The introduction suggests a fairly narrow, yet possibly conflicted, view of what a novel should be, but the essays are interesting for some extra insi...moreThe introduction suggests a fairly narrow, yet possibly conflicted, view of what a novel should be, but the essays are interesting for some extra insights into the books.
James Wood's piece didn't make me like Atonement more, but did leave me with greater appreciation for its construction - especially as a response to a 1935 Cyril Connolly essay.
These are much like the academic introductions I'm used to in classics.(less)
Likeable and a page-turner - despite the characters and plot being quite clichéd and the writing style not enough to transcend that.
There are a few c...moreLikeable and a page-turner - despite the characters and plot being quite clichéd and the writing style not enough to transcend that.
There are a few clumsy similes using biblical imagery but otherwise the writing is quite plain, bluntly spelling out far too much and making the occasional detour into what sounds like typical creative-writing course description.
Perhaps it's because I've read quite a few books set in strict religious communities and other restrictive societies, but it was formulaic to have the protagonist be an unusually intelligent and rebellious young woman... then there's the female mentor who sees beyond the rules and is also something of a wounded healer, the hypocritical authority figures, and other archetypes too, making the book a little too one-sided to be really thoughtful and interesting.
(I found it especially one-sided as in a previous job I was acquainted with some people from the Orthodox Jewish community, and found them more complex and less cartoonish - like most real people - than the characters in Chani Kaufman. The author spent far more time among them, but I get the feeling she's driven more by anger and frustration, whereas I tend to be naturally neutral and curious about people with different customs and to notice a lot of individual variation. For all that I detest the puritanical attitudes of the Orthodox society depicted here, I am essentially an old-style liberal and believe that people should be free to live in such ways if they choose, barring instances of active physical harm to others. Which again reminds me that I never finished - or posted any of - my mammoth essay on Hitchens' God is not Great. This liberalism may sound glib and lazy but I particularly struggled not to side wholly with the author on a number of points, including when Chani protests about censorship of schoolbooks. My school occasionally did this too and my mother backed up my complaint about it, and later bought me an unexpurgated edition, which still stands out as the thing for which I'm probably most proud of her.)
Despite - perhaps partly because of - the writing, the tropes, the sledgehammer opinions, and a good helping of predictability, the story moves along at a fair clip. And it's clever too, not going into what, after a few chapters, I was hoping to hear about near the end.((view spoiler)[Chani and Baruch finding out they share similar views, and how their lives together would develop because of these (hide spoiler)]). Once I'd finished the book I was actually eager to read a sequel to hear about this, regardless of all the negatives I've mentioned above.
Still, as literature - after all I read this because it was longlisted for the Booker - it isn't as good as some other literary novels on similar communities e.g. Whit by Iain Banks, Naomi Alderman's Disobedience, or The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth. (Whit and Disobedience do feature somewhat similar heroines but are, overall, better written.) Though I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in reviewing this only ever having seen the first fifteen minutes of Fiddler on the Roof - the most famous work about Jewish marriage customs - there must be references in Chani Kaufman
It must say something in favour of this novel that I found it such a compelling read regardless of so many quibbles with it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Quite a sweet, light semi-comic novel. Seemed pretty good for the sort of thing it is - the writing was better than I expect from anything with an alm...moreQuite a sweet, light semi-comic novel. Seemed pretty good for the sort of thing it is - the writing was better than I expect from anything with an almost-chicklit cover. (I'd barely heard of Charlotte Mendelson before and wouldn't have picked this up if I wasn't reading Booker books this year). Very nice use of free indirect style. But then a hypothetical half star got knocked off by an event less than ten pages from the end - not exactly deus ex machina, but it looked like the work of someone who'd written herself into a corner.
This has been compared with A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian but I've not read that, so no idea how similar they are. Almost English is a semi-autobiographical story so it can't simply be a copy of the Lewycka, even if the protagonist does share her first name.
It's a shame Mendelson didn't make more of the flamboyant older Hungarian characters rather than concentrating on Marina's fairly typical teenage growing pains story, her mother's sense of being a middle-aged underachiever, and social class themes. These can be found in any number of books but were at least delicately observed here - the author has a good eye for the psychology of families and for balancing sensitivity and absurdity. Even when I found aspects of characters that grated they were understandable and well drawn. (e.g. The descriptions of Laura's love for her daughter were, to me, creepy for a child that age. But as Marina missed and liked her mother, they were okay really and I guess it showed me how these things can work when the personalities are compatible in a family.)
Really not bad - but don't expect it to have any big things to say just because it's on the Booker longlist.(less)
I cannot divine exactly how MacLeod's style differs from what I'd call “standard literary fiction”; quoting a couple of sentences wouldn't...moreBeguiling.
I cannot divine exactly how MacLeod's style differs from what I'd call “standard literary fiction”; quoting a couple of sentences wouldn't show you. This feeling is instinctive and subjective, but a page might make it understandable. Simply, her words did not go blah blah blah cartoonishly in my head as that sort of writing does, and I was sincerely drawn into the world of the characters.
Similarly, the subjects of Unexploded are easy to dismiss as commonplace and middlebrow. Troubles in a middle class marriage, Britain early in the Second World War. You couldn't really call this book original. The details, though, were just different enough to be interesting: a meticulously evoked urban setting which isn't London (it's Brighton); the buttoned-up beastliness of the upper classes (wife Evelyn's parents); a circle in which anti-Semitism and listening to Lord Haw-Haw are the norm; and rather than the jolly hockey sticks all-pull together outlook, we get frequent reminders of the controlling insidiousness of wartime in which people are told not just what to do, but what to think and feel - particularly unpleasant for the secretly unconventional and contrarian. And there's sly subversion in making Geoffrey, a bank manager husband with supervisory roles on the home front (superintendent of the internment camp, chair of the invasion committee), into someone younger and more serious than Mainwaring. Unexploded is about tension and paranoia over imminent invasion when it was too close for some to be able to laugh.
As with A Tale for the Time Being and Proust, there's probably an extra layer in this book for those who know Virginia Woolf well. Evelyn reads The Years and The Waves and goes to a talk by Mrs Woolf. (The ghost of a more recent novel, E.L. Carr's A Month in the Country also haunts the final third.) There's an overall seriousness of tone which, as I was prompted, reminded me of the bits of Mrs Dalloway I've read. Modernist Bloomsburyish concerns, MacLeod seems to point out, didn't fit well with the communal ethos of wartime.
Good historical fiction* often has something to say about the time it was written as well as about the time it's set. This isn't something I've found much with other newly published books I've read recently, but Unexploded has. At first reflection on the place of art and free thinking when democratic society becomes somewhat more authoritarian and when certain strands of prejudice appear subtly condoned, though later a more frequently-encountered conflict of two approaches to life.
Unexploded seems likely to please people attracted by its premise, though I daresay a few of those reading it just because it was listed for the Booker (who would not otherwise have picked it up) may find it dreary. I was delighted to have my assumptions successfully challenged both about this specific book and the type of story it is. Without being groundbreaking or stylistically fancy, it was interesting and thoughtful and wrenching.
* I couldn't get away from the term here but I don't like to call anything historical fiction when it's set so recently as in the lifetime of my parents - and if the clothes of the era would today simply look like a good vintage style outfit, rather than full-on fancy dress as an Edwardian costume would. (less)
(Another as-yet unfinished book. Getting this down before I forget it.)
Beautiful language and description. Sometimes I parse reflexively and note that...more(Another as-yet unfinished book. Getting this down before I forget it.)
Beautiful language and description. Sometimes I parse reflexively and note that there are too many adjectives - but they work regardless. So rich and luscious and decadent. (I overuse adjectives too.) Its fin de siecle decadence is gorgeous though sometimes I forget the story is in Africa because the style is one that automatically makes me imagine a European setting. (Not least because I first started The Vorrh after reading a modern African novel...And the European style itself could arguably indicate something about the colonial era it's all set in.)
Eventually I realised why I'd got so irked by a few criticisms of the book. There's the usual thing where I simply read plenty of interesting characters as people first and genders some way down the list. (It annoys me when people who may see that as the ideal to reach, try and impose petty representation politics which actually impedes a relatively ungendered view.) And I see a negative judgement of the idea that a character had sex with another character, when they do have a life other than as a blow-up doll, to be essentially puritanical rather than right-on. (These politics of representation I see a lot of on Goodreads, usually from Americans, take things too much the other way and impose their own hegemony, arguing for a type of politically approved cliche in which certain categories of characters must behave in prescribed ways.)
And most of all in The Vorrh, about the Bowman and Este. The second scene of the book was electric and one of the most moving things I've read in a long long time. (And that thought I can see alientaing a few people already.) The scene provided an illustration of love of such depth and viscerality that it's almost useless in modern sensible existence, something I only ever found it possible to put vague form to, always unspoken, using metaphors from ancient world religions or ideas of Frida Kahlo-esque pictures I had not the skill to make. But these did not contain anything like the connection and reciprocity found here. The mutual wanting-to is almost everything that matters in that scene... they are each other's religion and neither is dictating. As I read it they were simply people who were connected that way and I imagined either being either sex, or some other again, race etc irrelevant, for it went way beyond anything of that sort.
Back down to earth as it were, this is a book which I have put off finishing a few times because I think it would seem a waste for me to read it when I'm not feeling somewhere near-ish to my best. Yet it's also (especially after reading Heart of Darkness as background) enthralling.
I find myself concerned on the book's behalf that it doesn't take the political stuff seriously enough to rank alongside classics, but perhaps that's because it's a long time since I've read much fantasy. (It doesn't toe the convnetional party line on a few of matters, and that's my theory as to why it didn't make the Booker longlist. Presuming it was submitted that is - being with a small publisher it would have been their best candidate, not having dozens of rivals as would, say, a novel published by Jonathan Cape. From what I've read of it so far, this year;s Booker list is really rather PC, perhaps forgetting that real diversity also includes something that doesn't follow all the rules to the letter. Though I too would have balked at pushing forward a book - Christopher Priest's The Adjacent, a more frequently mentioned SFF candidate - which contains a futuristic totalitarian Islamic Republic of Great Britain.) I do nitpick at a lot of books but The Vorrh is one which I'd love to see more people appreciating without nitpicking because it is (so far) incredible enough to transcend that. (Incidentally, as Raymond Roussel was no more than a name to me, I had needed a recommendation to see beyond the title. Vogon poetry and vore were the ideas it brought to mind, neither exactly appetising.)(less)
[3.5] It would probably be better if one of the first Goodreads reviews of any part of The Kills sequence came from someone well acquainted with thril...more[3.5] It would probably be better if one of the first Goodreads reviews of any part of The Kills sequence came from someone well acquainted with thrillers in print. I prefer them on film and TV and it might be more than fifteen years since I read anything similar.
Sutler was, then, a novelty, a pretty enjoyable one. I needed to adjust to the sparser prose which was different from my usual reading - and there's also a lot more here about what characters are doing than what they're thinking compared with your typical litfic - but once I'd acclimatised, the narrative was gripping and I read most of the book in two sittings. (I've read four and a quarter of this year's Booker longlist now and what all had in common, even those I was less keen on, is that they were engrossing reads.) The action-heavy narrative reminded me of other novels by screenwriters and film-makers, with their concentration on what can be seen. If both this and All the Birds, Singing are "literary thrillers", this one is more thriller than literary: there are some good descriptions here, but overall it's closer to the standard thriller. And funny sometimes too.
There were occasional clunks in the prose, I thought; better genre knowledge would have come in handy when considering them. Two or three ostensible deus-ex-machina moments too but I'm expecting most of these to be explained later in the series. And there were a few iffy tech things (e.g. no consideration of the timestamp when faking a digital photo, finding a IP address via received webmail, successfully making a hotel booking with a made-up credit card number). I probably wouldn't have read Sutler if it weren't for the Booker, but the Booker is also the reason I'm taking it more seriously than I would have if I'd somehow read it otherwise. It doesn't feel like something readers are meant to scrutinise. Broadly, though, it works.
Some distinctive characters here too, which I liked. (Incidentally, anyone assuming this book might be "too male" should - as well as putting away their fans and smelling salts - note that alongside the straight blokes working in militarised Iraq, among the cast there are several significant women and also a gay and a bi man.) But Sutler himself, aka Ford / Michael / Tom is almost as elusive in personality on the page as he is to those he meets whilst on the run. I liked this, found it a hook, waiting to get to know him, but perhaps some readers will find him too lightly drawn for a title character.
Oh yes, the "multimedia extras". (The reality was better than the term, at least. And they're all tangential so you can follow the story without the enhancements.) These aren't available seamlessly unless you're reading on an iPad - and I rather liked the way this book is a prototype format which most technology hasn't quite caught up with. It's quite normal to read a blog where blocks of text are interspersed with videos and sound files, so why ever not a book? I think visually and internally translate most things I read into images, so having some input for this, not having to do all the work for once, was incredibly satisfying. I enjoyed the extras which contained video, or sounds in addition to speech. Not so much the short monologues by a character: those were just more words.
One of the short films, Nathalie - Thunnersee I loved and watched three times. (If you also like hypnotic extreme-ambient music and arty subtitled, scenery-filled films where nothing happens, you may understand.) But the drawback of having to go online whilst reading a book - and when I can I switch the modem off to help concentration - was that I got sidetracked by games or other pages.
So one of the reasons I'm enjoying The Kills is because it's different, but it is also quite involving. It was a jolt, in a good way, to read something I wouldn't usually. And I want to find out what happens next in this story: the freebie ebook got its job done. (less)
A recently-published British experimental novel: a rare beast and also the first book I've read from from Salt Publishing.
Before a few people on my f...moreA recently-published British experimental novel: a rare beast and also the first book I've read from from Salt Publishing.
Before a few people on my friendslist get too excited though, this is meant to be accessible experimental fiction. It's not a book that would have Will Self reaching for the OED.
Nevertheless I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here because I've read next to nothing from the nouveau roman etc. This well-informed positive review may be of use if you know your stuff in this area, and Nicholas Royle describesHarold Absalon as what might happen if "Paul Auster and Nicholson Baker [got] together and decid[ed] to write a short novel largely set on a Routemaster bus"
I was very interested in the idea of a book which documented all of a character's thoughts for an extended period. Not just the poetic Joycean bits, all the therefores and becauses as well. So many things go through a person's head in between almost every tiny event, things which are edited out to create narrative as we know it. But as became apparent within a few paragraphs, pure full-sentence prose isn't a very good format to catch those thoughts. It's very slow and limited. A sequence of ideas and images which might go through the brain in a second equals half a page or more of wading through treacle. A comic, a mixed media book (with photos and diagrams as well as text and drawings) or a film would get closer to transmitting thought at anything approaching its real fluency and speed.
The other thing is that to want to spend this much time in someone's head, you need to find them interesting. Marguerite, the protagonist of Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? is not, as far as I'm concerned, very interesting. Not that a dodgy detective with B.O. can't be a good character. But his thoughts were realllllly boooorrring. I ended up imagining them in an adenoidal monotonous nerd-voice. Most of them were laboured deliberations over definitions and inanimate objects, especially vehicles and structures. The concentration on those is possibly natural to the author because he has an engineering degree, and it may be related to Alain Robbe-Grillet's vision of the novel as focused on objects - but filtered through this character the whole thing was like a charmless grown-up version of certain paragraphs in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was funny at times and the patterns, if not the actual topics, did trigger cringing recognition, but after about 100 pages exasperation set in. Sometimes I thought about taking a break to read Tao Lin for a bit of excitement.
The author is a Buddhist and this book must have been inspired by the close observation of thought in meditative practice. Buddhism can be too negative about "the monkey mind" which is perhaps why the narrative is tortuous. But for all that I found it wearing, it had a clarifying effect similar to meditation. It made me more aware of my own twisty-turny tangents, of "the dendritic nature of thought" as another review beautifully describes it - and if this post has fewer digressions than many I've written, it's thanks to the novel itself.
Why this, controversially, won the 1984 Booker: "I have managed," writes the old devil [Richard Cobb, chairman of the judges, to his friend, fellow his...moreWhy this, controversially, won the 1984 Booker: "I have managed," writes the old devil [Richard Cobb, chairman of the judges, to his friend, fellow historian Hugh Trevor-Roper], "to keep Martin Amis and Angela Carter and something something de Terán off the shortlist and manoeuvred so that BALLARD did not get the prize to the FURY of the media, the critics and Ladbrokes. So I have done a little NEGATIVE good." http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011...
Hotel du Lac seems like a book from the 1920s-50s, not the eighties. ... I imagined the same setting as the first part of Rebecca. Edith is a romantic novelist, an old yet naïve 39, whose friends have insisted she go abroad for a while to escape some mysterious scandal. The Hotel prides itself on its discreet insulation from modern life - so character, environment and writing are all quite appropriate for and reflective of one another. The book isn't bad as I'd often been led to believe: it's simply a small story, carefully crafted. It has a muted camp quality – waspishness; the slightly tragic / I Will Survive temperament of its heroine; irony co-existing with emotional sincerity – so I can understand one way of liking Hotel du Lac.
Yet I didn't find it all that engaging. Its horizons are so narrow. Some of Edith's complaints reminded me of myself at school: her impatience with the company of women who are only interested in shopping and gossip... but she's a healthy well-off adult living in London and hasn't managed to find any friends who are more interesting. She prefers the company of men yet has none as platonic friends for interesting conversations and only feels able to confide in one ex-lover (married throughout their involvement) in a series of unsent letters. Edith could have been interesting if it was shown how and why she'd ended up as this lonely living fossil (whose works aren't selling too well in an age of 'briefcase wielding Cosmo readers who want stories about sex' – one of the few clues that the book actually is set in the 80s) or if she had any enthusiasms, but unfortunately, as she was, she was relatively dull company. This could even be a portrait of a sort of mild depression, but one more likely to induce same in some readers than to give any insight.
I've now read more from the 1984 Booker shortlist than from any other year except 2013, and have to agree not only that BALLARD WOZ ROBBED - and also LODGE. And BARNES would have been more worthy than this too. Not that that isn't extremely well-established by now.
Why I read this: A friend who was visiting a few weeks ago saw the book here and mentioned that a relative he was staying with for part of the summer lived very near the place where Hotel du Lac is set. Had, in fact, chosen a house just there because she liked the book so much. I didn't expect to love it myself but this seemed a prompt of sorts to read the thing over the summer.
Why I even had this book in the house: At the beginning of first year at (secondary) school we were given a reading list which was only occasionally referred to again by teachers, but by which I set great and geeky store. The list looked quite old, having apparently started out typed on a sheet of A5, and over years photostat was made of photostat until the lettering of our copies was fragmented grey. Budding historian already, I decided to try and work out how old the list was (teachers didn't know). Hotel du Lac turned out to be the most recent book. Somewhat disappointingly the list wasn't really as old as it appeared. A book about a hotel sounded exciting (I imagined a cast of madcap characters rather like those I'd later find in Armistead Maupin) but the blurb of this one wasn't thrilling. So I kept putting it off and putting it off until I noticed it would be short enough to read in a day. (I was so unenthusiastic that I didn't finish it in one day after all.) The narrow horizons and fusty yet somewhat confused morals of Hotel du Lac did remind me quite a bit of school after all.(less)
[4.5] Full of gorgeous writing about the landscape and a semi-mythical past. The entire book takes place in one week at harvest-time, so this and the...more[4.5] Full of gorgeous writing about the landscape and a semi-mythical past. The entire book takes place in one week at harvest-time, so this and the next month or so is the perfect season to read it. (Rather a lot of Booker books, from this and earlier years, are set in the summer, I've noticed.)
What sky is blue is more thinly so this afternoon. The woodland canopies, viewed from this sloping field, are sere or just a little pinched with rust, the first signs of the approaching slumber of the trees. Come maids and sons of summer, get ready for the winter ice. The air is nipping at your cheek, the cold is tugging at your wrist. The glinting spider's thread will turn in a little while to glinting frost. It's time for you to fill your pies with fruit, because quite soon the winds will strip the livings from the trees... and you will have to wait indoors through the season of suspense while weather roars and bends outside.
Harvest is set in a remote village, leniently ruled and where the spiritual attachment to the land is far greater than that to an imported monotheistic god. The costumes, the technology and political preoccupations are those of early-modern England, but this is also an allegorical land outside time. The country is never named and details appear from other ages such as a chariot as a likely mode of transport, the apparent absence of printing, and later-dated details as mentioned here by Philip Hensher (who seems to misunderstand the timelessness but does at least appreciate the book). Fantastical ones too: alongside wolves and bears, another local predator not seen just lately is a 'dragoncat'. Harvest's original world bears much resemblance to my daydreams of retreat into the past, many technologies de-invented, working on the land and eating what is grown. (In practice, this is indulged mostly by watching Tales from the Green Valley, going barefoot on lawns, doing a lot of cooking and perhaps listening to the Levellers).
Harvest, though, is not so much about an idyll as its ruin. The dread which permeates the book, along with its almost-abstract setting, are very much like Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (whose forces are also too strong to fight). The wonderful description and scattering of archaic and rural words are always present but it is not a happy book. Authoritarianism arrives in the form of a gentleman who has inherited lordship of the village, bringing enclosures for sheep farming and the attendant deracinating of humanity, and other brutal characteristics of the Tudor era.
Like another 2013 Booker-longlister, Unexploded, more so, in fact, this is a historical novel which comments on the present as well as the past. Both Crace and MacLeod highlight increasingly authoritarian and intrusive aspects of society: the latter the acceptance of giving up liberty for a little temporary safety; the former, here, its foundation in economic gain and the wish to have power over aspects of life that were previously, at least for a while, benignly neglected by government or not considered its business.
This is such wonderful writing. At least as far as I'm concerned, Crace has always been under the radar - for as long as I can remember I'd struggled not to conflate him with Jim Dodge, and he was a name only seen on the shelves of libraries and bookshops, not in recommendations or lists of best contemporary novels. His words are much lovelier and preoccupations, at least here, more understandable to me than more ostentatiously lauded authors like Ian McEwan and it's a shame nothing had spurred me to read him before. (I also like that, having been to a technical college and living in Birmingham, he is not quite typical of the British literary set.) Before I read this book, I'd thought Crace was a fuddy-duddy choice to back as Booker winner, but Harvest itself is fully deserving (not just an excuse for a "lifetime achievement" win) ... though books I like this much rarely win. (less)
The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most...more[4.5] Like a Mike Leigh film in book form.
The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most people don't think about unless some come to their door. Several blogs said Jenn Ashworth should have been one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, though she was on the BBC Culture Show's similar list a couple of years ago. She was also brought up as a Mormon in Lancashire. Wisely, this story about LDS in Lancs is her third novel, an accomplished piece of semi-comic fiction inspired by other sources as well as her own story - not another confessional debut.
If there's anything wrong with this book it's that it has so much happen in one day, such a lot of plot, in a soapy sort of way. Though perhaps farce would be a better comparison if you're willing to include some serious topics in farce as well. That one day involves the homecoming of golden-boy second son Gary who's been away on his missionary training in Utah for two years. Problems in the lives of the four other Leeke family members: mum, dad, older brother & younger sister, all come to a head over the course of the day. Some quite naturally because Gary's return is a watershed, others more absurdly.
I may have been generous to give this novel five rather than four stars but that's because not only did I love its working class provincial setting, but I really liked what it was saying about religion - the first time I've encountered a novel which has an atheist or at least anti-certain-types-of-organised-religion agenda. (But it doesn't have to be read that way.)
Ashworth has a wonderful phrase here about religion: you "feel it clanking like a chain around your ankles even when you did not believe in it any more." Absolutely spot on. I have a feeling that people with that experience will find more meaning in this book.
I went to a Catholic school but had confusing messages at home from a parent who professed atheism at times yet also went to church fairly regularly. I had a curious intermittently-devout phase between the ages of about 6-9, largely self-imposed as a sort of comfort and defence. Its principal instrument was obsessive re-reading of Sixty Saints for Girls, a gift from my late godmother,(which book I now consider to be a largely pernicious - and continuing - influence, though I don't blame the godmother in the least as she was a great person and it was a case of book + environment + personality, not just book). Aside from actual R.E. lessons, the school was not terribly severe in its religious proselytising - mitigated I think by a couple of teachers who'd experienced the horrors of Irish convent schools in the 50's and who later became politicised in the sixties. I never felt affected by fear of hell (an old-fashioned myth no-one really believed in any more, I was told more often than not) or rantings about sexual morality (religious people just didn't mention sex as anything which might affect me until long after I'd already got a plethora of info from Usborne books, novels and teenage magazines). And no-one really bothered me when I decided I didn't to be confirmed aged 12 - though it made me feel left-out and immature - but there are certain things that always stick. So it wasn't a terribly religious childhood, but enough to give me some affinity with those who were more affected. An ex, whom I lived with for a couple of years, grew up partly in a Jehovah's Witness commune (and became an atheist as eloquent as Hitchens and probably better informed about the other side). The tone of many of the Mormon morals & strictures in The Friday Gospels is familiar from his stories.
In The Friday Gospels the idea of whether there is any higher power is subtly left open: one could choose to see certain events as coincidental, as precipitated by people, or as part of a divine plan. However there is certainly indictment of aspects of religious teaching and of the stricter and more priggish members of the LDS community, and of the shame they try to impose on those who don't meet their standards. The best critique of all is contained in the events surrounding the daughter, Jeannie: of a culture which implicitly or explicitly encourages kids to act according to fables they hear, which rewards silence and a lack of questioning, and which tells girls to "defend" themselves against male sexuality whilst actually leaving them less able to deal with it than most of their non-religious peers. And perhaps worst of all (view spoiler)[black-and-white values like "Heavy petting counts as sex even if you’ve got your clothes on so by that point I was a lost cause anyway." (hide spoiler)]
The people in The Friday Gospels are very much people, characters rather than symbols for delivering a message. Ashworth isn't criticising human beings, rather teachings and beliefs. Her preparedness to find some good even in distinctly dodgy characters is what I'd associate with someone who's done social welfare work (she used to be a prison librarian) and confounds what it's usual to expect from a certain type of narrator. I felt that her prognosis for Pauline, the mother was potentially over-optimistic (view spoiler)[though thank goodness all I know about severe birth injury and what can be done to repair it comes from forums (hide spoiler)] but I could quite understand what Ashworth was trying to show. And I can't remember when I last read a book including more than one non-elderly character with a disability.
Perhaps more objectively this isn't quite a five-star book but I still think it's doing something unusual and important in containing what's usually the stuff of non-fiction rants into a very approachable work of literary or domestic fiction. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A nice summery, cartoonishly typical English novel. I'm almost surprised they still make them like this... Although very few characters are English, a...moreA nice summery, cartoonishly typical English novel. I'm almost surprised they still make them like this... Although very few characters are English, as this book wants to show that we are a mongrel race and that Englishness is often a mixture of learned mannerisms and assimilation. Especially Englishness as perceived by outsiders such as a geeky Scottish school-leaver going south of the border in 1989 for a gap year working as a carer. It is he who is 'meeting the English' for the first time, characters like the tweedy gay Dutch-Jewish literary agent, and the Welsh Angry Young Man of the 50s and 60s, now firmly ensconced in the Hampstead literary establishment and lately incapacitated by a stroke. Similarly, the truism that most people in London aren't actually from London.
Clanchy is a published poet but this isn't an efflorescent poetic novel; according to the bio 'she has also written extensively for Radio 4', and that's where this fits in: a cosy yet not quite cloying sort of story which is a bit funny and a bit moving but not too much of either, very much the sort of thing that wouldn't get any complaints on the Home Service.
I could have ended up giving this 4 stars, and regarding it as a guilty pleasure in the way that I only seem to with books. (In films and music I've no truck with the idea). One side would call it pretentious and elitist, the other middlebrow, bland and predictable. I like a certain amount of this sort of thing but when it's the sort of thing heavily promoted by the papers yet often criticised by intelligent friends and members of the public, then there's next to no sense of individuality or connection or rebellion in enjoying it. Or I thought I enjoyed it; reading all this new fiction recently I've found a lot more of it wanting than I expected to.
I was quite prepared to forgive the cliché of yet another Hampstead tale if it was fun, but there were too many niggly little faults for me to rate Meeting the English any higher than 3. Things like choosing the production date of a fictitious British New Wave film as 1969. The peculiar choice of surname spelling: Prys (Phillip is not a man who ever suited associations like prissy or fleur-de-lys) instead of Pryce or Price - and then its use by a proud Welshman to suffix fictional placenames that should end '[pr]ydd'. I think politics and linguistics would trump this particular vehicle for his egotism. Then there are the narrative's uneven assumptions about the reader's knowledge: for instance that they would know 'Laura' means Ashley (I confess my brain automatically filled it in in context before I realised the word wasn't there) yet shortly afterwards, although we're now in the thoughts of a Scottish character, we must be told that Princes Street is in Edinburgh.
I loved Phillip's opening rant about Salman Rushdie (which cantankerously made a good point that in current British publishing, ethnic diversity among writers from privileged backgrounds makes it easy for remaining class and regional divisions to be ignored). Then the plot almost silenced the most entertaining character. His actress-turned-property-developer ex-wife Myfanwy is at least fairly ridiculous. But too many of the comic scenes needed to be dialled up a bit (Why aren't comic novels as funny as they used to be? Someone who knows more about this should write an article) and others with potential were too bland. I suppose I'd been hoping for a grown-up version of Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe Saga...
And then there's the way the narrative talks about 1989. Sometimes those paragraphs are written as if they're aimed at 20-year-olds with low general knowledge, though most of the readership of a book like this would probably remember the year. These sepia factoids sometimes triggered nostalgia, but by making everything seem longer ago than it was, the feeling was more often a queasy sadness. I'm sure you don't need me to repeat The Smiths' line. From the news, it did seem in 1989 that the future was going to be bright and amazing...The echoes lasted for a long time: until 2001.
A nice but fairly unremarkable book which passes the time well enough; probably as ephemeral as the Aztec Camera poster on the teenage son's bedroom wall. (less)
One of those novels about a set of tangentially linked characters in a city. It's a format I like, but it's been done a lot so each book does need to...moreOne of those novels about a set of tangentially linked characters in a city. It's a format I like, but it's been done a lot so each book does need to distinguish itself, and the settings are important: most American ones feel very tired indeed to me, London rather overdone though at least likeable. Five Star Billionaire is set in Shanghai which is, mindblowingly, bigger than London & New York put together [in population terms].
For perhaps the first half of the book I was swept away by the engrossing details of location and culture; and by the feeling of my mental map reorientating itself to a centre on the other side of the world - Japan's just over there and it's where rich people might go on skiing holidays, immigrants make hops from rural Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur to Taipei to Guanghzou to Shanghai as they look for progressively better wages, whilst those who've made it might try and emigrate to Australia or Canada. A slight increase in understanding of this burgeoning place and the smallness and oldness of here gave me that same sensation of relief and peaceful insignificance as does looking up at the stars.
Aw's Shanghai has immense buzz. It's similar to the sense of 'Rising Asia' in Mohsin Hamid's new novel, and the homeland of Xiaolu Guo's Z in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers which I also read recently. Shanghai though is so overwhelmingly glamorous, the place to be for young people on the make, that what I'm most reminded of is the mid-1960's Swinging London films, in which a country-fresh twentysomething (often female) arrives in the big city world of fun and dubious morality. Those films often had an underlying disapproving message...just as Aw doesn't present an altogether positive view of the brash new Chinese capitalism. This is a money-focused world which in that respect to the Brit or American feels more 1980's than 60's, but without the jadedness we might associate with 30 years ago.
Internet use, online relationships and internet addiction are dealt with better here than in most novels where I've seen them mentioned - and refreshingly (pun intended) without any use of screenshots or chat layouts. Several characters go through a cocooned hikokomori stage which was wonderfully done.
But for all that there were certain things I loved about this book, it did quite often also feel like just yet another city novel. I don't know nearly enough about Shanghai or about Malaysian immigrants to China - as the four main characters are - to speak definitively, but there was a feeling of stereotype about these characters and the reiterated, yet for some true, idea of a city that will chew you up and spit you out if you're not careful.
It feels comfortable to have certain stereotypes addressed head-on: this and the Hamid & Guo books I mentioned above both include fake designer goods, shoddy manufacturing etc. But the human personalities in Five Star Billionaire could have been more original. Broadly, the two women are very ambitious, the two men who've already made it young want to drop out. They are all most likeable at their crisis points, when they have doubts. (Or does that simply say something about me?) When the action is trundling along they're just mannequins and archetypes. The fifth character, the "Five Star Billionaire", a shadowy private investor & author of a self-help book, works quite well within his own discrete first-person chapters. (The other four are all in third-person omniscient.) But when he interacts with the others he's effectively just a symbol,rather in the manner of one of Scrooge's ghosts, and I still can't decide how well all this gels.
The author's first novel The Harmony Silk Factory was for a few years ubiquitous in British bookshops, and mentions the Lim family in its synopsis; they also have a significant role here. This book does work as a standalone story, though I sometimes wondered if I was missing anything by not having read Aw's earlier work.
Five Star Billionaire is perhaps a bit too long at nearly 450 pages. (Nevertheless it was a very fast read compared with my previous book, a 540pp Iris Murdoch; I read 95% of this in one 24 hour period despite feeling a bit ill.) To borrow a phrase from a friend of a friend in a recent discussion, it hints at big ideas but doesn't do much with them. For my liking it's maybe too bland and stylistically unoriginal compared with the Hamid or Guo novels; I saw it described on a forum as a "literary soap" - IMO they were quite right. It's like a jumbo bag of prawn crackers: large but light and insubstantial. As a relatively undemanding book which still gives quite a bit to talk about, it seems like good book group material if people don't mind the page-count.(less)
[3.5] Don't be surprised if I change that rating back and forth between 4 and 3 a few times. During the last couple of days I've felt warm-and-fuzzy t...more[3.5] Don't be surprised if I change that rating back and forth between 4 and 3 a few times. During the last couple of days I've felt warm-and-fuzzy towards this book despite its flaws, but for the first 150 pages I was often intensely irritated.
First off though, this really isn't sci-fi or fantasy. It's magic realism plus a few pages of alternate history. Ursula is simply reincarnated many times into the same life - always born on the same day in 1910, but living anything from a few minutes to retirement age. She experiences a lot of deja-vu and other echoes which prompt her actions, and they become stronger the more times she experiences things, as if they are held in implicit memory. The other people around her don't seem to be experiencing the same and there aren't all that many differences in the world on each trip (though there are some). It's much like a video game: Game Over, start again; the 1918 flu and the Blitz are two of the trickiest bosses to beat. Most readers are probably glad that only short instalments from each life are in the book, whereas a more avant-garde use of the idea might have produced something like a spot-the-difference game in words.
I only picked this up because this year I wanted to read a good few new novels in advance of the Booker longlist announcement so for once I could have the informed opinion about it I'd often wanted to have when I was younger. Kate Atkinson has many great book titles but I've never read any of her novels because the actual stories are a huge let down compared with what I imagine and want. (Behind the Scenes at the Museum: if only that were a good old fashioned British comic novel about the staff of a museum, Douglas Adams-esque with some Tom Sharpe style farce. Emotionally Weird: a goth / emo teenager who's taken seriously by no-one but the narrative. Human Croquet: vicious observations about the upper classes, like Edward St. Aubyn's world without quite so much abuse and addiction. Case Histories: an austere and sensible female doctor, rather like Samantha whatsername in Silent Witness but not so sensationalist and rarely if ever about murders. Started Early, Took My Dog: a tweedy old man who does a lot of walking.)
The things that annoyed me in Life After Life are mostly things I might expect to be annoyed by in any market-positioned middlebrow historical novel. I can be pretty merciless about historical fiction and wouldn't be reading much of it if it hadn't been for this pre-Booker exercise, but I kept being attracted to the synopses when deciding which new novels to read.
There were occasional clumsy comments about the future or the nature of life that sounded like klaxons in incidental conversations: e.g. "one day there'll be a woman prime minister, maybe even in our lifetime"; "you only live once". (Conversely I liked the knowingness of things like 'Admiral' Crighton and "don't go to sleep Susie".) In the earlier part of the book the narrative focuses on Ursula's mother, Sylvie, and her musings seem designed to strike a chord with some average Mumsnet woman of now - not to produce any sense of how people in the past thought. Later on Sylvie seemed appropriately stuffier, and I liked the book more when the focus was handed over to Ursula's own thoughts when she succeeded in living to be older. She was born in the same year as one of my grandmothers but seems more sociable and less stuffy, like other people's grandparents or someone I could see being interviewed in a documentary; in plenty of her later grown-up iterations she was very likeable and reminded me a little of Bel from The Hour.
A lot of people have called this book bleak, so it possibly says more about me than about it when I say that - aside from a few scenes - it was very cosy. I've been known to say the same about black & white French films with sad endings... But this really does seem like a cosy English novel, just with a few more difficult events. A minute ago I was decrying historical fiction, now I feel like it's taught me something - but then I'm quite amenable to the stuff when it's about the Second World War onwards. Possibly because when you've heard living people talk about their experience of something, it's not "the past" in quite the same way as things you can only know from books & artefacts. Life After Life made me really understand that English nostalgia for the war. Ursula usually works in Civil Defence and that sense of working together to get important things done amid tides of drama, the way it makes you meet people, and so bloody much to do that there's hardly time to think about anything difficult reminded me of all the good bits of work before each time I burnt out. And she has so many more friendships and is surrounded much more warmth than my grandmothers were in their accounts of the time (both were foreign so were fairly isolated but were just not especially sociable anyway). Films or talking head accounts usually only have space to include a few friends, but here there are so many friends and colleagues it does feel like an account of a full life. Not that it wasn't horrific as well. As an adult I've heard surprisingly few accounts of the Blitz and always just imagined people crushed by buildings. Not random lumps of flesh found in the street, or drowning in a cellar because of burst pipes. I finally experienced a vivid sense of that happened here? about the whole wartime era which you're probably supposed to get when you're about eight.
One thing I was braced to dislike was the "let's go back in time and kill Hitler" storyline which has already been covered countless times in fiction. I've found Stephen Fry's later novels, and general present ubquity, embarrassing but in Making History I think he gave the definitive take on this trope: that the War had led to such liberalisation and rejection of prejudice (to which I'd add the golden age of the post-war Butskellite consensus) that it's best to leave things as they were. Fry also had relatives who were victims of the Nazis, so it's hard to dismiss this as mere cold, callous theory. The "let's kill Hitler" stuff, whilst still a cliché, actually takes up very few pages in Life After Life.(not that much of a (view spoiler)[ And because each narrative ends when Ursula dies, we never hear what the effect was (or even if the plot was successful). (hide spoiler)] And Atkinson had pretty much pre-empted my criticism. (view spoiler)[ Ursula doesn't see the same effects because she considers Hitler's legacy from at least 30 years earlier than Making History - and as she's older, she's more detached from the social changes of the 60's when she witnesses them and instead sees the Arab-Israeli wars as significant. (hide spoiler)])
Whilst I was glad to finish a long book, I wasn't tired of the new incarnations as some readers have been. But then I've always been fascinated by ideas like time travel, the minute chances and events that make people who they are and aren't, and parallel universes. (Can I have the one where I've always been in good health and wrote the Guardian review of this book 3 months ago next please?) Still, I very much liked the existential sense of not knowing why Ursula kept coming back, the absence of any delineated higher power indicating what it is to "get it right" - and that the book started and ended in the middle of incarnations as if we were only seeing a slice of a far longer story. Perhaps the story is [part of] an ouroboros, as drawn by one of the child Ursulas.
This isn't the first 2013 novel I've read which looks at choices and chances that make a life what it is. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is better in that respect because it considers the circumstances around a person. In Ursula's lives everyone stays the same and does almost the same things, and international events happen at the exact same times. Her family are never desperately poor or aristocrats, she's never born with a genetic disease or orphaned at an early age or sent to boarding school or... It's all and only about what she chooses. (Just like a video game.) Which is in itself a philosophy, but an erroneous one with a limited scope. And which doesn't even resemble the theory of parallel universes.
But the story could also be a look at the possibilities that exist for choice within the same circumstances, showing that the biggest differences to life are made through choices whose effects can't be predicted. People still can't really help it: they're often stumbling about in the dark. Is there a satire here of people who feel the world revolves around them? Or of New Agers who think we chose what happened to us even though we couldn't possibly know the long-term consequences of some things? I can't tell whether I'm reading too much into the story or if it was meant to be considered this way.
"Boring" is something I've also seen the contents of many of the incarnations called in some reviews. But before I was enveloped by the cosiness, as by a nice big squashy sofa, I wished the book was more "boring". In an arty way: more Jeanne Dielmann than Mumsnet. Atkinson has quite rightly shown that most of life is mundane interspersed with flurries of eventfulness but in a way that is more accessible and easier reading than what I'm getting at. It's the sort of work she produces, and it's the sort of work that sells tons. I'm sort of frustrated with it for not pushing the conceptual angles further and not being a bit more "highbrow" but I also sort of love it and can see myself reading bits of it again just to relax, as I do with favourite books. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I started this biased towards Rob Newman (yes, that Rob Newman, the sexy one from The Mary Whitehouse Experience, as probably only British comedy fans...moreI started this biased towards Rob Newman (yes, that Rob Newman, the sexy one from The Mary Whitehouse Experience, as probably only British comedy fans in their 30's & 40's will remember)... but whilst the book's not bad when it's being a ripping historical adventure yarn - and it has the best of intentions politically - I wasn't half so impressed as I wanted to be.
Unlike most fiction I read, The Trade Secret has an almost didactic aim: to show the beginnings of global capitalism and oil dependence, from an anti-capitalist perspective. (Newman's previous book The Fountain at the Centre of the World - which I haven't read - was about "late capitalism".) You might, then, expect sledgehammer politics ... They weren't exactly obscure (pondering on the discovery that the Mayflower was once a slave ship; well-meaning people finding they've bought into the wrong side; or a collective of small traders banding together) but a lot of this is simply an adventure story about two lads trying to make their way in the early modern world, and getting into lots of coincidence-fuelled scrapes along the way.
The Trade Secret might perhaps work best read on public transport or when a bit tired; there are lots of nice short chapters, it's not hard work and there's probably more fun to be had here without close concentration. There are some very nice paragraphs but for the most part I was often reminded of the title of a blog post I read a while ago, "Reliable sorts who get the story told" (actually about the Granta Best Young British Novelists).
If you're pedantic about history, it's a frustrating book. A lot of research has evidently gone into this in the detail about early modern Persia, Venice & London. But there are some errors: e.g. a seventeenth century opium addict couldn't have had trackmarks as hypodermics weren't invented yet (also would anyone really mistake healed burn scars for trackmarks?); a conversational reference to "the laws of physics"; and one that Newman's Soho Jarvis character probably wouldn't have got wrong, bastinado would involve an assault on the feet and not about the head.
More than that sort of point of fact, sometimes the book just doesn't feel historical in ways such as "would people have actually thought that then?", or characters' unlikely lifestyles. One of the heroes has a love interest, Gol, who seems to have been transposed from a twentieth-century set story about a fickle, feisty, hard-to-get girl who's in a band. She seemed so unlikely that I did a bit of reading about women in the Safavid empire; there were bands of female musicians but they were courtesans, not virginal lower-middle-class girls living with their parents whilst slowly deciding who to marry. I'm sure the inclusion of this character has the best of intentions- after all this is a left-wing political novel - she's a woman with a strong sense of agency and high standards, but historical inaccuracy is a very blunt way of trying to show that. The scenes in Persia were often easier to read as a fantasy novel than a historical one, and a scene at a dance felt more like a rave or modern house party. Yet there are other scenes, especially those in London, which use more archaic language and have more of a sense of history.
I've been thinking it might be satisfying if historical fiction had demarcations like hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi - with the former supposed to be so theoretically accurate that geeks would struggle to pick holes in it. But if there were, The Trade Secret would be neither one nor t'other.
This very pickiness (not big, not clever, not even enjoyable to do) is why I don't read much historical fiction now. I used to devour the stuff when I was a kid though - and this book, with its two young heroes, does have a similar feel, and a similar sense of fun punctuated by episodes of relative boredom, to a lot of those old children's books.
I haven't actually read one of Newman's books since I was a fangirl who bought Dependence Day as soon as it was released in 1994 so haven't really got anything to compare this one with. It does make me think that writing a really good novel must be even harder than it looks: he's a clever, funny guy but this book, whilst not bad lacks the spark of brilliance his comedy sometimes had. You couldn't accuse it of being overly serious, for thankfully it isn't yet more lyrical realism, but equally it's not an outright comic novel. Someone like me would probably be happier reading factual history to find out about the subjects here, but for those who aren't incredibly picky about historical accuracy or writing style, this will be a pretty decent book.(less)
2004: The Books sections of the papers are full of this. It's about David Blaine *yawn*. And it sounds b...moreMy 2000th 'read' book catalogued on Goodreads.
2004: The Books sections of the papers are full of this. It's about David Blaine *yawn*. And it sounds both boring and gimmicky. What could be a worse combination? I wish they'd move on to something more interesting so I can forget about it and hear about stuff I might actually read. 2013: Nope, one day the author will be one of your favourite writers. Only three years later, not recognising her name, you'll find a gigantic historical-looking tome called Darkmans just below hip-level on a bookshop display and it'll be pretty much everything you wanted in a book. A few years later again and you'll be devouring her earlier works as you devoured almost any book in your teens, and Pratchett et al shortly after you graduated. Can't blame you - what you never would have guessed about Clear from the cover or the reviews is how deliberately bloody ridiculous it is. (You still find stage magic and illusionists fairly boring to watch, but that doesn't seem to stop you from enjoying films and novels about them.)
The last Barker book I read was Small Holdings (1995) and WOW has her style come on in leaps and bounds here: just before Darkmans, a writer fully confident in her powers: freewheeling, silly, erudite, trivial and expansive.
Narrator Adair Graham MacKenney is possibly the most conventional Barker character I've encountered yet. Handily, this jack-the-lad is an English & Media graduate of UCL so he provides the perfect combination of 'typical' young male attitude alongside the plausibility of his making the references the author wants to slip in. It's those around him who are spectacular Barkerian eccentrics and who draw him into their weirdness. Especially Aphra - whom he encounters whilst watching Blaine - a sort of White Rabbit/ manic pixie dream girl (who's nonetheless non-tropish enough to remind me of an old friend ... but one who is rather elusive and magical).
There's a lot of satire of public intellectuals here - interesting timing; having by now won the IMPAC award, Barker is making fun of a class she's probably being perceived as part of, more and more. That sort of contrarian, playful kicking is something I very much like and can understand.
Am I comfortable with a white writer satirising black intellectuals? It's a great piece of writing about opinionated people generally and excellent use of intelligent characters to transmit the author's research in a way that doesn't jar, but... Perhaps if my social circle had been as diverse as the one I've recently been reading about in NW (or the sort of circle I tend to imagine Barker has) it would more just be a case of hearing about people a bit like some of those I knew... But still not sure. What do highly educated black people think of these characters? Regardless of quibbles I really like Jalisa, Adair's pundit housemate's girlfriend who never shuts up - I'm not sure how much you're meant to like her but I found all her conversations very interesting. And admire the way that without being obnoxious, she really cares far more about her own opinions - which generally are right - than about what anyone else, including Solomon, thinks of them.
Not sure Clear will age well given that it's stuffed with ephemeral references - if you weren't consuming a lot of British news and entertainment media in 2003 you might be a bit lost. (Or unless you are an early-2000's vintage nut... Do they exist yet?) But on the whole this is the sort of fun silly book I never thought it would be. (less)