June wrap-up

Book of the Month

Top of the pile this month was the second novel by a writer who is clearly going places. Jonathan Lee’s Joy is a great feat of of characterisation and voice which explores what drove a successful lawyer to commit suicide in a very public way, through the contrasting perspectives of herself and her colleague. It’s a book that brings to mind Rupture by Simon Lelic – in terms of quality as well as structure and subject.

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55 Reading Questions

I found this meme on Story in a Teacup; I may be coming to it a little belatedly, but I liked the questions, so I thought I’d respond. 55 questions; 55 answers – here goes…

1. Favourite childhood book? I cut my reading teeth, as it were, on Fighting Fantasy and Terry Pratchett books.

2. What are you reading right now? You Came Back by Christopher Coake.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? Nothing at present.

4. Bad book habit? Acquiring books faster than I can read them.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? Ghost Story by Toby Litt; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

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Book notes: Route’s Next Great Novelist… and William Boyd’s short fiction

Sophie Coulombeau, Rites (2012)

Last year, the Pontefract-based publisher Route announced its ‘Next Great Novelist’ award, which would lead to the publication of a book by a new novelist under the age of 30. Sophie Coulombeau won, and Rites is her winning novel. Told in the form of interview transcripts, it is the story of four Manchester teenagers who made a pact to lose their virginity to each other in 1997, an incident which gained notoriety (for reasons unspecified as the book begins); in the present day, the then-teenagers – and other characters involved – look back on that time, and leave the reader to construct exactly what happened.

Coulombeau’s great strength in Rites is in how she controls the flow of information, and plays with and against readers’ expectations. When her opening narrator Damien suggests (in his pitch-perfect, insufferable voice) that only some people think what his teenage self did was ‘terrible’, we’re immediately put in mind that our initial assumptions about events may come to be overturned – and so it proves, but subtly, as ‘blame’ passes between the characters, and we realise that everyone has slightly different memories of the past. So there’s a wonderful sense of uncertainty – the feeling that, even when we think we know everything, perhaps we don’t after all. Add to this some insightful observations – on growing up, falling in love, and more besides – and you have a fine debut novel.

William Boyd, Fascination (2004)

The other week, I decided it was about time I read something by William Boyd – but where to start with such a prolific author? I asked for suggestions on Twitter, and the most common response by far was his 1987 novel The New Confessions. I looked for that book next time I was in the library, but they didn’t have it; instead, I came away with Fascination, one of Boyd’s short story collections – and it wasn’t the best place to start.

Most of Boyd’s protagonists in these stories experience sudden (and often unhealthy) desire for another person; this can lead to some effective moments, as in ‘The Woman on the Beach with a Dog’, whose married main character pursues a woman he encounters, but has no idea what to do after he’s done so. But, too often, I get a sense that, take away Boyd’s formal conceits – a story told in the form of a diner’s notes on a week’s lunches, for example; or one where individual scenes are headed with video operations (past-set scenes labelled ‘rewind’, and so on) – and there’s not much left to make the tales stand out.

I certainly get enough of a sense from Fascination that Boyd is a writer worth reading: ‘The Ghost of a Bird’ is a poignant portrait of a convalescing soldier recovering his memory, and struggling to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The title story draws neat parallels between two relationships with women in a journalist’s past and present. ‘The Mind/Body Problem’ deploys its theme in interesting ways, as a philosophy student makes fake lotions and potions for a female bodybuilder at his parents’ gym and in a sense ‘remakes’ her as a person when her attitude changes. But I think I should have started with one of Boyd’s novels, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for The New Confessions.

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth (2012)

On the face of it, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter may not be a particularly obvious writing partnership; their distinctive brands of comic fantasy and hard science fiction might seem incompatible. But, then again, Pratchett’s interest in science often comes through in his work; and both writers share an ability to create grand fantastic visions – whether Baxter’s evocations of the vastnesses of space and time, or the large-scale comic set-pieces which crown Pratchett’s best novels. So the prospect of a co-written work from them is intriguing, and now we have The Long Earth, the first novel in a projected duology– though the end result is more frustrating than anything.

A few years hence, more or less everyone has access to a ‘stepper’, a device that enables travel through the chain of parallel worlds known as the Long Earth. There are certain practical concerns – worlds can only be accessed in sequence; iron cannot be carried between them; and each ‘step’ induces fifteen minutes of debilitating nausea. Moreover, most of the parallel worlds are empty, minor climatic and geographic variations on our own prehistoric Earth. But none of this stops people making the journey between worlds, to exploit the resources there, or to start their lives anew.

It takes a while for The Long Earth to coalesce, as a number of plot strands present themselves at the outset, and it’s not clear initially which will be the main focus. But it’s quite exhilarating, first to begin the story at a point where the notion of parallel worlds and the stepping technology are well established (and, even though Pratchett and Baxter do fill in the back story, they don’t especially dwell on it), then to have this sense of a raw story coming together as the pages turn.

The novel eventually settles on a main narrative thread, concerning Joshua Valienté, one of a select few able to step between worlds unaided and with no ill effects. The existence of this ability is unknown to most, but not to Lobsang, a supercomputer who claims to have once been a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic. The ‘transEarth Insititute’ enlists Joshua to be Lobsang’s escort on an airship voyage to the far reaches of the Long Earth, where they discover the threat that will presumably become the key focus of the second volume.

In terms of its authors’ other work, The Long Earth – as Adam Roberts rightly suggests in the Guardian – is much closer to Baxter’s usual territory than Pratchett’s. There’s not much humour in the novel, and what there is – such as the comic-cut biker nun, Sister Agnes – feels somewhat out of place. But the book’s interplay of fantasy and science fiction is interesting; structurally, the Long Earth could be seen as a scientific riposte to the traditional fantasy multiverse – steppers have no prospect of a swashbuckling adventure through outlandish worlds, just a systematic trudge through near-identical Earths. (Joshua and Lobsang also discover a rational origin for the idea of elves and trolls.)

The thing is, though, that – almost by definition – this is not a set-up that lends itself naturally to drama: there’s nothing much for characters to act against , and most problems can be solved simply by stepping to the next Earth. The novel never manages to find enough drama to compensate for this: Lobsang controls the central journey to such a degree that Joshua’s main function as protagonist is to witness rather than act; and the subplots exploring other aspects of the Long Earth recede too far into the background to carry enough weight in the book as a whole.

Overall, I’m inclined to agree with Paula at The Broke and the Bookish that The Long Earth feels more like a beginning than a tale that stands alone; there’s too strong a sense of pieces being moved into place for a game to be played out in the next volume. Pratchett and Baxter explore some interesting ideas of the different paths terrestrial life might have taken, and how modern humans might respond to vast new wildernesses; but the book has really only just got going as it ends.

(A shorter version of this review appears at We Love This Book.)

Elsewhere
Terry Pratchett’s website
Stephen Baxter’s website
Some other reviews of The Long Earth: The Literary Omnivore; Baltimore Reads; Birth of a New Witch.

Book notes: Nell Leyshon and Beryl Bainbridge

Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk (2012)

You can read The Colour of Milk in one sitting, and I think doing so is the best way to experience this short, intense work. Set in 1830, it’s the account of Mary, a young farm girl who has acquired a measure of literacy and now sets out her story in her own halting prose. One summer, Mary is sent to work at the local vicarage, looking after the vicar’s sick wife; it’s clear from her tone that something bad has happened, but the full picture doesn’t emerge until the end.

Nell Leyshon paints a portrait of how circumstance can create a prison. It’s the middle of the Industrial Revolution, a time of great change; but that’s happening a long way from Mary’s world in rural Somerset. She’s quick-witted, but not educated; in another time or place, she might have flourished, but Leyshon shows how Mary’s situation conspires against that. Mary’s literacy is a form of release for her – she keeps emphasising that this is her book, her writing, her words – which lends a bittersweet note to the ending of this fine novel.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Colour of Milk: Prose and Cons Book Club; The Little Reader Library; writingaboutbooks; For Books’ Sake.

Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989)

Annabel’s hosting a Beryl Bainbridge reading week this week; since Bainbridge’s work is one of the gaps in my reading history, I thought I’d join in. But I hope I was just unlucky with the book I chose, because I didn’t get along with An Awfully Big Adventure as well as I hoped  to.

It’s Liverpool in 1950, and young Stella Bradshaw, who lives with her aunt and uncle, dreams of a life in the theatre, something that’s not typical of girls with her background (‘People like us don’t go to plays,’ says Aunt Lily, ‘[l]et alone act in them.’ ‘But she’s not one of us, is she?’ replies Uncle Vernon). Stella gets her wish, joining Meredith Potter’s repertory theatre company backstage; she develops an (unreciprocated) crush on Potter himself, and, as the months go by, gains acting work, but also the kind of attention she could do without.

In many ways, An Awfully Big Adventure is Stella’s novel – certainly its resolution hinges on revelations about her character – but, in terms of focus, the book is much more an ensemble piece, and our view of Stella is often distanced (necessarily so, but still). I wonder if these latter qualities didn’t prevent me from truly engaging with Bainbridge’s novel – I felt it was that bit too distanced, too broad, to work for me. But the ending is as powerful as I could wish, one of the strongest narrative jolts I’ve experienced in some time.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of An Awfully Big Adventure: Book Around the Corner; Harriet Devine’s Blog; The Octogon; Jo Wyndham Ward.

Recommended reading: short stories

Today is International Short Story Day, so I thought I’d bring some short stories to the blog. Here is a list of links to some of the short stories available online that I’ve enjoyed in the last few years:

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I also asked for other people’s recommendations on Twitter last night, and here’s what they said:

@ActuallyAisha recommended the Caine Prize shortlist, especially Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic” [PDF link].

@bellaserval recommended Joel Golby’s “And the Dead Came Back to Life”.

@T_A_Fletcher recommended Paraxis.

@nikeshshukla recommended www.theshortstory.org.uk.

@beaglelover7 recommended Suffolk Book League‘s New Beginnings anthology [PDF link].

@GigiWoolf recommended Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

@MandyBoat recommended the Bloomsbury Short Stories sampler.

@kevmcveigh recommended Lewis Shiner’s stories.

@JinxedJester recommended George Saunders’ “Adams” [podcast]

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Thanks to everyone for their suggestions, and I hope you’ll find plenty to enjoy amongst these stories.

Jonathan Lee, Joy (2012)

Joy Stephens would appear to have everything to live for – she’s a successful City lawyer, about to be made a partner at the age of 33 – but she is planning to commit suicide before the day is out. When we first meet her, we get an insight into the sorts of fractures that riddle Joy’s ostensibly perfect life, as she arrives home in the early hours to find Dennis, her husband of five years, with the couple’s regular Thursday-night call girl, whom Dennis was supposed to cancel this week.

It soon becomes clear that Joy fell from the platform at that evening’s ceremony announcing her promotion, and now lies in a coma. The novel alternates between chapters following Joy through her final day, and the first-person interviews given to the law firm’s counsellor by four other characters: Joy’s colleague Peter; her academic husband, Dennis; personal trainer Samir; and Joy’s PA, Barbara.

Joy is Jonathan Lee’s second novel (following 2010’s Who Is Mr Satoshi?), and it’s a quite superb piece of work. Take the characterisation, for example: Lee uses four first-person voices, and sharply differentiates them all; their respective owners come right off the page (as does Joy herself). Moreover, though they may seem easy enough to categorise at first, all the main characters reveal a subtle complexity as the novel goes on: Dennis may come across as just a long-winded eccentric, but his reaction to Joy’s fall suggests a steelier side; Barbara may be an unpleasant gossip-monger, but we also see how she has been frustrated by circumstance. Even the loathsome Peter, who has very few redeeming qualities, elicits a certain amount of empathy as Lee portrays a man who found his niche and then has it taken away.

Lee’s book is also simply a great pleasure to read: its prose is a finely-tuned instrument, discursive and sharp by turns, but always with an irresistible flow. Its plot takes unexpected turns which undermine some of the assumptions one has likely been forming about what is going to happen and why. As a result, the pages turn ever more furiously, no matter how much the ending is supposedly pre-ordained.

Perhaps more than anything else, Joy strikes me as a novel about ambition, finding a place in life, and dealing with what happens when that place proves unstable. So, Joy has achieved success, but not without sacrifice; and now various factors combine to make her question whether everything has been worth it. Peter might be said to have played the career game more cannily than Joy, but even he is insufficiently prepared when life moves on. Samir has tried to make something of himself, but ends up caught in his own ritualistic behaviour patterns. The book’s title becomes a pun, as joy proves a quality as elusive (though nonetheless glimpsed occasionally) as Joy the person is to the other characters considering her personality. But the strengths of Joy the novel are far from elusive, and this fascinating patchwork character study signals that Jonathan Lee is a name to follow.

Elsewhere
Jonathan Lee’s website
Some other reviews of Joy: Bookish Magpie; Alex Aldridge for the Guardian (with interview).

How to approach a new genre

How do you begin to explore a new area of fiction? Asking for recommendations is obviously a good idea, but that may not be as straightforward as it seems. Over at Savidge Reads, Simon is asking where he should start with reading Terry Pratchett; it strikes me that, with a writer whose work presents so many different faces to the world, there can’t be a single definitive recommendation for everybody. It depends on what you like to read – and the same goes for unfamiliar genres.

I’ve been reflecting on how I came to appreciate types of fiction that I hadn’t previously – even types of fiction that I thought I couldn’t appreciate – and thought I would share the process. I’ll use a hypothetical example based on what I read most often: how readers of ‘literary’ contemporary fiction might go about approaching science fiction. I’ll also talk about my own main reading evolution, which essentially went in the opposite direction.

Stage 1: the same, but different

To my mind, the best first step in approaching an unfamiliar genre is to choose something which belongs to the category of what you’d already read – but which can also be read as what you’re working towards. It’s then a question of viewing the book in that different light. For our hypothetical readers of mainstream literary fiction, Far North by Marcel Theroux would be a fine starting-point: that book wasn’t published as science fiction; as Theroux commented on its being nominated for the Clarke Award, it wasn’t written as sf, either; but it can certainly be read as such – not just because Far North is set in the future, but also for the sense of estrangement and disorientation which Theroux creates, for example. Recognising these qualities, our readers may begin to see aspects of science fiction in work they already enjoy.

In my case, it was reading books like Christopher Priest’s The Prestige – alongside the Clute-Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which inspired me to take a more critical, reflective approach to my reading – that made me start to value depth of craft in a book, even though it would be several more years before I realised as much.

Stage 2: exploration

As you move further into a new genre, it’s a question of finding the qualities you like and admire in the unfamiliar fiction. In our hypothetical example, our readers might now be turning to the likes of Geoff Ryman, Octavia Butler, Adam Roberts, Gwyneth Jones, Joanna Russ… authors, in other words, who unequivocally write science fiction, but who do so with sensibilities our readers may recognise.

Dan Rhodes’s Gold would have been one of the first books I read which made me realise that mainstream fiction could give me some of the same things I valued in speculative fiction. In a very real sense, nothing happens in Gold, and that would have turned me off it at one time; but I loved it – it was quirky, wonderfully written, and insightful. Right up to books like Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, I’ve been able to build bridges between my old reading heartland and less familiar territory.

Stage 3: other aesthetics

From seeing similar qualities in different kinds of fiction, I think there’s one more stage, which involves recognising the value of different but equally worthwhile approaches. For our hypothetical readers, this might mean a book like Evolution by Stephen Baxter; this novel follows a single strand of DNA through evolutionary time, and hence transcends character, plot, and some other characteristics we might normally look for in fiction. But the episodic structure of the narrative could be said to mirror the process of evolution itself; so Baxter’s strategies work aesthetically for this particular book, even if they might not for many others.

I’m not talking here about a journey towards the ‘best’ or the ‘most difficult’ of a given genre; but towards whatever is furthest away from what a reader would normally appreciate – and that, of course, will be different for each of us. There was a time when I wouldn’t have contemplated reading a book like Agnes Grey, for instance; but not only have I now done so, I’ve also been able to approach it on its own terms and get something from it.

Of course, this is not a recipe for being able to appreciate everything – that’s not going to be possible, and it’s probably not desirable, either – but it’s how I expanded my reading palette. Do you have any approaches of your own?

Book notes: coming of age in Texas… and a history of sweets

Tom Wright, What Dies in Summer (2012)

Tom Wright’s debut novel chronicles one summer in the life of Jim Bonham, who lives in Texas with his grandmother (having been estranged from his mother and her current partner, and his father having passed away), and has frequent visions of a dead girl standing by his bed. At the start of the novel, Jim finds his cousinL.A.(Lee Ann)  sitting, shaking on the porch; she becomes part of his and Gram’s household, and what happened to her will be revealed over the coming months. That summer will also see the two teenagers discover a dead body (the girl of Jim’s visions), and Jim learning more about life and himself.

It’s in the latter aspect that What Dies in Summer shines brightest for me. Jim draws a distinction between being intelligent and smart, and comments that L.A. is much smarter than he. We see evidence of this near the beginning, when L.A. verbally outmanoeuvres a stranger who tries to trap her and Jim, when the latter would clearly never have been able to think like that. However, despite his lack of street-wisdom, and despite the fact that L.A. remains largely a closed book to him, Jim does grow and learn through his encounters with both dark and light aspects of life; Wright creates some beautifully judged passages depicting this. Jim’s narration also has a nicely unpolished quality, which really makes it feel like a voice that belongs to its character (something I do like to see in a first-person narrative). All in all, I’d say that Tom Wright is an author to keep an eye on, and What Dies in Summer certainly a debut worth checking out.

Tim Richardson, Sweets: a History of Temptation (2002)

Regular readers of this blog may know I’m partial to a bit of quirky social or cultural history; so much the better if, like Joe Moran’s On Roads, it can reach a little deeper than its immediate subject. Sweets is not on the same level as Moran’s book – perhaps inevitably, given that its subject matter is rather frivolous – but it is fun and interesting.

Tim Richardson takes a broadly chronological approach, with brief asides to focus on particular kinds of sweet. I find the book’s account of the early history of sweets a little dry in places, a little too heavy on detail; more engaging and lively are the anecdotes and insights on contemporary sweets – though the chapter on nineteenth-century confectioners and their ‘benevolent tyranny’ is fascinating. But Richardson’s enthusiasm is apparent throughout; and his closing whistle-stop tour of the world’s sweet cultures leaves me curious to know what some of the products he mentions taste like.

This book fulfils the Cookery, Food and Wine category of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

Book notes: Shaw and Perkins

Ali Shaw, The Man Who Rained (2012)

After the death of her father (who instilled in her a love of the weather) and subsequent end of her relationship, Elsa Beletti determines to leaveNew York for Thunderstown, a small settlement nestled between four mountains, which she has previously seen only from an aeroplane window. The people of Thunderstown have their superstitions about the weather, and not necessarily without good reason; but nothing prepares Elsa for meeting Finn Munro, a local hermit who transforms into a raincloud. Elsa finds herself falling in love with Finn, but there are those in Thunderstown who fear him to be the folk-devil Old Man Thunder.

I’ve heard Ali Shaw’s name mentioned a lot in the last couple of years – enough to suggest that his first book, The Girl With Glass Feet, was a modern fairytale which marked the emergence of a significant writer. Now that I’ve read Shaw’s sophomore novel, I find myself wanting to read the debut for comparison, because The Man Who Rained has some wonderful qualities – but it doesn’t quite get to where I sense it could be.

Any tale like this needs a sense of magic to emerge from its words, and The Man Who Rained has that, especially when it’s focusing on Finn – for instance, the passage describing his birth is beautiful. But the impact of this is diluted by the novel’s approach to place: both New York and Thunderstown are depicted rather sketchily, so there’s no sense of moving from the mundane world to somewhere extraordinary.

In terms of characterisation, there’s a nice parallel/contrast between Elsa’s and Daniel Fossiter’s (Thunderstown’s resident ‘culler’, who was close to Finn’s mother) thoughts about their respective fathers. But the ending of The Man Who Rained doesn’t quite satisfy – it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but there is a sense of a story in a hurry to be wrapped up. Be that as it may, I certainly enjoyed Shaw’s book, and I’ll be keeping an eye on his future work – as well as reading The Girl With Glass Feet, of course.

Emily Perkins, The Forrests (2012)

The Forrests is one of the first titles in Bloomsbury’s new literary fiction imprint, Bloomsbury Circus. Now, I have a soft spot for well-designed physical books, and I must say that the Circus volumes are gorgeous – substantial (but not unwieldy) paperbacks that stand out on shelves. Of course, what’s between the covers counts the most; so that’s what I’ll turn to now.

Emily Perkins’s fourth novel is concerned particularly with the life of Dorothy Forrest, who, aged seven, moves from New York to Auckland with her parents and siblings. Over the years, relationships begin, evolve and end; life takes both unexpected and only-too-expected turns. Perkins’s writing is elliptical, in terms of the chronological leaps between chapters, and the way plot developments are often revealed indirectly within the text. There’s also a focus on fine (sometimes apparently extraneous) detail; these techniques lend the novel an epic sweep, enabling Perkins to reveal the drama inherent in an ‘ordinary’ life when it’s viewed in the long term.

By the same token, all the detail means that The Forrests doesn’t always flow as well as it might; some passages and chapters are inevitably more engaging than others. But then along comes a particular phrase, or a moment of observation, and all is well once more. When reading Perkins’s novel, like Dorothy Forrest herself, we become caught up in the whirlwind of life.