As stated on 7 March, the Macmillan New Writing imprint will launch its first six titles on 7 April 2006. The company has sent me copies of all six, and so I think it only right and proper that I should review them.
I say review, but, as I hope you will recall, the imprint will consider any genre of book, provided it's by a first-time novelist. So the six books are all different, and not all of them are books which I would select, either for personal reading or to review in full. What I have done, therefore, is to perform a 40-page test. That is to say, I have read the first 40 pages, or so, of each book, in order to get a flavour of it and to enable me to make some sort of judgement about the skills of the author. One or two of them, which happen to be my kind of thing, I will undoubtedly go back to.
I read the books in alphabetical order by author, and that is the way they are presented here. Three today, and the rest before long.
Conor Corderoy: Dark Rain
This is science fiction (for want of a better term), set in the UK at some point a few decades into the future. It's been raining for 35 years. At least in the UK it has; elsewhere there is no rain and no food. And we have had warning that the aliens are coming, but we're preparing for them by stock-piling nuclear weapons.
This is the slightly gloomy context, a semi-flooded London, in which our narrator, a police Inspector, makes his way down the mean streets.
The climate may have changed, but some things haven't: honest and incorruptible cops still have to bow under the weight of the rich and powerful, who don't want the truth to be revealed. And, by page 18, our man has found a dead body, wants to investigate the crime by the book, but is told that he is off the case. And, indeed, out of the force. Which is the equivalent of a death sentence. Whereupon a woman recruits him to investigate anyway.
The genre, then, is SF/private eye. Though there are hints, in the publisher's blurb, which suggest that this will develop into something a bit more than that towards the end.
In a sense this is a traditional PI book, with variations. And what's wrong with that? It's a highly honourable tradition: Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and so forth. I found it eminently readable.
Michael Stephen Fuchs: The Manuscript
By the second page of this book it is apparent that Mr Fuchs knows how to use viewpoint -- always a crucial test. (Or, in view of what I shall say about another MNW book, perhaps I ought to say that he employs viewpoint in the way in which I think it is best employed.) Another good sign is the division of the text into short chapters.
The plot, not surprisingly in view of the title, involves a lost manuscript which may, perhaps, reveal the meaning of life. It was written, or at any rate transcribed, by Sir Richard Burton. No, dear, not the one who was married to Wossname. The other one. The plot is therefore not terribly original, at least at the start, but since I am always saying that originality is a much-overrated virtue, I can hardly complain about that. The question is, can the author make his story entertaining?
He can, and he does. It rattles along at a fair old pace. My early notes record that the book is well written, thoughtful, competent and professional. Round about page 30, however, I began to get really interested. There's a chapter there which is definitely a notch above the run of the mill, and by page 35 I was convinced that Michael Fuchs really can write. He clearly knows a great deal about computing and is also highly literate: this is not a common combination.
So far so good then. Like the book mentioned above, this one seems to promise a little more than just a genre book as it goes along.
There are signs that this book may have been written a year or two ago, and failed to find a publisher in the orthodox way: the author thanks his sister for 'resurrecting a deceased project'. If so, that is further proof of the fact that, today, producing a first-class product is not sufficient to arouse publishers' interest on its own.
This book uses double quotes for dialogue, which is not standard UK practice (with most publishers). And that kind of reminds me that one of the features of MNW, if I recall correctly, is that it set out, from the beginning, to economise by using the authors' word-processor files for typesetting. Nothing unusual about that, but in my experience it is hard to use search and replace to change single quotes to double (for American publishers), and vice versa. Some of the other MNW books use single quotes, so the house style -- whatever it is -- has not been uniformly applied.
The author has a rather fancy web site which demonstrates that he is a multi-talented man. He has also developed another web site devoted entirely to The Manuscript. He himself describes the book as 'a philosophical cyberthriller – a novel of huge ideas disguised as a blow-your-hair-back thrill ride.'
Brian Martin: North
This one is quite different from the two books described above. Both the above are edgy, modern (or futuristic), slightly techno pieces of work. North, by contrast, is a literary novel. It belongs in its own noble tradition, like the other two, but it comes from a different part of the fiction continuum.
Brian Martin is publishing his first novel at the age of 68. However, he has taught literature both at a school in Oxford and at Oxford University. He has also reviewed contemporary novels for more than thirty years for all the leading UK literary journals. So he's not short of background.
It's a first-person story, narrated by an erudite teacher with ample financial means and an acute interest in human behaviour. And the chief subject of his interest, North, is an 18-year-old boy/youth/youngman who is still, technically, at school. Although no one could really regard him as a schoolboy.
When the narrator tells us that sixteen is an early age for a person like North to begin having sex, I think we can assume that he is being tactful with regard to UK laws on these matters. In fact, North seems to me to be the kind of young man who would have begun having sex far earlier than that. With whom, however -- that is to say, which gender got to him first -- is open to conjecture.
North, we soon learn, is a magnetic, charismatic figure. There is, perhaps literally, a dash of the devil in him. Our narrator, we must assume from the early pages, is gay. At any rate he is remarkably well informed about ladies' perfumes and gentlemen's choice of eau de toilette. And the pleasure of this book (for the attentive reader) lies in watching the narrator watch North.
One possible way to describe this book is to say that it is about human relationships. Plus a bit more. (Interesting, isn't it, that all three books mentioned so far fall into a reasonably well defined category but then rise somewhat above it. Or, to be less disparaging of perfectly sound genre books, we might say that the novels build an extension out the back.)
As you would expect from the author's background, North is elegant, polished, and extremely subtle. I found myself questioning, sometimes, how the narrator comes to know so much about other characters' feelings and thoughts, but he gives us an explanation which is, I think, convincing within its context.
In my review of Punjab Nights a while back, I made the point that it was the kind of book, based on personal experience, which many a man, at the end of his life, might have wanted to write. Had he the skill. And while it would be, I suspect, a serious mistake to assume that either Punjab Nights or North is autobiographical, both reflect a wealth of experience in the author.
North, I think, based on my 40-page test, is subtle, thought-provoking, carefully planned, and multi-layered. Its main subject seems to be the power of sexuality. If it's too literary for my taste, well, that's because I'm a vulgar fellow, and no reflection at all on the skills of the author. I prefer less analysis and more action, with dialogue to match. But those who stick with the book to the end will not, I think, be disappointed. (I sneaked a look at it.)
Oh, and by the way. A word of warning. It is possible that what we have here is that creature much beloved of modern literary theory, namely a narrator who is not entirely trustworthy. Hard to believe of a well educated English chap, I know, but I thought I should pass that on.