Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

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The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

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More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

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Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

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Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.

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Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)

Reading Diary: Apr. 15-Apr. 21

814ysf3sdjlI’m going to go ahead and call it now: The Secret Barrister is probably the best non-fiction book I’ll read all year. (It’s actually called Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but that seems more like a subtitle to me, and the author’s name is the big sell on this one, since the Secret Barrister is a massive blog that’s twice won Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. So I’m referring to it as The Secret Barrister and that’s that.)

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the impetus behind the book: to reveal the myriad ways in which the English justice system – which, schoolchildren are taught, is the best in the world – is desperately broken. The anonymous author, a junior barrister practicing in London, ultimately agrees that the adversarial system in the UK is the best one that there is, but the persistent under-funding of the Crown Prosecution Service, the absurdly arbitrary nature of sentencing guidelines, and the frankly alarming power wielded in magistrates’ courts (presided over by magistrates, who, unlike Crown Court judges, have no legal training or qualifications whatsoever, and whose presence is a hangover from medieval times, when it was less important that justice be fully served than that it be quickly served) are crippling the justice system. Though the Secret Barrister never explicitly allies themselves with a particular political party, it is quite clear that the budget cuts and benchmarks set by successive Tory governments are in large part responsible for the absolute chaos in which most criminal cases are prosecuted and/or defended.

The best thing about this book – apart from the statistics, and the clear, quantitative analysis of just how many things can go wrong in a court case, and the outstanding job the book does of impressing upon the reader that anyone can end up in court, anyone can be burgled or assaulted or even falsely accused, and that therefore it is in everyone’s interests, even us smug middle-class wankers, to make sure that criminal justice works properly, which is to say that it is properly funded and less subject to dog-whistle knee-jerk bullshit from politicians and the Daily Mail than it currently is – is that the Secret Barrister can really write. The book opens with a cross-examination of a man named Mr. Tuttle, accused of punching his neighbour, who happens to be both blind and on crutches, rendering Mr. Tuttle’s defense (“he punched me first”) somewhat incredible. The scene feels immediate, funny, even absurd – I laughed within seconds – and it works because the prose is flawless: well-oiled, conversational, competent in the little things, like exactly where a comma or a hyphen makes a sentence more effective. It’s a joy to read, as well as deeply informative, and scary as hell. I am sending it to everyone.

51my9o-wxml-_sx327_bo1204203200_In 1622, Diego Velazquez traveled to Madrid from Seville. In December of that year, he was appointed painter to Felipe IV of Spain and invited to bring his wife and daughter to court. He would retain that position – painter to the king – until his death in 1660. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on Velazquez’s life and work at court.

While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does. Velazquez’s naturalistic style, his insistence on using live models, his relatively limited colour palette, all attract mockery, even scorn, from other painters, but it is the quality of his vision that makes Felipe value him. He sees people, and what he sees is, not unkindly but nevertheless with great fidelity, what he paints. Sackville’s prose style here is tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, the encrusted paint on Diego’s fingers, the heft and bulk of a water jug. It also constantly interrupts itself; we feel we are inside the head of the artist, particularly in scenes like the one in which he tries, again and again, to capture exactly the musculature of a horse’s leg, the swell of its belly, the flick of its tail. The sentences are breathless, fragmented, em-dash-heavy:

…dip, swipe, dip, swipe: The leg of the horse curves up into the belly here, like –– Here, the top of the leg rounding into the socket like –– The curve of the belly barrel-like –

–– No

It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

There is another intruding narrative voice: that of someone who might be the author, and is certainly an observer; someone who knows Velazquez’s paintings well, through long acquaintance with them in galleries and museums. That voice lifts you out of seventeenth-century Spain, but not, I would contend, in a distracting way: on the contrary, it provides necessary breathing room, amongst all that painterly detail. All together, Painter to the King is a little like the bastard child of How To Be Both and Wolf Hall, but to compare it is to diminish it: it is its own thing, and that thing is very good.

cover1The title of Diana Evans’s new novel, Ordinary People, comes from a John Legend song. “This ain’t the honeymoon, past the infatuation phase,” he sings. “Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love…” And then: “We’re just ordinary people/we don’t know which way to go.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Evans’s protagonists: two couples, Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie, trying to keep their relationships alive after marriage and/or children, moving to the suburbs, losing a parent, discovering that they will very soon no longer be young.

Evans would be most easy to compare to Zadie Smith, although the hyperactivity, focus on working-class second-generation immigrants, and high intellectualism of Smith’s work is less evident here; instead, Evans has written a literary novel about the domestic lives of black people in London who—though some of them are second-generation immigrant stock—have entered the middle class. There is, of course, a political aspect to the book: Damian’s father was a Jamaican intellectual obsessed with the black struggle; Michael’s increasing comfort in a suit is a quiet metaphor for his assimilation into a professional world that is overwhelmingly white; Melissa finds herself thinking of de Beauvoir and Kristeva when her children whine, feeling that she’s sold out feminism but unable to turn back now. Evans’s writing decisions, especially her plotting, is brave: not everyone gets a happy ending, and we’re forced to question what happiness can look like, the possibility that finishing things amicably with your partner can actually be the right choice, and no one’s fault. Ordinary People is an extraordinary book for posing those possibilities while also telling an apparently familiar story about domestic strife; it’s very impressive.

35654063Salt Lane is the newest novel from William Shaw, the beginning of a series featuring DI Alex Cupidi, who made an appearance in the book Shaw released last year, The Birdwatcher. Salt Lane too is set in rural Kent, that strange flat marshy part of England where the sea and the sky and the land flow into one another. This time, Shaw sets his sights on immigrant labour: the illegal fruit picking and farm work that goes on under the noses of police. Two murders in quick succession—a local woman who has been living under an assumed name for twenty years, found in a ditch, and a migrant labourer who has been drowned in a farm’s slurry pit—assume sinister proportions when it turns out that they’re related. Cupidi must find who’s responsible while also developing her relationship with her teenage daughter Zoe, acting as a mentor to the insouciant and pretty DS Ferriter, and protecting her own reputation on a squad to which she is new, and which knows all about the scandal that drove her away from London.

There is slightly too much going on in Salt Lane; some of the supporting characters confuse the arc of the investigation, rather than adding to it, as does the fact that the dead woman is connected to a cold case from 1995. (We learn about this in the prologue, a flashback which misleads us into thinking that the old crime is going to be more significant in the present-day storyline than it actually is.) I’m also not certain about Shaw’s portrayal of immigrant workers; he’s not offensive about them or about the hell in their countries of origin that drives them to the UK, but I wasn’t convinced that he’d ever spoken to a refugee. Najiba, a migrant worker who acts as a police informant, is fairly well-rounded, but the others seem like ciphers; Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields is a more moving and humanising portrait of this world. As ever, though, Shaw’s grasp of pacing and procedure makes it hard to put Salt Lane down.

macbethThere are, plainly, as many ways to fuck up adapting Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare plays. Jo Nesbo has chosen the path of poor judgment: he tends to make the wrong choice about where to diverge from Shakespeare and where to follow him. His Macbeth is set in an unnamed, rainy, context-less Scottish port town ravaged by drug wars and the death of industry; Macbeth is a corrupt policeman. It’s an excellent idea, but in execution, it feels like reading Grand Theft Auto for 500 pages: not so much because of the action sequences (though there are many, and they’re generally the best bits) but because of the odd sense of complete inconsequentiality. The town never feels like a real town; even its architecture and geography lacks substance. Why is there an enormous disused train in the middle of a public square flanked by a James Bond-esque casino and a railway station populated only by junkies? None of it is how anything—urban planning, police procedure, drug-empire-enforcing—actually works.

Nesbo makes another unfortunate decision, which is to follow the beats of the major monologues and some of the better-known dialogue. While he occasionally manages this well (the “Out, out, brief candle” speech feels contemporary and convincing, mostly because it’s not spoken but thought), it also results in hardmen calling each other things like “good Duff”, which jars. When Macbeth or his scheming partner Lady breaks out into an expository paragraph that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the scene, it feels awkward and noticeable. One particularly odd choice involves Nesbo’s failure to update Lady’s reproductive history: he keeps the part about her plucking a child from her breast and dashing its brains against the wall, but makes that an actual recollection, not a hypothetical about promise-keeping that she throws at Macbeth, as it is in the play. Wouldn’t it make more sense—and be more emotionally resonant—in a contemporary updating, to give Lady a history of multiple abortions about which to feel guilty? To unthinkingly plug in Shakespeare’s words plunges the scene, and Lady’s characterisation, into a grand guignol that feels cheap and tone-deaf.

All of this said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read a video game, particularly this video game. The action sequences are generally excellent, high-octane and well choreographed. A level of artifice—one might say, of theatricality—is inherent to much genre writing, and Macbeth is a genre novel; Nesbo writes noir thrillers and has never claimed otherwise. For my taste, though, his version of Shakespeare lacks sufficient thought, fun and pacy though it may be.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of crime, which will carry over into Monday as I’m currently reading another Scottish-set thriller, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide. Overall an excellent week, with three great books, one decent one, and one that was at least fun to dislike.

Pre-Women’s Prize Shortlist Meeting Thoughts

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The Women’s Prize shadow panel is meeting on Saturday to choose our shortlist. I am not, strictly speaking, ready. There are three books on the longlist that I have yet to read, or even manage to source: The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan; and A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert. The amount of guilt I feel about this is both profound and defensive: I feel awful for not completing, but I would also like to point out that I have not had a single free weekend since the 17th of March, and of those four weekends, three of them have required me to be out of London overnight. (The other one was the weekend in which I moved house.) So, sure, I could have done better with Women’s Prize reading, but part of not being completely mentally ill, for me, involves acknowledging when things are out of my control, and this past month has been completely and utterly out of my control.

Luckily, I already have an ideal shortlist in my own head, and I doubt that any of the three titles above would change that much.

If it were up to me, the shortlist would run like this:

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Not only is it spectacularly well-researched historical fiction; it also captures the spirit of eighteenth-century London, the dirt and the laughter and the skull beneath the skin.

 

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Sight, by Jessie Greengrass. Although it didn’t speak to me personally as strongly as I had hoped, it’s a very skillful piece of writing on very topical issues: motherhood, autonomy, bodies. I think it’s probably a strong contender for ultimate winner, actually.

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Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. The writing is powerful and muscular and sure of itself, and Mozley integrates the anger of Generation Rent with the anger of those pushed off the land from time immemorial. It’s not a long book, but make no mistake, it’s a heavyweight.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie. A spectacular, furious book about what it feels like to be pigeonholed, marginalised, and permanently suspected by your own country. It’s dramatic and relevant and although Shamsie’s writing doesn’t always do it for me, her vision and execution are consistent enough for this to deserve a place.

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The Trick to Time, by Kit de Waal. It’s on the second tier of this hoped-for shortlist – I don’t think it has the emotional punch or sophistication of Elmet or Sing, Unburied – but de Waal has a way of writing about people’s weaknesses that is unbearably moving, never sappy or saccharine.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. This is a very interesting paperback cover choice. It’s much more commercial; one of my colleagues initially thought it was YA. That might be smart on Bloomsbury’s part, because my money and my heart are both with Ward to win, and if she does, the general reader might want a cover that doesn’t hint too heavily at the elements of this book that are dark and knotty and Faulkner-esque (not so much in the style as in the themes).


As for who will ultimately win, there are really only two choices that will be completely satisfying: Elmet or Sing, Unburied, Sing. At a push, I would accept Sight‘s victory with equanimity. The others on the longlist are – most of them – good, but Mozley and Ward are in a league of their own: in terms of their skill with words and structure, in terms of their ability to develop characters into real-feeling people, and in terms of their level of intellectual engagement with the questions and problems their own books ask.

There are fewer books that I would actually kick and scream about seeing on the shortlist or winning, but Three Things About ElsieMiss Burma and Eleanor Oliphant would all, I’m afraid, be travesties. Elsie is heavy-handed with its moral; Miss Burma should not have been written as fiction in the first place, or else should have been written with greater dedication to fictionalising; and Eleanor Oliphant, while undeniably fun, relies heavily on some lazy generalisations about the behaviour of traumatised and autistic people (which it unfortunately tends to conflate). None of them ought to make the shortlist. I’d also be annoyed if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness made it, but that’s less because it’s substantially bad and more because it’s just a perfectly average book that happens to have been written by Arundhati Roy, and that’s not a good enough reason to shortlist anything.

Am I missing out on Batuman, Egan or Seiffert? Am I completely wrong about Mozley, or de Waal, or Greengrass, or Honeyman? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me otherwise.)

A full report from the shadow panel will be forthcoming after the weekend.

Reading Diary: Apr. 7-Apr. 14

32508630It’s been a long time since I read a book about which I feel so completely ambivalent as I do about Miss Burma. It is based on the lives of Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandmother, and opens with a prologue detailing the success of Louisa Bension (Craig’s mother) as a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant. The fact that she wins it, as the daughter of a Jewish man and a Karen (pronounced Kar-EN) minority woman, is held up by General Aung San as proof that the new independent Burmese regime, no longer under British rule after WWII, offers opportunities to members of all ethnic groups. Most of the rest of the book, however, is told in flashback; we go right back to the beginning of the marriage between Louisa’s parents, Khin and Benny, and follow them through Burma’s long civil war/genocide against the Karen people. Their marriage waxes and wanes; imprisonment, torture, and abandonment leave their mark on the relationship, which eventually deteriorates into mutual infidelities, mistrust, and coolness, even as Khin and Benny build a business empire together.

Like several other books on the Women’s Prize longlist (When I Hit You and, in some ways, Sight), Miss Burma makes more sense to me as creative non-fiction than as a novel. Craig is constrained by the events that actually occurred, and the work that she puts into characterising Khin and Benny early on comes to nothing when she skips several years in a single sentence and then presents us with characters who appear to have changed almost beyond recognition during that skipped time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen to traumatised people; it’s that if you want readers to believe your fiction, you need to show them some level of consistency. Biography and memoir, perversely, don’t require nearly as much verisimilitude: those genres, unlike fiction, do not need the reader to believe that things happened, because they can mobilise primary and secondary sources to prove what did. Meanwhile, the skip into Louisa’s point of view near the end is actually not as jarring as some reviews led me to believe, but her sections feel under-served: she gets far fewer pages than her parents, and the action stops at a point that, while not completely nonsensical, doesn’t feel obvious, either.

Thematically, Miss Burma is ambitious: the persecution of the Karens and the persecution of Jewish people around the world are linked by Benny’s decision to become a member of the Karens, irrevocably throwing his lot in with his wife’s people and putting a target on his own back during the genocide that follows the Second World War. Craig doesn’t follow this line of thought very closely, though; unlike Do Not Say We Have Nothing, another novel about how families splinter under political pressure, the big ideas aren’t seamlessly integrated into the plot, but rather are mentioned every few chapters by one character or another, presumably so that we don’t forget about them whilst reading about affairs or escapes through moonlit jungles. For readers who want their reading to teach them something, Miss Burma will probably be a hit; but such readers could have been just as well served with a biography/memoir blend. For others, including me, the book feels like something of a letdown, and it’s not at all clear why it should be on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781925498523I can’t remember now where I first read a review of The Trauma Cleaner, but it was so immediately fascinating that I determined to get my hands on a copy as soon as it was available in the UK. It is a non-fiction account of the life and work of an Australian woman named Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male, and who – after an extremely varied life – now runs a service called STC Cleaners. When a murder or a suicide occurs indoors; when someone dies and isn’t found for weeks; when social services has a hoarder on their hands: these are the times when Sandra’s team is called in. Police departments and paramedic teams do not provide cleaning services: they get folks like Sandra to do it for them.

This involves an incredible amount of patience, persistence, humanity, compassion, a blend of firmness and sweetness. That Sandra possesses these qualities makes her uniquely good at her job. Sarah Krasnostein, the journalist who wrote the book, follows her from case to case, noting the way that she talks down one client, a registered sex offender; bolsters another, a compulsive hoarder with three children who are no longer permitted to live with her; instantly wins the trust of another, an old woman who was once brilliant and now lives in a nest of old water bills and groceries liquefying inside the plastic bags they were bought in because she no longer has the energy to put them away. The gruesome details of the jobs that Sandra has taken on form part of the book’s appeal, of course, but so, in large part, do the psychological tactics that she adopts for each client. Much of what Sandra and her team are doing, Krasnostein notes, is acknowledging pain. No one becomes a compulsive hoarder, or dies alone in their flat of a drug overdose or a gunshot wound, without the push of serious mental suffering. Sandra sees that suffering, and does something about it.

The other half of the book, interwoven with the clients’ case studies, is Sandra’s own story of pain. Adopted as a baby boy by a couple in Victoria, Australia, she was immediately pushed aside when her adoptive parents realised they could still have their own biological children. She (at that point still a male, referred to in The Trauma Cleaner as Peter) suffered an abusive childhood, married – very young – a woman, had children with her, began visiting gay bars, was found out, left her family, and began living full-time as a woman. She supported herself mainly as a sex worker, and completed gender reassignment surgery in (I think) the ’80s. When she and another sex worker were assaulted and raped, she pressed charges; their rapist was not only tried, but convicted and imprisoned. Krasnostein impresses on the reader what a remarkable thing this was, how deeply unlikely that, in the cultural climate of Australia in the 1980s, a transgender prostitute might win a rape case. But Sandra did.

The only weakness of this book is that Krasnostein removes herself from it to an extent that makes little sense: she’s generally not a presence, which feels right, but occasionally interjects in the first person, in ways that suggest she might have an emotional connection to Sandra’s work that would have been worth sharing. (We learn, for instance, that her mother left the family when she was very young, leaving her with a permanent sense of abandonment.) The book started out as a long essay online, and perhaps could have used just a touch more rigour when being given a bigger skeleton. But it is engrossing and inspirational and quite beautiful; anyone who enjoyed The Fact of a Body would do well to get hold of The Trauma Cleaner.

coverAlthough it’s subtitled “Detective Stories From the World of Neurology”, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm, is really a series of case studies of epilepsy. “Detective stories” isn’t too far off, though: all stories of diagnosis are stories of detection (which is why House is so weirdly addictive, and also maybe why Hugh Laurie’s character in it has the substance abuse and anger management/personal life issues that we expect from our noir detectives; discuss.) In twelve chapters, each focusing on one of O’Sullivan’s patients, we get glimpses of epilepsy symptoms that are rare, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and sometimes not epilepsy at all. At the very least, Brainstorm is a very illuminating book about what seizures sometimes look like, and the ways in which they can be completely misinterpreted by the public. One of her patients, for instance, gets a kind of localised Tourette’s; his seizures involve swearing and spitting. If he has a seizure in public, he risks not only disapproval and embarrassment, but arrest. (I wanted more of this from O’Sullivan, actually. She doesn’t, for example, acknowledge that her black male patients face a much higher chance of being arrested, injured or killed for displaying abnormal social behaviour.)

As in The Trauma Cleaner, there is a certain level of voyeuristic fascination in O’Sullivan’s case studies that drives readerly interest. We learn about August, a bright young woman whose seizures make her compulsively bolt from rooms and across streets; Maya, an elderly Nigerian woman who suffers blackouts and sometimes finds herself miles from home; Wahid, whose family paid thousands to various local healers and pastors before his condition was diagnosed not as spirit possession but as epilepsy. O’Sullivan is simultaneously compassionate and objective about each of her patients: she clearly cares for their well-being, but also strives to view the evidence as thoroughly and impartially as possible. Her notes on the development of technology used in diagnosing neurological problems – CAT scans, MRI and fMRI machines, the merits and demerits of brain surgery – are informative, detailed and accessible. Sometimes there’s a slight stiffness to the prose, but she’s a doctor who writes, not a professional poet, and it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the book’s informativeness and optimistic outlook on the future of neurology.

9781408893302And back to fiction for the end of the week. Happiness is the first novel by Aminatta Forna that I have read, but on the basis of it, I’d like to read some of her earlier work. It reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (one of my most beloved books) and John Lanchester’s Capital: Forna melds observations about urban wildlife, and the irrational levels of fear and hate that city-dwelling humans direct towards animals, with wider commentary on the invisible interconnections of all the people who share space in a metropolis. There are two protagonists: Jean, an urban wildlife biologist whose marriage disintegrated because her husband wanted more of her time than she was willing or able to give, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works with international victims of war trauma. Attila is in London for a conference; Jean is there on a grant that sees her gathering data on urban foxes for Southwark Council. They meet cute(-ish), when Jean bumps into Attila on Waterloo Bridge, and continue to collide over the course of a week, as Attila tries to ease the demented old age of a former lover, Rosie, and to locate his missing nephew Tano, who fled his home in Elephant and Castle when his mother was wrongly detained on an immigration charge.

There is a rich history of London novels, and Forna draws on a lot of techniques that were first introduced by great writers like Dickens and Woolf, particularly the almost cinematographic sweep that plunges us from one mind or life into another. My favourite of these is when she tracks the movements of foxes. One of Jean’s study cohort is fed by a kitchen porter at the Savoy Hotel, who plays a part later in finding Tano; the leftovers that fox consumes originated in a meal which, Forna says in passing, now resides largely in the belly of a hedge fund manager, currently in a taxi heading west. It’s a nice sharp swoop, in and out, and it perfectly captures those interconnections that I mention above, and how, in a large city, it’s easy not to know those connections exist. The characters are also drawn with skill and compassion: Jean is like an older version of Rachel, the protagonist of The Wolf Border, in her passionate dedication and her bemusement at negative reactions to wildlife. Attila is one of the most embodied characters I’ve ever read: as a Guardian review says, we’re always aware of his size and height, the space he takes up, his love of dancing. The network of street sweepers and hotel doormen that the pair mobilise to spot foxes, and to find Tano, are given names and histories and tics. They feel like real people, reticent and flawed as real people sometimes are.

My only real complaint is the number of comma splices in my proof copy; there are dozens per page. Hopefully Forna’s proofreader is a bigger fan of the semicolon and the full stop. Other than that, Happiness is a brilliant spring read: colourful, detailed, hopeful, a breath of fresh air. (It also makes a good corollary to The Overstory.)

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A longer commute means more time to get through books! I’m finally working my way through spring proofs, and a recent spate of three-star reads is receding into the distance. Hooray.

Reading Diary: Mar. 25-Apr. 7

51vgjyqjsil-_sx324_bo1204203200_It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)

Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.

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The proof cover is nicer than the finished cover, IMO.

Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.

The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.

The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.

51hqy7tubclJodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.

The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.

61s7thv4z7lThe next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.

Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.

33229395The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.

This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.

Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.

Reading Diary: Mar. 18-Mar. 24

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f68b321b2-7061-11e7-8eac-856e9b33761e-1H(A)PPY, by Nicola Barker, is the second book I’ve read as part of the Women’s Prize Shadow Jury this year. It’s different in almost every conceivable way from most of the other Women’s Prize longlisted titles that I’ve read so far; primarily, as readers should by now expect from Barker, it’s much more formally challenging. Which is to say, H(A)PPY looks weird. Right from the start—as certain words are highlighted in blue, or red, or pink, or a slightly darker shade of pink—all the way through to the end, by which point the text is in a state of permanent breakdown, riddled with images and figures. (There is a magnificent page of a cathedral, of sorts, composed of typographical symbols; on another page, words appear to be literally floating in bubbles. Barker won the Goldsmiths Prize, which is awarded for the most formally inventive book of the year, but I reckon whoever did her typesetting ought to win some sort of award too.) The plot is minimal, but revolves around Mira A, an inhabitant of a utopian future Earth where The Young are cared for, and relentlessly surveilled, via The Information Stream and The Graph. (There are a Lot of Capitals. I am pretty sure they are Satirical.) Mira A’s brain, however, seems not to work seamlessly in conjunction with the Graph, and H(A)PPY is a story, ultimately, about what constitutes happiness, and what freedom. Into this fairly standard speculative plot is woven information about Augustín Barrios, a famed Paraguayan guitarist, to whose story Mira A—also a guitarist, of a sort, since she plays a perfected version of the instrument—is drawn.

I think I understand, in a general sense, what Barker is going for: an interrogation of the relationship between perfection and art, best represented by Mira A’s relationship with her instrument, as she tunes and untunes it, makes it imperfect and then perfects it again. (It’s this sort of behaviour that brings her to the attention of the authorities.) What I don’t quite understand is the evident disconnect between the formal inventiveness and the underlying ordinariness of the plot. It’s not a particularly interesting or unusual story: Helpless Rebel Cast Out Of Deceptive Utopia powers plots from Nineteen Eighty-Four through to The Matrix. (Candide might even qualify. Dicuss.) There are two questions a book has to answer to justify its existence: why this story, and why this way? Barker seems much more interested in the second question than in the first, and although her focus as an author is entirely her own prerogative, it gives the impression of there being a missing step, somewhere.

51z8wf6y64l-_sx321_bo1204203200_You know what it’s like when you’re happily munching away on a pastry, a muffin perhaps, and suddenly—unexpectedly—you hit a raisin? (Don’t @ me if you love raisins; maybe the equivalent scenario for you is a walnut in a brownie, or shredded coconut on a cake.) And you’re like Goddammit, this raisin has just ruined my bite, but you keep calm and remove the raisin and carry on eating the pastry. And then, not three chews later, there’s another bloody raisin, and now eating the muffin has become an exercise in wariness, but you can never be vigilant enough and every new raisin just knocks you for six all over again?

That’s what the experience of reading Greeks Bearing Gifts is like, except for raisins, substitute blink-inducing misogyny, fatphobia, and ageism.

I was sort of hoping that my first experience with a Philip Kerr novel was going to be completely great, á la Robert Harris, whose work I found surprisingly compelling last summer. Greeks Bearing Gifts is Kerr’s thirteenth thriller starring Bernie Gunther, an erstwhile—and reluctant—detective under the Nazis in Berlin (he does not like being reminded of this), now trying to go straight in post-war Europe. The plot of this one involves the theft of all the gold belonging to the Jewish population of Salonika in the ’40s, an insurance claim on a burned-out sailboat, and bribery and corruption at the highest levels of Greek and German government. It’s complicated, there’s a lot of double-crossing, and Kerr writes satisfyingly noir-ish dialogue, even if it does get a bit self-conscious at times. (Gunther is so relentlessly cynical that it borders on the parodic.) But the sexism! All female characters are described in terms of their sexual value to Gunther. If they are approximately his age or older, they are worthless; if they are ten years or more younger than he is, they are voluptuous, panting beauties. Women are also, apparently, liars (they can’t help it), and there’s one particularly nasty line about women being like tortoises (the punchline, in case you can’t work it out, has to do with being on your back). For a while I thought this must be meant as a sign of the times (the book is set in 1957), but it went on and on, and as it mostly comes from Gunther—a character we’re meant to see as a loveable anti-hero—it’s difficult to determine whether we’re to take it as his actual opinion, or as a kind of wry tongue-in-cheek attitude. Either way, asking a reader to overlook that aspect of Gunther’s character is asking a lot. Elli, the love interest (you will be pleased to learn that it all comes to naught), at one point tells Gunther how nice he is. Reader, he is not nice—and no, a fictional detective doesn’t need to be pleasant, but to be repeatedly informed, both explicitly and implicitly, that Gunther is merely a charming cynic is to feel that the book, and the author, are somehow gaslighting you. It’s not cool.

51dgrxyerhl-_sx304_bo1204203200_After the relentless masculinity of Bernie Gunther, Elizabeth J Church’s novel All the Beautiful Girls was something of a relief. Church tells the story of Lily Decker, who transcends a tragic childhood (parents die in a car accident; the aunt who raises her is cold and the uncle is a child molester) to become a high-earning showgirl in Las Vegas under the name Ruby Wilde. It’s a story with solid forward momentum: Lily’s childhood has left her vulnerable to predatory men, dependent on self-harm to quell the constant tide of shame and loathing inside her, and unable to trust the good intentions of her friends. With the help of the man who killed her parents – whose guilt is such that he provides for Lily as if she were his daughter – she begins to learn the consequences of abuse in childhood and to connect her trauma with her later behavior. Church’s writing isn’t quite strong enough for this to happen without all the seams showing; every time Lily has a moment of growth, it’s signposted, in case readers can’t see it on their own. The descriptions of Las Vegas in the ’70s, however, are great: the way it caters to middle America’s nostalgia for simpler times, the glitter and the glamour masking a culture stubbornly unwilling to engage with the pace of social change. The sorority of showgirls is especially well drawn; Lily’s friends, Vivid and Rose, sometimes feel more believable than she does.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A slow week, not helped by the enormity of Greeks Bearing Gifts and my reluctance with it. Still trying to balance proofs with Women’s Prize reading, too.