TagTransworld Summer Reading Challenge

Matt Beaumont, e Squared (2009)

My fourth and final choice for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge, e Squared is the book I’m giving a second chance. I tried reading it last year, but didn’t find it particularly amusing, and so gave up. When I saw it on the list for the Transworld Challenge, though, I thought it might be interesting to give it another go. I’m glad I did, because this time, I found the novel hilarious.

e Squared is a follow-up to Matt Beaumont’s debut novel e, and its short sequel The e Before Christmas (both published  2000). It concerns a London advertising agency (sorry, I mean “thought collective”) called Meerkat360, and is told entirely through emails, instant-message and SMS conversations, and blog posts. I haven’t read either of the two earlier books, but, although I inevitably missed some of the context, it didn’t matter too much – enough time has passed in fictional terms for e Squared to pretty much stand alone.

Since so much of the fun of reading Beaumont’s novel lies in discovering the absurdities of its characters and situations, I won’t reveal too much here. But the cast of e Squared includes: David Crutton, the CEO of Meerkat360, whose relationship with his wife Janice becomes so strained at times that they resort to communicating with each other via their PAs; Liam O’Keefe, whose debts are so large that he’ll filch anything he can from the office and sell it on eBay; the hopelessly naive Harvey Harvey, who doesn’t understand the concept of spam email, and is deeply concerned about all the lonely girls who keep emailing him; and Caroline Zitter, who’s forever out of the office at some outlandish seminar or other. I’m holding back a little in my descriptions, there; the absurdities of these (and other) characters are turned right up to the maximum.

The events of e Squared are also gloriously daft. The Creative Department of Meerkat360 employs various staff to enhance their creativity, including a hairdresser and clown (much to the consternation of David Crutton). Some of the agency’s commissions are rather dubious (e.g. cigarettes with added vitamins and minerals – “your 5 a day”). A former creative director of Miller Shanks (the forerunner to Meerkat360) has retired to France, from where he chronicles his life in blog posts that nobody reads. Transworld Publishers make a cameo appearance, and are shown   to have some of the same emailing habits as Meerkat360 (though surely it’s not like that in real life…).

What really adds an extra dimension to e Squared for me is the way that Beaumont uses the epistolary form for effect. For example, the first chapter intercuts Janice Crutton’s annual Christmas email to her family and friends – which paints life in the Crutton household as a model of familial happiness and harmony – with other emails and exchanges which suggest a rather different reality. And there are times when the distancing effect of having events reported to us in emails, rather than “witnessing” them directly, gives the humour a deadpan quality.

But, you know, e Squared is a whole lot funnier to read than it is to describe like this. So I shall stop there and just suggest that you go and read it.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of e Squared: Rather Lovely; For Books’ Sake; Bookmunch; Den of Geek.
Matt Beaumont’s website
Meerkat360 website
Den of Geek interview with Beaumont

Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May On the Loose (2009)

On to my third choice for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge, selected because I’ve been meaning to read Christopher Fowler again for ages. I first really became aware of him when he was a Guest of Honour at FantasyCon in 2003, where he gave a brilliantly impassioned speech about the field (I believe a transcript was printed in an issue of Postscripts). During his interview, Fowler mentioned a novel of his called Disturbia (1997), which sounded interesting; I tracked a copy down, and enjoyed it – but I remember having to adjust the way I was reading it part-way through, when I  what I thought was a straightforward contemporary London setting turned out to be something slightly different.

I had a similar experience with the present book, in that it really has to be approached with an awareness of what the author is seeking to do – which is to set a Golden Age detection in the present day – and the particular technique he uses to achieve that. Bryant & May On the Loose is the seventh novel featuring the titular detectives (though I’m sure at least one of them was in Disturbia), octogenarian but still active in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, set up to handle all the crimes that were just too odd for the mainstream Metropolitan Police.

At the start of this book, though, the PCU has been closed down, and its members have gone their separate ways. But then a headless body is found a freezer, there are sightings of a man dressed as a stag, with knives for antlers., and it all looks to have something to do with the building work taking place at King’s Cross. Sounds like a job for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which reforms, albeit without official sanction, and with far fewer resources and rather less comfortable accommodation.

The first thing to say about Bryant & May On the Loose is that, even though it’s the seventh volume in the series, I didn’t feel disadvantaged at jumping straight in. There were inevitably going to be some references to back-story, but from my perspective, Fowler did a good job of balancing those with making the novel stand alone. And it makes me want to read the others so I can appreciate this one in context, which is no bad thing.

Before I started reading, I was half- expecting Bryant and May to be parodic, larger-than-life characters; but, actually (and I think this is a more interesting approach) they’re more low-key than that.

Arthur Bryant is the ‘Golden Age detective’ figure,  steeped in knowledge of (and looking for clues in) local history and folklore; he’s subdued to begin with here, with the closure of the PCU, but soon gets back into his stride (I’d love to see him in ‘full flow’, which I guess I’ll find in other Bryant and May books). John May takes a more conventional approach; the differences between the two are summed up in this passage, spoken by May:

You always want to think [you’re searching for] twisted geniuses…You long to pit your wits against someone who hides clues in paintings and evades capture through their knowledge of ancient Greek. Forget it, Arthur; those days have gone. (362)

This highlights another key aspect of Fowler’s technique: though Bryant gets his time in the sun (e.g. the chance to explain everything to his colleagues at the end), his Golden-Age style is constantly being interrogated (pardon the pun) and shown to be an ill fit for the modern world – even when it has apparently been vindicated.

Above this level, we have a novel which is – in true Golden Age tradition – a great pleasure to read.  There are a few moments where I feel the exposition is overly dense; but, mostly, the book rattles along. I’ll be reading more Bryant and May novels in the future, no doubt about that.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Bryant & May On the Loose: Chasing Bawa, Notes of Life, Five Minutes Peace
Christopher Fowler’s website

Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep (2005)

Prep is my second choice in the Transworld Summer Challenge. I chose it because a) i didn’t want all my selections to be by men; and b) this was the only book by a female author on the list that sounded as though it might be of interest (I say this without knowing whether ‘Tim Davys’ is the pseudonym of a male or female writer). It probably wouldn’t have appeared on my radar if not for the challenge… and there’s a big ‘but’ stopping me fully from celebrating the fact that it did.

Prep chronicles four years in the life of Lee Fiora, a girl from Indiana who gains a scholarship at Ault, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school. The book is structured episodically, effectively becoming a series of linked novellas that reveal how Lee struggles with the reality of life at Ault being very different from the rosy image presented in the glossy brochure, and the difficulties she faces finding her niche in the school as an outsider.

What Curtis Sittenfeld does particularly well here is capture something of the confusion and contradictions of teenage life, those years when identities are still being formed, the perceptions of others seem so vital, and friendships are constantly in flux. Lee is never quite sure what she wants from her life at Ault (‘I was always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely’ [25]). Her relationships with her fellow-students can be fluid: for example, the way Lee and Cross Sugarman, the class basketball star, behave towards each other resembles an elaborate dance – moving closer together, then further apart, then again closer; they never become anything as straightforward as boyfriend and girlfriend. Lee puts on an air to get by at Ault, then finds it taking over as her real self. One senses just how difficult these waters are for her to navigate.

Sittenfeld does something else with Lee’s character that makes the depiction of her more interesting – and, I suspect truer. Lee is not easy to warm to: she can be cold and selfish; she can push away people who like her. For all that she goes on about not having friends at school, Lee seems uncomfortable if people get too close to her – when one character tells her that her tendency to spend time alone is not as strange as she thinks it is (because anybody dedicated to a pastime has to spend time alone on it), to be understood in that way is ‘the most terrifying thing in the world’ (453) to her. Lee is a complex character, and it’s her characterisation which is at the core of Prep.

Now for the ‘but’ – I think Prep is too long to sustain the story that it wants to tell, particularly as Lee’s character doesn’t seem to change all that much over the course of the novel. I think it could probably still work at even half its length. That quibble aside, Prep is an incisive study of a teenager not just trying to fit in, but trying to decide if she even wants to fit in.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Prep: Iris on Books; Amused, Bemused and Confused; Fervent Reader; The Bookish Type.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s website

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.

Transworld Summer Reading Challenge

I’m joining in with a book bloggers’ challenge hosted by Transworld Publishers — over the summer, to choose, read and review four books from a list of fifteen. Participants are asked to post the image above, which is the only time that particular book will make an appearance on this blog…

The four books I have selected are:

1. Tim Davys, Amberville

2. Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep

3. Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May On the Loose

4. Matt Beaumont, E Squared

I think that’s quite an interesting mix, but we’ll see how it turns out. As ever, the titles above will turn into links as I blog about the books.

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