What a way to go by Julia Forster

There is nothing conventional about Harper’s life, at least not when you’re a twelve-and-a half-year-old living in middle England in the 1980s and your parents are divorced. What a way to go charts Harper’s journey into teenagehood and navigates dating for divorcees and the complications of adult relationships, getting mortgages, cancer, activism and kissing boys.

Given the seriousness of the subject matter, Julia Forster cleverly infuses the prose with the wry humour of Harper’s childish perspective. Cultural references abound and it feels as if there is never a missed beat. This is sharp and polished writing.

It’s clear from the cover that this is a funny and nostalgic read, and I’m not normally drawn to those things (take what you will from that), but What a way to go is hard to put down and even when characters are using their own coffins as bookshelves, there is an upbeat nature to the story and writing that leaves the reader with a sense of hope. What a way to go picks you up and reminds you that there is a positive side to everything.

So drag those flammable shell suits from the bottom of the cupboard, grab some Baby sham or some gin, give your hair a good backcomb and set with hairspray, light up a fag and prepare to laugh your way through What a way to go. You won’t be disappointed.

Next week I’m reading Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World edited by Jonathan Oliver and David Moore.

King Rat by China Miéville

Saul is a disaffected young adult living with his father in London. He looks out at the unending sprawl hoping for some signs of his future in the maze of London’s streets and travel networks.

Then someone pushes his dad out of the living room window. Saul is wanted for his murder. King Rat, a stinking, wiry man with phenomenal strength and agility breaks him out of prison and offers him a new world; a world where the figures of myth and fairytale step out of the shadows in all their gruesome glory.

To tell too much more might spoil the story so let’s just say it gets more complicated. What is Saul’s true heritage? Should he trust King Rat? Who is the mysterious piper?

The novel is alive with three plot lines: Saul’s, Saul’s friends who become entangled with the piper, and that of the detective investigating Saul’s father’s death. Crime and science fiction blend well with a realistically noir depiction of London and there is no doubt that the writing is compelling.

I have been meaning to read a novel by China Miéville for a long time and I didn’t realise that King Rat was his first until I reached the end. Though I enjoyed the novel, I suspect this is only half of what China Miéville can do. There is a sense of promise, a sense that social justice, a knowledge of London, and a joy in mixing genres will bring about more interesting novels as he continues to write. Certainly it has whetted my appetite for reading more of his work.

King Rat is an energetic romp around London, the city itself seeming to provide the bass line to the melody of the story. The words enable you to see graphic art images and hear the drum and bass soundtrack. Those of you who like this sort of thing will recognise it and want to read it. I suspect some of his later work has a wider readership. I’ll have to read some and let you know.

Next week I’m reading What a Way to Go by Julia Forster, which was published this January by Atlantic Books.


The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

The Flame Alphabet envisages a world in which language becomes toxic to all but children who roam their neighbourhoods spewing angry rebellious words and reducing adults and parents to people with shrunken faces, their speech dulled by a callus that forms hard and thick under their tongues. Certain words are more noxious than others; anything that references the self is particularly dangerous.

At first, children are abandoned to buses that profess to take the sickness away. Parents without off-spring flee. Those with children who haven’t already waved their infants off on the buses are forced to evacuate the city leaving their loved ones behind in quarantine zones.

Once out in the world where can the sick go? What hope do they have? As the sickness spreads so do the salt drifts, beautiful dunes that blow in on the silence.

All of this is narrated by Samuel, whose account of the sickness and its immediate aftermath is written down at great cost for even written language, all forms of alphabet and script, induce pain and sickness. Deciphering how and why people are suddenly afflicted becomes increasingly difficult as any form of communication, even hand signals, become intolerable. Even the children are immune only as long as they retain their youth.

Added into this complex mix is Samuel’s faith. He is a Forest Jew. He worships secretly with his wife in a Jew Hole where the word of the Rabbis is passed down an orange wire and into a listening device. The only scientist who seems to have any idea of the origins of the sickness, LeBov, claims the Forest Jews hold knowledge of the sickness, foretold its coming and may hold the key to its end.

Samuel soon encounters LeBov and his aliases and finds himself at the centre of research.

Father to a child who sickens him, potential Father to the beginnings of the sickness as a Forest Jew, the whole idea of signs and symbols in speech and on the page becomes abhorrent. Samuel refuses to envisage what others might do in this speechless time for ‘To refrain from storytelling is perhaps one of the highest forms of respect we can pay. Those people, with no stories to circle them, can die without being misunderstood.’ (p265).

Unsurprisingly this is a story of failure. Failure to keep the sickness at bay, failure to be the hero disaster narratives desire. Samuel wants to be Father to his family, his wife and child, but his position as the wielder of power is as debased as the alphabet and as the civilization we know and yet he continues to hope.

Despite having revealed a lot of the plot I don’t think I’ve given away anything salient that would stop you from reading The Flame Alphabet. The novel comes with many accolades from respected sources and I don’t want to detract from those voices – there are many passages that clamour to be remembered and quoted such as p266:

Thinking is the first poison, said someone. One often fails to ask this of a crisis, but why was it not worse? Why was the person himself not gutted of thought? Who cares about the word made public, it’s the private word that does more lasting damage, person by person. The thinking should have stopped first. The thinking. Perhaps it is next in the long, creeping conquest of this toxicity, another basic human activity that will slowly be taken from us.

Oh, I fucking hope so.

I am also very fond of the passages about the birds – but I still wanted something else from this novel. I’m not sure what that something is. Writing and thinking about The Flame Alphabet simply reminds me of the elegance of the language and its ideas and images that flow freely from ancient religious texts with the same lyrical agility and narrative power. It suggests to me that my frustration is one of personal desire. The idea that the human race might cease to communicate, no longer be able to share thoughts, is a vision of apocalypse that comes with more of a whimper than a bang and there is part of me that rebels against that. Perhaps, however, this is exactly where The Flame Alphabet’s brilliance lies. The saving grace of silence is that without stories there is no chance of being misunderstood. The Word can no longer be misunderstood. All that is left is survival.

Next week I’m reading China Miéville’s King Rat.

Bitch Planet: Book One by Kelly Sue Deconnick and Valentine De Landro

This is the first comic I’ve reviewed and as a reader of fiction, possibly the occasional graphic novel, I’m probably not well qualified to discuss the genre but I’m going to give it a go anyway.

Bitch Planet appealed to me because I loved the way in which it promised to dramatise the extremes of a patriarchal society. Humans have developed the ability to live on other planets. Bitch Planet is the nickname for the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, another planet where non-compliant women are detained to live out their lives in penitence and service.

Non-compliance comes in many shapes and forms. You may not obey your husband or your father. You may refuse to look after your appearance and be too fat or too tattooed. You may be considered a bad mother. You may refuse to keep quiet. Your sexual preferences might be considered ‘wrong’. Any woman who doesn’t support the patriarchal hegemony is non-compliant and likely to be sent away for life.

Book One introduces the possibility of escape or, more likely, pay back in the form of the most popular sport on Earth, Duemila or Megaton.

Megaton is used to pacify the people of earth. If they watch a violent game of sport, their need for violence is contained and they remain compliant. But people are growing bored of the feed (television) and of Megaton and the introduction of an all-female team from Bitch Planet, fighting for their freedom, would certainly reignite peoples’ interest.

Book One follows Kogo Kamau or Kam as she is chosen to put together a team of non-compliants.

It’s a great idea and fun to read. It reminds me of all the subtle misogyny still rife in our society and provides a platform for thought and discussion. It does, however, also carry tropes from other narratives like The Hunger Games, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Mall, some television episodes of The Black Mirror, Equilibrium and so on. This doesn’t stop me wanted to read more though.

Packed with ideas, mindful of tropes and cliché, Bitch Planet is an intriguing series that I will definitely read more of. The artwork is delightfully retro and playful in its use of cover art, adverts, and colour. Typically, for a person who likes the space available in a novel to delve further into characters’ heads, I’d like to know more about the people in the comic but I trust that will unfold over time.

Quick, provocative, and fun, Bitch Planet is a great comic for people who want to think and talk about the interaction between the individual and society as defined by those with power.

Next week I’m reading The Flame Alphabet: a novel by Ben Marcus.

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is a novella published by Pushkin Press in one volume alongside the collection of short stories, Karate Chop, both translated from Danish by MIsha Hoekstra. It is a beautiful book, elegantly and sparsely printed so that each title has its own cover requiring a reader to turn the book upside down to read the other work. Even without the trappings however, this is a striking and beautiful volume of work that stays inside your mind long after you’ve finished reading.

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is written in short sentences laid out like poetry in which Minna strives to rediscover her voice. She is a composer without fame struggling to maintain a relationship with a journalist. She needs rehearsal space and hasn’t been able to make a loud noise in weeks.

It would be easy to imagine finding the layout irritating. The short forms of social media messages, its tweets and texts, feel as if they have influenced Nors’ style but rather than inspire something that reflects a short attention span they demand attention, acting like vignettes that evoke a precise moment in order to convey a wider ongoing present and together they build a conscious flow that is Minna and her experience of the world. It is possible to pick out sentences –

Minna turns her face toward the sun.

Minna’s chest arches over her heart. (p41)

– but they work best together. Minna’s story is one of creative longing, of obsession even, and it is very powerful.

Karate Chop is just as powerful but written very differently. The characters of these stories speak of acts that fall under the radar, behaviours that are shocking not because they don’t happen but because they usually remain hidden. The snide abuse of relatives (‘Mother, Grandmother, and Aunt Ellen’), the kindnesses of men who live adulterous lives (‘Duckling’), the moment in which a parent stops being god-like (‘The Winter Garden’), all those obsessions and behaviours for which we have no straight-forward answers.

The title story typifies what is best about these short stories in its use of a metaphor about colouring in [it makes me wonder how this would extrapolate out into the latest adult colouring craze…]. Annelise often finds herself in abusive relationships and while she is considering her current situation she looks at her lover’s hand:

It looked gentle lying there. A little red across the knuckles, but there was nothing wrong with its outline, especially not if Annelise put her eyes slightly out of focus. She considered its shape and thought about the lines; everything you wanted to see but which in actual fact was not there. Everything that should have been but which never became, and this was important to understand. Not only in respect to herself. It was something she could put to use with the children at school. She recalled that as a child she had been heavily seduced by the black line drawings in coloring books. They were done so well she always wanted to fill the empty spaces with crayon and felt-tip. Behind that burning desire to color in the drawings lay the creative human’s longing to give life, and, not least: to make the drawings her own. In a way, it was like stealing preconceived ideas. The drawing could never be lifelike, and for that reason you reached a point where you began to draw outside the lines. (p73)

The idea of human relationships being about filling in the lines or drawing outside of them has a revelatory quality whose exploration is best read in the story itself, but I’m sure you can see its appeal; her stories have the quality of gems with multiple facets that reflect the light and the dark.

Clearly, I enjoyed Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Karate Chop a great deal and would recommend it highly. It’s a quick but evocative read that forces the reader to think beyond its pages. Thank you to my Secret Santa who bought it for me for Christmas.

Next week (well this week), I’m reading the comic Bitch Planet, Book One: Extraordinary Machine by Deconnick and De Landro.