Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it – but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.

Critchley

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.

Strange Horizons review: Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf

WaldorfI have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf (published by Turtle Point Press). The book is a collection of eleven linked (or fractured) short stories revolving around the fictitious Bearden County, NY, where something strange has happened to the laws of nature. I won’t say more: I’ll just invite you to check out the full review here.

No would also be a good time to mention that Strange Horizons’ annual fund drive is currently under way; if you like what they do, why not consider making a donation? You might even win a prize in their raffle.

Elsewhere: Shiny New Books issue 3 and the Strange Horizons book club

News about some external stuff today. There’s a new issue of Shiny New Books out, where you’ll find a couple of pieces by me. One is a celebration of the short story, with a few recommended story collections. The other is a review of Mark Watson’s new novel Hotel Alpha, which chronicles forty years in the life of a hotel and its people, and comes with a hundred bonus short stories online – one of which is also up at SNB.

Then there’s something new over at Strange Horizons: a monthly round-table book club. Each month, a panel of participants will discuss a particular title, with the opportunity for others to contribute in the comments. I’m involved in two of the initial instalments: later this month, I’ll be taking part in the discussion on Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow; then I’ll be moderating the December panel on Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. The other discussions coming up concern Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman (November) and Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire (January). I’m really excited by the book club, which is planned to be a regular feature; I hope you’ll take a look and perhaps join in.

We Love This Book reviews: Susan Barker and Julia Crouch

A couple of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Susan Barker, The Incarnations (2014)

BarkerSomeone is watching Wang Jun, leaving letters in his taxi, claiming to be his soulmate. This person insists that they and Wang have known each other for a thousand years, and has stories to tell of their various incarnations throughout Chinese history, from the Tang Dynasty to Mao’s regime. In these stories, Wang and his correspondent variously love and hate each other, live together or die at the other’s hand. Back in 21st Century Beijing, Wang has his suspicions about who is writing these letters, though confirming them might drive his family apart.

True to its title, the idea of “incarnations” runs all the way through Susan Barker’s third novel. It’s not just the various historical incarnations of Wang and his “soulmate” – there’s also the sense that a place can go through different incarnations (Wang has seen the city of Beijing change as the 2008 Olympics approach), and that the stages of a person’s life can function in the same way. Wang has experienced several upheavals in his life, and there are family secrets to be uncovered as well – and the gaps between these can seem as great as those between different eras of history.

Barker’s novel balances past and present, the grand sweep of history and the intensely personal, all wrapped up in brisk and densely evocative prose. You can never quite be sure where Wang’s story is going to turn next – not even after a thousand years.

(Original review.)

Julia Crouch, The Long Fall (2014)

CrouchIn 1980, Emma James is eighteen, travelling in Greece before going to university, when an event occurs that will permanently alter the course of her life. In the present day she is Kate Barratt, charity figurehead and wife of a wealthy hedge-fund manager, with the past safely behind her. At least, that’s what Kate thinks: but she discovers that a figure from the old days is back, and has the seemingly limitless capability to threaten her and those she holds dear.

There’s an interesting theme of identity running through The Long Fall: at a time of life when people are finding out who they are, Emma has to change herself, radically and unexpectedly. As Kate, she appears to have built up a happy life (albeit one marked by personal tragedy); other characters have not been so lucky. Kate finds herself questioning how far she has put up a façade, in her marriage and as the face of her charity.

Then there is the plot, which Julia Crouch controls very well: first Emma’s travel diary, leading up to the tragedy that we glimpse in the opening pages, then Kate’s present-day nightmare. The pages turn, the revelations come along at a brisk pace, the sense of dread grows as Kate’s world is systematically undermined. All leads up to a conclusion that brings the narrative satisfyingly full-circle.

(Original review.)

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

A story from Hotel Alpha

Hotel AlphaToday is publication day for a novel I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard about it: Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. Although best known as a comedian, Watson has also been written some very smart novels (I reviewed his Eleven a few years ago). Hotel Alpha is his fifth, and chronicles forty years in the life of a central London hotel. What’s particularly intriguing, though, is that Watson has written a hundred short stories (from the length of a tweet to a thousand words or more) to go with it – stories that exist within and fill some of the gaps in the novel.

I’ll be reviewing Hotel Alpha for the October issue of Shiny New Books; for now, though, I’m hosting one of the hundred stories here. It’s only a couple of paragraphs, but I love the emotions that it evokes. You’ll find the rest of the stories at http://www.hotelalphastories.com.

***

Story 48: Room 76, 1970

Every time someone knocks on any of the bloody doors in this place, it sounds like it’s yours. This is the third time he’s sprung to his feet, gone to jerk open the door, and not found herthere. Once it was a visitor for the person the other side of the wall: a visitor who ought not, from the look on her face, to be there. Once it was a housekeeper in a uniform so white it looked brand new; she glanced wryly at him before being admitted two doors down. And this time there is nobody there at all. Whoever made the knock has been noiselessly admitted to a room, or was the product of his imagination. Or a ghost.

It’s not as if it could be her, anyhow. She isn’t coming back. He has lost her. She is with somebody else; or she’s with nobody else, but happy; she’s happy without him, that’s the point. And that’s how it has to be. He doesn’t deserve another chance, probably. It’s just that a hotel promises everything, or at least rules nothing out. Anything, in its neutrality, can be imagined. Nobody made of the ordinary human stuff can hear a knock on a door, even the wrong door, without believing for a few seconds that the impossible has happened, and the person they have longed for is here after all.

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.