Adam Roberts, The Soddit (2003): Vector review

The latest issue of the BSFA critical journal Vector has landed, and it contains my review of The Soddit by Adam Roberts. The Soddit was the first of the parodies that Roberts has produced alongside his ‘canonical’ novels; originally published in 2003, it was reissued last year. I started out imagining that the review would be just a bit of fun; as I went along, though, I found myself thinking more about the playful side of Roberts’s work, and what it is that draws me to his writing. Interestingly, Dan Hartland writes about similar qualities in his review of the story collection Adam Robots in the same issue. It seems we’re on the same page as regards Roberts’s “wilfulness and idiosyncrasy”.

Anyway, on to The Soddit

***

Anyone who follows Adam Roberts on Twitter will know of his penchant for puns, which are always excellent, and never induce groans at all – honest, guv. (Thought I’d indulge in some irony, there.) And anyone who’s followed Roberts’s bibliography over the years will know that his sense of humour has found a home in his fiction, most obviously in the series of parodies he has written alongside his more serious SF novels. The first of these parodies, The Soddit, has recently been reissued (there was even a film to mark the occasion, or something), and I agreed to review it. What did I let myself in for?

You’ll have some idea of how The Soddit goes purely from knowing how The Hobbit goes, so I won’t rehearse the plot too much: a Soddit named Bingo Grabbings is cajoled by a group of dwarfs and the wizard Gandef to join them on an expedition to the Only Mountain, home of the dragon Smug; they are at pains to emphasise to Bingo that this quest is all about taking the dragon’s gold – honest, guv. An episodic narrative of various encounters then follows, until the group reaches its destination.

The humour of The Soddit typically starts with a pun on the name of a character from Tolkien’s work, and extends outwards from there. Some of Roberts’s ideas work better than others: for example, the shape-shifter Biorn is an inconsistent mishmash of Scandinavian stereotypes – he speaks in Abba lyrics occasionally, and likes his flat-pack furniture – that I found too broad-brush to be truly amusing. But I loved the translation of Gollum’s riddles in the dark into a philosophical contest with ‘Sollum’.

Beyond the humour, what comes through time and again in the book is a trait that Roberts shares with Tolkien (though it manifests in very different ways in the authors’ respective work): a love of language. In The Soddit, it’s not just about puns: there are passages where Roberts is clearly revelling in the possibilities of prose, the pure rhythm and flow of writing. If you like that in a work of fiction (and I do), it is a joy to read.

But The Soddit is not all about play; there are elements of a straightforward, serious novel here, and they work rather well. Instead of a Ring that makes him invisible, Bingo finds a Thing (complete with registered trademark) which makes true the opposite of whatever someone speaks through it. Cue the classic fantasy trope of ‘be careful what you wish for’, which Roberts uses very neatly. And I must admit to being surprised by the twist in the nature of the group’s quest, a twist that succeeds on its own terms even as one senses that Roberts is deliberately making the gears of narrative grind noisily. The Soddit is a showcase for Roberts’s sense of humour, yes; but his skill as a storyteller is also firmly on display.

My holiday reading

I’ve been on holiday recently, and managed to get through most of the books I took with me. I thought I’d do a brief round-up of what I read.

Rodrigo de Souza Leão, All Dogs are Blue (2008/10)
Translated from the Portugese by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler, 2013

If there’s one thing I have come to expect from And Other Stories’ books, it’s that they will be intensely engaged with language. And so it is with this short novel, narrated by an inmate of a Rio asylum. The narrator is lucid about the tenuousness of his grasp n reality; he loops back and forth between his present, his past travels, his childhood, and his eventual release – but the question of what precisely is and is not ‘real’ remains open. I read All Dogs are Blue on the train down to my holiday; it was short enough to fit in the time, and is probably best experienced in a single sitting, when it can really pull you into its world.

Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012)

Bernadette Fox was once a hot-shot architect; now she mostly hides away in her family’s Seattle home, outsourcing most of her interaction with the word to a virtual PA in India. Gathering together myriad documents, Bernadette’s daughter Bee chronicles her mother’s turbulent relationship with her family and the other school moms, and her attempts to find Bernadette after she disappears.

I’ve heard so much about Semple’s book, and it mostly lives up to the praise. It’s wickedly funny, with few characters escaping some sort of satire; and very well constructed, as the differences between viewpoints gradually reveal hidden truths – truths which give the novel its dark undercurrent. I have a sense that Semple lets her characters off the hook for some of their flaws a little too easily, but otherwise this book is highly enjoyable.

Robin Sloan, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012)

When Clay Jameson takes a job doing the night-shift for a mysterious bookstore, he doesn’t realise that he is about to enter the world of a secret society who are scouring certain volumes for clues that will unlock… well, who knows? But Kat Potente, the pretty Googler who walks into the store one day, might just have the means to find out.

The principle flaw in Sloan’s debut is its treatment of gender –for example, Kat is the most prominent female character, and she falls into the stereotype of ‘hot geek girl who’s super-competent, but still needs a male character to ultimately save the day’. Aside from that, it’s all rather jolly, but also reflects seriously on the relationship of books and new technology. Sloan steers a middle course which I found thought-provoking.

Matt Delito, Confessions of a Police Constable (2013)

This is one in a series of (generally pseudonymous) books from the Friday Project (including Confessions of a GP and Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver). The author is a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, and the book is based on his blog of stories from his career. I’ve read a few of the books in this series now, and always find them interesting, and good to read when I feel like a change or a rest from my more usual fare. So I finished it off on the train home.

Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I’m joining in this week because I was really taken with the theme. I’ve been reviewing books online since 2004, but this blog started in 2009, and I’m concentrating on the period since then. What follows here is not a definitive list of favourites, nor is it in a strict order – it’s a list of highlights. It’s a snapshot of what I like to read.

1. The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

This is a tale of pure serendipity. I was visiting Cambridge, and saw the hardback of The Rehearsal in a bookshop. It wasn’t the subject matter that grabbed me, but the blurbs promising something different. I took a chance on it… and really didn’t get along with its mannered prose style at first. But I persevered and, once I realised what Catton was doing – how completely the novel’s different aspects embodied its theme of performance – I got into it, and ended up absolutely loving the book. The Rehearsal is the fondest memory I have of reading a book in the last few years, and it showed me a new way to appreciate fiction.

2. Pocket Notebook – Mike Thomas

A few bloggers enthused about Pocket Notebook in 2010 – and I really liked its Clockwork Orange-inspired cover – but I never got around to reading it. The following year, I started reviewing for Fiction Uncovered; when I saw Pocket Notebook on their review-copy list, I decided to try it. I was utterly blown away by the vividness with which Thomas created his corrupt-copper protagonist. My only regret is that I didn’t read this novel a year earlier.

3. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

This book has 661 pages. I devoured the whole lot in a weekend. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added quantum physics, Skippy Dies goes from humour to sharp characterisation to social commentary to pathos to the borders of science fiction and back again, without putting a foot wrong. Stunning stuff.

4. Solo – Rana Dasgupta

When I started this blog, I was just beginning to investigate the parts of the contemporary British literary scene that would most interest me. The website Untitled Books was (still is) a great resource, and it’s where I found out about Solo. I love books with wide-ranging sensibilities, and Solo – with its account of a life that feels like a daydream, and a daydream that feels like life – is that sort of book.

5. Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

One of the great joys of book blogging has been discovering small presses. Peirene Press are one of the fine publishers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years, and Beside the Sea is one of their best books. Ostensibly the story of a mother taking her children on a trip to the seaside, darkness gradually emerges from behind the happy façade to build up a brilliant but tragic portrait.

6. Yellow Blue Tibia & New Model Army – Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia was the very first book I reviewed on this blog. I was wanting to catch up on some of the contemporary sf authors I hadn’t read, and my first Adam Roberts novel just blew me away. My second, New Model Army, did the same the year after – a novel that I can genuinely say did something I hadn’t come across in a book before. I can’t choose one of these books over the other for this list, so here they both are.

7. The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

Being surprised by an unfamiliar author is great; but so is reading an excellent book by a writer you already know. A Christopher Priest novel is a maze of realities and unreliable perceptions, and The Affirmation is up there with his best. Priest’s narrative shifts between realities, and his masterstroke is to make our world seem no more (or less) real than his fictional one.

8. An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer

You can’t explore the world of book blogs for too long without coming across books that you’re unlikely to hear of elsewhere. I first heard of An A-Z of Possible Worlds through Scott Pack’s blog, and it really ought to be better known. Lovingly produced by its publisher, Roast Books, this is a collection of stories in a box – twenty-six individual pamphlets, each about its own place. The stories are very fine, too.

9. Coconut Unlimited – Nikesh Shukla

Here’s another way of discovering books in the blog age: finding a writer to be an engaging presence on Twitter; then, a year (or however long) later, reading his or her newly-published book. That’s what happened with Coconut Unlimited, which turned out to be a razor-sharp and hilarious comedy. More interconnectedness: I met Nikesh Shukla last year at a Firestation Book Swap, which Scott Pack usually hosts (although he wasn’t there for that one).

10. The City & the City – China Miéville

The City & the City generated one of my longest reviews, and I can’t remember reading another book that had so many interpretations from so many different people. It’s a novel to argue with, and argue about. At the time, I hadn’t read one of Miéville’s adult books since The Scar; I remember thinking that The City & the City was good enough in itself, but too quiet to catch on as some of his earlier works had. Of course, I was wrong. It was fascinating to see how the novel was received beyond the sf field, and the book blogging community was a big part of that reaction for me.

Sunday Salon: Thirty Years of Adrian Mole

Thirty years ago this month, Sue Townsend published The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, which makes the series a little younger than me, though Mole himself is a good dozen years older. Perhaps the latter is why I never got around to reading The Secret Diary as a teenager myself; I was in my mid-twenties when I finally did – but I probably got more out of the book than I would have if I’d read it a few years earlier, and certainly enjoyed it enough to read the other books in the series (two further volumes have been published since) over the subsequent months.

Penguin have reissued all eight Adrian Mole books in new editions to mark the anniversary, and it has been interesting to revisit some of them. Certainly The Secret Diary remains a beautifully-crafted comic gem, and its 1984 sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (which begins the day after the first novel ends), is much the same. Through the pages of his diary, we meet Adrian Mole: convinced he is an intellectual, obsessed over the spot on his chin, with a crush on the lovely Pandora Braithwaite; yet unaware of how bad his poetry is, and oblivious to the signs of his parents’ marital turmoil.

What I really appreciate on this re-reading is just how well-constructed Townsend’s humour is, both in terms of its one-liners (‘I am reading The Mill on the Floss, by a bloke called George Eliot’), and the broader structural jokes which help establish Adrian’s character: intelligent (albeit perhaps not as much as he thinks he is, or would like to be), but not self-aware, nor adept at picking up the emotional cues of others. Yet, although we are often laughing at Adrian’s misfortune, we still root for him – there is a sense that ultimately he means well, and deserves more than he gets.

In some ways, the first two Mole novels stand apart from the others, because they are a little lighter in tone, and focus on Adrian as a teenager. Subsequent volumes revisit Mole’s life as an adult: in The Wilderness Years (1993), he is twenty-four, and less endearing because some of the traits that could be explained away as teenage foibles – his pedantry, pomposity, and self-obsession – are harder to take in a grown man; when Adrian is dwelling on his lack of success and action with the opposite sex, for example, it’s not so easy to be sympathetic, as one can see quite clearly why his personality and behaviour may be unattractive (there is a woman who likes him, but naturally Mole doesn’t take her hints). Yet Townsend’s humour remains, and one is back on Adrian’s side by novel’s (rather uplifting) end.

In 2009’s The Prostrate Years, Adrian Mole is thirty-nine; living with his wife and young daughter, in a converted pigsty next door to his parents – though his marriage is under strain, and the future of the second-hand bookshop where Adrian works is uncertain. His key character traits are the same as ever, but there’s a bitter sting in that, now, Adrian is trying his best to ignore the signs of prostate cancer. He’s a sympathetic character once again, because of the sense that he is trying to hold on to himself and his life in the face of all that’s happening; the single word ‘treatment’ in many entries gains its force from how much is obviously being left unsaid by this character who has always been so open. The dramatic irony of Mole’s asides carries more bite here than in the earliest books (‘It is good to know that whatever travails we may suffer in life, Woolworths will always be there’), and it serves as a reminder that none of us knows what may be around the corner.

Why do the Adrian Mole books remain so fresh after all these years? Partly because they’re very funny, of course; but I also wonder if Sue Townsend didn’t tap into something fundamental – maybe there’s something of Mole in all of us. Leaving aside his pedantry, for me Adrian represents ultimately represents thwarted ambition: wanting to be or achieve more, but not knowing how to do so. And Adrian is all the more frustrated because there are people in his life who have done what they wanted; it’s surely no coincidence that the lifelong object of Mole’s infatuation – Oxford-educated MP Pandora – is the character who has achieved her ambitions more than any other.

I want to finish with a quotation from The Prostrate Years which, to me, sums up the character of Adrian Mole. His marriage has broken down, and he’s reflecting on the absence of his daughter, Gracie:

I miss the physical presence of that indomitable little girl, trying to make her mark on the world. The feeling of those small strong arms around my neck. I miss the made-up songs she used to sing in the bath, I miss the certainty of her world. She knows nothing of nuclear proliferation or the misery that comes from loving somebody too much.

The comment on nuclear proliferation illustrates Mole’s tendency to dwell on issues at less-than-appropriate times; it might puncture the mood of the rest, but does not destroy that mood, because Adrian means everything sincerely. Those last few words – ‘loving somebody too much’ – are Adrian Mole all over; they show that, beneath the pretension and everything else, there’s a real human heart. That’s why Mole is such a great and enduring character.

China Miéville, Looking for Jake and Other Stories (2005)

“‘It lives in the details,’ she said. ‘It travels in that…in that perception. It moves through those chance meetings of lines. Maybe you glimpse it sometimes when you stare at clouds, and then maybe it might catch a glimpse of you, too.’”

He may be best known as a novelist, but China Miéville’s short fiction is worthy of attention, too. Reading the stories collected in Looking for Jake, I feel as though I’ve gained a fresh understanding of his concerns as a writer. Miéville has often used the term “weird fiction” in conjunction with his work, and a good number of the tales here exhibit what is for me one of the key characteristics of that type of fiction – namely, the paranoid sense that the skin of reality is as thin as a soap bubble and that, if you’re not careful, you’ll discover what’s hiding beyond.

Take, for example, the story ‘Details’ (from which the quote at the head of this review is taken). As a boy, its narrator would go once a week to Mrs Miller’s house to take her the bowl of blancmange specially prepared by his mother. It turns out that Mrs Miller eats that for breakfast because it’s entirely smooth; she has seen something in the apparently-innocent everyday patterns of lines around the house, and that something looked back at her. Even memories or daydreams with patterns are not safe (“the thing’s waiting in the texture of my dress, or in the crumbs of my birthday cake”). Of course, it’s always possible that she’s delusional…isn’t it?

The paranoid uncertainty over the nature of reality is even more palpable in ‘Go Between’, where one Morley finds mysterious packages hidden in the items he buys from the supermarket, with instructions to send them on. What’s in these packages, what or whom they’re for, who sent them – and how they could know what he’d choose to buy – are all mysteries to Morley. One day, he comes across what will seemingly be the last of these packages, and starts to have doubts (did he make a mistake at some point? Might his actions even have inadvertently caused disaster or suffering?) and decides not to forward the parcel as instructed. Miéville brilliantly increases the tension of Morley’s conflicting thoughts as the protagonist watches terrible events unfold on the news – is this what happened because he didn’t send on the parcel, or just coincidence? – until the story ends in just the right place.

Though I wasn’t previously familiar with much of Miéville’s short fiction, I had read the story ‘An End To Hunger’ in a couple of anthologies; it’s interesting to read it again now in light of the other tales collected with it. Probably the least fantastical of all the stories in the book, ‘An End To Hunger’ is set in 1997, when its narrator meets Aykan, a “virtuoso of programming” who already views the internet as yesterday’s news. In time, Aykan becomes incensed by a click-to-donate website named An End To Hunger, whose methods he regards as corrupt; Aykan institutes a series of attacks against the site, until… Even though we’re not talking about somethings on the other side of reality in this case, the sense of secret forces at work in the world still prevails, and is brought into sharper relief by the context of publication.

As well as a writer of weird fiction, Miéville is, and always has been, a writer of the city; this latter is displayed in almost every piece in the book. ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ is presented as a series of documents sent erroneously to the author; these describe a secret society’s investigations of ‘wild streets’, unpredictable thoroughfares which cannot be trusted to remain in the same place. Miéville’s approach to the story is effective in gradually unfurling the ramifications of its central idea, and the tale has the requisite frisson of uncertainty over whether what’s happening is real or all in the characters’ minds. The title story of Looking for Jake is another of the most strongly ‘urban’ pieces, this time describing a London which has been overrun by entropy, many of whose inhabitants have disappeared; this is one of those stories where it’s not so easy to pick out individual turns of phrase which are key in creating the atmosphere, but there’s nevertheless an accumulating sense of a washed-out, threateningly empty city.

Rounding out the collection are stories that show the variety of colours in Miéville’s palette. These range from ‘Familiar’, the tale of a monster grown from a gobbet of flesh, which has the kind of squelchily descriptive prose familiar from many of the author’s novels; to ‘The Ball Room’ (co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer), which lends a menacing aspect to a children’s play area with considerable economy. ‘Jack’, set in the same world as Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, is the story of a semi-legendary freedom fighter/terrorist in the city of New Crobuzon – but, in typically tricksy fashion, we never see the man himself directly; and ‘‘Tis the Season’, in which Christmas itself has become licensed, showcases Miéville’s sharp sense of humour.

If you’ve never read China Miéville before, Looking for Jake represents a fine introduction to his work. If you only know him from his novels, this collection will show another side to this singular writer.

This review was first published in the September 2011 issue of The Short Review, which also carries an interview with China Miéville.

Elsewhere
Read ‘An End To Hunger’
Niall Harrison reviews Looking for Jake
China Miéville websites: publisher’s site; author’s blog.

Book notes: Gale, Nesbø, Wodehouse

Patrick Gale, Tree Surgery for Beginners (1999)

Okay, so it took eighteen months between my seeing Gale at Cheltenham Literature Festival and actually getting around to reading him, but I got there in the end. But the book I’ve chosen seems quite an oddity. Tree surgeon Lawrence Frost is under suspicion of murder when his wife Bonnie and daughter Lucy go missing, until Bonnie walks into a police station and identifies herself. But the Frosts had rowed with each other, and Lawrence did hit Bonnie in anger; these issues must be worked through before the family can return to normal. Lawrence goes on a personal odyssey of sorts, reluctantly joining his uncle Darius on a bridge cruise and then going even further afield, during which he learns how to relate to women,  transforming his life in the process.

I like some aspects of Tree Surgery for Beginners very much: Gale handles some major plot developments in a strikingly (and effectively) low-key fashion; and he also draws contrasts between characters very well (such as the differing ways in which Bonnie and Lawrence view the latter’s love of the outdoors). But the plot itself has one or two coincidences too many for my liking, and that’s where I think the novel falls down. I’d read Gale again, though, and have a copy of his Notes from an Exhibition on my shelves; I don’t think it’ll be another eighteen months before I get around to that.

Patrick Gale’s website

Jo Nesbø, The Redbreast (2000/6)

Nesbø is being trumpeted asthe latest Big Thing in Scandinavian crime fiction, so I thought I’d check his work out by going back to the first of his Harry Hole mysteries to be translated into English (though actually the third in the series overall; the translation, I should say, is some fine work by Don Bartlett). Detective (later Inspector) Harry Hole is on the trail of a Märklin rifle (‘the ultimate professional murder weapon’) which is reported to have been smuggled into Norway; unbeknownst to him (the reader is privy to some, though not all, of the villain’s story) an old Nazi sympathiser, dying of cancer, has some unfinished business.

The first half of this very long book kept me reading without truly taking off; the second half, however, had me gripped. Nesbø is great at creating tension, though the best part of the novel is very different in tone – a brilliantly affecting series of short chapters just after the halfway point. I’ll most certainly be reading more Harry Hole books, and I hope there are even better reads to come.

Jo Nesbø’s websiteNesbø’s UK website.

P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954)

I’ve never watched the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, but even so, it was hard not to imagine the voices of Fry and Laurie whilst reading this. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit sees Berte Wooster having to contend with a threat from one G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright to break his spine in four places (because Cheesewright’s fiancée has left him for Bertie, even though Wooster wasn’t keen), and his Aunt Dahlia’s desperation to keep her husband from finding out that she pawned her pearl necklace to raise funds, and replaced it with a string of imitation pearls.

In the end, I find myself unsure about the novel. I liked the humour – the farcical situations, and especially the limitless patience of Jeeves, the unspoken thoughts behind every ‘Yes, sir’ – but somehow the prose didn’t really gel with me. I am now curious about seeing one of the TV adaptations, though, because I suspect I might appreciate the screen versions better.

P.G. Wodehouse website

Book notes: Politycki, Skloot, Langford & Grant

Matthias Politycki, Next World Novella (2009/11)

Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella (translated from the German by Anthea Bell) is the latest title from Peirene Press, which would be enough on its own to interest me in reading the book, as I’ve enjoyed all their previous selections. Add to this that it’s a tale with shifting realities, and my interest only increases. Having read it now, though, it didn’t quite work for me, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on why.

Academic Hinrich Schepp finds that his wife Doro has died at her desk, where she has apparently been editing the attempt at a novel that he abandoned years before. Reading the manuscript, Schepp discovers that Doro’s edits constitute a commentary on their marriage, and that his wife was far from as content as he’d assumed.

The beginning of Next World Novella is especially potent, as the reader is a fraction behind Schepp in realising that Doro has died, and anticipates the jolt which is to come. There’s also effective interplay between the gradual unfurling of Doro’s true feelings and Schepp’s inability/reluctance to perceive the truth (e.g. he refuses to acknowledge the extent to which his abandoned novel reflected his own life). Yet I finished the book feeling that I hadn’t quite grasped something about it, and I can’t put into words what that might be. Next World Novella is well worth a look, though.

Interview with Matthias Politycki (Worlds Without Borders)
Next World Novella elsewhere: Just William’s Luck; Cardigangirlverity; The Independent.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

A brilliant fusion of biography, social history, and history of science, that tells a fascinating story. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951; as with other cancer patients at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, a sample of the cells from Henrietta’s tumour was taken, without her knowledge, for research purposes. Those cells were the origin of the HeLa cell line, the first human one to be propagated successfully in the lab (‘immortal’ because they can divide indefinitely in culture). Henrietta’s cells facilitated many medical advances, but it was twenty years before her family even learnt that a sample had been taken.

Remarkable as this story is, it is Skloot’s treatment of it that makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She moves back and forth between time periods and perspectives, weaving together details  of Henrietta’s and her family’s lives; the wider social and scientific contexts; the ethical issues raised by Henrietta’s story; and Skloot’s own experiences meeting and interviewing the Lacks family. There’s great breadth to the material, and Skloot’s control of it is superb. What an engrossing read.

Rebecca Skloot’s website
Interview with Skloot (Wellcome Trust)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks elsewhere: SomeBeans; Savidge Reads; Take Me Away; Lovely Treez Reads.

David Langford and John Grant, Earthdoom! (1987/2003)

A gloriously over-the-top spoof disaster novel featuring all manner of world-ending phenomena which appear on the scene in quick succession: a spacecraft on a collision course with Earth; an antimatter comet on a collision course with Earth; invading aliens; rabid lemmings; the Loch Ness Monster; a time-travelling Hitler who takes advantage of the handy cloning technology he finds on a Devon farm; sentient superglue… You get the idea.

Langford and Grant relentlessly send up the conventions of the disaster novel, with their cast of gung-ho male scientists and impossibly-attractive-yet-brilliant-except-when-the-guys-need-to-show-how-much-better-they-are female scientists; the plot contrivances which are eventually abandoned altogether when it suits; the characters’ helpful-for-the-reader recapping things they already know; and the prose. For example:

Jeb’s [the Devonian farmer] words rang hollow in his ears, not merely because in these grim days his accent was failing to convince even himself. Ambledyke Farmhouse was sealed against the horrors outside, its boarded-up windows blind as proofreaders’ eyyes. The inner dimness throbbed with a stench of ancient, decaying pizza. (p. 121)

Great stuff.

David Langford’s website
John Grant’s website

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Vol. 3 (2010)

The Bristol Short Story Prize is awarded annually to stories of up to 3,000 words, with the twenty shortlisted pieces being published in an anthology. On the table today is the anthology resulting from last year’s Prize, and a nicely wide-ranging selection it is, too.

The three stories on the winners’ podium are printed first in the anthology, so that seems a good place to start. The story awarded first prize by the judges is the shortest of all, just a few hundred words, yet it’s plain to see why the judges thought so highly of it. ‘Mum’s the Word’ by Valerie O’Riordan is about a girl being abused by her father; its detail is so chillingly precise (‘Three times with his grunting and the calloused hand over my mouth…’) that the story has a much greater impact than its length might suggest. A worthy winner.

Ian Madden was the second-placed author, for ‘Only the Sure of Foot’, a tale of grudges and secrets on a Scottish island. Madden evokes the harshness of his setting well, and how that has shaped his characters; I particularly like the ending, which effectively uses the landscape as a metaphor for the unspoken territory between two of its characters. Third prize went to a debut story, ‘Gardening’ by Rachel Howard, in which an old woman named Elena moves into the garden of Alice, who has become too afraid to leave her home. I like the matter-of-fact tone of this piece, the way that the rather odd situation becomes something important for both women – and the story ends in just the right place.

Though I’ve described the situation in ‘Gardening’ as rather odd, there’s a whole different level of oddness in Ben Walker’s ‘Bitter Gourd Fruit’, where a man from our present day wakes to find himself a severed head (with faculties and speech intact) on board a ship, apparently some time in the past. Walker tells his story with a straight face, and the occasional nod which acknowledges the absurdity of its premise (with the protagonist’s help, the ship’s crew end up rehearsing an adaptation of Highlander). It’s a tone that works well at keeping the story sufficiently grounded, all the way to the nicely-judged ending.

Mike Bonsall’s ‘Man Friday and the Sockball Championships’ is another story that takes a fantastical situation and works by focusing on the reality of that situation rather than on explaining it. Bonsall’s protagonist is imprisoned in one of a series of cubes in a vast cavern; he doesn’t hunger, and heals completely if injured – but he can go nowhere, and doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. Bonsall explores well the emotional state of his protagonist, and the varying stages of bewilderment, claustrophobia, resignation, and trying to cope. Natasha Tripney’s story, ‘An Experiment’, likewise features a protagonist trapped by forces beyond their control, though in a very different setting. Cecily is a (presumably poor) girl who has been taken into a wealthy household to receive the kind of education (in Latin, piano, arithmetic, and so on) that would otherwise have been denied her; here, Cecily’s benefactors assess her progress. This is a tale where the connotations of the title carry considerable weight: Cecily’s humanity has been eroded, because she is viewed in the story as an experimental subject, Tripney never allows her readers to lose sight of that, and it gives the story an effective note of unease.

Several stories in the anthology carry a sting in their tail. ‘A Sense of Humour’ by Rik Gammack – about a man who had himself cloned as insurance against dying, and hatches a plan to take advantage of the situation – is essentially a shaggy-dog story, but amply serves its purpose as a light, entertaining read. ‘Born Not Made’ by Rachel Sargeant works well enough without the twist at its end, as it transplants the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri to present-day Britain with the tale of Mozza, a young trouble-maker with an uncool interest in (and talent for) music – an interesting juxtaposition of subtext and surface tale. Darci Bysouth’s ‘Marrakech’ is a very effective piece in which a mother reminisces to her daughter about the time she lived in Marrakech. The city becomes a symbol of lost dreams; the contrast between the mother and her more practical-minded is brought out well; and the final shift of perception adds yet another layer to the story.

There are also pieces that transport us very well into the distinctive minds of their protagonists. For example, in ‘Ten Plastic Roses’ by Yana Stajno, the protagonist, Melanie, obsesses over the fake flowers she has thrown out. They were the last gift given to her by her ex-husband Richard, and now that final symbol of him is gone – except that the council’s waste collectors won’t take the roses away. Stajno controls the flow of the story well: Melanie’s attitude changes unexpectedly, and there’s a hint that her history with Richard may not be all that she claims. The narrative voice of Clare Wallace’s ‘But Then Again, Maybe It Is’ is superbly realised; Wallace’s narrator – a man out looking for the girlfriend who has left him – is consciously unreliable, revising his testimony as he goes, such that there are few secure footholds in the story. And Sherri Turner’s ‘Being Mother’ is an unsettling piece whose narrator takes her children out for an old-style tea-party (insisting they wear traditional clothes); layer on layer of perception and reality is peeled back as the story goes on, to great effect.

So, that’s a tour of some of the highlights of the third Bristol Prize anthology. There is some good stuff here, and the book is well worth seeking out.

Elsewhere
A.J. Kirby reviews the anthology for The Short Review

Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited (2010)

Nikesh Shukla’s first novel is the story of Amit; he and his friends Anand and Nishant are the only Asian boys at their private school in early 1990s Harrow. They find themselves struggling to be accepted anywhere: their ethnicity marks them out as different at school, and their schooling marks them out as different amongst the other Asian kids in town. The boys find refuge in a shared love of rap, and decide to start their own hip-hop band, which they name Coconut Unlimited (after Amit’s sister, Nish, calls him a coconut – ‘white on the inside, brown on the outside’ [p. 28]). They just need a bit of practice first. Okay, maybe a lot of practice…

This is such a great book, so sharply observed and amusing. At one level, Coconut Unlimited captures gloriously the awkward moments of adolescence. There’s a wonderful scene where, on a family trip to London, Amit is desperate to buy some baggy jeans, and his mum takes charge, dragging him into a streetwear shop and demanding to know where the jeans are… it makes one’s toes curl in empathy. Amit’s first kiss also runs far from smoothly: he doesn’t quite know what to do with his tongue, the experience feels quite strange… These and other moments are vivid demonstrations of the choppy waters through which the teenage Amit is voyaging.

On another level, Shukla’s novel is an acute portrait of putting on a mask in the aim of being perceived in a certain way, and finding that mask uncomfortable to wear. Unable to reconcile the two cultures he’s caught between, Amit tries to define himself by a third; he’s drawn to the glamour of hip-hop, but doesn’t embrace it wholeheartedly. Amit will put on an accent and use street slang, but wants nothing to do with real crime, and is distinctly out of his depth when dealing with local ‘badboy’ Ash (‘the closest thing to ghetto in my life’ [p. 83]). He’s keen to show off his knowledge (real or pretended) of hip-hop as a way of constructing a persona, but is wrong-footed when he meets a new Asian lad at school who seems to know more about the genre than he does. Amit will criticise his sister for the way she lives her life (‘So insular. All her friends were Gujarati. All her references were Indian’ [p. 70]), and he’ll observe that his mother’s sense of having struggled in life is crucial to her notion of self-worth (‘She thought it made her more humble, when in fact it gave her a feeling of martyrdom’ [p. 72]) – but he can’t see the parallels between those and how he’s using hip-hop culture in his life.

There’s a bittersweet note to the story, in that we know from the prologue that the band doesn’t land, and Amit ends up with a comfortable, middle-class English life. But having that knowledge in the back of one’s mind makes for an effective counterpoint to the main narrative, and the journey through the book is highly enjoyable.

Throughout Coconut Unlimited, Amit repeats that he wants his band to be pretty cool. Well, the band might be pretty cool, but the novel is way cooler than that.

Elsewhere
Nikesh Shukla’s website
Metro interview with Shukla
Some other reviews of Coconut Unlimited: Winstonsdad’s Blog; GQ.
Quartet Books

Matt Beaumont, e Squared (2009)

My fourth and final choice for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge, e Squared is the book I’m giving a second chance. I tried reading it last year, but didn’t find it particularly amusing, and so gave up. When I saw it on the list for the Transworld Challenge, though, I thought it might be interesting to give it another go. I’m glad I did, because this time, I found the novel hilarious.

e Squared is a follow-up to Matt Beaumont’s debut novel e, and its short sequel The e Before Christmas (both published  2000). It concerns a London advertising agency (sorry, I mean “thought collective”) called Meerkat360, and is told entirely through emails, instant-message and SMS conversations, and blog posts. I haven’t read either of the two earlier books, but, although I inevitably missed some of the context, it didn’t matter too much – enough time has passed in fictional terms for e Squared to pretty much stand alone.

Since so much of the fun of reading Beaumont’s novel lies in discovering the absurdities of its characters and situations, I won’t reveal too much here. But the cast of e Squared includes: David Crutton, the CEO of Meerkat360, whose relationship with his wife Janice becomes so strained at times that they resort to communicating with each other via their PAs; Liam O’Keefe, whose debts are so large that he’ll filch anything he can from the office and sell it on eBay; the hopelessly naive Harvey Harvey, who doesn’t understand the concept of spam email, and is deeply concerned about all the lonely girls who keep emailing him; and Caroline Zitter, who’s forever out of the office at some outlandish seminar or other. I’m holding back a little in my descriptions, there; the absurdities of these (and other) characters are turned right up to the maximum.

The events of e Squared are also gloriously daft. The Creative Department of Meerkat360 employs various staff to enhance their creativity, including a hairdresser and clown (much to the consternation of David Crutton). Some of the agency’s commissions are rather dubious (e.g. cigarettes with added vitamins and minerals – “your 5 a day”). A former creative director of Miller Shanks (the forerunner to Meerkat360) has retired to France, from where he chronicles his life in blog posts that nobody reads. Transworld Publishers make a cameo appearance, and are shown   to have some of the same emailing habits as Meerkat360 (though surely it’s not like that in real life…).

What really adds an extra dimension to e Squared for me is the way that Beaumont uses the epistolary form for effect. For example, the first chapter intercuts Janice Crutton’s annual Christmas email to her family and friends – which paints life in the Crutton household as a model of familial happiness and harmony – with other emails and exchanges which suggest a rather different reality. And there are times when the distancing effect of having events reported to us in emails, rather than “witnessing” them directly, gives the humour a deadpan quality.

But, you know, e Squared is a whole lot funnier to read than it is to describe like this. So I shall stop there and just suggest that you go and read it.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of e Squared: Rather Lovely; For Books’ Sake; Bookmunch; Den of Geek.
Matt Beaumont’s website
Meerkat360 website
Den of Geek interview with Beaumont