Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

I’ve been following John Irving’s work for many years now – most people would know him as the author of The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meaney or perhaps for winning the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Cider House Rules (adapted from his own book). I even wrote part of my thesis about his work.

Irving takes his time over new books – three, four, five, six years – so a new one is a treat. Last Night in Twisted River came out last year in hardback, but only recently in paperback. Told with Irving’s usual wry eye and laconic humour, it’s the story of a father and son on the run over several decades. While plot is perhaps very central to the book, for me it’s Irving’s style – his pacing, his deft use of language, his ability to write less than linearly yet still build the book cohesively. My one quibble is the number of typos – as if someone hasn’t even proofread the OCR file before publishing: things like “betwcen” or “Afer” (for “After”) – not a lot, but enough to bump me from the story for a second. Filled with moments of tragedy and moments of laugh out loud humour, this is a book to savour.

Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piňol

Just finished reading this wonderful dark gothic book. Despite being very different from much of what I’ve been reading lately – thrillers and young adult fiction – I didn’t feel I had to change gears to read my way through this. The book is fabulously compelling and actually, it was all I could do to have a break from reading it.

Set soon after World War I, on a nearly abandoned sub-antarctic island, with strange monsters and dangerous times, the book has a growing urgency. As a character study within a horror setting, this is brilliant, as a gothic thriller, it’s fabulous.

Perhaps it most closely reminded me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (which I’ve now returned to, and am enjoying, though in a different way), but with more concise and economical language.

Orson Scott Card – Keeper of Dreams

Orson Scott Card – Keeper of Dreams

This collection of stories by sci-fi superstar is a patchy mix of a variety of odd pieces from a variety of sources – most of his stories have been compiled in earlier collections and since he focuses on novels more than stories there are fewer stories left to put into a volume.

While the stories are cool and compelling, what Card does so well is offer commentary about each: about the history and writing process that went into making the story, whether it be something he thought might be a novel, or a quirky idea he had or what have you. As a writer I find this aspect of the book the most interesting – more so than the stories themselves even. How does Card’s mind tick, why does he write the way he does, and so on. Fascinating, and perhaps as good as almost any writing course might be. I once had a friend to ask me to recommend a good guide to writing a novel and I suggested reading Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption

Card’s official site is here.

Theodore Gray – The Elements

Theodore GrayThe Elements: a visual exploration of every known atom in the universe

I guess it sounds kind of geeky to get excited by a book which seems as pure science as this. Okay, busted. It’s cool on several levels.

Firstly it devotes at least a double page spread to pretty much every element, with photos of examples from the author’s collection, and descriptions of their practical applications. Osmium? There’s a tiny piece at the end of a decent record player needle. Americium? Smoke detectors. Some of the elements don’t exist practically – with short half-lives they quickly break down into other elements (the geek in me loves that), so for some elements there are pictures of wonderful crystals which possibly have occasional atoms of the element (like the thorite possibly containing an atom of Francium). Some pages have no photo simply because there’s just none of the element around – those which have only really been created in minute quantities in laboratories, and do very quickly break down.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Gray is an excellent writer. For what could possibly be a very dry and academic listing, the book is filled with humour, self-deprecation and political insight. Many elements are toxic or radioactive and we’ve learned about them often through unfortunate results. While it might seem now obvious that repeatedly licking the tip of a brush used to paint radium on watch-faces, as people did in factories manufacturing the watches, it wasn’t so obvious then (early 1900s), and Gray relates the stories with gentle humour and grace. Gray’s way with words and laconic style makes this book more than interesting.

Andy Taylor, Wild Boy: My life in Duran Duran

I’m a confessed Duran Duran fan and though I probably prefer their output while Andy Taylor wasn’t in the band, it’s still intriguing to see behind some of the machinations and tribulations within the band, and understand the history. Taylor is generous about his former bandmates, acknowledging their work without him, acknowledging that some frustrations were at least partly due to his own interests or behaviour. I’m not sure if this was ghost written, but it is surprisingly well constructed, even if there are a few too many exclamation points.

Mayan Moon by Derek Bullard

Mayan Moon surprised me, delivering much more punch and fluidity than I had expected. I bought it through Amazon, taking a chance, since the author had asked me about using some Venus Vulture music in his book trailer (full disclosure: he did use the music – see the trailer here [nb. not an affiliate link – I don’t get a kickback]).

The book took me by surprise for something from a small press. It can be a bit hit-and-miss with small press books: too often they’re vanity volumes written by friends and relatives (or the press-owner). Then again, big publishing house books can be a bit hit-and-miss too (even with name authors).

In Mayan Moon, the writing is compelling, the action fast and the set-pieces well orchestrated. My one quibble was that the phonetic spelling of some character’s accented dialogue was a little over-done and distracting.

The hero – Jordon – is something of a classic, damaged, anti-bureaucracy loner and he drives the action well. Told in three parts the novel cleverly blends contemporary thriller, with science-fiction and classic archaeology (read “Indiana Jones”) adventure. While characters are not guaranteed survival, the plot does stitch up neatly and in timely manner.

Actually, in terms of reading for writing, I like that structure – the three parts, each with a slightly different tone, but all interdependent, make for a surprising mix of genres. Each part is around 100 pages and that seems to be a length I can write easily while longer is sometimes a struggle. I might just try writing something like this, with distinct yet interrelated parts.