Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Giveaway winner and a new Juli Zeh review

A short post to round up a couple of recent bits and pieces. First of all, congratulations to Gareth Beniston who won my Yoko Ogawa giveaway.

DecompressionSecond, there’s a new issue of Shiny New Books online, in which I have a couple of reviews. Brand new is a review of Juli Zeh’s intriguing Decompression (translated from the German by John Cullen), which centres on a love triangle involving a diving instructor and his latest client, and becomes a game of control where you can’t quite be sure who to believe. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll also find an expanded version of my original blog post on All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which recently picked up three awards within the space of eight days, and with very good reason.

Book giveaway: Win a set of Yoko Ogawa paperbacks

RevengeYoko Ogawa’s Revenge was one of my favourite books from this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The UK paperback edition of Revenge is out on Thursday 3 July, when Vintage Books will also be reissuing Ogawa’s backlist – Hotel Iris, The Diving Pool, and The Housekeeper and the Professor (all books translated by Stephen Snyder). To mark the occasion, and courtesy of Vintage, I have a set of the four paperbacks to give away to one lucky reader of this blog.

To enter, leave a comment on this post at any time up to 23.59 UK time on Sunday 6 July. Only one entry per person. Sorry, but the giveaway is open to UK residents only.

After the competition has closed, I will select a winner with a random number generator, and contact them for their postal address.

You can also read my blog reviews of Hotel Iris, The Diving Pool, and Revenge.

Fiction Uncovered 2014

This year’s list for Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize has been announced. The judges – writer Matt Haig; journalist Arifa Akbar; Greg Eden of Waterstones; Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press; and Julia Wharton of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation – selected eight novels by established British writers. I had a preview of the winning titles, and have read most of them; so let me give you a run-down…

Ben Brooks, Lolito (Canongate)

Lolito

We start with one of the two books I haven’t read. Ben Brooks is the youngest author on the list, at age 22. Lolito is the story of a teenage boy who goes to meet in reali life an older woman whom he first encountered online.

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Penguin)

Mr Loverman

The tale of septuagenarian Barrington Walker, who’s in a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. I reviewed Mr Loverman on the blog last year.

Lesley Glaister, Little Egypt (Salt)

Little Egypt

I reviewed an earlier book of Lesley Glaister‘s, Nina Todd Has Gone, for Laura Hird’s website back in 2009 (you can read the review here via the Wayback Machine). Little Egypt concerns the secrets of two Egyptologists and their children; I’ve reviewed it for the Fiction Uncovered website.

Cynan Jones, The Dig (Granta)

The Dig

I’ve previously reviewed Cynan Jones’s novel Everything I Found on the Beach; like that book, The Dig is a short, stark character study. It focuses principally on two characters: Daniel, a sheep farmer somewhere in Wales, who’s trying to cope with the loss of his partner; and “the big man”, who clears farms of rats and tops up his income with badger-baiting.

The Dig is an intensely physical and visceral book. Daniel is preoccupied with the processes of his farm; there’s a sense throughout that this is a kind of ritualistic displacement activity. The big man carries on his badger digging in the knowledge that he’s only a step or two ahead of the police. Jones describes the activities of both men in vivid detail, because that is what’s important to his characters. The resulting novel is unflinching and powerful.

Gareth R. Roberts, Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? (The Friday Project)

Billy Parks

Appropriately enough for the season, Gareth Roberts’s second novel is about football. Billy Parks was a star player left on the bench when England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1973. Forty years on, he’s an alcoholic (though he won’t admit that to himself), estranged from his daughter, and getting by on tales of his glory days. But now Billy finds out that “the Service” has given Alf Ramsey and his colleagues on the Council of Football Immortals the chance to relive ten minutes of that fateful match. Sir Alf will be able to choose someone else to go on the pitch; that could be Billy, if he can pull himself together long enough to prove his worth.

I have to say: I’m not a great fan of football, but I really enjoyed this book all the same. I don’t need to like football to engage with a novel about it; I just need the novel to make me understand what it means to the characters, and Roberts absolutely does that. For the young Billy Parks, playing football is the thing that comes naturally to him, the thing that can help him transcend his circumstances; time and again in the novel, we feel how vital this is.

I was expecting Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? to be mostly a romp, and it does have its fair share of amusing moments. But it’s also bittersweet, with a real gravitas: Billy never really appreciates how deeply his father was scarred by his experiences building railways in Burma, nor how much his mother depended on him. It’s the cutting reality of Billy’s personal life, set against the headiness of his success on the pitch, that gives Roberts’s novel its power.

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (Picador)

Mrs Hemingway

I’ve already reviewed Naomi Wood‘s novel about Hemingway’s wives, here. It’s still one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (Picador)

Vanishing

This is another one I haven’t read, but I gather that its protagonist is an artist and camouflage officer in World War Two – and an unreliable narrator.

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape)

Finally, one of my favourite books from last year, the tale of a woman who;s run away from the past only to find that the present may be under threat.

We Love This Book reviews: David Safier and Cristina Henríquez

Here are a couple of reviews I’ve had published recently at We Love This Book:

David Safier, Apocalypse Next Tuesday (2008)
Translated from the German by Hilary Parnfors (2014)

SafierThe end of the world may come before Marie Woodward finds true love – and it’s not that far off.

Marie is thirty-five when she pulls out of marrying Sven at the last minute, realising that she doesn’t love him enough for it to last a lifetime. So she moves back into her childhood home with nothing much to do but feel sorry for herself. At the same time, her father is busy hooking up with a mail-order bride and her sister Kata is recovering from a brain tumour – then Marie’s bedroom ceiling caves in. Enter a handsome carpenter named Joshua who Marie quickly falls for and who just happens to be Jesus come to Earth. Meanwhile, Satan (disguised as George Clooney) has an apocalypse to bring about, and is on the lookout for some horsemen…

Apocalypse Next Tuesday is good fun read – David Safier gets plenty of comic mileage from the incongruity of putting Jesus into the world of contemporary dating. Hilary Parnfors’ translation from the German is nicely breezy, and I especially liked the touch of including comic strips ‘drawn’ by Kata. But Safier’s novel also has a serious heart, as Marie has to think about what she really wants from life and what it really means to give herself to someone. In terms of the plot, perhaps the decisive movement towards the apocalypse comes a little too late to keep the novel balanced. Still, Apocalypse Next Tuesday is well worth a look if you’re in the mood for a romp.

(The original review is here. The  book is published in the UK by Hesperus Press.)

Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)

HenriquezThe Rivera family cross the border from Mexico to make a new life in the US – but it’s not quite the life they had hoped for.

Alma and Arturo Rivera make the move because their teenage daughter, Maribel, sustained brain damage in an accident; they’re hoping that the specialist education available in the US will help her. But there are many obstacles to overcome: the Riveras speak little English; their money won’t go very far; for all his willingness to work, Arturo has to take a job picking mushrooms. But they’re determined to make this work, for Maribel.

Someone else with his eye on Maribel (though for different reasons) is Mayor Toro, the son of an established neighbouring family from Panama. The main narration of the novel alternates between Mayor and Alma, with their stories echoing each other in various ways: the Riveras are viewed with suspicion, as are Mayor’s motives for spending time with Maribel. Mayor’s tribulations at school show that difficulties like the Riveras’ don’t necessarily end once you’ve become a naturalised citizen.

Peppering Cristina Henríquez’s novel are individual chapters narrated by immigrant characters from different parts of Central and South America, each with as much of a story to tell as the Riveras, though we catch only a glimpse of them. The end of the Riveras’ tale loses a little of the subtlety that’s gone before it; but the various narrators of The Book of Unknown Americans remind us how many voices there are that may go unheard.

(The original review is here. The book is published in the UK by Canongate, and in the US by Knopf.)

Two from the Friday Project: Charles Lambert and Harry Karlinsky

Charles Lambert, With A Zero at its Heart (2014)
Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters (2014)

The Friday Project is one of my favourite imprints of any mainstream publisher; their range is eclectic, and their selection of fiction always interesting. Here are my thoughts on a couple of their recent novels.

***

LambertYou can calculate the length of Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart precisely: there are 24 chapters (themed on topics like ‘Travel’, ‘Art’ and ‘Waiting’), each with ten numbered paragraphs of 120 words, plus one final paragraph as a coda. Each paragraph represents an episode from its protagonist’s life (a fictionalised version of Lambert’s own, I understand). The paragraphs in each chapter aren’t necessarily in chronological order, but there is a sense of movement: so, for example, the chapter on ‘Clothes’ begins with the protagonist as a ten-year-old with his first pair of jeans; goes on to depict him as an adult in Italy shopping for clothes with his partner (“It is hot, and so are they, and they have no idea how hot”); and ends with him buying the suit that he will wear at his father’s funeral.

There’s an interesting dissonance between the rigid structure of the book, and the very fluid nature of what’s being described; this highlights that the memories we each hold are ultimately what we make of them (which is underlined further by Lambert’s distancing third-person voice). The individual paragraphs may be affecting, but the contrasts and linkages created by their arrangement deepen the book’s power.

With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture. Like Knausgaard, though, Lambert juxtaposes the incidents of everyday life with the unchanging realities of living.

***

Karlinsky

Harry Karlinsky’s first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, was such an idiosyncratic book that it made me wonder what on Earth the author would write next. Here’s the answer: another work of fiction disguised as non-fiction, and drawing (to an extent!) on genuine historical documents. Karlinsky’s narrator is a psychiatrist preoccupied with why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize. The narrator’s researches reveal that a secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will established another contest: winners of one of the official Nobel Prizes would be invited to submit their theories explaining the mystery of Stonehenge; The Stonehenge Letters recounts the theories of several Nobel laureates, including Marie Curie and Rudyard Kipling.

Well, there wasn’t actually a Stonehenge Prize, but Karlinsky makes the thought of it very plausible. There are sly nudges that what we’re reading is a spoof: the narrator’s footnotes, which bring everything back to Freud; and some oddly random illustrations (“Figure 5. A one-legged stool”). But all the theories put forward about Stonehenge are genuine enough, even if they were advanced by different people. When Einstein is quoted as assessing Marie Curie’s theory (which we’d recognise as carbon-dating) as “decidedly theoretical”, it’s almost goading us into doubting what we think is fiction and what fact. I’m in no doubt, however, that Harry Karlinsky has written another delightful book in The Stonehenge Letters.

 

#6Degrees of Separation: The Luminaries

This is a blog meme created by the authors Emma Chapman and Annabel Smith, that runs on the first Saturday of each month. Everyone starts with the same book, then links it to another book in whichever way they like, and so on for a total of six links. This month’s starting book is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, and as that’s one of my very favourite books, I could hardly pass up the chance to join in. So:

luminariesThe Luminaries is the second novel by an author I first read in 2009; and so is…

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. This book has two parallel plot threads, one running chronologically forwards, the other backwards. Another novel with reversed chronology is…

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, which gradually reveals that its protagonist is a doctor who worked at Auschwitz. Another book with an oblique portrayal of Auschwitz is…

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, which was one of the first titles I read in my old book group. When the time came for me to choose a book for the group, I chose…

The Prestige by Christopher Priest, in which present-day characters learn about the rivalry between two Victorian stage magicians. Another novel involving present-day discoveryof Victorian strangeness is…

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karlinsky, which is a novel written in the form of a historical biography. And another novel that borrows a non-fiction form is…

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton, which is a novel in the form of an auction catalogue, and a book I really want to read.

***

Well, I didn’t anticipate that I’d end up there when I started writing this post, but the journey was certainly good fun. If you’d like to join in yourself, the rules are below:

6degrees-rules

 

What They Don’t See: Emma Healey and Timur Vermes

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing (2014)

Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (2012)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2014)

Today I’m looking at two debut novels which really stand out to me for how they use first-person narration to create dramatic irony – so we know more than their narrators do, sometimes amusingly so, sometimes tragically.

ElizabethEmma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is simply one of the most haunting books I’ve read so far this year. Its protagonist, Maud Horsham, has dementia, which makes her narration a constantly renewing present. Here, for example, is Maud looking in a drawer:

…there is a packet of lamp posts, tiny lamp posts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It’s satisfying and I pick up another just to break it.

The doorbell rings. I drop the pencil and bang into a bookcase in my hurry to leave the room. There are two dirty cups on a shelf. I collect them, and in the hall realize one has some tea in it. I drink it up, though it’s cold, and then put both cups on the bottom stair. (p. 217)

One moment, Maud can’t remember what a pencil is called; the next, she knows, without realising that she had ever forgotten. An action intended to jog her memory immediately becomes an empty ritual – and so on. Over the course of the book, as we get to know Maud better, these kinds of details have a powerful cumulative effect.

But Healey goes further than this: in the present, Maud searches for her friend Elizabeth; she also takes us back seventy years, to the time (which she recalls quite clearly) when her sister Sukey disappeared. In other words, the novel revolves around two mysteries, which would normally be all about making connections between details to create a bigger picture – but Maud is losing her ability to make such connections. This is what truly gives Elizabeth is Missing its power: the further along she goes, the more Maud is able to uncover – but she can’t perceive what it is that she has revealed. Only we, as readers, can.

In some ways, Elizabeth is Missing reminded me of Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, in its depiction of a narrator with a damaged psyche – and it won’t surprise me at all if Healey’s novel becomes as widely read. But Elizabeth is Missing really got under my skin, gave me that shivery feeling that comes when I realise I’m reading a book’s that’s very special. That feeling is why I read books in the first place.

***

LookTimur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back sees Adolf Hitler waking up, alive and well, in 2011. He’s not too bothered about finding out why this has happened, more saddened at the condition of the Germany he sees around him, and sets his heart on putting it right. Soon he has a platform that befits the age: mistaken for an exceptionally talented impersonator, he’s soon a YouTube sensation, and even given his own TV show.

Look Who’s Back makes much play of the incongruity of Hitler being in the present day: Vermes’ Hitler is quick on the uptake in some respects (he readily grasps the Internet and sees how useful it could have been for him in wartime), but not others (‘We’re all agreed the Jews are no laughing matter,’ says his producer; Hitler agrees, though for very different reasons). I expect I won’t have caught all the nuances of the satire that a German audience would; but still I found Look Who’s Back satisfyingly amusing.

Jamie Bulloch’s translation casts Hitler’s voice as long-winded, old-fashion, sure of itself. And it’s the certainty of that voice that helps create what, for me, is perhaps the most interesting effect in the novel. Look Who’s Back turns the insidiousness of Hitler’s rhetoric back on itself: where once he could persuade people around to his way of thinking, now Hitler is being outmanoeuvred by language – he doesn’t realise that he’s being made fun of by the media folk around him. As with Elizabeth is Missing, the very restrictions of the narrative voice give us a better vantage-point – and the view is one to savour.

***

Elizabeth is Missing will be published in the UK by Viking on 5 June. Read more reviews at: 50 a Year; Novelicious; Lily Meyer for Tottenville Review; My Good Bookshelf.

Look Who’s Back is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Read more reviews at: Workshy Fop; A Common Reader; The Friendly Shelf; Winstonsdad’s Blog.

Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014)

Rental HeartI have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kirsty Logan‘s debut story collection The Rental Heart, from Salt Publishing. This is a lovely set of stories, the kind of lush fantasy you can file alongside Lucy Wood and Jess Richards.

Let me also point you towards a review in the Independent by my fellow Desmond Elliott shadower Kaite Welsh; she loved the book as well.

#IFFP2014: The shadow winner

An announcement from the IFFP shadow jury…

In 2014, for the third year in a row, Chairman Stu gathered together a group of brave bloggers to tackle the task of shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It’s not a task for the faint of heart – in addition to having to second-guess the strange decisions of the ‘real’ panel, the foolhardy volunteers undertook a voyage around the literary world, all in a matter of months…

On our journey around the globe, we started off by eavesdropping on some private conversations in Madrid, before narrowly avoiding trouble with the locals in Naples. A quick flight northwards, and we were in Iceland, traipsing over the snowy mountains and driving around the iconic ring road – with a child in tow. Then it was time to head south to Sweden and Norway, where we had a few drinks (and a lot of soul searching) with a man who tended to talk about himself a lot.

Next, it was off to Germany, where we almost had mussels for dinner, before spending some time with an unusual family on the other side of the wall. After another brief bite to eat in Poland, we headed eastwards to reminisce with some old friends in Russia – unfortunately, the weather wasn’t getting any better.

We finally left the snow and ice behind, only to be welcomed in Baghdad by guns and bombs. Nevertheless, we stayed there long enough to learn a little about the customs involved in washing the dead, and by the time we got to Jerusalem, we were starting to have a bit of an identity crisis…

Still, we pressed on, taking a watery route through China to avoid the keen eye of the family planning officials, finally making it across the sea to Japan. Having arrived in Tokyo just in time to witness a series of bizarre ‘accidents’, we rounded off the trip by going for a drink (or twelve) at a local bar with a strangely well-matched couple – and then it was time to come home :)

Of course, there was a method to all this madness, as our journey helped us to eliminate all the pretenders and identify this year’s cream of the crop. And the end result? This year’s winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

Sorrow AngelsThe Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
(translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press)

This was a very popular (and almost unanimous) winner, a novel which stood out amongst a great collection of books. We all loved the beautiful, poetic prose, and the developing relationship between the two main characters – the taciturn giant, Jens, and the curious, talkative boy – was excellently written. Well done to all involved with the book – writer, translator, publisher and everyone else :)

Some final thoughts to leave you with…

- Our six judges read a total of 83 books (an average of almost fourteen per person), and ten of the books were read and reviewed by all six of us.
– This was our third year of shadowing the prize and the third time in a row that we’ve chosen a different winner to the ‘experts’.
– After the 2012 Shadow Winner (Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale), that makes it two wins out of three for Iceland – Til hamingju!
– There is something new about this year’s verdict – it’s the first time we’ve chosen a winner which didn’t even make the ‘real’ shortlist…

Stu, Tony, Jacqui, David, Bellezza and Tony would like to thank everyone out there for all their interest and support over the past few months – rest assured we’re keen to do it all over again next year :)

You can read Jacqui’s guest review of The Sorrow of Angels here, and find the main index of my 2014 IFFP posts here.