What We're Reading: March

Operation Clear the TBR Pile continues apace…

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Ok, Iris Murdoch, a respected, prolific and capable writer. Booker winning novel, 1978. So why did this leave me a bit cold? Maybe it’s the 1978 of it? Maybe it’s the relative indifference I felt to the woes of a quite deluded and narcissistic theatre director in self-imposed exile.

Because however you spin it, he’s a complete idiot who chases nostalgia with no regard for anyone else. I found little to understand why his fawning collection of sycophants kept coming back, or indeed how he could exist without waking up one cold morning with the chill of perspective – that Oh my God, I’m an arsehole moment.

Which is a shame, because amidst the 163,000(!) words there is some lovely writing. The coastline was my favourite character, protean, enigmatic and relatable. Perhaps the only one to fully synthesise the tragic events witnessed.

Pandemonium: Lost Souls

This collection, from Jurassic London, deals with the damned, the forlorn and the forgotten. It features stories from writers known (like Benjamin Disraeli and Robert W. Chambers) and unknown, predominately from the late 19th/early 20th century. So it’s a curious collection, featuring stories about the wild west, frontier towns and Emperor Norton.

One of the striking things about it is the changing concerns presented. The sense of morality being worked at is always recognizable, but also feels a step away from relevance. Simply, they aren’t the concerns of today. The quality of the writing also varies (in case you’re wondering, Disraeli wasn’t a masterful stylist) but no matter, because the stories of the author are often just as interesting as their work.

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud

I’ll be doing a broad-spectrum weird catch up in 2017, and this was on the list. The stories here very much remind me of You Will Grow Into Them with their discomforting use of the body. It’s a more overtly genre collection than Devlin’s, featuring vampires and a very Lovecraftian piece.

It’s a strong collection, but particular highlights are ‘You Go Where It Takes You’, ‘The Monsters of Heaven’ and the title story. The first of those really strikes home, with an inevitable drift towards a callous ending, one that shocks more than all the gore and ichor you can throw at a problem.  It’s not a pleasant collection, dealing with loss, anger and the things we so often try to work around in life, but then who said writing should be pleasant?

Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs by Lina Wolff

The opening two-thirds of this book are perhaps the finest work And Other Stories have published since Signs Preceding the End of the World. The last third isn’t bad either, but it had a real tough act to to follow. Also, the blurb really doesn’t reflect the book. The whorehouse barely features, for instance.

It’s centered around Araceli, a girl who is studying to be a translator at a dead-end school - the kind of place that doesn’t expect her to actually end up translating anything. And at home she lives above a woman who writes violent short stories and her housemaid who has an equally violent past. Add in some sublime characterization around her teacher, the ghoulishly named Madame Moreau, and you have a wonderful book.

Wolff writes exceptionally well, with a sharp eye for what makes characters compelling, and imagery striking. The book has a strange atmosphere to it, inevitable with so many personalities jostling for space in the narrative. That it slips into more familiar territory in the final act is a slight shame, but in no way dents the power of the rest.

Attrib. by Eley Williams

Another short collection of stories, Eley Williams here has a wildly energetic set of exploded moments. Imagine an etymologist with a heart of gold perpetually on the cusp of falling in, or out, of love, trying to explain everything that’s going on in her head right now and you’re on the right track.

It’s a delirious swirl of writing, where pages can describe a few seconds of real time, and that’s completely its strength. Her wit and energy are infectious and compelling. ‘Attrib.’ in particular has a charming humour to it – the frustrations of work we all know, unleashed on whoever it is who happened to pick up the phone.

It might be short, but it’s not light. Also, you can get a copy with a personalized limerick as part of Influx’s Kickstarter, so you should probably go and do that.

Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

Another case of the blurb not matching the book, with its claims of a Han Solo-like heroine missing the point. What this actually is, is a fantasy book that is for some reason set in space. You’ve got an errant princess being retrieved by her Empress Mother’s finest trackers and quickly thrown into the middle of a coup attempt, one that requires her family dead.

Some positives to report about this book straight up are that it’s all about women running the show and South Asians being the dominant cultural influence. So kudos for breaking out of the familiar setups and entertaining other ideas.

Curiously, a lot of this book is actually discussions and positioning by Hail as she tries to work out who to trust. But then it tells you straight up what’s happening and doesn’t really twist. It’s only in the final sequence that the action kicks off, with a lot of it taking place in Hail’s quarters. Between the magical healing from alien colleagues, the palace-focused narrative, and the governmental bodies all being monarchies and empires, mainly I was trying to work out why spaceships were required.

Saga 1-4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I’ve been hearing about Saga for a while now, so I decided to give it a go. I get it. Oh boy, do I get it.

The first book was fine – the mad imagery was striking from the off – but it wasn’t until the second book I really got it. There’s a savage wit running through it, and charming characters. Not everyone is the best at what they do, or even clever. The star-crossed lovers thing is handled with maturity, reflecting real relationships. The meta-fiction angle is carefully positioned so it’s just an angle, and not a Kaufman-esque trap. Alana is hot. it's got a generous, progressive soul.

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And it’s funny. Like, capturing things I recognise in myself funny. Like the above, which is me explaining books to my wife absolutely nailed. For those who have read it, the psych out round in Nun Tuj Nun is just superbly done too.

C. by Tom McCarthy

Last up, a rather odd book which was half captivating and half a bit lackluster. It’s about Serge Carrefax and focuses on distinct stages in his life.  The first of these is his childhood in a school for deaf children – one that teaches them to speak. The opening section reads like a Victorian fairy tale, as these children put on a play based on Greek classics and his precocious sister takes up chemistry on the side.

Childhood tragedy is inevitable (and also inevitably linked to his sexual awakening – this would be part of what’s lackluster) but he ends up as a signalman in the air force during World War One, rooting around in Egyptian tombs and taking a surprising amount of heroin.

What is undeniable – despite all the sex-death stuff – is that McCarthy’s prose is really sophisticated. All of the ideas around Carrefax existing through signals, and his trouble understanding the spaces between people, his inability to truly relate, is fascinating. The scenes during the War were my favourite, setting up the dominant themes of perspective – how he can only understand the world as flat plans, without depth – and a semi-mystic sense of the atmosphere coming to life around him with radio signals. The tension there between the physical truth of events and how he tried to parse them is worth the entry price alone.