MonthApril 2011

Clarke Award 2011: And the winner is…

The 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award has been presented to Lauren Beukes for her novel Zoo City.

Beukes becomes the first woman to win the Clarke Award since 2002, and the first author from outside the UK and North America to do so since 1997.

I must admit I didn’t see that result coming, but such is the nature of the Clarke. Zoo City is a fine book, and I hope this win brings more attention to the work of Lauren Beukes, a writer who I’m sure is set to build a fascinating body of work in the years ahead.

Index of my 2011 Clarke Award posts

Book and story notes: Egan, Jilla, Allan

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)

A combination of very recent UK publication (the end of March) and continued acclaim (most recently the Pultizer) means that this book has appeared quite suddenly on my radar; and, when I came to read it, I knew that it had been highly regarded, but not really what it was about. Now that I’ve finished it, I think A Visit From the Goon Squad is worth reading, but can’t see that it’s so excellent as to deserve all the plaudits.

The focus of Egan’s novel is a cluster of characters centred on a music mogul named Bennie Salazar, and his assistant Sasha. I say a ‘cluster’ because each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, at a different point in time, and we’ll see particular characters only in certain chapters (sometimes centrally, sometimes tangentially). The main theme is time (the ‘goon squad’ of the title), and how its passing changes people and crushes their dreams (‘I don’t know what happened to me,’ says one character to Bennie. ‘You grew up, Alex,’ he replies, ‘just like the rest of us’). The non-linear structure is particularly effective at showing this: without the imposition of the usual chronological order, one is encouraged to consider different stages of characters’ lives at the same time, as it were.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is also written in a multiplicity of styles; and, in general, those styles work well (even at their most unusual, such as a chapter in the form of Powerpoint slides). But I finished the novel that it didn’t have that extra spark that would life it out of the ‘good’ bracket and into the ‘great’.

Link: Jennifer Egan’s website.

Shireen Jilla, Exiled (2011)

Anna Weitzman is happy with her life in New York, married to Jessie, a British diplomat. But then a series of misunderstandings and minor incidents draws into question Anna’s ability as a mother to her young son Joshua, and the boy is placed under the guardianship of Jessie’s American stepmother Nancy, a wealthy socialite. As the life Anna knew begins to unravel, she becomes convinced that Nancy is behind it all.

What Shireen Jilla does particularly well in Exiled is create the unsettling sense of life slipping out of one’s control, as Anna struggles to navigate the increasingly treacherous waters in which she finds herself without really understanding how she got there. The great contrast between the world of New York and Anna’s old life in rural Kent is vividly drawn (for example, when Josh takes head-lice into his private school, what would have been accepted as a routine occurrence back in England now requires a specialist company to come in and treat her entire apartment). One feels Anna’s disorientation as she tries to understand the social forces working against her.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the ending, which unpicks the knots of uncertainty and confusion that have been created; but I guess it’s part of the nature of the story Jilla is telling that that must happen. Whatever, Exiled is well worth a read for the journey, and a fine debut for Shireen Jilla.

Links: Quartet Books; Shireen Jilla’s website.

Nina Allan, ‘The Silver Wind’ (2011)

A new novella (published in issue 233 of Interzone) from a writer who always seems to have a refreshing take on the fantastic;‘The Silver Wind’ is no exception to that, as it takes some well-worn ideas and images and fashions them into something quite distinctive.

In a UK under the harsh rule of a nationalist dictatorship, Martin is a London estate agent who hears about Owen Andrews, a clockmaker who allegedly worked with the army on experiments involving time travel. Martin goes to see Andrews, thinking (or so he tells himself) that he might be able to find out how to avert the accidental death of his wife Miranda. But really he wants to know about Andrews, and discovers firstly that it’s not ‘time travel’ as such which is possible, but travel into different versions of reality; and secondly, that research into this phenomenon is ongoing, in a nearby military hospital. Martin goes out into the overgrown woods of Shooter’s Hill, is found by soldiers, and taken to that very hospital…

What is most striking to me about ‘The Silver Wind’ is the way that Allan roots even her most outlandish imaginings firmly in quotidian reality. The societal changes of the background are sketched in believably, and anchored by Allan’s very specific sense of place. Against this background, more preposterous concepts like time travel, and even archetypal images from fantasy and fairytale (such as the forest haunted by monsters – here occupied by escaped subjects from the hospital, who have been twisted by the experiments), become plausible because they are so firmly placed in context.

‘The Silver Wind’ is a very down-to-earth treatment of a theme that one might expect to be handled in precisely the opposite way (I haven’t really discussed the plotting, which is also strikingly low-key). One gains a sense of Allan as a writer firmly in command of her material and doing her own thing, which is a very exciting sense.

Link: Interzone.

Philip Palmer, Version 43 (2010)

Version 43 is a novel of vast, widescreen scope. It is constantly pulling back its focus to reveal a wider stage for its action. It is also full of incident and rarely pauses for breath. And yet… it seems rather less engaging than one might anticipate.

Philip Palmer’s third novel takes us to the planet Belladonna, and more specifically to Bompasso, more commonly known as Lawless City, thanks to its being run by criminal gangs. The only way to reach this world is via quantum teleportation, a process with only a 50% chance of survival; the scrambled bodies of five medics would seem to suggest that, somehow, the technology is now being used as a weapon. Sent to investigate this is our narrator, a Galactic Cop, once human, now a cyborg in his 43rd iteration; he is immensely powerful and unwavering in the pursuit of his mission – which turns out to have a much larger context than he first thought.

Alongside the main narrative, we follow the Hive-Rats, a species bent on conquest, controlled by a hive-mind of the species they have absorbed, and able to alter the flow of time (and hence to subjectively speed up their evolution in response to any obstacle). Eventually, the two story-strands intersect, giving the Cop even more to contend with.

An ever-expanding canvas like this would seem to lend itself naturally to an exciting sf adventure story but, in this case, I find that the combination of the plot’s great scope and the Cop’s detached viewpoint instead distances one from the action. It becomes difficult to care about what’s happening, partly because individual dramas get lost in the throng and partly because the Cop doesn’t care – his directive is all and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt or killed along the way; there are a few moments of introspection where the Cop starts to wonder about the ethics of what he is doing but they don’t change the overall affect of the story.

Even on a scene-by-scene basis, the action is not particularly involving. It feels like watching one video-game fight sequence after another, without the immersion; this impression is reinforced by the episodic structure of Version 43, which sees the Cop repeatedly destroyed then regenerated as a new version; as he remarks towards the end: “They could keep killing me; I would keep being reborn; it would be a long slow game of attrition.” Quite so – and that, I think, is part of the problem.

There’s a certain amount of interest generated by the sheer amount of plot, as one wonders just how Palmer is going to resolve everything. And the squabbling between the Minds of the Hive-Rats is quite entertaining. Overall, however, Version 43 is not a great read.

This review first appeared in Vector 266, Spring 2011.

Book notes: Connell, Jones, Thomas

Rebecca Connell, Told in Silence (2010)

Rebecca Connell’s second novel, Told in Silence, is a portrait of a family with secrets; no one is all that they appear to be to others. Violet Mason was eighteen, working as a legal secretary and just about to start university, when she fell in love with – and married – a thirty-year-old lawyer named Jonathan Blackwood. Now twenty-one, Violet is a widow, living with Jonathan’s parents, Harvey and Laura, and making tentative steps towards regaining a normal life. Then, at Harvey’s birthday party, an old friend of Jonathan’s, the darkly attractive Max Croft, arrives on the scene; Violet finds herself drawn to Croft, but he brings with him a suggestion that Jonathan’s death may not have been accidental, as Violet believes – and that someone close to home may be responsible.

Told in Silence turns on the gradual revelation of new sides to characters and their relationships, first in Violet’s narration of the present day (and flashbacks to her life with Jonathan), then in Harvey’s written account addressed to his son. It begins with Violet herself, who presents a determinedly ordinary face to the world, one that masks all she has been through. The Blackwoods are not quite the happy couple that Violet sees. Jonathan may be the character of whom we see the most sides, even though (or perhaps because) we always encounter him at one remove. Connell’s unfurling of her characters’ secrets keeps the pages turning and builds up her novel’s momentum, which then leads with a certain amount of inevitability towards an ending that’s both open and quite apposite. Told in Silence is a tense read that asks how sure we can be that we truly know someone.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Link: Rebecca Connell’s website

Cynan Jones, Everything I Found on the Beach (2011)

Hold is a Welsh fisherman, trying his best to help out Cara and Jake, the widow and son of his late friend Danny. The chance discovery of a body on the shore presents him with a risky opportunity, for the dead man was carrying packages of drugs; Hold decides to go ahead and deliver them, so he can use the money for Jake’s and Cara’s benefit. Alongside Hold’s story, we read of Grzegorz, a Polish man who came to Britain hoping to improve his lot, but now stuck working in a slaughterhouse and picking cockles to make ends meet for his young family; and we follow the criminals heading for Hold, who have doubts and worries of their own.

Everything I Found on the Beach is a quiet book, muted of palette and careful in its use of detail. The depictions of place seem to have had the specificity wrung out of them, which contrasts effectively with the very precise depictions of process – and appropriately so, because what the characters are doing is more significant to them than where they are. Cynan Jones establishes some interesting points of comparison between the lives of his characters: the methodical nature of Hold’s work as a fisherman finds echoes in both Grzegorz’s job at the slaughterhouse and life in his shared home, though the two men’s attitudes towards their situations are subtly different. Likewise, while Hold is questioning whether he really wants to go through with delivering the drugs, the criminals themselves are examining their place in the world.

All in all, Everything I Found on the Beach is a quietly evocative study of lives changed by some drastic choices.

Link: Parthian Books

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook (2010)

Jacob Smith is a police firearms officer with a foundering marriage, a steroid addiction, and aggressive tendencies. Unable to save the victim of a car crash, Jake takes his frustrations out on a drunk he’s arrested for a public order offence, which is what first brings him to the attention of his senior officers. As time goes on, Jake faces growing pressure; he’s being investigated for his behaviour at work, his dealer wants paying, and Jake’s erratic personal life sees him lusting after at least three women other than his wife. Something has to give… and indeed it does.

Pocket Notebook is a simply stunning debut from Mike Thomas, himself a serving police officer. The rapid-fire narrative style captures superbly the whirlwind of thoughts inside Jake’s mind, painting the officer as a man constantly on edge. Thomas intersperses Jake’s narration with extracts from the regulation notebook in which he records his activities; this device creates an effective contrast between the chaotic energy of Jake’s thoughts and the more formal structure of the notebook – a structure occasionally (and increasingly) interrupted by reminders that Jake is not the fine upstanding copper he appears (or did at first) to the outside world.

Yet, for all that he may be an antihero, Jake is not an entirely unsympathetic character. We see that he does have admirable qualities, such as concern that some of the people he encounters don’t mess up their lives; it’s just that Jake is so far gone down the road he has taken that those qualities can’t hope to balance the darker aspects of his nature. And it is the latter that Thomas portrays so well as Jake loses his grip on reality, convinced all the while that what he does makes sense. Thomas draws the reader so fully into his protagonist’s mindset that it takes a while to adjust after leaving Jake’s side. Pocket Notebook marks Mike Thomas out as a major new voice whose work deserves our attention.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Link: Video interview with Mike Thomas

Clarke Award 2011: in review

When it was first announced, I speculated that we had a very strong Clarke Award shortlist this year, with no duds. Now that I’ve read the list entirely, I regret to say it is not so; the book I want to jettison first, Tim Powers’ Declare, falls squarely into the please-oh-please-anything-but-this category. To explain why I think it shouldn’t win, I could suggest that the thought of a ten-year-old book winning the Clarke, technically eligible though it may be, strikes me as rather odd. I could also suggest that Declare shouldn’t win because it is science fiction by only the most tenuous of definitions. But I don’t have to do either of those in the end, because Declare puts itself out of the running for me simply by being a poor novel. True, there is some interest, some effective pieces of fantastication, in its hybrid of fantasy and Cold War spy thriller; but all that is buried in far too much clumsily-deployed research which thickens the narrative until it becomes unpalatably stodgy. I really don’t see that Declare merits a place on the Clarke shortlist, let alone the top spot.

Although I’ve read all six shortlisted titles, there are two I had hoped to re-read before the Clarke announcement. I haven’t had, and won’t now get, the opportunity to do so, which means I’ll have to rely on my original impressions for those books, which are the next two I’d remove from consideration. I didn’t quite know what to make of Tricia Sullivan’s Lightbornwhen I read it last year; though I liked the book and remain glad to have read it, there were aspects of it, large and small, that I couldn’t puzzle out (the decision to set it in an alternate present rather than the future, to name just one). The Torque Control discussion of Lightborn suggested to me that Sullivan’s novel was riffing off quite a few things that were outside my sphere of knowledge, so it might well be the case that I’m missing the key that would otherwise unlock the book for me. But I don’t think Lightborn comes together well enough to win the Clarke, and my sense is that knowing more about the novel’s  reference points wouldn’t change that opinion drastically, so out of the balloon it goes.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness is the only title here which I didn’t really read with a critical eye. I loved The Knife of Never Letting Go when I read it in 2009; read the sequel  later that year, and, though I liked it,  didn’t think it quite as successful and did not review it; then read this final volume of Chaos Walking towards the end of last year, not expecting to write about it. That makes my opinion of Monsters of Men more tentative than those of the other books; for what it’s worth, my impression of the novel is that it has the same narrative energy and brilliant use of voice as its predecessors – and that it creates a stronger sense of otherness than any other book on the shortlist – but it doesn’t have the thematic depth of The Knife of Never Letting Go. I’ll acknowledge that I may be seriously misjudging Monsters of Men here, but I would take it out of contention at this point.

Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City is a fine portrait of a place, namely a version of Johannesburg in which those who have transgressed (the exact criteria for which are unknown) gain an animal familiar and a special ability. Whatever impression that description might give, though, Zoo City is the least overtly fantastical work on the shortlist; Beukes is far less concerned with displaying the fantastical phenomenon than with examining the world that has emerged from it, and she does that latter superbly. The ending is the novel’s weak point, but the journey to that point is strong enough to make up for it. I’m pretty sure that Lauren Beukes will win the Clarke one year, but I don’t think it will be this year – simply because two books on the shortlist are even better.

Now it gets really difficult. Generosity by Richard Powers is in many ways a wonderful book, with its examination of the intersection between science, humanity, and stories (in a neat example of how artificial is the divide between sf and ‘mainstream’ fiction, Generosity is the only mainstream-published title on the shortlist, yet also the most overtly ‘scientific’), and its exploration of ethics, as a woman has to decide whether to sell her genes, which may hold the secret to human happiness. Generosity contains some beautiful writing, and leaves one with a great deal to think over. It would surely be a worthy Clarke winner, yet the story is not quite as strong as the themes, and there’s another book in which it is

So, finally, to The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. In its portrait of a near-future Istanbul, it has a brilliant sense of place, like Zoo City; in its examination of systems beneath and beyond the world as experienced in individual lives, it has a thematic richness like that of Generosity. But both aspects of The Dervish House are richer than those of the other books; and McDonald’s novel combines them with a stronger narrative and better prose. The Dervish House is a superlative novel, the fullest achievement on the Clarke shortlist. Whilst I’d be happy enough to see any of the books bar Declare take the Award – whilst all five of those novels are worth reading – it’s ian McDonald whose novel I think most deserves the Clarke, and his name which I hope will be read out at the ceremony next Wednesday.

Further Clarke shortlist round-ups (to be expanded as I come across them):
Niall Harrison
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons: Part 1; Part 2.

Tim Powers, Declare (2000/1)

For many years, Tim Powers’ work has largely been out of print in the UK, but that began to change in 2010, when Corvus gave Powers’s novel Declare its first UK edition, which quirk of publishing explains how a ten-year-old book ended up as a contender for the Clarke Award. It felt a little odd to see Declare so nominated, but I was optimistic because I’d read and liked a couple of Powers’ novels previously; Declare won the World Fantasy Award, which I’ve generally found a reliable indicator of good fiction; and the Clarke judges had made fine selections elsewhere in the shortlist. I pretty much took it for granted that we had six strong nominees this year.

Well, now I’ll have to eat those words, because I simply cannot see that this book stands up to any of the other shortlisted titles.

One of the hallmarks of Tim Powers’ fiction is the taking the fantastic and slotting it into the gaps in reality to create an alternative and hidden history of the world; in Declare, the author does this against the background of the Cold War. In 1963, a British former (or so he thought) spy named Andrew Hale is reactivated to complete Operation Declare, the previously failed mission to attack the djinns of Mount Ararat.

Declare is a very long book – 560 B-format pages of close-set type in the edition I have – and the key problem it has is being overly stiff with research for much of that length.  Overall, I find it a very slow read (not ideal for a book which is part spy thriller), because so much detail is crammed in at the expense of pacing. Actually, come to that, the general stodginess of Declare makes it difficult to appreciate most other aspects of the novel. For example, there’s a proper sense of otherworldliness in some of the scenes featuring djinns (made particularly interesting by the matter-of-fact tone of delivery), but the impact is diluted by all the less effective surrounding material – the more conventionally ‘spy-thrillerish’ sequences don’t work nearly as well for me.

Perhaps if I knew more about, or were more interested in, the details of Kim Philby’s life (around which Powers has constructed the supernatural framework of his novel) – or if I’d read John Le Carré – I might appreciate more of what Powers is doing in the book. But it does seem to me that Declare is too content to assume that sort of interest on the part of its readers, rather than trying to generate it – hence the profusion on detail.

It’s been a while since I read Last Call and The Drawing of the Dark, but I don’t remember their being a chore to read; Declare, on the other hand, was just that.

Tim Powers website

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Orange Prize shortlist 2011

So, the shortlist of this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction has been announced, and it is:

Emma Dooghue, Room

Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love

Emma Henderson, Grace Williams Says It Loud

Nicole Krauss, Great House

Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife

Kathleen Winter, Annabel

My reaction? Well, Room is the only one of these that I’ve read (indeed, the only book on the whole longlist that I’ve read), and I thought it was good, so fair play to it. The Tiger’s Wife was already on my radar, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it (which I will get around to doing soon, honest). The Memory of Love wasn’t on my radar — and, judging by its synopsis (the lives of an English psychologist, a surgeon, and a patient reflecting on his past, intersect in Sierra Leone), is not something I would instinctively pick up — but I loved Forna’s entry in the BBC National Short Story Award last year, so I may well take a look at it.

I don’t have any experience of the three other authors’ works, so I can only go by how they sound to me. Grace Williams Says It Loud is a  love story between two people who were placed in a psychiatric institution; I’ve come across a brief extract, which I thought  well-written. I know Krauss received great acclaim for The History of Love, but the idea of Great House (three lives linked by the same desk) strikes me as potentially too gimmicky, and the excerpt I’ve read didn’t especially grab me. Annabel concerns a hermaphrodite in remote Canada; I suspect the quality of the prose will be key to the success of this book, and the extract I found was promising, very precise in its detail.

The winner of the Orange Prize will be announced on Wednesday 8 June.

Review Response Bingo

As a bit of fun, I thought I’d put together a list of responses that negative reviews sometimes generate (I have seen, or heard about, variations on all of these). Eyes down for the full house…

It’s just your opinion. You are jealous of the author. What are your qualifications? You are overthinking. You don’t understand the genre.
You don’t appreciate how much time and effort the author put in. You make unreasonable demands of the book. How many novels have you written? I don’t care about good writing; I just want to be entertained. You want to appear smarter than you are.
You don’t know good books. You have a vendetta. Who reviews the reviewers? You are just trying to prove that you are cleverer than the author. You are being deliberately contrarian to satisfy your ego.
You should be grateful to the author for having written the book. You really need to have read the other books in the series. Look at all these 5* reviews of the book! If you had read the book properly, you would see that… You shouldn’t be critical.

Notable books: April 2011

It may be the first of April, but I’m not joking when I say that I am looking forward to the following books this month.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man

Bennett’s first novel, Mr Shivers, was one of my favourite reads of last year, a really smart fusion of fantasy, horror and historical fiction. His new book is a tale of industrial corruption set in 1919, and I look forward to reading it very much.

John Boyne, The Thief of Time

A reissue of Boyne’s 2000 debut novel about an unageing man who has lived since the eighteenth century.

Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf

A werewolf novel, yes, but one published by Canongate, who can usually be relied upon to have interesting books. True, this is pretty flimsy reasoning; but Canongate published an interesting vampire novel last year in The Radleys, so why not?

Sebastian Fitzek, Splinter

Sounds intriguing – a man loses his wife in a car crash, then finds her alive but with no idea who he is, just as he seems to be slipping out of (or losing his grip on) reality.

Shehan Karunatilaka, Chinaman [link is to PDF extract]

I read an extract from this novel, about a dying journalist’s quest to find a missing cricketer, when I was going through the Waterstone’s 11 — and was absolutely blown away by the prose. There is no question that I’ll be reading this as soon as possible.

Sam Leith, The Coincidence Engine [link is to PDF extract]

Another of the Watertsone’s 11 that I want to read, though this time it’s the concept (it features the ‘Directorate of the Extremely Improbable’) that attracts me most.

Paul Murray, An Evening of Long Goodbyes

Skippy Dies was one of the very best books I read last year, so I certainly want to read this, his 2003 debut, now being republished.

Monique Roffey, Sun Dog

Another new edition of a debut, this one from 2002. August Chalmin has an affinity with the weather, one day discovering frost on his arm…

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

This debut novel takes us to the 1980s of an alternate England in which secularists have been banished to an offshore island. I first heard about The Godless Boys when Wood was on a panel for Picador Day at Foyles last May, and now I get my chance to read it.

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