Backwards Through A Telescope – ‘The Invisible Circus’ by Jennifer Egan

Due to the popularity and prize-winning capabilities of ‘A Visit From A Goon Squad’ Jennifer Egan’s backlist has been reissued.  This has given me a rare opportunity to read an author’s body of work in reverse order. I’ve seen many authors mature (and deteriorate) as their body of work expands, but never before have I retraced the steps of a novelist’s evolution.  For ‘Goon Squad’ Egan played literary magpie, giving the novel a post-modern structure and multiple styles. ‘Look at Me’ was a much more straightforward (if scarily prescient) affair. So as I travel backwards in time, how would I find Egan’s début novel ‘The Invisible Circus’?

Firstly, it is by far the easiest of the three to read. There are none of the literary tricks of ‘Goon Squad’ and none of the thesaurus swallowing prose that occasionally marred ‘Look at Me’. This is much simpler narrative; a straightforward coming-of-age novel.  Whilst less ambitious in scope, as you might expect from a first novel, ‘Invisible Circus’ is still highly readable and thought provoking.

It’s 1978 and Phoebe O’Connor is eighteen.  She lives with her Mum in San Francisco. Her father died when she was a young girl, and her older sister, Faith, died whilst travelling in Italy.  The shadow of Faith hangs over Phoebe, in particular the circumstances of her death.  She fell from a cliff, but did she jump or was it a drug-induced accident?  Phoebe is reaching a crisis point in her life.  Having lived in the shadow of two dead loved-ones, can she step into the light? More to the point, does she want to?  When her mother starts talking about selling the family home, and introduces Phoebe to the new man in her life, Phoebe decides to follow in Faith’s footsteps.

There are some curious time-lags in this novel.  I’m reading it in 2012, it was written in 1995, set in 1978 with a back-story set in the 1960’s. Faith’s story begins in the revolutionary year of 1968.  She was a headstrong girls who drew people towards her and made things happen.  Phoebe is the complete opposite. All three of Egan’s books share a common theme; the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Here Phoebe is paralysed by the weight of the stories surrounding her sister, and the image she has of her father.  Egan’s depiction of Phoebe’s grief is raw and well-realised.

As she travels across Europe, Phoebe realises that the perfect pictures she has of her family do not match up to reality.  Faith was not the principled idealist she thought she was, neither was she as happy an in control as she had appeared.  Phoebe’s father had a destructive relationship with all his children, and as Phoebe accepts this, she can begin to move on.  There is an inevitable romantic liaison, Phoebe’s first, which is beautifully well-realised.  Youthful passion is captured perfectly, and the pages fizz with the sexual energy that goes hand in hand with young love (he says, bitterly).

There is not a strong sense of plot to ‘Invisible Circus’, it simply charts Phoebe’s transition from girl to woman.  Anybody reading ‘Invisible Circus’ will recognise the emotions felt by Phoebe on her journey;  her wish to rebel but need to confirm are sentiments felt by countless young adults.  This an accomplished novel.  Whilst it won’t enhance Egan’s reputation on its own, it is an excellent read. ‘Invisible Circus’ shows that Egan is an author who had a handle on the human condition right from the start of her career.

I wish to thank Sam at Corsair (an imprint of Constable and Robinson) for affording me the chance to review this book. 

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The Guttering Flame of Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco novels are always released to huge acclaim.  Some are received better than others, but the release of his novels normally produces much fawning amongst the literati.  ‘The Name of the Rose’ is considered to be a work of genius.  I feel almost embarrassed to admit that I find his books boring, and to be honest, I’m not sure I understand them.  I read the The Name of the Rose nearly twenty years ago.  As I said in my review of ‘Warbreaker’ my literary consumption around this time consisted almost entirely of fantasy books.  I’d just met this girl, who was a law student, and voracious reader of books, none of which contained dragons.  In an attempt to impress, I decided that I should alter my diet.

Perhaps Eco wasn’t the best place to start. ‘A feast of intelligence and intellectual sparkle‘ my copy of TNOTR says. ‘Riveting (and) compulsively attractive‘, it was these sorts of superlatives that drew me in.  From my position of twenty years of hindsight I can now see that Michael Connelly writes riveting and compulsive crime novels.  Umberto Eco does not.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but it was bloody hard work.  I read page after page, understanding each word, but struggling to understand why it was interesting.  The same can be said of my next attempt at Eco, about ten years later.  ‘Focault’s Pendulum’ is  deliberately abstruse; it’s essentially a giant literary farce.  Again there were bits I enjoyed, but mostly it was trawling through the book, reading on from a sense of duty rather than enjoyment. On the plus side, reader, I married her.

Yet, the blurbs and premises of Eco’s books continue to appeal.  I own unread copies of Baudolino, The Island of the Day Before and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.  The books sit on my shelves, waiting to be picked for the team, like literary nerds failing to attract notice of the captain. I pass them over time and again.  So, I was pleased when somebody from my book club suggested reading  ‘Mysterious Flame’  as I was finally forced to read it. (I sometimes think the whole purpose of a book club, should be to get its members to read those books they’ll never get around to reading on their own.)

The premise of the book is excellent, and the opening fifty pages sucked me in.  Yambo has suffered a stroke, which has left him unharmed except in one very important way.  He has no memories of anything personal.  Dates from history he can remember.  His wife and children he cannot.  Before the stroke he was an antiquarian bookseller; after he can still remember titles and details of obscure tomes, but only if they are in no way relevant to his personal life.  Articulate and intelligent, but without any memories of how he came to be who he is, Yambo sets out on a journey of self-rediscovery.

It’s such an elegant idea: – Is it possible to reconstruct yourself from your possessions, old photographs, or diaries?  Can impressions of you, told by friends, you can’t remember, be reliable sources of information as to who you were?  How much are we a product of circumstance? Do the stories of our lives tells us who we are?  Yambo is thrown into turmoil once he discovers he used to be regularly unfaithful to his wife.  Suddenly he wonders whether any woman who shows him kindness is a former lover.  In particular, his young and attractive assistant.  He can imagine that he may have had an affair with her, but how can he find out?  He ends up tearing himself inside out, agonising of the possibility of having had an affair with someone, but having no way of knowing.  It’s evocative and absorbing stuff.

If only the rest of the book had continued in the same vein.  Instead it disappears into lots of mouldy old books.  In order to reacquaint himself with himself, Yambo moves into his isolated ancestral home.  The image is nice; an amnesiac searching through his old possessions, trying to discover the boy he was.  The execution is turgid and more than a little self-indulgent.  Perhaps if you are interested in a certain period of Italian history, this examination of social history through books, newspapers and magazines is interesting, but for most of the world’s population, it’s pretty dull.  A trial by media, if you will.

I’m sure there are a number of people out there who would sniff at me for saying this, suggesting that I don’t have the mental faculties to fully appreciate what Eco has set out to do.  They might be right, but it doesn’t matter how clever you are, if your book is so boring people don’t want to read it, it’s not a good book.  My book group are a collection of educated people, who enjoy all manner of books, but nearly all of them struggled with the middle sections of ‘Mysterious Flame’.  The only person in the group who said they enjoyed it, is Italian. – And there’s the rub. It’s nostalgia trip for Eco and those who reference the times he is talking about.

Part of my disconnectedness from the book comes, I think, from the fact it is a translated novel.  A book so steeped in the history of a country, one that uses countless illustrations from journals printed in the native language, feels wrong when everything else is in English.  I gathered no sense that Eco’s Italy was a real place.  In the end, reading ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’ felt like marching through a desert.  Just putting one word after another, slowly reading my way to the end.  I used to finish every book I started, but these days if reading becomes a chore, and remains so for more then a couple of days, it’s time to stop.  For me at least the flame has been extinguished.

The Relatives Dysfunction – ‘The Red House’ by Mark Haddon

‘The Red House’ is a difficult novel to define.  I’ll begin by suggesting that if it hadn’t been written by million-copy selling author Mark Haddon, then it would never have been published in this form.  Whilst it contains some beautiful writing, and razor sharp observations about family life, the novel’s style is sure to alienate some readers. Me included.

I have no problem with multiple point-of-view novels (I loved James Smythe’s recent novel ‘The Testimony’, which uses them to great effect) but here the changes are so rapid they become annoying. Sometimes the switch occurs mid-paragraph.  Much of the first part of the novel is written in short staccato sentences, giving the impression of a stream of consciousness. It conveys the maelstrom of family life, but doesn’t make for a particularly comfortable read.  Dialogue is written in italics, in the middle of text, but then so are thoughts, and occasionally I mistook one for the other.  All this, combined with some peculiar supernatural posturings that add little to the overall novel, is sure to put off many readers who enjoyed ‘Curious Incident’.

The story revolves around a family holiday. Richard and Angela have been estranged for fifteen years and are becoming reacquainted after the death of their mother.  Richard is successful and childless, married to his second wife and has a sixteen year old step-daughter.  Angela is a teacher. Her marriage is moribund and she has three children (roughly 17,15 & 8).  There is also the spectre of Karen, Angela’s stillborn baby, who would have turned eighteen during the week of the holiday.

Like all families they have their problems, their secrets and inconsistencies.  The characters are solid and believable, although one or two stray into caricature sometimes.  Haddon has a wonderful grasp of the strength and power of the parent-children bond, which any parent will recognise, and it is here in which the novel’s main strength lies.  He also conveys how mundane life can be.  There are lots of references to real-world things, brands, films & muisc, much more so than most contemporary novels.  On one level I found this annoying, but I think Haddon is showing that the backdrop to most people’s lives in the UK is broadly the same.

My biggest barrier to enjoyment of this novel is that its players aren’t particularly likeable.  Haddon seems to have a dim view of humanity.  One passage about siblings, blew me away, but it’s possibly the singularly most depressing thing I’ve ever read.  Haddon seems to be saying, families are dysfunctional, and make you miserable, but they’ve all you’ve got, so make the most of it.  In black and white, this seems like a self-evident truth, but to a father of a young family it makes for a dark read. Family is monotony.

So, how to sum up?  I didn’t really enjoy ‘The Red House’ at all, but in writing about it, I can see its power.  A discomfiting novel filled with deft if depressing observation.  It has a style that frustrates, but is a novel that  illuminates the pressures faced by families across the country. Mark Haddon is a talented writer, unafraid to break with convention.  Whilst I find it difficult to recommend, I think ‘The Red House’ is an important book written by a fine author, and on balance, worth investigating.

Connections through the hindsight telescope – ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ by Edward Wilson

In ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ Edward Wilson has has delivered a first-rate espionage novel.  I am tempted to use the word thriller, but in truth this is not a book filled with thrills. What ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ does have is authenticity.  Considering how poor the novels of some very popular John Le Carré wannabees are, I finding it amazing that this author is not more well known.  On the strength of this book, he can be considered a true heir to the master.  Not since Le Carré have I felt I was reading such a credible description of spying and cold-war skulduggery.

Wilson’s prose is sparse, at times almost too pruned down.  The book occasionally feels like facts strung together by the thinnest thread of storytelling.  It’s not that the story isn’t good, it’s just sometimes a bit hard to find.  Due to Wilson’s style, I had thought that his characters were too emotionally detached, but as the novel’s denouement played out, I discovered that one or two characters had left such an impression it was painful to let them go.  They had got under my skin without me realising; a sure sign of good writing.

The novel moves from Berlin just before the Wall was put up, to Cuba, after the election of J.F Kennedy.  All sections ooze authenticity though I found the Cuban sections more satisfying than those set in Germany.  The writing and resonance of the parts of the novel set in Havana reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Lacuna’.  I hadn’t realised that ‘TMS’ is Wilson’s third novel to feature British spy Will Catesby, and I think this is why the Berlin sections worked less well for me.  The early chapters of ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ form a bridge between the previous two novels and the Cuban missile crisis.   If you haven’t read the earlier books, it’s a bridge with the odd plank missing.  The Midnight Swimmer does stand up on its own merit, but I imagine it is a more complete reading experience if you read the entire trilogy.

If the other two books are as good as this one, (and other reviews are very favourable), then this is series well worth investigating time and money in.  The plot is intricate, plausible and never sensational.  When reading ‘TMS’ you are given the impression that Wilson is a man in command of all the salient facts.  Almost nothing in the novel is incidental, and the pace though slow to start, builds to an exciting sprint finish.   ‘The Midnight Swimmer is everything a good spy novel should be – tense, politically astute and thought-provoking.  It’s a first class espionage novel, written in the tradition of the master, and if you are fan of Le Carré, well worth checking out.

It had me in pieces – ‘Unwind’ By Neal Shusterman

Dystopian novels are all the rage at the moment.  Here is one my favourites from 2008.  This review was first posted on Amazon in Oct 2009.

It never ceases to amaze me how many wonderful books there are in the world that almost nobody has heard of. ‘Unwind’ is a novel that deserves a place on every bestseller list, yet the copy I bought from my local bookshop was stuck in dark corner, mouldering in the shadows.

This is a visceral thriller that explodes out of the blocks and maintains a frenetic pace all the way through to its startling conclusion. The premise does seem rather far fetched – After a Pro Life v Pro Choice war, abortion is abolished. Instead parents (or the state) can choose to have any 13-17 year old ‘Unwound’ – A medical process whereby all a child’s body parts are disconnected and used for transplants. Strictly speaking, the unwound victim never dies. Surely it could never happen?

Well, hopefully not, but Shusterman’s cleverly constructed tale, highlights the perils of fanaticism and leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling, that such a preposterous suggestion is only a couple of arguments and a few scientific breakthroughs away. There are several strands to the story, each exploring the premise from a different angle and each thread is knitted seamlessly with the others. No event, no matter how small, is incidental to the plot, and the novel’s finale cleverly reveals surprise after surprise.

The final chapters are powerful and thought provoking – one in particular is perfectly delivered and incredibly sad. ‘Unwind’ does what every good novel should – it challenges its readers’ preconceptions, and continually forces us to ask questions about the world in which we live. Shusterman is careful never to let his allegories slip into preaching, or allow them to detract from the novel’s excitement. From start to finish ‘Unwind’ is unputdownable, and I urge you to cancel your weekend plans and pick it up now.

My Breath Become Yours – ‘Warbreaker’ by Brandon Sanderson

I realised recently that I almost never read epic fantasy any more.  At one stage of my life it was all I ever read, but in the last five years I have picked up only a handful of ‘swords and sorcery’ books.  I blame Robert Jordan.  Since the collapse of the ‘Wheel of Time’  into an infinite loop of repetitive self-parody, I don’t like to start a series of books to which the final instalment has yet to be published.  As a result, I’ve yet to read Patrick Rothfuss, and haven’t started fantasy saga of the moment, ‘The Song of Ice and Fire’.  I don’t want to start another series where there the author dies (either creatively or literally) before his story ends.  Yet I still yearn for the excitement I felt when reading the Lord of the Rings,  The Belgariad or the Drenai series for the first time.  (Though David Gemmell remains unforgiven for dying before writing a sequel to Quest of Lost Heroes).

Whenever I go into a book shop I trawl the SF&F shelves hoping for inspiration, but it rarely strikes. I have looked at Brandon Sanderson novels on numerous occasions, but until now nothing has persuaded me to bite.  Yes, the Mistborn trilogy is complete, but it now looks like an awfully large investment of time in order to make it through to the end, proving if nothing else, that I am entirely inconsistent in my prejudices.

And then I saw ‘Warbreaker’.  Sucked in by the front-cover tag-line, ‘Magic as you’ve never seen it before.’, I read the blurb.  It describes a chromatic magic system, based on ‘breath’ that can only be collected one unit at a time, and magic wielders who draw their power by leeching the colour of objects around them.  It sounded like absolute genius.  Better still, the novel was a one off.  A surreptitious read through of the exciting and intriguing prologue left me in no doubt, ‘Warbreaker’ was a book I had to read.  A bit of digging around on the internet, shows this is one of Sanderson’s less popular novels.  All I can say is that the others must be something special, as I found Warbreaker entrancing from start to finish.

The plot centres around two kingdoms, one powerful, Halladren, the other, Idris, in decline.  Halladren has replaced Idris as the strongest power in the region, but the Idrian monarchs still hold a claim to the Halladren throne.  To make matters more interesting, the religion of Halladren is considered an abomination by the Idrians.  As the novel opens, there is to be a marriage between the daughter of the King of Idrian, and the God King of Halladren.

What’s most impressive in this book is the depth of Sanderson’s world building.  From some cursory research, I gather that the magic, religion and politics of the novel, fits in with the philosophy of Sanderson’s other works.  This definitely comes over in this book.  It occasionally feels a little clunky; too much telling, rather than showing, particularly in the early part of the novel. What I liked about it though, is that the magic system works like science.  Often in fantasy novels the magic comes complete, with the characters (and therefore the reader) rarely questioning how it works.  Here, the most powerful wielders of ‘Breath’ have had to research as they go, and much like science, their answers reveal yet more questions.   Magic effects the senses, but can also be imbued into real objects, or stored for later use.   The system described remains consistent and is well realised, better still, the novel’s characters use it in innovative ways that have unexpected consequences for the story.

But a solid world alone does not make for a good novel. It has to have a good story to back it up.  Sanderson delivers with aplomb.  There are all sorts of interesting things going on here.  Magic, obviously, but there’s political intrigue, revolutions, plots, counter-plots, murder and some good old-fashioned betrayal.  It also has some very dry humour and the greatest sword since Stormbringer.  There are some strong themes too, most notably the novel asks, how are our lives shaped by our expectations?  Terrorism and religious tolerance also come under scrutiny, as does the malleability of history.  It seems the bar has been raised high since I last read any epic fantasy.

Nearly all of Warbreaker’s characters have mixed motives, with factions playing out their hands for good and ill.  There is also a nice poke at the indolence of the ruling classes; the living gods are so far removed from the real world, they have absolutely no idea how it works.  The conversations between these living gods are full of dry wit, and are highly entertaining.

So my first foray into the world of  Brandon Sanderson was a resounding success.  ‘Warbreaker’ had me reading late into the night, returning me to my teenage years.  Since I now have goblins of my own, who are more than happy to wake me up at 6am, staying up until after 1am to finish a book is just about the highest compliment I can pay.  If ‘Warbreaker’ is not Sanderson’s best book, then I can’t wait to read the others.

Street Hawkin’ Man – ‘The World’s Best Street Food’ by Lonely Planet

I was very slow at braving street food when travelling. When you’re hundreds of miles away from home, trying something cooked by the side of the road, can feel like a risk too far. The last thing you want to do with your valuable holiday time is spend it communing with God on the great white telephone. It turns our my cloistered western view of food hygiene was doing my stomach a disservice. After finally eating the most incredible Pad Thai in central Thailand, cooked on the back of cart, I became a convert. The best thing about street food, is that it’s what the locals eat. More often than not, it’s an authentic experience.

In this book Lonely Planet are offering you the chance to bring street food into the kitchen. On one level this is absurd; it’s not street food if you cook it at home. It’s about as far from authentic as you can get. Otherwise though, it’s a brilliant idea; I still fantasise about Vietnamese Pho ten years on from travelling, and now I can cook my own. This is an evocative and mouthwatering cookbook. It even serves as as travel book.  There are many dishes in here that make me want to visit countries I have never thought about going to, such as the Chivito al Pan from Uruguay.

As I’ve come to expect from Lonely Planet’s range of extended travel books (i.e. those that aren’t guides to specific places), the book is beautifully produced.  Strong softback binding, with some great photos. Each recipe is given two pages in the book.  The left hand page contains biographical information: – Where the dish is found, it’s origin, how to eat it, and the best place to find it.  There is also a panel at the bottom of the page, which contains variations on the dish, or tips on how to get the most out of your street dining experience.  The right-hand page contains the recipe.

The recipes are rated Easy, Medium or Complex, with most of them being in the ‘M’ or ‘C’ category.  And therein lies the book’s problem, street food may taste great, but that’s because more often than not, a huge amount of preparation has gone into the dishes.  This is fine, if you work in a thriving market, or business district where boiling bones for five hours is going to pay reasonable dividends.  I struggle to see myself ever having time to cook most of the wonderful dishes in this book.  Instead, I’ll spend large amounts of time staring at the pages with a rumbling stomach, wondering whether the kids would stand up to a trip to Thailand.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order (though split into savoury and sweet), which I find irksome in this sort of book – I would much rather the dishes were arranged by region.  Having said that, I probably would then have focused on SE Asia, and never noticed the aforementioned Uruguayan treat.   In any case there are two separate indexes, one by country and the other by type of dish.

As ever, Lonely Planet have produced an interesting, authentic book that is a joy to read and look at.  How often I’ll take it off the shelf to use, I’m not so sure.