Saturday, 1 September 2012

Review - The Yips, Nicola Barker

I approached The Yips by Nicola Barker with a certain amount of caution. It is a large book (almost 550 pages) from an author with a reputation for experimental writing and from its title seemed to be set around the game of Golf, or to be more precise on a Golfer.  When I finished it, I felt significantly more positive – it was an entertaining read which seemed shorter than its page length, always a good sign.  It has now been long listed for this year’s Booker prize and seems to be one of the favourites to progress onto the shortlist.  Hopefully, this will help to draw it to the attention of a wider readership.

"The Yips" refers to the disabling twitch which some golfers develop when attempting short putts, usually a sign of anxiety or psychological stress. In order to deal with this they will frequently switch from a standard putter to a long “belly putter” in an effort to compensate. The central character of this novel, Stuart Ransom, has such an affliction, although it is one of the least of his many problems.  He has a colourful (and unrealistic) back story, but has become a flamboyant and successful professional golfer, greatly loved by the tabloid press and forever embroiled in one scandal or another. As we meet him, his golfing career seems to be on downward trajectory to disaster.  The development of The Yips is symptomatic of this, but in the context of the novel provides a metaphor for the many other flaws possessed by him and by almost all of the other characters with whom he interacts.

Among these are a man who has had cancer seven times, his wife (a priest given to outbursts of bizarre and erratic behaviour) and the family of a notorious local fascist. On a previous visit to the town, Ransom managed to hit the fascist’s wife on the head with a stray golf ball, leading to an ongoing public feud with her son.  Meanwhile, her daughter has become an agoraphobic recluse, making a living as a hyperrealist tattooist of pubic hair for mainly far Eastern clients.  Mixed in with these eccentrics is an ever-present barmaid with multiple personas, a freethinking Islamic sex therapist and his family and Ransom’s long-suffering entourage.  It is a heady mix which works more successfully than you might expect from my descriptions.

Towards the end of the novel there is a section where two of the characters discuss what life is like.  Mainly consisting of stuff they conclude. All sorts of stuff, piled up fairly randomly and sometimes threatening to fall over, at which point everyone starts to build it up again. To an extent, this sums up Barker’s writing style and in particular the plot development in this novel. But it works - it made me laugh in places and provoked a few ideas and thoughts worth pursuing.  It represents an easier introduction to her work than her previous Booker prize listed novel (Darkmans).  Recommended.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Review - Dark Lies the Island, Kevin Barry

Short stories have a strong place in Irish writing, and many Irish authors of literary fiction have turned their hand to the genre.  Kevin Barry is a very fine addition to the list.  Dark Lies the Island is his second volume in this format and maintains a superb standard throughout, ranging from the touching, romantic and poignant through the humourous to the threatening.  There are hints of an older more traditional Ireland, but the overall tone is very much one of an Ireland overtaken by new values, promulgated by a range of dystopian subcultures. And even where rural Ireland is portrayed, it is a sinister, off-kilter rural Ireland rather than the bucolic ideal of the past.

Barry writes beautifully, and has the knack of being able to portray the essence of a character in a few short sentences or paragraphs.  It is in the nature of the short story that we have to grasp the characters quickly and this is where Dark Lies the Island is particularly successful.  Some of these characters and their experiences will live in my memory even if their names quickly fade  I read this book quickly, but I find that I want to go back immediately to read some of these stories again, to re-experience the emotions which they have stirred.

There are thirteen stories in total, ranging from six pages to just over twenty.  Most are set in Ireland, though a minority deal with the Irish abroad - a Real Ale Club from Liverpool takes a day trip to Llandudno, a young Irish writer spends a summer on the margins of Berlin Society and an IRA cell plan a bombing in Camden. 

Dark lies the Island opens on a wistful note with Across the Rooftops – the story of a kiss which may or may not happen, but in the end doesn’t go quite as planned.  Wifey Redux relates the narrative of a blissful marriage which has gradually deteriorated and the difficulty of a father coming to terms with the sexuality of his daughter – the tone is one of dark humour. Other stories deal with the darker side of human relationships – A Cruelty follows a day in the life of a young man with Autism Spectrum Disorder, while Ernestine and Kit are two elderly ladies with some very bad intentions.

Most of the characters here are inadequate in one way or another.  Barry writes about them with a degree of compassion while not shying away from highlighting their weaknesses and failures.
Overall, I loved this collection for its range and scope.  There is not a bad story here and more than a few great ones which will live long in the memory.  It deserves to be widely read.  Barry is a very talented writer with a very will received novel (City of Bohane) and two excellent collections of short stories who may well become a major figure in Irish Fiction in the years to come.  From the perspective of a collector, it would be worth picking up all of his books now and following him in the future.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Book of the Week - Will Self, Umbrella

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks, so there may be a few posts over the next week or so as I catch up with my blog.  First up is Will Self’s Booker longlisted novel, Umbrella.  I haven’t had a chance to read this and I suspect it will be very much an outsider for the prize, but Self is always an interesting writer if an uncompromising one.  I have had the pleasure of meeting him on more than one occasion, and once won a signed book which he offered as a prize (a story for another day).  He likes to parade his extensive vocabulary and loves walking and cycling (on his Brompton fold up bike).  Indeed, I recall him describing how he rode on one Brompton while carrying a second in a bag over his shoulder, something which he described as “bike on bike action”. 

Umbrella has a medical theme – encepahalitis letharigica and the use of L-dopa , and medical matters are something in which Self is interested (and the reason I won the book from him). For years he injected heroin and also took cocaine and amphetamines. He went to Oxford to read PPE, graduating with a third after spending much of his spare time "hanging out" with schizophrenic outpatients from a local hospital. There was a brief period of cold turkey in the 1980s but he continued to use until a spectacular fall from grace in 1997 when he was found snorting heroin on John Major's jet while covering the election campaign for the Guardian.  He now suffers from polycythaemia rubra vera, an uncommon and potentially serious blood disorder. 

 Like many of his books, Umbrella is unlikely to be an easy read.  Let me quote from the Guardian review – “400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness dotted across three time frames, leaping jaggedly between four points of view, and with barely a paragraph break, let alone a chapter heading.”  You have been warned.  The cover also looks very unattractive.

"Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community - the so-called Concept House in Willesden - maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades.

A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life - with wholly unforeseen consequences.

Is Audrey's diseased brain in its nightmarish compulsion a microcosm of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century? And if Audrey is ill at all - perhaps her illness is only modernity itself? And what of Audrey's two brothers, Stanley and Albert: at the time she fell ill, Stanley was missing presumed dead on the Western Front, while Albert was in charge of the Arsenal itself, a coming man in the Imperial Civil Service. Now, fifty years later, when Audrey awakes from her pathological swoon, which of the two is it who remains alive?

Radical in its conception, uncompromising in its style, Umbrella is Will Self's most extravagant and imaginative exercise in speculative fiction to date."

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Book of the Week - Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident

The Teleportation Accident is Ned Beauman’s second novel and has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In a year when the judges made a point of focussing on a new generation of authors, Beauman seems very much part of that trend.   He is 27 years old and lives in London. He studied philosophy at Cambridge University and is the son of Nicola Beauman, who runs Persephone Books.  

Beauman has a quirky website and an interesting blog.  His  debut novel Boxer, Beetle featured a character with the uncommon and unfortunate metabolic disorder trimethylaminuria, and therefore attracted my professional attention.  It won the UK Writers' Guild Award and the Goldberg Prize for Outstanding Debut Fiction and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize.  When I recommended it back in 2010 it was available at cover price, but now seems to have largely disappeared with the only copy online at £70.   

Both Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident are comic novels, somewhat chaotic, based on real historical events and characters.  Boxer, Beetle was a very good read and I am looking forward to Teleportation – well worth picking up a signed copy now. It has a very attractive cover too!

"HISTORY HAPPENED WHILE YOU WERE HUNGOVER. When you haven't had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. If you're living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn't. But that's no consolation to Egon Loeser, whose carnal misfortunes will push him from the experimental theatres of Berlin to the absinthe bars of Paris to the physics laboratories of Los Angeles, trying all the while to solve two mysteries: whether it was really a deal with Satan that claimed the life of his hero, the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini; and why a handsome, clever, charming, modest guy like him can't, just once in a while, get himself laid.From the author of the acclaimed Boxer, Beetle comes a historical novel that doesn't know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can't remember what 'isotope' means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it. LET'S HOPE THE PARTY WAS WORTH IT."

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Man Booker Prize Longlist 2012

The longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize has been announced.  Not a particularly good year for me.  Three of the twelve have yet to be published, and one just appeared this week (The Teleportation Accident by Ned Bauman, whose debut novel Boxer Beetle I recommended previously).  Of the remaining eight, I have featured three but missed five.  I will now be trying to catch up on the others before the shortlisting!  Four first time novels feature on the list (Joyce, Moore, Thayil and Thompson).

Brief initial details of the books are given below and I will update if necessary.

The Yips - Nicola Barker – Fourth Estate  Hardcover

The Teleportation Accident - Ned Beauman, Sceptre Hardcover  just released this week

Philida - Andre Brink  - Harvill Secker, presumed Hardcover, Available on September 6

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng  - Myrmidon Hardcover

Skios - Michael Frayn – Faber Hardcover

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce – Doubleday Hardcover,with limited edition of 500 copies in slipcase

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy – And Other Stories, Paperback only

Bring Up The Bodies - Hilary Mantel – Fourth Estate Hardcover, plus alimited edition of 2000 copies in slipcase

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore – Salt Modern Fiction, paperback only, available 15 August

Umbrella - Will Self – Bloomsbury Hardcover, available 30 August

Narcopolis - Jeet Thayil – Faber and Faber paperback

Communion Town - Sam Thompson – Fourth Estate Hardcover

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Book of the Week - Nicola Barker, The Yips

Nicola Barker is an author who tends to push the boundaries so far as traditional plot and structure are concerned. She writes big books brimming with ideas and intelligent humour, but frequently leaving loose ends and unclear plot elements in her wake. The Yips is in some respects typical of her work - it is a large book full of unrealistic chaos, but with engaging ideas, very funny stories and set pieces, and larger than life characters who you might well hate to meet in real life but who work in the context of this novel.

Don’t expect realism or neat endings; do expect to be challenged while being entertained. This book will not be for everyone, but approach it with an open mind and you may well be entranced. Reviews have reflected the strong opinions which Barker tends to induce – some think it is a near masterpiece and others a mess. It does contain some golf content and is set in Luton, but don't allow that to put you off. The Telegraph describes it as “ A bizarre, bad-taste story of unhappy families”. I'm quite enjoying it, but will withhold final judgement until I have completed it.  Signed copies are available now.

" 2006 is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Tiger Woods' reputation is entirely untarnished and the English Defence League does not exist yet. Storm-clouds of a different kind are gathering above the bar of Luton's less than exclusive Thistle Hotel. Among those caught up in the unfolding drama are a man who's had cancer seven times, a woman priest with an unruly fringe, the troubled family of a notorious local fascist, an interfering barmaid with three E's at A-level but a PhD in bullshit, a free-thinking Muslim sex therapist and his considerably more pious wife. But at the heart of every intrigue and the bottom of every mystery is the repugnantly charismatic Stuart Ransom – a golfer in free-fall."

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Book of the Week - Nikita Lalwani, The Village

The Village is Nikita Lalwani’s second novel. I enjoyed her previous book, Gifted, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007 and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. She also won the Desmond Elliot Prize which to her considerable credit she donated to human rights organisation Liberty. Gifted can still be picked up for close to the original price, and I think is well worth holding on to. The Village has received generally strong reviews and she is definitely an author to watch.  Signed copies are available now if you look round.

“Ray, a young British-Asian woman arrives in the afternoon heat of a small village in India. She has come to live there for several months to make a documentary about the place. For this is no ordinary Indian village - the women collecting water at the well, the men chopping wood in the early morning light have all been found guilty of murder. The village is an open prison. Ray is accompanied by two British colleagues and, as the days pass, they begin to get closer to the lives of the inhabitants of the village. And then it feels too close. As the British visitors become desperate for a story, the distinction between innocence and guilt, between good intentions and horrifying results becomes horribly blurred. Set in a village modelled on a real-life open prison in India, The Village is a gripping story about manipulation and personal morality, about how truly frail our moral judgement can be. Nikita Lalwani has written a dazzling, heartfelt and disturbing novel which delivers on all the promise of her first.”