Category Archives: Book Reviews

Non Fiction November: Should non fiction read like fiction?

Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?

It’s week 4 of Non Fiction November 2018 and  Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction has set that thought-provoking question.

My first —  instinctive — answer was no.  If I want fiction, then I’ll read a novel; if I want something factual, I’ll pick up a non fiction book. But ne’er the twain shall meet.

But when I began thinking about it more I realised that there are some principles that apply regardless of whether its fiction or non fiction. Some aspects of novel writing I do in fact like to see in my non fiction reading.

First and foremost I expect any non fiction book to exhibit writing to a high quality standard. Non fiction authors, just as their fictional counterparts do, need to appreciate the value of the full stop. Too many academic writers stuff their text with so many multi clause sentences that the only way to discover the meaning is to pick each one apart. I don’t expect, or want, any book to be in text that is so simple a five year old would have no trouble reading it, but neither do I want to have to work super hard to understand what is in front of my eyes.

Even more critical: I don’t want to be bombarded with facts. No matter how knowledgeable the author, being confronted with paragraph after paragraph stuffed with dates, names and facts makes for very dry and tedious reading. I want my facts mixed with interpretation, analysis and perspective.

Fortunately, recent years have provided evidence that there are non fiction writers who have understood those requirements. Understood them so well in fact that their books have become best sellers rather than being confined to dusty academic libraries.

Here are some of my favourite examples.

Why We Sleep by  Matthew Walker

Why we sleep

I’m reading this at the moment. It’s an astonishing piece of work that explains clearly to a lay person the effects of insufficient sleep. I thought a bad night’s sleep just meant I felt washed out and unable to think clearly. It turns out that regular sleep deprivation makes me more susceptible to dementia, cancer and diabetes, more likely to have a car accident and less successful at keeping my weight under control. I’m hoping that it’s not too late for me to undo some of that damage.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald 

H is for Hawk

I rarely read anything about nature but this was a fascinating book about the author’s relationship with the goshawk she bought following her father’s death. The process of training Mabel, helps Helen Macdonald through the process of grieving for her father. This book became a best seller and won several awards including Costa Book of the Year in 2014

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Long walk

I had never read a political autobiography until Mandela’s book was published in 1994. It was astonishing. I knew I would learn about his political ideas and the cause for which he spent decades in prison. But I also learned that the man viewed as a saviour of his country,  had many faults. Mandela doesn’t shy away from showing how he was  naive and headstrong in his youth and how he neglected his wife and children. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — by then President of his country — looked to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson 

Walk in the woods.jpg

Bryson’s books about the idiosyncrasies of Britain and the British are a delight. In A Walk in the Woods he returns to his homeland of America and describes his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. He and his walking companion  however  are decidedly
ill-prepared for such an endeavour; they’re carrying far too much equipment and food so the first leg of the journey is an ordeal. In between humorous episodes and some rather dangerous moments, Bryson reflects on the history of the trail, the ecology of the areas through which the trail passes – and on life in general.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples besides these of well written and compelling non fiction books. Do let me know what books you would put on your list.

 

 

South Riding by Winifred Holtby #bookreview

South RidingIf I had relied entirely upon the back cover synopsis, I doubt I would have read Winifred Holby’s final novel.

The blurb gave me the impression the focus was on Sarah Burton, the idealistic new head of a girls’ school in a fictional Yorkshire seaside town and her clashes with conservative locals. It sounded rather tame.

Fortunately there are plenty of bloggers around whose opinions I have learned to trust more than a publisher’s synopsis.

South Riding is a novel that evokes the lives of people in a Yorkshire community that is trying to recover from the tumult of the First World War. Former soldiers, local politicians, religious leaders and the working men who struggle to make a living: all are conscious that their world is changing. They just have different ideas about what should change and how.

One of the chief advocates for change is the outsider Sarah Burton. She’s a spirited woman whose idealism is matched with an eminently practical nature.  Faced with a tumble down building and a school that doesn’t have the greatest of academic reputations, she decides her first battle ground will be the toilet arrangements.

I don’t really mind a hall the size of a cupboard, a pitch dark cellar-gymnasium and laboratories housed in a broken-down conservatory; but these beetle-hunted cloakrooms I will not have. They’re enough to constipate any child for months. I will have those altered.

Sanitary provisions are but a step towards her greater goal of a world from which disease, poverty and ignorance have been eradicated. In her opinion that will take government  intervention.

Opposing her is the book’s representative of the gentility; local squire Robert Carne. He’s conservative by nature, opposed in principle to the idea that local government should expand its sphere of influence. Carne is very much a man of the past not the future. He sticks to traditional methods of farming but despite his best efforts he cannot make his estate pay its way and his manor home is crumbling about his ears.

His conservatism also puts him at odds with  other members of the local county council, Alderman Snaith and Councillor Joe Astell, who connive to push ahead with their own plan for change. But their desire to replace a slum area with a new town, complete with new job opportunities, is not motivated entirely by altruistic principles.

The clash between the forces of tradition and progress is played out in the chamber of the county council. This is where decisions are made affecting the lives of everyone in South Riding:  whether roads will be built, slums cleared, a new maternity hospital established. But anyone expecting to hear lively debates about critical issues, quickly gets their ideas squashed. When young journalist Lovell Brown witnesses his first meeting of the county council, he discovers it is far from an exciting spectacle.

Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions.

It’s a testament to Holtby’s skills that she makes us care about what happens in this mundane world of local politics.

Politics aside, South Riding is a very human novel. Holtby isn’t afraid to show life as it really was in the 1930s and that there are no easy answers.  Sarah declares she wants her pupils “to know they can do anything,” but the case of one girl, Lydia Holly, shows the gulf between her desire and what is possible. Lydia is a bright and intelligent girl who lives in “the Shacks” – a set of disused railway carriages. She dreams of a scholarship and learning but her ambitions have to be set aside  when she is required to become a substitute mother for her many younger brothers and sisters.

All of human life is depicted in South Riding. Almost every character in this novel (there are some 160 of them) has a problem. Cancer for one, poverty for another, a loveless marriage for a third. We feel for all of them but Winifred Holtby shows that a happy ending is possible for only a few. Rather than the plot it’s the way Holtby brings these characters to life and shows them as distinctly human with their shortcomings as well as seams of goodness, that makes South Riding such an enjoyable read.

 

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller [book review]

Now we shall be freeNow We Shall be Entirely Free is an atmospheric adventure tale, set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, that won me over right from the opening page.

It begins with an unconscious man travelling by coach through a rain-drenched English countryside. He is Captain John Lacroix, son of a wealthy Somerset family, who has returned home from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain. He’d set off for the war full of optimism and splendidly equipped with new (and expensive) leather boots, a pelisse with fur-lined collar and numerous shirts, waistcoats and neckties.

He returns in borrowed and patched clothes, his feet bound with strips of cloth and his hearing damaged. He is a broken man.

Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. … this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth.

He’s nursed from the brink of death by his housekeeper. But he is clearly a man changed physically and mentally by his experience of war.  It’s not until much later in the novel that we discover the cause of his breakdown: an atrocity committed in a quiet mountain village while the British army was in retreat.

When a fellow officer turns up at the house with instructions for John to return to his return, he flees to Scotland. What he doesn’t know is that some time earlier in Spain a military committee held to inquire into the atrocity decided that someone must be held responsible. They determine Lacroix is that someone. So they despatch a British officer called Calley to find and kill him. .

Lacroix’s escape and Calley’s pursuit sets up the dramatic focus of the novel. Will the regiment catch up with Lacroix before Calley? How long can Lacroix survive on his own wits (the signs are not good because almost as soon as he sets foot in Scotland he is robbed and beaten). The suspense is maintained throughout by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with that of Calley and his companion Medina, a Spanish officer.

Miller excels at creating atmosphere and characters. Calley is the most interesting. He’s a man entirely devoid of principles. A man on a mission to kill. He thinks nothing of torturing and beating up the people he believes have information that will help him track down his quarry. He tells one of his victims:

You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.

But in one moment of candour he tells how he learned from an early age how to take care of himself. Working as a piecer in a cotton mill as a child, he would crawl underneath the machines to clean them. One slip and he’d lose his fingers or have his arm ripped off.

While Now We Shall be Entirely Free is certainly an adventure story, there is an element of romance. When Lacroix hides out in the Scottish Hebrides he encounters the Fender siblings, a small community of free thinkers.  Lacroix is enthralled by one of the sisters, Emily, accompanying her to Glasgow for a highly risky operation she hopes will restore her failing sight.  Miller fortunately spares us some of the more gruesome details of the procedure.

The budding romance, which is quite touching in its gentleness and innocence provides a lovely counter to the darkness of the war and the theme of culpability.  Early on in the novel a shadowy officer involved in the military query observes that “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes.”   Lacroix himself is pushed by the Fenders, who do not believe in violence, to question his motives for becoming a soldier. He has to admit he had thought more about the uniform than the fact he would be expected to kill.

If he can evade Calley, will his love for Emily enable Lacroix to put aside his memories of the war? The ending of the novel is deliciously ambivalent. I’m not going to spoil other readers’ enjoyment by revealing the details.

Why I read this book

I loved an earlier novel by Andrew Miller – Pure – which is set in Paris and thought it was superb. So I was more than happy to get a copy of his newest novel from Netgalley in return for an honest review

 

The Secret River by Kate Grenville [Book Review]

The Secret RiverBy coincidence I started reading Kate Grenville’s story of a fictional family who were early settlers in Australia, around the same time that I was researching a real life family who left Ireland to make a new life in Australia.

Both families were forced into travelling the thousands of miles to the new world. Grenville’s patriarch was a convict, transported for life for stealing wood; mine was a farmer fleeing from the Irish potato famine.

Though I suspect both the fictional and the real-life families suffered similar difficulties with an unfamiliar climate and terrain, I don’t know whether ‘my’ family experienced the same conflicts with the indigenous population as the convict William Thornhill does when he tries to colonise some land.

Thornhill was born in London into a life of poverty.  He’s not an inherently wicked man  but turns to petty crime because it offers an opportunity to keep body and soul alive. Unfortunately he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Transportation is his escape from the gallows.

With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in New South Wales. Through hard work he is able to earn his freedom and to start afresh. He discovers a plot of land in an inlet of the Hawkesbury River, that he is determined to own and cultivate.

In The Secret River, Grenville shows the effect of a burning desire for ownership and how it changes an otherwise decent, hard working and sensitive man.

Cultivation of the new land is a hard task but what keeps Sal going is the belief that one day they will have enough money to return to her beloved London. But the land and the river have taken grip of William. It’s the one time in his life that he has something that is his. Being a landowner represents dignity and status, and he wants to keep it even if that means conflict with the woman he loves.

… nothing would console him for the loss of that point of land the shape of his thumb. For the light in the mornings, slanting in through the trees. For the radiant cliffs in the sunset and the simple blue of the sky. For the feeling of striding out over ground that was his own. For knowing he was a king, as he would only ever be king in that place.

But he has not reckoned that there is another group who equally believe the land they are the rightful owners of this plot of land.

The mysterious, dark-skinned people who appear and disappear from the forests, seem seem to him no more than naked savages.  Other ex- convicts up river have found a way to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines but not William. He is angered when they steal his crops and incensed to find his son playing with their children. This to him feels like a betrayal.

When violence between Aborigines and the white settlers erupts further along the river, William is shown a way to protect his own family and everything he has worked for in Australia.  But it requires him to accept bloodshed and violence.  It’s hard to read this part of the novel without a sense of dread about the decision William has to make because it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome.

This is a novel about two attitudes to the land (the settlers and the Aborigines) but also about two rivers.

Grenville shows the Thames as a harsh and unforgiving, environment against which William contends when he plies his trade as a boatman. Yet he loves the river:

After a time the mud-choked water and the ships it carried, thick on its back like fleas on a dog, became nothing more than a big room of which every corner was known. He came to love that wide pale light around him out on the river, the falling away of insignificant things in the face of the great radiance of the sky. He would rest on the oars at Hungerford Reach, where the tide could be relied on to sweep him around, and stare along the water at the way the light wrapped itself around every object.

Even when he’s soaked through and his face is reddened and swollen by the cold and rain, he accepts his condition because “it was as pointless to complain about the weather as it was to complain that he had been born … in a dank, stuffy room rather than … with a silver spoon waiting to have his name engraved on it.”

The Hawkesbury River  fires William’s imagination even more than the Thames. Until he saw the sparkle and dance of light on the water, the way the cliffs tumble into the river through snaking mangroves and the sound of wind rustling through skinny, grey-green trees, he had never realised that a man could fall in love with the land. Or that he could become a different man entirely.

This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was; not just in body but in soul as well.

A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.

The is a well-paced novel in the way Grenville shows an escalation of the conflict between Aborigines and some of the white settlers and the conflict within William as he faces his moral dilemma.

Some reviewers have commented that they would have preferred The Secret River to more morally ambiguous. Grenville, they thought, over simplified the portrayal of the  attitudes of the settlers to the Aborigines. Actually I thought her exploration of how people are brought to act against their principles and values,  was far more nuanced than they gave her credit for.

It seems this novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, and was a Booker prize nominee, is the first in a trilogy. I wonder whether the next two titles will have the same level of tension.

 

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani [book review]

Lullaby-by-Leila-SlimaniIt takes a brave author to begin a novel by revealing the ending. The strategy could have gone horribly wrong for Leïla Slimani in Lullaby; her tale of a nanny who morphs from little miss perfect into a monster.

But this is a novel so deftly written that it doesn’t matter that we we know from the first few pages that the nanny ends up killing the two children in her care. What really keeps us reading is the desire to discover her motive and to learn what brought her to commit such an appalling deed.

Slimani takes her time in providing the answers; dropping clues and leaving hints while slowly ratcheting up the tension. Though we know the outcome there is still a strong sense of dread as details are revealed.  As one reviewer commented on the back of my copy: “I defy you to read the disturbing opening sentences and not be compelled to read on.”

Compelling this novel undoubtedly is but it would be unfair to think of it purely in terms of its thrill factor.  For Slimani  has given us a novel that rests on an experience shared by many working parents in the twentieth century: the struggle between their desire for a rewarding, successful career and their desire to be with their children.

Myriam, the mother in Lullaby, is a highly intelligent  woman and ambitious. She loves her children but after a morning of tantrums and tedious domestic chores she longs for her own space. “They’re eating me alive,” she think. An unexpected meeting brings an opportunity  to return to the legal world she loved before her marriage.  Just one problem: what to do about the children? Her husband’s career as a music producer is about to take off so it’s not feasible for him to replace her as chief carer. They decide the only solution is to bring in a nanny, being careful to filter out unsuitable candidates. “No illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers,” they agree.

With her smartly polished shoes, prim Peter Pan collar and neatly polished nails, Louise appears the answer to their prayers. She becomes indispensable, bringing order to the couple’s cramped Paris apartment; enchanting the children with her games and stories and creating delicious meals. They treat her like a family member at times, taking her on their holiday to Greece.

“My nanny is a miracle-worker'” Myriam tells her friends and colleagues.

But the magic wears off.  After one incident involving his daughter, Paul decides he can’t stand their nanny any longer. Myriam begins to fret that she is losing the connection with her children. They relate more to their nanny than they do to her. A chilling episode involving a chicken carcass causes Myriam to think that Louise might be dangerous, or mad.

But the parental concerns come too late.

Are the murders some kind of punishment for parents who put personal ambitions ahead of their children’s wellbeing? That’s one interpretation. Equally feasible is that Slimani is making a point  about parents who entrust their precious possessions to a stranger with only the flimsiest of background checks. So wrapped up are Myriam and Paul in their own lives that they never consider their nanny has a life  — and problems — of her own.

Slimani deftly makes her readers more conscious of Louise as an individual than her employers ever do, showing this woman as a lonely figure, a woman who has never once had anyone to care for her or to make her a meal. In Myriam and Paul’s home and family she finds what she never had.  When it becomes evident that her future in this “warm hiding place” is under threat, she becomes unhinged.

Lullaby is a deeply powerful novel that asks questions but doesn’t provide any easy answers. Though I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I can’t get it out of my head. Easily the best book I’ve read this year.

Endnotes

Leila Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby. A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Faber will publish her new novel Adèle in February 2019

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst [Booker prize]

LineOfBeautyWhat a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.

It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics  via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university.   He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of  a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.

Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the  double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.

Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.

Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty.  The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.

So why do I say the novel is boring?

Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.

Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.

Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.

The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.

The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind.  He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner.  But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters?  The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.

One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”.  Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.

 

 

Booker prize shortlist 2018

And then there were six.

The Booker Prize judging panel announced today the books that have made it through to the shortlist round of the 2018 prize.

One surprise is that the biggest name on the longlist has now been removed from the prize. I’m still waiting for my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight  to become available in the library but I’ve seen nothing but praise for this book so it’s strange not to find it on the shortlist.

One disappointment is that Donal Ryan’s From A Low And Quiet Sea didn’t make it through. As you can read in my review I thought this was even better than his earlier Booker contender The Spinning Heart.  

No surprises that Belinda Bauer’s Snap is not on the shortlist. Frankly it was a surprise to find it on the longlist. Much has been made of the fact that this was the first crime novel to be included in the Booker longlist. That’s not factually correct (Eleanor Catton’s The Illuminations was a crime novel in a sense) but even  Snap isn’t anything remarkable according to many comments and reviews I’ve seen in recent weeks.  I’ll reach my own conclusion shortly since this has been chosen for our next book club read.

The other longlisted title about which there was a lot of fuss was Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, the first graphic novel to be included on the list. This has now disappeared from the contenders.

So what are we left with? These are all the shortlisted titles, ranked in order by members of the Mookes and the Gripes group on Goodreads.

Robin Robertson (UK):  The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse. Chronicling the drift of a Canadian D-Day veteran across post-war America, Robertson fuses poetry, cinema and the traditions of noir into an elegy for a lost age.

Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning                  novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo. The Overstory is a mosaic of stories spanning time and space, joined together by the overarching strata of the world’s trees and a mission to save the last virgin forest

Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel that reimagines The Oedipal myth of divided families, inter-generational rivalry and twisted fate. Set in a remote cottage in the British countryside, the novel centres on the complex and fractured relationship between an isolated young lexicographer and her mother, a woman gradually succumbing to dementia.

Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a darkly wry – but disquieting – coming of age novel set in a thinly-disguised Belfast of the “Troubles”. The narrative focuses on a nameless, 18-year-old narrator and her affair with the somewhat sinister ‘Milkman’, a much older married man allied with the paramilitaries.

Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape):  a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo. The narrative follows convict Romy Hall as she begins two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility.

Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues. Her new novel is described as a dazzlingly inventive new story of antebellum-era slavery and exploration that spans the globe.

I have three of these on hold at the library so with a little luck I might get to read at least a few before the winner is announced on October 16.

 

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer [book review]

red coatKate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat is a psychologically tense novel that calls to mind that darkly disturbing fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. 

In Hamer’s novel a young girl disobeys her mother and wanders off during a day out at a story-telling festival.  As the fog rises over the fields and the festival goers begin to hurry home, they pay scant attention to the lone child dressed in a bright red coat. No-one sees Carmel leave the site and get into a car with a man who claims to be the grandfather she has never met.

While keeping her captive in his remote and tumble-down hide-out, he plans his next move. He believes she is special, a girl with a gift for healing. A girl whose powers can make him rich.

Told in the alternating perspectives of the missing daughter and her grieving mother Beth, The Girl in the Red Coat is a novel keeps you hooked.

From Beth we learn that she’d long had a premonition that one day she would lose Carmel. Now it’s just the two of them (her husband Paul left her for a younger woman) she becomes ever more obsessed about keeping a close eye on her daughter. Her need to be protective is resented by her daughter. Carmel loves her mum but just wishes she would give her more freedom.

Beth is right to be afraid. Her daughter is an unusual child, highly imaginative, and intelligent beyond her years but also dreamer, prone to lose all sense of time and of her self while playing in the woods.

Was it just me who saw those absences? When she stood rooted to the spot and her eyes became strange and stony —  then as soon as they came, they went. Fugues I began to name them.

Carmel’s sections of the narrative work carry the weight of the narrative since it’s through her we slowly come to understand her abductor’s plans and the girl’s struggle to retain her identity.  There’s a race-against-time element to this novel

Child narrators are always tricky to pull off.  They can either sound too childish or too mature for their supposed age. Hamer compounds the difficulties by imbuing her child with elevated powers of observation and communication. A few times the narrative comes across as a little unrealistic but the power of the story is so great that such thoughts last only a second.

Both daughter and mother  make frequent reference to the fairytale nature of what’s happened to them. Beth wishes she’d kept her daughter “shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow.” Spotting her shadow on the wall beside her captor’s, Carmel muses: “We both look like the paper puppets … and I wonder what story we’d be telling if we were.” She steels herself by thinking: “Sometimes, it’s easier to think of things as stories … If I made these things into stories I could float away from them, and look at them sideways, or like they were happening inside a snow globe.”

Obviously this book has a strong race-against-time element to it. Will Carmel be found? Will mother and daughter ever be reunited in true fairy-tale tradition?  Hamer handles the tension and suspense well and if that were all this book had, it would a perfectly enjoyable yarn.

But it’s her depiction of the complicated relationship between mother and daughter that made this novel considerably more appealing for me. Though their relationship had often in the past been tense, in their forced separation they discover the depth of their need for each other. When they see each other again, theirs will be a very different relationship resolves Carmel.

 All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.

As time passes and her confidence in her ability to survive diminishes, she still clings to the hope that one day she will be reunited with her mum.

Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.

Is there a fairy-tale happy ending for Carmel and Beth? You;ll just have to read the book yourself because on that question, my lips are sealed.

Footnotes

About the book: The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer.  It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.

About the author:  Kate Hamer comes from Pembrokeshire in Wales. She received a New Writer’s Bursary from Literature Wales to help her finish her novel, She currently lives with her husband in Cardiff.  Her second novel The Doll Funeral was published in 2017.

Why I read this book: It was selected by one of the book clubs to which I belong but they postponed the date for the discussion and I couldn’t get to that rescheduled meeting. So the book went back on the shelf and I forgot about it until the end of last month when I was hunting around for some books to take with me on holiday.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan [book review]

Low and Quet SeaWere it not for the Booker Prize I’m not sure I would have ever experienced Donal Ryan’s work.

He was long listed in 2013 with The Spinning Heart, winning The Guardian first book award the same year. Narrated by 21 victims of Ireland’s economic crash; it reveals the impact of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger on the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town.  In my review I described it as “technically adroit … with pitch perfect characterisation.”

That same description can be equally applied to his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which is on this year’s Booker Prize long list.

I thought it would be hard to beat The Spinning Heart but Ryan has done it with From a Low and Quiet Sea . 

The cast of characters has been significantly trimmed. We’re now focused on three men all of whom have something missing in their lives: a Syrian refugee, a crooked lobbyist and a young man dealing with the heartache of a lost love.

Each man is given their own section in the novel.

Farouk is a doctor who escapes from Syria with his wife and daughter in the hope of finding a more stable, peaceful life in western Europe. Too late, they discover they have been duped and instead of being let to safety are left adrift at sea in the midst of a storm.  Ryan apparently wrote this story after hearing a news report about a Syrian doctor who paid what he thought was a high-end smuggler to get him out of the country.  Though short, this  was  an engrossing story in exquisitely evocative prose

They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots . . . sending their messages cell by cell . . . If a tree is starving, its neighbour will send it food. No one knows how this can be, but it is . . . They know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept. What’s the rule? You know. I’ve told you lots of times before. Be kind.

The style and pace change markedly for section two which features Lampy, a young man who is pining after the girl he loved who dumped him when she went off to college. He works in a care home, occassionally driving the old inhabitants to their medical appointments. He lives with his mother and grandfather Dixie – a man who loves taking people in the pub down a peg of two. Lampy is frequently frustrated by the old man yet also loves him, feeling “ a strange thrill of pride. His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”

And finally we get to John, a ruthless man involved in very shady dealings, who is full of remorse for long-ago relationship with a younger woman. He tells his own story through the medium of the confessional, revealing how his family life fell apart when his brother died and he became obsessed with a young woman he met in a bar.

At first it seems these stories have no relationship to each other. It’s only in the fourth – and final – section that they are drawn together in a way that surprised me. To say more would be to spoil the experience of this book for other readers.

From a Low and Quiet Sea is a brief book but it’s one that lingers in the mind. Every character has a unique voice, from melancholy to matter of fact confession but there is also humour  – there’s a wonderfully funny scene on the bus where the old people grumble because the vehicle breaks down. It’s so good I’m tempted to read it again soon which is something that I rarely do.

I’m not the only blogger to have enjoyed this book. Check out the reviews at A Life in Books and DolceBellezza.net

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