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North Star

I wrote recently about not enjoying or finishing Claire North’s 84K. In her latest blog post she lists her (improbably large) back catalogue, with notes. On 84k:

My most miserable novel ever.

The word “dystopian” has been applied to it a lot, and I’d say that’s fair.

However, she also tells us about her forthcoming Notes from The Burning Age, which sounds amazing:

To make up for just how monumentally dystopian 84K is, Notes from the Burning Age is a look at the distant future of the earth… in which we’ve got it right. We sorted our shit out, we built an environmentalist utopia of clean energy, social justice, respect for all and so on. And we did all of it partly because we really learned to love and value this beautiful, glorious planet, as well as each other, and partly because the spirits of the earth awoke, provoked by our blundering destruction, and nearly stomped us into tiny tiny bits.

If you think that’s the pitch, you will be potentially surprised to know that’s just the first 50 pages, and the book is actually a cat-and-mouse espionage thriller.

She really has written an astonishing number of books, under three different names. I’ll be sure to try some of the others.

Bookshops are Back

Sometimes you don’t even realise what you’ve been missing. Or how much you’ve been missing it. I went to our local bookshop, the lovely Pages of Hackney, to pick up a book that I had ordered and that had to come from the US.1

They’ve stayed in business through this mad year, and I’ve ordered several books from them in that time. If a book’s not in stock they can usually get it in in a couple of days. I just had to walk up the road and collect them at the door.

No going in, though. Apart from collecting an order, all I could do was look in the window.

So it was fantastic to be able to go into the shop and browse. I’d almost forgotten what that’s like.

  1. The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick. I don’t know why it had to cross the ocean. 

We started watching Line of Duty two or three weeks ago, and now we’ve caught up. So we’ll have to watch the rest of series 6 week by week. Like it’s the past.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Books 2021, 4)

On Alexander Chee’s book of essays, which I was prompted to read because he was cited several times on my MA course.

Despite the title, this is not a writing ‘how-to’ book, except maybe by example. Nor is it a novel itself; it is a collection of essays. The subjects they cover do include writing and writing courses, most notably the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That was one of the first, if not the first, postgraduate-level course in creative writing, and Chee studied on it.

But the book covers a lot else, too. As Chee is a mixed-race gay man, you won’t be surprised to hear that those details feature in a number of the essays. As does living in New York and trying to make it as a writer. And growing roses, and the origin of Catholic rosary beads.

I was drawn to this because one of the essays was assigned reading on the MA early this term, and he was also cited at various other points on at least two modules.

His debut novel is called Edinburgh, which immediately interests me. Though you learn from a couple of the essays that he hoped, when younger, to go to Edinburgh to study parapsychology, but didn’t; and that the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.

I don’t know what his fiction is like yet, but he’s a fine essayist.

On Giving Up On a Book

This is not, as you might have guessed from the title, about writing. It’s about reading.

How long should we give a book by even a beloved author, before giving up on it, if we are not enjoying it?

It’s relatively rare for me not to finish a book that I start. There are a few that I took a couple of runs at, having to start again — Ulysses springs to mind. And some that I haven’t finished, and would have to start again: Gravity’s Rainbow, Swann’s Way. I might never bother with either of those again, but you never know.

I’m fairly sure I’ll never get further than the the two or three pages I’ve managed into Finnegan’s Wake. And there’s the odd other one I’ve abandoned. One that I accidentally left on a train, and realised I didn’t care. It was something to do with an excise inspector in Scotland. No idea what it was called or who it was by.

Most of those above are what people would call difficult: something about the style, form, or content makes reading them a challenge. Overcoming that challenge can be rewarding, but we should never feel guilty about abandoning them if we’re not enjoying them, I feel. Reading for pleasure should not be a chore.

But now we come to a strange case. Claire North is an author I like a lot. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was great, and so was Touch, which I read the last time I was out of the country.

So I was pleased to get her 84k for Christmas. And I’ve tried to read it twice, but I just can’t get into it. It’s not that it’s boring or hard to read.

It’s that it’s unpleasant.

That probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Lots of books have unpleasant characters, or depict upsetting or hurtful events. Lots of entertainment shows those things, TV, movies, songs…

I have mentioned here before that I don’t really care for dystopias as a subgenre.1 I’m not sure I can easily explain why that is, but they just don’t appeal.

And this is set in one. It’s largely a version of Britain, more or less present-day, but things have gone so far into privatisation, rampant capitalism, and generally Conservative party policies, that everyone knows the value of a human life.

That’s what the title means. That’s how much, in pounds, the rich have to pay to get away with murder. They can do anything else they want, too, as long as they can afford it.

I’m sure it will have a positive, maybe even uplifting, outcome. But I won’t be carrying on with it. I got about thirty pages in on my second time of starting it (only a couple the first time), and it’s just too bleak, too grim, for me to want to spend any more time there.

Maybe it’s partly the times were living in. But it’s not for me.

  1. If that’s the right thing to call them.