books to look forward to

Forthcoming in January 2020: a bundle of truly excellent new titles, some of which I’ve read over the last few weeks. Let us hope that a good literary start to a new decade is an omen.

9781786331625Long Bright River, by Liz Moore: A genuinely exceptional crime novel, reminiscent of Dennis Lehane and Attica Locke, set in the drug- and prostitution-addled Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington. Our detective protagonist, Mickey, grew up in the area and has seen friends, cousins, neighbours, and her own parents and sister, fall prey to opiate addiction; keeping her patch safe is her biggest priority. Keeping her sister, Kacey, safe is equally important to her, but Kacey is a sex worker and a heroin addict, and Mickey is permanently worried about her. When it becomes clear that a serial killer is targeting Kensington’s sex workers, Mickey has to find the murderer and protect Kacey, even if it means going against orders. Her relationship with her former partner, Truman, is exquisitely drawn, as is her history with her ex-husband; the story of their marriage is an intelligent reinforcement of Moore’s exploration of how structural power is used against women, especially vulnerable ones. Not to be missed.

41uya1dvjtl._sx308_bo1204203200_Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid: I was meant to love this, according to the people I know at its publisher (Bloomsbury), and it almost feels churlish not to have done so. It is a forthright and quite uncompromising look at the shifting dynamics between a liberal white woman who desperately wants to be liked, and the slightly younger black nanny of her children; Reid’s major success is to create an atmosphere where all of the characters are both irritating and sympathetic, where everyone—even those that are more irritating than others, like the white boyfriend who has a history of fetishizing black people—makes at least one valid point about the emotional dishonesty and manipulative behaviour of the other characters. Where it’s not particularly subtle is in the illustration of nanny Emira’s friendship circle, which seems to consist primarily of Sassy Black Girl Friends. Ultimately uneven, but thought-provoking.

imageBraised Pork, by An Yu: Gorgeous cover, no? Despite the red flecks, it’s not especially gory; more than anything, it reminded me of Murakami, which is a comparison I generally dislike but which does occasionally seem applicable. In Braised Pork, a young woman finds her husband dead in the bath, the only clue to his demise being a scrap of paper upon which he has drawn a fish with the head of a man. His widow sets out to find the source of the strange drawing, and finds herself re-examining her own childhood in the process, including her father’s abandonment of their family. For me, the clearly magical realist elements of the novel (the un-dreams she has where she’s swimming deeper and deeper into a black lake in search of the fish man; a long sequence in a remote Tibetan village where an elder has been carving the image for decades) sat uneasily alongside the more prosaic family drama. Like Murakami, Yu’s novel often feels meandering and purposeless, though there no doubt is a purpose. Not my cup of tea, but might well be for someone else.

51licv4b04l._ac_sy400_ml2_The Street, by Ann Petry: Slated for republication by Virago Modern Classics, this was originally published in 1946 and was the first novel by a black woman to sell more than a million copies in America. Like much of what I’ve read from Virago recently, there is a fantastic sense of contemporaneity to it; the story of Lutie Johnson, who tries to keep herself and her son safe and their integrity intact, but who must contend with sexism, racism, and the devastating grind of poverty, is told with a fury so passionate and fresh that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the ink still wet on the page. Petry’s work is clearly a frontrunner for a literary tradition that went on to encompass Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and Tayari Jones.  Frequently skirting melodrama but always redeemed by Petry’s absolutely clear, burning vision, it’s a gripping page-turner as well as a portrait of a woman trying to maintain sanity within a system that has been specifically designed to destroy her.

81wobth2melAgency, by William Gibson: It must be odd to be William Gibson. Society, and technology, has more or less arrived at a point that he wrote about as futuristic during his early career; he’s now indelibly known as a science fiction writer, but Agency—though it has all of the trappings of a techno-thriller and is, certainly, science fictional—is less world-of-tomorrow sf than world-of-three-minutes-from-now satire. It concerns the development of an autonomous AI system, originally created as a form of virtual handler for covert military operations, now stolen by a Silicon Valley firm and marketed as a PA called Eunice. There’s time travel (sort of, in a manner of speaking), and high-speed motorcycle chases, and a remote-control drone shaped like a radiator, and a lot of quick, slangy banter. It’s terrific fun and reasonably clever along with it, though I think Gibson’s ending is optimistic.

9781526607027Threshold, by Rob Doyle: Nothing—no friend’s impassioned recommendation, no innate desire, no travel article—has ever, ever made me want to drop acid and go to a three-day rave at a Berlin nightclub. This book did. Doyle seems to have written a type of autofiction, one in which all he does for at least a decade and a half is travel around Europe, writing in a desultory fashion and taking a lot of drugs. As a human being, narrator-Doyle is faintly insufferable—he’s not good to women and remarkably solipsistic—but of course the relationship of narrator-Doyle to author-Doyle is indirect. Rachel Kushner writes, on the front cover, that she “learned to stop worrying (about what sort of novel this is) and love the narrator”; I never quite loved him, but I did warm to his earnest, encyclopedic  informativeness, and the postcard-from-Europe style of his perambulations around various cities. And no description of the effects of hallucinogens has ever entranced me half so much.


Out later in 2020:

original_400_600The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (6 Feb): I’m ever wary of covers like this one—it’s generally a dead giveaway that the publishers are attempting to ride the Essex Serpent wave, though sometimes (see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock) it pays off. Millwood Hargrave’s first novel for adults (she’s a successful children’s/YA author) is based on the true story of a freak storm that killed forty men off the coast of a Norwegian island in 1617, and the subsequent imprisonment and trials for witchcraft that the women of the island suffered. Its relevance to the modern day is, perhaps, a tiny bit on the nose (yes, men dislike powerful women! Yes, religious mania is a figleaf for controlling sadists!) I was, however, moved by Millwood Hargrave’s description of the physical effects of grief and depression, and by her sensitive portrayal of the central (lesbian) romance. A wonderful historical yarn to curl up with on cold nights.

9781526601094Rest and Be Thankful, by Emma Glass (19 March): Curious, this: Glass’s depiction of a NICU nurse who is overworked, desperately sleep-deprived, and already prone to chronic anxiety and depression is extremely affecting, but also feels very one-note. There is nothing in the book other than the protagonist Laura’s increasing inability to keep herself together, her physical deterioration (red, cracked hands and greasy hair) mirroring her mental and emotional decline. Her boyfriend, who leaves her, is clearly a dickhead, but one also struggles to blame him for wanting more out of his relationship than the miserable zombie he’s currently living with. Hints that Laura is struggling with a deeper trauma hidden in her past go some way towards clarifying her state of mind, but the final-page revelation feels slightly unearned. Perhaps if I read it a second time I would get more out of it.

71zwt2vovwlMy Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (31 March): I put off reading this (the hype! The overt Nabokov, specifically Lolita, intertext! The teacher/student romance thing!) I was, eventually, blown away by it. Russell gets everything so right: the way that English teacher Jacob Strane grooms fifteen-year-old Vanessa, making her feel special and clever, playing on her emotional intelligence to push her into wanting to be “cool” and “mature”, and therefore not reacting negatively when he at last touches her. The way that Vanessa, seventeen years later, struggles with revelations that Strane did this to other students; the way that, as she tells her therapist, she doesn’t see herself as a victim; the way that she has to tell it to herself as a love story—because if it isn’t, how can she bear it? I recognized so much of myself in Vanessa’s reactions and longings that it scared me: if the right (wrong) person had come along when I was fifteen, I was nearly as vulnerable as she was. A lot of girls are. Russell deals with an incredibly difficult, complex subject with the nuance and shading that it deserves, while never being unclear about the dreadful effect Strane has had on Vanessa’s life. Believe the hype.


What are you looking forward to reading in January?

Son of Reading Diary round-up

Again–more for me than you. Enjoy ’em, though.

Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon: Apparently Stapledon was genuinely surprised when people started telling him he’d written a “science fiction novel”, which actually makes perfect sense once you’ve read it because it’s not really a novel at all. Star Maker‘s closest generic ancestor is the medieval dream vision; like Chaucer’s narrators, Stapledon’s (never named) is vouchsafed a long journey into the heart of cosmic truth. There’s not much in the way of plot or character development, which hampers a reader’s ability to care, although Stapledon’s theology and conception of universal history (and obsession with “community”) is intellectually interesting. Worth reading, though, mostly because he anticipates huge numbers of science fictional tropes, including the Prime Directive.

Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts: A combination of Golden Age of SF and Golden Age of Crime elements into one occasionally frustrating, though generally satisfying, whole. Written in three parts–one a prison breakout mystery, one a whodunnit, and one a locked-room case–the novel’s overarching plot doesn’t quite come together (and by the book’s end I still didn’t feel convinced, as the jacket assured me I would, of the righteousness of the murders). The solutions are ingenious, if also fairly bonkers. This is my first Roberts novel and I’m not totally sold, but I’ll pick up more.

Sibilant Fricative: Essays and Reviews, by Adam Roberts: One thing I am sold on is Roberts’s criticism, though, which is funny and incisive. The best thing in this collection is probably his critical read-through of the entire Wheel of Time sequence, which, if you don’t remember it, absolutely dominated bookshelves of a certain ilk in the ’90s and consists mostly of painful attempts to recreate a Tolkien-esque atmosphere which fail because they’re not grounded in anything like intellectual coherence. Roberts’s increasing despair is articulated with precision and force. He’s also good on Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K LeGuin and Tolkien himself.

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke: A pivot to a different genre thanks to my library expedition. This is the first of Burke’s New Orleans-set detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux; it starts with a warning from a death row inmate due to be executed in three hours, proceeds through a series of frequently violet set pieces exposing gang violence and US government complicity in selling weapons to oppressive regimes in Central America, and concludes with our hero vindicated, though wiser, and having picked up a hottie along the way. It’s magnificent: southern Gothic meets urban noir. Clearly written in the ’80s (the love interest’s eyes are “childlike” a little too often), but I have high hopes for the rest of Burke’s canon and plan to read The Tin Roof Blowdown, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, next.


That was a lot of male authors (and the forthcoming entry in 20 Books of Summer happens to be William Shakespeare, which doesn’t help). I’m currently reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel, though–Big Sky–and can confirm that a) she’s at the top of her game right now, and b) no previous Jackson Brodie experience is necessary.

If you like what I write (and I freely concede that this particular reading diary entry may have been of no use to you at all, but maybe it diverted you from spreadsheets for a minute or two), why not buy me a coffee?

04. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton

This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”

Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.

Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.


The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

Reading Diary: Apr. 16-Apr. 22

9780241349199The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins: Frannie, a Jamaican servant in 1820s London, is writing her life history while awaiting trial for the murder of her employers. Part of that history explains her literacy, and the horrifying purpose for which her earlier master in Jamaica educated her. Unfortunately, while we are expected to understand that Frannie has been traumatized by more than the general experience of slavery, Collins doesn’t clarify until the book is very far advanced. The theory behind this decision is clear—Frannie mentions how little white people are interested in the stories of black people unless they are stories of suffering, and Collins chooses to elide the specifics of her protagonist’s suffering to prove the point—but it means the reader is asked for a high level of emotional investment more or less on trust, which is manipulative without being satisfying. I didn’t find the sexual relationship between Frannie and her mistress especially convincing, either. It’s a solid historical crime novel, but not the explosive debut it’s been touted as.

42270835The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead: Inspired by recent revelations about the crimes and abuse that occurred at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform facility operated by the state of Florida between 1900 and 2011. (It was in the news again last week. TW in the linked article for abuse and murder of children.) Whitehead skilfully uses that cruelty, and the racism that motivates it, to illuminate the conundrum of being black in general. Elwood Curtis, a clever boy who dreams of participating in Civil Rights marches and was due to attend college-level classes in his junior year of high school, must decide whether survival or resistance is more important: his choice inside the institution is the same one that his grandmother has been forced to make on the outside, in an equally corrupt and violent society. The final twist of the plot is perhaps unsurprising, but breathtaking. This, I think–pace Sara Collins’s novel, above–is how to detail suffering without rendering it pornographic. Out in August.

51qboo1lw9l._sx340_bo1204203200_Beneath the World, a Sea, by Chris Beckett: Unlike Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, Beneath the World… is set on Earth, but a weird version thereof, containing a South American region called the Submundo populated by descendants of slaves as well as by humanoid creatures called duendes. These have a disturbing psychic effect on humans when they get too close, and are ritually hunted by the Mundinos, but the UN has now classified duendes as “people” and sent Ben Ronson, a policeman specializing in culturally sensitive crimes, to try and stop the killings. Beckett plays with ideas of the subconscious (allegorized, not terribly subtly, by the Submundo’s underground sea) and of conventional morality (what did the ordinarily buttoned-up Ronson do in the Zona, an area that disappears from a traveler’s memory as soon as they’ve left?) But these ideas are hardly virgin ground; a more interesting and original novel might have resulted from a closer focus on how “personhood” is defined when the subject is clearly organic (as opposed to the more familiar fictional arguments over robot personhood), and on the ramifications of the Submundo’s colonial history.

Currently reading: The Last Chronicle of Barset, the final novel in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series, dealing with Victorian religious and secular politics in a fictitious English county.

Reading Diary: with clouds descending

It’s ADVENT, season of the best carol ever! It’s also been rainy for the past fortnight (or, at the very best, cloudy all day), so, you know, doubly appropriate.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen: I picked this up on a whim and I’m so glad I did. Karen Blixen moved from Denmark to Kenya in 1913 to run a coffee plantation with her husband (who, magnificently, she fails to mention in this book until after page 300. There are only 336 pages in total, in my edition.) This is a collection of her writing about the farm, her experiences with the Kikuyu people who worked for her and those who didn’t, and with the Masai who lived in the Reserve that bordered her property. It is, of course, a record of a vanished way of life: as a farmer, she shoots any and all lions, which one can hardly imagine a landowner getting away with now. There is also a certain level of paternalism with regards to her musings about “Natives”, even though  she clearly respects the individual men and women who work for her, and they were obviously fond of her. On the whole, though, the impression is of a woman almost totally without ego – she wants to describe Africa, not to foreground her personality – and deeply observant. She is also, to my surprise, highly spiritual; a section late on in the book consists of short segments that often focus on the presence of God in the beauty of the natural world. Her sensibilities are deeply literary and allusive, and as a European aristocrat, she moved casually in the circles of high society (she talks of the Prince of Wales having dinner at her house, and she was extremely close with Denys Finch-Hatton, eventually having an affair with him after her divorce). She could also write with an extreme simplicity and clarity which seems characteristic of her time: “I had a farm in Africa,” the book begins, “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” That sentence speaks directly to you; it’s rhythmic, even musical. Outstanding.

9781526602121The Flower Girls, by Alice Clark-Platts: Bloomsbury’s Raven imprint started out really promisingly, with work from Laura Purcell, Alex Reeve, Stuart Turton and Eva Dolan making it clear that this was no ordinary crime label. The Flower Girls, unfortunately, is something of a downward turn. It focuses on a crime committed by two sisters, Laurel and Primrose, who lure a toddler away from a playground and kill her, in a manner clearly calculated by Clark-Platts to recall the murder of Jamie Bulger. Laurel, aged ten, is deemed capable of standing trial; Primrose, who is only six, is not. Laurel is found guilty and sent to prison, but nineteen years later, as Laurel’s potential release date approaches, another little girl goes missing in a hotel where Primrose – now living under the name Hazel Archer – is staying with her new partner and his teenage daughter. The novel is hampered by a number of things: there are too many point-of-view characters, nearly every plot point and emotion comes fully explained in case the reader somehow fails to grasp its import, and the twist ending is visible from a mile away. (It’s still horrifying, but being horrified by horrifying things is a reaction based in a reader’s human decency, and does not constitute masterful plotting or pacing.) The entire plot requires a reader to accept that Laurel has made a particular decision for a particular reason, and it is simply not clear enough. There are things Clark-Platts is trying to do and say with which I sympathise, especially things to do with the nature of victimhood, but it’s all a little…I don’t know…clumsy.

foe-9781501127427Foe, by Iain Reid: Foe is a weird book. It starts off as a kind of Black Mirror episode-type story: Junior and Henrietta are apparently happily, if quietly, married, and they live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. One day a man from the government turns up in a shiny car and delivers the news that Junior has been selected as part of an exploratory mission to create a human community in space. It is not possible to refuse. However, Junior is told, his wife will be kept company during his absence by an entirely lifelike replica of him. After this, I expected Foe to split, one narrative strand following Junior as he adjusts to life in orbit (and, presumably, discovers some less-than-savoury secrets about the government’s project), the other following Hen’s adaptation to life with something that looks and behaves in every way like her husband. That did not happen. Instead, Reid keeps the action firmly on Earth and inside Junior’s head; the book is mostly concerned with his reactions to the mysterious government representative who will explain nothing and who eventually moves in with them, the better to conduct permanent surveillance for “research purposes” before the big launch. The reason that Reid maintains this narrow, even claustrophobic focus, becomes clear with the big twist, which is also visible from a mile away. So far, so clever; my problem with the big twist is that it requires us to accept that Hen has acquiesced in—even encouraged—something which has no clear benefit to her whatsoever, as well as enormous potential to damage her. If we are meant to see her as coerced, Junior’s point of view is not objective enough to convey that convincingly. And ultimately, I don’t think that big twist can carry the novel: it happens so near the end that its ramifications are barely gestured at. In a way, Foe might have been better either as a short story (with this plot), or as a novel that really did try to explore what it might be like to live with a robot stand-in husband, or to live among the stars knowing that your wife was at home with a perfect replica of you.

41glscwyk3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_The Last, by Hanna Jameson: The problem with The Last isn’t so much that it can’t decide what it wants to be—thoughtful end-of-the-world novel a la Station Eleven, or classic murder-mystery-in-an-inescapable-environment a la A Christmas Murder—but more that it hasn’t realised it needs to decide at all. It wants to be both, and it can’t be. Set in a hotel in a remote Swiss forest, it focuses on the academic historian Jon Keller, who’s attending a conference when the lights of the world go out. Wisely, Jameson doesn’t spend much time trying to explain the sociopolitical situation that led to global nuclear war; at one point Jon recalls hearing a woman cry, “They’ve bombed Washington” and not even being sure who “they” are, which, in the current political climate of semi-permanent confusion and proliferating news sources, seems much more likely than anyone having a firm grasp of whys and wherefores as the world burns. Keller’s anxiety about his wife (with whom he argued before leaving for Switzerland) and children is nicely judged, and Jameson is good on the way people coalesce around a leader in times of uncertainty. She’s also, refreshingly, hopeful: the community that Keller and his fellow hotel guests find at the end of the novel doesn’t seem to be a trap or a cult, but a genuine attempt to live well in the ruins, even to build a new world. It’s just that there’s a lot going on in The Last, and the murder mystery – despite its interesting philosophical question of whether it’s worth investigating injustice in the midst of a meta-disaster – takes a back seat too often. (And the solution is…let’s not talk about it.)

9780099581666Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre: This is extremely my sort of thing, and gloriously, it did not disappoint. It is a novel about the marriage of Sir Kenelm Digby, famed sailor, alchemist and adventurer in the time of Charles I, and his wife Venetia, the most renowned beauty of her day. Venetia is aging as the novel opens (well, she’s thirty, but obviously in the 1630s that made her past her prime), and Kenelm’s refusal to provide a medical beauty aid drives her—along with several of her friends—into the arms of Lancelot Choice, a convincing quack who prescribes a tonic known as viper wine, distilled from the bodies of serpents which he farms in industrial quantities in his cellar. Eyre melds this historical narrative with what might be called flashes, or glimpses, of the future; Sir Kenelm’s ornamental obelisk at his country home, Gayhurst, becomes a radio mast, the narrative voice conflates his voyages with the space travel that humans will achieve a few centuries hence, and Venetia’s obsession with controlling not only her face, but the production and distribution of her image, is shown to be the forerunner of the modern brand management practiced by celebrities like the Kardashians. Eyre takes advantage of Kenelm Digby’s unique intellectual and historical position: one of the sources she quotes describes him as the single English mind that links the medieval and the modern, just as happy distilling mercury in alembics as he is keen to follow the latest scholarship from Galileo. She figures him, and Venetia, and the age in which they lived, as a kind of conduit, through which the past and the future can mingle. Viper Wine‘s a clever book; it’s also witty and contains some marvelous setpieces, including a voyage in a sort of proto-submarine. Not to be missed.

81zwgr0mpnlHow Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti: Some books are ahead of their times. Some books don’t need to be that far ahead to still be ahead. Such is the case with Heti’s first novel, which was published in 2010 and was well received, but which didn’t create nearly such a stir as Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which followed only seven years later yet which has somehow become a sort of cult novel, a touchstone for young tormented artistic types who find themselves beset by the difficulty of justifying creative endeavour in a world that manifestly doesn’t give a damn how special you think you are. How Should A Person Be?, which is autofiction, is filtered through the eyes of Sheila, who, in her twenties, has gotten married and been commissioned to write a play. The marriage and the play fail, and she meets a painter called Margaux with whom she develops a friendship both intense and somehow laissez-faire. What Rooney has most clearly taken from Heti is the voice: dry, ironic, detached, yet possessed of an increasingly obvious vulnerability. Something about How Should A Person Be? is less annoying to me than Conversations With Friends was, though. Perhaps it’s the sex, which, although Sheila has it with a plainly dreadful human being, is obviously great; I could never convince myself that Rooney’s Frances and Nick were having sex that good. There’s also something to be said for the clean dirt of Heti’s plotting choices: Sheila knows perfectly well that she’s having sex with the divinely awful Israel for bad reasons; they’re both single, so there’s none of the mess of an affair that Rooney’s characters struggle with; and, most importantly, Sheila decides to end the whole thing when it becomes clear that Israel is both stupid and obsessed with humiliating her. How Should A Person Be? is a weird book, but it’s certainly emotionally compelling.

813annxxbmlDream Sequence, by Adam Foulds: I requested this because, you know, Adam Foulds, but I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s the story of two people: one, Henry, is an up-and-coming actor who’s about to break out of the TV period drama circuit with a starring role in a film by a major director; the other, Kristin, is an American divorcée who bumped into him at an airport a year ago, and who has since been consumed by the delusion that they are meant to be together. It’s not anything like the last Foulds novel I read (The Quickening Maze, about the institutionalization of the poet John Clare in the same asylum as Tennyson’s brother Septimus). Foulds is exceptionally talented at putting us inside Henry’s and Kristin’s heads; his insights into the acting industry, particularly into the world of cinema and celebrity, auditioning and waiting to hear back, are brilliant and convincing. Henry’s permanent semi-conscious awareness of his body—hunger, muscle, fasting, lightness, the unusually beautiful structure of the bones of his face—is especially well rendered. In the sections involving Kristin, meanwhile, Foulds climbs into her head such that we not only see her madness, but understand it, intimately; her divorce has cost her a young stepson and the loss of his small, innocent love is something that she keeps coming back to, a hole in her heart that her obsession with Henry cannot fill. The story clearly can’t end well, but Foulds shows tremendous restraint right up to the finish line. Dream Sequence is very good, and very hard to pigeonhole.

Reading Diary: RIP XIII and otherwise

It’s the end of October – autumn is really here now, almost winter. It’s dark early. It’s cold. I’ve been back in the UK for less than a week, and already it’s clear: we’re in a different season. On the upside, I guess: stews, scarves, the three-month festival of eating that is Halloween + Thanksgiving (/Friendsgiving) + Christmas + New Year. And books!

A lot of what I read in October qualifies for RIP XIII, it turns out. Here, at last, is the rundown.

9781408896266First, a few things that don’t really qualify, including Georgina Harding’s new novel, Land of the Living. This, I’m afraid, I shall have to be fairly brief about, as I read it before I went away (so about three weeks ago now), but it did serve as my introduction to Harding’s work and a good one it was. It’s a novel about a farmer called Charlie, back in England and married after the end of the Second World War. He was posted in Kohima, and his experiences there haunt him: not just the murder of a lost (or deserting) Japanese soldier, or the deaths of the other members of his platoon, but also the strange period of time during which he gets lost in the mountainous jungle and is rescued by a remote tribe that seems never to have had contact with white people. Harding’s descriptions of the north Indian jungle landscape are the stylistic standout of the book: so lush and evocative, you’d swear you can feel the steam rising from the vegetation. The narration jumps back and forth between Charlie’s time in India and his life now, farming, with his wife Claire. He tells her stories about the war and about foreign places, which she accepts with the incredulous equanimity of an Englishwoman in the late 1940s who, while not a fool, has never been abroad and can’t quite believe in the reality of the people her husband describes to her. Meanwhile, Harding also shows us Charlie through Claire’s eyes: a lovable man but one permanently distanced from his wife, as much by the fact that he’s a man as by his vaster life experience. That narrative even-handedness is what invests the reader; it’s not as though there’s a dearth of WWII novels, but the standouts are the ones that articulate an idiosyncratic kind of war, an individual’s war. Land of the Living is a standout.

isbn9781473679894One of the many joys of bookselling is that moment when a publisher’s rep flips to the next page of their sales catalogue (now usually in PDF form, though I understand they used to be made of Actual Paper) and says something like “Ever heard of this author? No? Well, we’re reprinting their backlist anyway, with natty new jackets, and I’m going to spend the next five minutes trying to convince you to buy every title, despite the fact that you’ve never heard of them and they died in 1987.” That all sounds sarcastic, but it actually sometimes is a joy – who doesn’t want to find a great, underrated author and get in on the ground floor of their renaissance? Pamela Hansford Johnson, it turns out, actually is fairly well known, except by me: she wrote twenty-seven novels, reviewed extensively for newspapers and magazines, and married C.P. Snow. The Unspeakable Skipton seems, at least at first, as though it might be not unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley: an Englishman abroad in Europe makes his living by conning people. The difference is in the protagonists: Ripley is cool and psychopathic, while Skipton is frantic, hotheaded, and pathetic. Convinced of his own genius as a novelist, he lives in Bruges and spends his days writing letters to his long-suffering London editor in defense of his unpublishable manuscripts. In the evenings, he latches on to expatriates and provides various services (procuring and art dealing chief among them) for money. In a way, the vast gulf between Skipton’s conception of the world – his own righteousness and the rest of humanity’s crass ignorance – and the way the world sees him is reminiscent of A Confederacy of Dunces. Certainly there’s an absurd humour in watching Skipton’s mad antics, although Hansford Johnson is hardly likely to make you guffaw the way Toole is (and she doesn’t want to, either). Mostly, though, it’s a novel about an unpleasant man getting his just desserts from equally unpleasant people. It’s neatly observed, and if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it, but it’s an awfully hard book to love.

412b7oycz4xl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Back to books that qualify for RIP XIII, the next of which was Red Snow, Will Dean’s follow-up to his smash hit Dark Pines, which featured bisexual deaf investigative journalist Tuva Moodyson. (Yes! All those adjectives!) I have to confess I didn’t read Dark Pines, although if it comes anywhere near Red Snow for atmosphere and detail, I can see why it did so well. The pleasure of Dean’s writing is in his ability to convey uncomfortable experience with the authority of one who’s lived it: not only the mental effects of a long, cold, dark, isolated, rural Swedish winter (and he does know about that, because he lives year-round in rural Sweden), but smaller things that contribute to characterisation. Tuva wears hearing aids, and in the cold they become uncomfortable; Dean lets her tell us about that, about the minutiae of her lived experience, in a way that’s dignified and convincing. (It isn’t just Tuva’s deafness that gets this treatment; he remains the only male writer I can think of who has memorialised in print the intense joy of a woman coming home after a long day at work and taking her bra off.) The crime and investigation in Red Snow, oddly, is the least convincing element of the book: there’s an apparent suicide at a liquorice factory, which has been the major employer of the tiny town of Gavrik for generations, followed by a bizarre murder in which the victim’s mouth is stuffed with liquorice and his eyes covered with liquorice coins. The pacing of the investigation (both the police and Tuva’s) is bafflingly slow and circular, readers are expected to sympathise with the family that owns the factory simply because the author and protagonist tell us we should, and the impact of the final revelation is (I suspect) diluted if you haven’t read the first book. Read it for the atmosphere, though, and for Tuva: prickly, curious, and no one’s fool. (RIP categories: mystery/suspense)

51bd3oyemyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_I doubt there’s anything I can say about Perdido Street Station that hasn’t been said before. Its impact on the fantasy genre has been so huge, despite the fact that it was published just eighteen years ago, that the aspect of it that seems to have most thrown readers for a loop when it was originally published didn’t have that much of an effect on me: the in- and subversion of genre tropes for which Mieville’s book is so famous has now become largely internalised by the genre itself. In other words, thanks to the fact that Perdido Street Station fucked with its readers’ heads unexpectedly, we now expect fantasy to fuck with our heads. It’s a theory, anyway.

Perdido Street Station is a very long book, although it doesn’t read like one, and there’s a lot going on in it, but once it gets going, it’s mostly about a ragtag bunch of criminals, outcasts and refugees who have to band together to save the city from a nest of soul-sucking menaces known as slakemoths. (They eat, or rather drink, your dreams, and they’re immoderate about it: slakemoths feed by literally putting their enormous tongue in a victim’s face and devouring every part of the brain save for the brainstem, leaving their prey alive but vegetative. They’re basically dementors.) Fundamentally, though, it’s a book about a city: Bas-Lag, which is lovingly mapped and described and explored and traversed throughout the course of the novel. It’s neither medieval London nor steampunk New York, though it’s reminiscent of both; really what it reminded me of was Ankh-Morpork if you drained all the zaniness and replaced it with menace. The comparison is a little unfortunate because it makes Mieville seem po-faced, which he isn’t quite, just serious: about this city, about this story, about story in general, its illusions, the way a person can be misled. His project in the New Crobuzon books, if we extrapolate from this first one, must be to make a world, and indeed Bas-Lag already feels more solid to me than Ul Qoma/Beszel of The City and the CityPerdido Street Station is a phenomenally accomplished start. (RIP categories: urban fantasy)

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French’s first standalone novel, The Witch Elm, flips her usual perspective on crime: instead of filtering the world through the eyes of a detective, she gives us the experience of a victim. Toby Hennessy considers himself a lucky man: he’s got a wonderful girlfriend, he’s just managed to avoid a serious scrape at work with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, he owns and likes his flat, everything has always been okay. All that changes on the night two men break into his place, steal his valuables, and beat him almost to death. Left with potentially life-changing injuries, Toby struggles to recuperate until someone suggests that he move into the old family house, where his bachelor uncle Hugh still lives. Hugh is dying of a brain tumour, and someone needs to be on hand. Toby’s reluctant, but his girlfriend Melissa thinks it’s a great idea, and they move in. All is going well, until a family visit when one of Toby’s nephews finds a human skull hidden in the wych elm at the bottom of the garden. And then old secrets start to come to light… One of my favourite things about Tana French’s writing is how she wrongfoots you. This looks like it’s a murder mystery, and Toby looks like he’s the protagonist because he’s our narrator, but actually it’s a story about privilege, although French never uses that word. Toby is so shaken by his attack because he has never, not once in his whole life, experienced powerlessness or vulnerability, and the moment he sees himself that way, his entire self-conception falls apart. Moreover—and not to spoil anything—the body in the wych elm, it becomes clear, was killed for reasons relating very strongly to privilege and its misuses. The Witch Elm isn’t a novel about Toby at all. I’ll leave you to read it to find out which character is its true center. I highly recommend that you do. (RIP categories: mystery, suspense)

41zz1laegyl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Vonnegut’s one of those writers whose first sixty pages I often find tiresome, but then I bear with it and get invested, and by the end I’m genuinely moved by and emotional about the whole book. The Sirens of Titan is his most overtly science-fictional novel, I think (having not read all of them yet), centering on the richest man on Earth, whose name is Malachi Constant. It’s almost impossible to do justice to the plot by summarising; let it be enough that the book is about free will, futility, war, love, and belonging. As ever with Vonnegut’s books, female characters aren’t mistreated so much as ignored; Beatrice Rumfoord, the woman with whom Malachi Constant eventually has a child (amusingly named Chrono), feels like a character-shaped prop, lacking even the distant, ironized sort of interiority that most of Vonnegut’s male characters are given. Yet she’s not unsympathetic; there are moments when her emotional responses are given narrative priority; and when you consider that this book was written three years before the first James Bond film, its treatment of women starts to look positively progressive. Vonnegut was at best ambivalent about NASA’s space program—he questioned whether it was worth spending money on exploring the stars when there were people starving right here on Earth—and his genre fiction, as well as his more conventionally realist novels, always seems to have this grounded sense of humanity at its core. The Sirens of Titan might be a good introduction to Vonnegut for a neophyte, in fact.

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The Ear, the Eye and the Arm is a children’s/YA novel from 1995, of which no one outside the US appears ever to have heard. My dad brought it home for me in 2001, and it was so entirely unlike any other book I read as a child that scenes and characters from it have haunted the back of the immense broom cupboard that is my reading mind for years. It’s set in Harare, Zimbabwe in the late twenty-second century, which is kind of funny because most of the technological innovations that signal future-ness in the book are standard parts of our daily lives now: holophones (basically FaceTime), robot servants (Alexa). Flying buses and taxis are really the only thing we haven’t got now—oh, and genetically engineered talking blue monkeys. General Makutsi’s three children long for an adventure, and moreover, they want to earn their Explorer badges for Scouts. Their only human servant, a white man whose job is a form of ritualised flattery called Praise Singing (the imagined racial hierarchy of post-colonial southern Africa in this book is particulary interesting to an adult reader), lets them out of the house, but they’re almost immediately kidnapped and brought to a female crime boss known as the She-Elephant, who lives in a toxic waste dump and rules over its population of homeless, outcasts and petty criminals. When the She-Elephant decides to sell them, the children uncover a conspiracy involving a gang known as the Masks, who practice human sacrifice—but not before getting caught up both in an enclave in the middle of the city whose inhabitants live in a traditional African fashion, known as Resthaven, and in the home of the Praise Singer’s mother, a white woman looking for a fat ransom payout. In the midst of all this, eldest son Tendai has to find a role for himself and come to terms with his fear of disappointing his father. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, meanwhile, are the three detectives sent to find the children, each of whom is from a different ethnic background within the nation of Zimbabwe, and each of whom has a supernaturally strong sense: the Ear has supersonic hearing, the Eye has inhumanly good eyesight, and the Arm is both unnaturally tall and an empath. A film ratings board would say that the book has “mild peril” at best, but that seems appropriate for a middle-grade novel. The strong flavour of Afrofuturism and focus on Zimabwe’s spiritual traditions (the ultimate villain is essentially conducting a form of voodoo warfare) makes the book both fascinating and informative, without being didactic. An excellent YA backlist title. (RIP categories: urban fantasy, I guess)

Thoughts on this batch of reading: Almost all of these were fantastic, and it was particularly nice to a) choose my own reading while I was abroad, instead of reading to a schedule imposed by bookselling/my own mad ambition, and b) feel okay about reading a little bit less in a month. It was also nice to find that a lot of what I read fit in naturally with the RIP XIII challenge. I’m now feeling emboldened to seek out additional seasonally appropriate reading, such as the Annual Winter Dickens, some might-be-described-as-Gothic fiction, some Victorian pastiche, and some more (perhaps historical) crime.

05. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood

a-station-on-the-path-to-somewhere-better-9781471126741_hrThe back cover of my proof of this doesn’t give much away: merely the names and relationship of our two protagonists, Francis and Daniel Hardesty, father and son, and the promise of a road trip that ends in an explosion of violence, which continues to haunt Daniel twenty years after the fact. Given the road trip element of the book, I was expecting a darker version of Let Go My Hand. What I got was, indeed, dark, but there is no question of redemption or forgiveness in A Station On the Path… In Francis Hardesty, a man whose temper, capacity for manipulation, and sense of entitlement drive him ever further towards acts of intimidation and murder, Benjamin Wood has created the scariest literary father since Daddy, of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, or Martin Alveston of My Absolute Darling.

It’s not particularly easy to talk about this book in a critical way without some significant plot spoilers, so if you intend to read it and you don’t want to know specifically what happens, look away! If you don’t think you’ll read it but you want my opinions on it anyway, for some reason, or if you don’t mind knowing some details of the promised violence before opening the book, read on.

Wood effectively creates a manipulative, shitty ex-husband and self-centered absentee father in Francis Hardesty; the opening pages, where he arrives to collect Daniel for a road trip whose purpose is, for a while, unclear, cement his unreliability in our minds. The fact that Daniel’s mother doesn’t trust him to enter the house speaks volumes. There’s a bit of heavy-handed retrospection as they drive away: “That was the last time I saw her,” Daniel tells us, narrating from the future. Several more of these ominous sentences are scattered through the book; it’s not the gravest of authorial sins, but it’s never been a strategy I particularly like. If you’re going to foreshadow, do it implicitly. Otherwise, build an atmosphere of menace and let that do the talking.

The atmosphere of menace is, in itself, top-notch. Daniel and Francis are driving towards Leeds, where Francis is a carpenter on a television show called The Artifex, about the friendship between a young boy and a strange woman who says she’s an alien, but who may just be mad. (More of this parallel wouldn’t have gone amiss: the point is that the show is about not just the line between reality and fantasy, but that between fantasy and insanity. That line is one that Francis Hardesty tightrope-walks for the first half of the book, then falls off of spectacularly in the second half. If we take the metaphor at face value, though, it pushes us towards the interpretation that Francis is deceiving himself as much as he deceives his son and everyone who comes into his orbit. That would make him a pitiful figure, but he is instead terrifying, capable of inventing a complicated lie within seconds and always poised to verbally or physically attack the skeptical. He is not insane; he is abusive.) As inconsistencies mount up – Francis keeps them in a pub waiting for a contact instead of taking them straight to the studio; the contact is very late; the initial approach to the studio is furtive and, ultimately, unsuccessful – Daniel becomes aware that his father is not just unreliable, but teetering on the brink of something that cannot be walked back from. Because the reader lacks Daniel’s need for love and acceptance from Francis (and is also an adult, not a child), we’ve come to this realisation earlier, but watching Daniel get there is nail-biting.

If I have a major issue with A Station On the Path, it’s that it seems to be reaching for a moral weight with which to invest its horrors that doesn’t appear warranted. Francis Hardesty murders four people and himself. Whether he does it because of deep-seated psychotic rage, a sense of entitlement, a combination of the two, or something else entirely isn’t ever made clear, and doesn’t really need to be. There’s a final section where we see Daniel as an adult, with a beloved partner, and realise that the book has been driving, all along, towards the question of whether he can bear to be a father, whether it is irresponsible for him to taint a child with the bloodline of a mass murderer. That is a weighty moral issue, and had Wood spent longer in that place, narratively, it would have made more sense. But as it is, the bulk of the book is spent describing the horrible events of the past, and there can be no particular reason to treat those events as though they’re special. Angry men kill people all the time. If Wood had let Daniel acknowledge the sheer banality of his father’s evil, it would have made for a stronger book.

Reading Diary: Apr. 15-Apr. 21

814ysf3sdjlI’m going to go ahead and call it now: The Secret Barrister is probably the best non-fiction book I’ll read all year. (It’s actually called Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but that seems more like a subtitle to me, and the author’s name is the big sell on this one, since the Secret Barrister is a massive blog that’s twice won Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. So I’m referring to it as The Secret Barrister and that’s that.)

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the impetus behind the book: to reveal the myriad ways in which the English justice system – which, schoolchildren are taught, is the best in the world – is desperately broken. The anonymous author, a junior barrister practicing in London, ultimately agrees that the adversarial system in the UK is the best one that there is, but the persistent under-funding of the Crown Prosecution Service, the absurdly arbitrary nature of sentencing guidelines, and the frankly alarming power wielded in magistrates’ courts (presided over by magistrates, who, unlike Crown Court judges, have no legal training or qualifications whatsoever, and whose presence is a hangover from medieval times, when it was less important that justice be fully served than that it be quickly served) are crippling the justice system. Though the Secret Barrister never explicitly allies themselves with a particular political party, it is quite clear that the budget cuts and benchmarks set by successive Tory governments are in large part responsible for the absolute chaos in which most criminal cases are prosecuted and/or defended.

The best thing about this book – apart from the statistics, and the clear, quantitative analysis of just how many things can go wrong in a court case, and the outstanding job the book does of impressing upon the reader that anyone can end up in court, anyone can be burgled or assaulted or even falsely accused, and that therefore it is in everyone’s interests, even us smug middle-class wankers, to make sure that criminal justice works properly, which is to say that it is properly funded and less subject to dog-whistle knee-jerk bullshit from politicians and the Daily Mail than it currently is – is that the Secret Barrister can really write. The book opens with a cross-examination of a man named Mr. Tuttle, accused of punching his neighbour, who happens to be both blind and on crutches, rendering Mr. Tuttle’s defense (“he punched me first”) somewhat incredible. The scene feels immediate, funny, even absurd – I laughed within seconds – and it works because the prose is flawless: well-oiled, conversational, competent in the little things, like exactly where a comma or a hyphen makes a sentence more effective. It’s a joy to read, as well as deeply informative, and scary as hell. I am sending it to everyone.

51my9o-wxml-_sx327_bo1204203200_In 1622, Diego Velazquez traveled to Madrid from Seville. In December of that year, he was appointed painter to Felipe IV of Spain and invited to bring his wife and daughter to court. He would retain that position – painter to the king – until his death in 1660. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on Velazquez’s life and work at court.

While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does. Velazquez’s naturalistic style, his insistence on using live models, his relatively limited colour palette, all attract mockery, even scorn, from other painters, but it is the quality of his vision that makes Felipe value him. He sees people, and what he sees is, not unkindly but nevertheless with great fidelity, what he paints. Sackville’s prose style here is tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, the encrusted paint on Diego’s fingers, the heft and bulk of a water jug. It also constantly interrupts itself; we feel we are inside the head of the artist, particularly in scenes like the one in which he tries, again and again, to capture exactly the musculature of a horse’s leg, the swell of its belly, the flick of its tail. The sentences are breathless, fragmented, em-dash-heavy:

…dip, swipe, dip, swipe: The leg of the horse curves up into the belly here, like –– Here, the top of the leg rounding into the socket like –– The curve of the belly barrel-like –

–– No

It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

There is another intruding narrative voice: that of someone who might be the author, and is certainly an observer; someone who knows Velazquez’s paintings well, through long acquaintance with them in galleries and museums. That voice lifts you out of seventeenth-century Spain, but not, I would contend, in a distracting way: on the contrary, it provides necessary breathing room, amongst all that painterly detail. All together, Painter to the King is a little like the bastard child of How To Be Both and Wolf Hall, but to compare it is to diminish it: it is its own thing, and that thing is very good.

cover1The title of Diana Evans’s new novel, Ordinary People, comes from a John Legend song. “This ain’t the honeymoon, past the infatuation phase,” he sings. “Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love…” And then: “We’re just ordinary people/we don’t know which way to go.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Evans’s protagonists: two couples, Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie, trying to keep their relationships alive after marriage and/or children, moving to the suburbs, losing a parent, discovering that they will very soon no longer be young.

Evans would be most easy to compare to Zadie Smith, although the hyperactivity, focus on working-class second-generation immigrants, and high intellectualism of Smith’s work is less evident here; instead, Evans has written a literary novel about the domestic lives of black people in London who—though some of them are second-generation immigrant stock—have entered the middle class. There is, of course, a political aspect to the book: Damian’s father was a Jamaican intellectual obsessed with the black struggle; Michael’s increasing comfort in a suit is a quiet metaphor for his assimilation into a professional world that is overwhelmingly white; Melissa finds herself thinking of de Beauvoir and Kristeva when her children whine, feeling that she’s sold out feminism but unable to turn back now. Evans’s writing decisions, especially her plotting, is brave: not everyone gets a happy ending, and we’re forced to question what happiness can look like, the possibility that finishing things amicably with your partner can actually be the right choice, and no one’s fault. Ordinary People is an extraordinary book for posing those possibilities while also telling an apparently familiar story about domestic strife; it’s very impressive.

35654063Salt Lane is the newest novel from William Shaw, the beginning of a series featuring DI Alex Cupidi, who made an appearance in the book Shaw released last year, The Birdwatcher. Salt Lane too is set in rural Kent, that strange flat marshy part of England where the sea and the sky and the land flow into one another. This time, Shaw sets his sights on immigrant labour: the illegal fruit picking and farm work that goes on under the noses of police. Two murders in quick succession—a local woman who has been living under an assumed name for twenty years, found in a ditch, and a migrant labourer who has been drowned in a farm’s slurry pit—assume sinister proportions when it turns out that they’re related. Cupidi must find who’s responsible while also developing her relationship with her teenage daughter Zoe, acting as a mentor to the insouciant and pretty DS Ferriter, and protecting her own reputation on a squad to which she is new, and which knows all about the scandal that drove her away from London.

There is slightly too much going on in Salt Lane; some of the supporting characters confuse the arc of the investigation, rather than adding to it, as does the fact that the dead woman is connected to a cold case from 1995. (We learn about this in the prologue, a flashback which misleads us into thinking that the old crime is going to be more significant in the present-day storyline than it actually is.) I’m also not certain about Shaw’s portrayal of immigrant workers; he’s not offensive about them or about the hell in their countries of origin that drives them to the UK, but I wasn’t convinced that he’d ever spoken to a refugee. Najiba, a migrant worker who acts as a police informant, is fairly well-rounded, but the others seem like ciphers; Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields is a more moving and humanising portrait of this world. As ever, though, Shaw’s grasp of pacing and procedure makes it hard to put Salt Lane down.

macbethThere are, plainly, as many ways to fuck up adapting Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare plays. Jo Nesbo has chosen the path of poor judgment: he tends to make the wrong choice about where to diverge from Shakespeare and where to follow him. His Macbeth is set in an unnamed, rainy, context-less Scottish port town ravaged by drug wars and the death of industry; Macbeth is a corrupt policeman. It’s an excellent idea, but in execution, it feels like reading Grand Theft Auto for 500 pages: not so much because of the action sequences (though there are many, and they’re generally the best bits) but because of the odd sense of complete inconsequentiality. The town never feels like a real town; even its architecture and geography lacks substance. Why is there an enormous disused train in the middle of a public square flanked by a James Bond-esque casino and a railway station populated only by junkies? None of it is how anything—urban planning, police procedure, drug-empire-enforcing—actually works.

Nesbo makes another unfortunate decision, which is to follow the beats of the major monologues and some of the better-known dialogue. While he occasionally manages this well (the “Out, out, brief candle” speech feels contemporary and convincing, mostly because it’s not spoken but thought), it also results in hardmen calling each other things like “good Duff”, which jars. When Macbeth or his scheming partner Lady breaks out into an expository paragraph that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the scene, it feels awkward and noticeable. One particularly odd choice involves Nesbo’s failure to update Lady’s reproductive history: he keeps the part about her plucking a child from her breast and dashing its brains against the wall, but makes that an actual recollection, not a hypothetical about promise-keeping that she throws at Macbeth, as it is in the play. Wouldn’t it make more sense—and be more emotionally resonant—in a contemporary updating, to give Lady a history of multiple abortions about which to feel guilty? To unthinkingly plug in Shakespeare’s words plunges the scene, and Lady’s characterisation, into a grand guignol that feels cheap and tone-deaf.

All of this said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read a video game, particularly this video game. The action sequences are generally excellent, high-octane and well choreographed. A level of artifice—one might say, of theatricality—is inherent to much genre writing, and Macbeth is a genre novel; Nesbo writes noir thrillers and has never claimed otherwise. For my taste, though, his version of Shakespeare lacks sufficient thought, fun and pacy though it may be.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of crime, which will carry over into Monday as I’m currently reading another Scottish-set thriller, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide. Overall an excellent week, with three great books, one decent one, and one that was at least fun to dislike.

#6Degrees of Separation: It, by Stephen King

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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We start with It, Stephen King’s creepy clown horror novel, which I read in May and (to my great surprise) thoroughly enjoyed. I had avoided King for a long time, assuming that he was probably not all that good a writer, and was completely surprised by the fact that, actually, he writes very well. (review)

Virtually the opposite happened when I read my first John Grisham novel, Camino Island; having been proved wrong with King, I had hopes that Grisham would turn out to be a pretty good writer, but these were dashed by page five. Fortunately, it’s a quick read.

My copy of Camino Island was purchased at New Dominion Bookstore in Charlottesville, where I used to work and where John Grisham would often come in to sign (he lives nearby). My current favourite author-signed copy is the paperback of White Teeth that my brother got Zadie Smith to sign and dedicate to me. (It says, “To Eleanor – the joy is in the writing!”, and it makes me teary with happiness every time I even think about it.)

Smith published her first book at twenty-four. Another young publishing phenomenon was Catherine Webb, who now writes as Claire North. I didn’t love her most recent book, The End of the Day (review), although her earlier book The Fifteen Lives of Harry August got a lot of attention and might be worth checking out.

The End of the Day is easily compared to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, but I really got whiplash from reading it so soon after finishing China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Set in London, Kraken starts with the theft of the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, and quickly delves into apocalypse cults, Londonmancers, and the unionisation of magical familiars. It’s also Gaiman-inflected, but with some tongue-in-cheek homage to Lovecraft.

A favourite magical London is the one from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. An enormous tome set during an alt-history version of the Napoleonic Wars, it focuses on the attempts of the two titular men to revive English magic. It is rich and deep and creepy and wonderful, and you’ll never look at a mirror the same way again.

Finally, another excellent alt-Napoleonic Wars novel (yes, there’s more than one of them!) is K.J. Whittaker’s recent False Lights. Whittaker’s book contains no magic, but in her world, Napoleon wins at Waterloo and installs his brother Jerome on the English throne. Our heroine is the mixed-race daughter of a black British sea captain. It’s got romance and swashbuckling and wit, and is perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Rafael Sabatini, or indeed Susanna Clarke.

From small-town American horror to sumptuous historical fancy, via blockbusting crime and literary prodigies; where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, a firm favourite from adolescence which is now a franchise that probably reached its natural end several years ago…

Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”

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Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.