Category Archives: Top Ten Tuesday

In review: Ten winners of the Booker Prize

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The first book I ever reviewed was so dreadful that I have obliterated its title from my memory.

It was by Maeve Binchey and though I know she is extremely popular among some readers, I vowed never to read anything by her again. Ever. I only got to the end because it formed part of a book review column that was being introduced on the newspaper where I was a rather junior reporter.

Maybe it was that experience that destroyed my interest in reviewing. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I began in earnest. I’m re-interpreting the brief for  this week’s Top 10 topic.

Instead of listing the first 10 reviews to appear on this blog (which would be dull) I’m opting for the first 10 reviews of Booker Prize winners. It is after all my project to read all the prize winners that prompted me to begin the blog in 2012.

Here’s my list. All links take you to my review

  1. The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens. The very first review to appear on this blog, was this 1970 winner. It’s embarrassing to look back at this review – I clearly had a lot to learn…
  2. Something to Answer For by P H Newby. This review appeared in April 2012. My attempt was slightly – but only slightly – better than the first effort.
  3. Saville by David Storey. This appeared in the same month as the Newby review. Not a book I cared for at all as my review indicates all too clearly.
  4. Staying On by Paul Scott. This is a follow up to his superb series called The Raj Quartet. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, I’m also happier with the quality of the review.
  5. White Tiger by Arvind Adiga  I remember enjoying this novel which won the 2008 Booker Prize but I see from my review that I wasn’t that keen on the ending.
  6. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. A wonderful book and one of my favourite Booker winners.
  7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Definitely not one of my favourite Booker winners. Though I admired the technical virtuosity and the brilliance of the imagination, I struggled to finish the book – and also, I seem to remember, struggled to write a review.
  8. Possession by A S Byatt. These reviews do seem to be getting more coherent (at last)
  9. The Sea by John Banville  My review from 2013 may not have done full justice to this book but at least it’s no longer embarrassing to read after all these years.
  10. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. And so we reach July 2013 and a novel that was a re-read.

It’s been interesting to look back at these blog posts and to see the progress I made in just over a year of writing reviews. When I decided to begin blogging I had no concerns about my ability to write: I had after all trained as a journalist and had worked for years in a communications role. But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that writing reviews of books is an art that requires a completely different skill set.

There is still a long, long way to go before I reach the point where I find it easier to write these reviews and am more satisfied with the result. I wonder if I ever will reach that day or whether I’m too too much of a perfectionist to ever be satisfied….


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. .

Top 10 books around the world

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It’s been a long time since I joined in with the Top Ten Tuesday meme but this week’s topic gives me a chance to talk about a topic of particular interest to me.

I realised a few years ago that my reading was rather limited geographically so I made a conscious decision to look for novels written by authors outside of USA and Uk. Since starting my World of Literature project I’ve read books in 36 countries. Though the Top Ten Tuesday topic is strictly speaking about books that take place in another country, I’m taking a liberal approach and going for novels written by authors from 10 different parts of the world.

 

Belgium: Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb. This slim work from one of Belgium’s leading authors is set in Japan. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the difficulties of navigating the work culture in Japan.

Finland: White  Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. I never realised that Finland had suffered a horrendous famine in the 1860s. This is a grim account of a woman walking mile after mile through waist-high snow to prevent her children starving to death.

India: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. A Booker prize-winning novel that will make you laugh and make you think.

Japan: After the Banquet  by  Yukio Mishima. This was my first venture into Japanese literature. It was enigmatic at times but also a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two people whose interests and perspectives seem diametrically opposed.

Kenya: Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. A savage indictment of the political and government regime in the country post independence.

Nigeria:  Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Two young people dream of leaving their country to find a new life in America. Only one of them makes it. But it’s not what she expects.

Norway: The Blue Room  by Hanne Ørstavik  A short psychological novel about a naive young girl and the troubling relationship she as with her mother.

Republic of the Congo:   Broken Glass by  Alain Mabanckou. A lively novel set in a seedy bar where a rag bag of odd characters hang out.

South Korea: The Vegetarian by Hang Kang. A disturbing novel about a troubled girl who decides to stop eating meat.

Zimbabwe: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. A country in the middle of a crisis. Aid workers turn up in their white vans and dish out sweets and toys, take a few photos and then disappear. Some people are lucky enough to leave. But is life elsewhere necessarily better?

 

 

10 (or more) books on the horizon

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.

But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are  seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.

7 Booker titles

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (J Berger)

Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.

What else is in the offing?  

Reservoir 13From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges.  In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…

I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.

And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….

Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????

10 novels I wrestled with .. and sometimes failed

The topic for this week’ s Top Ten Tuesday meme is all about books that were a struggle to get through.

Lets start with two that were such a struggle I never made it to the final page. They were both Booker prize winners.

1. The Famished Road by Ben Okri was the first Booker winner that I failed to finish. In fact I barely got off the starting blocks with this one because the first chapter was so full of what seemed to me pretentious magical realism nonsense that I simply could not bear to read any more. This is the opening sentence:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

Now I was ok with the first two sentences but the third pulled  me up short. It just didn’t make any sense – why is a river hungry and why is it more hungry than a road?

The book continued in similar odd style about  some spirit child whose siblings want to rescue him from the human world. I made it to page 80 and then lost patience.

finkler question-12. I fared better with The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson in the sense that I read more of it before it too, was abandoned.  The issue this time wasn’t pretentiousness; I just found the book boring. I could have persevered to the end but it would have been a real self ad that’s now how I want to use my time. Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. My review is here.

Let’s move on to a few novels that I did finish even though sometimes it was a painful experience.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Yes I know it’s a classic (it will celebrate its bicentenary next year)  and I know it was an exceptionally bold book particularly from a female writer. As I said in a post earlier this week, there are some parts which I think work really well. Who can forget the passage when Dr Frankenstein first set the creature he has formed as a result of  his experiment:

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

It all went downhill from there on unfortunately with some ludicrously improbable plot developments. Even a memorable scene towards the end where Frankenstein and the creature are engaged in a battle on the Arctic ice field  failed to rescue the book for me.

Now I bet you are wondering why, if I disliked this book so intensely, I read it to the end. The answer is simple – it was required reading for a course I was taking with the Open University about realism in the novel. We were asked to consider how even within a novel held as a prime example of the Gothic genre, it was possible to find many characteristics of realism.

Another set text for the Open University, although in a different module, also proved challenging for me.

dracula.jpg4. In my young teens I saw countless Dracula films ( my dad liked them but was too scared to go on his own) but I never got around to reading the Bram Stoker novel until about 2005. I took it on holiday and remember being transfixed by the first section which is set in Dracula’s castle in Trannsylvania. Jonathan Harker is a solicitor sent to provide legal support for a property transaction  but after a few days at the castle realises he is effectively a prisoner and that his host has some strange powers. Worse follows when he encounters three female vampires who simultaneously entrance and repulse him. Stoker is masterful at building the suspense in this section – real ‘ hold your breath’ kind of writing. The rest of the novel is essentially an adventure story with good ranged against evil. The Count gets to London but has to contend with the forces of good in the form of Harker’s fiance and an odd character by the name of Van Helsing.  They and a few others begin rushing around London to try and track down Dracula and eradicate him. It’s all good fun if rather silly at times but the major obstacle for me was the dreadful manner in which Stoker renders Van Helsing’s speech. He’s meant to be an eminent scientist, a doctor, philosopher, and metaphysician, an intelligent man in other words yet Stoker makes him come across as a bumbling idiot much given to malapropisms and clumsy phrases. Maybe this is an attempt to emphasise his foreign origin (he is from Amsterdam) but it was difficult to keep a straight face sometimes when he was in a scene.

This reminds me of a couple of other ‘classics’ that I’ve found a challenge. Both happen to be by the same author.

5.  Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens I think I’ve now tried to read this about five times but have yet to finish it. The odd thing is that I come to a halt at almost the same place each time – shortly after we begin the chapters set in Paris. There is one chapter which has an elderly shoemaker who is going to be rescued and taken to home to England and to safety. I can’t put my finger on why I struggle to get beyond this point but my husband also hits the same brick wall.

6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  This novel has an outstanding opening which Dickens uses to criticise the English legal system and the way one of its divisions, the Chancery Court ruins people’s lives. He uses the symbolism of heavy fog which persists in London and particularly around the court which is sitting in judgement on a long-running case of wardship and inheritance – the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This being Dickens its not long before he introduces us to a host of characters – and therin lies my problem. I cannot get these various people straight in my head which is disappointing because some of them are wonderful creations ( particularly one Lady Dedlock). I have reached the halfway mark but came to a halt – not that I have given up. I recently watched a BBC adaptation which proved invaluable in helping me work out who is who. I am determined to return to the fray with Mr Dickens at some point in the future.

It’s not just the classics that I’ve struggled with, sometimes I have an issue with bestsellers.

7. I usually enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s writing but her 2013 novel  Life After Life (my review) left me cold. The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The central character Ursula Todd is born, dies, is born again, dies again .. and again… and again. An interesting premise but it became repetitive and I wasn’t interested enough to want to know how it all turned out so I gave up.

8. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those novels that ‘everyone’ seemed to be reading a few years ago. It tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army. A lot of reviewers and bloggers thought this was a page turner but I found the style of writing hard to digest. Virtually every noun had to come with an adjective, there were many anachronistic Americanisms and a heavy reliance on short sentences which had the effect of making the text feel very choppy.

And finally, I have a challenge with fiction from one particular country – Spain.

Infatuations9. The Infatuations by Javier Marías was a novel I was looking forward to reading on a holiday in Spain. He’s considered one of the country’s greatest contemporary writers and had come highly recommended by bloggers who know a thing or two about literature in translation. My experience was disappointing. For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we had barely any plot development yet oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again. I abandoned it and went in search of a different Spanish author.

10  I landed on  Enrique Villa  Matas who is often described as one of the most inventive  of contemporary Spanish novelists. Dublinesque  had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.  It’s about a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed.  On the strength of a dream he hatches a plan to take three of his former authors on a pilgrimage to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce masterpiece Ulysses is set.  While there they will also commemorate the end of the Gutenberg era. One hundred pages into the book we were still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I didn’t understand. It felt like a game was being played and I was not asked to be a member of the team. I abandoned the book. I’m still in search of a good Spanish author so if anyone has recommendations, do let me know.

8 Favourite Reads of 2017 (so far)

Best reads of 2017We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing  and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here 

Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.

 

 

 

 

 

10 literary fathers to love or dislike

It will be Father’s Day in the UK this Sunday, in honour of which the Top Ten Tuesday prompt this week is all about fathers in literature.  Some literary dads we love to love; others we love to hate and give thanks that we are not their offspring.

One of the good guys: Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck

1.Let’s get the obvious one of out of the way first. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird is a dad most of us would love to have. Dignified, courageous, loyal, kind and loving, he imparts lessons in life to his children through both his words and his deeds.

2. Jean-Joachim Goriot in Old Goriot by Balzac is a successful member of France’s burgeoning bourgeoisie and yet the only thing that gives him any pleasure is the happiness of his daughters. Unfortunately for him, they see this as a green light to fleece him blind, bringing him to bankruptcy. If you’re a money-grabbing scrounger of a child then you’d probably be delighted to have a father who is willing, even on his deathbed, to sell his remaining possessions so you can go to a ball. The rest of us will wince.

3. My next father; Michael Henchard from Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge; is a complex character. As a young man with too much of a liking for drink, he auctions off his wife and baby daughter while under the influence. He hides his guilty secret for years so he can rise in the world. When they reappear he tries to do right by them but his jealousy and pride lead him to bully his daughter. At times Henchard is a man  who, even if we don’t like him, can at least feel sorry for when he loses his position in the town and is ridiculed by his neighbours but then he goes and spoils it all by  his treatment of his daughter.

4. All book lovers will appreciate the father figure in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón in which the young boy Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his widowed bookseller father.

I was hard pressed to find other positive role models or dads for whom we can show sympathy. Maybe its more fun for authors to create characters we dislike?

5. In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens created a father who abuses the love his children have for him. William Dorrit’s entire family go down with him when he is declared a bankrupt and sent to Marshalsea prison. He pretends not to know that his daughters are forced to find menial work just to put food on the table. Instead of appreciating the love his youngest daughter Amy shows for him, he repays her with criticism. A thoroughly self-centered man whom it’s difficult to love or to whom we feel any sympathy.

6. But Mr Dorrit could still be considered preferable as a father to Heathcliff.  The brooding protagonist of Emily Brontë’s Gothic novel Wuthering Heights fathers a sickly child called Linton whom he despises. Heathcliff harshly uses him as a means to exact revenge on the Lintons over the death of his beloved Cathy, to the extent of forcing him into a marriage.

A dangerous role model: Harrison Ford as Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast

7. Speaking of fathers who manipulate their children to serve their own ambitions, takes me to The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Allie Fox is a man who gets it into his head that America has gone to the dogs.  To protect his family he uproots them and moves to a South American jungle where he plans to build a utopian society closer to his own ideals. But in his effort to achieve his dream he lies to his children, bullies them and puts their lives in danger.

8. At least Allie shows an emotional connection with his children which is more than can be said for Mr Ryder senior in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This is a man who enjoys rare books more than he does his son’s company. Having barely registered the fact that his son Charles has even been off at Oxford University for many months he can’t wait to see him gone again, eagerly encouraging him to Go off to visit his new chums at Brideshead or  Venice. Anywhere is preferable to having him at home.

9. Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son is another cold fish. He is desperate for a son who will join him in his trading company. When his unfortunate wife gives birth first to a daughter, his dismay is so great that he barely acknowledges the girl’s presence. She grows up without any sign of affection let alone love from her father and every overture she makes towards him is repelled. But still she loves him.

10. The father/son relationship is central to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe where it is used as a theme around the expectations and cultural definitions of masculinity and success. Although Unoka is a kind man with a number of positive traits he is also shown as a failure because he lives in debt and does not provide well for his family.  The personality of his son Okonkwo is shaped as a response to his father, as he determines to be everything his father wasn’t.

The examples below are from novels I’ve read. If you have other favourites do share them in in the comments field.

10 books growing old on my ‘to read’ list

This week’s topic in the Top Ten Tuesday meme hosted by  The Broke and the Bookish  is a free choice. Since I have been spending a few hours today clearing up the spreadsheet I used to keep track of all the books I own but have not yet read, I thought I’d share the ten titles that are growing beards because they’ve been on my shelf so long.

Riddle of the Sands:  1903 novel by  Erskine Childers that I’ve had since the late 1970s. I bought it at a time when I was reading some of John Le Carre’s fiction and heard that his potrayal of the world of spies was influenced by the realistic detail found in Childers’ novel. I’ve tried to read it a few times but never got much further than chapter 2 – I was irritated by the amount of detail about sailing.

devil white city-1Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: bought in 2011 in Chicago airport on the recommendation of the assistant. Opened it just after take off to discover it was a non fiction account of how two men created the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago. A lesson here – don’t buy a book when you’re in a desperate hurry.

Contested Will by James Shapiro: Also acquired in 2011, this time as a birthday gift I think. Shapiro revisits the debate about who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, assessing the various conspiracy theories and the list of people variously named as the real author. It’s a follow up to his book 1599 which  is a very readable study of a decisive year in the playwright’s life.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth: yes I know this is considered to be one of the ‘great American novels’ but I’ve not read it. Come to think of it I don’t believe I’ve read anything by Roth. Looks like I bought it in 1998 presumably after I’d seen a lot of commentary about it since it was published the previous year.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins. My copy is a second hand edition that came into my house after September 2000. I know this because it has a message (with a date) on the flyleaf which makes it clear this  was a birthday gift for someone called Cath. I’ve read all the major novels by Collins and a few of the minor ones (sad to say he wrote some duds) – this one seems to have divided opinions. T.S Eliot said it was melodrama and nothing more but other critics have found

a monster calls-1A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. This was given to me as a Christmas gift in 2011, the year it was published. I’d read an interview with the illustrator in which he explained how he approached the tricky task of depicting a monster without scaring the hell out of young readers. The examples accompanying the article were superb so I wanted the book just for that reason.

Ethan Frome  by Edith Wharton. This is a slim novella so I don’t even have the excuse that it’s a chunky book.

George Eliot , The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes: this is a hard-backed copy that came from a sale at my local library. It’s largely a biography but also includes some analysis of her major works.

The Comedians by Graham Greene. One of the few Greene novels I haven’t read.

And the prize for the oldest of them goes to….

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  How could I have completed an English literature degree programme without having read this landmark text? Wouldn’t you have thought it would be required reading especially since Woolf was one of the authors we studied? Maybe that tells you something about the nature of literature studies in the 1970s?? I bought a copy anyway, put it in a prominent place on a shelf in my college room so I could impress my visitors. And on a shelf it has stayed all these years.

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.

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….

10 books for time-pressured readers

Short reads Some occasions cry out  for a short (ish) book. You may have just finished a 600 pager and want a change of pace. Or you might be about to head off for a weekend break and really don’t want to lug that heavy tome with you. Speaking of weight, the measly baggage allowances set by low cost airlines almost force you down the path of lighter (ie shorter) reading material.

So for those occasions here are some short reading options – I’m reluctant to call them quick reads because that implies lightweight content. In fact these are all novels that should get you thinking…

All the links take you to my reviews.

 

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata: An enigmatic, rather bleak, tale of a love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy intellectual from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha.

 

The Many by Wyl Menmuir: Another enigmatic story, this time set in a fishing village in Cornwall, UK that is contending with heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted its fishing grounds.

 

Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This is a touching novella about a young couple of newlyweds who arrive at a coastal hotel. They want their wedding night to be perfect but a problem arises which threatens their future.

Of Mice and Men by  John Steinbeck: How is it possible for a book of little more than 100 pages to contain so much depth? Yet Steinbeck does it with this parable about people  who are life’s losers yet never relinquish their hopes and ambitions for a better life.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul: From Denmark comes a crime story that confounds most of the conventions of that genre. Yes it has a murder and a detective but the discovery of the killer’s identity isn’t really the point of this novel. It’s more about the sense of loss and feelings of regret about failed relationships triggered by the murder.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen: In a harsh Finnish winter, a mother and her two children try to walk to St Petersburg in search of bread. It’s their only hope of avoiding death through starvation.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: An odd little tale of a friendship between a Professor of mathematics who has severe memory problems, the woman sent to look after him and her son.

 

Disgrace by J, M Coetzee: A Booker-award winner set in post-apartheid South Africa that raises questions about sexual predatory behaviour, denouncement and reconciliation.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb:  A young translator from Belgium falls foul of cultural expectations when she begins working for Yumimoto, a prestigious international corporation run on strictly hierarchical lines.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thierault: This is a lightly plotted story of a postman who falls in love with a young teacher in Guadeloupe, a woman he knows only via her letters and poems.

 

 

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