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Short Stories

What follows is a collection of single-paragraph reviews of the fiction I consumed in 2007. While this might appear to be a lazy way to review books (and indeed, to scrape together a bl*g post), the lifestyle supplement of Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper uses this very approach every Sunday, so it must have merit. Especially to time-poor bourgeoisie.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty.
For all intents and purposes flawless, this is one of the finest books I’ve read. A little reminiscent of The World According to Garp; equally intense and absorbing as Garp, but more rewarding. For my money, Stephen King has damned it with faint praise: “Smithy is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, and your Yossarians. … This is a book that can do more than walk; it has a chance to be a breakout best-seller.” Some of the other reviews almost make it sound like a self-help book for saps, but it’s not; it’s entertaining and funny. The fact that I felt like a better person after reading the book was simply a bonus. The sort of book with such wide appeal that it could be recommended to any reader.

The Scheme For Full Employment by Magnus Mills. If science fiction is fantasy based on science, then this is economics fiction. A textbook exercise in absurdism, the novel is one step removed from reality, like a fable. The eponymous Scheme is implausible, yes, but only inasmuch as it’s official; in reality similar practices are recognisable in the workforce, which makes the book powerful satire. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea because not much happens in it, but that’s precisely the point. A point which the Sydney Morning Herald missed when it reviewed this book in 2003: all of the negative criticisms enumerated by the reviewer are in fact strengths of the novel. The Scheme‘s prose is flawless and it makes its point perfectly. In its intent and its approach, it’s like little I’ve read before. In its execution it’s restrained, elegant and amazing. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby.
Took sixty pages to get going, but it was well worth it. There’s a certain twee Richard Curtis aspect to it that doesn’t prevent it from being profound and rewarding. Not as satisfying as Hornby’s masterpiece High Fidelity, but much better than his How To Be Good.

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes.
Historical mystery (of sorts) about Arthur Conan Doyle and a real-life drama he became involved with. Beautifully written and well researched. Although I despise the practice of back-cover blurbs that give away the plots of books, this is one of the few instances wherein I believe a book would have benefited from revealing a little something in advance: don’t expect a pat conclusion to the narrative, because it sticks to factual events. If I’d been so forewarned, I’d have found the book wholly satisfying; as things are it was a delight up till the final pages.

The Devil in Amber by Mark Gatiss.
The sequel to The Vesuvius Club — both books intentionally flaming-camp pastiches of lurid thrillers. The Devil in Amber is probably not as satisfying as the original, because even in the context of pisstake, I found the supernatural element a bit hard to swallow (oo-er, missus!). In fact, one might say the original was a comparatively straight story. (Badoom-tish, etc.) But apart from that, a cracking yarn that hits its target.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
It was brief and exquisite. In places it was poetry. As usual it was infused with McEwan’s wisdom, and grasp of nuance, and enviable ability to find the right words for anything.

If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work by Irvine Welsh.
The new collection of short stories by my favourite non-genre author. Sadly, the short stories are weak — and two of them are uncomfortably similar — but the closing novella “The Kingdom of Fife” is worth the price of admission by itself. It’s funny and fucked-up, also uplifting and profound.

Spook Country by William Gibson.
Gibson’s regarded as a genre author but his latest is a straight contemporary thriller. Interesting and (as far as I know) original plot, although whether there’s enough of it to justify 371 pages is debatable. It’s largely an exercise in atmosphere and style. And in places Gibson’s style flirts with self-pastiche. The book’s worth reading, but didn’t grab me like most of his previous work. Far from my favourite Gibson novel.

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