08. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

51vdoyi9zgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s really hard to sum up The Bedlam Stacks. We start in 1859. Merrick Tremayne used to smuggle plants out of colonial Asia for the East India Company, but now, thanks to a badly injured leg, he has been sent home to Cornwall. He is quietly stewing in the family manse, relegated to a bedroom at the top of three flights of stairs despite his injury and unable to do anything at all without the approval of his older brother, when he receives a letter: the East India Company wants him back. Malaria is on the rise in India, and it’s bringing down too many colonial administrators; there is a way of treating it, with quinine, but the supply is tightly controlled. Merrick’s job is to find a rumoured forest of cinchona trees, from which quinine is made, in the highlands of Peru; he is to take cuttings from the plants and bring them back to London, so that the East India Company can grow its own supply. Initially dubious, he is convinced to take the job by an old friend, Clem, and Clem’s wife Minna, both of whom will be accompanying him. But the situation in Peru is far stranger than Merrick imagines: his guide, Raphael, is a Catholic priest, but rumours swirl around him of stone saints and mysterious wild men, and an uncrossable border in the forest…

There’s also a city perched on a natural bridge spanning a river, the columns of stone criss-crossed with streams of obsidian from an ancient volcanic eruption, so that sunshine on the river is refracted by the glass, causing the water to boil. There’s luminescent pollen that infuses a whole rainforest. There’s irresistibly funny dialogue, first between Merrick and Clem and then between Merrick and Raphael; both friendships are fractious, but witty. In fact, the relationships between all of the characters are so convincing, and so endearing, that I kept imagining the book as a mini-series, something cast and shot with the same sort of mindset that produced the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Pulley excels at creating a sense of the alien, and because the book is set in 1859, there is a sense of slippage between the merely foreign and the truly supernatural; the mysteriousness of The Bedlam Stacks is that, for a long time, the reader is never sure whether the oddness Merrick encounters is just a result of the limitations of mid-Victorian knowledge. I described it earlier as part David Mitchell, part Haruki Murakami; like those writers, Pulley’s version of the fantastical is a kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncanniness. That her book understands the political ramifications of the phenomena it describes, particularly when its characters belong to an era and nation convinced of its own right to commit rapacious conquest, brings me back to comparisons with Strange and Norrell, though I think, like Clarke, Pulley could have committed herself more thoroughly to exploring the power dynamics that she draws attention to. Perhaps most to the point is the fact that I simply could not put The Bedlam Stacks down: it’s suspenseful, the writing is more than competent, the jokes land every time. Really marvelous.

05. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood

a-station-on-the-path-to-somewhere-better-9781471126741_hrThe back cover of my proof of this doesn’t give much away: merely the names and relationship of our two protagonists, Francis and Daniel Hardesty, father and son, and the promise of a road trip that ends in an explosion of violence, which continues to haunt Daniel twenty years after the fact. Given the road trip element of the book, I was expecting a darker version of Let Go My Hand. What I got was, indeed, dark, but there is no question of redemption or forgiveness in A Station On the Path… In Francis Hardesty, a man whose temper, capacity for manipulation, and sense of entitlement drive him ever further towards acts of intimidation and murder, Benjamin Wood has created the scariest literary father since Daddy, of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, or Martin Alveston of My Absolute Darling.

It’s not particularly easy to talk about this book in a critical way without some significant plot spoilers, so if you intend to read it and you don’t want to know specifically what happens, look away! If you don’t think you’ll read it but you want my opinions on it anyway, for some reason, or if you don’t mind knowing some details of the promised violence before opening the book, read on.

Wood effectively creates a manipulative, shitty ex-husband and self-centered absentee father in Francis Hardesty; the opening pages, where he arrives to collect Daniel for a road trip whose purpose is, for a while, unclear, cement his unreliability in our minds. The fact that Daniel’s mother doesn’t trust him to enter the house speaks volumes. There’s a bit of heavy-handed retrospection as they drive away: “That was the last time I saw her,” Daniel tells us, narrating from the future. Several more of these ominous sentences are scattered through the book; it’s not the gravest of authorial sins, but it’s never been a strategy I particularly like. If you’re going to foreshadow, do it implicitly. Otherwise, build an atmosphere of menace and let that do the talking.

The atmosphere of menace is, in itself, top-notch. Daniel and Francis are driving towards Leeds, where Francis is a carpenter on a television show called The Artifex, about the friendship between a young boy and a strange woman who says she’s an alien, but who may just be mad. (More of this parallel wouldn’t have gone amiss: the point is that the show is about not just the line between reality and fantasy, but that between fantasy and insanity. That line is one that Francis Hardesty tightrope-walks for the first half of the book, then falls off of spectacularly in the second half. If we take the metaphor at face value, though, it pushes us towards the interpretation that Francis is deceiving himself as much as he deceives his son and everyone who comes into his orbit. That would make him a pitiful figure, but he is instead terrifying, capable of inventing a complicated lie within seconds and always poised to verbally or physically attack the skeptical. He is not insane; he is abusive.) As inconsistencies mount up – Francis keeps them in a pub waiting for a contact instead of taking them straight to the studio; the contact is very late; the initial approach to the studio is furtive and, ultimately, unsuccessful – Daniel becomes aware that his father is not just unreliable, but teetering on the brink of something that cannot be walked back from. Because the reader lacks Daniel’s need for love and acceptance from Francis (and is also an adult, not a child), we’ve come to this realisation earlier, but watching Daniel get there is nail-biting.

If I have a major issue with A Station On the Path, it’s that it seems to be reaching for a moral weight with which to invest its horrors that doesn’t appear warranted. Francis Hardesty murders four people and himself. Whether he does it because of deep-seated psychotic rage, a sense of entitlement, a combination of the two, or something else entirely isn’t ever made clear, and doesn’t really need to be. There’s a final section where we see Daniel as an adult, with a beloved partner, and realise that the book has been driving, all along, towards the question of whether he can bear to be a father, whether it is irresponsible for him to taint a child with the bloodline of a mass murderer. That is a weighty moral issue, and had Wood spent longer in that place, narratively, it would have made more sense. But as it is, the bulk of the book is spent describing the horrible events of the past, and there can be no particular reason to treat those events as though they’re special. Angry men kill people all the time. If Wood had let Daniel acknowledge the sheer banality of his father’s evil, it would have made for a stronger book.

Reading Diary: all the stuff that’s not #20booksofsummer

Believe it or not, I have been reading things that aren’t #20booksofsummer, and I’m reliably informed that some people miss the reading diary format. So here’s a longer roundup post for y’all; I’ll continue to write reviews that count towards the challenge as individual posts.

35207298Femme noir beach read, I see you! I see you so hard! Sunburn is Laura Lippman’s latest book, and given how minutely it dissects the ways in which men can be manipulated by women using patriarchal entitlement as a weapon, it’s the closest thing I’ve read to a successor to Gone Girl. Our protagonist, Polly, has walked out on her dying marriage to Gregg and her toddler daughter, Jani. We first meet her in a bar in Belleville, Delaware, a nowhere-town that comes to life only during beach tourist season. She soon takes up with Adam, a regular at the bar who quickly becomes the chef, but Adam is hardly an ideal summer fling: he’s a private investigator who’s been hired to find her, by someone who’s not Gregg. Meanwhile, Polly is trying to keep more than one layer of secrets about her past under wraps… It’s been two and a half weeks (?) since I read this, and honestly, much of the plot has already left my head (though I can at least recall that it’s got insurance fraud and arson). The reason to read it is Polly, who can twist men (always men; women never like her) around her little finger, but who has also had such a rough shake from life that the more we learn about her, the more we think she deserves whatever she can garner for herself. Lippman’s plotting sags a little in the third quarter, but the tightness of the denouement makes up for it. This should be at the top of the stack of paperbacks next to your sun lounger.

9781509818402The Wonder is not a book that fears to wear its allegiance on its sleeve: its central character, Lib Wright, is a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who has seen active service in the Crimea, and she is intellectually dedicated to the rigours of the scientific method. She is therefore both uniquely prepared for, and uniquely disadvantaged to play, the role that she takes on at the start of the book: to keep a two-week, twenty-four-hour watch on a young Irish girl who claims to have been living on air (or, as she puts it, “manna from heaven”) for the last four months. Ireland in the 1880s is still so deeply enmeshed in the twin grips of rural poverty and the Catholic Church that Lib finds herself totally alone in her skepticism: the local priest, Mr. Thaddeus, waits for proof of a miracle, while the half-cracked elderly village doctor is convinced that Anna represents the first step in humanity’s evolution into something superhuman (“perhaps reptilian”, he suggests). It’s only when Mr. Byrne, a journalist from Dublin, enters the village that Lib has an ally, but time is running out for Anna… The Wonder isn’t perfect; Donoghue hammers home the price of superstition, making even supposedly educated people into credulous caricatures. The ending, too, although deeply satisfying in a certain emotional sense, is a little neat. The chances of a happy ending to this sort of story are so slim, after all. What saves the book from mawkishness is Donoghue’s ability to get us desperately invested in the truth: as Rebecca rightly notes, the geographical isolation of the setting makes The Wonder almost a locked-room mystery, and the satisfaction of figuring it out is compelling.

9781408880364At a christening party in Los Angeles, Albert Cousins kisses his host’s wife. What might have been a mildly embarrassing social faux pas becomes much more when Beverly Keating divorces her husband and marries Bert, moving across the country to live with him in Northern Virginia, nearer his parents. Complicating the situation are Bert’s and Beverly’s children, a multifarious brood who sometimes get along, sometimes don’t. A tragic accident one summer haunts the whole extended family; years later, Franny Keating, whose christening party was the scene of the initial forbidden kiss, is grown up and working as a cocktail waitress, having dropped out of law school. At the bar where she works, she meets Leon Posen, a Great American Writer clearly imagined in the vein of Roth or Bellow. Her family’s story becomes the plot of Posen’s comeback novel, and the repercussions of this second betrayal follow her and her siblings for decades to come. Ann Patchett’s grasp of family dynamics and the way people speak to each other is majestic; Commonwealth has a large cast of characters, complexly interrelated, but for the most part Patchett keeps them all clearly differentiated. The book is an exploration of what families owe to one another, and of where, if anywhere, the boundaries of “family” can be drawn. Franny and Posen’s long-term relationship is drawn exceptionally well: a long chapter during which friends from the publishing industry impose on Franny’s hospitality for weeks at a time reveals so much about the inequalities of age, wealth, and social capital that will eventually capsize their lives together. I’d rather read Patchett on dysfunctional families than Franzen, any day: she’s funnier, and kinder.

91yjoatbknlThe Burning Chambers is brain candy, there can be no question, but it’s the sort of brain candy that does you no harm. It is set during sixteenth-century France’s Wars of Religion, in the old medieval town of Carcassonne and in the city of Toulouse. Although religious conflict does play a role in the plot, the real story is about the heritage of our heroine Minou. (This, I am told, is the equivalent of naming an English character “Pussy”, with all of the same connotations. Whoops.) She is a classic romantic-adventure protagonist: gutsy and morally sound without being moralising, remarkably openminded regarding an individual’s freedom to worship as they see fit, bookish but not intellectual, and possessed of a single defining physical characteristic (mis-matched eyes. Her love interest, Piet Reydon, has another standard iteration of this: red hair.) Minou and Piet are caught up in the machinations of the evil cleric Valentin, once Piet’s best friend at university, now a zealot whose interest in maintaining the iron grip of Catholicism is motivated less by religious passion than by a lust for worldly power. He all but rubs his hands together and cackles, á la Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (He also has one distinguishing feature, a streak of white in an otherwise-black head of hair.) And Valentin is entangled with a woman who has never met Minou, but who, for reasons we slowly come to learn, wants her dead. It all sounds quite ridiculous and indeed, it is—the denouement, which involves an enormous pyre in the middle of a mountain forest, becomes almost farcical as various characters run in and out of the scene—but it works. Mosse keeps all of her plates spinning, never seeming to lose each character’s place in the plot; her action scenes are exciting and fast-paced, just begging the eye to fly down the page; and she’s done her research. Minou’s politics might be conveniently progressive, but sixteenth-century Carcassonne comes to life in Mosse’s brisk but detailed prose.

51qzl0d3hbl-_sx308_bo1204203200_“Progressive” is not the word anyone would use to describe the politics of the characters in Cressida Connolly’s After the Party. Focalised through the memories of one woman, Phyllis Forrester, the book is a dissection of the Sussex “county set” in the late 1930s, and particularly of the upper-middle-class people who believed passionately in the values being preached by the British Union of Fascists. The word “fascist” is never used; nor are the names of Oswald Mosley or Diana Mitford, as far as I could see, but that is, self-evidently, who and what they are. The book’s marketing is slightly misleading, in that it emphasises a tragic death that occurs after a party held by a local couple, and Phyllis’s sense of responsibility for it; that event does have some significance, but it is not the reason why she goes to prison, which is the other thing that we know about almost from the outset. What Connolly seems to be doing—and it’s not at all clear to me whether she means to do this or not—is inculcating in the reader a sense of sympathy for the average British fascist, the sort of people whose analogues in Nazi Germany were spending these years “just following orders”.

Although I had no idea that members of the Union were interned in the early 1940s without trial or explanation—and although that is a horrifying thought, particularly as many of those imprisoned were profoundly low-level and did little more than file reports or make tea, while far more senior organisers and theorisers were left alone—there is something about the very attempt to make British fascism palatable, or understandable, or even mildly sympathetic, that I pull strongly against. It does not advance the cause of global peace and dignity, in these days, to dehumanise your opponents; I understand that, and I appreciate that Phyllis is so very human a character, slightly weak, slightly bored, clinging to fascism well after it’s fashionable because without it, all the losses of her life will have been for nothing. But I am very wary of what a conservative or right-wing book review page (The Spectator, perhaps) could do with After the Party, very wary of anything that lends itself to the interpretation that we should all hug a fascist. The past eighteen months have made it abundantly clear that Phyllis Forrester’s time is not over and gone; last Sunday, supporters of Tommy Robinson marched in London; and to ask one group of people to try and understand the humanity of another group that refuses to extend that same dignity to them is revolting and absurd. That’s not to say that those adjectives apply to After the Party—it’s an extremely nuanced novel, and literature abounds with protagonists whose personal convictions the reader finds appalling (Humbert Humbert, anyone?)—but it is, without a doubt, a book that could only have been conceived and written in this particular way by someone in a position of significant relative privilege.

36237273From boom times to penury: The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware’s latest novel, opens on our protagonist Harriet—known as Hal—trudging through rain and wind with a fish and chips she can’t really afford under her arm. Hal does tarot readings on Brighton pier: she inherited the booth from her mother, who died in a hit-and-run accident three years ago. Now twenty-one, Hal has unwisely taken money from a local loan shark, and is in desperate need of three thousand pounds before his steel-toed-boot-wearing enforcers come around. So when a case of mistaken identity results in a letter from a lawyer’s office in Penzance, referring to her as the beneficiary of her grandmother’s will, she decides she might as well use her cold-reading techniques to see what she can get. When it turns out that the bequest isn’t just a few thousand pounds, but most of the estate, Hal realises she has two choices: confess now, or stay in it for the long haul. She chooses, of course, the latter, but things at Trepassen aren’t what they seem, and she finds herself unraveling a conspiracy of silence that stretches back decades. This is the first of Ruth Ware’s novels that I’ve read (a shocking admission given how well they go down at Heywood Hill), and it’s highly impressive. It’s so easy to lose the thread of thriller plotting, particularly when your subgenre is psychological intrigue, where so many of the significant plot points happen inside characters’ heads, but Ware never does: there’s always that sense of forward momentum, no scenes that feel like they’re treading water. Tarot, and the interplay between superstition, fate, and self-determination, is woven through the book: is life something Hal can navigate for herself, or does the past determine the present? Ware deals with these questions subtly, and creates a protagonist whose constant calculations are made necessary and sympathetic by the precariousness of her situation. Very good stuff indeed.

Thoughts on recent reading: All female authors, all highly readable, and a surprising recurrence of themes around lost or thwarted heritage. Quite pleased with the summer’s start.

04. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas

41hq1jsvw3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_Damian Le Bas grew up around the Hampshire-Sussex border; he name-checks Petersfield on the first page, which is where my grandparents live and where I spent my summers from the age of seven onwards. Le Bas’s childhood, however, was spent selling flowers at the market there, and bombing around the countryside with various uncles and cousins, working on construction projects. He comes from a family of Travellers, or Gypsies, or Romanies—he uses the word Gypsy of himself and of people he knows, although my understanding is that for gorjies (outsiders), using either “Traveller” or “Romany” is less likely to give offense. He doesn’t, however, look particularly like a Traveller; he is light-skinned, fair-haired, blue-eyed. His education also marks him out: he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital as a schoolboy, and went on to study theology at Oxford. Like many people whose life has taken them to places their early childhood never hinted at, Le Bas has anxieties about his identity, about what he can call himself and how to reconcile his heritage with the endless comments of “you don’t look like a Gypsy”. To that end, he decides to spend some time driving around Britain in search of atchin tans or stopping places: spots that traditional Traveller families knew as good sites to camp or to halt at, temporarily, on the road.

Despite Le Bas’s reminiscences of his childhood, the resulting book is really much more a travelogue than a memoir. His wife, Candis, for instance, appears regularly—she joins him for some of the later legs of his journey—but we don’t really get a sense of her as a personality, nor of how they met and entered into a relationship with each other. They seem not to speak much while they’re on the road, and he only rarely describes any particular feelings towards her; she’s just sort of there. Perhaps this is to free up space to talk about the atchin tans, which are interesting, although for at least the book’s first half there is a strong suggestion that the whole thing might end in failure: Le Bas finds himself unmoved by many of the stopping places he first visits, and there are several dark nights of the soul where he ponders why he’s making these trips in the first place. The reader could be forgiven for wondering the same thing.

Fortunately, after a trip to France to join in the Continental Gypsy pilgrimage to the shrine of St Sara-la-Kali, emotional engagement seems to kick in. Le Bas’s descriptions of Appleby horse fair, past and present, constitute some of the best and most evocative passages in the book. He’s also skilled at evoking the world of Traveller masculinity and honour, the rigid codes that govern a society that only appears free-wheeling to outsiders. But the most effective elements of The Stopping Places are Le Bas’s conversations with his indomitable grandmother, who grew up one of ten children in a world where Travellers still used wagons (they’re mostly in caravans or bungalows now): her retelling of her memories functions as a kind of oral history project. There’s too much in the way of regurgitated itinerary, and we don’t get to participate in Le Bas’s emotions and thought processes nearly as much as we ought; instead we’re mostly relegated to passive recipients of what he informs us he is thinking and feeling. But the fact that I can think of no other currently published mainstream book about Traveller life and culture is indicative of The Stopping Places‘ significance. It’s certainly a tantalising beginning.

03. May, by Naomi Kruger

38748440May is a novel about dementia. There have been a few of them recently, most notably Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon and Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey. A protagonist whose memory is addled by old age is a smart choice for a writer to make in a literary environment that remains obsessed with, among other things, the unreliable (and usually female) narrator. You cannot get much less reliable than a dementia patient. Every author who makes that choice, however, must then contend with an implicit charge of exploitation: dementia is not a personality trait, but an illness, and one that can cause emotional trauma to both the person who has it and the people that love the patient. How do you write about someone caught in the grip of that fatal confusion without making the reader’s interest in the terrible minutiae feel prurient? And how do you make your character’s illness integral to the mystery (because dementia novels, like all novels about memory, are fundamentally mysteries) in a way that doesn’t read as cynical? How, in other words, do you avoidwriting tragedy porn?

Kruger’s answer is, in part, to focalise the novel through characters other than May herself. Although the back cover says that the book is set over the course of a single day, chapters flash back to 1957 and forward to 2007, told by May’s husband Arthur, daughter Karen, grandson Alex, and carer Afsana. Each of these people, of course, has their own story. Through them, the reader tries to unravel May’s obsession, in her care home in 2000, with a mysterious red-haired boy who might be a figure from her past or might be a figment of her imagination. It’s unfortunate, given the title of the book, that the character and narrative arc I found most compelling wasn’t May’s at all; it was that of Afsana, her caretaker, whose background is revealed to us slowly and subtly, and is all the scarier for that. There is a whole novel – a longer and more interesting novel, actually – in Afsana, a girl of mixed Anglo-Pakistani heritage whose white English mother and devout Muslim father both seem keen to keep her in her place; who grasps at freedom when it’s offered her, despite the fact that it comes in the form of her geography teacher when she is only seventeen; whose marriage to that teacher has not only isolated her from her family, but has failed to provide her with support and understanding in return for what she has lost. It is extremely impressive that Kruger manages to convey this entire backstory without ever saying any of it out loud: we learn everything from small details of gesture and address and brief flashes of memory. But the technical skill with which she constructs Afsana’s story makes it all the more disappointing that it is clearly designed as a supporting narrative to the main tale of May, her family, and the mystery of the red-haired boy.

That mystery isn’t much of a one, and it’s resolved in the final few pages in a way that feels perfunctory. The fragmentation of May’s narrative voice on the page – her sections are typeset in a manner that recalls the poetry of e.e. cummings – does what it’s meant to do, in that it is a physical manifestation of her crumbling psyche, but since playful typography is a literary technique at least two hundred and fifty years old, it can’t really carry the weight of the whole book. What we are left with is the love of May and Arthur, which is sweet but doesn’t have any peculiarities in it that make it seem the natural focus of a story, and the question of whether Alex will ever come into his own, although it’s not clear that there’s really anything wrong with him other than a general aimlessness. If only, if only, the book had been called Afsana instead.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_It’s so nice when reading overlaps a little, and reading this back-to-back with Dragon Lords provided rather a good level of continuity. The first of the twelve manuscripts that De Hamel examines is known as the Gospel Book of St Augustine (of Canterbury), which dates from about the sixth century; saints and kings mentioned in Eleanor Parker’s book also get airtime here. De Hamel is the director of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, so he knows whereof he speaks. Twelve manuscripts spanning nearly a thousand years are given the full-on examination treatment: we get the histories of the material objects, the significance of the writing and illumination within, and, last but not least, a travelogue style of narrating, where De Hamel shares what it is actually like to look at the manuscripts. As he points out, most people with the will and the travel budget can go to see the Mona Lisa, if they want to; it is far harder to physically access a manuscript in person, though they are some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And so he gives us the experience, insofar as he can. We learn what it’s like to walk inside the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, or the Black Diamond building of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, or the Pierpont Library in New York. (Some of this stuff is worth the cover price for the sheer gossip value: De Hamel is always utterly professional, but his strong feelings about various buildings and their staff still come through. Copenhagen’s library seems like a lovely place to visit, full, as he describes it, of serenely long-haired students like time-frozen hippies and helpful, cheery staff; his experience with the Morgan library, by contrast, is one of polite bafflement at America’s love affair with bureaucracy, authority, and procedure.)

Not only is this book ridiculously beautiful (with lots of full-page colour illustrations, as you would hope), and outrageously informative (I know all about the difference between uncials, insular majuscule, and capitalis rustica now), it’s also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. De Hamel’s account of the day when both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to him on live television (he was carrying an extremely old copy of the Gospels at the time) is characteristically excellent: self-deprecating, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he describes various dolled-up prelates as “walking Christmas trees”. If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s full of trivia that makes you gasp: there’s a book called the Codex Amiatinus, for example, that is repeatedly referred to as being ridiculously huge, and when you finally see a photo of it, you immediately get it. (De Hamel says it weighs about 90 pounds; then, winningly, he adds that an eccentric antiquary of the Victorian era described it as “weighing about the same as a fully-grown female Great Dane”. De Hamel opts for the slightly more sensible comparison unit of a twelve-year-old boy. Either way, that is a very heavy book.) It’s not just for antiquarians, this; anyone who likes beautiful things, or old things, or books, in any way, would get a lot out of it. It’s certainly earned a spot on my best-of-2018 list.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Reading Diary: what day is it again?

I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.

cover2Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.

cover132346-mediumSocial Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?

I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

61iucjvvmwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

4633870306_259x395Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.

36628420Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.

Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.

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.

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.