Belated June update

Quick because I want to post my August #WITmonth reading before too long.

So, my finger is much improved though still fairly sore as I’m doing my physio exercises. It’s all part of the healing. Still, while I couldn’t type as you’ll see I was able to read, and I read a lot. Some really good choices among these too.

July and August posts will follow over the next couple of weeks.

The Murder of Halland, Pia Juul (translated by Martin Aitken)

An interesting one this, but then it’s from Peirene Press and their titles are always interesting. More of a novel about the aftermath of crime than about the crime itself. A man named Halland is shot leaving his partner Bess to pick up the pieces of her life without him. Bess is left examining her choices and what a life with such a sudden gap now looks like.

It’s well done, but didn’t quite work for me as while I get that Bess is disassociated I found her lack of curiosity about what exactly happened and her repeated casual failure to share obviously relevant information with the police all just a bit unlikely. I get the book isn’t about the crime, but I didn’t really buy the level of disengagement from the crime that the book’s focus required. Reviews by Heavenali here and by Guy Savage here. Both liked it more than me.

The Visitors, Jessi Jezewska Stevens

This one came from And Other Stories. C, a New Yorker, starts to hallucinate a curiously knowledgeable garden gnome. It’s just after the 2008 crash and the Occupy movement is at its peak – in fact here we depart a bit from our own history as Occupy gains even greater momentum. C’s life is coming apart, she’s romantically interested in her best friend Zo despite not previously being attracted to other women and her art supplies shop is drifting. It’s interesting and I can definitely see why And Other Stories published it, but somehow for me the many interesting parts didn’t quite gel into a greater whole.

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

I’m a massive Hari Kunzru fan, though I’ve never read his first novel which sounds quite different tonally to what came later.

We’re back in New York where sound expert Seth is paired up with trust fund rich kid Carter Wallace and between them they’ve become one of the hottest musical production outfits in town. Carter is obsessed with early African-American music and with authenticity. Seth is obsessed with the technology of sound and with Carter (and with Carter’s attractive sister too).

Seth accidentally records someone singing an unknown blues number in the park. Carter puts some music around it and uploads it only for it to be hailed as a lost early recording of an artist who everyone thought was never caught on wax.

What follows is a tremendous mix of obsession, racial tension, cultural appropriate, history, noir and more. It’s perhaps a ghost story, perhaps something stranger. I loved it.

Heaven, Meiko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Lots of people have talked about this one, but Jacqui pushed me over the edge to reading it with her review here. ‘Eyes’ is a fourteen year old boy nicknamed for his lazy eye. Kojima is a girl in his class seen as dirty and poor. Both are victims of horrific bullying (which Kawakami doesn’t shrink from describing). They become friends, but less from an actual connection as from shared trauma.

The book becomes an exploration of meaning, not least when Eyes confronts one of the bullies and gets him to explain why Eyes is a target. Kojima meanwhile believes that her suffering gives her a kind of strength, that it’s something to be accepted or even embraced. She is stronger than Eyes, that’s true, but in letting her suffering define her is she being eclipsed by it?

This is a tremendous, clever and convincing novel. A very strong contender for my end of year list.

The Way Inn, Will Wiles

This is my second Will Wiles, after his tremendously entertaining The Care of Wooden Floors. Here it’s hard to beat the Guardian sub’s tremendous byline for their review: Terence Conran meets HP Lovecraft.

Neil Double is a conference surrogate. He goes to conferences on behalf of clients, attends the symposia, collects leaflets, produces a report all so that his clients can get the benefit of the conference without actually attending. Neil loves conferences, he loves the anonymity, the interchangeable corporate hotels, the opportunities for casual hookups, the lack of anything truly real.

Unfortunately for Neil things start unravelling when he’s staying at a Way Inn, one of an international chain, near a major conference centre which he manages to get himself banned from. That’s bad, career threatening, but not as bad as the discovery that the Way Inn may not be just a hotel chain but in fact some kind of infinitely replicated Escherian space or even entity…

It’s corporate satire meets horror and it’s a lot of fun. The first half is probably stronger when the sheer absurdities of the bland environments Neil inhabits are to the fore and the weirdness of the hotel is as much the intrinsic weirdness of these non-places as anything extra-dimensional. The second half goes a bit more full gonzo, which worked for me but has a bit less connection to lived experience.

Will is an architecture writer as well as novelist and he really knows these spaces. He’s also very funny. It’s a powerful combo and it’s refreshing too to see someone writing about the world so many of us inhabit and yet that so few novelists know much about.

The Abominable Man, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Thomas Teal)

The seventh of the Beck novels. An elderly policeman riddled with cancer is murdered in his hospital room. Who could hate such a distinguished figure so much that they’d murder him when he was dying anyway?

It turns out a lot of people hated him that much, because here Sjöwall & Wahlöö are turning their gaze on the Swedish police force, its militarisation and its brutalities. The much-decorated officer was a monster, the investigation inevitably runs into issues as any attempt to uncover motive reveals a lot that still-serving officers don’t want brought to light.

This is a blistering instalment both in its critique of Swedish society and simply at the level of a crime novel. Tremendous stuff. If you do have space for a crime series in your life this is definitely one to consider.

Legacy of Molly Southbourne, Tade Thompson

The fourth of Tade Thompson’s Molly Southborne series. I hadn’t actually expected a fourth of these and much as I enjoy Thompson’s work I’m not sure I needed one. Molly Thompson is the product of a Cold War experiment which leads to her replicating imperfect clones when she bleeds. Here the clones, many of whom are psychotically violent, face a foe going right back to their origin.

It sounds like nonsense I know, but Thompson can write and he is as capable with thriller motifs as he is SF ones. Here he’s giving the explanations the previous books lacked, but the previous ones had enough depth that I’d pretty much worked it all out anyway. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t essential for me.

Confusion, Stefan Zweig

I enjoy Zweig, but I’m not really a fan. Here an elderly professor looks back on his life and reflects on his youth. To his students he’s devoted his whole life to scholarship, but in fact he wasted his early years at university until an encounter with an inspired and passionate lecturer changed his life.

As ever with Zweig it’s all about big passions burning brightly. The puzzle here is the professor’s old mentor, a trudger academically who at times becomes lyrically passionate and inspiring. What’s his secret? Why is he sometimes so extraordinary and yet at other times so mundane? Why is his relationship with his wife so strained, what are the rumours that none will speak out loud?

You can probably guess. It’s enjoyable but not for me among Zweig’s best. Karen writes well about it here.

Cursed Bunny, Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur)

Spectacular. This has been widely praised and deservedly so. It’s a short story collection that uses horror and the fantastic to critique contemporary Korea.

I’ve read quite a few novels and short story collections recently containing sort-of magical-realist elements. Like in The Visitors above for example. I’m growing a bit disillusioned with it as a trend. The results are often a bit unsatisfying as nothing really needs explaining and it’s all metaphor.

Bora Chung escapes that in two ways. Firstly, through the sheer quality of her writing. Secondly, because there is a persuasive logic to each of these stories even if sometimes it’s a dream logic. Like Mariana Enriquez the stories read as having a deeper sense to them than just here’s a fantastical element which sort of illustrates a theme. It’s more robust than that.

Grant wrote well about this here. It’s definitely going to be on my end of year list.

At Freddie’s, Penelope Fitzgerald

You can’t go wrong with Penelope Fitzgerald. Here we’re in a fading 1960s stage school run by the eponymous and extraordinary Freddy. A larger than life woman in her 70s so canny that when a theatre calls to complain about one of the child actors provided Freddy ends the call with them contributing free carpets to the school.

The school’s in trouble and not for the first time. The teachers are underpaid, the lure of TV is making Freddie’s theatre-only stance look very outdated, the finances are distinctly underwater…

Add together a possible investor, a couple of new teachers, a possible child prodigy and the indomitable Freddy herself and it’s just huge fun. A wonderful evocation of theatre life and the perpetual tension between the love of the arts and the practicalities of actually making a living from them. Top notch Fitzgerald, but then that’s true of pretty much all Fitzgerald.

Jacqui wrote a good review of this here which talks much more about it.

And that’s it! Looking back June was a really good month for me. I’ll post about July soon.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Belated June update

  1. Thanks, Max. I’ll take a look at White Tears.

  2. Well done for remembering June. I find if I don’t review them soon after reading, it all becomes too distant, too blurred.
    Quite a few of my favourites too on your list: I found Heaven very affecting, and the Martin Beck series is a firm favourite of mine because of the social critique. And Penelope Fitzgerald is always intriguing to read.

  3. A couple of them I did have to look up. It’s often a good test of quality – do you remember it? Though not always. I’d forgotten the details of the Beck as it’s not a very evocative title but as soon as I looked it up that one came flooding back.

    Heaven was easy to remember. Cursed Bunny too. There not books easily forgotten.

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Penelope Fitzgerald, Max. I think it’s somewhat underrated in her admittedly superb oeuvre, so it’s great to see that it hit the spot for you.

    Thanks also for linking to my review of Heaven (alongside the Fitzgerald), very generous of you. I keep thinking about Eyes and Kojima, what the future might hold for them etc – a sense of hope for one of them and more uncertainty for the other, perhaps? It’s holding up quite strongly in my memory over time, which says a lot for the quality of the Kawakami’s writing.

    Love the idea of The Way Inn’s premise! I wonder if anyone has optioned it for the screen yet? It sounds as if there’s a great film here, just waiting to get out!

    And it’s good to hear that your hand is recovering from that injury. It takes a while for these things to heal, so I’m glad you’re into the ‘physio’ stage now!

  5. Have you read other Kunzru? He has a good podcast too, reflecting again his interest in the slightly off kilter. There’s one where he digs into the research he did into the vinyl collector community, who can get very obsessive…

    There was a big scandal recently when it turned out a series of vinyl releases praised for their analogue authenticity were taken from digital masters. None of the collectors had realised which seems to be partly why they’re so angry. It raises questions about whether the authentic is actually distinguishable.

    Not arguing against vinyl, people should enjoy what they enjoy and I get the ritual aspects, but the obsession with purity is fascinating as it’s more about identity than music.

  6. No I have not read him before. As for the vinyl thing, whatever floats your boat but I always thought it a bit weird. Perhaps that’s because I remember the slight skipping on some of my old records.

  7. Looks like a good month! And thank you for mentioning my thoughts on Zweig – I do love his writing, and yes he *is* all about the passions, isn’t he?

  8. Thanks for the link -Cursed Bunny was possibly my International Booker favourite. Also nice to be reminded of The Murder of Halland which I think I enjoyed more than you. This also makes me think I should read Hari Kunzru!

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