MonthOctober 2010

Opening The Portal

This weekend saw the launch of The Portal, a new website reviewing sf, fantasy and horror short fiction –both Anglophone and non. Besides its intrinsic interest, the site is relevant to my blog because I’m one of the contributors.

My first review for The Portal is of the September issue of the webzine Ideomancer, covering stories by Catherine Krahe, Lenora Rose, and Sandra Odell. The review is here, and the issue of Ideomancer under discussion is here.

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.

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

I’ll be keeping an eye on these…

Some notes on a couple of initiatives about which I’ve learnt recently, and which sound interesting:

Fiction Uncovered is a project being overseen by the literary consultant Sophie Rochester, which aims to highlight the work of writers who aren’t as well known as they ought to be. At its heart is a promotion  in which a panel of judges will select eight UK-based authors whose work will be given a push next year; but, right now, the site is also hosting various recommendations of lesser-known books and writers. I’m sure we all have our lists of authors we wish were better known, so it’s very exciting to see something like this. Fiction Uncovered looks set to be an excellent resource; I look forward to discovering some new writers and seeing how the project develops.

Elsewhere, journalist Jeremy Carson has set up the Campaign for Real Books, whose stated aim is to help safeguard the future of printed books and independent booksellers in the digital age. Amongst other plans, they’ll be offering a discount card for independent bookshops. Although it’s very much in the early stages, the Campaign is a welcome initiative, and I’ll be following it with interest.

Rebecca Hunt, Mr Chartwell (2010)

Winston Churchill famously described his depression as a “Black Dog”; the premise of Rebecca Hunt’s first novel is that there really was a black dog – Black Pat Chartwell, a six-foot-seven talking dog who walks on his hind legs. The events of Mr Chartwell take place in July 1964, in the week running up to Churchill’s retirement from Westminster (and scant months before his death). Black Pat becomes a lodger in the home of Esther Hammerhans, a clerk in the House of Commons library. Just as Churchill is steeling himself for the end of his parliamentary career, so Esther is watching the calendar with trepidation; the two will come together by novel’s end, and the shadowy figure of Black Pat will never be far away.

Reading Mr Chartwell, there’s no doubt that we’re in the hands of a singular new talent. Hunt has an ear for a striking image (e.g. “Terrified, she spoke with all the pepper of lettuce,” [p. 9]); sometimes (as with the example I’ve just given), I was left unsure just how well the imagery actually worked – but, at its best, it’s very good indeed; and I’d much rather have a distinctive authorial voice that takes a few risks than a generic one that plays it safe.

Literalising Churchill’s metaphor of depression, as Hunt does (and it’s no secret: Black Pat declares his identity on page 38), is an interesting move, because it allows the author to demonstrate in a very concrete way how depression encroaches on the protagonists’ lives. Both Churchill and Esther are shown to be putting up a shield to the outside world – he, his bons mots; she, a nondescript appearance and manner. We see how Black Pat inveigles his way beneath both characters’ façades, at the same time as his physical presence intensifies (for example, the increasing amounts of hair and mess he leaves around Esther’s house represent Black Pat’s growing closer to her).

However, I came away from Mr Chartwell feeling that it hadn’t quite achieved what it seemed to be aiming for. Black Pat never seemed to be quite a sinister enough presence, nor his gaining of influence over Esther delineated quite clearly enough, for the novel to be fully effective. But it’s an interesting read for all that, and it places Hunt squarely on my list of writers to watch.

Telegraph interview with Rebecca Hunt
Some other reviews of Mr Chartwell: A Rose Beyond the Thames; Between the Pages; Pages of Hackney.

Book giveaway: Numb by Sean Ferrell

Okay, time for something a little different on the blog: I have a spare (unread!) copy of Sean Ferrell’s novel Numb (reveiwed here), which I’d like to give away. To enter, just leave a comment below (NB. there’s no need to include contact information in the comment itself). I’ll accept entries until 23.59 (BST) on Saturday 23rd October, after which I will select a winner at random.

The giveaway is open to anyone worldwide; but only one entry is allowed per person. Good luck!

Musing Mondays: hardback or paperback?

I saw this question, and it got me thinking:

Do you prefer hardcovers, trade paperbacks (the bigger ones), or mass market paperbacks (the smaller ones)? Why?

Once upon a time, my answer to this would have come readily: mass market paperbacks, because they were cheaper and easier to handle. These days, it’s less clear-cut, as I’ve come to appreciate hardcovers and trade paperbacks more. I won’t deny that books in those bulkier formats are trickier to read; but there’s something about sitting down with a hardback especially that can give reading — well, ‘a sense of occasion’ is the best way I can think of putting it.

Actually, my favourite format of book is not listed in the question — it’s a mid-sized paperback, or smaller cased hardcover, which are less unwieldy whilst retaining that feeling of being special. I guess I appreciate books as artefacts more than I used to, but practicality is nice to have as well.

Conditions and Consequences: Sean Ferrell and Joshua Ferris

Sean Ferrell, Numb (2010)
Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed (2010)

On the table today, two novels whose protagonists have unusual conditions which put great strain on both their own lives and their loved ones’, and which are used by the novels’ respective authors to explore wider issues.

The titular character of Sean Ferrell’s Numb by is unable to feel pain, or to remember who he was before he stumbled, bleeding, into a circus, of which he soon became the star attraction. We join Numb as he is gearing up for his greatest stunt yet – facing off against a lion. Things don’t work out as they should, though, when the lion collapses at the key moment.  As a result, Numb leaves the circus, along with his colleague Mal, and heads to New York, in search of his fortune, his identity, or… well, maybe even he doesn’t really know.

One’s natural expectation with a story like this is that it will focus on uncovering the protagonist’s past, but Ferrell’s novel isn’t like that. The man Numb is now is of greater interest to the tale than the man he used to be; when occasional clues do appear (never adding up to anything like a solution, though), they feel almost like an intrusion – which, in a sense, they are, because Numb’s greatest interest is establishing an identity for himself in the present.

Identity is perhaps the central issue of Numb the novel, as that subject impinges on each of the main characters in some way. Numb himself has to deal with becoming public property to an extent; his feats of endurance make him famous, land him appearances on TV; he becomes the star of innumerable internet videos, about which he learns only by accident, if at all – in short, Numb’s identity multiplies until there are people out there who’ve never met him, who have a more solid conception of who he is than he does himself. Numb’s situation seems to me summed up best by a passage in which he reflects on the experience of staying at length in a hotel (funded by his agent) – surrounded by luxury, everything he could want at hand, but none of it belonging to him.

Mal also has to deal with the effects of Numb’s fame, though in his case the issue is that he has fallen on hard times whilst Numb’s stock has risen; Mal takes desperate measures in an attempt to claw back his sense of self. Elsewhere, we have Emilia, a model with whom Numb embarks on something of a ‘relationship’, and whose identity appears mutable – she gains gratification from Numb’s inability to feel pain in New York, yet, when Numb meets her later in Los Angeles (where she has moved), Emilia is a much softer, more relaxed character. Then there is Hiko, the blind artist with whom Numb falls in something which is not quite love; she captures the essence of her subjects in her works, but keeps a second, private set of portraits, which sum up her own image of those people – she creates multiple identities of others.

By novel’s end, Numb is on his way to discovering who he is, or at least to becoming comfortable with whatever answer to that question he may choose – and we as readers have experienced an interesting and very entertaining examination of what ‘identity’ can mean.

In The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, lawyer Tim Farnsworth is betrayed not by his memory, but by his body: Tim’s ‘condition’ is that, periodically, he will start walking, and be unable to stop voluntarily, or control where he goes; no accurate diagnosis nor effective treatment has been found. The novel begins as Tim’s condition returns, and chronicles several years in his life, as he goes in and out of remission.

Broadly speaking (the distinction I’m going to make here isn’t clear-cut), if the effects of the condition in Numb are mostly ‘internal’ (e.g. issues of personal identity), in The Unnamed, they’re more ‘external’. In one sense, this is quite literally so, as all that walking has taken its toll on Tim’s body – but that’s relatively minor in terms of the novel. More significant is what happens to Tim’s relationships and the lives of his loved ones; for example, his wife Jane find’s Tim’s condition dominating her life, as she’s the one who has to collect him from wherever he ends up after one of his walking spell (the staccato flow of the story, as chapters and scenes begin abruptly with Jane collecting Tim from who-knows-where, conveys this sense of disruption beautifully), and even gave up her job to keep an eye on Tim during his previous bout of the condition; later in the novel, the strain of coping with all this drives Jane to drink. Tim’s relationship with his young daughter, Becka, also comes under stress, because she doesn’t understand why he keeps going off as he does.

All this is not to say, however, that Tim’s condition has no psychological effects on him, because it does. These emerge particularly in the final third of The Unnamed, which is where the novel really takes off stylistically. Tim starts to personify his condition as another entity inhabiting his body; or perhaps that’s how it really is – Ferris maintains a wonderful ambiguity over the matter. And the final section, which drops chapters entirely in a reflection of Tim’s now-chronic walking, reveals just how much he has been transformed by his condition. But even Tim finds a peace of sorts in the final pages; one closes the book feeling that Tim’s story has ended in the right place, for all that the conclusion is bittersweet.

Sean Ferrell’s website
Some other reviews of Numb: Elizabeth A. White; In Lieu of a Field Guide; Boston Book Bums.

Joshua Ferris’s website
Some other reviews of The Unnamed: The Asylum; The Book Lady’s Blog; Reading Matters.

Talking about female writers

There’s been an extensive discussion at Torque Control over the last week about the paucity of women currently being published in British science fiction. I want to do my bit to continue that conversation, and I’ll take as my starting point the magazine that popped through my letterbox a couple of days ago.

Black Static is a horror magazine rather than a science fiction one, but the issues of under-representation/lack of visibility of female writers in the genre are much the same. Black Static can usually be relied upon to highlight the work of female writers; indeed, in its last couple of issues, the magazine has published the twenty short-shorts selected by Christopher Fowler and Maura McHugh for their Campaign for Real Fear, and thirteen of those stories were by women.

In that context, it’s particularly disappointing to note that the current issue contains five stories, all of which are by men. Now, I used to think this didn’t matter with individual issues of magazines (see, for example, my review of Jupiter XXIV, where I don’t mention the all-male line-up) – anthologies, yes, because they make an individual statement; but I was less concerned when it came to issues of magazine, because they could be viewed in the wider context of the magazine’s complete run.

These days, however, I am inclined to think differently: any list of writers or stories makes a statement; to exclude women from a list is to imply that they don’t write that sort of fiction – which is an impression I would never want to encourage. It’s vital for readers, authors, editors, and publishers alike to keep an eye out for things like this, to prevent them from happening, and not let them go unremarked when they do slip through the net.

Going back to the current issue of Black Static, there’s an interview with horror editor Stephen Jones which touches on the subject of female writers in the genre. One of Jones’s comments is another sentiment with which I would have agreed readily at one time, though now I have reservations –  that the quality of the story is of paramount importance, rather than its author’s gender (or what-have-you).

I could agree with this wholeheartedly if the playing-field were level, but the playing-field is not level. Historically, more men have been published than women, and the effects of that filter down. I’ve never selected books on the basis of an author’s gender, but my book collection is still weighted heavily towards male authors, and that’s because there have always been proportionately more books by men around from which I could choose.

I’m well aware that the coverage on this blog is also weighted towards male writers, a situation with which I’m not happy. Whilst I may not be able to remove that bias entirely, what I can do is to make sure that I’m looking for and drawing attention to the work of female writers, of whatever genre. I’d urge others to do the same.

Gary Fry, ‘Strings Attached’ (2010)

Fifty-something Tullis travels to the seaside town where he plans to open his own burger bar; there’s just the little problem of the locals not being too happy about it — and the nagging feeling of a childhood memory just out of reach, which points to something rather disturbing about the theatre annexe that Tullis has bought.

Over the course of these Null Immortalis posts, I’ve talked a couple of times about stories whose elements I’d wish cohered a little more than they do. ‘Strings Attached’ is the opposite: a tale which is all the stronger because its elements don’t quite cohere. Fry hints at something dark, then suggests an explanation; but the events of the story don’t support that explanation fully — and there’s a sense that what’s happening here will not submit to any straightforward analysis, whcih makes the story all the more unsettling.

Rating: ***½

Gary Fry’s website

Tony Lovell, ‘The Shell’ (2010)

Stephen Peters is troubled by vivid dreams of a life he doesn’t recognise with an old woman who is apparently his wife; though she’s not his actual wife, Carla, with whom he’s about to go on holiday in the hope that he can relax for a change. But the cares of life are still nagging at him; and those dreams aren’t going away, either. Lovell’s prose flows nicely, but I don’t think the two strands of the story mesh together as strongly as they might.

Rating: ***½

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