Flaws of Perfection – Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

wooden flawsI had heard so many great things about Will Wiles ‘Care of Wooden Floors’, it seems almost inevitable that I would be left slightly disappointed. There was no way it could possibly live up to my expectations. Having said that, this is still a very impressive debut. It’s a simple tale well told.

Our (unnamed) narrator has travelled to an Eastern European country to flat sit for an old University friend. He and Oskar are chalk and cheese. Oskar is driven; a successful classical musician. The narrator is a failed journalist, a writer of council pamphlets; a man who harbours great dreams but is ill equipped to make them reality. He is to look after the flat whilst Oscar is in LA finalising his divorce. What could be simpler?

Well just about anything it turns out. When our storyteller arrives in the flat, he finds it immaculate. Beautiful bookcases, a grand piano and a modern unblemished kitchen. And then there are the floors. Expensive, perfect and highly polished they are the owner’s pride and joy. There are notes from Oscar all over the flat; reminders and comments to help things to run smoothly. There are detailed instructions on how to look after the floors, but they basically boil down to one thing. ‘Don’t spill anything’. It’s easy to imagine what’s going to happen.

Care of Wooden Floors is like a dark episode of the sitcom Frasier. The story plots a farcical descent, from a minor mishap to, well that would be spoiling things, but just when you can’t imagine matters becoming any worse, they do. The classical music references and the pedantic and retentive notes left by Oskar further the feeling that the novel should somehow involve the Crane brothers. As the novel spirals towards its conclusion it’s impossible to drag your eyes from the page.

The novel is practically a single-hander. There is little character interaction, yet the novel explores the nature of friendship and happiness. The unnamed city and the perfect wooden floors become characters themselves. Through the narrator’s interactions with them, we learn of his fears, his weaknesses and his hopes and dreams. Though he is absent we learn much about Oskar and his obsession with perfection.

Whilst I enjoyed much of CoWF, I wasn’t always convinced. Wiles is a graduate of a creative writing course, and whilst its easy to say ‘it’s easy to tell’, it’s easy to tell. ‘The…dog, an exotic alloy of breeds.’ is a beautifully crafted sentence, but ‘…a fresh cube of tofu swimming in the city’s tetsu broth.’ Is trying way too hard. Having said that, the moments of craft far outweigh the few overblown metaphors.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the novel’s ending. I can certainly see why some people wouldn’t like it. It’s not so much the openness of the ending, which was unxpected, but I felt the character’s actions didn’t quite fit with what had gone before.

But these are comparatively small things. CoWF is an inventive and original read. Using something as simple and unyielding as a polished wooden floor, Wiles peels away layers of the human psyche, laying bare what lays at the heart of many of us; a wish to be better. This is an accomplished debut from an author who is brimming with talent. I imagine there is a lot more to come.

Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

monkeysI like Scarlett Thomas books, I harbour ambitions of writing a novel one day and I love (in a very amateurish manner) thinking about how fiction works. So one would have thought that Thomas’s ‘Monkeys with Typewriters, How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories’ would have been right up my street. Whilst I enjoyed aspects of the book, the overall the impression I am left with is one big ‘Meh’. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to pinpoint why.

The book is split into two sections ‘Theory’ and ‘Practice’. In my mind it’s really three, as practice breaks down further into ‘Ideas’ and ‘Writing’. Coming from an academic background where literary theory was something layabout arts students pretended to study, I have never encountered any serious overview of the subject before. I found it mostly interesting. Plato and Aristotle, Fairy Tales and Tragedies are all examined and dissected. Toy story, Supernanny and Oedipus are deconstructed and their similarities revealed. It’s an interesting exercise.

The theory section ends with a look at the ‘8 Basic Plots’. What we essentially have is a Haynes Manual for fiction; how to bolt together the frame of your story, so its ready to add airfoils and go-faster stripes. Like a technical manual it’s a little dry in places but Thomas is an engaging instructor and she makes a dusty subject palatable.

It’s at the start of section 2 when things begin to go awry. I’ve never really read this type of book before and so have nothing to compare it to, but the problem for me stems from the fact that novel writing is an art not a science. Clearly, it is a technical discipline too, but if you don’t have a spark of creativity inside you, you can’t produce a novel. This is in fact is the spine of Thomas’s contention; infinite monkeys might come up with the complete work of Shakespeare, but to paraphrase Truman Capote, they are merely typing, not writing. The book falls down when attempting to teach artistry.

The ‘practice’ section is where the art should come in. There are some technical elements, but ultimately just about everything Thomas outlines in this book as good practice is contradicted by countless high quality novels. Thomas heavily promotes using a minimalist approach to writing, but is then forced to concede that many great novels are not minimalist, and say that there’s no need to be minimalist if you don’t want to.

I think the problem stems from this book being a distillation of the author’s Creative Writing MA course notes. We readers are being given, for little more than a tenner, thousands of pounds worth of expertise. Great value, except we can’t ask questions. There is no way to clarify, to dig deeper. If you don’t understand, you’ve had it. I became very confused during the tense/point of view discussion, to the point where I understood the subject less than I had before I started reading. I’m sure if I could have asked some questions, I would have got there. Similarly, some of the case studies are novels I haven’t read, or didn’t care for. In these cases I found it hard to buy into what Thomas was selling. Again interaction would have helped.

I could never afford to go on the full course, and even if I could, I doubt very much I’d be accepted. So access to Thomas’s methods is welcome. It is rather churlish to complain that the author doesn’t come round for a chat and a cup of tea at the end of each chapter. Having said that, in the middle sections I only continued reading out of loyalty to Thomas, her fiction and the publisher I shamelessly begged a copy from.

There are a number of exercises in the book aimed at ideas generation. Without making a concerted effort to use them (I haven’t) it’s hard to comment on their effectiveness, but whilst on the face of it they seem like a good idea, overall the concept feels abstract. They are heavily based around writing what you know, it being Thomas’s assertion that most people’s lives are far more investing than they give themselves credit for. This is all well and good, but these matrices are not so useful when it comes to writing genre fiction. Indeed there is a strong bias in the book towards producing contemporary literary fiction, which is of course what Thomas writes herself.

The final chapters piqued my interest once more, particularly on writing a good sentence. On the rare occasions I do write, I agonise endlessly over word selection and order. Thomas gives some very useful pointers. The final section, on the graft of writing was also useful, probably because this is more of a science than an art. It helped me realise some of my habits (generally work avoiding ones) are acceptable and commonplace, and gave a few helpful suggestions on increasing the amount of quality work produced.

The book ends with a question would-be authors should ask themselves, ‘If the only copy of my novel was stranded on a mountain, would I rescue it?’ It’s a powerful question, but I wonder how Thomas would have answered it whilst writing this book. Perhaps it’s because it’s a non-fiction book, but it lacks the passion of her fiction.

Monkeys with Typwriters, is in no way a bad writing manual. It just didn’t thrill me. I found some of the book useful and interesting, but there are no earth-shattering secrets held within its pages (perhaps because none exist). So on completion, I posed myself a question I ask of a lot of books, ‘If I left this book on a train, would I go back to rescue it?’ Probably not.

Many thanks to Matthew at Canongate for sending me a copy to review.

In Defence of Libraries – ‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton

among others

Among Others by Jo Walton is a revelation. Winner of The Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards, it comes with strong endorsement, from the Science Fiction establishment.  Yet this is barely a science fiction novel at all. It is the best coming of age novel you could ever hope to read, and a strong contender for my favourite novel of 2012.

The central tale is slight; a brief snapshot of a complicated life. ‘Mor’ is a twin whose sister has died. Mor herself was badly injured and now walks with a cane and is in constant pain. The details of what happened are vague, but Mor’s mother is somehow to blame. To make matters worse Mor has been ripped from the comfort of the Welsh valleys, where she lived with her extended family. The courts have decided she must live with her father, a man Mor has never met. He is from a wealthy family and Mor will live in a large manor house during the holidays and attend boarding school during term time. Wherever she goes she does not fit in.

The saving grace in Mor’s life is books. In particular, science fiction. Mor cannot take part in games lessons, and so spends great swathes of time in the school library. Here, through science fiction and a tentative friendship with the school librarian, Mor starts to understand the world. Through the magic of inter-library loans she glimpses worlds beyond her own.

The novel is written in the first person and is stunning throughout. Running through every page and paragraph is a passion for books. Whilst Mor’s great love is SciFi, she devours anything printed. A meeting with her paternal grandfather spurs a departure into Plato, the librarian recommends Josephine Tey, and for school Mor has to read Dickens and Shakespeare. Her consumption is voracious, and her analysis carried out with laser precision. Mor is one smart teenager.

On the one day a week Mor is allowed out of school she heads into town. Here she visits the library and the local bookshop. Bibliophiles will well recognise the thrill that fills Mor when she is surrounded by books, the comfort she draws from them and obssesive quest for a new and interesting read. The book is a peon to the magic of libraries, and indeed, Among Others is dedicated to ‘all the librarians in the world…’ Through the library Mor finds a Science Fiction reading group, and from there a group of like-minded people. Through these interactions our narrator builds new confidence; she realises she is not alone.  Among Others should be compulsory reading for anybody who might be thinking of closing down a library.

It is tempting to suggest that Among Others clean sweep of science fiction’s major literary prizes, is down to Walton’s lovingly curated catalogue of the genre’s seminal texts. Like Walton, the people who award these prizes will have loved these books, and to see them glorified in print, will surely have set their spines tingling.

Whilst it’s true that the referencing of the genre’s greats lends an added dimension for fellow fans, without them this would still be a beautiful novel. My wife adored it too, and she may have heard of Isaac Asimov but Delany and Zelezny meant nothing. In addition to a perfect encapsulation of teenage angst, there is a masterful rendering of the part mundane, part bat-shit crazy combination that typifies most familial relationships.

Further nuance is added to the novel with light sprinkling of fantasy. Mor can apparently see and communicate with fairies. She is convinced she can do magic, that she saw the dead walk on Halloween and that her mother is a witch. There is an undercurrent of mental illness, never fully expressed, but bubbling beneath the surface, masked by our narrator’s belief in magic. The magic outlined is subtle, and could plausibly exist inside the imagination of a highly intelligent teenage girl. This could well be the most enchanting facet in this mesmerising gem of a novel.

Among Others is so effortlessly brilliant it’s hard to explain why, (though this hasn’t stopped me using several hundred words trying to do so.) It’s a book lovers book. It’s a book for anybody who doesn’t quite fit in. It’s a book for those who think a little fairy dust might improve the world. Magical yet grounded, Among Others is a triumph from start to finish.

Many Thanks to Sam and the team at Corsair books for providing me with a copy for review. A list of the books read by Mor during the novel can be found at http://pinterest.com/tinyampersand/the-books-of-among-others/

The Deepest Form of Terror – ‘The Translation of the Bones’ by Francesca Kay

bonesThe Translation of the Bones is a peculiar but poetic novel. Looking at it simplistically it fails to deliver on its promise, but on further reflection, it is a novel of great subtlety.

Francesca Kay does not neatly tie up all of her threads.  There is no neat conclusion. Like life, it’s a sprawl of half resolved issues, unanswered questions and the ever-present threat of tragedy. Those who like their novels to have a beginning middle and end, may find this novel discomfiting.  If you’re happy with an open end, then there is much to admire and enjoy here.

At the heart of the novel is faith. The narrative centres around a Catholic church in Battersea, and various members of its congregation. The novel opens with a plain, simple woman cleaning a statue in the church. Mary-Margaret believes she has witnessed a miracle, blood pouring from Christ’s wounds. In her excitement she stumbles, falls and hits her head. This sets in motion a series of events that will have cataclysmic consequences.

The purported miracle has a range of effects on the people who hear about it. The church itself is mostly dismissive and scathing. For a group of devout foreign health workers it offers the possibility of a spiritual connection in a depressing and godless country. Unsurprisingly,the most profound effect is on the witness herself. For the church’s stretched priest, the resulting fururoe provokes a crisis of faith.

Though the novel is centred around the church, there are many peripheral characters that make up this absorbing analysis of faith in the 21st Century.  What Kay does brilliantly is lay bare her characters attitude towards God and religion, without disclosing her own. This could easily have become a Dawkins style hammer attack on organised religion, or a believer’s blinkered defence of their church, but is neither. It is impossible to descern with Francesca Kay is pro or anti organised religion. There is undoubtedly some criticism, but there is also a clear fondness for the good that the church, as a community, can do.

Whilst the novel is heavily character driven, with little plot driving the narrative, it makes for compulsive reading. As the novel approaches it’s apex, it’s like watching a natural disaster unfold on the television.  Terrible to behold, but impossible to tear yourself away.

The novel’s events tear through the community like an earthquake. Some people are buried alive; others continue, left to rebuild amongst the rubble. For those further from the epicentre, things barely change. They have their brush with tragedy; it gives them pause, but little more than that. Yet, even for those whose existence is in tatters, time passes. The normal and mundane keeps rolling on; even the grief-stricken need to read the gas meter.

So the novel sort of petres out. The rawness starts to heal, repercussions are felt, but life is returning to normal. This could be construed as an underpowered finale, but is a reflection of reality. The novel closes with lose threads, because none of the characters’ stories are done. Our time with them has finished, but their lives go on.

All this is rendered with a great eye for detail in delicious and delicate prose. Some threads are less satisfactory than others, but the whole weave is a sumptuous exploration of faith in modern Britain. Whilst Kay’s realist approach won’t appeal to all readers, the Translation of Bones is a fine novel delivered by a talented author.

The ties that bind – Genie and Paul by Natasha Soobramanien

genieSometime during 2011 I read a book called The Echo Chamber by Luke Williams.  It wasn’t bad.  Very literary, not always enjoyable, but an ambitious debut from a talented writer.  What intrigued me most was that my two favourite chapters turned out not to be by Luke Williams, but instead were written by the wonderfully named Natasha Soobramanien. I enjoyed her chapters so much I titled the review ‘Who is Natasha Soobramanien?’ and stated that if she ever wrote her own novel ‘I’d be first in the queue to buy it’.

Well, I didn’t manage that, failing to notice that Natasha had published her own debut, until it appeared on my Vine Monthly Newsletter, but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to review it. Perhaps there was no way Genie and Paul was going to meet my expectations, but I must confess to being slightly disappointed.

From the outset the subject matter made me uneasy. It’s ‘an imaginative reworking of an 18th Century French Classic’, a statement, which had I not already read some of Soobramanien’s work, would have had me dismissing the novel as pretentious twaddle.  I have a rather scathing attitude towards this kind of device, derived I suspect, from an inferiority complex about my lack of knowledge of the literary canon. From the outset I worried I would miss any allusions and nuances based upon the original text. It’s uncomfortable going into a novel feeling disadvantaged.

The quality of Soobranamien’s writing is evident from the start.  With deft descriptions of the Mauritius and an immigrant’s life in 70s London.  Genie’s innocent perspective put me in mind of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, though Soobranamien’s treatment is ultimately more satisfying.  When Genie’s innocence then rubs up against her brother’s seedy drug addled existence, in various London squats, the book reminded me of Doris Lessing’s ‘The Good Terrorist’. Though in ths case, Lessing’s novel is far superior.

Genie and Paul contains some beautiful and evocative images, but whilst each page has much to admire, the novel overall left me little cold.  Soobranamien is an alumnus from the now-famous UEA creative writing course, and to be honest it shows.  The multiple narrative voice and fluctuating time-frame structure is impressive, but too artificial.  Inventive, perhaps, but I found it too clinical and calculated to fully succumb to the book on an emotional level.

Peculiarly, I find myself thinking about Paul and Genie in exactly the same way as the Echo Chamber.  I can see why people like it, but it didn’t work for me. Having said that, Soobramanien is clearly a writer of considerable talent.  I think she has a long career ahead of her and I look forward to seeing where she takes it next.

Major Tom to Ground Control – The Explorer by James Smythe

‘The Explorer is the second James Smythe novel I have read.  The first, The Testimony, was an unusually structured ‘End of Days’ novel, that opens with a mysterious voice being heard across the globe.  Overall the novel is a slow-burning, thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith.  It is utterly compelling.  The Explorer is very different yet equally captivating.

The premise is simple. Set in the near future, a manned spaceship is heading away from Earth and beyond the moon.  It’s boldly going to a galaxy far far… No it’s not really, but it is heading deeper into the Solar system than humankind has ever been before.  It is on the ultimate voyage of discovery.

From the outset this book confounded my expectations. I knew bad things would happen to the crew, but I had envisaged Smythe would treat us to a science fiction ‘And Then There Were None’. So it was a great surprise when by page 11 all the crew, bar one, we’re dead.  How was Smythe going to fill another 250 pages with only one character?  Well that, of course, would be telling.

Smythe has woven a taut psychological thriller, that draws on fear of the unknown and the debilitating effects of isolation.  Once again, the author has opted for a quiet thoughtful approach rather than create the bombastic explosive story that lesser authors may have chosen.  Smythe’s control of the tension is, by and large, spot on. ‘The Explorer’ is reminiscent of Stephen King’s early short fiction.

In the latter half of the book, the pace ebbs slightly, and as with ‘The Testimony’, I couldn’t see how proceedings could be brought to a satisfactory end. I need not have worried. The novel’s conclusion is expertly constructed, and the denouement jaw-dropping.  It’s the closest thing I have seen in literature to a ‘Sixth Sense’ type reveal, that will have you thumbing back through the book, to check all the pieces were there.  I can assure you they are, and you won’t quite believe you missed them. Things are even left open for a sequel, and such is the open nature of the tale, it could be taken in any number of directions.  I can’t wait to see which one the author chooses.

If The Testimony marked James Smythe as an author to watch, then the Explorer demands that he is one to follow. An excellent novel.

Many Thanks to James and his publisher Harper Voyager for providing me with an advanced copy of this book.  James can be found on Twitter @jpsmythe where he ruminates on books, games and chocolate.  Explorer is available as an ebook from 20th December 2012 and as a hardback from 17th Jan 2013