My review of the May issue of Apex Magazine is now up at The Portal. It’s a very strong issue, with great stories by Jeremy R. Butler, Annalee Newitz, and Will Ludwigsen. Unfortunately, Apex are currently switching servers, and the stories are not available to read online at the time of writing (though you can still buy the issue as an ebook).
The Portal are now carrying my review of Apex Magazine‘s April issues, which contains original stories by Michael J. Deluca and Eugie Foster, as well as reprinted pieces by Mike Allen and Jennifer Pelland. There’s some good stuff in that issue, and I do recomemnd you take a look.
My latest review for The Portal is now live, and it marks the start of my tenure as the site’s regular reviewer of Apex Magazine. This first review is of issues 21 and 22 (from February and March), where I select my favourite stories from across both issues. The authors of the pieces I discuss are Cat Rambo, Nalo Hopkinson, and Darin Bradley.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)
A combination of very recent UK publication (the end of March) and continued acclaim (most recently the Pultizer) means that this book has appeared quite suddenly on my radar; and, when I came to read it, I knew that it had been highly regarded, but not really what it was about. Now that I’ve finished it, I think A Visit From the Goon Squad is worth reading, but can’t see that it’s so excellent as to deserve all the plaudits.
The focus of Egan’s novel is a cluster of characters centred on a music mogul named Bennie Salazar, and his assistant Sasha. I say a ‘cluster’ because each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, at a different point in time, and we’ll see particular characters only in certain chapters (sometimes centrally, sometimes tangentially). The main theme is time (the ‘goon squad’ of the title), and how its passing changes people and crushes their dreams (‘I don’t know what happened to me,’ says one character to Bennie. ‘You grew up, Alex,’ he replies, ‘just like the rest of us’). The non-linear structure is particularly effective at showing this: without the imposition of the usual chronological order, one is encouraged to consider different stages of characters’ lives at the same time, as it were.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is also written in a multiplicity of styles; and, in general, those styles work well (even at their most unusual, such as a chapter in the form of Powerpoint slides). But I finished the novel that it didn’t have that extra spark that would life it out of the ‘good’ bracket and into the ‘great’.
Link: Jennifer Egan’s website.
Shireen Jilla, Exiled (2011)
Anna Weitzman is happy with her life in New York, married to Jessie, a British diplomat. But then a series of misunderstandings and minor incidents draws into question Anna’s ability as a mother to her young son Joshua, and the boy is placed under the guardianship of Jessie’s American stepmother Nancy, a wealthy socialite. As the life Anna knew begins to unravel, she becomes convinced that Nancy is behind it all.
What Shireen Jilla does particularly well in Exiled is create the unsettling sense of life slipping out of one’s control, as Anna struggles to navigate the increasingly treacherous waters in which she finds herself without really understanding how she got there. The great contrast between the world of New York and Anna’s old life in rural Kent is vividly drawn (for example, when Josh takes head-lice into his private school, what would have been accepted as a routine occurrence back in England now requires a specialist company to come in and treat her entire apartment). One feels Anna’s disorientation as she tries to understand the social forces working against her.
I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the ending, which unpicks the knots of uncertainty and confusion that have been created; but I guess it’s part of the nature of the story Jilla is telling that that must happen. Whatever, Exiled is well worth a read for the journey, and a fine debut for Shireen Jilla.
Nina Allan, ‘The Silver Wind’ (2011)
A new novella (published in issue 233 of Interzone) from a writer who always seems to have a refreshing take on the fantastic;‘The Silver Wind’ is no exception to that, as it takes some well-worn ideas and images and fashions them into something quite distinctive.
In a UK under the harsh rule of a nationalist dictatorship, Martin is a London estate agent who hears about Owen Andrews, a clockmaker who allegedly worked with the army on experiments involving time travel. Martin goes to see Andrews, thinking (or so he tells himself) that he might be able to find out how to avert the accidental death of his wife Miranda. But really he wants to know about Andrews, and discovers firstly that it’s not ‘time travel’ as such which is possible, but travel into different versions of reality; and secondly, that research into this phenomenon is ongoing, in a nearby military hospital. Martin goes out into the overgrown woods of Shooter’s Hill, is found by soldiers, and taken to that very hospital…
What is most striking to me about ‘The Silver Wind’ is the way that Allan roots even her most outlandish imaginings firmly in quotidian reality. The societal changes of the background are sketched in believably, and anchored by Allan’s very specific sense of place. Against this background, more preposterous concepts like time travel, and even archetypal images from fantasy and fairytale (such as the forest haunted by monsters – here occupied by escaped subjects from the hospital, who have been twisted by the experiments), become plausible because they are so firmly placed in context.
‘The Silver Wind’ is a very down-to-earth treatment of a theme that one might expect to be handled in precisely the opposite way (I haven’t really discussed the plotting, which is also strikingly low-key). One gains a sense of Allan as a writer firmly in command of her material and doing her own thing, which is a very exciting sense.
I must admit I’d never heard of Night and Day magazine before, but apparently it was published in 1937 by Chatto & Windus under the editorship of Graham Greene and John Marks, and lasted all of six months. The title has now been revived by Random House editors Parisa Ebrahimi and Tom Avery; the first issue (on the theme of ‘Reinvention’) was published online last week, and it is a lovingly crafted piece of work. The design is elegant, managing to feel both classic and contemporary; and the content sets a similar standard.
In any literary magazine, it’s the fiction that interests me most, so that is where I’ll start here. There are two stories in this issue of Night and Day, the first of which is ‘Hermie’ by Nathaniel Rich. A lecturer in marine biology is gathering his nerves before delivering his speech at a conference, when he finds a hermit crab in the toilets. This is not just any old crab, but Hermie, the talking crab who was one of our man’s imaginary friends as a boy. The two reminisce about old times, until the academic has to give his talk. Rich’s story is cleanly told, with no interest in making a song and dance about its featuring a talking crab; it works well as both an evocation of childhood, and as a metaphoric portrait of someone letting go and moving on in life.
I first came across Zachary Mason’s name last year, when Scott Pack enthused about his debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which (as its title suggests) reworks elements of the Odyssey. Mason’s piece here does something similar for Ovid’s story of Echo and Narcissus, interestingly inverting the tale so that Narcissus is the one who falls for Echo, whilst she remains aloof. It’s cleverly done, and makes one think again about the myths; I really must check out Mason’s novel.
The bulk of Night and Day is given over to non-fiction, and what really strikes me about this content is how accessible and rewarding it is, even when one is unfamiliar with the subject matter. For example, one of the features is an email dialogue between the novelists Chloe Aridjis and Ali Smith; I’ve never read anything by either of them, I don’t know any of the works to which they refer – but it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because the sheer joy and exuberance of the exchange (Smith:’ Plot for me veers between the Gunpowder kind and the kind marked out in cemeteries; it can explode, it’s underhand, it can be a kind of political fireworks, it’s the perfect place for a corpse.’) makes it a delight to read.
Elsewhere, we find Adam Thorpe writing about the challenges of translating Madame Bovary, which I found fascinating precisely because (rather than in spite of) the specific detail into which it goes. Tom Morton contributes a hilarious column as Samuel Johnson, describing various types of contemporary newspaper columnists (such as the ‘Pitchfork Wielder’: ‘When he implores “thou couldst not make it up”, the righteous Reader may counter “but Sir, that is the very North-Star of yr. CRAFT”’).
There’s also a column labelled ‘From the Archive’ describing ‘The Ideal Reader’ (‘He reads books. He buys books. He buys at least one a month. He would buy more if a) he could afford to, b) he had room to house them…’), in which I (very tentatively, and perhaps more hopefully) saw something of myself; and a ‘glossary for readers of reviews’ (‘ACHIEVEMENT, A considerable: Long book’), which made the reader in me smile even as the reviewer in me cringed.
Completing the issue are: an article on the history of Night and Day, by former Chatto publisher Jeremy Lewis; poet Paul Batchelor on Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry; an anonymous column on bookselling; Karen Russell on her writing habits; and Roddy Lumsden on the Eric Gregory Prize for young poets. I found Night and Day to be a very welcoming and entertaining magazine, and I wish it a long and healthy future.
Issue 1 of Night and Day is available to read and download here.
It’s always great to have a book come out of nowhere and surprise you: when I read David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide in 2009, I knew nothing about it or its author (probably wouldn’t have read it at all had I not won a copy in a competition) – and was in no way prepared for it to blow me away as it did. Of course, the flipside of this is that the same level of surprise isn’t possible when it comes to reading something else by the same author, and that will almost inevitably have an effect on how one reacts to that new work. So, when I say that Caribou Island – Vann’s latest book, and his first novel – didn’t have quite the same impact as Legend of a Suicide… well, perhaps it was never very likely to. That doesn’t, however, stop it from being a powerful piece of work in its own right.
Caribou Island is a portrait of two relationships under strain. Gary and Irene are about to move from the Alaskan mainland to Caribou Island, to fulfil Gary’s dream of building a cabin the old-fashioned way; Irene, by the way, wants nothing of this, but hasn’t had much say in the matter. Meanwhile, the couple’s daughter Rhoda is hoping to get married to her boyfriend, Jim – though Jim has rather taken a shine to Monique, a visiting friend of Rhoda’s brother. And Monique has apparently taken a shine to Jim, despite being in a relationship of her own.
Vann’s hallmarks from Legend of a Suicide are present here: a strong sense of place, coupled with a strong sense of physicality, the work it takes to live in such landscapes; and a skilful control of mood. Right there in the first paragraph is an example of how Vann can pull the reader up short, as Irene casualy tells Rhoda how, at the age of ten, she came home one day to find her mother’s hanging body – no lead-up, no drama, just matter-of-fact; it sets a tone for the novel of tragedy never being far from the surface.
The landscape of Alaska is also used to great effect in Caribou Island, as it reflects the differing concerns of the characters. For example, Gary, who was once studying for a doctorate in Scandinavian literature, seeks from Alaska a land, or a life, redolent of those earlier times he studied. In contrast, for Monique’s boyfriend Carl, Alaska is simply a place from which to escape, as it has done nothing but destroy his relationship. And when Jim goes on a helicopter tour of the area with Monique, he sees the familiar land anew, which echoes his restlessness.
The external world reflects the internal in other ways, too, the most prominent being Gary’s cabin, which he sees as being ‘the extension of a man, a form of his own mind’ – hence, it symbolises his relationship with Irene, and Gary is equally ill-equipped for both. I’m inclined to agree with William Rycroft that the symbolism is made that bit too obvious, and that having Irene think explicitly about how building the cabin could be a metaphor for her life is overdoing it; but the entire novel remains a highly elegant construction.
There are some nicely effective contrasts in Caribou Island, such as the irony of Irene’s embracing of the wilderness towards the end, just as Gary is realising some of the drawbacks of his desire for it; and the differing trajectories of Irene’s and Rhoda’s respective relationships. What also strikes me, though, is that many of the fundamental reasons for characters’ dissatisfactions remain hidden; for all that’s revealed, I think a lot is also left unsaid. The most content character in the book seems to be Rhoda’s brother Mark; he is also one of the most distant from the reader, suggesting how elusive true happiness is within the pages of Caribou Island. It’s a bleak book, yes, but also a beautiful one.
This month at The Portal, I review the November issue of Expanded Horizons, a webzine which seeks to “increase diversity in the field of speculative fiction, both in the authors who contribute and in the perspectives presented”. The authors featured in this issue are Malon Edwards, Zen Cho, Eliza Victoria, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Omar Zakaria, and Csilla Kleinheincz.
This weekend saw the launch of The Portal, a new website reviewing sf, fantasy and horror short fiction –both Anglophone and non. Besides its intrinsic interest, the site is relevant to my blog because I’m one of the contributors.
My first review for The Portal is of the September issue of the webzine Ideomancer, covering stories by Catherine Krahe, Lenora Rose, and Sandra Odell. The review is here, and the issue of Ideomancer under discussion is here.
Okay , so I’m reading Pen Pusher (‘Where new writing finds its voice’) for the first time – and a good read it is, too. It’s a varied selection of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction; but, as usual, I’ll be concentrating here on the prose fiction – which gives us:
Wayne Holloway-Smith, ‘Big Time’
An extract from the author’s debut novel, about one Dexter Hammond, who wants to be famous and thinks he’s found an unoccupied niche for a ‘rock ‘n’ roll preacher’. On the basis of this extract, Holloway-Smith’s novel is certainly one I’d want to read, because this is hilarious. Hammond is full of his own self-importance, and so desperate to be cool that one winces at seeing him try to emulate the latest-big-thing rock star, Tristan Rasclott – but, by the end of the piece, it’s starting to look as if Hammond might pull it off. I’ll be interested to read whether he does.
Grace Andreacchi, ‘Ikebana’
A short piece about a woman waiting at an ikebana demonstration for her older lover. There’s a subtlety and depth to this story, as Andreacchi portrays the doubts and conflicting emotions experienced by her protagonist. The woman’s changing attitudes to ikebana – at first, she thinks she’s not interested in it, then maybe she is, but maybe not – reflect her thoughts on her relationship. An insightful tale.
Ruth Davis, ‘End-of-Life Liaison’
This is a story about one of those things which one hopes will never happen, and which probably won’t, but to which there’s a certain nagging plausibility all the same. In this case, it’s that, in the face of continued pressure on resources because of an ageing population, anyone who reaches the age of 85 is compulsorily euthanised. It’s the routine way in which Davis’s fictional authorities handle this which makes the story particularly chilling – the policy has its own acronyms (such as ‘MPA’ or ‘Maximum Permitted Age’), and those approaching 85 are offered ‘End-of Life Counselling’. Davis’s tale follows one octogenarian, George Herbert, as he attends this counselling and unexpectedly presented with a possible way out. All is presented in a very down-to-earth manner, which gives the story its power.
Ross Sutherland, ‘Unexpected Flow’
During a school trip to London, young Connor ditches the rest of his party and wanders around Tate Modern, listening all the while to a Jay-Z album. This may not sound like much when I summarise it like that, but it’s the rhythm of Sutherland’s telling that makes the story work, with the rap lyrics acting as a counterpoint to the events. I could imagine ‘Unexpected Flow’ working very well as a short film.
Sarah Day, ‘Exposure’
A woman agrees to be the muse of an artist-geologist whom she knew as a child, and with whom she becomes reacquainted by chance as an adult, but it turns out to be a bad idea. This is a carefully written piece that builds up detail to create an effective study of both the narrator and the artist.
Michael Amherst, ‘What I Feel’
Another good character study, this time of a man who struggles to feel to feel any emotion about anything, and is now present when a woman falls from a railway platform and is run over by a train. The twist in the story is perhaps no great surprise; but that’s less important than the cold tone of the prose, which brings the character to life vividly.
Elsewhere in this issue of Pen Pusher, we find: a selection of poetry; some interesting reviews; an interview with Diana Athill, which makes me want to read her work; an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, which would make me want to read her work, except I’ve already done so and know how good it is; a superb non-fiction piece by Susan Barker about her time staying in China whilst studying Mandarin; Paul Francis’s reflective graphic tale, ‘Tidalism’; a list of literary quotations about horses; and even more besides.
A short tale, told in diary form, of a scientist working at a polar weather station, who is slowly driven mad by a constant humming noise. The story works well enough in showing how the protagonist loses his grip on reality, as his diary entries become ever more frantic; but I think it falls down towards the end, because the supernatural interpretation that’s offered doesn’t quite convince, making it hard to accept the ambiguity for which Preston seems to be aiming. Almost there, but not quite.
This story appears in Black Static 16. Read all my posts about that issue here.