MonthFebruary 2011

Some notes on diversity

This Guardian article by John Mullan, published in advance of Saturday’s Culture Show special on debut novelists, has attracted a fair amount of comment in my corner of the bookish internet; I’ll point you in particular towards posts by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Mike Harrison, and Sam Kelly (thanks to Martin Lewis and Paul Smith for highlighting those links). More from me after the programme has been broadcast, but there is one issue I’d like to address here, which is that all twelve of the novelists selected by Mullan’s panel are white. This has been remarked upon in the comments on the Guardian piece, and Mullan has replied that the judging panel were asked to select books solely on merit. Fair enough, but there is still an issue here.

We are talking about a field which can claim Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro as key figures of the last thirty years; by now, we should be at a stage where we could expect the results of a meritocratic process like this to show some ethnic diversity as a matter of course. The Culture Show‘s process has organically produced a selection which is respectably diverse in terms of gender and age; that it has not done the same in terms of ethnicity is a sign that there’s a problem somewhere. Whether the outcome is an artefact of this particular process or an indicator of something more systemic, I don’t know; either way, it is a cause for concern. I suggest that it would not have been considered acceptable if all the selected authors had been of the same gender; it shouldn’t be acceptable that they’re all white, either.


I blogged last year about an issue of Black Static in which all the stories were by men; having been critical then, it’s only right and proper that I should acknowledge the good work being done in the latest issue. As well as two of the five stories being written by women, the entire book review section has been given over to works by women, as has Peter Tennant’s Case Notes blog for the month of February. Here’s a fine example of a literary institution noticing an issue with its field, and doing something to address it.


The obligatory Clarke Award speculation post

It’s that Clarke Award time of year again, and the list of submissions has been published over at Torque Control, in advance of the shortlist being announced this Friday. Fifty-four titles submitted, and it looks a pretty comprehensive list to me – I can’t think of any books I’ve read that have been undeservedly omitted; and the only other title of which I can think that perhaps should be there Walcot by Brian Aldiss. But it’s a very good pool all the same.

In terms of what may appear on the shortlist, it is a very open field this year. There’s only one title I’d consider a certainty to be shortlisted, and that is Ian McDonald’s excellent The Dervish House. The rest is wide open, though I’d imagine that some titles are more likely to reach the shortlist than others.  Before I make my prediction of the shortlist, I’ll go through what strike me as some of the more notable or unusual submissions.

Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine has had a rather ‘interesting’ publishing history, and only received its debut UK publication last year, despite being originally published in 2004. I haven’t read any of Beckett’s novels, but his short fiction is excellent, and I’d imagine this book is a strong contender.

It’s left to each year’s Clarke jury to decide what constitutes ‘science fiction’ and a ‘novel’; perhaps no title amongst the 2011 submissions would have tested those parameters more than Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, a semi-fictional history of the Soviet planned economy. It has been highly regarded, but will the judges have considered it valid for the Clarke Award?

Joanna Kavenna’s The Birth of Love, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming are all mainstream-published titles which I meant to get around to reading last year but never did. They’ve had mixed reviews, so I’m not sure how the judges will have viewed them; but, if there are going to be any wildcard entries on this year’s shortlist, I suspect these three are the most likely candidates.

Tom McCarthy’s C of course made the Booker shortlist. It’s debatable whether it can be read as sf, but it would certainly be an interesting addition to the shortlist.

Of all the submissions, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the one I’ve previously tried to read and given up on doing so; I just couldn’t get into it. I’m sure it is no coincidence that the book is set in the same world as the story in Pump Six with which I struggled the most. I will give it another go at some point, though; and that’ll be sooner rather than later if it makes the Clarke shortlist.

China Miéville, of all authors, can’t be ruled out of Clarke contention; but still I’d be surprised to see Kraken on the shortlist. I think its claim to being science fiction (rather than fantasy) is more tenuous than for any of his other novels, and too tenuous for it to be a contender. Never say never, but I don’t think it’s likely.

What do I think may be on the shortlist, then? A combination of wishful thinking and what I know of the books and their reputations leads me to suggest the following:

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

Adam Roberts, New Model Army

Tricia Sullivan, Lightborn

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

If you’d like to make your own guess, you can do so here, where anyone who guesses correctly by Wednesday night will win a copy of the entire shortlist.

Behind the scenes at The TV Book Club

Last week, I and several other book bloggers (Simon from Stuck in a Book; Claire from Paperback Reader; Keith from Books and Writers; and Cherry from Cherry Mischievous) were invited to watch an episode of The TV Book Club being filmed – the episode that was broadcast tonight, in fact. This is my little account of the day.

The sofas and chairs of the TV Book Club studio are directly opposite the set of Saturday Kitchen, and it was in front of that programme’s counter that we sat to watch the filming (doing so was what really brought home to me how small the space is; though the actual set of The TV Book Club seemed relatively large from where I was sitting, there really isn’t much more outside of what you see on screen). Two episodes were being filmed that day, and we saw the second – which was actually the first in order of broadcast. So, whilst I would have loved to witness the discussion of Even the Dogs in person, I shall have to wait until next week; today was the turn of Michael Robotham’s Bleed for Me.

Filming of the programme ran more or less in ‘real time’, and the broadcast result was not much different  from what we saw in the studio (apart from the editing-out of the moment where the panel gave too much away about the murderer’s identity in Bleed for Me). Nigel Havers was an excellent guest – great to see someone so enthusiastic about books; Val McDermid’s film, in which she interviewed her forensic anthropologist friend, Sue Black, was interesting; and the discussion engaged enthusiastically with Bleed for Me.

After the filming, we were taken to the gallery to see some of the production work, and then to the green room, where a celebration was held for the birthday of one of the production team. I also had the chance to speak to presenters Jo Brand, Dave Spikey and Meera Syal. All in all, a fine and interesting day; many thanks to The TV Book Club for inviting me along.

Photo courtesy of Specsavers: Our Intrepid Hero peruses Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese; Keith and Cherry are in the background.


The other bloggers’ posts on the day:





W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Episode’ (1947)

A young student falls in love with a postman, much to the consternation of her class-concious parents. Just as they are warming to him, however, he is imprisoned for theft — and the girl resolves to stand by him, whatever the consequence. ‘Episode’ has an effectively abrupt ending; but, on the w’hole, I don’t find it nearly as satisfying as Maugham’s previous entry in the anthology.

Rating: ***

Book notes: Politycki, Skloot, Langford & Grant

Matthias Politycki, Next World Novella (2009/11)

Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella (translated from the German by Anthea Bell) is the latest title from Peirene Press, which would be enough on its own to interest me in reading the book, as I’ve enjoyed all their previous selections. Add to this that it’s a tale with shifting realities, and my interest only increases. Having read it now, though, it didn’t quite work for me, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on why.

Academic Hinrich Schepp finds that his wife Doro has died at her desk, where she has apparently been editing the attempt at a novel that he abandoned years before. Reading the manuscript, Schepp discovers that Doro’s edits constitute a commentary on their marriage, and that his wife was far from as content as he’d assumed.

The beginning of Next World Novella is especially potent, as the reader is a fraction behind Schepp in realising that Doro has died, and anticipates the jolt which is to come. There’s also effective interplay between the gradual unfurling of Doro’s true feelings and Schepp’s inability/reluctance to perceive the truth (e.g. he refuses to acknowledge the extent to which his abandoned novel reflected his own life). Yet I finished the book feeling that I hadn’t quite grasped something about it, and I can’t put into words what that might be. Next World Novella is well worth a look, though.

Interview with Matthias Politycki (Worlds Without Borders)
Next World Novella elsewhere: Just William’s Luck; Cardigangirlverity; The Independent.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

A brilliant fusion of biography, social history, and history of science, that tells a fascinating story. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951; as with other cancer patients at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, a sample of the cells from Henrietta’s tumour was taken, without her knowledge, for research purposes. Those cells were the origin of the HeLa cell line, the first human one to be propagated successfully in the lab (‘immortal’ because they can divide indefinitely in culture). Henrietta’s cells facilitated many medical advances, but it was twenty years before her family even learnt that a sample had been taken.

Remarkable as this story is, it is Skloot’s treatment of it that makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She moves back and forth between time periods and perspectives, weaving together details  of Henrietta’s and her family’s lives; the wider social and scientific contexts; the ethical issues raised by Henrietta’s story; and Skloot’s own experiences meeting and interviewing the Lacks family. There’s great breadth to the material, and Skloot’s control of it is superb. What an engrossing read.

Rebecca Skloot’s website
Interview with Skloot (Wellcome Trust)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks elsewhere: SomeBeans; Savidge Reads; Take Me Away; Lovely Treez Reads.

David Langford and John Grant, Earthdoom! (1987/2003)

A gloriously over-the-top spoof disaster novel featuring all manner of world-ending phenomena which appear on the scene in quick succession: a spacecraft on a collision course with Earth; an antimatter comet on a collision course with Earth; invading aliens; rabid lemmings; the Loch Ness Monster; a time-travelling Hitler who takes advantage of the handy cloning technology he finds on a Devon farm; sentient superglue… You get the idea.

Langford and Grant relentlessly send up the conventions of the disaster novel, with their cast of gung-ho male scientists and impossibly-attractive-yet-brilliant-except-when-the-guys-need-to-show-how-much-better-they-are female scientists; the plot contrivances which are eventually abandoned altogether when it suits; the characters’ helpful-for-the-reader recapping things they already know; and the prose. For example:

Jeb’s [the Devonian farmer] words rang hollow in his ears, not merely because in these grim days his accent was failing to convince even himself. Ambledyke Farmhouse was sealed against the horrors outside, its boarded-up windows blind as proofreaders’ eyyes. The inner dimness throbbed with a stench of ancient, decaying pizza. (p. 121)

Great stuff.

David Langford’s website
John Grant’s website

Frank O’Connor, ‘Peasants’ (1946)

When a young man steals funds from a club, the committee chairman (who’s also parish priest) is determined that he be punished. The rest of the committee, however, don’t want to visit the stigma on the thief’s family, and try to persuade Father Crowley to change his mind. This story explores the complexities of morality, and has a nicely ironic twist at its close. Another good piece from O’Connor, who is one of the writers I’m most pleased to have discovered through this anthology.

Rating: ***½

Book notes: Caldwell, Delius, Harrison

Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point (2011)

Euan Armstrong takes his young family to Bahrain, ostensibly to undertake missionary work; but Euan’s wife Ruth begins to question all that she holds dear when she discovers the true nature of that work. Meanwhile, teenage Noor Hussain has returned to Bahrain from England to live with her father; she has struggled to fit in and is contemplating suicide. But then Noor finds new hope in the person of Ruth, just as Ruth is falling for Noor’s brother Farid.

There are times, particularly towards the beginning, when Caldwell’s description feels over-egged; but The Meeting Point ultimately succeeds because of the elegance with which it portrays its central dynamic. Both Ruth and Noor have unrealistic desires which will inevitably lead them to clash; the progression of those events is thoroughly credible. Caldwell also draws her protagonists deftly; there’s a nice contrast between the broad strokes of Noor’s teenage impulsiveness, and Ruth’s more measured personality. All in all, The Meeting Point is a well-wrought novel that’s very much worth reading.

Lucy Caldwell’s website

Friedrich Christian Delius, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (2006/10)

Another fine novella from Peirene Press, this one translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Margherita is a young German woman who came to Rome to be with her soldier husband Gert, only for him shortly after to be sent to Africa in the aftermath of El Alamein. Now, in 1943, she is alone in Rome, unable to speak Italian, but grateful for the small German enclave which surrounds her. We follow Margherita as she makes her way to a Bach concert, and reflects on her situation.

At a structural level, Portrait of the Mother is masterful, as its 117 pages comprise a single sentence. The affect of this is of a constant unspooling of thought and detail, with certain ideas recurring throughout. Delius captures particularly well Margherita’s naivety, and the irony underpinning it: insulated as she is her little bubble, she can’t comprehend the difficulties faced by ordinary Roman citizens; she’s sure that everything will be fine with Gert, just as she is sure that Rome would never be a target for bombing… Delius’s Portrait is a sharp character study.

M. John Harrison, The Ice Monkey (1983)

One of my reading resolutions for this year is to get around to reading something by M. John Harrison, who has been on my TBR list for rather longer than I’d have liked. I decided to start with collection of seven short stories, which has proven very interesting to read.

The title story sees Harrison’s narrator, Spider, who takes his friend Jones to visit the latter’s estranged ex-wife, Maureen – it doesn’t go well. Later, Jones and Spider go climbing on Ben Nevis, and that ends in tragedy. This piece sets a certain tone that carries through much of the rest of the anthology – many characters have similarly broken lives, for example – but there’s also continuity at a deeper, more structural level. The ending of ‘The Ice Monkey’ reads to me like a formal parody of a horror story, as it goes through the motions of hinting at a supernatural agency without actually doing so with any conviction – as though to emphasise that the mess-ups in the story have very human and natural causes, and there is no escape into the possibility of ‘magic’.

A deliberate turning-away from the fantastic seems integral to the affect of Harrison’s stories, here, as rituals and other strange happenings remain as mysterious to reader and characters alike at the end of a piece as they were at the beginning. In that respect, I’m reminded of when, last year, I read Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, whose aesthetic is also ‘anti-explanatory’ – though I find Harrison’s tales embody their aesthetic  more thoroughly.

The Ice Monkey is perhaps best summed up for me by its final sentences. In the closing story, ‘Egnaro’ is the name of a secret place which is heard fleetingly by various of its characters. Where other tales might uncover the truth of that place, Egnaro remains no more than a whisper’ As the story’s narrator remarks:

The secret is meaningless before you know it: and…worthless when you do. If Egnaro is the substrate of mystery which underlies all daily life, then the reciprocal of this is also true, and it is the exact dead point of ordinariness which lies beneath every mystery. (p. 144)

My key lasting impression of the stories in The Ice Monkey is that they highlight such ordinariness. Now I look forward to reading Harrison’s Viriconium, to find out if that impression will remain.

Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’ (1945)

In the autumn of 1944, Gavin Doddington returns to the seaside town and the ivy-choked house where he spent many months as a child with his mother’s friend, Lilian Nicholson. Bowen creates an effective contrast between the different states of the house in her story’s past and present; and I particularly like her portrait of the town of Southstone as having had the last of its life squeezed out of it by its use as a military base (the prospect of an Allied victory has ironically been the town’s undoing, as all the soldiers have left, and with them the town’s purpose). However, these are quite small parts of a long story, and I found most of the rest dull to read. It doesn’t inspire me to read more of Bowen’s work.

Rating: **½

Penguin Mini Modern Classics: Saki and O’Connor

Saki, Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped (2011)
Frank O’Connor, The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland (2011) 

It is the fiftieth anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics and, to mark the occasion, Penguin are launching the ‘Mini Moderns’, a series of pocket-sized story collections and novellas. Fifty titles are published tomorrow and, this week, twenty-five bloggers will each be reviewing two of them. I am one of those of bloggers; my titles are by Saki and Frank O’Connor.

I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to classic literature, so when I do read and review it, it’s very much in an exploratory spirit. One of my projects so far this year has been to read an anthology of early twentieth-century short stories. Saki and O’Connor are both writers I’ve read in that anthology, of whose work I’d like to read more; so, although I didn’t request them specifically, I was pleased to receive these two Mini Modern collections. I think it’s an ideal format for discovering a new writer: long enough to gain a substantial impression of the author’s work, short enough to give one room to explore further.


Both collections begin with a title story that more or less sets the tone for what is to come. Saki’s volume goes by the wonderful title of Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped. Its eponymous story, barely five pages in length, is a satire based around advertising; Filboid Studge is a vile breakfast food that nobody buys; the ‘mouse that helped’ is Mark Spayley, a poor artist who wishes to marry the daughter of Filboid Studge’s manufacturer, and may get his chance – if, that is, he can devise a successful campaign for the product. And Spayley’s campaign is successful: Filboid Studge flies off the shelves, and is eaten stoically, because the campaign makes people feel they should eat it, and ‘people will do things from a sense of duty which they would never attempt as a pleasure’ (p. 3). So, Spayley will have his wish… won’t he?

Two things which stand out for me in this story, and which I see reflected in Filboid Studge’s other tales, are a satirical eye for people’s behaviour, and a closing twist of fate. The former is perhaps best illustrated by ‘Tobermory’, in which a cat is taught to speak and reveals more about the assembled human company than they would wish; but it’s also there in the doggerel recited in ‘The Recessional’, whose would-be poet naturally thinks is brilliant. Then there is a sense of fate giving characters their comeuppance in stories like ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’, whose eponymous society lady wishes to shoot a tiger purely for the purposes of outdoing her rival in terms of display – and it doesn’t work out quite how she intended; or ‘Sredni Vashtar, in which a young boy makes a god out of his pet ferret, and prays for revenge against his overly strict guardian.

Throughout, there’s a great sense of glee to Saki’s prose; one imagines these stories would be excellent candidates for reading aloud. I suspect that Saki’s work is best dipped into rather than read en masse, but I found the seven stories in Filboid Studge a fine sampler.


There are four stories in Frank O’Connor’s The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland, all of which, in their different ways, look at the effect of broader social forces on the lives of ordinary individuals. The cornet-player of the title story is Mick Twomey, the only supporter of William O’Brien in a brass band whose other members support O’Brien’s rival political leader, John Redmond; normally, they put their differences aside in the name of music – but now the band is due to play at a reception for a visit by Redmond, and relations between Mick and his bandmates change irrevocably. O’Connor’s focus here is firmly on his characters, with the politics more in the background (his narrator is Mick’s son, who understands little more than that his neighbourhood is in favour of O’Brien and against Redmond); there’s a gradual, grinding – and thoroughly believeable – inevitability to the way Mick and the band become estranged.

The three other stories in the collection retain this focus on character, but in rather different contexts. ’First Confession’ is the lightest in tone, as a seven-year-old boy gives confession for the first time, and his sister – who was taunting him over the possible consequences – is infuriated to find that the outcome is not what she’d expected. ‘Guests of the Nation’ tells of two Irish soldiers who have befriended their English prisoners, despite the knowledge that the order to execute them may come at any time;  O’Connor draws an effective contrast between the impersonal orders being issued by commanders, and the reality of the soldiers’ lives ‘on the ground’. The final piece, ‘A Story by Maupassant’, is perhaps the most intensely focused on character of all in its depiction of a man who comes to realise that his life has become the very thing at which he laughed dismissively as a child.

I’ve enjoyed exploring the work of both O’Connor and Saki in these collections, looking beyond the individual stories. I have no doubt that I’ll be reading both authors again, and seeing what else there is to discover in this series.

I’m going to link here to all the other Mini Moderns blogs, as I come across them.

Farm Lane Books reviews Stefan Zweig and Rudyard Kipling.

Bookgeeks reviews Ian Fleming.

Gaskella reviews H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Coover.

Curious Book Fans reviews Jean Rhys and Joseph Conrad.

Leyla Sanai reviews Vladimir Nabokov.

The Bookbag reviews P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker.

Savidge Reads reviews Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson.

Asylum reviews Saul Bellow.

Eve’s Alexandria reviews Eileen Chang.

Novel Insights reviews Truman Capote and Ludmilla Petrushevskya.

Stuck in a Book reviews E.M. Forster and Primo Levi.

Park Benches & Bookends reviews D.H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry.

Lizzy’s Literary Life reviews G.K. Chesterton and Angela Carter.

Reader, I Read It reviews Samuel Beckett and Raymond Chandler.

Charles Lambert reviews H.G. Wells and M.R. James.

For Books’ Sake reviews Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter.

Fleur Fisher reviews Kingsley Amis and James Joyce.

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010)

I’ve known of Aimee Bender’s name for a while, but couldn’t have told you where I first heard it, or anything much about her writing. However, I’m always interested in books where the fantastic intrudes on the everyday, and how could I not want to read a novel with such a brilliant title as The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? So I read it and, happily, was not disappointed.

Rose Edelstein is just about to turn nine years old when she tries a piece of the birthday cake her mother has made and discovers that, underneath the flavours of lemon and chocolate, it tastes hollow: ‘My mother’s able hands had made the cake…but she was not there, in it.’ This is Rose’s first experience of her talent: when she eats something, she can detect the feelings of the person who made it; which is how she knows that her mother is troubled, and how, years later, she can tell that her mother is having an affair.

There are tensions within Rose’s family – her mother and father are not in love as they were; her brother Joseph absorbs himself in school and college work, thereby distancing himself from the others – and the girl’s new ability lays the roots of some of those tensions bare for her. This leads to Rose’s having a troubled relationship with food – at one point, she even wishes that she could have her mouth removed, and takes refuge in factory-made foods, which don’t taste so personal – and this is what makes Bender’s novel so elegant: that its fantastic elements work both literally and metaphorically at the same time.

For example, interpret Rose’s talent literally, and she doesn’t want to eat her mother’s cooking because she can’t bear to taste the sadness with which it was made – and the rest of her eating habits are similarly shaped by this magical ability. But another way of looking at Rose’s situation is to say that she has an eating disorder, and that her attitude to food is how she responds to the tensions at home – the effects on Rose’s relationships with other people are much the same either way. Similarly, Joseph gains the ability to vanish and reappear at will; and this can also be taken at face value, or read as a boy withdrawing into his own little world as a coping mechanism.

This theme of abilities and actions having both literal and representational roles extends beyond the supernatural into the more mundane aspects of Bender’s narrative.  Rose’s grandmother is a distant figure whose relationship to her family is represented in the novel by the parcels she sends to Rose’s household, which are less gifts than cast-offs (‘mailing her life away’, as Rose puts it). Another example is the hobby of carpentry that Rose’s mother takes up: she meets Larry, the man with whom she has an affair, at her carpentry group; and so the hobby becomes both a constant in her life and a symbol of the Edelstein family’s problems. This, perhaps, is why Rose is so keen to hang on to the tatty old footstool that brought her parents together, because to accept a new one made by her mother would be tantamount to approving the affair.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a carefully detailed and nuanced portrait of a family in crisis and a girl trying to come to terms with her situation. It uses fantasy to wonderful effect, making it both tangential and central at the same time. Magical stuff, in more ways than one.

Aimee Bender’s website
An excerpt and interview at Leite’s Culinaria
Chris Kammerud reviews the book for Strange Horizons

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