October Superlatives

Thirteen books this month; an appropriate number for the month of Halloween, although I don’t really keep the feast anymore. Certainly not when it falls on a Tuesday. It’s been a busy old month and the near future won’t slow down much; maybe by the middle of November I’ll have a Saturday or an evening where I have time to cook a meal, stay up late reading, lie in bed doing nothing in particular. (Write a few book reviews?)

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party to which I was late: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that made John Le Carré’s name. The most astonishing thing about it is its absolute, even-handed refusal to permit heroism to any of its characters. Everyone—the British, the East Germans, our protagonist, his boss—is weak, petty, self-serving, or cold. Sometimes all at once. It’s a devastating book, with a devastating ending: no one wins.

for Wodehouse fans: Max Beerbohm’s frothy Edwardian novel Zuleika Dobson, whose titular heroine visits her grandfather’s Oxford college and wreaks havoc amongst the undergraduates, who all end up committing suicide en masse in her honour. To be perfectly honest, it’s a slightly weird read, because Beerbohm never seems totally sure of how serious he wants to be; there are some moments between Zuleika and her most devoted lover, the Duke of Dorset, which I found quite moving, and yet the whole point of the book is this moment of comically extreme violence, which we’re apparently not meant to take more seriously than your average Tom and Jerry maiming. Still bloody funny, though.

most thought-provoking: American War by Omar El Akkad, a new novel set in the 2070s, after a ban on fossil fuel usage has provoked a Second American Civil War. Our protagonist, Sarat, is a young displaced girl from the South, and the novel charts the course of her radicalisation and eventual deployment as a terrorist. A lot of El Akkad’s extrapolations about the future are surprising: he totally ignores issues of race, for example, which I can’t see completely disappearing in fifty years unless something socioculturally cataclysmic happens before the start of the book, and none of his characters make any reference to such an event. And his Southerners don’t feel like Southerners to me: first of all, race is always a major if unspoken factor in the South, and secondly, there is a semi-feral attachment to land and land’s history there that I don’t see in his characters. But what American War did was force me to reevaluate how children are radicalised, simply by making me watch it happen in a landscape I was familiar with and to people whose cultural referents are roughly my own, and that’s a hell of an important thing.

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most a victim of its time: I actually quite enjoyed most of The Black Cloud, a hard sf novel from 1957. It’s a fascinating insight into the status of science fiction at the time—one of its major selling points is that it’s written “by a scientist”, and Hoyle clearly cares a thousand times less about characterisation and the social implications of global natural disaster than he does about explaining to us exactly what kind of natural disaster we’ll get, and why. (There are equations.) But his protagonist (who, intriguingly, holds the same post at Cambridge University that Hoyle did) is not to be borne: he’s a patronising, info-dumping egotist with a Messiah complex who doesn’t understand a) why it’s not okay to kidnap a beautiful young pianist and hold her hostage in your Science Lair so that you can have some culture and eye candy whilst saving the world, and b) why your government might be completely justified in thinking you’re a megalomaniacal world-dictator-in-waiting, given that YOU HAVE A FUCKING SCIENCE LAIR. And the less said about attitudes towards women, the better. (They literally make the tea, I cannot.) File under enjoyable but deeply flawed.

most jaw-droppingly transcendent of its genre: Dodgers, a crime novel by Bill Beverly that won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award. My God, this book. It’s a crime novel in the sense that Crime and Punishment is. East is fifteen years old. He used to supervise lookouts at a crack house in LA, running a yard full of boys ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice, but his house gets busted. He’s given a last chance to prove himself, a drive with three other boys from California to Wisconsin to assassinate a judge. Things get complicated. Beverly nails interpersonal dynamics, the Morse code of young men communicating with few words, and the sense of responsibility and despair that East feels for his younger brother Ty, who’s already much better at this life than he is. And he nails atmosphere, most particularly the atmosphere of the road trip: the jittery smeared-neon eye-gritting blur of America, the cold blue light in the front of a gas station just before sunup. It’s an astonishing book; it left me with a hole inside.

most humane: Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might easily have won it. It’s rather difficult to summarise this book, which is presumably why most of the writing I’ve seen about it online hasn’t tried. Effectively, there are two main characters: Daniel Gluck, now an old man, and Elisabeth Demand, once a precocious schoolchild who was his neighbour, now teaching art history. Woven in between their stories are the stories of Pauline Boty, one of Britain’s few female Pop Artists (in fact, identifying her as such is the source of an argument between Elisabeth and her initial postgraduate supervisor), and of Christine Keeling, the model involved in the Profumo Affair of the 1960s (Britain’s Watergate, in that you can argue for its being the modern moment when the public stopped trusting politicians). Smith is, I am convinced, a genius; she thinks on the very highest level, then tells her stories as though she is sitting cross-legged on a sofa.

most utterly predictable reread: The Likeness, by Tana French. It makes me weep every time, that last page. You know how much I like Tana French. Moving on.

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most disorienting: The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Unusually, this was a book someone recommended to me (it doesn’t happen often); my childhood best friend’s partner heard about the book I’m writing and told me I should read this. There’s a rough similarity—college students, a love triangle, people who refuse to deal with their sexualities—but the odd thing about Ellis’s book was that I couldn’t find the heart of it, I couldn’t sense where my attention and investment was meant to be directed. It’s written in a lot of short, choppy sections, from the perspectives of about half a dozen different people; you often get wildly varying versions of the same situation. The experience of reading it is a lot like wandering through a party in a darkened flat that you’ve never been to before, six glasses of wine down, looking for your friends, your shoes, your coat, and/or somewhere to throw up: everything goes past at the wrong speed, seems to be in the wrong place, keeps happening for too long, and you really want to just lie down. Not that drugs and sex aren’t valid subjects for fiction, it’s just…awfully hard to know what Ellis was getting at with this one. (Patrick Bateman makes an appearance, though; Sean, one of the main characters here, is his younger brother.)

most intriguing opening: I read a graphic novel this month, volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and drawn by Pia Guerra. The premise is that a virus has killed all men and male animals – everything with a Y chromosome – simultaneously, except for one man (Yorick) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Various groups want them, for experiments or vengeance or other things, and all Yorick wants is to find his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when global communications broke down. Yorick’s an infuriating character, full of a young man’s arrogance, and I’m not sure that Vaughan always does a totally convincing job of standing outside of that character inviting us to assess it, as opposed to appearing to endorse it. Still, there are some great scenes, including one where the wives of now-dead Republican congressmen storm Capitol Hill, armed, demanding their husbands’ seats.

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most balls-to-the-wall bonkers: This, mind you, is a good thing. The honour goes to China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which is universally considered to be not one of his best, and I can kind of see why, since it tastes very similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and indeed to Miéville’s own early works like UnLun Dun and King Rat. However, it has still got the theft of a giant squid, a section of the Metropolitan Police that deals entirely with cult activity, a mysterious society of Londonmancers, a strike by the Union of Familiars, and just in general quite a lot of good mad stuff. I love the idea that the places of great inherent power in this city aren’t always where you think they might be (though of course there’s plenty of it round the London Stone); that you could also find it round back of a chippy on the Edgware Road, or in a lock-up in Hoxton.

most unnerving to my boss: E. Gabriella Coleman’s seminal book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I picked it up because of my interest in the intellectual struggles around copyright and freedom of information, and because in the spring I read an incredible biography of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop Reddit and Creative Commons before being arraigned by the FBI for mass-downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles. Coleman’s focus is actually much less on the law and much more on the anthropological structures of hacker culture, but as these have a lot to do with shared, deeply internalised ethics, there’s enough overlap for it to be fascinating too.

most moving: Another road trip novel, this one by Sara Taylor, who wrote The Shore. Her second novel, The Lauras, follows a mother and child (we never know what sex Alex is, or what gender, and Alex themself is pretty clear: they don’t feel they fit into either box) as they drive across America. It’s sort of an escape from Alex’s father, but he’s not exactly a villain, just a mediocre guy; it’s more to do with Ma’s need to visit pieces of her past. Taylor evokes rootlessness well, and she’s tenderly open-minded on the complexities of maternal love, and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to make or have a family. Beautiful writing, too. (review)

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most gonzo: Is that actually the right word? I don’t know. It feels like it, for Julianne Pachico’s short story collection The Lucky Ones. They’re interlinked, so that characters who appear peripherally in one story become the centre of another. Set in Colombia, mostly during the drug wars of the early 1990s, they circle around a group of schoolgirl friends and frenemies – Stephanie, Betsy, La Flaca, Mariela – with other stories from the point of view of a kidnapped teacher, a teenage soon-to-be-paramilitary recruit, and (really) a bunch of pet rabbits hooked on coca leaves. It’s an absolute knockout.

up next: The last two books in October were read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel, which I’m delighted to be on this year. I’m now reading The End of the Day by Claire North, a novel about the Harbinger of Death, who turns out to be a nice, kind of schlubby guy called Charlie. It’s an odd mix, the witty apocalypticism of Good Omens mingled with a more serious humanitarian flavour. I think I like it.

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October Superlatives

October has both flown by and been relatively unproductive on the blogging front. Oh well. I’ll use “adjusting to a new job/schedule” as my excuse; now when I come home from work, I’m physically tired as well as mentally so. (By the way, don’t let anyone ever tell you that working in hospitality is only hard on your body. Being nice to strangers, who often dislike you for no apparent reason and whose requests will frequently make your job harder, for seven hours, is hard on your intellect and emotional centers, too.) Anyway, I read eleven books this month. I reviewed…one of them. (Leave me alone.)

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This cover! Swoon.

most aptly praised: Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a Wound was compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I can totally see why. Set in twentieth-century Indonesia, it explores the family life of infamous prostitute Dewi Ayu while also providing a sharp portrait of the military and political upheavals of Indonesian history. There’s quite a lot of sexual violence, I’m afraid, but it doesn’t appear to be gratuitous, and the plot is spell-binding.

best find: This is going to be a shorter Superlatives post than normal because I’m grouping five of October’s books under this heading. Tana French’s work has been at the corners of my consciousness for years: I knew that she was an extremely well-respected literary crime novelist, and that I wanted to read her work, but I hadn’t really gotten round to it. Alerted to a sale of her books for 99p each, I bought them all and gobbled them. In each one, she focuses on a different lead detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad (usually someone who’s been a minor character in an earlier book). The first two, Into the Woods and The Likeness, are probably my favourites; their characterisation is fresh and intoxicating, and the complexity of the crimes always compels you. I also loved The Secret Place, set in an elite Irish girl’s school, which anatomises female friendship among teenagers in a way that’s totally without condescension and never uses “cattiness” as a lazy stereotype. Broken Harbour, the fifth novel, is also excellent, though less of a standout. Book three, however—Faithful Place—can probably be skipped; the writing is still great, but the plot is distinctly meh.

warm bath book: Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the disguises she adopted to visit New York restaurants as the former Times restaurant critic. Her prose is solid, instead of outstanding, but I loved the reviews that she includes (she’s not afraid to tear into established places, nor to champion smaller, less fashionable ones), and I loved her descriptions of how she found her personality changing whenever she put on different wigs and clothes.

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tequila shot book: Jacob Tomsky’s memoir of the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, goes down fast, burns a bit after you’ve swallowed it, and then you’re moving on. He writes well for someone working in this genre (service memoirs are more and more A Thing these days, and most of the writing is fine but not inspired; people generally read these books for the crazy stories.) Apart from the crazy stories, Tomsky’s explanation of how to get good service in hotels is worth the price of admission on its own. (Here’s a clue: a lot of it is in your hands, and can best be summarised by a co-worker’s favourite expression: “don’t be a c*nt.”)

I might also put in this category Waiter Rant, the service memoir that launched a thousand ships. Released in 2008, the anonymous Waiter’s narrative of hospitality in a fine dining restaurant in New York lifted the veil in the same way Kitchen Confidential did: the illegals in the kitchen, the waiters snorting coke in the broom closet, the management scamming tips off their staff. It, too, is good for its crazy stories, though its prose is less impressive than Tomsky’s.

most lovely: In a sad and tender way, I really enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Her heroine, Zhuang (or Z.), embarks on a relationship with an older Englishman, and as her English improves, she also becomes more and more capable of describing the profound differences between the way the two of them see the world. For its window into an unusual relationship as it blossoms and then disintegrates, I’m not sure this book can be beaten.

most thought-provoking: A World Gone Mad, the diaries of Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren between 1939 and 1945. For Sweden, the war was much, much more bearable than it was for any other country, since they maintained official neutrality throughout. I loved the purity of Lindgren’s outrage when she hears about atrocities from Germans and Russians alike; I was moved by her constant gratitude for her own family’s safety; and I found the retelling of the war from a perspective new to me incredibly refreshing.

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up next: I’m currently reading The Malay Archipelago, an account of scientific travels in South-east Asia by Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin—perhaps earlier—but who gave Darwin credit for it throughout his life). It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though rather long. Afterwards, I’ll be reviewing Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter, and participating in the blog tour for Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle—stay tuned!

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada

I would gladly give up my wretched life if this perfect woman were to become a reality.

Here’s a challenge to aspiring writers: make the first character your readers meet a lunatic confessional astrologist painter whose last will and testament includes the details of a plot to murder his six virginal daughters and nieces and dismember their bodies in order to create a perfect woman. Give him some creepy backstory–let’s say he tells us about this one time when he literally fell in love with a mannequin in a shop window, and maybe throw in a suggestion of rape when he talks about how he ended up with his second wife. Add a touch of megalomania. Then have the whole thing translated into another language, preferably one with a different alphabet from your own. See how many of your readers are sticking around after all that.

That’s a little unfair on Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, I know; it’s a complicated plot, it’s translated, and of course characters don’t have to be likeable. The book does suffer a little bit from having its prologue delivered through the artist (and first murder victim) Heikichi, though. If you can get through it, you can probably get through the rest, but it’s a bit of a litmus test.

We learn that Heikichi was murdered before he could carry out his horrible scheme–he was found with his head bashed in, inside a locked room–but shortly after his death, his eldest stepdaughter was found dead in what was assumed to be a rape and burglary gone wrong, and then his other six daughters disappeared. Their dismembered bodies were discovered over a period of several months all around Japan’s Hoshu island, arranged just as Heikichi’s note had described. Clearly, someone decided to carry out the plans after Heikichi’s death–but everyone has an alibi and there’s no clear motive. The murders remain unsolved for forty years, until our two intrepid amateur detectives decide to try and crack the case, mostly in order to distract one of them from his chronic depression. The novel is in the honkaku subgenre of Japanese mysteries: you get all the clues in the same order and at the same time as the two detectives, so you can follow along, trying to solve it as they do. Honkaku are kind of like literary sudoku, in that they’re puzzles. You’re engaging not only your narrative brain, but your logical one.

I think mysteries suffer with age, more than other genres. Possibly this is because so many of them deal with crimes against the vulnerable, and the way that we treat victims and think about them has changed so much over the past few decades. This book was written in 1980, and one of the most noticeable things about it is the sheer quantity of bullshit about “female psychology”. There is even the suggestion that the killer must have been a woman because the murder weapon was cleaned off, and that would be “more natural” for a woman to do (because ladies can’t stop themselves from tidying up!) The gender politics when it comes to the actual murders are just as depressing. Our narrator, Ishioka, announces at one point that the murderer must have been a man (he’s changed his mind since the scene mentioned above), because (dun duh duhhhh), “Kazue had been raped!” The response of Kiyoshi, the novel’s Sherlock Holmes character is, literally, “Uhhh…” This, and scenes like it, conspire to suggest that the actual reality of torture, murder, rape and dismemberment doesn’t interest Shimada at all, except insofar as these events can be used to make a good puzzle. I’m perfectly willing to accept that this is a matter of personal taste, but that attitude is really, really not for me. I like the idea of murders that are logic puzzles, but I want them to remain logic puzzles. Making truly horrible things happen to someone that you’ve established is a character, not a philosophical construct, just to make your clever-clogs challenge a bit more cryptic, strikes me as being somewhere between distasteful and genuinely psychopathic. As I read, I kept thinking of all the women in literature (especially genre literature) and film and popular culture who have been found chopped up in trash bags, in Satanic rituals, in rivers, in car trunks. And I thought of all the women in real life–the world I live in–who’ve been found the same way. And somehow I couldn’t take quite the innocent joy in a complex mystery that I think I was expected to take.

All the more frustrating, then, that by the middle of the book I was genuinely (if begrudgingly) keen to find out who had done the deeds. The puzzle element of the book works just fine; the solution is clever, although the identity of the murderer is obscurely disappointing, mostly because the motive is so meh. Revenge, revenge, does it ever get old? (Yes. Also, it would have been better had the murderer sought revenge on someone who had legitimately wronged them, as opposed to someone whose primary crime was to be immature and self-centered, but now we’re venturing into spoilers territory.) I was also both fascinated and frustrated by the way some details were explained profusely, while others–fairly important ones–were brushed over. The reason why the bodies were found buried at different depths, for instance, took pages; but when our narrator Ishioka explicitly asks questions like “Where did the poison come from?” and “How did the murderer chop up half a dozen bodies on their own? How did they even get hold of a saw?”, Kiyoshi’s answer was “They just did.” It’s hard not to admire the sheer brazenness of an author who’ll do that to you, but it does feel like a cop-out.

It’s a shame about this, because the book is part of Pushkin’s new Vertigo imprint, and usually Pushkin is absolutely spot on. They’ve already made a name for themselves with translated literary fiction, and moving into translated crime is a brilliant idea. I’m guessing that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is a one-off. I’ve already heard good things about Vertigo, the novel that inspired Hitchcock’s films, and Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, an Austrian novelist. Also, let me emphasize once more that this is entirely my own opinion; just because I have a hard time with novels that feel like diagrams doesn’t mean that everyone does, and as puzzles go, this one is fiendish, complex and probably quite satisfying. It wasn’t for me, but I’d love to have a look at some of the other Vertigo titles and see if one of them is.