Recent Reading: Bakker, Souza Leão, Salter, Byers, Roth, Bennett, Antrim, Crace, Suddain, Ziervogel

What with one thing and another I haven’t been able to write about as many of the books I’ve been reading as I would have liked: so, by way of a corrective, I thought I’d talk about a few of the books I’ve enjoyed and, occasionally, been slightly baffled by over the last few months – with no pretence of adherence to chronological order, I should add. The full list of this year’s reading is to be found by clicking on ‘Books Read 2013’ somewhere above here.

detour-ukOne of my resolutions for this year was to read more American and translated fiction. Much to my surprise this actually seems to have gone fairly well. Indeed, one of my favourite novels this year is Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few months ago and makes more references to Escape to the Country than one might have expected. So quiet and full of life, my overriding impression of The Detour was of a vibrating air surrounding the Dutch woman mysteriously arrived in Wales, of a thickness to the medium which was not cloying, for the language is transparency itself, but somehow, like water, able to propagate feeling and mystery all the more effectively for its density.

Whereas The Detour vibrated due to some uneasy tension, All Dogs are Blue, theALL-DOGS-ARE-BLUE_FRONT-cmyk-300x456 latest translation from And Other Stories, derives its energy from a riotous and rebellious challenge to narrative and the mental institutions of Brazil. In her introduction, Deborah Levy calls Rodrigo De Souza Leão’s work ‘a comic modernist novel about being messed up – and then being messed up even more by numbing doses of pharmaceuticals.’ The sheer momentum generated by Souza Leão powers one through the book. A first reading just has to take in the manifold ramifying threads of a stream of consciousness the balance of which is as undermined by the society in which it finds itself as much as it is by any illness or ensuing medication to which it is subject. ‘I swallowed a chip yesterday. It forced myself to talk about the system that surrounds me. There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.’ Quite an opening paragraph.

salterSpeaking of opening paragraphs, James Salter is known for them, and his most famous is that which begins Light Years.

We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.

Which, in its current of refracted nostalgia, fractured distances, and coldly receding life, captures the intuition of the entire novel. A work of dissolution and awing concision of character, not to mention the scattering of stunning paragraphs, Light Years is remarkable. Salter likes water: the opening sentence of his latest novel All That Is runs: All night in darkness the water sped past. Despite this – and some Twitter murmurings about a thirsty horse – I haven’t quite got around to reading All That Is yet. I have a habit of eagerly awaiting novels and then suddenly finding myself unable to pick them up.

Glorying in a different kind of linguistic bravado one finds Sam Byer’s Idiopathy, Idiopathydescribed as ‘A novel of love, narcissism and ailing cattle’. Each of Byers’ three central characters is mired in a different kind of self-involvement and self-pity, symbolised by those ailing cattle standing ‘at the edges of fields staring blank and unblinking into the middle distance, starving and dehydrating to death.’ The prose matches and vindicates the rationale. Byers’ sentences twist and turn, moving back and forth, in and out, becoming increasing self-involved before, rather unlike the thoughts of his subjects, resolving beautifully. Likewise, each sentence forms part of a paragraph whose guiding thought is clear, but whose meandering yet controlled course mirrors both the contours of introspection and the ‘self-caused cause’ that is its impetus. Byers consistently finds the humour that underlies the nonsense we manage to twist our thoughts and lives in to.

Gabriel-Roth-The-Unknowns-186x300Gabriel Roth’s The Unknowns also addresses the challenges of interpersonal communication and love. (No cattle). Through the nice premise of an expert in user interfaces who is nonetheless bad with people until he develops a theoretical framework with which to approach them, Roth questions the relationship between people and the facts about them, between knowing someone and understanding them. The Unknowns reminded me of the debates in the philosophy of mind which ask how it is that we predict or understand the behaviour and thought of others given the inaccessibility of their mental lives. This is often called ‘folk psychology’. One view, ‘Theory-theory’, holds that we understand the behaviour and thoughts of others (‘mindreading’) by accessing a theory of human behaviour we all hold in our minds: we reason somehow about others and come to conclusions about their lives. Roth’s novel is rather snappier and an awful lot funnier than the texts one finds in the philosophy of mind, but it covers the same ground and highlights that same gulf in knowledge and understanding which we have to find some way to bridge if we are ever to relate to anybody.

The development of knowledge and understanding that attends immersion inUncommon-Reader-Alan-Bennett literature is the satirical substance of the most straightforwardly joyous book I’ve read recently: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. A small book which manages to contain more insight about the value of reading and the fear it engenders in others. One of my favourite passages finds the increasingly literate Queen reciting Larkin’s The Trees during what would otherwise be a rather run-of-the-mill planting. (This is one of my favourite poems, which helps). Everyone should read Bennett’s very short, but lovely book.

‘See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly white…’ To electreturn to the Americas, Donald Antrim’s reissued Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World was one of the more disconcerting novels I’ve read this year, which is probably why I didn’t review it at the time. I was baffled. I had lots of words I could use: surreal, macabre, fantastical, satirical, bloody odd, and so on; but I couldn’t make them cohere into the substance of a review. And perhaps this is the point. Antrim’s novel defies the kind of approach I often take to reviewing. It’s defiantly violent and refuses to allow that violence to signify in the way that literary novels so often do; its language is so at odds with its subject which is magnified and twisted as a result; its amorality challenges the narrative one wants to place on it. It’s not easy.

I might also have been quite tired when I read it.

This might also be true of Jim Crace’s Booker longlisted Harvest, but given my lack of response to his earlier Quarantine, I think I may simply have a Crace blind spot. harvestCrace is one of those whose technical ability, whose sentence-making, I recognise in an abstract way, but whose writing simply fails to move me. ‘This land has always been much older than ourselves’. Its insistently measured pace, its careful probing of a thought, a place, a person, a name, or possibility enlarges the space of Crace’s prose, makes its spaces rich and sacred, but in the same way renders it detached, dreamlike, everywhere and nowhere: so richly detailed, so freely of the earthy and sky, yet none that we may find.

To continue in the vein of books about which I am ambivalent, Matt Suddain’s enormous Theatre of the Gods challenges merely by its length. This tale blacklistpublishing_covers_theatre_of_the_godsof transuniversal exploration is as big and brash and ambitious as any science fiction/fantasy one might name. It’s full of wit and intelligence and might be somewhat too aware of the fact. In short, it might be shorter. The sprawling character of the narrative as we follow M. Francisco Fabrigas (explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist) across the universes as he battles, amongst others, the Pope of the universe, myriad assassins, and the flora of one very dangerous moon, is part of the essential character of the work. However, certain passages descend into something of a display, which might, of course, be evidence of the supposed narrator of Fabrigas’ tale. If you feel like taking on a big book with big ideas and definite talent behind it, then Theatre of the Gods is worth considering.

Finally, and in contrast, I read Magda by Meike Ziervogel, which follows Magda Goebbels from her abusive childhood to Hitler’s bunker beneath Berlin.  Ziervogel’s9781907773402frcvr.indd writing is at its most remarkable when probing the spiritual starvation Magda feels and her satiation in the person and project of her Fuhrer: ‘This man believes in meaning, this man delivers meaning, this man is meaning. He is mind without body and Magda is inspired; the spirit has entered her, the Holy Spirit has come to her and taken her, planting a seed in her as he did with the Virgin Mary.’ One of the challenges of writing about historical figures is to resist the inevitability of their fate; it is even more challenging when those figures have such a hand in that determination. Ziervogel’s painful portrayal of Magda and the fear and confusion of her children as the steel doors close on them is chillingly good. The interpenetration of prostration before the cross, before an abuser, before National Socialism; of bodily and national resurrection, of abuse and purity and the manner in which the victim comes to feel unclean and seek forgiveness; of the bitter irony of one people believing itself chosen and thus seeking to exterminate another: all is brought to bear in Magda.

And that’s some of the books I’ve read recently. One book I’ve not written about is Javier Marías’ The Man of Feeling. I’m going to need a while to get my head around that one. It’s brilliant, but I think I need to reread it at least once before I can say much about it. The same goes for Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which is remarkable and full of wisdom and humanity. My next post should be a few thoughts on Dracula.  

Titles with a star were review copies.

  •  *Harvest (Picador)
  • The Uncommon Reader (Faber/Profile)
  • The Detour (Vintage)
  • Light Years (Harvill Press)
  • *Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (Granta)
  • *Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
  • All Dogs are Blue (And Other Stories)
  • *Magda (Salt)
  • *The Unknowns (Picador/Waywiser Press)
  • *Theatre of the Gods (Jonathan Cape)

‘manipulate the pieces’ The Machine – James Smythe

the machinepic

‘They said, We can take a person and make them whole again.’

Perhaps the hardest idea to accept is that love can betray itself by its own depth of feeling. If love is given the means to try to recapture what it has lost it will most likely take the opportunity. After all, ‘Nobody dreams of a vacant shell for a husband.’ Therein lies the heart of The Machine. There are memories we don’t want anymore, memories we never wanted, memories which have changed us and not for the better. In a flat in an estate on the Isle of White in a warmed and partially flooded Britain Beth takes delivery of ‘the Machine’ and plans to reclaim the husband she lost, first to post-traumatic stress disorder, and then to the Machine itself which was supposed to bring him back by deleting the memories which had so changed him. Vic is not just comatose or suffering from dementia. He is gone. Only a body remains. In a grotesque inversion of therapy Vic spoke his life into the Machine and it removed every memory that might connect to his time as a soldier, from childhood to injury in Iran to mood swings and violence. Only this talking cure doesn’t resolve it purges. Beth’s great hope is that it can also ‘REPLENISH’, that it can put back what it took out.

Nobody knows why the brain doesn’t work like it should after the Machine’s had its way with it. This would be much easier for all involved if it was just a wipe. One doctor who worked on the project wondered if the brain hadn’t had its ability to record memories wiped. As in, it had forgotten how to remember.

From the moment the Machine’s ‘pitch-black casing’ enters Beth’s spare bedroom its power deforms its surroundings: ‘the room is suddenly darker,’ and once assembled ‘it’s like a solid lump of black metal from the front, no seams, like something carved from the world itself. It looks, she thinks, almost natural. Like rock.’ Fans whirr, vibrations fill the flat and enter Beth’s dreams along with the headaches that start soon after the Machine is delivered. The extent to which this Machine can be trusted to return Vic to Beth is a key question. Its double-nature threats Beth’s atonement. ‘She thinks about it in her flat, like some growth. Mould. Cancer. Waiting in the room, and somehow alluring, persuasive, even.’ The only certainties are the seemingly scorched and permanent bruises the ‘Crown’, a headpiece, makes on the head of its subjects. There is violence in the very process.

The Machine is occupied by three key themes: the promise, the treachery, and the inescapability of memory. Memory promises to tell us who we are, who we care about, where we have come from; and yet memories can be false, fleeting, reconstructed in hindsight, painful, and destructive; whilst, of course, being inescapable. The Machine promises and threatens: it promises to remove that memory which causes so much pain, to return you to yourself; and yet that memory is who you are, and so to remove it and the structures of which it is part is to undermine the self one sets out to save. Underlying all of this is the inescapability of memory. All experience relies on memory, be it short-term working memory – why did I come in here? What information am I manipulating in this particular task?  – or longer term encoding: speech, movement, life events, those we love. Hence Ulysses’ strange formulation ‘I am a part of all that I have met’. This line is testament not only to Ulysses’ effect on the places and people he has met, but, crucially, also to the fact that his memories, his experiences of those places are themselves filtered. Self and memory are indistinguishable. At one point Smythe quotes Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory is the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ Elsewhere in the same work Auster echoes Tennyson’s thought, ‘Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits.’

Thus the lack of speech marks in The Machine – noted by some on Twitter with immediate if transitory alarm – makes perfect sense in the context of a novel about the loss of memory. Memory differentiates one moment from the next and allows us to create and recreate our personal narratives. The lack of formal differentiation between voices is one aspect of the loss of the structure that memory provides. Furthermore, whilst being careful not to say too much, this lack of formal differentiation between each voice is thrown into sharp relief by The Machine’s ending.  Auster again, ‘It is also true that memory sometimes comes to him as a voice that speaks inside him, and it is not necessarily his own.’

Beneath its concern with memory The Machine is fundamentally a novel about trust: trust in one’s own intentions, in one’s memories, in one’s present experience, in those around us, in technology, in society, in the climate itself. Erosion both geological and psychological looms large. Smythe’s Britain is a fearful one. The population cannot trust the sea not to rise up and sweep them all away as it has in the novel’s recent past. Beth is afraid of those on her estate, especially the groups of youths – and one boy in particular – who shout and scream abuse on the streets and beaches of the island. The potential for tragedy is clear. It’s grim, violent, and full of tension. A world in which the government felt the need to make diazepam (Valium) available over the counter.

There’s something wrong with me, to have done what I have done.

In style The Machine is much closer to Smythe’s most recent novel The Explorer than to his second, The Testimony. There are noticeable continuities of theme and phrasing. He certainly isn’t becoming any more cheerful. The prose is direct and unadorned, relentless and personal, especially in the passages where Beth has to take care of Vic’s soiled and uncooperative body or where abuse and intimidation surround her. In my review of The Explorer I wrote that

what I like most about Smythe’s writing is its intimacy and deceptive ease. Complex narrative and emotional ideas are conveyed in a manner apparently free of all artifice as layers of repression are peeled back. This is harder than it looks. Smythe achieves a seemingly unmediated flow of thought and sensation as tender and raw as anything I have read this year. Neither diffident nor ostentatious, the writing is controlled to within an inch of its life…

This is all still the case, but I think that Smythe’s writing in The Machine is more controlled, refusing to rush through the heat, the pain of Vic’s treatments, Beth’s gradually dissolving life, the violence, fear, and the seemingly inevitable and very moving conclusion. This world is in many ways more plausible than the ship-bound space of The Explorer and yet the island setting restricts the characters and the reader in a recognisable way. (See Christopher Priest’s recent review for some thoughts about plausibility in The Explorer). Beth’s trips to London feel similar to Cormac’s space walks: an escape into vastness from which she has to return. If The Testimony explored human responses and interactions by placing a large number of characters in a disorientating and uncanny situation, Smythe’s later novels explore the human in a more concentrated way by restricting their characters either physically (in a spaceship) or psychologically: Beth’s love for her husband, her desperation for him to return, and her belief that this is possible.

The oppressive tropical heat creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere which immediately evokes the kind of sweaty tension of David Vann, Graham Greene, and Cormac McCarthy; not to mention the coldly uncomfortable writing of the young Ian McEwan, with a nod toward Ballard’s The Drowned World in both subject matter and psychology. Smythe has not reached those heights yet, but that is the direction in which his voice is heading. The heat also has the effect of simultaneously evoking both a hazy past and a threatened future, hot oppressive summers and a warmed dystopia. The collapse of that simple timeline parallels and intensifies the collapse of identity that the Machine’s manipulations can cause. As the fans whirr in the background, this heat also suggests an overclocked world, a world which has been made to do and be too much. A world in which coldness means death.

That’s what happens. That flash-rush of coldness envelops.

Smythe is improving with each book he writes, the voice becoming simultaneously more distilled and yet more complex. His preoccupation with time and memory and the interest in relationships that continue after loss continues. The weight of his prose is increasing. I felt The Machine had depths that were missing from The Explorer, more psychological plausibility throughout; because the subject of this novel is not the Machine. It is Beth and the way in which her love for her husband betrays them both, but not irredeemably. Not quite.

I love you, she hears him say, but then it’s gone, swallowed by the noise of the Machine and the noise of his thrashing as a new session is firmly underway, and she doesn’t know if that was the voice of him now, or from the recordings made long ago when she destroyed him.

The Machine is published today (11th April 2013) by Blue Door.

My thanks to Blue Door for this review copy.

 

 

Iain Banks & BanksRead

BanksIain-2x2a

I am officially very poorly.

Following the very sad news of Iain’s cancer (you can read the full statement hereI thought it would be a nice idea to get together to read and discuss the many novels and stories he has produced. As it turns out Annabel Gaskell already had her own Banks Fest planned and so we decided to merge the two. Annabel plans to read, review, and discusswasp factory Iain’s mainstream work on her blog and I’m aiming to move between the both the more literary and science fiction streams: Iain and Iain. M. I’ll be starting with The Wasp Factory, Iain’s first novel and for many still his best.

I’ll set up a permanent page here and think Annabel will be doing the same, but we also have a BanksRead discussion forum where you can discuss any and all aspects of Iain Banks’ work, be it his influence on your reading and writing, your favourite novels, how the two streams of his work relate.

Please try and share the forum as widely as possible. The more people who get involved the better it will be.

BanksRead Discussion Forum

‘It takes sacrifice’ WOOL – Hugh Howey

Wool‘Expressing any desire to leave. Yes. The great offense. Don’t you see why? Why is that so forbidden? Because all the uprisings started with that desire, that’s why.’

WOOL began its life as a self-published short-story of about sixty pages. It has grown into a five-part novel and a potential film. It’s easy to see why: a community stranded in an apparently unique silo buried beneath the dead earth, taught from birth never to question their position on pain of being ‘sent to cleaning’: the ultimate sanction, ejection from the silo in a suit that will disintegrate in the toxic air, but allow just enough time to clean the lenses which give the silo its limited view of their immediate environment. Why does everyone so condemned perform this final duty? From a slow start in Parts One and Two the series builds to become very compelling indeed in its creation of a world of hope, despair, and simmering discontent. That slow start is entirely understandable given that they are very much short stories rather than the opening chapters of a pre-planned novel.

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.

The original story ‘Holston’ is nicely self-contained, if occasionally clunky, and builds to surprising conclusion. It examines the grief of Sheriff Holston, whose wife apparently lost her reason and demanded to go outside. Her body lies in a gully visible from the camera. In other words, a solid short story. It is, however, clearly ripe for development, and one can understand the clamour for a follow-up, which came in the form of Part Two ‘Proper Gauge’ which adds many more layers to Howey’s creation. In search of a sheriff to replace Holston, Mayor Jahns travels the great stairwell at the centre of the silo, passing through hydroponics, IT, Supply, living quarters, recycling plants, before reaching the Mechanical section of the ‘down deep’ where Juliette, her preferred but controversial candidate works. By structuring this story around the descent and ascent and a burgeoning romance with her friend Deputy Marnes. Howey great develops the world of the Silo and, crucially, its inter-departmental and individual tensions. The IT department and its head begin to emerge as powerful forces with a shadowy agenda. The story ends in tragedy and one senses that this is where Howey really began to envisage the greater arc of the final five-part work. The threat of disintegration looms ever larger as his plot becomes more involved and begins to pull the reader along.

 Don’t let it unravel, not just yet.

From Part Three ‘Casting Off’ onwards the book begins to feel far more like a novel than a collection of linked stories. Indeed, one feels Howey’s expressive ambition grow: ‘And he only distantly felt, but for a tremble of time, the end of him that came next.’ Juliette emerges as the central figure as the silo becomes an ever more dangerous and rotten environment shot through with the awfulness of hope. In some ways WOOL resembles the television miniseries of recent time: developing slowly as detail builds and the premise begins to arrest the audience, with cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. As a novel it wouldn’t quite work, but as a series of stories developing the reader’s commitment as Howey begins to flex his muscles it is effective. Part Four ‘The Unravelling’ and Part Five ‘The Stranded’ become more ambitious and in some respects conventional as more of the world in which the Silo sits is revealed. Yet the core story is as compelling as ever, well-paced, and always very readable.

What God would make so much rock below and air above and just a measly silo between?

 

WOOL is is out today (17/1/13) from Century

My thanks to Century for this review copy.

‘If only you could see yourself.’ The Explorer – James Smythe

Explorer

One of the first things I did when I realized that I was never going to make it home – when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures – was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again…

What is it to explore with no hope of remembrance? How does one understand oneself when stripped of the gaze of others? James Smythe’s third novel The Explorer is a compelling, claustrophobic, and raw examination of exploration, grief, time, and identity.  The crew of the Ishiguro die one by one – ‘falling off like there was a checklist’ – on a supposedly triumphant mission to travel further than any human has gone before. The only remaining crewman is the journalist Cormac Easton. He immediately and selfishly mythologises his situation as one of endurance in the trial of solitude. He wonders how those on Earth will understand the events on the Ishiguro, about the film they must surely make of the mission, and, eventually, whether anyone will ever know their fate at all. Cormac is an outsider, an observer whose sole task is to record the momentous journey: ‘My crew: I was never really a part of them, even after all the training, because they knew more than me, technical things.’ And yet, as becomes clear, he is an observer who saw almost nothing, who was wrapped up in the glamour of space travel and the rhetoric of exploration, and thus saw little beyond that list of names.

we send probes and cameras…but we never send out eyes; this way, we’ll be looking back at ourselves from further away than anybody has had the chance to before, and we’ll – hopefully – be able to understand ourselves a bit better because of it.

This idea of looking back as the key to understanding foreshadows the bizarre reflexivity Cormac will achieve in The Explorer, the basis of which I’m not going to reveal. Which makes this difficult. The process of travelling away from the earth is one of abstraction: from the world, from its mores, all the better to gain some kind of perspective. The further the crew travel, the more important their journey becomes, because humanity gains a greater, a more objective, understanding of itself. Or so Cormac and (some) others initially believe. Yet Cormac is also the observer of the crew, as they are of him and of each other. Their gaze, their understanding, cannot be so abstracted, trapped as they are in close quarters; and death is not conducive to reflection. This partiality of single points of view is a theme The Explorer shares with Smythe’s second novel The Testimony. Unlike that novel, we hear only Cormac’s voice as he is slowly isolated, slowly abstracted, from the gaze of others, until all he has left are those romantic notions of film scripts, memorials, the glamour of exploration and the mawkish reports he writes for those he left behind.

 I couldn’t stand to relive this trip through my own eyes, I don’t think.

What if one were able turn one’s gaze back on oneself? That is a duality of abstraction and intimacy difficult to conceive. That would be the kind of exploration few of us would relish; and yet it would be bolder than the physical exploration of a spaceship powering into the void. But would the overcoming of partiality that a singular gaze entails really be better than Cormac’s starting point? Meaning, for Cormac, is imparted by representation and, more than that, by purpose memorialised, by others, by Earth, by history; at least, until events gather him up and force him to take up a new and anguished perspective. At that point, we begin to realise just how partial was his understanding of those around him, of events, and of himself. As Cormac begins to see beyond the list of names and the nature of their representation – both in his and their own minds – he must decide what to do with that knowledge even as he threatens to disintegrate.

An ending is a completion: it’s a satisfaction all in itself.

An ending is a consummation.  Part of Cormac’s struggle is to understand how his experience has to end. Only thus will the meaning of his ordeal become clear. To that extent The Explorer’sstructure is teleological: it is by reference to the end that the whole is to be understood. That would be a simple act of abstraction: to step back and understand the whole. But it is not quite so simple, as the temporal structure of The Explorer undermines the linearity implicit in the teleological conception of meaning, even as its three sections hold the narrative together and break Cormac apart in the darkness of space.

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Eliot looms large in The Explorer. In fact, read Four Quartets as a companion piece if you possibly can. I could quote it all day. Time and memory and image play off one another in complex patterns to send echoes back and forth in poem and novel. Yet, what I like most about Smythe’s writing is its intimacy and deceptive ease. Complex narrative and emotional ideas are conveyed in a manner apparently free of all artifice as layers of repression are peeled back. This is harder than it looks. Smythe achieves a seemingly unmediated flow of thought and sensation as tender and raw as anything I have read this year. Neither diffident nor ostentatious, the writing is controlled to within an inch of its life and Cormac’s voice, which begins as a journalist’s selfish mythologisation of endurance, becomes as tender as a bruise as its pretention is stripped away by shock after psychological shock. As in The Testimony I found Smythe’s writing to have a rare power to move. The Explorer is a profound and deeply impressive novel which I urge you to read. I haven’t told you the half of it.

just me and the metal and the stars

The Explorer is out from Harper Voyager in ebook 20/12/12 and in hardback 17/01/13.

My thanks to HarperVoyager for this review copy.

One to Look Out For… The Explorer by James Smythe

OK, so this is a bit unfair because this isn’t out for a few months, but I’ve just read The Explorer and really enjoyed it. I’ll get a full review up nearer the publication dates (split across December and January). For now it will suffice to say that, as well as having a gorgeous cover, which is obviously what makes a book worth reading, The Explorer is SF for people who don’t like SF and probably should: so maybe they will stop being silly. It’s a taut, claustrophobic, frankly unnerving exploration of grief, memory, self-knowledge, and what it really means to go where no one has gone before both physically and psychologically. Oh, and it’s set on a space ship heading for deep space. I should mention that.