2016’s Dishonourable Mentions

I was really lucky with my reading this year. Maybe it’s because as I get older, I have a better sense of what I’m going to like; maybe it’s the opposite and I’m just developing the ability to appreciate a wider range of writing. Whatever the reason, most of the books I read this year were not just good but really good, worth rereading at the very least—even the ones that didn’t make my Best Of Year list. But…no year is perfect. Here are the few books that just completely misfired for me in 2016. (This is all, of course, highly personal and subjective. What didn’t work for me may work brilliantly for you! And vice versa. I’ll still try to explain, succinctly, why I felt these books faltered, but don’t feel you need to take my word for it. All links are to my reviews, if you want to read more.)

the-expatriates

The Expatriates, by Janice Lee

What’s it about? The intertwined lives of three women living in Hong Kong: Hilary Starr, the childless stay-at-home-wife of an expat lawyer; Margaret Reade, whose youngest child went missing last year; and Mercy Cho, the childminder who was meant to be looking after the lost boy at the time of his disappearance.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.”

9780804141321Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

What’s it about? It’s the second entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which novelises and updates some of the Bard’s most famous plays. Jacobson resets The Merchant of Venice in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, throwing celebrity footballers into the mix.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though [the characters] Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.”

ten daysTen Days, by Gillian Slovo

What’s it about? The development of riots over the course of ten days in south London, as a result of a death in police custody. There are some clear parallels to the Tottenham riots of 2011.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.”

9781408862445The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

What’s it about? A down-on-her-luck woman working as a private chef finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone from a Saudi sheik to a shady art dealer decides they want it.

Why didn’t it work? From my Superlatives post: “It’s a sweet idea but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like ‘I will’ or ‘You do not”, instead of ‘I’ll’ or ‘You don’t’. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last.”

51n8dqdd2wlRaw Spirit, by Iain Banks

What’s it about? Banks, a famous science fiction writer but also a well-known lover of whisky, takes a road trip with several of his old drinking buddies to visit, and sample the wares of, every single-malt distillery in Scotland.

Why didn’t it work? From my #20booksofsummer roundup: “This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. …There were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger.”

9781784630485The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

What’s it about? Timothy buys an abandoned fishing cottage in a tiny Cornish village and sets out to restore it, temporarily leaving his wife behind in London. But the village has its own secrets: the fate of the man who lived in the cottage before Timothy, the bizarrely etiolated fish being pulled from the sea, the identity of the mysterious grey-coated woman who buys every catch…

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves. It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!”

c836babd417bc41a990f6a706700b1b5Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

What’s it about? The supposedly non-fictional (but, thank heavens, clearly actually fictional) account of an alcoholic Irishman who, after years of recreational cruelty to women, gets a taste of his own medicine.

Why didn’t it work? A lot of reasons, but this, from my review, might give you a clue: “The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to.”

51fxpzhkbwlThe Countenance Divine, by Michael Hughes

What’s it about? In 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of British millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666).

Why didn’t it work? From my monthly Superlatives post: “The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.”

9781784630850The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

What’s it about? A debut collection of fantastical short stories focusing on transformation, metamorphosis, and literal and figurative identity.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all. …The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.”

Did you read any of these this year? What did you think of them? Am I a lunatic fool for missing the point of The Many? Am I a horrid killjoy for wanting to roll my eyes on every page of The Improbability of Love? Let me know…

02. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

lacunaWhere I read it: sitting up in bed late at night, trying to make myself tired enough to go to sleep.

Part of the Women’s Prize project that I’ve set myself, as well as one of my 20 Books of Summer, The Lacuna was Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel for a decade when it was published in 2009; it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010. It positions itself as the biography of a mid-century Mexican-American novelist, Harrison Shepherd, curated from his extensive diaries and letters (with some gaps filled in) by his former secretary and best friend, Violet Brown. Shepherd is mostly raised in Mexico, and spends his early adulthood as cook and secretary in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; when Trotsky comes to stay with them, Shepherd becomes his employee too, developing a personal history which will have repercussions in the paranoid Communist-hunting climate of 1950s America.

The good things: It’s about all of Shepherd’s life, not just the time he spends with Kahlo and Rivera and Trotsky. He’s not made into a Forrest Gump character. For one thing, he’s not an innocent joe (read: blank canvas) touched by history; he has his own background and childhood, which shape him profoundly, even before he gets to the artists. His mother is simultaneously a product of her time and an individual, her choices scarring little Shepherd even while he develops a sort of affectionate disdain for her. The same is true of Frida, Diego and Lev (as he comes to know them): they’re fleshed-out people, not just the giants history knows them as. The descriptions of Mexico–its geography, food, dances, people, politics–are vivid and almost tangible. Kingsolver introduces Shepherd’s homosexuality subtly, and starts early: he’s only nine or ten when he starts noticing their cook, which is exactly right, I think, for the first inklings of sexuality. (So often novels seem to portray sexuality as something that only happens once you turn thirteen. Mais non.) And the horror of the 1950s Communist witch hunts is made manifest; it’s so easy to forget that it really affected people, changed their entire lives.

Less good things: It’s so long. I get that some of this is necessary; it is, after all, someone’s whole life, relatively short though it was. And now that I think of it, none of the book seems random or not meant to be there. There’s just a lot of it. It’s like looking back at a binge-watched Netflix series; when you remember something that happened in episode 2, it seems like an awfully long way away, even if it’s relevant to what’s happening in episode 12. More importantly, a reviewer when it was originally published accused Kingsolver of being morally heavy-handed in the later sections, and I think they were right. That’s the risk that you take, of course, as a political novelist, or a moral one, which I think Kingsolver is. She uses fiction to prod at the conscience, showing us the consequences of jingoism and judgement in one person’s life. That’s no bad thing to be doing as a writer; it’s just difficult to do it in a way that doesn’t make you seem to be shouting.

I’ve liked Kingsolver’s work for a long time–I read The Bean Trees and her essay collection Small Wonder in high school, and The Poisonwood Bible earlier this year. I’d like to read Prodigal Summer next; it’s set in the Appalachia of my childhood, and The Lacuna has given me every reason to keep trusting her writing.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (London: Faber, 2009)

01. The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Memory
Experimenting with using my own photos for 20 Books of Summer…

Where I read it: on the Tube to see my friend Ollie at the National Portrait Gallery this weekend; on the couch at home with a coffee.

I’m trialling a new, briefer, more scattergun approach to reviewing with the 20 Books of Summer. Since I don’t have anyone to answer to (neither editors nor publicists) regarding these, I can be a little looser with my impressions, and perhaps shorter, too. Anyway, The Book of Memory: in summary, an albino black woman on death row in Zimbabwe for murdering the white man that she lived with writes her version of the story.

It was longlisted for the Baileys Prize, but it didn’t make the shortlist, and I can kind of see why. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the writing: it’s precise, limpid, descriptive but not florid. There is a certain stiffness to the dialogue, though, and I suspect Gappah is attempting to mask that by not having very many dialogue scenes. Memory, or Memo, does a lot of remembering, but it’s mostly of the diffuse “we used to do this as children; our house looked like that; we would often go to so-and-so” variety. The actual, pinned-down flashback scenes are infrequent.

This probably contributes to the other problem I had with The Book of Memory: the characters are ciphers. Or maybe “symbols” would be a better word. Memory doesn’t have a very consistent personality; we see flashes of it, like when she defiantly informs the pious lady visitor from the Goodwill Fellowship that what she misses most about life outside of prison is “a good hard fuck”. Or when she assesses herself at seventeen as a Catholic schoolgirl blinkered by dogmatism. But mostly she’s just a lens. Lloyd, the white man who adopts her (well—he buys her, but their relationship is parental, not sexual), is the same. We’re told he’s a very kind man, but we don’t see him actually doing much for most of the book. Nor do we get a sense of their relationship as it developed in real time. Memory is constantly analyzing, but she’s analyzing material that Gappah doesn’t actually give her readers access to. We’re told what to make of experiences that Memo has had, but we don’t have any context for them. It’s difficult to describe the effect, but once you notice it, you can’t get around the challenge it presents. You could argue, I suppose, that this kind of withholding makes the novel more realistic, but it doesn’t make it particularly satisfying. And it doesn’t happen with the kind of regularity or emphasis that would suggest it’s deliberate.

I’m told that Gappah’s first book, the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly, is outstanding, and that I should have read it first. I’d still like to read it; a lot of the problems I had with The Book of Memory can be categorised as formal shortcomings. I suspect a story collection might give Gappah a better chance to show off her strengths.

The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah (London: Faber, 2015)

April Superlatives

April was a shockingly good month for reading: I finished sixteen books. Chunking four books from my TBR at a time seems to really work! On the downside, I’ve realized that I have so many books requested from publishers to review that it’s been impossible to review anything that I’ve read outside of that. I’m going to cut down severely on publisher requests after next month (not much I can do about it now because May’s pre-pubs have already been sent to me)–but focusing on the books I really want to read, as opposed to the books I think I might as well accept for review, is something I’m looking forward to.

most thought-altering: Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall. A genuine dystopia, for once (people tend to use the word when they mean “post-apocalyptic” or even just “bad”, but Hall’s novel really does feature a repressive, terrifying government, one that tries to control the population by forcibly implanting coils in all women of reproductive age.) The story of our heroine’s escape, life on a rebel collective, and eventual militarization is fascinating, disturbing, and totally up-ends the things you think you believe about human behaviour.

best UK publishing debut: Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. A collection of short stories that utterly blew me away, each one perfect and containing a novel’s worth of emotion and development in a tiny space. It feels like such a cliché to call them “gem-like”, but that’s the word my brain wants to use. Buy it and read it, and buy Clarke’s next book too.

most unexpected surprise:  A Month With Starfish, Bev Jackson’s memoir of her month spent on Lesbos volunteering to aid refugees. It’s such a humane and generous book, making both the refugees and the volunteers real people, instead of nameless, faceless statistics or stories on the news. Really worth reading if you can get hold of it; it’s £6.99 on Kindle.

616x947xthe-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-616x947-pagespeed-ic-cxsu-ymagi

most thoroughly comforting, a warm bath of a book: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Oh how I loved this. There’s an interspecies lesbian romance, a human with dwarfism in love with an AI, plenty of fascinating galactic diversity, and a basically happy ending. It’s written with utter control and limpidity, and it made me happy like a good ensemble-cast TV show makes you happy. [insert Firefly reference here]

best thriller: The Turning Tide, by Brooke Magnanti. Complex thriller from former escort Belle du Jour, whose Diary of a London Call Girl was my guilty pleasure throughout university (but especially just before Mods.) It turns out she can write fiction, too. Maybe a little too complex (there are several different plot strands, not all obviously related), but I enjoyed it hugely; it’s topical, political, and socially aware.

best teenager: The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney. Five people in Cork’s criminal underbelly–a gangster, his mother, a prostitute, a teenage drug dealer, and his alcoholic dad–are connected over the years. On the shortlist for the Baileys Prize and I’m hoping it wins. Ryan Cusack is the best, most complicatedly believable teenager that I’ve read for years.

most disillusioning: The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton. Two best friends are awful to each other at boarding school, then must reconcile 18 years later. You will never look at boarding schools the same way again.

ursual-k-leguin-a-wizard-of-earthsea-bantam-cover-illustrated-by-pauline-ellison

party I was late to: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Deservedly a classic. It’s written in quite a portentous, old-fashioned style, but the story of Ged, who needs to learn the limits and responsibilities of his immense power, is never going to get old. And yes, I object to the erasure/belittling of women’s magic, but. It’s still a good book. I read the other two in the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, at the start of the bank holiday weekend. Their ethos is one of balance and goodness and maintaining equilibrium, and it’s really quite beautiful.

true love: Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I love her. I love her frightening, visual imagination, and the way motherhood repels her as well as attracting her, and I love how she wrote through madness. I just love her. The end. (I’ve mentioned before that someone should set “Daddy” to music, and I’ll say it again. Same goes for “Tulips”, I think.)

most evocative: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan.  In the grip of a global winter, a lost young man, a single mother, and a transitioning teenager find friendship and love with each other in a Scottish caravan park. Fagan is good on atmosphere and the effect is quite lovely, although the book as a whole feels anti-climactic somehow.

most engrossing: I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in two days, glued to the sofa and twiddling my hair breathlessly through most of a Saturday.  I’ve always loved Kingsolver, but this novel–the one that made her name, about an evangelical missionary’s family in the Congo in 1959–is really something else. Transcendent, and highly recommended.

ruby

most disturbing: Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, a tale of Satanism and the rape and murder of children in East Texas. It is beautiful and moving but it is also incredibly dark. Also, if you are a woman, you may have difficulty trusting any men at all for up to forty-eight hours after reading it. Sorry. (Also, Becoming/Unbecoming, a graphic novel memoir by an artist called Una about growing up in Yorkshire under the shadow of the Ripper murders. It’s about so much more than that, too; it’s about what happens when a culture hates women, and thinks they deserve all the violence meted out to them. I am very glad it is not the 1970s anymore, although I’m sanguine about the amount of hatred and violence that remains.)

most formally playful: The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker, is a fragmented novel that explores the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a late nineteenth-century Indian guru who was thought to be God. It’s a very self-aware, constructed novel, and its reputation preceded it, so I expected it to be deeply annoying. Instead, it was very amusing and a little disturbing, shaking your ideas about how the public performance of faith works. Good stuff.

up next: After the bank holiday, I’ll need to read Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils, from ONE Pushkin, to review (it’s supposedly a combination of Mormons and motorcycles). I’ve also got Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters lined up for soon afterwards.