A Brief History of Seven Novels
I know that as a writer I’m supposed to be a constant cheerleader for books and literacy and libraries, but there’s a part of me that always kicks against that sort of thing. I’m always quite self-conscious that there’s a great degree of self interest in these things, the pinch of salt that should be taken when someone advocates for the industry they work in. Of course we want you to buy and borrow our books, and those of our friends, who may notice the attention and reflect it back our way.
That might be a bit cynical. But that’s the other thing – the more time I spend writing and working with words, the more anything connected to them begins to feel like part of the work-grind. It can be hard to capture an upbeat readerly enthusiasm after staring blankly at a word processor all day.
Which isn’t terribly healthy unless you want to slide into a Marenghi-esque state of writing more books than you read, so I’ve been trying to find time to get away from screens and read more, including taking a month off to do some reading after my last big deadline.
These are the last seven books I read. You can probably guess the last one:
Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky
Post-apocalyptic Russian SF, apparently originally written online by a young author. There’s a certain looseness indicative of the book’s origins as a rambling web-screed, oddities and dead ends in the plot, but for the most part, either through sheer talent or the work of editors and translators to bash the original text into shape, the end product really feels like a coherent novel. It’s the kind of world-building I’m a sucker for, a densely imagined world of warring factions in the tunnels beneath a devastated Moscow, and the weird mystical and philosophical elements push the book outside of the genre comfort zone of resource banditry and radiation counters.
Years ago when I reviewed the game of the same name, I said I’d probably prefer to read the book, so never let it be said that I don’t occasionally follow through on my intentions. I also picked up the sequel, Metro 2034, recently, which is an indication of how much I enjoyed this initial outing.
Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Remember Mortdecai, the Jonny Depp movie that was last year’s first big Box Office disaster, and was promptly dumped on Netflix by the autumn? Well, it’s existence prompted me to pick up the first novel the film was based on, just out of sheer perverse fascination, and it’s actually a very entertaining read, with caveats.
(I actually liked the film too, but that’s another story.)
Charlie Mortdecai and Jock are essentially a corrupted Bertie Wooster and Jeeves bouncing from disaster to disaster in a world of thuggish cops and elaborate art world cons, and how you react to their exploits depends very much on how you react to the louche, seedy tone of Charlie’s narration. Bonfiglioli is clearly riffing on Wodehouse, and there’s a similar humour but also callousness, crudity, brutality and plenty to offend. They’re a product of their age, and while that means some of the words and sentiments within can be distasteful, it also means the book is blissfully short and well-paced, a welcome alternative to bloated modern thrillers. Nasty fun, and yet again another series where I’ve picked up the next instalment.
Tomorrow Never Knows by Eddie Robson
Eddie’s a good friend of mine and sent me a copy of his first novel, so don’t consider this a review because I’m completely biased. Suffice to say this is exactly in my wheelhouse, SF that’s strong on character and worldbuilding that builds everyday lives and environments rather than focusing on the military or other crusading outliers. There’s more than a touch of Douglas Coupland in the way Eddie’s mostly young, disaffected characters intersect and go about their business, and a similar lightness of touch to the prose. Tomorrow Never Knows is an easy read but an intelligent one, and as the plotlines come together towards the end it develops a real page-turning momentum.
But don’t trust me on that.
Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Speaking of lightness, Banana Yoshimoto writes about heavy emotions with a lightness that I always enjoy and appreciate. Her stories are often about grief or loneliness but are never depressing, instead gracefully moving from one perfectly made observation to the next. As with the other books of Yoshimoto’s I’ve read, the plot here is a whole lot of domestic nothing, a young woman reaching towards adulthood, moving away from the seaside town in which she was raised then going back for one last summer. There’s a sick relative, some economic uncertainty, arrivals and departures. What matters here is the lead protagonist’s thoughtful inner life and observations on her family and friends, and the pleasant melancholy of time passing and being aware of it. Don’t worry about finding this novel in particular, just look for Yoshimoto’s work and pick up the first one you see. They’re all very good.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Now a TV series on SyFy, though it hasn’t turned up in the UK yet. In terms of high concept pitches, this is basically Harry Potter in the style of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ with a big dose of Narnia and a dash of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. Focus in on those first two and there’s a high concept to die for, a school for magicians in upstate New York inhabited by the kind of laidback aesthetes that made Tartt’s campus thriller such an infuriatingly compulsive read, although Grossman’s characters are nowhere near as vile or snobbish – there’s no central crime here, and outsider Quentin Coldwater is welcomed into the magical academic community without any need for pretending he’s higher born than he is. Threats come from within and without, and Grossman is strong on both the logic of the magical world, and the more epic and whimsical fantasy that kicks off later on in the book. Really entertaining stuff and I can see why it got picked up for TV. Someone tell me when it’s on.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Another TV related pick. I’ve only seen the pilot of the Amazon series, but I wanted to read the novel before embarking on the rest. I’ve never read Dick, only knowing him from the films of his work and his reputation. While this 1963 novel has some moments of disorienting trippiness as characters lose their grip – the kind of stuff I expected from the movies of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ etc – it wasn’t really these head-messing moments that impressed me so much as the detailed social interactions and internal responses of characters living in a world where, thanks to the Axis powers winning the second world war, racism in its various forms is the global, respectable norm and informs everything, corrupting every thought. It’s a brilliantly envisioned world, and one which has one of the best examples of Chekhov’s Gun I’ve read.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Finally, last year’s Booker winner, and a birthday present that I tore through in a month, its 700 pages passing by swiftly. The most serious and heaviest – in all senses – of the books I’ve listed here, James’ novel covers twenty five years of Jamaican crime at home and, later, abroad. Most of the characters are heavily fictionalised which allows James’ imagination to cut loose in their voices, with chapters of dense inner monologue and flowing dialogue from a large cast of characters. These voices are strong and diverse, and the differences between them and their changes over time are indicated by complex and subtle uses of slang and grammar.
Quotes on the cover compare the book to Tarantino but the 90s cult figure James reminded me more was Irvine Welsh – there’s a similar willingness to dive into the confused mindsets and precise diction of troubled, often addled characters, and James digs deep where Tarantino would show off. The exploration of poverty and crime reminded me of ‘City of God’, that sense of lightly skipping back and forth through history, the combination of wit and horror, with characters who can dole out both. Where James rises above all these comparisons is that, while he sympathises for all his characters, he doesn’t mythologise their crimes and vices above all else. Ultimately it’s the consequences and trauma caused by crime and violence that linger that live on in the reader’s thoughts rather than the acts themselves.
It’s a great novel, and a very novelistic novel, doing what novels do better than anything, digging into the psyches of its characters, turning thoughts to words in a way that creates the illusion of mental connection between characters and reader.
I wanted to re-enthuse myself about the medium. Job done.