CategoryWilliams Conrad

A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 


Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)
 

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 

 

Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

A selection of 2011 favourites

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.

Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking

Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation

A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared.  Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.

***

And now half a dozen from previous years:

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History

A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance

Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook

I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.

***

So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation (2011): The Zone review

Now online at The Zone is my review of Loss of Separation, the latest novel by Conrad Williams. I think Williams is one of the smartest and best horror writers around at the moment; this time he’s produced a sharp psychological study of a former pilot trying to rebuild his life after a car accident, whilst dark secrets wait in the wings. I’d say Loss of Separation is a fine introduction to Williams’ work, and also a good book to try if you think you don’t like horror.

Click here to read my review.

Elsewhere
Conrad Williams’ website

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.

One by Conrad Williams (2009)

Conrad WilliamsThe Unblemished was one of my favourite books of 2008; sadly, his new novel, One, doesn’t reach the heights of that earlier work — but it’s an interesting read with some very fine moments nevertheless.

The novel is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’, Richard Jane is a saturation diver working on an oil platform off the coast of Aberdeen, when the apocalypse occurs. Eventually making his way back to land, Jane’s only thought is to travel to London in the hopes of finding his young son, Stanley. He sets off, gaining along the way a number of fellow-survivors as companions, notably a hospital radiologist named Becky, and a five-year-old boy named Aidan. After the requisite trials and tribulations, the party reaches London, and the first part ends. The novel’s second part, ‘Lazarus Taxon’, takes place ten years later. Jane still hasn’t found Stanley, but he is now part of a group of survivors in the capital who call themselves the Shaded (because some form of shade, or depth, is what apparently saved them from the disaster). They have to contend with not only the pitfalls one might imagine would be found in a collapsed society, but also with something unimaginable — the Skinners. These are creatures grown from the spores that came with the apocalyptic ‘Event’, spores that invaded the bodies of the dead, distorted and animated them. Even a minor wound could turn you into one of them. There are rumours of a raft floating off the Kent coast, built by scientists and waiting to rescue people. Is it true? And what rescue could there be in this world anyway?

One is the kind of work which makes plain that genre distinctions (in this case, science fiction and horror) are ultimately limiting and artificial. There is a scientific underpinning to the ‘Event’, but it’s never explained in the story itself; Williams’ acknowledgements page refers to gamma ray bursts, so one assumes that’s what did for us here. But Williams is noted as an author of ‘dark fiction’, and his novel is tilted firmly towards that end of the spectrum; which, I think, is just as it should be — after all, if the average person got caught up in the aftermath of an apocalypse, they probably wouldn’t understand what had happened; and what wouldn’t matter nearly as much as what next? There are also scenes of great horror and carnage, that one is wary of visualising, in case they turn out to be even more horrifying in the mind’s eye than they are on the page. But this too is appropriate: One is horror because its subject is horrific, because there could be no response to what happens other than horror. Williams is not a writer of gore for gore’s sake; he understands the gravity of horror, and makes one feel its pull.

What I particularly like about One is that it’s intensely personal, despite the vastness of its backdrop; the novel is very much about relationships and character, and especially those of Richard Jane. There’s a pleasing complexity to his depiction; he’s not a straightforward heroic figure, but can decry selfishness in others whilst at the same time being willing to put his search for Stanley ahead of anything else (and if he’s doing this for his son, is it selfish or not?). Making Jane a diver was an interesting choice on the author’s part, as it automatically generates a certain amount of difference. It’s not just that the image of Jane wandering through the devastated landscape in his protective gear makes him seem like an astronaut exploring an alien world. It’s that being a diver (according to the novel) changes you, subjects you to pressures (figurative and literal) that others don’t experience, involves being away from home and in isolation for long periods, could lead to sights that others would never see (like the bends: ‘All the limbs withdrawn into an impossible core of pain. The welter of blood at every orifice, fizzing bright red. Bubbles opening in the jelly of the eyes’). The demands of his profession have driven a wedge between Richard and his (now ex-)wife Cherry; and Williams skilfully shows the thoughts and feelings of both parties, even as he writes only from Richard’s viewpoint — and the author is just as adept at writing about the personal as he is at depicting epic disaster.

Of the novel’s two parts, I think the first is the better: what could have been just a repetitive trudge through lists of examples of destruction and scavenged foodstuffs (I did wonder how long it would really be possible to survive in such an environment without proper medical facilities, having to travel mostly on foot and live off whatever tinned food you could find — but the strength of the telling soon put such concerns to one side), instead gains genuine power, most especially from Williams’ ability to evoke the reality of the situation, the sense that, whether or not Jane succeeds in attaining his goal, there can be no lasting escape.

The second part of One is still good but, as it’s necessarily more fantastical, it doesn’t have quite the same resonance — it doesn’t allow one to feel that this is how the world could become, not in the way that the first part does. Still, Williams once again creates that profound sense of unease which is the true affect of horror — an affect born not from blood and guts, but from the utter and irrevocable destruction of what we know. And the ending (which I’ll admit I didn’t fully comprehend) returns to the personal — which seems entirely appropriate for this very human view of world’s end.

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