TV Book Club: Sacred Hearts

Well, this was a major step up from the first two programmes. There are still some elements that don’t work — the back-and-forth presentation is awkward; describing how an author’s career was boosted by the Book Club in years past is unnecessary; and the non-fiction items (this week, one on the origins of pub names) might well be interesting in another context, but they don’t fit the format of this programme.

Elsewhere. however, things were far better. This week’s guest was the actor Emilia Fox, who didn’t have a book of her own to talk about, so instead the interview with her was about her favourite books. This was a much better idea, and Fox came across as a keen reader, as guests on The TV Book Club ought to be.

The choice this week was Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a novel about two nuns in a 16th-century Ferraran convent. Unlike previous weeks, the discussion was vigorous and enthustic — exactly what the programme needed. Nathaniel Parker remained the best contributor of the regular panellists, really engaging with the period here; but all were better than they were previously (though Gok Wan was absent this week), and Emilia Fox also made some of the strongest contributions. And, most importantly, they made the book sound interesting.

There’s a way to go yet, but, on this evidence, The TV Book Club is on the right path at last.

Interzone 226: Tyler Keevil, ‘Hibakusha’

‘Hibakusha’ tells of Kellman, who is returning for one last time to a London ruined by a nuclear explosion; he’s going ostensibly as part of a salvage team, but actually has his own agenda. This is the kind of story which is particularly frustrating to write about, because it’s just okay – not bad, but not great, either. The deeper relevance of the title comes across (the word ‘hibakusha’ translates, says the text, as ‘explosion-affected people’; and the story shows how Kellman was affected by the blast in more than just physical ways); but, at the same time, nothing about the tale feels particularly remarkable or new. It’s a case of, yes, it was decent enough; now, on to the next story.

Tyler Keevil’s website

In brief: Sue Grafton, ‘A’ is for Alibi (1982)

The first in Sue Grafton’s long-running series of mysteries featuring California PI Kinsey Millhone – – and, as you’ll surmise, the first I’ve read (when it comes to crime fiction, I am a visitor rather than a denizen). Kinsey is hired by Nikki Fife, a woman who has just been released from prison after allegedly killing her husband; Nikki denies committing the crime, and wants Kinsey to identify the real murderer.

I was in the mood for a quick, light read, and this fitted the bill. Kinsey’s voice is engaging, and the pace brisk. I’ve a couple of gripes about the plot — I struggled to accept Kinsey’s swift falling in love with one character, and the ending feels abrupt to me — but, as I say, the book did what I wanted it to.

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers (2010): The Zone review

Now, here’s a book where I’d urge you to look beyond the synopsis – not because it doesn’t necessarily sound like much, but because no plot synopsis can capture what’s great about Robert Jackson Bennett’s Mr Shivers (the subject of my latest review for The Zone). It’s a novel about a man trekking across the 1930s USA in search of the mysterious scarred man who killed his daughter. This would in itself be an interesting twist on the usual fantasy quest, but the subtext turns the novel into something greater. If you’re at all interested in fantastic literature, Mr Shivers should be on your reading list.

Read my review in full at The Zone.

Interzone 226: Jason Sanford, ‘Into the Depths of Illuminated Seas’

Well, we’re off to a good start with this. In the port of Windspur lives Amber Tolester, who knows which sailors are fated to die at sea, because their names appear on her body – and she knows when they’ve died, because then the names disappear, causing her great pain. One day, a mysterious name appears on Amber’s skin – David Sahr, who apparently left Windspur many years ago, as a child. Amber soon finds out who Sahr is, though, when he turns up in Windspur repeating her name – and, when she refuses to come away with him, Sahr takes revenge…

I enjoyed this story. The idea feels fresh to me; there’s a wonderful atmosphere of strangeness; and I appreciate the elegant symmetry of the ending. If the rest of Interzone 226 is as good as Sanford’s piece, it’ll be a treat.

Jason Sanford’s website

Interzone 226: Jan-Feb 2010

Taking a leaf out of Niall Harrison’s book. I’m going to try to do  a better job of keeping up with Interzone. I’ll do it by blogging about the stories here; the write-ups will probably turn out to be notes rather than full reviews, but we’ll see. For now, here is the contents list, with links to my story posts as they appear:

Jason Sanford, ‘Into the Depths of Illuminated Seas’

Tyler Keevil, ‘Hibakusha’

Mercurio D. Rivera, ‘In the Harsh Glow of Its Incandescent Beauty’

Jay Lake, ‘Human Error’

Rachel Swirksy, ‘Again and Again and Again’

Stephen Gaskell, ‘Aquestria’

EDIT 23/2/10 — So, that’s the issue finished. The Swirsky is my pick of the bunch, with the Sanford coming in second.

Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy (2010)

Black Mamba Boy is based on the story of Nadifa Mohamed’s father, Jama, whom we first meet as a street child in Aden in 1935. When he falls out irrevocably with his friends, then loses his mother, Jama resolves to set out and find Guure, his own long-missing father, last heard of heading for Sudan – which is not nearly as far as Jama will travel over the course of the following twelve years.

Though it tells Jama’s story, this isn’t a straightforwardly biographical novel; from interviews, I gather that Mohamed embellished some parts, and that others were perhaps embellished already. Throughout, one is reminded that we make stories out of our lives: Mohamed’s introduction/prologue, where she describes the inspiration for her book, is novelistic in tone and style; the departure of Jama’s father becomes a tale to tell, as does the origin of his mother’s nickname for her son (a mamba slithered over her while she was pregnant with him, but left both unharmed – hence the nickname Goode, or ‘black mamba’); people displaced by the Second World War tell stories that transform their homelands into a distant paradise, whatever the reality was that they left behind.

Mohamed’s narrative itself has the feeling of being told rather than written, with its long, discursive paragraphs; and its structure, swooping in on certain events, then back out again to continue Jama’s journey. What’s striking is that, whatever happens to Jama, one never doubts his story within the pages of the novel. Mohamed’s voice has the ring of truth – the truth of the storyteller.

There are, however, moments when Black Mamba Boy stumbles; they tend to be when Mohamed is acting as the 21st-century person looking back on history, rather than as the novelist inhabiting the period. Compare, for example, her statement that ‘at his tender age [Jama]…could [not] imagine the kind of mechanised, faceless slaughter the Italians would bring to Africa’ (157) with the passage describing a battle a few pages later (165-8), which really evokes the sense of Jama’s (and others’) being caught up in events larger than any one person could ever hope to comprehend. There’s no question, to my mind, which is the better technique.

(Another issue with the novel is the odd typo, in particular Mohamed’s tendency to use a comma in place of a semi-colon; this happens often enough to be distracting, which is especially a problem when the flow of the story is so important.)

The wider historical context of Black Mamba Boy is one about which I know rather little, so I’m reluctant to judge how Mohamed represents history. But I will say that I have an abiding impression of Jama and others – individuals, peoples, nations – enduring circumstances almost too harrowing for words, and doing what they can to survive. Some make it through; others don’t. Jama survives, of course, and one might say that the trait of his that most shines through in the novel is his tenacity, his striving to grasp the opportunities that come along, however steep the obstacles. What a story he had to tell; what a story Nadifa Mohamed has told.

Further links
Video interview with Nadifa Mohamed
Article by Mohamed on writing Black Mamba Boy