Tag Archives: Michel Faber

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2015

I am ChinaNot as spoilt for choice as I’d expected for August paperbacks but there are some excellent treats to look forward to including Xiaolu Guo’s ambitious, Baileys Prize longlisted I Am China, a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present. Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. Gulou’s novel takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.

As does Michel Faber’s compelling and unusual The Book of Strange New Things set on a different planet from our own. It opens with a journey to the airport, obviously not any old airport. Both evangelical Christians, Bea and Peter Leigh are about to face their first real separation, one that neither of them can quite comprehend: Peter is to be propelled into space to become a missionary on Oasis, a settlement set up and run by a shadowy multinational corporation. They bid each other a passionate farewell. The knowledge that Faber had written this novel while his wife was dying put the whole thing into a different perspective for me.

Sue Miller writes the kind of quietly insightful novel, often set in small-town America, of which I’m very fond. At the core of her writing are relationships between men and women – their passions, joys, and tensions – the ways in which they manage the constant round of compromise and negotiation, or not. When a new Miller appears on the horizon it’s like a date in the diary with an old friend, something to look forward to and savour. There’s usually a hook on which she hangs her subtle explorations and in the case of The Arsonist it’s the burning down of summer houses in the small New Hampshire town of Pomeroy. A Cover imagethoroughly enjoyable novel from a writer of reliably good emotionally intelligent fiction.

I’ve not read or reviewed the following three novels but I like the sound of all of them particularly Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad in which a widow moves from her rural home to her daughter’s in Budapest. Iza can’t get the hang of how things are done in the metropolis nor find a way to fit into the life of the daughter she’s never really known. The publisher’s blurb tells us it’s about ‘the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime’ which sounds interesting territory to explore to me.

As does that of Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen which sees a seventy-one-year old serial killer finally awaiting trial interrogated by a low-ranking officer in the sheriff’s department who is trying to extract details of Gload’s many murders. Valentine Millimaki has drawn the short straw – the overnight shift – putting yet more strain on his troubled marriage. An oddly intimate connection springs up between this disparate pair. According to the publisher’s blurb things take ‘a startling turn with a brazen act of violence, a manhunt, and a stunning revelation that leave Gload’s past and Millimaki’s future forever entwined’. Not the kind of billing that’s usually up my alley but this sounds quite riveting.

Cover imageMy last choice, Jamie Kornegay’s Soil,  is also set in small-town USA with an environmental scientist turning to farming in the Mississippi hills. Within a year it all goes to pot when a corpse appears on his family’s property. With his marriage in tatters and convinced he’s been framed, the farmer finds himself caught up in maelstrom of deception and obsession. The blurb describes it as ‘The Coen Brothers meet Crime and Punishment – with a Mississippi twist’ which is enough to get anybody’s attention. We’ll see.

That’s it for August. I’ve reviewed the first three but a click on any of the last three titles will take you to Waterstone’s website if you want a more detailed synopsis. And if you fancy catching up with my August hardback choices here they are. This is my last post for a couple of weeks – H and I are off to explore the Baltic states. No doubt a few books will be read along the way.

The Book of Strange New Things: SF, Jim, but not as we know it

Cover imageMichel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a favourite of mine. A playful, sprawling, vibrant novel that takes you from the rancid, stinking alleys and raucous bawdy-houses of nineteenth-century London into the heart of its supposedly respectable upper echelons guided by seventeen-year-old Sugar, one of the smartest narrators you could possibly hope for. Set on a different planet, clearly The Book of Strange New Things is entirely different. I should say that such a setting would usually see me tossing it aside sniffily assuming it wasn’t for me but this is Michel Faber and it is, he announced earlier in the week, to be his last novel.

It opens with a journey to the airport, obviously not any old airport. Both evangelical Christians, Bea and Peter Leigh are about to face their first real separation, one that neither of them can quite comprehend: Peter is to be propelled into space to become a missionary on Oasis, a settlement set up and run by a shadowy multinational corporation. They bid each other a passionate farewell. Three days later – days are somewhat longer on Oasis than on Earth – Peter is getting over the effects of the Jump, becoming acquainted with his new colleagues and exploring Oasis as best he can. Everyone else is an engineer or scientist. They treat him with a tolerant acceptance but there’s an air of jocular cynicism about the place. Blandness is the order of the day – the posters lining the wall are hackneyed, the muzak is inoffensive if dated, everyone is caught up in their jobs, carefully chosen for their lack of emotional attachment – all except Peter who desperately misses Bea and their pet cat. It soon becomes clear that his mission is not with the USIC employees but with the Oasans – quiet, enervated beings who have already gladly embraced the Christian message through Peter’s predecessor who has mysteriously disappeared. He becomes fond of these gentle, quiet people who revere and love The Book of Strange New Things as they call the Bible but who live at some distance from the USIC settlement, exchanging food for medicine. When he returns intermittently to base he finds ever more desperate messages from Bea but as his ties with the Oasans become stronger, she becomes a fading memory – he loves her dearly but can’t quite remember her face. There’s a church to be built, a colleague to be counselled. Meanwhile, back on Earth, everything’s going to hell in a handbasket.

All manner of things are addressed in this compelling and unusual novel. Peter has turned his back on a life of alcohol and drug addiction, finding his salvation in evangelism and his love for Bea. Such is his faith – or naivety, depending on your view-point – that he overcomes the dread of separation and physical peril to take on a mission which has never been explained. He’s never asked why USIC might have employed him or just what it is they’re up to on Oasis, an answer that comes as no surprise when it’s revealed. Faber handles the problems of his setting well, describing Oasis without over-egging the pudding. The Oasans are sketched lightly – their faces like ‘massive whitish-pink walnut kernels’  – their different coloured robes acting as handy markers for the human eye. The compassionate relationship which grows between Peter and his strange new congregants is tenderly described. At the heart of the novel is the love story between Peter and Bea, their messages to each other threaded through Peter’s experiences made all the more poignant by the knowledge of the death of Faber’s own wife, knowledge that coloured my entire reading of this novel. It flows beautifully, a kind of rhythm established between each chapter whose heading is repeated in its final sentence. It’s an involving novel, full of humanity which may sound odd for one set on another planet but then it’s SF, Jim, but not as we know it.

Books to look out for in October 2014

There’s already a nip of autumn in the air in the UK – a bit unexpected but there it is – so it seemed appropriate to take a dekko at a few books to look out for in October. It used to be one of my favourite publishing months but if you’ve read my August and September posts you’ll know that schedules seem to have shifted a little, spilling over into earlier months rather like the summer sales. As a result, this is going to be a shorter post that I’d expected with only four novels that really push my literary buttons. As ever, a click on the link will take you to Waterstones synopsis should you want to learn more.

Cover imageLet’s start with the cherry on my particular cake: Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster, set in the late ‘60s in the same small Irish town which Ellis Lacey left in Brooklyn. Left alone with four children, the fiercely intelligent Nora must start again after the premature death of her husband, returning to work and slowly building a life of her own. Brooklyn is one of my favourite novels. Written in gorgeous, elegant prose it’s a quiet masterpiece that will wring your heart. I caught wind of a new Tóibin novel some time ago and am delighted to see it in the October schedules. Lovely nostalgic jacket, too

Next in line is  If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, a fine confident title that will no doubt be mangled when requested in bookshops. It’s a debut set in close-knit ’70s Long Island (that’s sold it to me immediately) and follows a group of young working-class people wrestling with life and all it brings in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Sounds right up my alley and I plan to review it here nearer publication.

My third book’s title is the antithesis of Judy Chicurel’s wordy but enticing debut: Daniel Kehlmann’s F tells the story of three brothers – one a faithless priest, one an artist without integrity, the third a poverty-stricken banker – all of whom are about to take a fateful step. I’ve read and very much enjoyed Kehlmann’s work before. Measuring the World is about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long-suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. Very different from the playful, episodic Fame which satirises celebrity and is also immensely enjoyable.

Last but far from least – the second cherry if such a luscious cake exists – is Michel Faber’s Cover imageThe Book of Strange New Things. Fans of The Crimson Petal and the White won’t need any persuasion and if you shied away from that because of its doorstep proportions, please think again. It may be over 800 pages but it’s a rollicking good read which flies by. This one is literally a world away from the grimy nineteenth century slums of Crimson. Funded by a shadowy multinational, Peter is leaving his beloved wife behind, sent to a colony on another planet where he is to spread the word of God. It’s a book that addresses big questions, apparently, and has been described as ‘compelling and brilliant’.

That’s my somewhat abbreviated October post. Are there any authors whose next novel you’re eagerly anticipating?