Dinner Conversation

dinnerAbout this time last week, I was ready to publish my review on Herman Koch’s The Dinner. I didn’t much care for it. I found the premise interesting, but the execution woeful. The structure of the novel irritated me, and the narrator was so unreliable, it made me question the worth of listening to his story at all. Whilst this raised some interesting questions about narrative reliability generally, questions, which in all honesty, made my head hurt, the book overall, failed to sustain my interest.

I was about to let The Dinner have it with both barrel,s but then Alan at Words of Mercury posted his thoughts on the book. If you don’t follow Alan then you should; he always offers unexpected viewpoints and describes them with rare eloquence. His review was as thoughtful as ever, but disturbingly, largely positive. He clearly found something in the book I had not.

Thanks to Twitter, I was able to talk to him about his experience and compare it to mine. After a short exchange, a couple of things fell into place, mostly to do with the unreliability of the narrator. OK, I still didn’t think much of The Dinner as a book, but I couldn’t help but notice my desperate need to talk about it. My wife also read it, and as soon as I’d finished, I had to seek her out, to question her, to find out what she thought. Would she validate my opinions or offer an alternative view?

In turn, this had me thinking about the act of reading in a vacuum. Normally, I read, digest and review without any external input. Indeed, I usually actively avoid outside influence so as not to colour my judgement, but can a book properly be analysed without discussing it? Should a prospective reader of a book ever take a single person’s viewpoint before making a decision? Well, probably not. I almost never buy a book without looking at several reviews, positive and negative, but is this enough?

Each single review is a discrete view. A host of review brings out something like agreement, but only a discussion can bring about true consensus. This of course is one of the draws of a book group. Read a book alone, understand it together. I’ve often gone into a book group with one view of a book and come out with another. My views have be affected both positively and negatively.

What does this mean with respect to The Dinner? Well I didn’t enjoy it, but I have spent a lot of time talking about it, and trying to understand it. It is, therefore, rather hard to argue convincingly that it’s a bad book. It’s divisive, which is clearly the author’s intention, but maybe in more ways than he imagined. I find it hard to recommend reading The Dinner, but if you do then I strongly suggest you do so in a group. You may well find the discussion goes on for a lot longer than a three course meal.

To summarise:

What I didn’t like.

  • The narrative is not just a single dinner party, but a series of flashbacks and reminiscences.  I think the book would have been far more interesting if it were confined to the table
  • Given the history revealed, it’s hard to imagine  this dinner party ever being agreed to by all parties
  • Characterisation is off kilter. Nobody feels real.
  • Unbelievable representation of medical facts.

What I liked.

  • The inclusion of an adopted son gives an interesting angle on nature vs nurture.
  • The questioning of whether parents know what’s best for their children.
  • It’s funny.

Whilst I didn’t enjoy The Dinner, the question of the reliability of Paul’s  story has plagued me since I put it down. The idea of him skewing the nature vs nurture debate to absolve himself from his family’s breakdown is fascinating.  We all rewrite our histories.  Some of us go to more extremes than others.

Many Thanks to Alison at Atlantic Books for providing me with a copy for review. 

Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly

jwkmoayThere is something very combative about the title of this book. It demands that you pay it closer attention. ‘Just What Kind of Mother Are You?’ Voicing this question aloud is one of middle England’s most sacrosanct taboos. Let’s be honest, you don’t ask this question to find out whether they’re a hommous and breadsticks kind of mum. In a world where offspring rivalry defines everything, the question is like a cudgel to the head, yet most of (parents) us ask it internally every day. Sometimes of other parents (‘What? Really? They can have two?’, as no parent has uttered to another, ever.), but more usually of ourselves. In the modern world to fail one’s children is life’s biggest crime, and its a crime we’re obsessed with.

Too many sweets? Not enough clubs? Too many clubs? By them an iPad? Take them to Legoland? Organic or Processed? MMR or homeopathic? From the moment our children are born, we place them on pedestals. We want them to have everything and want to be everything to them. Some parents cope with this better than others, or as Paula Daly points out in her novel, some appear to cope better than others.

Lisa is a working Mum of three. She works tirelessly for a dog charity. There’s not enough hours in the day and certainly not enough money in the bank. Staunchly loyal husband, Joe, is a taxi driver. Whilst he is by no means an absent father his presence is unpredictable. With so many balls to juggle, occasionally Lisa drops one. This time her simple error has disastrous consequences. She was meant to pick up a friend’s child and have her stay the night. By the time she realises she’s forgotten, Lucinda has been missing for 18hrs.

That is the elegant premise of JWKOMAY? Just the thought of it instils dread. How could you face the parents? Your own children? How do you carry on with the day-to-day? How can you help? How should you interact with the police investigation?

What follows is a smart, snappy whodunit that’s menacing yet unsensational. The story flits between viewpoints. We follow Lisa as she crashes around trying to make things better. She has been friends with the family for a number of years, but there’s some previous tension there too. Tensions that immediately resurface. DC Joanne Aspinall adds the procedural element of the story. I really liked her as a character. She is tough but human, and best of all she’s not derivative. She picks away at the case, taking the view that its nearly always the family. It yields interesting results.

The final contributor to the story is the kidnapper. We are treated to a few omniscient observations of his thoughts and actions that genuinely creeped the hell out of me. Too many books these days go for gore and depravity. These pieces are just the wrong side of normal, and all the more disturbing for it. They reminded me of Frederick Clegg from ‘The Collector’. Updated and pacier for a modern crime fiction audience.

The story as it unfolds is exciting, but not exceptional. There are a couple of coincidences that I felt were unnecessary, and the plot as a whole, although unexpected, was a little far fetched. But that’s OK, because, like the best crime novels, this book isn’t all about the crime. It’s about the people and the crime’s ramifications. The depiction of the chaos of modern family life is spot on.

Above all, this book is about cutting ourselves some slack. Relax, you’re not the only one making a hash of it, we all are. Every picture of perfection has a flaw behind it. JWKOMAY? is an ode to the relentlessness of modern motherhood. I’m a stay at home Dad and could recognise many of the characters and attitudes present in the book.

This book put into perspective that no matter what else my wife does, first and foremost she’s a Mum. That’s why she’s the one sorting stuff out after a long day at the office whilst, I read and write reviews. It’s not that I’m lazy, my day is hard work too, but somehow she sees all the things that need doing, when I can only hear the call of the kettle. On finishing the book, I gained further respect for the wonderful job that she does. A job that, as Paula Daly is all too aware, she thinks she’s failing at. I should help her more…

This gentle insight is what sets Just What Kind Of Mother Are You? apart from the field. This is a fine debut that should grace many beaches over the summer, and fill countless book groups with heated discussion.

Many Thanks to Alison at Transworld for an advance copy of this book. 

We take care of our own – ‘Gemsigns’ by Stephanie Saulter

gemsignsStephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns is a slow-burning thoughtful dystopia. It’s set in the nearish future, after a devastating global pandemic. The Syndrome, a neurological disease, swept across the globe killing millions. National squabbles were put aside, as a worldwide search for a cure began. The solution was genetic engineering. Resistance to the syndrome was bred into future generations; genetic disease and disability become a thing of the past. Humanity is saved.

But all is not rosy. In what could be termed a double-dip dystopia, genetic modification continued. With a generation destroyed, a huge work-force was required, fast. Genetically modified humans or Gems, became more extreme, more tailored to specific jobs. Entrenched in intellectual property rights and directly owned by the Gemtech corporations that built them, the Gems became little more than slaves.  A two tier society was created, but this sustained oppression was untenable in the long term, giving birth to The Declaration, a treaty that gave Gems their freedom and some basic rights. The Gems are free, but mistrusted. Are they human, sub-human or superhuman? And who decides?

The novel opens a week before a vital conference for Gem assimilation. One of the protagonists, behavioural scientist Eli Walker, is to present his findings at the meeting, but as he tries to gather evidence in the final seven days, tempers are running high. He is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, all with a vested interest in the outcome of the conference.

Though not without its faults, I found Gemsigns to be a thoroughly absorbing read. The world-building is extraordinary; massively complex. The political, religious and ethical ramifications of Saulter’s premise are manifold, and she has painstakingly constructed a believable environment in which to explore them. The problem is there are large amounts of exposition. It may be pages of fascinating information, but its still being dumped on the reader. It’s most definitely a case of telling rather than showing.

Still, if what you are being told is interesting, it doesn’t matter too much, does it? Some might disagree but I think the author more than gets away with. In front of her solid background there plays out an exciting story; a moral and ethical tussle laden with religious imagery and corporate greed. This a story about prejudice, about acceptance, but above all it’s a tale about what makes us human. Like the best science fiction, it uses speculation to examine our own world in more depth.

The conclusion to Gemsigns is fast-paced, with a pleasing twist. A twist that feeds back into the narrative, altering its character’s preconceptions as well as those of the reader. You could perhaps argue that the author’s voice is a little too partisan, but we were never going to root for anybody other than Aryel and the rest of the Gems.

This is the first novel in the (brilliantly titled) ®evolution trilogy. It works as a stand alone novel, but is left open for a whole lot more. With such excellent world building in place, this could turn out to be an exceptional series. Whilst not quite in the league of Jonathan Triggell’s impeccable Genus, with which it shares many themes, Gemsigns is a thought provoking read that stands apart from a crowded genre.

Many thanks to the team at Jo Fletcher books for providing me with a copy of Gemsigns.

Back to Human – ‘The Machine’ by James Smythe

the machineThe Machine. Where to start? Author James Smythe is causing something of a stir in the world of books, or at least he is in the bit I frequent. His previous two novels (The Testimony and The Explorer have been understated, strongly thematic literary science fiction (whatever that is?). I loved them both.

The Machine is probably the least accessible novel of his I’ve read, but it’s also the best. It’s packed with themes and ideas, and delightfully, the story is nested inside itself, turning the reader’s understanding of the novel on its head.

Set in the near future, in a decaying Britain, Beth is taking delivery of three large parcels. There is something clandestine about this. The parcels are marked ‘exercise equipment’ but this is not what’s inside. On the black market Beth has bought The Machine. We learn that these machines were miracle cures for dementia patients and traumatic stress sufferers. The Machine can manipulate memories; it can take them away, it can put them back.

The machines were heralded as medical marvels, but something went horribly wrong. Now they are outlawed. Victor, Beth’s husband fell victim. An ex soldier, he suffered traumatic stress after being injured in the field. They tried to replace his memories. Instead they wiped his brain. Now Beth hopes to put those memories back.

Smythe’s first two books were not without their detractors. I’ve seen reviews pooh-poohing his involvement in creative writing courses (Smythe teaches the subject), effectively accusing him of putting style over substance. This is not an opinion I subscribe to, but The Machine is unlikely to bring any of these people back into the fold. This is a highly stylised piece of writing. There are no speech marks to delineate dialogue, often there isn’t even a line break. This gives the novel a stream of consciousness feel, which takes some time to acclimatise to. It’s a very deliberate decision on the author’s part and initially it’s hard to see its justification. All I can say is that by the novel’s close the choice is fully justified.

The opening half of the novel, is slow, almost bumbling. Beth is preparing the machine, her flat, her life for the arrival of her husband. It’s like watching somebody fiddle with the place settings before an important dinner party. Of itself, not terribly interesting, but it’s hugely telling. Smythe uses this time to set his scene. By the time Vic has returned home, we understand Beth’s world, her loneliness, her isolation.

This book will inevitably be compared to Frankenstein (indeed the back cover of my copy does so). There are undoubted parallels, and it is from here, thematically, that the story bursts into life. There is an amazing scene where Beth is using the machine to refurnish Vic’s memories and the electricity is cut off. This inversion of Frankenstein’s Monster’s animation, is inspired, particularly when combined with the raging storm outside. These two pages alone make The Machine worth reading; they stopped me in my tracks. The written word at its most powerful.

But the author is not merely content with reworking a classic, he has plenty of themes of his own to explore. Though completely different in style to one other, The Machine unifies Smythe previous two novels under a thematic umbrella. All three novels explore isolation, faith and belief. The use of the machines, is considered (by some) as ungodly; messing with the soul. Which links into the novel’s main questions, What makes us human? Are we an aggregate of our experiences? Are we defined by our memories?

Part of the novel’s appeal, is that anybody reading it can relate to its central premise. Who hasn’t wished they could remove a terrible memory, who wouldn’t like to repaint a fading reminiscence of a happy event? Needless to say, Beth’s plan to regain the man she loves does not go well. Again this provokes questions. Does she love the man, or her memories of the man? With different memories, is he the same man?

As things deteriorate, it’s impossible not to read on in grim fascination. By this time novel’s style is irrelevant, the story is utterly compelling. Much like The Explorer, as The Machine hurtles towards its conclusion Smythe pans his lens out to reveal the bigger picture. Once we can see everything, we realise nothing has been left to chance. Every choice Smythe made was deliberate, the structure of his novel meticulously planned. The finale is as breathtaking as it was unexpected.

I thought Explorer was good, but The Machine is staggering. Buy it, read it, then buy copies of it for your friends, because you are going to want to talk about it.

Thanks to James for sending me a copy of the book. He can be found on Twitter as @jpsmythe

E.Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at Earth’s Core by William Joyce

EasterThe heroically titled second volume of William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood, takes over immediately from where volume 1 left off. Pitch has been vanquished, but is sure to return. North, Ombric and Katherine are in the Himalayas, and the children and creatures of Santoff Claussen are alone, watched over only by the ever vigilant and valiant Nightlight.

Unsurprisingly things go wrong, but not before Ombric discovers a time machine and attempts to prevent Pitch’s fall into despair. As he tries to alter history, he is stopped by a seven foot bunny, who wields a staff with an egg on the end.

Any novel that employs a gargantuan cottontail as its deus ex machina better not take itself too seriously, and fortunately E. Aster Bunnymund… does not. It’s a beguiling riot from start to finish, filled with rich language and surreal shenanigans. The plot is almost non-existent, but magic and excitement burst from every page.

My seven year old, devoured this book. It was an amazing sight, seeing how immersed in it he became, how thrilled he was by the Easter Bunny and his army of eggs. It’s not all high-jinx. There is somber element added through the Bunny’s misgivings about the more destructive elements of human nature.

Once again the book is a beautiful object. Great cover art and beautiful illustrations inside, compensating for a thinness of plot. The world building is beautiful; a beguiling modern fairy-tale. Before he’d even finished my son was asking me to order the next part in the series. After all that chocolate, who else could it be next but the Tooth Fairy?