MonthAugust 2012

Book notes: Alison Moore and Christopher Coake

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (2012)

Time for my first foray into this year’s Man Booker longlist. Alison Moore’s name came to my attention when I read her short story ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ a couple of years ago. Her debut novel, The Lighthouse, shares that earlier tale’s unsettling atmosphere and intense focus on detail.

A man named Futh travels from England to Germany on a walking holiday to take his mind off the end of his relationship with Angela. Instead, he dwells on the past: his uneasy relationship with his womanising father; his friend Kenny’s mother, who didn’t act quite as you’d expect of a friend’s mother; those rocky times with Angela. Lighthouses are a recurring metaphor: the lighthouse-shaped perfume case belonging to his mother that Futh now carries, though it’s empty; the lighthouse Futh saw on a childhood holiday to Cornwall, and wondered ‘how there could be this constant warning of danger…and yet still there was all this wreckage’ (p. 56).

There was plenty of ‘warning’ when Futh was growing up, but it doesn’t seem to have made him much wiser about relationships. Similarly, Moore’s secondary protagonist, bed-and-breakfast owner Ester, is apparently stuck in a destructive cycle of having liaisons with her guests, and hiding the fact from her husband Bernard, who’s lost all interest in her. The narrative loops back and forth to different periods in the characters’ lives, gradually revealing more – all in precise, evocative prose. The Lighthouse is a fine first novel that deserves the extra attention it’s going to get from its Booker longlisting.

Alison Moore’s website
The publisher, Salt Publishing
Some other reviews of The Lighthouse: Adam Roberts; Words of Mercury; Culture and Anarchy; Emily Cleaver for Litro.

Christopher Coake, You Came Back (2012)

I’d call Christopher Coake’s debut novel a ghost story, but really it’s more about believing in ghosts – which, in You Came Back, is partly a symbol of hanging on to the past. Coake’s protagonist is Mark Fife, who’s rebuilding his life several years after his young son Brendan died, and he separated from Brendan’s mother Chloe. Now, Mark is in a new relationship, with Allison; he’s contemplating proposing to her when the owner of his old house turns up, claiming that the house is haunted by Brendan’s ghost. What does it mean for Mark – and his relationship with Chloe – if that turns out to be true?

You Came Back works well enough as a portrait of parents’ dealing with life after bereavement. But what I particularly like about Coake’s novel is the elegant way that it can be read both literally and metaphorically. Take it literally, and you have an examination of how Chloe, Mark, and their relationships with others are affected by the possibility that Brendan somehow survives. Read the novel metaphorically, and it’s a story of grieving parents who won’t let go, even if that means dragging everyone else they love down with them. On top of this, You Came Back does not shirk its responsibilities as a work of suspense; Coake leaves open to the end the question of whether there really is a ghost. After all, the whole novel is concerned with what people might do when faced with something they’re almost certain is not true – but can’t help thinking that it could be.

Christopher Coake’s website
Some other reviews of You Came Back: Little Words; Chasing Bawa; Dana Stevens for Slate; Christopher Bundy.

Sunday Story Society Reminder: “The Merchant of Shadows”

The Sunday Story Society returns this weekend; this time around, we’ll be talking about Angela Carter’s story “The Merchant of Shadows”. You can read it here on the London Review of Books website, then head back to the blog on Sunday where I’ll kick off our discussion.

Bookshop tourism

I’ve been away this weekend, to Bath and Oxford – which, as well as being two of England’s most historic and beautiful cities, are also two of its most literary. At a time when independent bookshops are struggling (and many UK towns and cities don’t have one at all), it’s heartening to me that there are still places wherre they flourish. The downside of visiting such bookshops is that there are altogether too many interesting books out there. Ah well…

Anyway, for the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about where I went and what I bought.

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – John Street, Bath

The winner of Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2011, and it’s not hard to see why. Mr B’s Emporium strikes me very much as a traditional bookshop with a contemporary outlook. You really get the impression that the people who work there know and care about what they stock. I came away with two books:

Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale

The first time I heard of the Icelandic writer Sjón was when Scott Pack named The Blue Fox as his favourite read of 2009. I thought it was about time I tried something by Sjón, and I remembered Alex in Leeds reviewing From the Mouth of the Whale recently, so that was the one I chose.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

I was served at the counter by Mr B himself, Nic Bottomley. While I was there, I asked him to recommend a short story collection. He suggested a few, and I decided on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies. Knowledgeable booksellers are valuable for just these sorts of recommendations, and for expanding what you read in unanticipated ways.

Blackwell’s – Broad Street, Oxford

Perhaps I’m stretching my definition of ‘independent bookshop’ here, seeing as Blackwell’s have over 40 branches around the country. But then again, most of them are on university campuses rather than high streets, and the Oxford shop was the first of all… and this is my blog post, so the shop will count as far as I’m concerned. I promised to limit myself to two books, but stretched to three in the end (and could have bought several more quite easily).

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Storyteller of Marrakesh

I just started browsing, and this was in front of me on the nearest table (a selection of writing from India and Pakistan). I recognised the author’s name from hearing about The Watch, a title which launched Chatto & Windus’ Hogarth imprint earlier in the year (see William Rycroft’s review, for example). I hadn’t heard of the novel before, but it concerns overlapping and contradictory stories (as a storyteller tries to uncover the truth about a couple’s disappearance), which is just the sort of thing that appeals to me.

Simona Sparaco, About Time

The adjacent table was of fiction in translation, which is something of which I want to read more. I’m always interested in reading books that use the fantastic in different ways; this novel is about a playboy who finds time speeding up for him, but no one else. I’d never heard of the book or its author (though the publisher, Pushkin Press, is a name I trust), but it interested me, so I went for it.

Richard Beard, Lazarus is Dead

This was on my list of ‘books I keep intending to buy, but never get around to’. It’s had plenty of praise (from John Self, for instance), and its promise of an idiosyncratic take on the Lazarus story had me intrigued anyway. I chose this novel narrowly over Svetislav Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy, a fact I record here partly as a reminder to myself not to forget about it!

If there’s a downside to buying interesting new books, it’s that there are also interesting old books to be read. But they’ll all still be there to discover again when the time comes. And so are the shops, which I’d heartily recommend you visit should you get the chance.

Pia Juul, The Murder of Halland (2009/12)

It’s a crime story, but the crime is in the background; the real story is the effect of bereavement on Bess, Pia Juul’s protagonist. When first we meet Bess, she goes to bed shortly after her partner Halland. When she wakes, it’s to discover that Halland has been shot dead. For the rest of the novella, Bess has to live with the aftermath of Halland’s murder, and hope that she can come to some sort of new equilibrium in life.

The Murder of Halland is a fine character study (and Martin Aitken’s translation from the Danish is equally so) which, like a kaleidoscope, keeps turning to reveal something new. One of our first discoveries is that Bess’s personal life is not as happy and untroubled as we may have supposed. She left her husband and daughter behind for Halland, and is still not on best terms with her family (she says she has her mother’s number on speed dial ‘to warn me if she rang’ [p. 16]). But nor was she fully at ease with Halland – Bess loved him, but he could be possessive (‘if I hadn’t been besotted by him, staying would have pointless’ [p. 17]).

As the novella progresses, it becomes clear just how much of a hole Halland’s death has left in Bess’s life. She wants to keep his memory to herself, and treats interlopers with hostility. ‘He’s not your family!’ she tells Pernille, the foster-daughter of Halland’s sister – though, as the two never married, Bess wasn’t technically Halland’s family either; and she hasn’t exactly been concerned with her own family, either. That cry against Pernille is more about Bess than Halland. Likewise, she feels threatened by things which disrupt her image of Halland; like the office he rented in Pernille’s house, whose contents Bess puzzles over (including a poster for La Retour de Martin Guerre, perhaps a symbol of Bess’s not knowing her partner as well as she thought).

But it’s also the case that we as readers don’t know Bess as well as we might think. She is at pains to stress that she’s not telling us everything, but just what is she not saying? Bess’s motivations are not always clear, and sometimes we can see a gap between her words and reality (for example, the impression we gain of Bess’s daughter Abby from her descriptions is not what we see when Abby arrives in person). We’re left with a sense of incompleteness (though not, I don’t think, an unsatisfactory one), just as Bess feels the gaps in her life.

The murder itself is never fully cleared up (though, as I said at the outset, the murder is not the point); but there’s a sense towards the end that Bess has found her way forward. Whether we know everything she went through to get there is another matter – but Juul gives us a fascinating journey all the same.

Video interview with Pia Juul
The publisher, Peirene Press
Some other reviews of The Murder of Halland: Andrew Blackman; Little Words; Reading Matters; The Little Reader Library.

Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I’m joining in this week because I was really taken with the theme. I’ve been reviewing books online since 2004, but this blog started in 2009, and I’m concentrating on the period since then. What follows here is not a definitive list of favourites, nor is it in a strict order – it’s a list of highlights. It’s a snapshot of what I like to read.

1. The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

This is a tale of pure serendipity. I was visiting Cambridge, and saw the hardback of The Rehearsal in a bookshop. It wasn’t the subject matter that grabbed me, but the blurbs promising something different. I took a chance on it… and really didn’t get along with its mannered prose style at first. But I persevered and, once I realised what Catton was doing – how completely the novel’s different aspects embodied its theme of performance – I got into it, and ended up absolutely loving the book. The Rehearsal is the fondest memory I have of reading a book in the last few years, and it showed me a new way to appreciate fiction.

2. Pocket Notebook – Mike Thomas

A few bloggers enthused about Pocket Notebook in 2010 – and I really liked its Clockwork Orange-inspired cover – but I never got around to reading it. The following year, I started reviewing for Fiction Uncovered; when I saw Pocket Notebook on their review-copy list, I decided to try it. I was utterly blown away by the vividness with which Thomas created his corrupt-copper protagonist. My only regret is that I didn’t read this novel a year earlier.

3. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

This book has 661 pages. I devoured the whole lot in a weekend. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added quantum physics, Skippy Dies goes from humour to sharp characterisation to social commentary to pathos to the borders of science fiction and back again, without putting a foot wrong. Stunning stuff.

4. Solo – Rana Dasgupta

When I started this blog, I was just beginning to investigate the parts of the contemporary British literary scene that would most interest me. The website Untitled Books was (still is) a great resource, and it’s where I found out about Solo. I love books with wide-ranging sensibilities, and Solo – with its account of a life that feels like a daydream, and a daydream that feels like life – is that sort of book.

5. Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

One of the great joys of book blogging has been discovering small presses. Peirene Press are one of the fine publishers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years, and Beside the Sea is one of their best books. Ostensibly the story of a mother taking her children on a trip to the seaside, darkness gradually emerges from behind the happy façade to build up a brilliant but tragic portrait.

6. Yellow Blue Tibia & New Model Army – Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia was the very first book I reviewed on this blog. I was wanting to catch up on some of the contemporary sf authors I hadn’t read, and my first Adam Roberts novel just blew me away. My second, New Model Army, did the same the year after – a novel that I can genuinely say did something I hadn’t come across in a book before. I can’t choose one of these books over the other for this list, so here they both are.

7. The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

Being surprised by an unfamiliar author is great; but so is reading an excellent book by a writer you already know. A Christopher Priest novel is a maze of realities and unreliable perceptions, and The Affirmation is up there with his best. Priest’s narrative shifts between realities, and his masterstroke is to make our world seem no more (or less) real than his fictional one.

8. An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer

You can’t explore the world of book blogs for too long without coming across books that you’re unlikely to hear of elsewhere. I first heard of An A-Z of Possible Worlds through Scott Pack’s blog, and it really ought to be better known. Lovingly produced by its publisher, Roast Books, this is a collection of stories in a box – twenty-six individual pamphlets, each about its own place. The stories are very fine, too.

9. Coconut Unlimited – Nikesh Shukla

Here’s another way of discovering books in the blog age: finding a writer to be an engaging presence on Twitter; then, a year (or however long) later, reading his or her newly-published book. That’s what happened with Coconut Unlimited, which turned out to be a razor-sharp and hilarious comedy. More interconnectedness: I met Nikesh Shukla last year at a Firestation Book Swap, which Scott Pack usually hosts (although he wasn’t there for that one).

10. The City & the City – China Miéville

The City & the City generated one of my longest reviews, and I can’t remember reading another book that had so many interpretations from so many different people. It’s a novel to argue with, and argue about. At the time, I hadn’t read one of Miéville’s adult books since The Scar; I remember thinking that The City & the City was good enough in itself, but too quiet to catch on as some of his earlier works had. Of course, I was wrong. It was fascinating to see how the novel was received beyond the sf field, and the book blogging community was a big part of that reaction for me.

Ewan Morrison, Tales from the Mall (2012)

Sometimes I’m not sure what to make of the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Look at its processes, and you might conclude it’s not worth paying attention to – often it seems to come down more than anything to which books have the most vociferous supporters. And the make-up of this year’s shortlist suggests there are structural issues with the Prize’s processes, which I believe are now being looked at.

But – fair’s fair – for all its flaws, the Not the Booker has a track record of highlighting interesting books. I’ve read all bar one of the previous winners, and all were very much worth my time. So I’m not about to dismiss a title associated with the Not the Booker Prize lightly, not even when – like Ewan Morrison’s Tales from the Mall – it attracted a deluge of nominations at a stage where the guidelines clearly stated only one per book was necessary. That alone almost put me off Tales from the Mall; but a book deserves to be judged on its own merits, and this one sounded genuinely interesting – so I decided to read it. I’m glad I did.

In his introduction, Morrison describes Tales from the Mall as an attempt to ‘document the folk culture of the mall’ (p. 8). The book is built from short stories, retold anecdotes, and factual sections; loosely structured as a journey around a mall. This is a structure which neatly mirrors the subject: a shopping mall is a place where people gather together but have very separate, individual experiences; Morrison presents a set of individual pieces which collectively tell a broader ‘story’ about the mall.

The different types of text in Tales from the Mall serve different functions. Broadly speaking, the factual material shows the intentions behind the mall: it’s a controlled and controlling space (one designed to encourage people to stay and shop; given names meant to evoke certain reassuring qualities), but also one where that can be subverted (one of the chapters is a list of pranks taken from a social networking site). The fiction and anecdotes, however, are more about the actuality, suggesting the different roles that malls might play in people’s lives.

It’s striking how few of Morrison’s characters are at the mall primarily to shop. In this book, the mall may be a neutral space where a separated father goes to meet his children. It may be a place to arrange a meeting with a blind date – somewhere to create a new persona. It may be the place to escape from life’s woes. Morrison paints a nuanced picture of an institution (institutions, really) being put to many more uses than the one for which it was designed.

The characterisation within individual stories can sometimes veer towards the stereotypical (the separated mother in ‘Food Court’, with her extensive assortment of modern-day worries about her children’s health, springs to mind). But I think it’s fair to observe that everything in Tales from the Mall – characterisation included – has been shaped to serve the book’s wider project. The real protagonist of this book is ‘the mall’ itself, less as a specific place than as a concept. It’s an idea that remains in flux, as malls themselves face competition from online shopping, and are re-emerging with apartments attached as a means of trying retain their usefulness.

There’s been some questioning over whether Tales from the Mall should have been eligible for the Not the Booker Prize – is it actually a novel, or a collection of short stories? For the purposes of this review, that doesn’t really matter, though I have (deliberately) been calling it a ‘book’ rather than anything more specific. I do find myself thinking about Morrison’s book as a complete unit, though. It feels like a composite portrait of its subject, and a different way of approaching fiction. If the Not the Booker brings to light more works with the distinctiveness of Tales of the Mall, then it’s worth following.

Ewan Morrison’s website
Cargo Publishing
Interview with Morrison at Scots Whay Hae!
Some other reviews of Tales from the Mall: Savidge Reads; Subtle Melodrama Book Reviews; Paul Reviews Books; Stuart Kelly for the Guardian.

Sunday Story Society: “Atlantic City”

To keep up to date with the Sunday Story Society: view our schedule; follow @SundayStorySoc on Twitter; or visit us on Facebook.

Welcome to the Sunday Story Society discussion of Kevin Barry’s “Atlantic City“. If you’ve not seen one of these before, I always start with a round-up of some online commentary, before opening the comments up to you.

As far as I’ve seen, responses to “Atlantic City” have been overwhelmingly positive – like this one, from Daragh Reddin in Metro:

In…’Atlantic City’ – the languid atmosphere of a sultry summer night in a non-descript midlands town is perfectly evoked. Barry’s dialogue here is suitably sure-footed and he demonstrates a deft hand in capturing the unrealised aspirations of his characters.

Peter McClean praised the story’s sense of place:

[“Atlantic City”] captures the very essence of its location; it portrays the characters in a vivid reality; it uses the real language of the people involved.

For Rob Burdock, Barry turned the ordinary into something more:

The main ‘star’ of this story is James, a lad who would be considered unremarkable in almost any other setting. Yet in this ramshackle arcade – which in itself can be best described as ordinary and plain – James stands on a pedestal as a god among men (and women), and Barry exalts him magnificently.

There are also further positive write-ups of “Atlantic City” and its collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, from Mel u; Andrew of Slightly Read; Elaine Chiew for The Short Review; Rozz Lewis; and Marc Goldin for Laura Hird’s New Review.

So, how did you find “Atlantic City”?

Book notes: Manu Joseph and J.R. Crook

Manu Joseph, The Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012)

In 1990s Madras, journalist Ousep Chacko spends his days trying to find out what caused his teenage son Unni to commit suicide three years ago.

All Ousep has to work with are a few of Unni’s comics (Unni having been a talented cartoonist), and the possibility of talking to Somen Pillai, an elusive former school friend of Unni’s. Elsewhere in Ousep’s life, his wife Mariamma is losing her grip on reality and sometimes wishes him dead; and his younger son Thoma is developing a crush on a neighbouring girl. Piecing what happened to Unni might be the only thing that could bring the family back together – that is, if it doesn’t pull them apart.
The plot of Manu Joesph’s second novel runs in ever increasing circles, revisiting old points to reveal a little more each time. We’re aware early on that Unni was at times disruptive at school; but the complete picture of how and why only emerges later, casting a different light on what we knew. Likewise, Unni’s worldview comes into focus only gradually, a tense and intriguing process. Added to this are some striking observations; for example: “From their dark windows and doorways people stand and gaze, looking bored, expecting a greater boredom to reach them; it is as if they know that the extraordinary does not exist.” The Illicit Happiness of Other People is an engaging read that leaves readers with plenty to think about afterwards.
(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)
J.R. Crook, Sleeping Patterns (2012)

Jamie Crook is the latest recipient of the Luke Bitmead Bursary for unpublished writers, which leads to a publishing contract with Legend Press; so here’s his winning novel, Sleeping Patterns. It’s presented as a set of story-fragments sent by a character named ‘Jamie Crook’ (deceased in the book’s present) to Annelie Strandli. The fragments tell of how Jamie and Annelie came to know each other as students, as well as a third student named Berry Walker. Annelie found herself drawn to Berry, an aspiring writer; but finding a hidden manuscript of his made her reconsider what she thought she knew.

Sleeping Patterns is a novel of piecing together the truth, on several levels. Just as Annelie constructs an image of Berry from the pieces of his manuscript, so the reader has to construct what happens in Crook’s novel from the textual fragments presented out of chronological order. There are hints in each layer of narrative that what we’re reading has been shaped for some other purpose, and secrets to uncover to the very end. That mystery keeps one reading, but Sleeping Patterns also gives cause to reflect on how far we can really know people, no matter how well we think we do. This is an intriguing start to Crook’s career, and it’ll be interesting to see what he writes next.

Sunday Story Society Reminder: “Atlantic City”

Sunday Story Society time is coming around again; this week, we’ll be talking about “Atlantic City” by Kevin Barry. The story is available to download here as a PDF from Thresholds, the University of Chichester’s International Short Story Forum.

“Atlantic City” is taken from Kevin Barry’s first collection, There Are Little Kingdoms (2007), which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Barry has since published a novel, City of Bohane (2011); and a second collection, Dark Lies the Island (2012). One of the stories from the latter, “Beer Trip to Llandudno”, won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.

Head back here on Sunday, when we’ll compare notes on “Atlantic City”.


Photo credit: © Copyright Mark Anderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
This building is Huddersfield Central Library. Strictly speaking, it’s not my local library (that would be a branch library, which I’m pleased still tohave); but it is the one I visit most often, and it’s where all my current loans are from. I don’t do that many library posts, but I thought it was a good time to go through what I’ve borrowed and why.

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country

I borrowed this because it’s the current monthly read of the NYRB Classics group on Goodreads, which I’d had recommended to me and wanted to join. OK, so the edition I borrowed was a Penguin one, but still… I’ve finished the book now, and rather enjoyed it: it tells of a soldier returned from the First World War, who takes on the job of uncovering a medieval wall-painting in a Yorkshire village church. Carr elegantly carries the theme of uncovering the hidden through to the novella’s relationships, and the whole is rather engaging.

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

Another Penguin Modern CIassic, set in a bizarre retirement home. I saw it on the same shelf as the Carr, had never heard of book or author – but it looked interesting. ‘One of the most original, joyful, satisfying and quietly original novels of the twentieth century,’ says Ali Smith on the back cover – sounds worth a read to me.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium

It’s been my intention for some time now to read M. John Harrison, because I never really have. Now I’m going to do it: the Viriconium omnibus first, then the Kefahuci Tract trilogy by next spring – because chances are that Empty Space will be shortlisted for the Clarke next year.

Dorothy Whipple, High Wages

A number of bloggers speak very highly of Persephone Books, who republish ‘neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers’ (says their website). I’ve never read one of their volumes myself, so when I saw this in the library, I thought I’d give it a try. The book itself is a very nicely-produced object; and the story – an exploration of retail in 1920s Lancashire – is something I wouldn’t generally go for, so I’ll be interested to see what it’s like.

Banana Yoshimoto, Hardboiled & Hard Luck

Another book I picked up on spec. Yoshimoto was on my list of authors I wanted to read; this double novella was on the shelves; so why not? I mean, that kind of serendipity is one of the great things about libraries, isn’t it?

(Post cross-linked to Library Loot on The Captive Reader.)

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