20 Books of Summer, 2017

20-booksOnce again, I’m picking up the 20 Books of Summer challenge from Cathy at 746 Books. I enjoyed this last year – here’s my old list and reviews. I dumped two of my choices last year – The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and The Master by Colm Toibin – so I’ll be borrowing another idea from Cathy and choosing two reserves.

So, my 20 + 2 books are as follows:

  • Swallow: Sefi Atta
  • The Sellout: Paul Beatty
  • An Ice-Cream War: William Boyd
  • The Clocks in this House All Tell Different Times: Xan Brooks
  • The Hate Race: Maxine Beneba Clarke
  • Hild: Nicola Griffith
  • The Fifth Season: NK Jemisin
  • Orangeboy: Patrice Lawrence
  • Black Water Rising: Attica Locke
  • The Gracekeepers: Kirsty Logan
  • Embassytown: China Mieville
  • Augustown: Kei Miller
  • Paradise: Toni Morrison
  • The Bone Readers: Jacob Ross
  • The Comet Seekers: Helen Sedgwick
  • Swing Time: Zadie Smith
  • Waterland: Graham Swift
  • The Lauras: Sara Taylor
  • House of Names: Colm Toibin
  • Mrs Dalloway: Virginia Woolf

plus two reserves:

  • The Sunlight Pilgrims: Jenni Fagan
  • The Mare: Mary Gaitskill

With an eye on my New Year’s Resolution to read more books by writers of colour, 10 of the 20 books (50%) are written by men or women of colour. And unusually for me, 8 of the 20 (40%) are by men. Usually – without any deliberate planning – I read two books by women for every one I read by a man (33.3%), so male writers are getting slightly more of a look-in here (though many of the books by men also feel like the ones most likely to be replaced by a female wild card, so watch this space…)

Unrelatedly, I’ve finished my Baileys Prize shortlist reading, so expect a review of The Dark Circle and a rankings post on Friday.

What summer reading is everybody else planning?

20 Books of Summer: Winding up

As #20booksofsummer nears its close, here’s a few words on some of the books I’ve recently read. I’ve managed to finish 14 of the 20, and am ambitious enough to believe I can make that 15 by the 5th September deadline, as I’m speeding through Go Set A Watchman at the moment. If only I hadn’t been distracted by so many newer, shinier books…

barker-m_1637166fBurley Cross Postbox Theft: Nicola Barker

I’ve heard so many good things about Nicola Barker – and have had this book on my shelf for six years. So it’s embarrassing to admit that it became my first, and so far, my only abandoned read of the 20 Books list. The novel is composed of twenty-seven letters written in almost identical, crazed-Archers-style voices, detailing the frustrations, rivalries, grudges and secrets of the village of Burley Cross. Unfortunately, I soon tired of the lack of differentiation between the voices and the incessant and exaggerated humour – I’ve never been good with books that seem to only be concerned with prose or with jokes, and Burley Cross Postbox Theft ticked both boxes. Perhaps I’ll be brave enough to try something else by Barker in the future – Darkmans received such praise – but I’m not sure that will be for some time.

23548127Everything is Teeth: Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner

This is the first graphic novel I’ve ever read, and I only picked it up because I loved Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing so much. It’s absolutely brilliant, even if I finished it over the space of a bus journey. The story of Wyld’s childhood obsession with sharks, paired with Sumner’s clever illustrations, somehow perfectly conveys the instability that lies under the surface of childhood; the sense you have, when you are a child, that there’s something about life that you can’t get at. Sharks chase little Evie everywhere; they follow her home from school, hover over her bed at night; she sees them in the reflection from a dark window. But, outside her imagination, there are also hints at what those more turbulent realities might be. Everything is Teeth could easily have become heavy-handed, but somehow manages to pull off what it’s doing perfectly, even in the last few pages where the parallels are drawn most explicitly. Good for anybody who thinks they hate graphic novels.

81EfoFKdD5L._SL1500_The Round House: Louise Erdrich

Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is raped one evening as she travels home from the store. She withdraws into her bedroom for weeks, while Joe tries to make sense of what is happening by trying to find out who raped her. But the story is complicated by the fact that Joe and his parents live on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, and as Joe’s father, a tribal judge, tells him, the complicated array of laws and jurisdictions that carve up the land makes it impossible to know whose responsibility it is to bring Geraldine’s rapist to justice. While the symbolism is occasionally heavy-handed – the novel begins with father and son pulling out seedlings that have lodged in the foundations of the family’s house, with Joe left to finish the job – The Round House is a compelling read. Joe, who at thirteen is only just into adolescence, is strongly characterised, and his relationships with his friends, rather than his mother’s ordeal, are at the centre of his story. The throwaway remark at the beginning of the novel about his friend Cappy’s death on the highway loops by its end into an inconclusive but completely satisfying climax. The setting is fascinating, but Erdrich handles detail well, not allowing the story to be overtaken by its context – although the statistics in the author’s note at the end, including the fact that one in three Native American women will report being raped during her lifetime, make grim and important reading.

I’ll aim to review the remaining completed books – Closure, The Eustace Diamonds, J and Go Set a Watchman – soon.

Swimming against the tide

I’m about halfway through 20 Books of Summer – I’ve read or am currently reading 10 of my 20 picks. Today, with some trepidation, I’m reviewing two novels that everybody else seems to have loved…

417MB2MlC0L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_ After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

John drives away from the bookshop he owns during a dry, heavy summer, coming to rest only when he arrives at an old house in the middle of a forest. The group of strangers there seem to be expecting him; rather than explaining their mistake, he finds himself drawn into their world, but at a loss to explain their mysterious connection. After Me Comes the Flood is not especially interested in giving the reader solid answers. Instead, Perry’s beautiful and precise writing creates a strong sense of atmosphere, which flares into especial distinction in certain scenes, such as when John swims in the reservoir near the house with one of his companions, a troubled young man called Alex, looking for house martins’ nests. ‘The waterline must once have been almost level with the grass embankment, but had receded in the drought and left a kind of rough beach littered with feathers and algae. All around us the dark pines of the forest stooped towards the water as if they were thirsty.’

While I admired the skilful execution of After Me Comes the Flood, I should have suspected that it wasn’t the sort of novel I was going to enjoy. Unfortunately, I have a limited amount of patience for novels that follow a symbolic or dreamlike logic, offering up tantalising threads to follow but not supplying solid answers at the end. I love speculative fiction but have less interest in stories that suggest something complicated is going on beneath the surface but don’t allow us to get at it. This sounds horribly prosaic, and I spent some time wondering why it was that After Me Comes the Flood didn’t work for me. My conclusions are provisional, but I think it boils down to two things; characters and ideas. In keeping with the mood of the novel, Perry’s characters tend to be deliberate ciphers, filling certain roles in the landscape of the house without ever blossoming into live. If we are to assume they represent some kind of psychodrama that John is working through, this makes sense, but then John himself is humdrum, deliberately ordinary, and very unengaging. For me, he wasn’t the root to which I could cling as I navigated the shifting sands of the rest of the book, even if he was supposed to be.

All of this could have been overcome if After Me Comes the Flood had seemed to be exploring interesting ideas. But this is not a novel of ideas, nor is it meant to be. It picks up on important themes of emotional fragility and mental health, but for me these topics weren’t a strong enough thread to hold the pieces together, especially when, as I’ve said, the characters themselves felt sketchy. I’m still keen to read Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent – she’s clearly a wonderful prose writer and it sounds like a very different kind of book – but this wasn’t one for me.

cover_9781609450786_131_240My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

So many bloggers and friends have pressed these novels upon me that I was pretty apprehensive about reading the first in the quartet in case I committed the heresy of not liking it. To my relief, I liked it very much indeed. It’s always odd to read and review a novel that has already attracted such positive critical attention – I can never quite embrace such books with the enthusiasm that I have for things I’ve discovered by myself, but My Brilliant Friend certainly deserves its accolades. It’s also difficult to think of anything new to say about Ferrante’s writing (and the wonderful translation by Ann Goldstein) that hasn’t already been said, especially as I’m disadvantaged by having not read the rest of the quartet – and I won’t be able to get to the next three until I finish my 20 Books of Summer list! But there were a few thoughts that came to me while reading.

For those who haven’t yet encountered My Brilliant Friend, it traces the childhood and adolescence of Elena and Lila, two girls growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. Their lives are often closely intertwined, but they are not always side by side. Indeed, a major split in their life courses occurs early in the novel when Lila’s parents refuse to pay for their daughter to go to middle school, whereas Elena goes on to the next stage of her schooling and finally to high school. Lila is such a presence in the novel because, despite the fact that Elena is our narrator, she is telling us Lila’s story, even when it does not intersect neatly with her own. Ferrante brings every person in the girls’ close-knit world vividly to life, but it was Elena’s forensic analysis of Lila that made the novel stand out for me. It’s rare to find a modern novelist who takes character so seriously – something which even the lesser nineteenth-century English novelists try to do, but which seems to be missing from a fair chunk of literary fiction these days.

Elena’s observations of her friend over the ten or so years which this novel covers are absolutely fascinating. To Elena, Lila is special – she stands apart from the others around her and always has done – and her recording of her complexities proves Lila’s brilliance. However, although Lila is undoubtedly exceptionally bright and unusually independent, the very skill of this novel is reminding us that she is in many ways an ordinary girl, not distinguished especially from those around her, with her limited education and her early courtships. How far can we disentangle Elena’s perception of Lila from the reality of her life? Would the other people that she has grown up with become equally contradictory and multi-faceted if viewed under this lense? My Brilliant Friend acknowledges, as few novels do, how much more there is to us than we can ever catch, and gives us a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface.

Fantasy, bad and good

First, a quick update on what’s up next for this blog, as I keep changing my plans…

  • Monograph Review: Roberta Bivins, Contagious Communities
  • 20 Books of Summer: I’m either reading or have read the following from the list, so expect some kind of combination of; My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante), After Me Comes the Flood (Sarah Perry), The Eustace Diamonds and The Prime Minister (Anthony Trollope), to be popping up soon.
  • Not on the 20 Books of Summer List Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Today, a couple of mini-reviews:

51KMqGz5znL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

As anybody who read my old blog will know, I’ve been a massive fan of George R. R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire series since the age of 17 (though I do not like the TV show at all). Recently – having been an avid fantasy reader as a young teenager but then letting it drop – I’ve been actively trying to read more SF and fantasy, and so have been following up recommendations from other Martin fans. First, I tried The Lies of Locke Lamora series by Scott Lynch, which was great fun, and beautifully-structured. Unfortunately, I can’t say I got on as well with Joe Abercrombie. The Blade Itself, the first installment in The First Law series, reminded me of why I tired of wading through so much bad fantasy as a much younger reader. It’s really dreadful. While the book was first published in 2007, so it’s a little unfair to judge it in relation to trends that have perhaps become more dominant since then, I couldn’t help feeling weary as I realised that at least two out of three of our main characters are truly unpleasant, and the third morally grey, to say the least. It’s a shame that writers who seem to be taking inspiration from Martin don’t quite get why his novels work; despite his numerous, complex villains, heroism is not absent from A Song of Ice and Fire in a way that it seems to be in The Blade Itself. 

More importantly, though, Abercrombie’s characterisation is clumsy and obvious, reducing his protagonists to a cluster of traits (the disabled, weary torturer, the lazy, proud noble). To an extent, the issues lie with his writing. I was surprised by how badly written The Blade Itself is, having expected competent, if not brilliant prose. Furthermore, it honestly reads like a children’s book most of the time. By saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the fine and difficult work of children’s writers, but rather to point out that what works in one context (a children’s adventure story) is not appropriate in another (gruesome adult fantasy). Fighting scenes, for example, are littered with cartoonish dialogue:

‘West darted forward, ducked inside Jezal’s remaining blade and slammed into him with his shoulder. “Ooof,” said Jezal as he staggered back and crashed to the floor, fumbling his short steel.’

To be fair, this is a fencing match, not a fight to the death, but it happens in serious combat as well:

‘ “Gah!” squawked Logen as the spear cut a nick in his arm.’

Also, in scenes where there is no fighting but which ought to be serious and tense, such as incidents of torture and interrogation:

‘ “Haah!” yelped the prisoner as Glokta touched a nerve.’

More broadly, the world of The Blade Itself doesn’t feel like a world you can take very seriously, which would be fine if it wasn’t filled with gory, sensationalist violence and didn’t seem to be striving towards proper world-building. Attempts at political complexity, for example, are simplified to the point of parody. I don’t think there are any excuses that can be made; fantasy is an important genre that does important things. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend The Blade Itself as a great example of this.

15781832Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

In contrast, this collection of fantastical, speculative short stories is simply brilliant. I read Russell’s first collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a long time ago, but while I enjoyed it, none of the stories quite hit the mark for me; the wonderful ideas didn’t quite come together to create a satisfying whole. I have the Reading Spa at Mr B’s bookshop in Bath to thank for bringing me back to Russell’s work. Every single story in this collection is a bulls-eye, although, of course, some were more to my personal taste than others. Russell’s gift is in rooting the most extraordinary situations in reality through the use of precise detail – I want to say precisely observed detail, but I don’t think she’d have had much chance to observe or experience many of the things she describes. So this is a triumph of precisely imagined detail, which is even more exhilarating. Take the reaction of a thirsty vampire to finding the one thing that satisfies his cravings:

[T]here is no word sufficiently lovely for that first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling – a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums – a soothing blankness travelled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain.’

Or a massage therapist discovering that the tattoo on her client’s back moves:

‘When she moves her hand she slides the thing across the sky on Zeiger’s shoulder, still tethered to her finger like a refrigerator magnet. Only it’s flat – it’s inside the tattoo… An orange circle no larger than a grocery SALE sticker. It’s the sun. Beverley swallows hard and blinks, as if that might correct the problem. She draws her pinky halfway down his spine, and the sun moves with it.’

Each of these short stories creates an entire world within itself, as if they are perfect windows into much longer novels; the tantalising detail in the horrific ‘Reeling for the Empire’, for example, or the bizarre custom of the Window in ‘Proving Up’. I’m now certainly keen to read Russell’s only novel, Swamplandia!, to see how she deals with a bigger canvas.

Writing for your hero, 2

UnknownI loved Jo Baker’s Longbourn, but, believing that it was her debut novel, wondered if it was the elevator pitch or the prose that had most drawn me in. ‘Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants’ is a fantastic hook, but not one that could easily be duplicated in a second book. However, I’ve now learnt two things about Baker. One, that Longbourn was marketed as a debut but in fact wasn’t Baker’s first published novel at all. Two, that Baker is an impressive writer even when the story she’s telling is less high-concept.

A Country Road, A Tree begins with a boy in Ireland jumping from a tree. However, this is a more dangerous venture than it sounds, because he is flinging himself out into thin air and not landing on his feet. ‘The ground slammed up. It knocked the breath out of him, knocked the light out of him. Made him still.’ Nevertheless, the boy refuses to believe that he will fail. ‘This time, this time, this time, he would skim up to join the clouds. This time, he would fly.’ This very brief prologue – only a couple of pages long – is an arresting opening. As somebody who spent a lot of her childhood jumping off high things to see if she could learn to fly – fortunately, with much less painful results – I instantly found this project familiar. For a reader who didn’t have a childhood obsession with flight, the boy’s efforts might symbolise a theme that the novel returns to throughout; the often thankless, exhausting task of becoming a writer, the rejection, the self-doubt, the self-disgust. Because, as we discover in the course of the next couple of chapters, the nameless boy in the tree is in fact a version of the avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett.

I know very little about Beckett’s life, and (as usual!) I agree with Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria that the triumph of this novel is not presenting a fictionalised biography of Beckett but, instead, using Beckett’s experiences during the Second World War as inspiration to write about a character more loosely connected to the real Beckett. We care about our nameless narrator in a way we might not care about somebody more tightly pinned down by historical fact. The spare, clever way that Baker invokes the past strengthens our attachment further. Bogging down an historical novel with too much detail can be distancing; Baker keeps closely to the lived experience of her characters rather than namedropping newspapers for the sake of it, or trying to infodump too much material about the progress of the war. Because of this, we live through our protagonist’s zig-zaggings across France with his lover, Suzanne, as he does, managing to forget that we know how this all plays out.

A Country Road, A Tree is a very different novel from Longbourn, but they share a close attention to the physicality of their characters’ lives that roots them even more deeply into the times in which they are set. This is evident from the very beginning of A Country Road, A Tree, before the hardships and injuries of war even start; our narrator ‘lifts the skin off his coffee, a greasy caul’; his nieces ‘smell of wool and boiled milk and soap, when they are kissed’; walking up a hill near the sea, ‘gorse rattles its seed pods in the wind and his own breath rattles in his chest, and with exertion now the scar pulls.’ On the run across France in later years, physical concerns centre around two points of anguish: feet and teeth. ‘His feet are all bones, bunions and blisters and ragged yellow nails… the one toe with the missing joint’. After the war is over, our narrator, at the dentist, knows ‘things in his mouth are not as they should be; the snags and edges, the deep throb of nerve, the tender itchy gum’. He has to have several teeth out. These two points of contact, with the ground, and with the poor food that he’s had to eat, not to mention the stone that he likes to suck, leave the greatest physical legacy of the war.

Finally, Baker has pulled off something difficult in this novel; she has written about somebody that she truly admires, without flattening her characterisation or making their choices seem trite or easy. While, as I say, I don’t know enough about Beckett to suggest whether or not this is accurate, this was certainly the kind of character she was trying to create. As she writes in her afterword, ‘the war… presented [Beckett] with a series of extraordinary moral choices. And in impossibly difficult situations, he consistently turned towards what was most decent and compassionate or courageous.’ The skill of this novel is that we only gradually realise how much good is in our narrator, as he feels so torn between the demands of others and his own selfish impulses – and that another interpretation of his actions is possible (like the boy who hurt himself falling from the tree, some of our protagonist’s choices feel a little perverse). This is obviously not the kind of hero-worship pursued by our deranged narrator in Losing NelsonBut it reminds us why writing about people who do heroic things is important, but hard. It’s easier to undermine somebody’s reputation then to demonstrate why you believe it is deserved.

Writing for your hero, 1

I meant to review two novels in this post, but this has got rather long – second part coming shortly!

unsworth_nelsonLosing Nelson  is the first thing I’ve read by the late Barry Unsworth, and it seems likely that I may have started with the wrong thing. Having finished this extremely well-written but, in my view, extremely unsatisfying novel, I found my first impressions closely reflected in this Guardian review from the year of the book’s publication, 1999. Losing Nelson follows the obsessive and increasingly mentally ill Charles Cleasby, an elderly man who believes that his life closely maps that of Nelson, the subject of the book that he is writing. Cleasby’s hero-worship shows early signs of being bizarrely original. On the first page of the novel, he promises to tell us about ‘the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Cape St Vincent, Horatio’s first great disobedience, the day he became an angel.’ This single sentence conveys a huge amount of information about Cleasby; his precise knowledge about Nelson, his commitment to celebrating every significant date in his life; but more importantly, it tantalises us with what can possibly be going on in our narrator’s mind. Cleasby explains: ‘I will say what I think angels are. They can be dark or bright, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew.’ Cleasby continually returns to the fact that Nelson ‘broke the line’ during this battle, disobeying his commander’s orders in order to win against the Spanish, and, in his mind, this makes him angelic. Of greater psychological importance, however, is the rest of Cleasby’s explanation: ‘angels are not complete, they need their counterparts, the dark needs the bright’. Cleasby believes that he is Nelson’s ‘dark twin’, and that he is moving towards a great reckoning where he will finally vindicate Nelson from the only criticism of his hero that bothers him – that he duplicitously refused the treaty of surrender of the Naples republicans in 1799.

Cleasby’s early framing of the Battle of Cape St Vincent suggests a decidedly twisted and intriguing take on history, but that is not what we get for much of the rest of this novel. Indeed, it falls back upon an all-too-familiar project of warning us about the dangers of hero-worship, until a professional historian can finally spell it out in the final pages: ‘Heroes are fabricated in the national dream factory. Heroes are not people.’ Even almost twenty years ago, this was hardly news (think of, for example, Roland Huntford’s famously critical treatment of Captain Scott in 1979), and the pacing of the novel becomes very frustrating. We know we are building up to the climax of Cleasby realising that he cannot rescue Nelson’s reputation from Naples, but midway through, we’re still meandering. The novel switches between a series of episodes in Nelson’s life, Cleasby’s clashes with his secretary, Miss Lily, who takes a pseudo-feminist angle on Nelson’s mistress and wife, and a predictably awful talk that Cleasby gives at the Nelson Society. Unsworth’s writing is continuously illuminating and vivid, and some of the best parts in this section are his vivid rewritings of history. A scene where Cleasby, Miss Lily, and her son tour HMS Victory is especially strong, as Cleasby takes issue with the tour guide and starts his own narration: telling the boy that sailors would have worn cotton bands to protect their ears, he notes that even so ‘the men would bleed from the ears after the battle, quite copiously, yes, gushes of blood’. Nevertheless, while Unsworth’s history is wonderful, it often seems shoehorned into the framing narrative; would Cleasby really care about the travails of common sailors?

The other big issue I had with Losing Nelson was that it, like The History Boys, feels marooned in time. A mention of Blair’s victory lets us know we’re meant to be in 1997, but if it weren’t for that, I’d find it more convincing if this novel were set in the 1950s or 1960s. Cleasby is obviously a recluse, separated from the modern world around him, but this should only highlight the points at which he bumps up against modernity more clearly. Miss Lily is an obvious channel – a single mum in her early thirties – but she also seems to hail from earlier decades. (While she’s amused that Cleasby thinks of her as ‘Miss Lily’, her real name is Lilian, which doesn’t necessarily suggest a young woman in 1990s Britain). Her dialogue recalls an older, working-class sense of female deference: ‘I can’t afford to refuse a thing like this, the money is so good and everything found’. Or, to Cleasby, ‘I’ve enjoyed it so much, working together on the book… And it’s entirely because you talked to me, Charles, you weren’t just the employer, you asked my opinion.’  Cleasby’s weirdness, somehow, doesn’t seep into his history, or even into his daily life. By the time the crisis of the novel has taken him, inevitably, to Naples, and things darken and twist again, much of the original intrigue seems to have been snuffed out.

20 Books of Summer: June

20booksfinalIt’s fair to say I haven’t made an especially strong start to the 20 Books of Summer challenge: June has been both an exceptionally busy, and exceptionally upsetting month. I’ve also foolishly read a few books not on the list. However, I did manage to read four of the novels I selected, and will be blogging about them in pairs, as follows:

Monday 4th June: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker and Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth

Friday 8th June: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell and The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Hopefully July will be a better month all round!