Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Short but sweet (or intense, or scary): Two novellas worth reading

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor A Bad Character (7 August 2014) by Deepti Kapoor

Vibrant, dark and passionate, Deepti Kapoor's short debut novel - which feels like a memoir - is a meditation on the life of a young, educated woman in modern India, and a raw account of a forbidden and ultimately destructive relationship. The narrator is apparently named Idha, but this is only referenced once, on the first page, and there is some ambiguity as to whether it is even her real name: 'I give myself a name, I wear it out... A charm that protects me.' Idha means 'insight' - maybe the name is a deliberate choice on the part of the narrator. Idha's lover, too, is never named, adding to the sense that this is a semi-autobiographical story. The setting is Delhi in the early twenty-first century, and the lover, though nameless, gives the book its title: he was a man who, the narrator tells us at the very beginning, died when she was twenty-one, and was described in a police soundbite as 'known to us... he was a bad character'.

The narrator tells her story from a 'present' perspective which appears to be about ten years since the central events the book describes. The main action takes place when Idha is twenty years old, a student at college, and lives with her aunt, who constantly pushes her into meetings with bland potential husbands. She has a certain amount of freedom - she is getting a good education, is from a middle-class family, has her own car, and often wanders (or drives) the city alone. Still, she feels constantly aware of the limits of her life - of being a woman - and bored by what is expected of her, although she doesn't seem to know what it is she wants instead until she meets her lover. When she encounters this charismatic but ugly man in a café, it is his very ugliness that attracts and excites her. The two of them enter into the sort of affair that feels doomed from the start, volatile and all-consuming. In this second life, always kept secret from Idha's family, he drags her into the underbelly of the city, replete with sex, crime, illegal raves, drugs. There is some violence and emotional manipulation on his part, but unusually, it rarely seems that Idha is not in control, and you sense that he is just as confused and frustrated as she is.

The narrative style isn't entirely conventional: Kapoor switches between present and past tense, between first and third person, and at many points there is a sudden jump from one point in the narrator's past to another. As names are rarely used, it's not always clear which 'him' she's talking about, or whether 'she' refers to another woman, or to herself. As a result there are passages that require more than one reading to be properly understood and absorbed, and although this is a short and fast-moving book, it is sometimes a tough read, in more ways than one. Although Idha's lover obsesses her, her life worsens rather than improves after he disappears, and the story becomes ever-more bleak.

This is the sort of novel I would have liked to see on the Booker longlist. It's certainly 'readable', but it is also emotionally complex, and very specific to its setting. By which I don't just mean Delhi - although Kapoor's beautiful/brutal portrayal of the city is one of the highlights of her narrative - but the particular situation of being a young, unmarried, middle-class, college-educated, Hindu woman in India in the 2000s. It's like living a little slice of another person's life - another thing that makes it feel very memoir-esque. A Bad Character burns out quickly, but it burns bright, and as a result it is very memorable. Just like the affair itself, in fact.

Rating: 8/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre Breakfast with the Borgias (31 July 2014) by DBC Pierre

A young academic and expert on artificial intelligence, Ariel Panek, is marooned at a wildly eccentric English guesthouse when severe fog grounds flights. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Zeva is waiting in Amsterdam, where they are supposed to be attending a conference together. Desperate to get a message to Zeva, Ariel (quickly christened 'Harry Panic' by his fellow guests) ingratiates himself with a strange family named the Borders who seem to be near-permanent residents there. The more time he spends with them, the more he is fascinated by this odd collection of characters: an ageing matriarch, a delusional uncle, a self-harming teenage girl, a practically mute boy, and Olivia, a woman of his age who is prodigiously talented at the piano, and seems to be the only normal one of the lot. But the longer Ariel stays at the hotel, the more difficult he finds it to make a connection with the outside world, and soon he is drawn into a spider's web of mind games alongside the sinister Borders.

Breakfast with the Borgias is exactly the kind of thing I actually want from the Hammer series. While other books from this line have experimented with form and theme, the best of them - like Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss and The Quickening by Julie Myerson - combine horror and humour with a schlocky B-movie feel. This is not exactly a hugely original story, but it's an excellent blend of Pierre's idiosyncratic style and typically grotesque characters with a page-turning plot. While I had no investment in Ariel and Zeva's relationship at the beginning and thought I was going to find them annoying, Gretchen was so completely and utterly hateful that by the end I was cheering them on and, even though the general nature of the outcome was fairly obvious from the start, I still really wanted to know exactly what would happen in the end.

The final twist is a classic ghost-story move, and could easily be called predictable, but I think that would miss the point. Subtle this book is not; it's not supposed to be. Aforementioned 'twist' is, in fact, hinted at not only throughout the book but also in the blurb on the cover, so it's hard to believe any reader is actually supposed to be surprised about it. This is an entertaining book, not a meaningful one. It delivered what I wanted it to deliver, and while it can't be compared to Pierre's Lights Out in Wonderland, it's definitely an agreeable return to form after the dire Petit Mal. Also better than Joanna Briscoe's Touched, another Hammer novella I read directly before it, which took the ghost/horror story premise more seriously.

Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I received advance review copies of A Bad Character and Breakfast with the Borgias from the publishers through NetGalley.

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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Booker Prize 2014: The longlist

Booker Prize 2014 Longlist

It's that time of year again: the Man Booker Prize longlist is announced and every book blogger in the UK is obliged to write a post about it. These days, I tend to approach the longlist with casual interest rather than excitement: I always like to see what's been included, but I don't see it as a benchmark for what's 'good' in fiction. I know from experience that books nominated for the prize tend to have certain themes and styles in common, and while they're usually well-written, they're not always interesting or original.

Here are this year's nominees:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
J by Howard Jacobson
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Us by David Nicholls
The Dog by Joseph O'Neill
Orfeo by Richard Powers
How to be Both by Ali Smith
History of the Rain by Niall Williams

And here are some of my thoughts:
– No real interest in the Joshua Ferris, Richard Flanagan, Richard Powers and Niall Williams books.
– Vague interest in the Paul Kingsnorth novel - interesting themes, and I really like the fact that it was published via a book-crowdfunding site, Unbound - but probably not the sort of thing I will ever actually read.
– Vague interest also in the Neel Mukherjee and Joseph O'Neill novels, but again, I doubt I'll end up reading them.
– Originally, I was actually intending to read the Karen Joy Fowler book, but a few months ago I came across a significant spoiler which I realised immediately would ruin at least part of the story, so I decided against it. I know it's been well-received, but I don't feel that I've missed out on much.
– I read Howard Jacobson's 2010 Booker-winning novel, The Finkler Question, and thought it was just okay; but I'm really intrigued by the idea of J anyway. It just sounds so different from anything else of his I've heard of. May read this one when it comes out next month.
The Bone Clocks is something I'd have wanted to read anyway. I kind of feel the same about How to be Both... As with Jacobson, I've read one Ali Smith book before (There but for the) and liked it but was underwhelmed; however, this one looks very interesting.
– I'm surprised to see David Nicholls included - and the same goes for the Joshua Ferris book, really, as I'd pigeonholed it at the same kind of thing; lightweight, humorous, male-equivalent-of-chick-lit stuff. (This may be totally unfair as I've never read anything by Ferris, but the Booker nomination hasn't really made me want to change that.)
– I loved The Blazing World and I love Siri Hustvedt; of all the good books I've read this year, I would probably have chosen this as a potential Booker nominee, so naturally I'm delighted to see it included.
– Obviously I'm not the first to make this observation, but the list is disappointing in terms of ethnic and gender diversity. Particularly given the fact that this is the first year books published in any country can be nominated.
– I am, at least, glad to see this year's longlist is an improvement on 2013 in terms of cover designs. Some of last year's were actually hideous, and a lot of the others were banal; these are mostly nice and bold. (Although I feel like the Niall Williams one is extremely similar to something else, I just can't put my finger on what it is?)
– I've heard so many people saying that Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch should have been included, but to be honest, I'm really glad it wasn't. It's already won the Pulitzer; it hardly needs any more exposure or acclaim. Plus I'm so glad not to have to wade through yet more moaning from overgrown students (invariably men) falling over themselves to shout louder than anyone else about how it's so terrible and inferior and not ~literary~ enough. Ugh.
– Aside from Siri Hustvedt's novel, I would have put Linda Grant's wonderful Upstairs at the Party on the longlist. I also think Deepti Kapoor's A Bad Character would fit perfectly on the list. When I first read it, I would have nominated The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh, but the chart success it's had since publication perhaps makes it more of an outsider (mind you, if they can have David Nicholls in there...) It's a pity Ned Beauman was nominated two years ago, because I'd have preferred to see him on this year's list - Glow is much better than The Teleportation Accident.

What do you think of this year's Booker longlist? Will you be reading any of the books?

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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Art imitates life in Jennifer duBois' Cartwheel

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois Cartwheel (24 September 2013) by Jennifer duBois

First up, and as you may already know, Cartwheel is a novel based on the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case. The initial set-up is exactly the same as the real-life case, except the setting is Argentina, not Italy, and the Kercher character, Katy Kellers, is American, not British. The details of the murder (what is known about it, at least) and crime scene are identical. The behaviour of the characters after the murder is, if not exactly the same as the real case, then certainly the same in spirit. (The title refers to the controversial fact that the alleged murderer performed a cartwheel while in custody, an action used as 'proof' of her dismissive and unemotional attitude towards her friend's death.) The subject of the story is the Amanda Knox figure, here a student named Lily Hayes, and the narrative switches between Lily, her father Andrew, her former boyfriend Sebastien, and the prosecutor, Eduardo.

I am not predisposed to like books of this type, which fictionalise real events. I think they can easily be exploitative, and the use of such events to 'inspire' them is more often than not a cheap way to publicise the book itself. I can, therefore, understand why some readers might reject or dislike Cartwheel for these reasons; they are among the reasons I couldn't stand Emma Donoghue's Room - which Cartwheel has inevitably been compared to. It is, however, a hundred times better than that overrated trash. Simply put, Cartwheel broke my fucking heart.

Quite aside from the sensationalism of the premise, this book is an outstanding example of brilliant, careful, expert characterisation. The author's portrayal of Lily in particular is exceptional. In many ways she is not a particularly likeable person, and yet I loved her, simply because she seemed so real. Perhaps I loved her because she is so believably unlikeable, so recognisable as a certain type of young person filled with a naive, ignorant confidence that is both infuriating and endearing. For every unattractive personality trait there is a justification, an explanation, a snippet of history to illustrate her reasoning. The narrative gets under her skin so effectively that you understand her entirely, even though some of her actions are not, ultimately, described or explained. Such is the power of Lily's character that I found myself disliking Katy, even though Katy is outwardly more likeable, and even though, if these were real people, I would undoubtedly get on better with her, and wouldn't like Lily at all. The other characters, too, are beautifully drawn. Andrew's grief and doubt are laid bare - his soul-searching and hand-wringing over how Lily will survive and how the family can ever recover. Sebastien, who could so easily have been an empty love interest, or a plot device to prop up the more important characters of Lily and Katy, is fleshed out in the most interesting, unexpected way - as an irony-laden eccentric, as a person with his own sprawling, complicated backstory, as a boy whose own experience (or lack of experience) and insecurity colours his every interaction with others.

At the risk of sounding like I'm reviewing a YA romance... Sebastien's love for Lily made me want to weep. The awkwardness of it. All the things unsaid; the way we get to see inside the characters' heads and how their emotions never translate into the right words or actions - it's tragic. Lily's misunderstanding about Sebastien and Katy, and how it's never actually set right, because neither of them can articulate how they really feel or bring themselves to just talk about the situation. I think it's one of the most realistic depictions of a young relationship I've ever come across. This is all the more remarkable given that it takes place between an arrogant, shallow girl and a boy/man who is described at one point as a person 'left alone for his entire childhood in this collapsing house with nothing but Evelyn Waugh books to read', and at another, even more amusingly, as 'a post-apocalyptic butler'.

In the end, the murder is by far the least important thing in the book. The outcome remains uncertain, there is no definitive answer about exactly how Katy died, and no attempt to leave this as anything other than open-ended. Even if you have formed a strong opinion (like I did), there is no way to even guess how right, or wrong, you might be. And it doesn't matter, because the characters are the thing. In fact, I am tempted to say it's a pity duBois chose to base her plot on a real crime: the controversial setup may have drawn more attention to the book, but in some ways it works to obscure the beauty of this character-driven novel, an accomplishment a writer of such talent could surely have managed without the need for such a device. It also means the book is generally bracketed as crime fiction, when it actually has little in common with any typical crime novel.

The more I think about this book the more I like it. It's such a great character study. If you don't find the idea offputting, then it is absolutely, definitely recommended.

I received an advance review copy of Cartwheel from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Kindle Summer Sale and other bargains

The Kindle Summer Sale is here, and it's geared towards holiday reading: lots of chick-lit, mysteries and kids' books, beefed up with the usual complement of self-published books that were probably 99p before the sale anyway. There isn't anything I've already read that stands out as a must-buy, but as usual, digging a bit deeper into the categories reveals quite a few hidden gems.

Here's some books I have read and would recommend:
The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock - 99p I really enjoyed this debut novel set on the island of Guernsey, with the narrative split between a teenage girl in the 1980s and a young man during WWII. It's disturbing, but also absolutely hilarious in places.
The Distant Hours by Kate Morton - £1.09 Kate Morton is my favourite author of 'comfort' fiction. Although they might be described as cosy, her books are always well-crafted, engrossing and packed with juicy twists, and she excels at split narratives (historical vs. present day).
A Single Breath by Lucy Clarke - £1.99 A really enjoyable thriller, set primarily in a beautifully evoked Tasmania. With a mystery, romance and twists galore, it has everything you could want in a beach read.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes - £1.99 One of the crime hits of last year, this unconventional mystery features a time-travelling serial killer and a dynamic heroine. I didn't love it as some did, but the characterisation is fantastic and it's certainly compelling.
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw - 99p I read this ages ago and suspect I wouldn't enjoy it as much now - it's terrifically twee, but if you're in the market for a bit of magical realism it is definitely worth a look.

Non-sale (so I have no idea how long these prices will last) but also notable:
Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas is currently 20p. This is one of the author's earlier books and by no means her best, but it's an interesting read if you're already a fan, and 20p is so cheap it might as well be free.
– If you like, or like the sound of, Kate Morton, her debut The House at Riverton is only 99p.
– One of the best of Tana French's mysteries (in my opinion), Broken Harbour, is also 99p.
– If you're looking for a holiday read, one of my favourite books of the year so far (and definitely a very summery book), Helen Walsh's The Lemon Grove, is £2.99.

Here's some other books I haven't read that look good, interesting, or otherwise worth buying.
Subtly Worded and Other Stories by Teffi - 99p
How's the Pain? by Pascal Garnier - 99p
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami - £1.19
The Machine by James Smythe - £2.48
Improper Stories by Saki - 99p
Twisted Clay by Frank Wolford - 99p
Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir - 99p
The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern - 99p
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris - 99p
The Pharmacist by Justin David - 99p
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - £1.80
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver - £1.99
The Smoke is Rising by Mahesh Rao - £1.49
Night Waking by Sarah Moss - 99p
The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor - £1.99
Skios by Michael Frayn - £1.99
The Hunter and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett - 99p

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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Two remarkable books: Linda Grant and Sarah Perry's new novels are among the best of 2014

Upstairs at the Party (3 July 2014) by Linda Grant
After Me Comes the Flood (3 July 2014) by Sarah Perry

I've really struggled to write about several of the books I've really loved this year. Maybe because it's easier to write a review of something that has both good and bad points for me to get my teeth into: maybe because reading something so brilliant always leaves me feeling I lack the eloquence necessary to do it justice. Aware I was in danger of leaving two of my favourite books of the year so far (which, coincidentally, were published on the same day) without reviews, I decided to write about them together.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant 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.

Next to the expansive scope of Upstairs at the Party, the premise of Sarah Perry's debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, seems almost the polar opposite: it takes place over just one week, and much of the action is contained within a single building. But like Grant's book, it knocked me off my feet and made me want to weep with a) joy and b) jealousy; and like Grant's book, it turned out to be something other, and better, than what I had expected.

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry Another similarity with Upstairs at the Party is that the blurb I read sparked my interest long before I bought the book. One hot summer's day, John Cole decides to leave his life behind. He shuts up the bookshop no one ever comes to and drives out of London. When his car breaks down and he becomes lost on an isolated road, he goes looking for help, and stumbles into the grounds of a grand but dilapidated house. Its residents welcome him with open arms - but there's more to this strange community than meets the eye. They all know him by name, they've prepared a room for him, and claim to have been waiting for him all along... The surreal aspect of this idea led me to expect something with a paranormal twist: perhaps ghosts? All-knowing stalkers? A secret society? I suppose it's also fair to say that this is (also, again) a collection of tropes that automatically intrigues me (crumbling mansion? check!) and therefore wouldn't be hard for me to love, even if poorly written. But it is brilliantly written, and rises above any clichés the plot might seem to suggest.

In actual fact, it soon becomes clear that there is a rather more ordinary (if unlikely) explanation for the group's embrace of John. At first this felt like a letdown: I wanted something uncanny, not normal people making a simple mistake. However, there is still plenty of potential for intrigue and a slow-building kind of tension, as John repeatedly resolves to leave this place and finds he has no desire to do so. There is still the question of who these people are and how they came to be here. There is still the mystery of who might be writing hurtful letters to fragile, anxious Alex, or carving the strange name 'Eadwacer' - a remnant of an enigmatic folk tale - in furniture around the house. And what of the nearby reservoir; is there really, as Alex fears, a chance that it will cause a biblical flood and engulf the house? In the shimmering, oppressive heat - perfectly evoked - this seems laughably unlikely, yet a sense of dread remains and it is hard not to feel there is some impending doom awaiting them all. The narrative moves very slowly towards its climax, but for me the pace was an asset, allowing a gradual release of information, the reader kept as much in the dark as John is.

The quality of the writing, description and atmosphere reminded me of The Secret History, and that is pretty much the highest compliment I can give. The smallest incident is imbued with endless meaning and symbolism; something as banal as a wallpaper pattern becomes utterly enchanting. Another comparison I am drawn to make - though a fairly useless once, since few people have read it - is L.R. Fredericks' Farundell. I'm mentioning this book not because the two are of similar quality - I found Fredericks' novel disappointing - but because After Me Comes the Flood was everything I wanted Farundell to be: an 'eccentric cast of characters in a big old house' story that manages to avoid stereotypes, complete with glimpses of magic, filled with complex human interaction that is driven by more than just sexual desire. The development of John's relationships with the other residents made me realise how infrequently friendships are portrayed with such care and detail without then being used as a prelude to something else, usually a romantic or sexual relationship. In this story, every tiny nuance of behaviour is carefully noted and everything has a certain significance.

In After Me Comes the Flood, very little happens - even an apparently dramatic, potentially disastrous incident produces nothing much in the way of an outcome. Yet it is rich with the power of expert storytelling, soaked in dreamlike atmosphere, and quietly, seductively gripping. It has a fairytale undertone but at the same time is absolutely real, taking you on a journey that is all about character development and self-discovery. Fittingly, what goes on inside the walls of this mysterious house is far more important than any external action, and while there may not be ghosts, this book is undeniably haunting.

I have already noted that 2014 has been a great year for new fiction, but Upstairs at the Party and After Me Comes the Flood are two truly remarkable books. There's so much more I could say about them both, if I had the time to write essays about books I loved, if I had the ability to articulate everything they made me feel. I know I'm going to end up re-reading and re-re-reading these novels, picking them apart for years to come. I can't recommend either of them highly enough.

I received an advance review copy of Upstairs at the Party from the publisher through NetGalley.

Upstairs at the Party | Rating: 10/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback
After Me Comes the Flood | Rating: 10/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback
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Saturday, 5 July 2014

Reading round-up: June

June 2014 books

47. Young God by Katherine Faw Morris - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
48. Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant - 10/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
49. The Wild Ass's Skin by Honoré de Balzac - 8/10. Read my full review / Get the ebook (free at Project Gutenberg)
50. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan - 10/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
51. The Incarnations by Susan Barker - 7/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
52. The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé - 1/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
53. For Esme - With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories by J.D. Salinger - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
54. The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai - 9/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
55. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - 8/10. Read my full review / Get the ebook (free for Kindle)
56. Chess by Stefan Zweig - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
57. Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas - 4/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the book
58. The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin - 5/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
59. Sin by Josephine Hart - 5/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
60. Broadchurch by Erin Kelly - 6/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
61. Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman by Stefan Zweig - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook

Another productive month, although that was partly because I've been ill for 3 weeks and had some time off work. For the same reason, this will be a short(ish) summary!

Undoubtedly my pick of the month, and also my favourite book of the year so far, was Linda Grant's utterly brilliant Upstairs at the Party. This book is so many things: a campus novel; both a coming-of-age story, and a story about what comes after; an exploration of sexuality, gender and individual identity; a mystery; a story about education, class and politics in the 1970s and beyond; a character study; a love story that isn't, a love story about a friendship, and an account of a doomed affair; and more besides. I absolutely LOVED it and I can't recommend it enough. I implore you to buy it when it comes out - or pre-order it now, the Kindle version is priced at just under £5 at the moment, which is a massive bargain if you ask me.

I also loved the sparkling, perfectly formed Bonjour Tristesse. You might have noticed that I've been trying to read more classics over the past couple of months, and so far I've really enjoyed most of those I've chosen. In June, they included J.D. Salinger's short story collection For Esme - With Love and Squalor, Stefan Zweig's novellas Chess and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, Honoré de Balzac's rich, funny The Wild Ass's Skin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's frightening story The Yellow Wallpaper.

In the 'just okay' corner: Young God, a startling, gritty novel but rather too horrible to actually enjoy; Sin, a novel of revenge with fascinating themes but hateful characters; The Night Listener, based on a really interesting true story but with too many diversions into irrelevant subplots. I liked Susan Barker's expansive historical/fantasy saga The Incarnations, but wasn't taken with the protagonist, and found many of the themes disturbing (there's a lot of sexual violence). The novelisation of the TV series Broadchurch, written by Erin Kelly, was alright but nothing to get excited about - all of Kelly's previous books are better.

Funnily enough, in the same month I discovered the best book of the year so far, I also read the worst. In fact, I'd put The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé among the worst books I've ever read. Totally flat and pointless with awful, awful characters. While nowhere near as bad, I was also disappointed in the new Louise Douglas book, Your Beautiful Lies. Compared to her other novels it's very, very dreary and I found the main character unsympathetic and her love interest bland. I like the fact that the author's tried to do something different but it didn't really work for me.

To follow up on my post about books coming out in June & July, I guess it's worthy mentioning that a couple from that list ended up on the 'didn't finish' pile. The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters seemed good but I just couldn't get into the narrative or summon up any motivation to keep reading it. Definitely not bad in any way, but just not my thing. Meatspace, on the other hand, I really wasn't keen on - it reminded me a lot of Danny Wallace's Who Is Tom Ditto? which I also disliked. I'm just not interested in reading about laddish guys, and I think it aggravates me even more when the characters are made somewhat 'nerdy' in order to make them likeable - they just come off as even more horrible to me. On a more positive note, I've started After Me Comes the Flood and am happy to report that it's excellent so far.

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Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Daring but disappointing: Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas

Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas Your Beautiful Lies (14 August 2014) by Louise Douglas

What happened? Can this really be the work of the same author responsible for the hugely enjoyable The Secrets Between Us and In Her Shadow? I have been unwell over the past week and wanted something to read that wouldn't ask much of me, or take a great deal of concentration to understand. I considered and rejected several 'light' books before I came to this, which I'd been saving for a rainy day, or at least some day closer to its 14th August publication date. Unfortunately, it was disappointing, and lacked the qualities that made the aforementioned Louise Douglas books so fun to read.

Your Beautiful Lies is set in a South Yorkshire mining town in the 1980s. The story is about Annie Howarth, the young wife of the local Chief Superintendent, who at first glance seems reasonably happy: living in a grand, beautiful house named Everwell, she is a doting mother to seven-year-old Elizabeth and is one of the lucky few to enjoy a calm, safe existence in the midst of the miners' strike. But when her ex-boyfriend Tom is released from prison, after serving ten years for a manslaughter he still insists he was framed for, long-buried passions are stirred up. As Annie and Tom begin a risky relationship, a young woman with a striking resemblance to Annie is found murdered on the moors near to Everwell and it seems that Annie is playing an increasingly dangerous game.

This novel is markedly different in tone to the others I've read by Douglas. By a third of the way in I felt it was dragging me into a dreary, dispiriting world I didn't want to be a part of. Annie's life is so terribly repetitive it's boring to read about. She gets up, gets dressed, cares for her daughter and elderly mother-in-law, visits her parents, and cooks dinner, which is almost always described in minute detail. Perhaps all of this is intentional - to highlight how hard life was for the residents of a mining town at this point in history, to emphasise the dullness of Annie's life before the return of Tom - but either way, it was a hard slog to get through and made me feel trapped in a very limited world. I kept waiting for something to happen; I kept waiting until something would make me really care about Annie and Tom. I am certainly not opposed to reading stories about 'cheating', or more specifically about women being unfaithful - on the contrary, I often really enjoy reading such stories. And I did find Annie's mother's moralising about her behaviour very irritating. But I just couldn't summon up any sympathy for Annie - she knew what she was doing and that a child was involved from the beginning, and she was hardly discreet about her assignations. How can she have been surprised that anyone figured out what she was doing when she hardly bothered to cover it up?

Certain omissions annoyed me: why does Annie never ask Tom what was going on with Selina? Her jealousy just evaporates into thin air and is never mentioned again. The 'Yorkshire'-ness of the characters - everyone's eating parkin and saying 'mithered' and taking their whippets for a walk, probably while wearing a flat cap - feels belaboured. And I thought it was bizarre that the reader was expected to believe Annie and Tom had never slept together, not once in a six-year relationship, for no apparent reason other than fear of pregnancy. Tom was 22 when he went to prison, and Annie presumably a similar age since it's mentioned they 'grew up together'; this all took place in the mid-1970s and neither character is portrayed as particularly religious. Seriously, six years and nothing? I just cannot imagine a deeply-in-love couple in their late teens/early twenties having the self-restraint to manage this unless there was a specific reason for it, such as religious beliefs or one of them having a serious aversion to sex (and it is strongly implied that this was very much not the case). It's a minor point, I guess, but it struck me as very odd.

And then the ending!! Without giving away what happens, it is quite shocking, but more shocking than what actually happens is that the book just suddenly ends; there is no real conclusion, only a very perfunctory deus-ex-machina-ish explanation of the murder, and many questions remain unanswered. The nature of the ending also suggests that the characters are getting some kind of comeuppance for their behaviour and that there is no guarantee of further happiness. I really don't know whether to think this ending makes the book better or worse. On the one hand, to take something that readers will expect to be a light, even chick-lit-like, romantic mystery and make it into something dark and depressing with a shocking, pitch-black ending and no real resolution - that is a bold move. Looked at in that light, it almost seems like an experimental piece of work. I feel like the author deserves some respect for this when she surely could have easily written something more similar to her other books. But on the other hand, does doing this make it a good book? Sadly, I don't think so. The quality of the writing doesn't match the darkness of the story, and it doesn't make for a satisfying whole.

Louise Douglas has written some great light reads which I have truly relished reading, but I'm sorry to say this can't be counted among them. I give the author credit for deviating from her usual template, but for me, Your Beautiful Lies wasn't a success, and I'm not sure who I would recommend it to.

I received an advance review copy of Your Beautiful Lies from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 4/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Ghosts of past, present and future in Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred Year House

The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai The Hundred Year House (31 July 2014) by Rebecca Makkai

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.

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.

I received an advance review copy of The Hundred Year House from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback