Monday, 25 June 2012

Review - Railsea, China Mieville

Imagine a world in which the ocean has been replaced by a complex system of railway tracks overlying a hostile & mysterious subterranean world, a world where ships are replaced by the trains which ride the tracks & mariners by the train crews.  This is the world of Railsea, the most recent novel by China Mieville, his second novel aimed at young adults, but a book which makes few concessions & which should appeal equally to adult readers. Mieville has won almost every prize going for fantasy/science fiction writing, & there is a reason – his writing stands comparison with the best in any genre.  This is a book which should not be pigeon holed & which deserves a wide readership.

The hero of Railsea is Sham, a young man setting out on his first trip on board the moletrain Medes.  The objective of the trip is to hunt moldywarpes, vicious giant moles which live in the railsea.  The Medes runs under the command of Captain Naphi, an intimidating veteran of the railsea.  Naphi is a well known mole hunter who many years previously lost one of her arms to an albino Great Southern Moldywarpe, whom she has named Mocker Jack.  Her goal in life, (her “philosophy” in the language of the book) has become to kill Mocker Jack, & hence to fulfil what she sees as her purpose. The hunt for Mocker Jack is one of the key elements of Railsea, but there are a number of other plots & subplots. 

Mieville has an extraordinary capacity to conjure up an imaginary world which is a distorted but convincing version of our own, & in doing so to address contemporary & fundamental human issues.  There are rail pirates, trains powered by sails & wind, submariners in tunnelling vehicles & a corrupt navy. The railsea itself is seething with eruchhonous life, a fauna like our fauna but with extra teeth & always surprising.

Railsea is the second novel I have read this year which is clearly inspired in part by Moby Dick (the other having been The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach).  If you are not familiar with Moby Dick (which I guess may be the case for many younger readers) then it does not really matter, but if you are then there is added reading pleasure in looking for &  thinking about the parallels.  Railsea is a rollicking story, but without doubt (as in much of Mieville's writing) there is more serious intent.  The place & role of Philosophy/religion in human life & the impact of Capitalism & market forces on how people live are two obvious themes, but Mieville is also concerned with where his world comes from & what it means to live a happy & fulfilled life.  & there is his usual playful occupation with language.  Railsea joins my shortlist of books with linguistic quirks – in this case the word “and” is replaced throughout by the ampersand, a reminder of the railtracks which curve everywhere.....

Friday, 22 June 2012

Review - The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey is a novel for the mind rather than the heart. I have read nearly all of Carey’s novels, but if you are coming to him for the first time I would probably not recommend The Chemistry of Tears as your starting point, although it is a very fine book. It is engaging, intellectually challenging and thought provoking, but not a book to grab the emotional attention. I think that this is deliberate on Carey’s part – there are several themes at work, and an interesting structure, but this is a book which is the product of deliberate, cold choices, a book which skates over the surface of devastating emotional events and focuses on the ability of the intellect (and science) to manufacture a simulacrum of life as a substitute for confronting and dealing with life head on.

Carey has said that he started this book from a collection of objects and ideas, and worked backwards to see how they could be incorporated into a novel. The automaton silver swan which connects the parallel story lines is clearly one such object and part of the pleasure of reading The Chemistry of Tears is spotting the others. He made several false starts before setting on two main narratives. Catherine is a horologist, an expert on the conservation and reconstruction of clocks and automata working in a London museum. As we encounter her, she has just discovered that the married colleague with whom she has been having a passionate and fulfilling affair for many years has suddenly died. She is devastated; all the moreso because she cannot share her grief with anyone and her life is otherwise an isolated one. However, one senior colleague (Crofty) has been aware of the situation and arranges for Catherine to be moved to an annexe and assigned the reconstruction of a mysterious automaton in order to distract her.

As Catherine begins to assemble the object and unravel its mysteries, she deconstructs and disassembles her affair, deleting the secret emails between herself and her lover one by one from a computer. She is assigned a new assistant, Amanda, gifted but unstable who turns out to be linked to Catherine’s life in unexpected ways.

Alternating with this present day story is the tale of the original construction of the automaton, deep in the Black Forest in the Victorian Era. Henry Brandling, the son of a family who had become wealthy in the Industrial Revolution, has been rejected by his wife and is terrified that his ill son will die. His quest is an attempt to create a magnificent object that will reignite his son’s love of life and his wife’s love for him. In Germany he will encounter a strange and unstable family who will help him in his task, as Amanda is helping Catherine, though again not always in ways that he will appreciate or understand.

In some ways I found this an unsatisfying novel, yet in the couple of weeks since I have read it I have found myself thinking about it at odd times. The lack of stability of many of the characters makes it difficult to warm to them – I did not feel that I got to know them or could understand their actions. Nonetheless, the book is beautifully constructed and clearly has been written in this way deliberately. Many ideas are at work, and the complexity of the novel mirrors the beauty and complexity of the automaton at its core. I may well read it again.  See Carey talking about the novel below....

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Book of the Week - Emily Perkins, The Forrests

The Forrests is Emily Perkins’ fourth novel, a family saga set in New Zealand where she grew up and currently lives, teaching creative writing at The University of Auckland and hosting TV New Zealand’s book programme The Good Word.  Perkins grew up in Auckland and Wellington. She left school to act in the TVNZ drama Open House, and trained at the New Zealand Drama School. However, her acting career did not take off and she subsequently studied creative writing at Victoria University. In 1994 she moved to London, where Picador published her first book in 1996. Her novels Leave Before You Go and The New Girl followed. As well as fiction, book reviews and personal essays she wrote a long-running column for the Independent on Sunday. She returned to New Zealand in 2005 and currently lives in Auckland with her husband, artist Karl Maughan, and their children.

The Forrests may be Perkins’ breakthrough novel and has received very positive notices. I have not seen signed copies of the UK edition yet, but she has been at Hay this week and I would expect these to appear soon.  Paperback only in the UK, with French Folds. Look out for this one on the literary prize lists later in the year.

“Dorothy Forrest is immersed in the sensory world around her; she lives in the flickering moment. From the age of seven, when her odd, disenfranchised family moves from New York City to the wide skies of Auckland, to the very end of her life, this is her great gift and possible misfortune.Through the wilderness of a commune, to falling in love, to early marriage and motherhood, from the glorious anguish of parenting to the loss of everything worked for and the unexpected return of love, Dorothy is swept along by time. Her family looms and recedes; revelations come to light; death changes everything, but somehow life remains as potent as it ever was, and the joy in just being won’t let her go.

In a narrative that shifts and moves, growing as wild as the characters, The Forrests is an extraordinary literary achievement. A novel that sings with colour and memory, it speaks of family and time, dysfunction, ageing and loneliness, about heat, youth, and how life can change if ‘you’re lucky enough to be around for it'”.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Powell and Murakami in the Auctions

Anthony Powell and Haruki Murakami are two authors in whom I have a particular interest, both as a reader and a collector. In many ways they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of literary fiction in terms of their focus and style, though both like to use a rather neutral/passive central male character who observes and sometimes comments on often extraordinary events around them. I have provided complete bibliographies for both (Powell here and Murakami here), and continue to update my Murakami bibliography as new books appear in English.

My collection of Murakami is complete, while my Powell collection is extensive but incomplete (and will probably remain so, for reasons discussed below). Although I have all of his post-war books, the pre-war ones are prohibitively expensive and difficult to find in dustwrapper. I did manage to pick up two of these in damaged but complete dustwrappers reasonably cheaply about ten years ago, and a second copy of A View to a Death in dustwrapper which was too cheap to pass on. I have held onto this to use in a possible swap, but an opportunity has not arisen as yet.

 A search online will quickly identify copies of all of Powell’s pre-war novels for sale, but at prices which I would be unwilling to pay at the moment. As a result of the above considerations, I keep an eye out for Powell’s novels at auction, and for the less frequent appearances of Murakami. Any of Murakami’s limited editions at close to original price should be snapped up – he has a very large fan base, and is likely to remain highly collectible for many years to come. The situation with Powell is more complex. However, my sense is that there has been a steady rise in the prices for his rarer books over recent years, with the usual fluctuations. I’m therefore very interested in two current/recent lots as they should give a good indication of market values for both authors (retail prices in the secondary market will be significantly higher).

Powell is represented by a nice set of the Dance to the Music of Time novels in a Christies' sale, with an estimate of £3000 – 4000. My set (assembled piecemeal while Powell was alive) cost around £1000, and I can recall a second set on the secondary market shortly after his death for £1500, so this auction should provide an indication of how values have risen in recent years. Of course, condition is key and must be borne in mind when considering fluctuations in price*.

*The set of Dance novels went for  £5625 including the premium - Powell's  stock among collectors is clearly on the up.

In the case of Murakami, Bloomsbury offered today a group of four novels, including the metal box set of Norwegian Wood (one of 500), Kafka on the Shore in a leather binding (one of 100), Norwegian Wood (gold cardboard box), and Kafka on the Shore in boards and slipcase (one of 1000). The estimate at £200-300 seemed very low to me based on advertised secondary market prices for these, and so it turned out to be with the lot making £793 including commission. A solid result, suggesting strong interest in Murakami from collectors. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Book of the Week - Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker

Now that June is upon us, my thoughts begin to turn to the summer reading list. Of course, there will be some literary fiction, but during the summer months I prefer to leaven the more serious stuff with a few books from other genres. Angelmaker is the second novel from Nick Harkaway, son of John Le Carre, but an emerging and interesting author in his own right. His first novel, The Gone-Away World, was well received and Angelmaker seems to have advanced his cause further. It was originally released back at the beginning of February and attracted some outstanding views. In fact, it has topped the CultureCritic Review Chart for at least a couple of months. It also seems to be the second book which I have recommended this year where one of the central characters is concerned with clockwork automatons.....synchronicity in action.

Harkaway writes novels which are a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, very inventive and enjoyable, although as with many books of this type there may be a few misses along with the large number of hits. The limited edition of The Gone-Away World has at least retained its value if not gained a little. There is not a limited edition of Angelmaker, but signed and dated first editions are still available at cover price from Goldsboro Books and represent a bit of a no-brainer in terms of a buy. I have a sneaking suspicion that Mr Harkaway will do very well in the long term and these early novels may well represent a good investment.

 “All Joe Spork wants to do is live quietly. He repairs clockwork and lives above his shop in a wet, unknown bit of London. The bills don’t always get paid and he’s single and in his mid thirties and he has no prospects of improving his lot, but at least he’s not trying to compete with the reputation of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, his infamous criminal dad. Edie Banister lives quietly and wishes she didn’t. She’s nearly ninety and remembers when she wasn’t. She used to be a spy, and now she’s… well… old. Worse yet, the things she fought to save don’t seem to exist anymore, and she’s beginning to wonder if they ever did. When Joe repairs one particularly unusual clockwork mechanism, his quiet life is blown apart. Suddenly he’s getting visits from sinister cultists and even more sinister lawyers. One of his friends is murdered and it looks as if he may be in the frame. Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, he seems to have switched on a 1950s doomsday machine – or is it something even more alarming? Edie’s story and Joe’s have collided. From here on in, nothing will be the same – Joe’s world is now full of mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe – and if Joe’s going to fix it or even survive, he must show that he can be everything Mathew was, and much, much more.”

Monday, 4 June 2012

Review - David Park, The Light of Amsterdam

David Park is a well established author of literary fiction from the North of Ireland, who deserves to be better known than he currently is at present. For instance, he seems to lack an entry in Wikipedia, something which I may attempt to remedy in the near future! The Light of Amsterdam is his 8th novel, published by Bloomsbury to generally good reviews. It starts and finishes in Belfast, but the bulk of the events occur over a weekend in Amsterdam.

The Light of Amsterdam follows the interacting stories of three pairs of characters who travel for a weekend away. Alan is a College lecturer in Art who has recently separated from his wife. His career is failing and he has lost his enthusiasm for his subject and for life. He is planning a trip on his own to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert, attempting to capture the spirit of an earlier visit at a formative stage in his life. His ex-wife, however, also has plans, and he finds that he has to take his teenage Goth son Jack with him. He thinks that this may allow him an opportunity to break down some of the barriers that marital breakdown and adolescence have caused in their relationship, but it is unlikely that the trip will be an easy one.

Karen is a working class single mother heading to Amsterdam for her daughter Shannon’s hen party. She has worked incredibly hard all of her life in a series of menial jobs to provide for Shannon, but has a burgeoning sense that her daughter takes her for granted and is not a very nice person. She has never been abroad before and is anxious about every aspect of the trip and worried about her future.

The third couple, Richard and Marion, own a Garden Centre and are traveling to Amsterdam for a weekend break. Marion is acutely aware of the aging process and worried that she is becoming dangerously unattractive to her husband. Each of them has a secret objective for the trip, and both are in for a considerable surprise.

During the course of the novel, the characters bump into each other at different stages of the trip, interacting in a range of ways. Most are concerned in different ways with aging and the sense that their lives are running out of time and opportunity, but an impression is left that providing they make an effort there is still time for them to reinvent themselves. The writing is strong, the characters interesting and the plot generally convincing, at times a little predictable but also with some surprises. I know both Belfast and Amsterdam well, and both places are conjured up with considerable conviction. The Light of Amsterdam is a gentle book, but with an edge. For me, the ending jars a little with what has gone earlier, but the characters will linger in my memory. Not an outstanding or groundbreaking book, but a worthwhile read.