Monday, 29 December 2014

My Top Ten Books of 2014

After neglecting the blog for some time, I'm back to discuss the ten books I enjoyed most this year after reading them for the first time. I've reviewed all these books previously on the blog, and linked to the earlier reviews in their titles.

In no particular order...

1.  This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

I loved this volume of essays so much I read from the title essay at my own wedding. While I predictably adored the essays in which Patchett talks about her own development and experience as a writer, there were some surprise hits here as well. I've already re-read 'The Wall', Patchett's account of her journey through the recruitment process for the Police Academy at Los Angeles, and was struck anew by what it says about Patchett's relationship with her father, and our relationship with ideals we don't necessarily believe in but nonetheless respect.

2. & Sons by David Gilbert

The big, ambitious novel that ought to have been drawing the attention that has been unfairly heaped upon Zia Haider Rahman's mediocre and offensive In the Light of What We Know, I adored this experimental, metafictional story. It has to be said that Gilbert has a problem with female characters (there aren't really any) but the cleverness of his prose and the realism of his male protagonists drew me in nevertheless. And, I love the fact that there's a whole website devoted to the work of his fictional author, A.N. Dyer - where the cover for Dyer's debut, Ampersand, is exactly as I imagined it. Some might call this self-indulgent; I think it's obsessive, in just the right way.

3. The Echo by James Smythe

And now for something completely different... I reviewed this on Amazon at the time but have now belatedly posted the review to my blog. Since reviewing The Echo, I've read The Explorer, the first book in the quartet, and unfortunately, I think that The Echo is not only a better book but stands better alone than as part of a quartet. Not knowing the details given in The Explorer made The Echo a much better read. Still, it's a convincing, chilling and well-written piece of SF, reminiscent of the films Sunshine and Gravity.

4. Her by Harriet Lane

I enjoyed Lane's debut, Alys, Always, but this carefully-wrought thriller is a cut above. A slight, economically-written novel, Her manages to invest the mundane with both fear and longing. Lane's attention to detail brings her two central characters alive, and I was fascinated by Nina's subtle machinations. I truly couldn't put it down, and read it in a sitting.

5. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I opened this novel dutifully, determined to complete the Baileys Prize shortlist and aware that I ought to have read it when it was shortlisted for the Booker; I closed it impressed, but also sad that it was over. This story of two brothers from West Bengal sounds simplistic and schematic, but is anything but. Lahiri tells their lives so skilfully that the reader is absorbed throughout. It's not flashy, it's not high-concept; it's just good.

6. All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

I don't usually choose a favourite book for any given year, but let's face it: this was my favourite book of 2014, and I'm distressed that I've not yet found anybody who loves it as much as I do - though it was hardly ignored by prize shortlists and longlists. I was underwhelmed by Wyld's debut, but loved this beautifully-constructed tale of a damaged woman haunted by a mysterious beast on an isolated island, as she thinks back to the chain of events in New Zealand that took her to this place. With a twist ending that genuinely works and brilliant but never self-indulgent prose, All The Birds, Singing has everything.

7. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

This novel effortlessly interweaves the real and the imagined as it explores the limited life of Ruth, an elderly woman, whose routine is interrupted by the arrival of a government carer, Frieda - and by a prowling tiger. I've become wary of books that claim to explore the experience of ageing, but this novel genuinely conveys Ruth's frustrations without reducing her to a stereotype or to an object of pity, or (thankfully) to an inspirational lesson. It's beautifully-written and handles its magic realist elements effectively.

8. The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher

This is the first novel I've read by Hensher, and I'm keen to read more. Like Lahiri, Hensher is not a showy writer, but his quietly confident, often humorous prose intertwines a wide variety of stories and settings. From a present-day gathering of teenagers to the first gay bookshop in London to a young Roman martyr, this novel is consistently convincing and entertaining. I genuinely enjoyed it. (But publishers, why the hot pink?)

9. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

What a wonderful novel - and possibly Waters' finest yet. Set in inter-war Britain, it combines the breathless plotting of her early work with the deeper, more thoughtful characterisation of her later novels. I think Frances is probably her most interesting and fully-realised creation yet. The novel is not flawless, but Waters' generous, immersive stories never have been - and are usually the better for it.

10. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I feel slightly afraid including this in my Top Ten, as its flaws have been pointed out by so many reviewers. And everything it's been accused of is true. It's silly, it's baggy, its bits don't fit together, the fantasy elements are ill-thought-through and ridiculous. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it immensely, and I think you could make the case that it's the best novel Mitchell has written. Frankly, its flaws are shared with all his other novels, with the exception of Black Swan Green. And despite its many faults and inconsistencies, some of the writing and characterisation in this is simply wonderful. So here it is.

Number of books read this year: 81. Many fewer than last year; I blame the PhD.

The space between us

Twins Tomas and Mira have devoted their lives to space exploration. When they win a crucial grant to send a mission to explore 'the anomaly', a rift in space that has opened up relatively near the Earth, they believe this research will be the making of their careers. Twenty-three years ago, a previous mission, the Ishiguro, disappeared while trying to make the same trip, but the twins are confident that their plans will succeed. Mira feels he has always stood in his brother's shadow, but he is the one chosen to go on the trip alongside a hand-picked crew, while Tomas stays behind, communicating via satellite link. However, even as the ship, the Lara, launches, there is a growing feeling that something has gone wrong, and this sense of unease deepens as the Lara proceeds on its quest. 

The novel is so gripping that I sped through it in a couple of sittings, desperate to find out what would happen to Mira and his crew.

I haven't read the first book in this quarter, The Explorer, but I didn't feel that this was a disadvantage when reading The Echo. In fact, I found myself wondering if the extensive references to what was obviously the plot of the previous book in the quartet, dealing with the loss of the Ishiguro, might be annoying if I had read The Explorer first, although it's difficult to tell. An amusing side-line (and there's precious little humour in this chilling read) was the twins' sense of superiority over the previous mission, and Mira continually tells the reader how much better prepared the Lara is for disasters. This, of course, is proven to be wrong when the crew encounter the anomaly for the first time. James Smythe makes much of the theme of doubling and repetition, the central pair of twins being the most obvious example, and I found his use of time loops incredibly effective in this context. Several reviewers have commented that the science in this novel is dodgy, and I'm sure they're right, but this didn't bother me because it seemed obvious that Smythe is using his space setting to say something interesting and thought-provoking about memory, time and attachment that he couldn't have said in a more realistic context. In this respect, it reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. (I did wonder if the name of the first mission was a nod to Ishiguro's distinctive blending of sci-fi motifs into literary fiction).

The narrative this sits closest to, however, is Danny Boyle's 2007 film Sunshine. The building tensions between the diverse crew and the knowledge that another mission has gone before them and failed makes the similarities very strong at times, although I felt that each of the stories was distinctive in its own right. However, if you enjoyed that film, you'll almost certainly enjoy this. Personally, I can't wait for the next in the quartet, and plan to read The Explorer as soon as I can get hold of a copy.

Friday, 14 November 2014

On re-reading

My favourite avatar 'at' St Anne's College
I've had little time to read new novels while I've been settling in at my new job at St Anne's College, which I'm really enjoying so far (the college have made a fantastic video for potential undergraduates, which sums up its friendly atmosphere. You can see it here). However, having picked up a new selection of books from my Wiltshire library (i.e. my father's house) when moving to Oxford, I've been able to do a bit of re-reading for once. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed it. I'm usually separated from the vast majority of my book collection, so haven't been able to indulge in selecting the novels that appeal to me at the time. Re-reading straddles the gap between 'serious' and 'trashy' reading by allowing me to look again at books that I enjoyed the first time, and thought were worthwhile, but demand less effort now I'm reading them again. It's odd that re-reading has become so rare for me, because it was a very important feature of my reading life as a child and adolescent. Even in my early twenties, it was unusual for me to own a book that I had only read once. Now I own... a fair few...

I started my recent set of re-reads with Jung Chang's Wild Swans. This memoir was a great favourite among some girls at my school when I was about fifteen, and I'm ashamed to say that I've learnt little more about Chinese history since. However, regardless of how accurate or representative the text is, I was impressed with Chang's sheer ability as a storyteller, especially as the story is not told in her first language. She has a gift for isolating the telling detail from a confusing, complex mass of misery, and in bringing the reader into a very different world rather than distancing them from it. As a teenager, I remember relating strongly to teenaged Jung and her thirst for knowledge (despite our situations not being remotely alike!) and it was one of the first times I really appreciated the idea of learning for its own sake, rather than for an examination. Following this successful re-visiting with Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing was a bit of a disappointment. It seemed a good idea to read a book about re-reading as I was trying to do more of it, but I didn't enjoy Hill's account of a year of reading as much as I had the first time. The main reason for this is purely personal - Hill and I seem to have entirely opposite instincts about key texts and authors, so frequently her statements left me spluttering. (How can she instantly exclude Twelfth Night from a list of favourite Shakespeare plays? How can she never have read Villette?) This is hardly Hill's fault, but I found her narrative difficult to warm to for other reasons as well. She tends to judge, rather than celebrate, and the idea of a year of re-reading swiftly vanishes, so her chapters become quite disconnected.

Re-reading Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter, a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, is always a treat. Like Wild Swans, it's one of those novels that I read at such a formative age that it's perhaps almost too important to me. And yet, it's so beautiful, and so true. I can't think of a better example of a novel you can truly step into and live inside. There will certainly be readers who loathe it - the pace is very slow, and the reinvention of the Beast's character, in particular, is controversial in many respects. Nevertheless, I love it. I'm also re-reading Sarah Waters's Affinity at the moment, and enjoying going back to a novel that is very different from her more recent works. I'm impressed by her facility with pastiche; she uses historical detail and language consistently and heavily, but it's never heavy-handed. My final re-read so far has been an entirely different kind; Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender's Game. Reading this in light of recent events has been an odd experience; Card is so bigoted, but the morality of the novel itself is so interesting, and generally sound. I was continuously wondering how he can hold such narrow-minded opinions while espousing, via Ender, a very broad-minded world view. There are tiny hints of Card's own views on marriage, for example, in Speaker, but they're incredibly minor compared to the way he allows his own perspective to distort his later works (I'm not saying this simply because I disagree with Card; I think any author, however noble-minded, who allows their own hobby-horses to distort the stories they are telling to the degree that Card does later in the Ender series has a problem).

Reading this over, it strikes me that these books, with the exception of the Susan Hill, were all books that I first read between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. This seems to me to be fitting. I've just moved to a new place for the first time since I was eighteen years old, and it feels right to try to reconnect with a bit of that teenage desire to branch out.

Friday, 7 November 2014

‘This village in Worcestershire called Black Swan Green…’

In a shocking turn of events, David Mitchell has totally ignored my request that he should write more historical novels. To rub it in even further, this novel, while beginning in 1985, primarily takes place in the future. Once I’d got over my disappointment, however, I was pleased to realise that The Bone Clocks is probably his best novel yet. Which is not to say that it doesn’t still share in his usual strengths and weaknesses.

Holly Sikes is fifteen years old and running away from home after she discovers the love of her life sleeping with her best friend. However, this prosaic start to the story becomes somewhat stranger when she encounters an old woman called Esther, who asks her for ‘asylum’. Shortly afterwards, Holly is entangled in an otherworldly scene where she’s lucky to escape with her life, and has her memories wiped. Odd vocabulary – horologists, Black Wine, Cathars, the Shaded Way – is dropped, but the reader is clearly unable to understand it yet. Because this is a David Mitchell novel, we jump forward ten years to meet obnoxious Cambridge undergraduate and fraudster Hugo Lamb, who sleeps with Holly on a ski trip before becoming involved in a supernatural encounter of his own. A series of narrators, all linked to Holly – a foreign correspondent, a once-superstar novelist, and one of the mysterious Horologists – take us all the way to 2046, where Holly, now an old woman, is struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.

The Bone Clocks is an incredibly fun and gripping novel. I think it’s the first of Mitchell’s novels to hold my attention consistently – which is a major feat given how frequently he swaps viewpoints, styles and stories in all of his fiction. However, it’s also exceedingly odd, even for Mitchell. There’s a continuing conflict between the intense social observation that he does so well via a number of his narrators, and the fantastic elements that seem to be grafted on to their lives. The clash is most obvious in the sections narrated by Ed – the foreign correspondent – and Crispin – the novelist. These characters work so well because they feel so real; Ed gives a harrowing account of his experiences as a reporter, but explains why he is addicted to the job, even though he knows he is neglecting his wife and child. On the other end of the spectrum, Crispin is a hilariously self-obsessed novelist who goes to inordinate lengths to punish a reviewer who slated his ‘comeback’ book; he verges on caricature, but becomes less stereotyped through his friendship with Holly. Mitchell’s talents are on full display in these sections, but they don’t work well with the rest of the novel. On the other hand, Hugo’s narrative and the two Holly sections feel sufficiently removed from reality that they gel better with the Horologist sub-plot. As for the remaining section of the novel, where we finally learn what Black Wine and Cathars are… I’m not sure I know what to make of it. It’s a great read, but again, it jars badly with the rest of the text, and is essentially a pure fantasy romp, although Mitchell is brilliant at using obscure jargon to create a threatening atmosphere. I was left feeling that The Bone Clocks could be edited into at least two novels – and lose very little from it – especially when the Horologists are used to engineer a deus ex machina ending.

The other big thing about The Bone Clocks is that it’s an incredibly self-referential novel, which adds to the sense that Mitchell is playing a game rather than writing serious fiction. I’m not a committed enough Mitchell fan to spot all the references, but he makes some pretty obvious; Hugo was a character in Black Swan Green and Dr Marinus, one of the Horologists, hails from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. There’s also been a lot of debate about real-world references in the novel; is Crispin a portrait of Martin Amis? Although there’s nothing wrong with such references, I do always find them a bit cheap – it’s an easy trick to appear clever – and it doesn’t help with the overall feel of the novel. In a way, none of this matters. The Bone Clocks is fantastically entertaining, and I would definitely recommend it. But sometimes I wish David Mitchell would set a few more limitations on his impressive imagination.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A middlebrow melodrama?

Rachel Cusk recently reviewed this novel in the Guardian, and, to put it mildly, I did not think she did it justice. She wrote: ‘this novel’s descent into melodrama as a murder is committed… turns this engaging literary endeavour into a tiresome soap opera. Waters’ unusual gift for drama and for social satire is squandered on the production of middlebrow entertainment’. Given Cusk’s track record of character-driven, deeply observational novels such as Arlington Park, these comments obviously relate to the type of fiction she enjoys writing and reading. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t surprising – and in the words of a Guardian reader, commenting on the original review, ‘made my blood boil’. What is ‘middlebrow’ fiction, and why does the introduction of the dreaded ‘plot’ lower these imaginary brows? (Which summons up a brilliant mental image of the Bloomsbury group frowning increasingly fiercely over trashy 1920s novels…)

Frances and her mother have fallen upon hard times after the First World War. After the death of Frances’s father, who left considerable debts behind him, they have been forced to take in ‘paying guests’ – i.e., lodgers – to pay their bills, to the pity of their genteel middle-class acquaintances. The Barbers are certainly very different from Frances’s normal social circle. Epitomising the twentieth-century expansion of the middle classes, they hail from firmly working-class backgrounds but are on their way up in the world, with Len Barber holding a well-paid position as a clerk. Waters is brilliant on the tiny details that frame Frances’s initial introduction to the Barbers; to Lilian Barber’s carefulness as she walks across a newly-polished floor in her stockinged feet, to Frances and her mother’s horror as the Barbers briefly play loud gramophone music. She efficiently conveys the tiny awkwardnesses and discomforts of having strangers in the intensely private space of the inter-war, middle-class household for the first time. In other ways, too, Frances is struggling to meet the expectations of her class, doing all the household chores herself because they cannot afford a servant – although she does the heaviest work out of her mother’s sight, so as not to upset her. Frances, who was briefly radical and liberated during the war, has returned firmly to domesticity – although without a man to perform this role for. As we swiftly discover, she was in love with another woman during the war, but that relationship has ended.

For anyone who knows Sarah Waters’s work, the next twist in the story will be unsurprising. And indeed – I was re-reading Affinity recently – there are surface similarities between Frances and some of Waters’ earlier heroines, especially Margaret Prior, in that novel. They share an outward – and to an extent, inward – commitment to convention with a brittleness and bitterness that stems from the totally unconventional experiences that shaped their earlier lives. However, I’d go as far as to say that Frances is Waters’ most convincing creation to date. We feel that we thoroughly get to know her throughout the novel, and that all her apparently contradictory and confusing behaviour stems logically from her character and her experiences. It’s also the first time I’ve been completely convinced by a love affair in a Waters novel, with perhaps the exception of the very different obsession that develops in Affinity. In The Night Watch, for example, Kay is so fantastically written that Helen seems shallow beside her. In The Paying Guests, Waters makes both participants utterly real – although Frances will always seem the more complex, because we’re inside her head.

Cusk’s review emphasises that this is a novel of two parts, and I don’t think anyone would disagree. The first half of the novel is a careful build-up; the second half is a helter-skelter unravelling. I would also tentatively agree that the first half of the novel is better-written than the second; although this is something that is incredibly difficult to judge on a first reading, because I read the second half twice as quickly, and wouldn’t be surprised if I’d missed the fine nuances that Waters is so good at. However, I cannot agree that this means that the first half is a success, and the second half, a failure. What does Cusk mean when she suggests that the novel becomes both ‘middlebrow’ and ‘melodramatic’? Firstly, I find these comments ironic when it seems to me that Waters is deliberately playing with inter-war ideas of melodramatic, middlebrow fiction. The novel is overtly based on a famous court case of the time, and recalls much of the crime fiction of the era – although this would surely be ‘lowbrow’ rather than ‘middlebrow’ reading. Secondly, if she means ‘middlebrow’ in the inter-war, Bloomsbury group sense – the idea that middlebrow fiction convinces not-so-bright readers that they are reading something truly literary, when in fact it’s not – it seems to me that Waters is doing entirely the opposite in The Paying Guests. By daring to make such a gripping plot central to her novel, she is flouting the conventions of some literary fiction and risking falling out of the ‘literary’ category altogether. (The novel does seem to have suffered from this type of judgment. It wasn’t even longlisted for the Booker – which given the quality of most of this year’s shortlist is appalling).

Most of all, however, I object to Cusk’s statements because they suggest that if your readers want to read on, you must be doing something wrong. Waters’ novel is not melodramatic. In fact, it’s the opposite – she gives us the time and space to become deeply engaged with her characters before we are called upon to sympathise with them in more extreme situations. Nor is it middlebrow – a word that I’m not sure is very useful at all. I can understand why the two very different halves of the novel wouldn’t appeal to all readers, especially if you want a strong plot throughout, or prefer something totally character-driven. Personally, I loved it.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Mr B's Reading Year, Five: Superficially interesting

It was recently fashionable to praise Jonathan Franzen. Now it seems to be even more fashionable to suggest that other American novelists have been consistently underrated, and were as good as, or better, than him all along; as if a ‘Franzen’ is some kind of measurement of literary excellence, like a volt. As a feminist – and one who believes that female novelists tend to be under-represented and overlooked by reviewers and prize juries – I am absolutely behind these efforts to bring women into the spotlight, even though I’m not sure why Jonathan Franzen, skilful as he is, always needs to be the point of comparison. However, I can’t always agree with other reviewers’ choices of protege. In this context, the pages of praise that open my copy of The Interestings – including several uses of that buzz word, the Franzen – seem odd to me. Based on this book, Meg Wolitzer is a perfectly readable and entertaining novelist. I’m just not sure she is a very interesting one.

The Interestings begins at summer camp. Our heroine, Jules, feels awkward among the other young artistic prodigies that surround her, especially Ash, beautiful and talented, and her brother, Goodman, aloof. Nevertheless, she is accepted into their group, and begins to feel as if she is part of a charmed circle, a set of promising young people who will never become as mundane as the rest of the world. It’s the gap between these adolescent dreams and adult reality that Wolitzer sets out to examine. Frustratingly, however, she never seems to have anything especially new to say about it. As we expect, Jules continues to feel second-rate against her glamorous friends, even after Goodman enters a rapid downward spiral. Even less surprisingly, it’s a fellow outsider and former suitor – Ethan – who becomes the most successful of the bunch, at the helm of his own TV show, Figland, which sounds a bit like The Simpsons. Jules torments herself trying to work out how she can measure the small successes of her own life against the much bigger graphs drawn by the trajectories of her friends’ careers, and never reaches a satisfactory answer. This lack of resolution works well – there is no easy answer – and Wolitzer is good at subtly showing how the two worlds are separated, even when they closely intersect. Still, the novel is too long, and I found myself tiring of it long before I reached the end.

One problem was that none of this material felt especially fresh to me. Lionel Shriver’s early novel, Checker and the Derailleurs, and her later novel, Double Fault, delve much more deeply into the question of what we do when our dreams fail us and how an ‘ordinary’ person can live alongside the famous. Wolitzer writes well-observed, interesting material, but she never really seems to engage with her central questions. A second problem was the characterisation; Jules et al are essentially typecast, and although some of the characters acquire greater depth as the novel goes on (Jules, Ethan) others remain firmly in their boxes (Ash, Cathy). In a novel like this, where the plot deals solely with the unfolding of these characters’ lives, I felt that this was a problem. Overall, while I did like much of this novel, I’m not sure it lives up to the hype. Frankly, it isn’t worth a Franzen.