news & reviews

2Oct

Writers’ Networking Evening

As blogged by Alex, organiser of the fine Alt.Fiction convention, there’s a Writer’s Network Evening, at which I shall be spouting my opinions.

Sunday 14th October

A chance for local writers to get to know one another, as well as a local publishing panel featuring Mark Netwon (Solaris), Adrian Buckner (Poetry Nottingham), Sean Woodward (Dragonheart Press) and Alex Davis. You’ll also get to see Atonement for £2.50 at 8:30pm.

Metro Cinema, Derby
FREE, places limited
6pm-8pm
Booking—01332 340170

28Sep

Book Review—FALLING MAN, by Don DeLillo

A performance artist hangs in statuesque pose. Knee bent. Upside down. The pose of the famously pictured man on 9/11. And this artist is effectively frozen in time. Which is the metaphor at the heart of Don Delillo’s latest novel, Falling Man. That of a moment in time so frozen, so embedded in characters minds, that they are unable to move on. They, too, are frozen in a moment.

The subject of 9/11 is a risky business. Not because of the content, but the weight of the content. It is difficult to avoid the more tabloid angles. But DeLillo takes a sidestep of this. That is, after his much quoted opening:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.

The full weight of the events of 9/11 are there, of course, but secondary—as much as they can be—to the effects on the every day routines of our existence. Those routines that will never quite be the same. Keith is a survivor, a lawyer in his late thirties, having walked from one of the towers before the collapse. His relationship with his wife is reignited in some primitive level, a focus on the needs we don’t really understand. But Keith soon has an affair with a black woman who suffered in the destruction of that day, forms a kind of therapy with her in their intimacy, a way of coping with the events. They never connect in any other context than the discussion of that day.

So where are the Big Issues that DeLillo has usually tackled in his books? The grand conspiracies?

I think I understand DeLillo’s intentions from the passage during a writing class:

From this point on, you understand, it’s all about loss. We’re dealing inevitably here with diminishing returns. Their situation will grow increasingly delicate. These encounters need space around them. You don’t want them to feel there’s an urgency to write everything… The writing is sweet music up to a point. Then other things will take over.

He’s not after the obvious. Why do that when he’s done it before in his career, long before other people approached the subjects? He wants to focus on the effects. You get the idea he’s looking for that moment that we become human, in this almost inhumane (un-human?) situation we find ourselves in post-9/11.

And so the characters don’t really develop, they undevelop, peel back to some level before, searching for whatever it is to fix their lives since the destruction of the towers. Keith becomes heavily involved in poker games, for example, detached from the mechanisms of reality. His wife has flirtations with art and church. All the time his son looks towards the sky for more planes. This isn’t quite normal DeLillo territory. Gone are the almost claustrophobic paranoias that featured in his earlier works. There is a search for openness, perhaps honesty in things. But people seem unable to move on. They see the representation of the Twin Towers everywhere.

There is some questioning to be found, of the motives behind the suicide bombers, but this feels detached form the other sections. I wonder if it is there as a framework, or perhaps even to remind ourselves that the bomber had a human side too, once?

A more wonderful analysis can be found on the New York Times. But I applaud DeLillo for not doing the obvious thing, for not looking for headlines, and maybe this will surprise some.

Oh yeah, his prose is on sparkling form too. When DeLillo steps into third-person, he really riffs like a god.

25Sep

A Thing I’d Do If I Had Too Much Money, No.1

Buy an Ent leaf.

Tolkien fans everywhere will soon be able to buy into a legend by subscribing to the public appeal to finance a sculpture celebrating the internationally acclaimed author and his Birmingham roots. From October 1st, courtesy of eBay, fans can bid for a metal leaf with a personalised dedication and associate themselves with this most famous of writers.

A mere snip at £500. No matter how much I like Tolkien, I think this is a bit too extravagant. Now if it was a real Ent, we could be talking business.

While I was on UKSF Book News, I see the British Fantasy Awards were announced. Nice to see a) a Pendragon novella winning b) Mark Chadbourn winning—a fine writer.

19Sep

Book Review—THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE by Jonathan Lethem

This is an interesting one. The Fortress of Solitude is a book that’s difficult to catagorise. With brief genre moments, and certainly many nods towards SF / comic book fandom, it describes the lives of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. One white, one black, both growing up in Brooklyn. Not a simple friendship.

The first and largest chunk of the novel is in third person, following mainly Dylan’s family as they move into the area of New York populated mainly by blacks, a decision spurred on by his Bohemian mother. It is here that Jonathan Lethem gets in full prose swing, clearly echoing Don DeLillo, in mood, pace, sentence structure. And for me that’s not a bad thing at all, considering Mr DeLillo a deity. I still think so little is ever discussed of style, it’s worth making a point here how talented a stylist Lethem is.

Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong… The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else.

One such sentence used to describe the poor quality education that Dylan must go through, and ultimately rise out of. Lethem’s voice is perfect to capture 70s America, with all the music, the language of the street, the graffiti, then the drugs. Lethem shows with warmness the racial tensions of the period, the yoking, the “yo, mama“, the social challenges of the area. When he bursts into those stream-of-consciousness style sentences, he’s poetic. Never quite riffing like DeLillo does, but still up there.

Dylan being one of the only white boys in the area suffers, inevitably, but not without making friends along the way. His relationship with Mingus is distantly affectionate, and Dylan does his best to blend in with black culture. But his geek side is too strong for him to remain bound by Brooklyn. Of course, a magic ring is thrown into the mix, granting invisibility, something Dylan appears to have craved, and the powers of flight. This ring came from someone who was on the way out of society, who seemed relieved to be rid of it.

The story breaks into first person, as we join Dylan after college, then looking back on college, before revisiting Brooklyn. You can’t help but by this point be totally immersed in his upbringing, so engaged, that this section stands up on the supporting frame of the third person narrative. They wouldn’t work without each other. Dylan is now suffering from an uncertain relationship with his past, almost unable to move on fully, Brooklyn never leaving him. Lethem writes with such an obvious love for the area. And all the time in the background is Dylan’s father, the painter of SF novel covers whilst working on a film, painstakingly, over the course of his life, never quite being finished. A relationship that is distant in the first section, ever more powerful towards the end of the novel. And of course there is the ring, revisited.

It is complex in places, hazy in others—but never meant to be clear. Only towards the end can we understand where he was going, and even then it is more a feeling, something within ourselves, our own childhood and future concerns, perhaps, that is brought to mind.

For lovers of style, sharp dialogue, and cultural investigation, this cannot be recommended enough.

26Aug

Good Things I Have Read This Week

Two books—one fiction, one poetry collection.

The first is David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy Four, the first book in the Red Riding Quartet. Set in 1974, young crime correspondent, Edward Dunford, The Yorkshire Post, is on the story of the murder of a young girl. The murder is particularly brutal, with, amongst other things being done to her, swan’s wings were stitched onto the body. Edward gets caught up in a hideously dark plot, covering police brutality, corruption, blackmail—and those are the easy going subjects. He gets the kicking of a lifetime more than once. It’s a fast moving novel, with Peace’s staccato sentences, and an evocative and ultra-minimal style. It is truly violent, claustrophobic, with dazzling images and sharp northern dialogue. The atmosphere of a bleak Seventies winter is captured perfectly. Not often I say not for those of a weak disposition, but Richard and Judy Book Club this ain’t. And that’s a great thing. Read more about David Peace on this Guardian blog.

The second book is The Rush To Here by George Murray.

This is a fantastic collection from a cutting-edge Canadian poet. Based on the traditional sonnet structure, Murray uses a “thought rhyme” instead of the usual form. It immediately transforms the sonnet into a more three-dimensional piece, so you’re looking at it from several angles. There’s an urgent feel to his words; a directness, a covering of a vast array of themes but with a sharp contemporary edge. More than worth taking a look at.

5Aug

Book review – THE GIRL IN THE GLASS, by Jeffrey Ford

Another one taken from the Solaris blog, but I loved this book so much I had to put it up here too.

The Girl In The Glass, by Jeffrey Ford.

Being in publishing, you read all day, and so reading for pleasure becomes a little difficult—you always feel you’re reading to learn more about the industry, or sometimes just can’t read any more. I can’t say how wonderful it was to relax with a book written by an author in full control—so I just kicked back, in safe hands.

The Girl In The Glass is set in the Long Island area of America during the Depression. It is a time where spiritualism is seducing what wealthy people remain. You get an idea of some people refusing to look inwardly in times of desparation—people with more money than sense. Wealth is a powerful thing, and this becomes more apparent later on in the book.

The tale concerns a band of spiritual mediums (in reality, con artists), led by the gentleman’s gentleman, Thomas Schell. He’s the best there is. We follow the narrative of his assistant, a seventeen year-old Mexican immigrant, Diego—who poses as Ondoo, an Indian mystic. I won’t bog you down with plot detail—there are many good reviews via the medium of Google—but essentially we follow a truly unusual cast, and see their involvement in a murder mystery. It’s all because of a seemingly real ghostly vision: the girl in the glass. It becomes the most surprisingly gripping narrative I’ve read all year.

Seemingly simple, filled with historical information (but not, as some authors may do, vomited forth to bury the reader in useless detail just because they researched it), it is a delight to read. It is rich in symbolism, full of charming characters, and took off in a direction I couldn’t see coming at all.

The prose is elegant, clipped, fast; the narrative pace is as perfect as you’ll get. The Girl In the Glass touches on the fringe of fantasy; but I’m not sure where, as a bookseller, you’d put this on the shelf. Is it crime or fantasy? Sometimes I’m not sure if the fantasy elements are more subtle than you think.

So just take it off the shelf and read it instead. And you may as well find out where the rest of Jeffrey Ford’s books are. You’ll want them, too.

2Aug

Novel Sale to Pendragon Press

First press release:

Debut Novel Sale to Pendragon

John Jarrold has sold limited-edition rights in THE REEF, the debut novel by Mark Charan Newton, to Chris Teague at Welsh publisher Pendragon Press.

The novel, a fantastical story set mostly among the islands of an imagined world, has echoes of both Joseph Conrad and China Miéville, but is very much Mark’s own invention. Mark’s writing has already received this accolade from critically-acclaimed author Jeff VanderMeer: ‘Mark Newton is a promising new writer whose prose is dynamic and whose imagination is often startling.’

‘Mark was one of the first authors I took on after setting up the agency in 2004,’ said John Jarrold. ‘I’m really delighted to have done this deal, and I have no doubt his reputation will grow very quickly, within and without the genre.’

Contact John Jarrold for further information by e-mail at j.jarrold[at]btinternet[dot]com or by phone at 01424 440652.

2Aug

Book review – BLOOD RIVER by Tim Butcher

Taken from my work blog. I thought I’d fill the page with some book reviews until I think of how to use it properly.

The real world can be filled with as much wonder as any fantasy creation—you just have to know where to look. In Tim Butcher’s Blood River, we are taken to somewhere you think can’t exist, shouldn’t exist. But it does, and it is shocking.

Journalist Tim Butcher trails the great explorer Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”) on one of his legendary trails that stretched across the mighty Congo river on a 2,500 mile journey into the heart of darkness. Butcher relates his journey to Stanley’s, providing us with a fascinating history to the region from 1870 to the present day. You normally think that civilization progresses forward over time, but Butcher reveals a very sad state of affairs in the current Democratic Republic of Congo. The region has gone backwards, to a standard of living pre-1950s for Central Africa. Having been plundered by the Belgians in colonial days, suffering from the worst of effects the slave trade, the region has never really known much stability and peace. There were ‘glory days’, of thriving jungle cities, supported by an active mineral industry. Today, the region is practically impenetrable to outsiders (Butcher is the first foreigner for decades to travel some of these regions). War is daily life. The shocks we see in our newspapers happen so often that locals appear indifferent. There is no stability. Thousands die every week—every week!—from war and disease. Rebels from neighbouring countries and tribes raid helpless villages, burning them to the ground, raping and plundering where they go. Law does not exist. You can see the decay of history, abandoned ferryboats that once carried film stars in the 1950s, fallen buildings and hotels. This heartbreaking travel book tells of a country that has known only war and corruption, death and decay. Why so? Diamonds. Gold. An era of a corrupt dictatorship.

In this type of non-fiction you normally see the author’s relation to the landscape come to front of stage, and Butcher has an understanding and compassion, and also a wonderful self-consciousness. From his meetings with a campaigning pygmy to UN aid workers (in the regions they dare to travel) it is a brave story.
A humbling story, and from one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. A rare report indeed.

The story of the Congo is frustrating and deeply saddening, and this book is highly recommended.