Reading Diary: Mar. 11-Mar. 17

61nyh599hzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_My favourite way to celebrate International Women’s Day, as with all celebrations, is to read something apt, and there is no book apter than Joanna Russ’s tour de force, The Female Man. (Note the deliberate not-use of the word “masterpiece”.) The plot of the book, such as it is, is fairly simple: there are four female characters, Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. Each is from a different time period, and/or world: Jeannine from a world like ours, but where the Great Depression never ended and women’s lib never began; Joanna from the era contemporaneous to the book’s writing (1975), in the world as we know it; Janet from a place called Whileaway, where there simply aren’t any men; and Jael from a future where men and women are, quite literally, at war. (She has metal teeth.) The book is mostly comprised of their interactions with each other, and the ways in which these reveal each world’s priorities with regards to women and their place. Though the plot isn’t complicated, Russ’s writing is extremely in-your-face; she often jumps from one point of view to the next, frequently mid-scene, none of which is signposted. Her chapters can be six pages, or a paragraph, or a sentence. (It’s a very Vonnegut-esque approach to structure.) I’ve also read critiques of The Female Man that say, essentially, one of two things: either that society has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore Russ’s exposé of male hypocrisy and female oppression is no longer relevant, or that literature has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore that other people have since said the same things, but better. I disagree on both counts: on the first, society really hasn’t moved that far on since the 1970s (#MeToo, Weinstein, Gamergate, Trump, I can’t even be arsed to keep trotting out these examples, it’s so boring). On the second, few writers of any age have been as uncompromising as Joanna Russ is in The Female Man—she’s like Angela Carter on steroids and without any of the whimsy—and for a young feminist not to have read any of her work is for that young feminist to be missing a key part of history. “As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.”

48398Renée Fleming is, as my friend Jon would say, a genuine goddamn treasure. Quite apart from her voice—which is a great big “quite apart from”; have you seen this? Or this? Or, good Jesus, the first nine seconds of this?—she projects this huge, warm, charming, utterly authentic personality. She wrote this book fifteen years ago as a resource for other young singers, remembering that, when she was just starting out, she devoured the biographies of famous sopranos but couldn’t find anything on what it actually felt like to build and train a voice, let alone create and maintain one’s own brand, develop a character, and all the other minutiae of an opera singer’s life. She’s so delightfully honest about being a people-pleaser from a young age, about her long years of failing to win competitions or auditions, and about not being considered particularly beautiful or stylish (although her “big face” was at least seen as an asset; she’d be visible from the upper circle.) I also love the way she writes about singing as work, both physical and mental, and the down-to-earth-ness of her love for her daughters and the life of her family. This would be an invaluable book for a young singer, but just as much fun to read as a regular opera-goer, or even just as someone who would like to know what all the fuss is about.

cover2The first book in my Women’s Prize longlist reading was Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time; it’s also the first of de Waal’s books that I’ve read, having missed My Name Is Leon. Having no idea what to expect, it’s nice to be able to report that I enjoyed it very much. Partly set in 1970s Birmingham, and partly set in the present day, it follows the love story of Mona and William, two Irish migrants to England. After their marriage, Mona falls pregnant quickly, and the future seems bright – until tragedy strikes. In the present-day storyline, Mona is living in a small seaside village, making dolls and providing an initially unspecified service for bereaved mothers, while also fielding the attentions of Karl, a mysteriously aristocratic European living in town, and maintaining a curious relationship with a man known only as the carpenter, who provides the raw material for her dolls. The way that de Waal interweaves the two timelines, and slowly reveals the relevance of Mona’s past life to her present, is masterful: every revelation is perfectly timed, the prose is always completely controlled. Particularly impressive is de Waal’s ability to unflinchingly draw out the reader’s emotional engagement. Karl, in particular, seemed too good to be true, and when the truth about his circumstances becomes clear, it is in a scene so excruciating and yet so convincing, so alive with shame, that I read it with heart pounding. The book should probably come with a content warning, if only because the nature of the tragedy that strikes Mona and William’s marriage is potentially triggering. So far, though, the Women’s Prize longlist is off to a flying start.

35148165The Parentations has received the same treatment as The Wicked Cometh – pretty cover, lots of accolades – and unfortunately it suffers from similar problems. The story, which concerns an Icelandic spring whose waters convey eternal life, and the attempt to protect a child from evil Danes who would kill him in their efforts to discover the secrets of immortality, is a good one, reminiscent of a grownup Tuck Everlasting. But it is, first of all, too long. This is not a structural problem, but a question of paragraphs having been allowed to remain in the manuscript that are not pulling their weight, or indeed any weight. Despite being over 400 pages, I read it in two days, because so much of it is not actually advancing anything that it can be skimmed. Secondly, and perhaps in part because of its length, there are some odd gaps in logic and characterisation. We learn nothing about the Danish family that is supposedly so evil: they are straw man villains, and although the book spends time in nearly every major character’s head, we never see through their eyes or even get a particularly strong sense of their motivation. Equally opaque is the novel’s real villain, Clovis Fowler, who descends swiftly into oversexed femme-fatality and never recovers. (We’re meant to believe that she’s a perfectly poised and flawless criminal mind, but some of the decisions that she makes seem wasteful and gratuitous, neither one of which bespeaks true ice-cool evil.) Is it a page-turner? Absolutely. Is it, as its publisher has said in the Bookseller, some of the most extraordinary literary prose encountered in a thirty-year career? If so, that publisher hasn’t been reading widely enough.

9780008264239Oh, man. I so badly wanted House of Beauty, by Melba Escobar, to be good. A crime novel revolving around a Bogotá beauty salon, featuring the murder of a schoolgirl and a coverup by corrupt officials involved in massive healthcare fraud? The idea of a salon as a place where women go to tell each other things and feel safe, where the world of men cannot—for a brief while—intrude? Yes please. And Fourth Estate is publishing it, so I got a NetGalley proof, trusting. I was wrong to trust.

Part of the problem—and I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand a little—is, I think, the translation. Dialogue sounds stilted, motivation is explained with cartoonish specificity. Worst of all, it’s just confusing. The book is being told from the perspective of two women, Claire and Lucía, who are upper-middle-class Bogotáns, after the events have already played out; but there’s nothing to mark their points of view apart, so I was frequently startled by hearing Claire apparently refer to herself, then realise that Lucía was now speaking. We also get third-person chapters from the perspective of Karen, a beautician at the eponymous salon; from Sabrina Guzmán, the girl who dies; and from Sabrina’s mother, Consuelo. But none of them really move us towards an understanding of the crime: we arrive at that understanding only because we get to see into everyone’s heads, which characters in the book cannot do, so their deductions are unearned. The ending, meanwhile, had me staring at my phone in baffled rage, wanting to throw the thing against a wall—not because it’s incomplete, but because it suddenly partakes of the grossest stereotype. I think this is meant to make us feel differently about one of the narrators—which it sure did—but again, it felt unearned. In between the disorienting points of view and the leaps in plot, there are some interesting and upsetting things being said in House of Beauty about contemporary Colombian society, and the place of women (especially dark-skinned women) within it, but there’s just too much getting in the reader’s way.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A great start, a disappointing end. I’m glad to have started the Women’s Prize reading and am now on my next book for that project, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY.

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Reading Diary: Jan. 28-Feb. 3

9780241982884One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.

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Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.

Reading Diary: Jan. 21-Jan. 27

41klibrdf1l-_sx307_bo1204203200_I’m not certain why the cover design for Christie Watson’s memoir The Language of Kindness is so abstract; there is certainly nothing abstract or theoretical about the endlessly challenging work of nursing that she describes in this book. Falling into the profession as a seventeen-year-old, Watson bounces all over the place through the course of her career: from mental health wards to geriatric care homes, to working with learning-disabled adults, to oncology and paediatric intensive care. She writes with great tenderness and insight about the toll that the job takes on you; about nursing children who die, and what it is like to wash and prepare their bodies before their parents can come to see them; what it is like to go to their funerals. She writes about the stresses of having few resources and little sympathy, either from the government or from the general public. She writes about her own father’s death from cancer and the way in which his nurse, Cheryl, became more than a professional, something closer to family. Cheryl is there at her father’s funeral. Watson has actually written two novels, but the style of her memoir is stripped-back and matter-of-fact, which both suits the subject matter and emphasises the simple appallingness of human vulnerability, which it is the nurse’s job to dignify and comfort. This isn’t out until May, but I will be recommending it to absolutely everyone. As Watson says, we never know what will happen to us, to people we love; we never know when we might be the ones sitting in the waiting room or propped up in the hospital bed, in need of care and compassion and kindness.

410dmcvxpsl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Mick Herron has made a trademark of writing espionage fiction that features dry sarcasm. His characters’ banter flirts constantly with being too much, usually but not always coming down on the right side of the line. London Rules is his fifth book featuring the “slow horses” of MI5: no-hopers, alcoholics, fuck-ups and dickheads who have been reassigned to a bureaucratic hellhole in Aldersgate Street called Slough House in the vague hope that they’ll resign and save the Service the trouble of firing them. Jackson Lamb is the head of this dubious team; veteran readers of Herron will know and love him, although loveable is the last word you’d use to describe the man, whose characterisation is generally conveyed by his propensity to fart, drink, smoke, swear, eat takeaways, and make profoundly politically incorrect comments to everyone around him. This is mostly justified by the reader’s awareness that, although Lamb is a disgusting boor, he’s also shrewd and loyal: he usually knows what’s going on before his superiors at Regent’s Park do, and, unencumbered by political ambition, can often make better and faster decisions. One doesn’t necessarily read Herron for the plots, which are usually flashy but shallow; London Rules is a decent stab at plotting, though, with the most shocking opening since Slow Horses. (It also borrows from that book’s clever reversal of our expectations about what can be allowed to happen in developed nations vs. developing ones.) Spook Street, the book before this in the series, was a return to form after two lesser outings, and London Rules suggests that Herron remains on the top of his fairly specific game.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift is an utterly brilliant book hampered by a fairly terrible title; you’d think, to look at it, that it’s a kind of Celtic romance involving a dreamy, windswept woman who spends a lot of time gazing out to sea. It’s actually based on an event that really happened: a Barbary pirate raid on the Westman Islands of Iceland in 1627. We know from historical sources that among those captured were the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, his heavily pregnant wife, and three of their children. Egilsson’s memoir of the voyage, his brief time as a slave in Algiers, his release on a mission to beg for ransom from King Christian IV of Denmark (then the colonial ruler of Iceland), and his return to his home, was a major source for Magnusson’s book. What she tells us, though, is the story of Egilsson’s wife, Ásta Thórsteinsdottir, a literate and strongwilled (if impractical) woman whose myriad losses—her liberty, her husband, each of her children in one way or another—ought to have floored her. Magnusson’s success is in balancing on a line that could easily tip her into anachronism or sentimentality. Ásta is clever and resourceful, but believably powerless: her owner in Algiers, although he begins to have feelings for her, is never capable of seeing her as anything more than a mere woman, inherently confusing and irrational. Her agonies over religion are also beautifully conveyed: as the wife of a Lutheran priest, albeit one who has been known to tell tales of the elves and the hidden people, she is in a particular bind when it comes to the potential conversion to Islam of her small children. Her fear that she will not only be separated from them in this life, but in the next, is piercingly convincing. And Magnusson’s prose never falters, never slides into awkward phrasing or excessive lyricism, even maintaining a light, dry humour that doesn’t feel out of place. What an exceptional and moving fiction debut this is.

35323055Force of Nature, meanwhile, is a follow-up to Jane Harper’s much-lauded debut of last year, The Dry. It is, if anything, even better than its predecessor. The premise is great: Alice Russell, a corporate bully and soon-to-be whistleblower, goes missing on a teambuilding exercise, hiking in the remote Giralang Range. Not only is she about to provide crucial documentary evidence of her company’s involvement in money laundering, but the Giralang Range is also where serial killer Martin Kovac stalked, abducted and murdered four women twenty years ago—women who look alarmingly like Alice. (He is an invention of Harper’s, but echoes the real-life “backpacker murderer” Ivan Milat.) Aaron Falk, the taciturn cop who headed up the investigation in The Dry, has been handling Alice’s evidence against her employers, and gets caught up in the operation surrounding her disappearance. Harper uses flashbacks to excellent effect throughout the book, alternating past with present as we learn more about the events leading up to Alice’s vanishing. The real strength of the book is its emphasis on the pressures brought to bear on women—especially mothers—in high-achieving environments, and the way that pain can echo through generations if parents and children fail to communicate adequately with one another. It’s been a while since I read The Dry, but Force of Nature feels like an altogether subtler book, with a sadder, more human ending. It’s an excellent, rock-solid crime novel. If Jane Harper can keep knocking these out, I’ll keep reading and recommending them.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Every single one of these books was a proof, which feels a little imbalanced; I mustn’t forget to read backlists. I’m pleased that one was nonfiction, though.

Books of the Year: 2017

This year, so far, I’ve read 175 books. That’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve managed to narrow down my top choices for the year to eleven. These are THE books: the ones I can’t stop thinking about, have been recommending for months, and still get something new from, every time I reconsider them. There were many, many others that I loved and thought were brilliant (they’re listed at the bottom of this post). Some titles have been left off on the grounds of ubiquity: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Underground Railroad and The Power were all incredible books which I adored, but they don’t exactly need any more attention or admiration. These eleven are my absolute hands-down all-stars, and some of them, I think, deserve a bit more love. So here they are.

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  1. For A Little While, by Rick Bass. Bass is criminally unknown in this country. He writes the most beautiful, most complete short stories I’ve ever seen: each one is like a novel, feeling full with incident and characterisation and yet never going on for too long. His geography is the American West and Midwest, but unlike other writers of whom he reminds me (Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy) he is unfailingly humane to his characters. Reading him is an absolute treat. (short review)

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2. Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. Speaking of McCarthy, Barry’s novel reminded me of a gay-er, more tender and humane and frankly normal, riff on Blood Meridian. Barry too writes about the violence visited upon Native Americans by whites, but he does so in the context of the US Civil War and as part of the love story between his two male protagonists, Thomas McNulty and John Cole. His sentences are stunning, and he absolutely nails the dynamic of silent, undemonstrative love between men.

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3. Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. My initial impression of this stands: it’s like a Graham Greene novel and an Ian Fleming novel had a baby, then left the baby to be raised by the Coen Brothers. Dark, funny, nihilistic and magnificently disdainful of narrative convention, it’s a spy novel set in 1970s Morocco that manages to completely baffle you half a dozen times. The ending is unforgettable. (full review)

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4. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Of all the books I read this year, this is one of the most sophisticated. Juggling the stories of several young Chinese musicians at Shanghai Conservatory during the Cultural Revolution, it manages to be an overview of twentieth-century Chinese history, a family saga, and an examination of the ethics of making art under tyranny, without ever losing nuances of characterisation. Good though The Power is, this was my favourite to win the Baileys Prize. (short review)

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5. The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. This is the single book that I wish I had pushed on more people this year. It’s a hard sell, because it is about Marzano-Lesnevich’s investigation of the case of Ricky Langley, who is in prison for molesting and murdering a six-year-old boy. She interweaves his story with her own—including her childhood molestation by her grandfather—and creates a compelling, frightening, beautiful book out of it, tackling the meanings of innocence, of justice and of redemption. I think it is utterly stunning.

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6. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. Everyone has been talking about this book. No prize jury has yet seen fit to reward it, which is bonkers; it’s a book with no narrator, which ignores the conventions of the missing-girl genre as well as those of traditional nature writing, resulting in an extraordinarily compelling jigsaw of life in a rural village shaken by tragedy over the course of thirteen years. It takes almost inconceivable skill to write such a thing, and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already. (full review)

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7. The Time Of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. This book is absolutely astonishing. Its protagonists are mixed-race (African-American-Jewish) brothers Jonah and Joseph, a concert pianist and an operatic tenor, but it is so much more than an insider’s classical music novel; it is ambitious enough to take on twentieth-century American history, inter-racial marriage, deep questions of belonging and vocation and family and home, and Powers simply writes so intelligently and thoughtfully. (It will also give you a whole Spotify playlist of stuff to listen to, if that’s your jam.) It is now on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. Can’t say better than that.

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8. It, by Stephen King. Rarely, if ever, have I been so pleasantly surprised by a book. King’s exploration of small-town horror and mundane evil is over a thousand pages long, but, reader, they will fly by, I promise you. His sexual politics are awkward and dated, but you can tell he was trying, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another author who—at his best—is so damn readable while still keeping rhythm and flow in his prose. Make time for this book. (full review)

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How about this cover. Maybe my favourite of the year.

9. Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. The sci-fi book I have been recommending to everyone who doesn’t like sci-fi. Set in an industrially ravaged future city menaced by an enormous flying bear (go with it), it tells the story of scavenger Rachel, who lives with her partner Wick in an abandoned tower block, and who finds a small lump of biotech one day on her searches. She takes it home and names it Borne, and quickly finds that the extent of Borne’s abilities—and his true nature—are way beyond her expectations. It’s a lot of things rolled into one: a suspense thriller, a mother-and-child story, a tale of friendship, a sort of romance. VanderMeer’s imagination, and ability to translate his ideas into strong visuals through prose, is peerless.

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10. The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. In the same way, I imagine, as the medical profession thanks its various divinities for Theodore Dalrymple, Henry Marsh, and Adam Kay, so are booksellers offering orisons for the work of Shaun Bythell. At last, someone who is lifting the curtain on the ridiculous/rude/implausible/plain stupid things, customers, and situations that booksellers deal with daily. And you don’t have to be in the industry to appreciate the man’s witty misanthropy. We keep selling out of this in the bookshop, sometimes within the same day of a fresh delivery.

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11. Dodgers, by Bill Beverly. This is one of those books that you almost cannot talk about, because to do so is to disturb the complex feelings of awe and sorrow and emptiness and fullness that settle, all at the same time, upon you once you finish it. It is indisputably a crime novel, but oh it is so much more. East, our protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old lookout at an LA crack house. He fucks up, and is given a chance to redeem himself: take a roadtrip with some other fuck-ups, and his preternaturally brutal younger brother Ty, to assassinate a federal judge in Wisconsin. There is so much brilliant thinking and writing in this, about brothers and violence and despair and choosing the kind of man you wish to be. It deserves to be a classic.

Other books that were incredible: Every one of these titles is something I would urge you to read as soon as you can. Run, don’t walk. Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: viciously funny, insanely clever, on the potential consquences of a surveillance society. Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward: a stunning road trip novel; Ward is a modern William Faulkner. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles: charming and witty, without ever losing intellectual complexity and nuance. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris: if you loved Reservoir 13, this is your next stop; set in Salisbury and utterly breathtaking. English Animals, by Laura Kaye: beat Ali Smith to being the Most Timely Brexit Novel, and also a beautifully written depiction of class/power imbalance and a lesbian relationship. A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna: the dreamiest, oddest Oxford novel ever, taking in thirteenth-century medieval theories of reality and contemporary metaphysics, and really set apart by fantastic illustrations. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead: you know why. Black and British, by David Olusoga: my new favourite history book, dealing with the presence of free Africans in Britain long before the Empire Windrush. The Wardrobe Mistress, by Patrick McGrath: a compelling ghost story set in the freezing winter of 1947, in London’s seedily glamorous theatre world. 2084, ed. George Sandison: some of the best sci-fi of the year, in the best-edited short story collection of the year. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent: brutal and stunning, a contemporary McCarthy mixed with Daniel Woodrell. Balancing Acts, by Nicholas Hytner: engaging commentary on plays and staging, as well as some fun name-dropping; worth reading for his analysis of Othello alone. Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders: it really is the most heartbreaking and risk-taking book, very worth reading. Night Sky With Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong: my favourite poetry book of the year, lush meditations on sex and heritage and allegiance. The Power, by Naomi Alderman: reading it is a mental game-changer; you won’t think the same way again. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow: an honest-to-God utopian novel, suggesting that the future might not suck if we work together and use tech productively. Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: a novella about a sexy, cosmopolitan pensioner, the kind of older woman we should all aim to be.

And I have to stop there—I could go on. Have you read any of these? Have I convinced you to pick up any?

October Superlatives

Thirteen books this month; an appropriate number for the month of Halloween, although I don’t really keep the feast anymore. Certainly not when it falls on a Tuesday. It’s been a busy old month and the near future won’t slow down much; maybe by the middle of November I’ll have a Saturday or an evening where I have time to cook a meal, stay up late reading, lie in bed doing nothing in particular. (Write a few book reviews?)

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party to which I was late: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that made John Le Carré’s name. The most astonishing thing about it is its absolute, even-handed refusal to permit heroism to any of its characters. Everyone—the British, the East Germans, our protagonist, his boss—is weak, petty, self-serving, or cold. Sometimes all at once. It’s a devastating book, with a devastating ending: no one wins.

for Wodehouse fans: Max Beerbohm’s frothy Edwardian novel Zuleika Dobson, whose titular heroine visits her grandfather’s Oxford college and wreaks havoc amongst the undergraduates, who all end up committing suicide en masse in her honour. To be perfectly honest, it’s a slightly weird read, because Beerbohm never seems totally sure of how serious he wants to be; there are some moments between Zuleika and her most devoted lover, the Duke of Dorset, which I found quite moving, and yet the whole point of the book is this moment of comically extreme violence, which we’re apparently not meant to take more seriously than your average Tom and Jerry maiming. Still bloody funny, though.

most thought-provoking: American War by Omar El Akkad, a new novel set in the 2070s, after a ban on fossil fuel usage has provoked a Second American Civil War. Our protagonist, Sarat, is a young displaced girl from the South, and the novel charts the course of her radicalisation and eventual deployment as a terrorist. A lot of El Akkad’s extrapolations about the future are surprising: he totally ignores issues of race, for example, which I can’t see completely disappearing in fifty years unless something socioculturally cataclysmic happens before the start of the book, and none of his characters make any reference to such an event. And his Southerners don’t feel like Southerners to me: first of all, race is always a major if unspoken factor in the South, and secondly, there is a semi-feral attachment to land and land’s history there that I don’t see in his characters. But what American War did was force me to reevaluate how children are radicalised, simply by making me watch it happen in a landscape I was familiar with and to people whose cultural referents are roughly my own, and that’s a hell of an important thing.

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most a victim of its time: I actually quite enjoyed most of The Black Cloud, a hard sf novel from 1957. It’s a fascinating insight into the status of science fiction at the time—one of its major selling points is that it’s written “by a scientist”, and Hoyle clearly cares a thousand times less about characterisation and the social implications of global natural disaster than he does about explaining to us exactly what kind of natural disaster we’ll get, and why. (There are equations.) But his protagonist (who, intriguingly, holds the same post at Cambridge University that Hoyle did) is not to be borne: he’s a patronising, info-dumping egotist with a Messiah complex who doesn’t understand a) why it’s not okay to kidnap a beautiful young pianist and hold her hostage in your Science Lair so that you can have some culture and eye candy whilst saving the world, and b) why your government might be completely justified in thinking you’re a megalomaniacal world-dictator-in-waiting, given that YOU HAVE A FUCKING SCIENCE LAIR. And the less said about attitudes towards women, the better. (They literally make the tea, I cannot.) File under enjoyable but deeply flawed.

most jaw-droppingly transcendent of its genre: Dodgers, a crime novel by Bill Beverly that won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award. My God, this book. It’s a crime novel in the sense that Crime and Punishment is. East is fifteen years old. He used to supervise lookouts at a crack house in LA, running a yard full of boys ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice, but his house gets busted. He’s given a last chance to prove himself, a drive with three other boys from California to Wisconsin to assassinate a judge. Things get complicated. Beverly nails interpersonal dynamics, the Morse code of young men communicating with few words, and the sense of responsibility and despair that East feels for his younger brother Ty, who’s already much better at this life than he is. And he nails atmosphere, most particularly the atmosphere of the road trip: the jittery smeared-neon eye-gritting blur of America, the cold blue light in the front of a gas station just before sunup. It’s an astonishing book; it left me with a hole inside.

most humane: Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might easily have won it. It’s rather difficult to summarise this book, which is presumably why most of the writing I’ve seen about it online hasn’t tried. Effectively, there are two main characters: Daniel Gluck, now an old man, and Elisabeth Demand, once a precocious schoolchild who was his neighbour, now teaching art history. Woven in between their stories are the stories of Pauline Boty, one of Britain’s few female Pop Artists (in fact, identifying her as such is the source of an argument between Elisabeth and her initial postgraduate supervisor), and of Christine Keeling, the model involved in the Profumo Affair of the 1960s (Britain’s Watergate, in that you can argue for its being the modern moment when the public stopped trusting politicians). Smith is, I am convinced, a genius; she thinks on the very highest level, then tells her stories as though she is sitting cross-legged on a sofa.

most utterly predictable reread: The Likeness, by Tana French. It makes me weep every time, that last page. You know how much I like Tana French. Moving on.

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most disorienting: The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Unusually, this was a book someone recommended to me (it doesn’t happen often); my childhood best friend’s partner heard about the book I’m writing and told me I should read this. There’s a rough similarity—college students, a love triangle, people who refuse to deal with their sexualities—but the odd thing about Ellis’s book was that I couldn’t find the heart of it, I couldn’t sense where my attention and investment was meant to be directed. It’s written in a lot of short, choppy sections, from the perspectives of about half a dozen different people; you often get wildly varying versions of the same situation. The experience of reading it is a lot like wandering through a party in a darkened flat that you’ve never been to before, six glasses of wine down, looking for your friends, your shoes, your coat, and/or somewhere to throw up: everything goes past at the wrong speed, seems to be in the wrong place, keeps happening for too long, and you really want to just lie down. Not that drugs and sex aren’t valid subjects for fiction, it’s just…awfully hard to know what Ellis was getting at with this one. (Patrick Bateman makes an appearance, though; Sean, one of the main characters here, is his younger brother.)

most intriguing opening: I read a graphic novel this month, volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and drawn by Pia Guerra. The premise is that a virus has killed all men and male animals – everything with a Y chromosome – simultaneously, except for one man (Yorick) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Various groups want them, for experiments or vengeance or other things, and all Yorick wants is to find his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when global communications broke down. Yorick’s an infuriating character, full of a young man’s arrogance, and I’m not sure that Vaughan always does a totally convincing job of standing outside of that character inviting us to assess it, as opposed to appearing to endorse it. Still, there are some great scenes, including one where the wives of now-dead Republican congressmen storm Capitol Hill, armed, demanding their husbands’ seats.

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most balls-to-the-wall bonkers: This, mind you, is a good thing. The honour goes to China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which is universally considered to be not one of his best, and I can kind of see why, since it tastes very similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and indeed to Miéville’s own early works like UnLun Dun and King Rat. However, it has still got the theft of a giant squid, a section of the Metropolitan Police that deals entirely with cult activity, a mysterious society of Londonmancers, a strike by the Union of Familiars, and just in general quite a lot of good mad stuff. I love the idea that the places of great inherent power in this city aren’t always where you think they might be (though of course there’s plenty of it round the London Stone); that you could also find it round back of a chippy on the Edgware Road, or in a lock-up in Hoxton.

most unnerving to my boss: E. Gabriella Coleman’s seminal book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I picked it up because of my interest in the intellectual struggles around copyright and freedom of information, and because in the spring I read an incredible biography of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop Reddit and Creative Commons before being arraigned by the FBI for mass-downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles. Coleman’s focus is actually much less on the law and much more on the anthropological structures of hacker culture, but as these have a lot to do with shared, deeply internalised ethics, there’s enough overlap for it to be fascinating too.

most moving: Another road trip novel, this one by Sara Taylor, who wrote The Shore. Her second novel, The Lauras, follows a mother and child (we never know what sex Alex is, or what gender, and Alex themself is pretty clear: they don’t feel they fit into either box) as they drive across America. It’s sort of an escape from Alex’s father, but he’s not exactly a villain, just a mediocre guy; it’s more to do with Ma’s need to visit pieces of her past. Taylor evokes rootlessness well, and she’s tenderly open-minded on the complexities of maternal love, and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to make or have a family. Beautiful writing, too. (review)

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most gonzo: Is that actually the right word? I don’t know. It feels like it, for Julianne Pachico’s short story collection The Lucky Ones. They’re interlinked, so that characters who appear peripherally in one story become the centre of another. Set in Colombia, mostly during the drug wars of the early 1990s, they circle around a group of schoolgirl friends and frenemies – Stephanie, Betsy, La Flaca, Mariela – with other stories from the point of view of a kidnapped teacher, a teenage soon-to-be-paramilitary recruit, and (really) a bunch of pet rabbits hooked on coca leaves. It’s an absolute knockout.

up next: The last two books in October were read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel, which I’m delighted to be on this year. I’m now reading The End of the Day by Claire North, a novel about the Harbinger of Death, who turns out to be a nice, kind of schlubby guy called Charlie. It’s an odd mix, the witty apocalypticism of Good Omens mingled with a more serious humanitarian flavour. I think I like it.

October Superlatives

October has both flown by and been relatively unproductive on the blogging front. Oh well. I’ll use “adjusting to a new job/schedule” as my excuse; now when I come home from work, I’m physically tired as well as mentally so. (By the way, don’t let anyone ever tell you that working in hospitality is only hard on your body. Being nice to strangers, who often dislike you for no apparent reason and whose requests will frequently make your job harder, for seven hours, is hard on your intellect and emotional centers, too.) Anyway, I read eleven books this month. I reviewed…one of them. (Leave me alone.)

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This cover! Swoon.

most aptly praised: Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a Wound was compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I can totally see why. Set in twentieth-century Indonesia, it explores the family life of infamous prostitute Dewi Ayu while also providing a sharp portrait of the military and political upheavals of Indonesian history. There’s quite a lot of sexual violence, I’m afraid, but it doesn’t appear to be gratuitous, and the plot is spell-binding.

best find: This is going to be a shorter Superlatives post than normal because I’m grouping five of October’s books under this heading. Tana French’s work has been at the corners of my consciousness for years: I knew that she was an extremely well-respected literary crime novelist, and that I wanted to read her work, but I hadn’t really gotten round to it. Alerted to a sale of her books for 99p each, I bought them all and gobbled them. In each one, she focuses on a different lead detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad (usually someone who’s been a minor character in an earlier book). The first two, Into the Woods and The Likeness, are probably my favourites; their characterisation is fresh and intoxicating, and the complexity of the crimes always compels you. I also loved The Secret Place, set in an elite Irish girl’s school, which anatomises female friendship among teenagers in a way that’s totally without condescension and never uses “cattiness” as a lazy stereotype. Broken Harbour, the fifth novel, is also excellent, though less of a standout. Book three, however—Faithful Place—can probably be skipped; the writing is still great, but the plot is distinctly meh.

warm bath book: Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the disguises she adopted to visit New York restaurants as the former Times restaurant critic. Her prose is solid, instead of outstanding, but I loved the reviews that she includes (she’s not afraid to tear into established places, nor to champion smaller, less fashionable ones), and I loved her descriptions of how she found her personality changing whenever she put on different wigs and clothes.

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tequila shot book: Jacob Tomsky’s memoir of the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, goes down fast, burns a bit after you’ve swallowed it, and then you’re moving on. He writes well for someone working in this genre (service memoirs are more and more A Thing these days, and most of the writing is fine but not inspired; people generally read these books for the crazy stories.) Apart from the crazy stories, Tomsky’s explanation of how to get good service in hotels is worth the price of admission on its own. (Here’s a clue: a lot of it is in your hands, and can best be summarised by a co-worker’s favourite expression: “don’t be a c*nt.”)

I might also put in this category Waiter Rant, the service memoir that launched a thousand ships. Released in 2008, the anonymous Waiter’s narrative of hospitality in a fine dining restaurant in New York lifted the veil in the same way Kitchen Confidential did: the illegals in the kitchen, the waiters snorting coke in the broom closet, the management scamming tips off their staff. It, too, is good for its crazy stories, though its prose is less impressive than Tomsky’s.

most lovely: In a sad and tender way, I really enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Her heroine, Zhuang (or Z.), embarks on a relationship with an older Englishman, and as her English improves, she also becomes more and more capable of describing the profound differences between the way the two of them see the world. For its window into an unusual relationship as it blossoms and then disintegrates, I’m not sure this book can be beaten.

most thought-provoking: A World Gone Mad, the diaries of Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren between 1939 and 1945. For Sweden, the war was much, much more bearable than it was for any other country, since they maintained official neutrality throughout. I loved the purity of Lindgren’s outrage when she hears about atrocities from Germans and Russians alike; I was moved by her constant gratitude for her own family’s safety; and I found the retelling of the war from a perspective new to me incredibly refreshing.

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up next: I’m currently reading The Malay Archipelago, an account of scientific travels in South-east Asia by Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin—perhaps earlier—but who gave Darwin credit for it throughout his life). It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though rather long. Afterwards, I’ll be reviewing Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter, and participating in the blog tour for Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle—stay tuned!

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada

I would gladly give up my wretched life if this perfect woman were to become a reality.

Here’s a challenge to aspiring writers: make the first character your readers meet a lunatic confessional astrologist painter whose last will and testament includes the details of a plot to murder his six virginal daughters and nieces and dismember their bodies in order to create a perfect woman. Give him some creepy backstory–let’s say he tells us about this one time when he literally fell in love with a mannequin in a shop window, and maybe throw in a suggestion of rape when he talks about how he ended up with his second wife. Add a touch of megalomania. Then have the whole thing translated into another language, preferably one with a different alphabet from your own. See how many of your readers are sticking around after all that.

That’s a little unfair on Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, I know; it’s a complicated plot, it’s translated, and of course characters don’t have to be likeable. The book does suffer a little bit from having its prologue delivered through the artist (and first murder victim) Heikichi, though. If you can get through it, you can probably get through the rest, but it’s a bit of a litmus test.

We learn that Heikichi was murdered before he could carry out his horrible scheme–he was found with his head bashed in, inside a locked room–but shortly after his death, his eldest stepdaughter was found dead in what was assumed to be a rape and burglary gone wrong, and then his other six daughters disappeared. Their dismembered bodies were discovered over a period of several months all around Japan’s Hoshu island, arranged just as Heikichi’s note had described. Clearly, someone decided to carry out the plans after Heikichi’s death–but everyone has an alibi and there’s no clear motive. The murders remain unsolved for forty years, until our two intrepid amateur detectives decide to try and crack the case, mostly in order to distract one of them from his chronic depression. The novel is in the honkaku subgenre of Japanese mysteries: you get all the clues in the same order and at the same time as the two detectives, so you can follow along, trying to solve it as they do. Honkaku are kind of like literary sudoku, in that they’re puzzles. You’re engaging not only your narrative brain, but your logical one.

I think mysteries suffer with age, more than other genres. Possibly this is because so many of them deal with crimes against the vulnerable, and the way that we treat victims and think about them has changed so much over the past few decades. This book was written in 1980, and one of the most noticeable things about it is the sheer quantity of bullshit about “female psychology”. There is even the suggestion that the killer must have been a woman because the murder weapon was cleaned off, and that would be “more natural” for a woman to do (because ladies can’t stop themselves from tidying up!) The gender politics when it comes to the actual murders are just as depressing. Our narrator, Ishioka, announces at one point that the murderer must have been a man (he’s changed his mind since the scene mentioned above), because (dun duh duhhhh), “Kazue had been raped!” The response of Kiyoshi, the novel’s Sherlock Holmes character is, literally, “Uhhh…” This, and scenes like it, conspire to suggest that the actual reality of torture, murder, rape and dismemberment doesn’t interest Shimada at all, except insofar as these events can be used to make a good puzzle. I’m perfectly willing to accept that this is a matter of personal taste, but that attitude is really, really not for me. I like the idea of murders that are logic puzzles, but I want them to remain logic puzzles. Making truly horrible things happen to someone that you’ve established is a character, not a philosophical construct, just to make your clever-clogs challenge a bit more cryptic, strikes me as being somewhere between distasteful and genuinely psychopathic. As I read, I kept thinking of all the women in literature (especially genre literature) and film and popular culture who have been found chopped up in trash bags, in Satanic rituals, in rivers, in car trunks. And I thought of all the women in real life–the world I live in–who’ve been found the same way. And somehow I couldn’t take quite the innocent joy in a complex mystery that I think I was expected to take.

All the more frustrating, then, that by the middle of the book I was genuinely (if begrudgingly) keen to find out who had done the deeds. The puzzle element of the book works just fine; the solution is clever, although the identity of the murderer is obscurely disappointing, mostly because the motive is so meh. Revenge, revenge, does it ever get old? (Yes. Also, it would have been better had the murderer sought revenge on someone who had legitimately wronged them, as opposed to someone whose primary crime was to be immature and self-centered, but now we’re venturing into spoilers territory.) I was also both fascinated and frustrated by the way some details were explained profusely, while others–fairly important ones–were brushed over. The reason why the bodies were found buried at different depths, for instance, took pages; but when our narrator Ishioka explicitly asks questions like “Where did the poison come from?” and “How did the murderer chop up half a dozen bodies on their own? How did they even get hold of a saw?”, Kiyoshi’s answer was “They just did.” It’s hard not to admire the sheer brazenness of an author who’ll do that to you, but it does feel like a cop-out.

It’s a shame about this, because the book is part of Pushkin’s new Vertigo imprint, and usually Pushkin is absolutely spot on. They’ve already made a name for themselves with translated literary fiction, and moving into translated crime is a brilliant idea. I’m guessing that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is a one-off. I’ve already heard good things about Vertigo, the novel that inspired Hitchcock’s films, and Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, an Austrian novelist. Also, let me emphasize once more that this is entirely my own opinion; just because I have a hard time with novels that feel like diagrams doesn’t mean that everyone does, and as puzzles go, this one is fiendish, complex and probably quite satisfying. It wasn’t for me, but I’d love to have a look at some of the other Vertigo titles and see if one of them is.