Tagthrillers

Fiction Uncovered 2012

Fiction Uncovered, the initiative to highlight the work of established UK authors who may have fallen off the radar, is back for another year. The 2012 list was revealed on Wednesday; unlike last year, I wasn’t able to attend the announcement, but I was still keen to see which titles had been selected. Here are this year’s books (quotations taken from the Fiction Uncovered website).

Peter Benson, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke

What the judges say:  ‘The tease of a title gradually resolves itself as the delightful comedy of drug-running in rural England plays out. The cartel meets Ambridge.’ – John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL; Chair, 2012 Judging Panel

It’s fair to say that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if I saw it in a bookshop, though the blurb’s suggestion of a supernatural note is intriguing, and I do like the narrative voice in the extract I’ve read. Looking up Benson’s other books, he seems a wide-ranging author, but with a particular focus on landscape, especially that of Somerset. I think he’s a writer I should investigate further.

Cressida Connolly, My Former Heart

What the judges say: ‘A family saga spanning the second half of the twentieth century, this gentle story of women’s lives in Egypt, Lebanon and the London Blitz is at once tender, comic and wise. Following on from the success of her short stories, My Former Heart marks out Connolly as a novelist to watch.’ – Katy Guest, Literary Editor, Independent on Sunday; 2012 Judging Panel

This is a first novel from Connolly, who has previously published a short story collection and a historical biography. Family sagas aren’t generally my thing, and I don’t feel particularly inclined to try My Former Heart; but I think Fiction Uncovered ought to be broad in scope, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s no problem if not everything on the list appeals to me.

Jill Dawson, Lucky Bunny

What the judges say: ‘With sleight of hand, a little rouge and a mind as sharp as a razor, Queenie Dove does battle with all the Depression, the war and her father have to throw at her. Dawson writes with a pace and humour that is infectious and her cast of characters will stay with you long after finishing the book.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe, Head of Buying, Foyles Group; 2012 Judging Panel

The synopsis makes this sound fun – a tale of wartimeEast Endcrime capers – and the extract suggests a novel with a serious heart; that’s a pretty unbeatable combination when it’s done well, so I think I’ll be taking a look at Lucky Bunny.Dawson’s bibliography suggests she’s another writer whose work covers varied ground, which is always a good thing in my book.

Tibor Fischer, Crushed Mexican Spiders

What the judges say: ‘Small minded readers might object that this is not a novel but two exquisitely packaged short stories. But the stories themselves – sardonic and beautifully chiselled – radiate wonderfully.’ – John Sutherland

Here’s something that wasn’t on last year’s Fiction Uncovered list: a book of short stories. (Admittedly there are only two – printed back-to-back – in this 64-page volume, but still.) Tibor Fischer is one of those writers whose name I know without knowing anything about his work; now I’ve looked it up, his fiction sounds just the sort of quirky stuff I enjoy. This collection could be a good place to start.

Doug Johnstone, Hit & Run

What the judges say: ‘The whole panel were impressed with the non-stop energy of Hit & Run. Just when you think his protagonist has no further left to fall, he makes another crazy decision that amps up the suspense to an even greater level.’ – Matt Thorne, writer and Head of Creative Writing at Brunel University; 2012 Judging Panel

I felt that last year’s Fiction Uncovered list missed a trick by not including any ‘genre fiction’, so it’s nice to see titles like My Former Heart and this thriller being selected now. Hit & Run sounds like a book which delivers the goods as a thriller whilst also offering something more substantial in its characterisation; that would be a good combination of attributes.

Susanna Jones, When Nights Were Cold

What the judges say: ‘A delightful adventure full of feisty women, mountaineering, all kinds of escape and Edwardian derring-do, this is narrated by a classic unreliable narrator who looks back on friendships gone catastrophically wrong among the peaks of theAlps. Jones’s fourth novel deserves to put her on the literary map.’ – Katy Guest

I read one of Susanna Jones’s earlier novels, The Earthquake Bird, a couple of years ago, and rather enjoyed it. The contemporary Japanese setting of that book is quite different from the early twentieth-century British and Alpine background of When Night Were Cold – but, as should be clear by now, I like variety in an author’s oeuvre. And I have a soft spot for books with unreliable narrators, so this could be good.

David Park, The Light of Amsterdam

What the judges say: ‘From the problems between fathers and sons to the perils of going to see Dylan in his dotage, this is a deep and richly pleasurable reading experience.  Park depicts the frustrations and excitements of everyday life with equal clarity.’ – Matt Thorne

I first heard of David Park in an article from last year in which various writing and publishing types were asked to name writers they thought deserved more attention (frustratingly, I can’t find the link) – and now here he is on the Fiction Uncovered list. I’d like to read one of his books, but can’t honestly say that the synopsis of The Light of Amsterdam sounds interesting to me; perhaps I’ll try a different Park title.

Dan Rhodes, This Is Life

What the judges say: ‘Using his trademark dark humour Dan Rhodes draws his protagonist Aurélie Renard, and the reader, deep into the heart of the most romantic city in the world, Paris. Rhodes explores art, politics and modern life, with hilarious and enlightening results.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe

Now here’s a writer who I know deserves a wider audience. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Rhodes’s previous two novels – Gold is especially good – but have heard mixed things about his Paris-set latest, that it might not have the spark of his others. Still, this is Dan Rhodes we’re talking about, and I’d never dismiss one of his books without reading it. I’ll probably read Timoleon Vieta Come Home first, mind.

You can find the Fiction Uncovered titles on display in a bookshop near you.

Elsewhere
Read Simon’s take on the list over at Savidge Reads.

TV Book Club 2012 Best Reads: Part 1

The new series of The TV Book Club is underway, which means there’s another selection of ten ‘Best Reads’. Here’s my look at the first three.

S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep (2011)

The TV Book Club list begins with one of the breakout hits of last year, the debut from Steve Watson. It’s the story of Christine Lucas, who has an unusual form of amnesia which causes her to lose her memory every 24 hours. As the novel begins, Christine wakes up and, as ever, must discover that she is older than she thinks, and meet her husband Ben for the first time. Later that day – and unbeknownst to Ben – she is contacted by and goes to see a Dr Nash, who gives Christine a journal she has been keeping, which will allow her to unravel what led to her present situation.

When I started Watson’s book, I was concerned that narrative momentum might be compromised by the protagonist’s having to start from scratch each day. Well, the journal format takes care of that, as Christine can take what she’s already written into account, which smoothes out the flow. But, more than this, Watson uses the structure to create tension: even as Christine is reading her journal and discovering the truth, we’re aware that it won’t be an end to her problems (and I’m not talking about her amnesia). I also appreciate the way that Watson takes a fairly ‘high concept’ idea but grounds the action in a domestic reality. All in all, a fine thriller.

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (2011)

From a big seller to a Booker nominee. Patrick deWitt’s second novel is an introspective take on the Western: in 1851, hired killers Eli and Charlie are sent from Oregon City to San Francisco by the Commodore, to do away with one Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector who has stolen something from him. Eli, our narrator, has been pondering whether he wants to carry on in this business, and the current job will bring matters to a head.

On the very first page of The Sisters Brothers, Eli describes the death of his old horse (and his subsequent visions thereof) in a cool, collected fashion; thus establishing what, for me, is the most effective aspect of the book – the contrast between the innate violence of the brothers’ world and the measured elegance of deWitt’s prose. The latter has a distancing effect, and as a result it comes as quite a jolt when brutal action irrupts into the narrative, particularly when it’s perpetrated by Eli, about whose capacity for violence it is deceptively easy to forget (because one has built up a certain amount of empathy for him). There’s also a strong sense in the novel of a world whose formation is in progress: in the lawless country through which the brothers travel, yes; but also in the mannered dialogue, and the half-sketched-in feel of the setting. It’s as though the world is being remade alongside Eli’s character.

Essie Fox, The Somnambulist (2011)

The East End of London, 1881: when her beloved aunt Cissy, a music-hall singer, dies, it becomes increasingly difficult for Pheobe Turner and her mother Maud to make ends meet. A way forward comes in the form of Nathaniel Samuels, an old acquaintance of Cissy’s, offers Phoebe a job as companion to his wife at the Samuels’ Herefordshire house – but the girl has no idea what secrets are set to be revealed.

I’m ambivalent about The Somnambulist. On the one hand, Phoebe’s narrative voice is great at bringing her character to life and driving the novel forward; and Essie Fox weaves historical detail in skilfully. On the other hand, the secondary characterisation feels a little broad-brush; the short third-person chapters from Samuels’s viewpoint slot in awkwardly; and the plot doesn’t sparkle for me in the same way as the narration.

Tim Davys, Amberville (2007/9)

This is the first book I’ve read for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge; I thought I might start my posts on the challenge with a few words on why I selected the books I did. It’s quite straightforward with Amberville: anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I have a soft spot for odd books, and this was the most obviously odd title on the list – a noir thriller with a cast of stuffed animals.

The story goes like this: Eric Bear has a happy life, married to the beautiful Emma Rabbit and with a good job in advertising. But, in his past, Eric was involved with some shady characters, one of whom now comes calling – Nicholas Dove, who has heard that his name is on the Death List, which means (if the tales are to be believed) that the Chauffeurs will shortly come to escort him on the ultimate one-way journey. Dove demands that Eric find the Death List and get his name removed from it, or Emma will be the one who pays the price. The job should be straightforward enough, because the Death List is just a fable; but Eric gets his old gang back together all the same – and, of course, the truth proves more complicated than anyone thought.

So, this Scandinavian crime novel (the author is Swedish; ‘Tim Davys’ is a pseudonym) is far from the norm, and could have been ridiculous – but it’s not. What is perhaps most striking about Amberville is that Davys tells his tale with a completely straight face; one might laugh briefly at the thought of, say, a stuffed dove walking around with two stuffed gorillas for heavies, but not for very long, because it’s not funny at all in the context of the story – it’s deadly serious. Davys creates his world with such integrity that one can’t help but take it seriously. His control of voice is also superb, switching between different characters whose voices are all distinctive, no matter how brief their turn at narration (and here, I must also acknowledge Paul Norlen’s excellent work as translator).

Driving the plot of Amberville is a mystery – is there a Death List, and, if so, who’s behind it? – which is deeper for reader s than it is for the characters, because we have more questions to ask: what is this place, Mollisan Town, inhabited by walking, talking, living stuffed animals? What goes on behind the scenes to make it all work (the inhabitants of Mollisan Town know that the young animals are manufactured somewhere and delivered to the city in vans, but no one thinks to question any further)?

Well, Amberville is the first novel in a series (though that’s not clear from the edition I was reading), so the answers aren’t all forthcoming here. That’s not a problem in itself, but I do think it has a knock-on effect – it seems to me that the major revelations for this volume are made some time before the end, leaving the rest of the book to be mostly i-dotting and t-crossing, which feels somewhat anti-climactic. This is unfortunate, because most of the rest of Amberville is pacy and engaging (with an added helping of speculation about the nature of good and evil, courtesy of Eric’s brother Teddy).

My misgivings about the conclusion of Amberville make me feel a little less inclined to find out where Davys takes his series; but the momentum of the earlier parts of the book is considerable. It’s worth a look, I think.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Amberville: Jane Bradley at For Books’ Sake; Presenting Lenore; Mike Krings; Mur Lafferty.

The month in reading: February 2010

I didn’t read quite as much in February as I did in January — but I did read a couple of books that I’m pretty sure will end up on my list of favourite reads of the year. So, my pick for ‘book of February’ is a dead heat between Liz Jensen‘s masterly character study/climate-change thriller The Rapture, and Skippy Dies, Paul Murray‘s sprawling tale of growing up (with added touches of comedy and theoretical physics).

Also on my recommended list from last month are Dan Rhodes‘ macabre Little Hands Clapping, and Amy Sackville‘s otherworldly The Still Point. And I should mention ‘Again and Again and Again’, Rachel Swirsky‘s highly enjoyable story from the most recent issue of Interzone.

All good reads, there. Check them out.

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

I read The Rapture in advance of this week’s TV Book Club; I had no particular expectations of it – and it turned out to be the best book I’ve read so far this year. Certainly, if I’d read it last year, it would have been on my list of favourites for 2009.

A few years in the future, the climate has changed for the worse, and the summer heat is unbearable; religious groups have sprung up, proclaiming that the end times are near. In a town on the south coast of England, psychotherapist Gabrielle Fox is treating Bethany Krall, the teenage daughter of a preacher. Bethany savagely murdered her own mother, and is now being held in a secure institution. She’s a difficult patient – Gabrielle being only the latest in a string of therapists who have tried to understand the girl – but it’s in Gabrielle’s interests to succeed in treating Bethany. A car accident left Gabrielle paralysed from the waist down; Bethany is her chance to prove that she’s still up to the job. What’s particularly unusual about Bethany is that she is apparently able to foresee natural disasters – and she has predicted that the end of the world will come in a matter of months.

The Rapture is narrated by Gabrielle in the first person; her voice is descriptive, measured, and rather cold – for example, she describes her father’s demise from Alzheimer’s in terms that betray no feeling of sadness or loss. She is not a protagonist one can warm to easily, yet Jensen makes her a compelling presence for all that. Gabrielle’s sparring with Bethany is fascinating to read; despite the girl’s violent tendencies and physical superiority over Gabrielle, one senses that Bethany’s greatest weapon is her articulacy. Gabrielle’s profession requires her to be alert to the nuances of language, but now she’s up against someone who knows how to play that game, knows what buttons to push. That’s why Gabrielle feels threatened by Bethany – because the girl can attack her in an aspect of life where she still felt secure.

Jensen’s keen observations don’t stop at the relationship between these two characters. Convinced that she’s never going to be in a relationship again, Gabrielle is unprepared for when she meets Frazer Melville, a physicist who falls for her. We see the complex tangle of emotions that Gabrielle is feeling when Frazer first acts romantically towards her: ‘I can’t handle it. It will kill me. It will kill my belief that I am no longer a woman. No, worse, it will revive the hope that I am, and then all that can happen is that it will be shredded. [p. 112]’ Even such a positive development is not without its dangers to Gabrielle’s sense of self.

Nor is Jensen’s acuity limited to relationships. When Gabrielle and Frazer discover that Bethany’s prediction of an earthquake was accurate, they have a crisis of conscience – having withheld their knowledge that this disaster would occur, doesn’t that make them complicit in the resulting deaths? But, if they had alerted someone, who’d have believed them? It’s not just that Jensen is examining here the issue of responsibility when one has privileged knowledge; there’s a sense of deep uncertainty over how to handle new kinds of knowledge – Gabrielle and Frazer now know things that others will find impossible to believe; they don’t know the right thing to do because there is, by definition, no precedent on which to draw.

So, I like very much the way that Jensen observes people in her novel; one of the most impressive things about The Rapture is the way that she highlights the personal, human responses against the background of grand catastrophe. What’s also impressive is that the novel works from so many directions, even when they might seem to be contradictory. As I’ve already described, it works well as a character study; in the second half, when the time comes for The Rapture to be a disaster thriller, it doesn’t disappoint there, either. Jensen ramps up the pace, and provides the necessary spectacle and borderline (im)plausibility, leading to an entirely apposite conclusion.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s exactly that – that the text sets itself free of plausibility in the name of storytelling. But that’s the nature of Jensen’s story: it’s what the novel needs at that point, and it’s done with enormous panache. The Rapture is a novel that appeals to the head and the heart, and doesn’t skimp on either. As I said at the start, it’s my favourite read of the year to date.

Further links
Liz Jensen’s website

M.C. Scott, Rome: The Emperor’s Spy (2010)

This book is a follow-up to Manda Scott‘s Boudica series of novels (2003-6), which I’ve not read; unfortunately, that makes a difference, as I’ll explain shortly. The Emperor’s Spy is set during the reign of Nero, who tasks one Sebastos Abdes Pantera with investigating — and preventing the fulfillment of — a propecy that Rome will burn. Panter’a journey will take him from northern Gaul, to Alexandria, then to Rome itself.

Most of the key characters in The Emperor’s Spy seem to have a history that extends back into the previous series — so much so that I felt at a distinct disadvantage not knowing exactly who Scott had carried over, and what had happened to them. It didn’t stop me following the novel but, like joining a conversation halfway through, I had to manage without the context that would have made my passage smoother.

That said, I found the novel pretty good. Scott is good at integrating historical detail without it seeming intrusive, and evoking the sensations of her setting (though I don’t know the Roman period well enough to judge the authenticity of Scott’s re-creation).  In addition, her thrills-n-spills action sequences — so central to this kind of story — do all the thrilling that they should.

More Rome books are planned, so would I read another one? I think I’d have to read the Boudica series first . Would I try a Boudica novel? Yes, I think I probably would.

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