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

One cannot think with a ten-year-old Kiowa-German captive throwing soap and ceramics.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

This is a slightly unusual one for me which I only read to be honest because it was on an end of year list that I can’t now find. It’s a rather filmic western, but a very good one and it’s impressively packed in to a fairly light 229 pages.

The setup is simple, as it tends to be with good Westerns. 71 year old former-printer Jefferson Kyle Kidd, known as Captain Kidd due to his past army service, agrees to take a ten year old girl recovered from the Kiowa back home to her people down south.

Johanna, the girl, was taken by the Kiowa four years ago. They slaughtered her immediate family but took her and raised her as one of theirs. Nobody knows why. There were other children, younger and older, all of whom were killed alongside the parents.

Four years on and the Kiowa are under increasing pressure from US forces. They return their captives, including Johanna who by now considers herself fully Kiowa and has no memory of her earlier life. That’s twice she’s been ripped from a family. She doesn’t even know why Captain Kidd is transporting her.

She had the carriage of every Indian he had ever seen and there was a sort of kinetic stillness about them and yet she was a ten-year-old girl with dark blond hair in streaks and blue eyes and freckles.

The Captain supports himself by reading the news. He carries a pack of newspapers and travels to rural towns where he books a town hall or bar or whatever and reads word of far off places and extraordinary events to the news-starved locals.

When they read his handbills men abandoned the saloon, they slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their firelit homes, they left the cattle circled and bedded beside the flooding Red to come and hear the news of the distant world.

The news he reads is sometimes political, sometimes scientific, sometimes of distant countries those present barely know even by name let alone by location. He brings the world to the towns he visits. You pay a dime at the door and for an hour or so you’re transported utterly away from the everyday.

Johanna’s people aren’t really on the Captain’s route, but he’s paid well to take her there. Along the way they’ll face floods, bad weather, bandits and worse. It’s like a negative image of The Searchers.

The Captain is a sympathetic figure, intelligent and honourable but lonelier than he realises. At first he finds Johanna to be a dangerous semi-feral intrusion into his settled life but increasingly he realises how arid that life had become.

Johanna meanwhile is neither of one world nor the other – no longer the German-American she once was, increasingly no longer Kiowa either. As one character comments:

[…] she is like an elf. She is like a fairy person from the glamorie. They are not one thing or another.

Part of what makes News work is its pacing. There is one absolutely stand-out gunfight which is very well realised, but mostly it’s quieter moments shared against the tense backdrop of a journey through thinly settled lands far outside the reach of any helpful law.

Jiles captures the tensions of the time: the fallout of the Civil War; the slow squeezing out of the Kiowa and the Comanche by settlers and soldiers; the melting-pot tensions of Germans and Irish and newly emancipated (but far from accepted) African-Americans. At the same time, she leavens it all with some nicely judged humour, as here when the Captain intervenes to stop Johanna’s intended celebration of an unexpected victory:

No. Absolutely not. No. No scalping. He lifted her up and swung her up over the ledges of stone and then followed. He said, It is considered very impolite.

All journeys have their ending, one way or another, and as the Captain and Johanna near theirs the question of whether he’ll actually hand her over becomes more pressing. Her “people” are relatives of her parents but they’d never actually met her and she’ll never be what they’d consider normal. If the Captain gives her up that’s a third family lost, but does he have any right to try to keep her? And anyway, is an itinerant old man really the right guardian for a deeply troubled child?

It’s easy to imagine News of the World as a film. It would of course be directed by John Ford and I can easily imagine Shootist-era John Wayne as the Captain. I’m not sure who would play Johanna, perhaps Kim Darby though the two look nothing alike. In any event, it’s a tribute to News that those are the sorts of names it brings to mind.

I took some persuading to read this. When I first read a positive review of it (which I’ve since lost details of) I took note, but it sounded a bit formulaic and Westerns aren’t really my genre. Then it came up in the same person’s end of year list (also lost) so I looked again. I’m glad I did so.

For me a good Western is uncluttered. It allows space for the landscape and the characters to breathe, and it keeps the story simple so both can do so. News of the World tells its story cleanly and manages to be sympathetic to its characters without being sentimental. It is charming and persuasive and now that I’ve read it I’m not at all surprised it made somebody’s end of year list.

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Filed under Jiles, Paulette, US fiction, Westerns

The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,

Collected Poems, C.P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard

Back in 2015 I reviewed the Penguin Classics little black book edition of Avi Sharon’s translation of Cavafy poems. It was an excerpt from a longer Penguin Classics edition and whetted my taste for Cavafy.

I talk quite a lot in my 2015 post (here) of the different Cavafy translations currently on offer: the Sharon, the Daniel Mendelsohn and the Keeley/Sherrard. Of the three it was the Keeley/Sherrard I decided to press on with.

Every translation involves choices between accuracy to the text of the original and accuracy to its spirit. There’s no right answer to that dilemma: just sometimes the right translation for a particular reader. I decided that the Keeley/Sherrard translation was the right one for me.

Cavafy’s themes as a poet were typically melancholic reveries of past desire; poems inspired by or drawing upon Greek myth and history; and to an extent certain technical challenges which are difficult to translate and even more difficult for me to understand. Not everything fits those boxes, but they’re a decent guide as to what to expect.

For me, and I think for most readers, it’s the personal meditations on desire that are most effective. I have a decent(ish) grasp of Classical Greek myth and history but not at anything like the level of familiarity Cavafy had. His poems drawing on the lives of classical figures are (I understand) often technically impressive but the resonances are lost to a reader who doesn’t get the references.

Here’s one of the more accessible examples of the classically inspired poems:

THE GLORY OF THE PTOLEMIES

I’m Lagides, king – through my power and wealth
complete master of the art of pleasure.
There’s no Macedonian, no barbarian, equal to me
or even approaching me. The son of Selefkos
is really a joke with his cheap lechery.
But if you’re looking for other things, note this too:
My city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.

Like many of the poems in this edition this one comes with explanatory notes in an aftersection. Here they read:

First version written August 1896
Rewritten May 1911, and published September 1911
The metrical pattern is 15-14-14-15-14-14-16-12 syllables, rhymed abbaccc.
Cavafy does not specify the identity of the Lagid (i.e., a Ptolemy king of Egypt) and of the Selefkid (i.e.  king of Syria); the period would, however, be between 323 and 221 B.C.

I described that one as more accessible because even without any idea who Lagides and Selefkid are (and even the translator doesn’t know that) it’s pretty clear what kind of people they are. With others the clue as to what they’re like lies in knowing who they are, and if you don’t the poem risks leaving you pretty cold (or did me anyway).

There are notable exceptions. The tremendous “Waiting for the Barbarians” (which is a bit long to reproduce here but can be found at this link) works whether you know the event which inspired it or not and has a killer of a punchline. Others bridge the gap between Cavafy’s two styles, as here where the Classical and the personal intertwine:

IONIC

That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

Regret is a key Cavafy theme. In most cases it’s personal regret: a memory of a past love that couldn’t grow because it had to be furtive, hidden (Cavafy was gay). There’s a strong sense of loss in Cavafy’s work, both in the loss of the greatness that was Greece and the loss of the love of young men each met in a café or shop and briefly loved in some rented tenement room.

In some cases Cavafy goes beyond regret and loss, and instead explores a sense of sheer waste as here in one of my favourites:

THE CITY

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart – like something dead – lies buried.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed
them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things
elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

This is a counterpoint to Cavafy’s possibly most famous poem Ithaca (read here by Sean Connery with a Vangelis soundtrack no less! I’m not actually that fond of the poem but for many it’s a favourite). In Ithaca the journey is the destination. Here the journey is pointless as the “you” will carry their own devastation with them. On reflection, those messages are more connected than I first thought, since in each your destination carries only the meaning you bring to it.

Incidentally, the endnotes reveal that, in the Greek, The City has “elaborate metrical patterns” and “mostly homophonous” rhymes. For those interested in the architecture of poetry my impression is that Cavafy is actually pretty sophisticated, but unfortunately I’m not so it’s hard for me to comment further.

I’ll turn now to Cavafy’s more personal poems and the ones which for me are most effective. Cavafy is a poet of extraordinary sensuality, and his poems of loves lost combine the physicality of desire with the tenuousness of memory.

Here’s two examples:

AT THE CAFÉ DOOR

Something they said beside me
made me look towards the café door
and I saw that lovely body which seemed
as though Eros in his mastery had fashioned it,
joyfully shaping its well-formed limbs,
moulding its tall build,
shaping its face tenderly,
and leaving, with a touch of the fingers,
a particular impression on the brow, the eyes, the lips.

IN THE EVENING

It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
years of experience make that clear.
But fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasures we gave our bodies.
An echo from my days of indulgence,
an echo from those days come back to me,
something from the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
read it over and over till the light faded.

Then, sad, I went out on the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the streets, in the shops.

At the Café Door is a personal favourite of mine, but In the Evening is strong too with its emphasis on “scents” and playful repetition of the word “echo”. Café of course brings back those Classical Greek themes with a light reference there to Eros.

In Café there isn’t even an affair. The narrator simply sees someone beautiful and for a moment is transported by their sheer presence. It’s a could-have-been, or perhaps not even that but simply an admiration.

In the Evening by contrast is a classic Cavafy reflection in age on a passion of youth. There’s a lot of poems exploring that theme and they’re generally among the strongest. There’s a sense of youth as a fire and the long years after as a sort of wasteland. Relationships are doomed by illegality and desire by time.

Cavafy’s poetry is melancholic and beautiful and this is still I think a definitive collection. It’s far from the only strong choice – as was commented under my last Cavafy piece there’s something of a Cavafy industry – but at a little over 200 pages it’s portable and digestible and the translations are lively and evocative.

One thing that I would recommend with Cavafy is spacing the poems out. I read this collection over perhaps a two year period and it was better for that. Many authors and poets return to the same issues over and over, but when you’re reading a poetry collection the impact is diminished if you’re reading your fourth meditation on lost love or third elegy to past greatness. In this case the poetry is like brandy, you can only take so much at one sitting.

I’ll end with one final poem (I cut so many that I wanted to include here). This one because in the context of Cavafy’s life it’s both heartbreaking and prophetic. For all the problems of our time, and I know they are many, we do at least live now in the “more perfect” society he dreams of here:

HIDDEN THINGS

For all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there distorting
the actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I’d begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
my most veiled writing –
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.

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Filed under Cavafy, CP, Poetry

Post Christmas round-up

I read a few books over Christmas and in the run-up to New Year that I didn’t get a chance to write a post about. Going into 2018 that gives me a backlog of about six books, which is a little oppressive so while the books deserve better I’m going to cover a few of them off in a single post.

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

This is the third of Louise Welsh’s plague times trilogy. I wrote about the first and second novels in the series here and here.

No Dominion opens a few years after the events of the first two novels and their protagonists Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall are now part of a community of survivors living in the Orkney islands. Stevie is their mayor and Magnus has become the adoptive father of one of the child survivors, now an adolescent.

The adults have tried to shield the children from the full horrors of what the world became as it fell, and unfortunately have succeeded a little too well. When strangers come to the island they don’t have to work too hard to lure several of the children away with them to the mainland. Stevie and Magnus have to team up and brave the dangers of the post-apocalypse world to attempt a rescue.

As ever there’s lots of good set-pieces here and Welsh’s view of the new societies being thrown up after the loss of our own is persuasive. There’s a feudal set-up; a small community of religious fanatics; and a resurgent Glasgow where a self-styled Provost has set the city partly back on its feet but where his methods have sparked increasing local resistance.

‘Provost Bream is an exceptional man, charismatic, single-minded. He’s determined to get things up and running again and he won’t allow a little squeamishness to get in the way. We might not agree with his methods, but we have to accept that he has a point. The world was always unfair. Since the Sweats, divisions have simply become a little starker.’

The downside is that the plot is heavily coincidence-driven. Stevie and Magnus aren’t particularly well equipped to survive what they encounter and at least twice only do so because they happen to turn up just as the new societies they encounter are facing some kind of internal crisis. One lucky rescue I’ll accept. By the time it gets to two or three it gets a bit stretched for me.

If you’ve enjoyed the first two this is definitely worth reading. It’s good to reconnect with the characters and Welsh’s world-building is as strong as her world-tearing-downing. It’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, but it makes a fitting end to the series.

Kindle titling

By way of an aside, several publishers now put marketing blurb into the title when submitting to Amazon which the kindle software then duly transcribes as the full title of the book. It’s quite annoying and means that if you do get this on kindle it’s not simply called No Dominion, but instead actually shows up on your device with the title “No Dominion: An action-packed post-apocalyptic thriller (Plague Times Trilogy)” which seems somewhat excessive.

Similarly, Andrew Hurley’s Devil’s Day is actually titled on your device “Devil’s Day: From the Costa winning and bestselling author of The Loney”. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach becomes “Manhattan Beach: 2017’s most anticipated book” at which point I’ll just buy it in hardcopy since seeing that on my kindle each time I open it starts to feel a bit hectoring.

The Shadow Line, by Joseph Conrad

Honestly, I read this because it’s the book that triggers the action in Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House. Having now read it I don’t think it has any particular meaning in The Paper House and was as good a novel to kick things off there as any other. Still, it’s fun and so worth reading in its own right.

This is one of Conrad’s sea yarns rather than his more psychological pieces (though there’s plenty of psychology in here). A young man takes his first command only to find his ship becalmed and his crew laid low by disease. The first mate becomes convinced they’ve been cursed by the ship’s previous captain who died a madman.

Conrad’s a marvel at describing the sea and I’ve come to really enjoy his adventure stories, even if they do lack the subtlety of the marvellous The Secret Agent. I couldn’t resist including this quote:

It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several days in succession low clouds had appeared in the distance, white masses with dark convolutions resting on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet all the time changing their aspects subtly. Toward evening they vanished as a rule. But this day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank down. The punctual and wearisome stars reappeared over our mastheads, but the air remained stagnant and oppressive.

Despite getting off to a rocky start with Conrad I’ve become something of a fan.

The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift and translated by Jamie Bulloch

What to say about this one? It’s a dark fairy-tale in which a young woman who’s recovered from an eating disorder meets an old woman in contemporary Vienna who appears to be either the Empress Sissi or to have modelled herself closely upon her.

This is a deeply disturbing novella and if you’ve ever come even near any kind of eating disorder yourself I’d advise caution before reading it. The protagonist finds herself trapped in the old woman’s world and spiralling back into bulimia and anorexia. As she observes: “Everything was all right if I was thin.”

It’s a deeply strange novella with the old woman using her captive to steal objects once belonging to the Empress from Viennese museums and it operates on a sort of terrible dream-logic. I read it while in Vienna which helped hugely in terms of getting some of the references and it’s definitely worth reading the Wikipedia page on Empress Sissi before starting.

Don’t expect this to make real-world sense. It has an internal logic but it’s the logic of madness rather than reality and this is more an exploration of obsession than an attempt to portray a realistic situation. It is very, very good but not for the faint-hearted or the weak of stomach.

[Edit: I had forgotten to link to Tony of Tony’s Reading List’s review here, which is very good and which inspired me to give this a try.]

Epitaph for a Spy, by Eric Ambler

I’ve read two previous Amblers: Uncommon Danger, and The Mask of Dmitrios. This will probably be my last for a while and in truth I chose this particular one in part as I liked the cover.

Here we have the usual hapless Ambler protagonist – Josef Vadassy – a stateless refugee living in 1930s France.  Vadassy finds himself in trouble while on holiday in the French riviera when he sends some photos to be developed only to find that due to some mix-up he’s submitted photos of coastal defences rather than his own pictures.

The nice twist here is Vadassy’s status. The police work out almost immediately that he’s not a spy, but someone is and just having those photos is itself illegal. He is sent to the small hotel at which he’s staying to discover which of his fellow guests is the real spy under threat of deportation if he fails. For Vadassy, deportation could easily mean death.

The curious thing with Ambler is how up to date his novels always seem. Here we have the backdrop of Europe on the eve of war. Vadassy has roots in Yugoslavia and Hungary and the particulars of why he has no country to call his own are of that time and those places. 80 or so years later and we still have stateless people, desperate refugees, and of course spies. Vadassy’s precarious position is one that many people would still recognise today.

In a funny way this is a bit of a classic country house crime novel. It turns out that most of the other guests at the pension have secrets to hide and Vadassy soon finds himself lost in a web of danger and deceit. Honestly it stretches credulity a bit quite how many of these people do have something going on, but the same is true for a great many cosy crime novels so I think it’s forgivable.

The hotel setting works well here and the characters are a lot of fun: a shell-shocked British major and his strangely silent wife; a pair of attractive young Americans whose account of their travels doesn’t quite add up; a hotel manager who enjoys spending time with the guests more than doing his job; an obese German couple having the time of their lives amidst it all and many more.

This is much better than the much more widely praised The Mask of Dmitrios. Vadassy is as dim as most Ambler protagonists but is sympathetic and has a good reason to actually be involved in the story. The 1930s European backdrop is great and while the range of secrets present in the hotel is literally incredible it does allow Ambler to pack a lot into a short space. Overall, recommended.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

Chronologically this is the second of the Jeeves’ collections, so far as I know anyway. It’s short stories but loosely tied together to create an overall narrative. Honestly, I’d read them more as short stories and space them out a bit. Wodehouse is brilliant but too many too quickly and you risk the underlying architecture showing which isn’t to their benefit.

Years back I wrote about the first Jeeves’ collection, Carry on Jeeves, which includes the story where he’s hired by Bertie. I wrote quite a bit there about how Wodehouse structures these stories and to be honest I think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done here.

Anyway, not much else to say save that this is P.G. Wodehouse with his most glorious characters (sorry Empress and Psmith!) and a cast of: terrifying aunts; young men who mostly make up in spirit what they lack in intellect; young women who tend either to the sporty or the serious or to both; and vicars and con-men; dangerously precocious children and much more. It’s wonderful.

Others yet to come

I also read Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua and a C.P. Cavafy poetry collection but those I do hope to do individual posts for over the coming week.

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Filed under Ambler, Eric, Comic fiction, Conrad, Joseph, German, Post-apocalypse, Vienna, Welsh, Louise, Wodehouse, P.G.

My best books read in 2017

I read War and Peace!

It just seems worth shouting about. It did take almost two months. Anyway, with that notice out of the way here’s my end of year round-up, in no particular order until you get to the very end. As with the last couple of years’ round-ups the image is wholly unrelated to the list, but it is a very good film.

Best not to actually describe it novel: let’s start with what’s possibly the most disturbing read of the year in a year where that’s a hotly contested category. Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is a novel so blackly satirical that just talking about its core concept gets fairly offensive. A biting argument that actually, on reflection, maybe we shouldn’t accept things as they are;

Best novel that’s actually quite hard to describe: that would be Adrian N. Bravi’s The Combover. It’s funny, it’s clever and it’s the only novella about a man retreating from the world after someone flips his combover that you’ll read any time soon;

Best novel that hardly anyone commented on: The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Somehow I just didn’t enthuse people about this one when I first wrote about it, so here’s another go. This came very close to being my book of the year. It’s exuberant, well written and powerful. Seriously, it’s worth checking out;

(Best disturbing novel with a child protagonist actually proved quite hotly contested this year, so I’ve broken it down into the following two categories.)

Best disturbing and somewhat gothic novel with a child protagonist: Small Hands, by Andres Barba. This has now won the Spanish Herralde prize and it’s easy to see why. It’s marvellously well written and frankly any novel that features the line “Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase.” just has to be celebrated. I know it’s dark, I know it involves harm to children, but it really is very good and another candidate for book of the year;

Best disturbing and terribly sad novel with a child protagonist: I’m late to the party with this one, but Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole. I thought this was clever, funny and yet rather heartbreaking and it’s astonishing quite how much Villalobos manages to pack in by way of off-screen implication;

Best classic Russian novel: Novel is stretching it here, but it’s novel length so why not? Anyway, the winner is the Pushkin Press translation by Anthony Briggs of Alexander Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin. It’s a delightful and sparkling translation which I utterly recommend;

Best novel set in Vienna: another surprisingly hotly contested category this year, but Arthur Schnitzler just can’t be beat and his Dream Story while far from my favourite by him is nonetheless exceptionally good;

Best stylistically innovative novel about a sex-offender: would of course be Anakana Schofeld’s marvellous Martin John. It’s not an easy read either in terms of subject matter or occasionally in terms of style, but a little perseverance more than pays off in what was rightly one of the most widely praised novels of 2016 (but which I didn’t read until 2017);

Best novel featuring an unnecessary supernatural element: The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald. I just loved this rather melancholic tale of the opening of a small town bookshop and its various successes and challenges. One of this year’s gems;

Best science fiction novel to show the scope of the genre: The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley. Non-SF readers often have odd views on what constitutes SF, assuming it has to involve spaceships or aliens or something. None of that is of course true. Whiteley not only interrogates modern ideas of agency and the right to the future but also speaks to past SF conventions and assumptions. I was also very impressed this year past by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and by Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, either of which on another day might just as easily have won);

Best novel that speaks to the world today: Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard. I love Enard’s ambition, his language and unfashionably enough for a literary author his grasp of plot and story. Here he addresses the Arab spring but also a personal coming of age tale and wider issues of the relationship between the developing and developed world. Not Zone, but then what is?

DRUM ROLL PLEASE

And finally, my book of the year for 2017 is: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Probably not a surprise to anyone who read my review. This is a slim masterpiece. An extraordinary achievement and a book that has nestled away inside me and which I definitely hope to reread at some point.

And that’s it! The list was unusually easy to draw up this year which isn’t actually the best sign. Usually it takes me ages to cut down from the 50-60 books I typically read to a list of ten or twelve. This year it was only really the SF category which caused me any issues – everything else was obvious and it only took me about five minutes to work out what my list was. Not ideal and something for me to think about as I choose my reading over the coming year.

Anyway, I never read other people’s lists until I’ve done my own. Now I have and so now I can. I’m interested to see what others liked and largely hope that I either disagree or have already read their choices since otherwise my groaning TBR pile will grow even larger …

Happy new year!

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Then you won’t absolve me?

Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo and translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (first published 1955)

Pedro Páramo comes in at around 140 or 150 pages, depending on the edition you read. It’s a slim novel that you could easily read in an afternoon. It’s an extraordinary work that I have no hope of doing justice to.

I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there.

The “I” in that quote is Juan Preciado. He promised his mother on her deathbed that he’d seek out his father whom he’s never met. He’s far too late. Comala is deserted. Nothing remains but empty buildings, dust and the voices of its dead.

This is not a naturalistic novel. Juan meets people he believes to be living but discovers to be ghosts. He hears the voices of other less tangible ghosts – the village is filled with them. His narrative starts to be replaced (and by midway is entirely replaced) with the memories still haunting Comala.

Those voices combine to create a history both of Pedro Páramo and Comala. The two can’t be separated. Páramo was Comala’s largest landowner, its most important son and father to many of its children (most of them illegitimate). He was the village’s temporal god and as such was worshipped more by the villagers than by the Catholic god they were supposed to follow.

The language is extraordinary, often beautiful.

Water dripping from the roof tiles was forming a hole in the sand of the patio. Plink! Plink! and then another plink! as drops struck a bobbing, dancing laurel leaf caught in a crack between the adobe bricks. The storm had passed. Now an intermittent breeze shook the branches of the pomegranate tree, loosing showers of heavy rain, spattering the ground with gleaming drops that dulled as they sank into the earth.

Rulfo plays tricks with the reader. At one point I couldn’t quite work out how the narrative fitted Juan’s situation, then suddenly I realised that I wasn’t reading Juan’s thoughts any more but someone else’s – perhaps overheard by Juan as he tried to sleep in this ghost-ridden place. The reader is unsettled, forced to reassess and made to engage with the text in order to understand it.

The need to engage is part of what makes this such a tremendous novel. It’s not actually particularly hard to read, but you have to think about what’s happening and how things fit together. Eventually it all makes sense but you have to trust Rulfo that it will and along the way he creates something which though slim is nonetheless epic. As I write this I can feel the heat and dust of Comala. The book stays with you.

Comala is as much a spiritual desert as a physical one. The dead flock the town because they were denied absolution in life. Being at least nominal Catholics they hoped in life that heaven would be their reward, but they put their faith in Páramo and so what they get instead is an eternity of Comala. They remain as witnesses to Páramo’s tragedy.

Frustrated hope is a running thread here: Juan’s mother sends him to find his father, but Páramo is already dead; Páramo’s tale is in part a love story of his passion for a girl he loved in childhood who years later returned to the village, but she’s mad and he’s perpetually unfaithful to her; Father Renteria dreams of standing up to Páramo but instead takes his gold and becomes so compromised that he can neither grant absolution nor receive it.

As elements of the history swirl together we see murder, rape, land theft, the Mexican revolution, many lives and many deaths. It’s remarkable how much is packed in here and yet somehow Rulfo takes all this quite solid underlying incident and yet makes something mythic from it. You could, and people have, write whole essays about this book but I doubt you’d ever quite capture it.

I consciously don’t use the word masterpiece often on this blog. It’s too easily overplayed and therefore diminished. Here I have no hesitation. Pedro Páramo is a masterpiece. It is a landmark of literature. For all that, it isn’t forbidding and it requires no prior scholarship or knowledge of Mexican history or geography. All you need is the £8.99 price of admission.

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Filed under Mexican fiction, Rulfo, Juan, Spanish