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

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

Sunday, 15 June 2014

What to read in June & July 2014

What to read in June & July 2014

Since I wrote my original 'books to look forward to in 2014' post all the way back in December last year, I've discovered so many more exciting 2014 books, and I knew a follow-up post was needed. This was originally going to be 'books to look forward to in the second half of 2014', but when I started writing it, I realised it was going to have to be more specific than that. June and July are bumper months for new releases, and plenty of these are already out - if you're looking for new fiction, you're going to be spoilt for choice. Let me know if there's anything I've missed...

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris - 5th June
Focusing on the thirteen-year-old daughter of a drug dealer in North Carolina, this is a raw and disturbing novel which is very short but packs a real punch. I found it effective and memorable, but too unremittingly bleak to really enjoy. Still, it's a powerful debut, and is a good way to sample a challenging and experimental narrative style with a book which, due to its brevity, is still a quick read. You can read an excerpt at the Granta website, here. (My review)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey - 5th June
One of the two most-hyped debuts I've read this year (see below for the other one...), Elizabeth is Missing features an eighty-something Alzheimer's sufferer, Maud, as its central character. She is convinced that her good friend Elizabeth has disappeared, but can't get anyone to believe her. Could she just be remembering the unsolved mystery of her missing sister, Sukey, more than half a century ago? This is a good first novel, but I thought it had a lot of faults and the conclusion was far too contrived. Lots of others have adored it, though. (My review)

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff - 5th June
The only book on this list that isn't fiction, but it definitely reads like a novel. Rakoff's memoir is about her early years in the publishing industry, working in a low-level agency role. She is tasked with responding to the fanmail received by J.D. Salinger, the agency's most illustrious author, and the story of this unusual job becomes entwined with her own coming-of-age tale. Even if (like me) you don't normally read non-fiction, this is a sparkling, witty piece of writing and an easy, pleasurable read. (My review)

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric - 5th June
Lovric's The Book of Human Skin has been on my to-read list for ages, but I think I might read this one first. It's the story of seven sisters, brought up in poverty in 19th-century Ireland, who find fame and fortune due to their remarkable lengths of hair. It's based on a true story and has been getting fantastic reviews so far. I haven't read any truly great historical fiction for a while so I hope this one will change that.

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore - 5th June
A testament to the power of a good blurb and cover: this came out in the US earlier this year, but I would never have given it a second glance had I not more recently read about the UK edition. It's about a small-town girl who goes to university and is befriended by the daughter of a glamorous family and ends up summering at their luxurious estate, where (gasp!) she discovers all is not quite as it seems. I have a soft spot for this kind of thing (just the idea of 'summering' somewhere is enough to grab my attention) and I'd love it to live up to my expectations.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub - 5th June
This sounds like one for fans of The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh. A married couple, celebrating their 35th anniversary, take a two-week holiday in Mallorca (the same setting used in Walsh's book) along with their daughter - who's recently graduated from high school - plus their older son and his girlfriend, and two old friends. Inevitably, problems and jealousies start to surface and the dream holiday quickly becomes something rather more complicated.

Her by Harriet Lane - 12th June
One of my favourite books of the year so far is FINALLY out. The follow-up to Lane's wonderful debut (and one of my favourite books ever) Alys, Always, Her is the quietly gripping tale of two women with a mysterious connection. Nina, a calculating, controlled artist, ruthlessly pursues a friendship with scatty single mother Emma, who she recognises from somewhere - but where? And why doesn't Emma remember Nina? And what are Nina's motives? There are lots of variations on this type of tense psychological drama around these days, but the quality of Lane's writing puts this one head and shoulders above the rest. (My review)

After Me Comes the Flood (previously known as The Visitors) by Sarah Perry - 26th June
I didn't know anything about this when I added it to my original books-of-2014 list, but the details that have since emerged have just made me more and more curious about it. The main character is a bookseller who decides to 'leave his life behind', packs up his things and drives to the coast. But he never gets there - instead, he finds himself stranded near a dilapidated house, the residents of which welcome him warmly. Even stranger, they know his name and claim to have been waiting for him. Pitched as 'haunting and hypnotic', this sounds like it could be fantastic.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant - 3rd July
THIS. BOOK. IS. BRILLIANT. My best read of 2014 so far - and that is high praise, as this has been a great year for fiction. It's the life story of Adele Ginsberg, a working-class Jewish girl from Liverpool who wangles her way into a modernist Northern university in the 1970s. It's also the story of her friendship with a troubled girl called Evie, well known on campus for her androgynous image, and their attempts to navigate student life as individuals who are both, for very different reasons, misfits. And then it's the story of how Adele and her friends go their separate ways after university and how that experience (and particularly the influence of Evie) affects them later in life. I'm in the process of writing a review of this but it's hard to quantify exactly what's so great about it, partly because there is so much in it, it's not just about one thing. It's just so REAL and raw and intelligent and everything you want a book to be. Just trust me and read it.

The Incarnations by Susan Barker - 3rd July
Touted as similar to David Mitchell, this novel follows a taxi driver in Beijing through a number of different stories recounting his 'past lives'. I've got a copy of this and am planning on reading it soon - it's another book which has had excellent early reviews. It certainly sounds incredibly colourful and I'm looking forward to finding out whether the writing matches the inventiveness of the story.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton - 3rd July
This is the other most-hyped debut of the year. Nella is an 18-year-old who arrives in Amsterdam after a hasty marriage to a rich businessman she barely knows. Feeling out of place and lonely, she becomes absorbed in decorating her weding gift, a model of her new house. But the 'miniaturist' responsible for the figurines inside it begins to unsettle Nella when it appears that her miniatures can predict the future. I did like this book, but it wasn't as good as I'd been hoping and I found a lot of the characters' actions unbelievable in context. As with Elizabeth is Missing, though, I'm in a minority with this opinion, so you may want to give it a try anyway. (My review)

Touched by Joanna Briscoe - 3rd July
One of the Hammer series of spooky novellas - I've read quite a few of these and although the quality has varied, some of them have been fantastic. I have two other books by Briscoe I haven't read yet, so I'm hoping this will be a good way to sample her style. It focuses on a family who move into an small country village in the 1960s; when their eldest daughter goes missing, it turns out there's a strange secret room in their new house...

Landline by Rainbow Rowell - 3rd July
This is an adult novel from Rowell, who is better known for writing teen fiction such as last year's entertaining Fangirl. The story follows a comedy scriptwriter, Georgie, who fears her marriage may be falling apart - until she finds a way to communicate with her husband... in the past. I must say I didn't like this much; the presumptions made by the characters were just too silly to believe, and it was all a bit banal in the end. Would only really recommend to chick-lit lovers and big fans of the author. (My review)

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla - 3rd July
This is a novel about online identities, a subject which always piques my interest (the term 'meatspace' refers to the 'real', ie non-internet, world). The protagonist's a bit of a loser who has little luck in life and spends most of his time dreaming up new ideas for his various social media enterprises, until a guy with the same name as him appears on his doorstep and insists they should be friends. What can I say, something that explores 'what happens when our online personas are more interesting than real life' is inherently fascinating to me!

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran - 3rd July
It's funny to think that when Moran's How To Be a Woman came out everyone loved her, whereas now she's persona non grata, at least among the online feminist community. So her 'fiction debut', as it's being inaccurately promoted (she published The Chronicles of Narmo when she was a teenager), is bound to be a controversial one. In any case, it looks like another autobiography in disguise, following an awkward teeange girl who 'reinvents herself' in order to realise her dream of working on a music magazine. I'll be keeping an eye out for reviews.

Friendship by Emily Gould - 3rd July
This is one of those books that has a very simple premise and could turn out to be really, really good. It apparently 'traces, with wit and honesty, the evolution of a friendship between two New Yorkers as they confront their thirties'. Since I am also 'confronting' my thirties (although I'd prefer to think of that in terms of being thirty, not in my thirties - one thing at a time!) this seems potentially very relevant.

Thirst by Kerry Hudson - 17th July
I haven't read Kerry Hudson's debut, the lengthily-titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, but I heard loads of good things about it, so I thought I'd highlight the release of her second novel anyway. Thirst is an unconventional love story about a London security guard and a Siberian shoplifter who start a fraught relationship in the middle of a stifling city summer. I haven't read any reviews yet - I'll probably wait to hear what other readers thought before I decide whether I'll read this myself, but it does sound interesting.

Nest by Inga Simpson - 29th July
I have a bit of a thing for contemporary Australian literature and Nest, the second novel from Simpson (her first was nominated for four literary prizes in Australia), looks really good. In a small town, Jen - a former teacher living a reclusive life - gives drawing lessons to a schoolboy, who tells her about a local girl who has gone missing. The disappearance triggers difficult memories for Jen, of the time her father suddenly left their family, shortly after his best friend went missing.

Breakfast With the Borgias by DBC Pierre - 31st July
Another Hammer novella, this time by an author I have read before - Pierre's previous books number among the best I've ever read (Lights Out in Wonderland is on my all-time favourites list) and the worst (Petit Mal was terrible). The set-up of an academic getting stranded in a gloomy hotel with a nightmarish family certainly appears to be promising, so I have faith this will be at least good.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes - 31st July
The author of The Shining Girls returns with another unconventional murder mystery. The blurb is pretty vague, but with mentions of 'a nightmare killer unravelling reality', it seems like it's going to stick to the same template as her previous hit. I wasn't wild about the story in The Shining Girls but I loved the characterisation, so I will definitely check this one out at some point.

The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai - 31st July
Yet ANOTHER author I haven't read yet, despite having had her debut, The Borrower, for quite a while. This seems more up my street, though. An eccentric family living in a crumbling, ancient house start digging into their family history; as they do so, more and more disturbing and bizarre secrets are uncovered. There's also something of a ghost story element. According to the blurb, it's 'a generational saga in reverse' and 'a literary scavenger hunt' - intriguing!

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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and the end of my love affair with historical fiction

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton The Miniaturist (3 July 2014) by Jessie Burton

At some point within the past couple of years, I've lost the passion I used to have for historical fiction. Looking back on the historical novels I've enjoyed in recent times, I can see that they all have some element of another genre or type of book I haven't yet got sick of - the ghost story, the unreliable narrator tale, something with just a sprinkling of fantasy. There was a time when I used to specifically seek out historical novels by contemporary authors, and would automatically be drawn to them over other genres, but somewhere along the way I started developing a preference for contemporary fiction, and I've now all but abandoned its historical counterpart. While there were numerous things I liked about The Miniaturist, I feel like it's a good example of the reasons for this shift in my tastes.

This has to be one of the most hyped debut novels I've ever read. Like Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing, which I also read and reviewed recently, The Miniaturist first started gathering buzz at the London Book Fair over a year ago. 11 publishers fought it out to get the rights to the novel, resulting in a six-figure deal for Burton in the UK alone, and more than 30 international deals for translation rights. I feel like I've been hearing about it forever; I've been reading rapturous reviews of advance copies since the beginning of this year. The description of the book that's been bandied about online since it was first announced is very enticing: it's 'a feminist golden-age fiction'; ' a sensational feat of storytelling for fans of Sarah Waters and Donna Tartt'. Additionally, Jessie Burton has a really interesting website on which she shares the story of her journey to getting The Miniaturist published and edited, as well as a lot of her research and input into things like the cover design - it's obvious the book has been a real labour of love. But what about the actual story itself?

Set in the late 17th century, this is the tale of Nella Brandt, née Oortman, who at the age of 18 is married off to a rich businessman and arrives in Amsterdam, where she is to live with her new husband - a stranger to her. Her new life is not what she expected. Her husband, Johannes, is rarely at home and seems uninterested in spending time with her, much less visiting her bed. The Brandt household is effectively ruled by his cold and intimidating sister, Marin, who Nella clashes with. And while the Brandts are affluent, the family's business dealings are being dragged down by a complicated, expensive negotiation over a warehouse full of sugar. In the midst of Nella's loneliness, confusion and disappointment, she is presented with an unusual wedding gift: a large dolls' house which is a perfect recreation of the Brandt house. Casting around for something to do (and a way to spend Johannes' money, and spite Marin), she engages a 'miniaturist' to create some figurines for the house. When they arrive, they are beautifully detailed, uncannily accurate, and perfect. But then the miniaturist starts sending more figures, ones Nella hasn't asked for, and she first thinks they are meant as a cruel joke, before becoming afraid that they are predicting the future, and that the mysterious, elusive miniaturist knows more about the Brandts than Nella herself.

In many ways, Nella is a typical heroine for a historical novel like this. Young, naive and inexperienced, she enters into a city and a household bigger and more frightening than anything she has known before. She is confounded by the behaviour of a husband she barely knows, and by an austere older woman who has dominion over the house. Yet she is also independent, smart and liberally minded - implausibly so, really, but of course she must be in order for the 21st-century reader to relate. The characterisation is skilful, and the people in this story are certainly believable, but at the same time I still felt they were basically stock characters, drawn from a template; just fleshed out more effectively than they sometimes are in less accomplished books. The plot unfolds in typically dramatic fashion, with several unexpected twists, a shocking death, illicit relationships and so on. Despite the title, this is less an examination of the mystery of the miniaturist (which is genuinely very intriguing, with well-handled tension) than a family/romantic drama. It's predictable in its unpredictability, which is not the author's fault; I just feel, personally, like I've read this sort of thing many times before. As with Elizabeth is Missing, I was primed for something remarkable and had to settle for something that was merely good.

The Miniaturist reminded me a lot of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. While the latter book is extremely different in terms of theme and setting, I felt the same about both in that they are conventional tales with mass-market appeal dressed up in period costume, garlanded with literary flourishes and highbrow praise. In my review, I described Burial Rites as 'almost soapy', a description that could also be applied to this book. With both books, I found the speech, thoughts and sometimes the behaviour of the characters, and some parts of the narrative itself, to be too modern. For example, I found the reveal about Johannes far too obvious and graphic in the context of a story set in the 17th century, and I'm sure there's a more subtle and effective way this could have been done, particularly since it had already been heavily hinted at. Because something like this would never have been detailed in a story of this time, its presence (for me anyway) distorted the credibility of the whole piece.

Oh, and every time Otto got called 'Toot' I cringed so much. I can appreciate that the continued use of the nickname was supposed to show how Otto was accepted as a member of the family, and maybe it's just because I really don't like that word, but I found it far more patronising than endearing. I guess that could be deliberate - this is the 17th century, these characters can't be that enlightened... - but as the reader was obviously supposed to feel affection towards Otto, that would make for a slightly confusing message. I'm tempted to nitpick at some other details (the figurines are described as very small - the sugar loaf Agnes holds is 'no longer than an ant' - but Nella can clearly see the Jack doll on the doorstep from her bedroom window?) but this review already sounds far too negative about a book I really quite enjoyed. I suppose I'm using it as a bit of a punching bag for my issues with modern historical fiction in general.

Despite the fact that The Miniaturist has clearly been researched thoroughly and is well-written, I found it altogether too light a confection to be a truly satisfying read. It doesn't have anything like the scope of any book by Waters or Tartt, so those comparisons seem misplaced. I feel like Burton is a hugely talented writer but that this book just wasn't right for me. I found the rich description to be a highlight - I can still see the book's version of Amsterdam perfectly in my mind's eye - and I'd like to read something by Burton with a contemporary setting, something that transfers her ability to evoke atmosphere and character to a less melodramatic story. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the author's future work, but this debut wasn't what I'd hoped.

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

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback