People who know how to sing while shaving are fortunate.

A Different Sea, by Claudio Magris and translated by MS Spurr

civilization, like gardening, is the art of pruning.

This is an unusual one – a book that utterly subverts itself. By a quarter of the way through I loathed its protagonist. By half-way through I realised that was the point.

Love that cover.

As the book opens Enrico is heading by sea from Trieste to Argentina, where he plans to live a quiet but noble life in the wilds of Patagonia. He is fleeing military service, unhappy with the required haircut and finding the boots uncomfortable.

He looks back on his youth and his childhood friends Carlo and Nino. Carlo is a philosopher and believes that Enrico’s departure represents a truly philosophical act that encapsulates everything Carlo wishes to write – a rejection of the world’s vanities and an embrace of the absolutely pure and simple life.

Carlo had taught him that by virtue of philosophy – the love of seamless wisdom – distant things could be seen close up, and the urge to grasp them could be overcome, since, after all, they exist in the great quietness of being.

Enrico means to write to Carlo of his adventures, but finds he can only jot down a few inanities on postcards. Carlo in turn writes to him proclaiming Enrico a kind of saint, for Enrico is living amid wilderness with barely a handful of possessions and without attachment.

By this point, not that far in, I was already growing weary of Enrico. He struck me as a rich kid on an extended gap-year; his friends back home talking about how meaningful it all was. I thought Magris meant me to take him as he took himself. I was wrong. When Magris comments:

And yet it is true to say Enrico never thinks of his father’s mills in Gorizia, nor knows anything of his share of the inheritance or even how much money his family has.

Magris doesn’t mean that Enrico is beyond such things. He’s making the subtler point that Enrico can afford to be beyond such things.

Time passes and letters from Italy bring news of lives lived and lost. Nino marries, opens a bookshop, has children and dies in a climbing accident. He lives. Enrico meanwhile trades a few horses and develops scurvy for lack of vegetables in his diet.

Eventually Enrico returns to Europe (don’t worry, I’m not going to set out the whole plot here), driven out by his inability to make a living in Argentina. On his return he tells tall tales of his adventures on the Pampas. Yes, people invite such tales from him, but there’s a vanity in obliging them rather than telling the truth.

More time passes, war breaks out, communities are split. Enrico, ever the adolescent philosopher, continues to pursue a life of detachment and contemplation of the same few books he took on his trip to Argentina and that were all he came back with.

Enrico notices another aspect of this tragic war in which his friends were set each against each other, but does not try to understand. He says nothing when they speak of a drink of water given to a wounded man under fire, of a soldier who threatened to shoot his own comrades, brutalized from weeks in the trenches, to prevent them butchering a prisoner.

People fight and die and console and betray and all the things that happen in war, and what does Enrico do? Nothing. He becomes a mediocre teacher because that allows him to maintain his detachment.

This then is not a study of a life lived consciously and with meaning. Instead it’s the story of an utterly pointless life, a wasted one. Enrico lives according to his philosophy and does nothing, helps nobody. His self-realisation is simply entitled selfishness enabled by his family’s money.

Eventually he too marries. He forces his wife to live in the same state of abnegation that he does, despite her being plainly unhappy.

He brings with him from Gorizia some of the roughest and most worm-eaten pieces of furniture that had been stored in the cellar, and a supply of old clothes so that he would never need to buy any more. There are no clocks in the house, only a sundial attached to the grey exterior wall. Two chairs next to the bed are more than enough for laying out one’s clothes before going to sleep; pleasure comes from being independent of whatever is not absolute …

He has land some of which he rents. He breaks his usual reading to study the law on tenancies and scrupulously enforces it against his tenants. Although he doesn’t care for possessions or property he’ll be damned before he’ll let these paupers enjoy anything any more than they’re strictly entitled to. He prohibits them rearing more chickens than are permitted by law. He watches their children to make sure they don’t help themselves to his fruit, even though he doesn’t intend to pick it himself:

he is of one mind with Buddha, with no wish for life and no yearning. Nevertheless, in the meantime, no one is going to eye his figs let alone touch them.

Enrico’s internal monologue is all about truth, enlightenment and freedom. His outer reality is a grasping draft-dodger unwilling to bend even an inch for those closest to him. He gets by mostly on the fact that he’s very good looking and people tend to read his silences for profundity, but the banality of his thinking is underlined by his continual inability to write any of it down.

Most reviews I’ve seen of this take Enrico as he takes himself, as living an authentic life, but I think that’s a misreading. I think Magris intends us to be critical. He gives Enrico every advantage at the outset – youth, loyal friends, money, good looks. Then he shows us Enrico’s failed adventure in Argentina brought down by dietary issues everyone else there seems to find a solution to. He shows us Enrico’s indifference to the struggles of his day and then his miserly treatment of his tenants.

Adolescents often swear that when they get older they won’t compromise as their parents did. Enrico shows what happens when you achieve that.

Two asides. Firstly, the writing is at times remarkably beautiful. Here’s two examples:

He lay face-down. Paula lay on her back, her head thrust backwards, her dark hair, black in the wind, brushed against his face. Behind her black hair the blue sea shimmered, and beyond lay the strip of red earth and the soft, dark green of cypresses and pines. The underside of a seagull shone ivory as it plummeted and skimmed over the water. An olive tree spread its branches with the stark sexuality of nature.

He names his boat Maia, a small ten-footer, just big enough to venture out to sea with its white sail – the veil of Maia. The haze shimmering in air and on water on certain afternoons is either the final veil drawn over the pure present of things, or is already perhaps in itself, pure present. The sail glides over the sea, slips through a cleft in the horizon, and falls into a milky blue bound by no shore. Summers open out and solidify. Time rounds out like blown glass in water.

The second is that unfortunately Enrico is incredibly sexist, arguably misogynistic. His looks make it easy for him to get women, but he has no attachment to any and sees them as essentially interchangeable bodies. For him the inner life is a quality possessed only by men.

There’s nothing wrong with prejudiced protagonists. Enrico has many unlikable traits and his sexism is of a kind with the rest. The trouble is it leads to an awful lot of passages where women are described in an incredibly dismissive way. Mostly it’s the omniscient narrator reflecting Enrico’s own thoughts but it comes up so much I started to wonder if it was just Enrico or if there was a bit of Magris there too.

Women “can’t be trusted, since they can play some pretty nasty tricks.” Enrico reflects that “nature has fitted women for reproduction. They have to deal with all those effluents, bulges, pregnant tums, suckling, pap, dribble, potties, wee-wees, wailing – with no chance to open a book.”

The women he meets in Argentina are “fine mounts with strong flanks that know how to carry a good weight”, but “whenever Enrico thinks about them, he can never conjure up any single one in all her particulars. He never remembers which face goes with which oversized breasts or with which gargantuan rump.” They are “all just a gaggle of silly geese”, and so it goes on. I could have quoted many more examples.

In a way it doesn’t matter whether the sexism is just Enrico’s in-character or is reflective of authorial attitudes (I suspect the former but I’d be interested in comments from those who’ve read other Magris). Either way it just became intensely wearying.

I thought A Different Sea clever, and I thought it daring in taking such an unlikable character and on the surface showing them as heroic while undermining them through constant little asides. I thought the descriptive passages stunning. In character or not though I found the sexism wearying. The point was made long before Magris stopped making it.

Finally, my thanks to Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog. His review here put me on to reading this.

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Filed under Italian fiction, Magris, Claudio

You have heard Variations on Tram Timetables?’

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another that I wanted to return to with a longer post after my recent May roundup. Will Wiles is an architecture journalist as well as author and this was his 2012 debut novel.

The unnamed narrator is a would-be author who instead drafts public information pamphlets for local authorities. Like many people he lives with the gulf between his dreams of who he could be and the messy reality of who he is.

At university one of his closest friends was Oskar, an intelligent and acerbic young man who’s gone on to become an internationally renowned modernist composer. Now Oskar is getting a divorce from his Californian wife and while he’s out in the US arranging that he needs someone to flat-sit for him. To the narrator’s surprise he’s the one Oskar reaches out to.

Oskar’s apartment is back in Oskar’s home country  – an unspecified former Soviet nation of no particular tourist interest. The city is drab and post-industrial, but Oskar’s apartment is a thing of beauty:

A wide hallway stretched from Oskar’s front door towards a south-facing living area. The hall was light and airy, with pale wooden floors and icy white walls. Two dark wooden doors were set into the wall to the right, like dominos on a bedspread, one halfway down, and the other near the far end. To the left was evidence of a refurbishment under Oskar’s direction: a long glass partition screening a large kitchen and dining area from the hallway. At its end, the hall opened out into the living area, which was demarcated by a single step down. The pale wooden flooring stretched to every corner of the flat, and the glass partition, which I assumed had replaced a non-supporting wall, evenly rinsed the space with the crystalline light entering through the generous south-facing picture windows that took up the far wall of the living space.
Taste and money had met in the crucible of this space and sublimed. The wood, steel and glass were the alchemical solids formed by the reaction.

You can see the architecture journalism coming through there. It’s easy to imagine a feature article in *Wallpaper or Monocle gushing over the design.

The living room – Area? Space? – centred on a sofa and two armchairs, all boxy black leather and chrome, the design of a dead Swiss architect. The east wall was one large bookcase, mostly filled with books but also seasoned with some objets. The kitchen was all aluminium and steel.

And of course:

Everything, everywhere, was impeccably tidy.

The narrator hopes to use his time in the flat to sort his own life out. He plans to finally get down to proper writing, to something more than yet another booklet on litter collection. First though he discovers that Oskar has left him a note. A four page note.

The section of the book containing that note runs over a page, and that’s with the narrator skimming large sections of it. The note is insanely prescriptive. It opens with thanks for the flat-sitting favour before giving tips on caring for Oskar’s two cats Shossy and Stravvy. There’s about half a page on how to care for them in fact, ending in a full-caps exhortation not to allow them on the sofa.

The narrator looks up, shoos them off the sofa, and continues reading. There are emergency contact details, tourist tips, a recommendation to see the local Philharmonic, and finally of course a section on the floors:

Oh, and finally what is perhaps the most important thing since the cats are able to take care of themselves and will tell you if they are in need of something: PLEASE, YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN FLOORS. They are French oak and cost me a great deal when I replaced the old floor, and they must be treated like the finest piece of furniture in the flat, apart from the piano of course.
DO NOT put any drinks on them without a coaster.
ALWAYS wipe your feet before entering the flat, and take off your shoes when inside.
If anything should spill, you MUST wipe it up AT ONCE!!! so that it does not stain the wood. Be VERY CAREFUL. But if there is an accident (!), then there is a book on the architecture shelf that might help you. CALL ME if something happens.

The note comes with a bottle of wine which the narrator naturally opens. He can always start writing tomorrow…

Shreds of the previous evening lay by the sofa – the papers, the wine glass. I attended to the cats and then filled and switched on the kettle. As it boiled, I tidied away my mess, the depleted bottle – with its note from Oskar – the newspapers and magazines, the glass—
I stopped. A drop of wine or two must have made their way to the base of the glass on one of my many refills. There was no coaster beneath it. (In my mind’s eye, Oskar winced.) A 45-degree arc of red wine marked his precious floor, a livid surgical scar on pale flesh.

There was a lot I loved here. The descriptions of the apartment are unsurprisingly good. Oskar’s adventures with the cats and with the bafflingly hostile cleaner (they have no shared language) are convincing and the sense of mounting disaster is nicely captured.

The point in part is perfectibility. The narrator dreams of reading good books during his break, of writing poems, but instead ends up taken unwillingly by one of Oskar’s friend to a grim lap-dancing club and spending his evenings in drinking too much and worrying about the stain on the wooden floors. He wants to make his life as Oskar has made his apartment, but is Oskar’s apartment actually habitable?

Where the book didn’t quite work for me was that classic first novel fault of too many similes. All too often things aren’t allowed to be themselves, but must instead be like something else. Just two examples of several I could have picked:

Above it all, my angle-poise shone cyclopically like the fire brigade floodlights at a midnight motorway catastrophe.

my thoughts sprang up like a field of starlings startled by a farmer’s gunshot, a thousand separate, autonomous specks that swirled into a single united black shape.

It’s hardly fatal, but I think here it gets in the way a bit. Generally Wiles writes well with prose as clean and elegant as Oskar’s floors, which makes sentences like those above stick out a bit. The craft in them is a little too obvious, a little too attention-grabbing. Nobody other than a contemporary novelist actually thinks like that.

That criticism aside overall I thought this clever and enjoyable. Oskar and the narrator’s friendship is unlikely and seemingly not based on much but chance, and yet somehow is all the more persuasive for that and I believed in it. That issue of perfectibility, of whether it’s achievable and perhaps more whether it’s even desirable resonates. Which of us hasn’t looked at some glossy magazine spread and just for a moment imagined what it might be like to live in it? We should be glad few of us do.

Naturally before we’re done things spiral badly out of control and it all gets pretty dark. It’s not just a downward descent though and it’s central to the book’s themes that Wiles never forgets the importance of common humanity. The flat is unforgiving, but the book isn’t.

Finally, since I know there’s a few animal lovers who follow this blog, I’m afraid there is harm to one of the cats in the novel. It’s not gratuitously depicted and it’s mostly a pleasure to read the sections with the cats since Wiles clearly has such a good feel for their nature and behaviour, but if that’s an issue it’s something to be aware of. It’s no worse though (less if anything) than Bragi Olaffson’s marvellous The Pets which contains a similar setup, albeit there more in the backstory.

That’s a bit of a downbeat point to end on, so instead I’ll add that I also have Wiles’ next novel The Way Inn which also looks very good. He’s a writer engaging with the modern world in a way I find both interesting and refreshing so I have high hopes for it and for whatever he does next.

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Filed under Comic fiction, Wiles, Will

Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

I wrote up Child of All Nations as part of my recent May roundup post, but it was so good I thought it deserved a bit more attention. More accurately, it was so quotable I thought it deserved a few more quotes.

Child is narrated by Kully, an intelligent young girl with a handy gift for languages. Her father is a writer and a well-regarded one. Well-regarded in literary circles anyway, not so much in 1930s Nazi Germany.

He has to flee, which means his wife and their young daughter Kully have to flee too. The problem is, just because Germany doesn’t want them any more doesn’t mean anywhere else does. So they join that vast movement of refugees criss-crossing Europe, doing whatever they can to keep one step ahead of destitution and deportation.

My mother and I spend a lot of time sitting on benches. We open our mouths to let the sun shine into them; then we eat the sunshine, and our bellies feel full of warm happy life. My father didn’t feel like eating sunshine. He wanted to sit in the café Bazaar and drink slivovitz, which he finds more warming than any amount of sunshine.

Kully’s father, clearly modelled closely on Joseph Roth, is keen to maintain a certain lifestyle. He dreams of Hollywood adaptations and international recognition. In the meantime he spends the little money they have on a lifestyle he can’t remotely afford. Drink, women, café culture. His life still holds a certain shabby glamour while Kully’s is lit by her childish imagination. For her mother it’s a bleaker existence.

My mother didn’t want to play anything with me any more. Normally we play all the time. We play: how many beds have you slept in? Or: how many trains have you been on? … Three times my mother forgot a train from Prague to Budapest and a train from Lvov to Warsaw that we took with Manya. Then she forgot the bed in Bruges which was made of iron and had golden knobs, and where we had to lie so close that we didn’t know any more which was me and which was my mother.

The family travel from country to country. When they arrive they check into a hotel and eat in its restaurants. They rely on running up the hotel bill while Kully’s father tries to get money off whatever local contacts he can find. When the local contacts run out he leaves Kully and her mother behind, human collateral, while he ranges further afield in search of money to pay the bill with. To keep getting away with it they have to maintain a certain level of appearances or the hotels won’t let them run up those bills, but there’s a sense that they’re running out of road.

Child narrators are high risk but here it works well. Kully doesn’t judge her parents. For her they are as much a part of the structure of the world as the sun or the sky. At the same time she sees them all too clearly. Her father is charming, but more concerned with his own comforts than his family’s wellbeing. At the same time it’s his mix of charm and self-regard that helps him persuade others to advance another loan or payment on account. What makes him a bad husband and father is what makes him able to provide at all. It’s a compelling portrait.

Kully’s mother has it tougher. While Kully’s father is off enjoying himself with friends and other women she has to stay back at the hotel with Kully. She has to keep Kully safe and entertained, gradually withdrawing from the public life of the hotel as the staff start to wonder if their bill will ever be settled. She’s clearly depressed. She has good reason to be. Kully meanwhile is aware of her mother’s fragility and so just as her mother protects her she tries to protect her mother.

Finally there’s Kully herself. Intelligent and funny enough to be an entertaining narrator, but not too precocious as to be incredible. She’s moved country to country so often she’s barely educated, but speaks several languages. As I read I doubted either of her parents would survive the war, but I thought Kully had a pretty good chance.

The book dips a bit in the final quarter when a trip to the US takes the book briefly beyond the claustrophobia of Europe, but it’s a minor failing in what’s otherwise a strong read. Based on this I think Keun deserves far greater recognition than she’s received so it’s good to see Penguin Modern Classics redressing that a little.

One last quote, simply because I can:

She ordered bouillabaisse, which is a kind of soup that’s made out of the Mediterranean; all the creatures in the Mediterranean float around it in a hard-to-identify way, and some of them of course are poisonous. When people have had enough of life, they can choose to die either by mushrooms or bouillabaisse, but in either case I think they have to order it specially from the hotel kitchen.

We live in another age of refugees and mass movements of people. Decades after the events Keun portrays here one might hope they’d find better welcomes. They don’t. Like much fiction of the 1930s Child remains depressingly relevant.

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Filed under Hofmann, Michael (translator), Keun, Irmgard

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.

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Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will

Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

I already briefly wrote about The Haunting of Hill House in my recent March roundup, here. I decided to revisit it though because its first paragraph is just such a brilliant piece of work.

Here’s that first paragraph:

NO LIVE organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

For a piece of gothic fiction I think that’s about as good an opener as one could hope for. Hill House, not insane but instead “not sane”, is of course not a living thing at all and yet immediately we have a sense that in some strange fashion perhaps it is a “live organism”. Alive but undreaming, not sane, patient and implacable.

Much of what’s described here if you give it a moment’s thought is actually pretty prosaic. What do we actually know? Hill House is a detached property set in hills, it’s stood for eighty years and is solidly constructed and well maintained. It is quiet, as you’d hope for an unoccupied rural property.

Put like that it sounds quite a tempting purchase. But then we have that comment that it’s “not sane”, and that wonderful final line: “whatever walked there, walked alone”. For that line alone I’m knocking $50k off my offer price.

Later we have this additional bit of description:

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

How can a house be kind? And yet, I do know what Jackson means. It is an unforgiving place and while exorcism might work with spirits it can’t fix a house built without regard for comfort or humanity. Is then Hill House actually haunted? Or does it just reflect the cold nature of the man who built it?

It’s into that house that Eleanor Vance comes, one of a group gathered together in an attempt to plumb the house’s secrets. Here’s how Eleanor is introduced:

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

Does that sound to you like anyone who should be let anywhere near Hill House? The order of the facts in the paragraph is interesting.  We learn first who Eleanor hates, “now that her mother was dead”, which is a distinctly chilling caveat. Then we learn who she dislikes. Then finally that she has no friends.

There’s nothing healthy here. When we actually get to see more of Eleanor she’s quite likable, and yet that opening paragraph is full of hate and dislike. This is not somebody who should be in a place which isn’t fit “for love or for hope”.

Jackson has a tremendous gift for the foreboding. This is a book in which relatively little actually happens. One room has an inexplicable cold spot, but it’s an old house. Doors shut themselves, but it appears they may be balanced to do so besides which the housekeeper seems prone to shutting them even when they’re left blocked open. There are other incidents, noises and writing on walls, but some could be imagination and others plain old human mischief.

What’s truly chilling about Hill House is the atmosphere, and Jackson creates that not through what happens but simply through her choice of language. Jackson says “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House”, but of course it would. What else would silence do? Still, the effect works.

Too much of this would get silly, and Jackson recognises this too and undercuts herself with humour. In an early exchange the housekeeper Mrs Dudley issues Eleanor with a darkly melodramatic warning:

“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs. Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“We live over in the town, six miles away.” “Yes,” Eleanor said, remembering Hillsdale.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Sinister stuff. However, later Eleanor’s fellow guest Theodora arrives and rather bizarrely Mrs. Dudley repeats the entire speech. Although Eleanor has been fairly thoroughly spooked by this point Mrs. Dudley’s warnings do rather lose something with repetition:


“I leave before dark comes,” Mrs. Dudley went on.
“No one can hear you if you scream in the night,” Eleanor told Theodora. She realized that she was clutching at the doorknob and, under Theodora’s quizzical eye, unclenched her fingers and walked steadily across the room. “We’ll have to find some way of opening these windows,” she said.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could”
“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.
“No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“You’re probably just hungry,” Theodora said. “And I’m starved myself”. She set her suitcase on the bed and slipped off her shoes. “Nothing,” she said, “upsets me more than being hungry, I snarl and snap and burst into tears.” She lifted a pair of softly tailored slacks out of the suitcase.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Jackson takes her stock gothic character, the sinister housekeeper, and uses her effectively in the absolutely traditional fashion as an issuer of dire warnings. Then, audaciously, Jackson has her return but now as comic relief.

What Jackson realises is what many of the best horror movie directors realise – you can’t just indefinitely wind up the tension. It gets too much and the reader/viewer can’t take it. Instead they ratchet up the tension slowly, sometimes releasing it back a bit with a humorous interlude or something mundane, before inexorably tightening the screws once more.

In the final quarter of Haunting Jackson introduces two new characters in the form of a self-professed medium and her doughty companion. They’re absolutely convinced they know what’s going on before investigating anything and manage both to miss the actually odd while constructing their own detailed theories from nothing but their own prejudices and assumptions. It’s a move that didn’t quite work for me – a bit too much humour too late in the book, but in some ways it does make the book all the more disturbing.

Hill House contains madness and tragedy: either lying intent but dormant within it waiting to be discovered by the unwary;  or brought to it by people looking for a stage on which to act out their own dramas. The former possibility is horror in the traditional sense. The latter is actually the more horrifying. What walks in Hill House may just be us. Compared to that ghosts are positively comforting.

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Filed under Horror, Jackson, Shirley

Certainty backslides into probability. Information transmission, it emerges, is about doing the best you can.

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

I wrote a little about Kunzru’s second novel Transmission here as part of my March roundup, but being something of a Kunzru fan I thought I’d return to it with a dedicated post. Here it is.

Arjun Mehta is a shy and socially awkward young man, but clever. He’s a programmer and a good one. When he gets the chance to sign up with international corporation Databodies and get posted to the US it’s a potential dream come true.

His interviewer is calculated to impress: Swiss watch; luxury cotton casual wear; “the polite yet aggressive air of a man who enjoys competitive racket sports.” He radiates success and the promise that you too could be as he is.

Arjun gets the job and he’s too amazed and too naïve to take the promise of a golden American future at anything other than face value. His success completely overshadows his sister’s new job pretending to be Australian at “the most dynamic call centre in the city!”

His mother, naturally, is appalled:

He flung open the door to his mother’s bedroom and gave her the news. ‘Mummy, I’m going to America!’ He might as well have said prison or be trampled by horses. Letting out a groan, she buried her head in her hands and burst into tears. It was to be expected. As an Indian mother, Mrs Mehta’s prime directive was to ensure that her first-born son was never more than ten feet away from a source of clean clothes, second helpings and moral guidance.

Meanwhile, as Arjun takes the local bus a plane passes high overhead. In its first class cabin sits a 33 year-old British paper millionaire:

Guy Swift, charter member of a Soho club, a man genetically gifted with height, regular features, sandy-blond hair which tousled attractively, relatively inactive sweat glands, clear skin and a cast-iron credit rating.

Guy heads up his own agency, Tomorrow*. It has a Shoreditch office, a young staff and venture capital funding. Guy is a very contemporary success:

In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational visual journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integrated and effective over a spread spectrum.

As you’ve probably picked up there’s a sly sense of humour running through the novel. I’ve read the entire thing and I’m still not really any clearer as to what Guy’s agency actually does. Perhaps that’s why it’s in trouble. Perhaps that’s why his venture capitalist backers are starting to ask when they’ll see a profit.

Unfortunately for Arjun it’s not just Guy’s agency that’s a bit unclear as to its nature. Databodies is not the passport to riches that Arjun was sold, or at least it’s not a passport to Arjun getting rich. Their business consists of providing temp workers to American companies looking to fill vacancies on the cheap. Between contracts he’s benched, waiting with other men in the same position all hoping for work that rarely comes along.

Arjun learns that he’s on what’s nicknamed a “slave visa”. His right to stay in the US is dependent on his continued employment by Databodies which means they can pretty much do what they like with him.

Databodies charged the companies he worked for twice, even three times what they paid him, and still deducted money from his pay for rent, legal and administrative fees. He had made no money, gained nothing at all since coming to America except a new and harder picture of the world.

Eventually Arjun gets a decent posting – an indefinite secondment to one of the world’s leading anti-virus companies. It’s a chance to show what he can do and to forge a life that consists of more than waiting in some Databodies’ dorm-house for the phone to ring. Perhaps if he can prove himself he can get taken on full-time. Perhaps he can lead the life he’s pretended to his family back home he’s already living.

Arjun moves continent in reliance on a signal that proves to be mostly noise – Databodies’ lies about what he’s signing up for. Guy meanwhile makes his living by selling noise that looks like signal – meaningless soundbites with uncertain and unmeasurable sales outcomes. Their worlds are going to collide.

The novel opens with a prelude describing a new computer virus sweeping the globe. The virus uses an image of Bollywood’s latest heartthrob, Leela Zahir, to lure the unsuspecting into clicking on a link that they really shouldn’t trust. Leela is another connection between Arjun and Guy: Arjun is one of her biggest fans; Guy’s increasingly uninterested girlfriend works with Leela as a publicist.

As a star Leela is both person and construct. On the one hand there’s the Leela Zahir that’s a deeply unhappy young woman pushed into a profession she doesn’t care for by her mother/manager who acquires her own fame and fortune through Leela’s talents. On the other, there’s the Leela Zahir who lights up the screen and fills millions of hearts with joy and adoration. Leela’s signal to the world is the noise blocking her own life.

Kunzru juggles the multiple viewpoints and multiple story-threads with ease. The book clocks in at around 300 pages, and for me they sped past. It’s a very now book, which isn’t bad given it was actually first published back in 2005.

The targets are sometimes a little easy, Guy particularly, but Kunzru is deliberately aiming for a lighter satirical feel here and amid the broader brush material there are some distinctly stinging asides:  “(middle class being, he had discovered, an American word for white)”; or later “At least in India the street people can lie down for a while before being moved on.”

There’s something of a witty William Gibson feel to it, contrasting Indian culture with US rather than Gibson’s much-loved Japan. Gibson’s contemporary-set novel Pattern Recognition, featuring coolhunter Cayce Pollard, was published in 2004 just the year before. Cayce could be Guy Swift’s more successful sister, perhaps there was something in the water back then.

In fact, you could do a fairly interesting reading triptych with this, Pattern Recognition and Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel Satin Island. Looking back at my review of Satin Island I found this section where I discussed a real world agency’s own corporate mission statement:

To be fair to McCarthy this seems to be a real outfit, and yet their mission statement reads “River dives in to the trends, needs, experiences and expectations of consumers. We use these immersion platforms to create new opportunities for our clients’ products and brands” which I suspect wouldn’t look out of place in U’s Company. Also, in fairness to McCarthy, after poking around their site for a bit I honestly couldn’t tell you what they actually do.

Perhaps it’s not so much that some of Kunzru’s targets are easy, as that they’re simply accurate. That’s the thing with reality, it just doesn’t have the same obligation to make sense that fiction does.

One last word to Guy Swift, here contemplating what cuts he can make to keep Tomorrow* afloat when its funding comes under scrutiny:

The coolhunters could probably go too – they just seemed to spend all their time in Brick Lane photographing people’s haircuts.

It’s lucky for Gibson’s Cayce Pollard that her that her agency is doing better than Guy’s, and perhaps luckier still that she found herself in a Gibson novel rather than a Kunzru. You might get shot in Gibson’s worlds, but you’ll rarely just get laid off…

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Filed under Kunzru, Hari

My name is Frances Hinton and I do not like to be called Fanny.

April roundup

This is hopefully the last of my roundup posts for a  while – after this I hope to go back to the more usual single-book posts. April saw me busy again at work with a closing while at the same time preparing to resign so that I could move on. That meant I focused on books that would help distract me. Here’s my April reading:

Tower, by Ken Bruen and RF Coleman

This is a classic cinematic tale of two friends who fall into a life of crime and find themselves on opposite sides. Nick is a hard-bitten hard-drinking Irish-American. His best friend Todd is colder, more calculating, and Jewish. Ethnicity matters in the New York criminal underworld (and in most underworlds for that matter) and while both of them end up working for Irish-American gangster Boyle it’s Nick that becomes Boyle’s favourite.

What follows is a twisted tale that opens with the killing of Boyle’s vicious ex-IRA right-hand man Griffin then backtracks to how everyone got there. We first see Nick’s view on events and then the same events from Todd’s very different perspective. Along the way you see their friendship stretched and tested.

Technically it’s very well done. You can’t see the joins between the two writers and the story rattles along at a hell of a clip. The problem for me was that there’s a thin line between classic and cliché and for me it fell a bit on the wrong side of the divide. Perhaps it’s because I don’t entirely understand this odd romanticising of Irish-Americans that seems so prevalent in the US (though the book to its credit does touch on the point that most of these proud Irish-Americans have never actually been to Ireland).

It’s fast moving, brutal and has solid if broad characterisation. I think a lot of readers would love it but it wasn’t quite me. Guy’s more positive review is here.

Laura, by Vera Caspary

Onto another Guy recommendation, but this time a much better match for me. Laura is an interesting noir tale about a detective investigating the murder of a New York ad executive and well-known party girl. As he does so it becomes apparent that he’s falling in love with her, or at least with his idea of who she was.

There’s a wonderful cast, many of whom get chapters from their point of view. Laura’s best friend, Lydecker, is a fat and rather effete newspaper columnist who prides himself on having taken the small-town girl Laura once was and making her the in-demand socialite she was when she died. He’s a fun character: arch, self-satisfied, prissy but always intelligent. The question is, does he have his own agenda?

The detective,  Mark McPherson, is straight from the hardboiled school of fiction. He’s a man’s man, straight-shooting and straight-talking, but he’s the only one in this world who is. Laura’s intended, Shelby, is good looking and ambitious but was he only with Laura for her money? Laura’s aunt, Susan Treadwell, is highly-strung and at first seems fragile but McPherson soon discovers that she’s absolute poison.

Motives multiply and the facts increasingly don’t add up. Laura’s movements on the night of her death don’t make sense and everyone seems to be lying. Just with that this would be a great mystery, but it’s also a great character study as Laura emerges from the confusion as a woman making her own way without children or husband or  compromise.

I’ve barely touched on the plot and that’s intentional – while I guessed the ending there was plenty I didn’t guess along the way and if you haven’t seen either of the films (I haven’t) it’s best to come to this unspoiled. Highly recommended.

Guy’s review is here. The cover above isn’t the one I have by the way, I just thought it very good and that it captured the book better than most I saw.

Black Wings has my Angel, by Elliot Chaze

This has got a lot of attention of late due to an NYRB release. I read it as part of a double-ebook edition with Chaze’s One is a Lonely Number, which I slightly preferred to Angel.

That’s not to say that Angel isn’t good. It’s absolutely solid noir with an escaped convict (Tim Sunblade) planning one last big job with a high-class hooker (Virginia) that he met on the road. They’re both deadly and while they may, maybe, come to love each other neither can trust the other an inch.

Chaze does something interesting here in having the whole novel written by Tim Sunblade with the benefit of hindsight. That allows Chaze from time to time to drop in ominous hints which make it quite clear in broad terms what happens to the characters, just not how or why. For most of the book they spend so much energy trying to rip each other off and even trying to kill each other that you start to wonder how anyone will make it to the end.

It’s a truly excellent noir with great characterisation and plotting. I only slightly prefer Lonely as this one depends a little on some bad luck, whereas in Lonely I felt everything that happened came clearly from the character’s choices. Still, that’s a quibble and both are excellent.

Jacqui’s rather good review from JacquiWine’s Blog is here.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of the leading hard SF authors around. I used to be a massive fan but got out of the habit somehow. I picked this one up as it’s actually two separate novellas and shorter than his usual 400-page-plus megatomes (for all I love the genre, SF really does measure books by the yard).

Diamond Dogs is a story about an attempt by a team of mercenaries to explore a strange alien tower on a dead planet. The tower sets increasingly complex mathematical puzzles in each room – solve them and you get to go deeper into the tower; fail and the results are bloody and as time goes on lethal.

As setups go it’s not particularly original and Reynolds plainly knows that, but it is well done. The story is more about obsession and what the various characters are prepared to do to progress, even though the benefits of doing so are unclear at best and increasingly look like they may be non-existent. Here the SF element matters as it allows the mercenaries to adapt themselves as they go further into the tower – replacing lost limbs with cybernetic replacements; augmenting their brains by altering their cognition to boost mathematical ability at the expense of less immediately useful traits. As the story draws to its close it’s questionable whether those remaining are even meaningfully human anymore.

Diamond Dogs reminded me of why I used to like Reynolds so much. It’s solid high-concept SF and led me quickly onto Turqoise Days. Here scholars on a remote planet investigate a Solaris-like ocean/lifeform. Things get literally and figuratively stirred up when for the first time in over a hundred years a spaceship comes from another solar system. The question is, why has the ship come and do its passengers have ulterior motives for visiting such an out-of-the-way colony?

Reynolds tells his story through one particular character who’s lost her higher-achieving sister in an incident on the ocean surface, but who hopes/dreams that her sister may in some sense still be alive as part of the alien organism. Reynolds therefore mixes in issues of sibling rivalry with exploration of alien biomes and again questions of what it means to be human. It’s top stuff, though it’s also again proper hard SF so if you’re not already into the genre I think it would be a tough read.

The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross

By this point I was mid-closing so I tried another of Stross’s Laundry novels for light relief. This is actually one of the better regarded in the sequence as best I can tell (or at least is seen as a solid entry), but I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The problem wasn’t so much the book as that I’d read another from the same series literally less than a month before. Stross doesn’t assume the reader has read that previous book so there’s summaries of what happened (which are annoying if you’ve just read it) and the humour is very similar which is fine if spaced out but a bit samey if taken too quickly in succession.

The story here focuses on a team of quantitative analysts who are infected with vampirism and used as tools in an ancient conflict between two much older vampires. It’s better and cleverer than it sounds when summarised like that, but I just shouldn’t have read it so soon after the previous one.

I do plan to continue with the series, but probably not until much later this year or more likely 2019 or so.

Look at Me, by Anita Brookner

April was arguably my Guy Savage reading month. After the Stross I wanted something a bit more purely literary and thought it time to try one of the Brookner’s Guy’s been recommending of late.

Look at Me is from the 1980s and features a slightly shy young woman Frances who works in a medical library. She falls in with one of the doctors who use the library, the effortlessly charming Nick Fraser, and with his wife Alix.

Nick and Alix are a golden couple and their life is one of endless meals out and high-spirited friends and drama and excitement. Frances, who Nick and Alix immediately start calling Fanny, is too inexperienced to see quite how shallow Nick is or quite how selfish Alix.

Everyone here is well drawn and there are some tremendous set-piece scenes, from an early dinner out with Nick and Alix where Fanny is plunged breathlessly into the dazzle of their lives to much later in the book an absolutely devastating Christmas visit by Fanny to retired librarian Mrs Morpeth. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Brookner can write, but all the same she definitely can.

I was less persuaded by Fanny as a character, mostly as I just didn’t believe her voice was that of a twenty-something year old. She felt middle aged to me, perhaps slightly older, and while there are good reasons in the book why she is so staid and so quiet it still didn’t quite ring true to me.

Similarly, while Fanny has her challenges it’s made clear that she’s independently wealthy, young, moderately pretty and highly intelligent. That’s not a bad combo to be getting on with, which made me slightly unpersuaded that her options in life were as few as the evidently thinks and thus her need for Nick and Alix as great as it seems.

So, while I respected this and was impressed by the craft, I didn’t love it. It reminded me of so much English literary fiction – a beautifully written account of the lives of highly privileged people who could as easily be living in the 1960s as the 1980s as the 2010s for all the outside world touches them.

For all that criticism, don’t be put off. It’s very well written and there’s an ocean of quiet but deep characterisation here. It’s one of Guy’s favourite Brookner’s and if you’ve any interest in her as a writer is probably worth your time. It’s also fair to say that it’s holding up well in memory – it’s one of those novels that continue to unpack after you’ve read them. Guy’s review is here.

Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry

That leaves me with my final read of the month, which is a bit of a cheat as while I finished it in April I’d been reading it off and on for absolutely ages. It’s a Kevin Barry short story collection and it’s hugely impressive both in terms of range and Barry’s command of the form.

The stories here vary from the opener which is a micro-portrait of a young man building up the courage to kiss a girl after a party; to stories of tedious bar-patrons talking endlessly about the best route from one town to another while outside torrential rain threatens to flood the whole place; to a pair of elderly serial killers; to a romance which changes the fate of an IRA bomber; to a petty criminal on the run who decides to hole up with decidedly the wrong people; to, well, much more besides.

Barry is I think one of the better short story writers out there today and this is a top quality collection. The tales often feature elements of the grotesque and are often blackly funny, but Barry’s eye for character and phrase ground them. As soon as I finished it I bought his other collection, Little Kingdoms, because I wanted more Kevin Barry short stories in my life.

And that’s it! May started with Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations which was very good indeed. I’m now on China Miéville’s The City and the City (no, I haven’t seen the TV show yet, but just from the trailers the lead in the book now looks like David Morrissey to me. Funny how powerful TV imagery can be).

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Brookner, Anita, Chaze, Elliot, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir, Novellas, Reynolds, Alastair, SF, Short stories

“Forget all your fears now. Have a fling this night”

March roundup

This is my March roundup. Again, a pretty solid reading month. I may do a similar post for April and then try to start doing individual posts again (it’s a bit daunting when you have a multi-book backlog to go back and start writing them all up individually – better to start afresh with a new month).

White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

 

This one’s had a lot of reviews across the blogosphere. It’s a Finnish novel about a famine, told from the viewpoint of those reduced to starving refugees and those sitting comfortably in the capital talking about how awful it all is.

It’s a bleak tale featuring desperation and terrible suffering. It’s also very powerful and worth reading even if the description here makes it sound a bit grim. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal did a good review here and Grant of 1stReading’s Blog here.

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

 

Book four in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross – basically comic novels which combine spy fiction, Lovecraftian horror and British government bureaucracy to form a particularly unholy mixture.

For some reason Stross never seems to assume you’ve read previous novels in the sequence (but who starts at number four?). That makes for a bit of repetition and he does sometimes reuse the same jokes and references even within the same book, but even so these are light and fun reads. Beach and transport books to borrow Emma’s rather marvellous category.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

 

This is a horror novel which again draws on Lovecraft, but here more by way of a mixture of homage and critique rather than simply by reference. LaValle takes the famous Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook and retells it from the perspective of a new character not mentioned in the original.

Red Hook is one of HPL’s more racially iffy stories and while LaValle is clearly a fan he’s aware of the issues in HPL’s work. Here he uses an African-American protagonist to contrast real world brutalities with HPL’s more fantastical ones.

I thought this clever and affectionately respectful of the original while doing something new with the material. If you’re not already an HPL fan though you’ll miss a lot of what’s going on.

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

 

I’ve yet to read a Kunzru I didn’t love. This is his second novel and tells the story of a young Indian programmer brought to the US on promises of a chance to make his fortune, but who discovers instead that the American dream is often built on cheap third world labour.

At the same time it’s also the story of a computer virus that sweeps the world and the lives caught in its wake, one of them an up-and-coming Bollywood star. All that and above all else it’s a novel about the difficulties of human contact and how our personal signals can get lost in the noise around us.

If I get a chance (but I probably won’t), it deserves a full write-up. It has a shot at my end of year list.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Great cover for this one. It’s a lovely little gothic tale of a psychic researcher who brings a motley group to a famously haunted house, among them a very troubled young woman who shouldn’t be anywhere near the place.

It has a bit of an odd tonal shift three quarters of the way through, but otherwise it’s well done and justifiably famous. I’m already planning to read more Jackson.

Glittering City, by Cyprian Ekwensi

This was one of Penguin’s recent Penguin Modern short releases. It’s a short story/novella about Fussy Joe, a Lagos charmer and waster who likes to hang out at the station picking up young women fresh in from the country who don’t yet know to avoid men like him.

It’s a quick read and Ekwensi manages the balancing act of making Fussy Joe likeable while at the same time making it quite clear why he deserves to get his comeuppance. It does exactly what Penguin hope for from this series – introduces you (me anyway) to a new writer and gives a sense of their style.

From ancient Rome, to ‘60s Lagos to modern Rio or Tokyo the place and time may change but wherever you go there’s a Fussy Joe and there’s fresh innocents to be fleeced, or at least there are as long as Fussy Joe can keep ahead of all the people he’s borrowed money from or taken advantage of… Lots of fun.

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag

This was a good book to finish the month on. It’s an Indian novel told from the point of view of a rich young man who is notionally heir to a successful business but who spends his days sitting in a café as he’s a bit lazy and doesn’t have any actually useful skills.

As the story unpacks you get a sense of the underlying family dynamics, their route from poverty to their current wealth and the compromises they all made along the way. What starts as a fairly gentle comedy becomes a moral enquiry, an examination of the culpability of those willing to turn a blind eye for a comfortable life.

There’s lots of reviews of this one including from Stu here and this one from Grant at 1stReading’s Blog which pushed me over the line to giving this a try.

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Filed under Ekwensi, Cyprian, Horror, Indian fiction, Jackson, Shirley, Kunzru, Hari, Lovecraft, H.P., Nigerian fiction, SF, Stross, Charles

He looks down at the dry earth and he knows that it’s been too dry for marks now for weeks

February roundup

I read fewer books in February than January, but better books. Here they are.

The Crew, by Joseph Kessel

This is a Pushkin Press release written by an author who actually served in the French air corps in World War 1. Here he draws on that experience to tell a story about a young airman, his fellow crewman, and the woman they both love.

A crew live or die by their closeness to each other – their instinctive mutual understanding. Anything which comes between them, which disturbs their bond, risks leaving them exposed and as the book more than once demonstrates death is always waiting above the battle lines. How can you maintain trust though when one of you is sleeping with the other’s wife?

It’s really very good. The air scenes are well done, the pilots and crew are convincing and the relationships work well. I particularly liked that while one never sees the woman’s perspective it’s quite evident that while the characters think of her as an essentially passive object for their affections she’s actually nothing of the kind.

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

 

This one’s a classic Greenian tale of colonialism and complicity explored through a jaded British journalist and a dangerously naive American (“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”). As with The Duel, they both love the same woman and Greene uses their relationship with her to explore the colonial powers’ wider relationship with Vietnam itself.

As with The Crew there’s again a sense that both the men are too concerned with what the woman means to them to ever consider what she might mean to herself (“One always spoke of her like that in the third person as though she were not there.”). Greene uses this to tell a tale that can be read purely as personal tragedy or as the tragedy of a nation and as a critique of an entire philosophy of supposedly humanitarian intervention. Brilliant stuff.

How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?

The Long Dry, by Cynan Jones

A sparsely written tale of a farmer struggling with an unhappy marriage and problems caused by drought and heat. On finishing it I immediately bought another by Jones.

The prose is lean and muscular, yet poetic at the same time. There’s a tremendous sense of the sheer toughness of rural life – the hard work, the speed and ease with which things can go wrong, but the beauty too. Kimbofo wrote a very good review of it here which I recommend reading.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I bought this because it featured on someone’s end of year list, and then promptly forgot whose. It’s a deceptively simple tale of an elderly retired soldier who now makes his living reading the news to isolated communities. He agrees to take care of a young girl recently recovered from the American Indian tribe who took her captive and to transport her back to her surviving kin.

Along the way they’ll face bad weather and worse men. It’s a really nicely realised classic Western and it might well make my end of year list too. I wrote a full review of it here.

February summary

Only four books read (and none of them very long), but all four were in their different ways excellent. If every month’s reading were as good as that I’d be very happy indeed.

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Filed under Chaze, Elliot, French, Greene, Graham, Historical fiction, Jiles, Paulette, Jones, Cynan, Military fiction, Pushkin Press, Westerns

Six bullets and a gun to take me to Mexico. That’s all I’ve got now. And it’s a long, long way.

January roundup

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post much – I’ve been busy at work and then looking to move jobs (which I’ll be doing in July). Between the two I’ve not been able to be online much.

So, by way of catch-up I thought I’d do a series of three posts summarising my reading in January through March. Today’s covers January.

If you read through this post I’m guessing it’ll be obvious which book I took the title quote for this roundup from…

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

My first book of the year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, the second in her Ancillary trilogy (SF writers and trilogies…). It’s a direct sequel to her highly regarded Ancillary Justice and I enjoyed it tremendously although the general view that it’s not quite as strong as the original is probably fair. I wrote a bit about Ancillary Justice here.

Ancillary Sword is a much more contained novel than Justice. For a far future space opera it has an awful lot of dinner and tea parties and there’s much more focus on the culture of Leckie’s setting, all of which I liked but it does make it inevitably a little bit less thrilling than the original. I still definitely plan to read the third in the sequence.

The Duel, by Joseph Conrad

This was one that Guy recommended – his review is here. It’s a really nicely executed little novella about a duel between two Napoleonic officers which lasts over twenty years off and on. It inspired the film of the same name.

The Melville House edition, which is the one I read, comes with copious end notes and historical background material much of which is genuinely fascinating and if the concept interests you even slightly this is an absolute must read. It’s a lot of fun, if fun is the right word.

The Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I’d read a lot about it so had a look at the book. Sadly I remain rather untidy. To be fair I haven’t implemented any of Marie Kondo’s rules so this may not be entirely her fault.

Rain, by W. Somerset Maugham

This is quite a famous Maugham novella and but for being a little over 50 pages long would fit easily into one of the Far Eastern Tales collections. It features various colonial types trapped on a small island for several weeks when their sea journey is interrupted by extreme bad weather.

Tensions rise, particularly when a rather puritanical religious couple object to sharing the limited island accommodation with a fellow passenger they suspect of being a prostitute. It’s classic Maugham – powerfully written with strong characters and yet an extremely easy read. He’s famous for his short stories for good reason.

That’s not the cover I have by the way – mine is much plainer. I just thought that one rather good and it does actually capture part of the story (the racier part, but publishers do have to sell books…).

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

A man becomes accidentally involved in a deadly attempt to smuggle defence secrets to foreign powers. There’s some good passages particularly as the hero is tracked across the Scottish highlands, but by the end it depends heavily on extraordinary coincidence and the proper authorities continuing to keep the hero involved long after he should have been thanked and sent home.

The Hitchcock film is better and neatly sidesteps the various massive jumps of logic in the book. This is my second Buchan and I’ve not liked either, so while I wouldn’t argue with those who love him I think I can say at this point that I’m not the right reader for him.

Again that’s not the cover I had, but it’s great isn’t it?

King City, Lee Goldberg

This is a solidly efficient thriller by Lee Goldberg about an honest cop who irritates his less honest superiors so much that they despatch him to an inner-city hellhole without any useful backup or support.

Naturally he doesn’t just get killed on day one and the two very junior cops he’s given turn out to be more useful than they look. It’s Hollywood stuff done rather by the numbers and nothing in it will surprise you, but it’s well done Hollywood stuff done by the numbers.

So, while that might all sound a bit dismissive, I actually somewhat recommend it provided you want what Goldberg is selling. I preferred his Watch Me Die though which was a bit more fun so if you’ve never tried him I’d start with that.

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

I’ve reviewed a lot of Richard Morgan here and I’m something of a fan. This marked a departure by him from pure SF to more traditional sword and sorcery fantasy. It’s full of traditional Morgan traits including hyper-violence and strong sexual content, but none of that was ever what I read him for and I thought the story here depended more on that material than his SF did.

Anyway, it’s (of course) part of a trilogy and I’ve picked up the second. There’s some linkages to his SF work so I suspect by the end I’ll discover it’s all set in the distant future and isn’t really fantasy at all, but I’m not sure how much I care. I trust him as a writer though so I’ll stick with the journey.

One is a Lonely Number, by Elliot Chaze

Chaze is famous for Black Wings has my Angel, which I read in April, but I actually preferred this. A con on the run comes to a small town where he finds himself caught between two women each crazy in their own special way. It’s full-on classic noir with an evidently doomed protagonist and a whole lot of bad choices.

If you have any fondness for slightly pulpy noir it’s one of the good ones. Worth checking out. Here’s an early quote:

It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, tenement hot, whore house hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy. He rolled away from her, not that he thought it would be any cooler because the whole bed was steaming, but because he always needed a cigaret desperately, afterwards.

January summary

My January reading reflects the fact I was absolutely flat-out at work. It’s heavy on genre reads and shorter reads, and I don’t think any of them will make my end of year list (except maybe the Chaze). February however was much stronger – I’ll post on that tomorrow.

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Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Crime, Goldberg, Lee, Leckie, Ann, Maugham, W Somerset, Morand, Paul, SF, Short stories