Friday, August 07, 2015

Cataract

I lay on my back with a sheet laid claustrophobically over my face. An area cut out of it over my right eye, which comically had a bandage stuck above it with an arrow pointing downwards. I didn’t feel a thing, the surgeon was excellent, and I’m enormously grateful for the wonderful NHS. Privileged to receive such great care. But still, I lay there in the dazzle, watched dark shapes flicker like birds of prey above me, listened to the buzz of, presumably, a tiny saw, and I mostly wondered about torture scenes. The spy always seems to be strapped to a chair and then beaten up a bit and electrocuted. He can scream in a way that shows he’s enduring great pain, then leap to his feet shortly afterwards and kill everyone, walking away possibly bruised but essentially unscarred. Lay him on a table, do what that brilliant lady was doing to me, only without the anaesthetic, see how well he copes with that.


In other news in this eventful week, I’m shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story prize. Very pleased. I do love the short story, the challenge of opening a door into a world and leading the reader in, then having that world vanish after a few thousand words but trying to make it linger in the reader’s mind, trying to leave them still half behind the door, still tangled in the lives you’ve created. Most writers don’t get much encouragement, so it’s nice when it comes along. Also won a Northern Writers’ Award earlier this year, another very encouraging, and very practically helpful thing. It’s allowed me to focus on completing a draft of my YA novel, The Impossible. Writing fiction, writing TV pitches, teaching writing – feeling fortunate.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Station 11

Six months of the year has slipped away, we’re on a shallow slope heading towards Christmas, and my book of the year so far? It’s been a good six months. Plainsong by Kent Haruf, The Son by Phillip Meyer and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, Pig Iron, by Ben Myers, Dark Star by Alan Furst.

But my book of the first six months of 2015, by some distance, is Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel. It takes a genre subject – an apocalyptic flu wipes out most of humanity – and treats it in a contemplative, melancholy, compelling way. It makes you nostalgic for a life you haven’t lost, a life involving phones and flights and oranges. King Lear is woven into the narrative, but so is an invented comic book, and Star Trek Voyager (not even the original series.) We follow different characters for a while, leave their stories, return to them, and I found myself convinced, believing in this beautifully evoked world. Most of the characters were decent people, which is something that I enjoyed, it was a quietly optimistic book, or not glibly, cynically pessimistic anyway. It was the mood though, and the style, that most engaged me, I felt like I was liable to wake up and find myself living in this world.

Is it a bad thing that the first five books I mentioned are all by men? Maybe it is, I do read more men than women, I think, and I don’t want to close myself off to that whole other perspective on the world. And as a male writer I want to be read by women as much as by men, (or by girls as much as by boys, since I’m now writing a Young Adult novel). I know a guy who’s reading nothing but women this entire year, having noticed that he’s only been reading men for a while. I don’t want to do that, I don’t think I do, but I am reading Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey next, and perhaps I’ll catch up with How to be both by Ali Smith after that and is The Green Road by Anne Enright in paperback yet? God, I love reading.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring


A view that stretches maybe ten miles. Builders hammering on a nearby roof, their tinny radio singing something. It’s April, and sunny at last. In my head upcoming trips to Wales, Burnley and York, and why don’t I know the names of even the commonest birds, and when am I going to plant those wildflower seeds my son gave me for Christmas, and will they flower, and those friends I’m in danger of losing touch with, what am I going to do about that? Sipping tea. Everyone else has gone on a bike-ride, the roofers are hammering like someone knocking on a door, the view is unwinding into hazy distance, and it’s sunny at last.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Bone Clocks

I liked Holly. From her running away in the first section to her dismal, scarily plausible, just this side of The Road life in the final section. The fantastical side of the story worked fairly well too, the immortal good guys and the slightly less immortal bad guys and their endless war. It provided a satisfying underlying narrative, a sort of muscle that helped the whole thing cohere and kept it moving forwards. Perhaps not the showdown in the Chapel. It was quite tense but a bit too silly, with (spoilers) good guys and bad guys firing mind bolts at each other, then the bad guys gloating that they’d won, in that way that bad guys do, until the good guys broke the Chapel and, basically, made it fall on them. If I understood that correctly.

But the main problem was the three long sections of the novel devoted to the men. Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey. Ed was fine as a teenager but a bit dull as an adult, and seemed to be there mostly to earnestly explain to us that Iraq was a hideous mess, in case we didn’t know. (Nice sequence involving a missing toddler though, reminiscent of the beginning of McEwan’s Child In Time.) Hugo was loathsome and – this is possibly a naive response - I didn’t want to spend that long in his company. He and Crispin were both almost, sort of saved by loving Holly, but Crispin’s section was the weakest of the three. It seemed to arrive from a different novel, it could have been removed entirely without any damage to the plot. Crispin was a cross between David Mitchell himself and Martin Amis, a successful author whose success was ebbing, and the whole section smacked of a writer who’d run out of things to write about.

So, disappointing, slightly, from one of my favourite living novelists, but I did like Holly, and her story kept me interested and caring and wanting to know where we were going for nearly 600 pages. It’s a much inferior book, but it might make a better film than Cloud Atlas.