Friday, 29 May 2015

The Echo by James Smythe

Why can't just one person live through
one of his novels?
Space exploration – it's an idea that inspires great flights of fancy and equal measures of terror, the void through which we spin is the macro equivalent to the empty centre of each of us and is thus such a draw for the soul of mankind. Or something. Which is why, I suspect, in Smythe's second anomaly novel, Earth is firing yet another set of astronauts into the dark despite having lost a first bunch in the first book, The Explorer, and yet more further back in the other tragedy referenced, the Indian moon mission disaster. This time it's twin brothers Tomas and Mira, first rate intellects and relentless perfectionists, who have created a perfect spaceship (HUBRIS KLAXON) with which to explore and study the anomaly, a completely black area of space that appears to be heading this way. Readers of the first novel will recognise the same anomaly which did for Cormac Easton and chums. In fact, the erstwhile explorer makes an appearance as does the good ship Ishiguro as our own intrepid team make contact with the void in the worst way possible. 

Again, it's rather difficult to do justice to this novel without completely ruining the surprise. I will say, hubris notwithstanding, that I spotted the twist pretty quickly, but that doesn't take anything away from what is another taut, suspense-filled novel, with terror, horror and death a-plenty – the body count must be up there with Hot Shots! Part Deux. There are plenty of unanswered questions, and told from the point of view of Mira aboard the Lära, inevitably themes of sibling rivalry, separation and solitude abound, exploring the mind as much as the void. And the anomaly itself, impersonal, indifferent, entirely enigmatic and unknowable, is a terrifying and believable character in it's own right. Why is it here? What does it mean? Is it coming straight for us? Thought-provoking and very entertaining in a bleak, everyone-is-going-to-die* sort-of fashion, this is setting up what should be a very interesting third and fourth book in the tetralogy, and I shall be gently stalking Mr Smythe through social media for the foreseeable future.

* Or near as damn it.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Last Night On Earth by Kevin Maher

Jayz, what a gom wan etc.
Before I begin, very many thanks should go to Kevin Maher and the social media team at Little Brown for a) sending me a free copy of this novel for no better reason than I was serendipitous and knowledgeable, and b) doing so graciously despite me chasing them across the social mediaverse and demanding that necks be stepped upon because the first copy didn't make it to my house*. They were, as far as reader-friendly authors and publishers go, exemplars of patience and kindness.

So, on with the story, and I should warn readers now that there may be plot and device spoilers to follow. In an attempt to be fair, honest and open** I must say that, at first I didn't enjoy this novel. Tellingly, strikingly, it begins with the birth of Shauna and Jay's oxygen-starved baby Bonnie, and for a man eating a cheese and tomato sandwich (on home-made saffron-, turmeric- and paprika-infused wholemeal bread with just a hint of nutmeg, and loaded with habañero Tabasco sauce), who has seen the miracle and trauma of birth first-hand, it almost put me off my lunch. Almost. Further niggles niggled with the confusion of narrators, the chapters of early 'letters' from Jay to his Mammy, irksomely referred to as The Mammy of Jay in oblique reference to a later revelation of import, the somewhat tacked-on involvement of grossly negligent psychoanalyst Dr Ghert, and the personal (for me) issue with the seemingly grotesque overuse of colloquialism and repetition of Gaelic phrases and idiom. I learned in critical theory seminars that form and content are inexorably linked, so I was set-up to dislike strongly whatever flowed from what I deemed an inauspicious beginning. 

However***, there are many pros to balance these, frankly subjective cons. Whilst I never once guffawed, chuckled or tittered out loud, there were moments that made the corners of my mouth twitch upwards, others–notably pretty much any chapter where Jay is with his daughter–where I was genuinely moved by the honesty and empathetic depth of feeling, of love, for his child, and still others where the shock of everyday horror–miscarriages, abortions, madness, domestic violence, self-harm–served up verisimilitude by the bucket-load, making what could have been a daft, parochial, village-mouse-in-the-city tale of naivety feel solid, real, depressingly genuine and all the more impressive. Jay's bathetic life in London, filled early on with promise and a bright future in television, a new love, family and success, quickly degenerates, like the bright future afforded all by the vision of New Labour and the thrill of a new millennium, into indulgence, cocaine, narcissism, and stupidity, and through it all, keeping it feeling a little like an episode of Father Ted, is the vaguely threatening presence of the Irish Catholic Church, willing Jay to accept their proffered role as envoy of a millennial spiritual fulfilment to be found only by visiting and purchasing souvenirs of the Catholic shrine at Knock. Cue kicking the bishop up the arse.

This is a well-scripted, thoughtful and impactful novel, suggesting deep themes to explore and holding up for scrutiny the folly of man, of the collective hysteria of seeing signs in arbitrary numerical systems, and of the Nathan Barley-type media typical of the end of the millennium. It's also a deeply human novel, despite its attempts at bare-arsed humour and occasional overuse of stereotype, and moving in strange and uncomfortable ways. Having not read The Fields, I'm in not position to judge the progression of Maher as an author, but on this evidence, I suspect he's just starting on an impressive career. 


*I suspect the neighbours, of whom no more later, of accepting a mis-delivered parcel and keeping it for themselves, damned filthy beasts. That's the last time I tell the take-out delivery guy they're the door around the corner, especially when they pay up front with a card...

**Thank you but no, I'm not drunk, just ill.

***Gah! Feedback sandwich - will I never learn?

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The City And The City by China Miéville

A novel that's both here and there
I like an author who doesn't explain too much. I like monsters you don't see, mysteries that go unexplained, realities that exist without question and especially without answer. I also like detective fiction, particularly noir. And I have an incredibly soft spot for science fiction and fantasy. Step up, China Miéville. A British writer of scope and talent, winner of the 2010 Arthur C Clarke and Hugo Awards for this very novel, Miéville is a member of the 'New Weird', a writer that, although he loves to explore genres (indeed I have heard he wants to write a novel in every literary genre) is not easily pigeon-holed, unless of course you go and make up a label, just for him. So of course I was going to like him, when I got around to reading him. It was highly likely that my recent dabbling with Gene Wolfe opened the intertextual door to this novel, although I can't be sure. Nonetheless, I went and got me a digital copy as soon as I could after realising the kernel of the idea was stuck between my teeth, wilfully and unabashedly purchasing a copy of James Smythe's The Echo while I was at it*. 

In The City and The City we have Miéville's entirely successful stab at detective noir, set in a reality and landscape that is familiar but very, very different. Although recognisably modern day Earth, the action takes place in two cities which are, geographically, situated in the same place. However, they are dimensionally separate, I think, or else they are the same city but just perceived as separate. Both cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, exist at the same time in the same place, and citizens are trained to only see that which exists in their own city ('unseeing' that which belongs to the other) and to definitely not interact with those of the other, or else they are in breach, which carries significant penalties. Each city has zones where both interact (cross-hatched areas), areas which are total (i.e. all in one city) and alter (that which are in the other city in their entirety). Thankfully, this slowly becomes clear through the novel, with no real attempt to explain why or how this happens. Indeed, part of the narrative revolves around the archaeological exploration of their shared past, pre-cleavage. But there is also a third place - Breach, wherein reside Breach, the intra-dimensional police force which maintain order and an orderly separation between the two antagonistic city states. Into this internecine nightmare comes a murder most foul, a visiting student from America murdered and dumped over the border, and an investigation which will take one man from his home city of Besźel to Ul Qoma and eventually, into the breach. 

It's a complicated idea to represent in text form – although probably more difficult to render cinematically – but Miéville does so admirably, never allowing it to run amok or slip into the shadows. It's shamelessly entertaining too, with all the hallmarks of a sci-fi setting that could be revisited often; character, novelty, and more importantly, verisimilitude. And it works as a police procedural with a convincing plot and murder mystery, and characters that are fully fleshed-out and believable. Also interesting to note that Miéville's political bent peeks through the curtains, hinted at by the interactions with members of political factions in favour of or set against unification of the two cities, although it would be hard to say he exhibits any bias which is all the more impressive given his seriously left-leaning attitudes**.

In conclusion, what started out as curiosity has been sufficiently fed by this novel to have become a big fat desire to read much more of Miéville's work. If you've not reached out to the New Weird yet, this would be a great way to touch hands across the divide.

* Books are highly addictive and most, I find, are gateway books to more books.
** Miéville was a founding member of the left-wing Left Unity party, formed in 2013, who have all-of-a-sudden started following me on Twitter. Coincidence?

Big Reads circa 2007

Rooting about behind old electronic equipment I discovered a stash of cuttings clipped from The Western Mail between 2006 and 2007, back when I was Waterstones' representative and, hopefully (but not likely) authoritative reviewer, and still using my 'maiden' name. Gawd, the stuff I used to get away with! Still, daft as I was, grouping Richard Flanagan, Nicholson Baker and Winkie by Clifford Chase together, I can honestly say I was trying my damnedest to get people to read books that I sincerely enjoyed, for whatever the reason. And I have a year's worth of the buggers too. It's nice to know that at some point in your life, your opinion mattered... Obviously not enough to get paid for it. But such a beautiful young face.





  

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Book Of The New Sun Tetralogy by Gene Wolfe

Books one & two of the tetralogy...
...and three ampersand four.
You know those books, the ones that gnaw at you, when you browse in book shops and online, when you skim past them on the book case or in drop-down menu lists, they catch the corner of your eye, tugging at your hand, wolf-whistling from the shelves, and you know you should probably read them, but then you've got so many books on that pile already - those books? For me, Gene Wolfe has occupied this dusty corner of my literary life ever since my mother began bringing home the Piers Anthony Xanth books, the Discworld novels, Robin Hobb and David Eddings fantasy series, from the library in which she worked, when I was but a tender lad of years between ten and fifteen. I was always aware of him, and as a bookseller, knowing that his place as the principal author in the Fantasy Masterworks series afforded him a singular notoriety, I resolutely ignored him, thanks in part to an injurious recommendation by someone I was determined to never end up like. And frankly, having not worked in the bookselling trade for half a decade, I'd grown comfortable indulging my ignorance. That is, until I followed a link to an article from The New Yorker.

And once again I became aware that I'd done myself, and not least Gene Wolfe, a disservice. Who suffers when one maintains a stupid prejudice? One, that's who. But it is now finito, kaput, no more, for I have finished all four of the novels that make up the New Sun tetralogy.

A thousand pages or so of epic-ish* fantasy would be hard to distill into five hundred words, so all you're going to get is a run-down of salient-ish points. We have our narrator, the torturer (or rather, journeyman torturer) Severian, reporting his life and adventures from gate to gate (read from rags to riches, child to man, ignorance to enlightenment, life to death, all are apt), with the aid of a perfect recall, something which comes and goes throughout and which adds a hint of unreliability to the tale, augmenting what otherwise might have been a pretty eye-brow-raisingly ridiculous story even if we were to believe in Wolfe's vision of a far future Earth where the sun is dying and aliens wander the globe, where giant women patrol the seas and one can absorb not just the memories but also the personalities and experiences of dead people by eating their dead flesh (with the little help of some alien hormones or glandular excretions). We have a noble quest, with a repeating cast of friends, enemies and, in some cases, frenemies. We have sacred and powerful artefacts (or do we...? Read it yourself to find out) and a war that is possibly centuries old. And there's a forest on the moon. Severian as narrator is a little full of himself, repeatedly deprecating his intelligence with phrases like I am but a humble etc., and then laying out developed observational philosophies for us readers, and basically fucking any women he comes across, all the while telling us how what he calls his love waxes and wanes as his understanding of love changes page to page. He also takes pride in cheerfully chopping off the heads of people along the way with his gigantic sword, pleasingly named Terminus Est, for a bit of travelling money. It's hard to trust him, but I found it makes his prose all the more diverting, enabling a little more engagement than if I was just blindly accepting. In fact, something I didn't think would be the case, I found that Wolfe's own 'translator's notes' at the end of each individual novel supported this by adding to the doubt and confusion where Severian mentions measures, animals, weaponry etc. by explaining that his meaning is unclear and any clarifications are made within our own reference framework.

Okay, so am I sounding impressed? Because I am. I am very happy to have read these novels and happily recommend them to you, my beloved reader. What impressed me the most was the extent to which one of my own slightly annoying traits, that of finding myself thinking in the style of the author / novel which I might be reading currently was very pronounced, almost as if by the reading of Wolfe's words I was training my mind to anticipate the ebb and flow of his language, and I delighted in writing entries in my notebooks in a mimetic fashion. Of course, being fantasy one might level at it the argument that it's all a little juvenile, killing and sex aside (or even included), but it's also really entertaining. And what more can you want, really?

* I say epic-ish because the story takes place over the course of only a single year.