books 2007

    Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis (Books 2007, 7)

    I hadn't read any Amis before (either of them), but I've wanted to try Kingsley for a while; mainly for his SF connections, but when I saw this in a second-hand bookshop I thought it might be a good place to start.

    This one isn’t SF, of course. Instead, it’s described as a “comic novel”.

    I have to say that I found very little in it to laugh at.

    Oh, the odd chortle, or wry grin, certainly; in particular there is a description of a hangover that has been quoted often enough that I recognised it in its entirety.

    But our national sense of humour must have changed since 1954, or something. Not to mention a great deal more about our society and the way we interact. At times in this novel I found it harder to understand the motivations of the characters than of the most alien of characters in SF (well, ok, not to the extent of ‘The Dance of the Changer and the Three’, say, but anything less than that).

    That’s no bad thing, but since it wasn’t the intent of the author, that sense of confusion or dislocation can leave you feeling lost. This is quite different from the effect you can get in good SF, where you’re thrown in at the deep end, not quite knowing what’s going on. There, you just hang on and enjoy the ride, trusting in the knowledge that it’ll become clear in time.

    In this case there’s no hope of an explanation, because Amis didn’t realise that the behaviour of his sexually stilted 1950s academics would be quite so opaque and mysterious to a reader in the zero-years of the 21st century (why didn’t they just go to bed, already?)

    Still, as a gentle rom-com, it wasn’t too bad.

    The Scar, by China Miéville (Books 2007, 6)

    .A mindfucking mindfuck of all mindfucks. A great, big, sprawling book, and yet one which can have a curious sense of claustrophobia at times.

    That’s because nearly all the action takes place on the floating city of Armada. It’s a big floating city, but it is, nonetheless, essentially a big ship, in the middle of a great ocean, and there’s nowhere for the characters to go.

    What they do while stuck there, is where the fun lies.

    While I was reading this, my beloved got our son a copy of China’s first book “for younger readers”, Un Lun Dun. He finished it over a long weekend’s trip to Cornwall, and I read the review of it in that Saturday’s Guardian (yes, we buy our kids books in their week of release, why do you ask? Like much of the country, we did the same in July (though to be fair, that wasn’t just for the kids.))

    The review ended with a statement of the old canard about SF&F having no characters, “and that’s why some readers like them”, to paraphrase. And while that’s kind of insulting (and not even true for Un Lun Dun), there is some truth in it. But then, that’s not what we’re here for: you don’t come to a book like this to read about the inner turmoil of a North London writer (I can get that by not reading. OK, East rather than North, and would-be, but still.) You read books like this to take you somewhere else; to experience something other; to see something you can’t see down your street.

    And you certainly get your money’s worth with this one.

    The Prestige, by Christopher Priest (Books 2007, 5)

    The most annoying thing about The Prestige is the way it ends; though I can see that there was no real reason to continue it after that point. The story is told, all that can reasonably be revealed is revealed (without going into preposterous and unnecessary details).

    The book is finished; the tale (which, as I’m sure you know, is about Victorian magicians, and Nikola Tesla) is told.

    And yet I still thought, as I reached the last page, “Aw, I want more!” like a kid that wants another bedtime story.

    Which is no bad thing, it’s fair to say. Better, as a writer (or almost anything else) to leave them wanting more than to outstay your welcome.

    And with that thought in mind, I’ll just say: highly recommended. I’m out.

    The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks (Books 2007, 4)

    It's not The Crow Road, but then, what is?

    In my opinion, the quality of Banksie’s non-SF work rose in shallow, slightly wiggly, climb from a high start, to a “can do no wrong” plateau that includes The Bridge, Espedair Street and Complicity, as well as the aforementioned. Thereafter it dropped a bit (but who can blame him, after that lot?) But it never got bad. (His SF took a different trajectory, and as far as I can tell, it’s still climbing.)

    So what of this book? It’s a family drama, I suppose you’d say, with a mystery at its heart. Not a “whodunit”, so much as “what got done?”

    Slipping into Banksie’s world is like pulling on an old, comfy jumper; or maybe a favourite leather jacket would be more appropriate. So we get recognisable characters, dialogue that you could hear in any pub or home in Scotland, and just a touch of mystery.

    The main problem, perhaps, is that there’s no great threat over the characters (they might decide to sell the family games business to a big American company, and some of them are against that happening). So we don’t have any real sense of potential doom. Still, though, finding the answer to the mystery is fun enough, and it’s a compelling enough read that I got through it in a couple of days.

    In a book like this, the pleasure is in the journey more than the destination.

    Ink, by Hal Duncan (Books 2007, 3)

    So, The Book of All Hours is finished. And fine, fine stuff it is, too. This volume seems somehow more polished than the first , but perhaps not as exciting, as startling.

    The story is brought to a conclusion of sorts, but as you might expect, it’s ambiguous, open to interpretation. This is, of course, not a bad thing: in fact, I thoroughly approve.

    I’m not, though, going to try to give any details of it, or to explain what it ls about; just read it: it’s great.

    We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (Books 2007, 2)

    Wow. This is an amazing piece of work. The mother of a high-school killer writes letters to her husband, describing Kevin's life as she experienced it. I can't write a lot about it without getting heavy on the spoilers, but I will just say this.

    When I was a few pages in I was getting a strong sense of this absence of a voice: the husband was not to be heard. But then I thought two things. First, all epistolary novels are like that to some extent; though it is possible for the letter-writer to refer to things their correspondent has written in return.

    Second, it occurred to me that Shriver, by excluding the man’s voice, might have been making a point about the relative exclusion of women’s voices in literature. In other words, the way I was feeling might be akin to how Jean Rhys must have felt when she read Jane Eyre.

    I don’t, now, think that she was particularly trying to do that, though the effect of the early chapters is still there.

    I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, except: highly recommended.

    Redemption Song: the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, by Chris Salewicz (Books 2007, 1)

    Ah, Joe. I can hardly believe that it's already four years since we lost him. I started reading this on Christmas day, and finished at about two in the morning on the 14th of January: exactly three weeks later. If I read a book every three weeks that would be seventeen in a year, which isn't very many. Anyway, during that time I completely immersed myself in Strummeriana; as well as reading the book I listened to little music other than The Clash or Joe's solo stuff, and I also put my bit in on the various Wikipedia articles.

    And none if it can make up for the fact that he’s gone.

    In fact, reading the book only makes it worse: it reinforces the sense of what we’ve lost. He was on a great creative upswing when he died, as the the posthumous Streetcore album showed. Its opening track, ‘Coma Girl’ (which, we learn, is about his daughter Lola) was the single best song he wrote since ‘Trash City’, at least.

    Alas, we’ll never hear anything new from him again.

    Or at least, not truly new: it seems from reading the book that there might be quite a few unreleased recordings out there, and he worked on more film soundtracks than I knew about.

    Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is this piece of information. Around the time that Joe and the Mescaleros were writing and recording Global A Go-Go, the second of the comeback albums after the wilderness years, he also sent a set of lyrics to Mick Jones. He seemed to be suggesting that he was considering an alternative to the Mescaleros album. Mick wrote tunes for them and sent them back, but heard no more about it. Some time later, after Global A Go-Go had been released, Mick asked what had happened to the songs. Joe said, “Those weren’t for Global A Go-Go; those were the next Clash album.”

    There’s no suggestion that he ever recorded any of them; but you never know: one day Mick might, when he’s not too busy with Carbon/Silicon.

    What of the book itself, though? Well, it’s certainly compelling reading (at least if you’re a fan like me). It is flawed in some ways, of course. It can be hard to follow the early sections about Joe’s family, without an actual family tree to clarify things, thought that’s not a big problem.

    Despite its size and comprehensive nature, there are parts that come across as too anecdotal and perhaps incomplete. Certainly there are places where I would have liked to have a lot more detail. But a book this size could be written about The Clash alone (several have, of course, but perhaps none quite the size of this one).

    Still, it’s totally a must-have for any Clash fan, or solo Joe fan (can you be the latter but not the former?)

    I wonder what it would have been like if The Clash had kept going and had become like U2 (who were heavily inspired by them)? In a good sense: I listened to an interview with Salewicz, where he pointed out that, though Joe didn’t like the distance from the audience at stadium gigs, he was very good at handling them. So imagine them doing something like the Zoo TV tour (indeed, when I saw footage of that, all the TVs as backdrop reminded me instantly of the Clash Mk II ‘Out of Control’ tour).