MonthJanuary 2010

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

Nigel Farndale, The Blasphemer (2010)

There’s a lot going on in Nigel Farndale‘s new novel, which is good because it keeps the pages turning; but I feel that The Blasphemer ultimately tries to hold more than it can contain.

In the present day, zoologist (and atheist) Daniel Kennedy takes his partner Nancy on a surprise trip to the Galápagos Islands — but, before they get there, their light aircraft crash-lands at sea.At first, instinct leads Daniel to push past Nancy on his way out of the stricken plane, before returning to help her — but he ultimately saves the day by swimming all the way to land and finding help. On his way there, though, Daniel is spurred on by an apparent vision of a familiar-seeming man — a man who turns out to be his daughter’s teacher, Hamdi Said-Ibrahim, whom Daniel meets for the first time on his return to London.

Several months after the crash, Daniel’s relationship with Nancy (which was already precarious) has foundered, because she blames him for saving himself first instead of her. On top of this, Daniel is struggling to rationalise what he saw in the ocean — was he hallucinating or could he have a guardian angel? — and his career is under threat thanks to the machinations of Laurence Wetherby, his college’s vice-provost, who’s spreading rumours that Daniel has a fragile mental state and is consorting with terrorists (Hamdi having been wrongly labelled thus).

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Daniel’s great-grandfather, Andrew, who fought at Passchendaele, but then deserted and embarked on an affair with a French widow. The full truth of Andrew’s life will emerge by novel’s end.

As I said, there’s a lot going on — and this synopsis by no means covers all of it. What to make of The Blasphemer, then?

I’ve already suggested that I have reservations about the novel, and one of these concerns the characterisatiobn. Some of the characters have quirks that can irritate, such as Nancy’s habit of calling her nine-year-old daughter ‘the baby’; and Daniel’s know-all tendencies — though I must say the latter pays off to great effect when Daniel witnesses an explosion, and Farndale describes the experience in coldly scientific terms.

It’s relatively easy to put up with this sort of thing, though;  more problematic are some character issues on which the plot hinges. I had trouble believing that Nancy would hold her grudge against Daniel for so long: I can (just about) believe that she’d resent Daniel for barging past her on the aircraft and leaving her behind momentarily (though it seems a pretty extreme reaction to something she must surely realise was instinctive, especially given that he returned to her shortly after); I find it much harder to accept that she would still hold the same view months later, and not judge Daniel’s actions in the round — he was responsible for everyone being rescued, after all.

The character of Wetherby didn’t ring true for me, either — he abuses the power of his position to a phenomenal extent, spreading lies about anyone to whom he takes a disliking, having a relationship with one of his students (who seems to accept the situation quite happily)… it’s too much for me to be able to take that character seriously — and, since Wetherby’s actions underpin a good proportion of the plot events, that’s a problem.

I’m also unsatisfied with the novel’s treatment of one of its main themes, that of science versus belief. This is exemplified by Daniwel’s vision/hallucination; there are various debates between him, the scientist, and the religious people in his life — but, ultimately, nothing that I haven’t come across before, leading me to conclude that this strand of The Blasphemer doesn’t go anywhere interesting (and, on the level of plot, the implied solution to the mystery of Daniel’s ‘vision’ is telegraphed too early on, and doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny).

Better, I think, is the book’s exploration of cowardice. Here, Farndale sets up a parallel between Daniel and Andrew, both of whom commit acts viewed as cowardly by some within the narrative. There are some interesting contrasts — for example, the judgement of cowardice is institutional in Andrew’s case, but more personal in Daniel’s. The thing is, though, that, as well as the main parallels between the two storylines, Farndale puts in a number of tangential echoes and connections  (e.g. Daniel’s profession and the Galápagos Islands link him to Darwin, whose great-nephew. the text reminds us, was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who makes an appearance in Andrew’s narrative) which don’t, to my mind, cohere properly. The effect is not to amplify the parallels but to complicate them needlessly (this is the main reason for my earlier comment about the novel ‘trying to hold more than it can contain’).

I appreciate that’s quite a lot of criticism; so what does The Blasphemer do well? The wartime scenes especially, I think. The passages describing Andrew ‘s experiences in the trenches and on the battlefield are superbly vivid; and Farndale is subtle in showing the deleterious effects that warfare could have on a man. (The ending of Andrew’s narrative is also much more satisfactory than that of Daniel’s.)

For me, The Blasphemer falls into the category of ‘flawed but interesting’, which would normally lead me to suggest that it was worth a look. But the book’s flaws are such that I’m not sure how easily I can say that. It’s not bad by any means, and some parts are very fine indeed; but you have to do a fair bit of mental pruning to see them clearly.

Twenty fantasy books from the last 20 years

Yesterday I came across this post at Torque Control, which is about trying to put together a list of twenty ‘essential’ fantasy books from the previous twenty years. Although the post dates from 2008, I’ve been inspired to put together a list of my own (the TC discussion sprouted from a similar one about essential science fiction, but I’ve stuck to fantasy as I’m more widely read in that genre).

First of all, I should make it clear what this list is and is not. It’s not a list of ‘essential’ books, ‘recommended reading’, nor even a list of favourites. Some of these books are not, strictly speaking, fantasy — but I’ve included them anyway. Some of these books, I haven’t even read. These are simply books that I’m glad to have read, would like to read, or would like to re-read (because I think I’d appreciate them more second time around).

Ursula Le Guin, Tehanu (1990)
John Grant, The World (1992)
Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995; tr. 1997)
Christopher Priest, The Prestige (1995)
Philip Pullman, Northern Lights (1995)
Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1997)
Mary Gentle, Ash (1999)
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000)
Robert Holdstock, Celtika (2001)
Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen (2001)
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind (2001; tr. 2004)
Graham Joyce, The Facts of Life (2002)
Jeff VanderMeer, City of Saints and Madmen, 2nd ed. (2002)
K.J. Bishop, The Etched City (2003)
Allen Ashley, Somnambulists (2004)
Margo Lanagan, Black Juice (2004)
Tim Lebbon, Dusk (2006)
Ramsey Campbell, The Grin of the Dark (2007)
Helen Oyeyemi, White is for Witching (2009)

Comments are, of course, welcome — and what would be on your list?

Jim Williams, The Argentinian Virgin (2009)

In occupied France, shortly before the US would enter the war, a young Irish writer named Patrick Byrne falls in with a group of four glamorous Americans; with both their nations neutral states, the five take advantage of the ability to travel around as they please. One of the Americans, Tom Rensselaer, becomes infatuated with Katerina Malipiero, an enigmatic young woman living with her mother Teresa in an old villa.

Tom ingratiates himself with the Malipieros and, after a while, finds himself being called upon by them. They have found the dead body of Alvírez, a recent arrival to the town, in their villa; unable to account for its appearance, Teresa and Katerina secretly enlist Tom’s help in disposing of the body. The truth of what happened does not emerge for another twenty years, when Pat decides to find out how Tom Rensselaerd declined into the wreck of a man that he became.

I’ve got to admit that Jim WilliamsThe Argentinian Virgin didn’t truly grab me. I think that’s because Williams uses a structure that seems to me to work against what he’s trying to achieve. The main point of the novel seems to be show how the course of Tom’s life was set by those events in 1940s France. But the movement of the story is towards the climactic revelation of what happened to Alvírez; whilst Tom’s psychological deterioration takes place to one side of the narrative — we hear about it, but don’t witness it. For me, that breaks the emotional connection between events, and the true impact is lost.

I appereciate Williams’ historical portrait, and his depiction of how love might drive people to commit desperate acts. But I didn’t connect with the heart of the novel in the way I’d hoped; so The Argentinian Virgin ends up being no more than an average read in my view.

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