CategoryShukla Nikesh

Reading round-up: early September

Time for another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace (2014)

Nikesh Shukla’s follow-up to Coconut Unlimited is another exploration of how personal identities are shaped, this time revolving around the online world. Kitab Balasubramanyam is a writer who performs better on social media than he does in real life. Having lost his job and girlfriend, he’s drifting along – until a namesake who’s found him on the internet pays a visit, and his brother goes off to the US to find someone with the same tattoo. Shukla gradually reveals just how much Kitab is struggling to find stability for himself, and the lengths to which he’s prepared to go for it. Published by The Friday Project.

MalvaldiMarco Malvaldi, The Art of Killing Well (2011)

Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis, 2014

In 1895, Italy’s first cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, takes a break from his travels at the castle of Barine di Roccapendente – only for his rest to be disrupted when a body is found in the cellar. This is a rather jolly and enjoyable murder mystery, whose waspish third-person narrator takes swipes at the aristocratic characters, and makes arch comments about writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. The tongue-in-cheek quality of Marco Malvadi’s prose keeps it on the right side of charming, and I definitely want to more by him. Published by MacLehose Press.

Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story (1988)

Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie, 1990

This is a short book about the life of the Annie Ernaux’s mother, but it’s not a straightforward memoir. It engages with the author’s deep-seated feeling that she needed to write about her mother, and the inevitable limits to what she could achieve by doing so. There’s a real power in the underlying themes of change and loss. Published by Quartet Books.

Royle

Nicholas Royle (ed.), The Best British Short Stories 2014

The fourth entry in Salt Publishing’s annual anthology series. It’s a varied mix: there are writers whose work I’m familiar with and admire, such as M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, and Stuart Evers. Then there others who were unknown to me: there’s David Grubb, whose ‘Roof Space’ tells poignantly of the relationship of a father and son by way of their model railway. In ‘Ladies’ Day’, Vicki Jarrett examines how a group of young mothers are searching for a new sense of direction in life, focused through a day at the races. ‘Guests’ is Joanne Rush’s first published story, and I hope there will be many more, as this one is superb: the tale of a woman whose house becomes filled with the ghosts of war dead while her husband is working in Bosnia. Whatever your taste in short fiction, there should be something to intrigue in here.

José Carlos Llop, The Stein Report (1995)

Translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis, 2014

1960s Majorca: Guillermo Stein is a newcomer at school, mysteriously different from the other boys. A group of his schoolmates tries to find out more about him; what they discover goes far beyond the life of one individual. What makes The Stein Report work for me is the sense of friction between the worlds of adults and children. The schoolboys’ world is complete to them; they know its contours. But when investigating Stein gives them a partial window on the adult world, we see just how much they still have to learn. Published by Hispabooks.

MaineSarah Maine, Bhalla Strand (2014)

In 2010, Hetty Deveraux visits her inheritance – an old house gone to seed in the Outer Hebrides – and uncovers human remains while repairing the place. A hundred years earlier, Hetty’s ancestor Beatrice marries the owner of Bhalla House, painter Theodore Blake. An intriguing mystery unfolds between the two timelines, but perhaps strongest of all is Sarah Maine’s evocation of the raw Hebridean landscape and the lives of its inhabitants. Published by Frieght Books.

Andrew Crofts, Confessions of a Ghostwriter (2014)

I really liked the idea of this latest title in The Friday Project’s Confessions series; it promised to open a part of the book world that we don’t usually get to see. And so it does – though only to an extent, naturally. Andrew Crofts mixes tales of his encounters with celebrities, politicians, and others with a story to tell; and entries on the day-to-day of the writing life. It’s an interesting combination that reveals a varied professional life; Crofts’ enthusiasm for what he does is palpable.

Neil Williamson, The Moon King (2014)

I reviewed Neil Williamson’s debut story collection way back in 2006; now he’s followed it up with a first novel. The Moon King looks rather different from much of Williamson’s short fiction, but it has the same dextrous approach to the fantastic. In a city whose inhabitants’ temperaments change with the phases of the moon, Anton Dunn wakes one day to find himself closer to the centre of power than he ever thought he’d be. There’s a vein of strangeness running through this novel that adds an extra dimension to an already intriguing story. Published by Newcon Press.

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.

Favourite books of 2010

As the year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking over all the books I’ve read and picking out my favourites. And here they are, my favourite dozen from the year (all published for the first time in 2010, or older books receiving their first UK publication this year) — in alphabetical order of author surname:

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers

I didn’t know what to expect when I read this book, and it turned out to be a simply stunning debut. Bennett’s fusion of fantasy, horror and historical fiction is a smart book that uses its fantasy to comment on the period.

Shane Jones, Light Boxes

This tale of a balloon-maker’s war on February is constructed from story-fragments that add up to a marvellously strange whole. It works on about three different levels at once, but resists being pinned down to a single interpretation. A beautiful little jewel of a book.

Simon Lelic, Rupture

A perceptive and well-written novel chronicling the investigation into a school shooting committed by an apparently mild-mannered teacher.

Emily Mackie, And This Is True

A sharp study of a boy who has grown uncomfortably close to his father, and the pressures exerted on him when the life he has known begins to change.

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A near-future Istanbul is the setting for this sprawling-yet-elegant tale of six interlocking lives, and the wider structures and systems of which they are a part.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

A vast boarding-school comedy with added theoretical physics. Murray’s novel has huge ambitions, and achieves them brilliantly. It reads like a book half its length, and its sheer range is astonishing.

Véronique Olmi, Beside the Sea

A very strong launch title for Peirene Press, this is an intense study of a mother taking her two children to the seaside — an apparently ordinary surface that hides much darker depths.

Adam Roberts, New Model Army

This tale of armies run of democratic principles is both a cutting examination of warfare, and a novel that left me with a feeling that I genuinely cannot describe.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë

The very powerful story of a girl’s abduction and captivity. Exquisite prose, acute characterisation, and masterfully-controlled narrative flow.

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and deservedly so. An intense and beautifully written novel of Arctic exploration and the parallels between two couples living a century apart.

Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited

One of the funniest books I read all year, this tale of three Asian boys at an otherwise all-white public school is also an acute portrait of adolescence and the ways in which people try to build identities for themselves.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

A novel that ably switches states between time-travel metafiction and examination of its protagonist’s relationship with his father, interrogating and blurring genre boundaries as it goes.

And three great reads from previous years…

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

The brilliant tale of the mental chess-game between a psychotherapist and her patient who can apparently predict disasters — which proves equally adept at being a thriller in its later stages.

Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)

A man begins to write a fictionalised autobiography… and an account by a version of himself in a different reality vies for space in the same book — which, if either, is ‘real’? Nothing is certain in this novel by the reliably excellent Priest.

Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009)

A beautiful story of survival and endurance set in a near-future Siberia.

Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited (2010)

Nikesh Shukla’s first novel is the story of Amit; he and his friends Anand and Nishant are the only Asian boys at their private school in early 1990s Harrow. They find themselves struggling to be accepted anywhere: their ethnicity marks them out as different at school, and their schooling marks them out as different amongst the other Asian kids in town. The boys find refuge in a shared love of rap, and decide to start their own hip-hop band, which they name Coconut Unlimited (after Amit’s sister, Nish, calls him a coconut – ‘white on the inside, brown on the outside’ [p. 28]). They just need a bit of practice first. Okay, maybe a lot of practice…

This is such a great book, so sharply observed and amusing. At one level, Coconut Unlimited captures gloriously the awkward moments of adolescence. There’s a wonderful scene where, on a family trip to London, Amit is desperate to buy some baggy jeans, and his mum takes charge, dragging him into a streetwear shop and demanding to know where the jeans are… it makes one’s toes curl in empathy. Amit’s first kiss also runs far from smoothly: he doesn’t quite know what to do with his tongue, the experience feels quite strange… These and other moments are vivid demonstrations of the choppy waters through which the teenage Amit is voyaging.

On another level, Shukla’s novel is an acute portrait of putting on a mask in the aim of being perceived in a certain way, and finding that mask uncomfortable to wear. Unable to reconcile the two cultures he’s caught between, Amit tries to define himself by a third; he’s drawn to the glamour of hip-hop, but doesn’t embrace it wholeheartedly. Amit will put on an accent and use street slang, but wants nothing to do with real crime, and is distinctly out of his depth when dealing with local ‘badboy’ Ash (‘the closest thing to ghetto in my life’ [p. 83]). He’s keen to show off his knowledge (real or pretended) of hip-hop as a way of constructing a persona, but is wrong-footed when he meets a new Asian lad at school who seems to know more about the genre than he does. Amit will criticise his sister for the way she lives her life (‘So insular. All her friends were Gujarati. All her references were Indian’ [p. 70]), and he’ll observe that his mother’s sense of having struggled in life is crucial to her notion of self-worth (‘She thought it made her more humble, when in fact it gave her a feeling of martyrdom’ [p. 72]) – but he can’t see the parallels between those and how he’s using hip-hop culture in his life.

There’s a bittersweet note to the story, in that we know from the prologue that the band doesn’t land, and Amit ends up with a comfortable, middle-class English life. But having that knowledge in the back of one’s mind makes for an effective counterpoint to the main narrative, and the journey through the book is highly enjoyable.

Throughout Coconut Unlimited, Amit repeats that he wants his band to be pretty cool. Well, the band might be pretty cool, but the novel is way cooler than that.

Elsewhere
Nikesh Shukla’s website
Metro interview with Shukla
Some other reviews of Coconut Unlimited: Winstonsdad’s Blog; GQ.
Quartet Books

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