Tag Archives: Scarlett Thomas

The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper

This is the first book I’ve read by André Alexis. His last novel  was narrated in the voices of its titular dogs which brought back memories of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and not happy ones. That said Fifteen Dogs went on to win the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 so what do I know? This latest novel is entirely different: a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt.

Tancred Palmieri is a complex character brought up by a single mother whose deathbed wish was that he change his thieving ways. He’s known Willow Azarian for a little while. She’s a junkie, drawn to telling Tancred her story, impressing upon him that she’s an heiress and eventually presenting him with an intriguing challenge. Her stupendously rich father has left each of his five children a memento, something which is of particular significance to them. Willow’s is a beautiful facsimile of a Japanese screen, one panel left blank but for an inscription. She’s convinced that her father has set a puzzle which can only be solved by examining all the artefacts together. Tancred is to steal each one, quietly returning the item once Willow has scrutinised them all. He will, of course, be recompensed. Reluctantly, Tancred agrees and has hardly begun his exacting task when Willow dies. Having given his word, Tancred has no choice but to continue only to find that his best friend is the detective investigating the burglaries and his bête noir, Willow’s dealer, has got wind of what he’s up to together with the reward it might bring. As each piece of this elaborate puzzle painstakingly slots into place, another mystery opens up until finally Tancred is left face to face with himself.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums are unfolded. It’s very funny at times – Castle Rose whose designer took his inspiration from M. C. Escher is a particular delight. Alexis excels at elaborate yet flawless plotting, smoothly switching perspective from character to character. The book’s premise reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and its style of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, both favourites of mine. If there’s any disappointment at the resolution its matched by Tancred’s own and offset by the development of his character. Altogether a delight – packed full with colourful detail and characters, each with a story to tell or be told, and funny with it. I think I should try Fifteen Dogs after all.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 4

Cover imageMy fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel – it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other. Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.

October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.

We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.Cover image

My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11 follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Honourable mentions to Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last,  Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible as ever – last year it was a three-way between Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist. This year looks like a four-way between Weathering, A God in Ruins, Spill, Simmer, Falter Wither and The Mountain Can Wait.

That’s it for my reading year highlights. What about you? What are your 2015 favourites?

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas: Bursting with ideas

Cover imageThe Seed Collectors is Scarlett Thomas’s first novel for quite some time. Her idiosyncratic books, several of which flirt with science fiction, seem to attract a passionate following. I’d read only two before this one: The End of Mr Y, about a PhD student’s encounter with a rare edition of a nineteenth-century writer’s book, wandered off into the realms of quantum physics while Our Tragic Universe explored time and immortality through a book reviewer’s struggles to get to grips with an esoteric commission. Apparently Thomas has been studying for an MSc in ethnobotany which would explain why this new novel is all about a family of botanists whose roots are extraordinarily tangled.

When Great-aunt Oleander dies she leaves Nameste House to Fleur who has helped her run it for some time. For decades Oleander has pulled together a mishmash of spirituality offering a programme which has attracted an endless stream of celebrities. As Fleur frets about how many people will come to the funeral it crosses her mind that Paul McCartney might turn up. Oleander has left each of her great-nieces and nephews a seed pod. No one quite knows what they are but it’s been rumoured that they contain within them a shortcut to enlightenment, followed by instant death. Clematis, Bryony, Charlie and Fleur each have reason to fear these pods – all have lost parents who disappeared while collecting them on the fabled Lost Island in the Pacific Ocean. Clem has planted hers and is making a documentary about it, Charlie has asked his colleagues at Kew to identify his and Bryony has hidden hers, terrified at the prospect of her kids getting their hands on it. After she is handed a book at the funeral by an old friend of Oleander’s who tells her that it unlocks the secret, Fleur is puzzled to find that its pages are blank and sets off to find the mysterious woman who gave it to her.

The Seed Collectors is prefaced with one Gardener family tree and ends with another – the rest of Thomas’s discursive, funny, erudite, sometimes exasperating, novel explains the revisions. There’s a little bit of early Kate Atkinson in Thomas’s writing, with the occasional dash of Iain Banks. She has a striking eye for description: ‘cooling towers huddled together like three fat women on an eternal tea break’; ‘Even Soho has a kind of Sunday feeling, as if it has stayed in its pyjamas all day and just can’t be arsed with all this’ give you an idea. Thomas’s characters, whose internal monologues are often shockingly funny, are wonderfully well drawn, from the insatiable Bryony, creative with her calorific accounting, to Beatrix playing the stock market from her Royal Crescent flat in Bath (she must be doing well) while stumbling upon porn sites, again and again. There’s a multitude of ideas stuffed into this ill-disciplined, ragbag of a novel which rambles about all over the place, including into the downright wacky, and Thomas struggles to keep it all under control at times. It’s the antithesis of the beautifully spare, elegantly constructed novels that I admire so much – but I loved it.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 1

MotherlandLong experience has taught me that a ‘lost’ novel is often best kept that way so I won’t be including Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman here. Surely the entire world and its dog must know about it by now, anyway. Instead I thought I’d take a look at a few less trumpeted titles due in July of which there are enough to spread across two posts, beginning with Jo McMillan’s Motherland set in 1978. Jess’s mother is a communist, a fish out of water in Tamworth which resolutely resists her exhortations to see the light. When she gets the chance to spend the summer teaching in East Germany she and Jess decamp. A new life opens up, or so it seems. It’s billed as ‘a tragic-comic portrait of childhood’ and sounds very appealing.

I’m a little unsure about M. O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away which comes garlanded with praise from an extraordinary range of authors including the likes of Kathryn Stockett, Matthew Thomas and Anne Rice, to name but a few. Set in Louisiana in the ‘80s, it’s narrated by a fourteen-year-old who’s in love with Lindy Simpson, raped on her way home from school one summer day. Worryingly, we may be in The Lovely Bones territory, here, but so many writers have extolled the beauty of Walsh’s writing that I’m willing to give it a try.

Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This sounds entirely different. Greg Marnier is an American academic who has somehow landed up in Aberystwyth. At his college reunion, addled with jet lag and drink, he’s persuaded by a wealthy old friend that the derelict neighbourhoods of Detroit may offer him a way out. Robert’s plan is to buy up swathes of the boarded-up city and build a new America but several of the owners fail to share his vision. Clashes follow in what sounds like an interesting novel.A Hanging at Cinder Bottom

Several years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Glenn Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. His new novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottomis set during the boom years of the West Virginia coal mining industry. Poker-playing Abe Baach returns to Keystone hoping for a reunion with his lover Goldie Toothman, madam of the local brothel, only to find his brother dead and his father’s saloon a shambles. Trenchmouth was a triumph so I’m looking forward to a rollicking good read.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Scarlett Thomas’ writing in the past – The End of Mr Y left me cold but I enjoyed Our Tragic Universe very much. Her new novel, The Seed Collectors, sees an extended family gathered to remember their Aunt Oleander. Each family member has been bequeathed a seed pod, but with the legacy comes secrets which may divide them irrevocably. It’s described as ‘revealing all that it means to be connected, to be part of a society, to be part of the universe and to be human’. Something of a tall order, then.

The Night StagesSet in the ‘50s, my final choice for this instalment is Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages which follows Tamara, now a civilian after flying as an auxiliary pilot during the war years and settled in the west of Ireland. Her long affair founders when her lover’s brother disappears after a cycle race, leaving Niall convinced he is to blame in some way. Tamara decides to go to New York, reflecting on what has become of her life and her lover’s as she waits out a fogbound layover in Newfoundland. Both A Map of Glass and Sanctuary Line were quietly beautiful novels – I’m hoping for the same from The Night Stages.

That’s it for the first helping of July’s goodies. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis at Waterstones website. More to come soon.