August wrap-up

As August draws to a close, here’s the usual look back at activity on the blog.

Book of the Month

No contest this month — the best book I read in August was Robert Shearman’s superlative story collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. Certainly the best book of short fiction I have read so far this year, I expect it’ll also feature on my best-reads-of-2011 list.

Reviews

Features

Triple Choice Tuesday

I’m the featured blogger in this week’s Triple Choice Tuesday feature over on Kim’s blog, Reading Matters. This is a feature where Kim asks bloggers and other bookish folk to choose a favourite book, a book that changed their world, and a book that deserves a wider audience. I had great fun deciding on my three  books, and writing about what they mean to me; I’d like to thank Kim for giving me the opportunity to take part.

Click here to discover my choices.

Twenty Bookish Questions

I came across this questionnaire on Curiosity Killed The Bookworm; it looked fun, and it’s been a while since I did something like it, so here are my answers…

1. Which book has been on your shelf the longest?

Oh, I don’t know — I bought books fifteen years ago that I still haven’t read. Can I name one that’s been there a long time and I keep meaning to read? The Viriconium omnibus by M. John Harrison.

2. What is your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next?

Current read is Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harsted, whcih I’ll be reviewing for We Love This Book. My last read was Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, and the next one will probably be How to Forget by Marius Brill (though there’s always the possibility that I’ll change my mind).

3. What book did everyone like and you hated?

‘Hate’ is too strong a word, but I remember feeling lukewarm towards The Book Thief when pretty much everyone else in my reading group loved it. (I could also mention here The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which made it on to the World Book Night list, but which I didn’t much rate.)

4. Which book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably won’t?

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (600-page high fantasy from 1922, written in an Elizabethan/Jacobean style). It’s a book I mean to read out of historical interest in fantasy literature, but I can’t actually envisage a time when I’ll be in the mood to stick with it.

5. Which book are you saving for “retirement?”

That’s too far away for me to think about, and I don’t think I would save particular books in the way anyhow. Perhaps that’ll be when I finally read The Worm Ouroboros

6. Last page: read it first or wait till the end?

Eh? I wouldn’t even contemplate looking at the end of a book before I start. The last page is the last for a reason.

7. Acknowledgements: waste of ink and paper or interesting aside?

I don’t always read them, but certainly wouldn’t consider them a waste. What- or whomever an author wishes to acknowledge is up to them, and fine by me.

8. Which book character would you switch places with?

On the proviso that I woudn’t be limited by the plotlines of the books in question, I will say Thursday Next; being able to travel into any book would be pretty cool.

9. Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time)?

Oh, plenty: reading Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile during my A Levels; the second summer vacation at university when I raed Mary Gentle’s Ash and China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, amongst many other books; working my way through the Discworld novels as a teenager…

10. Name a book you acquired in some interesting way.

I studied A Level English Language, and chose for coursework project to do a comparative analysis of the humour in books by Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, and Robert Rankin. I was on holiday in Herefordshire that summer, and popped into a second-hand book sale in Ledbury, to see what there was. Amongst several (knowing me, a large ‘several’!) other books, I found a copy of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (which had not long bee n published), being sold cheaply because it had apparently been damaged in transit (though it was a perfectly good reading copy). I bought it in case it would help with my project — and it was so much fun to browse, and I learnt so much from it, that it has become one of my most treasured books.

11. Have you ever given away a book for a special reason to a special person?

I’ve given plenty of books away, but can’t think of a specific instance where there was a special reason.

12. Which book has been with you to the most places?

I don’t think there is one'; I’m a fairly fast reader.

13. Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad ten years later? 

I never got along with A Kestrel for a Knave when I studied it in high school, but appreciated it more when I re-read it a few years ago. I wrote a blog post on this very subject back in January.

14. What is the strangest item you’ve ever found in a book?

I’m sure I must have found an item in a book at some point, but nothing that I can recall.

15. Used or brand new?

My preference would be new, but I’ve no problem with used books, as long as they’re in decent condition.

16. Stephen King: Literary genius or opiate of the masses?

To be honest, I haven’t read much by him; I tried a couple of his books earlier this year — the first time I’d read King in ages — but they didn’t grab me.

17. Have you ever seen a movie you liked better than the book?

I liked the Lord of the Rings movies better than the book (though it’s a long time since I’ve seen and read them, so I don’t know whether I’d feel the same now).

18. Conversely, which book should NEVER have been introduced to celluloid?

‘Never’ is another strong word. I don’t think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has ever had the film adaptation it deserves (certainly not the Tim Burton version). And I’m not sure that The Chronicles of Narnia really work as Hollywood blockbusters.

19. Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks being excluded from this question?

Hmm… no, I don’t think I have.

20. Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?

‘Always’ is yet another strong word, but I’ve picked up plenty of recommendations from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and from one of its editors, John Grant (who wrote excellent reviews for Infinity Plus back in the day. These days, if Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, Scott Pack, or Abigail Nussbaum (to name four) say something’s good, I’ll most likely take a look.

Book notes: Kurkov, Cornwell, Dunthorne

Andrey Kurkov, The Milkman in the Night (2009/11)

Ten years on from the English-language publication of his debut, Death and the Penguin, comes Andrey Kurkov’s ninth book. The Milkman in the Night (translated from the Russian by Amanda Love Darragh) tells of three main characters whose lives intertwine in contemporary Kiev: Dmitry, the airport sniffer-dog handler who finds a case of ampoules containing a substance which has a remarkable effect on those who consume it; Irina, the single mother who sells her breast milk for a living; and Semyon, who finds that he has been out walking at night with no memory of doing so – and his business partner’s report from monitoring those journeys only leaves Semyon with more questions.

For all the strangeness in its pages (and it’s by no means confined to the three protagonists), The Milkman in the Night has a strongly deadpan quality, both in the reactions of its characters to events, and in Kurkov’s prose. This turns out to be both a strength and a weakness of the novel: on the one hand, it creates an effective contrast which draws the reader in by making one want to know just where the book’s going next; on the other, it puts a certain distance between reader and characters which makes engaging emotionally that bit more difficult. But the structure works well, a series of short chapters that shift between viewpoints, creating a narrative skein that gradually reveals the connections between characters, and a truth that may or may not be fully uncovered.

This review first appeared at We Love This Book.

Guardian interview with Andrey Kurkov.
Reviews elsewhere: Marina Lewycka for the Financial Times; Tom Adair for The Scotsman.

Hugh Cornwell, Window on the World (2011)

The first novel by singer-songwriter (and former Stranglers frontman) Hugh Cornwell is the story of Jamie Thornberry, a botanical writer who becomes infatuated with an artist named Katherine Gaunt whom he meets at an exhibition. He buys one of her paintings at auction; hears of another one in Paris and buys that; then tracks down a third to a Paris apartment, and takes it for himself. Jamie becomes determined to collect Katherine’s works; his methods for doing so grow more extreme – and he may be just as obsessed with the artist herself.

Window on the World is a fine character study. Cornwell initially portrays Jamie as reasonable enough; even when he steals a painting, we can rationalise it as an aberration brought on by the sudden intensity of his love for Katherine’s work (and even the protagonist seems to recognise he’s done something wrong and out of character). But, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to explain Jamie’s action’s away like that – and there’s a brilliant perceptual shift towards the end which reveals that Jamie may not be such a reliable narrator after all. It’s the kind of narrative move that makes one want to go back to the beginning and re-read to see what other clues there were, what other stories were told without our realising.

Hugh Cornwell’s website
Extract fromWindow on the World [PDF]
Quartet Books

Joe Dunthorne, Submarine (2008)

I enjoyed hearing Joe Dunthorne read from his second novel, Wild Abandon, earlier this year; but I’ve decided to start with his debut before going on to that newer book. So: Submarine is narrated by Oliver Tate, fifteen years of age in mid-1990s Swansea. He’s discovering long words and girls (in particular Jordana Bevan, who likes to set fire to things, and came on to Oliver at least as much as he did to her). But Oliver senses problems at home, because he’s found an empty bottle of antidepressants in his father’s waste-bin, and is suspicious about his mother’s going on a retreat where an old (male) friend will be teaching capoeira.

I warmed to Dunthorne’s prose style and observation from the very beginning, when Oliver describes a modem as ‘playing bad jazz’. The narrative voice as a whole rings true, the fancy words and facts peppered throughout symbolic of a young man who’s smart but still unsure of his place in the world (we see this particularly strikingly when Jordana tells Oliver that her mother has a brain tumour; all his words are no help in reacting appropriately).

That sense of being only halfway there is also present in how Oliver reacts to events in his life; he instinctively understands something of what’s going on around him, but doesn’t grasp all the subtleties, and that means things don’t always work out as well as he’d like. Now I really want to see the film of Submarine, because I can imagine some of these scenes playing out really well on screen, such as when Oliver goes to the retreat to find out what his mum is really up to, or when he tries to ‘help’ with Jordana’s dog.  All in all, this is a great debut; and now I’m looking forward to Wild Abandon even more.

Joe Dunthorne’s website
Wales Online video interview with Dunthorne
Reviews elsewhere: Chasing Bawa; Tim Adams for the Observer.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (2009)

It has been around one -and-a-quarter years since I first heard of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, when it won the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize. I didn’t really know who Rob Shearman was (I’ve learned since that, amongst many other things, he wrote the episode of Doctor Who that introduced the Daleks to the revived series); but seeing him speak at the BSFA AGM later in 2010 only increased my interest in reading his work. Now I’ve finally done so, and more fool me for taking this long.

I’ve discovered that Shearman is a master of a kind of fantasy story I love, the sort that works equally well on the metaphorical and literal levels. The story ‘Luxembourg’ is a fine example: in it, the titular country disappears, leaving behind nothing but a water-filled hole; Juliet’s husband Colin was on a business trip there, and now she has to deal with his absence. It’s the little, mundane things that she notices:

She didn’t know how much food she should buy on the shopping run, and the DVD wasn’t nearly so much fun without Colin talking through the whole thing – she looked at the house, all newly cleaned, and wondered why she’d bothered. (p. 108)

As time goes on, Juliet falls for Colin’s brother Dave – but then Luxembourg reappears, and Colin with it. The events around Luxembourg become a very effective metaphor for exploring how one might react when a lover leaves a relationship.

But the story is also aesthetically satisfying when taken entirely at face value. What’s most striking from that viewpoint is how the characters treat the disappearance of Luxembourg as nothing too remarkable, as though such extraordinary events happen all the time; it’s reported on the British news as a quirky ‘and finally…’ story, and Juliet puts it out of her mind when she first hears about it (‘She supposed there was nothing to worry about. She supposed if there was something she ought to be doing, someone would soon tell her to do it,’ p. 106).

Time and again, the stories in Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical are like this: mundane, middle-class British settings; unremarkable characters with unremarkable names (if names are given at all) focusing on the everyday aspects of living and loving, yet taking the most remarkable occurrences in their stride. By giving his characters similar reactions to the fantastic and the domestic, Shearman is effectively granting the two equal dramatic weight, which may be why his tales balance so well.

But the characters’ inability (or refusal) to view the fantastic as extraordinary could also be read as not dealing with the reality of their situations, and that carries a note of horror along with the humour of incongruity. Take, for example, the story ‘Your Long, Loving Arms’, in which unemployed Steve gets a job working as a tree. It’s funny and absurd, yes – but then we watch Steve’s relationship disintegrate because he’s so wrapped up in his work; and we see how he gets treated by people when on duty – and there’s the horror of seeing these characters trapped in a situation which could be made better with only a simple (to us) shift of perception.

Though it’s possible to see a consistent approach running through many of the stories in this collection, there’s also considerable variety across the book as a whole; as the title suggests, explorations of love predominate. In ‘14.2’, for example, love is something that can be quantified precisely, which leads people to have a rather clinical view of relationships. In ‘One Last Love Song’, love is an inscrutable quality that the protagonist encapsulates perfectly in a song he writes as a child (which becomes one of the Government’s official  thousand registered love songs), a feat he struggles to repeat for the rest of his life. And in ‘This Creeping Thing’, love is… well:

For Susan, love was just something which crept up on her. There was no such thing as falling in love, falling simply wasn’t part of the process; the most Susan could manage would be an odd stumble every now and then… (p. 63)

The opening passage of that story is longer than I can reasonably quote here, but I think it’s a wonderful piece of prose and observation. Taken as a whole, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical is similarly insightful – not to mention an excellent set of stories.

Elsewhere
Robert Shearman’s website
Video of Shearman reading ‘One Last Love Song’
Some other reviews of the book: Paul Raven for Strange Horizons; Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch.

Science fiction in the mainstream: Clarke Award contenders

Two things struck me during a recent Twitter discussion on favourites for next year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. The first was that relatively few genre names came to mind; a few Clarke stalwarts were mentioned — China Miéville, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Neal Stephenson — but only enough to be a very small proportion of the 50-60 books which make up a typical list of submissions for the award (and it’s not even certain that the relevant books by all the writers I’ve named above will qualify as sf).

The second thing that struck me was that the number of mainstream-published novels which could be read as science fiction is rather high this year. ‘You should do a blog post!’ said Martin Lewis; so here is a list of those titles I know about (note that I haven’t read them all, so I’m going purely on the synopsis in some cases).

David Almond, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean

The first adult novel by children’s author Almond (Skellig) is a dystopian story narrated by young Billy in his own vernacular. With its manner of telling, comparisons with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy may well ensue.

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

A near-future tale of gangsters, set in a fictitious part of Ireland. Seems to be gaining acclaim for its prose style in particular.

Marius Brill, How to Forget

A magician with a murky past becomes involved in an experiment on memory which may allow him to forget the things he can’t help but remember. The potential is there for this to be reminiscent of Richard Powers’ Generosity from last year’s Clarke shortlist (albeit of course with different subject matter).

[EDIT: I'm wrong! How to Forget isn't actually science-fictional at all.]

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Probably the best-known book on this list. I felt the novel was good, but no more than that; and only tenuously justifiable as science fiction — but, then again, I did find its sf content rather effective. My instinct is that Goon Squad is not a likely Clarke nominee, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Benjamin Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

The memoir of a chimpanzee who acquires human language and intelligence. A very long book which seems to have attracted relatively little attention, but I’ve seen some very positive commentary.

Sam Leith, The Coincidence Engine

Interesting developments come to the attention of the ‘Directorate of the Extremely Improbable’, beginning with the spontaneous assemblage of an aircraft during a hurricane. Leith’s novel may or may not fall under the heading of Barleypunk, but it would seem to have a similarly self-aware approach to that of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, the Mark Wernham title that was shortlisted in 2009.

Simon Lelic, The Facility

A near-future political thriller revolving around a secret detention centre. I think the novel takes an interesting approach to its form, but in doing so becomes less successful as sf, which might weaken its chances of being a real Clarke contender.

Anna North, America Pacifica

In search of her mother, a seventeen-year-old girl heads towards the only temperate land in a frozen world. From recent Clarke shortlists, this brings to mind Marcel Theroux’s excellent Far North; one can only hope it’s as good.

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The science fiction novel that made it on to the Booker longlist. May make an interesting point of comparison with the David Almond title above, as both seem to focus on young narrators who are key to their worlds’ survival.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus

A tale of life among the have-nots in a near future where complete genetic selection is available to the haves. I think the evocation of the setting is the greatest strength of this novel; whether that’s enough to make it a likely Clarke contender, I’m undecided.

Katie Ward, Girl Reading

Of all the novels I’m listing here, this is probably the one that looks least like science fiction at first sight, as it comprises a sequence of historical novellas on portraits and their subjects. But the final chapter is set in the future and makes sf out of the rest. I rather liked this book, and Adam Roberts really liked it; instinct says it may be too obliquely sf-nal to be shortlisted for the Clarke — but then, Cloud Atlas was shortlisted, so that instinct may be wrong (and I’d have no problem if that turned out to be the case).

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

The last on my alphabetical list and, conveniently, the one I’ve read which I like the most. Set in an alternate England where those of religious faith were exiled to an island off the north-east coast, Wood’s novel has a great sense of place and is a fine portrait of its world. I would certainly be happy to see this on next year’s Clarke shortlist.

***

There we have a dozen non-genre sf novels receiving their first UK publication this year, though I doubt very much that my list is comprehensive (for a start, it doesn’t include YA, which is not a field I know much about); I’d welcome any suggestions of books that I’ve missed.

What I don’t doubt is that mainstream-published work is a key part of the UK science fiction landscape at the moment, and it would not surprise me to see that reflected in the next Clarke Award shortlist. The Clarke hasn’t gone to a non-genre title since The Calcutta Chromosome in 1997 — will that change next year? Of course, until we see the shortlist and read the books, it’s impossible to say; but I suspect the genre titles will have a run for their money.

Book notes: Grimwood, Trigell, Gardner

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Fallen Blade (2011)

Jon Courtenay Grimwood made his name as a science fiction novelist; now, for his eleventh book (and first in five years), he’s turned to fantasy, beginning his ‘Assassini’ sequence. The 15th-century Venice of The Fallen Blade is ruled by a dynasty founded by Marco Polo, with a certain rivalry between the Regent Alonzo and his sister-in-law Alexa, mother of the imbecilic Duke Marco IV. As the novel begins, a mysterious silver-haired boy is found captive aboard a Mamluk ship; given the name Tycho, he has no memory of how he came to be there, but hungers for blood and possesses preternatural reflexes, which latter catch the eye of Venice’s chief assassin, Atilo, who has it in mind to train the boy to become his heir. Elsewhere, the planned strategic marriage of the Duke’s cousin, Lady Giulietta, is derailed when the Mamluks kidnap her in revenge for the attack on their ship – and the intrigues only continue…

Grimwood brings his Venice to life well, in both its atmosphere (squalid and smelly) and the complexity of its political and social codes (for example, a soldier’s instinctive action to save a noble’s life may be tantamount to choosing factions). The action sequences are involving, and Grimwood also evokes the conflicting senses of reluctance and desire felt by both Tycho as he discovers more of who (or what) he is, and Giulietta as she becomes attracted to him. The deployment of the supernatural is strikingly low-key: the word ‘vampire’ is not in the novel’s vocabulary (nor does Tycho quite fit that mould); and, on the occasions when characters do use magic, there’s nothing flashy about it – it comes across as just another tool to be used.

At the same time, it can be difficult to fully engage with The Fallen Blade. Many of the characters commit violent and abhorrent acts (as befits their society and their positions within it), and don’t always have enough charisma in the reader’s eyes to balance that out, even in the case of Tycho, the book’s de facto ‘hero’. Nor is the novel always sufficiently clear on the status of its various political intrigues. Still, The Fallen Blade is a good start to its series, and carries the promise of revelations and complex plots aplenty to come.

This review was first published on Fiction Uncovered.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus (2011)

Jonathan Trigell is best known for Boy A, his debut about a young offender trying to reintegrate into society after spending most of his life in prison. For his third novel, however, Trigell has turned his hand to science fiction. In a future London stifled by a series of wars and unchanging government, advances in genetic technology mean that perfection is available to anyone who can afford it. Those who can’t, the ‘Unimproved’, end up somewhere like The Kross (King’s Cross as was). Genus follows a number of characters living in and around The Kross, mostly notably Holman, the disfigured son of the last natural beauty queen; and Günther Bonnet, the cop with ‘the best set of genes on the force’, who has a series of murders to investigate.

The actual plot of Genus, the mystery around those deaths, is relatively straightforward, and not the novel’s main point of interest. Where the book rerally succeeds is the way Trigell depicts his future, world; our perspective is firmly rooted on the inside, to an almost suffocating degree. We barely see anything of life outside The Kross, never mind outside of London; and it’s difficult to get a real handle on how this world developed and how it operates – we understand to an extent, yes, but a full picture of the world is as distant from us as it is from the inhabitants of The Kross; they just have to get on as best they can, and that’s what Trigell makes his readers do. There’s also some nicely effective prose in Genus; I wasn’t too keen on the use of alliteration, but the jerky, rapid-fire sentences of Günther’s scenes do much to convey his character, and Trigell frequently juxtaposes different senses of the same word or phrase to great effect. I’ll certainly be reading more of Trigell’s work after this.

Cate Gardner, ‘Nowhere Hall’ (2011)

The latest chapbook from Spectral Press is the story of Ron Spence, a man who’s had all the hope and colour wrung out of him, and contemplates stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. But instead of actually doing so, Ron goes into a nearby hotel, which may be opulent, or derelict, or both at once. He wanders through its rooms, where nothing quite makes sense, but there’s a vaguely familiar mannequin that seems strangely alive.

A story like this really stands or falls on the atmosphere it creates, and ‘Nowhere Hall’ does well on that score. Cate Gardner uses recurring images, such as dust and umbrellas, to build up the sense of a web tightening around her protagonist; and Ron’s sense of the hotel’s rooms having a distorted familiarity further increases the tension. I don’t think I grasped everything that was going on in ‘Nowhere Hall’, but what I particularly appreciate is the way Gardner suggests that the world outside the hotel is just as strange as the one inside it – so maybe there’s not much of an escape for Ron after all.

Book notes: Musso, Pratchett, Matar

Guillaume Musso, Where Would I Be Without You? (2009/11)

Art-crime officer Martin Beaumont is on the trail of master thief Archibald McLean, who has just stolen a Van Gogh from the Musée d’Orsay; but the investigation leads Martin inexorably back towards Gabrielle, the American student with whom he had an intense-but-brief love affair thirteen years earlier. Musso’s novel (translated from the French by Anna Brown and Anna Aitken) veers rather towards the corny (McLean, for example, is the kind of crook of flies helicopters and has an ex-MI6 officer, who ‘look[s] like an English governess’ but is skilled in martial arts and marksmanship, as a bodyguard/henchwoman), but sill holds out the promise of an enjoyable read.

The problem is that the book falls between two stools: it’s over-the-top enough to dilute the exploration of emotional issues, but not so much that the novel can really take off as a romp. Where Would I Be Without You? moves through several different genres – crime caper, love story, supernatural fiction – but they don’t quite gel. The novel does have its strong moments (repetition in the prose is used to considerable effect in some passages), but, for the most part, it’s disappointing.

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith (2006)

My experience of the later Discworld novels has tended to be that they’re OK, but don’t match up to the best of the series – not in terms of their humour, conception, or the incisiveness with which they treat their themes. Wintersmith continues that trend. This is Pratchett’s fourth YA Discworld novel, and the third to centre on young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Her predicament n the present book is that, having joined in on impulse with a traditional dance to usher in winter, Tiffany now finds herself the object of the winter elemental’s affections – and winter it will stay if she can’t find a way to get the rightful story back on track.

As the last part of that synopsis may suggest, one of Wintersmith’s main concerns – as so often with Discworld books – is how stories impinge on the way we perceive the world. Pratchett has a story literally affecting the lives and the world in the way that Tiffany has become caught up in the story of the wintersmith and the Summer Lady; but the theme is also there in the way that, although witchcraft is shown to be more about things like observation than magic per se, it’s important for witches to cultivate an air of mystique, because that’s what the people need their witches to have.

Pratchett’s treatment of this is not uninteresting, but… it doesn’t have the spark of his best work. And the disparate elements of Wintersmith don’t seem to me to come together into a successful whole. The Nac Mac Feegle (the warrior-like fairy folk who have become Tiffany’s ‘protectors’ over the course of the series) feel rather awkwardly inserted into the story; and, despite being the main comic-cut characters, don’t raise much more than the odd smile. Indeed, most of the book doesn’t raise much more than the odd smile, which is a long way from the laugh-out-loud humour of earlier Pratchett works. So, Wintersmith: yes, it’s OK, but… but OK isn’t what made me fall in love with Terry Pratchett’s writing.

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006)

Suleiman is nine years old in 1979, when he gains the first hint that there’s more to his father Faraj’s life than he had thought; the boy believes his father to be away on business, but instead sees Faraj in Triploi, entering an unfamiliar building in Martyrs’ Square. In the months that follow, Faraj’s political activities bring him increasingly to the attention of the secret police, but the young Suleiman has little understanding of what is happening to his family.

The ‘country of men’ of the novel’s title is essentially the adult political world on whose fringes Suleiman comes to hover (occasionally crossing over them). Matar uses the boy’s perspective very well; the fact that we comprehend more than Suleiman can does not diminish the power of those moments when the brutal realities of the adult world intrude upon his childhood. And the way Suleiman’s life is so profoundly affected by his encounter with the ‘country of men’ finds something of a counterpart with the experiences of his mother Najwa, who was herself brought into the ‘country of men’ at the age of fourteen, when forced to marry Faraj, and has subsequently turned to alcoholism. In the Country of Men is an interesting debut, which now makes me want to check out Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, from which I heard him read earlier this year.

Notable books: August 2011

Another month is here, and as usual I begin it with a list of forthcoming books that have caught my attention…

Marius Brill, How to Forget

This sounds fascinating: a professional magician longs to be able to forget certain events in his past — then learns of an experimental procedure that may allow him to do just that.

Joe Dunthorne, Wild Abandon

I heard Joe Dunthorne read from this novel, about the changing life on a commune and a boy convinced the world is about to end, at an event in March. I enjoyed that reading, and I look forward to finding out what the whole book is like.

Anna North, America Pacifica

This post-climatic-apocalypse novel comes with recommendations from Charles Yu and Jedediah Berry, which is good enough for me.

Adam Roberts, By Light Alone

Adam Roberts is fast becoming one of my favourite authors; his last two novels have been in my top five reads of their respective years. I wonder whether his latest — set in a future where humans have gained the ability to photosynthesise through their hair, and eating food has become a means of signifying one’s wealth — will do the same.

Sarah Salway, Tell Me Everything

Another reissue of a Sarah Salway novel by the Library of Lost Books? That’d go on my to-read list without my even having to read the blurb. But the premise of the book, a woman building (perhaps literally) a new life for herself by telling stories, also sounds intriguing.

Christopher Wakling, What I Did

This could be an interesting exploration of some social issues, as it explores the consequences of a passer-by seeing a father smack his child after the boy ran across a busy road.