Posts Tagged ‘david mitchell’

2013 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Since 2008 I’ve been compulsively keeping records of every book I read, and this year I’ve read more than any year since 2008. As of the time of this writing, I’m up to 80 books read and I’ll certainly squeeze in a couple more before the year is out. That seems like an awful lot of books, most of them fiction. I know of one person who reads substantially more than I do in an average year (seasons greetings to Tehani Wessely), but no one else. Workmates can’t help but notice that not only do I have my nose in a book at just about any given time, but that the cover changes practically on a daily basis. Wrapped up in books, indeed.

So what did I read? About a third of these books can be classified as crime fiction. This year I continued to be enthralled by the works of Americans Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell, but I also read and enjoyed Australian crime writers Peter Temple and David Whish-Wilson for the first time. Probably another third fall under the loose category of literary fiction. This year I read pretty much all of Raymond Carver’s short fiction and I also discovered Zoe Heller.  And the rest are a grab-bag of young adult novels read for school (the best of which were The Hunger Games and Trash), speculative fiction (my recent Farewell to Science Fiction notwithstanding) and some non-fiction. In 2013 I also read literary journals in Meanjin and Overland.

Another focus for 2013 was reading more books by women. When I started recording my reading in 2008, I couldn’t help but notice that only 9 of the 59 books I read that year were by women. This year that figure is 26, about one third of the books I read. I continued to be impressed by the works of Megan Abbott and Pat Barker, both of whom feature in my top ten, but I also read and enjoyed works by JC Burke, Zoe Heller, Kaaron Warren, Felicity Castagna, Meg Mundell, Marianne de Pierres and Katie Stewart.

Onto the top ten, then. This isn’t a ranked list and I limited myself to one book per writer. I can wholeheartedly recommend these books to anyone and everyone. I’ve linked the images to the listing for each book on Goodreads.






Book Review – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I could scarcely have been more enthusiastic about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas upon picking it up, nor can I remember being so enthusiastic about a newly discovered author. After reading Mitchell’s more recent Black Swan Green, I was eager to seek out his earlier books, and Cloud Atlas didn’t disappoint. To say I was impressed and enthralled by the first 200 pages of this book would be an understatement.

The first interesting thing about Cloud Atlas is its structure. What we have here is a series of eleven novella length sections, covering six different narratives. Each of the six narratives are set in different times and places, spanning from the 19th century to the distant future. But I wouldn’t call this science fiction. The six narratives are told, initially, in chronological order. They are: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing; Letters from Zedelghem; Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery; The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish; An Orison of Sonmi-451; and Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After. And then we get a second section of all but the Sloosha story, told in reverse order (i.e. from the future to the past).

If that seems confusing, don’t worry: Cloud Atlas is anything but. In the first half of the book, the narratives tend to end at particularly interesting cliffhangers, or even in one case in the middle of a sentence. This is fairly daring, as readers tend to love continuity, but it isn’t long before you’ve stopped pining for part two of a particular narrative and become engrossed in the next one. This is not to say that I enjoyed all the narratives equally, however. The way that the apparently unrelated narratives fit together is in the nature of one of those Russian Matyroshka dolls: each narrative encompasses the previous one, in the sense that someone discovers or is in possession of the manuscript of the previous section. Therefore, the young musician Robert Frobisher reads Adam Ewing, Rufus Sixsmith reads Robert Frobisher, and etc. This is surprisingly well done, much in the manner of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 1) is in diary form, detailing Ewing’s travels and travails through the Chatham Islands near New Zealand and onto a ship destined for Ewing’s native U S of A. Ewing has some appropriately racist views on the various native populations, but he’s a kinder man than those around him. We leave him mid sentence, shortly after having helped one of the last remaining Moriori tribesmen to avoid being thrown into the Pacific.

Letters from Zedelghem consists of a series of letters from young Robert Frobisher to his muse, known at this stage only as ‘Sixsmith.’ The setting is Belgium in 1931, with Nazi occupation still eight years away. Frobisher is a manipulative sort, managing to wheedle his way into a position of influence in the house of the composer Vyvyan Ayrs. In doing so, he helps to compose some new music with the old man, as well as sleeping with his wife and appropriating many of his clothes. There is a delicious scene where the old man bursts into Frobisher’s room in the wee hours, having been inspired to compose some new music. Luckily for Frobisher, the old man is too blind and enfeebled to notice his own wife hiding beneath the covers…

Half Lives – the First Luisa Rey Mystery is my favourite narrative in Cloud Atlas. It’s a seventies nuclear secret cover-up thingy, and it works really well. So well that it’s almost an ‘underpowered’ novel in its own right. This reminds me of a fairly recent novel that I doubt many people will have read – Carter Scholz’ Radiance. This story is full of deceit, murderous thugs and Rufus Sixsmith, previously Frobisher’s muse (i.e. 40 years before) and now a nuclear scientist. This is where Cloud Atlas shines brightest, for me at least.

I didn’t especially enjoy The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, but that’s probably because Mr Cavendish is a bit of a jerk. He’s a publisher suddenly propelled to fame by his best (and only) author’s murderous party antics. He reads the ‘Luisa Rey’ novel on his slushpile. Later on, Cavendish ends up in a kind of nursing home that reminds the reader of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Nor was I a fan of An Orison of Sonmi-45, which is an interview between an archivist and a fabricator. Turns out that Sonmi is a clone, forced to work in extremely degrading conditions in a restaurant in a future Korea. The fabricators gets fed a long line of bullshit, as well as something called Soap which seems to keep them in check. Of course, Sonmi ends up breaking out of this stifling world. Unfortunately, this was WAY too reminiscent of Brave New World. I would label this derivative. Instead of soma, we have Soap, but it’s essentially an updated vision of Huxley’s future. Additionally, there were a couple of things that really annoyed me here. One was the way the narrative dropped the letter ‘e’ at the beginning of words like xactly and xtraordinary, and the second was the fact that things are referred to by their brand names: cars become fords, coffee becomes starbucks. This is a bit too obvious, a bit too gimmicky, and not especially original.

The last narrative is Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After, and in terms of style it is reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, as the title would suggest. It concerns a man called Zach’ry, who is retelling stories from his youth. Turns out Zach’ry accidentally led a horde of murderous bandits to his father’s home as a child of nine. Then, six or so years later, he had some dealings with the Prescients, a group of people who appear to be the last civilised society on the planet. This story is set in Hawaii in some far flung future. This turns out to be a harrowing tale of young Zach’ry and a Prescient woman trying to survive a barbarian incursion – perhaps the last such violence in human history.

And then we get the earlier narratives in reverse order. I am not entirely won over by this technique, as it presents some peculiar problems. As I was not a fan of Somni’s story, I felt the book sagged in the middle. The strongest three narratives, in my opinion, are the first three, and thus the last three as well. Luisa Rey’s story is perhaps the best of all six, closely followed by Adam Ewing’s misadventures in the Pacific. And it is curious to read a novel in which causality is utterly irrelevant. The moral of the story appears to be as the poisoner Henry Goose has it: “The Weak are Meat; the Strong do Eat.” So it goes. There’s a weary cynicism about all of this, which is only slightly tempered by Mitchell’s more whimsical flourishes: the unique birthmark that many of the protagonists seem to share; the fact that the narratives seem to be mystically linked. In the second half, protagonists keep stumbling upon the ‘second halves’ of earlier narratives.

In summary, I think Mitchell has bitten off a little more than he can chew here. He doesn’t want for ambition, I’ll give him that, but in the end Cloud Atlas is hampered by some of the decisions that went into its composition. The narratives seem too dissonant and, in the context of one another, irrelevant. I couldn’t help but think that Mitchell was much more at home with the Pacific and Hawaiian narratives than with the futuristic dystopian Korea. Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery was so strong that it could have been the basis of a reasonably good novel by itself, and Letters from Zedelgelm had its own quaint charms. Mitchell may yet write a great novel (and I think his less ambitious Black Swan Green is more successful) but Cloud Atlas is not it.

Book Review – Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

May 12, 2008 1 comment

Part of the joy of books, for me, is in the hunt. Discovering new authors, tracking down their books in secondhand bookstores or publisher’s discard piles, reading reviews of their work on the net – all of this is almost as fun as actually reading. As I’m a poor teacher, I can rarely afford to buy new books. Consequently, I almost never buy new books by authors I’m not familar with. Furthermore, I make sure I research the novel in question on the internet first, to make sure I’m likely to like it. All of this serves to defeat what bookstores are supposed to be about, namely going in, picking up a title that looks interesting, handing over some money and leaving. And here’s the rub. Books in this country are FAR too expensive. These days a b size paperback (i.e. a small or ‘mass market’ paperback) will set you back around $22. An a size, or trade paperback (i.e. the hardback sized paperbacks) cost in the vicinity of $30-35. Considering that most novels (with the exception of epic fantasy) are somewhere in the order of 250-400 pages long, this does not necessarily represent a sound investment. Therefore, I just don’t buy new books by new authors. This is surely poison to the entire publishing industry, and I doubt I’m the only person who can’t afford these kind of prices.

Given all of this, then, I was trawling the remainder stand at Collins Booksellers in Midland on Saturday in the hope of finding something interesting. For those who don’t understand what remaindered books are all about, here’s the deal. Publishers print a certain number of copies of a novel, and then if the print run fails to sell out in a given time (usually a few months), then the book is ‘remaindered.’ This means that the books are sent back to the publisher, where they are marked, usually with a vertical line across the top of the book. Then they end up on these discard piles at the front of your local bookstore, where the price is drastically reduced. I’m fairly sure that remaindered books don’t net the author any royalties, which is a shame for them, but it’s generally good news for the book-buyer. While there isn’t the selection of titles you’d find on the main shelves of a bookstore, you can expect to pay $5 for a small paperback and perhaps $10 for a large one. This is the kind of price books ought to cost. If books were as cheap as this, then I suspect the publishing industry, and reading communities in general, wouldn’t be in such a parlous state.

It was on that discard stand at Collins that I picked up two books, “Hunter’s Run” by Gardner Dozois, George R. R. Martin and Daniel Abraham, and “Black Swan Green” by David Mitchell. Some people hate trade paperbacks, but I love them. Only problem is, $30-35 is an absurd amount of money to hand over for something that might take me four to six hours to read, depend on the length. $9, however, is much more like it. And I’m glad I did pick up “Black Swan Green” because it was a very interesting book indeed. Upon completing it, I did some research on David Mitchell, a British author of three other novels, a couple of which were shortlisted for the Booker prize. “Black Swan Green” was so good that I am now determined to track down copies of Mitchell’s earlier novels, even if I have to…ahem…pay full price for them. And this is why publishing is broken. If books are this expensive relative to the amount of money one is likely to have in one’s pocket, then said reader isn’t likely to take a chance on a new author. If not for the remainder pile, which publishers and authors alike regard as a sort of ‘last chance saloon,’ then I would not have heard of “Black Swan Green” or David Mitchell at all.

I get the idea that “Black Swan Green” is a departure for David Mitchell from the kind of book he usually seems to write. Mitchell’s third novel, “Cloud Atlas,” is apparently an epic, genre-spanning, time-hopping saga, with something like six different narrators. This sounds very interesting. But “Black Swan Green” is a fairly straightforward tale of a thirteen year old boy in early eighties Britain. There are 13 chapters, set in 13 months spanning the period Jan 1982 to Jan 1983. The boy, Jason Taylor, lives in a Worcestershire town with the unlikely name of Black Swan Green. So this is a coming of age story, except that it deals with the period leading up to adolescence, rather than the normal age of sixteen or seventeen that usually seems to be favoured. Jason has a stammer which he calls ‘Hangman,’ an older sister named Julia, and a lot of difficulties with the local bullies. All of this reminds me of my own childhood in England, although I left those gloomy shores long before I was Jason Taylor’s age.

What is it that makes a book interesting? Sometimes it’s a cracking plot, sometimes an author’s ability to create interesting characters or memorable dialogue. Sometimes it’s harder to define. I’m wondering about this because on the surface, “Black Swan Green” shouldn’t be an especially interesting novel. I mean, it’s about a young boy going to a speech therapist, being initiated into a secret society only to be turfed out again, etc etc. And yet this is fascinating. I can only conclude that it must have something to do with the author’s ability to shape ordinary experiene into something memorable. It must be to do with selection of detail. I think of novels as ‘compressed time’ – as though the author has squeezed the oranges that are our months and years into a potent juice called an interesting novel. An author who does this incredibly well at times is another Brit, M. John Harrison. I contend that his novel “Climbers” is one of the greatest in the English language in the last thirty years. What is it about? Well, being unemployed, doing some rock climbing, drinking some coffee. It’s a mystery to me, but “Climbers” is an outstanding novel, and “Black Swan Green” is too.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that I’ve managed to write 1000 words barely mentioning the plot of “Black Swan Green,” but no matter. David Mitchell is surely one of the best writers I have had the pleasure to read in recent years, and as soon as I can find two pennies to rub together, I will send off for a copy of “Cloud Atlas.”