TagRobert Jackson Bennett

Book notes: Richard Weihe and Robert Jackson Bennett

Richard Weihe, Sea of Ink (2003/12)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Peirene Press’s Year of the Small Epic has so far brought us a grand domestic drama and a study of bereavement. The series takes a lighter turn in its final instalment, with Swiss writer Richard Weihe’s fictionalised biography of the Chinese painter Bada Shanren. He is born Zhu Da, a scion of the Ming dynasty; but political change and his father’s death lead him to join a monastery and devote his life to art, going through many names before settling on Bada Shanren, ‘man on the mountain of the eight compass points’.

Sea of Ink has eleven illustrations of Bada’s beautiful paintings, and Weihe includes descriptions of how the artist worked, his brush strokes and hand movements. This has the striking effect of creating a detailed impression which remains just that – an impression. Even though we can see the final paintings, there’s room for our subjective interpretation of Weihe’s words. The novella itself works in a similar way, its short chapters acting like brush strokes to create a portrait of Bada’s life which is necessarily a fiction, a construct.

The ultimate story told in Sea of Ink seems to me one of a man finding peace in life through finding (or accepting) his place – finding the world in the marks of ink and brush. The tone of the writing is quiet and reflective; I’d say this is ideal reading for an autumn night.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Troupe (2012)

Over the last few years, Robert Jackson Bennett has been crafting his own distinctive visions of the American fantastic’s iconic tropes. For his third novel, he turns his attention to the magical travelling show. We meet George Carole, a sixteen-year-old vaudeville pianist as he leaves his current job to visit the troupe of Hieronomo Silenius, whom George believes to be his father. Silenius’s reputation precedes him, but no one ever remembers the details of his show. When George watches a performance, he finds out why: the Silenius troupe plays an extraordinary song that make those who hear it forget what they’ve seen – but it doesn’t work on George.

Falling in with the troupe, George discovers that this music is pat of the ‘First Song’, the one that brought Creation into being; peforming it is the only thing that holds back the ‘wolves’ who would seek to devour reality. Silenius’s band go from place to place in search of fragments of the First Song, which only those of the Silenius blood-line can carry (the song didn’t work on George because he is of that line). So begins a journey into the world’s mythic spaces, with reality itself at stake.

Bennett achieves a nice balance between the personal and cosmic focus. All the members of Silenius’s troupe are pretending to be something they’re not, and the theme of escape runs through the novel – escaping the past, and escaping the inevitable. The ending makes use of a risky technique (I appreciate this is vague, but want to avoid a spoiler), but Bennett pulls it off. His body of work continues to intrigue, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man (2011): The Zone review

Today, The Zone have published my review of Robert Jackson Bennett‘s second novel, The Company Man, a tale of murder and corporate intrigue set in a version of early 20th century America dominated by strange, advanced technology. Bennett’s debut, Mr Shivers, was one of my favourite books of 2010; his latest does not quite reach the same heights, but at its best shows the same refreshing and distinctive imagination. I’ve given The Company Man 3 stars.

Click here to read the review in full.

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five (again!)

Simon from Stuck in a Book has posted another edition of the reading-snapshot meme he created in May. I enjoyed answering it the first time, so I thought I’d do it again; as you’ll see, it is a full house of 2011 titles for me.

1) The book I’m currently reading

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man

Bennett’s first novel, Mr Shivers, was one of my favourite reads of 2010, so naturally I have high hopes for this sophomore effort. I’m a little too early on in The Company Man to say firmly what it’s like, but so far it is an intriguing noir-ish novel set in an alternate 1919 with more advanced technology.

2) The last book I finished

The Guardian Review Book of Short Stories

Free with yesterday’s Guardian, this is an anthology of eleven original shorts from writers including Margaret Atwood, William Trevor, and Audrey Niffenegger. It’s a very diverse selection that almost certainly does have something for everyone. I particularly liked the stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Mohsin Hamid.

3) The next book I want to read

Helen Gordon, Landfall

It was way back in March when I saw Gordon read from her debut novel at the Penguin General bloggers’ evening. Between that and the blurb of Landfall, which promises “one of the most surprising and destabilizing endings you’ll have ever read, I’m keen to read the book as soon as possible.

4) The last book I bought

Ian R. MacLeod, Wake Up and Dream

I haven’t bought any books since FantasyCon at the start of the month, so I had to think back to work out which was the last. MacLeod’s follow-up to the Clarke-winning Song of Time imagines Clark Gable as a private eye in a ’40s Hollywood where the movies can be transmitted directly into your brain. That makes two books out of five on my list which are noir fantastications — quite an odd coincidence.

5) The last book I was given

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

A big thank-you to Bianca Winter for very kindly sending me her copy of this year’s Booker winner, which was also the subject of my latest review.

My favourite books of 2010 so far…

We’re halfway through the year, and I thought I’d mark the occasion by taking stock and looking back at some of the highlights of my reading year so far. I’m limiting myself to five titles, and concentrating on books that had their first English-language or first UK publication in 2010. I’ve judged them on how much they have stayed with me since I read them. So, in alphabetical order:

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers

Ostensibly a search across the Depression-era United States for a ruthless killer, this book has a rich metaphoric subtext that makes it a very satisfying piece of work.

Shane Jones, Light Boxes

My favourite read of the year so far. A short, magical tale of the battle against February, that works on about three levels all at once.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

From a very short book to a very long one. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added theoretical physics throws in so much that there’s probably a kitchen sink in there somewhere – but it all works superbly.

Adam Roberts, New Model Army

Begins as the tale of an army that functions democratically, but transforms into something that genuinely is like nothing I have read before.

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

The parallel stories of a fateful Arctic expedition and a present-day couple at a turning-point in their relationship, wrapped up in a fascinating prose style.

My pick of pre-2010 books for the year so far is Christopher Priest’s excellent The Affirmation, the story of how a man’s life and his fictionalised autobiography intertwine until… well, read the book and see for yourself. And, of course, I’d recommend all the others to you as well.

Those are my picks for the first half of 2010, then. What have you most enjoyed reading this year?

The month in reading: January 2010

January 2010 didn’t bring any absolute knockout books my way, but there were some fine reads nevertheless. My favourite book of the month was Robert Jackson Bennett‘s Depression-era fantasy Mr Shivers, which has substantially more subtextual depth than many a quest fantasy I’ve seen over the years.

Silver- and bronze-medal positions for the month go to two very different books. Simon Lelic‘s Rupture is a fine debut novel, centred on a school shooting perpetrated by an apparently placid teacher; and Up the Creek Without a Mullet (reviewed in February, but read in January) is an entertaining account of Simon Varwell‘s travels in search of places with ‘mullet’ in their name.

Bubbling under, but well worth checking out, are Nadifa Mohamed‘s wartime East African odyssey, Black Mamba Boy; and Galileo’s Dream, a historical biography spliced with science fiction (or perhaps vice versa) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not a bad start to the year by any means; but, still, I’m hoping for even greater riches in the months ahead.

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers (2010): The Zone review

Now, here’s a book where I’d urge you to look beyond the synopsis – not because it doesn’t necessarily sound like much, but because no plot synopsis can capture what’s great about Robert Jackson Bennett’s Mr Shivers (the subject of my latest review for The Zone). It’s a novel about a man trekking across the 1930s USA in search of the mysterious scarred man who killed his daughter. This would in itself be an interesting twist on the usual fantasy quest, but the subtext turns the novel into something greater. If you’re at all interested in fantastic literature, Mr Shivers should be on your reading list.

Read my review in full at The Zone.

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