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…

 

January 2015

Started but not finished:

  • Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss – a sparely but powerfully written period novel, I was nonetheless lacking the compulsion to continue reading after several chapters. Will probably return to it at a later time.
  • Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale – A boy journeys with his grandfather through the harsh winter of the Belarusian forests to bury the ashes of his mother.  Another of those bleak novels suffused with fairytale elements, I was quite enjoying this but not completely captivated (it could go either way) and have put aside to continue later.

Read:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – 3.5 

An elderly lady’s friend is missing, and nobody seems to care.  But Maud’s memory is increasingly patchy, and recollections of her sister’s equally mysterious disappearance in their childhood confuses matters further (the stories of the two different disappearances are told in alternating chapters).

This is a very likeable, ultimately uplifting story about age, family and friendship, but with a healthy dose of mystery mixed in for good measure. There are moments of humour, moments that are genuinely touching, and enough suspense to keep the pages turning.  But ultimately, it was just a middle-of-the-road, light read with no great surprises in store. It has some themes in common with War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen, but WCH is much sharper, more cleverly constructed and – for my money – far superior in every way. But possibly less to the mainstream taste…

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville – 3.5

Two connected tales are told in alternating chapters: the story of a mysterious girl at the turn of the 20th century who is found in the garden of a psychoanalyst, and the story of a spoilt brat several decades later who is being raised by her father (a concentration camp ‘doctor’) and a housekeeper full of dark tales – but whose world is turned upside down by her father’s untimely death.  As the title would suggest, parts of the story are quite dark: there is (non-graphic) sexual abuse, Krysta alongside her father’s dead body, twisted fairytales, and of course the Holocaust theme – but this is marketed as a young adult as well as adult book, and I think is probably suitable for age 16+.

Certain elements in the construction of the story seemed a little too well signposted (although probably no more than in your average mainstream novel), but the way the two stories interlinked, when revealed toward the end, was not quite as straightforward as I had supposed, which was a bit of a relief.  I felt like the depictions of the concentration camp were actually not as dark as they would/could have been in an adult novel, and perhaps suffered for a slight lack of grit. My biggest disappointment, though, was the ending, which is where I felt the novel really pandered to its young adult market with a determinedly positive perspective.  Overall, it was a decent read which held my interest, but was far from a great read.

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann – 4 

Arthur Gillies is a man with a double life – a stolid middle class wife and daughter in the suburbs balanced by high class brothels, a mistress and a son in the city.  Arthur has his cake and he eats it, too.  The novel, however, does not so much tell Arthur’s story as the people around him: how Rita, Annetta and Sal end up living in one of his houses, the sorry state of his grown-up son, and the smothered lives of his wife and daughter.

It’s ultimately a sad story, yet not bleak or depressing – it’s alive with vivid characters and the positive energies that surround Arthur.  While the very ending is somewhat contrived, it is a surprisingly enjoyable read overall, told in strong, non-flowery prose.  Some of the themes combined with style of writing reminded me a little of Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore, but this was a far more satisfying read.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue – 4 

Blanche, a burlesque dancer, is content with her ‘bohemian’ lot in life until the day her cross-dressing female friend is shot dead by a bullet intended for her. Blanche is convinced her ex was behind the trigger, but he has disappeared – along with their infant son. In the midst of a stifling, pox-ridden, San Francisco heatwave she tries to get to the bottom of Jenny’s murder, to find her baby, and to find a way to escape her old life…

Based on a true unsolved murder case, this novel successfully brings to life the stifling heat and squalor of the new city of San Francisco, and the horror of such institutions as Doctress Hoffmann’s baby farm. The story begins with the murder then flicks back and forth between the two weeks leading up to it, and the days following. It can be a little hard to empathise with Blanche, who has the wherewithal to keep a tight grip on her finances, but is otherwise, predominantly, led through life by her libido. However, the scenes with the baby P’tit temper this somewhat. Jenny is the enigmatic, carefree character who keeps her past behind a closed door but asks the questions that set in motion the whole chain of events. To me, she seems to be represented a little superficially, almost a caricature.

Although in some instances I feel as though Donoghue has been constrained by the true facts and people involved with the case, I enjoyed her solution to the mystery, and overall, my criticisms are minor. An enjoyable read that will appeal to fans of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. It also reminded me of the very entertaining A Factory of Cunning by Philippa Stockley.

Turning the Stones by Debra Daley – 3.5

A girl comes to in the dressing room of a house she doesn’t recognise, with the dead body of a man she does know nearby.  She has no idea what has happened, but she knows she must escape before the blame is cast upon her.  Thus begins a frantic journey, while Em recollects the years she has spent as a foundling brought up as a lady’s maid (leading up to this point), and a woman she does not know calls her ‘home’ to Ireland.

A mix of landed gentry and bankruptcy, smugglers and curses, this is quite a readable story with just enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages but somehow fell a little short of really engaging me.  Not as good as but along the right lines for fans of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – 3.5

A young wife arrives at her new home in Amsterdam to find life is not to be as she had anticipated.  Her husband is mostly absent, and his austere sister rules the house.  An unexpected wedding gift of a cabinet-house provides some diversion for Nella, but when the miniaturist she commissions to make its contents begins sending (uncannily perceptive) unsolicited additional items, Nella is unsettled.  As the truth about Johannes’ disinterest in his new wife becomes apparent, Nella’s obsession with the elusive miniaturist grows, as does a secret kept by her sister-in-law…

But really, there’s not much more to it than that: nothing took me by surprise, and overall, I was underwhelmed.  I’m really not sure why it has received quite as much hype and praise as it has…  It’s not a bad read, but is a fairly indifferent one which pales alongside the strong prose and plots of other historical novels I’ve read.

What Was Promised by Tobias Hill – 4

A pleasure to read after the uninspired prose of most of the above!  This is the story of three young families in post-Blitz London.  In spare, uncomplicated prose, Hill vividly evokes the period and the unique characters driving his story, in which one incident has repercussions for all of them over the years to come.

The first half has echoes of Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island'; the chance encounters of the second half are perhaps slightly less believable, but still held my attention. Beautifully drawn and quietly, respectfully emotive, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

Top 5, 2014

2014 was a thin year of reading for me, but of those I managed this is my top 5:

  1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (mini review here)
  2. Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann (mini review here)
  3. Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow (mini review here)
  4. The Confabulist by Steven Galloway (mini review here)
  5. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (mini review here)

September update

Started but not finished:

  • Wreaking by James Scudamoremay go back to this later
  • The New Countess by Fay WeldonI enjoyed the first in this series; the second was a little sillier; the third failed to engage me at all
  • The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dickerhated the style of writing, ridden with cliches, and without any sense of flow. I hope it was just badly translated. Really wanted to read & enjoy this but could not face the thought of sitting through so much unexceptional prose.

Read:

Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann – 4.5

Wonderful characters and sense of period/place. Thoroughly enjoyed this tale of revenge and redemption beneath the facade of respectability.  The very end didn’t quite work for me, but in retrospect did give further food for thought.  Very similar in style/feel to Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

The Coincidence Authority by John Ironmonger – 3

On one level, this reminded me of Barbara Trapido, with the far-flung relations, and coincidences which overlap their lives.  But the overt focus on the natural coincidences lessened the impact of the story for me, and the central love story didn’t convince me. Not a bad read, but not the best, either.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault – 3.5

Another book in which I felt the translation lessened my enjoyment, but as it is only a short novel, I was able to read through it.  I love the concept of the relationship built through haiku but did not feel empathy for any of the characters.  The plot was a little contrived and unbelievable, but I was glad I read to the end, which added a different perspective (still a contrivance, but one I felt worked, within the context).

Oct edit:

The Confabulist by Steven Galloway – 4/5

I’ve read a lot of fiction about magicians (The Prestige, Carter Beats the Devil, The Manual of Darkness, to name but a few) so a lot of the background knowledge of the genre wasn’t new to me, but I still found plenty to enjoy.  Although the ‘twist’ (if it was supposed to be such) could be seen coming a mile off, the story is nonetheless far subtler than I first imagined; and the conspiracy theories which emerge are not a ‘selling out’ to mass market thrillerdom but merely a symptom/embodiment of the title’s confabulism.  The author keeps the style of writing simple, so that it does not intrude on the story being told.  All in all, a very good read.

Since my last post…

Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson (unfinished) 

– some nicely written prose hooked me to begin with, but the storyline was too unconvincing to keep me reading.  If you like sci-fi/speculative fiction, you might be more inclined to give it more of a chance…

Frog Music by Emma Donohue (put aside to return to later)

– I think I will enjoy this; just picked up at the wrong moment.

The Watchtower by Elizabeth Harrower – 4/5

– a strong story of marriage, dependence & independence; not quite what I expected but a good read.

Shall We Gather at the River by Peter Murphy – 2.5/5

– a boy hears a ghostly evangelist on his father’s forbidden radio equipment, and spends the rest of his life trying to recapture that moment (and discovering his father’s secrets).  I really wanted to like it, but despite being a fairly quick read, the story dragged and lacked both wit to enliven the storytelling and emotional engagement to care about the characters.

Mar 2014 Retrospective

What I read in March 2014:

Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy ****
Thoroughly enjoyed this! Reminded me of ‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith with the central character a catalyst for change within an utterly dysfunctional family unit, but told with a lighter touch, like Barbara Trapido (or Anne Fine/Fay Weldon, without the sharp edge).

Fremont by Elizabeth Reeder ***(3.5)
A pleasant, sweeping family saga with hints of ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel.  The characters were too easily explained by their geography for my taste, but still interesting.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld ****
Two interlocking stories, present & past unravel.  The contemporary story was not very convincing to me, but the story of Jake Whyte’s past up to the present point was far more interesting, and cleverly constructed (unravelling backwards).

APRIL SO FAR…

  • Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay ***(3.5)
    Started well & nicely written, but tailed off significantly in the second half.  Two mysteries are presented but neither are resolved.  I don’t mind loose ends in a story but this one just wandered off in a completely different direction (which I didn’t find very interesting).
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