July 2016

Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney – 3.5/5

A bleak soap opera of unhappy families, drug dealers, prostitutes, addictions and domestic abuse – yet not as dark or gritty as the subject matter might suggest.  McInerney’s prose has an original rhythm and good flow; I expected a slightly less conventional story structure to match.  The plot, however, neatly slots piece to piece with little that is unexpected in a fairly standard coming of age story.

Ryan comes from a family of drinkers and in his mid-teens, dreams of the future and escape, buoyed by the love of his beautiful girlfriend.  His journey to manhood is paved with a growing disillusion as he becomes a minor player in bigger dramas, and his own potential slips out of reach.

Very readable story, but peopled by ‘gangsters’ and an ‘underworld’ that I didn’t quite believe in.  The cover suggested something cutting edge, but the story lacked the actual edginess to back it up.  A bit too poetic?  There was no real sense of desperation or sharpness or brutality in the characters or their situations.

On one level an enjoyable read, on another, a bit disappointing.  The style of writing would encourage me to try the author again in the future, to see how she develops.

The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler – 3.5/5

A house uncared for, crumbling into the sea; a family of professional mermaids all destined to drown on the same date; and a mysterious book about a travelling circus that ties these two things together…

Simon’s life is literally falling apart around him – the house he grew up in, and the job he has just lost.  But the girl next door is on the cusp of becoming something more, and his sister is coming back to visit after long years away, so it’s not all bad. In the midst of everything else, Simon is sent an old book by an unknown book dealer, and finds himself sucked into a world that seems to unlock his own unusual family history.

The writing is unremarkable but the story is engaging enough.  The coincidences of fate and family are admittedly far-fetched, but it is not a novel that is steeped in realism, so that was not too big an issue.  It did manage to build up some tension and was not quite as predictable as I was afraid it might be.  A good bit of escapism that skates around something slightly deeper.

The plot bears some passing resemblance to the Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger, but was ultimately far more likeable .  I imagine it might also appeal to fans of Andrew Kaufman, The Waterproof Bible etc.  The Seas by Samantha Hunt is touches on different aspects of the mermaid myth and is beautifully written.

July 2016 Catch-Up

The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner – 4

A boy goes on the road with his father to sell the brand new colt revolver – but is left to fend for himself when his father is killed by outlaws.  Thomas must somehow survive the harsh landscape alone, in what becomes an engaging and thoroughly original coming of age story.  A good read for fans of the Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, although the Road to Reckoning has the literary edge, for me.

The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait – 3

Written by Alice Liddell’s great-granddaughter, this book promised a unique perspective on the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the original Alice.  It was certainly interesting from the historical perspective but did not really offer much that was new or unknown (although I was glad that Tait did not take the well-trodden child-abuse route). The fictional events built around the facts didn’t quite provide enough substance to make this work stand out as much as I wanted it to – a fairly singular, one-dimensional plotline. And although the writing is adequate, sometimes there was a lack of period inflection that jarred with me slightly.  Not a bad book by any means, but sadly nothing really special, either.

For people interested in Alice/Carroll re-written in fiction, others to look out for are After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold, Still She Haunts Me by Katie Roiphe, and my personal favourite, White Stone Day by John MacLachlan Gray.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley – 2.5

Apparently an atmospheric, gothic bestseller but failed to provide any real tension or suspense.  A gloomy house on a rainy coast with killer tides; menacing men lurking with unspoken threat; a houseful of Catholic guilt; a mute boy determined to be provided with a miracle recovery by his mother.  Not bad basic ingredients, but failed to live up to its promise.

Most of the book is given over to building up the tension but the writing has neither the style nor character to pull this off, and drags mercilessly as we wait for the dramatic finale that has been promised since the opening chapter.  All the focus is on the religious retreat, so although there are very minor hints of the pagan witchcraft going on in the background, it is not given enough context to seem in any way real.  The turning point, when it eventually arrives, feels somewhat rushed, and the after-effects unbelievable and skimmed over far too quickly.

Reviews claim this novel’s power is in its ambiguity and what is left unsaid, but for me, it simply said too little for far too long to have any power at all.  A big damp squib.

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt – 4

Two children raised in a home for orphans run by an unstable religious fanatic, and rescued by a conman who wants to earn money from their alleged ability to speak to the dead.  A cult built on a mixture of religion, meteorites and popular music.  A pregnant woman and her mute aunt travelling on foot to an unknown destination.

The naivety of Ruth and Nat is justifiable given their upbringing; Cora’s willingness to be led on a blind mission by Ruth slightly less plausible (although she is clearly at a major crossroad in her life), but a willingness to suspend belief is essential to the story.

As the story of Ruth & Nat’s escape as children eventually converges with the present day run from and to places unknown, the tension and suspense build as the loose ends tie themselves together and the denouement becomes inevitable.  The very end is perhaps a little too pat/obvious when it arrives – I was expecting something a little darker, overall – but the journey is thoroughly enjoyable.

Essentially both a love story and a ghost story, Mr. Splitfoot reminded me a little of the Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy and also Graham Joyce‘s infusion of the supernatural.

Catch-up

Since my last post, I have read:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – 2.5

Enjoyed this to begin with but after the halfway point began to feel extremely irritated by the excessive misery of the main character, and the unnecessary multitudes of negative things to have happened in his life. I understand that he found it impossible to move past his miserable childhood, but it was a point that could have been made with only one of the unhappy incidents.  Decent writing  but a reasonable concept was ultimately far too over-egged for me.

Crooked Heart – 3.5

A harmless bit of period entertainment; quirky characters, easy to read. Reminded me in style of Elizabeth is Missing.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide – 3.5

Despite being a very short book, the style seems to be quite overwritten with lots of literary references that don’t especially add to the story. However, more than just being the story of a how a cat found it’s way into somebody’s life, it is quite thought-provoking. There is clearly something missing from the central couple’s life, and the cat’s insinuation reveals more cracks despite the surface cohesion she provides.  The couple do not seem to grasp acceptable boundaries in their interaction with other people, and their unhappiness seems to be pushed to a new level, to the border of madness, by the end of the book.  Despite it’s length there are various ways to interpret this superficially simple story, which makes it more interesting than it at first appears to be.

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell – 4

An entertaining and intelligent read, lots of wordplay and stoic humour.  Based on the premise that the sins of the father will be visited on the next generations, to what degree does a family ‘curse’ become a self-fulfilling prophecy?  The sisters who in this novel are writing their suicide note have grown up in the shadow of their great-grandfather’s knowing and unknowing misdeeds, and a subsequent barrage of family tragedy.  Reminds me not of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (as cover quote suggests), but of Middlesex – the sense of family history travelling through the generations to the present, and the changing world alongside.

September 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – 4

Getting underneath the skin of an ‘ordinary’, unremarkable family, this is a story about the little things that push people apart and pull them back together, the truths behind the myths, the special moments alongside the mouldering resentments and the secrets big and small which all provide the foundations for our memories and infrastructure of our lives.  The family trade of construction is a metaphor for all of that visualisation and growth.

I wasn’t convinced that I would enjoy this novel, but was actually quickly drawn into the complex dynamics of the Whitshank family soap opera very quickly. After reading several books with quite superficial characterisation recently, it was a relief to read something a little more sensitive to the layers that go into each character, how we perceive ourselves differently than we are perceived by others, and how, also, we change.

Although there was an overall positive “we shall overcome” feeling to the story, there was also something of an inherent sadness, which reminded me a little of Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell.

August 2015

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi – 3.5

I was really looking forward to this – a novel based on fairytale, by an author I have enjoyed in the past.  A girl called Boy escapes from her abusive father, falls in love and becomes stepmother to Snow, then sends Snow away following the birth of her own child, Bird.  Loosely based on aspects of Snow White, it’s also about family secrets, and learning to live with them (amongst other things).

Although it reads well, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me.  The story wasn’t traditional-fairytale enough to sustain archetypal characters, but they just didn’t have enough depth for me to believe in them as ‘real life’ people.  It was all a nice idea, but at the end of the day, it all felt a little bit superficial.  I really wanted to love it, but it left me underwhelmed.

Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson – 3

A man dedicates his life to working for the Hotel Alpha: while the world advances around him, he is determined to stay cloistered in the cosy world of the hotel.  But ultimately, the secrets that he has helped the hotel to conceal find their way out into the open, and everything will change, whether he likes it or not.

Another book with relatively likeable but disappointingly shallow characters, and secrets which are by no means as shocking as they are apparently supposed to be.  It might have been interesting to see how the characters re-built their lives (or not) after the secrets were revealed, but instead it was a fairly plodding ride to a damp squib of an ending.

July 2015

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach – 4

I’m not much of a crime reader usually, but this is a murder mystery with a difference. A boy grows up under the shadow of a father who kills himself, and an emotionally distant mother. As an adult he remains detached from emotional ties but builds a successful career as a conceptual artist. More than half of the book tells his story, and Eschburg’s unusual perceptions caught my interest straight away. In the latter part of the book, Eschburg is on trial for a murder about which he refuses to answer any questions. Is he guilty? The answer really isn’t straightforward, but it’s a very intriguing read that provides some interesting sidenotes about real historical figures, and ultimately quite a lot of food for thought.

I sometimes find the prose of translations difficult to engage with, but this one flowed well (in the first half, at least). The two halves of the book seem to me to have quite different styles. The style is choppier in the second half, which I suspect was a deliberate change of pace, but felt did not quite sit right. Some of the later scenes about the lawyer felt a bit like padding (even though it is only a short novel) and could easily have been cut to create a far more concise, incisive finish. These are just minor quibbles, though, and overall, it is a very sharp, carefully considered, unusual, and enjoyable whole. Even though an entirely different kind of novel, it does share some themes with The Burning World by Siri Hustvedt.

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza – 4.5

A series of vignettes told by a cast of characters whose lives intersect, sometimes day to day, sometimes tangentially.  Each chapter is self-contained as a short story (many could easily stand alone), yet combined they create a poignant, sharply observed whole.  Contrasting the private and public lives of the characters, the different selves they perceive and present, and the inherent soap opera of the family, this short novel is seething with personality and humanity, conflict and subtlety.

Another translation, this one is as natural as can be while maintaining the innate French-ness of the author and her characters.  Wonderful stuff; I enjoyed the writing and the story immensely.

May & June 2015

Started & put down too many to mention in the last couple of months. Here are the ones I managed to finish:

Read:

We That Are Left by Clare Clark – 3 

Very disappointing story about the family left behind after the tragedy of the first world war.  There just didn’t seem anything especially original about the feisty daughters of the house defying the conventions of the time, and the truth about Oskar, the boy they grew up with (son of a family friend).  I read Savage Lands by the same author a few years ago and was impressed by her subtlety and understated but decisive prose, and came to this one with high hopes, as a result.  Sadly, it’s unlikely I will be seeking out her future work.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – 3.5 

A middle-class mother & daughter are forced to take in paying guests (lodgers) when their financial situation becomes strained following the first world war: a young married couple of the ‘clerk class’.  The daughter slowly builds a friendship with the wife, a friendship that develops into a love affair – which ultimately leads to the murder of the husband.  When the case goes to trial with an innocent man accused of murder, will the two women allow him to be sent down for their crime?  Has their affair, in any case, found an early end as they struggle to come to terms with what they have done (in every sense)?

I was a huge fan of Fingersmith, and really enjoyed Affinity.  However, The Little Stranger left me cold, and I did not get beyond a few chapters of Night Watch – so I really didn’t know how I would get on with this one.  In fact, I found it very readable, if not very surprising.  It reminded me of Elizabeth is Missing by Veronica Healy.

April 2015

Read:

The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill – 3.5 

Not sure what to say about this. I did quite enjoy reading it and the diversionary style sometimes reminded me of the fantastic Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, but ultimately felt like something was missing. Interesting, and well-written, but didn’t quite hit the spot and therefore a little disappointing.  On the other hand, definitely not put off the author, and her previous novel, Last Things, sounds very much like my kind of thing.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt – 5 

An artist who feels her work has been marginalised/overlooked sets out to prove a point to the art world by using 3 different male artists as ‘masks’ to present her work.  The results are not necessarily as anticipated.  Told posthumously through Harriet’s notebooks combined with interviews and statements from gallery owners, art critics, and the people who knew the artists involved, a far more complex story emerges.

I was slightly worried that there would be too feminist a perspective on this story for my taste, but in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it, from beginning to end (to the point at which I was initially determined to read slowly and savour the reading experience, followed by giving this up and reading the latter half in sizeable chunks to finish within a couple of days).  There are probably some more academic points that went over my head, but I loved the way the characters were drawn, and the stories slotted together, yet some questions are asked but never answered, and some ‘truths’ will remain elusive or at least open to interpretation.  Yes, like a work of art.

On a par with two of my other favourite reads, The Bone People by Keri Hulme and The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.  Must now dig out my long-overlooked copy of What I Loved, which is suddenly a lot more appealing.

 

March 2015

Read:

Academy Street by Mary Costello – 3 

A novel spanning a woman’s life, including all the seminal rites of passage which shape it – births, deaths, love, motherhood – yet somehow remaining utterly distant and characterless.  It all felt very pedestrian, very ordinary.  The writing is praised highly on the cover, but it did nothing to engage me.

The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour – 3.5

With its roots in Persian myth, this is the story of a boy who is rescued from a life being raised as a bird in a cage. He must then learn to live like a ‘normal’ human, fighting his habits and instincts, making friends, working a job, trying to please and defy the expectations of his guardian, trying to satisfy his own secret desires.

It’s an interesting idea, but it was hard to believe in the characters/caricatures, from the uber-supportive/understanding father figure, to the self-obsessed stage magician, to the cusp-of-crazy artist-girlfriend, predicting 9/11.  It’s actually very readable, but ultimately a little too obvious/over-simplified, and far more of a standard coming-of-age story than I anticipated.

February 2015

Read:

Rustication by Charles Palliser – 3

A mostly disappointing read. Uses language that is clearly designed to shock, but simply jars for the period of the story. The plot is not as mysterious or tense as it appears to think it is, and seems to suffer from a quite heavy-handed manipulation of characters in order to force a ‘logical’ sequence of events.  The characters are neither clever nor likeable.  It’s a couple of months since I read this book, but this hasn’t done my opinion of it any favours.  Although I haven’t read Palliser’s Quincunx I have only heard good things.  I probably should have read that one, instead…

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – 4

Revisiting characters from my favourite novel of last year, Life After Life, this is a ‘companion’ rather than a sequel.  Following on from Teddy’s role as a pilot in the war (one of Ursula’s brothers), it spans his life, and those of his wife, dysfunctional daughter and long-suffering grandchildren.

Fantastic, fully rounded, and (in some cases unhappily) believable characters, this is a wonderful and far-reaching story of the ties that bind and the repercussions of decisions long after they are made.  This is not another episode of Life After Life, with events relived over and over, but Atkinson does save a twist of perspective for the final pages.  Although I don’t think it hit quite the same peak as LAL, I liked it a lot.  I thought about it for days afterwards, and am certain I will re-read (and continue to make discoveries) in the future.

I won’t be surprised if another ‘companion’ novel does not appear at some point, as I felt there were some things left noticeably unsaid about some of the peripheral characters (eg Sylvie, Maurice).  While A God in Ruins was complete in itself, there are so many strong characters, it feels like there is a lot of story still to tell…