Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

 http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/books

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Steam Punk from Richard Harland. Anticipation and Reflection.

song of the slumsA book near the top of my MUST READ list for this year is Richard Harland’s Song of the Slums, to be released in May by Allen and Unwin.

Before I write anything else I have to confess an apparent “vested interest”. Richard Harland was one of my lecturers/tutors at University in the early 1990s and he wrote me a very generous reference when I was looking for work afterwards.

While this may appear to give me reason for bias in my response to Harland’s books, I will also add that for one essay, Richard gave me the lowest mark I ever received for any assignment during my whole time at University (and I still remember after 22 years). So can we pretend that the positives have been cancelled out and a balance of neutrality has been restored?

On his website Harland reveals that Songs of the Slums is “set in the same world as ([his previous books] WORLDSHAKER and LIBERATOR, but going back a bit in time. New characters, new story”

I cant’ wait!!

The following reviews of Worldshaker and Liberator are taken from my original “Out of Shadows” blog.

WORLDSHAKER

shakerWorldshaker was a book I didn’t want to leave. I read it at every opportunity and was disappointed when I reached the end. It’s the kind of book that demonstrates why continuing series of novels can be so successful. It is a book that creates a world and characters so interesting that you want to explore and experience them some more.

Harland has created an alternative history, a world where the industrial innovation and creativity of the Victorian era has taken a huge leap beyond the bridge and shipbuilding wonders of I K Brunel. In this world political necessity has driven steam age technology to achieve far grander goals than was the case in the “real” Victorian age.

Worldshaker is a massive “juggernaut”, part ship, part tank, part earthmoving excavator, which houses and employs citizens of various fixed classes. Perhaps a comparison could be made to futuristic stories of massive star-ships transporting nation sized communities through space – except juggernaut communities are earthbound and restricted to Victorian age technology.

Colbert Porpentine, heir in waiting to Worldshaker’s Supreme Commander, is thrown into contact with a girl who has entered his room to hide from the authorities. She is a member of the lowest of the low, a “filthy. A reflex decision not to expose the girl’s forbidden presence puts Col’s privileged position at risk and leads him to discover the price that others continually pay to maintain the lifestyle of the Juggernaut’s elite classes.

Worldshaker has what I consider to be a novel’s most essential qualities: strongly believable characters that I care about; an exciting storyline with interesting and original ideas and on a more practical level – short chapters.

I have found long chapters can be a stumbling block to successful reading. It is a major reason I’ve always struggled with Lord of the Rings. By the time I finish one long chapter, the task of reading another of similar length can seem too daunting, especially when other things are competing for my time. With shorter chapters it is easy to read “just one more chapter” several times in succession until a significant portion of the book has been read.

Worldshaker would be classed as a Young Adult title and it was a pleasure to read a book untarnished by the presence of graphic sex and foul language. From recent experience, books that don’t resort to such devices are becoming increasingly hard to find.

LIBERATOR

liberator
Many stories reach a satisfactory conclusion. The hero overcomes the odds and defeats the villain. Cinderella is found by her Prince Charming and rescued from a life of drudgery: and they all live happily ever after. At least that is the impression given by a neat and satisfying conclusion. Richard Harland’s Worldshaker would fit into that “satisfying conclusion” category, but the follow-up novel, Liberator shows us what happens AFTER the initial euphoria of a “happy” ending.

It shows that such endings are only temporary and one problem solved will merely lead to another. Liberator begins not long after the concluding events of the earlier novel and things have deteriorated very quickly. The Leviathan WorldShaker has been renamed Liberator to reflect the freedom gained by the lower class “Filthies” – but that freedom could now have severe consequences for the previously privileged “swanks” who chose to stay on after the Liberation, even those who played a significant part in overturning the former oppressive, elitist regime.

It soon comes clear that elitism and oppression are not the exclusive traits of those born into privilege. This book was just as enjoyable as the first in the series. Again I was compelled to read it at every opportunity I could make. Both are very near to the top of my favourites of recent years