Tag Archives: “The Chimes”

My top five reads of 2016

10 Jan

I was surprised to realise that I didn’t revisit any books in 2015. I don’t mean those books I read and then read to Mrs Van but old favourites. To make up for it this year I managed two: Chinua Achebe’s wonderful Things Fall Apart and Sylvester Stallone’s compelling Paradise Alley. You might think we’re looking at opposite ends of the spectrum there but actually there’s a good deal of similarity in terms of character arcs. And if you are thinking that we’re looking at opposite ends I’d urge you to be surprised and seek them both out. Good stories are good stories no matter who tells them.

I also said I was going to try and read more diversely in 2016 but in the end I don’t think I did. Gender-wise, three quarters of my reading was written by women but probably only about 10% of my reading was ‘non-white’. I think this year I should just aim to read a bit more than last year. That would be a good place to start.

I gave up on three books last year (two more than the year before). One of those books got shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award and another is, I think, currently in the Times bestseller lists. So what do I know! This is I think proof positive that you should never feel guilty about letting a book go. If it’s not working for you there will be something else that does. The only thing I’d say is don’t shoot it down for other people. There were also three that I finished but didn’t really get on with (and two of those have done very well for themselves, thank you, so again – what do I know).

But what about those I did like! Before I get into top tens and top fives let me mention Sceptre’s excellent short story collection How Much The Heart Can Hold. It’s a superb collection, well worth getting hold of and the kind of thing I’d love to see more of as a reader. It’s a great showcase for seven writers whose work you’ll likely be seeking out after reading their particular takes on the various aspects of love.

As ever, whittling down to a top ten is a difficult business. In fact, it was hard enough to get down to a top thirteen, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There were two or three absolute standout books for me (yes, I think this time a top three would actually have been quicker) so the tricky knot to unpick was which of that collection of seven or so brilliant books would creep into the top five. Laline Paull’s The Bees (which is undoubtedly Mrs Van’s favourite of the year), Shelley Harris’s Vigilante (which is probably Mrs Van’s other favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook all almost made the top five (see how I got away with a top 11 there!). I would wholeheartedly urge you to add these to your reading lists if you’ve not picked them up yet. They are all very different but they are all very, very good.

And so, in the order that I read them, here are my top five reads of 2016.

Back in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a very special year for it not to feature in my top 5 come the end. The world-building, the awareness of language, the characters, the story itself, it’s all supremely handled. It’s wholly accessible too. I’d have no problem recommending The Chimes to young young-adult readers. Anna was also kind enough to do a Q&A with me.

February brought a recommendation from Isabel Costello (author of Paris Mon Amour and curator of the literary sofa), Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore). Isabel can always be relied upon to turn up an excellent French novel in translation and this was no exception. It is an extraordinarily powerful read, a forensic examination of what the heart is and what it represents. No surprise it was longlisted for the Man Booker International award.

On to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a sumptuous read. The language is delightful, and so very quiet. It’s a sibilant whisper at your ear, at once engaging and unnerving. Waterstones made it their Book Of The Year 2016.

October brought a very special book my way. It’s not actually out until April 2017 but I can’t wait to hear what everyone else makes of it. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper might well prove to be one of those light-the-touch-paper-and-stand-back books. I’m guessing the word prescient is going to crop up a lot too. What I can tell is that it’s excellent. The characters are delightful or infuriating or charming or terrifying, each in their turn, and the story Fran Cooper weaves in and around them is glorious. I read it to Mrs Van recently and it was great to see her head nodding or shaking in all the same places as mine  did, and that page 183 had the same effect on her too.

November finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is that I’d managed to bypass all the hype that surrounded this book and its twist so that, when the twist came it brought with it all the impact the author surely intended. It’s one of those moments that acts like a fillet knife, peeling the book’s flesh all the way back to the bone so you can’t help but re-examine it. It’s not all about the twist though. The story is compelling and heart-breaking, the language is sublime, the way the whole novel hangs together is truly a thing to behold. It’s quite masterful.

 

 

Five very different novels this time, though each is expertly constructed and skilfully told. There is no doubt you’re in safe hands as a reader and that’s a luxury that really allows you to inhabit the stories, to get up close and feel the things these characters feel. Here’s to more of this in 2017!

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A Q & A with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

21 Jan

The Chimes PB cover

I’m delighted to welcome you to the first stop on the Blog Tour for Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, published in paperback by Sceptre on the 14th of January 2016. It’s a terrific book (of which you can read my review here) which raised many questions in me, and I’m very glad to say that I was able to pose some of those questions to Anna.

Anna Smaill author pic

 

While reading The Chimes I was strongly reminded of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, not only in the reverence you give to music in the story but also in the simple language Simon uses to tell his story. Who are your touchstones in writing – those you admire, those who inspire you, those whose books you go back to?

 

I think you may be the first reviewer to spot that connection. The Glass Bead Game made a big impression on me when I first read it as a teenager (probably the perfect time to read Hesse), and it was continually in the back of my mind while I was writing The Chimes. The concept of an intellectual elite whose philosophy and ethics are structured by music was essentially lifted from Hesse’s novel, though of course The Chimes is also very different. The writers I most admire are those for whom writing is some kind of essential mediating device, a way of decoding or just surviving existence. I love Janet Frame, Russell Hoban, Kafka, Borges, Marilynne Robinson, the NZ novelist Pip Adam. I also often re-read read George Eliot, Ondaatje. I find myself continually shaped and inspired by my favourite books from childhood, too. Particular favourites are Rosemary Sutcliffe, K. M. Peyton and the Uncle books.

 

Have you always written?

 

Yes, since I can remember. I’ve kept journals since I was about 9 or ten. It’s really very much how I work out what I think about things.

 

The scene between Simon and Steppan brings home the chilling reality of a world without memory. Simon feels balanced between feral and humane. Why did you focus on memory?

 

I think I’m so focused on memory because it seems so close to the core of what makes us human. For some reason the idea of losing memory has terrified and fascinated me from quite a young age. Trying to make sense of your memories, putting them together in a way that seems meaningful – I don’t take this for granted in any way.

 

You take the idea of music as a means of communication to an extraordinary level in The Chimes. What was the seed of this idea and how did it develop into the world you created?

 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the idea came from. When I was playing the violin, I got a bit obsessed with thinking about the differences between music and language as two different forms of communication, and was always seeking direct equivalencies between the two. Of course, they can’t be reconciled in this way. There were other elements there too. I had an utterly eccentric music theory teacher when I was at university, who liked to expound on a methodology of his called ‘Body Tonics’. His basic argument was that chord progressions in a piece of music could be matched with physical movements, and that if we enacted these movements while listening to the music, we’d gain some deeper musical insight. I may be bastardising his theory. It was basically a sol-fa technique (the thing the Von Trapp children do while running around in the mountains) that engaged one’s whole body. So, there was that, and also Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which is about how aboriginal Australians ‘sung’ their sense of landscape into being, so that all physical markers – rock formations, valleys, lakes, etc – can in turn act as a kind mnemonic device for their creation myth. All of these things coalesced somehow.

 

I’d like to ask about Jemima. Though she only appears for a short while you portray her in quite a touching way and she presents an interesting counter to Lucien. The question of course is that posed by Simon. Is she immune to the effect of Chimes?

 

I enjoyed writing Jemima because she’s nicely practical and pragmatic – which offered a bit of a relief from the intensity and idealism of Simon and Lucien. She seems older than them, in a way; more worldly. In some ways I didn’t want to examine Simon’s question too far. In a practical sense, she’s still affected by Chimes because they involve infrasound – vibrations that are inaudible but affect you physically at the level of your nervous system. However, I liked to think that because her awareness and communication isn’t directly reliant on music, her mind and consciousness is different – she’s developed different ways of thinking and remembering.

 

I found the Order intriguing. With their presenting and reinforcing of ‘OneStory’ they seemed to me somewhere between a religious parallel and a political one. Were you conscious of creating them in either a religious or political mould, or did you strive to avoid those direct associations?

 

I wasn’t striving either to cultivate or avoid those specific associations. I guess, it’s more that political or religious extremism was simply another arm of the sort of extremism I hoped to represent with the Order. I was interested in what happens when we take idealism to an outer limit. How does that pursuit allow for the ordinary mess of human lives, and the human impulses that can’t be tidied or understood? The Order obsessively believe that human expression, and human thought, is our highest function – which means that all that isn’t perfect, or orderly, has to be expunged. I think this impulse is fairly similar in much religious thought, that sense that the body is a threat to the spirit. They’re very basic and central human impulses, but they become destructive when they’re taken to an extreme.

 

There’s something very close to fairy tale in what you present in The Chimes: a band of outsiders and a governing organisation, the uncovering of clues and the overcoming of obstacles, and the passing down of a tale in rhymes. There’s even an aged mad woman. Were you aware early in the writing process that you wanted this reflection of the importance of oral history or did this develop as the story came together?

 

I started writing The Chimes very much under the influence of the young adult literature that moved and interested me. A lot of the radical freedom of excellent fantasy and YA is that, maybe because it isn’t weighed down with the responsibilities of realist representativeness, it can really cut to the fundamentals, the verities – love, loyalty, the struggle for meaning. Those mythic rhythms and emotional chimes are ones I also find in fairy tales, myths, stories which tell us something simple and deep about being human. I suppose I was striving for and craving that sort of deep resonance in what I was writing. I had just finished a PhD on contemporary poetry, and most of my previous days had been filled with dense academic language!

 

Your choice for The Pale Lady is a very good fit but I wonder whether you began with scientific reasons for the choice, practical reasons around availability or whether the word play led you there?

 

A little bit of all three, in a somewhat circular way. I knew I wanted a sort of ore, a shining metal that would act as currency yet also present a sort of mystical physical and spiritual pull. I happened on to palladium, as far as I recall, because it had the pleasing attribute of being occasionally used in the production of concert flutes. The slang forms for palladium followed naturally, but it felt as though they’d also preceded me somehow – particularly as the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ had already shown up in the writing. The scientific connections – ie the fact that palladium is used in catalytic convertors to filter exhaust, and as a conductor in electronics, added a sort of synchronicity and metaphorical richness to the idea for me. Though I should state that there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of the uses to which I put palladium in the novel…

 

There’s something a little ‘overnight sensation’ about debut novels and the way they’re marketed (though with a Man Booker longlisting, and having read The Chimes it’s the overnight bit that to my mind is the false note). How long did it take from first putting pen to paper to publication?
What’s the best editorial advice you had for this book?

 

Yes, I agree – there tends to be a fascination with that breakthrough moment. I think in part, it’s fair. There is something distinct and utterly unusual about first novels: they involve so much of your life, they’re a kind of leap into the unknown, a massive and intriguing gamble, and they can utterly turn your life around. But these are all narratives that don’t ultimately connect with the nitty gritty facts of writing. The first glimmers of The Chimes came way back in 2009, while I was finishing my PhD. I didn’t acknowledge that I was working on a novel, though, until 2010. In 2011 my daughter was born and any semblance of a writing routine flew away and then I only returned to proper routine work on it early in 2013. With two days a week to write, I finished in about 4 months. It had a long long gestation, but a very fast delivery. Then the editorial and pre-production of debut novels is typically quite slow, as they want to spend a decent length of time on publicity and marketing prior to the release. And now it’s 2016, a terrifying number of years later, and the paperback is coming out!

I had so much excellent editorial advice with this novel. My agent Will was one of my first readers, and just prior to submission he dropped a particular gem about how one might go about sustaining uncertainty in the reader. The beginning of my book is essentially a cloud of vagueness, but he made the important point that I had to distinguish between the general mystery of the opening (ie – the facts of the world that were simply yet to be revealed to the reader) and the things that were weird or perplexing to the protagonist. It sounds simple, but it really transformed how I thought about the opening sections.

 

What does the future hold for your readers, can you tell me anything about what you’re working on next?

 

I’m working on a new novel, which feels in many ways utterly different from The Chimes. It’s set in a contemporary, far more familiar and realist Tokyo. But, I can’t quit that drive toward the fantastic, so the city is becoming denser and odder as I write. There is also music creeping in as a method of plotting the story (I won’t give away too much), and elements of a thriller also.

 

If you had to travel with a roughcloth bag what would your objectmemories be? (sorry, I know it’s sacrilege to ask, but…)

 

It’s not in keeping with the universe of The Chimes (where they’d have been burnt long ago), but I’d probably take my journals. They all have different associations, depending on where I bought them, the paper, the pens I used, so that even if I couldn’t read them, I think there’d be sensory memories there. I think, a bit embarrassingly, I’d probably take my old Burberry trench coat. I lent it to Simon for the novel, but I had it first! Bought off Ebay before my daughter was born, and my single most-worn item of clothing ever. There are plenty of memories in that homely old gabardine.

 

 

My thanks to Anna for making my questions look insightful (and for adding a few more names to the TBR pile), and my congratulations for writing such a wonderful book. I feel it will be with me for quite some time! Thanks also to Ruby at Hodder for making this Q & A possible. Don’t forget to check in with the other stops on the blog tour.

chimes_facebook_post

And, of course, don’t forget to read the book!

Van has finished reading…The Chimes by Anna Smaill

13 Jan

I got that tingle. In the way even the first paragraph immerses you in Simon’s world, how before we know his name we feel his abandoned state. I got that tingle and already I was thinking about Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake (you know how much I love the opening of that book, right?). By the time I reached the end of the first chapter that tingle had turned into a very big grin. Anna Smaill leaves you in no doubt about the sense of fear that haunts this world.
‘Keep your memories close,’ Simon is warned, and he knows only too well how lost he’d be without the meagre contents of his roughcloth bag – his objectmemories. Anna Smaill leads us through the fragments of Simon’s days, gradually building our view of his world and how it works, inviting us in as Simon finds his place and discovers a purpose buried in the fragments of his recollection.

Memory is so linked with how we function, how our world works – who can’t inexplicably recall advertising jingles from when they were kids? And how frustrating it is when we forget something, or when there’s a name on the tip of the tongue that refuses to be grasped. Mrs Van asked me if I remembered a particular place the other day and I found myself examining the process of trying to remember: an initial concentration; then zooming out, thinking about the locality and what I could remember nearby, actively recalling driving there and building a more precise image.
What if every day was a slate wiped clean? What if you had to choose your memories, decide which are the important moments as they happen and fix them to something?
This is at the heart of The Chimes. There are myriad books about one person’s memory loss or lapse or selective nature, a few concerning a prodigious capacity even. I’m hard-pressed to recall one that deals with mass memory in such a striking and inventive, even audacious manner. Imagine a world where you can’t recall from one day to the next, where your very survival depends on starting work young enough to instil in your body the sense of your vocation. There’s a scene early on where Simon meets a boy on a hill and the sense of fear, of the desire to comfort and the cruelty of survival is palpable. We’d call it muscle memory, yet how right it is that the author freights the idea so with that term bodymemory. So vital, so deeply ingrained it won’t be lost. It’s the lightest touch but so crucial.
That awareness of language comes through time and again. Music is central, indeed pivotal in the world Anna Smaill has created and the way she incorporates that into the everyday telling of the story is superb. I’m in danger of throwing far too many big names around but I was reminded of Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes, and in particular Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. This latter was a particularly strong association. That notion of art elevated to the very highest form it can attain; the devotion of those in whose hands this art is held; the reverence with which it is treated by everyone. Very early into the reading I wondered which instrument(s) Anna actually plays. Aside from the lento, piano, forte instructions you may recognise from sheet music, there are some more technical inflections around scale and harmony too, even the solfege instructions before the opening page that, if you know the theory, will deepen your reading.
And I’m stepping lightly now as I don’t want to give anything away, but the wider aspects of the world of The Chimes are handled with equal subtlety. At the centre of most dystopian novels is a wielding of power that must be opposed in some way. What Anna Smaill also gives us is the other side of that coin, the widespread acceptance, even the comfort gained from embracing that control. After all, in such a world who could possibly imagine what would replace the prevailing power if it should fall?

If you’re thinking it’s all starting to sound a little heavy, fear not. This book is, I think, one of those rare beasts where the plot, the characters, the language is all in balance. There’s never a word spoken that rings false, there’s never a turn taken that leads nowhere and there’s no dead weight in the list of people we encounter.
This is the first book I’ve read this year and I’m already thinking it’s going to have to be a pretty amazing year of reading for this not to feature in my highlights come December.

It’s always good when you discover a book that makes you think. I can safely say it’s been a while since a book made me think about so many different things. Ask me what The Chimes is about and I might say social control, or perhaps the importance and function of memory, or history or why we have stories, even. It spoke to me about all these things, and more besides. It sounds heavy, but I’d have no hesitation recommending this to an avid young teenage reader (and will likely be telling everyone I know to read it). As for book groups, it’s tailor-made, able to prompt a broad range of discussion points. Just make sure you allow some extra time to get through them all!

My thanks to BookBridgr and Hodder & Stoughton for allowing me to read The Chimes.

The Chimes is published in paperback on 14th January 2016 by Sceptre ISBN: 9781444794502

You can find Anna Smaill on Twitter @AnnaESmaill and on her website, annasmaill.com