8 ways to turn me off a book

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday gives me a chance to offload about the things that deter me from reading a particular book. Here in no particular order are some generalities about the items that make me not want to read a book. The more numerically inclined readers of this post will note that I didn’t make it to 10 – I found as I was preparing this list that I don’t have anywhere near that many ‘no-go’ areas.

zombies1. The book features or even mentions zombies. The current mania among teenagers and young adults for the fictional undead leaves me cold.

2. It’s about a circus or magicians. I’m not keen on the idea of entertainment that involves wild animals and magic leaves me rather cold. I can’t say these features in a book would make it an absolute no-no but the book would have to tick many other boxes to persuade me to take an interest. Hence why I never read The Night Circus.

3. Man (Un)Appeal: In other words the cover depicts a guy stripped to his waist and showing off rippling muscles and a six-pack. I don’t even need the playerto read the blurb to know this is absolutely the kind of book I hate. Have you seen these guys in the gym – they’re the ones who are always preening themselves in the mirror. Pity the girl or boy who falls for one of these peacocks.

4. Overtly religious themes: I appreciate these are important to some readers but they hold no interest for me.

5. Stickers on books are a pet peeve of mine. I’ll happily buy from the ‘3 for the price of 2’ or ‘buy one get the second half price’ table but I can do without the horrible promotional sticker advertising my thriftiness to all and sundry. I try to avoid them wherever possible but sometimes that’s the only edition available and then I’m left with the tough task of trying to remove the sticker. I don’t know what glue the printers use but it’s tenacious stuff – it comes off in tiny scraps, does serious damage to your nails and even then you’re left with a nasty residual sticky patch on the cover.

6. Gratuitous sadistic/masochistic violence: reading some kinds of crime thrillers invariably means you’re confronted with a certain degree of violence. If it’s essential for the plot or the theme I can tolerate a certain amount but it’s the books that deliberately set out to portray extreme violence that I never want to read (step forward Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk)

7. Cliched romance. The covers of these kinds of book always give the game away. pastel coverThey typically use pastel shades on the cover and a soft focus image of a woman staring moodily into the distance or a girl/boy looking adoringly into each others eyes. Yuk…..


8. Bad writing:
Of my 8 deterrent factors, this is the only one  guaranteed to make me put the book down. I can tolerate a certain level of romance or violence; I will read about a religious belief as long as the author isn’t proselytizing and will even manage to read a book bearing one of the much-hated sticky labels. But bad writing is a factor I cannot tolerate. I usually skim a few pages of any book before I hand over my cash just to get a feeling for the style. Usually its the first page I look at and then something at random in the middle. If I find an abundance of cliches or unecessary adjectives, tired descriptions or deliberately ‘literary’ names for characters I’ll probably put it down again. Easier to do it a bricks and mortar shop than on line which is how I still make mistakes with some purchases.

My Book Buying Habits

Obama buys books

Even a President cant resist the lure of books

If you are a reader then you are also a buyer of books. Probably many of them. But what kind of buyer are you?  This tag on book buying has been doing the rounds for a while it seems but I only came across it recently via Robert at Book Mongrel. And so here are my secrets revealed…..

1. Where do you buy your books?

Everywhere 🙂 I don’t seem to have a lot of brand loyalty. If its a bricks and mortar shop then it will be Waterstones (there is no other option available because all the other booksellers closed down) where I like to browse what’s just been released. Or if I have a specific book in mind I might go to a small independent bookshop just a few miles from my home who have a good ordering service. When I was doing a lot of business travel I’d spend a lot of time in Barnes and Noble in the US which has a very civilised model of staying open until 10pm and has a coffee shop attached. A perfect way to relax at the end of the day. If its online purchasing then I’ll use AbeBooks, Book Depository or Amazon.

2. Do you ever pre-order books and if so do you do this in store or online?

First let me get something off my chest. I loathe this term pre-order which seems to be creeping in everywhere. It’s a nonsensical term. I can’t order before I order. Whats happened to the good old fashioned term ‘reserve’.

If this is a question about ordering books before they are published, then I can’t recall ever doing that.

3. On average, how many books do you buy a month? 

Right now, none! I decided one of my goals for 2017 was to enjoy all the books I already own but have not read. My buying habits went out of control in the last two years and it’s time to exercise some restraint at least for the first six months of this year. So far I’ve done pretty well and haven’t bought anything – though it hasn’t stopped acquisitions totally because my sister donated three books to me in February and I’ve won a few in give aways. But it’s certainly more restrained than in previous years where I would buy probably about 4 a month. I know other readers buy far more than that but then I don’t read that quickly.

4. Do you use your local library?

Absolutely. I’ve been a library member since early childhood – it was my lifeline in my teens because my parents couldn’t afford to keep up with my voracious reading habits. Going to the library meant I could explore unknown territories of genres and authors without feeling I was wasting money if I didn’t enjoy them. What makes me angry is the way the public library service in the UK is being viewed with hundreds of branches closing as a result of cost cutting measures. Ok some of them are being run by the community but this in no way is a substitute for a professional service. I fought for two years to keep the library in my village but despite taking court action it’s now run by volunteers and has to be funded by the community.

5. If so – how many books can you/do you borrow at a time?

I think the limit for my library is about 5 books at any one time. I tend not to get too many out in one go because I know I’ll never read them before the loan period is up. Many times I will borrow something just to boost the statistics for the number of books issued – but keep that to yourself, I don’t want the local authority bureaucrats knowing I am trying to manipulate their data (!).

6. What is your opinion on library books?

They’re a valuable resource that is sadly undervalued. My one complaint is that the stock seems to be too skewed to popular fiction (way too many minor celebrity memoirs). Not easy though to get anything that is not mainstream (especially if it is in translation). When the Booker Prize longlist came out a few years ago I went off to the library that day and out of 13 titles on the list I could find only 3 either in stock or on order.

7. How do you feel about charity shop/second hand books?

I love them. Just wish there were more of them within easy reach that stocked the books I want. There is a branch of the British Heart Foundation in the nearest town to me where I’ve been lucky with a few of the Booker Prize winners like The Famished Road (so glad I didn’t spend much on that since it was dire and I could not finish it) and an Iris Murdoch. Oxfam has a dedicated book shop that I drop in  whenever I’m in Cardiff shopping though I think their prices are a bit on the high side. For a few years I thought that was the only option since all the other second hand shops I knew of closed down. But last year I discovered one that has a wonderful selection of the original Virago green editions. Paradise is only a few miles away!

8. Do you keep your read and TBR pile together/on the same book shelf or not?

They’re separate otherwise the bookshelves would be in an even greater mess than they are currently

9. Do you plan to read all the books that you own?

That’s the idea certainly and I’m gradually reducing the number that are still to be read. My only problem area is with my non fiction books. I buy them fully intending to read them but often never get around to it….

10. What do you do with books that you own and that you feel you’ll never read/felt you didn’t enjoy?

I either donate them to a charity shop or to the library. Or I take to a cafe which is a bookcrossing zone in Cardiff.

11. Have you ever donated books?

Regularly. Either my own copies or – for a few years – via the World Book Night scheme

12. Have you ever been on a book buying ban?

I tried this a few times in the past but it never worked. This year I’ve been far more successful and have lasted almost 4 months without purchasing anything. I put this down to three things: 1. I retired end of last year so haven’t had to do long business trips where I invariably stock up on reading material before I leave home 2. Because I’ve  been recovering from two rounds of surgery this year I haven’t been out and about in shopping areas as much as in the past and 3. Being careful when I open emails from publishers announcing some new titles. Instead of ordering them on auto pilot as I did in the past, I now just add them to my wishlist in Goodreads.

13. Do you feel that you buy too many books?

Tough question to answer – what is too many? I like to have a choice for sure so will always have more books in the house than I can read in a year. But yes my buying habits did get a bit out of control in the last two years and I found I was picking them up without much thought as to why I wanted to read that particular title.


Hope you enjoyed this – I’d love to see your answers to these questions.

 

Read books you’ll hate: it’s good for you

Are there some genres you will never ever read because you know you’ll hate them? Or maybe some specific titles that will never find room in your bookcases for the same reason (yes Moby Dick, I’m looking at you!) . If the answer to either – or both – of these questions is a YES, then an opinion piece published recently in the New York Times  might make you rethink your ideas.

In “Why You Should Read the Books You Hate”  NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul argues that confining your reading to those books you think you’ll appreciate and enjoy is a mistake. Her own experience has shown that it’s not until you tackle the texts written in a style you usually find difficult or about subjects and issues that you find hard to grasp, that you’ll gain the skills to be a better, more thoughtful, more knowledgeable reader.

It was only by burrowing through books that I hated, books that provoked feelings of outrage and indignation, that I truly learned how to read.

Reading ‘hated’ books, claims Pamela Paul, will challenge you to think more deeply about why certain kinds of books make you feel uncomfortable. Is it the style, the story line or a particular argument? If the latter, the more you think about why you disagree with that point of view and gather supporting evidence in your mind, the more actively you’ll engage with the text.

Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas.

You may may even think of chasing down other texts dealing with similar issues.  You’ll end as a more thoughtful, more considered reader than one who gets the end of a book thinking simply “I enjoyed that/I didn’t enjoy that” but not being able months later to recall much of what you read.

Her challenge to readers is to put aside preconceived ideas by delving into a ‘hated’ book:

Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page.

This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.

Until I saw that comment that the idea is not to deliberately read a ‘bad book’ I wasn’t convinced by her arguement. When I have so many books on my shelves that I know I will enjoy why waste my time on something that doesn’t bring any pleasure.

After a day or so reflection I can see that her suggestion makes more sense now particularly when I think about my own reading prejudices – you will never find me reading a science fiction book for example. Over the years I’ve convinced myself that I do not enjoy this kind of fiction so I never go anywhere near that section of the bookshop or the library. And yet in my teens I did read science fiction; maybe not to the same extent as I read historical fiction but I did enjoy Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey and a number of John Wyndham’s novels.  More recently, despite feelings of trepidation I did actually enjoy Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve more recently. Which means that I can’t be as averse to science fiction as I thought. I’ve just built up this notion that I won’t like these books but I can’t explain why. except that I prefer novels about real people and realistic events. And yet people who read science fiction tell me constantly that the plots and themes found in the best of these novels are convincing and the characters are authentic. Perhaps my aversion stems instead from my incomprehension of a lot of scientific principles – in other words if I can’t understand what is being written about, how can I possibly enjoy it?

Maybe the time has come to slay this particular dragon of mine by following Pamela Paul’s advice. Reading some of the best examples from this genre will at least help me understand some of the characteristics and the styles employed by authors to create parallel universes or scientific and technological innovations.

My difficulty is knowing where to start. There seem to be a multitude of sub genres from dystopian to science fantasy (or is that a genre of its own?). And of course a whole clutch of authors. Many of those on the list created by Forbidden Planet of Top 50 Science Fiction novels I don’t even recognise. There are others whose names I recognise but thats as much as I can tell you about them. So do I go for  Ursula le Guin or Diana Wynne Jones; Margaret Atwood or Iain Banks? Or do I go back to the classics with Asimov and co? I need your suggestions please – just bear in mind I’m a beginner so go gently on me and ease me in…..

Would you read ‘hated’ books?

Are there some genres or authors that fall into the category of ‘hated books’ for you? What do you think of the idea of pushing yourself to read some of them? Do leave a comment here about your reactions to Pamela Paul’s opinion piece.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [Booker Prize]

God of all ThingsThe God of Small Things, the debut (and to date sole) novel by Arundhati Roy sparked a hoo-ha when it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 1979.  A lawyer from Kerala (Roy’s home state in India and the setting for the book) filed a complaint of obscenity against the author. Reviews in the USA were extremely positive but those in the UK, less so. The Chairman of the Booker judges, Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge praised the book for its ”extraordinary linguistic inventiveness” but some commentators said it was too popularist. One previous Booker judge called the novel “execrable” and The Guardian newspaper labelled it  “profoundly depressing”.

Was I reading a completely different novel to the one read by the UK critics? I’d agree that The God of Small Things is not an ‘uplifting’ book – it’s one you read it with a sense of sadness for the characters whose lives take a turn for the worse. But depressing? No way. It’s thoughtful, insightful and an often funny tale of the decline and fall of the dysfunctional Kochamma family who “tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.” As for the allegation of ‘popularism’ I’d be mightily offended by that if I were the author  for it’s a term that suggests a kind of book that can be read without taxing the brain too much wheras Roy’s novel is full of ideas and questions about the caste system, communism and family loyalty.  Added to this are the insights we gain into aspects of life in Kerala including the growth of Communism and the tradition of the Kathakali dance.

The novel opens with one of the members of the Kochamma family returning to her childhood home at Ayemenen House in Kerala at the southernmost tip of India. This is where Rahel (one half of the Kochamma “two-egg twins” ) lived for seven years with her brother Estha and their proud, beautiful mother Ammu who bears the stain of a divorce from her alcoholic, violent husband. Other residents include the twins’ blind grandmother Mammachi, their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, serial womaniser) and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma. Ayemenen House was once an elegant property befitting the proprietors of a successful chutney and pickle business but by the time of Rahel’s return the gardens are overgrown, the windows are filthy, the corpses of insects litter the rooms and grease dulls the shine of the doorknobs. The only occupants are Baby Kochamma, now a fat old woman who spends her days sprawled on a sofa watching soap operas beamed in via a huge satellite dish, her maid and Estha, now a young man who refuses to speak.

It’s Estha that Rahel has come to visit. They were inseparable as children, thinking of themselves

 … together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.

For the first seven years of their life they rode above the antagonisms and tensions of the household with a blend of affection and inexhaustible energy. But when Chacko decides to bring his estranged wife and his daughter Sophie Mol to Ayemenen for Christmas, the twins are jolted into a realisation that their mother’s love cannot be taken for granted. Their ensuing jealousy of Sophie Mol has tragic consequences.

Twenty-five years have passed since Rahel and Estha last saw each other. It the night Sophie drowned in a river.   What happened that night, what part the twins played and why Sophie’s death had such damaging consequences for the family is something we learn only in fragments “resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.” Roy’s reconstruction of the past is a circuitous one, told via flashbacks and foreshadowings whose significance becomes apparent only when all the strands come together at the end of the novel.

It could make for a deeply frustrating read but what captivated me and sustained my interest throughout was the exuberance of the characters and the richness of the writing itself. The twins’ private language is a case in point. They love all forms of word play, including reading backwards, but particularly the one where they take words and phrases  uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version.  Instructed for example to be good ‘Ambassadors of India’, when they meet Sophie Mol at the airport, they instantly adopt new titles as  ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis’ (reflecting Estha’s love of pointy shoes and quiffed hairstyle) and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’ (for the moth disovered by her father that flutters in Rahel’s heart).  On the way home they give a rendition of the song they’ve been taught to sing in welcome:

RejOice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways

And Again I say re-jOice

Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect

This is writing that dances and sparkles with nonsensical rhymes, jokes and rogue capital letters that perfectly capture the effervescent nature of the twins, often with tremendous comic effect.

The twins of course are at the heart of the novel. It is their reaction to Sophie Mol’s visit that provide the impetus for Sophie’s death and for a revelation about their mother’s love affair with Velutha, an Untouchable, that will be her and her family’s undoing. But my favourite character is Baby Kochamma, a woman who in her youth fell in love with a Roman Catholic priest and converted to his faith to try and win him. Embittered by her failure she degenerates into a mean, resentful figure who loves nothing more than stirring  up trouble for everyone else.  So determined is she to protect her family’s reputation from the shame of Ammu’s forbidden love, that she fabricates a story that Velutha is a rapist and a child abductor just so he can be got out of the way. The grossness of this woman’s mind is matched by her physical presence.

In the old house on the hill Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp, checked, seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow tumeric stains. Under the tale she swing her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with oedema like little foot-shaped air cushions. …

She was eighty three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses. … Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had saine the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline. .. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark and because she only believed in 40 watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.

 

 

With characterisation this glorious, with language that dances and dazzles and with a story that mingles sadness with joy,  The God of Small Things has become one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

Footnotes

About the book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was published by Flamingo in the UK in 1997. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 1997, was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year that same year and reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction.

About the author: The God of Small Things is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Arundhati Roy’s childhood experiences in Aymanam, Kerala. Though its success gave her financial security she turned her back on fiction writing to devote herself to political activism.  She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.  Late in 2016 Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India announced she was working on a new novel – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – with a publication date of June 2017.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I hadn’t got around to reading. 

 

 

 

 

Wales gets on the map

Time to get that cuppa brewing and those Hot Cross buns buttered. After a lifetime of tasting various versions of these buns I feel qualified to vote the ones my dad makes as by far the best. Even though he gave up his baking business more than 20 years ago he keeps his hand in every Easter with a bunch of these buns for selected customers only (ie family and friends). Forget about those variations they now offer in supermarket – chocolate flavoured for goodness sake – they are no substitute for the real thing. Sorry you can’t taste them for yourselves but I’m planning to scoff the lot…..

Suitably sustained I’m in good shape to do a catch up on what’s been happening in the Booker Talk world of late.

Wales on the Map

I admire bloggers like Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums who are advocates for the literature from their country. Reading their blogs made me realise last year how poor a job I did as an ambassador for my own native land of Wales. I’ve been slowly rectifying that on the blog (you can see some of the results on the Authors from Wales page). The Book on the Map series run by Cleopatra at CleopatraLovesBooks has given me an opportunity put Wales into the spotlight via an interview with the author Thorne Moore who lives in Pembrokeshire and whose book A Time of Silence I discovered late last year. If you have a moment in between all that bun-eating, do take a look at the interview on Cleo’s site and the superb photos.

2017 Goals Update

Goal settingLet’s start with the good news here. My first goal was to cut back on buying/acquiring anything new so I could enjoy the ones I already own. At the start of the year I had 314 unread books in my personal library. Just over three months into the year and the tally has broken the 300 mark – just (at 298). It would have been even lower but the fact I gained a few donations from my sister (two of which have duly been returned unread) and I won two giveaways. It hasn’t been as onerous as I expected though I won’t guarantee not to slip a little in the next few weeks. The one thing I know I’ll have to watch is that I don’t over-compensate for the enforced deprivation by buying a stack of new stuff in the second half of the year.

How about the second goal which is to get a bit more creative with images I use on this blog? swallows-of-kabulThis got off to a slow start. I worked my way through a manual on how to use the Photoshop software program but it was hard going. I had bought a scaled down version because I know the full one is way too sophisticated for my needs but even then the vast array of tools was just confusing. I produced a few montages – like this one of the Swallows of Kabul but they weren’t any great shakes and each one seemed to take forever to produce.  Then last week I did what I should have done months ago – turned to my resident Photoshop expert (otherwise known as Booker Talk husband) who uses the full blown version for his graphic design work.  I’d stupidly assumed the two versions wouldn’t be similar to any great degree. But after just one hour he figured out what I needed to do and away I went.

My first attempt – His His-Bloody-ProjectBloody Project – turned out pretty well I thought though I had to go knocking on his door for help more than once.
The second one – The Daughter of Time – was all my own work. Now I’m not claiming these are brilliant but they are a lot more visually appealing than the standard book cover image I’ve used for the last few years. Maybe not quite a giant leap for mankind but this certainly counts as progress.

Project Update 

This week I finished reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy which represent a significant milestone in my Booker Prize project. It means I now have just 10 titles remaining to read. What’s been the best titles I’ve read so far? You might have seen a recent joint post I did with fellow blogger Joslyn of Chronic Bibliophilia on this point. We challenged ourselves to identify our top three Booker winning titles. Here are my top three. I’ve also ranked all the others in order and in due course will reveal my least favourite titles. Of course these choices might change by the time I get to the end of the project – certainly my enjoyment of The God of Small Things has pushed that up to the top of the list.

Progress on the Classics Club has been just as slow this year as it was in 2016. I’ve read only one title on my Classics Club list so far this year but it was a good one – Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. But hey these are classics and most of them have been around for a hundred years or so; I reckon they can wait a few more years until I get to them.

And that’s it for today everyone. Back to working my way through the rather large collection of chocolate my mum seemed to think it was essential I had this Easter Sunday. Hope you all enjoy your day….

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies.  Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project. 

This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these  documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history.  The  documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder.  Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter  accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.

But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.

This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions?  The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.

The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently.  Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.

Footnotes

The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.  Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.

The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.

Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…

 

 

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm.   Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne?  Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?

Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.

It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III,  his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.

All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.

Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.

This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth.  It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of  novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:

Do you know about Morton?

No

He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….

Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of

I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….

What!

Yes you may well look startled.

Are you sure?

Quite sure.

Not exactly riveting dialogue is it?  I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.

Footnotes

The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.

The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel.  She left her copyrights to the National Trust.

Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar  – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened.  The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.

10 “unique” and distinctive books

This week’s Top Ten topic relates to books that are unique. Impossible to come up with a list of 10 I thought given Christopher Booker’s premise that there are just seven basic plots in fiction:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Even adding in the permutations of setting, period, narrative voice and structure it would be hard, bearing in mind the millions of books in print in the world, to identify something truly unique  in the sense of being one of a kind. You have to dig deep to find that spark of truly unique thought that makes one novel unlike every other novel out there – how many novels are breakthrough texts in the vein of Joyce’s Ulysses? Even when an author finds an approach that’s different, it won’t stay that way for long –  bestselling novels and even complex ones can easily be imitated after all (just look at all the ‘me-too’ versions of Fifty Shades and The Twilight Series).

It got a bit easier when I started to think about the word ‘unique’ as being distinctive, remarkable, notable and extraordinary. I ignored experimental novels like Will Self’s Umbrella with its 400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness dotted across three time frames and four points of view, and with barely a paragraph break. I appreciate authors trying to break free of constraints but often they turn out to have more fun than I do as a reader. I opted instead for novels that were individual in style, approach, narrative structure or voice.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Catton paid homage to the great traditions of 19th-century narratives with this 2013 Booker Prize winning novel even to the extent of including, like Dickens and George Eliot, a precis at the top of each chapter. Not even Dickens, known for his intricate plots, ever came up with a structure where each chapter shortens in length as the book progresses (chapter 1 seems to be 300 pages long) and where each character is ascribed a personality typical of an astrological sign.

How to be Both by Ali Smith: As superb as the writing was in this 2014 novel, what made it stand out was that two versions were published. Depending on which copy you picked up at random, readers either began with the story of a troubled teenager or with an Italian fresco painter. The two connected and twisted around each other but the reading experience was different according to the starting point.

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou: This is a stream of consciousness novel that breaks free of its associations with psychological introspection as in the hands of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In Mabanckou’s novel set in the Congo, words, images and literary allusions freewheel with barely a pause or a full stop in a teasing satire about political figures and Congolese men. It’s a novel that designed to amuse and entertain rather than encourage deep thoughts.

Dom Casmurro by Joachim Maria Mated de Assis: A classic of Brazilian literature this is a novel that completely messes up the idea of a linear narrative structure. Purporting to be an autobiography written by a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, the chapters are not connected in any organised fashion so you have to pick up the clues of the story piecemeal. It sounds incoherent but it’s a blast in comparison to Finnegan’s Wake.

Harvest by Jim Crace: Creative writing classes advise you to be specific in order to make the narrative sound authentic. Crace confounds that advice with a novel that gives few clues about its setting or time period. Yes we can pick up signals that it’s dated before a time when common grazing land was enclosed by private landowners. But are we in the twelfth century or the thirteenth?  Astute readers who know their plants will spot that this is set somewhere in England but are we in the south or the west or the east? The very timelessness and lack of location give this story of a rupture in man’s relationship with the land, a universal quality.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel: An object lesson in how to tell a shaggy dog story convincingly – and win a Booker Prize for the effort. It tests our ability as readers to believe what seems unbelievable, offering us an alternative version of truth.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: Anyone who has read – or attempted to read – Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy will know how frustrating/perplexing an experience it can be when a novelist keeps breaking up the flow of text with seemingly disconnected digressions. The abrupt and extreme changes in narrative flow and the multiple digressions and contradictions make reading Midnight’s Children a heady experience,

The Many by Wyl Menmuir:  It surprises me that this novella didn’t get more critical acclaim. It deals with a highly topical subject – environmental degradation – without coming across as rather preachy or Doomsday. The most significant aspect for me however was that it contains so many unresolved, unanswered questions. It’s effectively a mystery novel where the reader feels constantly they’re on unsettled ground.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime  by Mark Haddon: It’s the identity of the narrator that distinguishes this book.  Child/young person narrators are common features but until Haddon came along I don’t recall one who was also autistic. Christopher is a budding maths genius who understands numbers better than he understands people.  When his neighbour’s dog is killed he applies his logical skills to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. This is a book littered with diagrams and figures. Reading it is an education – you’ll learn how to find prime numbers, the reason the Milky Way looks like a line in the night sky and the mathematical reason for the change in population density in a school frog pond.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins:  I saved this one to last because it’s distinctive in more than one way. First it  introduced a new genre in the form of the sensation novel when it began serialisation in 1859, inspiring a number of imitators like Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Secondly, few novels have quite as many narrators as this one – nearly all the principal characters get their turn at telling the story giving the effect we are hearing witness statements and presentation of evidence in a court of law.  And finally this is a novel that gave rise to a slew of merchandising tie ups. Back in the 1870s you could buy  Woman in White perfume, dress in Woman in White cloaks and bonnets and dance a Woman in White waltz or quadrille. For all its t-shirts, wizard wands and theme parks, Harry Potter went as far as a dance tie in….

Gearing up for #1951reading club

1951clubmontage

Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book are once again delving into books from the past with a 1951 Club reading week starting next week. This follows on from their 1924, 1938 and 1947 clubs.

Looking through my stack of books I found three that were published in 1951:

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene: This is fourth – and last – of Greene’s novels that have an overtly Roman Catholic dimension. Set in Clapham during the blitz (before the war, Greene owned a house in Clapham), it’s a story of adultery. It comes with a strong theme about guilt and jealousy. It’s one of my favourite Greene novels.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor: I can thank many bloggers for introducing me to Elizabeth Taylor. My first experience of her work – A Wreath of Roses – didn’t inspire me but I was persuaded to give her another chance so I ended up buying a number of her titles secondhand.  A Game of Hide and Seek is one of them. It’s her fifth novel and, like The End of the Affair, features a triangular relationship. Taylor’s themes may be slightly less grand than Greene’s but she is no less insightful in depiction of human behaviour.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: A rather unusual historical crime story in which a Detective Inspector with Scotland Yard lies in a hospital bed and reviews evidence that makes King Richard III murderer. Did he really order the deaths of the Princes in the Tower or is that a myth along with his withered arm and hunchback?

Three good options here I think. Since I’ve already read The End of the Affair I’ll likely go for the titles that will be less familiar. The Tey novel beckons to me most right now and will be a perfect pairing with the final episode in the Hollow Crown BBC series. It will be interesting to compare Shakespeare’s version of Richard III with the one in Tey’s novel.

 

 

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

glorious-heresies2The Glorious Heresies is a bold, brash debut novel that won Lisa McInerney numerous accolades including the Bailey’s Prize and the Desmond Elliot prize in 2016.

McInerney’s edgy style will not be to everyone’s liking and her portrayal of Cork’s seedy underworld is unlikely to do much for the city’s tourist trade. Forget any images of pastoral landscape and Guiness-fuelled booze ups to the sound of a few jolly fiddlers. The world of The Glorious Heresies is a crowded vista of brothels and grim housing estates of schoolboy drug dealers and malicious thugs.

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from home (with a measure of screaming fishwife fucked in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

The novel begins with an accidental murder in a block of flats used as a temporary residence for Maureen Phelan, the mother of one of the city’s leading gangland bosses. When she hits an intruder over the head with a Holy Stone, Maureen sets in motion a chain of events that entangle her son and three other members of the city’s underclass.

To describe the plot further would be to do an injustice to McInderney’s novel because the power of The Glorious Heresies really stems from the brilliantly delineated misfits that make up her cast.  The guy drafted in to dispose of the body is Tony, a drunken wastrel and father of six, whose alcoholism and obsession with his unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family.  Georgie, the murdered man’s girlfriend, is a wildchild who has run away from her village home because “if she didn’t get up and march out, she’d grow roots down through the thin carpet, down through the foundations, down into the soil, the dirt, the rock and trap herself there until her brain turned to jelly.”  Her new life in Cork is one of drugs and prostitution.

Feeding her habit is Tony’s fifeteen year old son, Ryan. He’s desperate not to turn out like his father who is rather too free with his fists when he’s in his cups. He’s an intelligent boy though disruptive in school, one who hides his talent for playing the piano and puts on a show of bravado. But deep down he mourns the mother who died four years earlier and whose presence is still felt in the family home:

It was a three-bedroom terrace so cavernous without his mother he could barely stand it. It echoed shit he didnt want to think about in chasms that shouldnt have been there.

As the novel opens, Ryan is on the fringe of manhood, about to leave behind his “pile of mangled, skinny limbs” and emerge with “squared shulders and jaws, and strong arms.” His metamorphosis is achieved with the aid of Karine D’Arcy, “”whip-smart and as beautiful as morning”, the most desirable girl in his school. She was now in his bedroom, helping him lose his virginity.  Their relationship is the only stability Ryan can count on as his life goes into spin: a predatory next door neighbour seduces him; his father is implicated in the disposal of the corpse and Ryan’s drug dealing gets him sent down for nine months in a young offenders’ institution.

Though Ryan is the central character, it’s the gangster’s mother Maureen, a woman “crazier than a dustbin fox”, I warmed to the most. After 40 years of exile in London she’s returned to Cork to discover the illegitimate son she had to give up for adoption, has become a much-feared thug, drug baron and sex-industry entrepreneur.  She’s determined to atone for the death, despite her son’s protestations that she’s already caused enough trouble. But when she goes to church to confess her crime, her encounter with a priest stirs up memories of the way the Catholic Church treated unmarried mothers like herself.  She ends up accusing the priest of hypocrisy:

The most natural thing in the world is giving birth; you built your whole religion around it. And yet you poured pitch on girls like me and sold us into slavery and took our humanity from us.”scarred by the treatment yet still vividly scarred by having spent her years in fear of the Holy Trinity: “the priests, the nuns and the neighbours”.

The switching narrative viewpoints take us deep into the minds and hearts of these people and make us cry and despair alongside them, and, at times, laugh.  For though their prospects are bleak and the city is in a post economic-boom tailspin, the sheer muddle of their lives produces some dark humour.

It’s an exuberant debut, unflinching in exposing the dark underbelly of  a city  “spread out in soft mounds and hollows, like a duvet dropped into a well” and biting in its denouncement of the Catholic church as well as a missionary cult that seems to think the answer to the city’s drug problem is to hand out pamphlet. This is a novel that asks serious questions about salvation, guilt and the effects of the past on the present.

Footnotes 

The Book: The Glorious Heresies was published by John Murray in 2015.  It won The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 and the Desmond Elliot Prize for 2016. It was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prie 2016. I read the e-version.

The Author: Lisa McInerney is from Galway and is the author of an award-winning blog ‘Arse End of Ireland’ (no longer active or available). The Irish Times has called her ‘arguably the most talented writer at work in Ireland today’. Her latest novel The Blood Miracles is published in April 2017 – it features Ryan Cusak (from The Glorious Heresies).

Why I read this book: Although I often ignore books that attract huge levels of attentionl this one appealed to me. I read it for ReadingIreland2017 hosted by 746books and  The Fluff is Raging.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: