The Comfort of Books

I never venture far without a book in my bag. I find it slightly disconcerting if I don’t have one near, even if I won’t need one for a particular journey. Someone once said to me that I hide behind books. There is possibly a sliver of truth in that, but I think I take comfort in them. They are my windows and mirrors: a glimpse on the world, and a reflection of me. They allow me to experience emotions I might not otherwise and allow me to find a community of people just like me.

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These are some of the books I easily find comfort in, for particular reasons.

The world is without doubt a mysterious and complex place to live in. There are as many ideologies as there are pebbles on a beach. We all see the world differently and whatever we have inside us alters the view of the world outside the window. Most people read books that reflect their particular viewpoint – or is it their viewpoint is shaped by the books they read?

BeteOn the beach (1957) by Nevil Shute is a bleak apocalyptic novel, offering a worldview of the cold war but also how people feel about death. In Shute’s story, set in Australia after a nuclear war, the protagonists know they will almost certainly die, sooner rather than later. Death is something rarely discussed in society, so fiction allows that exploration in comfort. What it means it live and exist in the world is perhaps the primary concern of science fiction. The Humans (2013) by Matt Haig features an alien on earth who takes the identity of a university lecturer. However, the book is mostly centred around the home life and how humans suffer in the mundane. Mental illness is one of the hardest things for anyone to comprehend and Haig helps with magnificent storytelling and prose. There are dozens of books about political philosophy that I find push my buttons, from the obvious classics Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to the more recent Bete (2014) by Adam Roberts, which investigates human rights and how society treats nature. Political fiction is one of the most personal choices there is. I recently read BS Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) which I found ideologically spot on, and a perfect experiment in fiction.

But how do other people see me? Indeed, how do I see myself? How do other people see you? Perhaps surprisingly, there are so many books out there that reflect part of my personality or mirror my feelings or beliefs. The much missed Graham Joyce released The Year of the Ladybird in 2013. Set in 1976, the story is about a young man, working over summer while at college, trying to figure out his relationship with his Dad and trying to understand love. Meanwhile, the wonderful Kalix the Werewolf series (which kicks off with Lonely Werewolf Girl, 2007, Martin Millar) is about someone alone and lonely on the streets of London, far from where she was brought up. Kalix struggles to fit in, with anyone, and fails to understand the world she lives in. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books also spoke to me as she uses magic to explore London.

on the beachImagine a selection of characters with traits and experiences at the edge of imagination: sentient creatures that fly; artists and scientists exploring form and the limits of knowledge; ganglords and demons; hive minds and multi-dimensional beings. I think I have a decent imagination, but nothing compared to the world China Miéville creates in Perdido Street Station (2000). How can these things, these beings come to life in a fiction. Miéville’s skill is that in the Bas-Lag universe, the bizarre and the perverse seem normal. I can experience, through him, what he thinks it would be like to be a de-winged flyer or to experience an hallucinogen secreted by giant moth-like beings. But I can also experience how a scientist works and how an artist thinks. In fiction, I can experience fear while being safe. I can be creeped out while knowing there’s nothing hiding under the bed that wants to hurt me. House of Leaves was also published in 2000. I would suggest it was produced – as opposed to written – by Mark Z. Danielewski. It is an extraordinary work and I’ll bang on about it relentlessly if I need to. The plot summary is complex and perhaps unnecessary to know in detail. A self-confessed unreliable narrator discovers a manuscript that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, though there is no evidence that the film or its subjects ever existed. The book is mostly a report on the fictional film which contains the description of a family moving to a house in Virginia. The house changes. There are doors and spaces that shouldn’t exist. It is changing size. Meanwhile, the family starts falling apart. It is hard to describe the narrative, but the feelings it engenders are easy: amazement at the achievement, wonder at the imagination and being genuinely creeped out but the prose. I really find an odd sense of joy in Danielewski’s achievement, and solace in knowing these things aren’t real. Maybe.

Hitchhikers-Guide-171x300But if I’m not in the mood to be freaked out, books of course, bring humour like no other medium. While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1985) works well on radio, and less so on TV and film, for me it shines in print. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” Utter and hilarious genius. Books take you on so many journey’s and Adams’ one is full of wit and verve, and is also damn proper science fiction too. Not just a pastiche or a piss-take.

Another safe space for me are old favourites with beloved characters. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996) features such heart-warming, joyful relationships between the central characters as they head off for first contact with aliens, that I just love spending time with them. Despite knowing what happens, I re-read the book every 10 years or so. When you think that there are so many books out there, re-reading – especially more than once, might seem like an odd thing to do. But it is about comfort and familiarity for me, and not just exploring new things. So reading a favourite is like drinking proper hot chocolate stuffed with marshmallows. I will always be happy to pick up Never Let Me Go (1995, Kazuo Ishiguroor Ammonite (1993, Nicola Giffith) for example.

Reading is, perhaps, the most solitary of pursuits (which suits me), but sometimes it is vital almost, to know there are other people out there who feel just like I do. A couple of recent books that I’ve talked a lot about before exemplify this. All the birds in the sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders and A long way to small angry planet (2015) by Becky Chambers – which are both about accepting the differences in people – have received such a community buzz that it is simply awesome to know that a bunch of strangers enjoy the same things you do, and probably think in similar ways too.

The great and still missed Bill Hicks had a routine:

“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.”

That’s one reason, and brilliant reason at that, to read. But the main one is to find comfort. That’s me in the corner. Behind a book. Not hiding, living.

 

Image credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Toffee Maky

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End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!

8 gateway novels into speculative fiction

After reading a few lists recently concerning the kinds of books genre fans should get non-genre fans or people who might be new to science fiction and fantasy to read, I feel that people are missing the point somewhat. After reading Which science fiction book you would give to a first-time SF reader? from io9 people seem to think that just because they like a particular science fiction book, if they give it to non-genre fans, they would like it. I’ve read similar arguments elsewhere too. It’s not just that these people don’t know that The Blue Sword and A Canticle for Leibowitz exist. It’s the assumption that once they do, they’ll immediately be interested and hooked. The idea that someone who doesn’t like Science Fiction and would pick up Hyperion and love it is hilarious.

Missing the point.

I previously wrote about 5 books that the mainstream have already embraced. What I now present are 8 titles which I’d describe as gateway novels into genre. I’ve said away from the obvious, such as Pullman, Tolkien, Meyer, Rice and Rowling. These are novels which are, in some ways, half way between genre and non-genre. They are ghost stories, alien invasions, dystopian, vampire and more. Welcome. There are the books that people who might want to venture into the mysterious waters of science fiction and fantasy should read.

The Glamour by Christopher Priest (1984)

The novel: The glamour is true invisibility, bestowed on a few people. It has always been thus, but is almost completely forgotten, until now. The story follows three people. One of these people doesn’t know it, but has lost his memory after a bomb blast. One has the ability and uses it to pursue the third, who only has a partial control of the gift. As the  Glamourcharacter with the memory loss slowly becomes aware of the glamour, the reader joins him in understanding the reality of this invisible world.

The author: To describe Priest as enigmatic is to say that the sun is a bit warm. While generally regarded as literary, he frustrates as many readers as he delights. Many of his novels deal with delusions, perceptions and as a result, seem to play games with the reader. He presents puzzles, some of which, I assume, are not meant to be solved. Most are deeply speculative yet remaining charismatic. He cites HG Wells as a strong influence, although his prose is much warmer.

Why it should be read: Priest is a master of mystery, but not so much as you might lose faith in him or his characters. The Glamour is a character driven piece. The fantastical elements are not thrust to the fore, although they are the primary motivations for the protagonists. This is a work that is genre-defying, and yet wouldn’t work without the central concept. The Glamour is as close to both mystery and literary fiction as fantasy gets.

What to read next: The Invisible Man by H G Wells

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce (2013)

The novel: Set in 1976, the protagonist tells us of his experiences of working in the long hot summer of that year. He his struggling with the ghost of his dead father – but is it a real ghost? He gets a job in a holiday camp and becomes involved with a femme fatale and also a pretty dancer. He becomes involved with the National Front and some other dodgy dealings. Will his relationships end in tragedy and will he find the truth about his Dad? Feeling both noir-ish and yet intensely bright, Joyce explores both the nature of relationships and his own history.

17976979The author: Graham Joyce writes young adult and general speculative fiction, mostly described as fantasy. He has won the British Fantasy Award a few times and the World Fantasy Award winner in 2003 for The Facts of Life. You can’t really classify him, however. His stories feature ghosts, mysticism, folklore and fairytale. His prose seems to be effortless beautiful. He is also known for strong female characters. In The Year of the Ladybird, the dancer is called Nikki. For a young woman in 1976, she is especially vibrant and headstrong. Joyce calls his style ‘Old Peculiar’.

Why it should be read: If you take the idea that this is about ghosts of the past, and not real ghosts – and there is some ambiguity in its reading anyway – then this novel is pure contemporary fiction – albeit set in the 1970s. What it does, is take a snap-shot of history – the rise of the National Front, the very real plague of ladybirds, etc – and add some fictional relationship dramas. It may be a real ghost story. After reading this, you will almost certainly want to read more of Joyce’s beautiful prose, regardless of subject matter. After reading this, you will end up reading ghost stories, contemporary fairy tales and more.

Read the full review

What to read next: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

The novel: Meet Kathy. Kathy’s life is not all it seems. Her childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school in England, has sinister overtones. The teachers are known as Guardians. TheNever curriculum has no life skills. Her friendships are all peculiar, distant. In time, Kathy becomes friends with Ruth and Tommy, before they learn their bleak but inevitable destiny.  The novel moves onto a later time, when the protagonists are in the later teens. They begin to have contact with the outside world. Romance and sexuality are explored, all with a foreboding sense of doom. The final act reveals the full horror of the dystopia.

The author: Ishiguro, as an author, is a complex beast. The Japanese-born writer has published 6 novels to date, covering many ideas and themes: family drama, post-WWII, historical class-based drama, Eastern-European dream/surrealist, historical crime and dystopian science fiction albeit set in a version of 1980s/90s England. Most of his work, however, is about human failings and how life just goes on (or doesn’t).

Why it should be read: The writing. Plain and simple. It doesn’t get much better than this. Kathy’s first person narrative is as evocative and as gripping as any you’d read elsewhere. Of course, the characters are interesting and the relationships are complex. The mood is as bleak as you could imagine but the prose is so beautiful and so well thought out, it feels like these characters could have been friends of yours (if you’re a certain age, of course). Never Let Me Go is the best example of science fiction that examines our very humanity, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What to read next: Spares by Michael Marshal Smith

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)

The novel: Set in Scotland, Faber’s debut features protagonist Isserley, who is not exactly a local. Turns out, in fact, that she’s not even from Earth. However, she still has a job to do. Her employer is the equivalent of a multi-national corporation. Her profession is farmer. She harvests hitchhikers who are then sent to her homeworld as a delicacy. This Undersatirical piece is about big business and the environment. Most importantly, however, it is about people and identity.

The author: While living in Scotland, Faber, perhaps best known for the novel The Crimson Petal and the White, is Dutch who was raised in Australia. Like Ishiguro, he writes a variety of genres about a range of subjects. His work has been described as, at the very least, informed by feminism. He also takes inspiration from Scotland, Dickens and mythology.

Why it should be read: No doubt that this is an alien invasion novel, although the invasion isn’t as Hollywood as you’d imagine. It is discreet and subtle. Nevertheless, this is as science fiction as they come. The aliens are ‘people’ too, however, with motivations, flaws and desires we can relate to. The writing is easy yet subtle and to be honest, it takes a while before you even notice that Under The Skin isn’t just a character study, but instead a satirical study of corporate greed. If your idea of aliens comes from Star Trek or Independence Day, this will surprise and delight you.

What to read next: Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

The Radleys by Matt Haig (2011)

The novel: A vampire novel like no other, The Radleys is the story of a middle class family in middle England whose lives are over-turned when an outside influence is added to their mildly dysfunctional, but perfectly normal existence. The thing is, they are abstainers. The parents hide the truth from their children, but inevitably, the fact of the secret leads to inevitable chaos. While this is a novel about vampires and how they exist in England, it is really a family drama. It is about children growing up and fleeing the nest, and all the pain and trauma that brings. There are emotional truths found here that are not usually found in horror fiction.

The author: Haig is a journalist and so is well aware of human stories. His debut was published in 2005 and he’s been producing novels every couple of years since. His main theme is family life and how outside elements affect it. He doesn’t always write in speculative genres and is heavily influenced by Shakespeare. Indeed, his first and second novels are Radleysre-tellings of Henry IV, Part 1 and Hamlet.

Why it should be read: It would be easy to say that this is just like Twilight or the Sookie Stackhouse novels, but it isn’t. It’s so much more. This is a genuine novel about family and the pressures they face. It is witty and thoughtful and you think back to your own teens and relate to the situations the characters find themselves. And of course, it has elements of horror and vampire mythology, which aren’t too overblown for the novice. You start off interested about the lives of the family and end up wondering all about the lives of vampires.

What to read next: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Generosity by Richard Powers (2009)

The novel: Imagine a book about happiness. Imagine a book about tolerance and acceptance. Think about all those science fiction novels and films about post-humans and then imagine the story set just around the corner where all these begin. Professor Kurton has found the genetic key to happiness and wants to re-wire all of us. He found it in the DNA of Thassadit Amzwar, studying at Chicago University, who is otherwise known as Miss Generosity. Despite the many hardships in her life, she radiates bliss. Her writing teacher is determined to find a medical explanation. This is a witty examination of mental health, jealousy and medical ethics. It is also a work of near meta-fiction, as it examines the act of reading.Gen

The author: Wikipedia classes Powers as an exponent of literary fiction, and yet his work is intensely speculative and mysterious. A fan of the Greek classics, he trained in English literature and computer science. His novels reflect this, mixing arts and science, history and philosophy. Generosity is not his first foray into science fiction as he has previously delved into nuclear war, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist for 2006’s The Echo Maker.

Why it should be read: This book is the beginning point to a whole section of science fiction and yet it has no such pretensions. It is an engaging and intriguing human story. Sure there is some science that takes it away from a straight relationship drama, but it is no more off-putting than, for example, a forensic crime drama. If you are interested in what will happen next in human evolution, whether that is a speculative fictional version, or a more genetic/science-based curiosity, Generosity is a great place to start. Plus it has interesting characters with depth, and of course, it’s very well written.

What to read next: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

A Matter Of Blood by Sarah Pinborough

The novel: In the not too distant future, the recession has hit hard. The world is run by a mysterious company called The Bank, who seem to control everything, including the police in London. Cass is a dodgy detective who couldn’t care less about the bigger picture. A failing marriage, a serial killer called Man of Flies, the shooting of school boys and the suicide of his loving brother are more than enough to keep him busy. And who is Mr Bright and what does he want with his family? Hints of ghosts and other, bigger, supernatural goings on weave all these plot points expertly into a gripping climax.A Matter of Blood

The author: Before the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, Pinborough was known for straight forward horror and, young adult fiction and writing Torchwood spin-off novels. She expertly blends super-natural and the mundane. Taking only a few elements away from A Matter Of Blood would leave it to be a complex police procedural thriller. A prolific user of social media, Pinborough is clever, dark and very witty.

Why it should be read: Just read it. It’s great.

Read the full review

What to read next: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

 The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

The novel: The initial glance at this story might but it in the same bracket as AS Bryant’s The Possession as the protagonist – Ariel – is a PhD student who’s research of a 19th Century writer seems to have a direct effect on her life. Set in an (un-named Canterbury), she finds a rare copy of this writer’s titular book, which is apparently cursed. Ideas in the book come to affect Ariel’s reality as Thomas explores homeopathy and quantum physics. The themes of exploring multiple realities are common to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.

YThe author: Previous to The End of Mr. Y, Thomas, a Creative Writing lecturer at the University of Kent, had not written anything remotely genre-esque. Her earlier books explore youth culture and her most recent, Our Tragic Universe, is an examination of the story and the writing process, and how they affect by cosmology and physics. She is clearly interested in both the bigger picture and the smaller details. How the large affects the small and vice versa.

Why it should be read: Thomas has managed to put a whole bunch of disparate ingredients into a blender and come up with something rich, flavoursome and memorable. It takes a recognisable story and moves it to an unusual place. For an authority on creative writing, the plotting and characterisation are as great as you’d expect. I love the way that, although the name of the city is never mentioned, the descriptions of it are so accurate (and sharp) that it is a delight to read.

What to read next: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Honourable mentioned: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall.

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

1976 was dubbed the ‘Year of the Ladybird’ because the lengthy, dry days and drought-like conditions brought about plague like conditions across the UK – ladybird 17976979swarmed across the country. By the end of September 1976, there had been a 16-week dry spell – the longest recorded over England and Wales since 1727 (according to the Met Office). Joyce fictionalises his memories of that summer (when he did indeed work in a holiday camp) by introducing us to David. He’s a student who takes a job as a Greencoat at a summer camp in Skegness, after finding a photo of his deceased father with just that word – Skegness – scrawled across its back. The other key ingredient to that scorching season was an increased political tension which saw the rise (briefly) of the National Front.

David gets off on the wrong foot when he takes his lunch in the staff canteen, sitting with (soon to be revealed NF member) Colin and his wife Terri. Before long, David becomes an accepted, able and popular member of the troop, which features singer Luca, magician Tony, dancer Nikki and all-round slacker Nobby, amongst others. However, that first day leads him to a doomed relationship with Terri, being drafted in to a NF meeting with Colin and his cohorts and the dumping of illegal spoiled meat in a disused mine-shaft. With all this going on, David and Nikki fall for each other and David’s mother and step-father are becoming increasingly worried about his behaviour. But what of the ghosts? Well, David is haunted by his dead father, but only in his head, while he thinks he is hallucinating images of a man in a blue suit accompanied by a young boy.

One of the main skills of Joyce is to draw you into a story that is very different to the one you expect to read when you pick up a copy of The Year of the Ladybird. I was expecting David to be a likeable character who falls in love with Nikki but has some trauma concerning ghosts that, perhaps, threatens their relationship. Nothing could be further from that idea. The tale is mostly about David’s perceptions of events of that summer, from his affair with Terri, the plague of ladybirds and the discovery of the truth about his dad. I didn’t like David as a character. He even describes himself as a moral coward, and I couldn’t agree more. While Nikki is clearly the sensible and desirable option, he risks everything – including his life – to spend time with Terri. But when he gets himself into dumb situations, you emphasis with him. You feel nervous and tense. I had a real, physical, uncomfortable feeling in my gut whenever I thought he was about to be rumbled. Which shows the power of Joyce’s writing.

Despite the fact that you can feel the oppressive nature of the atmosphere and you can almost feel the brightness of the summer on your face as you read the novel, it does have a noir-ish feel to it, as opposed to a traditional ghost story feel. A small and insignificant decision (where to sit in the canteen on his first day) leads to David’s life spiralling out of control, taking him in directions he’s not prepared for and distracting him from his goal of finding out about his father. It even has, it turns out, a femme fatale in the guise of Terri, whom almost brings about his self-destruction.

As always with Joyce, the prose and the dialogue feel just right. His descriptions of the ladybird plague are almost poetic. His hints at the supernatural are just enough (is the man in the blue suit a ghost?) and perfectly timed so as not to forget where the story is taking us. Mesmeric, hazy, charming and just a little nostalgic (for the older reader), this is a gem of a story by an author at the top of the ‘is it, isn’t it’ game. Graham Joyce writes a beautifully simple narrative which begs to be read slowly. It is a short but brilliant novel. Like a fine meal, take your time over it.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

There is a familiar trope in fiction of the unreliable narrator. Can what we read actually be true? Is it in their head, or did it really happen? Joyce takes this idea and with his usual skewed-just-to-the-side-of-reality imagination, twists it a tad. While most of Some Kind of Fairy Tale is told from a mystery third person narration, it also includes first person perspective from Tara, who disappeared in the Outwoods twenty years ago, and turns up at her broken parents’ house on Christmas Day, with a tale truly too unbelievable.

While the novel is almost a revisionist take on what fairy tales are and mean, it is also a study of modern middle class family life, the death of childhood and the loss of ideologies as the real world, as life, takes over. When Tara turns up at her parents, looking suspiciously like a teenager, she claims she’s been living in some kind of commune for six months. She reveals her story throughout the book in a flashback structure, intercutting the main thrust of the novel. The repercussions of her story are examined through the thoughts and actions of her brother and his family, her boyfriend at the time she disappeared (who was her brother’s best friend and was subsequently under suspicion in relation to her disappearance) and the psychiatrist she agrees to see to try to locate the missing 19 ½ years. The latter’s thoughts are recorded as his official notes from their sessions, while the former are both again, first person accounts.

 
Sounds messy? At least four different first person perspectives. The third person narration. And add to that a seemingly out-of-place story of Tara’s nephew Jack, a cat, and an elderly neighbour, and one might think that there’s no way this book can work. However, Joyce treats the fairy tale idea with respect. Tara defends her story by claiming that she never calls the people she spent time with fairies. Others put that label on them. Each chapter has a relevant quote from the likes of Yeats, Einstein, Carter, Le Guinn, Shakespeare and more. His prose, as always, is beautifully effortless. Eloquent and elegant. He makes the complex appear simple. The shifts in perspective don’t jar at all. He proves there is magic in words, while suggesting there might be magic deep in the woods. The characters populating this tale are mostly well-rounded and representative of the modern world: the failed musician, the downsized family, the old woman struggling with new technology. There are short passages of relative blandness, reflecting the issues people deal with today. The passages in the other place, where the ‘fairy’ live, are evocative and feel original. The only issue I have is Tara’s parents. The beginning of the book features them heavily, but they are then almost brushed aside for the family and the ex-boyfriend.

For me, the payoff works. Evidence presents itself and it becomes clear that one side or the other is true. Even Jack’s tale makes sense. There is no hedging of bets, despite whatever the characters all finally believe. Tara is left with a single choice, which she takes. It made perfect sense to me. This is a different kind of fairy tale, all about perceptions and growing up and leaving no doubt, one way or another. Joyce at his brilliant best.