Thursday, 29 December 2011

To Be Read Pile To Be Dead Pile This Year

This post is simply to make a public announcement that I am tired of having a TBR pile, and hope to get rid of it this year. My pile is not nearly as large as many people's, and only comprises about ten or fifteen books, so this shouldn't be too much of a challenge, but I found throughout this year that although I read many books from the pile, I added to it at about the same rate as I took away, thus maintaining its size. My resolution is therefore to read at least two books from the pile for each one I add - I'm tired of buying exciting new books but not being able to read them right away.

Top 10 books of the year coming on 31st December - I hope to squeeze one or two more reads in before then, so they should be allowed to qualify! (I'm currently reading Sarah Hall's brilliant The Beautiful Indifference - she's one of those rare writers who can write novels and short stories of equal calibre).

Saturday, 24 December 2011

'They're ill to tame, the border men'

I'm not, on the whole, a big fan of teenage fiction. While the children's books I loved when I was little, such as Marianne Dreams, Goodnight Mister Tom, Ballet Shoes, Islands in the Sky, The Lotus Caves and yes, even the early Harry Potters, still give me great joy and satisfaction when I re-read them today, I found that I rapidly grew out of the teenage fiction I used to enjoy when I was thirteen or fourteen. Far more than fiction for younger readers, it seemed to be aimed solely at one age group, and held little interest for anyone who didn't fall within its remit. Novels such as Melvin Burgess's Junk now simply feel shallow to me, a sketchy version of what much adult fiction does better, even though I loved it when it was first published. Teenage fiction also, notoriously, doesn't sell nearly as well as either adult fiction or that aimed at the 8-12s, despite the success of a number of crossover novels such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which, to be honest, I thought was over-hyped and over-praised anyway!)

However... every so often, I read a novel marketed at teenage readers that is simply brilliant, far better than most of the adult fiction that I read, and has been overlooked in part because of the age category the publishers happened to slot it into. I think, possibly, that is what has happened to Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake and its sequel A Sterkarm Kiss. These two novels feature no lead characters under the age of about twenty, but seem to have been labelled as teenage because Price was already known as a children's writer (although her Ghost Drum books are hardly light, fluffy reading either). But I can't recommend them enough, and this is why:

- The basic plotline concerns a 21st-century company, FUP, [futuristic in the context of a pair of books written in the 1990s!] creating a time tube through to an alternative-universe 16th century Scottish borderlands in order to exploit the natural resources that still exist there, such as oil and gas, and to begin a tourism industry through which 21st-century tourists can come and gawp at the locals. However, their plans are being thwarted by the uncooperative local Sterkarms, the most notorious of 'the border men'. What is there not to love about that set-up?

- The Sterkarms are a fantastic set of characters, loveable and ruthless by turn. For example, as a predominantly left-handed family, they build the staircases in their towers to go round anti-clockwise, rather than clockwise, to make them easier for left-handed swordsmen to defend - and putting the right-handed enemy at a disadvantage.

- More seriously, as historical novels they work more convincingly than almost anything else historical I've ever read, perhaps because the intrusion of a modern perspective makes the explanation of Sterkarm customs more natural, but primarily because Susan Price never lets her extensive research interfere with the telling of the story. The reader feels as if they've really got to grips with the way daily life in a Sterkarm stronghold runs, and yet as though everything they've learnt has been completely necessary to their understanding. Price's bold attempt at guesstimating what Sterkarm English might have sounded like is also notable.

- The sixteenth-century mindset is presented as genuinely different from the modern mind - this is, in fact, a key stumbling-block for many of FUP, such as the arrogant James Windsor, who see the Sterkarms as children in fancy dress. Andrea Mitchell, working as an interpreter and observer of Sterkarm customs, is our key point-of-view character for this; despite her academic knowledge, she finds it increasingly difficult to accept the Sterkarms' casual attitude to violence - although the Sterkarms are equally appalled by modern warfare and the extinction of species. Andrea herself, large and so not conventionally beautiful in the modern world, finds her reception very different in the sixteenth century, where she is close to the healthy feminine ideal. These are often minor details, but add substantially to the verisimilitude of this invented world - and sadly, are all too rare in most historical novels.

- The complicated intrigues between the Sterkarms and FUP are truly gripping, and I think would appeal to fans of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire - a scene in the second novel bears remarkable resemblance, in fact, to an infamous sequence in A Storm of Swords. Price also utilises one of the best devices for generating a plot for a sequel I've ever read - simply go back in time and start again. Although not exactly...

The only reason not to read these two books, I think, is that they seem to form part of an incomplete trilogy, with the ending to A Sterkarm Kiss left on a rather infuriating cliffhanger. As it seems unlikely there will be a third book now, it depends on whether you're willing to deal with this or not. Personally, while the ending is unsatisfying, it didn't really lessen my enjoyment of the book. And you can always just read The Sterkarm Handshake! Suffice it to say, I think these shouldn't be missed. Just remember: never shake hands with a Sterkarm...

Has anyone else read these? I'd love to hear from you if so.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Books of the year, almost

A meme borrowed from Catherine Pope:

Using only books you have read this year (2011), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

Describe yourself: The Female of the Species (Lionel Shriver)

How do you feel: There But For The (Ali Smith)

Describe where you currently live: Great House (Nicole Krauss)

Your best friend is: The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy), perhaps to Tibet, Tibet (Patrick French)

Your favourite form of transportation: Pegasus (Robin McKinley)

You and your friends are: Hearts and Minds (Amanda Craig)

What’s the weather like: Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)

You fear: Dealing With Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede)

What is the best advice you have to give: Solace (Belinda McKeon)

Thought for the day: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)

How I would like to die: Happily Ever After (Harriet Evans)

My soul’s present condition: The Still Point (Amy Sackville)

This worked a bit better than I thought it would - proper post on classic teenage fiction coming up soon, when I can work out how to extract it from Blogger!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Four books

I don't have the time for a full-length post so I thought I would repeat the meme below, with 'book you were last given' excluded because I haven't received any new books since!

The book I am currently reading

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. I'm really enjoying this, although I think she has committed the same mistake she made in The Observations and overdone the melodrama - obviously, both novels are meant to have a melodramatic tone, but overegging the pudding slightly has made the character of the narrator, Harriet Baxter, a bit less interesting to me. However, I think this is a significant improvement on her first novel, although that was also good, and I'm looking forward to see what she writes next. I'm also reading The Prose Edda, the original source for much of what we know of Norse mythology, which is just insane and wonderful. No-one makes up myths better then the ancient Norsemen...

Last book I finished

Lirael by Garth Nix, which is the second in a YA fantasy trilogy about necromancers that I have been re-reading for fun. It's a brilliant series with a very well-developed world, and I would recommend getting hold of the first in the series, Sabriel, if you haven't read it already.

Next book I want to read

Hood by Emma Donoghue. I liked Stir-Fry so much I've decided to read my way through her back catalogue; this is her second novel.

Last book I bought

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I thought Freedom was excellent and have similarly high expectations for this one, though I'm not sure when I'm going to get round to reading it!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Five books

A meme borrowed from Elaine at Random Jottings, who borrowed it from Simon at Stuck in A Book...

The book I am currently reading

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I'm only about 75 pages in and it feels almost too familiar, although I was not at an American university in the 1980s. I should not read books about university students...

Last book I finished

Run by Ann Patchett. This was very good, although not quite as plot-driven and hence not quite as gripping as State of Wonder, which I think is going to come in as one of my top ten books of 2011.

Next book I want to read

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier. Thanks to Amazon for the free copy via the Vine programme. I enjoyed Cold Mountain, but have not read his second novel, so this third should be an intriguing read.

Last book I was given

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Normally, no-one ever dares to give me books because I have always read them or have an opinion on them. This offering was from my brave friend Peter for my birthday. I'm looking forward to trying a Steinbeck other than Of Mice and Men or The Pearl.

Last book I bought

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht. Or more accurately book-swapped for. I don't think I will enjoy this, sadly, but it's for a reading group and I wanted to see what the hype was about. It just doesn't sound like my sort of thing.

Do pass this on if you fancy trying it!

Monday, 24 October 2011

The debate on readability versus literary merit etc and ad infinitum

I wasn't impressed by the Booker Prize shortlist this year, but the debate it has re-ignited seems to me to be phrased in entirely the wrong terms, as exemplified by two recent articles on the Guardian's Comment is Free; the first by Jeanette Winterson, stating that:

'Novels that last are language-based novels - the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power - forget it.'

Then Graham Joyce weighed in with a refutation of Winterson's argument:

'She wants books that are more "daunting". That would be the ones that you... just... don't really want to finish, would it?... I'd defend the right of any novelist to experiment with form and language, but if people don't take to it, don't react by making out that they are thick.'

I read both articles, and I couldn't have disagreed more with both of them, despite the fact that they purported to be addressing two sides of a debate - a sign, in my opinion, that it's time for a rethink.

Plot and narrative drive has been opposed to language here, as if these were the only two elements that can make novels good. To be honest, I'm not much interested in either. What do I look for in a novel? Characterisation, first and foremost. I read novels to be able to enter somebody else's world, to understand their dreams, fears and prejudices, and if the writer can't put their people down on the page, then the book is often a non-starter for me. I also look for ideas, which are never issues. Lionel Shriver and Kazuo Ishiguro are two fantastic examples of modern-day novelists who use their novels to ask questions and pose dilemmas without ever descending into the issue-based territory
of Jodi Picoult and her ilk. And - despite declaring confidently recently that I don't care one bit about plots in novels - I've realised that I do look for structure. To return to Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is not a plot-driven novel, but the ending is a triumph of structure, and masterly in the way he weaves in various elements that he's deployed throughout the novel to achieve the maximum emotional effect for the reader. So while plot is all about structure, structure is not all about plot.

Characterisation, plot and ideas for me then, rather than the typical trio of plot, character and language. How does this help us crack the deadlocked readability debate? Well, for starters, we need to place novels on a continuum, rather than postulating a vast divide between commercial and literary fiction, into which authors occasionally go plummeting when nobody can decide where they belong. A novel takes off, for me, if it deploys the language it requires to fully convey the structure and characterisation necessary to make its world work, and to suggest the ideas that are important for the reader to understand and engage with the story it's trying to tell.

This means we might have to cope with something that, at first glance, seems a rather uncomfortable truth: a genre author writing on top form might make as a big a success of the novel he or she is trying to write than an author who is attempting literary fiction. The example I'm going to use is Marian Keyes's The Other Side of the Story, which is one of the best chick-lit novels I've ever read. It works because Keyes does what she was aiming to do; she gives
us three very distinctive narrators, establishes a genuinely funny and touching narrative voice, and raises questions about infidelity. This is not to say this puts Keyes on a par with good literary authors, because it doesn't - but it makes her novel a good novel, and if we can't accept that, we are never going to bridge the divide. Whereas an author who tries and fails to write literary fiction is just that; a failure. There is nothing inherently more noble in writing a bad literary novel than a good chick-lit (which is very hard to write on its own terms, I've tried and I can't do it).

But having said that: I do think the Booker this year was 'dumbing down', and there has to be a sense in which I can explain why it was dumbing down. The Booker exists to judge literary novels, and what literary novels are trying to do is more than what genre novels are, for the most part. Marian Keyes hits the big three, characterisation, ideas and structure, and so does Kazuo Ishiguro, but with more depth in every way; more realistic, interesting, complex characters, far more difficult questions, and with a command of structure that is simply stunning. It doesn't matter when we're judging Marian Keyes, though, because she isn't trying to write Never Let Me Go, or The Remains of the Day, or An Artist of the Floating World. The key thing to remember, I think, is that we ought to judge a book on what it is trying to be, not on what it isn't.

The problem with the novels on the Booker shortlist this year, however, is that, for the most part, they weren't doing enough for what they claimed to be. Jamrach's Menagerie is a case in point; the characters were functional enough to allow the plot to go forward, but they never came alive, and the book wasn't asking any questions, or raising any ideas. Birch is certainly a talented writer, but for me - and this is where I strongly dissent from Winterson's view - that really isn't
enough. I think that the language should serve the structure and the characters, not the other way round. Language is the medium; it isn't the point. And to write a good literary novel, you have to do more than to write a good genre novel... and as a reader, you perhaps have to give more, although readability is still an open question for me. I see no reason why any good novel shouldn't be readable, although it takes longer with some than others to get used to the voice in which it must be told to serve the story. Umberto Eco puts it beautifully in the foreword to The Name of the Rose when he asks his readers to slow down, to enter the rhythms of medieval life; some books are not worth such a taxing mental adjustment, but many are.

And so ends my rant... please comment, would love to hear what others think about this!

Friday, 14 October 2011

The skull beneath the skin

Giorgio, a dying, isolated Italian artist; a woman, Suze, grieving the loss of her twin brother, Danny; a teenaged girl, Annette, gradually losing her sight; an English artist called Peter trapped in the Cumbrian landscape he has spent a lifetime painting. Sarah Hall's fourth novel could almost be read as four thematically-linked stories, split into segments, rather than as a single entity, and perhaps is better approached that way. Although the publisher's blurb tries to emphasise the concrete links between the narratives - Suze is the daughter of Peter who once wrote letters to Giorgio who once taught Annette - they're so disparate in time, place and style (Suze, for example, narrates in second person, a difficult trick that Hall manages masterfully) that it seems better to look for repeated ideas and motifs rather than trying to force them into an artificial whole.

And there's plenty to look for here. Hall's incredibly accomplished prose creates four very distinctive voices, which nevertheless echo each other in increasingly interesting ways. The title, 'How to paint a dead man', is fully illuminated only at the very end of the novel, with a long quotation from an early modern artist's handbook on the exact way to convey a corpse's skin colour when painting on panels or walls. This recalls the Renaissance attention to anatomical detail and Vesalius's `Fabric of the Human Body,' and is reflected throughout the novel in the ways the various characters mentally dissect their own living bodies. His foot trapped between two rocks on the moor, Peter gruesomely imagines the possible injury; 'Is the foot dangling loose on just a thread or two of skin... the tendon severed and recoiling up the back of the leg' whereas Suze considers the destruction of Danny's body in the lorry accident that killed him. Annette, having gone blind as a child, has no idea what she now looks like, and her mother refuses even to describe the colour of her hair to her - 'It is a vanity to ask such things... and what does it matter if she can't see it?' However, worried about her daughter's developing good looks, Annette's mother also tells her that any gropes or kisses will leave actual physical marks on her body - black blotches that will convey to everyone that she's been up to no good.

Bodily imagery doesn't only keep the novel continuously connected to the physical world, but is a central element in its theme. The sense of the construction of one's actions in muscle and bone is a reminder that we are all just flesh that will one day rot, but an inactive body is a living death. Suze's friend Maggie has been in a coma for years, and when Suze goes to visit her in the hospital she notices that although Maggie is her age, thirty-five, 'she looked like a girl, the muscles of her face blissful and unused.' However, this is only an imitation of life; `The nurse once told you her muscles are so wasted that if she woke she would not be able to use them. Imagine a moth carrying a tractor on its back, she had said to you.' Suze is left feeling half-dead herself after the death of Danny, her `mirror image', but finds a way to reclaim a semblance of life by embarking on an affair, discovering that sex has the power to reconnect her with her own body again. Her descriptions of her encounters with her lover are almost clinical in their attention to detail; 'In these moments you forget about everything else. You are not bereaved... When you are with him you are here, inside yourself, behind the calcium plates in your chest and pelvis, which rise and move against him.'

Therefore, sex and death are continously intertwined; the body may contain 'the skull beneath the skin', but it also contains the potential for new life, as Suze discovers when she becomes pregnant. Another elaboration on this theme concerns the place of art in life - all four of the main characters are artists to one degree or another. Annette's partial blindness lends a certain quality to her art, questioning the role of straightforward sensory experience, whereas Peter never really connects to the landscapes he paints until he spends a night trapped in the rocks as it starts to rain. 'There is an aspirin flavour to the air, an impending fizz... Peter looks up. There is just blackness and water... He can smell minerals being released from the stones all around, the perfume of the mountain.'

Outside thematic analysis, this novel was also, on the whole, compelling, although I found the 'English' half' - the voices and stories of Peter and Suze - far more vivid than the Italian section. Suze in particular becomes the driving force of the book. The slightly surreal atmosphere of Annette's childlike narrative prevented it from fully coming to life for me, although its ending was genuinely horrifying, and I found Giorgio's section difficult to get through at all, as it lacked the narrative drive of the other three and he never really seemed to come to life as a character, rather than as a bunch of ideas. However, I would still highly recommend this novel; having read Hall's three previous novels, I was eager to give this one a try, and it didn't disappoint. Although a slow read at times, it was consistently challenging and thought-provoking, and, I suspect, will reveal depths on a re-read that entirely passed me by the first time.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

What is a 'perfect book'? And does it matter?

First things first. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I felt genuinely tense when the characters’ fates appeared to be hanging in the balance, gripped by the gentle, but well-structured, plot, actually interested (all too rare) when Secrets From the Past were revealed, and sorry when I’d finished it. So why wasn’t it a ‘perfect read’? Why – if I was reviewing it on Amazon – would I give it four stars instead of five? At first, I thought I was just being biased. The Help seemed to lack some notion of ‘literary quality’ that I couldn’t clearly define, and perhaps only existed in my head because of the horrendously trashy cover it’s been lumbered with. But after much thought, I decided that there was something missing here – much as it seems unfair to focus on that after such a brilliant read.

The Help is set in Mississipippi in the 1960s, and is narrated by three women, the older Aibileen and Minny, who are black maidservants, and Miss Skeeter, a younger white woman who is newly home from college and concerned about the mysterious disappearance of her own maid, Constantine. Miss Skeeter, who is interested in pursuing a career in journalism, seizes upon the idea of interviewing black maids about their experiences of working for their white employers, and this secret project forms the major plot-strand of the book, alongside the gradual unraveling of each character’s life and secrets. Kathryn Stockett notes at the back of the book that this novel was partly based on her own experiences of the maid her family had when she was growing up, and how she wishes she had been able to talk to her more frankly before she died. (Also, strangely, she notes that ‘I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississipippi, especially in the 1960s.’ I certainly don’t presume to judge whether she gets it right, although Minny’s and Aibileen’s voices feel authentic – but as a writer, if I wasn’t sure that I could get to some kind of knowledge of ‘what it really felt like’ to be in a situation like this one that is quite alien to my own experience, I wouldn’t write a book about it at all. And I don’t think that what she’s trying to do is impossible.)

So, given that character, plot and style were solid, what was missing for me? I toyed with the idea at first that the supporting cast weren’t as developed at they could be. Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter do occupy stock roles initially – the accepting old woman, the rebellious younger woman, the idealistic educated woman – but they move beyond these to become fully rounded characters, particularly Aibileen, who felt exceptionally vivid. (The death of her grown son, Treelore, is described briefly in a few paragraphs at the beginning of the novel and rarely mentioned thereafter, but his loss somehow permeates her narrative, and the reader is not allowed to forget it.) In contrast, Hilly, the major antagonist of the novel, was rather flat, with no real motivation given for her exceptional hatred and fear. However, when I wanted to criticise Stockett for her portrayal of Hilly, my mind kept being drawn back to her beautifully-nuanced depiction of Minny’s employer, Miss Celia. My feelings towards the rather pathetic and yet curiously resilent Miss Celia swung every which way throughout the course of the novel, from disgust and frustration at her inability to learn to cook or do the slightest thing for herself, to pity as the reasons behind her behaviour were revealed, to admiration as she showed unexpected strength, to sheer annoyance at her ignorance and lack of tact at a formal party, to a final, qualified liking for her, despite her glaring flaws. With depth such as this, it surely wasn’t right to criticise The Help on grounds of poor characterisation.

The next thing I considered was that the book might be too predictable; while the Secrets from the Past were not entirely guessable, neither were they particularly shocking, and the plotline unfolded without any unexpected turns. But this didn’t seem fair either; I’ve never put much weight on plot as a means of judging the worth of a book, and have often felt frustrated when others criticise novels for having simple plots or lacking a twist at the end, when to my mind the way the writer gets there, not the destination, is the most important thing. Perhaps it was the writing, then? There seemed to be some mileage there; occasionally, brands were name-checked and historical events referred to in a rather obvious ‘I’ve done my research’ way, and although the atmosphere of the 1960s was on the whole conveyed with great subtlety, this did jar somewhat. But ultimately, I decided that wasn’t important enough, nor did it occur frequently enough, to mar the book for me.

The conclusion I came to in the end is that the problem for me is a problem that the book shares with very distinguished company; To Kill a Mockingbird is the obvious example. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t quite sure what The Help was supposed to be about, or it was about something that was too easy. It’s easy enough for the vast majority of us today to deplore the segregation and discrimination that took place in the Deep South in the 1960s, so is this really something that needs to be explored in depth? To be fair, I think to an extent it still does, and here’s where The Help actually scores a big advantage over To Kill a Mockingbird; we get to hear the voices of the black maids themselves, their daily experiences of being belittled, marginalised and ignored. The situation they were in has passed away and few would argue that it should return, but their experiences are relevant to a much wider range of experiences of being without power (I was reminded of the position of Victorian servants a number of times). It made me think how I might react were I in their shoes; whether I'd be able to bow my head and take it, like Aibileen, or whether I would find myself, like Minny, having to hit out. And importantly, Stockett makes the white employers, especially Miss Celia, but to an extent Aibileen’s employer, Miss Leefolt, as well, human enough that we can also worry what we might be like were we in their position; whether we might be patronising, thoughtless or cruel as well. The issue hasn’t gone away, even though the context has changed.

But still, it’s emotionally almost too easy to take a subject like this and make it moving, and I suppose this is where my unease with the novel stems from. Ironically, it isn’t even as moving as it might be. Although I cared about Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter, I didn’t feel passionately involved in the book, except at moments of very high tension; the Secrets from the Past didn’t hurt as much as perhaps they should have done, nor were partings and losses as painful as they might have been. And alongside the subject matter being something on which we can all nod our heads and agree… I think this is where the book loses ground for me, and where I can say that I’m glad it didn’t make the Orange shortlist in 2010, although it was rightfully longlisted. Very much recommended as a great read though. It does deserve those four stars.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Two years of Hay-on-Wye

Last weekend I went to Hay-on-Wye for a spot of book shopping, as I did last year - although this year I managed to be rather more restrained with my purchases. Here are my two hauls (apologies the pictures are so small):


From top down:

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy: I think my thoughts on this have already been thoroughly discussed in my massive Hardy blog post.

Shroud for a Nightingale by PD James: a massively dated but still enjoyable early Adam Dalgliesh mystery. (Any advice as to how to pronounce his last name would be gratefully received - I don't think it can be Dalg-leash as I have been saying...)

Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford: actually an omnibus with The Pursuit of Love, which I enjoyed more, although both were rather too light & bright & sparkling...

Practical Ethics by Peter Singer: Unfortunately, as yet unread.

The White Rock by Hugh Thomson: An interesting mix of Inca history and current-day exploration of Peru, although I found his later Cochineal Red, which covers pre-Inca civilisations, a more engrossing read.

Double Fault by Lionel Shriver: As with anything by Shriver, brilliant and depressing. It's billed as being about marriage, but I thought it was equally about ambition, and how single-mindedness and commitment can be both a strength and a fatal flaw.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer: I have a difficulty with short stories, except the very best; they are frequently enjoyable and well-written at the time, but then I forget them completely. As I have this collection. Apologies ZZ Packer.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollingshurst: Tremendously well-written but I struggled a little with the plot, which veers from gay culture (interesting) to 1980s politics (not so much, although the scene where lead character Nick dances with Margaret Thatcher at a party, to the disgust of her cronies, is classic). I would love to read Hollingshurst's latest novel, as it sounds more my thing.

The Story of the NSPCC: An institutional history of the organisation published in the 1960s and purchased by me for my PhD. Hilariously patronising in places towards errant parents, not all of whom are strictly abusive.

Lizzie: A Victorian Lady's Amazon Adventure: Again for research purposes, this time for my novel.

... and 2011

Stir-fry by Emma Donoghue: I've already read this one and loved it. I was interested in reading the novels she wrote before Room, which I had mixed feelings about, and I wasn't disappointed - although this is clearly a first novel, it's about twice as good as Room, and now I can't wait to read her second novel, Hood. The coming-of-age theme here is a bit tired (the plot follows seventeen-year-old Maria who moves in with a lesbian couple after starting university and begins to question her own sexuality), but the characters are incredibly vivid and the setting, 1990s Dublin, is very well conveyed; without resorting to heavy dialect, which I find difficult to read, Donoghue effectively portrays the turns of phrase of the Irish characters, and description is also sparse but telling.

Run by Ann Patchett: I loved her latest novel, State of Wonder, and was warned away from Bel Canto, so I've decided to try this one. I was excited to find I'd bought a signed copy by accident, as the bookseller hadn't noticed or advertised it.

The Fanatic by James Robertson: A Scottish writer whom I have mixed feelings about - I loved The Testament of Gideon Mack but found Joseph Knight hard going. This is set in Edinburgh, however, which is a good start - I find the city fascinating.

Love In Idleness by Amanda Craig: I've already read this as well, and it's terrible. I thought her Hearts and Minds was an engrossing light read and was eager to try this one, especially as it features the lead character of that novel, Polly, whom I'd liked. Unfortunately this earlier novel is just awful - the characters are all horrible middle-class and upper-class caricatures and Polly becomes immensely unlikeable; she spends her time in the holiday villa where this is set being a deliberate martyr while congratulating herself on being nicer than everyone else. This reaches a peak when she reflects that best friend Hemani has been ungrateful because Polly was good enough to carry on inviting her out to dinner parties after Hemani's divorce, when everyone else shied away from inviting a single woman. Perhaps this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but as all the other characters, with the partial exception of Hemani, are written in the same vein, the book becomes very alienating. Annoyingly, it's also meant to be a modern version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, leading to some convoluted plotting and frankly unbelievable twists. Avoid.

Born Free by Laura Hird: I've wanted to read this ever since I saw an extract from it in Ali Smith's The Reader. I'm starting it now, so hopefully it will be good (and it strikes me that she's Scottish as well, so I'm doing well on the Celtic writers - pity I lack a Welsh representative)

An Equal Silence by Francesa Kay: This won the Orange Prize for New Writing a couple of years ago. I've read the other two contenders for that year and they were both hopeless, so if this can show any merit at all it will have been a worthy winner...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Not too thrilled by the Booker shortlist...

... because the only two books I'd read from the longlist, both of which I didn't like at all, have both been shortlisted.* The culprits are Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch, which I blogged about here, and Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. I'm glad to see the Julian Barnes on there, and disappointed that Barry and Hollingshurst have been omitted, for the purely lazy reason that those are the three books I would like to read anyway. Other thoughts?

PS Posting more frequently has failed for the time being due to a lack of internet access in my new flat, but I should have full reviews of Last Man In Tower by Aravind Adiga and How To Paint A Dead Man by Sarah Hall coming up.

*This is particularly annoying because usually when I have read books from the longlist they are never shortlisted, leaving me with the full six still to read if I want to have a go at pretend-judging it.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Not bad just boring? Or just not for me...

I loved Aravind Adiga's first novel, `The White Tiger', despite its flaws. I thought that it was a bit too simplistic, too neat, and relied too heavily on stereotypes when depicting most of the characters other than its brilliantly entertaining and vivid narrator. Hence I was keen to read this - his next full-length attempt - in the hope that it would amend these niggles while continuing to demonstrate his obvious talent. The puzzling thing is, it does. In `Last Man In Tower', Adiga gives us a much larger and more complex society in which no character can be accused of being anything less than fully-fleshed out, and his writing is more than up to par. I can't point to anything that's wrong with it, exactly, and yet for me, it just didn't work. I kept on thinking of Irwin's line from `The History Boys' - `It's not bad. It's just boring'.

The major conflict of the novel is very simple. Mr Shah has offered each resident of Vishram Society Tower A a windfall in cash to move out so he can demolish the tower and build afresh, as long as all the residents agree and take the money. After some demurring, they all accept, except recently-widowed `Masterji', a retired teacher who has previously commanded everyone's friendship and respect. Initially equivocal over the sale, Masterji eventually embarks on his own personal crusade, embodying the idea that not every man has his price and it is possible to want for nothing. This single strand - Masterji versus the world - dominates the novel, and made it collapse, at least for me, into something far too schematic. The large cast list at the beginning led me to expect a far more complex network of relationships, alliances and betrayals among his neighbours, but most of the families are never or rarely mentioned and only a few characters in Tower A other than Masterji are fully utilised; notably Mrs Puri, who desperately wants the money for her son who has Down's Syndrome; dim but affable internet-store owner Ibrahim; crooked broker Ramesh Ajwani; and Masterji's long-time elderly friends, the Pintos.

More importantly, these characters come to form a chorus of resistance rather than a fractured whole, with their individual motivations skated over, although briefly sketched earlier in the novel. One of my major problems with the cast was that I felt no real sympathy for any of them, including Masterji, and although I don't think at all that a novel needs a truly sympathetic character, in lieu of that, unpleasant characters should at least be interesting. The only interesting figure for me here was Masterji, and gradually I found him more frustrating than fascinating. His stand is principled - perhaps too much so; it is the hostility of his neighbours and the corruption of lawyers and the police that seems to drive him, rather than a truly desperate desire to stay in Tower A. While his neighbours lost my initial sympathy (I couldn't see what was wrong in their general desire to achieve a better life for themselves and their families) after they gradually descended into underhand and violent acts in an attempt to force Masterji's hand, I did not transfer this sympathy to Masterji, whose position seemed increasingly pointless. Late in the novel he tries to argue that Tower A holds too many memories of his dead wife and daughter for him to leave, but as this was never brought up earlier, it appears to be a reason developed after he had already established the fact of his staying put; a good reason, but ultimately not the true cause of his intransigence. Perhaps focusing on Masterji is misleading - perhaps the interesting point here is how his essentially normal neighbours are warped by the situation to commit appalling acts - but with a lack of detail on each of them, this seems to me to swing the novel back towards a schema again. And the number of pages, not to mention the title, devoted to Masterji, does seem to indicate that he is Adiga's major focus.

I suppose I'm writing another of those reviews that essentially say: this is not a bad book and Adiga is not a bad writer, but it emphatically wasn't for me. The elements of his style that I appreciated in `The White Tiger' are still here. Mumbai is brought to life in his descriptions of the city, especially of food - from the cheap snacks on sale at market stalls to the security guard's sandwiches to the expensive fish consumed by Mr Shah - and transport, in Masterji's hellish experience of travelling by train during rush hour. So by all means give this novel a go, as long as you aren't expecting something too similar to his first one. Just don't spend too much time on the character list at the front.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

More historical novels David Mitchell please

[Posting more regularly has not gone entirely to plan so far, but I hope to put up something every couple of days from now on...]

In some ways this excellent novel is a departure from David Mitchell's usual stuff; in other ways, not at all. Having read everything else he's published so far (except number9dream, which is also set in Japan) I was fairly confident that I knew what to expect, and yes, it's all there; the idiosyncratic style, the stylistic fireworks (although they're a little less flashy here; in retrospect, a lot of Cloud Atlas was very sophisticated showing-off, which is not necessarily to criticise it - literary fiction could do with a bit more intelligent, fun, classy showing-off) and the large and sometimes confusing cast of vivid characters.

But then it parts ways. First and foremost, this is a historical novel, and although certain of the historical aspects might be called into question - I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the early nineteenth century, but it struck me that Mitchell was more interested in big, bombastic storytelling than strict accuracy - this sets it apart from the rest of his work from the start, except perhaps for the small section of Cloud Atlas that is the 'Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing'. Secondly, it has a great narrative drive, which is not something I've really found in his other books - they're readable, certainly, but not page-turners. And it turns out that Mitchell writing page-turning historical fiction is really quite fantastic. I had the impression (which may be wrong, as I haven't been keeping a close eye on reviews) that the reception of this novel was quite muted in the press, especially when it wasn't shortlisted for the Booker, but I'm going to step up and say that it might be his best yet (OK, a quick Google establishes that the Guardian at least agrees with me).

The book falls essentially into two sections - Jacob and Orito - and on first glance the most gripping story is told in the middle part of the book, which deals with Japanese midwife Aibagawa Orito and her imprisonment in a bizarre shrine where she gradually learns the horrific fate that awaits her and the other Sisters. This is certainly where the novel becomes most unputdownable, but I can't help thinking that The Thousand Autumns of Aibagawa Orito would have been a little shallow by itself. Not because Orito is under-developed as a character in the slightest, but because the horrific-cult-imprisonment story has been told before, and more specifically, it's been told before by Mitchell in the 'Orison of Somni' section of Cloud Atlas. To go too closely into the similarities between the two would be to spoil both stories, but they were immediately obvious to me. Apart from Orito and Jacob, another standout character is the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, who gets a sub-thread of his own, but this is essentially part of the Orito narrative, and so doesn't offer much balance.

This is where we need the framing narrative of the book, that of Jacob de Zoet, unfortunately-honest clerk for the Dutch East India Company in 1799. Jacob is not as immediately compelling a character as Orito, but he certainly has his moments. His adventures are a mismatch of foiling corruption within the Company, brief encounters with Orito before her imprisonment, horrific experiences with eighteenth-century medical practice, and a final showdown when the British sail into Dejima, and hence form a panorama of different impressions of the trading port during this period. I also appreciated the light and subtle touch that Mitchell brought to the brief thread of his relationship with Anna, whom he left behind in the Netherlands to make his fortune in trade so he might return and marry her. The less-than-a-sentence that wraps up Anna's story in the final pages of the book is heartbreaking, and proves that Mitchell isn't only good at flashy writing. A brief note on the ending itself, without giving anything away - I can appreciate that some readers might have found it unsatisfying, but I liked the looseness of it, and the fact that Mitchell didn't draw in the connections between the two halves of the book too tightly, while linking them together sufficiently that it doesn't feel like two stories in one. My only query would be that I wish we could have seen the conclusion to Orito's story, rather than its being recounted by hearsay.

If I had a criticism of the book, it would be that I struggled to follow many of the Dutch and Japanese characters, who are often referred to by first or last name depending on whose company they are in - but then I realised that the proper edition of the book has a character list, which my proof copy lacked. I think this would have been a big help, so won't mark it down too much for the confusion. At first, I also thought I would have preferred more description of Nagasaki and the other locations in the novel, but by the end, I found I had formed my own impression of the port without a great amount of information, and was glad to have skipped the carefully-researched historical scene-setting we usually get. Overall, this is a brilliant read, and Mitchell's take on the historical genre is truly refreshing. More please!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Posting more frequently

I have decided to attempt to post more frequently on this blog; while I still want to post detailed reviews, I'll probably be interspersing them with a lot more short comments, links and random ranting. So today's thought is... I think Ursula Le Guin has been rather hard on Mark, one of the lead characters of Belinda McKeon's Solace, which I reviewed here, and rather generous to his father Tom, in her review of the novel in today's Guardian Review. I suppose as I thought one of the strengths of the novel was the author's even-handedness in depicting the conflict of those two characters, this undermines one of my reasons for liking it. Or perhaps I'm just biased towards dissolute PhD students...

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Thomas Hardy backwards: escaping one's fate

Thomas Hardy wrote fifteen novels in his lifetime, but he singled out eight as his 'Novels of Character and Environment,' which is the group that includes his better-known works, such as Tess and Jude, and also the group which includes the only novels of his I've read. This wasn't deliberate. I was unfortunate enough to read Tess initially as a set text for A-Level; whatever you may think of the book, it comes awkwardly out of an examination essay when gutted for too-obvious themes such as 'fate' and 'journeying'. Something possessed me to read Jude next. Not sure why; after that I was ready to give up on Hardy. I started saying that I liked his poetry, but couldn't cope with his novels. But then I read The Mayor of Casterbridge. And The Return of the Native. And then Far from the Madding Crowd. And I realised that I was reading (at least this set) of his novels backwards (although Tess and Jude swapped places):

  • The Poor Man and the Lady (1867, unpublished and lost)
  • Under the Greenwood Tree (1872)
  • Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
  • The Return of the Native (1878)
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
  • The Woodlanders (1887)
  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)
  • Jude the Obscure (1895)
and more importantly, that I felt they were getting better.

This isn’t what’s happ

ened when I’ve assessed the works of other nineteenth-century writers in sequence, but the interesting thing was it seemed almost schematic; Far from the Madding Crowd and Return of the Native sharing beautifully-realised rural settings but with the grimness of the plot amping up a notch in the latter; The Mayor of Casterbridge much heavier on plot and tragedy, rather than locality, but not quite as fate-ridden as Tess; Jude, unlike even Tess, unremittingly bleak. The key point, for me, was that from book to book the characters gradually lose their ability to affect their own li

ves and their ultimate destinies.

The main features of this schema that stood out to me were [spoilers for these five novels]:

1. Fate. As mentioned above. Far from the Madding Crowd is almost entirely free of this theme, with the heroine, Bathsheba’s, choice between three different suitors placed at the centre of the narrative, although there are still ironic twists that foreshadow the interventions of the hand of fate in the later novels, such as Fanny turning up at the wrong church to marry Sergeant Troy – if this marriage had taken place, one of Bathsheba’s options would have been removed and Fanny’s tragedy averted. The Return of the Native forces its characters further into a pre-determined pattern, but they still seem to have some freedom of will. However, The Mayor of Casterbridge allows the eponymous mayor, Michael Henchard, exactly one choice – selling his wife at the beginning of the novel – and the rest of his fate follows from there, whereas Tess and Jude are simply accounts of individuals being unable to escape their destiny, and that's that.

2. Landscape. One of my favourite things about Hardy’s writing is his evocation of locality and rural custom. This is particularly striking in Far From the Madding Crowd and Return of the Native; in the former, he dwells lovingly on the pattern of the farming year, as in the well-known sheep-shearing scene, whereas the latter brings the power and beauty of its setting, Egdon Heath, to life; for example, when Clym meets Eustacia on the heath before their marriage in a hollow of ferns: ‘He was in a nest of vivid green. The ferny vegetation round him, though so abundant, was quite uniform: it was a grove of machine-made foliage, a world of green triangles with saw-edges, and not a single flower… The scene seemed to belong to the ancient world of the carboniferous period.’ By letting this description stand alone, the beautiful but alien nature of the heath is fully conveyed. In contrast, the description of Egdon in Tess is weighted down with the momentum of the plot, a sense of what is to come. Tess is walking across the heath to her new job as a dairy-maid, hoping to leave her old life behind her after the death of her baby, but ‘in every bird’s note seemed to lurk a joy’, and she stands ‘like a fly on a billiard-table of indefinite length, and of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly.'

Hardy keeps drawing our attention back to Tess’s ultimate fate, and the descriptions also have a habit of focusing back towards Tess herself, who is pictured innumerable times in the novel; there is never a change for the reader, or Tess, to make up their own mind as to how to view her or her future. As for Jude and Mayor, they burn through plot so fast that they leave less space for setting.

3. Heroines. I’m tempted simply to type ‘They get more annoying’, but I feel the novels deserve a bit more analysis than that. Sue Bridehead, however, is simply one of the most irritating characters I have ever encountered, and I have nothing more to say about her. Unfortunately, Tess is almost as bad. Although Hardy implicitly criticises Angel and Alec for their idealised and incorrect versions of her, he only manages to substitute his own idealised picture for theirs, as noted above. She is frustratingly passive, and ultimately her own victim as much as a victim of fate, by deciding that her lot has to be grim and refusing to accept Angel’s help when she is poverty-stricken. Although I’ve read critics who claim that she is the only fully-rounded character in the novel, I found Angel’s internal conflicts far more interesting. The Mayor of Casterbridge lacks a real heroine, juxtaposing the weak, compromised Lucetta against the perfect Elizabeth- Jane. Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native is almost interesting, but feels like a sketch – although the novel was written later – for Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd, by far the best-drawn and strongest female character I’ve seen in Hardy’s work, despite her vacillations. Hardy seems to fully engage with her mindset, fleshing her out as a person in her own right, and although she makes some poor choices, they do make sense. For me, her original and realistic character crystallised after reading a statement she makes late in the novel, a truth that could also help to explain Tess, Eustacia and Sue: ‘it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.'

4. Tragedy or tragi-comedy? It is impossible to find more than a glimmer of humour in Jude, Tess, or Mayor, but an aspect of the earlier novels I really appreciated, intentional or not, was how the tragic fates of the characters often have a humorous element to them. For example, I can’t think of almost all the remaining cast drowning in

the weir at the end of The Return of the Native without smiling, even though this is hardly a happy ending. Far from the Madding Crowd is even better, beginning with the memorable image of all Gabriel Oak’s flock of sheep running over a cliff in the dark – although disastrous for him personally, it struck me as a wonderful way to lose your business. A later scene involving Troy mourning at Fanny’s grave is my favourite – although false to her in life, he decorates her grave with expensive flowers to show how much he minds now she is dead. Unfortunately, heavy rain that night means that the water from the church roof is all directed in a single stream through the mouth of one ‘gurgoyle’ (gargoyle), and this floods the grave. I think the humour here, at least, is intentional, mocking Troy’s pretentions, especially as Hardy chooses to title that particular chapter ‘The Gurgoyle: Its Doings.’ Perhaps the fact that I’m laughing at misfortune is a weakness in the earlier novels, but I appreciated these jumps into melodrama; it makes the plots distinctively Hardy-esque, without being utterly hopeless.

So in conclusion… Under The Greenwood Tree must be fabulous, and The Woodlanders poor, and I need to read them to prove my thesis! I have doubts about the former, which sounds good, but sketchy, but as Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Hardy, describes The Woodlanders as ‘a black version of Far from the Madding Crowd’, I may be right after all.