MonthOctober 2011

October wrap-up

Book of the Month

This month, I read the winners of both the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize. The latter won out for me, so my pick of October’s reads is King Crow, Michael Stewart’s intriguing study of a teenage boy obsessed with birds, who gets led astray by a new friend.

Now here’s what else was on the blog this month…





One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five (again!)

Simon from Stuck in a Book has posted another edition of the reading-snapshot meme he created in May. I enjoyed answering it the first time, so I thought I’d do it again; as you’ll see, it is a full house of 2011 titles for me.

1) The book I’m currently reading

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man

Bennett’s first novel, Mr Shivers, was one of my favourite reads of 2010, so naturally I have high hopes for this sophomore effort. I’m a little too early on in The Company Man to say firmly what it’s like, but so far it is an intriguing noir-ish novel set in an alternate 1919 with more advanced technology.

2) The last book I finished

The Guardian Review Book of Short Stories

Free with yesterday’s Guardian, this is an anthology of eleven original shorts from writers including Margaret Atwood, William Trevor, and Audrey Niffenegger. It’s a very diverse selection that almost certainly does have something for everyone. I particularly liked the stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Mohsin Hamid.

3) The next book I want to read

Helen Gordon, Landfall

It was way back in March when I saw Gordon read from her debut novel at the Penguin General bloggers’ evening. Between that and the blurb of Landfall, which promises “one of the most surprising and destabilizing endings you’ll have ever read, I’m keen to read the book as soon as possible.

4) The last book I bought

Ian R. MacLeod, Wake Up and Dream

I haven’t bought any books since FantasyCon at the start of the month, so I had to think back to work out which was the last. MacLeod’s follow-up to the Clarke-winning Song of Time imagines Clark Gable as a private eye in a ’40s Hollywood where the movies can be transmitted directly into your brain. That makes two books out of five on my list which are noir fantastications — quite an odd coincidence.

5) The last book I was given

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

A big thank-you to Bianca Winter for very kindly sending me her copy of this year’s Booker winner, which was also the subject of my latest review.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)

So this is the Booker winner: a slim meditation on the fallibility of memory and the limits to how much one person can know of another. It may or may not have been the best title on the Booker shortlist; it surely wasn’t the best novel that was eligible for this year’s prize, and I doubt it is the pinnacle of Julian Barnes’s fiction – but, taken on its own terms, The Sense of an Ending is a perfectly fine piece of work.

Our narrator is retiree Tony Webster, who spends the book’s first third giving us a potted history of his life as he remembers it, or at least of those parts most relevant to the story at hand. Tony recalls becoming friends with the serious-minded and brilliant Adrian Finn at school, and later falling in love with a girl named Veronica Ford at university. Tony never quite felt at ease with Veronica, felt when he met her family for a brief weekend that he was being judged as inadequate – and it wasn’t too long before Veronica called off the relationship and started seeing Adrian Finn. At the age of 22, Adrian killed himself; why was not clear, but the notes he left suggest that he’d reached his decision through a typically logical thought process.

In the present day, Tony has not had any contact with Veronica or her family for many years, but receives a lawyer’s letter indicating that her mother Sarah has died and bequeathed him a small sum of money, and a document which, Tony learns, is Adrian Finn’s diary. That diary, however, is currently being held by Veronica; Tony sets out to make contact with her and find out what’s in the diary, how Sarah Ford came to have it, and why she might now have given it to him. Whatever answers Tony might imagine those questions to have, the reality of them still takes him by surprise.

As he begins his reflections, Tony observes that what we remember of the past may not be what actually happened, and we see the optimistic certainties of his schooldays give way to the realisation in later life of how little he knows, and concomitant speculation on what might have happened in the gaps:

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. (p. 80)

The present-day Tony certainly does invent pasts for others: when he makes initial contact with Veronica’s brother Jack, Tony imagines the path which the young man he met briefly might have taken to become the person now suggested by his emails. This relatively insignificant speculation becomes something more serious when Tony tries to work out what may have happened between Veronica and Adrian, when the former is so unforthcoming, and the latter forever frozen in time as that brilliant young man. And the truth, of both others’ pasts and Tony’s own, remain slippery to the protagonist.

‘What did I know of life,’ asks Tony, ‘I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him?’ (p. 142) Maybe not so much about other people’s lives, given everything he learns; but Tony certainly knows something of the shape of life, and how we come to see and understand (or not to understand) it. Furthermore (though he may not realise it), Tony has complexities of his own analogous to those of the people from his past, in that the way he presents himself is not everything we see him to be.

Barnes’s novel is a little too essayistic at times in the way it treats Tony’s ruminations; but, as a whole, The Sense of an Ending embodies its concerns well. I’m pleased that its Booker listing (and subsequent win) brought the book to my attention.

Julian Barnes’s website
Some other reviews of The Sense of an Ending: Lizzy’s Literary Life; @Number71; Asylum.

The Clarke Award and posterity

Last Friday, Adam Roberts posted a thought-provoking blog piece on literary awards, taking in the Man Booker Prize, the British Fantasy Awards, and more besides (do check it out if you’ve not read it). One of Adam’s key points is that it’s important for the selections made by awards to be able to stand the test of time; I was interested to see how successfully that happens, so I’m going to look at some award-winners and see how posterity has treated them. I’ll be concentrating on the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as that’s the one I feel in the best position to consider.

This is not about whether the books are good so much as how history seems to have judged them from the viewpoint of me as someone with a reasonably good knowledge (though not an expert knowledge) of fantastic fiction. I’ll be rating each Clarke winner for posterity using the following scale:

5 stars – an acknowledged and enduring classic, or the pinnacle of a distinguished career.

4 stars – a very important book, or a likely classic-in-the-making.

3 stars – a moderately significant novel, or a newer work whose long-term importance is still unclear.

2 stars – a book which has evidently not been treated well by posterity.

1 star – a work which has largely been forgotten.

I’ll try to be as objective as I can (but of course that is not going to be entirely possible). Here goes…

Continue reading

Ramsey Campbell, ‘Getting it Wrong’ (2011)

Misanthropic film buff Eric Edgeworth is interrupted one evening by a phone call purporting to be from a radio gameshow; would he be the ‘expert friend’ of the current contestant, Mary Barton, a work colleague he barely knows. Edgeworth is convinced this a hoax being staged by some of his fellow-staff at the Frugoplex cinema; but, as the calls continue and Mary is absent from work, it becomes apparent that something more sinister is happening. This is a typically well-constructed story from Campbell, with a satisfying pay-off and a portrait of the crabby Edgeworth that’s grimly amusing. But there’s a sense of artificiality about the piece – perhaps from the fake brand names used, perhaps from those moments when the characterisation becomes a little too broad-brush – which stops it from being truly creepy.

Rating: ***

Ramsey Campbell’s website

Michael Stewart, King Crow (2011)

Several hours before Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was named as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Guardian announced the result of its third annual ‘Not the Booker Prize’, voted for by readers of its books blog. The winner was Michael Stewart’s debut, published by the Hebden Bridge-based Bluemoose Books.

King Crow is narrated by sixteen-year-old Paul Cooper; not the most sociable of boys, he’s more interested in ornithology (and peppers this first-person account with facts from his bird books). But Cooper’s life takes a turn into darker territory when he becomes friends with Ashley O’Keefe at his new school; Ashley is mixed up in drugs, and double-crosses a local gangster in a bid to strike out on his own. Cooper and Ashley end up stealing a car and driving to Cumbria – one to flee the gang, the other in the hope of seeing some ravens. Along the way, Cooper meets a girl named Becky, and starts falling in love – but Ashley isn’t happy at the thought of being ignored.

Paul Cooper is an intriguing protagonist; it would have been easy enough for Stewart to paint him as a figure deserving of our sympathy, but instead the picture is more complicated. At the very beginning, we see Cooper try to block out the sight of a gang kicking a girl by focusing on what he knows about finches (one senses that he quite often uses his love of birds as a shield against the aspects of life he doesn’t like); and our response may be ambivalent, because it’s not clear whether he is callous or just fragile. The answer is probably a mixture of both, and Cooper becomes increasingly difficult to warm to, with his uncomfortable tendency to objectify the opposite sex as he does birds, and his peculiarly understated way of reacting to events (about a third of the way through, Cooper says, ‘Since meeting Ashley, my life has definitely got more interesting. I’ve done a lot of thing I’ve never done before,’ [p. 66], which seems a rather muted way of describing experiences which include seeing your best friend being tortured, stealing a car, and knocking a man down). And yet, Cooper’s voice remains amiable.

King Crow is skilfully structured to reveal its secrets only gradually. It’s clear from early on that there has been turmoil in Cooper’s family life and trouble at school, but exactly what and how much are things which only come into focus with time (and even then they’re perhaps not made fully clear). There is also the big twist, which occurs two-thirds into the book, and which I absolutely did not see coming – looking back, it is both carefully hidden and cunningly foreshadowed. It’s a twist that both puts a new gloss on what has gone before, and adds a different kind of urgency to what remains, because of what we have now come to understand.

Stewart’s novel maintains its effectiveness almost to the very end, at which point Cooper is perhaps overly eager to explain things. This could be seen as part of the character, another manifestation of the boy’s apparent nonchalance towards his circumstances; but, still, it’s a little jarring for a book which has so carefully balanced the withholding and revealing of information to then show so much of its hand all at once. Nevertheless, King Crow remains a fine debut that leaves one interested to see what Michael Stewart will write next.

Michael Stewart’s website
An extract from the novel
Some other reviews of King Crow: Sam Jordison for The Guardian; Being obscure clearly.

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John Ajvide Lindqvist, ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ (2011)

Six months after his partner Annelie died in a road accident, our narrator moved with his son Robin to a cheap house in the forest; he got rid of the things he thought were unnecessary, but soon regretted being so rash in destroying Annelie’s things. All that remained was her old piano, which he now insists Robin learn to play. But what is the strange music that the narrator hears his son play, and what does it have to do with the murderer who once lived in their house. This is a great story (excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy), as Lindqvist ratchets up the tension and the sense that the narrator is losing his grip on reality. What makes the tale for me is the wonderful uncertainty or whether the supernatural explanation for events is valid, or whether it’s all in the mind of a desperate father.

Rating: ****

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s website

Dennis Etchison, ‘Tell Me I’ll See You Again’ (2011)

One sweltering day, Sherron sees her friend David cycle perilously close to his father’s truck… and finds him lying underneath the bicycle, apparently with no breath or heartbeat – yet, a short time later, he’s fine. Could this be some kind of survival mechanism, and what exactly could have brought it on? ‘Tell Me I’ll See You Again’ is a short piece that uses its brevity to great effect; an atmosphere of strangeness and disorientation builds up because we have so little time to grasp what’s going on. And Etchison’s closing sentences are simply beautiful.

Rating: ***½

Brian Hodge, ‘Roots and All’ (2011)

Cousins Dylan and Gina travel to the remote farmhouse of their recently-deceased Grandma Evvie, to sort through her effects; a long-term drug problem has caused the area to go to seed. Never far from Dylan’s mind are Evvie’s old tales of what she called the Woodwalker, and the mystery of his sister Shae’s disappearance eight years previously – a mystery which will be solved by tale’s end. Hodge brings the disparate elements of his story together in unexpected ways, and thre’s a grimly satisfying inevitability about the ending.

Rating: ***

Brian Hodge’s website

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