Short of time but keen as ever to talk about the books I read you will have to indulge me a little as I compromise with a quick round up of several books that are worth mentioning. I apologise for not being able to go into as much detail as I normally would but I hope that something will be better than nothing (but please let me know if you disagree!)
The Explorer by James Smythe
Towards the end of last year I entered a proper reading funk. I couldn't engage with books I was reading at all, gave up on one after another, often knowing that they were probably really good. I was just too tired and stressed to read, a big worry for someone so keen on reading. I had a little break and then picked up this new novel which a couple of other bloggers had mentioned favourably and which I thought might be just what I needed. It really was. Smythe's novel is narrated by Cormac Easton, a journalist chosen to document a groundbreaking journey into space that will take humans further than they have ever travelled before. However, the crew of the Ishiguro gradually perish one by one until Cormac is the last survivor. What follows is a brilliant examination of fear and grief, remembrance and memory, loneliness, exploration and time. I love space movies but the problem most of them seem to suffer from is that whatever interesting themes they set up in the beginning they nearly always dissolve into humans being chased about by something or other and once you've seen Alien that can't really be topped (yes, Sunshine, I'm looking at you). Smythe's novel does almost the opposite. In a breakneck opening we witness the demise of the crew and the reader is left wondering how on earth he might fill the rest of the novel. I won't give away the brilliant device that is this novel's twist but only say that it is a coup that allows Smythe to make the novel far more philosophical, interesting and moving than I suspect most 'science fiction' to be (I know, I'm probably wrong on that). This novel, very similar in feeling to Duncan Jones' film Moon, comes highly recommended and a huge thank you to the author for breaking my funk and getting me reading again.
Published by Harper Voyager now
Doppler by Erlend Loe
The cover to your left makes this look like a perfect Christmas book and in many ways it is but not at all in a traditional sense. The eponymous Doppler is a man who seemed to be leading a successful life in Oslo until an accident whilst on his mountain bike leads him to reappraise things altogether and determine on leading a solitary existence in the woods where he will live off the land. His resulting hunger leads him to kill an elk in the novel's opening pages and whilst he is successful in that endeavour providing himself with food to eat and meat with which he can barter for other supplies he also finds himself encumbered with that mother's baby elk as a surrogate child. Soon christened Bongo, Doppler uses his new companion as a sounding board for his various foibles with modern society and the two of them struggle to maintain their Eden in the wilderness as various other characters encroach on it. The quirk factor might put off some readers but I found it to be both funny and sharp-witted, a perfect antidote to the commercialisation of Christmas and a great (if belated) stocking filler for anyone in your family who tends to say bah humbug around tis time of year.
Published by Head of Zeus now
First Novel by Nicholas Royle
Already an early contender for cover design of the year, Nicholas Royle's latest novel has far more going for it than that. That title and those very recognisable 'clean white spine with plain black lettering' paperbacks on the cover might lead you to think this is his debut published by Picador but it is actually Royle's seventh novel, albeit his first under the Jonathan Cape imprint. There's lots of other bookish fun along the way as we follow writer, Paul Kinder, author of a novel which didn't do terribly well, now a teacher of creative writing and avid collector of first novels. This meta-fictional novel has many strands to it and part of the fun is trying to work out where you are half the time. Along the way we will encounter, housebreaking, dogging, fighter pilots and loss of various types, in a novel which shows how we all use narrative to shape the story of our lives. A strange, unsettling brew that simply entertains at first before revealing darker and more dangerous depths as it progresses; a dark and delicious treat for lovers of literary fiction who like to have their grey cells tickled.
Published by Jonathan Cape now
Brecht Evens makes the most gorgeous graphic novels. His first, The Wrong Place, had me smiling and admiring at the end of 2011. His latest built on that promise at the end of last year and showcases yet again his glorious watercolour work and fresh approach to graphic storytelling. Watercolour is an odd medium for graphic work, especially in the free-flowing style that Evens employs. Character is often simply delineated by colour or distinguishing features and it is an incredibly effective technique. One character has large hands for example, always dominating his exchanges. 'You should see my Dad's' he says and sure enough when he visits him in his hospital room on the next page what we see are those huge hands waving back. The novel follows an artist, Peterson, as he travels to a small village to work as part of a biennial festival. It's a much smaller operation than he anticipated but what follows is a hilarious exploration of artistic inspiration, expression and shortcomings. Fabulously diverse characters, artwork that leaps off the page and somehow manages to escape it at times, Evens is one to keep watching.
Published by Jonathan Cape now
Still edited by Roelof Bakker
Roelof Bakker is a photographer who focused on the disused Hornsey Town Hall for one project which ended in an exhibition of photographs entitled Still. Bakker then approached several writers to select an image and then write a story based on it, relocating the image so that it wouldn't be about its original location but more about what that image suggested to the author. The anthology is incredibly diverse, featuring some writers I had heard of and read before like Richard Beard, Nicholas Royle and Evie Wyld. Others were completely new to me and that of course is the joy of an anthology. The pictures are wonderful and each reader is sure to find new voices they will want to keep an eye on.
Published by Negative Press now
As some of you will know I sometimes get the opportunity in my work as an actor to record audio books and I am in the process of recording a couple right now. Patrick Hennessey had great success with his first book The Junior Officer's Reading Club and Kandak follows his exploits training and fighting alongside the fledgling Afghan National Army. What comes across clearly is the confusion of the project, the clash of cultures and the suspicion that develops when things go wrong and soldiers even find themselves under attack from their own side. Hennessey is keen to write however about the bravery, integrity and comradeship that he experienced, something that brought him back to Afghanistan after he had finished in the army to search out those that had clearly become friends during his time there.
Ghostwritten was Mitchell's debut novel and after I recorded the bonkers number9dream last year I now have the task of doing justice to this multi-layered novel. Having read it before but a long time ago it was interesting to see how I felt on a second read. I was pleased to discover that I had roughly the same opinion of it as a novel, slightly daunted by the prospect of narrating effectively its very different sections but always pleased to have something challenging like that to keep me honest.
Both of these will be available unabridged later in the year from Whole Story Audio and W F Howse.