MonthFebruary 2012

A guess (not a prediction) at the Clarke Award shortlist: 2012 edition

So, this year’s list of Clarke Award submissions is out, and a number of things immediately strike me about it. One is the number of eligible books that aren’t there. Last year’s pool of submissions felt fairly comprehensive to me; this year’s, despite being a longer list, feels less so. Admittedly I’ve paid more attention to what’s eligible for this year’s Clarke: I compiled a list of mainstream-published science fiction last year; if you add on the additional titles mentioned in the comments (and disregard the one I got wrong!), only two were submitted for the Clarke. That leaves at least a dozen mainstream-published sf novels that weren’t even submitted (my list was by no means exhaustive), and no doubt a fair number of genre-published titles weren’t either (Niall Harrison suggests a few in his post).

Of course, the Clarke submissions pool was never going to be entirely comprehensive, and sixty books is plenty enough for the judges to read and construct a decent shortlist. There would also have been no small amount of discussion over eligibility this year: there seems to be an unusually high number of submissions that fall outside the science fiction box (even by my own inclusive standards). Some of these (like Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade, or Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox) are clearly fantasy; but others are more ambiguous: Nicholas Royle’s Regicide (for example) doesn’t sound like sf – and I wouldn’t expect a book by hm to be sf – but I can’t be sure of that. The same goes for plenty more on the submissions list.

This makes trying to predict the shortlist all the more difficult, because there’s every chance that one of these borderline titles may be good enough – and sf-nal enough – to make the cut (it’s worth remembering that two of last year’s shortlisted titles – including the eventual winner – were just such borderline novels). And then, as Niall pointed out to me on Twitter this morning, there are the core science fiction titles which have so far garnered relatively little attention. With so many unknown quantities, how do I begin to guess what might be shortlisted for the Clarke?

Well, I’ll start where I always do: with the high-profile genre releases that feel like sure-fire Clarke material. This year, that’s China Miéville’s Embassytown (the closest thing to science fiction he’s yet written), and Christopher Priest’s The Islanders (a major return by a very significant author). I don’t think these books are their authors’ best work, but neither can I conceive that they’d be omitted from the Clarke shortlist.

Priest and Miéville are previous Clarke winners, and two others have had works submitted, so I need to consider whether they might be shortlisted. What I know of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde suggests that it falls far enough towards the thriller end of the thriller-sf continuum that I have my doubts. Ian R. MacLeod’s Wake Up and Dream is almost certainly a very fine book, but MacLeod doesn’t feel like a shoo-in for the shortlist in the way that Miéville and Priest do.

There are a number of sequels among the submissions and, whilst it’s not unheard-of for such titles to make it (Monsters of Men did last year, of course), I don’t think that will happen this time. Sophia McDougall’s Savage City is my guess at the most likely such candidate, but I’m going to leave sequels out of my guess.

Adam Roberts is a genre author I’d usually turn to as a Clarke contender, and here I can actually consider a book from a position of knowledge. I think By Light Alone is good, but not quite up there with Roberts’s previous two novels (and I haven’t been able to put my thoughts on it in order, hence no review from me as yet), so I’m inclined to discount it.

So far, I’ve mainly been ruling books out; which can I nominate in the affirmative? There’s one more genre sf title which has really stood out for me in terms of its positive coverage, and that is Osama by Lavie Tidhar. It sounds to me like a Clarke contender, so I’m going to put it on my list.

Turning to mainstream-published works, I must include The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood in my selection, because I think it’s a great book, and I want the Clarke to recognise it, and for it to be read more widely among the sf community. It’s the novel that, overall, I most want to be shortlisted for this year’s Clarke Award.

Staying with non-genre titles, I’d agree with Niall that Colson Whitehead’s Zone One sounds like the sort of book that might get shortlisted for the Clarke, and it has had enough positive reviews that I’m of a mind to include it.

Which leaves me with one vacant slot, and I’m not sure where to go with it. I don’t want to take a wild guess at a book, so I’ll play it relatively safe, and suggest Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which of course gained its attention from being longlisted for the Booker.

So, my guess at the Clarke shortlist is:

ChinaMiéville, Embassytown

Christopher Priest, The Islanders

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

Lavie Tidhar, Osama

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

I’m not calling this a prediction, because I don’t really think I’ll be right – and, indeed, in a way I hope I’m wrong, because I would like to be surprised by one (or more) of those borderline books. As to whether I will be, that will have to wait until the Clarke shortlist is announced at the end of March.

TV Book Club Best Reads 2012: Part 2

Time for a look at the next four books on this season’s TV Book Club list (my first post on this series is here); these novels are all debuts.

Elizabeth Haynes, Into the Darkest Corner (2011)

In 2003, Catherine Bailey is on a night out in Lancster when she meets the handsome and charming Lee Brightman, and quickly embarks on a relationship with him. Four years later, she is a shadow of her former self: living in London with OCD, her life ruined by Lee’s abuse; her new neighbour, Stuart Richardson, may represent a chance for Catherine to move on – but there’s a threat around the corner.

Elizabeth Haynes portrays the change in Catherine’s character particularly well, right down to a difference in name: the bright, vivacious Catherine becomes the timid Cathy; the contrast between her personality in the two time periods is striking, and great at drawing one into the tale. Perhaps the novel feels a little overlong as a whole, but Haynes shows vividly how Catherine becomes trapped by Lee even as she knows he’s dangerous, and how Lee charms his way into the affections of Catherine’s friends, turning them against her. In this, Into the Darkest Corner is a sharp examination of domestic violence.

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility (2011)

New Year’s Eve, 1937: Katey Kontent is out at a Greenwich Villagejazz bar with her roommate, Eve Ross, when in walks the dashing and wealthy Tinker Grey. They get talking, become friends – and all their lives change over the following year, but don’t necessarily stay in parallel.

I’m ambivalent about this book: there’s some lovely writing and observation (‘from this vantage point [a pier on the Hudson] Manhattanwas simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise – that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving’); but I can’t muster the same enthusiasm for the plot. As the title implies, we see various examples of characters’ doing what it takes to fit in to particular social circles, which is elegantly done; but, as a whole, Rules of Civility doesn’t quite do it for me.

Amor Towles’s website

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

I read (and really enjoyed) this last year, so I’ll reproduce here what I wrote then:

In Girl Reading, Katie Ward imagines the stories behind a number of portraits of girls and women reading; the portraits range in past time from Simone Martini’s Annunciation (1333) to a photograph on Flickr in 2008, and a concluding chapter set in 2060 provides context for the previous six. Ward has a distinctive writing style that creates a strong atmosphere for each of the time periods, and allows her to weave in details very subtly. I’ll single out her portrayal of Gwen –  a girl in love with an artist in 1916, and who sees a rival for her affections in a visiting woman – as one of my favourite moments, but there are plenty more from which I could choose.

The chapters of Girl Reading are not linked overtly (though some of the portraits do appear in later chapters, and it can be nicely disconcerting to see the gap between what later characters think of the subjects and what we’ve seen of them previously); it’s more that there are contrasts and connections in theme and content. For example, Ward shows the variety of functions which the portraits might fulfil – an expression of a political alliance, say, or a tangible reminder of what has been lost. Similarly, literacy represents different things to different characters; the act of creating each portrait has varying significance; and so on.Girl Reading is an intricate tapestry of a book, and one that leaves me with little notion of what Katie Ward may write next, though I do know that I’ll want to read it.

Jessica Francis Kane, The Report (2010)

The Report revolves around a real-life event from the Blitz: the night when 173 people died in a crush on the way into Bethnal Green tube station (which was being used as an air-raid shelter). Jessica Francis Kane imagines the inquiry into the disaster, undertaken by magistrate Laurence Dunne; and follows the lives of characters involved in the tragedy, such as Ada Barber and her surviving daughter Tilly (Ada’s younger daughter Emma having been killed in the crush). A parallel narrative concerns Dunne’s being interviewed thirty years on, by a documentary-maker with close ties to the Bethnal Green incident.

The Report is very effective at portraying the disaster itself: in the scenes set during the crush, it’s impossible to gain a full picture of what is happening – yet these scenes, and Dunne’s subsequent questioning of those involved, bring home the horror of the event. But Kane also examines issues of truth, and how lasting knowledge of events can be constructed after the fact; Dunne’s attempts to give a particular impression to the people he’s interviewing for the inquiry slide into questions of what should by reported, and how – and there are no simple answers.

Giveaway: The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus

The Afterparty is a playfully self-referential novel about the events of one night, during a celebrity’s birthday celebrations; it spends enough time on the right side of the line between charming and annoying to be a very good read. The publishers ran several competitions in connection with the book, including one that would see two reader reviews quoted in the jacket of the mass-market paperback edition — and, as it turns out, one of those reviews is mine.

The first I knew of this was when a parcel arrived yesterday containing five signed copies of the new edition. One of them is personally inscribed to me, so of course I’ll be keeping that; but I want to give the other four away to readers of my blog. If you’d like the chance to win one, just leave a comment on this post.

A few notes:

  • Owing to postage costs, this giveaway is UK only.
  • Closing date for entries is 11.59pm (UK time) on Wednesday 29 February. I will select four winners at random shortly after.

Good luck!


Book notes: Cossé, Levine, Unsworth

Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore (2009/10)

A Novel Bookstore is the ninth novel by French writer Laurence Cossé (the translaltion is by Alison Anderson); one of the launch titles for the UK imprint of Europa Editions; and a celebration of literature. Ivan Georg is a bookseller who has reached his forties mostly drifting through life; but that all changes when he meets Francesca Aldo-Valbelli, a fellow-lover of literature, with the wealth to turn a vision into reality – and the particular vision which the pair has is a bookstore which will stock only good novels, as selected by a secret committee of writers. The Good Novel bookstore duly opens inParis, and is a great success; but there are those who seek to discredit this well-intentioned enterprise – even to the point of physically attacking its committee members.

Though Cossé’s novel is framed as a mystery, its structure (with a lengthy detour in the middle detailing the history of The Good Novel) – and, indeed, the very resolution of the mystery – suggests that this element is not the main point of A Novel Bookstore; rather, it’s about the value of literature itself. There are direct statements of what good novels can do – literature ‘prepares you for life’ (p. 150), it ‘bring[s] like-minded people together and get[s] them talking’ (p. 81) – but we also see how literature has enriched the lives of the characters who write and read it in the book.

There are aspects of A Novel Bookstore which seem less disruptive here than I’d usually find them in a novel – such as the passages where Ivan and Francesca discuss books, passages which are detailed but don’t drag – and I’m not sure whether I am just cutting the book more slack because I share its enthusiasm for literature, and it imagines a place where I’d love to shop. Well, if that’s the case, so be it; for today, the celebration is enough.

Reviews elsewhere: A Common Reader; Of Books and Reading; Books are My Boyfriends; Nonsuch Book.

Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! (2012)

Sara Levine’s debut novel (another Europa UK launch title) also revolves around the transforming power of literature, though here it’s one work in particular, and the result is perhaps not as positive. Levine’s (unnamed) narrator is a twenty-something graduate with a penchant for the easy (one might say lazy) option, until reading Treasure Island inspires her to be more like Jim Hawkins, and be bold and adventurous in her life. So she takes money from the Pet Library where she works in order to buy a parrot (which does not go down well with her boss), and goes on from there.

The crux of Treasure Island!!! for me is the narrator’s lack of self-awareness: her inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge the negative effects her actions have on others; to recognise that the changes she’s making in her life are not as daring as she thinks; to countenance that other people might have aspirations and lives as complex and important as her own. The protagonist’s narrative voice veers between wry and snarky, which adds to the portrayal of someone who is unsympathetic, but not entirely alienating. One’s reaction to her is held in tension to the very end, where there’s a suggestion that the narrator may finally be finding her way, despite everything.

Reviews elsewhere: Bluestalking; The Well-Read Wife; Muse at Highway Speeds; Em and Emm.

Simon Kurt Unsworth, Rough Music (2012)

Now a new chapbook from Spectral Press, this time by the ever-reliable Simon Unsworth. It’s the tale of a man named Cornish, who’s been hiding an affair from his wife Andrea, and is now having to cope with a bunch of masked figures making a racket and acting out some strange performance beneath his bedroom window every night – though nobody else seems to notice them. From the start, Cornish is not exactly a sympathetic character; but Unsworth gradually and effectively reveals just how cold and calculating the protagonist is, which makes his inevitable comeuppance all the more satisfying. The ‘rough music’ outside also works well, as it shifts back and forth between having a metaphorical function and driving forward changes in the story. All in all, nicely done.

Reviews elsewhere: HellBound Times; The Ginger Nuts of Horror.

TV Book Club 2012 Best Reads: Part 1

The new series of The TV Book Club is underway, which means there’s another selection of ten ‘Best Reads’. Here’s my look at the first three.

S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep (2011)

The TV Book Club list begins with one of the breakout hits of last year, the debut from Steve Watson. It’s the story of Christine Lucas, who has an unusual form of amnesia which causes her to lose her memory every 24 hours. As the novel begins, Christine wakes up and, as ever, must discover that she is older than she thinks, and meet her husband Ben for the first time. Later that day – and unbeknownst to Ben – she is contacted by and goes to see a Dr Nash, who gives Christine a journal she has been keeping, which will allow her to unravel what led to her present situation.

When I started Watson’s book, I was concerned that narrative momentum might be compromised by the protagonist’s having to start from scratch each day. Well, the journal format takes care of that, as Christine can take what she’s already written into account, which smoothes out the flow. But, more than this, Watson uses the structure to create tension: even as Christine is reading her journal and discovering the truth, we’re aware that it won’t be an end to her problems (and I’m not talking about her amnesia). I also appreciate the way that Watson takes a fairly ‘high concept’ idea but grounds the action in a domestic reality. All in all, a fine thriller.

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (2011)

From a big seller to a Booker nominee. Patrick deWitt’s second novel is an introspective take on the Western: in 1851, hired killers Eli and Charlie are sent from Oregon City to San Francisco by the Commodore, to do away with one Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector who has stolen something from him. Eli, our narrator, has been pondering whether he wants to carry on in this business, and the current job will bring matters to a head.

On the very first page of The Sisters Brothers, Eli describes the death of his old horse (and his subsequent visions thereof) in a cool, collected fashion; thus establishing what, for me, is the most effective aspect of the book – the contrast between the innate violence of the brothers’ world and the measured elegance of deWitt’s prose. The latter has a distancing effect, and as a result it comes as quite a jolt when brutal action irrupts into the narrative, particularly when it’s perpetrated by Eli, about whose capacity for violence it is deceptively easy to forget (because one has built up a certain amount of empathy for him). There’s also a strong sense in the novel of a world whose formation is in progress: in the lawless country through which the brothers travel, yes; but also in the mannered dialogue, and the half-sketched-in feel of the setting. It’s as though the world is being remade alongside Eli’s character.

Essie Fox, The Somnambulist (2011)

The East End of London, 1881: when her beloved aunt Cissy, a music-hall singer, dies, it becomes increasingly difficult for Pheobe Turner and her mother Maud to make ends meet. A way forward comes in the form of Nathaniel Samuels, an old acquaintance of Cissy’s, offers Phoebe a job as companion to his wife at the Samuels’ Herefordshire house – but the girl has no idea what secrets are set to be revealed.

I’m ambivalent about The Somnambulist. On the one hand, Phoebe’s narrative voice is great at bringing her character to life and driving the novel forward; and Essie Fox weaves historical detail in skilfully. On the other hand, the secondary characterisation feels a little broad-brush; the short third-person chapters from Samuels’s viewpoint slot in awkwardly; and the plot doesn’t sparkle for me in the same way as the narration.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

The narrator of Julie Otsuka’s second novel is a chorus: the disembodied ‘we’ of a cohort of Japanese women who travel to the United States at the start of the twentieth century as picture brides; the book follows them from their initial sea voyage through to their being sent away to internment during the Second World War. A quotation from the first chapter illustrates Otsuka’s general approach:

On the boat we carried our husbands’ pictures in tiny oval lockets that hung on long chains from our necks. We carried them in silk purses and old tea tins and red lacquer boxes and in the thick brown envelopes from America in which they had originally been sent. We carried them in the sleeves of our kimonos, which we touched often, just to make sure they were still there.

This is the language of The Buddha in the Attic: individual details and experiences, blended and distilled into a rhythmic composite. That quotation also hints at the hope which their husbands-to-be and journey to America represent to these women – a hope soon tarnished when they discover that the photographs they were given are twenty years old, and that their new husbands are not the well-off professionals which the women were led to believe, but farm-workers and servants. This is the first example in the novel of the American dream not living up to its promise for the women.

Once their new lives in America begin, the women’s experiences are varied, but most find themselves marginalised or ignored. This is where Otsuka’s main technique comes into its own, as the author creates a broad, sweeping portrait of many lives which can at once move out to reveal common themes and move in to focus on individuals.

When the women come to have children, The Buddha in the Attic gains a new layer in the ways that the new generation’s lives reflect and differ from those of their mothers. Where the women once imagined whatAmerica might be like, now their children have notions of the outside world based on hearsay, which may or may not be accurate (“Beyond the farm, they’d heard, wherever you went you were always a stranger and if you got on the wrong bus by mistake you might never find your way home”). As life goes on, some of the children get a taste of the American dream which was denied their mothers – but not necessarily as the women may have wished, because the children tend to reject or forget their Japanese names and traditions.

Life turns again with the advent of Pearl Harbor, as the women now find themselves and their families regarded with suspicion. Hearsay returns again in the form of a ‘list’ of people to be taken away, about which nothing is known for sure (including whether or not it actually exists), but much supposed. Otsuka builds tension effectively in this section, as the details which have so far formed the basis of the women’s experiences give way to questions and rumours.

Otsuka’s first-person-plural narrative voice may speak for all the women at once, but, to an extent, it also speaks for none of them, as we hear no direct individual testimony. There are occasional references to characters by name throughout the novel, but it’s not until towards the end that we get to perceive them as individuals en masse, as it were – but, by then, the Japanese are leaving their communities, and soon all that will remain of them are vague memories, and the odd physical trace like the brass Buddha which one woman leaves behind. The voice of the chorus falls silent, but the music of Otsuka’s writing rings on beyond the final page.

Robert Shearman, Everyone’s Just So So Special (2011)

Robert Shearman returns with the follow-up to his British Fantasy Award-winning collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, and once again, he’s put together a superb volume of stories. As before, he’s adept at combining the outlandishly fantastical with the minutiae of everyday life and relationships; but, whereas the main theme of his previous collection was love, here Shearman is broadly concerned with the relationship between individuals and the grand sweep of history.

Separating the main stories is a chart of dates, a “history of mediocrity, and futility, and human error”, to quote its unnamed compiler in one of his asides. The reasons behind this chronicle’s existence are revealed only gradually, as Shearman depicts a man who has been burnt by life, found that even the history he loved as a child now seems hollow, and he and his family have paid a heavy price. For this narrator, history has become nothing but “memories [and] interpretations”; a similar view is expressed by the protagonist of ‘A History of Broken Things’, who intersperses recollections of his past with reflections on his mother’s decline from dementia, whether history is nothing but our memories, and what that means if we forget or are forgotten.

One could take from this the view that individuals are insignificant in the face of history and loss, but that’s not the impression I gain from Everyone’s Just So So Special – at least, not entirely. It seems to me that individuals are central to many of these stories, even in some cases warping reality around themselves. For example, ‘Coming in to Land’ is presented as a flight attendant’s address to her passengers, insisting that they have to believe in Paris for it to be there when they land’; but it’s clear by story’s end that this is all about the attendant and her ex-lover. In ‘This Far, and No Further’, time literally stops from the strength of Polly’s desire to find her missing daughter – but there are a number of perceptual shifts which poignantly reveal her true state of mind.

Several other pieces in the collection also use a strange situation to illuminate character traits. The story ‘Dirt’ is a particularly striking example: Duncan Brown is a university lecturer having an affair with a student from another faculty, who calls herself Natasha and is obsessed with Russia (or her mental image of the place), and even keeps a bag of Russian soil under her pillow. Natasha’s fascination comes across as the rather eccentric fad of a teenager still shaping her own identity; it only takes the innocent action ofDuncansending her a postcard fromRussiato undermine what the country represents to her. But a neat narrative move at the end gives cause to question whether it’s Natasha or Duncan who has the more tenuous hold on reality.

One of the hallmarks of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical for me was the way that Shearman often used the fantastic to facilitate equally satisfying literal and metaphorical readings of his stories. We can see a similar approach in some of the tales in the current volume. ‘Inkblots’, for example, quickly skates over the implausibility of there being such a thing as a “hospital tattooist” to produce a poignant reflection on declaring one’s feelings when they might change. Sam’s father and terminally-ill mother decide it’s time to get tattoos of each other’s names, and would like Sam to have one with both of their names; but he’s not keen on the permanence of a tattoo. Then Sam’s mother doesn’t die after all, and his parents drift apart; Shearman explores the ramifications of such a development in a situation where a tattoo effectively represents a declaration of undying love. In tandem with this, we see Sam’s own unease with the idea of love and commitment, represented by his squeamishness around tattoos.

However, it seems to me that the richest stories in Everyone’s Just So So Special go beyond straightforwardly metaphorical readings, into the deeper heart of fantasy. The protagonist of ‘Times Table’ literally sheds her skin with each new birthday, but the remains hang around as living puppets. The story portrays the protagonist at various stages in her life, from the fourteen-year-old girl taking her teenage insecurities out on the younger self who wasn’t the girl she now wishes she could have been; to the old, old woman surrounded by the ghosts of her past. To an extent, ‘Times Table’ is about who we are as people, and the changing nature of self; but the sheer range that it encompasses makes the story greater than the sum of its parts.

In ‘Restoration’, a figure known only as “the Curator” has conquered the universe, and each year of history is now a mural in his vast gallery. Andy gets a job at the gallery, and is particularly taken with both 1574 and his boss, Miriam – that’s the name she takes, anyway; she’s forgotten her own. And Miriam is not the forgetful one, as Andy too sometimes finds her slipping from his memory; but a new directive from the Curator forces the two of them to take drastic action. ‘Restoration’ is a slice of beautiful strangeness that works by remaining focused on the characters at its heart; even when the world we know has been utterly swept away, we can recognise the people.

So who actually is special, in the face of all that was, is, or might be? Perhaps the story ‘Acronyms’ offers a clue in its portraits of interlocking (though separate) lives, beginning with a café-owner who makes the finest BLT sandwich and heading towards an outlandish tale of spying. Everyone is special in their own stories, but those stories may be only tangential to each other. Shearman’s collection, however, certainly is special.

(This review also appears in issue 269 of Vector.)

January wrap-up

I haven’t had as much time to devote to reading and blogging so far this year, so January was a relatively lean month, but not one without some interesting books…

Book of the Month

Simon Lelic has, for me, been one of the most interesting British authors to emerge in the last few years. My favourite read in January was his latest novel, The Child Who, the complex portrait of a lawyer defending a child murderer.



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