Tag Archives: Nikesh Shukla

Other People’s Bookshelves #73 – Dan Coxon

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in the company of author and editor Dan Coxon. He’s put on a might fine spread of nibbles and drinks for us, so do grab a few and settle down on those comfy chairs as we get to know Dan better and have a right old rifle through his bookshelves….

I’m an author, editor and father, not necessarily in that order. My travel memoir Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand was published four years ago, and was used as background for the ITV documentary River Deep, Mountain High last year. I also write short fiction, with stories in Gutter, Neon, The Lonely Crowd, The Portland Review, Flash, and many more; forthcoming in Unthology and Popshot. Non-fiction all over the place, from Salon to The Scottish Cricketer. From 2013-2015 I edited Litro magazine, and I’m in the process of editing an anthology of short stories about fatherhood, entitled Being Dad. We’re currently taking pre-sales and raising funds on Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dan-coxon/being-dad-short-stories-about-fatherhood). Please check it out – we have stories from Toby Litt, Dan Rhodes, Courttia Newland, Nicholas Royle and Nikesh Shukla, amongst others. It’s going to be wonderful.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

My natural instinct is to keep everything, good or bad. I guess I’m a hoarder, at least when it comes to the written word. In reality I’ve shed a few books over the years. Generally speaking, every book I read moves onto the shelves shortly afterwards. But some only take up temporary residence, while others are there for good. Signed copies (by anyone) and a few favoured authors (Iain Banks, Will Self, Ian McEwan, William Burroughs, Doug Coupland) will always find a space on my shelves, no matter what. Plus anything by someone I actually know in real life, or anything that blows me away. Basically, I’m always looking for a good excuse to hang onto books.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

For almost ten years I worked in the book trade, first as a bookseller, then as a bookshop manager. During that time my shelves were immaculate – arranged according to genre, then by author. It was basically like having a little bookstore in my house. Now that I have two kids, I have less space, and less time. I still have a ‘to read’ shelf, where all my latest purchases and the books I’d like to revisit reside. And a ‘friends’ shelf, stacked with books by authors I know (this is still growing – I may need two shelves at some point soon). Beyond that, I’m ashamed to say that most of my books are arranged according to size. Non-fiction is still separate, but it’s mostly a case of fitting in as many tomes as I possibly can. One day, when I have the time and the space, I’d love to return to a proper system again. I’d love to have all my short fiction in one place.

As for culling, my wife and I went travelling for a year at one point (part of which formed the basis for Ka Mate), and I cut a lot of books from the collection. The remainder were stored in friends’ attics for twelve months, so I had to be ruthless. The same happened when we moved to Seattle for a few years, and on the way back again. We’d fill boxes with the titles we were happy to part with, then we’d invite friends round to take their pick. If they were going to a good home it wasn’t such a tearful parting. I like to think that my shelves are still out there, just residing in my friends’ collections.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I’ll come clean – I had to check on this one. I always had so many books around when I was a kid that it’s hard to remember specifics. It turns out that my Mum can’t remember either. It was possibly one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, although I thought I received those for Christmas. Given my childhood reading habits, it’s quite likely that it was one of the Doctor Who novelisations. I still have the Narnia books (nice editions, that have been passed down through my half-siblings and back to me), but I only have a handful of Classic Who novels in modern versions, nothing like the books I had back then.

What I do remember is that I had a rolling list of books I wanted, written on the back of a Waterstone’s bookmark (these were one-sided at the time, with a maroon front). At first it was just five or six titles that I’d heard of and wanted to read, but within a few years it had expanded to multiple bookmarks, with titles and authors packed in tiny handwriting on the back. I’d give these to my parents at every birthday, without telling them that most of the books were rarities or out of print. I was always interested in reading out-of-the-way books, the ones that everyone had forgotten about. These days there’s probably an app that will hunt them all down for you. But when I was a kid I loved having my never-ending wish list.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

To be honest, anything I was truly embarrassed by was thrown out during the culling. I do have a shelf of my juvenilia – Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, those early Doctor Who novelisations, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service – mostly the same editions that I had growing up. These sit directly behind my TV, in plain sight, so I wouldn’t exactly call them hidden. I’m actually rather proud of them. If people don’t ‘get’ them, then they probably don’t ‘get’ me either. I’ve been living with those books for so long that they’ve become part of who I am. Having said that, my wife does have a few Patricia Cornwells that I’ve stowed away, out of sight. Her later novels are just awful.

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

For my 21st birthday my Dad bought me a 1st edition boxed set of Lord of the Rings, so that would be the easy choice. Quite apart from the sentimental attachment, it’s also worth more than any other books that I own, by a rather large margin! Beyond that, there’s a copy of The Swiss Family Robinson that my dad stole from a local library about fifty years ago. I’ve been dragging that around for so long that I couldn’t bear to part with it now. The same goes for the copy of Moby-Dick that I pilfered from our school supplies when I was 17. (They’ll probably read this now and demand it back. It’s not even a particularly nice copy, but we spent an entire term wandering the playing fields reading excerpts from it, imagining that we were the Dead Poets’ Society. If nothing else, it’s an irreplaceable reminder of what a pretentious tosser I was in my teens.)

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I think it was the Selected Stories of H.G. Wells. My dad is a rabid science fiction reader, and our shelves were always dominated by his books. I seem to remember an illustrated edition of this book, although I may be making that up. I read these stories fairly early, and loved the sense of imagination and adventure that came with them. I was lucky that my parents encouraged my reading habit, and didn’t mind me dipping into their shelves on occasion. I haven’t read them in a while, but there’s a copy still buried on one of my shelves somewhere. ‘The Time-Machine’ probably looms larger in my subconscious than any other single story, and I’ve taken a few shots at writing a time travel story over the years. Maybe it also explains why I’m still an unrepentant Doctor Who fan.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I borrow quite a lot of books – I firmly believe in the library system, and if we don’t use it, we may lose it. Whenever I read something that I like, which I’ve borrowed, I have to ask myself whether I’m likely to read it again. If I will, then I’ll buy a copy (especially if I want to make notes on it, I wouldn’t deface library property!). In most cases, though, upon honest reflection, I decide that my shelves probably can’t take the extra weight.

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I’ve been cutting back on book purchases this year. I have such a backlog of wonderful reading that I want to dedicate some time to catching up with the pile. I have made a couple of purchases in the last month or two, though. Most recent was at the Green Man Festival, in Wales. I’d read most of the book I’d taken with me on the train, and it rained solidly for much of Saturday and Sunday, so I was tent-bound with nothing to do. Luckily there was a well-stocked book stall, where I bought J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (irresistible, given the weather) and Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. I’m happy to say that both were excellent.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

There are always books that I want to own, but I’ve gradually come to realise that I’ll never have the time to read them all. Currently, as I type this, I’m craving Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, as well as Jonathan Evison’s latest, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!. But I will resist, for now at least.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I think they’d probably be a little confused. My shelves are quite a mess at the moment. But I like to think that they’d pause for a moment and find an unsuspected gem or two hidden in the stacks. Reading is always at its most exciting when it serves up unexpected pleasures, and there are some genuine treasures in among the chaos. Or maybe they’d just see a Doctor Who-loving geek with a love of impenetrably pretentious modern literature – either is fine by me.

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A huge thanks to Dan for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, you can check out his short story collection kickstarter here. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Dan’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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On the Radio, Whoa, Oh, Oh, On the Radio…

Just over a week ago, which seems such a long time ago now weirdly, I had the pleasure of doing something I have always dreamed of… Live Radio. (If any of you are thinking ‘well he’s got the face for radio’ you are very mean and naughty, ha!) Last Sunday afternoon Fiction Uncovered took over Resonance FM and took to the airwaves and I got to be one of hosts and also interviewed on a few sessions. Weirdly I found being interviewed much tougher than doing the interviews. Anyway I thought you guys might want to listen in to some of the interviews, discussions and debates that took place…

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First up myself and my fellow judge, who has become a really good mate, Matt Bates were interviewed about judging the prize by Matt Thorne. We talked about the process of reading, judging, whittling down to the longlist and the final eight giving you a bit of insight into those titles too. We also talked about the state of British fiction and bookshops which Matt, being the buyer for WHSmith Travel stores in stations and airports, had some fascinating insight into. You can hear it here.

Next Matt Bates stayed on air to interview Susan Barker about her wonderful Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Incarnations, which I will be reviewing very soon. Listen here.

I was then in the host seat, and got to say the immortal words you dream of ‘and that was a song by…’, to interview David Whitehouse about his Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Mobile Library which is the best fairytale for adults I have read in quite some time AND a must read if you love books, which of course you all do.

Nikki Bedi chaired a really interesting and topical debate with Danuta Kean, Nikesh Shulka and Naomi Frisby (who blogs at Writes of Woman) about diversity in publishing and proved a fascinating discussion which I only heard snippets of so need to listen into myself for the full chat.

I then came back on air to chat to Lavie Tidhar about his brilliant, harrowing and thought provoking Fiction Uncovered novel A Man Lies Dreaming where we discussed how humour can be used both to combat and highlight the horrors of history, or in this case and alternative history.

Where do great writers live and the importance of landscape was the next discussion as Matt Thorne hosted a chat with Catherine Hall, Alex Wheatle and Luke Brown. I love books about the English countryside as you know and was busy with a sandwich and bag of crisps while they were recording so will be catching up with this one very soon.

I was back being grilled again by Matt Thorne, along with Naomi Frisby about the state of reviewing, blogging and social media and how books and writers are, or sometimes aren’t, excelling in the digital world. I almost got myself in trouble twice in this part of the show, but I think Naomi and I did a good job in talking about the blogosphere and the digital world.

The penultimate discussion was with Sophie Rochester and Rosa Anderson who co-founded Fiction Uncovered about five years of the prize. Again I missed this one as I was having a coffee so will be catching up with this one very soon.

Finally Matt Thorne was joined by Bethan Roberts to discuss her Fiction Uncovered winning novel Mother Island which I think is a brilliant suburban thriller and family drama which I will share my thoughts on soon. Listen to them discussing it here.

So there you have it, a good few hours of bookish chatter, discussion and debate for your listening tackle. I am not sure when they will go on iTunes and be podcasts but you can play these sneakily with your headphones on at your desks in work. Oh go on, we all do it… Oh. Just me then. Whoops.

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Other People’s Bookshelves #61 – Nikesh Shukla

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week, for a special 60th post in the series, we are off to Bristol to join author Nikesh Shukla who has just left an array of gorgeous treats for us all to nibble on as we have a nosey through his shelves. I had the pleasure of taking part in Newcastle Writer’s Conference which involved lots of bookish chatter, laughter, beer, vogue-ing, book recommendations and almost karaoke. Let’s get to know him a little better before we start riffling shall we…

Nikesh Shukla is the author of Meatspace, Coconut Unlimited (which was shortlisted for a Costa Book Award), The Time Machine (which won best novella at the Saboteur Awards 2014, and Simon reviewed here) and Generation Vexed (a non-fiction book co-authored with Kieran Yates). He wrote the multi-award winning short film Two Dosas, a Channel 4 sitcom pilot called Kabadasses and has contributed to Buzzfeed, Guardian, Independent on Sunday, BBC Radio 4 and many more. He also sent a lambchop into space, which was nice. He talks about race, rap and comics a lot on Twitter. And is a new dad. Which supercedes all of this.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I keep everything I plan to read at some point. I’m getting to a point where my shelves contain more unread than read books, which is very different from how it was when I was growing up. I read everything on my shelves. And I kept everything on my shelves. Even stuff I didn’t like. I didn’t have much access to books as my local library was small didn’t stock what I wanted to read. I was obsessed with reading writers that looked like me (not white) so I had to buy everything. And I read it all. And quickly learned that much as I felt this compulsion to read writers I felt a cultural affinity for, they had more than one story. And it was ok to not like them all. I think that’s the problem with the attitude to writers of colour today – people still assume we only have one story to tell. Sorry, I’ve gone off topic. To bring it back, I junk books I’m not enjoying when I know I’m not feeling them, and I eject from books I like when I feel like I’ve got it. I hold on to the ones I like in case I need to revisit. The culled ones, twice a year, I take them to my work and host a free-for-all.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

They started off alphabetical – A-Z fiction, A-Z non-fiction, A-Z short stories and A-Z homeys (books by my friends) but I’ve just given up at this point. My TBRs are by my bed (growing perilously tall – if it’s suddenly announced that I died when the new Paul Murray book fell from a giant height and smashed my nose into my brain, don’t suspect foul play). We also now have children’s books, picture books and board books everywhere because we’ve read to our baby at a young age. We’ve put most of her favourites in a box in front of the television. I have an orange shelf to match the orange of my study walls. The paint colour is the same Pantone as the cover for Coconut Unlimited, which I love. I have a shelf of books that is my ‘study of orange’. I love the colour orange, it’s auspicious in my family’s cultural heritage and it makes me happy. I have a t-shirt with Hindi on it, which translates as ‘In the game of life and death, we’re all oranges’.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

Oh god, wow, this just dredged up a memory. With money I borrowed off my dad, I bought Better Than Life by Grant Naylor. It was the second of the Red Dwarf books. We were in a rainy hotel on a weekend away in Portsmouth and I had seen a friend reading it at school, and was desperate to also read it, because I was obsessed with Red Dwarf. Mum was really pissed off I bought it because it was Red Dwarf and therefore silly. Not a proper book. It taught me a lot about comedy. I stayed up all night reading it in our tiny family bedroom, biting the sheet to avoid LOLing.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I don’t think so. I think I’ve charity shopped the ones I’d be really embarrassed about. For two weeks, in 2004, I read every Dan Brown book that was out. I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

My copy of Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her is signed. It says ‘Finally we meet, young brother. Stay on course. We need you.’ A copy of a Zadie Smith book has her referencing an injoke we had about dubstep when I did a podcast with her. Two writers I respect and admire treating me like I could be an equal – it’s very inspiring. The most cherished book that doesn’t involve a namedrop is my tattered copy of a book called Bombay Talkie. It came out in like 1999 or 2000. I found it in my university bookshop. It’s the only book that Ameena Meer wrote. It is the book that set me on my course because it told a story I knew I had to counter with my own. It’s really special in my heart because reading it was my day dot of wanting to be a writer.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

My mum read Mills and Boon books and my dad has only read an Aristotle Onassis biography. They’re not big readers. I tried to read Crime and Punishment when I was 11, because the pretentious narrator of a Paul Zindel had read it. I didn’t get it.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Hell yeah!! Now I don’t collect records or box sets anymore because of streaming services, I collect books.

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I just bought The Box, by Gunther Grass, because it’s my book club’s next book. It’s okay. I also used the dreaded *m*z*n to buy a book that doesn’t have a UK release date. It’s called Delicious Foods by James Hannaham. It’s incredible. I’m shocked no one in the UK is going to take a punt on it. I also preordered at my local Foyles the debut book by Katherine Woodfine. She’s one of my closest friends and that book is headed directly to the homey shelf.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Oh my god, yes! I sold my comic book collection in my mid-twenties so I could go travelling. I wish I hadn’t. Also I leant my brother-in-law my copy of the now-out-of-print The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead and I need it back thanks.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I bet he’s only read 40% of those. Which is a lie. It’s more like 47%.

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A huge thanks to Nikesh for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, here’s hoping I can get Ann Kingman to do it in the future too! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Nikesh’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Could I Read Books Only By Women For A Year?

This is the question that I have been asking myself on and off all week as the book world is all a chatter about the lack of equality, which also equates to the lack of diversity in both the reading industry and it seems the habits of the reading public. Questions around women have been high on the agenda with a report that novels with female protagonists or narrators being less likely to win an award, then Kamila Shamsie wrote a provocation asking publishers to only publish women for a year and then today one publisher, And Other Stories, saying that they were indeed going to do just that in 2018. Let’s all catch our breath for a second and calm down…

My initial reaction to all of this was ‘well do you know what; I will read only female authors for the next year’. But that is just reactionary and equality is about more than just reacting on the spot. For equality to work we need all those parties/genders/minorities involved to make things equal. I know that sounds obvious and makes it all sound so easy, yet at the heart of it that is the truth. We all have to take responsibility in enabling equality with our own habits first, yet sometimes we don’t even realise what our habits are.

Let me be really honest. When I read a book, be it for work or pleasure, I just want to be lost in a bloody brilliant book. Call me naive but I don’t tend to think about the gender, age, colour or sexuality of the author. I honestly don’t think many general readers do either. I think I read more women than I do men by a mile, at the end of the year it tends to almost be 50/50 which always surprises me. Another prime example was with judging Fiction Uncovered, we had X amount of submissions and as judges we all went off read like loons and then came back with the books we thought were the best (for all sorts of reasons, a whole different discussion for another time) and we discussed them and whittled them down to a longlist of fifteen. Until we looked at that final selection we hadn’t even been aware that it was a selection of four men and eleven women, it was about the books and the way those books and their words and language had affected us, isn’t that what reading should be all about? Not once did we then think ‘oops better add some more men into that mix’, and this was a panel of two men and two women completely equal but the outcome was what it was. Those were just the best of some utterly corking books. End of.

However something was highlighted to me the other day that showed I don’t always read as diversely as I think, and at the end of the day it is only you yourself who can make you read more diversely, no one else is going to read for you. Nikesh Shukla, who will be sharing his shelves with you all this weekend, was asking on Twitter for recommendations of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) authors books for a summer reading list. Off I skipped to my shelves thinking this would be a doddle… I only had about ten such books on my shelves, which are plentiful, I was horrified. I genuinely thought I read much more diversely than that. It bothered me.

So how do we combat these reading habits we get into, what can we actually do to change things? We can do things like starting prizes/ initiatives/readalongs etc that highlight voices or people that might be going under the radar. That is why  I co-founded the Green Carnation Prize, I wanted to highlight LGBT authors (not the gayest books as some journalists lazily think) and so I put my money where my moaning mouth was, and created something positive with all that energy. However first I think we have to start much closer to home and with our very own choices of books.

So could I read only books by women for a year? Yes, easily and I bet it would be a real treat at times and less of a success of times, just like and (and every) reading year. Will I do it? No. You see only reading books by women by its very nature wouldn’t be me reading for equality, it would be halving the experiences I could have in missing out great male authors of all walks of life and backgrounds. Narrowing your reading options really doesn’t do anyone any good. For example, if I chose to only read BAME authors or LGBT authors I would be missing out on white or straight novelists of both genders. In any of these scenario’s I am going to be cutting out some wonderful reads and with books that is what I want wonderful reads, so only I would be missing out really.

So rather than ‘not’ read or ‘only’ read any particular group of authors, I will try to do my best to make sure I read as equal amount of books by men and women, of all different races, backgrounds and sexualities (more translated fiction would do that which is something we need to be looking at with a very fine toothcomb frankly) as I can. After all, surely that is going to give me the best future reading life possible, the best of all worlds, walking in all sorts of different types of people’s shoes – or stories.

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Idiopathy – Sam Byers

It was author Nikesh Shukla who I heard raving about Sam Byers ‘Idiopathy’ so much that when I saw it in the lovely new sparkly Liverpool Central Library I simply had to pick it up. I admit it had been on my radar with its Waterstones 11 inclusion but it was Nikesh who sealed the deal. He didn’t really talk about the plot, just said that the writing was pretty much genius stuff. So when I read the cover description, as I don’t read blurbs on the whole, as ‘A novel about love, narcissism and ailing cattle’ it sounded both intriguing and rather quirky.

4th Estate, hardback, 2013, 300 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Idiopathy’ is, as defined at the start of the book, “a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown”. Bearing this in mind, initially a reader may assume this applies simply to the strand of the book where cows are randomly becoming very ill and being culled, some thinking this means the end is nigh others just that the price of beef is about to soar. However I wondered (if I am trying to be deep and clever) whether in fact it is a condition that each of the three main characters, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, have. Each has a feeling of unhappiness, loneliness or just in some way, possibly rather self indulgently, being a bit out of the loop with the world.

Katherine and Daniel used to be a couple not so long ago. A couple in one of the most possibly toxic relationships ever; she liked to annihilate him, twisting every sentence he gave her and playing mind games galore, while his insecurities made him snappy, unhappy and always in the wrong with every barbed sentence she threw him. They only really had one friend in common at the time, Nathan, a man who they decided to befriend as they thought he might know where to get some drugs and a crazy night out – they weren’t wrong. Yet Nathan disappeared one night, a night they both seemingly forgot along with Nathan himself, yet Nathan hasn’t and so when he comes back from a psychiatric ward a reunion looks imminent, if slightly doomed.

What Byers does with is characters, which I found both clever and fascinating as a reader, is make his three main protagonists all hideously dislikeable yet also incredibly readable. Prime example, and probably my favourite, was Katherine. I don’t think I have met anyone so barbed, cynical and downright miserable in fiction for some time, yet I have met so many Katherine’s in my life. If I am really honest I may even have (in some very dark times) had a bit of a Katherine phase in my time, without the half-arsed suicide attempt though thankfully. She sleeps around with the men she doesn’t paralyse with fear in the office because she has no self worth, then feels worthless but quite likes it and so spends nights eating in her dressing gown in front of the telly. She hates her job, in fact really her life, in Norwich, a place she doesn’t even want to be in yet fled to. She is the perfect anti-heroine.

“She met with Keith only on selected evenings. They fucked and drank and rarely spoke, which suited Katherine. He bought her a vibrator as a present; gift wrapped. With a heart-shaped tag that read ‘Think of me’. She donated it, tag and all, to her local charity shop on her way to work, buried at the bottom of a carrier bag filled with musty paperbacks and a selection of Daniel’s shirts she’d found amidst her archived clothes. She never saw it for sale, and wondered often what had become of it. She liked to think one of the elderly volunteers had taken it home and subjected herself to an experience so revelatory as to border on the mystical.”

Because she was such a big and brash and brilliantly vile character, she sort of stole the show. I liked Nathan, and actually wanted more of his back story and why he self harmed so much, and enjoyed watching him move back in with his parents, his mother now being a twitter and blog superstar turned author ‘Mother Courage’ a fame reached at the expense of her own son and his issues. Daniel I struggled with. I just found him a bit pathetic, a man who stuck with an utter bitch, Katherine, for five years and has now ended up with Angelica who is really a bit of nothingness he quite fancied when things were bad and whose friends and cat he hates. As someone who hates ineffectual people I found my teeth grating when ever Daniel’s narration took over even when it was very funny, though I think that is what Byers wanted.

‘Love you darling. Could you pass the milk?’
‘Course I can baby. Here you go. Love you.’
‘Love you too.’
They had, Daniel thought, crossed all acceptable boundaries of decency.

The book is hilarious by the way. You wouldn’t think it could be with such a bunch of miserable self serving so and so’s at the helm (even though you will love Katherine, honestly she is genius) yet I found myself laughing out loud a lot along the way. Interestingly as I read on I found I needed breaks from it, the humour made me want to gulp the book down yet the characters and their conversations become cloying after a time. A gamble by Byers as it is very realistic yet because they are so vile it can get quite heady, particularly the rows between Katherine and Daniel, or rather her turning every utterance back at him in which I soon found I had to stop reading as I was getting so cross at Katherine for being such a bitch and Daniel for being such a bloody doormat. Shows how real they were though. This could alienate some though because it almost gets too much on occasions.

Without sounding like a bit of a swanky twat (hopefully) I would describe this book as being ‘a very modern novel’ which simply typing makes me want to vomit in my own mouth somewhat. Yet it is true. There does seem to be something of a ‘turning thirty crisis’ nowadays; at thirty you should be like previous generations, have a house, marriage, kids and a pension yet it just isn’t like that and I don’t think that is something that is written about often. These people are also the ‘me’ generation who think everyone gives a toss what they think on twitter, their blogs, etc. (Oh dear, that me isn’t it? See I made it all about me, I must be one of them too – help!) Byers also has a pop at environmentalists, corporations… in fact everyone gets a swipe, and then the bovine issue after ‘swine flu’ and the recent horse meat scandal is another gem – though it was a tangent that trailed I thought until the almost too farcical ending.

I think the best way to describe ‘Idiopathy’ is that it is a timely novel, it is also occasionally a rather testing novel yet a novel that overall, for me, announces an author that I am really looking forward to watching in the future and seeing what he comes up with next. If it is a book about cantankerous pensioners living in a seaside town where people go to basically die then I think it could win every prize going, if not maybe I should right that book myself. Oh there I go again, making it all about me. Oops. Back to Sam and ‘Idiopathy’ then, I would strongly recommend giving them both a whirl; it could cause some corking debates at a book club.

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Filed under Fourth Estate Books, Review, Sam Byers

Coconut Unlimited – Nikesh Shukla

After the Costa shortlists were announced I was lucky enough to be emailed by some of the publishers who wondered if I would like to read some of the novels on the lists. As I mentioned a while back it was the debut novels that intrigued me. One of them was ‘Coconut Unlimited’ by Nikesh Shukla which I had heard mentioned in the broadsheets and had intrigued me from its synopsis partly because it was a coming of age story, which is something I am trying to get my small bias around, and also because it was a comic novel by all accounts.

Quartet Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 200 pages, kindly sent to me by the publisher

‘Coconut Unlimited’ does seem like it could be very much on the authors, Nikesh Shulka’s, youth. It’s a tale of Amit from his childhood growing up in Harrow in North West London in the mid 1990’s. Born left handed his Indian family are rather concerned for him due to its religious connotations and so he is sent to a very white and rather middle/upper class private school where the teachers are known to make racist comments and expect no comeback. With his friends Anand and Nishant they create a rap band based on their passion for hip-hop (such as the Wu Tang Clan, Skee-Lo, Nas etc – which really took me back – who in honesty some of them have never heard of and in fact some of them make up hip-hop acts they have heard of to try and sound street) called ‘Coconut Unlimited’ as his sister says ‘because you are brown on the outside and white on the inside’.

The story then follows the bands highs and the lows both as they try and get noticed, get street (with some very funny consequences) and also whilst they deal with the perils of growing up and becoming men and belonging. It is much more than just a coming of age story, with humour Shukla deals with the issues of race and class as they were, and in some cases still are, just a decade ago. It is very funny, occasionally in a slightly bittersweet way, and if you didn’t or don’t love hip hop there is much to entertain you whilst enlightening you and certainly making you laugh and remembering your awkward teenage years.

Nikesh Shukla has a great voice, and in writing through the eyes of Amit he never makes the reader feel patronised, it’s all very authentic. In fact I would say that he deals with these three young men with a kind of tenderness which adds that extra something to the novel as a whole. His prose is fluid and energetic which may have something to do with the fact Shukla is a performance poet. It’s a very promising debut from a novelist I think we will be seeing much more from in the future. 7.5/10

Has anyone else given ‘Coconut Limited’ a whirl? If you have been umming and ahhing about it, possibly as from the blurb it sounds slightly niche as was my slight concern, then give it a whirl. I’m glad the Costa Book Awards shortlist brought this novel to my attention, and then to my door, now which one of the shortlisted titles should I try next?

This book was kindly sent to me by the publishers.

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Filed under Nikesh Shukla, Quartet Books, Review

Simon’s Bookish Bits #27

I can’t actually believe that I haven’t done a ‘Bookish Bits’ post since the start of August. However there are occasionally times when you are writing a post filled with little bookish bits this is just what you need and today is such a post. I have a few different things I want to natter with you about such as the Costa Prize, a lovely publisher loot when I had a meeting about the reading guides I am going to be writing and The Green Carnation event.

I do really like the Costa Book Awards, as I commented on Kirsty of Other Stories blog earlier in the week, I’m never sure why this is though because I don’t think I have read that many of the winners but I have read and really enjoyed many of the books which have been shortlisted, without knowing they have been shortlisted. I don’t read children’s books, on the whole, and I don’t really go for poetry (though I wish I did) and can be funny with non-fiction so in some ways you would think that the prize would maybe not be so much for me but I love the fact it doesn’t seem so snobbish and the lists are always eclectic as you can see from The First Novel and Novel Award short lists…

Costa First Novel Award

  • Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai
  • Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla
  • The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer
  • Not Quite White by Simon Thirsk

Costa Novel Award

  • Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty
  • The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale
  • The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

I have already read two of the novels of the years and loved Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ and would recommend everyone on the face of this planet gives it a read. I am slightly surprised that Nigel Farndale’s ‘The Blasphemer’ is on the list as I didn’t love this book, not that I think I am any authority on what should be short listed on this prize. I am wondering f I should return to it as it’s been nestling on my ‘possibly give to charity or my family’ pile. Hmmm! I have been sent some of the other books listed and I think I might pick some of them up in the not too distant future.

I was kindly sent ‘Witness of the Night’ by Kishwar Desai from Beautiful Books which I had heard nothing about but sounds great, ‘Coconut Unlimited’ by Nikesh Shukla which I have heard lots and lots of good things about from Quartet Books, ‘Skippy Dies’ has been languishing on my TBR for ages (oops), I managed to grab Aatish Taseer’s ‘The Temple-Goers’ in the library when I took some books back finally, and I managed to sneak a copy of Louise Doughty’s ‘Whatever You Love’ from Faber & Faber’s HQ when I went in this week, which nicely leads me to the next part of my post…

I mentioned a while ago that I am going to be writing some Reading Guides for a publisher. I can now tell you that the publisher is Faber & Faber and thanks to the comments we are coming up with something very new and different with how these reading guides are going to work. I have lots of brainstorming to do, lots. I stupidly forgot to take a picture of Faber HQ but I did spot this amazing house filled with books which I wanted to move into on the spot.

I did manage to leave with some lovely loot from Faber though in a rather delightful bag. Top priority was ‘Gillespie & I’ by Jane Harris (I adored ‘The Observations’ and am begging Faber to let me write the reading guide for that one next) which isn’t out until May so am soooo chuffed managed to get my mitts on it. I also got all the Ishiguro novels I don’t own which was great (and some double copies which I have passed on) as I want to get to know Ishiguro better as the first book I am going to be writing the reading guide for is ‘Never Let Me Go’ my review of which got me the job unbeknown to me at the time.

Straight after Faber I ran to The Green Carnation Event which was a huge success, so much so I got stuck at the back with the other judges as it was so busy we could barely move and lots of people couldn’t even get in…

It was a great night for those of us who did get in with the readings from the authors and then lots of drinking afterwards in the local pub which I will report back on in due course, I am awaiting some pictures from one of my lovely friends.

So what bookish goings on have you been up to lately? Any great recent reads or new book arrivals? What are your thoughts on how reading guides could be made more modern (for my brainstorming)? Any thoughts on the Costa Book Award Shortlists, have you read any of them at all, any recommendations?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Simon's Bookish Bits