Mark Watson, Eleven (2010)

Here’s a chain of consequences: early last year, I was at a work conference where, one evening, a group of us went to see Mark Watson in stand-up. His name was half-familiar, though I couldn’t quite place it; but I love good comedy, so I decided to take a chance and go along anyway – and I’m glad I did, because Watson was hilarious.

A few months later, I was in an unfamiliar part of town, and popped into the local library, where I saw a novel by an author named Mark Watson. A quick glance at the biography established that this was the same Mark Watson; apparently he’d written a couple of novels several years previously. If his fiction was anything like as good as his stand-up, I thought, then I wanted to read it – so I borrowed the book and, sure enough, it was very good.

All this meant that, when I heard earlier this year that Watson was going to publish a new novel, his first in six years, I was very interested in reading it. And the reason I’ve introduced this review as I have is that Eleven is all about chains of consequence. The central chain of events begins when Xavier Ireland, the host of a late-night radio phone-in show, witnesses a group of youths beating up another boy and tries to intervene, but fails to stop them. The novel continues to follow Xavier’s life whilst, alongside that, Watson traces the seemingly random consequences of that one incident – the bullying angers the victim’s mother, who then writes a harsher review of a restaurant than she might have otherwise; incensed by the review, the restaurant’s owner ends up firing one of his staff, and so on. We also discover what it was that led Chris Cotswold to leave Australia, change his name to Xavier Ireland, and take such an unsociable job – and why everything comes back to the number eleven.

The fabric of Eleven is shaped by the theme of chance moments and their ramifications. It’s there in Xavier’s life, as the nature of his job means that most of his connections with other people are transitory – the callers to his show enter his life briefly, then dart back out again; and the odd hours Xavier keeps mean that his producer/co-presenter Murray is probably the person he sees most regularly. The theme is there, of course, in the main consequence-chain; but it’s also there in Watson’s many asides, which reveal connections between minor characters, or glimpses into their futures. These asides act as a reminder that, beyond the protagonist’s life (and, in reality, our own), there are countless webs of other stories which remain unknown to us.

Watson also captures the raggedy nature of life in his plot progression, as events don’t necessarily tie up neatly; what seems as though it’s going to become the novel’s key relationship actually fizzles out early on; and an apparently throwaway gag – one woman Xavier meets at a speed-dating event introduces herself as a cleaner, and before their three minutes are up, he’s made an appointment with her for that weekend – grows into one of the main plot strands.

The character development in Eleven is also smartly done. As I said earlier, Xavier’s relationships with other people tend to be fleeting; when someone does start to become more of a permanent fixture in his life, Xavier doesn’t know how to handle it – but he learns to so in a halting fashion which is very believable. More generally, Eleven could be seen as the story of how Xavier slowly breaks out of the old pattern of his life – but then comes the ending…

I really like the ending of Eleven. It reminds me of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, insofar as both books have endings which are no way to end a novel, and yet are completely right for the story they tell. But you’ll have to read this novel to find out what I mean. And perhaps, as a consequence, you’ll have found a new book to enjoy.

Some other reviews of Eleven: Learning to Read; Booking Passage; Words, Words, Words; Booktopia.
Extract from Eleven at Bookhugger
Mark Watson’s website

FantasyCon 2010

Last weekend, I travelled up to Nottingham for my ninth FantasyCon, with its mix of panels, readings, book launches, and more. My weekend began with the ever-entertaining FantasyCon quiz, which I had to attend, because a) it’s always a laugh, and b) I was on the winning table last year, and so had a ‘title’ to defend. And this year… we won – by a single point.

The Guests of Honour this year were Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle and Bryan Talbot; my overriding conclusion from the weekend is that I really need to read the work of these people more often (or, in the case of Tuttle and Talbot, read their work for the first time). Kilworth’s interview was very interesting, and began with an excellent performance of one of his short stories (assisted by Tuttle and interviewer Guy Adams). Talbot gave a fascinating talk on the tradition of depicting anthropomorphic animals in artwork (much less dry than it sounds) and the references to it in his latest graphic novel, Grandeville. I didn’t attend Tuttle’s interview, but I heard good things about her work, and she was engaging when I saw her on a panel.

The programme of events wasn’t, to be honest, one of the best I’ve experienced at FantasyCon. It seemed less full than it has in recent years (only one stream of panel programming), and I’d have welcomed more variety in the panel topics. Still, the panels I attended were interesting; quote of the weekend came from Chaz Brenchley during the discussion on fantasy and escapism: “Fantasy is not an excuse, it’s a demand.” Very true, I’d say. I managed to catch only one reading this year, but I was highly intrigued by the chapter Mark Morris read from the novel he’s writing with Tim Lebbon, and I look forward to investigating the finished book.

As always, the con included the presentation of the British Fantasy Awards, presided over this year by Master of Ceremonies James Barclay. One particularly poignant note came with the announcement that this year’s Special Award was honouring the great and much-missed Rob Holdstock – a well-deserved accolade. I was particularly pleased to see a couple of books that I very much liked last year picking up awards: Conrad WilliamsOne (Best Novel) and Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night’ (Best Short Story). And, as Rob Shearman accepted the Best Collection award for Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, I was reminded that I really should read that book. Congratulations to them and all other winners!

One of the things I enjoy about going to cons is not just catching up with old friends, but also meeting in the flesh people that I’ve only known online. So it was a great pleasure this year to chat to writers Tom Fletcher and Simon Unsworth, and fellow book blogger Amanda Rutter.

After five years in Nottingham, FantasyCon is moving to Brighton next year – which should be interesting, as I’ve never been there before. Gwyneth Jones has already been announced as the first Guest of Honour, and I’ve booked my place; perhaps I’ll see you there.

A list of links to other people’s convention reports can be found on the FantasyCon website.

Gabe Rotter, The Human Bobby (2010)

Bobby Flopkowski had few natural advantages – he’s average-looking and from a poor background – but he has been lucky in life, and arrived at age forty with a loving family, a lucrative career as a paediatrician, and a plush Beverly Hills house. It all unravels, though, when Bobby’s baby son Jack disappeared one night, after being left alone for just five minutes; Bobby’s wife, Ava, leaves him, and he spirals down into a drink- and drug-fuelled depression, frittering his money away on expensive hotel bills. He ends up living on the beach in a tent, with no regular companions save Eddie, a fellow homeless man, and Cecilia, a cafe owner. And then, one day, Bobby spots Katie Turner, his first girlfriend, who walked back into his life shortly before Jack’s disappearance. She doesn’t seem to recognise Bobby any more, and has apparently changed her name – could this be because she knows what has happened to Jack?

Gabe Rotter’s second novel is a marvellously elegant construction. On one level, it’s a sharp study of one man’s decline; Rotter is particularly good at showing how innocent and apparently small decisions might cause a chain of major repercussions: no harm in getting in touch with the old flame, Bobby thinks; but then she turns up at his party, and she needs a place to stay; well, Bobby and Ava have room, so why not invite her – and so on. Bobby’s descent into addiction has a similarly all-too-plausible momentum; he knows that he’s destroying himself, but, having lost everything, he is unable to stop; it’s powerful, and appropriately uncomfortable, reading.

But there’s another layer to The Human Bobby, which is all about perception: just what is going on with Katie Turner? Is Bobby right about her, or has he lost his grip on reality? In a brilliantly disorienting journey, Rotter leads us through several possible interpretations, before finally settling on one that seems just a little too neat – and then wryly undermines it at the last, in a way that could be seen as either opening up the possibilities once more, or showing the depths of Bobby’s desperation. It’s a fine ending to a very fine novel.

Gabe Rotter’s blog

Matt Beaumont, e Squared (2009)

I first tried reading e Squared last year, but didn’t find it particularly amusing, and so gave up. But I decided to try again, and I'm glad I did, because this time, I found the novel hilarious.

e Squared is a follow-up to Matt Beaumont’s debut novel e, and its short sequel The e Before Christmas (both published  2000). It concerns a London advertising agency (sorry, I mean “thought collective”) called Meerkat360, and is told entirely through emails, instant-message and SMS conversations, and blog posts. I haven’t read either of the two earlier books, but, although I inevitably missed some of the context, it didn’t matter too much – enough time has passed in fictional terms for e Squared to pretty much stand alone.

Since so much of the fun of reading Beaumont’s novel lies in discovering the absurdities of its characters and situations, I won’t reveal too much here. But the cast of e Squared includes: David Crutton, the CEO of Meerkat360, whose relationship with his wife Janice becomes so strained at times that they resort to communicating with each other via their PAs; Liam O’Keefe, whose debts are so large that he’ll filch anything he can from the office and sell it on eBay; the hopelessly naive Harvey Harvey, who doesn’t understand the concept of spam email, and is deeply concerned about all the lonely girls who keep emailing him; and Caroline Zitter, who’s forever out of the office at some outlandish seminar or other. I’m holding back a little in my descriptions, there; the absurdities of these (and other) characters are turned right up to the maximum.

The events of e Squared are also gloriously daft. The Creative Department of Meerkat360 employs various staff to enhance their creativity, including a hairdresser and clown (much to the consternation of David Crutton). Some of the agency’s commissions are rather dubious (e.g. cigarettes with added vitamins and minerals – “your 5 a day”). A former creative director of Miller Shanks (the forerunner to Meerkat360) has retired to France, from where he chronicles his life in blog posts that nobody reads. Transworld Publishers make a cameo appearance, and are shown   to have some of the same emailing habits as Meerkat360 (though surely it’s not like that in real life…).

What really adds an extra dimension to e Squared for me is the way that Beaumont uses the epistolary form for effect. For example, the first chapter intercuts Janice Crutton’s annual Christmas email to her family and friends – which paints life in the Crutton household as a model of familial happiness and harmony – with other emails and exchanges which suggest a rather different reality. And there are times when the distancing effect of having events reported to us in emails, rather than “witnessing” them directly, gives the humour a deadpan quality.

But, you know, e Squared is a whole lot funnier to read than it is to describe like this. So I shall stop there and just suggest that you go and read it.

Some other reviews of e Squared: Rather Lovely; For Books’ Sake; Bookmunch; Den of Geek.
Matt Beaumont’s website
Meerkat360 website
Den of Geek interview with Beaumont

Jess Walter, The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009)

It seemed like a good idea at the time to Matt Prior: to leave his job as a financial journalist and set up a website focused on providing financial writing of a higher literary quality  than usual – financial advice in the form of poetry, anyone? The site proved unpopular, and Matt is now just a few days away from losing the home he shares with his wife Lisa, sons Frankiin and Teddy, and his ailing father Jerry – not that he’s told any of them. What’s more, Matt thinks Lisa has reconnected with her ex-boyfriend online. It’s a pretty dire situation, then; but a chance encounter with some youths at a 7/11 leads Matt to think of a way out of his problems – dealing in dope. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…

The Financial Lives of the Poets is, above all, a very funny book. Much of the humour comes from Matt’s narrative voice, which is dense with observation. For example:

The advice you get when your mortgage is in danger is to “contact the lender.” The last time I contacted my lender, some twenty-five-year-old kid answered the phone and talked me into forbearance, this six-month amnesty of procrastination. I should have known it was a bad move when I contacted my lender the next time and found out the kid had been laid off, that our mortgage had been bundled and sold with a stack of similarly red paper to a second company, and that the second company had been absorbed by a third company. Now I have no idea how to “contact my lender.” I seem to spend hours in automated phone dungeons (“For English, press one”) desperately looking for a single human voice to gently tell me I’m dead. (29)

Walter achieves a nice balancing act with Matt’s voice and character, I think: there are wisecracks, but there’s also enough desperation in Matt’s narration to keep him grounded firmly in the messy business of the story, rather than floating freely above it where a quip and a raised eyebrow could save the day.

Matt is (appropriately, I’d say) simultaneously sympathetic and unlikeable. There’s something almost endearing about the way that his attempts to dig himself out of a hole end up pushing him further into one; but we can see that he has the best intentions at heart – except that, sometimes, he doesn’t. He’s under pressure from about five or six different angles and, though his responses aren’t always commendable, they ring true emotionally. There’s also an undercurrent of poignancy when Matt confronts issues like his father’s dementia, which acts as a counterpoint to the humour.

The Financial Lives of the Poets feels very much like a novel that belongs to today: it’s a story that grows out of the current economic climate, and examines the lengths to which someone might go to deal with a bad situation – and there are plenty of laughs along the way. Warmly recommended.

Some other reviews of The Financial Lives of the Poets: Just William’s LuckBookmunch; Raging Bibliomania.
Jess Walter’s website

Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May On the Loose (2009)

I first really became aware of Christopher Fowler when he was a Guest of Honour at FantasyCon in 2003, where he gave a brilliantly impassioned speech about the field (I believe a transcript was printed in an issue of Postscripts). During his interview, Fowler mentioned a novel of his called Disturbia (1997), which sounded interesting; I tracked a copy down, and enjoyed it – but I remember having to adjust the way I was reading it part-way through, when I  what I thought was a straightforward contemporary London setting turned out to be something slightly different.

I had a similar experience with the present book, in that it really has to be approached with an awareness of what the author is seeking to do – which is to set a Golden Age detection in the present day – and the particular technique he uses to achieve that. Bryant & May On the Loose is the seventh novel featuring the titular detectives (though I’m sure at least one of them was in Disturbia), octogenarian but still active in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, set up to handle all the crimes that were just too odd for the mainstream Metropolitan Police.

At the start of this book, though, the PCU has been closed down, and its members have gone their separate ways. But then a headless body is found a freezer, there are sightings of a man dressed as a stag, with knives for antlers., and it all looks to have something to do with the building work taking place at King’s Cross. Sounds like a job for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which reforms, albeit without official sanction, and with far fewer resources and rather less comfortable accommodation.

The first thing to say about Bryant & May On the Loose is that, even though it’s the seventh volume in the series, I didn’t feel disadvantaged at jumping straight in. There were inevitably going to be some references to back-story, but from my perspective, Fowler did a good job of balancing those with making the novel stand alone. And it makes me want to read the others so I can appreciate this one in context, which is no bad thing.

Before I started reading, I was half- expecting Bryant and May to be parodic, larger-than-life characters; but, actually (and I think this is a more interesting approach) they’re more low-key than that.

Arthur Bryant is the ‘Golden Age detective’ figure,  steeped in knowledge of (and looking for clues in) local history and folklore; he’s subdued to begin with here, with the closure of the PCU, but soon gets back into his stride (I’d love to see him in ‘full flow’, which I guess I’ll find in other Bryant and May books). John May takes a more conventional approach; the differences between the two are summed up in this passage, spoken by May:

You always want to think [you’re searching for] twisted geniuses…You long to pit your wits against someone who hides clues in paintings and evades capture through their knowledge of ancient Greek. Forget it, Arthur; those days have gone. (362)

This highlights another key aspect of Fowler’s technique: though Bryant gets his time in the sun (e.g. the chance to explain everything to his colleagues at the end), his Golden-Age style is constantly being interrogated (pardon the pun) and shown to be an ill fit for the modern world – even when it has apparently been vindicated.

Above this level, we have a novel which is – in true Golden Age tradition – a great pleasure to read.  There are a few moments where I feel the exposition is overly dense; but, mostly, the book rattles along. I’ll be reading more Bryant and May novels in the future, no doubt about that.

Some other reviews of Bryant & May On the Loose: Chasing Bawa, Notes of Life, Five Minutes Peace
Christopher Fowler’s website

Stories: Conclusion

Having reached the end of Stories (click here for the index of my posts), it’s time for a few remarks in closing. I’d characterise this as a solid anthology — a broad range of material, and nothing particularly bad (Gene Wolfe’s is probably the weakest story, and even that has a certain amount of interest). However, more stories fall into the ‘quite good’ bracket ( as opposed to the ‘good’ bracket) than I’d have liked, and this is what makes the anthology solid rather than spectacular for me.

What, then, are the best stories in Stories? Roddy Doyle and Jodi Picoult do interesting things with fantasy, and demonstrate how fruitful the results can be when ‘mainstream’ writers try their hand at the fantastic. Michael Swanwick, Jeffrey Ford, and Joe Hill contribute perhaps the best-told tales; and Kat Howard’s piece is a strong debut.

Finally, how far does the anthology meet its stated aim: to collect stories that encourage readers to ask ‘and then what happened’? Quite well, I think — for all the criticisms I might make of some 0f these stories, they’re rarely dull. I’m wary of saying that any anthology has ‘something for everyone’ — but I think Stories comes close.

Joe Hill, ‘The Devil on the Staircase’ (2010)

And so, we reach the climax of the anthology, and this is a great way in which to end it. Hill tells of a boy who lives in Italy (towards, I’d surmise, the end of the 19th century), in a mountain village accessible only by a network of staircases cut into the cliffs. The boy has eyes for his cousin, Lithodora, and one day kills her lover in the heat of the moment. He then encounters a devil in the form of a child, who gives him a tin bird that sings a beautiful song when told lies.

Hill’s telling has the flow of a folktale; the rhythm of his prose is emphasised by the downward slopes in which the text is arranged on the page. Add to this a neat metaphorical undercurrent (the tin bird comes to represent the spread of propaganda), and you have a fine story indeed.

Rating: ****

Joe Hill’s website

This post is part of a series on the anthology
Stories; click here to read the rest.


Elizabeth Hand, ‘The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon‘ (2010)

A museum exhibit designer takes it upon himself to restage the first flight of the Bellerophon, a Heath Robinson-esque aircraft which crashed in mysterious circumstances, and of which only a few seconds of film footage survives. At fifty pages, this is the longest story in the anthology — but it zips along so briskly that it feels only half its length. Told with brio, Hand’s tale is great fun, and saves a moment of real poignancy for the end.

Rating: ***½

Elizabeth Hand’s website

This post is part of a series on the anthology Stories; click here to read the rest.