Wowzer. I thought The City & The City was amazing but Kraken… Really, how does China Miéville do it? A lot of readers have said how disappointing Kraken was after The City & The City, but I have to disagree. It’s a very different novel, more reader friendly, yet still packed with enough ideas to feel as though your head’s going to explode. Miéville certainly doesn’t spoonfeed his readers and I admire him for that. I have to admit it wasn’t as smooth a read as I expected just because of the density and relish with which Miéville plays with ideas and words. He mixes religion and politics and psychogeography and science and ties it up rather niftily in the end. The monstrous beings he creates are truly terrifying, yet the human characters, although sympathetic, are slightly on the light side. But then the plot moves at such a speed that it’s not really a novel in which you get to know the characters too deeply.

So Kraken is about the mythic, many-limbed monster of the sea, the giant squid, the archeteuthis, cthulhu that has terrified the minds of countless sailors over the centuries. Billy is the custodian and preserver of the giant squid that rests in London’s Natural History Museum. He’s always had a sensitive ear and sometimes he hears things moving when he’s alone at work. One day, the giant squid vanishes and Billy is plummeted into a world he knew nothing about, a different aspect of London that is weird, esoteric and frankly terrifying. And when his friend Leon is literally devoured by Goss and Subby, two unhuman creatures who can unravel themselves anywhere, he goes on the run. He is befriended by Dane, a priest of the Church of Kraken who believes that Billy is one of the Kraken’s prophet and encounters a myriad of other psychoreligious characters as he tried to outrun his fate. Can he make it? And will he be able to dodge Goss and Subby and their equally terrifying boss the Tattoo? And what’s all this about the apocalypse and London engulfed in flames?

Kraken is like a high-octane thriller but with lots of clever, esoteric and made-up info. The connections Miéville makes between religion, politics and London is simply amazing. With every page I read, I just sighed with envy that he has such a fecund imagination. One of the things I really liked and that impressed me about Kraken was Miéville’s use of and understanding of science and its history.

I can’t wait to read Embassytown and the Bas-Lag novels. And Un Lun Dun.

I read this as part of Stainless Steel Droppings’ Once Upon A Time V Challenge.

May was a busy, busy, busy month for me. Lots of events, my mum visiting, a trip to Paris and, of course, passing my driving test. So let me tell you about three events I really enjoyed in May.

1) China Miéville at Foyles

The night before my driving test I popped by Foyles after my driving lesson to see China Miéville talk about Embassytown with Claire. Miéville was his usual impressive self and managed to do a brief reading and engage with the audience all by himself. No interviewer for him. If only I could be as eloquent and use complicated words like him and still make sense. I got my copy of Embassytown signed and he again remembered me from before. Sweet. This year he sported a beautiful tattoo of the kraken on his bicep. Incidentally I was reading Kraken at the time which I found to be thrilling and brilliant. I especially liked all the references to science and the history of science which I’ve come across. He also mentioned he is looking into writing a hybrid fantastical Regency romance. Yup, you heard. Check him out here.

2) Vintage Classics Day at Foyles

Vintage Books kindly invited me to the Vintage Classics Day at Foyles to celebrate 21 years of Vintage Classics for a day of talks including one on villains (where the audience voted Dracula to be the classiest of villains beating Long John Silver and Steerpike), Rose Tremain, Lionel Shriver and Mark Haddon talking to Bidisha, a historical stroll through the Random House Archives and finishing off with Sebastian Faulks on whom I confess I now have a small crush (even though I’ve only seen 2 episodes of his Faulks on Fiction).

It was also lovely to meet up with Claire, Jackie, Kim, Lynne and Simon, and to chat with the publicists and editors at Vintage.

I am SO looking forward to the publication of some Vintage Gibbons out in August. Check out this beautiful cover. Drool.

3) Bookish Board Games

I also met up again with Claire and Simon to enjoy a spot of Trivial Pursuit Book Lover’s Edition and the Great Penguin Book Chase. All of us were complaining that we had no one to play with so a session was organised at The Fentiman Arms in Oval. We met up with two other lovelies for some lunch, dessert and Pimms and began with Claire’s Trivial Pursuit. Boy was it hard. As it’s the American version, there were a lot of questions on Nicholson Baker (who wrote several rude books), Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger (if I recall rightly). Also lots of Russians. They were hard questions and we would have gone on all night if we hadn’t decided to call it quits when the first person to get three slices of pie won. But we had lots of fun coming up with ingenious titles to books for which we had NO effing idea.

Then we moved on to Simon’s Great Penguin Book Chase which had easier questions although there seemed to be a concentrated focus on Squirrel Nutkin. This game was more like Monopoly where you had special reward cards which gave you free books or made you return them to the library. The cutest thing was the shelves and the little replica books you had to fill them with to win the game. Definitely easier to play, although not as hysterical as the Trivial Pursuit. Since the Trivial Pursuit Book Lover’s Edition is unavailable in the UK, I promptly went and ordered the Great Penguin Book Chase. I’m gonna try and convert my family and friends if it kills me. And guess who won both games? Heh heh. Although it was more to do with luck rather than knowledge…

photo © Andrew Testa for The New York Times

You may all recall how I loved China Miéville’s The City & The City which I read last month. I know, I got it last year but it always takes me ages to get to a book. I wish I had read it sooner because it was so different from anything else I’d read and his two cities, Besźal and Ul Qoma, occupying the same geographical space and time still haunts me now. I’m still trying to figure it out somehow.

So I toodled along to English PEN‘s event at the Freeword Centre in Farringdon last week. It was a more relaxed affair compared to the last one and we were welcomed with a glass of wine before being ushered into the theatre where Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, was waiting to talk to Miéville. I think there were about 30 people in total. As usual, Miéville is a brilliant yet rather prolix raconteur, dotting his arguments with vocabulary I didn’t know existed such as ‘radical estrangement’, ‘post-facto theorising’ and ‘fabulologic’. Some people may find it irritating but frankly, I could drown in it. He’s funny, extremely polite and very engaging and had us in fits of laughter the whole time.

As it was Booker night, there were inevitable questions regarding his take on the Booker Prize and his thoughts on literary fiction which led to an interesting discussion on what is litfic and genre. I think Miéville was hoping that Tom McCarthy’s C would win as it showed that the Booker panel were becoming more inclusive in their choices. The fact that it was included in the shortlist alone showed the panel to be ‘game’. One thing he did say was that he didn’t agree with the idea that litfic is the epitome of literature, that that is where literature should end up. Like with any piece of literature, Miéville argued that there’s good and bad work and just because it comes under the umbrella of litfic, you shouldn’t automatically think it’s better than books in other genres, many of which are much better than some of the popular litfic pushed strongly by big publishing houses (e.g. Ian McEwan’s Saturday). Literary fiction denotes quality, market and the interior/domestic genre but not necessarily that it’s the best. And he doesn’t agree that it’s all about the sentence quality either, believing that some works are so powerful it doesn’t matter if the prose needs a little more polish such as Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. What he believes to be the most important thing is that the author must believe in the world they are writing about, whatever the genre, regardless of any restrictions. He cited a lot of Pyncheon here regarding championing the lack of structure. I have yet to try Pyncheon who I’ve heard is rather difficult.

There were many questions about The City & The City and Miéville admitted that many of his fans were unhappy with the juxtaposition of a straightforward crime noir in a fantasy setting. He described it as a novel in three parts: in the vein of Inspector Lynley with a feisy female sidekick, two unmatched cops who end the case with a grudging respect for one another and a political thriller. For me the most interesting aspect of the book was its social setting rather than the mystery (which I didn’t have a problem with either). Miéville wanted to explore the idea of social filters and markers which I think he does brilliantly, and it’s something that is logical, not fantastic.

And to end it all, Miéville read the first few pages of his next book Embassytown, a science fiction tale with aliens and monsters which will be out next year. He also mentioned several authors he rates highly: Hugh Cook, Ape’s-Face by Marion Fox, John Crowly, M. John Harrison and Kelly Link. They may not all be polished but they have passion.

And of course I got a copy of Kraken signed. And what made my night was that Miéville recognised my name and remembered me from when I first met him at the Southbank a year ago and got The City & The City signed! TOTAL SWOON. I suspect he has photographic memory. For a change I wasn’t tongue-tied and spoke to him for about five minutes. I wanted to know whether he’d write another story set in the cities of Besźal and Ul Qoma, and although he was uneasy about revisiting something that has already been done, he did acknowledge that he may change his mind. Never say never. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

You can hear an interview of Miéville at the Pan Macmillan website where he talks about The City & The City. Do check it out. And you can find a New York Times article of him here.

All in all it was a very interesting and lovely evening. What do you think about this whole Booker Prize and litfic debate? Is it the pinnacle of literature? Do you agree/disagree with Miéville’s views? I read a lot of genre fiction and feel that there are a lot of extremely well written gems out there compared to some of the more popular/mainstream/literary fiction that’s always highlighted in the press. I’m curious to know what you think.

I saw China Miéville give a talk at the Southbank last year. I wasn’t actually meant to go and see him, it was just on a whim, and because I hadn’t read any of his novels, I bought a ticket because I was fascinated by his name. But he really surprised and charmed me and I grabbed his latest book and got it signed. Of course, being a book junkie, it took me over a year to finally read it and in the meantime, The City & The City has been nominated for many awards and won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association and Hugo awards. And it thoroughly deserves it. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel like it.

Miéville said this was different from his previous novels; it’s a murder mystery and police procedural but with a big difference. I loved everything about it especially the concept of two completely different cities occupying one geographical space where the act of ‘unseeing’ citizens of both cities are taught from birth so as to go about daily life without ‘breaching’ and accidentally stepping into, seeing or confusing the space. It’s genius.

My expectations were pretty high from all the reviews I had been reading but I have to say the novel exceeded it. It’s clever, complicated and what I like most was that Miéville makes you do all the work to figure it all out. He doesn’t spell it out for you or draw a map (although I’d love to see a map of Besźel and Ul Qoma).

The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s corpse in an empty skating park in Besźel. Inspector Tyador Borlú is called in to take over the case. But things are not as they seem because they can find no trace of the woman. In a strictly controlled and monitored society, this can only mean one thing: she doesn’t belong in Besźel and is from Ul Qoma. Borlú is desperate to hand the case over to the ‘Breach’, the shadowy organisation that deals with any breach between the cities but events conspire against that and Borlú finds himself going to Ul Qoma to track the murderer.

What makes this even more complicated is that the woman is an archeology PhD student who had caused a stink several years back by bringing up the existence of Orciny, the third mythic city which everyone denies exists. With fringe nationalists trying to keep Besźel and Ul Qoma separate and others trying to merge the two cities, Borlú with Dhatt, his Ul Qoma counterpart, must negotiate the intricate laws of the two cities and unravel the mystery of the student’s death.

It’s a difficult book to describe because there is so much packed into just over 300 pages. In The City & The City, Miéville has created a complete microcosm of a world similar to but more fantastical than Berlin when it was still divided. I loved the complexity of the two cities, the sparse prose of the detective story and the power of myth and ideology over the people who occupy that space. Very interesting and different and makes you think about whether you’re really seeing what is there. And after I finished the book I am still thinking about this wonderful world Miéville has created and feel that there are still more secrets that I would like to unearth.

Miéville stated he was greatly inspired by M. John Harrisson’s Viriconium so I’ll have to check it out as it’s one of the fantasy greats. And I definitely want to read more from Miéville. Impressive stuff.

An essay about Mieville can be found here.

I read this as part of the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, another one down from my TBR pile. Feels great!

will be screening on Sky this May. Yippee! You can watch the trailer here (thanks to The Wertzone for the alert).

Going Postal will be a welcome addition to the TV adaptations of Pratchett’s Discworld novels. I loved The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic and thought David Jason as Rincewind was brilliant. I found The Hogfather to be a little boring even though it’s one of my favourite Discworld novels (if it has Death and his granddaughter Susan, I’m sold). So I’m a little anxious about this one, but am nevertheless waiting for it with bated breath. Which means I must re-read the book again.

Currently I’m two thirds of the way through Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology (am still loving it) and have also started Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as I’m going to see him at the Southbank Centre on Monday. Can’t wait!

And elsewhere in the bookworld, the gorgeous China Miéville has won the British Science Fiction Association award for best novel for The City and the City (I must read it this year) and his new novel Kraken looks fascinating.

The Book Depository blog has a great quote about London from the delicious China Miéville.

chinamieville thecityandthecity

Described as ‘tall, muscular and brooding’ and ‘fiercely intelligent’, China Miéville certainly cuts a striking figure. He doesn’t look like a writer, but then what does a writer look like? He looks like a fighter, an angry revolutionary at a political demo. But when he speaks his voice is soft and cultured and his words betray his educational background. Miéville studied Social Anthropology at Cambridge and holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE. And he is as passionate and serious about Marxism as he is about sf and weird, fantastic fiction. How cool is that? And did I mention how handsome he is?

Anyhoo, I got myself a signed copy of his new book ‘The City & The City’ and I am looking forward to reading it.