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.”

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review - Madeleine Miller, The Song of Achilles

Almost all readers have some vague knowledge of the Greek myths.  At one time they would have been a core component of a rounded education, but that era for most people has now gone and for many their awareness will come mainly from films or increasingly from video games.  The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller is a novel which retells part of the Iliad, from the perspective of Patroclus, companion of Achilles.  The Iliad, of course, is a complex story, and many readers are put off by the multitude of characters.  Miller succeeds here by focussing on a narrow (but vital) part of the story, and developing a limited number of characters who take central stage in a way that makes the events very approachable.

The Greek Myths exist in many variants, and one of the challenges facing any modern author is what perspective to take and what variant to follow.  The plot is laid out already, and may be known to some readers, so for a novel to be successful it has to bring freshness to the story telling and to make the characters live again in a new way.  The Song of Achilles works in this regard – while I knew the story in outline, and was aware of what would happen to the main characters, Miller brought it alive and made me empathize with them.

The Song of Achilles follows Patroclus from his early life, through his exile and the start of his friendship with Achilles while they were children.  Through the eyes of Patroclus we see the main events of their lives leading up to the Siege of Troy and their respective deaths.  The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has been portrayed in different ways in different versions of the story, most commonly as a close male friendship (a bromance in contemporary terminology), but in this telling the relationship is unashamedly a sexual one.  Therefore, at one level, The Song of Achilles is simply a love story, and a moving one.

Of course, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is rather more complex than that, and there are other important players in the story.  Thetis, the sea nymph mother of Achilles, is a vital and continuing presence, albeit a mysterious and other worldly one.  But other characters, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Briseis, Chiron, spring to life in a way which makes their actions and motivations seem real and vital.  Some of the set pieces – the scene where the Greek Kings bid for the hand of Helen,  the speech of Achilles when plague has broken out in the Greek camp, the final battle scene leading up to the death of Patroclus – have a real tension, even when the reader knows the outcome in advance.

The Song of Achilles won this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction.  It was a deserving winner – a very engrossing work of literary fiction which is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Review - Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Elanor Dymott

Every Contact Leaves a Trace is Elanor Dymott’s first novel, and is best described as a literary whodoneit. The setting is the University of Oxford. The main characters are students or academic staff, or closely associated with the University. The story is narrated by Richard, now a lawyer in early middle age. At the start of the novel he meets, apparently by accident, Rachel, with whom he has been at University. We know very quickly that the two have a shared past, but the details of their previous relationship are only revealed slowly during the course of the novel.

Very rapidly, Richard and Rachel marry and settle down into what appears to be idyllic married life. Before long has passed, they pay a visit to Oxford to visit an ex-tutor, Harry. After dinner Rachel goes for a walk in the College Garden and is violently killed. The core of the novel is the gradual unravelling by Richard of what may have happened to his wife, and the reasons behind it. Every Contact Leaves a Trace has a small cast of characters. Apart from Richard, Rachel and Harry, only three others play a major role. Anthony and Cassie were the other members of Rachel’s tutorial group at College, and Evie was her stepmother. There are a number of others who play minor roles, but it is this central group of six who provide the key to what has happened.

There seem to be two key themes at play. Firstly, and introduced in the very first paragraph, is the idea of how little we know about other people, even those closest to us. “If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife”, says Richard, “I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her.” But it is not just Rachel about whom Richard knows little; the same can be said about many of the other characters. And when they speak about themselves, it is generally to reveal only partial truths or sometimes lies. Even Richard only slowly and partially reveals his deepest truths to others, and to the reader. Linked to this is the idea of the unreliability of memory. Frequently during the novel, Richard recalls previous events or fragments of them which increase his understanding of what is happening in the present. Often such recall is triggered by some chance present event, like the taste of the Madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past or the sound of Norwegian Wood in Haruki Murakami’s novel of the same name.

Secondly, is the idea that we need to create a narrative to allow us to make sense of disparate facts, and that until we settle on a narrative we are likely to be uncomfortable with ourselves and others. In Every Contact, some characters weave their narrative to fit the facts (Richard, an analytical lawyer), while others mould the facts to fit their preferred narrative (Harry). Even at the end we are not quite sure if the truth has been revealed.

Overall, I enjoyed Every Contact, but felt that the gradual reveal was overdone. Atmosphere and tension were built reasonably well, but the grief of Richard was overdone, and his gradual recall of key events from his past became a little repetitive. Once, maybe, but several times was too much. The novel could have lost one quarter of its length with some firm editing without losing its impact, and it would probably have gained strength from the process. However, overall a worthwhile read and an author to watch in the future.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Review - Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days

The Last Hundred Days is set in Bucharest just before and during the fall of the Communist regime led by Nicolai Ceausescu. I read it during a recent trip to Romania, as one of the few books I was aware of with a Romanian setting (apart from various vampire novels!). It is the first novel of Patrick McGuinness, poet and Professor of Literature at Oxford University, who lived in Romania in the years leading up to the revolution. A reader can, therefore, assume that the general tone of the novel and its portrayal of the atmosphere in Bucharest at that time is likely to be accurate. One of the problems this creates, however, is  uncertainty about how accurately historical events are portrayed, which characters or real or which are not. This is, after all, a work of fiction, but one that is now likely to provide most of my knowledge about an important series of events in European history.

The narrator and chief protagonist is a young Englishman who has just been appointed to a position in the English Department of a Bucharest University. His appointment appears almost an accident, as he did not have the basic qualifications required and failed to turn up for interview. Almost his first test in his new position is to sign a reference written by someone else for a girl he does not know to visit the UK, and after a few qualms of conscience he acquiesces. This introduction sets the scene for much of what will follow – Romania is portrayed as run by a ruling elite who arbitrarily promote or demote their underlings, a country where merit is likely to be a disadvantage and where the key characteristic required for success is likely to be complete obedience to the whims of the people in charge. The vast majority of the population live in fear and poverty, struggling for the basic necessities required for survival while old Bucharest is destroyed around them and replaced by a shoddy alternative. Nonetheless, the people maintain a bitter sense of humour and a vague hope that better days might be to come.

The narrator quickly falls under the spell of a colleague, Leo O’Heix, a man possibly less interested in lecturing even that him.  Leo who has fallen in love with Bucharest and is running a complex black market in all sorts of luxury goods for the elite. Gradually the narrator becomes involved in Leo’s activities, mixing with both the elite and those struggling on the margins of society, whether in promoting the rumoured revolution or trying simply to survive, and realises that there are very few people he can trust.

Some aspects of The Last Hundred Days are reminiscent of Kafka (The Castle or The Trial), other parts of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Dictator. It is well written ad convincing, and having read it I was left with a sense of understanding this period in Romanian history much better. The characters are convincing, even if some of the events seem a little forced at times. Took a little while to get going, but overall a worthwhile read, though not outstanding.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Book of the Week - John Banville, Ancient Light

I have been travelling a lot over the last few weeks, so my time for the blog has been limited.  I hope to catch up this week since I have a few days off.  John Banville is one of my favourite writers, and his new novel Ancient Light looks well worth picking up.  It is the third book in a lose trilogy featuring Alexander Cleave, who was also in the earlier novels Eclipse and Shroud.  Here Cleave is looking back to a disastrous affair with his best friend's mother 50 years earlier.  Ancient Light can be read as a stand alone novel.  There is a special edition signed by Banville on a separate tipped in leaf, and this would be the one to pick up.

"'Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.' Alexander Cleave, an actor who thinks his best days are behind him, remembers his first unlikely affair as a teenage boy in a small town in 1950s Ireland: the illicit meetings in a rundown cottage outside town; assignations in the back of his lover's car on sunny mornings and rain-soaked afternoons. And with these early memories comes something sharper and much darker - the more recent recollection of the actor's own daughter's suicide ten years before.
Ancient Light is the story of a life rendered brilliantly vivid: the obsession and selfishness of young love and the terrifying shock of grief. It is a dazzling novel, funny, utterly pleasurable and devastatingly moving in the same moment."