Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Tightrope, by Simon Mawer

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month.


My latest review for them is of Simon Mawer’s Cold War espionage novel Tightrope, which I was really impressed with: a simmering political atmosphere to rival Le Carre, emotional damage to rival Graham Greene (only with more sex), and no feeling of anachronism. A heartily recommended smart summer read:

Simon Mawer’s novel Tightrope (Little Brown, June 2015) belongs to a rare breed: the spy story that works by way of a slow burn, the thriller that takes its time. Its main character, Marian Sutro, is a 22-year-old Special Ops recruit and survivor of Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp specifically for and run by women; we first meet her as she is being returned to England, where neither her commanding officers nor her parents have the faintest idea what to do with her. Her experiences of arrest, torture and the camp are so utterly beyond civilian comprehension, and the middle-class British milieu so deeply invested in not talking about things and ‘getting on’, that it could hardly be otherwise.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Tender, by Belinda McKeon

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month.

Here’s a taster for my latest review, of Belinda McKeon’s superb new novel Tender:

Belinda McKeon’s first novel, Solace, won the Geoffrey Faber prize and established her as an Irish writer to watch closely. Her follow-up, Tender (Picador, June 2015) is an emotionally literate exploration of the ties that bind—delightfully, painfully, never simply—two friends in ‘90s Dublin, and the pressures exerted upon them by their environment. It is also perhaps the most agonizingly honest portrayal I’ve ever read of what it is like to be young and deeply, obsessively, pathologically in love.

I absolutely loved it. You can read the rest of the review here.

Book jacket

May Superlatives

I only managed seven books in May, but given that I started a new job this month and have been sorting out commuting logistics, I don’t think that’s so bad. More importantly, they’ve all been excellent in their own ways. Links to reviews where applicable. (I didn’t manage many of those, either. Whoops.)

oddest effect: The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall. I loved Hall’s latest novel, The Wolf Border, and wanted to see what some of her earlier stuff was like. This was her second book, released in 2004, about a boy who apprentices to a tattoo artist in Morecambe Bay, and who becomes a tattoo artist in his own right on Coney Island, in New York. It simultaneously draws you towards the protagonist and brings a veil of opacity over him; I never felt quite sure that I knew who he or any of the characters actually were. A beautiful book, but a disorienting one.

most physically nauseating: The Beginning of the End, by Ian Parkinson. This book is full of descriptions of horrifying sex, rotting food, physical illness and decay, and it’s amazingly good. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you aren’t thoroughly revolted by it, it will reward you.

most drop-dead gorgeous: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. Dillard writes sentences like she’s stroking a wildcat with the back of her hand. I can’t describe her prose better than that. The rhythm of it is part Shakespeare, part incantation, part sex. It will undo you.

most thoroughly engrossing world: Grits, by Niall Griffiths. Never before, and never again, I imagine, will I find Welsh skagheads so endearing, so funny, so terribly sad, and such good company. Grits is totally gripping and is very unfairly compared to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting; personally, I think Griffiths is better.

most gut-wrenching: A return of this category, the honour of which goes to Tender, by Belinda McKeon. It’s her second novel, and chronicles the friendship between Catherine and James, two eighteen-year-olds in ‘90s Dublin. James is gay, and suffers the agony of having to hide his sexuality; Catherine, equally agonizingly, falls in love with him, and makes terrible decisions. Very powerful, very honest, and reviewed by me in Quadrapheme on 4 June!

most unabashedly comforting: Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s irreverent musings have been standard comfort-reading fare since pre-adolescence, and this one, an account of a journey around continental Europe, is particularly wonderful. I read it in one sitting over a bank holiday weekend chez les Revered Ancestors.

most pleasantly surprising: Tightrope, by Simon Mawer. A Quadrapheme read, detailing the WWII and Cold War espionage adventures of Marian Sutro, a survivor of the Nazi women’s concentration camp, Ravensbruck. Mawer was Booker Prize-shortlisted for a previous novel, but I had no idea this book was going to be so good. His  female protagonist is an actual individual—very damaged but very real—which is rare, especially in historical novels. Totally gripping; my hopes that it was going to be like a cross between Graham Greene and John Le Carre were realized.

next up: I’m almost finished with Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame)’s debut novel, Sharp Objects, which is amazingly disturbing. And if the Bailey’s Prize winner isn’t one I’ve already read, I’ll have to take care of that too…

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Best Books of May, Part One

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do forQuadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month. Here’s the first part of May’s list, featuring novels about a religious cult and a Spanish Civil War veteran’s suicide; nonfiction on global feminism and the unfairly forgotten Sir Thomas Browne; and a debut poetry collection by Anglo-Chinese Sarah Howe.


Upcoming Reviews!

I’ve committed to a lot of reviews lately, either by accepting books offered directly from publishing houses or by seeing things in catalogues that look promising, and requesting them. This list is, at least partially, designed in order to help me keep them straight in my own head. Herewith, all of the books that I’ll review over at Quadrapheme and Shiny New Books, for the next two months or so, and the two books that I’ve absolutely committed to reviewing for this blog.

In Elle Thinks:

  • Girl At War, Sara Nović (Little, Brown, 12 May—review scheduled for 24 May)

This is Little, Brown’s lead debut fiction title this season, and they’re really pushing it hard. Here’s the back cover copy:

Growing up in Zagreb in the summer of 1991, 10-year-old Ana Jurić is a carefree tomboy; she runs the streets with her best friend, Luka, helps take care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But when civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, football games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills.

The brutal ethnic cleansing of Croats and Bosnians tragically changes Ana’s life, and she is lost to a world of genocide and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival. Ten years later she returns to Croatia, a young woman struggling to belong to either country, forced to confront the trauma of her past and rediscover the place that was once her home.

Nović is also only twenty-six, so it’s no wonder she’s being pronounced a bit of a wunderkind. Quadrapheme will also be reviewing this, and I’ll be interested to see how our reviewer’s opinion compares with mine.

Salt’s marvelous publicist originally sent me the press release for this with the caveat “I won’t pretend this is a remotely cosy read.” Excellent! said I. Send it my way.

Visiting Thailand to marry a sex worker, Raymond is informed that his father’s body has been discovered in an isolated villa on the Belgian coast. While his bride embarks on a career in the Dutch and German porn industries, Raymond moves into the villa with the intention of renovating the property. Life by the sea, however, does not go according to plan.

In Quadrapheme:

This is precisely the sort of thing I want to be promoting; it’s a comic book and, I think, being marketed primarily to schoolchildren, but if independent reviews like Quadrapheme don’t help to spread the word about it, who will?

Strange Fruit vol. 1 is a collection of stories from African American history that exemplifies success in the face of great adversity. This unique graphic anthology offers historical and cultural commentary on nine uncelebrated heroes whose stories are not often found in history books. Among the stories included are: Henry ‘Box’ Brown, who escaped from slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia; Alexander Crummel and the Noyes Academy, the first integrated school in America, established in the 1830s; Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, a.k.a. the Black Cyclone, the first black champion in any sport; and Bass Reeves, the most successful lawman in the Old West. Written and illustrated by Joel Christian Gill, the diverse art beautifully captures the spirit of each remarkable individual and opens a window into an important part of American history.

  • Tender, Belinda McKeon (Picador, 4 June)

The description for this pushes so many buttons for me: young confused people, friendships, personal crises. Yupyupyup.

Catherine and James are as close as two friends could ever be. They meet in Dublin in the late 1990s, she a college student, he a fledgling artist – both recent arrivals from rural communities, coming of age in a city which is teeming—or so they are told—with new freedoms, new possibilities. Catherine has never met anyone quite like James. Talented, quick-witted, adventurous and charismatic, he helps Catherine to open her eyes, to take on life with more gusto than she has ever before known how to do. But while Catherine’s horizons are expanding, James’s own life is becoming a prison: as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to be himself. Catherine desperately wants to help, but as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. And when crisis hits, Catherine must face difficult truths, not just about her closest bond, but about herself.

  • Tightrope, by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown, 4 June)

I’m hoping this will be a cross between Graham Greene and John Le Carré, and ideal summer reading.

Marian Sutro has survived Ravensbruck and is back in dreary 1950s London trying to pick up the pieces of her pre-war life. Returned to an England she barely knows and a post-war world she doesn’t understand, Marian searches for something on which to ground the rest of her life. Family and friends surround her and a young RAF officer attempts to bring her the normalities of love and affection, but she is haunted by her experiences and by the guilt of knowing that her contribution to the war effort helped lead to the development of the Atom Bomb. Where, in the complexities of peacetime, does her loyalty lie? When a mysterious Russian diplomat emerges from the shadows to draw her into the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Cold War she sees a way to make amends for the past and to renew the excitement of her double life.

In Shiny New Books:

Canongate was offering a sneak preview of this on their website a couple of weeks ago: the first ten pages or so available for free. I read them and was immediately hooked, and that doesn’t happen often.

From her very first day at Westwind Cremation & Burial, twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Doughty threw herself into the gruesome daily tasks of her curious new profession. From caring for bodies of all shapes and sizes, picking up corpses from the hospital morgue, sweeping ashes from the cremation machines (sometimes onto her clothes) and learning to deal with mourning families, Caitlin comes face-to-face with the very thing we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about: death. But as she started to wonder about the lives of those she cremated, and found herself confounded by people’s erratic reactions to death, Caitlin’s feelings began to evolve in unexpected ways. Now a licensed mortician, Caitlin tells the story of her fumbling apprenticeship with the dead. Exploring our death rituals—and those of other cultures—she pleads the case for healthier attitudes around death and dying. Full of bizarre encounters, gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), this illuminating account makes this otherwise terrifying subject urgent and fascinating.

  • The Honours, Tim Clare (Canongate, 2 April—review scheduled for end of June)

Not sure what to make of this one—a kind of classic-Doctor-Who-episode meets Neil Gaiman, perhaps? Chris Riddell has also compared it to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, and the thirteen-year-old heroine Delphine has gotten some very good press. Also, I suspect, a cracking summer read.

1935. Norfolk. War is looming in Great Britain and the sprawling country estate of Alderberen Hall is shadowed by suspicion and paranoia. Thirteen-year-old Delphine Venner is determined to uncover the secrets of the Hall’s elite society, which has taken in her gullible mother and unstable father. As she explores the house and discovers the secret network of hidden passages that thread through the estate, Delphine uncovers a world more dark and threatening than she ever imagined. With the help of head gamekeeper Mr Garforth, Delphine must learn the bloody lessons of war and find the soldier within herself in time to battle the deadly forces amassing in the woods…

April Superlatives

My reading in April has been so consistently good that I’ve had trouble thinking of positive categories that don’t all sound the same! Long may it continue. Links are to reviews where applicable.

most inspirational: a tie between Deep Lane, by Mark Doty, and All About Love, by bell hooks. Doty’s poetry is gorgeous and playful, and refreshed my interest in ignoring the rigidity of formal poetic boundaries; I reviewed it in Quadrapheme here. bell hooks is an author I had never read before now, and All About Love struck such a chord with me that I just couldn’t write about it. It’s a gauntlet thrown down to a generation defined by cynicism, the sort of challenge you want to rise to whilst still being afraid.

most philosophically worrisome: Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess. I read two Classics Challenge books this month, to make up for a grand zero in March. Burgess’s fat novel of Catholicism, morality, sexuality and the two World Wars was ideal Easter reading, but disquieting because it forces you to wonder what you would do in similar situations, and to realize that you probably wouldn’t be heroic.

guiltiest pleasure: Orient, by Christopher Bollen. Martin Cornwell reviewed this in Quadrapheme, and I took a copy from the launch party, for my own satisfaction. I finished it in two and a half days–it’s that addictive. A marvelous literary thriller that, as Martin says, transcends genre.


most impressively disturbing: The Beautiful Indifference, by Sarah Hall. Read all in a gulp on the Oxford Tube, on the way to an event at Foyle’s for the release of her new novel The Wolf Border. All of these stories are, in the best way, haunting, but the one that keeps coming back to me is the first in the collection, “Butcher’s Perfume”, which was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and, let’s be honest, probably should have won. (Hall won it a few years later anyway, for “Mrs. Fox”.)

most simpatico: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse. This debut novel of office-worker malaise and the myriad weirdnesses of being in your twenties pushed so many buttons for me. It’s also wonderfully rendered: Furse does a good line in detached, observational prose, which helps subtly but unmistakably to characterize her unnamed protagonist.

most straight-up infuriating: The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham. Another one for the Classics Challenge this month. I just. I’m sorry. I know that there are many excellent reasons to explore the character of a man who callously abandons his wife and family in order to pursue A Life Of Art Because He Is A Genius, but genius has been an excuse for far, far too long.

pleasantest surprise: Goblin Market (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Christina Rossetti. Having never read any Rossetti before (to speak of), I wasn’t sure what to expect–morbidity, mostly. There was plenty of that, but also plenty of unexpected sensuality. The title poem is extraordinary in its imagery and its intensity.

most earnest: On the Beach At Night Alone (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Walt Whitman. Here’s what I learned by reading this: I like Whitman a lot, but only in small doses. The problem is that he enjoys repetition too much, and some of his keystone phrases (“men and women”, “I have loved well”, literally anything to do with the sea or sailors) lose their potency when they’re right next to fifty other poems with the same keystones. Read Whitman poems one at a time, very gradually.

I just love this picture.

most unabashedly comforting: Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale. Comfort food for the soul: this collection of emails between two university friends as they embark on international adventures both professional and romantic was itself a gift from an old friend, and a fun, oddly soothing read.

greatest cause of head-on collisions with strangers: Shingle Street, by Blake Morrison. I kept stopping in the middle of carparks whilst reading this poetry collection, which is dangerous. Some of these poems are devastatingly clever, like “Wave”; some are small and self-contained, like “Happiness.” All are great. I can’t think of a poem in this collection I didn’t like.

all-around best: Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. I waited months to read this, and good Lord, was it ever worth it. A post-apocalyptic thriller that’s actually much more about relationships, resilience and missed opportunities. It’s so good.

most gut-wrenching: Girl At War, by young Croatian author Sara Novic, which I’ll be reviewing as part of Little Brown’s promotional blog tour (!) It’s a novel about the Balkan war in the early ’90s (something I have very vague, very early memories of, it being in the news in the States when I was a toddler. Not the parts that this novel covers; I don’t think I was really sentient until Kosovo happened in 1998, and Girl At War‘s most traumatic events occur in 1991.)

next up: Among others, The Electric Michelangelo, Sarah Hall’s Booker-Prize-shortlisted second novel, and Nights At the Circus, by Angela Carter, for May’s Classics Challenge.

There ain’t no party like a book launch party

(Title quote stolen shamelessly from the deathless anthem “S Club Party”, which had the distinction of being my favourite song for about two weeks when I was eight or so.)

I haven’t been around here much recently. Sorry. Easter holidays came and went, and I was in Hampshire/West Sussex with the Revered Ancestors, dealing with their ridiculous parish organ and seeing the gorgeous, elegant flower arrangements in the church and eating roast chicken. Then I was in London, seeing friends and going on a houseboat and drinking outrageously priced cocktails. Sometimes when you’re happy you don’t want to spend any time in front of a screen. Who knew, eh?

Last week, though, as a result of Quadrapheme’s growing profile and some fabulously nice publicists, I was at two book launch events—two! My first two, so I was both wickedly nervous and wasn’t quite sure what to wear. The first was in the top room of a pub in Farringdon. I was meant to be meeting one of Quadrapheme’s ace reviewers, the erudite and charming Martin Cornwell, outside the venue, so that we could go in together (there’s nothing less fun than entering, alone, a party where you only know one other person). That night I was staying at the Duchess’s house in North London, but she was tired out from our boating exertions earlier that day (can’t say I blame her; locks are hard work.) After some deliberation, I put on a black sleeveless dress, black flats, and lipstick, and wended my way to Farringdon.  (Though not before having the following conversation: “Okay, does it look like I have my shit together?” “Yeah. It’s kind of scary, actually.” “Good.”) Brilliantly, I turned the wrong way out of the station and walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction to the pub; by the time I worked out my mistake, the event was about to start. I hailed a cab from the street—something I’ve never done before in my life; it was rather exciting and professional-feeling—and texted Martin with apologies. He was waiting outside for his friend in any case, so we had ten minutes to kill before going in. His friend turned out to also be about six feet tall, so I spent most of the evening craning upwards.

The event itself was for a literary thriller called Orient, by the American arts journalist Christopher Bollen. Martin had read it, and will be reviewing it in Quadrapheme, but I hadn’t, so swiped a free copy from the mantelpiece as I was leaving. It really is good. Set in a tiny village on the tip of Long Island, it explores gentrification, small-town resentment and pettiness, and the New York art world, in a way that makes you both fascinated and repulsed. You wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters, really, with the possible exception of young Mills, the nineteen-year-old foster kid on whom the murders (there are lots of those) are pinned. It might give you an idea of how compelling I found it to say that it’s about six hundred pages long, and I finished it in two days. Stay tuned for Martin’s review! Also, although these things shouldn’t matter, the author is lovely. I was introduced to Christopher Bollen near the end of the event, and he immediately corralled me by the elbow, took me over to the wine table, and began to talk with great enthusiasm about his online Scrabble habit, which has, apparently, turned into an online chess habit. When I told him I played chess (I do, but I lose most of the time), he cried, “Well, you should play me!” Despite suspecting that he wouldn’t remember the conversation the next morning—there really was a lot of wine floating around—it was thoroughly charming.

The second event wasn’t a launch per se, but it was the only event that Sarah Hall is doing in London to promote her new novel, The Wolf Border. I absolutely loved the book, and her publicist at Faber was kind enough to send me two comps tickets to an “in conversation with” that she was doing at Foyles on Tuesday night. Since Darcy is from Cumbria, and the novel is set there (plus it’s Hall’s home county), he was my plus-one. Transport woes also stymied my arrival to this one: the coach from Oxford was badly delayed leaving, and when I finally got to the Central line, it was to discover that trains aren’t stopping at Tottenham Court Road all the way through 2015. Trying to get a taxi from Oxford Circus was a bust, too, since half of Oxford Street is shut to taxis due to Crossrail construction. My taxi driver only told me this after I’d gotten in. I swore a lot, and commiserated with him on all the fares he was losing as a result. He dropped me about two blocks from Tottenham Court Road and refused to let me pay him, which was rather kind. I practically sprinted to Foyles, and, panting, presented myself twenty minutes late to the front desk bookseller, who informed me that the event was on the sixth floor. I’m not proud of the fact that I then sighed, “Oh, fuuuuuck me”, although discovering the lifts improved my mood a bit.

After some rather embarrassing peering-about for Darcy, who had saved a seat for me but had then sat directly behind a large bank of A/V equipment, making him difficult to find, I slid into the seat next to him, grinned in what I hoped was an apologetic yet rakish manner, and paid attention to what was happening on stage.

Sarah Hall’s a very interesting human being. She doesn’t do tropes, really, or seem to subscribe to any of the things that people tell you about life experiences. This comes across most profoundly, for me, in the way that she writes sex and relationships. Sex in her books has this inconclusiveness that rings truer than all the myths we’ve ever been told about how “love actually” works. She also has a self-confessed obsession with realism and detail: the research for The Wolf Border involved her acquisition of an enormous encyclopaedia on lupine behaviour, from which, she says, she dropped far too many details into the first draft. (She insisted, however, on keeping the fact that wolves can swim eight miles. It is, admittedly, a pretty great fact.) She’s also wary of giving potted answers, which is absolutely wonderful in an author; there’s no glibness at all, no insincerity, no pomposity. A successful author without pomposity is a magical thing.

She also signed my copies of The Wolf Border and The Beautiful Indifference, a collection of her short stories published in 2011. I barely have any signed books, but the ones I do have—hers, and the entirety of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet plus Possession—are among my most treasured.

So, there we have it. Networking, wine drinking, question asking, book signing. More fun than an S Club Party any day, methinks.

Apt Reading for Holy Week

For choristers (like, ahem, me), the run-up to Easter is much more about singing than it is about reading. Good luck to you if you sing regularly and can get hold of a spare hour or so between Palm Sunday and Easter morning to chew up a novel (although the glorious Glinda, for one, has managed to go on tour, read a novel, and write a review of it for us at Quadrapheme, because she’s amazing.) This year is the first year for…a really long time…that I haven’t had a regular singing engagement somewhere. I hate it and will be finding somewhere new to sing should my proposed springtime move to London occur (fingers crossed). However, as a result, Holy Week has been all about them books.

The first half of the week was given over to Mark Doty’s new collection Deep Lane, which I’ll also be reviewing for Quadrapheme. I can’t give too much away here and now because, well, then you won’t read the proper review. Contemporary poetry is always difficult for me to start analyzing. I’m not quite sure why this is; possibly because the way I was taught to engage with poetry was formally, looking at its features and techniques. Much of contemporary poetry doesn’t yield to formal technique, or if it acknowledges it at all, it does so with an ironic smirk and twist. Doty’s work is wary of formal technique, but he has that ability to keep it all pinned together which I appreciate; he doesn’t do it through meter, but the lengths of his lines keep pace with each other, and his imagery is so direct, his voice so intimate and confiding.

Damn, there I go, writing the review! Anyway. On to book number two of this week: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, proof that a) when traveling I should always be made to keep a paperback in my shoulder bag, because b) if I don’t have one close to hand, I will go into a bookshop and buy one just for the purpose, never mind if I have two books in my suitcase already, because that suitcase will be on the luggage rack of the train for the duration of the journey and what will I read in the meantime, eh?? Answer: Earthly Powers. (At least I only bought one. In the past, as regular readers will know, travel paranoia has induced me to buy three at a time.)

Earthly Powers is a great book to be reading during Holy Week because it is all about religion, although it’s also not. As a teenager, I used to make a game out of seeing how much I could compress the themes and plot of a book whenever anyone asked me “What’s it about?” Were I to play the game with Earthly Powers, I would have to reply, “A gay Catholic novelist and the Pope.” (If I really wanted to compress and confuse, “gay Catholic novelists” would have to do. Maybe just “gay novelists”, or even “novelists”–our narrator, Kenneth Toomey, drops many a name, including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, “Willie” Maugham, and Norman Douglas, to whom one character rather delightfully refers as Abnorman Fuckless.)

That little pun–Abnorman Fuckless–is a good barometer for Burgess’s linguistic pyrotechnics. I know that’s an overused phrase, “linguistic pyrotechnics”, but the things he does, the wordplay, the vicious, perfect wit, reminds me of Catherine wheels going off one after the other. It’s so fucking funny; not laugh-aloud funny, but definitely snort-into-your-soup funny. There’s a delicate bitchiness to the diction that reminds me, at times, of Blackadder:

“As I foresaw, I am to assist in the canonization of the late Pope.”

“Oh God, oh my God, oh my dear God, you? Oh, Christ help us.”

“Don’t be silly, Geoffrey. You forget certain facts of my biography, if you ever, which I am inclined to doubt, knew them.”

And the one-off observations are peerless, as when Toomey, watching the Archbishop of Malta attempting to equivocate, says that he “played an invisible concertina for two seconds.” The precision of “two seconds”, the absurd picture of “an invisible concertina” and yet the absolute accuracy of how it looks when someone flutters their fingers back and forth, looking for a word… It’s very good writing.

At present, I am with Toomey in Malaya (now Malaysia, then still a British dependency), watching the effects of an exorcism performed by the aforementioned “late Pope”, who happens to be Toomey’s brother-in-law, back when he was merely Don Carlo Campanati.

It’s an incredibly weird book, but I’m enjoying it.

Also, it’s on my Classics Challenge list! So perhaps a fuller review once I’ve finished it. I’d like to finish it by tomorrow; goodness knows if that will happen. I’m off for a cup of tea and a good natter with the great-granddaughter of the Duchess of Warwick now, my dears. (This is actually true, although not as pretentious as it sounds. I’m staying with the Revered Ancestors for Easter and they live in one of those villages where everyone is either a great-granddaughter of a duchess or a retired brigadier colonel.) Toomey and Geoffrey would no doubt approve.

March Superlatives

I read six books in March–only half as many as last month–but this was partly because of a heavy work schedule, and partly because I read several long books that took a lot of time but will stay in my head for even longer. Here are this month’s Superlatives: as previously advertised, like your high school “most likely to succeed” categories, but less shit.

all around best: Joint honors go to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hall’s novel is a thoughtful, beautiful, fiercely intelligent exploration of generation, family ties and the connections between humans and the environment we live in. She is the sophisticated, sexy writer I wish I could be. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel is a peerless evocation of pre-WWII England, told through the life stories of a large and typically idiosyncratic upper-middle-class family. Links above are to my reviews of both.

creepiest: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer, the conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy. Better than the second if not quite as good as the first, Acceptance is about learning to die, or learning to change (isn’t it much the same?), as the biologist and Control unravel the secrets of Area X. The three need to be read together, but I thought Acceptance a satisfying ending, despite the many coyly unanswered questions.

The Florida coastline, where the Southern Reach trilogy is set

most oddly anticlimactic: I like this category so much that I’m resurrecting it from February’s Superlatives post. This month, it was Laline Paull’s The Bees which left me cold and bewildered. Why are people so keen on this book? The writing is no more than competent, the structure is chaotic, the plot is guessable from the early pages. It’s not terrible, but why it’s on the Baileys long list and The Wolf Border isn’t is one of those things I’ll never, ever understand, like people who vote Republican.

most due a renaissance a la John Williams’s StonerWithout a doubt, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond. Since it’s published by NYRB, the original publishers of Stoner, it seems possible that such a renaissance could happen again. Schwarz-Bart’s dreamy prose swaddles the story of a Guadeloupean woman and her struggles in life and love. It’s a gorgeous book, and offers no easy platitudes.

most intense: In every way, David van Reybrouck’s doorstop volume Congo: the Epic History of a People. The story he tells, from remote beginnings to Leopold’s annexation of the territory as his personal property to formal colonization by the state of Belgium, through to the granting of independence, the assassinations and incompetence that followed as a consequence of being woefully underprepared, and the culpable negligence of the US, EU and UN in coping with Congolese problems, are all covered in novelistic prose. Some of van Reybrouck’s assertions are, according to my uncle, who works in the now-DRC, “tendentious”, and he glosses over many of the European interventions or lack thereof, clearly uncomfortable apportioning blame. For an overview, though, it’s very informative. I plan to read Blood River and King Leopold’s Ghost as soon as I can, to get a more nuanced (and hopefully less “official”) picture.


up next: The Moon and Sixpence (I’ve been saying this for months) for the Classics Club, and Deep Lane, a new poetry collection by Mark Doty, to review in Quadrapheme. It has the most elegant cover I’ve seen for a long time, even with fuzzy resolution:

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews. Here’s a taster for my latest, of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border:

In The Wolf Border (Faber, March 2015) Hall returns to the Cumbrian setting that has served her writing so well in the past. The fictional Earl of Annerdale (a title modeled, clearly, on the real-life Earls of Lonsdale) has pledged his money and substantial private land to be the testing ground for reintroducing grey wolves to the English wilderness. He wants to hire Rachel Caine–a wildlife biologist, Cumbrian by birth, who fled Britain at the earliest opportunity for the vast anonymity of the Chief Joseph Reservation in Idaho–to manage the project. Rachel is, at first, reluctant: she interviews, but rejects the Earl’s offer. Several months later, with the death of her demanding and unconventional mother, she reconsiders and accepts, and the rest of the novel covers her attempts to manage the wolves’ best interests while also navigating the Earl’s personal agenda and her relationship with her own estranged brother.

I absolutely loved it: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and its exclusion from the Baileys Prize long list is incomprehensible to me. For the rest of the review, click here.