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.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Carrie Ryan‘s young adult novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth is perhaps one of the most extraordinary works I’ve read all year. This horror novel is remarkably literate and astonishingly well-paced. Somehow Ryan manages to balance an unusual setting and circumstance – an isolated village – with conflicted relationships – Mary, betrothed to Harry, loves Travis his brother while Cass, Mary’s best friend, betrothed to Travis is keen on Harry (sounds straightforward, but really it’s not and it really adds an enormous level of tension to the book). And, though it’s amazingly well done, it’s a zombie novel, even if the word “zombie” is never used in the text. Actually, the unconsecrated, as they are known, provide a somewhat evil backdrop to the controlling religious order which governs life in the village. Be prepared – the novel is harrowing and intense and a great character and relationship study.

Cool – in checking out Carrie Ryan’s details, I’ve discovered there is a sequel, and a third book coming. Ryan’s also got some stories in anthologies which seem to be set in the same milieu (okay, actually, I think I’d like to see some of her writing set outside that – she’s such a precise and crafty wordsmith that it would be good to see what she’d do with other stuff. Like vampires).

Daniel Pecqueur – Golden City

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Golden City, a series of graphic novels in French by Daniel Pecqueur. First admission – I don’t understand French, just the occasional word: certainly not enough to follow the dialogue or prompts. The art, however, is extraordinary and very sci-fi, so it’s suiting me and where I’m at. I’m finding that I’m doing a lot of science fiction world building in my writing of late and these kinds of illustrations of unusual planes and boats, of underwater suits and giant cities, are all stimulating my imagination. These are the kinds of pictures I’d love to do of the worlds I’m imagining, if only I could draw even fractionally as well. In some ways the pictures remind me of a cleaner, crisper version of Moebius from the eighties. Pecqueur’s action and sense of composition is wonderful – even understanding hardly a word of it, I’m thoroughly engrossed and entertained.

Diving into the Wreck, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Thursday, reading for writing post, and I find I’m torn and distracted. Another review book arrived over the weekend, but I’d already started Diving into the Wreck and I tried to put it aside, but it’s too compelling and the review book is, well, less-so. My compromise at the moment is 50-50, so I’m progressing through both slowly, brakes on for Wreck, pushing through the other (which is by an established, prize-winning, well-regarded literary writer, but a bit too conceptual).

So I’m still only halfway into Diving into the Wreck, but it’s too clever and well-constructed already so I just have to blog about it. It does have an intriguing structural element that I’m not sure will resolve – the first third feels like a separate adventure to the next part. Certainly it is setting up what is to come, and did leave me wanting more, but the ideas and characters are engaging, intriguing and deftly handled.

Rusch’s reputation in the field is huge, and, yay, she has sold a new book in the same universe, which should be out next year.

Friday update: okay, can’t stop reading this – really this just cements advice that you shouldn’t try to read two books at once, alternating is too confusing. I finished part two, and of course, consummate novelist that she is, it does link back to part one, much better than I’d expected.

Saturday update: well, I’m nearly finished Wreck and it does make sense. Sure the structure felt odd (and I’m sure would still even if I hadn’t been tried multi-booking), but it fits and fits well. I’ll probably finish it tonight, then return to the review book. I like deadlines (gotta have this review in by May 5th), but perhaps get a little hung up on them – there’s plenty of time to finish Wreck, read the other and write the review. I’ve already been researching the author (which is fine, non-fiction biography is a different kind of reading) and have drafted some of what I’ll write in the review anyway.

Sunday update: okay finished now, it all makes sense, it all works well, actually better than I had expected and it’s great: I really have to recommend this book. Now, on with the review.