CategoryYu Charles

Comparing Book Covers: UK vs US

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

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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

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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

 cmuk  cmus

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

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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

 spuk  spus

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

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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

 hluk  hlus

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

 ctuk  ctus

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

 iluk  ilus

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

 sbuk  sbus

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

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.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010)

One of the things for which fantastic fiction is particularly good is dramatising metaphors – and, more than that, creating texts that can be read equally productively at both metaphorical and literal levels (Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett is a good example from earlier this year). Charles Yu’s debut, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, does this, but it also goes further, dramatising science fiction itself as a literary mode.

Yu’s protagonist is himself named Charles Yu (from now on, I’ll refer to the protagonist as ‘Charles’ and the author as ‘Yu’), a time machine repair-man living in, yes, a science fictional universe – which is to say, one built so its inhabitants could enjoy the sorts of adventurous lives one reads about in sf, but which could never be possible in mundane reality. (The thing is, though, the construction of this minor universe was imperfect, and only those who can afford it get to live in the sf-nal part.) Charles has one of the ‘back room’ jobs needed to keep his universe running smoothly, and, when he’s not on a call, spends most of his time (such as the concept applies to someone who lives outside the usual chronological flow) in his phone-booth-sized TM-31 time machine, with no company but a dog that sort of exists, but only on a technicality; his time machine’s gloomy AI; and the occasional call from his boss, who’s virtual but doesn’t know it. He also reflects a lot on his relationship with his father, who invented the time travel technology, and has now gone… somewhere.

One of the golden rules of Charles’s profession is: if you ever see another version of yourself, run. Well, Charles has seen a future version of himself, but he shot him, thereby trapping himself in a time loop. Before he died, that future version handed Charles a book and told him that the key was inside. The title of that book was How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

In Yu’s novel, time travel is linked explicitly with Charles’s issues with his father; as he solves the problem of the time loop, the protagonist is simultaneously working out how to deal with and move forward from those personal issues. But How to Live Safely would be a pretty thin read if that were also there was to it; happily, there is much more. Yu, it seems to me, is examining the value and the limitations of both science fiction and ‘literary’ fiction (quotation marks because I don’t personally see those two as entirely separate, but we’ll go with the difference here, because science-fictionality and ‘reality’ are different in the novel). The time travellers who provide Charles’s bread and butter don’t have as much power as they think, because it’s not possible to change the past in the science fictional universe, however hard they try. The way Charles solves his problem is effectively a fusion of the two modes, as he relives his memories as an outside observer, before a return to science-fictionality slots the pieces together.

The novel’s dialogue between modes is also reflected at the level of prose, as Yu blurs the line between the scientific and emotional aspects of his book by using scientific language in his descriptions. For example:

Our house was a collection of silences, each room a mute, empty frame, each of us three oscillating bodies (Mom, Dad, me) moving around in our own curved functions, from space to space, not making any noise, just waiting, waiting to wait, trying, for some reason, not to disrupt the field of silence, not to perturb the delicate equilibrium of the system. (p. 34)

Yu creates some quite powerful effects in How to Live Safely. One scene that I think works particularly well is when Charles visits his mother, who is currently living in her own repeating hour-long bubble of time, and there are echoes of a parent’s being abandoned in a home (‘I don’t like it in here,’ Charles’s mother tells him. ‘Why did you stick me in here? Can you please take me out? I don’t like it in here’ [p. 81]). And such moments are nicely balanced out by the playfulness elsewhere in the book, the humour in Charles’s situation, and the way Yu handles the self-referentiality of the book in our hands purportedly being one that Charles himself has written. There’s a lot to enjoy in How to Live Safely, and a lot to think about afterwards.

Elsewhere
Radio interview with Charles Yu on KCRW
Adam Roberts reviews How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe in The Guardian

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