We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.Continue reading
I’m always fascinated by the differences in book covers between countries. The Millions runs an annual feature comparing US and UK cover art, and a similar post appeared on Flavorwire a few days ago. I’ve decided to do a cover post of my own, with some of the books I’ve featured on this blog.
(UK covers are on the left, US covers on the right; title links go to my reviews of the books, for context.)
Diving Belles – Lucy Wood
The UK cover indicates folklore and the sea; it’s nice enough, but feels perhaps a little too obvious. The US cover, I think, captures the deeper heart of the book – that mixture of domesticity and sinister magic; I especially love the way that the stairs shade into abstract geometry. Winner: US
The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka
Two broadly similar treatments here, with the red parasol as focus. I think the closed parasol in the case evokes the novel’s themes better. Winner: UK
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry – B.S. Johnson
The covers of the most recent editions. There’s a simple elegance to both, but for me the disintegrating ledger is a little too literal, especially compared with the boldness of the UK cover. Winner: UK
The Longshot – Katie Kitamura
I like the composition of both these covers, but the image of the fighter and his trainer walking away makes it look as though their job is done. The clenched fists of the US cover evoke the tension and violence which are at the novel’s core. Winner: US
The Still Point – Amy Sackville
Oh, there’s no contest here: the paper cut-out look of the UK cover is gorgeous; the US cover doesn’t come close for me. Winner: UK
Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord
The composition of the US cover is elegant, but I think the UK cover better evokes the tone of the book (tricksy-but-serious) . Winner: UK
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu
Hmm. Yu’s novel plays with the conventions of both sf and mainstream ‘literary fiction’, which is captured nicely by the UK cover, with its ordered arrangement of laser guns. But it’s also a playful novel, and that spirit is evoked by the US cover, made to look like an old manual, complete with ‘creased’ cover obscuring the publicity quotes. I can’t choose one over the other. Winner: it’s a draw.
Communion Town – Sam Thompson
I’m not sure either of these covers really captures the essence of Thompson’s book, but the UK one wins out for me as being more intriguing and distinctive., turning a map into abstract art. (Incidentally, this is the cover of the UK hardback; the paperback cover, like the US one, goes down the less-interesting ‘murky skyscraper’ route.) Winner: UK
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Robin Black
Well, I don’t think the UK cover is very interesting at all. The US cover is not great, but the paint effect is a nice touch, and the title is used well within the composition. Winner: US
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
Wow. What a difference in treatment. I love nigh on everything about the UK cover (it looks even better on the physical object). The US cover is too specific to suit the novel’s air of ambiguity, and just isn’t as well conceived as the more stylised version. Winner: UK
It’s that time of year again, for looking back over what I’ve read and picking out the highlights. In previous years, I’ve limited my list to books published in the year in question, or split it equally between old and new titles. For 2012, I’m just doing a straightforward list of my favourite twelve reads of the year, regardless of when they were first published.
So, in alphabetical order of author surname, here they are:
Adrian Barnes, Nod
Telling of a battle of words and perceptions in contemporary Vancouver, this is a dystopian novel with the nervous energy of a new world still being negotiated, and a keen sense of its own precariousness. It never feels as though it’s about to settle.
M. John Harrison, Viriconium
Possibly the ultimate anti-escapist fantasy (and almost certainly the only major work of fantastic literature to be set partly in my home town of Huddersfield). In this collection of novels and stories, it’s fantasy that does the escaping, leaving readers and characters alike scrabbling at mirrors.
Katie Kitamura, The Longshot
The tale of a mixed martial artist heading for one last shot at glory. This short novel is as taut and focused as a winning fighter; it’s a brilliant unity of form and subject.
Jonathan Lee, Joy
A fine character study of a successful young lawyer who attempts to take her own life in front of her work colleagues, and of other key figures in her life. Lee has superb control of voice and tone, and the whole novel is a great pleasure to read.
Simon Lelic, The Child Who
Here, by coincidence, is another incisive character study focusing on a lawyer – this time the solicitor defending a twelve-year-old accused of murder whom he (and everyone else) knows is guilty. This unusual angle enables Lelic to give certain key scenes an unexpected texture, and to give a complex picture of the issues he raises.
Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo
A Senegalese folktale spliced with quantum physics. A morality tale whose only moral is that the reader should decide on one for herself. An examination of choice wrapped up in a glorious piece of storytelling that knows just when to turn on itself.
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
A chorus of narrators tells the story (and stories) of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who go to the US at the start of the last century, and their descendants. Otsuka’s short novel is a beautiful composition whose focus shifts elegantly back and forth between a wider and more individual view.
Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child
An anti-detective novel in which any semblance of narrative or coherence dissipates as soon as you look. Its pieces are brought together into a whole by superb writing and Ridgway’s distinctive aesthetic.
Adam Roberts, Jack Glass
Read during my ongoing semi-hiatus, this novel brings together Golden Age detective fiction and science fiction, and interrogates them. It is very much alive to the limitations and shortcomings of those types of fiction, but still plays fair with the reader. (See Jonathan McCalmont’s masterful review for more on the book.)
Zadie Smith, NW
A collage of a novel that examines the connections between several characters’ lives in north-west London. Smith goes through several different styles and approaches in NW, but all combine successfully in this insightful read.
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
A deeply unsettling piece of work that turns the concept of the murder mystery on its head and – perhaps even more effectively – puts a dark twist on the notion of a character study. This is the sort of novel that makes me want to explore the rest of its author’s œuvre.
Lucy Wood, Diving Belles
My favourite debut of the year, this collection brings Cornish folklore into the present day. These stories are by turns amusing, mysterious and evocative; I can’t wait to see what Wood writes next.
This will be my last blog post of 2012. Wherever you are, I’d like to thank you for reading and wish you well for the coming year. See you again in 2013.
Today’s the day when Simon and Gav of The Readers podcast focus on Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo in their Summer Book Club series. I joined them as a guest in the discussion part of the episode, which you can hear after an interview with Lord Gav’s and Simon’s own thoughts. And here’s a review of the book from me…
Redemption in Indigo is Karen Lord’s interpretation/extension of a Senegalese folktale. We begin with the gluttonous Ansige tracking down his wife Paama, who had left him; after being tricked and humiliated three times by djombi (spirit creatures, ‘gods’), Ansige takes his leave. That’s where the traditional folktale ends. Lord then continues Paama’s story by having a djombi present her with the Chaos Stick, an artefact which can manipulate the small possibilities of chaos – and Paama uses it with some skill. But the Chaos Stick was stolen from another djombi, the indigo lord, who rather wants it back; he takes Paama on a journey to show her the dangers of the chaos stick – but ends up learning lessons of his own as well.
Lord’s novel is written as though being spoken aloud by a storyteller, and this unknown narrator frequently interjects to address the reader directly; as here, when a djombi (in the form of a spider) makes itself known to human characters for the first time:
I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase “I am a pawnbroker” in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting. (pp. 20-1)
I just love this: it says to readers that they must accept the book on its own terms, must take the time to appreciate how it works. This kind of interjection would normally derail a novel completely, but it’s integral to the project of Redemption in Indigo; and, once you get into the rhythm of the book, I think it’s nigh-on impossible not to be carried along.
Redemption in Indigo balances traditional roots with what feels a very contemporary take on the folktale form.For one thing, Lord includes modern details – antacid chews, buses – in a setting that nevertheless seems timeless; it doesn’t feel forced or strange that she has done this – it’s just that the specific temporal markers are largely irrelevant. Redemption in Indigo also feels contemporary because it has underpinnings in quantum physics. That’s the level on which the Chaos Stick works, and the indigo lord is keen to show Paama that tiny changes can have far-reaching – and sometimes unintended – consequences. It’s an archetypal ‘character learns better’ scenario, but placed in a scientific framework.
So the plot of Lord’s novel is all about choices and having multiple options; but this theme is embedded even deeper in the text. The narrator is at pains to point out that this story has a moral, but rather less eager be specific what that moral is. The tale is left open, in terms of what we are to think about it (‘I have no way of knowing which of these characters will most capture your attention and sympathy,’ pp. 265-6) and its ending (‘Do I have more stories to tell? There are always more stories,’ p. 266) – but even that isn’t left to stand, as the epilogue brings a more novelistic conclusion. As in quantum theory, multiple possibilities exist within the text, yet to collapse into something definitive.
Redemption in Indigo is a novel of contradictions: written yet spoken; defiantly ragged but carefully controlled; a book that swears to your face it’s didactic whilst telling you to nothing but make up your own mind. It embraces yet subverts the folktale form by giving its comic beginning a certain dramatic weight by the end, and turning its characters (both human and djombi) into rounded individuals who can learn from and teach each other in equal measure. And it’s enormous fun to read; heartily recommended.