Thursday, 25 September 2014

Hypnotic and haunting: Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief by Samantha HarveyDear Thief (25 September 2014) by Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief, Samantha Harvey's third novel, opens with the irresistible image of a woman starting a long letter to an old friend, opening her missive with the words 'In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, I have, yes, seen through what you called the gauze of this life.' Instantly enigmatic and captivating, this beginning sets the tone for a a narrative that doesn't so much twist and turn as double back on itself, reroute and realign, continually reshaping the story. Written over the course of half a year, the unnamed narrator's letter is addressed to Nina, known as 'Butterfly', a figure who - appropriately enough - hovers constantly over the protagonist's life, once almost literally (when she appears in a dream, standing beside the bed), always metaphorically. She was a friend for decades, now estranged, her whereabouts unknown. And as the story unfolds in its fragmented, non-linear way, it becomes clear that 'Butterfly' betrayed the narrator with her husband, Nicolas - now also estranged. You would expect such a betrayal to be at the heart of the book, and in a way it is, but to define it in that way would do this surprising novel a huge disservice. While it's described, in part, as a triangular love story, it is really only the central friendship that matters.

It's impossible to discuss a book like this without invoking the lingering spectre of the Unreliable Narrator. Dear Thief is perhaps doubly unreliable: the narrator's memories of things are blurred, and her account is entirely one-sided, but of course she is also addressing this account to a former friend, an enemy - and even though she hasn't seen this person for years, the narrator's emotional relationship with the memory of 'Butterfly' and her actions remains complicated. Sometimes she seeks to accuse, to lay blame, to provoke guilt; at other times she wistfully speaks of the pair's shared childhood, the closeness of their bond. And since she doesn't know where in the world 'Butterfly' is, or if the woman is even alive, it's questionable how much of this letter is truly a letter and how much is an exercise in self-purging, in forgiving herself.

Dear Thief reminded me a lot of Anna Raverat's criminally underread and underrated Signs of Life, which is a personal favourite. Raverat's narrator, Rachel, has a similar type of unreliability, conceding that some things in her story only might or could have happened, but insisting that this isn't important. What she remembers, how she remembers it, and how she perceives the effect of this other person on her life are far more important than what actually took place, or didn't:
You were standing at the end of the platform with your head down and your weight off one foot, in the way I've seen wounded wolves stand in films like Once Upon a Time in the West - not that I have seen this film, but this is how I imagine it to be.
This small detail captures the essence of the narrator's habit of redefining facts and memories to fit her story. In one sentence she states unequivocally that she has seen this thing; in the next she refutes that entirely. But it doesn't matter, because this is how she imagines it. She often employs this sort of contradiction, asking her addressee: 'isn't the admittance of a lie more honest, anyway, than a truth arrived at through editing?' The frustration and fascination of Dear Thief lies in the fact that we will never know how many of those lies the narrator doesn't admit, how many things she misremembers, leaves out, or embellishes. In some chapters she paints a cruel picture of an imagined version of the life 'Butterfly' lives as she imagines it now, living alone in a woodland hut, sleeping in 'maximum discomfort'. These parts of the narrative are explicitly invented - a sort of punishment, a psychological prison in which the narrator has confined her memories of her former friend - but they come to be part of the story, just as much as the more obviously factual chapters. What we never discover is how much of a fiction those 'facts' may actually be. The narrator also alludes to the idea that Yannis, a local restaurateur she becomes acquainted with, could have been made up to provide a parallel to her story (he is on the verge of divorce, and the narrator finds herself giving him advice). It's certainly true that Yannis seems to serve as a plot device on more than one occasion, but is this the work of the author of the book, or the author of the letter?

Extending this idea, it is possible to wonder whether 'Butterfly' even really existed. The character, flighty, artistic and sensual, is surely more the realisation of a trope than a believable person: doing what she pleases, skipping from country to country, taking drugs, floating around in an old shawl she's worn since she was a girl. There are points when she seems like a sort of conduit for the narrator's own unspoken desires and dreams of more uninhibited behaviour, and it's as if her remembered actions are more symbolic than real - for example, when she spontaenously kisses a female dinner party guest on the mouth, flustering the narrator's husband, while the narrator scuttles around in the background, pouring drinks, the very picture of domestic obligation. In one of my favourite passages from the novel, the narrator talks about her theory that 'people are wrong to believe that we desire what we cannot have... Instead we desire what we aren't, but can conceivably be'. (I couldn't stop thinking about this for a while - even if not generally accurate, it is certainly true of me.) Is this, then, what 'Butterfly' represents? The person we could become, if not for inhibitions, responsibilities, prudence?

The second chapter of Dear Thief opens with the words 'on the whole I do not think of you any more'; the entirety of the rest of the book sets about disproving this claim in every detail. The narrator's past, her marriage, her life now, her dreams - all are haunted, consumed, by 'Butterfly', and a final scene in which the narrator literally chases her friend's shadow, or ghost, or double only serves to underline that. While reading it I didn't love this book as much as I thought I might, and yet the more time I spend thinking about it, the more fascinated I am. There is so much to pick out of it that I could probably read it again and write a completely different review. Both a portrait of friendship as a love story, and a cautionary tale about the risk involved in friendship of this depth and fragility, Dear Thief, described by no less than A.M. Homes as 'a hypnotic, beautiful and sometimes dark incantation', is haunting and totally unforgettable. I loved it.

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

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

Monday, 22 September 2014

Underwhelming gothic: The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate MosseThe Taxidermist's Daughter (11 September 2014) by Kate Mosse

I really don't like having to give negative reviews. They can be quite fun to write, but that doesn't make up for the time wasted reading a disappointing book, especially if, like me, you have a constantly expanding to-read list of several hundred potentially better others. Unfortunately, The Taxidermist's Daughter turned out to be another addition to 2014's growing batch of much-anticipated, but ultimately mediocre, new novels. (Funnily enough, The Independent's review of this book compares it to three other books from this year which I would categorise in exactly the same way.)

Connie Gifford is the titular taxidermist's daughter, though it would be more accurate to say she is the taxidermist. Her father has long been an incapable drunk, and Connie, having learnt his trade, secretly keeps the family business going. Not that there's much call for it: in the early twentieth century, taxidermy has fallen out of fashion, and with her father's 'world famous' museum gone, Connie struggles to make ends meet. She also struggles with her own condition: an accident when she was twelve wiped her memory, and she is only now beginning to remember flashes of her 'vanished years'. There's also the mystery of a murdered woman, found in the river next to the Giffords' house, and the links this crime may have to Something Terrible a group of local men (including, possibly, Connie's father) did ten years ago.

Connie is okay, but she is never truly established as a character who actually has any real personality, beyond a passion for taxidermy and, vaguely, a caring nature. The male characters, meanwhile, are so numerous and so utterly indistinct from one another that I couldn't tell them apart at all. Mosse has set the story in the West Sussex village of Fishbourne, apparently a place of personal significance to her, and it is evoked well, full of a Daphne du Maurier-esque stormy darkness despite the fact that the story takes place in spring. The most atmospheric scenes are set in a rain-lashed cottage; these sections, though very effective, are frustratingly few.

The Taxidermist's Daughter is very like Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black: the gothic gloom (it's 1912, but everything feels very Victorian), the use of bird motifs, but most of all, the dull, turgid story lumbering towards a largely uninteresting conclusion. And, like Bellman & Black, I'm giving the book a medium rating because it was simply okay: by no means terrible, simply underwhelming and forgettable. While it all started promisingly, and did start to pick up again after I was halfway through, too much of it was simply tedious. I didn't care what the men of Fishbourne had done ten years earlier - partly because the characters were uninteresting, partly because I knew from the start it would be something deliberately 'shocking' but also unbelievable as something these people would really take part in. (Spoiler: it was.) Interviews with the author suggest the theme of taxidermy stems from a childhood fascination with the art, but it often feels as if it has been chosen simply because it's suitably gruesome and archaic.

I've read one book from Mosse's Languedoc trilogy (Sepulchre), found it average, and haven't bothered with any of the others in that series. However, I really enjoyed her ghost story The Winter Ghosts, and last year she published a collection, The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales, which, while forgettable in terms of content, created a number of wonderfully atmospheric, wintery settings I can still remember quite vividly. I'd quite like to read it again for that reason alone. With all its gothic trappings, I hoped The Taxidermist's Daughter might be more of an ethereal ghost story than drab historical fiction, but sadly not. Competently written, with some intriguing scenes, it never quite gets off the ground, and in the end it is no more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 5/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Sunday, 21 September 2014

What I've read recently, September edition



The Bone Clocks (2 September 2014) by David Mitchell
What it's about: The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell's sixth novel, nominated for the Booker prior to its release - is, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas before it, a series of interconnected stories set in different places and time periods. The difference here is that the link between the stories is explicit: they all focus, in one way or another, on a woman named Holly Sykes. And Holly, a teenager at the start of the book, is an unwitting and unwilling pawn in an ancient battle between two races with the ability to transcend time.
You should read it if: Well, my suggestion would be that you shouldn't - while there are flashes of brilliance that do make it kind of worthwhile reading the whole thing, they are far too few. This is by far the poorest book I've read by Mitchell, and I found several of the characters deeply unlikeable and sometimes offensive. But if you're a die-hard fan of the author, you'll probably like it better than I did.
My review: Generally speaking, I love books that combine touches of fantasy, magic, or something macabre with a setting that's recognisable as the world we live in, with individuals' lives remaining largely realistic and relatable. (Ghostwritten did this brilliantly, and is one of my favourite books as a result.) However, in The Bone Clocks the gulf between the two is too great: the ordinary lives are too ordinary, the fantasy is too fantastic, they simply don't gel... Read the full review (warning: lots of spoilers)
Rating: 5/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Jackaby (16 September 2014) by William Ritter
What it's about: The publisher's blurb includes the claim, repeated in pretty much every review of the book, that Jackaby is 'Doctor Who meets [BBC] Sherlock'. It's a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American port where a runaway English girl, Abigail Rook, meets an eccentric investigator, R.F. Jackaby. Much entertaining adventure ensues.
You should read it if: You enjoy YA, or you're looking for a good book to gift to someone of YA-reading age. Or the idea of the 'Sherlock meets Doctor Who' setup appeals to you.
My review: Surprisingly, that claim turns out to be pretty much accurate. While it was way too young for me, this was good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. The author's grasp of witty, quick-fire dialogue is excellent, there's a strong and funny heroine/narrator and a plot that focuses much more on friendship and adventure than romance... Read the full review
Rating: 6/10 | Buy on Amazon: Hardback

The Children Act (2 September 2014) by Ian McEwan
What it's about: A female judge, Fiona Maye, is called on to make a quick decision in an urgent case: she must decide whether a seventeen-year-old boy should be forced to have a blood transfusion that will save his life. The boy, Adam, and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and have thus far refused the treatment. At exactly the same time, Fiona's husband, Jack, asks her permission for him to be able to have an affair with a younger colleague. In five parts, The Children Act explores the consequences of the decisions Fiona makes in both situations.
You should read it if: You tend to prefer fiction written in simple, elegant prose, rather than an over-descriptive style. You find complicated legal wranglings fascinating.
My review: I had absolutely no intention of reading this - McEwan is not a writer whose past books have impressed me as much I expected them to. I just started reading a preview to see what it was like, and was so swept up in the narrative I had to continue reading the book. Many of the events on which the story focuses are either easy to predict, or obviously signposted. I didn't find anything in the plot surprising, but I did find the book elegantly written, compelling and perfectly paced... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I Remember You (2010, translated 2012) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
What it's about: Part horror story, part mystery, I Remember You starts with a couple, Garðar and Katrín, travelling to Hesteyri, an extremely isolated community which has been otherwise abandoned by its few inhabitants for the winter. Along with their friend Líf, they've bought an old house they intend to renovate and turn into a guesthouse. Meanwhile, in the town of Isafjördur, a psychiatrist named Freyr is assisting in the investigation of a strange act of violent vandalism, in which a preschool has been ransacked and defaced. When all of these characters start to experience apparent 'hauntings', the links between their pasts slowly become apparent.
You should read it if: You enjoy ghost stories and don't mind being a bit spooked - this is genuinely frightening in places!
My review: I honestly found the ghost story in I Remember You one of the most terrifying I've read. Yes, it employs pretty much every cliché of the genre, but the tension is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level - I found myself almost too scared to keep reading, but so riveted I just HAD to find out what would happen next. The mystery is more prosaic, and it's a pity the characterisation is sometimes weak, as otherwise this would easily have earned a higher rating from me... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback



Little Egypt (15 March 2014) by Lesley Glaister
What it's about: Little Egypt splits its narrative between early 1920s and 2002. In the former chapters, 13-year-old twins Isis and Osiris spend a restless year in their family home, Little Egypt, with put-upon maid Mary and louche Uncle Victor, while their obsessive Egyptologist parents search the real Egypt for an elusive tomb. In 2002, meanwhile, Isis is in her nineties and hasn't spoken to Osi in ten years - despite the fact that they still share the same house. Things are changing, and she may finally have to make a decision about the future of Little Egypt, but what are the secrets that have kept her there for decades?
You should read it if: You like 'past-and-present' narratives and quirky, eccentric characters.
My review: This is the first book I've read by Lesley Glaister, and there is no doubt she has a wonderful way with words. A horse's coat is 'mottled like a rainy pavement'; when Isis enters a quiet room, it is filled with 'a thick hush like fur'; the sounds made by budgies are 'hard chips of glassy noise that rattled against her teeth'. The devil is in the detail. Unfortunately, there's also some very implausible plot points... Read the full review
Rating: 6/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Down the Rabbit Hole (2010, translated 2011) by Juan Pablo Villalobos
What it's about: This novella is narrated by Tochtli, the son of a Mexican drug baron, living an isolated life in a 'palace' where he has his own zoo, a private tutor and a vast collection of hats. He knows little of the outside world, yet his every whim is catered to. But, despite the protagonist's privilege and his exposure to violence and corruption, this is still a story about a lonely child trying to understand his surreal, limited world.
You should read it if: You like short books (this is such a short novella that it's pretty much a short story); you enjoy fiction in translation or stories that are a bit more 'off the beaten track'.
My review: The translation is excellent - this really doesn't feel like a book that's been translated from another language, all the more impressive given that creating an authentic childlike voice is hard enough in any language, let alone when trying to render the nuances and colloquialisms of another... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Leviathan (1992) by Paul Auster
What it's about: The narrator is a writer who, at the beginning of the book, hears about the death - in odd circumstances - of one of his oldest friends. For reasons that will eventually become clear, he's keen to hide what he knows about this man, but he is compelled to write down the history of their friendship, a history that includes the narrator's affair and subsequent obsession (or the other way round) with the man's wife. The story that ensues is part factual account, part confession.
You should read it if: You're a fan of the author, or you like fiction with just the smallest touch of something inexplicable.
My review: If you already like Paul Auster, you will definitely enjoy Leviathan, and if you dislike him or have a negative impression of his work, it's unlikely to be the book that will change your mind. This is, in many, many ways, textbook Auster. It casts a spell, creating a world that is always subtly strange and slightly altered from our own in ways it is difficult for the reader to put their finger on... Read the full review
Rating: 8/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

The Serpent and the Pearl (2013) by Kate Quinn
What it's about: Like Quinn's 'Empress of Rome' series, The Serpent and the Pearl is loosely based on real events, in this case the rise of the Borgia family in 15th-century Italy. Using a variety of narrative voices - Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia; Leonello, a dwarf who becomes her bodyguard; and Carmelina, a cook in the Borgia household - it tells a highly enjoyable tale packed with twists and moments of suspense.
You should read it if: You like historical fiction that's fun and trashy rather than serious and accurate: this is more like a soap than a faithful recreation of real events. And you don't mind a cliffhanger ending - it's part of a series, and you'll need to read the next one to discover the characters' fate.
My review: Quinn is great at writing strong, interesting female characters you can't help but like, but this perhaps isn't that unusual for a female author of this type of fiction. What she's also great at is writing men who should be completely detestable, but are somehow imbued with such charisma and magnetism that you are nevertheless drawn to them... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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Sunday, 7 September 2014

Reading round-up: August

August 2014 books

70. The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
71. Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier - 5/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
72. The Lazarus Prophecy by F.G. Cottam - 9/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
73. J by Howard Jacobson - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
74. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - 8/10. Read my full review / Get the ebook (free for Kindle)
75. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle - 6/10. Read my full review / Get the ebook (free for Kindle)
76. The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
77. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - 9/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
78. Another Man's City by Choi In-ho - 6/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the book
79. Improper Stories by Saki - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
80. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
81. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
82. Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
83. Generation X by Douglas Coupland - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
84. Leviathan by Paul Auster - 8/10. Review to come / Buy the ebook

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I managed to read 15 books in August - and, in the process, surpassed my 2014 target of 75 books.

First of all, Emily St. John Mandel's magnificent Station Eleven was my favourite book of the month. It's set in a post-apocalyptic version of America, and tells two stories - firstly how the fall of civilisation happened, and secondly, what happens when a travelling band of actors and musicians run into trouble in a town ruled by a mysterious 'prophet'. If that doesn't sound like something that'd normally have you running to a bookshop, I didn't think it would be my kind of thing either, but the way Mandel writes, fleshes out her characters, and puts all the pieces of this jigsaw together s-l-o-w-l-y with infinite humanity and elegance is just perfect (and I went in with very high expectations after all the buzz about Station Eleven on Twitter). It's out in a few days - buy it.

I also loved F.G. Cottam's The Lazarus Prophecy, a horror/historical mystery/thriller hybrid from my favourite author of ghost stories. J by Howard Jacobson was an enjoyable and thought-provoking mix of dystopian fiction and satirical humour, and better than Jacobson's Booker winner The Finkler Question. Equally thought-provoking and funny, though in a very different way, was Roxane Gay's essay collection Bad Feminist, which includes some brilliant and truly inspiring pieces of pop culture criticism alongside insightful pieces on all sorts of topics, including - but not limited to - feminism.

Out of the handful of classics I read this month, the best was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was a much quicker, easier read than I anticipated; also very good was The Driver's Seat, a dark and strange little novella. I still haven't been converted into a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes books, but the second, The Sign of Four, was definitely better than the first. John Collier's short story collection Fancies and Goodnights was entertaining to begin with, but repetitive themes and constant misogyny across the course of 50 stories (too many, really) dragged it into below-average-read territory for me.

While very short, Down the Rabbit Hole was an intriguing, powerful story - a snapshot of the life of a drug baron's son, from the boy's point of view. The Vanishing Witch was a fun mediaeval romp, a return to form after Karen Maitland's lacklustre fourth novel. Leviathan by Paul Auster was really good, but shares a lot of themes and quirks of style with his other books, so it won't be anything new to fans of the author. I liked Improper Stories by Saki, and although it wasn't really what I expected (gentle satire with a macabre touch, nothing more horrifying than that!) I'd still like to read more by the author.

Nothing I read this month was a real disappointment, but a few of these books - Generation X, By Grand Central Station..., Another Man's City - were just okay, and particularly in the case of the first two, didn't live up to what I'd hoped for from their reputations.

I can't believe it's September already. I've just finished David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, and a huge review is forthcoming - but with so many spoilers I'll probably only be able to post it on Goodreads! I'm currently reading Samantha Harvey's intriguing Dear Thief. What are you reading this September?

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Feminism and so much more: Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay Bad Feminist: Essays (24 August 2014) by Roxane Gay
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain... interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
I loved Bad Feminist. This is a collection of essays that feels like coming across a particularly brilliant blog and obsessively reading back through pages and pages of posts, elated to have found something so smart and relevant and readable. Throughout this book, the author comes across as so likeable and brilliant I can't imagine how you could read it and not want to be her friend. I was making notes from the introduction onwards; after a few chapters, I'd followed Gay on Twitter and Tumblr; I came away from the book with a reading list. If I could easily find other non-fiction books as engaging as this, I'd read a hell of a lot more non-fiction.

I was originally going to write a review that would link my appreciation of this book with some of my own opinions on modern feminism, online feminism, and the reasons I've become reluctant to participate in online dialogue surrounding feminist issues. But the more I read, the less relevant this seemed. While this collection may be framed as a feminist book, it is actually much broader than that in terms of the subjects covered. True, Gay writes from a feminist standpoint, but a minority of the essays here are actually about feminism. They also take in issues of race, class, culture, politics and education as well as more personal topics.

My favourite pieces in the collection were the pop-culture-focused ones in which Gay examines topics such as the representation of people of colour in film, or 'unlikeable' female characters in contemporary fiction. I like that her references are only occasionally classics: more often she analyses popular novels, blockbuster movies, well-known TV shows. 'Girls, Girls, Girls' discusses, unsurprisingly, the hit US series Girls; in 'I Once Was Miss America', Gay revisits her childhood obsession with the Sweet Valley High, segueing into a hilarious assessment of the recent 'adult' sequel to those books; in 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' she looks at various representations of women in modern culture, from novels to reality television. One of the best is 'Not Here To Make Friends', an essay on the importance of 'likability' in characters, mainly female characters, in fiction. In this one I highlighted the following passage, not because it makes any especially salient points, but because I could have written it myself, and when I read it I had one of those delightful moments of feeling as if the author had read my mind.
I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who behave in socially unacceptable ways, say whatever is on their mind, and do what they want with varying levels of regard for the consequences. I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.
I came away from this essay and 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' in particular with a reading list made up of novels I either hadn't heard of or had previously dismissed. I loved these essays so much, I know I'll read them again and again, and they made me want to read more pop-culture criticism, and aspire to write this sort of thing myself. She makes it look easy, though it patently isn't.

The downside of a collection like this, including a number of essays previously published elsewhere, is that the quality is inevitably going to be inconsistent to a certain degree. There were a couple I wasn't interested in (mainly the Scrabble one, to be honest), and one or two felt like something had been tacked on to the end of an existing piece to make it more relevant to the feminist theme. There are certainly parts of this book that are worthy of five stars, but I can't quite give the whole of it five stars; but, having said that, there are very few faults I can find with it.

Bad Feminist is a lot of things: funny, moving, thought-provoking, intelligent, relevant, and extremely honest. It's easy to read and amusing and insightful; I hope that means it will be very popular. No doubt, because it has 'feminist' in the title, it will be put under the microscope and pulled apart in certain corners of the internet; but I really like the fact that it is emphatically a personal book, that Gay wears her 'bad feminist' credentials, as outlined in the quote at the start of this review, on her sleeve. The notion of being a 'bad feminist' - a person who is always still learning, who enjoys some things that are deemed problematic, who doesn't care about some things she should care about, and cares too much about others - is something all feminists can surely relate to. And in spite of the prefix 'bad', I, like the author, find it a very positive and freeing concept.

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

Friday, 22 August 2014

Believe the hype: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Station Eleven (10 September 2014) by Emily St. John Mandel

First, two points about my experience of reading so far in 2014.

1. I've read some great books this year, but in terms of highly anticipated new fiction, 2014 has frequently been disappointing. Elizabeth is Missing and The Miniaturist, two enormously hyped debuts I had been hearing about since around a year ago, were both perfectly readable and okay, but fell far short of what I expected from them; Sarah Waters' new novel The Paying Guests I found boring beyond belief and didn't even finish. Therefore, when I started hearing about Station Eleven, I approached it with scepticism. It's Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, but whereas the first three were put out by an indie publisher, Unbridled Books, this one has been picked up by major publishers in both the UK and US. If you're're active in the book community on Twitter, it probably won't need any introduction - although it doesn't come out until September, in social media terms it is already one of the most talked-about books I have come across all year. The marketing campaign has been extensive and effective. I'm yet to start hearing about the book in the mainstream media but I have no doubt that I will. All of which inevitably left me wondering whether it could possibly be as good as people were saying, and actually put me off starting it immediately.

2. This has been the year I have discovered I really enjoy speculative fiction, or at least some sub-section of it that I'm not quite sure how to define. Three of the most enjoyable books I've read in 2014 - Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way To Burn, Sarah Lotz's The Three, and this - have been based around a version of the near future that might, to various degrees, be called dystopian. All of these books could be defined as fantasy, but they retain a significant sense of the 'real', recognisable world. They are not high fantasy or science fiction and, particularly in the case of Station Eleven, they are more literary in style than many would expect this genre to be. There's a whole other tangent here about how I've become jaded by the hackneyed themes of much popular literary fiction, and find myself drawn more and more towards books like this - well-written, intelligent and driven by character as much as plot, but including components and tropes traditionally belonging to genre fiction: a mystery, bits of fantasy or horror, gothic elements - than I am to more 'typical' literary fiction, but that is another discussion for another time.

Station Eleven itself is a book I am keen to recommend, but I don't want to say that much about it. I think it is best approached with little existing knowledge of what happens. It is about a future version of North America, twenty years after most of the population was wiped out by a pandemic. But it starts in the present day, during a theatre performance of King Lear, and throughout the book there are flashbacks to these 'before' moments which gradually establish the backgrounds of several characters - characters who do not necessarily feature in the 'after' sections, but have some kind of link to those who do. Although you may have to wait for some time to find out what that link is. 'Station Eleven' is not, as you might expect (well, I did), some remote outpost in this ravaged landscape, but a reference to a kids' comic book which is... well, it's a part of one of those links.

This is a very elegantly written novel, very restrained. It doesn't go too far with its world-building, and it isn't overdramatic; in fact, one of the many remarkable things about it is how quiet this fall of civilisation seems to be. It isn't, of course, and we know this from things some of the characters say, and fragments of their memories, but all of this happens off-screen, with the focus purely on the 'before' and 'after'. The story is more about human behaviour, relationships and the invisible connections between individuals then anything else. The fact that it is set in a post-apocalyptic future could almost be incidental, but I can't deny that the surreal surroundings add an intense intrigue and a sort of malevolent undertone to anything that happens. There is constant, low-level tension. For anyone who finds abandoned buildings interesting, there are parts of this narrative that will be endlessly fascinating. There are flecks, mere flecks, of magic.

I'm not going to write about the characters in detail, either, except to say that I loved them. They are so real. Mandel is one of those authors who can do that magical thing of making a fictional person human and sympathetic within just a couple of pages, without much background detail being needed. She isn't afraid to kill characters off, but it's never gratuitous; she also isn't afraid of leaving loose ends untied and important things unsaid.

The book Station Eleven most reminded me of was Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad - which I can't remember very clearly and would be hard pressed to recall anything specific about, and yet I repeatedly thought of it throughout my reading of this book. Looking back at my review of Goon Squad, I wrote: 'The chapters, then, are not always directly about the main characters, and sometimes don't even mention them at all; the story reaches out beyond the protagonists to explore the past and future of the people surrounding them. Each chapter works on its own as a self-contained short story but the connections between all of them form... not quite a whole, but more a sort of web, or network.' Most of this is true of Station Eleven, except that it isn't structured as short stories (the post-pandemic narrative runs through the book and is interspersed with flashbacks), but each character's story could, I think, be taken out and read as a short story on its own. Station Eleven as a whole circles one character in particular, but it also tells the stories of various others in order to achieve that.

For me, this incredibly enjoyable novel is a perfect blend of literary and genre fiction, the sort of story I would love to read more of: intelligent, elegant, original, with both plot and character realised beautifully. It is a wonderful piece of real storytelling and yet it is tightly controlled; I could have read more and more and more about this world, but I'm glad the book isn't too sprawling. Its clear focus on who and what it is about is a great strength. With this one, you can believe the hype.

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

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

What to read in August & September 2014

What to read in August & September 
2014

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor - 7th August
Kapoor's debut is a haunting, intense tale of a destructive affair, set in present-day Delhi. The enigmatic narrator, bored and frustrated by her limited life, takes up with a dangerous man she meets in a café almost on a whim, but the ramifications of their relationship will continue to affect her for years to come. This is a dark, evocative and very memorable story. (My review)

The Objects of Her Affection by Sonya Cobb - 12th August
If The Goldfinch has made you keen to read more novels about art theft, this could be the book for you. An unassuming wife and mother becomes caught up in an escalating life of crime when she starts smuggling priceless items out of her husband (a museum curator)'s office. The description makes the book sound part art-themed literary novel and part domestic drama; if it's more the latter, I'm not sure how interested I would be, but I'll certainly be watching out for reviews to see what other readers make of it.

Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little - 14th August
Compared to Gillian Flynn (but what female-centric thriller isn't, these days?) this debut follows a Los Angeles 'it girl' who may, or may not, have killed her mother. It's being pushed as 'THE book of the summer' and is described as sharp, sassy and funny. I've decided not to read this simply because, for now, I've had my fill of the genre, but if you're still hunting for 'the next Gone Girl' you may want to check this one out.

Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas - 14th August
Louise Douglas is one of my favourite authors of what I've come to think of as comfort reading - fiction that is cosy, heartwarming and non-taxing but also free of terrible writing and silly clichés. Sadly, I didn't enjoy this new book nearly as much as her last two: it's a very different type of story, one that is a bold choice for the author but also makes the book quite depressing and hard to relate to. It didn't work for me, but die-hard fans may be thrilled by its new direction. (My review)

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland - 14th August
With her fifth installment of medieval fiction, Karen Maitland returns to England, with the tale of a wealthy merchant bewitched (perhaps literally) by a beautiful widow. The characters are a mixture of likeable and grotesque (with an emphasis on the latter), the narrative is lively and there's plenty of suspense: nothing here will surprise fans of the author, but this is a thoroughly entertaining piece of historical fiction. (My review)

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero - 14th August
I started this one and decided it wasn't for me, but I have to admit, even though I've given up on it, I STILL think the whole idea sounds incredibly tempting. A young man inherits a grand estate from a relative he knows nothing about; the ensuing story of this strange place is told though a variety of formats including letters, journal entries and coded messages. Described as a mixture of elements of horror and supernatural adventure, and compared to Neil Gaiman, it looks like it will live up to its title - although something tells me it will appeal more to a YA audience than older readers.

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly - 14th August
Hot on the heels of Erin Kelly's great The Ties That Bind comes her novelisation of the hit ITV crime series Broadchurch. Don't expect this to be just like Kelly's own novels: the amount of detail that's crammed in means it lacks the powerful description typical of her books. Although I struggle to entirely grasp the point of novelising an existing series rather than creating a new story, I found it readable and page-turning. (My review)

J by Howard Jacobson - 14th August
Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 with The Finkler Question, and now J has been put on the 2014 longlist. In my opinion, this is a far better book than The Finkler Question. While it addresses many of the same themes - Jewish identity, the power of memory and the influence of history - it does so in an entirely original way. It starts off oddly and is disconcertingly humorous and whimsical, but if you stick with it, it matures into an impressive feat of storytelling. (My review)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay - 21st August
I've just started reading this book of feminist essays, and I'm really hoping it will be a feminist book I'll actually want to shout about. I've read various posts from Roxane Gay's Tumblr and have always found them insightful, relevant and funny, and the fact that many of the pieces included in Bad Feminist are themed around pop culture also excites me. The introduction has already got me making notes, so the signs so far are good.

Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner - 21st August
Warner is an author I haven't yet read, although I've been meaning to read some of his books (particularly Morvern Callar and The Sopranos) for years. Set in 1980s London, this story about two writer flatmates and the woman they're both in love with is described as 'a darkly comic tale of hope and humanity'. The love triangle angle kind of puts me off this, but since the Guardian compared it to Withnail & I, I feel more inclined towards reading it. I think I'll wait to hear more verdicts from other readers before I make my mind up.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - 28th August
Sarah Waters' new novel, which has more in common with her earlier work than the divisive The Little Stranger, is set in London post-WWI, where a woman and her 'spinster' daughter are forced to take in lodgers to fund the upkeep of their home. The bad news is that I didn't like it. The good news is that about 98% of other people who have read it so far seem to love it. I'm sure most fans - and even those with a passing interest in Waters - will be keen to make up their own minds. (My review)

The Secret Place by Tana French - 28th August
This is the fifth in the Dublin Murder Squad sequence and, in my opinion, the best so far. Tana French tackles the intense and insular world of teenage girls with a murder mystery that unfolds across the course of one day at a prestigious boarding school. The setup might seem too slight to sustain a 500-page book, but it works brilliantly, full of magic and mystery. (My review)

The Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson - 28th August
If you're looking for a book that's gentle and comforting but still compelling, I would recommend The Sea Garden. Made up of three loosely linked novellas - two historical and one set in the present day - it follows the lives of three women and slowly reveals how their experiences are connected. It's perhaps being released a bit late in the year for proper appreciation of the wonderfully summery locations it portrays, but nevertheless, it's a glorious piece of escapism. One for fans of Kate Morton, Louise Douglas and Lucy Clarke. (My review)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - 2nd September
For me, this is the most exciting of the 'big name' releases this autumn. It follows a single character from childhood to old age, 'a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality'. The Bone Clocks is a 'metaphysical thriller, meditation on mortality and chronicle of our self-devouring times'... I've really enjoyed everything I've read by Mitchell, and this sounds amazing. But I have been let down by quite a few much-hyped books this year: hopefully this will be the exception.

These Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff - 4th September
Another of those books that's being compared to Girls because it's about young people in New York - These Days Are Ours actually came out in 2012 in the US, but is only now being published in the UK. It's about a bunch of privileged graduates whose beliefs are, apparently, challenged when one of them meets a man from a different background. I don't know if this is a romance, a coming-of-age story or what. It sounds interesting so I want to keep it on my radar, but again, I'd prefer to hear what other readers think before I embark on reading it.

Outline by Rachel Cusk - 4th September
A writer sends a summer in Athens, teaching a course, where she 'becomes the audience to a chain of narratives' - the life stories of the various people she meets. Outline is described as 'a novel about writing and talking, about self-effacement and self-expression, about the desire to create and the human art of self-portraiture in which that desire finds its universal form'. I'm not familiar with Cusk's work, but the themes described here are very enticing.

The Lazarus Prophecy by F.G. Cottam - 9th September
Cottam's ninth tale of the supernatural sees him back on top form, with a story combining horror, mystery and historical thriller, with a pinch of dystopia. When a present-day murderer appears to be copying the crimes of Jack the Ripper, the investigation leads to the discovery of religious connections; meanwhile, London seems permanently poised on the brink of a riot. With cleverly interwoven narratives, this is an exciting, atmospheric novel and a must-read thriller. (My review)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - 10th September
I've been hearing buzz about this book for months - everyone who's read it seems to adore it. I've just finished reading it (the review is a work in progress) and can, happily, confirm that it is excellent. It's a post-apocalyptic story, set in a version of the USA twenty years after a pandemic wiped out most of the population. There's also some flashbacks. That's all I really want to say - I think it's best if you read the book without knowing much about it beforehand. Suffice to say, it's very original and exciting and it deserves the hype!

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse - 11th September
Mosse is best known for the Languedoc trilogy of split-narrative historical/contemporary mysteries; I far preferred her atmospheric ghost story The Winter Ghosts. This new standalone novel sounds like an intriguing mix of the two. It's set in 1912, in a coastal village where superstition still reigns, and the eponymous character lives in a grand, decaying house containing the remains of her father's once-famous collection of taxidermy. With mysterious deaths, dark secrets and gothic details galore, I'm optimistic this will be the perfect autumn (or Halloween) read.

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce - 16th September
With this one, it was the blurb that lured me in. Merritt Tierce is an award-winning writer of short stories and plays, but this is her first novel: it's 'an urgent, intensely visceral debut novel about a young waitress whose downward spiral is narrated in electric prose'; 'an unapologetic portrait of a woman cutting a precarious path through early adulthood'. I really like fiction that deals with 'ordinary lives' and the praise heaped on Tierce's prose has made me feel sure Love Me Back will be a debut to watch out for.

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey - 25th September
I really love the sound of this. It begins with a woman writing a letter to an estranged friend. The letter starts with the words 'In answer to a question you asked a long time ago...' The story that then unfolds is one of betrayal, anger and the death of a friendship. If it's as well-written as I hope it is, then this is exactly the sort of book that could easily become a favourite. My hopes are very high.

Rooms by Lauren Oliver - 25th September
Lauren Oliver is known as an author of YA and kids' books. Rooms is her first adult novel - and not only is it a ghost story, it's narrated by the ghosts themselves, two spirits who speak through the house they inhabit (the idea reminds me a bit of one of the stories from Lucy Wood's Diving Belles). My experience with adult fiction by YA authors hasn't generally been a positive one (Sophie McKenzie's Close My Eyes was one of the worst things I've ever read, and I didn't even get to the halfway mark with A Love Like Blood by Marcus Sedgwick), so I am sceptical about this, but there's a lot of promise in the concept.

What new books are you reading right now, or looking forward to in the next couple of months? Let me know if I've missed anything, or if you have any suggestions for the next installment (October to December)!

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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Funny, clever, subversive: a literary dystopia takes shape in Howard Jacobson's J

J by Howard Jacobson J (14 August 2014) by Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 with The Finkler Question; J - described as both 'a dystopian novel like no other' and 'like no other novel Howard Jacobson has written', along with platitudes like 'thought-provoking and life-changing' - is on the longlist for this year's prize. When I read the premise of J, I assumed it would be a serious dystopia, especially since the blurb makes comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. (Actually it says 'J is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World', which almost put me off reading it at all - I hate it when pronouncements like that are forced on the reader, and this one seemed a particularly foolish and grand example since the books mentioned are generally regarded as classics.) But, while it matures into something approximating this by the final chapters, it actually starts as a much stranger and more light-hearted mixture than I was led me to believe. This threw me off a bit until quite a way into the book, although I suppose it shouldn't really have surprised me after the strong element of humour in The Finkler Question, and the author's reputation for comic writing. J is also an unconventional love story, with a blossoming relationship between two of the main characters, Kevern and Ailinn, forming the basis for the plot.

There is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, but it's a subtle one. Society is altered in some ways that are minor, but odd enough to be disconcerting; in other ways not at all. It is mentioned more than once that 'the past is a foreign country', rarely discussed, an ethos enforced by Orwellian slogans (or perhaps the logical conclusion of 'keep calm and carry on' mania) such as 'yesterday is a lesson we can learn only by looking to tomorrow'. Consequently, much classic literature and music has been forgotten - or at least is not consumed publicly - as with many, many things here, there is no explicit law against it, it just isn't done. There is some sort of taboo around the letter J, which is rarely used and which Kevern cannot pronounce without making a gesture - covering his lips with his fingers. Digital technology seems to have died out, so in some ways this feels like a historical novel or one about a remote part of the world isolated from modern society. (Although when the characters leave their home town, Port Reuben, and visit 'the capital', there's more of a typical dystopian vibe - city-dwellers are attired in colourful costumes that sound similar to the ones worn by the upper echelon of society in The Hunger Games (I'm basing this on the films, as I haven't read the books) and once-grand hotels limp onward in a state of dilapidation.) Love is championed above all things, and constant apology is encouraged, but adultery and violence within relationships are common for both genders. Above all of this looms the influence of an event only referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, a concept just as frustratingly opaque to the reader as it is for the characters. It has the significance of some apocalyptic disaster, yet the secrecy surrounding any discussion of it, not to mention the uncertainty about whether it even took place, makes it seem impossible that this could be the case.

In amongst all this, the relationship that develops between Kevern and Ailinn is so dysfunctionally whimsical it feels as though it's straight out of some quirky-hipster-romance story - something like Q: A Love Story or The Girl With Glass Feet. With his paranoia, rather pathetic nature and morbid romanticism, Kevern definitely shares numerous traits with Julian, the protagonist of The Finkler Question, while Ailinn occasionally veers a little too close to MPDG territory. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, I felt like I was reading some kind of farcical comedy. Larger-than-life small-town characters have noisy affairs and brawl in the streets. Giving a member of the opposite sex a brutish kiss is a common practice, a disturbing expression of sexual aggression - but the fact that this act is still known as 'snogging' makes it read as amusing. Even murder has something colourful and comic about it and doesn't quite seem real. It is only later that these strangely, and sometimes uncomfortably, funny elements, converge and a darker, more serious narrative emerges. The story takes a new turn, focusing more heavily on the reasons why Kevern is being observed by an eccentric colleague (whose diary makes up part of the book), the secrets Ailinn's 'companion' - half housemate, half foster mother - may be hiding. Similarly, while I didn't feel that the relationship between Ailinn and Kevern ever quite transcended its twee foundations, it does become apparent as the story progresses that it has a greater significance than appearances suggest - which in itself makes it less annoying. This is a book in which threads really do come together slowly, but when they do come together, they make sense of so much.

J is, like The Finkler Question, essentially a novel about Jewishness; it is also, indirectly and abstractly, a novel about the Holocaust. This is not something that is made explicit at the start. Even going into the book knowing that this is the case, it is initially difficult to link the characters and their circumstances directly to these themes without feeling that you are clutching at straws, or shaping things to make them fit. It's especially disconcerting, if WHAT HAPPENED is the Holocaust or something like it, that the characters all have Jewish surnames - until you discover the reason for this. The humour and oddness of the first half of J work to obfuscate the real direction of the story in the same way that bland ballads, saying sorry, quaint and unnecessary jobs, sex and petty crime distract the population of Port Reuben from any public analysis, apportioning of blame or questioning of the past. This makes the eventual unfolding of the truth, achieved partly through explanation within the story and partly through gradual realisation on the part of the reader, all the more powerful.

There is something richer and more rewarding about J than much literary fiction - that element of light-heartedness also carries over into the language and wordplay - but it's still easy to read. It's a story you can (but don't have to) think about in order to read between the lines; the first half in particular could be read as a typical dystopian tale, and it may not mean the same thing to all readers. Its speculative aspect means that, although it discusses a lot of the themes typical of Booker nominees and novels by big-name authors of literary fiction - identity, memory, the power of history etc - it does so in an entirely original fashion. In a time when bestseller charts and awards lists are still saturated with fiction about WWII and its aftermath to the point that you wonder what else can be said about the subject, this approach makes it far more memorable.

Having finished J, I am still not entirely convinced by the comparisons to Orwell and Huxley - but I am far closer to being convinced than I was at the start of the book. Although I don't think any novel is ever really 'life-changing', it is certainly thought-provoking, and enormously clever; it plays with the reader's perceptions and subverts them, not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to draw parallels with the story itself. I really enjoyed this book, but more than that, I was impressed by it. It's also much better than The Finkler Question, and would be a worthier Booker winner.

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

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback