2016’s Dishonourable Mentions

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

the-expatriates

The Expatriates, by Janice Lee

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

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

9780804141321Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

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

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

ten daysTen Days, by Gillian Slovo

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

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

9781408862445The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

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

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

51n8dqdd2wlRaw Spirit, by Iain Banks

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

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

9781784630485The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

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

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

c836babd417bc41a990f6a706700b1b5Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

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

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

51fxpzhkbwlThe Countenance Divine, by Michael Hughes

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

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

9781784630850The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

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

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

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

Ten Days, by Gillian Slovo

The attached photographs catalogue the spread of disturbances in the immediate surrounds of the Rockham police station.

ten days

Whenever the word “timely” is used to describe a book, I get a tiny bit suspicious. Without the vantage point of history, after all, it can be extremely difficult to work out whether—timely or not—something is simply of its time, by which I mean something tied so closely to a certain period and political circumstances that it becomes a set piece. How do you write a novel about current events without making your book a ripped-from-the-headlines rehash of the newspapers of the day? How do you balance authenticity with the inherent artifice of fiction?

Gillian Slovo has written many novels, but she’s also the author of two plays, and in writing those plays she dealt with this problem by, to a large extent, ignoring it. Both Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom (2006) and The Riots (2011) are compiled from interview transcripts; every word in them was said by someone in real life at some point. It’s a technique that you might recognise from the astonishing musical-turned-movie London Road. The artifice is in the arrangement, in the way that the playwright chooses some lines and not others, where she puts them and in reaction to what. The thing is that although that works brilliantly for a play, which is, when you strip it down to its skeleton, all dialogue and movement, I’m not sure it works quite as well for a novel.

Ten Days was inspired by Slovo’s experience writing The Riots, which was in turn inspired by the Tottenham riots of the summer of 2011. It’s not verbatim theatre: the borough where it’s set is carefully fictional, as are all the characters, including the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. If anything, that’s the problem; the politicians are venal and stupid in a particularly broad sort of way that only fictional politicians can be. Real-life ones can be just as venal and stupid, as the new budget demonstrates with depressing clarity, but they tend to be more complicated, their motives either less clear to themselves or more murky and nuanced than this novel will allow for. People are already talking about turning Ten Days into a mini-series, which I think illuminates a lot about both the characterisation (politicians BAD; policemen EMBATTLED and COMPROMISED; council estate residents GOOD) and about the pacing (snappy, time-stamped jump cuts between South London, the Met Office, Parliament, and Downing Street.) It’s the same sort of structure as John Lanchester’s Capital and we seem to like that: London in vignettes, diversity in half a dozen lives. See also Love Actually.

To be fair, Slovo does invest the human drama of Ten Days with real poignancy. The catalyst for the violence is the death of a mentally disturbed young man of colour while being restrained by police at a meeting in Rockham community centre. We see the incident through the eyes of Cathy Mason, a single mother living on the Lovelace estate with her daughter Lyndall (who is mixed-race but doesn’t know who her father is, not because Cathy doesn’t know but because Cathy won’t tell her). Cathy’s already witnessed one incident on Rockham high street between the police and the young man now dead—Ruben, who lives with his parents and seems to suffer some kind of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s stopped by the police as part of an initiative to discourage young men from wearing their hoodies up on the street, but the police don’t know the neighbourhood and don’t know Ruben, and they interpret his fear as recalcitrance, and then as aggression. Cathy only just intervenes before they move in on him—and later, in the community centre, she doesn’t get there in time and the worst does happen. Through Cathy’s gentle dealings with Ruben, and through the local pastor, Reverend Pius Batcher, who organizes a peaceful vigil in Ruben’s memory, you see the strength of community in these old city neighbourhoods. It’s this level of connection and understanding amongst neighbours that rising rents and urban renewal programs are steadily destroying. (Search for any East End postcode in Rightmove or Zoopla and you’ll have some sense of what I mean, though it’s not just a London problem.)

There is also a certain level of interest in Slovo’s portrayal of the Met. She has a new commissioner, Joshua Yares, starting on the very day the riots begin (the poor sod. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that is one hell of a coincidence.) Yares was backed by the Prime Minister, against the Home Secretary’s wishes, which means he is, in the public’s eyes, the PM’s man. His options are simple: get the riots under control, or resign. Of course, the circumstances mean that resuming control is not nearly as simple as it should be, and one of the places where the novel is successfully nuanced is in how it apportions blame for the difficulty in restoring order. The police on the streets are short-staffed, most of them haven’t received enough riot training, and there’s a distinct lack of equipment, all of which is due to budget cuts pushed through by the Government. On the other hand, many of the coppers meant to be maintaining good relations with the community are arrogant, tactless, or just staggeringly incompetent. When Ruben’s grieving parents go with Reverend Pius to ask for answers at Rockham police station, they’re left on a chair in the waiting room for hours with no communication from station staff. It’s amazingly bad politics; it also hardly qualifies as basic human decency.

Where Ten Days loses me is in its political scenes. Peter Whiteley, the Home Secretary, and his rivalry with the Prime Minister, seem strangely cardboard: not only in comparison to the burning and looting going on just across the river, but in their private lives and motivations as well. There is, of course, a grubby extra-marital affair; there is, of course, blackmail; there is, of course, a political career going down in spectacular, flaming style. The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.

Slovo’s writing isn’t bad at all, but it is very utilitarian. Which isn’t to say that it’s ruthlessly efficient or dry; it just does what it does. It sketches the characters, it conveys the dialogue, it advances the plot. All of these are things that you want your writing to be able to do. It’s just that, as a reader, I like it when writing does a little bit more. When I was searching for a quotation from Ten Days to headline this review, I couldn’t really find one; there was no sentence or paragraph that seemed extricable, that stood out in any way or seemed to contain the kernel of the novel in itself. In the end, I borrowed a sentence from one of the police reports with which Slovo punctuates each chapter. That fact alone probably says more about the kernel of the novel than any other sentence I could have selected.

Thanks very much to Jaz Lacey-Campbell at Canongate for the review copy. Ten Days was released in the UK on 3 March.