MonthSeptember 2010

Mark Watson, Eleven (2010)

Here’s a chain of consequences: early last year, I was at a work conference where, one evening, a group of us went to see Mark Watson in stand-up. His name was half-familiar, though I couldn’t quite place it; but I love good comedy, so I decided to take a chance and go along anyway – and I’m glad I did, because Watson was hilarious.

A few months later, I was in an unfamiliar part of town, and popped into the local library, where I saw a novel by an author named Mark Watson. A quick glance at the biography established that this was the same Mark Watson; apparently he’d written a couple of novels several years previously. If his fiction was anything like as good as his stand-up, I thought, then I wanted to read it – so I borrowed the book and, sure enough, it was very good.

All this meant that, when I heard earlier this year that Watson was going to publish a new novel, his first in six years, I was very interested in reading it. And the reason I’ve introduced this review as I have is that Eleven is all about chains of consequence. The central chain of events begins when Xavier Ireland, the host of a late-night radio phone-in show, witnesses a group of youths beating up another boy and tries to intervene, but fails to stop them. The novel continues to follow Xavier’s life whilst, alongside that, Watson traces the seemingly random consequences of that one incident – the bullying angers the victim’s mother, who then writes a harsher review of a restaurant than she might have otherwise; incensed by the review, the restaurant’s owner ends up firing one of his staff, and so on. We also discover what it was that led Chris Cotswold to leave Australia, change his name to Xavier Ireland, and take such an unsociable job – and why everything comes back to the number eleven.

The fabric of Eleven is shaped by the theme of chance moments and their ramifications. It’s there in Xavier’s life, as the nature of his job means that most of his connections with other people are transitory – the callers to his show enter his life briefly, then dart back out again; and the odd hours Xavier keeps mean that his producer/co-presenter Murray is probably the person he sees most regularly. The theme is there, of course, in the main consequence-chain; but it’s also there in Watson’s many asides, which reveal connections between minor characters, or glimpses into their futures. These asides act as a reminder that, beyond the protagonist’s life (and, in reality, our own), there are countless webs of other stories which remain unknown to us.

Watson also captures the raggedy nature of life in his plot progression, as events don’t necessarily tie up neatly; what seems as though it’s going to become the novel’s key relationship actually fizzles out early on; and an apparently throwaway gag – one woman Xavier meets at a speed-dating event introduces herself as a cleaner, and before their three minutes are up, he’s made an appointment with her for that weekend – grows into one of the main plot strands.

The character development in Eleven is also smartly done. As I said earlier, Xavier’s relationships with other people tend to be fleeting; when someone does start to become more of a permanent fixture in his life, Xavier doesn’t know how to handle it – but he learns to so in a halting fashion which is very believable. More generally, Eleven could be seen as the story of how Xavier slowly breaks out of the old pattern of his life – but then comes the ending…

I really like the ending of Eleven. It reminds me of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, insofar as both books have endings which are no way to end a novel, and yet are completely right for the story they tell. But you’ll have to read this novel to find out what I mean. And perhaps, as a consequence, you’ll have found a new book to enjoy.

Some other reviews of Eleven: Learning to Read; Booking Passage; Words, Words, Words; Booktopia.
Extract from Eleven at Bookhugger
Mark Watson’s website

The second UK Book Bloggers’ Meet-Up

Following on from May’s gathering in London, yesterday saw another meet-up of UK book bloggers, this time in the beautiful city of Oxford. Unfortunately, it was down on numbers from last time, as many people had to cancel at the last minute; but that didn’t stop it from being a highly enjoyable day.

In the afternoon, a group of us went on a tour of the city (courtesy of Simon and Becca), which took in a couple of bookshops, the Ashmolean Museum, and Somerville College. Then it was off to a nice little pub called Far From the Madding Crowd, for a meal and book-swapping; courtesy of Annabel, I unwrapped a copy of Obstacles to Young Love by David Nobbs, which isn’t a book I knew before, but it sounds interesting.

The full list of attendees, and their blogs, was:

Annabel – Gaskella
Becca – Oxford Reader
Harriet – Harriet Devine’s Blog
Jackie – Farm Lane Books
Peter – Morgana’s Cat Speaks
Sakura – Chasing Bawa
Simon – Stuck in a Book

It was great to see everyone, but those I’d met before and those I hadn’t – and, of course, the number of books on my TBR pile is a little higher than it was two days ago…

Joel Lane, ‘The Drowned Market’ (2010)

A publisher rejects the manuscript of a struggling writer; the next submission they receive from him is a thinly-disguised tale of his taking revenge. The threatening MS is promptly sent to the police; but the narrative has changed – and may reflect the writer’s next move. This story has elegant flourishes typical of Lane (‘[As] a publisher…people assume the past is all that matters to you. They forget that you still have to breathe’), but the metaphorical underpinning isn’t as satisfying as that of (say) his ‘Black Country’.

Rating: ***

FantasyCon 2010

Last weekend, I travelled up to Nottingham for my ninth FantasyCon, with its mix of panels, readings, book launches, and more. My weekend began with the ever-entertaining FantasyCon quiz, which I had to attend, because a) it’s always a laugh, and b) I was on the winning table last year, and so had a ‘title’ to defend. And this year… we won – by a single point.

The Guests of Honour this year were Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle and Bryan Talbot; my overriding conclusion from the weekend is that I really need to read the work of these people more often (or, in the case of Tuttle and Talbot, read their work for the first time). Kilworth’s interview was very interesting, and began with an excellent performance of one of his short stories (assisted by Tuttle and interviewer Guy Adams). Talbot gave a fascinating talk on the tradition of depicting anthropomorphic animals in artwork (much less dry than it sounds) and the references to it in his latest graphic novel, Grandeville. I didn’t attend Tuttle’s interview, but I heard good things about her work, and she was engaging when I saw her on a panel.

The programme of events wasn’t, to be honest, one of the best I’ve experienced at FantasyCon. It seemed less full than it has in recent years (only one stream of panel programming), and I’d have welcomed more variety in the panel topics. Still, the panels I attended were interesting; quote of the weekend came from Chaz Brenchley during the discussion on fantasy and escapism: “Fantasy is not an excuse, it’s a demand.” Very true, I’d say. I managed to catch only one reading this year, but I was highly intrigued by the chapter Mark Morris read from the novel he’s writing with Tim Lebbon, and I look forward to investigating the finished book.

As always, the con included the presentation of the British Fantasy Awards, presided over this year by Master of Ceremonies James Barclay. One particularly poignant note came with the announcement that this year’s Special Award was honouring the great and much-missed Rob Holdstock – a well-deserved accolade. I was particularly pleased to see a couple of books that I very much liked last year picking up awards: Conrad WilliamsOne (Best Novel) and Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night’ (Best Short Story). And, as Rob Shearman accepted the Best Collection award for Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, I was reminded that I really should read that book. Congratulations to them and all other winners!

One of the things I enjoy about going to cons is not just catching up with old friends, but also meeting in the flesh people that I’ve only known online. So it was a great pleasure this year to chat to writers Tom Fletcher and Simon Unsworth, and fellow book blogger Amanda Rutter.

After five years in Nottingham, FantasyCon is moving to Brighton next year – which should be interesting, as I’ve never been there before. Gwyneth Jones has already been announced as the first Guest of Honour, and I’ve booked my place; perhaps I’ll see you there.

A list of links to other people’s convention reports can be found on the FantasyCon website.

Kay MacCauley, The Man Who Was Loved (2006)

This review was first published in issue 2 of The Smal Press Review, 2006.

Kay MacCauley knows how to grab your attention with a single sentence.  And that sentence is this: ‘For the first two hundred years or so, his favourite pastime had been to throw himself under the speeding hooves of horses.’  Our reckless friend is Leilo, ‘the Collector’, who wanders the streets of Venice with his cart, collecting ‘all that was worn out, discarded or dead.’  But perhaps he’s not that reckless after all, for a concoction he drank four centuries previously (it is now 1546) has left him unable to die – not that his body is still in perfect condition.

Leilo is one of several secondary viewpoint characters in this novel, but he  is not the ‘man’ referred to in the title.  That is Marin, whom we first meet as an infant at the San Barnabo Redentore Shelter for Foundlings.  Sister Clara recognises something in him: could he be her own child, the one she abandoned?  Believing so, she takes him from the shelter to raise herself (though, in the end, she dies while he is still a boy).  As Marin grows, he discovers that people see in him who they want to see, which sometimes even leads to his own physical appearance changing in sympathy.  This naturally leads to… various adventures.

I keep wanting to describe The Man Who Was Loved as ‘picaresque’, though I’m not entirely sure how far it is appropriate to use that word.  I wouldn’t say the book was a picaresque, not least because Marin doesn’t really seem to me to be a picaro (though other characters would fit that description quite well, notably the escaped eunuch and master of disguise Agostino).  No, MacCauley’s novel is more picaresque in the sense of being episodic.  Such an impression is perhaps inevitable given how short many of the chapters are, but it’s more than that: the whole novel seems structured to focus on Marin’s journey through life, rather than on any particular destination (however temporary the stay there may be).

This is fine as far as it goes, because the journey through the book (our journey as readers, at least) is enjoyable.  MacCauley’s prose is peppered with striking and insightful turns of phrase, such as this description of one character, the Contessa, as a hostess: ‘She plied her guests with food and gifts and addressed each that came as “true, dear friend,” because usually she did not know their names.’  Then there is the sustained interest in exactly where the events of Marin’s life will lead him next; not to mention scenes depicting some of the sights of Venetian life during the period.

I’ve chosen to gloss over the latter because, to a certain extent, Venice itself seems to fade into the background, so focused is the novel on Marin: the city is more a backdrop for his story than a place in its own right.  This isn’t a problem until the ending, when the mysterious plague afflicting Venice that has appeared intermittently throughout the book  swings to the fore.  The denouement seems to happen more suddenly than it should, upsetting the pace of the novel as a whole.

That’s not the only flaw in The Man Who Was Loved.  The author has an irritating tendency to switch viewpoint characters within the same scene (sometimes seemingly just to indicate that the stranger whom one character has met is already known to us from earlier on), which can make the book rather difficult to follow.  In additiion, some characters remain distant despite our being ‘in their shoes’ for part of the plot; for example (without wishing to spoil anything), I was never sure whether Agostino went as far as he did just because Marin caused him to be captured and enslaved previously.

As noted above, The Man Who Was Loved is more about journey than destination; so perhaps it is appropriate that I am not sure quite what to make of it ultimately.  By novel’s end, there has been a resolution of sorts; yet it’s clear that life will go on and the story has not ‘ended’ as such.  One of the book’s recurring themes is the mutability of identity: Marin’s changes depending on who is looking at him; Agostino disguises himself physically; the Contessa flatters others to maintain appearances; another character considers that ‘the truth of anybody’s life’ is merely ‘a rough piling together of all they had chosen to accept as real’ – but, despite all this, the theme doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and I’m left unsure how much MacCauley intended to say about it.

In summary, The Man Who Was Loved is a promising début which is good whilst you’re reading it, but which feels somewhat less satisfying once you’ve finished.

Telegram Books

Gabe Rotter, The Human Bobby (2010)

Bobby Flopkowski had few natural advantages – he’s average-looking and from a poor background – but he has been lucky in life, and arrived at age forty with a loving family, a lucrative career as a paediatrician, and a plush Beverly Hills house. It all unravels, though, when Bobby’s baby son Jack disappeared one night, after being left alone for just five minutes; Bobby’s wife, Ava, leaves him, and he spirals down into a drink- and drug-fuelled depression, frittering his money away on expensive hotel bills. He ends up living on the beach in a tent, with no regular companions save Eddie, a fellow homeless man, and Cecilia, a cafe owner. And then, one day, Bobby spots Katie Turner, his first girlfriend, who walked back into his life shortly before Jack’s disappearance. She doesn’t seem to recognise Bobby any more, and has apparently changed her name – could this be because she knows what has happened to Jack?

Gabe Rotter’s second novel is a marvellously elegant construction. On one level, it’s a sharp study of one man’s decline; Rotter is particularly good at showing how innocent and apparently small decisions might cause a chain of major repercussions: no harm in getting in touch with the old flame, Bobby thinks; but then she turns up at his party, and she needs a place to stay; well, Bobby and Ava have room, so why not invite her – and so on. Bobby’s descent into addiction has a similarly all-too-plausible momentum; he knows that he’s destroying himself, but, having lost everything, he is unable to stop; it’s powerful, and appropriately uncomfortable, reading.

But there’s another layer to The Human Bobby, which is all about perception: just what is going on with Katie Turner? Is Bobby right about her, or has he lost his grip on reality? In a brilliantly disorienting journey, Rotter leads us through several possible interpretations, before finally settling on one that seems just a little too neat – and then wryly undermines it at the last, in a way that could be seen as either opening up the possibilities once more, or showing the depths of Bobby’s desperation. It’s a fine ending to a very fine novel.

Gabe Rotter’s blog

Andrew Hook, ‘Love Is the Drug’ (2010)

At some point in the future, when life has become more regimented and emotions repressed, an ordinary family man buys a drug named ‘conflict’, and finds himself experiencing feelings he has never known. Hook’s tale is an interesting combination of a subtly oppressive future (for example, instead of booking leave from work as we might, people are told when to take ‘time-owed’ leave) and a depiction of the human psyche that suggests (chillingly) just how far the world of the story has moved away from what we know.

Rating: ***½

Andrew Hook’s website

Ursula Pflug, ‘Even the Mirror’ (2010)

Pflug’s narrator travels back and forth across the Atlantic, in search of someone seen (and loved) in dreams. That person remains elusive, but the protagonist does encounter someone else from those dreams — a woman named Tullis, who has in turn dreamt of the narrator. This whole story has a suitably dream-like quality, and a final line that leaves proceedings nicely open to interpretation.

Rating: ***½

Ursula Pflug’s website

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.

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

David V. Griffin, ‘Violette Doranges’ (2010)

A senior employee of a philanthropic organisation finds himself with the phone in one hand and the name ‘Violette Doranges’ in his thoughts, as though he’s just had a conversation with someone of that name, though he remembers no such thing, and knows no such person. In the subsequent days and weeks, the name of Violette Doranges crops up again and again; it turns out that she is a glamorous young socialite who moves in similar circles to the protagonist, though they’ve never knowingly encountered each other. Our man resolves to find a way to meet this mysterious woman, but doing so proves harder than he expected.

Early on, I thought I knew where Griffin’s story was going – his protagonist was not going to meet Violette; she’d always be nothing more real than a whispered name to him – and settled down for a dance towards and away from the revelation of Violette’s identity. But it was not to be so: towards its end, the story takes a turn that opens up the possibilities of interpretation, and leaves the tale alive in the mind for quite some time afterwards.

Rating: ***½

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