March 2012 Reading: Cloud Atlas, Diary of a Bad Year, Heartbreak Soup, Bristol Anthology Volume 3, 31

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
A re-read for my MA course. I feel oddly defensive of this book. It was the first novel by Mitchell that I read, not long after it came out, and I really enjoyed it, right up until everyone started pointing out all its flaws. In class, no one seemed to have a good word to say about it. So I am going to be stubborn and maintain that I like it. Yes, it is a bit knowing/pretentious/coyly self-aware of its own postmodernist tendencies, but it is also good entertainment. Flipping through time over six very different stories, the structure definitely worked for me. 
As I think I wrote in an earlier review of a Mitchell novel, I admire the way he has fun with language, his enthusiasm and willingness to experiment. However, considering the success of this novel and the fact that it is (somehow) being made into a Hollywood film, I don’t think Mitchell needs too much sympathy from me.
Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee (2007)
A little literary experimentation goes a long way: Coetzee’s novel-that-isn’t-really-a-novel-or-maybe-it-is-because-what-is-a-novel-anyway takes it too far for me. Disgrace was one of my favourite books when I was an undergrad, but it is the only Coetzee novel I have ever managed to finish – and if this one wasn’t (you guessed it) on the MA reading list, I doubt I would have made it to the end, despite the fact that it is actually quite a slim book. 
The protagonist, who may or may not be the author himself, is writing a series of essays for a book entitled ‘Strong Opinions,’ and he hires his neighbour Anya as his secretary. Their two first person narratives are laid out on the page under the essays, creating a deliberately confusing reading experience which goes some way to concealing the thin and unbelievable plot. The ideas that Coetzee is exploring are profound and thought-provoking, but the format left me cold.
Heartbreak Soup by Gilbert Hernandez (2007)
Drum roll please: this book marks my first foray into the world of graphic novels. And I loved it. I’ve ordered three more Love and Rockets collections. There is something really exciting about reading a genre you have never read before, whose rules you don’t quite understand – everything seems shiny and new and different. 
The fictional Central American town of Palomar is populated with a cast of intriguing characters, and the stories flit back and forth in time so that their backstories are gradually revealed. It is often the female characters who, despite their predictably ample chests, come across as the most complex and strongest personalities, especially the fascinating Luba. 
I would definitely recommend Heartbreak Soup as a great place to start if you are new to the genre, and I’d be interested to hear what more seasoned comic book readers make of the series.
Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 3 (2010)
I do love a good short story anthology. And competition anthologies like this one are especially rewarding: high standards and a huge variety of themes, genres and styles make them ideal for dipping into for inspiration. The winning story, by Valerie O’Riordan, is only 350 words long, a reminder, like the Calum Kerr book I review below, that a good story doesn’t have to be a long story.
I have a couple more Bristol anthologies on my ‘to read’ pile, and I am really looking forward to them. Oh, the lovely things I will read once this MA is over. Any more anthology recommendations for me to add to the pile?
31 by Calum Kerr (2011)
Flash fiction is much, much harder to write than it looks – believe me, I have tried – and I am full of admiration for anyone who can do it well. Kerr certainly can. This collection consists of 31 stories written during the course of one month; like the Bristol anthology, it is full of slices of tasty inspiration, showing an impressive imaginative range and an enviable ability to tell a whole story in few words. 
Flash fiction is by no means new, but it is (deservedly) gaining respect as a genre in its own right, not just as some kind of ‘warm up’ for novelists. National Flash Fiction Day is fast approaching: check out the website for details of all kinds of events and competitions taking place around the 16th May: