CategoryNess Patrick

Reading round-up: early June

More snapshots of some of the books I’ve read lately:

Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (2013). Fortysomething George Duncan removes an arrow from the wing of a crane which has mysteriously appeared in his garden… then falls in love with a woman named Kumiko who visits his print shop the next day. But what follows is not so simple as “Kumiko is the crane” – she becomes the missing piece in more than one character’s life, and highlights how others do the same. The Crane Wife is a neat exploration of love and communication; I especially like the subtle ways that Ness alters the style and tone of his dialogue, depending on which characters are in conversation.

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009; translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, 2013). The latest Peirene Press title centres on Thomas Davies, non-religious gardener to Charles Darwin, who wonders what is left to live for after his wife has died. Carlson’s prose swoops in and out of the minds of various inhabitants of Downe village, examining their faith and slowly revealing their own personal doubts. The lines between faith as a belief and a way of life blur, as do notions of living for this world or the next, in a complex portrait.

Meike Ziervogel, Magda (2013). And here is the first novel by the founder of Peirene Press. It’s a composite of story-chapters, in various voices and styles, about Magda Goebbels, her mother Auguste, and eldest daughter Helga. Ziervogel ddepicts Magda as a girl given the fear of God at convent school; a woman who sees in Hitler what she had been searching for; and a mother preparing to kill her children. She also traces the psychological changes in her characters over the generations, in an interesting piece of work.

Rupert Christiansen, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (2013). The son of two journalists, Christiansen is himself a newspaper opera and dance critic. In this memoir, he attempts to unpick the story of his parents’ divorce (his father left when Christiansen was a young child; the last time that the author never saw him was at the age of five). Christiansen is frank that this is an act exploration for him as much as one of recollection; but he creates vivid vignettes, whatever he turns to (I particularly appreciated his depiction of the ambivalence of growing up in suburban London). Christiansen’s story is compelling, and his prose a joy to read.

Clarke Award 2011: in review

When it was first announced, I speculated that we had a very strong Clarke Award shortlist this year, with no duds. Now that I’ve read the list entirely, I regret to say it is not so; the book I want to jettison first, Tim Powers’ Declare, falls squarely into the please-oh-please-anything-but-this category. To explain why I think it shouldn’t win, I could suggest that the thought of a ten-year-old book winning the Clarke, technically eligible though it may be, strikes me as rather odd. I could also suggest that Declare shouldn’t win because it is science fiction by only the most tenuous of definitions. But I don’t have to do either of those in the end, because Declare puts itself out of the running for me simply by being a poor novel. True, there is some interest, some effective pieces of fantastication, in its hybrid of fantasy and Cold War spy thriller; but all that is buried in far too much clumsily-deployed research which thickens the narrative until it becomes unpalatably stodgy. I really don’t see that Declare merits a place on the Clarke shortlist, let alone the top spot.

Although I’ve read all six shortlisted titles, there are two I had hoped to re-read before the Clarke announcement. I haven’t had, and won’t now get, the opportunity to do so, which means I’ll have to rely on my original impressions for those books, which are the next two I’d remove from consideration. I didn’t quite know what to make of Tricia Sullivan’s Lightbornwhen I read it last year; though I liked the book and remain glad to have read it, there were aspects of it, large and small, that I couldn’t puzzle out (the decision to set it in an alternate present rather than the future, to name just one). The Torque Control discussion of Lightborn suggested to me that Sullivan’s novel was riffing off quite a few things that were outside my sphere of knowledge, so it might well be the case that I’m missing the key that would otherwise unlock the book for me. But I don’t think Lightborn comes together well enough to win the Clarke, and my sense is that knowing more about the novel’s  reference points wouldn’t change that opinion drastically, so out of the balloon it goes.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness is the only title here which I didn’t really read with a critical eye. I loved The Knife of Never Letting Go when I read it in 2009; read the sequel  later that year, and, though I liked it,  didn’t think it quite as successful and did not review it; then read this final volume of Chaos Walking towards the end of last year, not expecting to write about it. That makes my opinion of Monsters of Men more tentative than those of the other books; for what it’s worth, my impression of the novel is that it has the same narrative energy and brilliant use of voice as its predecessors – and that it creates a stronger sense of otherness than any other book on the shortlist – but it doesn’t have the thematic depth of The Knife of Never Letting Go. I’ll acknowledge that I may be seriously misjudging Monsters of Men here, but I would take it out of contention at this point.

Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City is a fine portrait of a place, namely a version of Johannesburg in which those who have transgressed (the exact criteria for which are unknown) gain an animal familiar and a special ability. Whatever impression that description might give, though, Zoo City is the least overtly fantastical work on the shortlist; Beukes is far less concerned with displaying the fantastical phenomenon than with examining the world that has emerged from it, and she does that latter superbly. The ending is the novel’s weak point, but the journey to that point is strong enough to make up for it. I’m pretty sure that Lauren Beukes will win the Clarke one year, but I don’t think it will be this year – simply because two books on the shortlist are even better.

Now it gets really difficult. Generosity by Richard Powers is in many ways a wonderful book, with its examination of the intersection between science, humanity, and stories (in a neat example of how artificial is the divide between sf and ‘mainstream’ fiction, Generosity is the only mainstream-published title on the shortlist, yet also the most overtly ‘scientific’), and its exploration of ethics, as a woman has to decide whether to sell her genes, which may hold the secret to human happiness. Generosity contains some beautiful writing, and leaves one with a great deal to think over. It would surely be a worthy Clarke winner, yet the story is not quite as strong as the themes, and there’s another book in which it is

So, finally, to The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. In its portrait of a near-future Istanbul, it has a brilliant sense of place, like Zoo City; in its examination of systems beneath and beyond the world as experienced in individual lives, it has a thematic richness like that of Generosity. But both aspects of The Dervish House are richer than those of the other books; and McDonald’s novel combines them with a stronger narrative and better prose. The Dervish House is a superlative novel, the fullest achievement on the Clarke shortlist. Whilst I’d be happy enough to see any of the books bar Declare take the Award – whilst all five of those novels are worth reading – it’s ian McDonald whose novel I think most deserves the Clarke, and his name which I hope will be read out at the ceremony next Wednesday.

Links
Further Clarke shortlist round-ups (to be expanded as I come across them):
Niall Harrison
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons: Part 1; Part 2.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2011: The Shortlist

The speculation was fun (though I was only a third right), but now the real journey begins, as this year’s Clarke Award shortlist has been announced. It’s a fascinating and exciting list:

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (Angry Robot)

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (Gollancz)

Patrick Ness, Monsters of Men (Walker)

Richard Powers, Generosity (Atlantic)

Tim Powers, Declare (Corvus)

Tricia Sullivan, Lightborn (Orbit)

(Links above are to reviews of mine.)

Some general thoughts: I’m glad that sf by women has made such a strong showing on the list. It’s good to see such a diversity of publishers, and I like that four of the authors are first-time Clarke nominees. It’s also an interesting combination of nationalities (four American writers, one from the UK, one from South Africa).

I’ve said all along that The Dervish House was a dead cert for the shortlist, and so it has proved, giving McDonald his fourth Clarke nomination (though he has never won). It’s also no surprise (in a good way!) to see Zoo City and Lightborn nominated – both fine sf titles from last year; Lauren Beukes gets her first Clarke nod, and Tricia Sullivan her third (one of which led to a win, for Dreaming in Smoke in 1999).

The other three novels on the list are perhaps more unusual nominees, and therefore deserve a little more introduction here. Monsters of Men is the third volume in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, which – rarely for the Clarke Award – is YA fiction. Regardless of this, the Chaos Walking books are well worth the time of adult readers; it’s a pleasure to see this excellent series gaining such recognition.

Richard Powers is an author who has been on the barest fringes of my consciousness; I’m not even sure whether or not he is routinely identified as a writer of science fiction (not that it matters, of course). Generosity, in which the genetic basis for happiness is discovered, sounds interesting; and Paul Kincaid’s glowing review at Strange Horizons makes me even keener to read the novel.

Declare is probably the most surprising novel on the shortlist, because it dates from as far back as 2000. Tim Powers has been out of print in this country for many years, but his alternate-world Cold War spy novel finally received its first British publication last year, which made it eligible for the Clarke. It comes with a strong reputation (it won the World Fantasy Award, for one thing), and I very much look forward to reading it.

***

On a personal note, the shortlist presents me with ‘interesting’ questions over how to blog it, because I’ve read four of the books but only actually reviewed two of them. Zoo City and The Dervish House are already written up, and linked to above. Generosity and Declare are new to me, so those books will be my priority. And the other two…

I took part in the Torque Control discussion on Lightborn last December, and it was clear to me at the time that I lacked the frame of reference to do the novel justice. I probably still don’t have the frame of reference, but I would be interested to return to Lightborn in light of the discussion, and see what more I can find.

I’ve read all three of the Chaos Walking books, but only reviewed The Knife of Never Letting Go because, though I liked the later volumes, I didn’t feel I had enough to say about them. At this stage, I honestly don’t know whether I will revisit Monsters of Men, as these are all pretty hefty tomes, and I don’t know whether I’ll have time for all of them. We shall see.

***

Finally, some thoughts on the shortlist as a whole. The overall quality of the list strikes me as very high indeed. If I wanted to demonstrate to someone the vibrancy, vitality and quality of sf as a literary form, I could hand them the books on this shortlist. I also think that – perhaps more so than is usual for a Clarke shortlist – these books go well together as a set; I think we’ll find some interesting commonalities and contrasts to discuss amongst them. I look forward to seeing how those discussions unfold as we count down to the announcement of the winner on 27th April.

UPDATE, 28th April: Read my thoughts on the winner here.

2009 favourites

It’s been a good year for reading, watching and listening, I think; so here’s a look at my favourite books, movies and music of 2009.

BOOKS

Here are my favourite books whose first publication was in 2009, with links to my reviews. (NB. The order isn’t meant to be too strict; all these books are warmly recommended.)

1. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

My favourite book of 2009 is an extraordinary work of literature which examines the masks people wear and the shows people put on in life, against the background of a school scandal. Catton doesn’t put a foot wrong, and the result is a novel that’s both highly experimental and compulsively readable.

2. Keith Brooke, The Accord

Brooke is, in my opinion, a vastly under-appreciated writer; this story of a virtual afterlife is the best of his works that I’ve read. The Accord works on so many levels: as a novel of ideas, as a novel of character, as a thriller, as an experiment in style… It’s a heady concoction that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

3. Rana Dasgupta, Solo

An elderly Bulgarian man looks back on his life in the first half of this novel, then dreams of a new life for an old friend in the second. A beautifully written, richly rewarding book.

4. Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

At the behest of Stalin, a group of science fiction writers dream up an outlandish enemy for communism, and discover that the truth is uncomfortably close. Enormous fun, and a feast for the imagination.

5. Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

A powerful fairytale about the difficulty of looking life in the eye, and the possible consequences of not doing so. A deserved co-winner of the World Fantasy Award.

6. Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

A deeply atmospheric detective story whose heart beats with a unique strangeness.

7. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide

A mosaic portrait of a father’s suicide, with a strong sense of place and a sharp eye for character. A unique work of literature.

8. Conrad Williams, One

Williams evokes the profound horror of apocalypse whilst maintaining an intensely personal focus. Harrowing, but powerful.

9. A.C. Tillyer, An A-Z of Possible Worlds

Twenty-six individually bound portraits of what-if. The most beautifully made book of the year, with stories to match.

10. Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

A quiet, insightful tale of silence between fathers and sons, and the consequences of leaving things unspoken.

11. China Miéville, The City & the City

A murder mystery set in overlapping cities, and a fascinating fusion of fantasy and crime fiction.

12. Trevor Byrne, Ghosts and Lightning

A young man returns to Dublin after the death of his mother, and struggles to anchor his life. Well written and nicely observed.

And the best from previous years…

Ken Grimwood, Replay (1986)

A perfectly constructed and beautifully observed tale of a life lived over and over again in different ways. This is an absolute jewel of a book which I am enormously glad to have read this year.

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)

A marvellous coming-of-age (or beginnings thereof) story told in a brilliantly realised voice. A page-turner of depth and richness.

FILMS

Though I didn’t intend it to happen, I got somewhat out of the habit of watching films in the latter half of 2009, so my view of the cinematic year is a bit skewed. But my favourite film from 2009 was a brilliant British fantasy called Franklyn; and, from previous years, I was most impressed by Once and Hard Candy — both excellent films, though very different in mood.

MUSIC

Instead of picking out albums, I’ll present a list of some of the best songs that sountracked my year (though not all originate from 2009); but, if it’s on here, you can (in most cases) consider it a recommendation for the relevant album:

Bat for Lashes, ‘Daniel’ [review]
Doves, ‘Kingdom of Rust’
The Duckworth Lewis Method, ‘Jiggery Pokery’ [review]
Florence and the Machine, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ [review]
Franz Ferdinand, ‘Ulysses’ [review]
Friendly Fires, ‘Paris’ [review]
Glasvegas, ‘Flowers and Football Tops’ [review]
Lisa Hannigan, ‘I Don’t Know’ [review]
Charlotte Hatherley, ‘White’
The Invisible, ‘London Girl’ [review]
La Roux, ‘Bulletproof’ [review]
The Leisure Society, ‘The Last of the Melting Snow’ [review]
Little Boots, ‘New in Town’ [review]
The Phantom Band, ‘The Howling’
Snow Patrol, ‘Just Say Yes’ [review]
Stornoway, ‘Zorbing’
Super Furry Animals, ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ [review]
Sweet Billy Pilgrim, ‘Kalypso’ [review]
The Temper Trap, ‘Sweet Disposition’
White Lies, ‘Death’ [review]
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Zero’

So, that was 2009. I hope that 2010 holds as much to look forward to.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008)

They came to New World from beyond the stars, looking for a purer existence, and made their home in Prentisstown, at the edge of a swamp. There was tragedy, of course: indigenous creatures known to the settlers as ‘Spackle’ released a germ that killed all the women of Prentisstown and half the men, and left the survivors broadcasting their thoughts to each other in a stream of what they now call ‘Noise’.

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, though in a month’s time he will turn thirteen and so become a man. One day, whilst out in the swamp with his dog Manchee (who can speak, but only a word or two at a time), Todd finds a pocket of silence – a place where there’s no Noise. This shouldn’t be possible but, as Todd is about to find out, a lot of things he believes about life and the world are actually wrong.

When Todd returns home, he tells Ben and Cillian (who raised him after his mother died) about the ‘hole in the Noise’ – but doesn’t get the response he expects. Ben and Cillian tell Todd he must leave Prentisstown immediately; they won’t explain why, but give the boy a knife and his mother’s diary which, they say, will tell him all he needs to know. Unfortunately for Todd, he can’t read. Still, off he goes with Manchee, soon finding that not only are there females on New World (Tood meets a strange girl named Viola, who has no Noise of her own), but also that Prentisstown is not the only settlement on the planet, and that there’s a dark secret at the heart of the town which explains why an army of its inhabitants are marching after him…

Oh, but this is a wonderful book. First of all, Todd is a superbly realised character. Ness tells his tale in a first-person dialect that sounds like a real voice; finds the right balance between being different without becoming annoying; and reveals as much about Todd as anything he does or says. Here, for example, is Todd describing the difference between his and Viola’s accents:

‘Her lips make different kinds of outlines for the letters, like they’re swooping down on them from above, pushing them into shape, telling them what to say. In Prentisstown, everyone talks like they’re sneaking up on their words, ready to club them from behind.’

There is a downside, though, to having such a strongly ‘present’ first-person narrator, which is that the secondary characters aren’t fleshed out as much. Viola’s character is quite rounded, but those furthest from Todd (such as his adult nemeses in Prentisstown) come across as quite flat (but how could they not, when Todd hardly knows them?). Still, that’s a price worth paying to have the joy of reading Todd’s words.

Ness also uses Todd’s voice to great effect when writing action sequences. His two main techniques are long, breathless sentences full of conjunctions; and extended sequences of single-sentence paragraphs. They really do make the story feel more kinetic; which helps balance out the linear nature of the plot, which is a pretty standard race to the end. In other circumstances, this might be a problem; here, the pages fly by, so it doesn’t matter.

The book’s title is interesting. The formulation ‘The Noun of Adjective’ in the title of a science fiction or fantasy story usually indicates a thing of great power or importance. I was really pleased to see that this novel’s titular knife is just an ordinary hunting-knife — there’s nothing mystical about it. And yet, the knife is highly significant for what it represents to Todd; it’s his symbol of being a man, it gives him the power to do things he couldn’t otherwise do (such as killing), and to let go of the knife is to relinquish that power. So naturally, there is violence, bloodshed, and death in The Knife of Never Letting Go; but these things are not gratuitous or glorified, as Todd comes to realise that violence is not the answer, whatever the question. (That’s not the only way in which Todd grows up during the book; the changes in the way he sees Viola are well handled by Ness, as Todd experiences the first stirrings of feelings he cannot name, but which we recognise.)

Of course, there are problems with the book. One quibble I have is that it’s implied that Todd’s narrative voice is his Noise, and occasionally Viola (who can hear Todd’s Noise even though she has none of her own) will react to something in the narration; but not as often as she would if it were Todd’s Noise. I didn’t like that sense of Ness’ cherry-picking to suit the plot. And a few things aren’t explored as fully as they could have been: we don’t see enough of the Spackle; nor, to the best of my recollection, do we learn the significance of the ‘hole in the Noise’. But, as the cliffhanger ending reminds us, there’s time yet, for a sequel is coming. And one advantage of reading this excellent book in the year after its publication is that I don’t have to wait long for that sequel.

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