Bit later than normal, but what’s new for 2014! A selection of books I read last month…
The truly tragic thing for any writer is that we have a finite time to get out all those ideas and sketches from our brains and onto the page (or screen). And what is even worse, is that we waste them. Not only things we enjoy- the time you enjoy wasting is never wasted- but on trivial mundanities. If I sat down and calculated, for example, how much of my brief life thus far I’ve spent waiting for various forms of public transport to arrive, I’m sure I’d sit down and weep.
Likewise, there’s an app going around at the moment which tots up how many hours you have wasted on Facebook. I’d rather not think about it.
Another issue for a writer in the eternal quest to transfer the gold in your head to the mines of the page is how prolific a writer you are. Some, like Donna Tartt, spend years painstakingly crafting a novel, and therefore only release a couple of stories in as many decades. Others bang out work on a yearly basis. But the sad truth is, when the Grim Reaper comes to call, there will still be stories that a writer never got to jot down, no matter how quick their turnaround time.
And here is another sad truth- one of my favourite writers, a man whose work manages the feat of being simultaneously hilarious and affecting, will not be able to write for much longer.
That man is Terry Pratchett, and as many readers will be already aware, he was diagnosed with an rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease a few years back. He has handled his diagnosis with unbelievable dignity and grace, and has continued to write. He had his first story published at 13. How could he not?
That tale, an encounter with the Devil entitled ‘The Hades Business’ opens A Blink of the Screen, which is a collection of Pratchett’s short fiction, both related to the Discworld series and otherwise. The Discworld section is largely full of curios which would appeal to existing fans of the series, such as Ankh-Morpork’s national anthem (which largely refers to fleecing visitors, naturally). The excellent short story ‘The Sea and Little Fishes’ appears, and ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ certainly casts Punch and Judy in a new light.
However, it’s the non-Discworld fiction that jumps out. Pratchett states that he finds short stories incredibly difficult to write, which is a pity, as he’s very good at it. The chilling little flash piece ‘The Picture’ is an insight into the darker side of his imagination, something that is ratcheted up to 11 in the disturbing ‘#ifDEFBUG+world/enough+time’ which the author admits has become even closer to the bone in our internet-obsessed times.
It’s not all darkness, although you’ll be relieved to know that Death makes a couple of appearances, notably in ‘Turntables of the Night’. There are heartwarming tales too, such as the true story of the partridge in a pear tree and the computer that really believes in Santa Claus. A must for Terry Pratchett fans.
To paraphrase one of my favourite writing guides, How Not To Write A Novel, a writer’s job is harder than God’s. Why? Because all manner of strange things happen every day, and most of us don’t question reality. We acknowledge that the truth is stranger than fiction and carry on our merry way.
Likewise, if you read the plot of Where’d You Go Bernadette in the newspaper, you’d barely bat an eyelid. In the realm of fiction however, the story of Bernadette Fox sometimes tests the reader’s ability to suspend belief.
Bernadette is a stay-at-home mother to 15-year-old Bee, and stay-at-home she is. She is becoming increasingly agoraphobic, something which irritates the other mothers at the school gates, who can’t understand why Bernadette doesn’t participate in fund-raising events. (This alternative Seattle private school is located beside a fish plant, something they are keen to rectify). Her husband, Elgin, is a senior Microsoft developer, and he is beginning to become worried about his wife’s erratic behaviour.
To reward Bee for acing her exams, her parents grant her childhood wish; to take her on a cruise to Antarctica. However, as the trip draws nearer, Bernadette panics. She is outsourcing the simplest of tasks to a personal assistant based in India (yes, she emails a person in India in order to get her dry cleaning delivered). She can barely leave the house, never mind go to the most hostile place on earth.
So she goes missing, and a very strange search begins.
Although the story loses its way from time to time, author Maria Semple- a screenwriter for Saturday Night Live and Arrested Development among others- has created a sharp satire of US west coast life, which zips along at breakneck pace. Not only that, it has heart- Bernadette is unbearable at first, but as the novel moves on, it becomes clear that not all is as it seems. Semple’s prose is spiky and witty, and Where’d You Go Bernadette would shine on screen.
Speaking of SNL, I giggled my way through Tina Fey’s Bossypants at the beginning of January. The comedienne’s memoir is a brilliant, witty and heartfelt. With comparisons to Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman (which I reviewed a couple of months back) inevitable- indeed the latter was marketed in the States as a British version of Bossypants– I can safely say that Fey comes out on top. There is no lecturing, no manifesto, no judgement of other women. Fey’s attitudes- that some women stay home with their kids and some go out to work, that some women are overweight and some are not, and that the reason that everyone looks great in magazines is down to a little thing called Photoshop, and none of these things are worth getting het up about- are so common-sense as to be radical.
One of the more intriguing incidents alluded to in the early part of the book is the story of Fey’s facial scar. When she was three years old, a complete stranger slashed her in the face in a random street assault. While the very idea of someone attacking a small child in such a manner is horrific, Fey refuses to dwell on it or let it affect her life. She does, however, mention that any given person’s reaction to the scar is a good indicator of their true character. (I didn’t even notice she had a scar until I read this. I wonder what that says about me…)
Also well worth reading is her take on her sudden fame during the 2008 US presidential elections. Fey hit the big time after her impersonations of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin became a global sensation (the famous ‘I can see Russia from my house!’ line was Fey’s, not Palin’s). Fey is thoughtful and candid about her discomfort about meeting Palin and having her on SNL, as well as the political ramifications from the skits, as well as the personal consequences for her.
On top of all this, the book is hilarious and a tonic for anyone feeling gloomy on these miserable winter/early spring days.
Finally, I really wanted to like Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City, I really did. The concept is great- Zoe, newly unemployed following an unwise dalliance with her ex-boss, finds her perfect job in publishing. Only snag is her boss is a vampire and her colleagues are all sorts of supernatural beings. Unfortunately, it is the execution that lets this urban fantasy down. While Lafferty has some great ideas- zombies who are highly intelligent and celeb-fixated, The Statue of Liberty as a giant tomb, pigeons as brokers- these are mentioned in passing and never really elaborated on.
There’s also the stilted dialogue, the obligatory graphic sex scene (which veers uncomfortably close to non-consensual) and info-dumping which seems to plague way too many genre novels. There are also questions to be raised on Zoe’s character. She has no problem associating with creatures that eat people, and never once questions it apart from her own safety. This is, of course, a staple of speculative fiction- how can we understand the dark creatures that survive by hurting us?- but the question is never dealt with properly here. Zoe spends most of the book completely oblivious.
Lafferty acknowledges both Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams as influences, however, The Shambling Guide to New York City has none of the depth of the Hitchhiker series, American Gods or Neverwhere, the works it borrows most from. This is painfully clear in the role of the homeless in this novel. While I loved the idea of Public Works acting as policemen of the ‘coterie’, it follows that the homeless are also acting as spies and police. While the homeless are something more than they appear in Neverwhere, Gaiman makes sure that his London Below is far more dangerous and frightening than the one we know. This ensures that he does not fall into a trap of romanticising or trivialising what is a very serious real-life issue. However, in The Shambling Guide to New York City, the homeless live in cosy nooks in the sewers and have pretty much the life of Reilly.
Finally, it will come to no surprise that Zoe has a supernatural power (and it’s not much of a spoiler, trust me). She’s a city talker, which is the most wonderful notion I have ever heard, as someone who has fallen in love with almost every city I’ve been to. What a pity then that the strong character of New York is never truly evoked. Even someone who has never been there can envisage what NYC is like, but this novel could have taken place in Anytown, USA, for all the flat description used. The next Shambling Guide takes place in New Orleans, but I won’t be reading about Zoe’s adventures in the Big Easy.
Read any of these? Let me know what you think in the comments!