If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then reading what someone has written about books is like looking at pictures of someone’s holiday. Sort of. So here are some snaps of my last holiday in the world of reading. Like most holidays, it had its high points and its low points. I travelled great distances but never left my armchair. I saw amazing sights but only in my mind’s eye. And I met some fascinating, and some very strange, people, some of whom I may get to meet again. Reading is the most fun you can have sitting in an armchair, and you can even do it in public. It is made of win.
The Prophet Murders, Mehmet Murat Somer (2003) Since I’d got bogged down in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red (and I really do need to finish it off one of these days), I grabbed a copy of this as light alternative piece of Turkish fiction. The narrator is the drag queen owner of a nightclub in Istanbul, and when she hears of other transvestites and transsexuals dying in mysterious circumstances, she decides to investigate. Novels like this – and it’s a series, with four volumes so far translated into English – depend more on voice than they do plot. There’s nothing complicated about the murders or the investigation – the former are staged to echo the deaths of various Islamic prophets, the latter involves the narrator travelling about Istanbul and its environs talking to people. But the story is written in a relentlessly chatty style, some of the characterisation is a little mean, and the narrator is occasionally a little too good to be true. It’s fluff, but I didn’t find it appealing enough fluff to bother with the rest of the series.
The Time Machine, Nikesh Shukla (2013) Cheryl Morgan tweeted that she’d just added this novella to her online shop, Wizard’s Tower Books, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. Ashok’s mother has just died and as a way to deal with his grief he tries to recreate some of the meals she cooked and which he ate as a child. The novella includes the actual recipes. It’s a poignant piece, and well-written, and I really did like the idea of making a feature of the recipes – they’re of various Gujarati dishes and don’t appear all that difficult to make (though I’ve yet to actually try any of them).
Coalescent, Stephen Baxter (2003) Many years ago, I remember Mark Plummer declaring that Stephen Baxter would be a good author to collect. What Mark clearly had not taken into account was the need for a very large room to hold such a collection. It’s not just that Baxter is prolific – 39 novels and 9 collections in 22 years – but also that most of his books are also huge. Coalescent – the first in a trilogy, natch, called Destiny’s Children – is one of these huge novels: the Gollancz hardback is 473 pages long. There are two main narratives, one set in Ancient Britain after the Romans have left, and one in the present-day. The former provides the historical context for the climax of the latter. George Poole’s father has died, and he has sort out the estate. He discovers that his father regularly sent money to a religious order in Rome, and that he has a sister in that order. So he travels to Rome to learn more. In fifth-century Britain, a young girl, Regina, is sent north to Hadrian’s Wall to stay with her grandfather after the death of her wealthy father. As it becomes clear that Rome has no interest in, or is incapable of, returning to Britain, things start to fall apart. Regina’s narrative shows how she grows up and survives in a Britain falling apart, before she eventually takes ship for Rome and forms the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. Poole, meanwhile, through an old school friend who is now a conspiracy nut, discovers that there is more to the Order than appears. It is, in fact, an all-female Hellstrom’s Hive living in an ancient labyrinth under the streets of Rome. The novel abruptly jumps into the far future and describes an attack on a human hive by members of another human civilisation. Baxter has done this before, notably in Titan, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s a useful technique. Mind you, Coalescent is the first book of a trilogy, so perhaps it suits better here. Having said that, I enjoyed the book more than I’d expected to – the two narratives didn’t seem to sit well together but were individually interesting, and once the connection had become obvious things picked up. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.
The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton (2008) This was described by David Hebblethwaite as the best book he’d read in the past five years. I’d been intrigued by Catton’s The Luminaries – I bought a copy of it before it won the Booker, I hasten to add – so was quite chuffed when I stumbled across a copy of The Rehearsal in a charity shop. And… It’s very good. But it’s not as good as Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which for me would be the best book I’d read in the past five years. The Rehearsal is a very artificial book – it’s mimetic fiction but it’s self-aware in as much as its story is a told artefact. The events of the plot are used as the basis for a play, and it’s the actors and their rehearsals which reveal what has happened. But Catton also uses the lives of the actors – they’re at a drama school – as a mirror to reflect the events the play they’re in is actually dramatising. There’s an artificiality to the prose and its structure – this is not the pure immersiveness you’d find in contemporary genre fiction, but a series of levels of story the reader must navigate. There’s a cleverness to it all that’s very appealing, even if on occasion it feels a little repetitive and draggy in places. The prose is generally very good throughout, though it rarely shines – but then The Rehearsal is not a novel which relies purely on prose style to impress. I do like stories with interesting structures, and Catton’s debut certainly qualifies. It’s a book that will need rereading… and on the strength of it, I’m glad I bought The Luminaries and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.
Slam, Lewis Shiner (1990) The title is a skateboarding term, although the protagonist, Dave, is not a skateboarder. But it’s also a pun, see, because Dave is an ex-con and has just been released from the slammer. A lawyer friend has arranged a caretaker job for Dave, looking after the house, and twenty-three cats, which belonged to a recently deceased eccentric old lady – her property can only be sold once all the cats have died. It all seems relatively straightforward, but then where would be the story in that? There are people who want the old lady’s house – the head of a UFO cult, and a pair of old and slightly batty treasure hunters. One of Dave’s friends from prison escapes and comes to stay – and while he’s there he arranges a large drug deal. Dave’s parole officer has taken against him, and seems to be looking for an excuse to send him back (he was in prison, incidentally, for tax evasion). And Dave gets involved, via an eighteen-year-old barmaid, with a bunch of slackers and skateboards who are squatting in a nearby eccentric house, which is built entirely of concrete, including the furniture. Slam is equal parts paean to slacker culture and lonely white male identity crisis. In places, it feels a little heavy-handed, the central relationship is a little too much like authorial wish-fulfilment, and in parts the prose feels like it’s reaching for Dhalgren without actually getting there… but there’s also well-handled cast of eccentrics, the description of place is good, and it’s all very readable. Not Shiner’s best book by any means, but he’s still an author well worth reading.
We See a Different Frontier, Djibril al-Ayad & Fábio Fernandes (2013) This is an anthology of, as the back-cover blurb puts it, “speculative fiction stories on the themes of colonialism and cultural imperialism”. It was financed by a kickstarter campaign, to which I contributed. The editors are online friends, as indeed are a few of the authors whose stories appear in the anthology. We See a Different Frontier contains sixteen stories, plus a preface by Aliette de Bodard and an afterword by Ekaterina Sedia. Its contents are, unsurprisingly, variable, with some stories working better than others. There’s just as great a variety in style and setting – some stories are set on Earth, some on alien worlds; some are post-apocalypse, some are not. There’s an admirable consistency of theme, however, which is something not all themed anthologies manage. I liked Ernest Hogan’s gonzo steampunk ‘Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus’, and the strangeness of Dinesh Rao’s ‘A Bridge of Words’. By contrast, the straightforwardness of Rahul Kanakia’s ‘Droplet’ also worked really well. Lavie Tidhar provides one of his alternate history speculations, ‘Dark Continents’, and Sandra McDonald’s ‘Fleet’ rings an interesting variation on a post-apocalypse story. There are no bad stories in We See a Different Frontier, although not all were to my taste – but they’re all worth reading, and I did like what they said and am certain it needs to be said.
The Outsider, Albert Camus (1942) This is apparently one of the great novels of French literature. But then On the Road is apparently one of the great novels of US literature.I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. A disaffected young man, more or less estranged from his mother, drifts through his life in Algeria, and eventually – more for shits and giggles than any particular reason – stabs a man to death. He is caught, confesses, is tried and convicted. And he doesn’t much care. Incidents mentioned earlier in the novel – and it’s a very short novel – are used by the prosecution to show he is precisely the sort of person who would stab someone to death: his mother dies, for example, in the first chapter, and he attends the funeral but shows no real grief. I gather this is one of those novels, like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (which I studied for O Level oh so many years ago), which became something of a symbol for disaffected youth. Perhaps that means you have to read it when young, perhaps only then does it feel like it has any real meaning. Because it didn’t to me when I read it last month. There are no great insights in it, and the protagonist is more annoying than sympathetic. This doesn’t mean I think the book’s age tells against it, not at all. If I want real psychology in fiction, then I’ll read DH Lawrence… and his fiction is a further two to three decades older than The Outsider. I’m told Camus’s The Plague is his best novel. I have that on the TBR, so we shall see…
The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968) The second book of the Raj Quartet, which I am getting round to reading much more slowly than I had expected. But then these are not books to read quickly. The Day Of The Scorpion is not a direct sequel to The Jewel In The Crown, although it story does follow on from the first book of the quartet – but with a different cast. This book is set in the garrison town of Pankot and the independent satrapy of Mirat. It opens with a link to The Jewel In The Crown when Sarah Layton meets Lady Manners, mother of Daphne Manners – whose alleged rape catalysed the plot of The Jewel In The Crown - while staying on a houseboat with her family in Kashmir. Hari Kumar, Daphne’s lover and the man charged with the rape, makes a brief appearance, but this is no longer his story. Superintendent Ronald Merrick, now a captain in the army, enters the Laytons’ social circle through being billetted with the fiancé of Sarah’s sister, Susan. It is, in fact, almost impossible to summarise the plot of The Day Of The Scorpion – it’s clearly a part of a bigger narrative, and those narrative threads which do appear in the book cleverly interlock and influence each other. None of the cast is admirable, and the British understandably come out of it all quite badly. The writing is excellent, Scott draws proper three-dimensional characters and he draws them deeply, and he evokes sense of place beautifully. My admiration of Scott’s prose remains undimmed. The rather naff cover art above is the first edition; and yes, that’s the edition I own (plus a paperback reading copy too, of course).