Summer of Secrets

Every six months or so I seem to find a reason to resurrect this slowly-dying blog. You’ll sumsecbe glad (or not) to hear that I seem to have found another. This time it’s all down to the Curtis Brown Book club – a lovely little idea which provides chosen members with the latest books before they come out, chats with the authors, and forums in which fellow book clubbers can discuss what they’re reading.

The first ‘Book of the Month’ in this six month series is Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon.

Now – I should probably start by telling you that I’ve met Sarah on a few occasions. We both volunteer for the Manchester Literature Festival and every time our paths have crossed we’ve discussed our works in progress. So it’s good to see that one of us has moved past that ‘progress’ part of our novel and put some words down in print. Nice one Sarah, I’m not jealous at all.

To the book – I must admit that this one kind of took me by surprise. Happy as I was for Sarah, from the cover and the blurb I was unsure that this going to be my cup of tea. It’s seems to have a lot of potential as a kind of summer blockbuster, with mystery, coming of age, and young relationships all at its core. That’s not always my thing.

But what I found was a work of fiction that spends a long time developing its characters, creating a small cast that you really care about. So when the mystery becomes a little heavily laden, it still works because you are really invested in the people trying to find a way to the truth.

The story spends most of its time in the summer of 83, during which Helen, a lonely and isolated teenager, finds a new lease of life when the Dover family arrive in her sleepy little town. Throughout the book we know that somehow this new friendship will end in tragedy – that is forewarned by the flash forward at the novel’s beginning – but to find out exactly how, we find ourselves weaving through a very well written tale of teenage life.

It’s hard to say too much about this one without giving too much away – suffice to say that, for what seems at first like a standard summer read, there is an inviting depth to the narrative that will keep you turning the page.

 

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Station Eleven

st11As a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, I was excited by the premise of Emily St John Mandel’s latest work. With a killer flu, crowded hospitals full of the dead, and a prophet who wants to recreate the human race, many of the great tropes of the genre were already in place.

But Station Eleven does something different, too. Because it isn’t just post-apocalyptic, it is also pre and during-apocalyptic (I don’t think they’re real terms, but I’m using them.) Starting on the actual night that the pandemic hits America, the novel jumps in time; from the early aftermath, to twenty years or so later, and back to various plot points in the days and months leading up to the end of the world.

For once in the genre, we have all the answers. The whos, the whats, the whys, and the wheres. Margaret Attwood did something similar with her recent trilogy, but three books gives you a lot more scope to cover the end of days from so many angles.

It’s quite an achievement. A few characters link the three time periods. Jeevan is on hand to give mouth-to-mouth to the dying Arthur in the opening scene, and it his him we follow through the early days of the apocalypse. But it is back to Arthur in the pre-dstruction period. Well, him and the three wives he collects throughout the book. And one of those wives will play a crucial role in the far future sections, as she teaches her son that the apocalypse must’ve come about because of humanity’s ignorance of the bible.

But it is perhaps Kirsten who most works as the heartbeat of the novel. She is a child actress in the opening scenes, present when Jeevan tries to save Arthur’s life. And in those far future sections, she is leading a group of travelling actors and musicians through the barren landscape. They perform Shakespeare plays to towns and villages with few survivors.

And therein lies the main point of the novel. In a very clever way, Mandel is highlighting all of the things that are at risk in an age when we take the world for granted. Shakespeare and high art is one thing, but in jumping back and forth as she does, she makes it clear that it is not just these big things that we might one day miss. One section particularly highlights her point:

You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone.

Those are the things future generations might have to do without, and those are the things Mandel highlights as important in the days when everyone continues as normal.

In focusing on the simple things, Mandel makes this novel all the more unsettling. In showing us how the world might function if you take away our daily habits and technology, she creates a work that’s chilling, disturbing, and more believable than much of its genre.

Manchester Literature Festival

Manchester-Literature-Festival-LogoSo Jackie Kay closed the main part of the festival at Matt and Phreds last night, and Manchester will now be a little less literary until next October. It’s a shame. For two weeks every year we’re treated to big literary names and  weird and wonderful events and then it goes away and I have to go back to speaking to people.

This was my second year as a volunteer and blogger for the event, and my fourth (I think) as an attendee. Over that time I’ve met some of my favourite authors and gained quite a few new ones. This year was no exception. Here’s my thoughts on the events I made it to:

Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry – Martin Harris Centre 6/10/2014

Colm taught me when I studied for a Masters in Creative Writing in 2011/12. Admittedly, I mainly went to this event to catch up Colm-Toibin-001with him and see if he still uses all the dramatic hand gestures he used to, taking his glasses on and off every couple of seconds. I’m glad to say he does.

But this event exceeded expectations. It was clear that these two writers are close friends and not just colleagues. And as hard as compere John Mcauliffe tried, this was very much a conversation between two people who know each other inside out. Luckily, both of them were interesting, funny, and sharp. A great start.

Blog North Awards – Deaf Institute 8/10/2014

cropped-headerI volunteered at this event last year. It included a lot of fun, some great readings and performances, and a fair amount of free booze. There was a bit less complimentary beer this time around, but it was still one of the highlights of the festival.

As part of a two week event that includes huge literary figures and bestselling authors, it’s nice that this night is dedicated to those at an earlier stages of their writing careers. This time there was a tag team storytelling session from Flashtag, a mad and disturbing video which managed to make the Pringles man into some kind of sexual predator, and a great little story from award winner Lauren Vevers.

The show was stolen by Mollie Simpson, though, with her reading from her blog If Destroyed Still True. She’s blogging entries from her teenage diary. They’re hilarious. Follow her now. Bye.

Peter Blake – Martin Harris Centre 11/10/2014

I’ll be honest, I was pretty much dragged to this one.DTfrontcover

Blake has illustrated Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and he was here to discuss the process. Given that I know little of Dylan Thomas and even less about illustration, I wasn’t exactly enthused.

It ended up being an entertaining and enlightening hour. If it hadn’t been £25, I’d have even bought the book.

Cynan Jones and Evie Wyld – Anthony Burgess Foundation 13/10/2014

Evie WyldI won’t say too much about this one as you can read my full post over at Chapter and Verse, the festival’s blog.

But if you can’t be bothered with that, I will say that this was an exceptional author event. Both writers read brilliantly, and the Q&A was almost a mini workshop. I left wanting to write more.

Oh, and I met Evie Wyld – the author of two of my absolute favourite books. So yeah, can’t complain.

 

The Manchester Sermon with Audrey Niffenegger – Manchester Cathedral 16/10/2014

Niffenegger was an interesting choice for this year’s sermon, and she was always going to have a lot to live up to following Ali niffSmith and Lionel Shriver in previous years.

I have to admit, she fell slightly shy of those two in terms of delivery. But she did have some interesting points to make, and I’m a big fan of her idea of art as an alternative to religion. The Q&A fell a tiny bit flat, though – partly due to the sound quality in the room, and partly due to Niffenegger’s slightly quiet voice.

Having said that, if this was the least impressive event I attended then that’s a sign of an extremely strong line-up.

You can read more of my thoughts at Chapter and Verse.

Kate Tempest – Contact Theatre 18/10/2014

KT-SquareWell. Kate Tempest. What can I say?

I only volunteered for this one because I’d heard her name a few times and I like to go to a few events that might surprise me.

She may be my new favourite person.

I’ve heard people argue that her poetry’s a little simple, but when you can command a stage the way she does I don’t think that matters. Yes, it might be poetry without the long words and complicated metaphors, but it’s accessible, intriguing, and from the reaction she got from the audience, it appeals to the masses.

Kate managed to be funny, humble, politically adroit, moving, and extremely entertaining. Can she play every year?

 

Blogging the Booker Part 7: Final thoughts

So, the end is near. In a few hours we’ll find out who takes down the big money prize and sees their sales figures rise for at least a couple of months. The Booker is still one of the biggest names in literary prizes, and there’ll undoubtedly be some celebrations tonight.

But what of the shortlist? I have to say, I’ve been pretty impressed. Yes, there are a couple of stinkers, but compared to previous lists that’s an improvement. Last year we had one great novel in Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and one pretty good one from Jhumpa Lahiri. The others, for me at least, ranged from pretty decent to bloody appalling.  And the most appalling won.

This year, I’d say that both the Fowler and Flanagan are absolutely outstanding novels. The Ali Smith is very, very good, even if one half is not quite up to the same standard as the other. And the Ferris is bloody enjoyable, too. I’ve been harsh on the Mukherjee on here, but it is good in parts. The less said about the Jacobson, the better.

That’s not a bad effort. Two thirds of the shortlist are great or close to it, and without their shortlisting I probably would have only read the Smith.

The Booker gets a somewhat raw deal in my eyes. When the shortlist was announced, Twitter was awash with naysayers who bemoaned a safe list that didn’t include their favourite books. I don’t think anyone can argue with half of this year’s finalists.

Having said that, I am kind of dreading the announcement. The problem with reading the shortlist is that I now care. There are three novels that would be deserving winners, although I have to say I’m holding out for Fowler. But something tells me that I’m going to be disappointed when 9.30 comes. If Mukherjee wins it will be a shame, if Jacobson wins it will be a joke.

Blogging the Booker Part 6: Richard Flanagan

That’s it. I made it. With only a few hours until the winner is announced, I just put down Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-richard-flanaganNorth and with it I completed the 2014 Booker Prize Shortlist. And I may just have found a new contender. Okay, it’s not as instantly enjoyable and accessible as Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, but it does seem more likely to curry favour with the judges.

Flanagan’s novel is exactly what Mukherjee’s wanted to be. It’s a weighty work of literature that focuses on an important period of history while also trying to shed light on how historical events affect the families, friends, and lives of those involved. In The Lives of Others we had the Naxalbari uprisings. Here, we have POWs building the Burma Death Railway.

One major difference between the works is this; Flanagan manages to represent the true savagery and horror of events at the same time as giving us a tender and devastating story of one man’s life and lost loves. Mukherjee mixes his many stories awkwardly, and subsequently dilutes the meaning of all of them.

But even without a similar shortlistee with which to compare it, Flanagan’s novel would be a fantastic and worthy winner. We watch protagonist Dorrigo Evans grow up, go to war, save lives, fall in and out of love, and survive the brutalities of a POW camp. But even when writing of such horror, Flanagan’s way with words make this a beautiful and poetic novel. There’s a quote from Evie Wyld on the back of the book which sums up everything I want to say:

Not just a great novel but an important book in its ability to look at terrible things and create something beautiful. Everyone should read it.

Well said, Evie.

Can it win? You may have read my gushing reaction to Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. My view hasn’t changed. But listening to the opinions of others and the bookies, it seems Fowler is unlikely to take down the prize. Flanagan has a better chance. And there could be no doubting the quality of the winner if he were to do so.

Blogging the Booker Part 5: Joshua Ferris

When I first saw the shortlist, Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was the novel that least appealed. That’s not to sayTo Rise Again At A Decent Hour cover - Copy that I saw anything inherently wrong with the book or its premise but, compared to the rest of the list, there was little that piqued my interest. This could be partly due to the fact that I’m not a big fan of dentists, and protagonist Paul O’Rourke is a leading light of the profession. It could also be down to my slight phobia of comic novels. Yes, I prefer novels that border on the miserable – but I also find that many comic novels make me laugh less often than an episode of The Big Bang Theory. (Which isn’t much, in case you missed that.)

But Ferris’s novel is a pleasant surprise. Focusing on O’Rourke and his dental practice as they both come under attack from a internet menace, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour manages to make some insightful comments about today’s society while also having a bloody good laugh about it.

O’Rourke is not a fan of the internet and social media, but when this unknown menace creates a website for his dental practice and begins posting as him on Facebook, Twitter, and in baseball forums, he is forced to confront a world he has long ignored. Soon, his new namesake is posting questionable diatribes in his name and forwarding the agenda of a lost people known only as the Ulms.

Admittedly, the novel does get a little lost as it moves further and further into the world of the Ulms. Ferris is making a point about the way anything can be made to seem real in the age of the internet, but this work is at its best when focusing on the lonely life of the protagonist rather than the power of the world wide web. When at its best, though, it is hilarious. Not many books have made me laugh out loud as much as this one – but that could be largely because I’m a miserable git.

Can it win? Despite enjoying the book much more than I expected to, it would be the most surprising winner. A better book than both and The Lives of Others, it doesn’t have their loftiness. That could count against it in the judges’ eyes. And as enjoyable as it is, it can’t quite live with How to be Both and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it comes to writing and storytelling. With one book left to finish, there’s still a clear winner in my eyes.

 

 

Blogging the Booker Part 4: Neel Mukherjee

nmtlooLet me start by saying that I can see exactly why The Lives of Others made this year’s shortlist. It deals with heavy historical material in the shape of Calcutta’s Naxalbari risings in the late 1960s, a theme that also featured on the shortlist last year in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It also offers an involved investigation of the Indian family system, something that Booker judges have turned to again and again since Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things in 1997.

So no, it isn’t at all surprising to see that Mukherjee’s second novel made the shortlist. But it is surprising to see that it’s currently the favourite to win.

Because, despite being based on one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history, it doesn’t tell much of a story. Attempting to give almost equal weight to seventeen members of the Ghosh family, we actually don’t find out as much as we’d like about any of them. Except maybe Supratik. But, as the family member who joins the Naxalites, his story just doesn’t grab in the way that it should.

Much more interesting are the tales of Somnath, a rebellious and violent teenager, and Priyo and Chhaya, a brother and sister pairing that share a strange encounter in a bathroom that will haunt both of their lives. When these characters are involved, the novel comes to life. But they are involved too rarely to drag The Lives of Others from the doldrums.

Can it win? If you believe the bookies, then yes. It would be a shame, though. It would be a victory based on the novel’s weighty subject and not the way it’s written or the actual story it tells. It’s by no means an awful novel, but it brings nothing new to its genre and leaves too many of its interesting strands unfinished.

You can read more in my Bookmunch review.