Stack Overflow: Literary SFF Outtakes

Reading Time: 7 minutes
Copyright Tom Gauld. Used with permission
Copyright Tom Gauld. Used with permission

This week I’ve taken over the Stack Overflow column to talk about what goes on behind the scenes of my own occasional series “Literary SFF.” One of the problems with writing book reviews is that reading takes time. Sometimes you reach the end of a book and think “I’m not sure how to review that.” When trying to fit a specific article brief it can be even more difficult trying to decide whether a book should be included.

Yet I’ve done all the reading, made relevant notes, and would still like to share my thoughts on the books I’ve read. In some cases I need to share my thoughts because I haven’t understood something, or because I didn’t like the book in question, and I’m not sure why. I have a book group for this, but there’s only so much science fiction I can ask them to read before I’m politely asked to leave.

At GeekDad we try not to review things we don’t like. Not because we’re pom-pom wielding cheerleaders for whatever product we’ve been looking at this week, but simply because there’s enough negativity in the world, without us adding to it. Why bleat about something that isn’t that great when you could be singing the praises of something you’re actively impressed by?

With books it can be a little different. I often find that I don’t like something that has been applauded by many, but just as frequently the reverse is true. I’m interested in why I didn’t like something that another reader loved, or why I liked a book somebody else couldn’t even finish. In a recent post, I claimed that Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest work was a work of genius. Another GeekDad reader gently, but completely, disagreed. I find this sort of duality of experience one of the many fascinating things about books and reading.

The aim of this post is to bring a couple of books to your attention that I read and enjoyed, but couldn’t fit into my Literary SFF brief, and also to strike up a conversation about some interesting books that, for whatever reason, left me cold.

Simon Ings: Wolves CoverFirst up is a book that is definitely science fiction, though only barely, and one that might be literary fiction, if I knew what literary fiction actually was. It’s certainly a tantalizing and curious book that defies pigeonholing. Wolves by Simon Ings is a pleasure to read, even if you’re not really sure where it is you’re going for much of the novel.

Wolves opens in the near future, in a world where a technology called “Augmented Reality” is in its infancy. Initially this is the simple overlaying of personalized advertisements onto flat real-world surfaces. Over the course of the novel the technology develops into a fully immersive experience, which causes people to withdraw from the physical world.

Narrator Conrad has a long-standing childhood friend, Michel, who has always been obsessed with preparing for the Apocalypse. The narrative flicks between school-days and Michel and Conrad’s uneasy adult relationship. Conrad is a pioneer of AR technology and Michel becomes a bestselling author of apocalyptic visions.

The story in Wolves is thin, but what makes it special is the interplay between characters. Parents, partners, and friends, the relationships in this novel shine, feeling very real. Secrets and half-truths color opinions and decisions. Conrad’s life is overshadowed from growing-up with a bipolar mother. Wolves is an unusual book, but one well worth seeking out. (I’m also not really sure why the book is called Wolves, so if you have any idea please comment below).

Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know didn’t make it onto my SFF list because it’s neither science fiction, nor fantasy. The book does still have a geeky core. Its two main characters are mathematicians, and Godel’s incompleteness theorem lurks in the background as the thread that holds the novel together.In the Light of What we Know Cover

In the Light of What We Know is a dense 650 pages, filled with tiny print. It could probably do with a tighter edit, but the sprawl is not without its splendor. It’s an unreliable narrator story about a Bangladeshi man; a mathematician, a lawyer, and a former employee of an investment bank. It’s a story of money, of being an outsider, and of the War on Terror. The novel takes in Oxford, Princeton, New York, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

The (nameless) narrator is the grandson of a wealthy Bangladeshi steel magnate and the son of an Oxford professor. His friend Zafar, and subject of the narrator’s story, is also Bangladeshi, but his was a far less privileged existence.The book immediately sets up an interesting dichotomy of acceptance as an immigrant, and the power of money to smooth out problems of race.

Yes, this book sprawls, but it says a lot along the way. The novel’s title applies to many strands of the novel and subtly hints at what’s to come, though the title’s true meaning isn’t revealed until the very last pages. Having gradually built up to a tense conclusion, the author pulls the rug out from beneath his reader’s feet, leaving you questioning everything you’ve read. It’s a artful construction and one that forces you to think about how easy it is to make assumptions, even when they’re based on little evidence.

In the Light of What We Know is overlong, especially in the middle, but it’s a novel that chronicles many important threads of world politics and finance, whilst at the same time retaining a very human core. 

All their minds in tandemI almost gave All Their Minds in Tandem its own Literary SFF entry. I very much enjoyed this book about a US frontier town in the aftermath of the Civil War. Its subject, the importance of memory, echoed The Buried Giant.

Author David Sanger probes the importance of memory, but also examines how we all project stories to appear to the world how we want to be seen. A creeping feeling of dread seeps into the book, and a sense of “other” pervades, especially in the final chapters, giving the book a feel of Stephen King. This is Sanger’s debut and a book I enjoyed far more than I thought I might. For my full review, click here.

The final three books are those that I did not fare so well with. The first, Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine, I’m most disappointed about. I had very much looked forward to reading this Kitschie award winner. The story is mostly set in seventeenth-century London, based on real life courtier and renowned beauty, Venetia Stanley.

The book reminded me a little of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, a trilogy I love, but I failed find my way into Viper Wine. The plot revolves around the titular victual, an elixir of life. Venetia’s husband, Kenelm Digby, was a prominent scientist of his era, and in this fictional tale, his discoveries are momentous if little-understood. There is an interesting theme running through the book about the fleetingness of beauty, and how a woman’s qualities are defined by her looks. There is a thinly veiled swipe at our obsession with celebrity culture.

I wanted to like Viper Wine more. I’m convinced I’m missing something vital that would compel me to read it. As it was, I had to put it down to make a review deadline, and I haven’t had the inclination to pick it back up. But I hope to be convinced. I’d love to hear your reasons why I should finish the book.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler had all the ingredients of a book I should enjoy. Firstly, it has books at its heart; it’s a story that starts with an aging manuscript. I love books about books, and the addition of mysterious deck of Tarot cards gave me further hope for something special.  The involvement of a traveling circus gives it a ring of Something Wicked This Way Comesbut sadly the book as a whole doesn’t come close to Bradbury’s masterwork. The Book of Speculation isn’t a bad novel, but as a whole it didn’t fill me with the sense of delight a well fashioned novel can. It was a diverting enough read, but it never felt like a story that needed to be told.

travelers restAnother book that wore its influences on its sleeve is Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris. The Travelers Rest is a hotel in the town of Good Night. The missing apostrophe in the title gives a small clue that all might not be as it seems. When a family is forced off the road by heavy snow, they find themselves checking into a creepy, snowbound hotel. A hotel, it soon becomes apparent, it’s rather difficult to escape from. So far, so The Shining, but Morris’ prose lacks the immediacy and tension of Stephen King’s thriller.

That said, I don’t think that’s what the author was aiming for. The post-modern slant of the narrative gives it the feel of Paul Auster and the mysterious creepy mansion feels very Danielewski’s House of LeavesThe problem is, not even Paul Auster writes as well as Paul Auster a lot of the time, and it’s very easy to sound ponderous and pretentious. House of Leaves has its quirky multimedia-in-a-book feel that keeps it fresh when the writing founders. Travelers Rest just has lots of snow.

Interesting at first, I found that the book just didn’t go where I wanted it to go. For me I found no imperative to read on. I realized I was entirely ambivalent about whether any of the characters escaped the house or not. Even the boy the same age as my son. To induce that sort of apathy takes some doing. Yet a couple of reviewers whose opinion I trust and value (most notably Matt Craig @readerdad) thought Travelers Rest was a fantastic addition to the canon and Morris a great new voice in horror fiction.

So who is right? The answer is nobody and everybody. I’ve no real idea what made me not like the Travelers Rest yet love Wolves. I can easily imagine somebody feeling the polar opposite to me. As I said at the top of this piece this variety of experience is one of the beauty of books, and why I enjoy reviewing them and talking to other readers.

Have you read any of the above books? Did you enjoy them? Did you enjoy one of the books I didn’t? If so, what did I miss? Are there any books that you loved, that nobody else liked, or is there a book that everybody told you to read, and you cannot fathom why? Please comment below. It’s good to talk!

Disclosure: I received review copies of Travelers Rest, The Book of Speculation, and All Their Minds in Tandem.  

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