August Superlatives

Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.

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easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)

weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.

best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.

most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)

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most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.

most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.

most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.

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breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.

most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.

best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy (best.brother.ever.) and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.

up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…

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April Superlatives

April was a good month in numbers (seventeen), a decent month in quality, a month that I have decided I should not attempt to repeat. I got a lot of proofs from the bookshop, probably too many: there were piles on my desk at work, piles on the desk at home, and a kind of grit-my-teeth determination to get through them all before May. The vast majority of them were very good, but that still seems, in retrospect, like an awfully joyless way to read. It also meant that I burnt out on reviewing less than halfway through the month. In May I’ll be reining it in. Which is handy, since I’ll have friends and family visiting, some singing to do, and zero free time.

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most essential: If you like books or use the Internet—and, since you just read that on a website devoted to books, this means you—you need to read The Idealist, by Justin Peters. In part it’s an intellectual biography of data freedom activist Aaron Swartz, in part a tour of historic attitudes to copyright, freedom of information, and open access to literature and other works of culture. If you’re a writer, a reader, a citizen, this is fundamental, and it taps into every other contemporary political issue that there is. (review)

best exposition of little-known history: The fact that there are true things we don’t know about because they’re too weird or peripheral to make it into school history curricula is a source of neverending fascination for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots follows a young, idealistic American woman who moves to the USSR in the 1930s, and tracks the life she lives there, all but abandoned by the US government, as purges start to get worse. It’s a compelling, if somewhat overlong, exploration of choice, dogma, and what it means to be free. (review)

best punch to the stomach: Almost literally; One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel, is under two hundred pages and focuses on the interactions between an abusive father and his two adolescent sons. Magariel compassionately illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of “being a man” in a world that prioritises violence and loyalty above all else. (review)

best application of essential thoughts: Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, is dedicated in part to Aaron Swartz. Set eighty-odd years in the future, it speculates about a wholesale rejection of late-stage capitalism enabled by 3-D printers, widespread tech smarts, a communal mindset, and the fact that the 1% has become the .001%. When a walkaway group discovers a technology for cheating death, all hell breaks loose. Doctorow believes we’ll create the world that we imagine, and he wants us to imagine a cooperative one. It made me feel very hopeful. (review)

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sheerest fun: Volume 2 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s barnstorming space opera graphic novel. In this one, we get more of The Will and Lying Cat—two of my absolute faves—beautifully rendered interactions between Alana and her father-in-law, a planet that hatches, and (finally) the appearance of Gwendolyn. It’s slick, funny, and superb.

most fuck-the-patriarchy: Maria Turtschaninoff’s YA fantasy novel Naondel, the follow-up to last year’s Maresi. Men in general don’t come off well—they’re all evil, weak-willed, arrogant, or all of the above—which does its young readers a disservice; Maresi took care to state that men aren’t inherently bad, a more nuanced approach that showed more respect for an adolescent’s intellect. Still, Naondel is full both of badass women and of women who’ve been badly hurt but not broken. That’s a great big middle finger to oppressive tyrants everywhere. (review)

most self-aware memoir: Admissions, English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s second book. Marsh is completely honest about his personal faults, which largely neutralises them; he is forthright about the problems that beset the NHS, and clearly fiercely proud of his colleagues, and of the institution as it was originally conceived. He writes a lot in this second volume about aging and death, too, without either sentimentality or cynicism. His voice is wry and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

most diffuse: Sympathy, a debut novel by Olivia Sudjic, published by ONE Pushkin. I liked it well enough, but I finished it unsure of whether Sudjic had actually done anything particularly interesting with her major theme—the ease with which one can stalk and create a false sense of intimacy, using the tools of social media—or whether she had simply used it to tell a fairly conservative story of the need for origins and belonging.

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most unexpected pleasure: That derived from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Going in with no expectations was probably wise; it’s a surprisingly wistful novel, full of marital affection that is no less honest for being presented side-by-side with selfishness and existential terror.

best retelling: Colm Toibin’s reclamation of the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story from ancient Greece, House of Names. Toibin nails the bare-bones, primeval nature of the story and simultaneously brings us into the heads of absolutely single-minded characters. My only query is whether he gives quite enough weight to religious belief: the younger characters are convinced the gods are not there, but Agamemnon must have thought they were, and we don’t get enough of that (or a good reason to decide that he’s merely a nihilistic child-murdering monster.)

best murder: Two, actually—the deaths in Sarah Schmidt’s historical novel about Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done. And by “best” I mean “most horribly described without being gratuitously gory” and “motives for which explored with the greatest delicacy and surprising artistry”. Turns out Schmidt can really, really write, and she cleverly resists the temptation to pinpoint the nature of Lizzie’s mental health problems, making for a gloriously uneasy reading experience.

most wasted opportunity: Queer City, subtitled “a history of gay London from the Romans to the present”, Peter Ackroyd’s latest. To paraphrase what I said in an earlier discussion, Ackroyd fails on two counts: a) to provide much in the way of sources (there’s a bibliography in the back, but he usually just recounts an anecdote without saying where or who it comes from, and without appearing to analyse the source), and b) to create anything like a narrative or a sense of development around the history of gay London. It’s all just event, event, event—court case, scandal, ballad, gossip, hanging—with no framing of these events in a wider context, no attempt more than cursory to explore social and political currents that might suggest why things changed when. And although the book purports to be about the city, it doesn’t really convey a sense of why or how gay culture flourished specifically in London.

best insults: To be found in The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to The Glorious Heresies, which won her the Baileys Prize last year. In this volume, we follow one of the characters we met previously, Ryan Cusack. A few years down the line, he’s twenty and dealing drugs, and his girlfriend Karine, who means everything to him, is starting to lose patience. McInerney ties in many of the characters we met in Heresies, but this time the atmosphere is darker: there are more beatings, a mock-execution. There’s still humour, though, and the insults are fabulous (“his head is just something that keeps his ears apart” being one of my favourites). I’m just not sure it rises to the heights of Heresies, but I can’t put my finger on why.

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hands-down favourite: I liked a lot of the books I read in April, but none of them are going to stay with me like The Fact of a Body. Written by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a qualified lawyer with an MFA, it’s part true crime narrated in flawless novelistic prose, part attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Marzano-Lesnevich’s own abusive past. She does this by facing their echoes in the case of Ricky Langley, who admitted to killing a little boy called Jeremy Guillory in 1993. It’s a stunning piece of work: never sensationalistic, never sentimental, always sharply intelligent about the law and human nature, and yet full of understanding. I absolutely adored it. I want it to be huge.

most unabashed comfort reading: Turns out these days, when I need to recharge my brain, I go for spies and murder. (This is why I think I’m getting old. Isn’t this what old people do? Curl up with a cosy mystery and a crossword? At least I don’t do crosswords.) Fortunately neither of these were especially cosy: not Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the second in the Slough House books, nor Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of her Dublin Murder Squad books, this one set in a girl’s school. Dead Lions isn’t quite as good as Slow Horses: the wisecracking humour starts to wear thin, and the plot is, frankly, farcical and unnecessary (no one cares about the Cold War anymore, and trying to revive it – especially after Herron put his finger on the pulse in terms of real national security trends in his first book – seems like a misguided attempt to cash in on Le Carre comparisons.) But The Secret Place is, I think, one of French’s best books, because it is so explicit about the things that interest her as an author: friendship as an almost mystical force, and what happens when that force is subjected to outside influences, what happens when loving people isn’t enough. Reading it almost felt like relief: she’s a writer I trust implicitly.

most unexpected surprise: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s new novel, which I’ll be reviewing very soon. It starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a Peak District village, and promptly fails to fulfill every one of our expectations about stories that start with the disappearance of a young girl. It’s also the best evocation I have ever read of modern English village life.

up next: I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, with almost equal measures of enjoyment and mild confusion, as Miéville’s fiction tends to make me feel. For the rest of the month, I’ve got some fantastic proofs, including Tench by Inge Schilperoord, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, and The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 4: Flint

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Little Deaths, by Emma Flint

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Little Deaths is based on the real-life murder of two children in 1965, in Queens, New York, and the subsequent police investigation, which focused heavily on their mother, Alice Crimmins. Flint’s character is named Ruth Malone, but everything about her is Crimmins-esque: the fact that she is separated from her husband; her public persona (flirtatious to men; indifferent to most women); and, of course, her identity as a “striking, slender, redheaded cocktail waitress”. We know that she is these things because the newspapers that report on the murders of her children use no other words when they talk about her—and they talk about her a lot. The whole project of Little Deaths is to be a condensed cry of outrage at a police force and a tabloid media that, when faced with a woman who defies their expectations of femininity—and in particular of motherhood—respond by villainizing her, despite the utter lack of evidence against her.

Flint knows her noir tropes, and she uses them with contagious glee: who wouldn’t smirk with recognition at the crusty, cynical newspaper boss Friedemann, or at the fresh-faced young reporter Pete Wonicke, or at slimeball mafioso Lou Gallagher? Like most recognisable character types in genre fiction, these ones function as signposts: they let us know exactly what kind of a book we’re in.For a while, I found this superficially fun but, on a deeper level, a bit wearying. If we’re meant to be struck—as we clearly are—by the poisonous hatred of women that infects head detective Devlin’s campaign against Ruth, and by the more cynical casual misogyny of Friedemann and Wonicke’s newspaper, and by Lou Gallagher’s systematic misuse of women, well, we are; we could hardly not be, given how frequently Devlin spews words like “bitch” and “whore”, and how often we get to see the newspaper stories about the investigation. All of it walks a fine line between convincing characterisation of awful people, and outright caricature. Sometimes it tips over; an overheard conversation between Devlin and his deputy, Quinn, shows us just how much he values the presentation of male control (he rebukes Quinn for having an unironed shirt, not because it’s sloppy per se but because it suggests that he can’t get his wife or mother to take good enough care of him, which, obviously, makes him less of a man and therefore less worthy of respect). The conversation does what it’s meant to— shows us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run—but it does that with all the seams showing. The fact that I read it and instantly thought, This is here to show us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run says a lot.

Pete Wonicke is where Flint complicates things. He’s presented to us in the way that you present characters whom you want your readers to like: a guy from the sticks making his way in the big city, feeling vaguely guilty about leaving his mother, pursuing his dream of big-city journalism. And yet there are little details that feel undeniably weird: he fixates on Ruth from the start, not as a villain but as a Not Like Other Girls girl. He stakes out her apartment on his own time; when she appears in the window, he is aroused and ends up masturbating when he returns home. When he’s asked, late on in the book, how well he knows Ruth, he says “We’re…close”, though the extent of his interaction with her is one interview, and that one supervised. It’s a moment that throws the reader (are they close? Is there something we’ve missed?), and that serves to massively complicate Pete’s good-guy status. (Assuming, that is, that the wanking and the stalking haven’t already been dubious enough for you.) How we’re meant to feel about Pete is really only clarified by the ending—and I really mean the ending, like the very last page—which serves up a narrative choice that pleased me very much, and was certainly less expected than the eventual revelation of the killer.

In fact, the least successful aspect of the book is the one in which it is a crime thriller. This is kind of ironic for something that identifies itself so thoroughly as noir, but it’s true: apart from the fact that we’re pretty sure Ruth didn’t do it, we get nothing that even remotely resembles the sowing of clues or motive pointing towards someone else. When the killer is revealed, their identity is not that surprising, but only because if you look at the situation objectively—and discount Ruth—there is an obvious answer. The revelation is a problem in another way, too: we haven’t been given enough information about the character who is the murderer to have any feelings about them, one way or the other; we can be neither shocked nor satisfied. The blandness of this character is obviously meant to be a counterpoint to the fact that they turn out to be a cold-blooded child-killer, but I can’t help feeling I’d have cared more if Flint had constructed an actual personality, had pushed us towards actually approving of the character instead of merely being indifferent.

And that goes for the novel as a whole, I think. It’s an admirable project and it fits right into the spirit of our times: to show how, within living memory, women who deviated from a narrow range of accepted normality were treated with breathtaking injustice and real evil was allowed to flourish. But as readers, we always know whose side we’re meant to be on, and it is always clear that the characters who denigrate Ruth are cruel and wrong. If Flint had complicated that—if she had, even for a moment, caused us to feel some of that disgust and rage at Ruth, and then to recognise our own complicity in a brutal system—this book would come much closer to challenging that system. As it is, it’s good, but it’s preaching to the choir.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Little Deaths is published by Picador, and is available in hardback.

February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: The Pledge

pledgeShiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s detective novel The Pledge, reissued by Pushkin Vertigo and made into a movie a few years ago starring Jack Nicholson and my beloved Robin Wright. Dürrenmatt challenges the very foundations of the detective genre, in a short novel about an obsessed policeman whose strict adherence to “the rules of the game” still isn’t enough to overcome the factor of random chance that inheres in all criminal investigations. It’s atmospheric, postmodern, and highly tricksy:

In a mountainous Swiss canton not far from Zurich, a little girl’s body is found. She is only seven or eight, with blonde braids and wearing a distinctive red skirt. She has been murdered, brutally, with a straight razor. It’s the last day on the job for Inspector Matthäi, of the Zurich police: he is about to be seconded to Amman as a consultant working on the reform of the Jordanian police system. He does the necessary preliminary work, then hands over the case and prepares to fly out the next day. But the girl—Gritli Moser—haunts him. At the airport, he can’t bring himself to board the plane; instead he rushes back to Zurich, determined to bring Gritli’s killer to justice. The fact that someone has already been arrested, confessed, and hanged himself in his jail cell doesn’t matter to Matthäi; he believes the man was innocent. The rest of Dürrenmatt’s novel recounts Matthäi’s increasingly desperate attempts to find the real killer.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Clinch, by Martin Holmén

My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside.

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It’s Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1930s. Harry Kvist (“Kvisten”, or “twig”, to his friends, in what can only be irony) is an ex-sailor, ex-boxer, currently a heavyman-cum-debt-collector for whoever wants to hire him. He’s also skilled at tracking down unfaithful spouses, prostitutes, and teenaged runaways. When we first meet him, he is descending on the apartment of the hapless Zetterberg, who has defaulted on a loan. He scares Zetterberg, roughs him up a little, says he’ll come back for the payment tomorrow. So far, so good. But when he comes back, he finds Zetterberg murdered, and himself a person of interest in the inquiry. He’s released after the evidence of Zetterberg’s neighbour clears him, but the police know Kvist rather too well already, and they’re happy to take him in again if they can’t turn up anyone else. He’d rather not have them anywhere near his personal life, so the novel turns into a familiar path for the contemporary thriller: innocent man seeks to save his own skin by uncovering the real wrong-doer.

The reason the police know Kvist so well already is because he’s a practicing homosexual. (In point of fact, he’s bisexual, since he has an involved and very definitely sexual affair with a woman during the second half of the novel, but his relationship with Doris seems devoid of actual feeling. They fuck a lot, but the tumult and conflict of Kvist’s emotions are all directed towards men. It’s men with whom he shares the few moments in the book in which he shows tenderness.) The police have booked him twice, under what they refer to as “paragraph eighteen”—presumably, a Swedish anti-sodomy statute. The inspector who interviews him, Olsson, immediately makes clear his disgust and distaste for this “bloody homophile”, although he does have to grudgingly admit that Kvist is also a hard bastard.

Which he most certainly is. The front cover quote explicitly invites us to compare Holmén’s work with Raymond Chandler’s, which is a hell of an invitation but, as far as I can tell, a completely legitimate one. (Now is probably the time to mention that I have never read Chandler, but I have: listened to Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir segments since I was six years old; read the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Calvin pretends to be a P.I.; and seen a fair few gangster movies. I feel like the lineaments of the noir genre are pretty well known, anyway.) Clinch commits, with manic glee, to its own atmosphere: it’s set in a perpetually snowy Stockholm winter, full of dark back alleys, shack-like tenement flats, and underground nightclubs for the consumption of illegal liquor. (Prohibition-era Stockholm is basically Prohibition-era Chicago.) Kvist, while not given to quite the level of throwaway wisecracks that we expect from Chandler’s protagonists, is a wryly sarcastic, enjoyably cynical narrator. He is much given to punching people’s lights out while detailing the gruesome shifting of bones in his hand as he connects. As an ex-boxer, he lives by sporting metaphors, and his stock of experience gives him an air of dangerous, world-weary authority as he explains street fighting to us:

I close my eyes, inhale what feels like an ice block, and listen. I’ve had to trust in my hearing many times when I was on the ropes, when the swelling around my eyes was such that I couldn’t even orient myself, or when I was blinded by blood or sweat.

Like many a detective, Kvist also has an alcohol problem and is terrible at relationships—in his case, a wife and daughter set sail for America at least ten years ago, but he has not followed them—but this is all complicated by his sexuality. Sweden actually legalised same-sex intercourse in 1944, and has in general been in the forefront of international LGBT rights during the twentieth century, but this story is happening in the 1930s and so Kvist must still cruise in silence and in danger. Although that is somewhat misleading; in most of the encounters he has, he is the danger. The first sex scene takes place less than thirty pages into the book and ends with Kvist punching into unconsciousness the boy who’s just sucked him off. In this combination of hypermasculine aggressive violence with queer sexuality, Kvist reminded me forcefully of Weeper in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings: here’s another man who both reinforces and challenges “manliness”. Later, when he first has a sex scene with his mistress, Doris Steiner, the atmosphere is just as violent: from both sides, there are punches, slaps, bloody noses, hair-pulling. Where Holmén is maybe more modern than Chandler is in his willingness to write in detail about the mechanics of fucking itself; some of these scenes border on the pornographic, which is to say that they are excellent, evocative, achieve what they set out to do, and had me bending the pages away from people on the Tube.

Doris is a fascinating creation: she’s the classic noir dame, the bored hot wife of a rich man. She’s also an alcoholic and a heroin addict, and a former film star. We know from the start that there is something off about her, about the way that she meets Kvist: supposedly she has come to him for proof that her maid is thieving from her jewellery box, but she doesn’t seem terribly concerned, and after they fall into bed, we hear no more about it. When she tells Kvist a little more about her life and history, he seems to take it more or less at face value, which is surprising given his cynicism up to now. Is he blinded by lust, or does his indifference to her mean he doesn’t see her as a potential threat? (Or both?) Either way, alarm bells have started ringing for the reader now: surely Doris isn’t all she appears…

Indeed, she isn’t, though not quite in the way I had hoped. Still, the ending is delightfully, unabashedly melodramatic, with its tense showdown in an opulent setting, the iniquities of the rich and powerful finally entered into the ledger of justice. (Even if that justice happens to be extrajudicial.) It’s strong stuff, but Clinch is a fabulously classy twist on pulp fiction: it’ll be a top-notch summer book for readers looking for something diverting but smart, as long as they don’t mind a little blood and bonking.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Vertigo for the review copy. Clinch is published in the UK on 20 May.

January: That Which Was Not Reviewed

I did a new thing this month, which was to alternate reading books I Had To Review (because I had promised I would) with books that I Did Not Have To Review (because I had chosen them myself, been given them as presents, etc.) It was a most effective way of tunneling through the great January heap of review books, and I’m going to try to keep it up. The downside is that half of the stuff I read, I’ve already written about, so January Superlatives seem kind of pointless. Instead, here’s an overview of what I read and didn’t talk about:

Ancillary JusticeAncillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie.

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I read all three of these and loved them. Their main character is a fragment of an AI system; now known as Breq, her consciousness confined to a single body like a human, she used to be the computer-mind of a spaceship, Justice of Toren, with thousands of soldier-bodies that she could use however she liked. The catastrophe that reduced her to just one body, twenty-five years ago, was precipitated by her head of government, Anaander Mianaai, who also has a nearly infinite store of bodies, and who is suffering from what you might call split personality disorder. Civil war is the natural result. Ancillary Justice won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Arthur C Clarke Award, which is just ridiculous–like a book winning the Booker, the Baileys, and the Costa Book of the Year Awards, all at once. Leckie’s success is richly deserved: the books are lucid but full of detail. There’s also an interesting linguistic trick whereby the dominant language, Radchaai, doesn’t mark gender, so it’s never clear whether any of the protagonists are male or female. (You can sort of guess at a few of them, but the point is that it’s not relevant. Stereotypical “male” and “female” behaviour, clothing and hairstyles are culturally relative depending on which planet you’re on, anyway, and hence not reliable guides.) The default pronoun is also always “she”. It’s such a small thing, but it changes how you see this entire universe. It’s also classic space opera. Amazing, addictive stuff. I read each book in a day.

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke.

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One of the books Dad got me this Christmas, which I reached for when I’d read three review books in a row and my brain was reaching the consistency of a saturated sponge. I wanted something where I could rely on the quality of the writing while also relaxing into a primarily plot-driven narrative, and this, I knew, Attica Locke could deliver. Her second novel, The Cutting Season, is set on a Louisiana plantation, Belle Vie, which has found a second life as a sort of antebellum Disneyland: Civil War buffs and parties of bored school children take tours round it, and it has a thriving sideline as a venue for wedding receptions and corporate dinners. When a woman–a Mexican migrant worker from the huge agribusiness farm next door–is found with her throat slit on Belle Vie’s property line, Caren Gray, the estate’s manager and descendant of slaves who worked this land, must find the killer before suspicion falls on her or her employees. It’s a book unafraid to tackle huge issues: agribusiness and slavery, but also the long shadow of racism (Caren’s white employees, the Clancys, who’ve known her since she was a child, keep reminding her to be grateful to them; Donovan, the prime suspect, is a young African-American man, all too easy to profile), as well as the difficulties of raising a child whose father you are no longer in a relationship with, and the painful pride of the working class (when Caren, as a young woman, found out that her tuition at Tulane was being paid for by the Clancys, she left school rather than owe them any more.) Locke is a fluid writer; pages, even chapters, whizz by, but you never feel short-changed or as though the plot is fluffy. She’s a serious, and seriously good, crime writer; no wonder Black Water Rising, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang.

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As far from an easy ride as it gets; I was inspired to read this by going to hear Han talk at Foyle’s about her most recently translated novel, Human Acts, about the Gwangju massacre in the 1970s. The Vegetarian was released in English by Portobello Books earlier in 2015, sensitively translated (as Human Acts is) by Deborah Smith. At its most basic level of plot, it is about a woman, Yeong-hye, who, after years of being a passive housewife, decides she is no longer going to eat any meat. In Korea this is a somewhat bigger deal than it might be in the UK or the US, in part because meat comprises such a huge part of the national diet. But it’s clear that Yeong-hye’s rebellion disturbs the people in her life—mostly men—for another reason too, which is that it’s an assertion of her control over her own body, and thereby a denial of anybody else’s control. The first section of the book culminates in an act of violence that her own father perpetrates against her in an attempt to force meat into her mouth; she responds with a swift suicide attempt, is restrained and hospitalised, and her husband seeks a divorce. Vegetarianism isn’t where it ends; she eventually won’t eat or drink anything at all, and keeps trying to take her clothes off in the sunlight, and it becomes slowly, gradually clear that she is essentially trying to photosynthesise. She doesn’t want to be a human any more. There’s a lot more to this novel, which is slim but absolutely explosive: there’s a whole middle section involving a video art project, nudity, and painted flowers, which somehow—miraculously—manages to avoid any hint of D.H. Lawrence; there’s Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, who cares for her even as she slips in and out of consciousness in a secure unit; there are the horrifying dreams Yeong-hye has, which melt into what seem to be memories of her childhood, her father violently abusive, though only to her. There is so much to unpack here, all of it delicately rendered and intensely disturbing. Highly, highly recommended.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe.

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Howe’s had a lot of publicity recently, with many an Establishment asshat contending that she can’t possibly have won the TS Eliot Prize because she’s any good at poetry; no, it’s probably because she’s young, erudite, beautiful, and mixed-race (snort!gasp!wheeze!) I read a Guardian review of Loop of Jade before reading the book itself, and I was braced for irritating, unnecessary polysyllables, but fuck me, was I ever blown away instead. If you lift almost any line of poetry out of context and say it sneeringly, it can sound ridiculous; the work of TS Eliot himself is proof of this. (“Do I dare to eat a peach?” indeed.) Howe’s lines, in their contexts, are allusive, balanced, rich, conversational enough to make sense without ever sounding merely conversational, if you see what I mean. It’s a genuinely impressive collection; not one of these poems feels thin or glib or weak or pointless, which is something I cannot say of either of the collections of Don Paterson or Michael Symmons Roberts that I have read in the past eighteen months, much though I admire them both. And, for a collection that is touted as being Very Much About a mixed-race legacy, it is somehow about more than that; you can draw things from it about coming to terms with your identity, your history (as mediated by your parents), full stop. The horrors in which you are implicated merely by blood; the traumas of which you are forced to be, on some level, a victim, or a consequence, likewise. It’s terrific poetry, and the way it’s been received in the national press is a breathtaking reminder of how racist and sexist the literary establishment still is.

and now I am reading:

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson, the first volume of his Baroque trilogy. It is basically the entire late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, condensed into 900+-page novel form, and there are two more after this one. I am as happy as a pig in the proverbial unmentionable substance.

Also, to be reviewed soon, Atticus Lish’s Preparations for the Next Life, out in paperback from Oneworld (the folks who brought you Marlon James, so it’s bound to be good.)