Now she had taken off her goodness and left it behind like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she felt only joy.

May roundup

Despite still being very busy May was a reasonably solid reading month. I managed a bit of variation in terms of genre (SF, crime, literary, comic) and, while the books themselves were a mixed bag for me, the successes were very successful.

Household Gods and other narrative offences, by Tade Thompson

Tade Thomson is a highly regarded British-Nigerian SF/fantasy author.Back in March he published a short story collection for free, to give people something to read during lockdown.

One of the interesting things about Thompson’s work, beyond the simple fact that he can write, is that he draws in part on Yoruban tradition and folklore to inform his fiction. The title story involves a future Britain where the gods have returned, everyone’s gods. A young British-Nigerian woman appeals to a Yoruban deity for help in getting a job. Unfortunately, others going for the same role have prayed to their own gods…

Another story is written from the point of view of a ghost that doesn’t realise it’s dead, As Thompson says in an interview here

“In Yoruba culture, spirits are around us all the time, but there are three basic types: the people in the Afterlife. The people not yet born but aware and they can converse. And in the middle are the people who are alive but their spirit can be communicated with. “The character in ‘Slip Road’ doesn’t realize that he has slipped into a different category. He thinks he’s in the middle but he has passed into the Afterlife. This is a staple of ghost stories. His wife survived but he did not; the slip road is a slip road into death.”

Another story, Honourable Mention, involves a competition to stay awake (parallels with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) in which one competitor relies on a Faustian deal with a fetish-spirit to keep him going only to find it slowly replacing him.  In the same interview Thompson explains:

“You cannot leave your context and stay the same person. The people who migrate always say, ‘We’ll go back to Nigeria’ but you change if you live in a different place, you become a hybrid, not accepted here or there. You become a new thing especially if you see success in a field in which you are not expected to succeed. There are a lot of compromises and the darker side might not be positive. Sometimes the choice may be between being a security guard or something illegal.

“The sport in the story, a staying-awake competition, is made up; but it is inspired by what happened to me when I came back to the UK. I took two jobs. One, I took blood samples at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. And at night I worked in a Securicor depot. No sleep, no respect.The Yoruba term for working like this is ‘Fa gburu’.

“I was made to take an English exam when I arrived, even though I was born here and went to grade school here. Also a Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board exam and a medical exam to show I was properly trained. I had no problem with that—I always do well on standard exams. But I needed to prep the exam and eat at the same time and I didn’t want to depend on my parents, so I did two jobs and spent the rest of the time studying. Basically, I never went to bed.”

Households Gods is a very strong short story collection. It’s original, well-written and the Yoruban elements and wider parallels with real experience are fascinating. He’s one of relatively few SF/fantasy writers I can see crossing over into mainstream literary circles, though whether that happens is as much chance as talent so we’ll see.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, by Piero Chiara and translated by Jill Foulston

This is by the same author as The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, which I liked but didn’t love. I liked but didn’t love Bishop’s Bedroom too so I suspect that’s the end of my journey with Chiara. Great cover though.

We’re on Lago Maggiore in late 1940s Italy. The narrator is whiling away his time boating on the lake, travelling from port to port. He finds himself unexpectedly drawn into the circle of Orimbelli, a slightly larger than life figure who served in the Africa campaign and now lives with his older wife and his very attractive widowed sister-in-law.

What follows is a hothouse of lust and deception. Orimbelli seems like a womanising fool, but is he something much darker? We’re in psychological suspense territory here, with a classically slow buildup and a big emphasis on atmosphere (the descriptions of the lake itself are excellent).

Unfortunately, this one got interrupted a lot by work which didn’t help it. The first half of the novel mostly follows the narrator and Orimbelli’s adventures travelling around on the boat and sleeping with women they pick up along the way. That would be fine if you read through that quickly, soaking in the darker undercurrents as you go. Spread that section over several days though and it becomes a bit tedious, and to be honest a bit creepy in ways that I don’t think were entirely intended.

Guy liked this (see here) and so have many others, but it wasn’t my book. I’m in a minority though so if it sounds like it might be your thing I’d still suggest you check it out.

The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore

I got this back in 2012 when it was nominated for the Booker (not sure why I did as I’ve never hugely rated the Booker as a prize). It’s the story of a man named Futh who goes on a walking holiday in Germany after the failure of his marriage. He’s British, but has part-German ancestry and the trip becomes an opportunity to meditate on his own past and his difficult relationships with his father and his soon-to-be-ex wife Angela.

So far, so literary (if litfic is a genre, meditations of this sort are a key genre trope). Interspersed with Futh’s travels are episodes back in the guesthouse he starts his holiday in and plans to return to at the end. There the wife of the couple who runs the place sleeps with the guests, drinks too much, and is intermittently battered by her increasingly violent husband. The husband wrongly suspects Futh slept with his wife during his stay, so although Futh doesn’t know it he’s returning to a powder-keg.

The Lighthouse reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan, which if you like his work you should take as an endorsement. However, I find McEwan’s books incredibly artificial with unbelievable characters twisted by evident author fiat to their neatly plotted and often rather cruel denouements. I didn’t really believe in Futh, who is so hapless that I simply didn’t believe anyone would ever marry him (Angela repeatedly says to him “I’m not your mother”, but it’s clear that in part Futh married her to fill just that role). I didn’t really believe in the supporting characters either – why Angela who is shown to have been an intelligent and independent young woman would ever have married him for example, or stayed with him so long.

There are other contrivances, not least the landlady’s obsession with perfume and Futh working in the scent trade, and some frankly unlikely incidents (as a rule of thumb, if I found a discarded pair of knickers in my hotel room I wouldn’t carry them about in my hand for a bit before handing them in at reception. Who would? The plot demands it though…). Not my book.

The Man who Went up in Smoke, by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall and translated by Joan tate

This is the second of the famous Martin Beck ten-novel sequence that pretty much launched scandinoir as a genre. I don’t seem to have written up the first, Roseanna. That was quite an unusual book mostly in that it had an incredibly strong procedural element – Beck patiently sifts evidence, carries out interviews, at times the case (a murder) lies dormant for months until a new lead emerges.

In Smoke, Beck is called back from holiday to investigate the disappearance of a Swedish journalist in Budapest. That means going behind the Iron Curtain and following up a case where there are basically no leads. Matters aren’t made easier by the local Hungarian police proving to be extremely efficient and picking up very quickly on Beck’s unofficial investigation.

Beck spends quite a large part of the novel almost randomly casting for clues since he has so little to work with. It’s a very different depiction of police work from most crime fiction, with an emphasis on it being work. There’s no sudden intuitions here or flashes of brilliance. Beck gets results partly because he’s clever, but also in large part because he puts the hours in.

I have the whole set of Beck novels and at this point I’m firmly committed to them. I actually enjoyed this more than Roseanna. At one point its got a rather dated encounter with a young woman diagnosed as being probably a nymphomaniac (is there any more 1970s diagnosis than that?) but apart from that slightly odd note it holds up very well. Rock solid crime fiction and it’s no surprise that it helped spark a new genre.

The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim

I mean, it’s simply wonderful. Very silly, but quite wonderful.

The cover above is the Penguin edition, which I had. I think it works very well. At Jacqui’s you can see the Vintage cover which is also excellent and directly references part of the novel. In any event, in case I’ve been unclear this is pretty much wonderful.

No doubt a trip to Italy would be extraordinarily delightful, but there were many delightful things one would like to do, and what was strength given to one for except to help one not to do them?

Jacqui gives this a slightly more detailed review here, but I’ve covered the essentials above. A shoo-in for my end of year list.

 

 

And that’s it! I’ll see if I can get my June round-up posted before we hit August.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Chiara, Piero, Crime, SF, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Thompson, Tade, von Arnim, Elizabeth

What God shorted me in looks, he compensated me for in gab.

April roundup

April wasn’t the cruellest month, but it was the busiest for quite some time. As a result I read only two books. On the plus side, both were good.

No Tomorrow, by Jake Hinkson

No Tomorrow Hinkson

I read this for Emma of bookaroundthecorner’s virtual Quais de Polar, but was so busy that I didn’t finish it until long after that had ended. That’s a shame as I’d have liked to have been part of QDP, but the book was everything Emma had described it as (Emma’s post on it is here).

This is an absolutely brutal noir full of lust, murder and bad choices. It’s 1947 and Billie Dixon is hawking third-rate B-movies round the American south to tiny cinemas too remote for regular distribution channels. It’s an unusual job for a woman, but Billie is hard-nosed and hardboiled.

We get our movies out to most of them through states’ rights distributors and exchanges, but some of these theaters are so small or so out of the way we have to dispatch someone out there to peddle the stuff by hand. That’s where the field man comes in. His job is to shovel the studio shit as far into the heartland as he can get it.

Billie’s job takes her to rural Arkansas, and a town ruled by a blind preacher who hates movies and the people who peddle them both. Billie tries to talk him round, and that’s how she meets his wife Amberley. Billie and Amberley fall for each other hard, but a woman running off with a preacher’s wife faces serious jailtime. The preacher is in the way of Billie’s business, and in the way of her having a future with Amberley. If only something might happen to him…

It’s noir so it’s no spoiler to say things don’t go smoothly. It’s a tightly written tale which manages to hit the familiar noir beats while still holding some surprises. Hinkson is great on the small town atmosphere and the period feel, and Billy is a great character (and not the only one). Highly recommended.

Gun Island, by Amitav Ghosh

Gun Island

At this point in April I was neck-deep in work and stuck at home. I wanted something that would take me as far from North London as I could get, but I wasn’t in the mood for SF.

I’d read a while back an article by Amitav Ghosh which criticised literary fiction as a form for not addressing climate change – the biggest issue of our age. He’s written a full non-fiction book on the topic, and Gun Island is his attempt to put his money where his mouth is by showing how fiction might address it.

This is my second Ghosh, and I had mixed views on the first. Still, I thought this sounded unusual and ambitious and with much of it set in the Sundarbans swamps of India and Bangladesh it certainly met the far from London criterion.

Deenanath, Deen for short, is a middle-aged rare book dealer splitting his time between Brooklyn and Kolkata. His life is comfortable but a little sterile. The possibility of romance leads him to briefly accompany an expedition to a rare temple in the Sundarbans where he discovers wall-carvings illustrating an ancient Bengali folk-tale. The tale is of a gun merchant who fled across the world rather than serve the goddess of snakes Manasa Devi. Deen grew up with the story, but the carvings contain details he’s never seen before.

Before Deen has even left the temple he starts to find the myth seeming to reach beyond story into reality. He becomes interested in the underlying historical truth, but as he investigates he finds himself having curious and unexpected encounters with snakes and other deadly creatures. Is it chance? Or is the myth repeating in the modern day?

I forced myself to say aloud ‘This is all chance and coincidence, nothing else’ – and the words had the effect of a prayer, breaking the spell that had descended on me.

Deen’s journey takes him through mangrove swamps increasingly devastated by flood and crop failure, to a Los Angeles threatened by immense firestorms, to a sinking Venice, to rivers where desperate dolphins beach themselves in ever increasing numbers. The goddess, if she’s real, is larger than the human but then so of course is climate change. Ghosh is using the supernatural here to personalise the impersonal but equally vast forces of a changing natural order.

Ghosh is particularly good on the use of technology to challenge borders and to help shrink and navigate the world’s complexities. He explores human trafficking, the Bengali diaspora, the hows and whys of global migrations with the poor fleeing shattered territories in search of better lives, forming new communities virtual and real in seemingly unlikely places.

However, Ghosh is not a subtle writer. The characters are fine, but not particularly nuanced and some are little more than devices. One, a glamorous Italian professor, drops little Italian phrases into her dialogue and uses lots of exclamation marks and is so Italian I didn’t believe she really was (few people live up so completely to their national stereotypes). Most of the other characters fit their story roles, but with little interiority.

Still, Gosh can write plot and he can write description and I did enjoy this. As this review in the Hindu Times says, if Ghosh is heavy handed so nowadays are the headlines. Ironically given Ghosh is slightly dismissive of science fiction his strengths and weaknesses are the ones common to that genre. He’s great at portraying the big, the epic, the sweep and sudden shifts of history and culture; he’s not so good on the small, the personal, the internal.

Ultimately, the question for Gun Island is does it succeed on its own terms? Has Ghosh written a literary novel worth reading as fiction that manages to address climate change as an issue? I think yes. The ending didn’t quite land with me, but I’ve no idea how you do end such a book and overall I think Ghosh pulls it off. Worth reading.

If you’re interested in this one there’s a good interview with Ghosh here. There’s also an excellent review in the FT here (likely paywall).

And that’s it! May is back up to five books read which is much more like it, and who knows for June but I’m reading again. I hope you are getting some decent reading in yourselves.

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Filed under Crime, Ghosh, Amitav, Hinkson, Jake

Brother Oliver shook his head. “I’m not entirely convinced a Freudian priest is a viable hybrid.”

It’s May, I know. I’m part of the UK Government’s Covid-19 response which means I’m working crazy hours. Blogging, including reading blogs, reading anything really, isn’t happening much right now.

March’s reading was prelapsarian. We went on holiday to Bangkok and on to Angkor Wat. We were out there two weeks as the news grew worse back home. When we came back it was straight into lockdown.

My March reading was almost all SF because I tend to buy SF on kindle and for a two week holiday my kindle was what I took. I read one book before we left, five while travelling and one in the two weeks after getting back. My April roundup post will be much briefer (two books). By the way, if you’ve no interest in SF you should still scroll down to the Donald E. Westlake because it’s huge fun.

Anyway, I hope everyone’s keeping well. Here’s what I read in March, back in a very different world.

Friends and Heroes, by Olivia Manning

This is the third of Manning’s Balkan trilogy, followed by her Levant Trilogy featuring the same core characters. I expect it to be one of my books of the year.

Guy and Harriet are now in Athens, as is Prince Yakimov (poor Yaki…) and several of their old associates from Bucharest. Guy and Harriet’s existence is now more precarious than ever before – they’re now part of the mass diaspora of people scattered across Europe fleeing before the chaos of the war.

Guy continues to be too unworldly for his own good, failing to see that just because he helped someone when they needed it doesn’t mean they’ll help him now that he does. Harriet continues to be the more practical, but at times she’s perhaps too cautious, and she can sometimes be too casual with the impact she has on others. It’s a brilliantly nuanced portrait of a marriage, all the better because Guy isn’t always wrong and Harriet not always right.

Manning doesn’t quite have Anthony Powell’s gift for making every minor character instantly recognisable. There were some who recurred from previous books who I could barely recall. The core cast though remains rock solid and Manning captures time, place and the internal and external strains on Guy and Harriet’s marriage perfectly.

I wrote about Manning’s The Great Fortune here. I didn’t write up the second, This Spoilt City, but I did refer to it briefly in my 2019 end of year post commenting that it was a “welcome return to Manning’s Balkan trilogy with some very impressive moments and lovely characterisation”.

Final thought. One of the benefits of series is the depth of characterisation they can achieve. At this point in the sequence Manning is able to explore nuances of Guy and Harriet’s characters, including times when they behave out of character. It’s possible because we already know them so well and would be much harder to pull off in a single book without them seeming inconsistent.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock is a British science fiction writer. A Calculated Life is about a young woman genetically engineered for desirable traits in a near-future Britain.

Effectively a slave, Jayna lives in a dormitory with others of her cohort. The company which engineers them leases them out as super-bright, super-reliable workers. The difficulty is Jayna’s generation have been tweaked for greater creativity and empathy, but the closer they come to ordinary emotions the harder they are to control.

Jayna decides she needs more data to carry out her work, which leads her out of her corporate bubble into the wider world. Outside a controlled environment her own controls start to slip. As so often in these stories, sex becomes a trigger for wider disobedience.

The idea of created beings becoming too human is hardly original. In fact, it’s an SF staple. Charnock delivers it well here though capturing Jayna’s inner life, the slow awakening of her peers, and the seemingly benevolent and very 21st Century corporate interest in their wellbeing and productivity.

Charnock also paints a depressingly plausible picture of a recognisable future Britain. A cognitive arms race has led to smart drugs and other enhancements keeping the well-off competitive, while an increasing proportion of the population is effectively written off as irrelevant. Sadly it’s all too credible.

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds

We’re now solidly into holiday reading. Big screen SF set in a distant future with little connection to our real world (though the science is, as ever with Reynolds, pretty much rock solid).

Elysium Fire is set in a solar system dominated by a vast array of asteroid habitats known as the glitterbelt. Each asteroid contains its own society and is governed by its own rules. The only system-wide law is that citizens are free to choose which habitat they wish to live in and the rules that govern it. Police known as Prefects protect that fundamental right.

Reynolds previously wrote about this setting in his Aurora Rising, which I rather liked. The setting is great, but I was slightly less taken by Elysium Fire which has a less interesting threat for its heroes to contend with. If you like Reynolds it’s solid but not great.

Provenance, Ann Leckie

Provenance is a stand-alone novel set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. Again it’s star spanning distant future stuff. While the Ancillary series was big on action and intrigue, Provenance is closer to an Austenesque comedy.

In one not particularly important planet in Leckie’s future universe great store is set by vestiges – historical artefacts evidencing a connection to great people and events of the past. The most important families evidence their prestige through the quality of their vestiges, many relating to their own ancestors’ exploits.

All of which makes it slightly awkward when a young woman intent on proving herself to her own family discovers that many of her society’s most treasured vestiges may be counterfeit. Worse, some of the greatest families on her planet may rest their prestige on entirely forged historical treasures.

What follows is in one sense big action and intrigue, but with stakes that are a bit ludicrous. On its face it’s entirely serious, there’s a murder, hostage-taking, all sorts of dramatic events, but it’s also quite silly. I really rather liked it.

Brothers Keepers, Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake must have written some bad books at some point, but this wasn’t one of them.

Brother Benedict is a cloistered monk living with his brother monks in a small and not particularly noticeable monastery. His sins are small – taking a biro without permission, looking perhaps a little too long at a woman in a tv ad. His chief weekly pleasure is a trip out of the monastery to pick up the New York Times weekend edition.

Why the New York Times? Well, because unusually Brother Benedict’s monastery is located in the heart of Manhattan. It’s absolutely prime real estate, which is a problem when Brother Benedict reads in the Times’ architectural section that they’re due to be evicted so the site can be redeveloped.

One immediate difficulty is that the order Brother Benedict belongs to is “a contemplative Order, concerning ourselves with thoughts of God and Travel.”

Our meditations on Travel have so far produced the one firm conclusion that Travel should never be undertaken lightly, and only when absolutely necessary to the furthering of the glory of God among men—which means we rarely go anywhere.

Someone has to go out into the world to set things right. Who better than Brother Benedict who at least already goes to the local newsstand?

What follows is brilliantly funny. The brothers soon discover that when Manhattan real estate is at stake theft, fraud and all manner of villainy is rarely far behind. Can an unworldly group of monks defeat big capital? And can Brother Benedict reject the worldly temptations lying outside the monastery’s door?

I had not entered the monastery at age twenty-four completely inexperienced, but ten years is a long time, and now I stood before the concept of screwing the way a small child stands before the star-filled night sky, feeling its vast mystery and its close fascination in tiny tremors behind the knees.

This was an absolute delight of a read. It has a marvellous cast, lots of comic asides and set pieces, and it’s insanely quotable. Very highly recommended. I think I loved Somebody Owes Me Money slightly more, but this is still great.

By the Pricking of her Thumb, Adam Roberts

I’d enjoyed Roberts’ previous novel in this near-future crime series, The Real-Time Murders, which married a Holmes and Moriarty-style setup with a riff off Hitchcock movies. Here Roberts’ Holmes and Moriarty are back in the form of private investigator Alma and her bedbound lover Marguerite and the inspiration is Kubrick rather than Hitchcock.

This didn’t work for me, but whether that was the book or circumstances I don’t entirely know. I started it shortly before returning to the UK and lockdown. The news was worsening and a novel which has bereavement and grief as major themes wasn’t a great choice. For that reason I don’t think I can give it a fair review.

It’s cleverly constructed, the SF elements and crime elements combine well and Roberts takes a positive glee in setting up impossible crime scenarios which ultimately make sense by the rules of his world. Whether there was something lacking on this occasion in the chemistry I can’t say, but my guess is the fault on this occasion was in the stars rather than in the book.

Well, that’s a slightly depressing note to end on, but then that’s true of how March itself ended. While I didn’t quite take to the Reynolds or the Roberts this time, I did enjoy all the others (and I think I would have enjoyed the Roberts more had I chosen a better time in which to read it).

Hope you’re all keeping well and all going well I’ll see you on the other side, if not before (virtually anyway).

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Filed under Charnock, Anne, Comic fiction, Leckie, Ann, Manning, Olivia, Reynolds, Alastair, Roberts, Adam, SF, Westlake, Donald E.

February round-up

Between work and house hunting February was a very light reading month. Just three books! However, they were very good books. March is another story given recent international news, but I’ll speak to that in my next post.

For now, I’m going to cast my mind back to February when I could still commute to work and was looking forward to my then upcoming holiday (Bangkok and Angkor Wat, which were great though I returned to a much changed Britain).

Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos and translated by Rosalind Harvey

This is my second Villalobos, after his excellent Down the Rabbit Hole. Rabbit made my end of year list for 2017 and it still stands up very well in memory.  I didn’t love Quesadillas quite as much, but it is still very good and if it had been my first Villalobos I’d definitely still have read more.

Orestes and his many, many siblings (all named by their schoolteacher father after Classical Greek figures) live in a small and impoverished house in a slum neighbourhood. Orestes’ parents see themselves as middle class, but that doesn’t mean they have any money and Orestes isn’t so sure. 

Every night sees their father shouting at politicians on the tv while the children fight to grab as many of their mother’s quesadillas as they can grasp. 

We were well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony. The inflationary quesadillas were thick in order to use up the cheese that my mother had bought in a state of panic at the announcement of a new rise in the price of food and the genuine risk that her supermarket bill would go from billions to trillions of pesos.

The normal quesadillas we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country – but if we had been living in a normal country we wouldn’t have been eating quesadillas and so we also called them impossible quesadillas.

Orestes dreams of getting out. After he gets in trouble with newly arrived rich neighbours (an early warning sign of gentrification), and his young twin brothers Castor and Pollux go missing in a supermarket, he makes his escape into an increasingly chaotic Mexico

Life at home was messy and loud. The wider Mexico is that and worse – a country of scams, petty thievery and an increasing breakdown of anything resembling reality. As the novel progresses it gets more and more outlandish – apparently its title in the original Spanish best translates as “If we lived somewhere normal.” But they don’t.

Orestes’ Mexico is not somewhere normal, so normal narrative rules need not apply. What starts naturalist can end fabulist. All you can rely on is that the politicians will always be thieves.

Quesadillas is extremely funny. Orestes has a great narratorial voice – fresh and lively. It’s an angry book, but not a bitter one. It’s laughter in the face of absurdity, because what else is there to do? I have Villalobos’ I’ll Sell You a Dog still left to read and am thoroughly looking forward to it.

Grant wrote a more detailed review of Quesadillas here which as ever is well worth reading. 

The Wind that Lays Waste, by Selva Almada and translated by Chris Andrews

Next up is an excellent Argentinian novel. This is a book with only four characters and largely only one location (it would make an excellent play).

Itinerant charismatic preacher the Reverend Pearson has insisted on starting a long drive despite his teenage daughter Leni’s warning that the car won’t make the trip. The Reverend trusts in the lord, but Leni is right and they find themselves breaking down and having to pull into a remote garage.

The garage mechanic is Gringo Brauer, living with his teenage son nicknamed Tapioca. Tapioca is an innocent; Leni is increasingly worldly. What follows is a power struggle between the Reverend and Gringo Brauer as each tries to impose their own philosophy on the other and on the two teenagers. 

The Reverend is an evangelical. Everything is god’s purpose. He comes to believe the breakdown was so that he would meet Tapioca, not raised as a Christian, and convert him. Gringo by contrast is a materialist, almost pagan in outlook. He believes in the world he sees, the Reverend in a world unseen.

It’s a powerful and intense book – an espresso novel to use a phrase I’ve used here before. There’s a real sense of four disparate people forced together and forced to see each other, but perhaps not to see themselves.

‘The car will be ready by the end of the afternoon, God willing,’ said the Reverend, mopping his brow again.

‘And if He’s not willing?’ Leni replied, putting on the earphones of the Walkman that was permanently attached to her belt. She hit Play, and her head filled with music.

A big heap of scrap reared behind the house, extending almost to the shoulder of the road: panels, bits of agricultural machinery, wheel rims, piles of tyres; a real cemetery of chassis, axles and twisted bits of metal, immobilised forever under the scorching sun.

Grant has written a much fuller review of this one too, here. It made his Best of 2019 list and I am not a bit surprised. I suspect this justified my subscription with Charco Books on its own.

Made in Saturn, by Rita Indiana and translated by Sydney Hutchinson

Rita Indiana’s first novel, Tentacle, was my personal best novel of 2019. I wrote a bit about it in that post, and a little more in my January 2019 round up post here

Tentacle featured a transgender man time-travelling from the future with the aid of a psychic anemone to prevent an environmental catastrophe. It sounds terrible doesn’t it? And yet it was great. Muscular, tightly plotted and well written.

Made in Saturn is in one sense a sequel.  It features one of the main characters from Tentacle as its protagonist, the artist Argenis Luna, and others crop up again in supporting roles. However, you could read this without ever having heard of Tentacle and it would stand up perfectly well on its own.

In Tentacle, Argenis is a gifted artist but working in a style overly derivative of Goya. He’s a junkie, a misogynist and fiercely homophobic (apparently due to being so strongly in denial about is own true sexuality).

Saturn takes place some time after Tentacle. Argenis remembers his weird experiences of that book, but writes them off as drug hallucinations and as far as Saturn is concerned he may be right. Otherwise, he’s not much changed. 

Argenis’ father is a senior politician and one of the heroes of the Dominican Republic’s revolution. Now running for re-election he sends Argenis to rehab in Cuba. Argenis is a disappointment to his father, to his own personal Saturn (I hadn’t intended to read two books with Greek classical references and questionable politicians in one month but sometimes that’s how things play out).

Argenis is a selfish waste of space, but perhaps not be irredeemably so. If Tentacle showed him descending into a well-deserved personal hell, this is his purgatory. Exiled in Cuba he runs through his heroin-substitute at twice the prescribed rate kidding himself that he’s getting clean, sleeps with his nurse and dreams of a success that he does nothing to work for. It can’t last, and when it falls apart Argenis is forced largely against his will to start taking responsibility for his own life.

That makes this sound uplifting. It isn’t. It’s a novel about hustlers, junkies, and what’s worse politicians. Once again it’s well written and this time with marvellously evocative descriptions of Santo Domingo and of Havana:

On their drive, Havana was looking glorious and desperate, an old woman with legs open, brazenly displaying her wide and empty streets – streets that reminded Argenis of an amusement park; no cars, buses or trams. The people who were coming and going wore an anguish on their faces he could recognize as his own: it was the anguish of having to hustle for everything on the black market, just as he’d hustled for heroin in Santo Domingo.

In a way it’s a coming of age tale. Argenis starting to grow up, to come to terms with his father’s legacy and with their highly dysfunctional relationship. Argenis is an asshole, but he could be more than that. The question is will he find his own path through the world or will he be swallowed by his father’s desires and ambitions?

Highly recommended and, like each of Quesadillas and The Wind that Lays Waste, a strong candidate for my end of year list. 

See you all soon and hope isolation isn’t getting you down too much!

 

 

 

Ps. I’ve added links to my 2017, 2018 and 2019 end of year roundups in my Best Books of the Blog tab.

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Filed under Almada, Selva, Indiana, Rita, Mexican fiction, Monthly updates, Villalobos, Juan Pablo

January round-up

So, in the hope of turning over a newish leaf, here’s the first of my monthly reading round-ups for 2020.

Water Shall Refuse Them, by Lucie McKnight Hardy

My first read of 2020 was in fact mostly read towards the end of 2019, but I count these things by when I finish a book. I wanted something well suited to long, dark nights and winter cold. I decided therefore on a bit of folk horror.

Water is certainly folk horror, but it’s not really a winter read. It’s set during the famous summer heat wave of 1976 and the whole book is prickly with long airless days and trapped sweat. It’s a dark coming of age novel, with a family on holiday following the death of the youngest child.

Nif, the teenage narrator, is quite clearly disturbed as shown early on when her toddler brother falls over skinning his knee, at which point she rubs gravel painfully into the other knee to ensure balance. Her mother is near-catatonic; her father is failing to cope.

Unfortunately, the Welsh village they move to for a month’s break has its own tensions. A local religious sect has a running feud with the family’s new neighbours, among them a teenage boy Mally who becomes Nif’s one friend but who may be even more damaged than she is.

It’s claustrophobic and well paced, and while I worked out the reveals and direction of travel fairly early I think that was intentional. Although I’ve tagged it as horror there’s nothing really supernatural here – it’s people that are the real danger.

I should caution that the book contains multiple scenes of animal cruelty. Nif’s traumas are often inflicted on the helpless around her and the book doesn’t turn away from that.

Theft, by Luke Brown

As a rule I dislike state of the nation novels, and I have no real interest in Brexit novels. It’s lucky then that And Other Stories sent me a subscription copy of this as I’d otherwise never have read it.

Paul is a 30something East London hipster, living in a decrepit but cheap apartment and filling his time with casual sex and drug-fuelled parties. He writes for a low distribution style magazine, contributing a barely read book page (his real passion) and a popular haircut street-photos page (which is why they allow him the book page). Otherwise he funds his limited lifestyle by working in what is quite evidently a thinly disguised version of the London Review Bookshop.

He’s a classic man-child protagonist, but Theft is set in 2016 and just as Britain faces an existential crisis of sorts so does Paul. He interviews reclusive cult author Emily Nardini and falls in with her, her much older husband Andrew and their 20something Guardian-column writing socialist daughter. Paul’s mother has recently died, so he spends his time shuttling between East London, Emily Nardini’s Holland Park home, the LRB, and his North-East England childhood home which he and his sister are trying to sell.

All this allows Brown to contrast the new and old establishments, London and the North, Remainers and Leavers, haves and have-nots. It’s often very funny, and Paul while never really an unreliable narrator isn’t the most self-aware either.

Theft captures a generation whose future seems to have been misplaced. Andrew sees Paul as a kind of creepy cuckoo who has somehow intruded into his family’s life for no clear reason. Paul in turn profoundly resents Andrew, seeing him perhaps as having everything Paul would want for himself, but realistically won’t ever have.

Theft is well written, has strong characters and somehow manages to avoid taking sides (particularly when it presents the views of some of Paul’s old school friends still living in his home town). It captures something of the crisis of our times, particularly the failure of many men to adapt to a changing world, and a generation’s loss of the future their parents grew up expecting.

Zero History, by William Gibson

William Gibson’s “Blue Ant” trilogy is set in the then present day of the early 2000s and follows various characters impacted by the Blue Ant advertising agency and its profoundly strange guerrilla marketing campaigns.

Gibson is of course famous for writing cyberpunk novels, in particular 1984’s Neuromancer. With the Blue Ant trilogy there’s a definite sense of him saying – this is it, we’re now in the future I’ve always written about.

I read the second of the trilogy, Spook Country, back in December and I wouldn’t normally read the third so soon after. However, Dominic Cummings famously wrote a blog shortly after I finished Spook Country calling for government to recruit people like two of the characters from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. I figured I’d better read Zero History before he wrote another blog and potentially spoiled the ending for me…

Here we’re reunited with the characters from the second book, former indie pop singer Henry Hollis and now-recovering drug addict Milgrim. They’re tasked to find the source of a new denim brand which is being eagerly sought after by those in the know but has absolutely no marketing behind it (stealth marketing it’s called).

What follows is fun and very Gibsonian, mixing up street fashion with military procurement and high-tech intrigue. I enjoyed it even though I wasn’t absolutely sure there was a point to every part of it, I liked spending time in Gibson’s strange view of what is after all our own world, and the exploration of subterranean forces underpinning consensus culture was interesting.

Taken as a whole the trilogy is I think a success – it says something about how networks and deep information flows impact our times that few other novels achieve. At the same time I suspect it could have been a bit sleeker and the hyperwealth the characters all dwell within (even if borrowed for most of them) creates a distance that slightly diminishes the effect. It’s our world, but it’s a very privileged slice of our world.

The Godmother, by Hannelore Cayre and translated by Stephanie Smee

I saw this in a Daunt Books and bought it the same day. It’s a noirish tale about a police translator who uses the information she gains listening in to police transcripts to intercept a drugs shipment and become a wholesale dealer – mostly so she can pay her elderly mother’s nursing home fees.

It’s hugely fun. Patience Portefeux, the pragmatic protagonist, is motivated mostly by a sense of life passing her by and crushing financial obligations than any desire to be a criminal mastermind. Fortunately for her though most of the dealers she’s working with are idiots and who would suspect a slightly dull-looking middle-aged woman of being the fabled Godmother the police are now searching for?

I don’t want to say too much more. There’s actually some surprising depth here in the exploration of Patience’s now-demented and previously distant mother and the motivations of the family who produce the drugs Patience intercepts. It’s very, very good. If you read one book from this roundup, well, it should probably be Theft to be honest but this is also a pretty good contender.

Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds

This is a short story collection I’d been reading in bed over a couple of months and finished in January. It’s set in Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe. I’ve long liked Reynolds, but this wasn’t his best collection for me. If you already know him you’ve probably already read this and there’s lots to like here. If you don’t already know him this isn’t where I’d start.

And that’s it! Watch this space for a February roundup in due course… I’ll also see if I can get at least a couple of illustrative quotes from the book, which for some reason I didn’t note in January.

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Filed under Brown, Luke, Cayre, Hannelore, Crime, French, Gibson, William, Horror, Reynolds, Alastair, SF, Short stories

Such are the debts among men; they’re paid with songs and bullets.

Hi all, long time no see.

As anyone following this blog may have guessed I’ve struggled to find time to post this past year. That’s somewhat ironic given I have more free time than before, but I have less dead time (the civil service turns out to be a lot more efficient than corporate law, who knew?). However, if there’s any time that’s ripe for an update it’s the end of the year. Here then are my personal books of the year for 2019. (Actually, the picture is mostly books I haven’t read yet so expect to see some of them on my best of the year for 2020 all going well.)

Best western: This has to be West, by Carys Davies. I thought I’d previously written this up but I read it shortly after my April-onwards blogging hiatus. It’s a marvellous short form but wide screen western.

I enjoyed West for its prose, its strong grasp of story and its sense of the vastness of the old west. The parallel narrative strands both worked well for me – the man searching for giant animals in the far west (he read about their bones being found in a Kentucky swamp) and his 10-year-old daughter doing her best to get by at home while waiting for his unlikely return. There’s a tremendous sense of scale here both physical and temporal against which the small human tales of greed, loyalty and folly play out.

Best and boldest short story collection: I wrote about Fen, by Daisy Johnson, in my January writeup, here. Nearly a year on from reading it I still remember the physicality of it and the sense of the mythic oozing into the present. It’s a fabulous short story collection, in every sense.

Best why didn’t I read this sooner? (also strongly presented in the Best Gothic Horror category): This is the marvellous We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. This had been widely recommended to me, and no wonder. It’s dark, slippery, and undeniably powerful. I wrote about it in my February roundup here. Looking back, I’d be hard pressed to say whether I preferred this to The House on Haunted Hill (with its incredible opening paragraph). Both books are exceptional. If anyone has any recommendations for more Jackson this time I’ll listen sooner.

Best semi-autobiographical military fiction: not that Cartucho, by Nellie Campobello and translated by Doris Meyer (subtitled Tales of the Struggle in Northern Mexico), is really military fiction in any usual sense. Rather it’s a collection of linked vignettes capturing her childhood experience of the Mexican Revolution, written by her as an adult in 1931. It’s fair to say my knowledge of the Mexican Revolution is near non-existent (and reading Wikipedia while reading the book didn’t help much – people seem to have changed sides a lot).

Why read a quasi-fictional memoir of a child’s experience of a war I’m utterly ignorant of? Partly for the writing of course, and partly because I’d become aware that while I was reading a lot of Mexican fiction very little of it was by women. Cartucho (cartridges), paints a picture of brave young men (terribly young) and the ease with which they lose their lives. It’s a book filled with the romance of war and yet at the same time its terrible waste.

Cartucho divides into three sections: Men of the North; The Executed; and Under Fire. Here’s a fairly typical chapter from Men of the North:

El “Kirili”

Kirili wore a red jacket and yellow leather chaps. He liked to show off his singing voice because people would say, “Kirili, what a fine voice you have!” On his little finger he wore a wide ring that he’d taken off a dead man back in Durango. He courted Chagua, a lady with tiny feet. Whenever fighting broke out, Kirili would pass through Segunda del Rayo often so folks could see him firing shots. He walked with a swagger and an easy smile, like a buttonhole, on his face.

Whenever he set to talking about combat, he’d say that he had killed nobody but generals, colonels and majors. He never killed foot soldiers. Sometimes Gándara and El Peet told him not to be such a liar. Doña Magdalena, his mother, loved him a lot and admired him.

Off they went to Nieves. Kirili was taking a bath in a river when someone told him the enemy was coming, but he didn’t believe it and didn’t get out of the water. They arrived and killed him right there, in the river.

Chagua dressed in mourning, and not long after that she became a streetwalker.

Doña Magdalena, who no longer has any teeth and wears eyeglasses for reading, cries for him every day in a corner of his house in Chihuahua. But El Kirili lay there in the water, his body turning cold, the tissue of his porous flesh clutching the bullets that killed him.

In the UK Cartucho only comes in a Kindle edition as part of a double edition with Campobello’s later work My Mother’s Hands (which I was less taken by).

Best novel with an utterly exhausted protagonist: this is one of the surprise hits of my year and is The Hours Before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin.  Guy Savage wrote about it here. It’s a crime novel, but not really. The main character Louise is a young mother with two girls and a new baby boy, Michael. Michael won’t sleep. Her husband blames Louise, the district nurse is patronisingly unhelpful, and Louise hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep now in a very long time.

When a new lodger seems to have a background that doesn’t add up and behaviours that don’t quite make sense Louise becomes suspicious, but is she just paranoid from exhaustion? I’ve made it sound like a thriller, but actually the crime is the least of it. What’s brilliant here is the exploration of what it can be like to be mother to a small baby that just won’t stop crying. Everything Louise does, every investigative path she walks, she’s accompanied by at least one child needing her attention. Her husband means well, but just adds to her burden.

I’ve recommended Hours widely and it’s been well received every time. If you read one book from this list that you haven’t before this would be a good choice.

Best folk horror: is of course Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. This is what I used to call an espresso novel – short and intense. Jacqui writes about it here as have many others (Lonesome Reader’s review here is also good). It starts out with teenage Silvie on an archeological holiday in Northern Ireland with her amateur-expert father, browbeaten (and more…) mother and an archaeology professor and his grad students.

There’s nothing supernatural here, just human ugliness and the seductive power of other people’s narratives. Best read in one or two sittings if you can.

Best slice of life novel: is The Waitress was New, by Dominique Fabre and translated by Jordan Stump. This quiet novel of a day-in-the-life of a middle-aged barman has stayed with me right through the year. It’s another of Guy Savage’s discoveries (here) and explores a drama that’s nothing in terms of most fiction but that would be huge in one’s personal life – the owner of the bar has disappeared for the day on some personal business and barman Pierre finds himself trying to hold things together with a new waitress and short handed in the owner’s absence.

It’s a small, quiet novel but very well observed. As the day goes on regulars come and go and we get glimpses of other lives, but like Pierre we never know too much about them. Life goes on. Highly recommended.

Best novel about an “It” girl: not that she really is, but this is of course The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Kathie von Ankum. Keun is hugely overlooked talent but thanks to Penguin that looks like being corrected with several of her back-catalogue coming back into print.

Here Doris is a girl about town, modelled to a degree on the characters in Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but Artificial is much the better book. It’s funny, well written and has a streak of darkness coming both from Doris’s dependency on men to survive and on the wider times in which she lives (Weimar Germany). Another strong candidate for my end of year list. Grant reviewed it here and Jacqui here.

Best science fiction not involving spaceships: because science fiction really doesn’t have to you know. Anyway, it’s The Last Children of Tokyo, by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani. This is a wonderfully melancholic novel in which the ageing (but not dying) inhabitants of a future Japan look after their enfeebled grandchildren. It’s a quiet apocalypse, but not utterly without hope. This got lots of attention when it came out and hardly needs more from me but I can’t deny its surprising power and gentleness. I wrote more about it in my January roundup here and there’s a typically excellent review from Tony’s Reading List here.

Best novel so gossamer-light it’s almost not there: is The Revolt, by Nina Berberova and translated by Marian Schwarz. This is a slim novel of roads not taken and the risks of rediscovering old love. It’s genuinely excellent and I’ve read more (also very good) Berberova since. A writer well overdue a Penguin Classics reissue. I wrote a bit more about it in my March roundup here.

Best comic novel by a writer I now plan to read everything by: is Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym. This is a wonderfully observed comedy in classic Pym territory featuring curates, country fairs and the possibility of romance. That makes it sound dreadful, but then if you summarised Jeeves & Wooster it would be a series of escapades of a nice-but-dim young man and his highly intelligent valet which doesn’t sound that great either.

Mildred Wright is one of those excellent women on whom the 1950s Church of England depends: unmarried, capable and intelligent. When a glamorous couple move in downstairs Mildred finds herself pulled into their orbit, disrupting her cosy life with the local vicar and his sister.

The characterisation is spot on, Mildred is marvellous and Pym avoids the obvious simply by making Mildred too sensible to fall into the expected traps. Emma at Bookaround wrote this up in much more detail here and again it’s highly recommended.

Drumroll please!

Best novel of the year for 2019 (and most surprising read of 2019): is Tentacle, by Rita Indiana and translated by Achy Obejas. I wrote about this back in January here and Grant wrote about it in more detail here. I don’t honestly know if it is better than the Fremlin or the truly excellent Keun, but it was so unexpectedly fun I thought it deserved the place. It’s transgender SF involving time travel and a psychic anemone and it’s brilliant. I got it due to my subscription to And Other Stories and I’m glad I did as I’d never have bought it.

And that’s it! Sorry I’ve been so quiet online. I have started commenting on other people’s blogs again, intermittently but more than during the middle of the year. I also have many other end of year lists to read through. Before I go though, there’s just time for a couple of honorary mentions – these are the books that if I’d typed this up on another day might well have made the list: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (tremendous post-apocalypse novel. Surprisingly quiet in tone and with a nice examination of what gets remembered by history); The Spoilt City, by Olivia Manning (welcome return to Manning’s Balkan trilogy with some very impressive moments and lovely characterisation); and A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon (simply a hugely fun wartime thriller).

Finally, in case anyone’s curious, here’s my total list of everything I’ve read this year.  If there’s any there you’re curious about (whether what I think of them or why they didn’t make my list) please feel free to ask in the comments.

January

Semiosis, Sue Burke

The Fungus, Harry Adam Knight

Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada

Three Horses, Erri de Luca

Tentacle, Rita Indiana

Rustication, Charles Palliser

Fen, Daisy Johnson

February

The Ivory Grin, Ross Macdonald

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson

Nomads, Dave Hutchinson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

March

Slimer, Harry Adam Knight

Lady and the Little Fox Fur, Violette Leduc

Fell, Jenn Ashworth

The Revolt, Nina Berberova

Waitress was New, Dominique Fabre

After Supper Ghost Stories, Jerome

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos

The Cowboy Bible, Carlos Velasquez

April

A Scream in Soho, John G. Brandon

A Dedicated Friend, Shirley Longford

Mildew, Pauline Jonguitude

West, Carys Davies

Zima Blue, Alastair Reynolds

Glaxo, Hernán Ronsino

Roseanna, Sjöwall and Wahlöö

Amok and Other Stories, Stefan Zweig

May

The Remainder, Alia Zéran

The Old Jest, Jennifer Johnston

The Night Visitors, Jean Ashworth and Richard Hirst

Holiday, Stanley Middleton

Empty Words, Mario Levrero

June

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

The Watchtower, Elizabeth Harrower

Jagua Nana, Cyprian Ekwensi

July

Hotel du Lac, Anita Brookner

The Hours Before Dawn, Celia Fremlin

Man who would be Kling, A. Roberts

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson

More Far Eastern Tales, Maugham

1913: The Eve of War, Paul Ham

August

The Last Summer, Ricarda Huch

Die, My Love, Ariana Harwicz

The Appointment, Herta Müller

September

Cartucho, Nellie Campobello

Walking to Aldebaran, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh

The Artificial Silk Girl, Irmgard Keun

My Mother’s Hands, Nellie Campobello

October

The Dark Defiles, Richard Morgan

Murd.Molly Southborne, Tade Thompson

Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss

Delirium Brief, Charles Stross

Permafrost, Alastair Reynolds

The Spoilt City, Olivia Manning

Ladies fr. St Petersburg, Nina Berberova

Survival M Southborne, Tase Thompson

The Beauty, Aliyah Whitely

No Good frm a Corpse, Leigh Brackett

November

The Taiga Syndrome, Christina Rivera Garza

The Labyrinth Index, Charles Stross

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

December  

Spook Country, William Gibson

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February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist

March was a strong reading month. Through March and April I’ve been very busy at work so finding time to read was a challenge. The answer was shorter, punchier books – books with an impact beyond the mere weight of pages.

I’ve also been trying to catch up on some backlog reading. Like many heavy readers I tend to buy more than I can read, so I’ve consciously taken the opportunity to browse my own shelves a little. That’s been a big success, so I expect to be doing more of that over the coming weeks.

Anyway, without more ado here’s my March reading.

Slimer, by Harry Adam Knight

I read Harry Adam Knight’s novel The Fungus back in January (short review here), and even though I’m not sure I’d recommend it exactly I did rather like it. So, I thought I’d start March with another ‘80s horror shocker.

The Fungus was fun but flawed. The vision of a weirdly post-apocalyptic London entertained even if some of the violence and the treatment of women distinctly didn’t. Slimer just isn’t as good, and is much nastier.

It’s basically a rerun of SF horror classic Who Goes There?. Horror fans will of course know that as the source novella for the equally classic movie The Thing (the earlier movie version of The Thing isn’t nearly as true to the original novella, though it is very good).

Here four castaways find a secret research station set up on a disused oil rig. At first they think there’s nobody there, then they discover what may be some survivors of whatever happened, then they realise that perhaps the only survivor is a creature able to take the forms of those it absorbs.

It’s not a bad concept, but it’s already been done (and better) and here there’s some really unpleasant sexual violence. Not one I’d recommend.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, by Violette Leduc and translated by Derek Coltman

This is one from Penguin’s recent and rather lovely European writers series. It’s my personal favourite of those I’ve read from that range so far.

It’s about a destitute old woman, desperately poor and eking out a threadbare existence with a handful of coins; her sole luxury is a small tin of carefully hoarded and measured out coffee beans.

I say her sole luxury, but that’s not quite true, because there’s also her fox fur. Like her it’s a tattered old thing, discarded by its former owner.

The fur is the woman’s only friend, and yet her desperation is so great that she considers selling it. Does it have any value though to anyone but her? And even when you’re starving are there things still more precious than money?

It sounds bleak, but somehow it isn’t. This is partly as it’s beautifully written, partly as it’s incredibly humane, and partly because Leduc never forgets the humanity of her protagonist.

It’s an intense and impressionistic novel, but short and easily read. Highly recommended. Grant’s more detailed review at 1streading is here.

Fell, by Jenn Ashworth

This is a slightly odd one, as I bought this entirely by mistake. I meant to buy Daisy Johnson’s Fen but at the time couldn’t clearly recall the author’s name. This was back when I used to buy books from Amazon (I don’t any more), so I didn’t browse it to see I’d ordered the wrong book.

To make things worse, I’d heard mixed things of Fell, which had been described to me as weak stuff. It’s a ghost story of sorts, though that’s more a narrative device really. A woman in her forties returns home to the fens after the death of her father and stepmother, her mother having died years before. The family house is nearly in ruins, quite unfit for habitation, but it becomes apparent the woman is slightly disturbed and she becomes obsessed with restoring it.

Her arrival wakes her parents’ spirits, for want of a better word. They can only observe, but their observations can track through time as well as place and so they look back to a long-ago summer when their lives and their daughter’s went off the rails.

Decades past, when the girl was just a child, her mother was dying. On one of their last summer outings they met a young man who appeared to have miraculous gifts, the power to heal. He somehow cured the father’s terrible eyesight, something he’d lived with all his life and which had prevented him serving in World War Two. If he can do that what can’t he do? If he can do that, why shouldn’t he be able to cure the mother’s terminal illness?

What follows is a parallel tracked narrative. The present, with the ill-judged attempts to restore the house and a new friendship with a tree surgeon called in to help; the past with the parents, their family of lodgers brought in to pay the bills, and the young man with a miraculous gift he seems curiously unwilling to use.

What I liked here is that while the ghosts are a narrative device, the healing isn’t. The young man has real power, but no real control over it. The book then becomes partly a study of faith, and partly a sort of grim whydunnit. We know from the present strand that he didn’t heal the mother, but it takes time to understand why.

The book becomes a character study – of the father; the mother to a degree; absolutely of the young man with his unwelcome gift (he dreams of being a tailor, but when you can heal with a touch it’s hard to live that kind of ordinary life). It’s also of course an examination of the damage unwittingly done, in the form of the daughter in the present with her memories of that long past summer stirred up by her return.

For me, Fell was rather an effective piece of literary horror. It’s very much in Andrew Hurley territory (who provides a blurb for it I notice). If you like him there’s every chance you’ll like this.

Finally, I don’t know for certain, but I strongly suspect Jenn Ashworth also wrote Holt House (published under a pseudonym).

The Revolt, by Nina Berberova and translated by Marian Schwartz

I discovered Nina Berberova through Guy Savage’s review here. This was my first by her, but won’t be my last (not least as for some reason I broke my usual rule and bought another by her before reading this one).

Two lovers part on the eve of the German invasion of Paris. One, Olga, stays behind to take care of her uncle who is a famous man of letters. The other, Einar, flees speaking of how much he wishes he could stay or take Olga with him.

Years pass. Berberova captures the war in a handful of pages and in four key visits to Olga’s uncle from the German authorities. After the war and her uncle’s death she travels to Sweden, where she once again runs into Einar and discovers why he never responded to all those letters she wrote…

This is a fantastic novella. It’s an examination of second chances and old loves rediscovered, and of the dangers of trying to rekindle old flames and lost dreams. I’ve said very little of what happens or why, because you should read this for yourself to find out. Very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.

The Waitress was new, by Dominique Fabre and translated by Jordan Stump

Another of Guy’s reviews, here, put me on to this one. It’s the story of Pierre, a middle aged Paris barman whose quietly ordered life is put into mild disarray when the owner of the bar where Pierre works has a mid-life crisis.

That doesn’t sound very dramatic, and to be honest it isn’t. We follow Pierre for a few days as he tries to deal with the fallout of the owner’s absence – keeping the bar going with the help of the cook, the owner’s wife and a new waitress. They manage fairly well.

Meanwhile, Pierre reflects on his customers, on the barman’s trade, and on his own life. It’s incredibly small, quiet stuff. I loved it.

The old woman in The Little Fox Fur is in fact only sixty, hardly old at all by modern standards but her life is essentially spent. Pierre is fifty-six, which now is just middle aged. Still, he’s not in as good position to bounce back as he once was, and he hadn’t planned for having to make a new future if the bar fails.

Guy refers to this as a melancholy and introspective novel, and I can’t better that. I said above that it isn’t dramatic, but in another sense it is. Our lives rarely involve uncovering conspiracies, solving murders, or sudden devastating family revelations. But loneliness, aging, fear of an uncertain future, doing the best you can regardless – these are intensely human concerns. It’s fair to say this is another strong candidate for the end of year list.

Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s Journal also wrote a (typically excellent) review of this here.

After Supper Ghost Stories, by Jerome K. Jerome

Kaggsy reviewed this here, and liked it a lot more than I did. The after-supper ghost stories are only a small part of the overall book. They are very funny – a series of frankly improbable ghost tales with an even funnier framing device.

After that though, the bulk of the book is a series of comic essays many of which are rather rambling and few of which are funny. It’s like reading a series of humorous newspaper columns, but concerned with issues of another century.

I felt a bit had by this one. The title of the book and the back blurb didn’t really suggest that the main part of it wasn’t actually comic ghost stories at all, which was what I bought it for. I’d suggest seeing if you can find another edition with just the ghost stories themselves – there’s probably a free version on kindle.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos

Oh I wanted to like this. I love the film, and it came highly regarded by Jacqui of JacquiWine (here). Sadly, I didn’t.

The novel is written as the diary of Lorelei, a not-so-dumb blonde who travels to Europe with her seemingly sharper brunette friend Dorothy. Lorelei likes to think of herself as civilised, cultured, and of Dorothy as a bit of a savage.

They’re sent to Paris by Lorelei’s patron and admirer Mr Eisman, the Button King. The idea is to give them a little education, but Lorelei isn’t for educating and judges everywhere and everyone unfavourably in comparison to the US and to US gentlemen.

I loved the depiction of England, where a series of impoverished aristocrats constantly try to sell the rich Americans whatever they have nearest to hand. Europe is full of wolves looking to prey on the unescorted sheep they see the girls to be, but what they don’t reckon on is that Lorelei is the biggest wolf of all.

Lorelei cares about jewels and she cares about shopping. She cares about men to the extent they provide those things – Dorothy by contrast actually gets fond of some of them. They work well together, and their adventures are by and large pretty funny.

What didn’t work so well for me were Lorelei’s accidental misspellings and misunderstandings, many of which read to me as a highly literate journalist writing how they thought a less educated person might write. I simply didn’t believe that Lorelei would think she was travelling on “an oriental express”, rather than the rather famous Orient Express the name of which would be plastered everywhere around her.

Similarly, I didn’t buy her thinking she was in a country called The Central of Europe, or at least not for any prolonged period. Too many of her errors felt affected to me, like Loos was laughing at her rather than us laughing with her.

The book does come with delightful illustrations (I’m a sucker for a nice drawing in a comic novel), and the characters are nicely observed. It was just Lorelei’s voice that didn’t quite gel for me and that’s a shame. Still love the movie though.

The Cowboy Bible, by Carlos Velasquez and translated by Achy Obejas

I learned about this one from Grant at 1streading, here. It sounded raucous and unruly and full of barely contained energy, and it is all those things. Unfortunately, for me it also contained a lot of fairly showy writing that looked good on the page, but fell apart after a moment’s thought.

Essentially, this is a collection of very loosely linked short stories set in a fictional Mexican province. The Cowboy Bible is the linking element, but a protean one that changes from story to story. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes a person, later some shoes. Like much in the collection it’s really just some words, without anything particularly underpinning them.

The stories vary hugely, and are often surrealistic. Many are intentionally offensive (international competitive pubic hair carving competitions for example). There’s an intentional shock factor.

That’s not really the problem – it’s a fallacy to criticise a book for doing what it sets out to do, even if you don’t particularly like what it does. What is a problem is that when anything can happen it doesn’t much matter what does.

In the opening story the protagonist is a luchador. Here though luchadors compete not just through wrestling, but also through musical battles (a bit like rap battles). Velasquez slips fluidly in his descriptions from one to the other, with the result that I could read all the words but could form no mental image at all of what was actually happening much of the time.

Worse for me was a tendency to use phrases that sounded great at first reading, but on reflection didn’t really mean anything. “The Cowboy Bible came down from the platform sad and lonely, as if she’d just swallowed some matches.” What? There’s a lot like that – Velasquez loves the little twist at the end of the sentence but while it surprises it doesn’t really do anything more than surprise.

So, it’s not my book, but interesting if you want a dive into a sort of punk/rock-and-roll version of contemporary Mexican culture. Besides, if you like everything you read you’re probably not challenging yourself enough to try new things…

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Filed under Ashworth, Jenn, Berberova, Nina, Fabre, Dominique, French, Horror, Jerome, Jerome K., Leduc, Violette, Loos, Anita, Mexican fiction, Novellas, Russian

February roundup (still a bit belatedly)

So, here’s my February roundup as recently promised. February was an intense month at work and I read very little. On the other hand, I did enjoy what I read, so overall still a win I think.

The Ivory Grin, by Ross MacDonald

My return to Ross MacDonald was long overdue, and The Ivory Grin did not disappoint. Lew Archer is hired to find a missing girl, Lucy. Lucy is black and Archer’s client Una is white. Perhaps that’s why Una figures Archer will buy her story that Lucy was her maid and stole from her, and she’s only looking for her to avoid getting the police involved and the girl in trouble.

Soon Archer finds he’s not the only PI on Lucy’s trail, and when he finds her she’s evidently terrified. She’s right to be, because we’re hardly into the book at all when Archer finds Lucy with her throat slashed and in her effects a newspaper clipping about a missing socialite and a $5,000 reward.

MacDonald is on top form here. There’s a great character in the form of jaded police chief Lieutenant Brake, who’s seen it all before and is all too keen to arrest Lucy’s boyfriend figuring getting a jury to buy that one black person killed another won’t be too much of a hard sell. The difficulty is, Archer doesn’t believe the boyfriend is guilty, and Brake is smart enough to have his own doubts.

Ivory Grin has believable characters, a satisfyingly tangled plot, and definite pace. It’s an easy but excellent read. Jacqui reviewed it here, and I agree with pretty much every word of her review (particularly how great Brake is as a character, but then psychological depth is often where MacDonald excels).

Europe at Dawn, by Dave Hutchinson

This is the slightly unexpected fourth book in Dave Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy (now I guess a tetralogy – my previous reviews are here, here and here). It sees a welcome return of Rudi and Rupert, both much liked characters from earlier novels, and is satisfyingly complex while still revealing a few more of the setting’s secrets.

One reviewer on Amazon suggested re-reading the earlier books before reading this one, and to be honest I can see why. This is the culmination of three previous novels of future-Europe spycraft and most of the characters lie constantly to each other. I can see myself returning to the full cycle and reading them in again in reasonably quick order, as I’ve done with some of William Gibson’s books. I think they would repay the effort.

Ultimately, I didn’t actually think Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy needed anything more said, and to an extent I still think that, but Hutchinson clearly disagreed and since I thoroughly enjoyed Dawn I’m glad he did.

Nomads, by Dave Hutchinson

This came out while I was reading Europe at Dawn, and I needed a short SF read while very much heads down at work. I normally avoid reading two books by the same author in a row, but Nomads is a novella so I made an exception.

It’s a contemporary tale of a rural policeman who goes to investigate a cottage whose occupants complain that Cary Grant tried to break in the previous night. From there, things get very weird indeed, with time travel, refugees from the future, and a distinctly irked Home Office all thrown into the mix.

It’s fun, but I actually think it would be better if worked up into a full novel. If Hutchinson ever does that I’ll read it. If not, it’s a fun light snack between meatier books.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

What to say? It’s in Penguin Classics for a reason. It’s a masterpiece of expertly written gothic not-really-horror-but-still-pretty-damn-uncomfortable.

Merricat, Mary Catherine Blackwood, lives in a large house with her sister Constance and their frail Uncle Julian. Theirs is an old and a rich family, but blighted by scandal after all but these survivors were murdered in a notorious poisoning case some years before. Everyone believed Constance was guilty, but she wasn’t convicted so now the three of them live up in their secluded house, famous and feared.

Constance never leaves the house or its grounds now, and Uncle Julian can’t, so it’s Merricat who goes into the village for their shopping. She hears the chants of the local children, sees the barbed looks of the villagers. The thing is though, some of it is clearly real, but some of it might be entirely in Merricat’s head. She’s a marvellously unreliable narrator, and while many of the villagers clearly do hate and fear her I couldn’t help noticing that at times Merricat ascribed hostile motives to what seemed entirely ordinary acts on their part.

Merricat is superstitious, prone to fantasy, a dreamer but incredibly proud of her family and the Blackwood name. Then comes the bullishly pragmatic Cousin Charles, arrived to gain access to Merricat’s father’s money and soon dividing the household. He woos Constance, plans to have Uncle Julian put in a home, but in Merricat he’s found an enemy quite beyond his comprehension. It’s an insane fairy tale, with Merricat as the not-so-innocent babe and the unsympathetic Cousin Charles really very far out of his depth as the wicked interloper.

It is brilliant. It is funny. It is dark and twisted and gothic and surprising and, well, I could go on. Did I mention that it’s brilliant? A definite for my end of year list.

Jacqui wrote a very good review of this here. I also previously wrote about Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (also excellent) here. Hill House is remarkable. I think this may actually be better, hard as that may be to imagine.

And that was it for February! I did say it was a light month for reading. Still, that Jackson. Extraordinary.

 

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Filed under California, Hardboiled, Hutchinson, Dave, Jackson, Shirley, Macdonald, Ross, SF

January roundup (slightly belatedly)

I’d hoped to do my January roundup straight after January ended, but I had an intense period at work and then flu which was fairly brutal. However, I am now pretty much recovered and I thought I’d share some of my recent reading.

January opened with a bit of Christmas SF and post-Christmas pulp, then got fairly literary. Overall it was a really strong reading month. February I didn’t get to read very much at all, but what it lacked in quantity it distinctly made up for in quality. My February post should be up next week.

So, introductions aside, here’s January:

Semiosis, by Sue Burke

This was my Christmas SF read. It’s an interesting one – a group of idealists settle humanity’s first off-world colony and the novel follows multiple generations as they adapt to their new environment and build a new society.

The complicating factor is that their new world an older ecosystem than ours, and intelligence is much more widespread. More to the point, intelligence here has evolved in plants and popular sentiment aside plants are not cuddly – they battle each other for resources and can’t afford to give quarter because they can’t move if things don’t go their way.

After a fairly dry start I thought this was excellent. There’s a lovely examination of how a society designed to be free of religion, money, politics and all those old Earth conflicts quickly comes to develop its own schisms and fault-lines and a real sense to the precarity of the colony. There’s an original first contact scenario (two in fact, as there’s also the remnants of a previous alien colony to deal with) and a strong political thread as the colonists slowly work out how to live.

Overall I really liked this. It isn’t one for non-SF fans – the concerns are firmly SFnal – but for those who do like SF it’s worth checking out.

The Fungus, by Harry Adam Knight

I always seem to fall ill after Christmas – probably something to do with allowing myself to relax or possibly just my habit of seasonal excess. That means I usually read a light New Year read. This year I chose some pulp horror.

Harry Adam Knight’s books (actually a duo, it’s a pseudonym) date back to the 1980s and are firmly in that James Herbert/Shaun Hutson/Guy N. Smith vein of horror. Books with titles like Rats, or Crabs, or Slugs. You get the idea.

The template tends to involve scenes of quite egregious gore and often distinctly gratuitous sex. I loved them as a teenager, which is probably the best age for them. As an adult the gender politics of these novels tends to stick out a bit more obviously and they can be a bit ugly in that regard (excepting Herbert, who I think deserves better recognition in the horror canon).

Here Knight posits a fungal apocalypse, as some chemical agent causes otherwise ordinary fungi to bloom at extraordinary rates and infect humans. It leads to some actually pretty good scenes of a phantasmagorical London remade by giant mutant fungal blooms and populated by half-mad infected survivors. It’s gleeful schlock, fun if you like this sort of novel but if you’re not now and never were a 14-year old boy it might not be for you.

The Last Children of Tokyo, by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani

This has already been very widely written about, not that I seem to have preserved any of the links to the many excellent reviews of it I’ve read (which I do normally try to do). I dug out though Grant’s review from 1streadingblog here as it was the review which pushed me over the edge into trying this.

It’s set in a future Tokyo in a blighted Japan, where the elderly are living lives of indefinite duration but the young are sickly and infirm. It’s a mirror of course of the real challenge Japan faces of an aging population where people are dying faster than they’re being born.

Although this is clearly an SF novel, this is one I’d happily recommend to those with no interest in that form. There’s no interest here in the causes of whatever slow apocalypse is engulfing Japan, nor much in how the rest of the world is faring. Instead it’s more an examination of generational failure and guilt.

In the real world today we have children skipping school to protest about environmental collapse. Parents naturally want to leave a better world for their children than the one that was handed to them, but we have new generations growing up who’re poorer than their parents and have no real prospect of ever catching up. In the longer term, many of us I think expect to be judged harshly by those who come after us for the environmental legacy we leave behind us.

In Last Children, spry Centenarian Yoshiro tries his best to care for his great-grandson Mumei, but comes increasingly to realise that there’s nothing much he can do for him. Yoshiro’s generation already broke the world – in that context what lessons does he have that Mumei could usefully learn from?

It’s a quietly bleak novel, though often gently witty with it. It’s beautifully written and translated and powerful in its effect. Like much of the best SF it isn’t of course about the future at all. It’s about now. Highly recommended.

Three Horses, by Eri de Luca and translated by Michael Moore

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat wrote about this here, and Emma of Bookaroundthecorner here. I can see why both loved it, but it wasn’t my book.

Essentially, this is the tale of a 50 year-old gardener living a peaceful life in his native Italy. He falls in love with a local woman and befriends an African migrant worker. He reads novels, eats at the local tavern and lives quietly and as far as he can harmoniously.

We soon learn that his life wasn’t always so calm. He spent years in Argentina, got involved in the vicious civil war there, lost someone he loved to violence and became part of the violence in turn.

This isn’t really a naturalistic novel. The language is deeply lyrical – Emma refers to the prose as “luminous and poetic” and she’s absolutely right. The characters all seem to have a certain poetic wisdom and are prone to speaking meaningful truths to each other and as a result they all sounded kind of alike to me – a bit like they were all highly regarded Italian literary authors.

It’s a misreading though in my view to think that these are intended to be wholly realistic characters. De Luca is using highly polished language to explore themes of violence, retribution and how to live well in a compromised world and judged on the basis of what he sets out to do he absolutely succeeds.

Tentacle, by Rita Indiana and translated by Achy Obejas

Grant wrote this up at 1stReading Blog here. He loved it and so did I. I fully expect it to make my end of year list.

Tentacle is published by Andotherstories, and I have a subscription with them which is how I ended up with this. I didn’t buy it and if I’d seen first the description which involves a time travelling transgender street kid fighting an environmental apocalypse with secret magical powers obtained from a psychic anemone, well, I wouldn’t have gone near it.

That would have been my loss, because it is quite simply brilliant. It’s muscular, strange, has a persuasive internal logic (though not always an easy to follow one) and is just bursting with energy and life. Again, highly recommended.

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is best known for his magnificent novel The Quincunx, a large and extraordinary tightly constructed Victorian sort of gothic-mystery which I regard very highly indeed. He also wrote The Unburied, a much shorter exercise in Victorian Gothic which kept me up until 3am turning pages as it was simply so well crafted.

After those came a long silence, then The Rustication. It’s an unreliable narrator piece again in a Victorian gothic vein, but whereas The Quincunx and The Unburied both carried that off with style here it didn’t come together for me. I found the narrator a little too dense in not noticing some pretty obvious clues around him as to what was going on, the plot a bit too unlikely, and the whole thing just not as good as its predecessors.

So it goes, and hopefully it will find readers better attuned to it than me, but I thought this one a miss. The Quincunx and The Unburied are both excellent though and worth looking into if you don’t know them.

Fen, by Daisy Johnson

How to write about this? It’s a first short story collection from a young English writer. It’s set in her native East Anglia, and draws on local folklore and the power of a landscape in which nothing seems fixed – the fens themselves an uncanny blend of sea and earth.

In the opening story a teenage girl starves herself, cleverly disguising it from her parents (though not from her sister). It’s of course a story of anorexia, save that as she grows thinner she slowly starts to turn into a giant eel, transforming her old body to one of her own devising. In another story a girl’s dead brother may or may not come back in the form of a fox. Little here is certain, except that’s not true as Johnson cleverly roots her tales in the prosaic.

Young women may lure men to their lair in order to devour them, but they find their victims in the local pub. The towns and houses these characters inhabit feel ordinary, dull even. Johnson uses folklore to bring out a sense of the strangeness of these places, and also to bring out the essence of their experiences. We of course do not transform into eels or foxes or face the untrustworthy magic that runs through these stories, but the emotions the characters feel at these events are our emotions. Johnson takes the ordinary, makes it extraordinary, and through that shows how it was extraordinary all along. That, of course, is what myth has always done.

There’s a tremendous physicality to these stories, and a blunt sexuality. It’s an impressive and unusual collection and since Johnson’s first novel is now out I hope to read that before too long also.

For those curious to know more, reviews here from the Guardian and here from Tony’s Book World.

That’s it for now. February’s books (far fewer) will hopefully be up soon.

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Filed under Burke, Sue, de Luca, Eri, Horror, Indiana, Rita, Italian fiction, Japanese fiction, Johnson, Daisy, SF, Tawada, Yoko

2018 round up

As anyone who’s read this blog for any time will have noticed, my updates took rather a dip in the second half of the year. That was due to my change of job, and indeed change of career. Happily I’ve not had any health issues or life crises.

Still, while I tend to have more predictable hours in the Civil Service, those hours I do have tend to be fairly densely packed which gives less downtime than I used to have. I’ll give some thought as to what that means for updates, but I doubt reviewing every book I read will be realistic any more.

Anyway, enough about the future, what about the past? Here, without further ado and in no particular order, are my books of 2018:

Best Western that’s not a hotel chain: Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.

I wrote this up way back in March and it’s stayed with me. I don’t read much fiction set in the Old West (though I do love Westerns). This somehow captures the sweep of the genre, but in a surprisingly slim volume. Despite it’s brevity it still packs in character growth, exciting set pieces and a lovely sense of the frontier. Really surprisingly good, and it’s held up very well in memory.

Best novel about a Bollywood-inspired computer virus: Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

This was Kunzru’s second novel and, as far as I understand, quite a disappointment to those who loved his first and wanted more like it. I’ve never read his first so can’t compare, but this certainly wasn’t a disappointment for me. I wrote it up here.

It is a bit slighter than some of the later Kunzru’s I’ve read, but I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of disparate lives brought together by a computer virus and a lonely geek’s love of a beautiful Bollywood film star.

It’s very Gibsonian, which I noted in my review comparing it to Gibson’s Pattern Recognition of a year earlier. They both capture something of their moment, but in Kunzru’s case with a definite sense of fun and with a certain romance to it all.

Best opening paragraph: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

NO LIVE organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I really don’t think I need to say more than that quote. Just superb. The rest of the book’s pretty good too… Here‘s my full review.

Best novel with hidden depths: Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbagh

(No full review of this one, but I wrote some thoughts in a monthly roundup here).

This seemed a bit slight when I read it. Slight even. It’s stayed with me though. I can remember the characters, the story such as it is, even some of the writing. It’s a lovely little tale of corruption and choices we may not notice ourselves making but are no less irrevocable for all that. This was actually a fair contender for my novel of the year just because it’s been such a stayer in memory.

Best SF/crime genre crossover: The City and the City, by China Miéville

Slightly reductive title there, as this is rather it’s own thing and arguably contains no SF elements other than the sense of strangeness and the other which is central to SF. I wrote a bit about it in my May writeup, here.

For those not familiar with it, it’s a crime novel of sorts, but set in a pair of spatially coterminous cities. As a matter of culture, tradition and strictly enforced law the inhabitants of each city must choose not to see the other, not to hear its sounds or take any part in its life. It’s a rule that’s threatened when a murder happens and it’s unclear which city the corpse is in.

What follows is both a murder inquiry and a sort of conspiracy thriller, but where there may be no conspiracy. It’s a comment on the Balkans in part, but also on everywhere where the citizenry are told what to believe, and believe the absurd because it’s safer than seeing the reality around them. It’s a novel about divisions of ethnicity, class, and all those barriers we erect which are all the more powerful for not being actually physically real.

It’s a high concept novel, but Miéville is a high concept writer so no surprise there. I loved the concept, and more importantly I loved how Miéville pulled all this off within the structure of a fairly standard crime novel (particularly the early chapters which are almost, but clearly intentionally, clichéd).

Best description of home decor in a novel: Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This was also in my May writeup, but I then managed to get back to it and do a full post here. It’s held up well in memory, particularly for the skill with which Wiles captures space and light but also for the underlying humour and humanity of it – how our fallibility compromises, perhaps for the better, our dreams of perfection.

It does have far too many similes, as I note in my original review, and it almost got bumped from this list for that. Still, better a good novel with faults than a consistently average one. 

Novel with the most surprising staying power: A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Wow but May was a good month. This is in my May writeup too, and came closest to being bumped from this list (in fact, I initially cut it on my first pass over my list of books I’d read this year).

The reason this made it on to the list was that it suddenly occurred to me that nearly seven months later I can still remember pretty much all of it. I remember the characters, key scenes, the mood even. That’s impressive.

So, I can’t really say why it deserves a place on my list. It’s not the best thriller I read in the year, I liked it rather than loved it when I initially read it, but here it is still just as clear as the day after I finished it. I think that deserves some recognition, and speaks of some talent too.

Most expensive book of the year: The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning

Most expensive in the sense that I started it in Kindle, but liked it so much I went out and bought all six volumes of the sequence it’s part of in hardcopy. 

I wrote about this at length here, and I’ve not much more to say in this post. The descriptions of a city under siege, and of a marriage equally under siege, were superb. I plan to return to Manning fairly early on in the New Year. Another contender for book of the year.

Best novel about goats: Goat Days, by Benyamin and translated by Joseph Koyippally

Translated from the Malayalam no less, a language I didn’t even know the name of before reading this (which is a comment on the limits of my education rather than the language).  I didn’t write it up and sadly I’ve lost the post which originally alerted me to it.

Goat Days is a novel about the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf. Najeeb travels there from India hoping to make money to send home to his family. Instead he finds himself effectively enslaved on a remote goat farm. His only human company is the vicious overseer who is barely better off than he is, and of course the goats. It is a life of utter privation and misery with no easy prospect of escape.

It sounds horribly bleak, and the situation is, but it’s written in hindsight so we know Najeeb somehow does escape, though as the book opens he’s so desperate he’s trying to get himself arrested in the hope of being fed and deported. Najeeb’s humanity shines through though, as does his resourcefulness and his memories of his home. I found it a surprisingly light read for such a dark subject, a clever mixture of comedy and existentialism, and if you’ve not heard of it I’d suggest it’s at least worth taking a look at if you can find a copy.

Best romantic fiction with an SFnal twist: Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

So by this point it’s fairly clear I’m a big fan of Hamid’s work. Exit West is his 2017 novel partly about the refugee crisis but also about a love story between two fairly ordinary teenagers. 

It opens in an unnamed city, likely in Pakistan though not necessarily so (it’s not the first time Hamid’s used that device). Saeed, a good natured and religious young man, falls in love with an intelligent and independent young woman Nadia and she with him.

Militant forces are encroaching on the city, so their love takes place in a time of impending (if local) apocalypse). They have dates, arguments, conversations deep into the night; meanwhile the bombings and news of atrocities gets ever closer. 

However, there is one wrinkle. Doorways are appearing across the world. Enter one and you come out somewhere else (the mechanics of this is never explained and isn’t remotely the focus of the story). That magical device means that people trapped as Saeed and Nadia are have the possibility if they can find the right door of stepping right across the world into a better life.

The decision to leave your home, even in the face of war, is difficult and you’ll be leaving behind everything you know for who know’s what? Reactions to these unasked for migrants are mixed, some compassionate, many hostile. The doors allow Hamid to ignore the logistics of emigration and instead focus on the experience. In the midst of all of this he paints a tender and persuasive love story, often unexpected and often touching too.

I loved it, and it was also one of the clear front-runners for my book of the year.

Best novel featuring overly precocious children: The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Well, who but Fitzgerald could ever win the price for best novel featuring overly precocious children? The Beginning of Spring is Fitzgerald’s marvellous novel about an Englishman in Moscow in 1913 who is abandoned by his wife for no obvious reason and left to raise their children as best he can.

It’s funny, the description above is accurate, but it captures nothing of the book. It’s an elusive book (to borrow a description JacquiWine used of it) and it’s protagonist is notable mostly for his utter lack of understanding of himself and everyone around him. It’s a book in which more is left unsaid than is ever said, and perhaps a novel too of unbridgeable distances and miscommunications. 

There’s a full review of it by JacquiWine here, and a less positive review by Kaggsy here. Simon Lavery also wrote rather well about it here. Lastly, Sam Jordison wrote a rather good piece about it in the Guardian here.

And that takes me to, drumroll please:

My best book of the year 2018: Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Jennifer Croft

It’s not ideal that I didn’t write at all about what’s turned out to be my favourite book of the year, but there you go. Fortunately, Tony of Tony’s Reading List did the honours here. 

It’s not an easy book to describe, as there’s no plot as such and no clear connective tissue. Instead there’s a series of vignettes, some returned to, some not about matters as disparate as a man who loses his wife and child on a tiny island while on holiday; an unnamed traveler (possibly the narrator) passing through airports and constantly in transit; the real life story of Angelo Soliman, an African-born Austrian Freemason and courtier of the 18th Century who on his death had his body mounted and stuffed by his friend the Austrian Emperor and displayed as an example of a savage. 

There’s much more than that though. As you read it themes emerge, about travel and about the body itself, the irreducibility of the physical self however much we hurl it about the planet. Stories are left hanging unresolved, sometimes returned to, sometimes not. You have to construct your own narrative from it, but Tokarczuk holds your hand as you do so.

I read it, appropriately enough, while travelling. I read it on planes and in Rome and Marrakech. I think that helped. It’s a book which merits a little transience on the reader’s part.

And that’s it! Hopefully some of what’s above was of interest, and apologies to all the highly deserving books which didn’t make the list but which might have on another day.

Happy New Year, one and all!

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