There and back again

Jun 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Long EarthThe Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Pub Doubleday ISBN 9780857520098
Hardback £11.39 ($15.41)
Kindle £7.64 ($12.99)

Synopsis: Our hero embarks on an epic journey through an infinite chain of alternate earths, accompanied by an annoying computer. Then he comes back.

That’s it. There’s no story to speak of. Plenty of incident, but this is a Gulliver’s Travels voyage of wonder rather than a closely-plotted adventure. There are long static passages in which one of the characters (usually the computer) explains to the others what is going on. Fortunately for the authors nobody in the book ever figures out how the alternate earths work, so there is plenty of scope for marvels. Think Discworld magic with extra quantum.

More Pratchett than Baxter, full of the dry absurdities one looks forward to – the machine that allows nearly everyone to travel between worlds is powered by a potato; the computer is the reincarnation of a Tibetan car mechanic named Lobsang. Characters combine eccentricity and common sense in about the same proportion as the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – Sister Agnes is a nun who rides a Harley and has a poster of Meat Loaf on her wall next to the Sacred Heart. Hermione Dawes is the British Prime Minister’s secretary. She also owns every single track ever cut by Bob Dylan.

Some of the ideas are a little derivative. The AI, which controls everything down to the drinks machine, is a touch Ian M Banks. The alternate earth theme has a respectable history, although Pratchett and Baxter give it a new twist. The steam-punk airship in which the adventurers travel could have come from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

There are elves and trolls, of a sort, but the book has more in common with the Johnny Maxwell trilogy than the Discworld. This is not simply because most of the characters are contemporary and human. As occasionally happens in Pratchettt’s books, he seems uncertain about the age group he is pitching to. Characters first encountered aged 10 never quite grow up even though some of them grow older.

Pratchett and Baxter fans will enjoy this, though perhaps not to the extent of shelling out for the hardback. The authors clearly had a great time, so that’s all right.

The Long Earth Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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What should they know of England?

Aug 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Father of EmilyFather of Emily – Kristofer Oliver
Paperback £9.13 ($15.00) ISBN 9781463660253
Kindle £2.93 ($3.99)

To see your country and your countrymen as they really are, you have to leave them behind. That was Kipling’s view, at any rate. In this moving novel Kristofer Oliver takes the advice of the master story-teller.

Ben is an ex-pat living in Paris, having fled there at the end of a traumatic relationship. Several years on the new, if rather rootless life he has built for himself is turned upside down by the arrival of Emily, 14-year-old daughter of his former partner. The narrative traces the growth of their relationship, not-really father with not-quite daughter, and gradually unravels the mystery surrounding Emily’s unconventional mother Clara.

Oliver comes from the north of England, but he has lived in France “amongst smelly cheese and fresh coffee” since 2003. Eight years is enough for some of it to rub off. This is not a travel guide. The Eiffel Tower and Montmartre make brief appearances, but his default view is from pavement level: cafés and shops, traffic and the Metro. Locations are blocked in with a sense of familiarity, just enough to give freshness and lift.

The same goes for the writing. I would guess that Oliver has been in France for long enough to start thinking in the language. Once or twice there are hints of a Gallic turn of phrase: meeting Emily’s grandmother after a long absence, Ben thinks There are some many years Elizabeth and I have to catch up on… Sometimes this gives the prose a slightly bumpy quality; generally, though, the effect is to strip it down to essentials. The first person voice is clear and direct:

I can’t remember the time from when I first plucked up the courage to ask her out for a drink, to the time when I understood her when she was brushing her teeth in the morning. We fell into a partnership instead of a relationship. We were coupled from the start. I remember a day when we both came home separately from the rental shop with the same video.

Like the locations, the characters are fresh and convincing, particularly the trio at the centre of the story. Emily is a delightful mix of teenage savvy, edging towards adulthood, and childlike innocence. Her mother Clara, seen in flashback, has a convincing rawness, someone not built to stand up to the blunt instrument of everyday life. Even minor characters are “there” on the page. Ben’s latest girlfriend Sarah, leaving as Emily arrives, takes advantage of a difficult phone call to scoot round their flat and pack a few extra items:

Sarah picks up the iPod she bought me for my last birthday, mouths ‘mine now’ and places it in her pocket.

The two important relationships in the novel – between Ben and Emily and between Ben and Clara – are both rich and satisfyingly ambiguous. There is none of that irritating sense you get from some books that the narrator knows the whole story from the beginning, but is perversely keeping the reader in the dark. Ben discovers Emily, but through her he also rediscovers Clara.

Father of Emily has the contemporary charm and honesty of One Day. Like Nicholls, Oliver has an intimate grip on the minutiae of modern life – the wine and the chocolate, the bedclothes and the luggage. His characters’ dilemmas are not philosophically profound, but we recognise every detail of their bafflement faced with love and tragedy. The difference is that they live in Paris.

Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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The Space Between Things Various Authors



Serious authors

Apr 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Various AuthorsVarious Authors
The Fiction Desk
Paperback 192pp. £9.99 ($16.38) ISBN 9780956784308
Kindle £4.99 ($8.17)

Various Authors is the first issue of a new literary journal from The Fiction Desk. It will be appearing quarterly in paperback and Kindle formats.

The authors of the dozen stories in this debut volume do not include any household names, but several can boast respectable track records, with novels or short story collections already in print. This is serious stuff: literary fiction of a high calibre, the contributors not genre writers but artists of the pen. (Though is there any reason why a genre writer shouldn’t be an artist too?)

Interesting to see what the themes of literary fiction are nowadays. In spite of the editor’s claim (in the Fiction Desk blog) to have laughed out loud at How to Fall in Love with an Air Hostess by Harvey Marcus, there are not many deliberate attempts at humour here. Marcus’s story, though wryly told, is actually concerned with missed opportunities and the failure to make connections. The only piece to make me laugh (but it did – yes, out loud, I confess) was Rex by Jon Wallace. This is about a woman who brings home a stray dog. To her husband it is clearly a man in a home-made fancy dress costume. (Rex is the husband, by the way – the “dog’s” name is William.) Celia and Harold by Patrick Whittaker plays with a whimsical idea – a Midwich Cuckoos village in which all the lovers morph into identical couples – but the author doesn’t quite know where to take it.

No, serious writing is about serious issues. Characters are poor or old or young or alone, or three out of the four. Families are dysfunctional. I don’t think this has anything to do with this particular collection or its editors; that’s the way it is. Shabby for literary writers is real. Maybe it’s a Brit thing. The three stories that stand out here all have overseas settings and two of them are written by Americans. All I Want by Charles Lambert is about English teachers spending an uneasy weekend with an Italian family by Lake Garda, and is stiff with unspoken feeling. Nativity by Adrian Stumpp addresses the rarely described anguish of fatherhood. Topping the lot for me is Dave Tough’s Luck by Matthew Licht. This occupies familiar Licht territory in 1970s New York, but transcends the grubbiness and slease with a poignant account of an idiot savant drummer who can reproduce all the riffs of the jazz and rock greats but never create a thing himself.

An impressive start, I’ll look out for the next issue. One last thought, though: only one female contributor. Were there really so few good submissions from women?

Various Authors:
Charles Lambert – All I want
Lynsey May – Two Buses Away
Matthew Licht – Dave Tough’s Luck
Danny Rhodes – A Covering of Leaves
Ben Lyle – Crannock House
Ben Cheetham – Sometimes the Only Way Out is In
Harvey Marcus – How to Fall in Love With an Air Hostess
Jason Atkinson – Assassination Scene
Patrick Whittaker – Celia and Harold
Adrian Stumpp – Nativity
Jon Wallace – Rex
Alex Cameron – The Puzzle

Various Authors Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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