I read the ebook which provides two copies of the novel in different orders; glad I started with the Renaissance 'Eyes' section as I doubt I'd have liI read the ebook which provides two copies of the novel in different orders; glad I started with the Renaissance 'Eyes' section as I doubt I'd have liked the book so much had it been the other way round.
This post contains spoilers, but it's one of those books where most reviews do. I enjoyed the novel partly because I read it whilst knowing very little about it.
After reading the very disappointing The Accidental last year, 'Eyes' was a return to the best parts of Hotel World. Ali Smith captures the feeling of things with such exhilarating vividness (or a very enticing idea of it, given that this was c.500 years ago). The descriptions of creativity and painting, mental process and physical actions were wonderful. IMO a story about visual art is usually better on film, but this was pretty much as good. I absolutely revelled in this side of the story and felt I'd almost escaped the nagging historical accuracy module in my head.
But had to accept I never quite will with any work that takes itself seriously, and I didn't know whilst reading the section where on a scale of accurate / fantastical the author sees the historical scenes, although there were later clues. This section was lovely to read , but partly because it eschewed so much of the harshness of the past which is evident from sources about crime rates, popular customs, parenting habits and so forth. Though I loved the crossdressing side of the plot, I found it impossible to believe that so many people in Renaissance Italy would have kept the artist's secret after discovering it, or at least allowed them to keep working without violence, threats and blackmail. This is the same world as the Borgias and Machiavelli's princes FFS. But if the historical scenes only need be taken as factual as the existence of a ghost, then that's okay, I can just enjoy them as fantastical fun and a daydream. I loved that because this took place long before contemporary lists of labels about sexuality and gender, del Cossa simply was and never had any obligation to define according to them or be changed by them. (view spoiler)[A suggestion that the del Cossa's story as told here may have been invented by George acts as a kind of tempering. But also made me like George a little more.And I love the awareness of the way we use history for our own ends. (hide spoiler)] I don't know if more of this should be in spoiler tags. One of those books it's hard to judge with.
Many adult readers find precocious-teenage narrators irritating. I don't usually. But I was annoyed by George, both as an eye-rolling adult re. her naivety and in the memory of how myself-at-her-age would have thought about her too. Perhaps it was because I'd seen someone use that word 'precocious' about her before I read the book, that I was often stuck in teenage-self mode, thinking with extreme superciliousness "How do you not know that?", and concluding that teenage-me would be scathing about contemporary teens because the amount of time they spent on online crap - time we would have had to spend with books or interest-related magazines - would mean their general knowledge was significantly worse than that of bright kids from two decades or more earlier. (If the character had been described to me as average I probably wouldn't have regressed into arrogant teenager mode whilst reading; it didn't help that she the child of academics - a sort of kid I used to long to meet because they would be more interesting than people at school, and didn't live up to the expectations I had then.) I was irritable for altogether too much of this section - good job I didn't read it first; as it was I had so much goodwill left from 'Eyes' which framed my response to the book as a whole.
Still. Some of the scenes about grief were excellent. I liked the insistent bits about misheard lyrics, the sort of real thoughts that rarely make it into novels. Helena rocked and I badly wished I'd met someone like her when I was at school. (The way the proposition happened was wonderful, and couldn't have been more different from the pressure and fear of compulsion in my head around the very idea of going to a university LGBT society.)
And the thing about the group of girls recording and commenting on the sound of people pissing in the school toilets. It's the first time I've ever known someone write about this problem (obviously no recording when I was at school because no mobiles, but the twisted paranoia was all there, and the use of phones is a logical development). I was so glad someone had talked about this. Thank you Ali Smith! I half wondered if it was just my school. But it evidently wasn't, and I hope teachers these days give girls lectures to embarrass them out of this behaviour and tell them it's bad for them - and that they shouldn't be wasting half a roll of loo paper each time as a muffler. These kind of small cliquey pruderies formed my idea of all-female groups, who I have ever after approached with an attitude of "prove you're not like that", although I'd blocked this particular thing for years until reading How To Be Both. In my form there were girls who prided themselves on never going to the toilet at school at all - and I do mean pride, they spoke of it as if it were a moral good - such was the taboo around any noises. I silently knew it was bad for one's health and thought they were stupid, but unfortunately didn't have the courage to contradict them by deliberately making as much noise as possible when there were people around in the main loos, instead taking advantage of the structure of the building, which had single toilets in a few odd places, and being someone who wouldn't be missed immediately by a friendship group, to sneak off between lessons, being the first to leave or last to arrive. A strange little aspect of teenage life that no-one usually talks about.
My connections to this book were mostly about ideas of being unfeminine and I rather wished I could have sent it back in time to myself as a teenager. (Though at that time I wonder how I would have thought of the del Cossa story - at school I had a paranoia about it being visible that I felt, in contrast to them, sort-of-masculine inside. But at the same time deliberately showing that belonged a unique girl who had crossdressed from primary age (although she wore school skirts, everything else was boys' clothes); no-one seemed to bother her about it, probably because she always appeared so self-assured - but you also didn't want anyone to say you were like ____ _____ [name], which they might if you wore certain things.)
Not long after reading How To Be Both and perhaps because of Ali Smith's account of finding the picture that inspired the book, I became fascinated by a painting in the background of a profile picture, belonging to an inactive GR user who'd once reviewed a book I was thinking of getting. The painting was a Northern Renaissance (my favourite art movement) portrait with eyes that seemed to follow you, and which just felt too modern, too vivid, too informal to be that old. It looked like a Holbein - he has that effect and is possibly my favourite artist ever - but I couldn't find it in lists of his works, which added to the fascination. Having a second go a couple of days ago, I did find it - and it was a Holbein - it had just been missed from a Wikipedia list.
One of these books that if I wrote about it at all, was always going to end up a confessional step-back-in-time post. (Now I have the Kylie son in my head.) And having left this a couple of months, there's tons of comment on the interlocking structure of the stories and their themes of creation so I don't have to go into that as well. It was intriguing to experience so much annoyance and connection with the same book - and none of it stuff I'd necessarily expect from this lovely cover picture of Vartain & Hardy. I'm not keen on a lot of current book covers, but I love Ali Smith's; their use of old photos has something in common with The Smiths film-still covers (the name has to be a link), but they're also so much more playful and bright and exhilarating than Moz's. 24/11/14["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
[2.5] Not really my sort of thing. Which is probably obvious to almost anyone who knows me.
This book has been nagging at me since last year, when it[2.5] Not really my sort of thing. Which is probably obvious to almost anyone who knows me.
This book has been nagging at me since last year, when it was on the bookshelf in holiday accommodation. Sometimes it bothers me that I criticise certain types of book without really knowing what's in them. At one time I read a bit of chicklit for similar reasons; sometimes it was funny too. Commercial women's fiction is the next lifestage, thirty and fortysomething characters with kids. (I should probably skip a couple more steps and go directly to the Alan Bennett stuff about creaky old ladies living alone, but anyway.) On the shelves there was a lot of Jodi Picoult and Susan Lewis (an author who sells a lot in the UK, though apparently not to people who rate books on Goodreads) - but at the time I'd become interested in reading more Black British authors, so it was the Dorothy Koomson novel that stuck in my mind.
I've ended up needlessly proving my own point to myself; in the past couple of years I selected a handful of books for demographic reasons - something I don't consider a good idea - with storylines I almost certainly wouldn't have bothered with if the authors had been white with British names, and didn't much like those books. And through this also, if anyone bothered scrutinising my ratings, made myself look an arse by giving low scores to a disproportionate number of books by BME (in UK parlance) writers. (Ghana Must Go, Gospel According to Cane, this, and sort of The Lowland, though I read that solely because of the Booker).
In Goodnight Beautiful, seven-year old Leo, who was born after a failed surrogacy arrangement between friends, is in a coma. There is a great deal of information withheld and gradually revealed, in first person narratives by his mother Nova, and Stephanie, wife of Nova's childhood friend Mal. Mal and Nova's neighbouring households were like family to one another - both helping to care for Mal's mother, who had severe mental health problems, especially after the death of her husband. Almost everyone expected Mal to marry Nova, including both of them at some points, but he ended up with the fragile Stephanie, who has similarities to his mother whilst coping somewhat better.
The structure of skipping about in time is similar to many literary novels - yet not so clearly despite this novel being targeted at a less educated market. Most literary authors leave subtle signals that there's a time shift before gradually making it explicit. Here there were times when I had to go back a page or two when it eventually became apparent that we were in a different year or month from what it initially seemed like.
A common feature of chicklit I remember was to give characters high level qualifications, whilst not making their conversation and thoughts reflect their knowledge and intelligence. That's going on again here. I'm not sure why it's done - is giving someone an Oxbridge doctorate like making characters unusually good looking? Fiction isn't exactly short of Oxford grads. And wouldn't Nova be more relatable for the average reader if she was a cafe owner in Hove with an average degree from an ex-poly, or an HND? Rather than one who had for some reason decided not to use a qualification that's very hard to get onto in the first place. Koomson hasn't even researched the qualifications well: a PhD in psychology is a different beast from a D.Clin.Psych. If she had trained as a counsellor - easier to get into, less academic, and cheaper - that would be a good fit with the character's self-awareness and be a more natural fit with her interests in esoterica. It sounds like part of the reason is the spurious point that the doctorate enables the character to access medical journals to read obsessively about her son's illness. But simply being able to access her old university library, regardless of subject, could allow that.
Aside from Nova, most other characters barely have any interests and ideas apart from their relationships with one another, and even their jobs are names rather than part of them. It makes them rather two-dimensional. And Mal's personality was always a bit fuzzy and inconsistent, seemingly a tool of the plot rather than the sort of human being who's a rock to others.
My overall impression for too much of the book was 'unconvincing'. Which is hard to argue substantially, not having known people in their unusual and tragic circumstances, but it's the sum of many little things in the text.
The story of Nova and Mal's childhood was interesting though, and the 'present day' stuff rang truer and more profound in some scenes towards the end, (view spoiler)[and I thought Koomson wrote very well about grief (hide spoiler)]. However, often this was the book equivalent of a chart ballad, banal and humourless yet emotionally very highly charged. But at least it has the decency to stay within the confines of its covers, and unlike a Leona Lewis song, you won't be ambushed by its anguish whilst buying lightbulbs in Woolworths.
And since I've started reading quite a bit of crime fiction, I no longer feel like such a terrible snob for disliking something like this - it just isn't my sort of popular fiction.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It's worth bringing low expectations to these Pocket Essentials books, and not paying [much] for them. If you know a topic, they won't tell you a greaIt's worth bringing low expectations to these Pocket Essentials books, and not paying [much] for them. If you know a topic, they won't tell you a great deal that's new, and you may feel that you or people you know could have written certain sections better. This one was, typically, in a pedestrian, notably unwitty journalese with the odd incongruous Will Self word appearing every 10-15 mins or so. But the cultural Pocket Essentials books at least provide a good long list of stuff to check out and may(judging by the French New Wave one I read a couple of years ago) include several interesting things you haven't got round to even if you're reasonably familiar with a field.
2013, when public interest in Scandinavian crime fiction had arguably peaked in Britain and the US, doesn't strike me as the best time to release a guide to it. But as I'm finding in coming (back - after some dabblings in 2011) to it late, tardiness does mean there's loads of the stuff around, easy to find and often cheap.
The guide begins unpromisingly, with write ups of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson; some of the info on the former was new and interesting to me, though probably not to many others - the percentage of people who'd be more interested in Mankell due to his connections with Ingmar Bergman and who didn't know about them by now is surely low. But nearly all of the stuff about Larsson even I'd heard before in a documentary even though I've neither read nor watched any of the Millennium trilogy. There's repetition between headed sections, suggesting that some of the book was adapted from the author's previously published media articles.
Then there are a few bits on authors I'm slightly familiar with, having picked up the odd sub-2-quid ebook by them earlier this year, as yet unread: of these it left me keener to read Åsa Larsson, none the wiser about Helene Tursten, and increased my suspicions that I probably wouldn't like the Camilla Läckberg and that I shouldn't have bought it. (Läckberg's protagonists are a male policeman and a female crime writer who soon become a couple, and she spends quite a bit of time at home with kids - I'd rather read about a solo female detective or one where Läckberg's roles were reversed, having already read about a couple similar to hers in Anne Holt's Vik & Stubo series.)
On to Norway and there's quite a long discussion of Jo Nesbø , whose works I still think might be too gory for my taste; there are other authors I'd more interested in checking out first before I test that assumption. Nesbø got several people's share of luck - he's been a professional footballer, a rock star with chart topping records in his home country, and an internationally bestselling author... Nobody does that all in one lifetime, surely.
Karin Fossum's books I'd assumed were very gory verging on horror, but the description here is very different - and they apparently feature a very ordinary, unstereotyped detective.
Thereafter follows a dizzying onslaught of recommendations, and various interesting-sounding writers with shorter accounts of their work. The upshot of this is that now I can look at the "Readers also enjoyed" for most of the big Scandinavian crime books on here with some idea of each author's schtick. I like that. All this material in the second half is what makes the book worthwhile, and worth keeping. Especially as I miss the days when my idea of what any given book was like simply came from the papers and possibly the opinions of a handful of friends. (A "Hide community reviews" option on Goodreads? Many other takers? Nope, didn't think so...) There are far more Nordic crime authors mentioned in the guide than all but a very small number of posters on here have likely read, with just enough about most of them to give me an idea of whether I'd consider them. Forshaw also has the decency to mention that one or two of the writers are personal friends, so one can be a little more sceptical about the the strength with which those recommendations glow, without dismissing them entirely. In honesty though, I was most interested in the opinions and recommendations from a Scandinavian Studies academic in the Epilogue than in Forshaw's favourites.
It was clear from the coverage of work I am familiar with (Anne Holt, Borgen) that the write-ups are mostly rudimentary, but on the strength of those, not misleading. The TV and film section at least cleared up the history of the different Wallander adaptations. Being terrible at keeping up with TV, these were only familiar to me from browsing Lovefilm back in the day, when based on release date I blindly chose a couple of Rolf Lassgard ones, which were fine to pass the time, but hardly addictive.
A list of stuff that sounded interesting: [not recommendations, I haven't read so much as an ebook preview, plus spelling not checked from scratchy handwriting] Blackwater; Martin Beck; Kjell Eriksson; Tove Alsterdal - Tomb of Silence; Theorin & Oland; Alvtegen; Hans Olof Lahlum; Rand & the Blackest Sheep (humour); Sara Blaedel; Jussi Adler-Olsson; Karina Wahlerg; Anna Jansson - Maria Wern; Leena Lehtolainen; Gretelise Holm; Kim Smage (untranslated). TV & film, most of which I've been meaning to see for ages: Insomnia original (been meaning to see this for 15 yrs FFS), Lilyhammer (I think a friend recommended this when it was first on), Varg Veum, The Bridge, Unit 1, Jar City (after reading book)
------- 05/09 Thanks to this I'm now a big fan of Lilyhammer. Most of all it's fun, and it's really impressive that it manages to be light and funny whilst also being so complex. There are things to like and dislike about Frank (introduction of the latter being cunningly saved for episode 2 so we're kind of on his side), it has loads of the social comment found in Scandinavian crime films, but a lot of it's made into comedy, and it's about America as well as Norway. It's a great show, even if they did (view spoiler)[kill off the hottest man on the cast a few episodes in. He was, deliberately, not that likeable in personality, but I was hoping for two series worth of looking at him and several more shirt-off scenes. Anyway, Torgeir wasn't bad either once he stopped wearing the baseball cap and had less beard. (hide spoiler)]
The Bridge (series 1): 5* Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter: 4* [decent 1.5h murder mysteries of a more familiar format. Remind me of the structure of Morse episodes although protagonist is fairly different. Not preachy in the way the books have been painted.] ["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