I've been a member of Goodreads since August 2007: almost seven years. Strangely, I still can't quite shake the sense of it being a relatively new addI've been a member of Goodreads since August 2007: almost seven years. Strangely, I still can't quite shake the sense of it being a relatively new addition to my internet life: it was, for me, pre-Twitter and Instagram, but post-LiveJournal and my large back catalogue of personal websites. It's also odd to look back on my early reviews, which now feel like they were written by a much more childlike version of myself, as if pulled from a teenage diary, even though I was already in my twenties when I joined the site. Anyway, during that time, I've written - according to the review count on my profile - 766 reviews. The number isn't quite accurate, as a significant portion of those are very brief notes; but even if half or two-thirds of them are a few sentences, that leaves hundreds of longer reviews.
I've recently started to feel that it's hard to write a truly original review, to avoid plagiarising myself or paraphrasing others. I've become more aware of phrases and words I use over and over again, and the more I use them, the more flimsy and insufficient they seem - but there are only so many synonyms available and only so many ways of rephrasing the same things. Some books jolt me out of this and make me say something different because they're so good (or so bad), but in among those are lots of books I enjoy in a generic, ordinary way, that I'm not really inclined to criticise but don't expect to stay with me after I turn the last page.
So Girl at War is another addition to a long list of books I really liked and yet don't have anything new to say about. It's good, and I think it might gain a kind of slow-burn popularity, might be nominated for a couple of awards and is the sort of thing that will be included in the Waterstones Book Club selections when it's published in paperback. But I doubt I will remember the story in detail.
Narrator Ana is ten years old when war breaks out in Yugoslavia. Her family is Croatian, and as the fighting continues, her life and relationships with those around her are altered further and further, at the same time as war is assimilated into her daily life - Ana continues to ride around the city of Zagreb with her best friend Luka; they play war games on the structures used to make roadblocks. Things become more serious for Ana's family when her baby sister, Rahela, develops a mysterious illness and must be taken across the border into Slovenia to receive treatment. Told in four parts, the story flips between this setting and Ana ten years later - a student living in New York. At the beginning of this second narrative, she is preparing to give a speech at the UN about her experiences and eventual flight from Croatia. Naturally, this dredges up painful memories, and she is ultimately compelled to go back to the country of her birth to confront the ghosts of her past.
Here are some unoriginal things I could say about Girl at War: - Ana is a fairly likeable and interesting character, but the narrative never gets into her head enough for her story to be truly emotive, despite the all the hardships she faces. - An element of romance is used cleverly... or is a cop-out (it gives the book's audience a romantic subplot to get emotionally attached to but never really resolves it and therefore avoids any risk of the story being defined as a romantic one). (view spoiler)[I really didn't see the point of Ana's boyfriend in New York; his character couldn't have been any more two-dimensional. He clearly only existed so there could be some vague will-they-won't-they tension when Ana met Luka again. (hide spoiler)] - The settings are done well, and bring Zagreb in particular to life. One of the strongest aspects of the settings is the way Nović highlights how alien Ana's way of life is when compared with what the reader is likely to have experienced, while frequently reminding us that these conflicts are not some distant, ancient memory but actually took place very recently. - The author also does a good job of showing how, in a country at war, the dangers and horrors of war are often incorporated into everyday life with greater ease than those who have never experienced it might imagine, especially by children. The downside of this is that the stakes often don't feel as high as they should. - It's a fast and easy read and has that feeling of being light but not trashy. - There's very little about this I didn't enjoy, but I'll be surprised if I remember any of it in a few months' time.
I enjoyed this, but I can't quite get it up for it in the same way that other readers apparently could. My Goodreads and Feedly feeds have been full of ecstaticallyenthusiasticresponses since it was published, and I have to say that while I agree it's good, I didn't find it powerful. Still very much recommended, though, even if only because it seems statistically likely you'll have a better time with it than I did. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Was ever a book more suited to a grey and drizzly Bank Holiday weekend? (Which it was, when I read it.) Steeped in religious symbolism and quintessentially British bleakness, The Loney is an odd, dreary sort of horror story - the tale of two boys, our nameless narrator and his mute brother, Andrew, known as Hanny. The Loney is a place - a desolate stretch of northern coast, and one of a number of deliberately evocative place names in this story, along with the village of Coldbarrow and the houses Thessaly and Moorings.
Day after day, the rain swept in off the sea in huge, vaporous curtains that licked Coldbarrow from view and then moved inland to drench the cattle fields. The beach turned to brown sludge and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed.
The boys travel to the Loney as part of a sort of pilgrimage. They are led by a newly arrived priest, Father Bernard, appointed after the death of the previous incumbent, Father Wilfred. With them are the boys' parents, who they call 'Mummer and Farther'; Father Wilfred's brother and his wife, Mr and Mrs Belderboss; and the church housekeeper, Miss Bunce, and her fiancé, David. The religious aspect of the group's gathering is more than mere exposition: Mummer believes it is here that Hanny will be 'cured' of his mutism and learning difficulties, and it's the perceived power of faith and ritual - ultimately, the insufficiency of faith - that informs the plot's development and the real horror at the Loney's heart.
Originally published independently - by Tartarus Press - last year and now picked up by Hodder & Stoughton imprint John Murray (the new hardback is out in August), The Loney is gathering a buzz in the media and, inevitably, on Twitter. A piece on 'the ghost story's renaissance' in the Telegraph had this to say: 'Modern classics in this genre are rare, and instant ones even rarer; The Loney, however, looks as though it may be both.' The Loney isn't really a ghost story, but it has plenty of the genre's classic traits - such as the framing narrative, in which the narrator is looking back on this period of his youth, and occasionally mentions talking about the Loney with his therapist. There's a pinch of black magic and an inexplicable transformation, but much of the story concentrates on building atmosphere; constructing a nuanced portrait of the boys' really rather grim lives; realising the feverish, desperate sense of hope surrounding the group's presence at Moorings.
I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.
The most disturbing details don't appear to have much to do with anything supernatural: what to make of the heavily pregnant girl the brothers meet - the narrator initially estimates her age as thirteen or fourteen, and later states 'she seemed even younger than I'd first thought' - who says airily of the impending birth, 'it's nothing. I've done this before. It gets easier the more you have' - and is never seen again? The Telegraph piece compares Hurley's work to that of Robert Aickman, and it's easy to see the resemblance in the sheer dread Hurley evokes here, as well as the depiction (indeed, personification) of nature as savage and cruel. Also Aickmanesque is the deeply ambiguous ending, concluding the story with either a stroke of genius or a frustrating cop-out, depending on your interpretation. (I have to say that personally, I was a little disappointed.)
It's apt that the central family has the surname Smith: The Loney is like a Morrissey song made novel ('Everyday is Like Sunday' with shades of 'Yes, I Am Blind' and maybe a bit of 'November Spawned a Monster') and, with a depiction of a poor Catholic childhood central to the story, I was reminded of the earlier parts of his autobiography more than once. The story is set in the 1970s, and it's perfectly redolent of a time not so long ago, but almost unthinkable now, before technology transformed the possibility of any place seeming entirely unknowable. Of course, the inability to 'call for help' is a mainstay of horror stories, and isn't limited to those set before everyone had a mobile phone - but here, it's used particularly effectively to help portray an era, a way of life, a system of belief in its death throes. The Loney is at once acutely bleak and strangely beautiful:
A train rushed past, leaving a skirl of litter and dust, and then the rails returned to their bright humming. In the scrubland beyond, the swifts were darting over the tufts of grass and the hard baked soil with its beetroot-coloured weeds. We watched them turning on their hairpins deftly as bats.
I can certainly understand why The Loney might be labelled an instant classic. It's a seriously impressive first novel, and so successful at creating a setting that it's sure to linger in the memory....more
William Boyd's latest novel advertises itself as 'the story of a woman - the story of a century'; the subtitle is 'The Many Lives of Amory Clay'. FromWilliam Boyd's latest novel advertises itself as 'the story of a woman - the story of a century'; the subtitle is 'The Many Lives of Amory Clay'. From the moment I first heard about it, I instinctively wanted to describe it as 'the female-focused version of Any Human Heart', and with that book prominently mentioned in the marketing copy, it seems the publishers are intending to push it in a similar way. Like Any Human Heart, it is the life story of one character - in this case, the photographer Amory Clay - and it's told in first person. Amory, now in her late sixties, is writing her life story. Chapters from this are intersected by journal extracts charting her current life (living in a cottage in the Highlands in the late 1970s) and the progress of this biographical project.
As the blurb promises, Amory's unusual career takes her from private school to working as a photographer of London's society darlings; to debauched clubs in 1920s Berlin; to a career at an American magazine, based in New York, as WWII starts. She later becomes a war photographer, marries a man she meets in a decimated French village, and spends some time in Vietnam. Her life is often touched by tragedy and yet not defined by it.
At the end, though, I felt a bit deflated; for someone's life story, it all seems so thin. Perhaps it doesn't help that the book is dominated by Amory's adventures in war photography; in comparison, frustratingly small amounts of the narrative are devoted to the fascinating settings of 1920s Berlin and 1930s New York. It's certainly not that Amory's life doesn't make for interesting fiction, it's just that none of it seems substantial enough somehow? Amory just didn't come to life for me, didn't seem like a real tangible human being in the way Logan Mountstuart did. I felt her character was always painted in broad strokes; the narrative didn't seem to get into the nitty-gritty of what made her her.
This was a perfectly nice, diverting holiday read which kept me occupied for most of a plane journey, but outside that context/my prior knowledge of the author (Armadillo also being a favourite from years ago) I'm not sure I'd even have stuck with it. I'm self-consciously aware I'm writing the first Goodreads review of this book, and I wish it could be more positive, but I'm sure plenty will find it more captivating than I did....more
A Reunion of Ghosts (according to one character, that's the collective noun for ghosts) is the 'shared suicide note' of three middle-aged sisters, LadA Reunion of Ghosts (according to one character, that's the collective noun for ghosts) is the 'shared suicide note' of three middle-aged sisters, Lady, Vee, and Delph. They're the end of the family line (with apologies to Morrissey); the last remaining descendants of Lenz Alter, a Jewish scientist known as 'the father of chemical warfare' for his role in the invention of chlorine gas and Zyklon B. Believing the family to be cursed, doomed to suicide whatever they do, the Alter sisters embark on a project to set down their family's story before their inevitable, simultaneous, deaths. There are asides into the lives of various generations of Alters, as well as the sisters themselves. Every part of the story is emotionally engaging, and it's beautifully written, filled with warmth, humour and humanity. This is one of the best uses of a first person plural narrative (a device I usually hate) I've ever read, a rich and satisfying tapestry of lives that's tragic, heartbreaking actually, but also really, really funny. One of my favourite books of 2015 so far. ...more
Bought the paperback when I spotted it cheap in a supermarket, then re-read the stories I'd originally enjoyed plus the new additions. This edition coBought the paperback when I spotted it cheap in a supermarket, then re-read the stories I'd originally enjoyed plus the new additions. This edition contains two new stories, both very short and originally published in magazines: neither are anything to get excited about, but (in my opinion) that kind of story rarely is, regardless of who it's written by. Memorable more for specific moments and feelings and bits of scene-settings than for any of the stories as a whole....more
Rarely do I finish a book and have so little to say about it. I enjoyed The Shore, and I wanted to write an in-depth review, but I've been strugglingRarely do I finish a book and have so little to say about it. I enjoyed The Shore, and I wanted to write an in-depth review, but I've been struggling for days with what I have to say and even what I remember about the story. The way I felt about this reminds me of the way I felt about Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which was published (and which I read) in 2013: both books gathered a word-of-mouth buzz about them prior to publication, receiving favourable reviews and drawing comparisons to the work of established literary authors; both have been nominated for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. But both also turned out to be quick, light and easy reads, actually less complicated and challenging than a lot of genre fiction, and both proved to be almost instantly forgettable.
The Shore is a collection of interlinked short stories, all of them set on the titular Shore, an arid archipelago of three islands somewhere off the coast of the Southern state of Virginia. That the stories focus on different characters and take place in different time periods - including the future - has led to the book being likened to the novels of David Mitchell. Taylor's work differs from Mitchell's in one crucial respect: it lacks the variety of voices and literary styles that made Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas what they were (I'm pretending The Bone Clocks doesn't exist). This lack of diversity is both a problem (it means the stories, which often have the same rough themes, seem too alike) and an asset (it makes the book feel more coherent as a novel, and avoids, for the most part, making it feel gimmicky).
There are a couple of notable deviations, though. The most obvious is the final chapter, set in 2143, which uses a sort of 'futurespeak' that seems very familiar and felt like a rip of the style employed by Mitchell in the future-set sections of Cloud Atlas. If not Cloud Atlas, then I have definitely read something extremely similar in another book. It's not original and it's kind of lazy, but what saves it is the truly touching story lurking beneath the daft language. In general, the story is kept afloat by engaging characters, strong and intriguing openings to each of the chapters, and the identity the Shore itself acquires: characterful and close to magical.
The Shore has some running themes: though some of the main characters are male, the book concentrates mainly on 'the female experience' and secondly on sexual politics. (One of the better examples of the latter is that, in a tongue-in-cheek twist on the epidemic-dystopia formula, it's a sexually transmitted disease that brings about the ruin of humanity.) I did sometimes find all of this a bit tiresome. There's a recurring portrayal of women as inherently obsessed with motherhood and familial bonds, which I struggled to relate to, and there were times when the book's relentless emphasis on 'women' (I don't mean women as characters but more the idea of women) felt overwrought.
This doesn't sound like a four-star review, does it? The truth is that I did very much enjoy reading this book and don't have any concrete reason to rate it lower. It's just more of a casually enjoyable read than anything else; it has some dark moments, but these are given a sort of ambient gloss not necessarily by the story, but by the fact that the book is so easily readable and - perhaps as a result of the short-story format - never feels like it gets very deep into any analysis of its characters. ...more
In a narrative that shifts between 1976 and 1996, we are introduced to the doomed and dreadful Deyer family, primarily patriarch Hendrik and underachiIn a narrative that shifts between 1976 and 1996, we are introduced to the doomed and dreadful Deyer family, primarily patriarch Hendrik and underachieving son Werner. Living in pre- and narrowly post-apartheid South Africa, they negotiate a changing world with suspicion, hatred and selfishness; the junior and senior Deyers are both devious and murderous individuals, and both are defined by obsession. The story has a wide scope, with its main arc involving the lasting impact of a massacre on the Deyer family, but on a lower level it is concerned mainly with the repulsively fascinating character of Werner and all his idiosyncrasies. The aspiring 'curator' of the title, he nurses an unfulfilled love of art alongside tendencies towards sadism, and these repressed desires will bring him, like his father, to ruin. Indubitably bleak but laced with black humour, this is a book with dark themes - murder, racism and child abuse among them - yet it keeps a surprisingly light tone by centring on Werner. His naivety and self-delusion make him both amusing and dangerous - a brilliant creation - and part of what makes The Curator work so well is its ambivalence towards him. This is one of those books that stays in your head and reveals more layers every time you think about it; I loved it.
How to be both contains two stories, one (Eyes) about a fifteenth-century artist, Francesco del Cossa, and one (Camera) about a modern-day teenage girHow to be both contains two stories, one (Eyes) about a fifteenth-century artist, Francesco del Cossa, and one (Camera) about a modern-day teenage girl, George, designed to be read in whatever order the reader desires. The ebook edition I read had Eyes first (or you can skip to the middle and read Camera first, as the stories mirror each other, while the order of the sections is randomised in physical copies). I was pleased about this - Eyes may be a bit harder to get into, but it's fascinatingly different, and if I'd started with Camera I would have probably assumed the story was more ordinary than it is. The book does rather demand to be read twice, Eyes-Camera and then Camera-Eyes or the other way around, since the stories reference each other and almost overlap; cf. discussions within the book about a finished fresco overlaying the original, and about stories running concurrently, figuratively written on top of each other.
Francesco's story is mainly about art, George's mainly about grief, but there are many, many parallels, both big and small, between the two - I think it would spoil the book to say what they are; a number of reviews I've read have revealed some of the big surprises, which makes me glad I hadn't read any reviews before I started the book. The stories are about how the past affects the present, they are about gender and sexuality, as well as the usual literary themes of loss, the passing of time, how we tell stories (/create art), etc. Unsurprisingly, some things are left unfinished and open to the reader's interpretation: (view spoiler)[is Francesco (incorpo)really observing George or is the Francesco narrative George's (or someone else's) invention? What's the truth about Lisa Goilard? (hide spoiler)] Smith's style is playful and clever - it does a lot of wonderful things with language and meaning (this is particularly evident in the George story, which frequently employs clichés and then turns them inside out - and in the title, which itself has several meanings - and in the disconcerting and hilarious occasional use of modern phrasings in the Francesco narrative) but at the same time it isn't challenging to read.
So far I've only read one other Ali Smith novel, 2011's There but for the, and for me, How to be both was much more successful. I found There but for the too much of a typical literary novel: while it addresses many of the same themes, How to be both is more original in terms of form and style, and it just - I can't really describe it in any way other than to say How to be both made me feel happy where There but for the made me feel a bit bored.
(I wonder if which story you get first affects which character or narrative you feel most attached to? Most reviewers seem to have read George first and preferred George as a character. I definitely felt a greater attachment to Francesco and was really quite sad when I reached the suggestion that (view spoiler)[her narrative was invented by George (hide spoiler)]. Though I did, also, really like George/her story - more than I expected to, actually, I wasn't much looking forward to reading about yet-another-teenage-girl-character. And her narrative made me ache with jealousy in its depiction of what it's like to grow up in an intellectual family - the conversations her parents have with her at age 15/16, oh to have had that privilege! - which was both good and bad.)
It's probably silly to say this when I'm unlikely to read any of the other shortlisted books, but I really hope this wins the Booker. It's definitely better than Howard Jacobson's J and strikes me as a worthier winner than the rest of the nominees.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The Little Egypt of the title is actually a British country manor, the home of 13-year-old twins Isis and Osiris, whose parents are (unsurprisingly...The Little Egypt of the title is actually a British country manor, the home of 13-year-old twins Isis and Osiris, whose parents are (unsurprisingly...) obsessive Egyptologists. They abandon the children for months on end while they search across Egypt for an elusive tomb, leaving Isis and Osi, the latter also something of an Egypt enthusiast, in the care of put-upon maid Mary and louche Uncle Victor. The narrative of this novel splits itself between the aforementioned situation, taking place in the 1920s (I don't think the year is specified, but mentions of Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb date it to 1922/23) and 2002, when the twins are in their nineties. Isis has become an eccentric hoarder and hasn't spoken to Osi in ten years - despite the fact that they still share the same house - but things are changing: she's being pressured to sell Little Egypt by a developer who wants to build a huge supermarket on the land; concerns about Osi's health may force her to venture upstairs for the first time in years; a new friendship with a young anarchist might give her the confidence to finally make a decision about the future of Little Egypt.
This is the first book I've read by Lesley Glaister, and there is no doubt she has a wonderful way with words. A horse's coat is 'mottled like a rainy pavement'; when Isis enters a quiet room, it is filled with 'a thick hush like fur'; the sounds made by budgies are 'hard chips of glassy noise that rattled against her teeth'. The devil is in the detail. Isis herself is a beautifully created character, more effective as a teenager in the 1920s sections than as a nonagenarian in 2002, but never less than engaging, and frequently admirable. Her story is a difficult, unhappy one, but Glaister makes it compelling.
There's a negative review of Little Egypt on Goodreads which says it seems too much like a YA novel, and I get what that reviewer is driving at: it's not really that the style or tone makes it feel like YA, but the fact that obvious obstacles to the plot making any sense are swept under the carpet without explanation. The sort of things that you wouldn't question in a kids' book, but as an adult reader, you don't expect to encounter such blatant lack of explanation unless it has a purpose. For example... (view spoiler)[Isis, while undoubtedly eccentric, is portrayed in the flashbacks as a strong, intelligent and resourceful young woman, capable of taking control of very difficult situations, and just starting to discover her own capacity for sexual desire. I find it very difficult to believe that, no matter how devoted she was to protecting her brother, such a person would really remain alone in the same house for an entire lifetime, never seeking out any real friendships or relationships, an occupation, or much in the way of anything to even occupy her mind. She could easily have pursued a life outside Little Egypt while keeping the house and ensuring Osi was cared for. I find it similarly unlikely that the house would be left alone for all that time, particularly considering that the time period includes the Second World War (which isn't even mentioned). In fact, the whole period between 1923 and 2002 is glossed over almost completely. Then there's the ending: for the corporation to ignore one set of old bones, I can just about accept (although the fact that Mary was surrounded with various items that would, surely, easily establish her identity makes this less likely), but the body of an obviously recently deceased person hidden in the same place, and not even buried?! (hide spoiler)]
In addition to the implausibility of some of the plot points, I thought the story was just so depressing. This isn't something I would normally say about a book - I usually find this kind of judgement a bit inane - but in this case, I just couldn't shake the feeling. The fate of Little Egypt, Isis and Osi's whole lives, really - even the very end, which I guess is supposed to represent some final, not-too-late bit of happiness: all were so sad and empty. I was left with a hollow feeling at the end of the book; I just wished things could have been different for almost everyone in the story, particularly Isis. (Though this is a compliment, in a way, because if Isis's character hadn't been so well-formed, I would have cared less about what became of her.)
I find myself with more negative things to say about Little Egypt than positive ones (and I haven't yet mentioned the surfeit of continuity errors and spelling mistakes in the book), but I still feel the need to stress that I did enjoy it. I'd read more by the author - I enjoyed her style here more than the content, and would like to see it applied to a less dispiriting story. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Dear Thief, Samantha Harvey's third novel, opens with the irresistible image of a woman starting a long letter to an old friend, opening her missive with the words 'In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, I have, yes, seen through what you called the gauze of this life.' Instantly enigmatic and captivating, this beginning sets the tone for a a narrative that doesn't so much twist and turn as double back on itself, reroute and realign, continually reshaping the story. Written over the course of half a year, the unnamed narrator's letter is addressed to Nina, known as 'Butterfly', a figure who - appropriately enough - hovers constantly over the protagonist's life, once almost literally (when she appears in a dream, standing beside the bed), always metaphorically. She was a friend for decades, now estranged, her whereabouts unknown. And as the story unfolds in its fragmented, non-linear way, it becomes clear that 'Butterfly' betrayed the narrator with her husband, Nicolas - now also estranged. You would expect such a betrayal to be at the heart of the book, and in a way it is, but to define it in that way would do this surprising novel a huge disservice. While it's described, in part, as a triangular love story, it is really only the central friendship that matters.
It's impossible to discuss a book like this without invoking the lingering spectre of the Unreliable Narrator. Dear Thief is perhaps doubly unreliable: the narrator's memories of things are blurred, and her account is entirely one-sided, but of course she is also addressing this account to a former friend, an enemy - and even though she hasn't seen this person for years, the narrator's emotional relationship with the memory of 'Butterfly' and her actions remains complicated. Sometimes she seeks to accuse, to lay blame, to provoke guilt; at other times she wistfully speaks of the pair's shared childhood, the closeness of their bond. And since she doesn't know where in the world 'Butterfly' is, or if the woman is even alive, it's questionable how much of this letter is truly a letter and how much is an exercise in self-purging, in forgiving herself.
Dear Thief reminded me a lot of Anna Raverat's criminally underread and underrated Signs of Life, which is a favourite. Raverat's narrator, Rachel, has a similar type of unreliability, conceding that some things in her story only might or could have happened, but insisting that this isn't important. What she remembers, how she remembers it, and how she perceives the effect of this other person on her life are far more important than what actually took place, or didn't:
You were standing at the end of the platform with your head down and your weight off one foot, in the way I've seen wounded wolves stand in films like Once Upon a Time in the West - not that I have seen this film, but this is how I imagine it to be.
This small detail captures the essence of the narrator's habit of redefining facts and memories to fit her story. In one sentence she states unequivocally that she has seen this thing; in the next she refutes that entirely. But it doesn't matter, because this is how she imagines it. She often employs this sort of contradiction, asking her addressee: 'isn't the admittance of a lie more honest, anyway, than a truth arrived at through editing?' The frustration and fascination of Dear Thief lies in the fact that we will never know how many of those lies the narrator doesn't admit, how many things she misremembers, leaves out, or embellishes. In some chapters she paints a cruel picture of an imagined version of the life 'Butterfly' lives as she imagines it now, living alone in a woodland hut, sleeping in 'maximum discomfort'. These parts of the narrative are explicitly invented - a sort of punishment, a psychological prison in which the narrator has confined her memories of her former friend - but they come to be part of the story, just as much as the more obviously factual chapters. What we never discover is how much of a fiction those 'facts' may actually be. The narrator also alludes to the idea that Yannis, a local restaurateur she becomes acquainted with, could have been made up to provide a parallel to her story (he is on the verge of divorce, and the narrator finds herself giving him advice). It's certainly true that Yannis seems to serve as a plot device on more than one occasion, but is this the work of the author of the book, or the author of the letter?
Extending this idea, it is possible to wonder whether 'Butterfly' even really existed. The character, flighty, artistic and sensual, is surely more the realisation of a trope than a believable person: doing what she pleases, skipping from country to country, taking drugs, floating around in an old shawl she's worn since she was a girl. There are points when she seems like a sort of conduit for the narrator's own unspoken desires and dreams of more uninhibited behaviour, and it's as if her remembered actions are more symbolic than real - for example, when she spontaenously kisses a female dinner party guest on the mouth, flustering the narrator's husband, while the narrator scuttles around in the background, pouring drinks, the very picture of domestic obligation. In one of my favourite passages from the novel, the narrator talks about her theory that 'people are wrong to believe that we desire what we cannot have... Instead we desire what we aren't, but can conceivably be'. (I couldn't stop thinking about this for a while - even if not generally accurate, it is certainly true of me.) Is this, then, what 'Butterfly' represents? The person we could become, if not for inhibitions, responsibilities, prudence?
The second chapter of Dear Thief opens with the words 'on the whole I do not think of you any more'; the entirety of the rest of the book sets about disproving this claim in every detail. The narrator's past, her marriage, her life now, her dreams - all are haunted, consumed, by 'Butterfly', and a final scene in which the narrator literally chases her friend's shadow, or ghost, or double only serves to underline that. While reading it I didn't love this book as much as I thought I might, and yet the more time I spend thinking about it, the more fascinated I am. There is so much to pick out of it that I could probably read it again and write a completely different review. Both a portrait of friendship as a love story, and a cautionary tale about the risk involved in friendship of this depth and fragility, Dear Thief, described by no less than A.M. Homes as 'a hypnotic, beautiful and sometimes dark incantation', is haunting and totally unforgettable. I loved it.
(The book is done no justice by its cover, by the way. It's not bad, just a design of a type that's become cliched - a black-and-white photo of a woman, but you can only see part of her face; bright text on a dark background; a typewriter-style font. It says 'standard-template psychological thriller' more than it says 'elegant literary fiction', and it seems destined to result in misinterpretation (I've already read a lukewarm review of Dear Thief which complained that it 'lacks plot', as if that matters).)...more
I am (as most people reading this probably know) a fan of F.G. Cottam, and have enjoyed all of his books. I enjoyed The Lazarus Prophecy, though, more than anything he's written since the unbeatable Dark Echo. It's both a return to form and a departure for the author: the former because it feels very original, very considered and carefully crafted, has more than one perspective and type of narrative, and takes so many turns before the conclusion is reached; the latter because it is not a straightforward (if there is such a thing) supernatural/horror narrative, it also has mystery and historical elements and a background which allows the social and political ramifications of the story's events to be explored.
The basic premise is that a murderer is targeting women in London, confounding the police because he seems impervious to detection - leaving no incriminating trace of himself at his crime scenes despite his habit of scrawling blasphemous messages, written in archaic languages, above the bodies of his victims. The detective leading the investigation enlists the help of a theologian, leading to the discovery that all of this has some connection with a secretive order of Catholic priests located somewhere in the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, the lack of resolution of the murder case leads an extremist right-wing organisation to whip up antagonism among Londoners, adding a very real edge to the 'end of days' atmosphere that permeates the story. This portrayal of a city on the brink of chaos brought to mind two of my other favourites from this year: Sarah Lotz's The Three, in which inexplicable events precipitate political dissent and the breakdown of international relations, and Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way To Burn, which depicts a nightmarish version of present-day London ravaged by a pandemic.
The blurb on Goodreads doesn't make the setup sound great; the description on NetGalley, which likens this book to The Da Vinci Code, is possibly worse (the comparison may attract certain readers, but it does the book a bit of a disservice - Cottam's writing is not the by-numbers style of Dan Brown). Although there is a serial killer angle to the plot, it is handled well, and the violence (which is actually minimal) is not gratuitous. As usual with Cottam's books, the characters are believable and likeable, and there are numerous strong and complex female characters. It's these characters who drive the plot forward, and that does help to balance out the fact that the villain tends to target women. I don't think the blurb does the best job of getting this across, so I feel it's important to underline here that the women in this story are not just victims: it is largely a female-driven book. In fact, the main male character, while he does make a contribution, plays the sort of sidekick/love interest part which might traditionally be the only significant sympathetic role available to a female character in a thriller.
I could have devoured this book in a few hours, but I tried to make it last longer, stretching it over several days, because I felt there was much to savour. I particularly liked the scenes taking place at the remote French monastery, a place perfectly created in its sense of atmosphere, eeriness and import. There's also a historical diversion - delving into an apparent connection between the modern-day London killer and Jack the Ripper - which is executed well and retains its own distinct character, while still fitting with the rest of the narrative. If you're a fan of the author already, I'm confident you'll love The Lazarus Prophecy. If you're a fan of either horror or mystery and would like to try something that has an element of both, I enthusiastically recommend it. ...more
The 'hundred year house' is Laurelfield, a grand, English-style manor house built in Illinois for the Devohrs, a family of eccentric, upper-class Canadians. Makkai's second novel tells the story of the house through its various incarnations - a prison for an unhappy wife; an artists' colony; the setting for an ultimately tragic tale involving swapped identities; the backdrop for an affair that never was and a search for lost files that may not exist - but it tells it backwards.
In the first (and longest) part, it's 1999, and Laurelfield is inhabited by Grace, a descendant of the Devohrs, and her second husband, Bruce. Grace's daughter Zee, a scholar of Marxist literature, lives with her husband Doug in the coach house, where they are soon joined by Case, Bruce's terminally unlucky son, and his flaky artist wife Miriam. Doug is ostensibly working on a PhD studying an almost-forgotten poet named Edwin Parfitt; in actual fact, he is close to giving up on his academic ambitions and spends his days ghostwriting trashy kids' books about plucky teenage girls. Doug has known for some time that Parfitt stayed at Laurelfield when it was an artist's colony, but when he discovers that Grace may have some old files under lock and key in the attic, his curiosity is sparked and he becomes convinced that finding them is the key to finishing his thesis.
Part one takes up half the book, and it's inevitable, therefore, that this section involves the most detail and development, and produces the most emotional investment in the characters. What happens between them in the end is rather upsetting... At least, it was for me - I loved one character in particular and despised another, and was disappointed with how things worked out for them, though others may have different reactions. I must say, though, that although I really disliked what happened here (I might have given this book five stars if the outcome of this section had been different) the characters must have been very well-written if they made me care so much. And, this book being what it is, there is a reason things play out as they do: the reader will discover later that the dynamic being played out here closely mirrors events that took place three quarters of a century earlier, and indeed (without giving too much away here), in some ways it brings them full circle.
(Over-emotional personal notes on the first part: (view spoiler)[I HATED!!!! the fact that Doug ended up with awful Miriam. UGH! I don't know why it bothered me so much, because I wasn't keen on Doug, and Zee definitely deserved better. I just wanted Zee to 'win', for her to be the one who ended up happy and in control. I don't see why it should have been those two. I would have preferred, at least, for Zee to realise there was no affair and still leave Doug anyway. Or for Doug and Miriam to go off together and Zee to get the house. I just really couldn't stand Miriam. (hide spoiler)])
In the second part, it's 1955. Grace is a young wife, married to Zee's violent, philandering father, George. She is bored, restless and feels cooped up at Laurelfield, and when she notices strange, small things she sees as omens, her life slowly begins to change, leading towards an inescapable fate. Because the reader has already discovered something of the nature of this fate in the 1999 story, what happens to her in the end is not a mystery... But how she gets there very much is. It's the uncovering of this chain of events that gives this section of the novel its tension and drama.
Third part: 1929, during Laurelfield's period as an artists' colony. There is a larger cast of characters here, a group of eight or nine artists of various types - including Doug's PhD subject Edwin Parfitt, and Zilla Silverman, the painter for whom Zee is named. The narrative here switches perspectives frequently (some of it is told in first person plural to describe the group's collective observations of an individual) and is told in short bursts. It follows the scheming efforts of the artists to 'save' the colony when it is threatened with closure by a particularly unpleasant Devohr.
There isn't a fourth part of the book, just a 'prologue', although it's placed at the end. Set in 1900, as the house is being built, it acts as a perfect coda to the earlier (or later) tales of Laurelfield.
This is not really a ghost story, and readers expecting something that's actually spooky will be disappointed, but it certainly references ghost stories in a number of ways. There's a couple of inexplicable, possibly supernatural incidents; various people joke, or half-joke, about Laurelfield being haunted; Zee teaches a class on ghost stories. Within the latter example there's a theory about a type of haunting that comes from the future rather than the past, and this informs the structure of the story: as the reader sees everything in reverse, it's impossible not to feel that the present is reaching back into the past somehow. That while the present, obviously, doesn't and can't affect what happens in the past, it does twist how the observer sees it. The full truth about everything that's happened at Laurelfield remains a mystery to the characters, and although the reader uncovers parts of it, it will never be fully revealed. This is the sort of book you could definitely read again - and again - and notice things you'd missed the first time.
The Hundred Year House reminded me a little bit of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in its study of an unconventional family, sometimes unlikeable characters, and use of humour, but I preferred it to Franzen's book - I found it warmer and more believable. I hoped it would be good, but it actually surpassed my expectations, and I was surprised by how much I felt about this book and how much it seemed to come alive in my imagination. I'd love to re-read it at some point in the future, I definitely recommend it, and I've bumped The Borrower up a few places on my to-read list. The Hundred Year House is a vivid, memorable and rewarding read whether you usually love or hate ghost stories, tales of grand old houses, or any and all of the above. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
First, two points about my experience of reading so far in 2014.
1. I've read some great books this year, but in terms of highly anticipated new fiction, 2014 has frequently been disappointing. Elizabeth is Missing and The Miniaturist, two enormously hyped debuts I had been hearing about since around a year ago, were both perfectly readable and okay, but fell far short of what I expected from them; Sarah Waters' new novel The Paying Guests I found boring beyond belief and didn't even finish. Therefore, when I started hearing about Station Eleven, I approached it with scepticism. It's Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, but whereas the first three were put out by an indie publisher, Unbridled Books, this one has been picked up by major publishers in both the UK and US. If you're're active in the book community on Twitter, it probably won't need any introduction - although it doesn't come out until September, in social media terms it is already one of the most talked-about books I have come across all year. The marketing campaign has been extensive and effective. I'm yet to start hearing about the book in the mainstream media but I have no doubt that I will. All of which inevitably left me wondering whether it could possibly be as good as people were saying, and actually put me off starting it immediately.
2. This has been the year I have discovered I really enjoy speculative fiction, or at least some sub-section of it that I'm not quite sure how to define. Three of the most enjoyable books I've read in 2014 - Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way To Burn, Sarah Lotz's The Three, and this - have been based around a version of the near future that might, to various degrees, be called dystopian. All of these books could be defined as fantasy, but they retain a significant sense of the 'real', recognisable world. They are not high fantasy or science fiction and, particularly in the case of Station Eleven, they are more literary in style than many would expect this genre to be. There's a whole other tangent here about how I've become jaded by the hackneyed themes of much popular literary fiction, and find myself drawn more and more towards books like this - well-written, intelligent and driven by character as much as plot, but including components and tropes traditionally belonging to genre fiction: a mystery, bits of fantasy or horror, gothic elements - than I am to more 'typical' literary fiction, but that is another discussion for another time.
Station Eleven itself is a book I am keen to recommend, but I don't want to say that much about it. I think it is best approached with little existing knowledge of what happens. It is about a future version of North America, twenty years after most of the population was wiped out by a pandemic. But it starts in the present day, during a theatre performance of King Lear, and throughout the book there are flashbacks to these 'before' moments which gradually establish the backgrounds of several characters - characters who do not necessarily feature in the 'after' sections, but have some kind of link to those who do. Although you may have to wait for some time to find out what that link is. 'Station Eleven' is not, as you might expect (well, I did), some remote outpost in this ravaged landscape, but a reference to a kids' comic book which is... well, it's a part of one of those links.
This is a very elegantly written novel, very restrained. It doesn't go too far with its world-building, and it isn't overdramatic; in fact, one of the many remarkable things about it is how quiet this fall of civilisation seems to be. It isn't, of course, and we know this from things some of the characters say, and fragments of their memories, but all of this happens off-screen, with the focus purely on the 'before' and 'after'. The story is more about human behaviour, relationships and the invisible connections between individuals then anything else. The fact that it is set in a post-apocalyptic future could almost be incidental, but I can't deny that the surreal surroundings add an intense intrigue and a sort of malevolent undertone to anything that happens. There is constant, low-level tension. For anyone who finds abandoned buildings interesting, there are parts of this narrative that will be endlessly fascinating. There are flecks, mere flecks, of magic.
I'm not going to write about the characters in detail, either, except to say that I loved them. They are so real. Mandel is one of those authors who can do that magical thing of making a fictional person human and sympathetic within just a couple of pages, without much background detail being needed. She isn't afraid to kill characters off, but it's never gratuitous; she also isn't afraid of leaving loose ends untied and important things unsaid.
The book Station Eleven most reminded me of was Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad - which I can't remember very clearly and would be hard pressed to recall anything specific about, and yet I repeatedly thought of it throughout my reading of this book. Looking back at my review of Goon Squad, I wrote: 'The chapters, then, are not always directly about the main characters, and sometimes don't even mention them at all; the story reaches out beyond the protagonists to explore the past and future of the people surrounding them. Each chapter works on its own as a self-contained short story but the connections between all of them form... not quite a whole, but more a sort of web, or network.' Most of this is true of Station Eleven, except that it isn't structured as short stories (the post-pandemic narrative runs through the book and is interspersed with flashbacks), but each character's story could, I think, be taken out and read as a short story on its own. Station Eleven as a whole circles one character in particular, but it also tells the stories of various others in order to achieve that.
For me, this incredibly enjoyable novel is a perfect blend of literary and genre fiction, the sort of story I would love to read more of: intelligent, elegant, original, with both plot and character realised beautifully. It is a wonderful piece of real storytelling and yet it is tightly controlled; I could have read more and more and more about this world, but I'm glad the book isn't too sprawling. Its clear focus on who and what it is about is a great strength. With this one, you can believe the hype. ...more
The Sea Garden is what I categorise as a past-and-present novel, one with multiple narratives set in different time periods which are meant to interseThe Sea Garden is what I categorise as a past-and-present novel, one with multiple narratives set in different time periods which are meant to intersect in some way. Breaking with recent tradition, Deborah Lawrenson's new book is formatted as three separate novellas, rather than relating the different stories in alternate chapters. The first is about Ellie Brooke, a landscape gardener who travels to the French island of Porquerolles (in the 'present day') to work on a coastal memorial garden for a wealthy, eccentric client. In the second - set during the Second World War - Marthe Lincel, a blind girl working in a perfume factory in the South of France, becomes involved with the Resistance. The third is also set in WWII, but in London, where an intelligence officer named Iris Nightingale embarks on various adventures, among them a love affair with a French agent who may not be all he seems. Only at the very end do the connections between the stories become properly apparent.
The Sea Garden bears some resemblance to Lawrenson's last book, The Lantern - it even features one of the same characters, if memory serves - but it is altogether a more sophisticated and cohesive piece of work. It retains the things that made The Lantern enjoyable but is thankfully free of a lot of its irritating aspects, with more likeable characters and less schmaltz. I read it while in the process of moving house, and it was the perfect relaxing, feelgood read to take my mind off the stress of all that. It has bags of atmosphere and descriptive power, particularly when depicting the idyllic environment of Porquerolles. This section is particularly beguiling because it's so delightfully summery and refreshing; it paints a very persuasive picture.
I was initially slightly confused by the structure - I really enjoyed Ellie's story and was desperate to get back to it and find out what happened to her, and was disappointed when I realised that wouldn't be happening. I suspect some readers will be dismayed that (view spoiler)[we only hear of Ellie's death second-hand and there is no actual return to her narrative (hide spoiler)]; I would have liked to hear more from her, but by this point I was absorbed enough in the whole saga that I was happy to go along with whatever happened. The ending wrapped everything up nicely and, altogether, the conclusions felt much less contrived than those in The Lantern. (I enjoyed The Lantern, by the way - I realise this is making it sound like I didn't. It's just that I found it more of a guilty pleasure, where this is just an enjoyable book.)
Recommended to fans of authors like Kate Morton and Louise Douglas. This is not a groundbreaking book, but it's easy to read, enjoyable, compelling and at times gripping, entertaining and atmospheric, with likeable characters and beautiful settings - everything you could possibly want in a lovely lightweight summer read.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Split between the 1940s and a modern narrative (1980s/90s?), The Evil Seed tells of the havoc wreaked in the lives of two sets of characters by a beauSplit between the 1940s and a modern narrative (1980s/90s?), The Evil Seed tells of the havoc wreaked in the lives of two sets of characters by a beautiful and ruthless 'nightwalker'. (Basically a vampire, although this kind doesn't conform to many of the popular myths, eg being unable to venture out in daylight.) In 1948, Cambridge scholar Daniel Holmes rescues a girl called Rosemary from drowning; he falls madly in love, only for her to start a relationship with his best friend. His story, charting a gradual descent into obsession and madness, is written as a journal. In the modern narrative, also set in Cambridge, an artist named Alice is disconcerted when her ex-boyfriend Joe asks her to offer a spare room to his strange new girlfriend, the ethereal Ginny.
The Evil Seed was Joanne Harris's first novel, reissued after her success with Chocolat etc, and the author's foreword suggests she is now somewhat embarrassed by it. It's easy to see why: it is frequently amateurish and the style doesn't seem to have much in common with her later work (although, only having read two other books by Harris, I'm not an expert). Many of the events stretch the limits of plausibility, to say the least - I'm not talking about the vampire stuff, but things like Joe expecting Alice to let Ginny stay in her house (who would ever do this?!), and Joe seeming completely unfazed at the idea that Ginny might be a heroin addict, as if such a thing is no big deal. The characters' emotions are all over the place and they often contradict themselves several times during the course of a few pages.
That said, I still enjoyed this. It's atmospheric, compelling and fun, and although I would have preferred a more subtle approach (it definitely descends into horror towards the end), there's enough gothic intrigue to keep it genuinely interesting. I don't think I can really say that I would recommend it, but I never wanted to give up on it, and I don't regret reading it either. I wanted it to distract me from certain things I don't want to think about at the moment, and it did its job rather well. ...more
The Moth Diaries came into my life serendipitously. I saw someone mentioning it on Twitter - not even to me, just as part of a conversation that caught my attention (I wish I could remember who it was now, I should thank them) - and then, a couple of days later, I was in a secondhand bookshop and spotted a copy for £1. At that point, I wasn't sure it was the right kind of book for me, but the coincidence was too good to ignore. I am so glad I picked it up. This book was amazing and has immediately established itself as a new favourite.
As the title would suggest, it's presented in the form of a personal diary. An introduction from the narrator, written thirty years after the main events of the story, explains that its publication is the idea of her former psychiatrist, who believes the journal will be 'an invaluable addition to the literature on female adolescence'; all the names will be changed to protect the identities of those involved. At the time of writing her diary, the narrator is sixteen and a boarding student at what seems to be a prestigious and old-fashioned girls' school. She has for some time enjoyed a friendship with a classmate named Lucy; their bond is so strong that they have endeavoured to secure a shared suite, and at the very beginning of the book, the narrator looks forward to the year they will enjoy together. It's only a few days, however, before Lucy strikes up a new friendship with the enigmatic 'new girl' from across the hall, Ernessa. Tormented by jealousy, the narrator grows ever more suspicious of Ernessa, and - encouraged by an English course which focuses on novels of the supernatural - she becomes convinced the new arrival is, in fact, a vampire.
There is something truly magical about this book - it casts a spell. It is heavy with doom and dread, which is not to say it is dreary to read (far from it). It's so effectively gothic that I couldn't help but picture the school miles from civilisation and shrouded in mist, even though this is clearly not the case as the girls frequently travel to a neighbouring town. The atmosphere is suffocating: the boarders are pushed together, their lives are each other, they distance themselves from day students and are isolated from their families and (most of the time) from boys. Even in her meticulously detailed diary, the narrator is not always honest, casting doubt on her claims about Ernessa and Lucy, and making you wonder how much of her life is touched by fantasy. Are those occasional nightmarish experiences simply the product of an overactive imagination, fed by lurid stories? The characters' experiences illuminate the dark, strange part of this insular way of life, the flipside of the cheery image projected by most boarding school novels. But what The Moth Diaries does most effectively is to accurately recreate the sensations and emotions involved in being a teenage girl, a thing I think is very difficult and very, very rare. I have clear memories of a lot of the things I did, or that happened to me, when I was sixteen, not least because I kept diaries of my own, yet it's very rare for me to really and truly feel those memories in the context of the person I was then, with all the horrors and possibilities that time of my life entailed. I don't mean the specific experiences as much as the very specific atmospheres and attitudes of youth. This book, though, made me relive them.
Although this is a story about teenage girls, written from the point of view of a teenage girl, I am in two minds about whether it should be classed as young adult fiction. On one hand, it could certainly be read and appreciated by a teenager; on the other, I'm very, very glad I discovered and read it for the first time as an adult. If I'd read it as a teenager I think I would have been too close to it to understand it properly. My reaction (I imagine) would have been characterised by comparison and envy: I've never behaved like that with my friends; as if anybody would do that in real life; ugh, that's weird; come on, nobody seriously writes like that in their diary. The negative reviews I've come across seem to have mainly come from readers judging it in this way, reading it in the context of traditional YA. Reading it from an adult perspective and treating it as I would any other novel, I found it, well, sublime. I suspect that because the author has delved so deeply into her protagonist's teenage psyche, it needs to be read at an adult's arm's length to really make sense. (I find many YA books to be the opposite - the characters behave too much like adults and, because their actions are unrealistic, they work best when read by either their actual target audience or by adult readers who are able to inhabit that mindset with ease.)
There were only two things I didn't really like about the story. The first: the foreword and afterword by the adult version of the narrator, which serve only (as far as I can see) to frame the book as an adult novel rather than a YA one. Since the narrative is so powerful and effective on its own, the distinction doesn't matter, and this isn't necessary. The second: the involvement of Mr. Davies; to my mind, the story doesn't need any male characters at all, and would have been better without them. His involvement, minor though it is, slightly weakens it.
As far as I can tell, The Moth Diaries is Klein's only novel. I'm happy about that, it feels right - it's one of those books that stands on its own so well that it almost seems like it would be a shame if the author wrote any other fiction. (I'm aware there's also a film of it, which looks terrible and which I have no intention of seeing - the book is enough for me.) That the set-up is simple, the action sometimes mundane, is one of its strengths: it allows the mood and tone to shine through as the main strengths of the story. The Moth Diaries was published 12 years ago, and is mostly set in the mid-1970s (if one assumes the narrator's introduction was written in the 'present day'), but the narrative feels completely timeless, with the air of a classic. Perhaps that's the influence of all the classic literature the narrator reads and frequently references; in any case, it's a perfect match for the sombre flavour of the whole book.
Recommended if you enjoy books about vampires, boarding schools, and/or the intensity of friendships between adolescent girls. Recommended if you want to read a teen vampire novel that doesn't have anything to do with romance. Recommended if you want to read a teen vampire novel that is truly worth analysing, obsessing over and writing essays about. Recommended if you like modern fiction with a classic feel. Recommended if you want to read a book about sixteen-year-olds that will make you want to read Nietzsche, Proust and le Fanu, among others. Recommended if you like gothic fiction. Recommended if you like books....more
The Incarnations, compared in the publisher's description to the work of David Mitchell, is a weird and wonderful piece of historical/fantasy/suspenseThe Incarnations, compared in the publisher's description to the work of David Mitchell, is a weird and wonderful piece of historical/fantasy/suspense fiction unlike anything else I've read. The book opens with a letter, written to a taxi driver named Wang Jun by a person who claims to be his 'soulmate'. In this strange missive, the so-called soulmate writes of a number of 'past lives' he or she (or it) has shared with Wang, ranging across centuries of Chinese history. Wang suspects it's a prank, but the letters keep coming, and they grow more and more personal as the writer goes into further detail about the nature of these past lives (or incarnations), which range from the tale of a eunuch and a prostitute in 632 AD, to a story about teenage girls in an 'anti-capitalist' school during the Maoist 1960s. Wang's sanity hangs in the balance as the stability of his marriage is threatened by the letters' content and by his conviction that they are the work of a malicious stalker. As he tries to figure out what's going on, the reader comes to understand that the person Wang appears to be - an ordinary taxi driver, a semi-happily married man, a decent father - is not who he is; his past is much darker and more complicated. He develops a theory about the identity of the letter-writer, which the reader may be tempted to share, but is the truth really that simple?
The use of letters to tell these stories means the 'incarnations' are treated as self-contained short stories within the overarching narrative. This keeps the book constantly unpredictable and surprising while providing you with a reason to care about how and why the stories are connected. The stories are frequently violent in pretty horrible ways, including a scene of castration which I couldn't actually bear to read. There's a hell of a lot of sex (actually it's remarkable when two characters encounter each other and manage not to have sex) but also a lot of sexual violence and abuse. Relationships are frequently the product of some kind of bargain, and sex work appears to be a recurring theme, often an inevitability for young, poor women and men alike. Severe mental or physical health problems affect almost all the main characters at some point. Men are sex-obsessed, violent, horrible to their wives and abusive to their sons; women are vain, selfish, neglectful towards their children and stab each other in the back. Altogether, nobody comes off very well, although the straight men in these stories are particularly repugnant. Wang himself is often hard to sympathise with, and some of his actions are very questionable indeed. The narrative is powerful, though, with the most effective section being the one set in 1966, a shocking reminder that there are events in real, recent history more terrifying than any dystopian tale.
I understand why people might think this book is similar to some of Mitchell's work, but The Incarnations, for me, doesn't compare to Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas. The stories are all gripping and cleverly paced, but they lack any clear difference in narrative style, and it was this (in part) that made the aforementioned books so enjoyable to read. It's a good job The Incarnations is such an interesting read, as it's best devoured quickly. If I had stretched my reading of this book over a longer period of time, I imagine it would have seemed unbearably, unremittingly grim. It's a great work of fiction and very original, but not something I would want to revisit.
Not-entirely-relevant note: I know proofs are meant to be uncorrected, but I don't usually encounter more than a handful of mistakes in them; this seemed to have one on almost every page - bad/nonexistent punctuation, spelling mistakes and odd, unnatural-sounding insertion of characters' names into dialogue - and I was only able to ignore these because I was already aware it was uncorrected. Therefore I'm not knocking a star off for this, but if I'd been reading a finished copy with the same volume of errors, that would be another story....more
I was interested in Upstairs at the Party from the moment I read the outline. In the early Seventies a glamorous and androgynous couple known collectively as Evie/Stevie appear out of nowhere on the isolated concrete campus of a new university... For Adele, with the most to conceal, Evie/Stevie become a lifelong obsession, as she examines what happened on the night of her own twentieth birthday and her friends' complicity in their fate. A set of school exercise books might reveal everything, but they have been missing for nearly forty years... This is an accurate description of the book, but only partially accurate, and for all that I found this blurb extremely intriguing, I could easily have been disappointed. (I imagined, for example, that it would explore gender politics in some detail, when in fact it only touches lightly on this subject.) Instead, after starting with the impression that this would be another tale of twisted relationships with an academic backdrop - a sub-genre I adore but also, generally, quite an easy set-up for a good writer to execute successfully - I found it becoming something else entirely, something much bigger and more impressive than I had originally expected.
Upstairs at the Party is, in fact, Adele Ginsberg's life story. It is a university book in one sense, but it goes far beyond that, confronting adulthood in a way few 'coming-of-age' novels do. Themes of identity, concealment, performance and artifice run throughout the story from Adele's childhood to her middle age: the androgynous image cultivated by Evie and Stevie is just one of perhaps a hundred examples. While, as the blurb hints, there is a mystery surrounding Evie, there is more lasting significance to the way Evie's constructed identity transcends her as an individual, and continues to impact on those who knew her for decades after its creation. The university the characters attend (never named in the narrative, but obviously York) is a strange mix of old and new, a combination that fits with their shared experience of coming of age in a stagnant era, after the hedonism of the Sixties but before the rise of punk. This disorientation seems to define the characters' generation, not only while they are students but for the rest of their lives, and perhaps this is why they are so keen to pretend, to experiment with their political affiliations, sexualities, and personas. We see them long after they have abandoned the idealism of youth; we discover the many things they go on to be - which doesn't always make for happy reading.
Like Siri Hustvedt, Grant is adept at portraying complicated, damaged female characters - women who may not necessarily be likeable but are raw, real, angry, honest - and demonstrating that emotional anguish and doubt are constants in life, not just a part of youth. Adele is a difficult character, and an unusual protagonist for a story of this type: while she is something of an outsider, so are almost all her friends, and she is certainly tougher than many of them, doggedly optimistic, with a hard, deliberately uncomprehending attitude towards depression. She also expresses some opinions about rape which I found genuinely shocking. Adele's faults, though, don't make her an unpleasant character. Rather, they make her truly authentic, as if a sympathetic biographer knew they had to include every detail of her personality in order to be accurate. In fact, one of the best things about this book is the painfully believable characterisation. As students, the characters may be pretentious and hedonistic, but they are very much aware that they are playing out roles, not behaving naturally; the author makes it clear that just beneath the surface is a great deal of self-consciousness, immaturity and uncertainty, and this carries through to their older incarnations, particularly with Adele.
In Upstairs at the Party, everything happens: a whole lifetime happens. It's an intelligent and broad-ranging story which touches on issues including feminism, religion, seventies left-wing politics, racism, gender, AIDS, adultery, motherhood, growing up, growing old, and trying to find out who you are, even if that 'finding out' is still going on when you've left your youth behind. Effortlessly evocative of every era and setting her narrative touches, and supernaturally adept at weaving the effects of history (personal and otherwise) into her characters' lives, Grant has written an absolute powerhouse of a book.
Themes - This very specific era between the 'free love' of the 1960s and the advent of punk - kind of stagnant but anticipating the arrival of something unknown - Gender, race, identity, sexuality, feminism, politics - The specific experience of going to a university that is simultaenously archaic (eg has colleges) and modern (the concrete brutalism of its buildings is referenced a lot) and therefore quite unique - Pretending and performing: eg Adele pretends to be educated, Evie has totally reinvented herself, Bobby pretends to be straight to his parents; the significance of the play, and the irony of Evie's failure as an actress despite the fact that her whole persona is constructed; androgyny as a recurring theme. But at the same time none of these things are ever more than a performance. Adele's professor knows she isn't related to Allen Ginsberg and admits her despite suspecting the letter is forged; Evie and Stevie's image is so obviously an artifice; Bobby contends that his parents know he is gay but it comforts them all to act out a fantasy of him being straight. - Identity - the way Adele always uses the name Evie even when relating things people have told her about 'Lorraine', and the fact that she calls the robot Evie. Evie's identity transcends her as an individual, and has a strong impact on others even after her death.
Things I liked - It reflects teeange/student experiences accurately. The characters are trying a lot of new things, but at the same time they are very self-conscious. Adele mentions the idea that sexuality is fluid but they are all playing at this, very aware of it, rather than just being like that, being comfortable or natural. (Another example of performance.) - Becomes much more than a university story. Goes beyond that romantic idyll, confronts adulthood. The characters' lives after those years are not unrealistically defined by the events of their youth, but they are constantly filled with reminders. - Painfully real, honest - Effortlessly evocative of every era and setting it touches
Characterisation, etc - If I was to write down the defining traits of the central characters, they would sound, on paper, like silly caricatures of misfits, and they probably would be in the hands of a less talented author. They sometimes annoyed me in the way that this type of character - the elegantly wasted students quoting classic literature at one another while wearing vintage fur coats, smoking French cigarettes and forming clubs to debate politics - always annoys me; partly out of pure irritation, because I've never met any students like this and yet there are so many of them in books, and partly out of jealousy, because my university experience would doubtless have been a thousand times more enjoyable if I had met them. But over the course of the book, I came to feel like I knew them intimately. I also felt that even though some aspects of their characters may be implausible or at least exaggerated, their behaviour is not. They exhibit exactly the kind of uncertainty and immaturity I remember from being this age. - The rape part is just horrible, not least because of Adele's description and the way she appears to equate desirability with the likelihood of being a victim. She does present this as an opinion held (collectively) in youth, so maybe it is meant to represent the naive idiocy of their age/foolish confidence in themselves, despite their feminist pretensions. However, she still seems to handle this and other sexual details crudely in adulthood. - I didn't always find Adele likeable, partly because I am so unlike her and couldn't relate to her approach. In fact, I think it's unusual to have a story like this with a protagonist like her; someone hard, comparatively unthinking, an optimist, intolerant/uncomprehending of depression. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
In Zander's second novel - following her flawed but extremely likeable debut, The Girl Below - Poppy and Lukas are teenagers raised on a commune, GaIn Zander's second novel - following her flawed but extremely likeable debut, The Girl Below - Poppy and Lukas are teenagers raised on a commune, Gaialands, in New Zealand. The story follows them from 1978 to 1989, as their relationship, which could very accurately be described as star-crossed, is tested not only by a move halfway across the world, poverty, and (later) incipient stardom, but by 'the predictions' of the title, visions of their future laid out by an eccentric and charismatic prophet - the enigmatic, seductive Shakti.
If The Predictions was going to be broadly categorised as a genre, I suppose I'd have to (reluctantly) say it's a romantic novel; and in some ways consistent with stereotypes about that genre, it stretches the limits of credulity. (view spoiler)[Lukas remaining completely faithful to Poppy throughout all his years as an actual rock star is the stuff of fairytales, especially since they are halfway to being broken up for at least two long-ish periods of time within those years. (hide spoiler)] But the story is underpinned by much more interesting themes than just Poppy and Lukas' love story, exploring community, family and the idea of fate. The commune's effect on the children raised there, and the way political developments (and the conspicuous lack of any dawning of a 'New Age') affect its progression, are particularly well done. Zander also does a fantastic job of evoking a variety of settings and time periods - I could practically smell the hairspray in the 80s sections of the novel. The Predictions would make a great trashy film, unashamedly cheesy and with what would no doubt be a brilliant soundtrack.
I didn't feel the same affection for this as I continue to do for The Girl Below, and I didn't love Poppy like I did that book's protagonist Suki, but I found The Predictions more slick and accomplished than Zander's debut. The issues with that novel, mainly the supernatural elements not gelling with the rest of the story, have been ironed out here, and the way slight suggestions of magic are woven in - Poppy's sighting of Fritz, the enduring power of the prediction, not to mention the mysterious appearance of that camper van - is seamless.
I just have to say, though, that the cover is truly, TRULY awful.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The Time Tutor is a novella-length prequel to Bee Ridgway's debut, The River of No Return, which came out last year. The story follows two charactersThe Time Tutor is a novella-length prequel to Bee Ridgway's debut, The River of No Return, which came out last year. The story follows two characters who become involved with the Guild, the shadowy organisation at the heart of the time travel intrigue forming the backdrop for both books. Because it's been a while since I read River I was worried I'd have forgotten what it was all about, but The Time Tutor is fast-paced, immediately interesting and works well as a standalone story. Despite it being short, I was captivated by the characters and was delighted when the romantic development I was rooting for actually happened! Exciting, entertaining and sexy, this tale reminded me how much I enjoyed the world of River, and made me keen to read even more as soon as possible. Basically, it did its job absolutely perfectly....more
**spoiler alert** As I've noted before, it's quite difficult to review a David Mitchell book without spoilers. If you haven't read The Bone Clocks yet**spoiler alert** As I've noted before, it's quite difficult to review a David Mitchell book without spoilers. If you haven't read The Bone Clocks yet, I'd recommend not reading any further. I've used spoiler tags when referring to specific plot points (or ranting about characters), but I have discussed things that happen throughout the book, in general terms, all the way through the review below. Consider yourself warned.
The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell's sixth novel, nominated for the Booker prior to its release - is, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, a series of interconnected stories set in different places and time periods. The difference here is that the link between the stories is explicit: they all focus, in one way or another, on a woman named Holly Sykes.
A Hot Spell: 1984. The first section is about fifteen-year-old Holly, and it's a sort of YA thriller crossed with a confessional diary; with all the childlike slang it's rather Jacqueline Wilson, if her books had more swearing and sex. Holly runs away from home, fleeing angry parents and a cheating boyfriend, and sets off to walk to a farm where she hopes to find work. On the way, some rather strange things happen, and ultimately, we learn that Holly's little brother, Jacko, has also run away and apparently vanished without a trace.
Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume: 1991. The second section is about a privileged, obnoxious Cambridge student, Hugo Lamb. He's a womanising misogynist and a self-confessed sociopath who swindles an elderly man with dementia and drives one of his 'best friends' to suicide. He's blatantly and deliberately horrible, but his narrative, a playful pastiche of a sort of Martin Amis style (underlined by references to a writer, Crispin Hershey, whose character is obviously 'inspired' by Amis), is at least entertaining to read (until the end, but more of that later). Hugo goes skiing in the Alps, where he meets Holly, now working as a waitress.
The Wedding Bash: 2004. This starts fairly banally, at a family wedding. Here, Ed Brubeck, who featured in the first part, resurfaces. Then, he was a classmate of Holly's who helped her, and tried to dissuade her from running away; now, it transpires, he's a war journalist, Holly's partner, and the father of her daughter, Aoife. Drama ensues when Aoife goes missing.
Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet: 2015-2020. The Amis-esque writer, Crispin Hershey, re-emerges as a narrator. He's having a midlife crisis: poised on the brink of divorce and promoting a poorly received new book that's been rubbished particularly viciously by a high-profile critic, Richard Cheeseman (a friend of Hugo's from part two). He meets Holly on the promotional circuit - she's written a bestselling 'spiritual memoir' about her experiences of precognition. Crispin's adventures include revenge on Richard, much guilt over the resulting effects of said revenge, the birth and death of an affair with Holly's agent, and, as the years pass, an increasingly close friendship with Holly herself. This is possibly the most fully realised section of the book: in parts it is beautifully written, and more reflective than the others.
An Horologist's Labyrinth: 2025. Part five provides the real climax and crux of the book. Up to this point, strange, inexplicable things have happened, but they have happened in quick bursts, unremembered by the characters, and not infringing on their everyday lives. Up to this point, every section of the book would have made sense and been able to stand alone had these bursts of strangeness been taken out. However, part five is pure fantasy. The narrator is Dr. Iris Fenby, who treated Holly's cancer, except she's not really Iris Fenby, and she's also met Holly before, as a different person - it's complicated. Fenby and her 'colleagues' draw Holly into an extremely weird conspiracy, resulting in a climatic battle.
Sheep's Head: 2043. Holly is given her own voice again; now in her seventies, she lives on Sheep's Head Peninsula, southern Ireland, with her two grandchildren, one adopted. A number of disasters have befallen the world, including various technology failures and depletion of oil reserves, leading to a more primitive way of life. As society breaks down still further, Holly struggles to protect her family.
The fantasy element In part four, Richard Cheeseman says of Crispin Hershey's would-be comeback novel: 'The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.' In the same section, another character tells Hershey, 'a book can't be half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.' It's surprising that Mitchell would include lines like these when these exact accusations could easily be levelled against The Bone Clocks, but I guess he's just cheekily pre-empting possible criticisms. In fact, this book is half fantasy - much of it is just about the ordinary lives of people who aren't interesting aside from their tenuous links with a hinted-at 'war', and until two-thirds of the way through the 600-page book, the reader is only exposed to short and isolated scenes of fantasy, which may add a frisson of intrigue to the narrative, but don't make it feel as if it's actually a fantasy novel.
Then, in part five, the book breaks away from these largely 'normal' narratives and dives head-first into truly fantastical events with language to match. There are real words used to mean something specific to this underworld (transverse, hiatus, kinetic); words that, as far as I know, are made up (submention, psychosoteric, suaison); and oft-repeated proper nouns (Atemporals, Horologists, Soujourners). You get sentences like, 'Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants.' These chapters culminate in an otherworldly battle for power which takes place in some sort of alternate dimension. Unfortunately, the whole thing rather reminded me of The Magician King, the pretty terrible sequel to Lev Grossman's The Magicians.
Generally speaking, I love books that combine touches of fantasy, magic, or something macabre with a setting that's recognisable as the world we live in, with individuals' lives remaining largely realistic and relatable. However, in The Bone Clocks the gulf between the two is too great: the ordinary lives are too ordinary, the fantasy is too fantastic, they simply don't gel.
Misogyny, sexism and reading the book from a feminist POV While reading The Bone Clocks I spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that I can't help reading books from a feminist perspective - even when I'd prefer not to, because it often impedes my enjoyment of said books. This novel was a case in point. It's filled with deeply unpleasant male characters and I found the implications of some of their actions, and their relationships with Holly, impossible to brush aside.
I mentioned above that I found Hugo Lamb's story entertaining until near the end. That's because, in the final chapters of his narrative, a weird shift takes place: (view spoiler)[it suddenly seems as if Hugo abruptly becomes a character the reader is supposed to like and sympathise with. In a scene that ENRAGED me, he's HORRIBLE to Holly about Jacko, saying things he has no right to say, and what happens? She sleeps with him. For fuck's sake. Then we're meant to believe he's 'fallen in love' with Holly, despite his alleged sociopathic traits, his obvious misogyny in previous scenes ('I wonder why women are uglier once they're unpeeled, encrusted, and had'), and the fact that he's only known her a couple of days.
I tried to fence off my anger at all this and judge the narrative on literary merit alone, but it was too difficult. The whole setup, if - obviously - not the language, was more like something you'd find in some sub-Fifty Shades of Grey crap in which an abusive man is held up as a romantic hero. Complete with the idea that Hugo's serial womanising and inability to love is absolved and 'cured' by sleeping with Holly and that, of course, she's far more pure and innocent than him, fragile and slight, and 'out of practice' at sex, and as soon as he's slept with her, he immediately starts going into a jealous rage about the idea of her having male friends. Or a job. Nice. (In another echo of bad romantic fiction, I think we're meant to believe this creepy possessiveness is somehow endearing.)
I assumed, or at least hoped, there would turn out to be a greater point to all this. Maybe it was a parody after all, like the Luisa Rey story in Cloud Atlas was meant to be a pastiche of detective fiction/conspiracy thrillers? I was disheartened and infuriated even further when there was an implication that Hugo's comments to Holly about Jacko somehow changed the course of her life (ie, her career choice) thereafter, but salvation arrived when Hugo popped up later on as a bona-fide bad guy, properly evil, with reference to his misogyny actually made in Marinus' narrative. At this point, there's no doubt he's Bad with a capital B. Thank god - I finally thought we were getting somewhere. And then...
The denouement comes and it turns out we're still meant to believe Hugo was sincerely in love with Holly. (Just in case there was any uncertainty, Marinus extracts the memory of this from Hugo's own mind.) I mean... come on. (hide spoiler)] I sometimes wonder if authors forget what love actually is when they're writing books. They really seem to like turning it into whatever malleable thing they fancy so that it suits the plot, even when it makes absolutely no sense and goes against every aspect of the characters involved, as is the case here. This stuff is all the more galling when it comes from Mitchell, one of a very small number of authors to have written a love story that really made me cry (Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith in Cloud Atlas). I know he can write male characters that aren't arseholes, I know he can write believable relationships and moving descriptions of love. Yet Hugo's feelings for Holly weren't remotely believable, her relationship with Ed lacked chemistry entirely, and the idea of (view spoiler)[Crispin having been in love with her too (hide spoiler)] felt cheaply tacked on and pointless.
I am aware that many of the things that really bothered me are extremely minor points, not particularly important in the grand scheme of the book as a whole, and may not even be noticed by other readers. This is what I mean by wanting to be able to read without the constant feminist POV; if I only I could turn off the part of my brain that hates these things with such a passion, The Bone Clocks and many other books would be so much better. However, these bits really ruined my enjoyment of the book - some of the Hugo stuff truly turned my stomach - so I can't help but focus on them.
Characterisation To say that Holly is the centre of the whole story arc, I never connected with her. Though teenage Holly's voice was amusing, I wasn't entirely convinced by her as a character: there was just something hollow about her, something that stopped me completely believing in or caring about her; maybe the fact that her story had no tension in it, aside from the 'weird shit', which was instantly forgotten and not explained. When she met another runaway, a girl who might have been her five years down the line, that character was much more interesting, and I wished the story could have been about her instead. In parts two and three I only sided with her because the men she was involved with were so abhorrent and pathetic that of course I wanted her to get the fuck away from them. After that I found her vaguely likeable, but did I really care about her fate on anything other than the most basic level? Was I really bothered who triumphed in the battle that took place in part five? No - (view spoiler)[except to see Hugo die painfully, and that didn't even happen; instead there was a limp 'who knows what became of him'! (hide spoiler)] I understand that Holly's ordinariness was necessary, but sometimes I felt it was underlined to the point that she was just uninteresting to read about.
As I've mentioned already, the men are terrible. Ed isn't much better than Hugo - he's just low-level condescending, manipulative, and a bad father. Crispin fares better - he starts off being just as hateful as the others, but he does at least develop and change over the course of his narrative. By the end of his story, I had warmed to him enough that I found myself rooting for him to survive, despite all his wrongdoings. This kind of complex, interesting characterisation is more what I've come to expect from Mitchell; the considered voice of Marinus/Fenby in part five was also welcome, although the character wasn't given much chance to establish his/herself before the fantasy action infringed. And: (view spoiler)[Why didn't we get to find out more about Crispin's killer? Who was she, whose side was she on, what was the content of her poems? This, for me, was one of the main disappointments: Crispin's story had just developed into something genuinely rich and full and intriguing, there had finally been a character with depth, and then it just stopped, with no follow-up to further explain things. (hide spoiler)]
Similarities to and connections with the author's previous novels I've read three of Mitchell's books before - Cloud Atlas (good, but not as good as some people think it is), Number9dream (better), and Ghostwritten (best). The Bone Clocks features some characters who also appeared in these books, and makes references, both direct and indirect, to others. This is nothing new - Mitchell has always referenced his own characters - but here the connections are more transparent and overt, and far more frequent. I even recognised some references to books of Mitchell's I haven't read, because they actually mention phrases used in the titles of the books. The connections between chapters are also more obvious, an inevitability given the central focus on Holly, but this makes its world feel strangely small and insular, less dense than the world of its predecessors. In the end, I felt The Bone Clocks was hampered by its insistence on shoehorning in a self-referential namedrop at every turn. It could have been a stronger book if it had been allowed to stand alone.
In past books, Mitchell's stories have moved me without needing to be emotionally manipulative. Yes, I did feel vaguely emotional at certain points in the story, but it's easy to feel sorry for a character who has a terminal illness or is saying goodbye to their family forever. The Bone Clocks completely lacks something with the emotional power of, say, the heartbreaking love story between Robert and Rufus in Cloud Atlas; the immediately and endlessly sympathetic characterisation of Luisa Rey in the same book; the excruciatingly tragic life of Margarita in Ghostwritten.
tl;dr Annoying teenager followed by several hundred pages of misogynistic pricks, a flash of promising characterisation, a fantasy battle in a space church (or something), and a subdued if preachy final section that's probably the best bit of the whole thing.
I do wonder about the honesty of many critics when a book like this one is reviewed so positively, so widely. Don't get me wrong, it isn't bad, but to me it is quite plainly the weakest Mitchell so far (obviously I haven't read them all, but even taking that into account, it's still weaker than the three I have read). If it was a debut, if it had been written by a fantasy author who wasn't thought of as a literary novelist, no way would it have received the high praise it has. I liked parts of it, and as always I enjoyed the writing; I glimpsed flashes of brilliance, of promise, of intense intrigue; I found it compelling, and raced through it quickly; and at least I had a proper REACTION to it, for which I am thankful - rather that than complete boredom. But the overall experience was disappointing.
2.5 stars; could be bumped up to 3 for prompting me to write the longest review ever. I think this is the only time I've been worried I might exceed Goodreads' 20,000-character limit. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It's an Antarctic island that gives Everland its near-fantastical title, a frozen wasteland at the heart of two adventures taking place a hundred years apart. In 1913, three Navy men volunteer to explore the island and survey its unique wildlife. They are devious First Mate Napps, robust Millet-Bass and the meek (and evocatively named) Dinners. Reluctant to trust each other before the mission even begins, they are thrown into peril almost immediately. In 2013, their story has become the stuff of legend, immortalised in biographies and film. It's as a symbolic marking of the event's centenary that three new explorers are sent to study Everland: hardened researcher Decker, nervous scientist Brix, and their bitchy field assistant, Jess. Expecting their tasks to be manageable, they are shocked when Everland proves to be just as inhospitable as it was for their 1913 counterparts. As tempers fray and tensions rise, their situation starts to mirror that of their predecessors - sometimes in obvious ways, while other parallels are more surprising.
I got off to a bit of a slow start with Everland, which is hampered early on by its commitment to effectively portraying the unwelcoming nature of the Antarctic settings. The reality of these places, romantic-looking as they may be in photographs, is unbelievably bleak, harsh and lonely, and Hunt does a great job of conveying this to the reader - so great that it can be a bit dull to read about the repetitive nature of the teams' daily schedules. However, once I had warmed to the characters (which didn't happen immediately; rather, it developed slowly as they were given more to do) the pace of my reading quickened. By the time I was about two-thirds of the way through, I was so desperate to know the ending that I ended up staying awake until the early hours of the morning in order to finish reading the book.
Aside from the use of a dual-focused narrative, this book is very different from Hunt's first novel, Mr. Chartwell. Where many of the characters in Chartwell felt flimsy, here they are expertly fleshed out as the story unfolds, defying what you think you know about them - Jess in particular makes a perfect transition from what could be a one-dimensional antagonist to a much more rounded, human character. There is a supernatural undertone to Everland - the island has an eerie quality which seems to be more than just a figment of its residents' imaginations; events such as (view spoiler)[the meat inexplicably rotting when it should be frozen solid (something experienced by both groups) (hide spoiler)] are never given a rational explanation. Don't expect this book to turn into a ghost story or a fantasy, though. I hoped for a while that it would exploit the naturally eerie location in the same way as Michelle Paver's excellent Dark Matter, but this is not the direction the narrative goes in.
In what is a much more accomplished piece of work than her debut, Hunt succeeds in making you care about these people and feel invested in their fate, as well as in crafting a wonderfully menacing setting. It's not perfect - it took a while for me to feel that the plot was compelling (although the final third is enormously so), I would have preferred more to have been made of the 'unexplained' aspects of both ventures (but that's a personal preference), and I also have a feeling the story may not end up being particularly memorable. However, it slowly coaxed me into fascination and ultimately kept me up all night, and that's got to deserve some kind of recognition.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Set at Auburn, an American pre-college prepatory school in the late 1970s/early 1980s, The Virgins tells a familiar tale of first love and sexual awakening. The narrative, however, has an unusual structure: the story of the romance between students Aviva and Seung is told from the perspective of a third, largely uninvolved, character, Bruce. Bruce is privy only to occasional, out-of-context snippets of the couple's relationship, but around these slivers of knowledge he embroiders a complex, destructive, ultimately tragic tale. It is clear he is telling this story from a later, perhaps present-day, point of view and that these events are far behind him, but he contends that the fall-out from Aviva and Seung's involvement changed the lives of everyone who knew them.
At first it seems that Bruce could be described as a detached observer; at times he is so detached from the story he is telling that he seems not to exist at all. When I started writing this review, I couldn't even remember his name and had to look it up. However, the deeper you get into the book the more it becomes apparent that this is very much the way Bruce wants it, and that his account is very unreliable indeed. Before Aviva and Seung become a couple, Bruce develops an apparently random obsession with Aviva and seems thereafter to believe he has some possessive right over her. His story includes many intimate details of Aviva and Seung's relationship that he couldn't possibly know; nor does he claim anyone reliable has told him these things.
The characters in this book are an unlikeable lot, but it's difficult to know quite what to make of Aviva, Seung or anyone else since you only see any of them through Bruce's eyes. Although his narrative voice is eloquent and lyrical, Bruce himself is an unpleasant, sexist man who early in the story virtually attempts to rape Aviva. The fact that he tells the story as an older man only adds to the uneasiness, since he still seems so obsessed with these events, things that happened when he was very young. Seung is bland - really he's a cipher, he could be anyone - and it doesn't feel as though the reader ever really gets to understand him. As for Aviva herself, I was never quite sure whether I actually disliked her or whether her character was just impossibly unrealistic. It seemed like she was supposed to be an untouchably perfect girl who everyone desired but, at the same time, also a weirdo and a misfit with countless issues - but was this the author's intention, or Bruce's? Of course Bruce would want to find some way to bring Aviva down, since he appears to simultaneously lust after her, idolise her and hate her, and of course he'd want Seung to seem dull.
Much of Bruce's story revolves around what he believes to be Aviva and Seung's sexual exhibitionism, and he asserts that they are seen this way by everyone, but again this is an unreliable view and one that seems unlikely to be true. They're in a boarding school full of male and female students between the ages of 14 and 17 - it seems highly unlikely they would be a) the only students in a committed relationship, b) the only students 'visibly' having sex and c) regarded by other students of their age as being deviants of some kind for 'flaunting' their relationship. It says a lot about the extent of Bruce's jealousy that he refers to Aviva as 'the great Auburn slut' - she is only ever seen with one boy! If anything I'd have thought it would be considered quite old-fashioned and sweet that Aviva and Seung were so devoted to one another. But of course, it would also be likely to provoke a lot of envy among students who weren't so lucky, and it's this, or at least this in Bruce's case, that is the real underlying linchpin of the plot.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Erens writes beautifully and the whole concept is so interesting - I am a big fan of stories that prompt you to wonder how much of the story is real and how much is imagined. I'd be interested to know why a female writer would choose to tell a story like this from the perspective of such a horrible male character (and, I admit, I would probably have judged the book still more harshly if the author had been a man). And, at least, Bruce's unreliability means it's perfectly possible the final event didn't actually happen - I certainly HOPE it didn't, and I choose to believe it didn't. The fact that we never really discover what became of Bruce afterwards is a little frustrating, but adds to the sinister and untrustworthy feel of the whole thing.
I've said this before but I always feel the need to make the point anyway: a contemptible character does not make a bad book - in fact the opposite can sometimes be the case, especially when combined with the conceit of the unreliable narrator - but when you have a character who is neither likeable, nor entertaining, nor in any way fascinating, it's hard to want to spend any time in their company. If Bruce was a real person I would hide in cupboards to avoid him. Having to go back, repeatedly, to read his story elicited a similar feeling: his attitude towards women in general, Aviva in particular, sex and relationships left a bad taste in my mouth. The major strong point of this book is the powerful, evocative style, yet that was often lost in Bruce's unpleasantness, and I couldn't help but think it was wasted on him. Still, The Virgins is a powerful and memorable narrative. ...more
An enjoyable and atmospheric set of tales, but ultimately a rather forgettable collection which I can find little to say about. There are echoes of DaAn enjoyable and atmospheric set of tales, but ultimately a rather forgettable collection which I can find little to say about. There are echoes of Daphne du Maurier's early stories in some of Mosse's, with 'early' being the operative word, both because those du Maurier stories aren't particularly strong (so that's not as much of a compliment as it seems), and because many of the tales included here are early themselves, originally published or written before the author became successful. Mosse's main strength here is the creation of magical, wintery settings, rather than the 'haunting' content, which is often quite predictable. In fact, I think 'winter tales' might make a more fitting subtitle. If you're accustomed to reading ghost stories then there isn't going to be much here that will surprise or spook you: there are some clumsy endings and a distinct lack of unexpected twists. The author's full-length ghost story, The Winter Ghosts, is better, but this is certainly worth a look. Personally, my favourites were Red Letter Day, The House on the Hill, Sainte-Thérèse, The Revenant and On Harting Hill....more
I had a bad reading experience just before picking this up, and wanted something easy to read, gripping but non-taxing, that could be devoured quicklyI had a bad reading experience just before picking this up, and wanted something easy to read, gripping but non-taxing, that could be devoured quickly: a palate-cleanser, if you will. So obviously, I headed straight for one of the crop of female-orientated psychological thrillers that have sprung up in the wake of Gone Girl's success. Precious Thing is the debut novel of Colette McBeth, a former BBC News correspondent, and it sticks firmly to the template of this sub-genre - an unreliable narrator, a cast of dubious characters, dark secrets coming out of the woodwork, and loads of twists.
It opens as Rachel, a TV news journalist (surprise!) is called in to cover the disappearance of a young woman in Brighton. The girl who's gone missing, Clara, is known to Rachel - in fact, she refers to Clara as her 'best friend'. Yet she doesn't speak to the police about the fact that she was supposed to be meeting Clara on the night of her disappearance, and it soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two women has hidden depths. A series of flashbacks to various points in the pair's lives builds up a picture of their friendship, one complicated by Rachel's neglectful, alcoholic mother and Clara's (according to Rachel) mental instability. Meanwhile, in the present day, Rachel becomes increasingly convinced Clara might be watching or even stalking her. The fact that her narrative is ostensibly written after the fact, and addressed to Clara, adds extra intrigue. I found Precious Thing gripping from the beginning, but I found a great number of things about it problematic. There were some issues with the style (not the author's fault: it really doesn't seem as if the book has been proofread or edited) but also several with the plot.
First, the stylistic flaws. Plenty of missing commas, and full stops where there should be question marks, and vice versa; even commas where there should be full stops. Quite a few small but irritating mistakes, for example 'just out' instead of 'jut out', and characters listening to a mixtape with All Saints songs on it four years before their first single was released! (I'm at that age now where a lot of debut authors are of my generation and are referencing the era of my ~youth~ in their novels, which is great. But if you're going to do that, get the details right, or your readers will notice and it will annoy them.) Rachel addresses things to Clara using her name far too frequently - admittedly I don't like second person anyway so I'm biased, but there's no need for the constant 'you were headline news, Clara. She was talking about you, Clara. You see, Clara, I only wanted to protect you, CLARA' ad nauseum. There are some odd descriptive passages too: one that particularly amused me was when Rachel's missing her boyfriend, wraps herself up in one of his shirts, and imagines that 'in the morning the shirt would be filled with bones and muscles and ligaments'... Maybe my macabre imagination is the problem here, but that just makes me envision a horrifying jumble of body parts wrapped in a bloody shirt. Not really the touching image I imagine she was going for.
Second, the plot. I should point out that this is my entirely subjective opinion, and other readers will no doubt interpret it differently. I also think my reaction to stories of this kind has become distorted simply because I've read so many that could be loosely categorised as the same sort of thing. Books like Gone Girl, Kiss Me First, Until You're Mine and others have raised the bar high, and I've come to expect mind-bending twists: now, when I read a psychological thriller, I'm on my guard from the first page, assuming that someone will be lying. When there's only one narrator and the book's tagline is 'don't trust a word she says', it doesn't seem much of a stretch to imagine the main character might be unreliable. (view spoiler)[However, while Rachel is undoubtedly devious, the plot is pretty much played straight: Clara really is the bad guy, she really has set Rachel up. Yet there were so many things that seemed like obvious lies to me, the biggest example being Rachel's relationship with Jonny. I was SO convinced this was all a fantasy in Rachel's head - Jonny is always 'off screen'; he and Rachel don't even speak at any point during the present-day story; many of their past moments together are very vaguely described; his mother obviously knows her but not demonstrably as his partner (the scene in which she makes Rachel stay in the spare room seemed like a blatant clue); Rachel's colleagues clearly believe in the relationship, but there's nothing to show they've ever even met Jonny. It isn't just this relationship - most of the 'stalking' seemed so much like stuff Rachel could have easily set up herself. When it was revealed that Rachel's version of events was largely accurate, it felt like the exact reverse of the lightbulb moment that comes with a twist that makes sense of everything. (hide spoiler)] On the other hand there's the possibility that the author has anticipated the reader's expectations and has deliberately made the whole story one big red herring. If that is the case, then it's a lot smarter than I'm giving it credit for. But even if that was what McBeth intended, I was anticipating something more complex and interesting, and either way I felt a bit short-changed.
Not a great read for me, but not without its merits either. It's compelling, and there are a few vivid scenes, particularly the one in which Rachel's anger bubbles over when Clara and Niamh wreck her garden. Worth a try, but don't expect too much.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The premise of Black Chalk is fascinating. In the 1990s, a group of six friends at an Oxford University college invent an intense, secretive psychologThe premise of Black Chalk is fascinating. In the 1990s, a group of six friends at an Oxford University college invent an intense, secretive psychological game. This mainly consists of a series of increasingly humiliating and personal forfeits, which the player must carry out without letting anyone know they are dares. And the stakes are high, as after the intervention of a mysterious game society at the university, the victor stands to win £10,000. Back to the present day: one of the group (and it's not immediately clear which one, so I won't give it away) is still haunted by the results of what they called the Game, and is holed up in a New York apartment which he hasn't left for years. A phone call leads him to attempt to abandon his hermit lifestyle, and suggests that the Game is still being played.
I started off really quite disliking this book, then I got used to it and thought it was okay, then I got a lot more interested in it towards the end - resulting in a three-star, average rating overall. My main problem at the beginning was that I disliked all of the characters. There's Jolyon, who is reasonably interesting but not likeable; Chad, who is extremely bland; Jack, who can't seem to open his mouth without making some hideously offensive comment; Mark, who has no distinguishing characteristics other than being a physics genius; Emilia, who I didn't hate but can't think of anything much to say about; and Dee, who is a sort of manic pixie dream girl taken to extremes. Later, at least some of these characters do become somewhat likeable and are fleshed out into more believable people, but I felt it took too long for this to happen: I was halfway through the book before I was really committed to finding out what happened. Before this, I would probably have abandoned it if it hadn't been an advance copy.
Something I've learned from reading a lot of these Secret-History-alike books is that you can't just take a load of random characters, shove them together in a situation like this, and expect it to work. When I read these books, I'm often reminded of the teen high school series I used to love so much when I was younger, in which the loudest girl in the class, a shy tomboy, a vain airhead and a nerdy brainbox would all, implausibly, be the best of friends. For a long while I found it difficult to believe that Jolyon, who's supposed to be universally popular, would hang around with this group of people almost exclusively, or that Emilia would want to share oxygen with an idiot like Jack. My belief in this scenario only solidified when the remaining players became obsessed with the Game; however, I struggled with the idea that many of them would have been so drawn in by it in the first place, and I think this is the book's fundamental flaw. It doesn't feel like the characters develop naturally into what they end up becoming, it's more like the end-point came first and then the author tried to create a way for the characters to get there.
This isn't to say that Black Chalk is all bad. There's a lot of really intriguing stuff in it. One of my favourite things about it was the mysterious influence of Game Soc, and I was disappointed this wasn't explored in more detail. Again, it was an aspect of the plot that the author didn't quite seem to know what to do with. I liked the way the character of Jolyon developed, and Mark's revenge campaign, and Emilia's righteousness about her dad and her background. And the story certainly made for a better, more enjoyable and engrossing read than The Magic Circle, which was similar in that both are academic-elite novels in which playing games of some kind becomes an obsession of the characters.
Ultimately, I wouldn't say this book is one to avoid: it's worth a go, but I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. There is enough originality to make it fairly interesting, but this format is getting a little tired now (perhaps an unfair judgement from me as I have read so many of these stories - but the fact remains that there's a lot of them out there already) and it isn't innovative or daring enough to elevate it above the majority of similar efforts....more
Bleak, unsettling, strange and wild: All the Birds, Singing is a weird and wonderful novel. The ambiguously-named Jake Whyte - actually a young woman,Bleak, unsettling, strange and wild: All the Birds, Singing is a weird and wonderful novel. The ambiguously-named Jake Whyte - actually a young woman, despite her name and profession - is a sheep farmer who lives alone on an isolated, windswept English island. When the story opens, she is standing over the body of a sheep that seems to have been ravaged by some predator: perhaps the work of local kids with nothing to do, or maybe something more sinister. Half the book deals with Jake's deliberately lonely life on the island, while the other half, told in alternating chapters, is about the early life that led her there. The latter story unfolds in reverse order, starting with the incident that prompts her to leave her native Australia, and rewinding through her troubled past.
Various elements of the story reminded me of other books I've liked. The initial setup - a woman flees her past, sets up home on a remote farm in an unfamiliar country, isolates herself, but something is picking off her animals one by one - is virtually identical to that of Gerbrand Bakker's The Detour, but the backstory unfolds quite differently. Jake's situation with Otto, as well as the fact that this part of the narrative is set in Australia, is reminiscent of Chloe Hooper's brilliant The Engagement. However, All the Birds, Singing has its own atmosphere and its own momentum. While the idea of a lone outsider-type character having a dark, difficult background is hardly new, I was both surprised and unsettled by some of the revelations abut Jake's history. There are moments of great tension, and the narrative is also interesting for the various methods it uses to play with gender roles and subvert the assumptions we make about women and men. The reversal of 'feminine' and 'masculine' names for several characters put me in mind of another favourite (and again a book about a girl held captive), Bonnie Nadzam's Lamb.
The first time I tried to read this book, I couldn't get into it and wasn't sure I'd go back. I'm really glad I did, and that I allowed the many positive reviews I've read to change my mind: because of its powerful characterisation and originality, All the Birds, Singing was one of the most memorable books I've read this year. It is quiet and in some ways uneventful, but also menacing, unnerving and intriguing. It is also a book I'll probably read again and re-assess at a later date; the kind of book you look forward to re-reading a few years into the future. ...more
I've had a copy of Elizabeth is Missing since last year, but wanted to leave it until closer to the release date to read it so I could be part of what I felt was sure to be an interesting conversation surrounding the book. I must say, my expectations were high given its early hype. Originally titled Strange Companions, it was much remarked upon for drawing global interest and sparking a bidding war between nine publishers at the London Book Fair; a year before it was due to come out in the UK, translation rights had already been sold in five countries. Bearing that in mind, I was expecting something really remarkable.
It's not remarkable. It's just quite good.
Narrator Maud is in her eighties and suffering from Alzheimer's. Her narrative is coherent, but presented as a continuous inner monologue, so on one page she may remember who someone is, or what she's supposed to be doing in that moment, but the next she has forgotten; an effective way to create a voice for someone with severe short-term memory problems while avoiding too much repetition or disorder. The main plot hinges on Maud's conviction that her closest friend, Elizabeth, has disappeared, a belief that nobody else will listen to or take seriously, particularly as Maud can't remember when she last saw Elizabeth or how long she has been 'missing'. Interwoven with this is the story of Maud's older sister Sukey, who really did disappear, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Maud frequently goes back to memories of Sukey and her own youthful efforts to find out what happened to her sister, in passages that often merge with Maud's pursuit of the truth about Elizabeth. Both threads slowly build to connected revelations.
Much has been made of how brilliant an idea it is to have Maud as the main character but, in my opinion, it's a bit of a trick, a clever device that easily covers up other flaws. It's impossible to say you dislike or don't sympathise with an elderly woman suffering from dementia without sounding like a terrible person. (Incidentally, I didn't dislike her or fail to sympathise with her, but I didn't feel like I cared about her anywhere near as much as I should have done, either. The character is supposed to be unforgettable but I'm pretty sure I will have forgotten all about this book very soon.) Equally, the fact that Maud is suffering from memory loss and mental confusion can be used to explain away a plethora of issues with the story, from muddled parts of the narrative and endlessly repeated phrases ('I can't think'), to the unbelievable neatness of the ending.
Earlier this year I read The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, another debut novel with an ageing, mentally addled protagonist in which memories may or may not be reliable; the past bleeds into the present; there is a mystery which might only exist in the character's head, etc. I found The Night Guest to be a much more complex, nuanced and effective exploration of these issues than Elizabeth is Missing. Despite the hype and fuss about the central conceit, the thing that really stood out to me was the authenticity and compelling nature of the post-war scenes. Given the fact that Healey is a young debut author who hadn't been published at all prior to this book, it's amazing how effortless these parts of the narrative feel, and I found the Sukey plotline much more gripping than the Elizabeth one.
While I enjoyed this novel, I was left slightly disappointed that it didn't live up to its status as one of the most anticipated debuts of 2014. I don't know how to recommend it, really - I can't imagine this being the type of book that anyone would absolutely love rather than just like, yet I've already seen numerous glowing reviews, and it seems that I'm in the minority by not adoring it. I think my problem with it was that I enjoyed the story more than the characterisation, but the book is really all about characterisation, which means the conclusions of the two plotlines turn out to be somewhat pedestrian. While a good, solid debut, Elizabeth is Missing failed to ignite any particular spark in me. ...more