metaphor for the trajectory of the scientist’s marriage; and the contrast between the two strands of the story creates a real poignancy.

Elsewhere in the collection, ‘Sacred Heart’ is an effective portrait of a nineteen-year-old Naomi’s confused feelings towards the man who (she believes) died whilst sitting beside her on a park bench; she can’t decide whether she was  attracted or repelled by his earlier advances, and the ebb and flow of this is very well realised. The protagonist of ‘The Will Writer’ is single, but dreams of sitting alongside his ideal woman in the SUV he’ll buy if his lottery numbers come up. Over the course of the story, his work brings him into with various couples, and the degrees of contentment they have in their relationships mirror the fortunes of the will writer’s own life, with the hoped-for lottery win seeming by turns a possibility and a distant dream; MacLeod makes this a fine character study.

Janice Galloway, Blood (1991)

The tales in Blood take real life and filter it through dense, sometimes fragmented prose, until it becomes… more concentrated, one might say. In the title story, for example, a girl has her tooth removed by the dentist, and her desire to stanch the bleeding comes to represent something of a wish to hold herself in, as it were. ‘Plastering the Cracks’ begins with the straightforward premise of a woman calling in workmen to repair a room, but treats its material with a twist of absurdity, as the builders move in and communicate with the woman only through notes.

The piece ’two fragments’ deals directly with the idea of ‘inflating’ reality, as it contrasts the ways in which a father lost two fingers and a grandmother one of her eyes, with the outlandish explanations given to the narrator as a child. ‘Love in a changing environment’ pushes its subject slightly out of reality in a slightly different way, as it depicts the ups and downs of a couple’s relationship being affected by the changing nature of the shop above which they live. A series of pieces called ‘Scenes from the Life’ depict various situations, such as a father’s harsh life-lesson to his son, and an elderly woman’s appointment with a health visitor, as theatrical scenes, which puts distance between reader and action in a thought-provoking way.

Janice Galloway’s website

Apex Magazine 23, April 2011: The Portal review

The Portal are now carrying my review of Apex Magazine‘s April issues, which contains original stories by Michael J. Deluca and Eugie Foster, as well as reprinted pieces by Mike Allen and Jennifer Pelland. There’s some good stuff in that issue, and I do recomemnd you take a look.

My review is here, and the issue of Apex is available to read online here.

Helen Oyeyemi at London Literature Festival, 11 July 2011

Suzi Feay’s interview with Helen Oyeyemi at the Southbank Centre last night provided a good example of how hearing an author speak about her work can cast new light on a book. After an opening section in which Oyeyemi discussed her love of fairytales as a child, and how she first began writing (crossing out the parts of Little Women that she didn’t like, and writing in her own version—and in a library copy), she read the tale of ‘Mr Fox’ (the English version of Bluebeard), as collected by Joseph Jacobs in the 19th century; followed by the opening pages of her novel Mr Fox, which draws on different versions of the Bluebeard story. Even though I’d already read that book, hearing the author reading aloud from it was almost like encountering it for the first time again.

At the time of my original reading, I was struck by the sheer range of Mr Fox; but that was brought home to me again here when Oyeyemi talked about the many influences that went into the novel. It wasn’t just the many different versions of Bluebeard, or all the writers whose work had an impact (I’m reminded once again that I really should read Angela Carter); It was also that there were ideas in Mr Fox on which I hadn’t picked up—for example, Oyeyemi employed the 1930s New York setting partly from a love of noir, and partly to explore conceptions of masculinity that emerged from the First World War. The discussion made me want to go back to Mr Fox to see what else I could find in it.

Feay also asked Oyeyemi about her creative process, but I gained the distinct impression that even the author herself found it rather mysterious; Oyeyemi talked about her characters’ often doing surprising things, and how she attempted to study for an MFA, but found it too restrictive. When writing Mr Fox, she wasn’t even sure who would want to read that kind of book. I’m pleased that there are people who do, because I am coming to think that Oyeyemi’s is one of the most singular imaginations at work today; and this interview and reading only cemented that view.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking (2011)

The saying goes that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it would seem wrong not to mention the design of Ten Stories About Smoking, which comes in a flip-top box that looks like a cigarette packet, with the cover of the volume itself as the ‘cigarettes’.  It’s a brilliant piece of work that really enhances the reading experience, and I take my hat off to the designers, Two Associates.

Of course, as good as the design may be, what counts the most is the quality of the stories; I’m pleased to say that Stuart Evers has written a fine selection here. First, the title of the collection: all the stories feature smoking in some way, but often in the background, so the tales aren’t necessarily ‘about smoking’ in a literal sense—but Evers often gives smoking a metaphorical purpose in his stories, and they can be ‘about’ what smoking represents within them.

‘Things Seem So Far Away, Here’ is a good example of what I mean. Having received news from the doctor that effectively derails her life, Linda goes to visit her younger, more successful, brother Daniel, in the hope that she’ll be hired to look after her niece, Poppy. Evers doesn’t need to use description to evoke the difference between Daniel’s comfortable middle-class family life and Linda’s bedsit existence, because it’s there in the details that Linda observes, and the way that she knows how Daniel’s lifestyle works (on observing family photographs in the main room, Linda is aware that ‘should anything happen to her brother’s family, these were the photos that would be given to the television and the newspapers,’ p. 32). When Linda makes the comment that gives the story its title, she may be referring to the isolated rural location of Daniel’s house, but we also feel the distance between the siblings’ lives, because so little detail of Linda’s home life is given in comparison to that of Daniel’s family. Linda’s smoking habit comes to represent that distance, and the image of a smoke-tainted jumper symbolises how far it will remain.

Evers’ characters frequently find their plans and ambitions thwarted. Moore, the protagonist of ‘Some Great Project’ is looking for something to occupy his mind after the deaths of his parents, but nothing quite works until he starts cataloguing old family photos—which leads him to discover that he has a brother about whom he never knew. Moore travels to Spain in search of his brother, but it doesn’t work out how he imagined. In this story, smoking is a symbol of the lives that never were, as Moore’s brother lights the cigarettes of his fallen Falklands comrades; but the theme of lost opportunities is carried all the way through, from the opening scene of the teenage Moore being denied the chance to read his grandfather’s collection of adventure novels, to the ironic closing twist. ‘Some Great Project’ is a very elegantly constructed piece.

Sometimes in Ten Stories About Smoking, there’s a striking sense that the ‘real story’, as it were’ is going on elsewhere, yet the tales are no less satisfying for that. ‘Real Work’ depicts the gradual unravelling of the relationship between Ben and his artist girlfriend Cara; the two come from different worlds, and Ben gradually becomes disillusioned as he realises that he and Cara simply want different things from life.  But it’s the subtle way Evers depicts the process of this which makes the story work so well; by the end, when Cara is exhibiting her new film, little may have changed on the surface, yet we know how much really has. Even more striking is ‘The Best Place in Town’, in which David Falmer, on a stag-party trip to Las Vegas, takes a walk through the city that acts as a kinetic way for him to come to terms with his discontents (also symbolised by the way Falmer begins the story smoking for the first time in thirteen years, and ends it admiring a magician doing tricks with cigarettes)—but the very last scene reveals that John, the bridegroom-to-be, has problems of his own, which have not been (and will not be) explored; and this creates an interesting effect when set against the completeness of Falmer’s story.

Perhaps the tale which is most directly concerned with smoking is the book’s closing piece, aptly titled ‘The Final Cigarette’. This concerns a dying man named Ray Peters, who is having what will probably be his last smoke. Two versions of this alternate: in one, Ray is American, and on his hotel balcony in Reno, two days after marrying a younger woman; in the other strand, Ray is British, waiting for the end in hospital, and being visited by his son, though his wife refuses to see him. The contrast between these two versions of reality is well-drawn and powerful, with the American strand (which I took to be imaginary) a vision of happiness and strength (given Ray’s situation, that is), with even the cigarette-smoking looking and feeling good. In the British reality (the ‘real’ reality, perhaps), however, Ray is slowly wasting away, his smoking comes across as a desperate comfort for a dying man, and his relations with those around him are not always cordial. ‘The Final Cigarette’ is a vivid portrait of the realities of life not living up to one’s dreams. That sums up what strikes me as the main theme of Stuart Evers collection –a book of ten fine stories which are about plenty more than just smoking.

Elsewhere
Read ‘Some Great Project (Litro) and ‘What’s in Swindon?‘ (Scarecrow) from the collection.
Stuart Evers’ blog
Booktrust interview with Evers
Some other reviews of Ten Stories About Smoking: James Doyle for Bookmunch; Just William’s Luck; Leyla Sanai for The Independent; Alex Preston for New Statesman.

Notable books: July 2011

July is upon us, a month about which I’m particularly excited because (as I may have mentioned before, I’ll be taking part in the panel on reading short stories at the ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol on the 16th. For now, though, here’s a selection of the new books that have caught my attention this month:

Ben Brooks, Grow Up

When Téa Obreht won the Orange Prize, the fact that she was just 24 when her book was published attracted some comment. Well, Ben Brooks is 19; I am curious to see what this coming-of-age tale is like.

Enrique de Hériz, The Manual of Darkness

A magician is going blind as he searches for the secrets of a Victorian master pickpocket. Novels about magic tend to intrigue me, and this is no exception.

Helen FitzGerald, The Donor

This promises an interesting expolartion of ethical issues, as a single father finds both his daughters needing a new kidney–and he’s a match for their rare organ type.

Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X

The UK publisher’s blurb for this Japanese bestseller is exceptionally cagey, promising a puzzling crime and surprise ending, whilst giving almost nothing in the way of detail. But it’s worked, and made me curious about the book.

Ryan David Jahn, The Dispatcher

I really enjoyed Jahn’s debut, Acts of Violence (recently published in the US as Good Neighbors), but for some unfathomable reason, I’ve never got around to reading his follow-up, Low Life–I must rectify that at some point. Anyway, this is the author’s third novel, about a police dispatcher seeking to rescue his missing daughter; I’d anticipate Jahn putting an interesting twist on the material.

M.D. Lachlan, Fenrir

Sequel to the excellent Wolfsangel, this moves Lachlan’s Viking fantasy to Paris a hundred years later.

Alice LaPlante, Turn of Mind

This could be  powerful: a novel about a former surgeon with Alzheimer’s who is suspected of killing her best friend.

Amos Oz, Scenes from Village Life

I’ve never read Oz before, but this does sound interesting– a set of linked stories mysterious happenings in an Israeli village.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus

From the author of Boy A comes a novel of a near future in which genetic enhancements are readily available to anyone who can afford them. I’m always interested in mainstream-published speculative fiction, so this goes on my reading list.