Click on a book to read the review. The year is when I read the book which is often, not always, close to when it was published. Every review refers to every bit of the narrative. They all give the end away. If you like experimental stream of conciousness, you won't like these reviews much. If you think it's all been downhill from Walter Scott, you are more likely to approve.
Caveat: everybody that writes stuff is brilliant. These are just my personal thoughts. Really, it's all wonderful.
2022: Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay
A jolly romp from the 1930s, early golden age of the whodunnit. This one has an older lady with a hidden will dispatched on the stairs of a London Underground station and then lying there all day because no one uses the stairs nowadays. Most of the storytelling focuses on a daft young man, a Wooster-type, who viewed the body just after the murder, but doesn't want to admit this and invents a crazy alibi for himself which involves a series of excuses to sustain. It all gets confusing, without a lot of motivation for why it needs to do this, and the motive, means and opportunity of the murderer is revealed in the background to the meanderings of this foolish fop. Once the reader realises what is going on the solution is straightforward to pick up.
Its all nonsense, but quite readable and the story ticks forwards. Motivation for the actions of the actors is often lacking, but no need to worry about this, just amble along for the ride. Not a classic, but enjoyable enough.
That's probably enough on this one.
2022: Mördare utan ansikte av Henning Mankell
En fin bok. Ett hemskt brott, en detektiv med många problem hemma, vintern kommer till det kallt skånska landskåpet. Alla ingredienser man behöv.
Den här boken är den definitiva svenska kriminalroman. Stackers Wallander har ett hemskt mord att lösa, och ett andra, och hela tiden faller hans personliga liv samman. Hans fru, och hans dotter, och hans far behöver alla hans tid. Många mer böcker kom efter den, men den här var den första.
Den är en bra och spännande läsning. Spänningen byggs up hela tiden, vi tittar på Wallander genom sömnlösa nätter, pressmöten. Vi ser 1990 års teknologi: fax och biltelefoner. Vi ser alla den tråkiga polisarbetet innan vi har den viktiga ledtråden som leder till en genombrott.
Författaren behöver spänning, så Wallander och hans kollegor kan inte bara grippa en brottling utan att de kommer undan och vi har en rolig jakt genom någonstans. Den var lite roligt första gången, men lite tråkigt tredje gången. Förhoppningsvis kan den riktiga polisen i Ystad kan grippa en brottsling med mindre kaos ibland.
Wallander löser dessa mord, men inte sit eget livs problem. Vi måste vänta på den, till den nästa bok, och nästa efter den. Jag ser fram emot det.
2022: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
This book is magnificent. It is by Elizabeth Strout, and so the characterisation, the pace, the setting, the use of everyday imagery and dialogue to convey the deepest sentiment is all unparalleled. That almost goes without saying. But, having said it anyway, I found this story strangely unsatisfying. Perhaps it is just me. It depicts a relationship between two divorced people which is nevertheless all-consuming and deeply personal, which is an uncomfortable construct. Indeed, the personalities of the two protagonists merge and the point of view, which is strictly of the man as told through the woman, blends and fuzzes, as if the one is speaking directly through the other. They pair disappear on a trip to uncover what the blurb calls " a secret which rearranges everything we think we know," but seems more like a wild goose chase to me. The story arc is less than complete, if we assume that the relationship between two divorced people is not an end in itself, so I was not fully satisfied. But as the above two-line (!) precise shows, I care and I feel for these characters. How can one not?
The story of William is told through the eyes of his ex-wife, Lucy Barton, eponymous hero of other Strout books. William is a serial philanderer, with a string of ex's and mistresses behind him. He is depicted as a lonely character more to be pitied than censured, but it is hard to reconcile his long-suffering facial expression with his actual behaviour. The telling is deeply personal, and the point of view dives deep into feelings and detailed descriptions that would be several steps too far, if not integral to the telling of the story. The author knows what she is doing.
William thinks of himself as the beloved only child of a noble mother, but slowly a truth emerges that his mother had other children outside marriage and abandoned them to build this persona with her son. There is no blood more blue than that which has been dyed later in life.
He invites his ex-wife to support him during his research, and the two of them take a trip to a failing small town long away to uncover the truth and meet the daughter. The blurb builds this as a great journey, but really it is nothing more than everyday human relationships, given importance only by the fact it involves our family and not someone elses.
At the end of the trip they go home. I found the story arc a bit unsatisfying, and I had little empathy with the deep relationshipship building taking place between two ex's. Lucy Barton remains a complex character. She has sophisticated later life attitudes that derive from a deprived childhood. She is magnified for literature, of course, but I suspect many readers identify with her. Don't we all like to think we have deprived childhoods?
Not my favourite Strout book, but the dialogue, the pace, the characters remain amongst the very best writing imaginable. No one does that better.
2022: Handen av Henning Mankell
Jag har inte skrivit denna recension än. Det blir bra och spännande, början av en lång resa, kanske.
2022: Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
I haven't written this review yet. It is going to be detailed, clear, beautifully described and absolutely normal, until it gets very abnormal, just at the end.
2022: Polcirkeln av Liza Marklund
Jag har inte skrivit denna recension än. Det blir bra och spännande, med en fint beslutning.
2022: Främlingen av Albert Camus
Jag har inte skrivit denna recension än. Det blir filosofiskt, fint och färgglatt.
2021: The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
2021 Pulitzer Winner
Pulitzer winner, a magnificent epic, a blend of history and momentous events with personal stories that tug at your heart, gorgeous writing, a hint of the supernatural. This one has every ingredient in place to ensure a superb classic, but then somehow it fails to grip and I'm left slightly unsatisfied. It wasn't the personal story, while Patrice is in the city you are engrossed, but somehow the events of the overstory fail to capture your attention and the ending of both tales peters out. I'm left wanting to mark it down just a touch, but struggle to say why.
Edrich presents us with a native american tribe, eking out life on the rump end of the scrubland left to them, and then flips between two tales: Thomas Wazhushk, the eponymous night watchman, rallies his meagre resources to protest against a government bill that would stop any support to the tribe; and Patrice, a young lady of the tribe, travels to the city to find and rescue her sister who has been swept up and spat out by city sleaze.
The latter story is glorious, personal, with deep characterisation and a page-turner plot. Even though the sister's fate is dreadful, and even though Patrice's own journey is at times extraordinary, still the reader is caught up with the journey. Narration for this part is close third person, which flips with the same third person sitting on Thomas' shoulder for the other part. It's all well done and at times is fantastic.
But I was less satisfied with the other tale which is quite different, different style, different pace, and too often just got in the way and slowed down the progression of the personal tale. Perhaps political back knowledge is partly to blame. Native american tribes didn't fare well in the 1900's. Whether they survived on a bit of scrub reservation somewhere or disbanded, in neither case was life really glorious or successful. Consequently this reader was less interested in the official outcome, much more so in whether individuals managed to forge an independent life for themselves. The court case happens. You get some screeds of legal text. Ho hum.
The end peters out. The court case is won despite the odds being stacked against, but then this leads to no positive thing happening, rather the characters continue to live in poverty and joblessness. Patrice doesn't marry or settle, instead just carries on. You wouldn't swap your own life for any of the characters here, even after success all round.
A good ride, which became great during the depths of Patrice' despair, but one which isn't going to change my outlook or philosophy much. Not quite the best pulitzer winner, given the absurdly high standards of this mark.
One or two typos and errors in the text. Odd. You don't get this any more.
2022: The Stranding by Kate Sawyer
2021 Costa shortlist
This is a wonderful book of Kate Sawyer. It has a clever narrative arc which intertwines two crises in the life of the protagonist, one personal and one as big as could be. It dives into mother nature at times; picks out emotion and empathy in personal quarrels; takes us to childbirth and abortion; has both a strong backcast of characters and also wide, empty spaces. The ending both completes a circle and disappears beyond the horizon. It is written as an epic and succeeds. Yet again, the Costa comes up trumps.
The story takes Ruth through two crises. One is her unpleasant affair and then relationship with a man who was married with children when she met him. The other is an atomic war which destroys the planet. She miraculously survives this with a stranger - a whale carcass is involved - and they go on to build a life together out of debris and nature's regrowth. The random stranger has everything as a life partner which the chosen man did not. The two tales are intertwined into alternating chapters, one beginning exactly as the other ends.
The contrast in tales is significant. The reader cannot help but develop full empathy with Ruth as she survives devastation, and keeps this empathy as her personal behaviour in the other story is clearly selfish and unpleasant. The married man is overbearing, but not actually villainous. Sawyer keeps refusing to make anyone a saint or a devil, but always keeps their imperfect humanity to the fore, and it works very well.
One tale is personal and familiar, the other is interplanetary and epic. In the latter we never see wider consequences, only the battered landscape within sight, only the daily struggle for food of the two survivors, only the progress of their own camp. It is so well done. Our attention never drifts into the philosophy of the survival of nations, it remains with these two people as they make it through another day. It is the individual humanity which gives the fate of the world such poignancy.
The author uses her hopping timeline to set beside each other certain story elements. Ruth shares her modern flat with one man at the same time as she builds a tent from scraps with another; her abortion (so easy, just take a pill), is interlaced with her childbirth (so dangerous without modern safeguards); Ruth's own children lose their mother as she loses hers. These events tug at our heartstrings, each contrast is striking.
We are supposed to be devasted at the loss of our planet, but Ruth's children are so glad that they live now, and not before, when everything sounded so complicated. They are bored and giggle peevishly at tales of what it used to be like. And when their parents start on the whale again, time to go out and play. Their childishness is beautifully described.
It was a surprise to see one other family make a brief appearance in Sawyer's dystopian future. Without them the work functions entirely as a parable, but surely not an actual reality. It's not clear to me what role this other family play. Perhaps they represent hope, hope against all odds, hope that after the end of the novel the two children will have life and family ahead of them. Hope makes only a fleeting appearance and it is all a parable after all. Who knows?
The earlier story comes to an end, but we have already seen the tragedy at its conclusion with the beginning of the other. We know that the trivial conversation with her mother will be the last one. We see Ruth pick up some casual items which the reader already knows turn out to be lifesavers in the days ahead. It drips with dramatic irony, it is loaded with emotion. Perhaps not so subtle at times, but still heartbreaking, it opens us up. It is all beautifully done.
One story ends with a bang, and Sawyer is brave enough to end the latter one quietly. Ruth dies and is buried beside her husband. Their two children leave and sail over the horizon. The open ending is brave, but completes the epic. Perhaps a couple of other books from this year's Costa could learn a lesson here.
Wonderful. Only februari, but has the Costa provided the book of the year already? Again?
2022: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
2021 Costa shortlist
I haven't written this review yet. It will be good, touching, historical, passionate and original, but then some of the dialogue and phraseology will run a little short. An undoubted classic, but perhaps with one edit too few.
2022: The High House by Jessie Greengrass
2021 Costa shortlist
A wonderful, sensual work of Jessie Greengrass. The story tells of an academic in environmental sciences who sees a great climate disaster coming and prepares a country villa on high ground to protect her children from the storm. Her older daughter and young son are protected in the High House, living a life of 1800s self proficiency, as the world collapses in climate disaster around them. Unfortunately this collapse takes the parents with it, in some distant city. The work is not realistic: the coming diaster is too rapid and too extreme; the house is too artificially isolated; the convenience of ongoing power and internet too unlikely, but it stands as a parable.
The language is gorgeous, phraseology wonderful. The text focuses on the near detail, distant disaster comes only through newsfeeds. The story is told in the third person, but with a changing narrator, giving the tale, sometimes overlapping, through different eyes. There is lots of flashback, with the key moments of the loss of parents and move to the High House being retold often. This is evocative of how family stories circulate through the years, of course.
Lots of lovely description and emotion, but the story is missing a strong narrative arc. Instead it wanders, telling its tale in jigsaw pieces which slowly construct a whole, but without really binding or compelling the reader. The tension was strangely low for a tale of the apocalypse.
Some of the research was detailed and strong, but then the descriptions of disaster were strange: unlikely and extreme. But then condensing such change into a small period of time made the story work, so one must not quibble.
There were no quotation marks for speech, first time I have seen this in an English book. Instead, speech was marked with a new line preceded by a dash, which is common in swedish. Unfortunately the publishers decided not to run tags and additional text onto the same paragraph, but to keep separate paragraphs for all. This made the speech clear, but some passages were horribly clunky. Worst of both worlds, perhaps.
I still think this book missed its three act structure. But if read as a parable this is certainly a thing of beauty, with wonderful language and some poetic passages.
2022: Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
2021 Costa Novel of the Year
This good book of Claire Fuller tells the story of two misanthropic twins in their fifties, unmarried and still living together, who have to cope with life after their protective mother dies. Initially, external secrets and their own naivety conspire to have their life fall apart. They lose their home and almost every vestige of reasonable life. But in the end it is all restored. The story is well told, the characters are opened up, the reader shakes their head sympathically as each chapter of tragedy drives their lives down to a lower level than before. We are pleased when everything is unpicked again and they end up in a good place.
It's third person, close to Jeanie, and if it slips to Julius just once or twice, well, aren't twins like that anyway? And it's present tense. Of course it's present tense, everything is this year.
There are elements of Shirley Jackson's "We have always lived in the castle," cropping up in this book. In Jackson's classic the reader is so tightly bound to the sisters' warped view of life that in the latter stages of the book the reader is fooled into empathising with the sisters, even though their desires are insane. The same thing happens here, when the caravan is finally made to seem, if not decent, then at least habitable. The reader does the same thing, and is satisfied with the progress made, forgetting that the overall situation remains unbearable.
Bridget and Stu are good characters, very well presented. Their slovenly, unpleasant example of suburban life makes it seem very undesirable, and this somehow deflates the failure of the protagonists to achieve anything like it. Viewed through the lens of Bridget and Stu's own house, a des res in suburbia is not really that des.
It's all well done. The secrets about the father's death are slowly revealed and the plot comes out. It works, although none of it was really unexpected. I found this reveal surprisingly unimpactful to the human drama taking place in the present time.
The ending is perhaps a weakness, clearly manufactured and twee. Our protagonists end up back in their cottage which has been modernised as an act of kindness and all is well, even if Julius has taken a bit of a medical hit on the way. I'm pleased, and never want to decry a happy ending. But the moral journey of the tragedy seems undone here and not much is achieved. Something meatier would be stronger, although probably less happy. A challenge for the reader to consider which is more important.
2021: Fault Lines by Emily Itami
2021 Costa shortlist
This is a good book, a bit self-obsessed and cliched for most of the journey, but then it explodes into a stunning ending which picks it up by a large amount. The story is told by a modern woman, in the first person, present tense, lots of flashbacks to pick up the backstory. This is a modern and lively way to tell a tale, of course, and it would be challenging and unusual if it was not the case that everyone else is doing the same thing this year. Everything is in the present tense this year. Last year they were in the past, perhaps next year they will be in the future.
Itami's story is an internal monologue of a Tokyo housewife, married to a successful and busy businessman, with two pre-school children. Her life is wearisome and unfulfilling; she finds the children more troublesome than rewarding; her husband is remote. She finds an attentive male friend and has an affair which is more spiritual than physical. Of course there is little new here. Carla Lane did it all 40 years ago, and it was tired and predictable then. Itami does not really add much to the saga. It is well written, flows, picks out some local beauty. But it does not get into any other characters beyond the protagonist and hence she comes across as self-centred and hard to empathise with.
After all, the life described in this novel is exactly my life. It is up to you to make of your own life exactly what you will. If you have income and no external work pressing upon you then you should make it a paradise. Perhaps the protagonist would have been more satisfied if she spent more time writing book reviews.
In the closing chapters she tears herself away from her external friendship. On the way home she is deep in the Tokyo underground with her children when an earthquake strikes. Only then does she find herself overtaken with a deep desire to protect her children, and she fights through jammed doors and endless stairs to find sunlight and safety. It turns out that this is her desire after all, the safety of her family, but she had never found the driver until now.
The ending is stunning and exciting, with a sudden, shocking change of pace. The moral lesson is warm and well done. All this means that in the end it becomes a good book. But that's fortunate, because without the ending it is just a tiresome drag of someone who doesn't know they're born, frittering life away. That would have been a less entertaining read.
2021: The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore
2021 Costa shortlist
This is an excellent book: descriptive, sensual, emotional. It tells the story of some poor wretches from a village during Cromwell's time who were persecuted for witchcraft by some eager, young witchfinder. Perhaps for sport, perhaps fanatical zeal, who knows, who cares. This story is not of the witchfinder, as so many others are, it is of the women. It follows them all the way: from patching together a basic life; to the strange accusations; the arrest; pitiful indignities; the long, desperate imprisonment; turning evidence and relief for the lead character; miserable execution for the others. It then allows the lead character to kill the witchfinder and escape to the new world, but that is just an indulgence of the writer.
The story is beautifully told. Village life is recreated using all five senses, we have not just the sights and sounds but also the touch, smell and taste of the times. There is not much to write home about at first, to be honest, this is life barely scraped together. Accusation and imprisonment brings ugliness: dark leather of the accusers; wet rot of the prison cells; the stench of confinement.
The narration is close third person, but this makes it hard to demonstrate sensual points of view from elsewhere and the author takes a few liberties in giving us a wider panorama. This is not a thriller and there is no, intent to make it one. The path of the accused is wretched and terrifying; it is also long, interminable, boring as the wheels of small town process grind relentlessly forward.
Dreams are used to present moods and signs of the future, although this is a step too far into the metaphysical for me. I only need read the words, "I fell asleep and saw a wonderful land," to switch immediately to skim read mode.
The executions were pathetic and sad. Slightly strange that the author did not take us down this most sensual and emotional journey with her lead character, but instead gave her a more hopeful ending, grabbing the chance to suffocate the witchfinder on the way. It's a cheerful ending, given the misery of the tale, I gave a whoop when the evil devil died. But a sense that the final step of the journey was missed out. Perhaps that's a good thing. Real life has enough final steps, we all deserve a whoop after making it through this one.
2021: The Girl in Blue, by PG Wodehouse
I haven't written this review yet. It is going to be magnificent.
2021: Kärlek i Hönsgården, av PG Wodehouse
Jag har inte skrivt den här recensionen ännu. Den blir utmärkt, självklart.
2021: A Registry of My Passage Upone the Earth, by Daniel Mason
I haven't written this review yet. It is going to be excellent, historic, a bit free and wide-ranging, and hazily beautiful.
2021: An Island, by Karen Jennings
Booker Long List
This glorious, compact allegory of Karen Jennings stays on a small island with a cast of just the island keeper and a castaway, who does not get even one line of dialogue as he cannot speak the language. Nevertheless, the story builds, old memories waken, tension picks up and there is enough there to drive a tragic outcome, where the reader's sympathy is caught between the simple sadness of the island keeper's background, and the savagery of the act he commits. A one act masterpiece.
Samuel lives alone on a tiny island, a life little short of solitary confinement in a prison, but he clings to it as it keeps him safe from the memories of totalitarian governments, revolutions, street violence, imprisonment and tragedy that make up the first part of his life. He does not want companionship, and is reluctant to offer even the basics of life to the castaway who is washed up onto his island. Regardless, the stranger survives and, despite a language barrier, offers simple companionship and help.
It is the worst thing that Samuel can imagine. He cannot accept even simple friendship without memories of his past awakening and causing him to see duplicity and treachery with every gesture, behind every corner. The language thing means that Samuel can even utter out loud his crazy ideas of deceit and violence without them being understood, innermost thoughts expressed in the open.
It's all too much for the old man and, even while the reader is hoping that he won't be pushed to do something crazy, he kills the innocent stranger and entombs the body on his island. There will be no consequences for him, already living a life of imprisonment. Only the reader bears witness. There is moral horror, but Samuel seems to be beyond that.
A sad indictment of what a life of violence can produce, the misery of the death of the innocent. This tale is remote and enclosed enough to be an allegory, a one act tragedy, and it is beautifully done.
2021: Picadilly Jim, by PG Wodehouse
A young American with a reputation, a rich financier, a gold digging secretary, a penniless lord, a nice young daughter looking for a future. Add ingredients to a large bowl, sprinkle some divine comedy, stir, bake. A recipe for ambrosia. Delightful nonsense, the world needs more of this.
2021: Harold Fry och hans Osannolika Pilgrimsfärd, av Rachel Joyce
Jag har inte skrivt den här recensionen ännu. Det blir utmärkt.
2021: Alligator & Other Stories, by Dima Alzayat
James Black Shortlist
A collection of short stories, varied, different, experimental. Mostly very good, but the focus is pretty relentless on the inhumane treatment of the weak, often women and children, by the powerful, and this makes it a challenging and depressing read. When reviewing it I had to double check which stories came from here, and which from Sarah Hall's Sudden Traveller. There is much in common between these collections.
The disappearance of the poor boy from a New York street is the one which stuck with me. As in McGregor's Reservoir, the author focuses on the aftermath rather than the event, but she uses children's imaginings, which get pretty vivid, and so the reader is not spared. It's a terrifying read. No doubt other stories will stick with others, but mostly with the same outcome.
We see the sorrow and grief that follow bad things happening. Ghusl's story of the sister having to lay out the body of her childhood playmate brother is particularly painful to read. There is much beauty here, the fragile, broken, decaying beauty of autumn.
The language is lovely, the differing structures of different stories break up the book and make it technically fascinating to read. But don't expect much warmth. This one takes you to dark places.
2019: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
This book was surely an all time classic as soon as it rolled off the presses. Atwood's dystopian nightmare is rich and terrifying because it only gives us the minutae, the detail that one sees under one's nose. The wider picture is only ever guessed at, the most powerful images of the novel all happen off stage. It is beautifully done.
The story follows a slave who works within a nightmare future of the US. She is forced to wear a headdress at all times which restricts her vision only to what is directly in front of her. Atwood cleverly extends this metaphor to the whole telling of the story: she describes the regime and present life only through the narrator's restricted view; history only through her personal memories; wider view only when her master illegally takes her on a trip with her headdress off. It is very well done, the tightness of the view and the binding of the tale to the immediate senses of the narrator serves to increase the emotion and tension built up in the reader. The awfulness of the regime is only ever hinted at from seeing the crumbs of desperation that drop from an unseen table.
It is extraordinary that the tale was written before the brief IS dictatorship of the 2010's, which focused the world on similar deprivations.
It is chilling that while the tale is fiction, each particular depravity featured within has happened, most often to women, in history.
The ending actually has some hope in it. This is partly a narrative device to allow for the fictional diary to have been released, but also a sign of humanity. It gives the tale more humanity to allow it to go up as well as down, even if this serves to unfortunately humanise the low points as well.
Original, chilling, very well told. It conjures up a whole world without ever seeing it head on, which is a real achievement. Truly a classic.
2019: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Testaments continues the story begun in The Handmaid's Tale and allows Atwood to close out the life of her tragic narrator. The ending is a happy one. The human part of me is of course delighted, having formed such a close relationship with the narrator in the original, but the reader considers this to be an indulgence which does not really advance the brilliant and shocking tale of the original. It's nice though, and one cannot fault the author at all.
The book is remarkably different in tone for a sequel by the same author, really it is a different genre. This story is a thriller with secret messages, secret punches which take out the baddie, close shaves and boat chases in the night. There is a tight plot which needs to progress, leaving less time or even no time to illuminate deep messages through actions of the characters. Reveals need to be rapid to allow for the next step of plot. It all chugs along and the narrator struggles to keep up with her changing situation.
Tension builds towards the climax, will they succeed or won't they? In fact the reader finds it hard to believe that Atwood would go to all this bother only to have it fall apart at the end. Would she really? Well, no is the answer, and the family are reunited in wonderful Canada.
The book won awards, but it is not a patch on the original. It is a nice finish, one cannot begrudge for a moment Atwood giving such an end to her most famous creation. Sherlock Holmes got his retirement cottage in Devon and the Handmaid got her family in Canada. Both are welcome to them, but both endings are quiet. The real genius came with the original story.
2017: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
Well, it is a tome. It weighs in at 860 pages, three times the length of others on this year's Booker lists, but that is only half the story because word density per page is 150 - 200% of the others also. It is more than 6 times longer than Exit West.
This book gives a biography of a person, but does so in 4 simultaneous versions, with same actors, same places, but different stories and actions. There is no obvious artifice - no sliding doors on a train - to separate the stories, although there is a key point in the fortune of the father's business which acts as an indirect separator.
Writing is extremely good. It is detailed and meticulous (Walter Scott would probably approve). It brings in a large cast of characters and is consistent, across the separate tales. In general financial success breeds unhappiness; a natural born writer becomes a writer in different ways; people act according to their personalities which don't change, despite circumstances being dictated by actions which do change.
3 of the characters die off, and in the final page the author makes it clear that the 4th character represents an autobiography of himself.
It was all so complex that I ended up keeping notes to separate out the tales.
...the core points of this approach could have been made in a short story of 50 pages. There is far too much detail. The stories are not full life biographies because they get stuck in adolescence and early adulthood, and disappear into rabbit holes of losing virginity and splitting up from first girlfriends in mind-numbing detail; also student politics and protest marches in the same mind-numbing detail. The novel tries to make points about human nature based on the superficiality of decisions made by a 17yo, and it all gets a bit petty. The autobiography of Alan Partridge kept popping into my head.
This same complexity meant that I built up no empathy with any of the characters, because there was no such thing as a single character, and this seriously disrupted my emotional connections to the book.
The author gave far too soft a ride to the central character, who was lauded as a hero by those around him for producing teenage poems and unconventional novels. It started to become an imagined utopia of what the author had wanted to happen to him during his own early life. Alan Partridge again?
A first class piece of writing, but really unfortunate that it all went down such narrative rabbitholes. A more conventional tale that moved quickly on from adolescence to more interesting periods of life would have been a far more worthy focus for writing of this quality.
2020: Silke av Alessandro Baricco
An intressant berättelse om en fransman som hittar vägen till Japan när landet var stängt för utlanningar. Han kunde ta tillbacka silkeägg och han blev rik. I Japan fanns det an annan värld med unga kvinnor, mäktiga män, krig och fred men han kunde bara titta på det en kort stund innan han återvände till sitt eget land.
En kort bok, bara en lång novell faktisk, med många, korta kapitel. En bra historia, visar skillnaden mellan mans egen land man kan se hela tiden, och en avslägset, främmande land man bara kan se en ögonblick. Vilket är viktigare?
2018: Snap by Belinda Bauer
Longlisted for this year's Booker. A couple of years ago the appearance of The North Water on the Booker long list led to a debate about what is literature and what is a thriller and where do they meet? No such debate required this time around. This is an out and out thriller with no pretence at anything else.
The story is nasty at times, with lots of serrated knives and an abundance of pregnant women. I suppose for the sort of people who like that sort of thing then that is the sort of thing they like. There is a bad cop from the city who breaks the rules and some unruly kids and a nosy neighbour who happens to be the good cop's mother and, well, you get the idea. It all rumbles along. When the plot requires a bit of thought it gets, instead, an outrageous narrative device which would be lame in any other genre and continues going regardless. In the end there is a disappointing lack of twist and the killer turns out to be not the good cop and not the suspect's wife but in fact the suspect. Perhaps there was a double bluff there which passed me by.
Characterisation is cardboard, main plot is nasty, basic plot and character setting is hackneyed, intermittent devices are at times ridiculous. None of this is necessarily a criticism, arguably much of it forms part of the ride for a book of this genre. Most of it is true for Agatha Christie's books, many of which are wonderful. This one certainly is thrilling and I read the second half in one sitting. The book does what is says on the tin and has no pretences to do anything else. An adequate, perhaps even a fine book of its genre, a bit lacking in an ingenious plot twist. Just one question remains...
...what on earth is it doing on a Booker long list, other than justifying my decision to stop following closely this increasingly ridiculous competition?
2019: Trollkarlen av Oz av L. Frank Baum
Den här boken var den första jag läste på helt svenska. Jag minns att lyssnar till den här boken med barn i bilen för många år sedan. Den är glada minnen.
Boken är fortfarande fantastisk att läsa. En enkel saga av en flicka med magiska vänner, den har många nivåer för barn och för vuxna också. Dorothy har äventyr i ett magiskt land, eller kanske Dorothy letar efter sig själv och upptäcker att vad en person tycker om sig själv inte alltid är rätt. Hitta Dorothy hemma eller hitta Dorothy ett nytt liv? Saga är djup men också spännande; enkel men också fylld med mening.
Den här sagan är också ett klassikt exempel på strukturen i en historia, så är också en bra lektion i hur man kan skriver en saga. Vinn, vinn.
En gammal historia på absolut varje lista med gratisboker, men den är fortfarande en av världens bästa sagor än.
2016: The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Sigh, read about 20% of this. Shot through it quickly too, and could have completed for sake of another 120 minutes I think, but not sure that I want to give up that much of my life for this. A stream of consciousness novel (don't think that I have ever finished one of these :) ) around life of black youngster growing up in a racist USA making its point by radicalising the racism through the eyes of a black person. I'm sure it is enjoyed by the sort of people who enjoy that sort of thing. Not me.
2020: Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston
A diary, in the style of Adrian Mole, about a struggling poet who wants to write literature but cannot really face reading it or writing it. He fails to be successful at anything else while failing to be successful at this. His low sense of self esteem is compounded by a member of his poetry book achieving great success with poetry that the narrator does not like. It has some funny moments, amidst the gloom, and even a happy ending, conjured up from somewhere.
It is a bit of a struggle to really enthuse about this one. It is terribly well trodden ground and instead of trying to lay a new path the author delights in strolling down the middle of paths already laid.
The author acknowledges Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole books at the end. They were clearly an inspiration for him, as indeed these wonderful creations were for me, so one should respect that. But still, the central plot of this book does repeat the central plot of Adrian Mole's first and second diaries very closely. I can't really see the benefit of going quite so close here. There is the suspected murder outcome at the very end, but that is just a single device, it doesn't justify the whole story direction in itself.
The failure of the central character to organise himself, and the tragic mess he makes of his redundancy money, is quite amusing. However, the single line is a bit unremmiting, it would have been much better with another direction for contrast.
So quite good, quite readable, but it's too close to the original for me and doesn't take off by itself. Why not cheer yourself up by rereading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole instead?
2013: We Need New Names by No Violet Bolawayo
Thought I might drop this after only a few pages, but stayed with it and became much more drawn in very quickly. Narrator is full of passion and feeling and life, quite unlike the above, but in this case her young age and consequent refusal to grasp long term horror of what she sees provides the distance required to present the scene unfolding without falling into the events themselves. While the narrator is no angel, the reader quickly takes up empathy with her, and even with her less angelic friends. Contrast of life in US is a nice shift, which reinvigorates the tale being told, while still preserving links with the opening half of the book. although the tale of the death of the activist told through the youngsters acting out the drama in a game is vivid and well told. But still, perhaps there is a lack of originality with telling a disturbing tale through young eyes. Perhaps the author tries to squeeze in too many key events of life in both environments, with a few too many dramatic things happening. Perhaps the author is guilty of treating Africa as a single place on a couple of occasions, just as her narrator complains that others do this. Quite different from the above, in that this book is more disjoint, more uneven, relies more on standard artifices, but is full of passion and emotion and generates the emotion of the reader. One can fall in love with this tale.
2016: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Booker 2016 longlist outsider, from a very small and independent publisher. This modern novel is written very much in the style of strongly presbyterian 19th century Scottish literature, and so is immediately a strong favourite with me!
The narrative tells of a triple murder by a young lad from the village, and gives different accounts through witness statements and accounts of the criminal trial, but also gives over half the novel to the autobiographical memoir of the killer. This style, both organisational and narrative, is immediately reminiscent of Hogg's Private Memoirs, of course, and I suspect that Faulks' Engelby is influential also. The story is well told. Perhaps takes liberties with devices such as the literacy and anglicised language of the memoir for obvious reasons. Perhaps also a couple of errors: I'm sure that school leaving age for that time and class was not 16. The structure, including the bloodstained cover for the print, works well. The ending is well integrated, and I am impressed that the author did not sugarcoat the ending, nor draw it out into a Poirot-like definitive finale. I think the outcome was there for the reader, but I had to look and come to my own conclusions. Perhaps other readers will reach a different conclusion, and I think that is a compliment to this novel with this structure.
Quote of the year: "I had no plans. To make plans is a sin against Providence." I might get this etched onto my List of TTDT paper :)
Very good opener for this year.
2021: Mina Liv som Hund, av W. Bruce Cameron
Vilken fantastisk bok. En berg-och-dalbana med glädje, sorg, äventyr, liv och död, kärlek och framfor allt, vänskåp mellan pojken och hunden. Jag läst högt till familjen kapitel när hunden hittade en skunk och vi alla skrattade; jag had tårar i ögenen när Buddy skyndade tillbaka från college för att se hunden en sista gång; jag blev imponerade när hunden räddade flickan i vattnet. Original, rolig och äventyrlig, en utmärkt bok.
Buddy är en hund med en pojke, som i hundra böcker. Men Buddy är lite annorlunda, han har levt en, två, tre gånger. Med varje död kommer nytt liv som en ny valp men samma anledning till livet: att försvara sin pojke. Berättaren är hunden, så vi tittar på världen genom hundens öga. Han kan skriv ner alla samtal, men förstår inte allt. Han kan lukta saker som manniskor inte kan. Det finns tillfällen som läsare förstår men hunden inte; det finns tillfällen då hunden och läsaren förstår men andra karaktärer inte. Original, men det fungerar och perspektivet är nytt och fint.
Historien forsättar. Vi har alltid hunden och pojken i mitten, men andra riktningar och andra ägarer är viktiga också. Vi gå vidare, och upp och ner. Författaren är inte rädd - absolut inte, faktiskt - att gå till känslomässiga platser om det fungerar. Vi skrattar och gråter. Efter jag läst boken hela familjen tittade på filmen. Oj! Skratt och tårar där också. Man behövar en hel låda näsdukar till filmen!
Så småningom klarar vi berg-och-dalbanan och hund och pöjke träffas igen. Inte en pöjke nu, utan en gubba, men en fint avslut i alla fall. En fin bok, en utmärk resa.
2013: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
An authentic capture of a 19th century style of writing, although perhaps a little irreverant of God for those years. Immaculately constructed, and occasionally a lovely purely Wodehousian line pops up unexpected! Paraphrase - The man's name was Drake, although upon seeing him one was reminded less of the great naval captain, than of the waterfowl, which he resembled. Great fun with murders and secret plans and gold digging, all centring around a private meeting in a smoke filled room. Impressed that novel maintained its structure towards the final denoument.
The book is told in a neat structure with each chapter exactly half the length of the previous one. This has the final chapter length just one sentence, and all of the ending of the story is told in the final chapter chapter heading. This is a nice touch. I much regret that I read this on a kindle and only cottoned on to this really late on!
A few pieces remained unexplained, including Anna's feelings about Emery and her ability to forge his signature, or are we to yield romantic fancy on this issue?! Very enjoyable, gripping, clever spiralling of the plot, dancing about across different threads of time, as it closes in upon that final chapter with it's heading depicting the actions of the 12 protagonists, described over so many pages in the first chapter. Very pleasing. A great work.
2020: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Costa Novel Award, Shortlist
A strange, surreal, odd, discombobulating work of Susanna Clarke, it eventually resolves itself into a nightmarish internal illusion, and not the weird postapocalyptic fantasy it threatens at the beginning. Once the reader recognises echoes of Wyl Menmuir's wonderful The Many it is impossible to go any further without comparing the two.
The narrator describes his personal world as he splashes about a seemingly endless series of rooms, each vaguely reminiscent of some Greek hallway filled with statues of mythological beings, all flooded with water that sweeps up and down in a complex system of tides. Slowly, various details of life, seabirds and even other people are revealed. Eventually a plot filters down that our hero has been brainwashed and imprisoned by a mad, well, brainwasher and imprisoner and the whole thing is an internal fantasy. Exactly how the plot comes out is not easy to explain, but lots of it comes through diary entries, and eventually conversations with the good guys who break into this imprisoned world.
It is well done, encapsulating - in a kind of obsessive routine kind of way - interesting to see the outcome unfold. However, the reader never really breaks out of a vague fog as to exactly who is who and who did what, the details remain clouded by mysticism, the perpetrator remains a vague mystic. This probably mimics the understanding and outcome achieved by the narrator, but I found it rather unsatisfactory. Consequently I found that it didn't relate much to me or my life. Don't play magic circle games with dark eyed mystics seems to be the only lesson coming out of this, which is a bit niche.
It wasn't a shortage of plot detail, there was lots of that, enough to change the pace and focus of the work considerably from the early chapters. But the key questions were never really addressed. How did the mystic actually brainwash this poor victim, how did it actually happen, given that both author and reader are rational people and don't actual believe in mysticism? Well, he was a mystic and just did, seems to be the answer.
I found it paled in comparison to Menmuir's masterpiece. It was quite good, the reader got quite caught up, but I was disappointed that the author couldn't relate this clever idea back into more mainstream life more tightly, and I think it suffered as a novel because of this.
2019: Middle England by Jonathon Coe
A comedy, but I found it rather bitter and unpleasant. The book sets up some unpleasant charicatures of middle Britain, a bit reminiscent of the TV show Little Britain, then repeatedly shows the reader how awful the population is. If viewed as a satire of the country then it is arguably sharp and cutting, but for me it was consistently petty and mean.
Little Britain is now a generation old. Its characters have grown old, many have died. That show satirised an older generation which has now moved over. Today in the UK the middle class, middle aged population are exactly the original audience of that show. Satirists need to grow up with the generations and recognise that attitudes have changed. They should satirise their own times, and not the age of their parents.
I waited for a more optimistic counter plot, but gave up when none materialised by half way.
2019: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Winner Costa First Novel Award, 2019.
What a superb first novel! The story is told mostly in flashback from the trial of Frannie Langton for murder. It moves from a slave plantation in Jamaica to London, always following the fortunes of the eponymous hero and so experiencing life only through her restricted view. The story is part historical fiction, part personal drama, part thriller as the unfortunate hero lives through the worst experiences of life and later takes control of her own fate, at least according to the prosecutor.
The background to Frannie's tale is a shocking and frightning aspect of the slave trade. Misguided anatomists carried out experiments on human bodies searching for evidence that would demonstrate psychological differences between slave owners and slaves. In extreme examples of the latter case that even involved bodies before death. Frannie was forced to act as an accomplice in a dark side to this.
The story moved to London when the slave owner moved there, taking Frannie with him. The story moved on, she found friendship with a society lady, and later came death and murder. Frannie is accused of betraying a friendship. At its end the book absolves her of that, she is guilty of murder arguably justified by her background. The court does not care for the difference and condemns her to death regardless.
The story is well told, the reader is bound to the fate of this unfortunate. The background is horrific, but is laid out in a way that is justified. The helpless infant at least is saved at the last moment. Frannie does meet love and friendship in her life, even if she cannot escape the fate of tragedy that has dogged her every step. It is all very well done.
2013: Harvest by Jim Crace
Good solid read. Focuses in on a single week in which outsiders enter a village, and then not just law and order but whole way of life deconstructs. Story deals with medieval savagery of everyday life in a matter of fact way. Narrator is clverly contructed neutral figure, and manages to view events with a dispassionate, distant eye. Recurrent theme draws back to narrator's own departed wife and love, whose departure detached him from ongoing life, and so is a factor in allowing him to view in such a dispassionate way. Tale is from so long ago and narrator is so dispassionate and savagery is only shown behind closed doors and effect of all of this is to keep the reader's passions at bay, and the story refuses to grip to quite the extent it might. All in all, quite faultless, very well told, full of mystery but steadfastly refuses to become a mystery. Cannot fault the storytelling, but I think it unlikely that anyone will fall in love with this tale.
2019: The Melody by Jim Crace
The story of an aging crooner, once a national star, now only a minor celebrity in his own town. This takes him through a week leading up to a local prize-giving which should have been a celebration. However, fate conspires to provide a series of unfortunate events - tragic, at times comic - which have him miss it all. Most of these events relate to our crooner bumping into the poor, the desperately poor and the mythically, inhumanely poor.
One is saddened by the story, even the comical bandages which provide light relief. One ponders the contrast between success and poverty. One wonders at the encroachment of mythically poor, barely human creatures at the edge of the forest, and tries to analyse what the author is driving at. But unfortunately I found that none of this was wrapped up to any real conclusion. Lots here to wonder here and try and analyse, but without more of a clue as to where this was going it just petered out for me.
It's a pity, because the writing is excellent. Descriptions, pace, character all fascinating. Structure absorbing. A touch of myth into real life intriguing. But the overall message passed me by and consequently the book was not impactful.
2018: In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
A mighty tome this, with a mighty theme of the settlement of the wild west. In this book a Swedish teenager sets out with his brother for a new life in the New World as part of the great Swedish emigration of the 1860's. They aim for New York but a set of circumstances separate them and sweep him round to San Francisco instead and he sets out to traverse the continent on foot to link back with his brother. The journey takes him across mighty plains, and across the full range of human depravities to meet with adventures on the way but unfortunately never again his family.
The novel has a grand plan and the writer uses grand and descriptive language to sweep up entire states and also to pick down into the detail of individual grains of sand. The saga is full, becomes almost mythic. The hero is indefatigable. It is all huge and mighty.
There is a downside also. The circumstances of the hero's life push him into solitude and lonliness, and this pushes the story into something unusual: a mighty, sweeping myth with mostly a cast of one. It is a bit odd, which is not to say that it does not come off, but it does mean than the saga has lots of mountains and rivers and trekking, but not a lot of human interaction or communication onto which to interpret some meaning for it all.
The story shows human vice and depravity, which at times might be realistic, but is often a bit camped up, and comes across as a bit too vicelike, a bit too depraved, a bit unrealistic. This weakens the plot and makes it more burlesque and less gritty than it might have been.
The author sticks to his guns and drives our hero into complete isolation with no reward of a deathbed meeting with family at the end of it all. This means that the ultimate message and meaning of the work is, well, err, I'm not sure.
Some great descriptive work about the loneliness of an individual lost amongst the sweeping sands on the great plains, but not much humanity to fill it out. Great writing that got bit lost in search of a story.
2019: The Wife's Tale by Aida Edemariam
This is a fantastic and hugely educational book. I saw a review on a list of books of the year somewhere, possibly TLS, and although it is not fiction I added it to my fiction pile anyway because of the review. I am so glad I did.
The story is true, although very emotional and sensual and it has clearly been fictionalised by the addition of lots of intimate detail over the years. It tells the biography of the grandmother of the author who became a childbride and later a great matriach of a family in Ethiopa living, as my grandparents did, almost exactly within the 1900's. The story is one of her family history. It is also one of female emancipation, slow by Western World standards but still relentless. It is also one of the history of the century, told through its effect on Ethiopa, and even within this told within its effect on the household of the subject, given that for almost all of her life she literally never left the household. It is remarkable how a life can be lived which is so inward and family centric and yet touches and is touched by so much wider human history.
The story of great male victims of house arrest - Nelson Mandela springs to mind of course - can play a big part in the history of Mankind's World. Less often told is this story, far more common, of a woman effectively given the same imprisonment by cultural acceptance instead of authority.
The writing is personal and touching. It is deeply sensual, particularly around the smells of food and spice which formed the core work of The Wife. It embraces love of children and the reliance on the fragile structure of family home against the wildness of the outside world. It is a remarkable homage to a person who held no offical position and yet had a huge influence on those around her.
One of the best random finds I have ever made.
2015: The Green Road by Anne Enright
Well written story of an Irish family, a Matriarch and 4 diverse children, firstly telling stories of the four children and the four different ways they travelled, and then bringing them all home for one last Christmas. The first four chapters of the book could almost stand as 4 independent short stories. The second half brings them all together. While the book is well written and everything, it failed to really grab me. The family Christmas was a pretty grim affair, with most characters treading the path of dismal family christmases as already laid out by a generation of comedians. As such it was neither enjoyable nor particularly emotional, and at the end of the story everyone went back home and carried on. I suppose I have been spoilt with this style of novel, having read a lot of Colm Toibin and Niall Williams lately. Very well written, good characterisation, (although I cannot say I liked any of them much) but a tame plot. Not very memorable.
2014: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
I found this tiresome and unfunny, I'm surprised that this book got through to the shortlist, especially over Niall Williams' far superior work.
It is the story of an odd misanthrope, tiresome Red Sox fan and dentist, who becomes enveloped in a strange cult-like plot to set him up as one of the chosen ones from a race of people mentioned in the Pentateuch who seem to have a particularly miserable history. Unhappily this turns out not to be a superficial plot structure to expose deeper elements of this person and his environment, but actually to be a justified claim which eventually captures this person's life. I was skim reading long passages of biblical history long before I got close to the end.
Absolutely not my style.
2021: Peace Talks, by Tim Finch
Costa Novel Award, Shortlist
Regret that some time has passed since I read this. It is now almost the end of the year, so I can say with some conviction that this has to go down as my Book of the Year. Just occasionally I read something and think to myself: there, just like that, if I could write something just like that I would be well satisfied. This one certainly does that for me, with due apologies to Tim Finch, of course. It's amazing how often such a book is a Costa Book, too.
Peace Talks has a first person narrator: an older, respected, contemplative man. The narration is a monologue to his beloved wife, at first we think he is writing a letter to her. He chairs peace talks at a mountaintop retreat in Austria, the most diplomatic of diplomats, while hidden memories of his personal life bubble away under the surface. Slowly we see the cruel nature of the war being waged between the countries at the talks, and we discover that his wife was killed in a gruesome, public terrorist atrocity. The narrator analyses and categorises his feelings, relying on the same thought processes and contemplation techniques that we all use every day, even when the subject matter is so appalling.
The book is superbly done. The narrative voice is masterful: quiet, refined and analytical, yet still allowing the reader to descend with the narrator to such challenging places. We see horror and despair painted in vivid colours, and yet the author does not allow this to take over the page, at any level. He retains the humanity and peace of reasonable civilisation, even when pushed to the brink with such savagery.
Narrative voice, characterisation is wonderfully done; the point of view is relentlessly internal and stark; the subject matter is savage and vicious, yet always described through the lens of diplomacy, even when this conflicts so tightly with the emotions of the diplomat. Under it all is a tender love story, equally powerful and romantic, told in equally calm and measured tones.
A masterclass in how the most challenging stories can be told through the most even narration. A masterclass in how to write a novel. They don't come any better than this.
2018: Den Store Gatsby av F. Scott Fitzgerald
En bra översättning av en bra bok. Många säger att The Great Gatsby är boken av The Jazz Age, men det är bara hälften sant. För den största delen berättar den här boken om män och kvinnor, kärlek, äktenskap och skilsmässa. Pengar, stående, hus, musik kommer alla på andra plats till kärlek, bra eller dåligt.
I slutändan kan alla pengar och hjältens stora hus inte köpa honom kärlek till den kvinna som han vill, och så kommer allt till en tragedi. Det är inte en lycklig bok, men det är en historia som skrivits mycket bra.
2014: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
A few days after completing this one it grows on me as a very good book. Much of the book is taken up with a gruesome depiction of life in a Japanese POW camp. This is set against the hero's great romantic tragedy as he marries one woman but spends his life ruing his fatal attraction to another. The intensity of feeling of life's great romatic tragedy and dilemma is only intensified by contrast with the unfathomable physical suffering of this 3 year hiatus in life for the hero and his companions.
The national view of the great heroism of the hero's action is continually brought into direct conflict with his own perceptions, cut through with doubt and ignominious motivations. One wonders how many other national heroes have similar conflict.
Although the life story goes on to completion and finishes with the death of the hero, there is still a feeling that the book is 50 pages too long. This great work which focuses on the critical mundanities of life - the very basics of survival in the camp and the pain of lovers torn apart - ends with two fantastic additions to the tale. The hero drives into a great forest fire and rescues his family in extraordinary circumstances which is exciting and thrilling, but adds a touch of the fantastic which comes out of nowhere. There is also a twist in the tale whereby the man who died most tragically in the camp turns out to be a blood relation of the hero. There is no need for this. This man's story is so powerful without this. A rather silly twist in the end adds nothing to it.
Good story, well told. The central part grabs one's emotion as any tale on this subject must. But the contrast with life's great romance is well done and the character of the hero eventually stands out from the horrors of the camp, which is achievement in itself.
2019: Madame Bovary av Gustave Flaubert
Faktisk är det långe sedan jag läste den här boken, så jag måste försöka att komma ihåg. Att läsa en bok i lätt svenska är en bra sätt att fuska :) Man kan läsa en jättestor fransk klassik på bara hundra sidor och man kan säga, den är inte en kort bok, den är en lättläst bok.
Madame Bovary är definitivt en klassiker. En dum och olycklig dam, en stackers make, men en bra berättelse ännå. Med bara hundra sidor är detta inte skönliteratur, mer utbildning i språket. Men, det är bra att träna med en klassiker.
2014: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
In the 1930s and 40s it was quite trendy for American psychologists to adopt chimp babies and bring them up with their own children or at least own families. Then children grew up and chimps had to go. Astonishingly, instead of going somewhere really nice as befits a family member, these chimps would invariably be returned to the lab and be prepared for the next experiment, whatever that might be. Imagine the devastation if the young human child involved discovered the fate of this other child, with whom they shared a sibling empathy, permitted by their parents.
Fowler's book explores family relationships and bonds broken and reforged, but with the particular case of a chimp family. It considers memories from childhood, and questions what might be real and what might be imagined. But it does so with the extra pathos that something really devastating and separation really severe had actually happened to a family member.
It is an unusual read, with challenging human feelings and gradual understanding of events and meanings forming around a very unusual family setup. Fowler tells the story very well and grips the reader. At one point she slips into a polemic around animal rights activists and the tale loses balance and complexity, but recovers. Having taken the reader through times of trauma she cannot bear to push this through to the end, and contrives an ending which is certainly happy, and almost cheesy.
Unusual, challenging, invokes some complex issues, well told tale. Something similar could perhaps be set in late 1930s Germany where the coming tragedy would be human and more terrible. Fowler probably does well to tell a more unusual story. I don't think this is great, but I think it is a very good book.
2017: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
A rival to Elmet for the most disappointing book on the 2017 Booker shortlist. I found this book less than wonderful and so did many online reviews. 'Good in bits but failed to meet its objectives' seems to be a reasonable summary. There was good writing here, an attempt to create a narrative which hops about the timeline in the way that Muriel Spark does so well, but which happens less well here, but also inconsistent characterisation and first person narrative.
The story is an attempt to expose the mistreatment of a small child by religious fundamentalists which ends in the child dying of a treatable disease. Narrator is the teenage babysitter, an attempt to create a teenage misfit which doesn't work well.
Neither the small child nor the teenage are given a realistic or consistent character. I wonder if the author really has much experience with either. The story meanders along and includes a few stretches of canoeing on the lakes as a bonus to set the scene. It all gets lost and by the time the end comes, telegraphed with the subtlety of a herd of elehants, I'm afraid that the reader has become unattached.
2017: Montpelier Parade by Karl Geary
A well written book, with good characterisation and good pace, but the narrative is a bit unlikely and offbeat. The story tells of an older woman grieving for her teenage son who died of MS. As part of this process she has a strange affair with a similar-aged teenage boy while she completes her descent into depression and suicide. The story is told from the point of view of the teenage boy who is immature and lives a deprived life, which makes the affair with this older, richer, more sophisticated woman all the more strange.
It is a striking narrative, and told from an unusual viewpoint it comes across as a bit odd and surreal. I'm not convinced that it is very realistic - I don't think that depression works like that, although I am really not sure - and it means that much of the book is given over to a description of this deprived, wasteful and aimless existence of the very poor of Belfast, which is all a bit crap really.
Not a very cheerful book, and the characters are not rounded out quite enough to engage the reader in why it is they are doing what they are doing. In particular the older woman is left enigmatically untouched which helps produce a surprise ending, but does this at the expense of an incomplete description of the character and the her actions as the novel progresses, which is unsatisfactory.
2019: The Other Half of Augusta Hope by Joanna Glen
This book was extremely good in parts. It is written in the first person but alternating between two characters, clearly delineated, soulmates from quite different backgrounds who eventually meet. It goes deeply into the heads of these characters, particularly of Augusta, and could be claustrophobic, but instead succeeds in drawing in the reader to a close relationship with characters they care about.
However, in parts it is also deficient. It is very insular, very Alan Partridge at times, and in attempting to depict a constricting suburban life it mostly just gets stuck into itself. All characters, especially secondary ones, have simplistic ethos and morals with very little contrasting traits and conflict. This lack of depth makes the book much less than it could be. The narrative point of view slips a couple of times, especially when flicking across the two twins.
The story rollercoasters along dramatically towards the end, but mostly the direction is obvious so the ride is not thrilling for its own sake, but is gripping enough. The big tragedy advertised in the blurb on the back actually happens very late, so much so that the blurb could be seen as a spoiler, which surprised me.
The pace and style changed for the sorrowful and romantic bits, and this was quite good, but without the depth of character to fill these parts the slower pace often felt a little flat. There was nothing for the reader to learn as no one developed, so the story only really ran along with pace and when that slowed, interest slowed.
Good writing, suffering from a lack of conflict and character contrast.
2019: Sight by Jessie Greengrass
I'm afraid that some time has passed between the reading of the book and the writing of the review, so perhaps this will not be as detailed as it would have been.
This book tells the story of the uneasy relationship of the narrator as a young girl with her grandmother. The grandmother was a famed psychologist, unable to step away from her highly regulated and analytical work life in order to be childishly friendly with her grandchildren.
The book is technically excellent, but becomes very philosophical and suffers from a lack of narrative direction. Great structure, but the actual story is more forgettable, hence the brevity of this piece written six months after the event.
X p>2018: Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
This year's Pulitzer Prize winner. It is remarkably light and frothy after the significant tome from last year, perhaps they wanted a respite or something.
I cannot say that I really loved this one. Part of me feels that the literary world loved it because it presented a spoof of the literary world and everyone loves being sent up. For those of us outside the clique, however, it was all a bit tiresome.
Spoofs and send ups of various stock literary characters and pointless international travel and a hedonistic homosexual lifestyle. More fishsticks than 7 hour lamb.
2020: Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall
Shortlisted in James Tait Black.
A stunning set of short stories. Visual, emotional, simple and stark, with beautiful language and content which is at times shocking. They will certainly make an impression on you for at least one of these reasons, probably many of them.
Hall sets her work close to home, amongst ordinary people, living next door to either one of us. Unfortunately this ordinariness does not save you from the vile side of human nature and some of the acts portrayed in passing are horrible, no less so just because they are carried out by ordinary people. In the first story revenge is carried out by supernatural means, reminiscent of Louis de Bernieres' black pumas. There is satisfaction here, but only a sad version of it because we all know that such revenge is only for the written world and not the real one.
In other stories she visits the dead, the dying. Each tale is grotesque, bold, stark. The language is always minimalistic and beautiful, cut to the bone, reaching in and shaking you by the neck, never caressing you softly. This is true of the child's bedtime story at the end also, which is gripping, but has an element of comedy in the idea of it serving as a child's bedtime story - it certainly wouldn't.
There is much here to admire: skilful craft, minimalist language, relentless telling of a fearless message. There is less, perhaps, to like, enjoy or feel nostalgia for. Stark stories to wake you up, not for reading after dark.
2020: Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach
A really excellent book. Once again the Costa demonstrates just what a good competition it is, it focuses on good books over and above literary craftsmanship, experimental forms and academic tricks which means that the shortlisted books are consistently excellent books to read. (As opposed to whatever else you are supposed to do with a book of critically approved academic form). This book is no exception to the rule.
It tells the story of the victims of East German totalitarianism, not rabid politicalists but just ordinary families who tried to do the best for their children and so became victims of faceless injustice. It focuses in particular on the period of chaos just before the falling of the wall which history describes as a time of liberation, but which was as terrible as any other time for a family which fell foul of victimisation.
The story flips between an historical telling of a young family and a modern day romance. The latter is told in the two, alternating voices of the couple: the grown up child trying to recover her roots and the person working in the archive who tries to help her. The structure could have been intrusive, but instead each saga is personal and gripping enough to hook the reader independently.
Separate threads entwine and move together, the saga of the young family becomes tragic through the reader's eyes as their sad fate is revealed slowly through different lens, both current time following the story and future time looking back. The reader can see the fate forming from both directions and wants to save them from tragedy, but ultimately can do nothing but watch helplessly as the guns are fired.
The story is well researched, the reader is engaged, the threads come together. It is all done well and carefully, the end result is an excellent tale: well told, emotional, thrilling, informative. Just what a good book should be.
2019: The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay
A standard whodunnit in a standard series which is becoming a standard piece of light reading for me. The series is delightful and interesting because it is so varied. One does not know exactly what one will get at the start of each book. Many of these come from 80 or more years ago when the modern rules for whodunnits had not yet been established. What we see here is not the use of these rules but instead part of their creation, this gives a real historical interest to each book.
This one is standard fare. The patriach of a country house is killed by a houseguest at Christmas and a detective arrives on the scene to find out which one did it. Before long it becomes clear that there were in fact two people in a Santa Klaus (sic) costume: one delivering presents to the children and another up to no good. After this it all gets a little too fine detailed to really follow properly, and the solution relies on exact timings of everyone's movements, witnessed either correctly or incorrectly by others.
I could perhaps have got out a pad of postit notes and tried to work it all out but instead I didn't and just read the book. It remained good fun throughout. It won't win any awards, but is a fine example of its genre and I look forward to reading the next in the series.
2018: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is a fantastic book. I bought it (actually, was bought for me) just after his being awarded the Nobel Prize, and it still managed to exceed expectations, which is not an easy trick to pull off.
The story is one of memory, on the differences between memories and real life, on propaganda and mass false untruth, on the rewriting of history. Brilliantly, the author interlaces two perspectives on this theme: one of the victors in a civil war settling a mass untruth upon the civilian population that their methods to win the war were civil (they weren't), but also one on an ordinary, elderly couple who thought that their treatment of their long lost son was loving and fair (it wasn't). The story is set in a cloudy, pre-historic, half-mythic, post-Arthurian world in which real history and popular myth can swim and intermix, which of course re-emphasises the theme all over again.
Characters in the tale represent truth and falsehood, and it is clear that a great battle must inevitably take place. But who represents what? And even if we discover who represents what where do our sympathies lie? And what effect will this battle have? Who knows?
At the end of the tale the mists clear and truth is revealed, which causes nothing but grief to everyone concerned. While the reader knows that their thoughts and sympathies should be with the victims of the terrible war, in fact it is all too much to take in. Instead the personality of the writing brings it much more towards the elderly couple who are torn apart, although they never wanted to be, because of the appearance of that awful imposter Truth. Isn't that just like real life!
The reader's emotions are left raw and exposed. The tale has been gripping and fascinating. The direction of the story has been inventive and full of metaphor. The world conjured up has been mythical and yet reflective of reality, both ancient and modern.
2019: En Familjmiddag av Kazuo Ishiguro
Det här är en novel av Kazuo Ishiguro. Jag planerar inte att skriva om varje novel jag läsar, men den här är min först i hel svenska, och igen börjar jag på toppen med en nobelprisvinnare, så jag kan skriv om den. När jag först började att lära mig svenska ville jag att läsa nobelprisvinnarer i svenska, så här jag klara mig en milstolpe också.
Det här boken beskrivar en familjemöte med en far och hans två barn. Dom pratar om livet, och om hur barn växt till män, och om sorg om en grannas självmord. Den är en vacker historia, långsam och djup och den är absolut hur jag vill skriva. Jag skulle älska har en tiondel av Ishiguros talang. Suck.
2014: J by Howard Jacobson
Not a happy book. J gives a view of a post holocaust world. It's not clear if this holocaust is a second or an alternative event. It is clear that it was intended to have been total, and the reader implicitly learns that it was an event that occurred more through social structure, enabled through social media, and less through military means. The story focuses on a couple who turn out to be single survivors of the bloodline.
It is an odd read, invoking an horrific event, but doing so in a way which is strangely inconsistent and untenable. The story takes place in Germany, clearly identified through Wagnerian references, but outside influence either in or out is scoped out. The people deal with guilt and reconstruction through entirely internal means, with no outside reference. It is assumed that social media and even national communication no longer happens although there is no totalitarian infrastructure to enforce such a thing. The absurdity of single survivors enables the narrative structure, but distances from reality.
Against this odd and untenable backdrop the characters do their thing, and behave in ways which are both human and yet unpredictable. The backdrop of violence seems gratuitous given the lack of realistic links to the present human condition.
I'm not altogether sure why the reader was taken down this dark and miserable sidestreet when links to realistic and tenable human condition are so strained.
2020: Mistlar och Mord av P. D. James
Klassika noveller av en klassik författare i deckare litteratur. Välskrivna, förbryllanda, liten roliga. I en novel är det inte nödvändigt att slutföra en whodunnit, bara att sätta en pussel och lösa det, och James gör precis det, och gör bra. En smart, bra bok.
2021: Noveller, av Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson är mest känd, självklart, för sina Muminsagor, men här är en samling vuxennoveller av Jansson. Titta inuti, och man kan se också Jansson målade självporträttet på omslaget också. En bra artist!
Novellarna här är korta, fokuserade, täta, färgglada och, dessutom, lite platta. Man har beskrivningar och ovanliga scener, men inte mycket handling, inte mycket berättelsar. Du har en scen, någont ovanligt, litet samtal, sedan slutnet. Ingen båge, ingen treaktstruktur, ingen komplettering. A serie teckningar som är vackra, men ej en helt saga.
Vackert, lätt, inte så djupt eller meningsfullt. Liten nedslående.
2018: Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann av Jonas Jonasson
En konstig bok. Ovanlig. Svart. Mycket, mycket rolig. Jag skrattade, en gång så mycket att jag ramlade från soffan. Jonassons berättalse har en gammal gubbe går langsamt genom stugar och polisen och tjuvar och andra människör och en elefant, rörar sig alltid som hans egen fart, och orsakar kaos överalt. Humor är konstig och svart. Berättelse är ovanligt, men den slutliga boken är helt bra. En fantastisk bok.
2017: The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F John
I thought that this was a very good book, and a really promising opener. The book opens with a really good short chapter which ends with the protagonist getting killed by a car. In just a few pages the author builds up a character, a personality, a story, the reader's attention. This is all done well enough to bring out genuine shock and outrage when it all happens, only a few pages in, and this is really well done. It sets up much of the rest of what follows.
The depiction of grief that follows is set against the Bright Young Things of the 1920's, taking care to make these people ordinary fallible folk also and not the idle rich. This works well. In addition the hero is set up as an unlikely single father, which works less well.
A new character is introduced, starting out as a conman who works on the recently bereaved, but as the story unfolds he becomes a genuine lover and gives up the con.
There are many narrative weaknesses: the baby is introduced to make the father more tragic, but then conveniently foisted onto a neighbour almost continually to allow the father to play with the BYTs in his grief; the fake psychic actually gives up real information when needed by the narrative; the conman is supernaturally elusive when first entering the plot, but then turns out to be natural; the BYTs are centered around a omnipotently benificent figure which allows for their life of idle gluttonly to be set against working backgrounds.
The author never works at bringing the plot to heel, she just pulls in magic to make stuff happen. But for all that it flows well, the characterisation is good, the conflict is introduced and the reader has empathy.
Very good storytelling. I think the book would have been better if the psychic, the conman, the financing of the BYTs had all been just straight and not supernatural, and the story was just of grief conflicting with that lifestyle. There might have been a very good tale there.
Still a very enjoyable read.
2019: Kejsarn av Portugallien av Selma Lagerlöf
En klassiker av Selma Lagerlöf, Kejsarn av Portugallien börjar som en glad bok, en komedi verkligen, men slutar som en tragedi. Man kommer att få mycket sympati med den stackers kejsarn vem är oskyldig för något brott förutom att älska sin dotter.
Berattelsen handlar om en man som har en dotter. I början vill han inte har barn, men vid första anblicken älskar han henne väldigt mycket. Livet är fattig men mycket lyckligt i huset. När hon blir vuxen flyttar hon till Stockholm, hon bor där olyckligtvis och hemma saknar hennes far henne mycket. Till slut blir han galen, blir han Kejsarn av Portugallien, och han kan bara leva som en galen man. Att leva i den verliga världen är att saknar hans dotter för mycket.
Hon kommer tillbacka i slutet, men det är för sent och hennes far är bort, och dör sedan.
En fantastiskt historia, en klassisk bok, en tragedi. Man kommer ihag de första kapitlen som är glada och roliga.
2013: Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lowland is a really good book. It starts with a slightly strange change of tense in the first two paragraphs. The story starts with a tale of two boys, who grow up together, and then are separated when the less adventurous one goes to the US for further education. The more adventurous gets involved with political unrest. After 100 pages there is a change of direction when the young man at home dies, and the older man returns home to mourn his brother, and returns to the US with his brother's wife and unborn child, largely estranged from his parents. The central part of the tale slows down and follows the mostly unhappy marriage and slow separation of the married couple, as he in particular pours his love and energy into an intense relationship with his (step) daughter. Father and daughter return to India following his father's death, and return to find the mother has fled the family home. The daughter grows up independent and nomadic. Crisis comes as she declares a late pregnancy, and he makes a late declaration of his step parenthood. She leaves, but soon returns. There is a final and traumatic and unwelcome and brief return of the mother. The book ends with a return to India and final view of the death of the original brother, which has been told already from several viewpoints, from his own viewpoint. This comes to include the split second as he feels the impact of the bullet, but then in a nice touch is extended for a final few paragraphs after that. For the length of the book we think we are reading the biography of the surviving brother, but at the end we discover that really we are reading the biography of the dead brother, and the flow of family ties, making and breaking, are a series of ripples spreading out directly as actions of his life and death. Even the final letter from his daughter offering possiblity of eventual meeting between his wife and granddaughter is an action flowing as a result of a line of actions coming from this man's tumultuous and short life. A difficult book for me to read in parts, as it deals with estrangement between parent and child. (Paraphrase) a parent's greatest shame is to leave for dead a child who is still living. I was swept up in the emotion of the central part of the book: the mostly homely and least dramatic part, but then I have always gone for that. I particularly like the final change of direction, the return to the death of the brother and the realisation, which came for me only at the very end, of exactly whose life history I had been reading for the past 250 pages. Perhaps the most momentous estrangement of all was that of the less adventurous brother in making the move to the US. Of all the break ups in the book, this is the only one where the breakee has an opportunity to address, and his brother says to him, "Don't go." There are real depths to the forming and breaking of relationships over the generations displayed here.
2020: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
This is perhaps Lahiri's seminal work, not least because it is the one which was made into a movie. Here she sticks resolutely to preferred ground, telling the story of a couple from Calcutta who move to New England and have a family there. Over time a significant generational divide opens between first and second generation immigrants, particularly amongst the women. The family meet delight and disaster, the young man battles with his identity, symbolised in his changing name.
The elements of the story are deeply significant as you read them: birth and death, marriage, infidelity, mourning, but none of them fall out of the normal orbit of life. What makes the work so deep and meaningful is Lahiri's creation of these people, her characterisation and the echoes she brings into their lives of the major events of your life. It is masterful, wonderful, close and emotional.
The story has no seismic climax, it does not complete any circle. Instead it rises and fall with life's rhythm, pulls you through love and change, washes you over with a sea of emotion and leaves you soaking wet, immersed in the story.
It is a masterpiece. Writing gets no better than this. Lahiri is writing in other languages now, which is great for her. One can only hope she returns to English to add to a canon which is as good as any. Bar none.
2018: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
A beautiful set of short stories, wonderfully told and exquisitely themed and laid out. It is amongst the very best writing that one could imagine, although I am becoming to expect nothing less from the wonderful Jhumpa Lahiri.
All of these stories are based around immigrant families from India making a home in New England, especially about the generational divide that opens out between the first and second immigrant generations, especially amongst the women.
Lahiri has the ability and willingness, shared with Colm Toibin but few others, to set her stories amongst ordinary people living ordinary lives. She writes about only events which we can recognize and share from our own life experiences, but in doing so she draws out a meaning and richness which makes the tale thrilling, without recourse to thrilling events, and so can enrich our own understanding of who we are and why we behave the way we do.
It is wonderfully done. Lahiri's work remains resolutely with the same groups and sorts of people. But her ability to pick out their lives and expose the humanity of their actions puts this author amongst the best that there have ever been.
This work is that good.
2021: A Town Called Solace, by Mary Lawson
Booker Long List
A wonderful book of Mary Lawson, set in the smallest of small towns. A child disappears in the present day, and another disappeared thirty years ago. Circumstances are different, but one character connects the events. The two stories are told by three different narrators, two in close third person and one in a first person monologue, internal conversation with her ex-husband. Slowly the pieces fall into place and similarities become clear. Can the victim of the first event avoid the tragedy of history repeating itself?
The tale works well. Time slips backwards and forwards, especially as one of the narrative strands, the one which dips most often into the past, needs to be told a few months earlier than the other two, as this narrator died shortly before the story is taken up. This sounds complicated, perhaps in my paragraph it is! But it works in the story and the reader remains clear. In fact, living with the aftermath of a character's death in one chapter and then having access to her inner thoughts as she approaches death in the next is moving, and Lawson does this well.
We build sympathy all round, we long for the safe return of the children, for the divorcee to find love, for the child to remain connected to her parents. Lawson takes us through all of the tribulations and then completes every circle, allows for every, or nearly every, good outcome to be worked through, which I think is good writing. Always easier to jump into tragedy, more challenging to avoid the surge of emotion that brings and steer the ship safely home.
Small town presented well, some nice description. The crazy ice cream and chisel thing, (wouldn't Agatha Christie have fun with that!), remains the detail one remembers.
Perhaps this book is most notable for what it avoids. Is the police officer straight, or does he have a hidden agenda which will complicate Liam's life? The blurb on the back suggests the latter, in fact it is the former. Is Elizabeth's evidence of the tragedy of the first disappearance being presented objectively? In fact it is, evidence from Liam corroborates the mild neglect of his mother. But everything about this set up lends itself to have Elizabeth be unreliable, giving us a subjective view of her story. The reader would have to piece together each character's motivations from conflicting evidence. Lots of scope for conflict here, but none taken. I'm surprised, can't help thinking it is an opportunity lost.
With or without this extra conflict, it is an excellent story, which avoids any strand falling away into a cheap death but instead follows each all the way home to the end of its arc. Really well done.
2016: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
A novel nicely told, in Levy's rather nice and poetic style. But clever wordsmithing goes only some way towards making up for a lack of narrative and some lack of character. It is another pretty miserable tale of a child living a blinkered and selfish life wrapped up in the life of the parent. In this way the novel has much in common with Eileen, above.
The child worries about the angst of existence, without at any time coming to the conclusion that hard work and good food and sleep and not filling up head with nonsense might work. This angst takes up the entire narrative, and nothing else happens in the book.
I have read in an external review that the theme of this Booker Prize shortlist is main characters who at no point engage the empathy of the reader. The panel hotly denied this, but having read four out of six I agree completely. I have empathy for none, and only got engaged with the triple murderer of Burnet. Sigh.
2018: An Unremarkable Body by Elisa Lodato
One of the Costa Prize first novel shortlist books. I thought that it was quite good. It was inventive, well-written, had good characterisation and kept the story going without recourse to lots of action.
I thought that the surprise ending was a little unsurprising; after a longish marriage and motherhood it turns out that she was gay all along. I agree that there is a story there, but perhaps not really a sting in the tail.
In the end though, it petered out a bit. The sexuality thing should have been more a social commentary than a big shock, and then it turns out she was murde....well, manslaughtered really and it wasn't an accident. Again, there was a bit of a surprise here, but only a bit. After all, this is a novel and one expects the body that apparently died of an accident on page 1 to have been murdered after all by the final chapter. In the end though the surprise ending is strong enough to drive down the impact of the people story, but not strong enough to take over the novel in its own right.
Good, but perhaps in the end the novel fails to really work as either a people story or a thriller. It falls between two poles and consequently, dare I say, the story has an unremarkable body. This novel also pales beside two other outstanding works from this list, but that is hardly Lodato's fault! Read on for the rave reviews.
2018: Kungsgatan av Ivar Lo-Johansson
Det här bok är skrivt i lättsvenska. Jag hoppas att läsa originalet kanske in två, tre år.
Det var en bra bok. En proletariat bok satt i gatorna av Stockholm, med arbetlöshet och fattigdom och sjukdom och kvinnor på gatorna. Verkliga livet, jag lärade några nya ordar! Boken tog hjältan hela vägen genom fattigdom och hårt tider till en gott slutning. Även i lättsvenska man kan kännar hjärter of personer.
2017: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
I'm afraid that this is not going to be a good review, despite critical acclaim elsewhere for this book. The book is famously written in a single sentence, and when I read that I determined not to read it myself and hope it didn't make the Booker shortlist. But then I saw that a book on the longlist was published by Canongate and bought it, not realising that it was this one. Humph. The single sentence thing really just turns it into a stream of consciousness, except that the lines of thought are generally completed and run for 3-4 paragraphs each instead of just flashing moments. It is still just an internal monologue and I didn't really read much of it.
I'm sure that others think it is great.
2017: Reservoir 13 by John McGregor
Another fantastic Booker long listed book for this year. It is written with no separate paragraphs. I seldom go for this sort of thing, but in this case I think that the narrative style justifies this very slight gimmick, and the author gets away with it.
The story focuses on village life and characters in the days, months and years following a disturbing disappearance of a young teenager. The event itself is not given focus so much as the ripples of impact it has on the people who are affected not directly, but through proximity. The narrative has a bit of the feel of a soap opera high level summary, as it rattles through births and deaths and illnesses and relationships making and breaking, giving a steady 25 pages to each year. As it goes through at this pace the reader is taken through major life events at pace, but the author dips down into significant events when appropriate and gives enough small detail to fill out the characters involved, before jumping back on the steam train of ongoing narrative. Human life is interspaced with the natural cycles around the village. This gives a feel of timeless flow and natural cycle of life to it all, and also presents human relationships at the same level as animal relationships.
A story written with superb pacing of the narrative, which flows past at a rapid rate, but just stops for long enough at the right moments to bring in the humanity of the characters, before rattling away again at a quick pace. This was a difficult trick to pull off and it is great writing to do it so well.
Reviews say that this is not a thriller, but I think that is only half true. The author pulls in just enough detail around the disappearance to tie the reader in, and is not above dropping in a bit of Agatha Christie here or there to tighten these connections. Discarded bits of clothing and a school janitor with a boilerhouse. The author might claim not to focus the text on the mystery, but he knows full well that the reader will be picking at these tiny details with intensity, and the thrill becomes a reader led thing, which is very effective.
Ultimately the author chooses, wisely I think, not to round out with a solution - unless of course the solution is just the title, staring at us all along - but just to follow life as it goes, while the ripples of impact soften and widen out and eventually subside. A fantastic work, which I read in 2 days flat, thrilled all the way along.
2016: The North Water by Ian McGuire
If your elderly, maiden aunt takes to her ottoman with a fit of the vapours, and the call goes out to you, as a devoted nephew, to take a book and read to her, to calm her frayed nerves and soften her ragged feelings, then this is probably not the book to read. This is a tale of a ragged, dirty, cussed, whore-mongering, foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, violent group of sailors on a whaleboat in the Northern Oceans, and the author uses language very much to tell it as it is.
The tale is well-enough told to be a work of literature, but is also an unashamed thriller, and at times the hero escapes various perils through Richard Hannay-esque miraculous circumstances. There is no reason, of course, why a book cannot be both, and indeed many would argue the The 39 Steps itself is exactly an example of something that is, but it is still a difficult act to pull off. At the first peril I was initially seriously impressed that the author had killed off the hero at such a critical point, giving a Psycho twist to the narrative, but that was not to be. At one point a psychic sailor has a dream foretelling how the voyage ends, and the dream ends up coming true, which is an even harder act to pull off effectively in a work of literature.
Ultimately, the hero outlives all of his fellow sailors, even the very violent, difficult to kill off one, and the reader is left to ponder what this all means. Thrilled, yes; sickened by the gore, certainly; abominated at the depravity, indeed. Should we draw a lesson from all of this, or is the thrill of the ride enough in itself? Is this book we have just read a literary thriller or a thrilling work of literature?
I'm inclined to the former, which means that it shouldn't win this award, although I devoured the final 30% or so of the novel with greater avidity than any of the above 3. And I never have quite understood the logic of that difference.
2020: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Mengistes epic is set in Ethiopa around the time of the Italian invasion just before WWII breaks out in mainland Europe. It follows a family of masters and slaves, with a connection to the emperor, as they lose their home and join a rebel army which attacks the invaders using guerrilla tactics. The locals risk and sacrifice everything while the politicians and leaders shake their heads from the safety of HQ.
The story is magnificent, focusing on a slave girl in particular and the family of other slaves and masters, including the rebel leader. There is depicted the desperately sad and pointless effort of slaves joining the defending forces of a country which has been invaded. Joining and risking their lives to defend what, exactly? The people and the regime which has enslaved them. Human nature is bizarre.
The writer focuses on individuals in both invading and invaded camps, bringing to life not only the people and the motivations of going to war, but also those who live around and off the war camps. Hardly surprisingly, none are attractive. The blurb and the authors own notes bring out the particular effort of woman fighters contributing to the war effort in a deeply sexist society, where women would not normally be given responsibility to fart by themselves. For me, though, this just bled into the background of all the other motivations and drivers of the various actors in this play, none of which were noble or admirable. Everyone wanted to hack and kill everyone else, everyone expected citizens in the middle ground to take what was coming to them regardless. None of it was pretty.
A long, detailed and rich tale, taking me back to the world of the Edemariams wife. An educative historical story. A well written piece of literature which brought a cast of very different people to life. A detailed investigation which delves into a character which history would normally marginalise and forget, bringing her to life. A sad indictment of the lot of a slave.
Mostly, though, more than any of this, it is a personal and detailed description of how war is sad and tragic and awful, out of which no one gets any glory except the leaders and history writers. It is just war.
2016: The Many by Will Menmuir
I've waited a week or so to write this review, as this tale swirls around inside me. I think this is an extremely good book, one of the best and most original I have read in some time, although with fully 85% of the book read, I still thought it was just a rather tiresome pastiche of outsider rejected by rural local community thing.
The tale is of an outsider setting up home in a rural local community. He buys the house previously owned by a popular, local lad, who died and/or disappeared, and he is rejected by the locals, in particular one lonely and aloof rural man. The rural town turns out to be isolated, in decline, with a toxic environment, and hemmed in through barriers set up by shadowy external forces. The tale is told in chapters alternating with the viewpoints of the urban man and the rural man. Towards the end of the book the external forces, and the toxicity, and the external barriers all start to loom unrealistically large, until reality starts to break down in a surreal way, and the reader is unbalanced and confused as to where this is going.
In a devasting late chapter it is revealed that the hero and his wife lost their son to a stillbirth. They cradled the stillborn infant in their arms, but could never meet the child. This, it turns out, is the never-seen previous owner of the house; and the whole narrative is not real life, but an increasingly destructive, stifling, toxic bad place into which the hero has fallen. The local man given focus throughout is, I think, an alternative self for the hero, the person he will become if he loses himself in this bad place and succumbs to his grief. At the end of the book the hero escapes, just, by a whisker, not by himself but only with the help of a therapist, and returns to his wife who has been calling him home. His alternative self dives into the toxic water and disappears.
I'm sure that my cod-analytical paragraph above does scant justice to the clever and inventive way in which this novel gives a depiction of grief and depression as a descent of this ordinary story into surreal madness. The core phrase, "Timothy, he is gone. He is gone Timothy." resonates within long after the book has been finished.
A seriously good book.
2018: In Dark Places by Wyl Menmuir
I ordered this online and was not sure what I was getting. It turned out to be a short short story, padded out to about 40 pages with a few line pictures and a liberal wordsetting.
The blurb didn't really describe the story. The story tells of a honeymoon couple who take a special trip through bits of the Cheddar Gorge not normally open to tourists. He is a bit of a prat; she is nicer, at first sceptical but later tuning in to the soul of the environment. Around them are ghostly traces of a group of potholers who died in the caves in slightly mysterious circumstances.
Descriptions and atmosphere are quite good and, well, that is about it really.
I don't want to carp because I thought Wyl Menmuir's earlier work was wonderful. Indeed, this story is atmospheric and is well done for what it is. The book is small, but it is attractive and it is apparently a limited edition with good quality paper and an eco production. While these things are good, they do not add substance to the writing.
I guess that I am just disappointed because I wanted to read a second substantial piece from this writer and got only something very slight. I loved Menmuir's debut novel, I really look forward to his next. This sweetmeat only tickled the palate.
2020: The Less Dead, by Denise Mina
Costa Novel Award, Shortlist
I regret that a little time has gone by since I read this. In fact the new Costa shortlists will be out in just a couple of weeks. Where does time go?
One can debate exactly what is high literature. Strout? Joyce? Whitehead? Well, wherever the debate goes, this book isn't it. This one is an out and out thriller with unfortunate corpses, reunited sisters, desperate detectives and a grisly and unlikely trail of clues. The story highlights the terrible situation of prostitutes in Glasgow at the end of the 1900's, working a dangerous trade and regarded as unworthy of assistance by the police.
While the reader has sympathy for the unfortunates at the bottom of society's heap, most of their attention is taken up with following clues and piecing together who did it and why. The plot is more Alistair MacLean than Agatha Christie, there are relatively few surprises in the route taken, but a voyeuristic satisfaction in watching the circle complete.
Slightly surprising to see it on this shortlist, but the book has a message to give and the tale is well written, even allowing for some unlikely narrative devices thrown in to make it all work and keep it thrilling. An exciting read which will keep you turning pages, but unlikely to get you meditating much beyond the final one.
2016: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
This is a tough read. A dour thing, I found ittle to empathise with the narrator, very much an anti-heroine: bitter, twisted, pathetic, slatternly and non-contributory to those in need around her. She certainly didn't win me over.
Eileen lives a dour life and is eventually pushed and pulled out of it, by self and circumstance, all ignited by the arrival of a chic and fashionable co-worker into her drabness. But then in the tumultuous final chapter this co-worker, supposedly a sophisticated professional as a foil to the unsophisticated anti-heroine, commits an unusual act of kidnap, and the story verges off to focus on the tragic story of an abused child who commits an abuse-driven murder. I thought that this diluted the narrative. By having secondary characters commit exceptional acts, the novel can no longer focus on the life changes of the lead character, but becomes instead a story around this event. Is the point of the novel to focus on these bizarre and exceptional acts?, or is it to focus on the drab life of the anti-heroine and her lurch up and out of it?
I am left unsure.
Added later: in an interview with the author I read that she wanted to write a novel featuring the events of the abused child and the murder and subsequent incarceration. She was unable to create a narrative in which this was a central event, and ended up creating this story in which it was an indirect influence on the seemingly main narrative. I thought this was fascinating and made me want to reassess the novel. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that this interview can then change the review of the novel. How can it?
Perhaps it all changes if the author had added a shadowy prologue featuring the actual crime. This would have centralised the event, even though it did not enter the narrative until the ending.
Perhaps it all changes if the author had added a shadowy prologue featuring the actual crime. This would have centralised the event, even though it did not enter the narrative until the ending.
2017: Elmet by Fiona Mozley
A great piece of human interest here, with a new writer with really basic beginnings getting a book published and then having the amazing experience of having it picked up by the booker panel. What a story!
Judged by fair criteria for a new novel it is pretty good. A mix of modern day setting and something rather medieval going on, with a young narrator. Rather nice poetic writing in parts, and a social concience, even if it does get pretty heavy in some parts.
However, for the Booker long list I think it falls a bit short. I don't think it really reflects well on the panel that it is included. There are some plot holes, both in the storyline and in the grasp of realisation of the narrative voice, which varies. The social and environmental traits of the characters are sometimes exaggerated. While the descriptive detail is often nicely put, it is sometimes inserted at the wrong point, slowing down the timeflow of the narrative just when that seems inappropriate. I found that in doing this it dragged the reader out of immersion in the story.
The story is set in the modern day, but I'm not convinced that all elements of the plot work in that setting. A violent ending gave it all a dour outlook and ending, but the violence felt a bit gratuitous to me, perhaps because I had not been fully engaged in the plot in the first place.
Sorry if that sounds mean, I still think that it is a good first book, but I am not convinced that this is Booker quality.
2014: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Phew. Opens with a gruesome depiction of violence and ends with a gruesome depiction of violence and doesn't really cheer up much in the middle. This story contrasts different lives in India in the late 60s and 70s. The main story tells the life of several generations of an upper middle class family in Calcutta: business deals and marriages and births and heart attacks and crumbling of the family fortune, with narrative constantly hopping about the timeline, meaning that each generation keeps hopping about from childhood to youth to middle and old age and back again. Interleaved is the tale of the son who leaves to take up armed struggle in the Maoist cause in rural areas, told in a strict chronological timeline. The contrast in how the story flows along the timeline in the two alternating strands is striking.
Lots of change in style and time and characters, but the mood remains resolutely bleak. No one has a good time in this book. No one smiles. The futility of struggle against the corrupt and elitist central forces, either through middle class business or slave labour revolution, is remorselessly laid out. While the main family achieve comparative wealth for a couple of generations, all crumbles in the end. There is no shortage of violence and human misery, in both tales, to accompany.
Characterisation is OK, but it is a big cast of characters, and little compassion or joy to give breadth to any one of them. One challenge with writing a multi-generational blockbuster is consistency in description. The author cannot describe the grandfather as ceasely stentorian and strict on page 103, only to describe in some detail his tender relationship with his new son on page 267. I'm not convinced that the author quite achieves this, (the above example, although not the page numbers, is literal). One gets the feeling of a book where the writing perhaps took over the planned plot, which is fine in itself, but which was then never revisited and made consistent later.
Quite a good book, but resolutely bleak and downbeat. There is little cause for optimism here. I do hope for all our sakes that this is not chosen to be the literary message of the year.
2018: Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
A wonderful book. Nabokov is seldom included in the first division of Russian heavyweights, with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov, but really he should be. He belongs absolutely in that class.
This is a wicked, dark tragedy of Nabokov. While there are elements of comedy in the farce of which the antihero makes of his life, the heavy layer of black mud which covers it all makes it difficult to extract much joy from this humour. The clue to all of this is in the title of course.
The blurb describes the antiheroine as being deliciously cruel, but really this description belongs more to the author, who spares no one in his depiction of humankinds suffering under the yoke of their own vice. The antihero is so pathetic, so gullible that one is reminded almost of Beachcombers hapless Mr Thake. However Nabokov makes sure that not only does he behave comically foolishly to ruin his own life, but also he behaves dreadfully to his young daughter as she ails on her deathbed, just to remove any trace of sympathy that the reader might have for this neglectful fool.
The story drives him into the ground and he gets the hellish ending he deserves. You must save your tears for another saga.
The plot is meticulous and characterisation wonderful. The language is masterful and flowing, almost poetic in its lyricism. "There is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man's life." Given that this version was translated from the original Russian into English by the author himself, one can only wonder, admire and jealously seethe at the language skills demonstrated.
2020: Nortons Filosofiska Memoarer, av Håkan Nesser
Jag är skyldig att det har gått lite tid sedan jag läste den här boken.
Nesser är känd som en deckerförfattare, men den här boken är en rolig komedi om livet av en hund, med hunden som berättare. Den är ingen liten, snabb hund utan stor, långsam och filosofisk, och boken tumlar framat men samma fart. Läsern kan bara tänka med, djupt och filosofiskt, med vänliga hunden.
Vi titta på parker, katter, mat och soffor med nytt ljus. En mans bästa vän är hans hund, men hundens bästa vän är soffan. Norton älskar att promenada och äta, och saknar fortfarande sina testiklar, som försvunn under mystika omständigheter för långe sedan.
En lyckligt slut också, Norton dör i nästa sista kapitel, och vi reser med honom till himlen i den sista.
Fantastiskt. Rolig. Djup. Filosofiskt. Vad mer kan man önskar sig?
2015: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
A classic tragedy around 4 brothers, a deadly prophesy, and the chaos it wrecks as it burns into their relationships. This is mixed up with the boys' troubled arrival of adolescence, and it remains unclear just what action is caused by what effect. Gripping, telling, fantastically written, and thrilling as it draws to a conclusion. The narrative follows a classic tragedy, but finally draws up just slightly from complete destruction and salvages something of the lives of the narrator and his closest sibling. The four brothers are characterised beautifully, their close relationship is pulled together, and each individual separation pulls at the heart of the reader: "What will happen to us [younger brothers] when our older brothers die?" "I could not imagine life without my brothers" "all my life they had looked after me" "don't leave me!" The funeral of Ikena is taut and heartbreaking, "he was the only one dressed in white, like an angel who had fallen to Earth and had his body broken so that he could not return to heaven." By avoiding the destruction of all and bringing the tragic events to a sort of an end the author enriches the tale and strengthens the overall narrative. Fantastic novel.
(all para quotes from memory)
A couple of days later and I think the book has increased its pull on me. One of the great achievements of the tale is to intermix Ikena's supposed descent into madness with his descent into adolescence. The story is mostly narrated by the youngest sibling, and the narrator is devasted when his older brother turns away from his siblings, defies their Mother, shows violence towards his closest brother. While the storyteller presents these changes in drastic language, the actual words spoken by Ikena, "I just don't want to, sorry Mother, please just leave me alone," are far less dramatic. It brings to the novel a mild sense of unreliable narration, and it remains unclear just how much of the terrible act was caused by Ikena's descent into madness, and how much by the younger siblings' inability to cope with the separation of close knit fraternity brought about by adolescence. After all, during the course of the novel 3 of the 4 brothers commit a murder. The only one not to is Ikena, the one who supposedly descended into madness. So what price this supposedness? Fantastic mixture of feeling.
2019: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama
A fantastic story of Chigozie Obiama, absolutely first rate in terms of structure, direction and technical writing. I found it harder to actually get into the story and lose myself in it. There was a metastory going on which interrupted flow, and the story was absolute, unmitigated tragedy almost without relief anywhere. One doesn't want to get fully lost in such a tale.
Narrative point of view was unusual. In fact it was told in first person by the "Guardian Angel" of the hero who had close access to the thoughts of the hero, but could not fully read them, nor could he direct actions. This makes it first person if a spirit counts as a person, but really it was third person specific for the hero.
The phrase in quotes above is my phrase, in fact the book used a complex structure of the spirit world from Nigerian Culture as a broad metastory which came in at least at the start of every chapter. I can't comment on how well this worked for someone from that culture, but I struggled to get inside this. For me it became more an intrusion than a beneficial thing.
Underneath these layers the story was well told and dramatic. It threw together a poor man and a much richer woman and developed them as a couple. The pair of them hardly had time to enjoy life together before the man took it upon himself to resolve problems caused by the difference in society between them. In attempting to do this simply drove himself into a tragic, downward spiral. He was abroad for most of this time and the narrative focused in closely on him with only memories of other main characters and temporary cameos from minor characters abroad. It became very intense, would have been even more so without the metastory to break it up. For our poor hero it was all tragedy.
In the final chapters the hero is actually reunited with his long-gone savings thanks to the thief having a relgious rebirth, but this unlikely stroke of good luck happens at the wrong point to be beneficial and all becomes lost anyway.
Extremely good writing from a first class writer. The previous book was great and I fully expect the next one to be. This book remains technically excellent but for me, strangely unlovable.
2020: Girl, by Edna O'Brien
I'm guilty of letting a little time flow by before writing this, but some of the images in this book haunt me still, and will do so for a long time yet, I'm sure.
This is a masterpiece of Edna O'Brien, tight and personal, detailed and emotional. But the poor girl goes on a desperately sad journey and the reader is taken to dark places as they accompany her.
The heroine is a victim of the real event of a large number of schoolgirls being kidnapped by terrorist guerrillas in Nigeria in the early 2000s. She is taken to a jungle camp where she is badly treated, mutilated, works as a sex slave, witnesses other atrocities, then forcibly married to a terrorist. She escapes and eventually makes it home, helped on the way by other natives who are mistreated in turn. At home she is feted by western journalists, but rejected by her own family.
The work is very well done. Images of schoolgirl things - hair slides and My Little Kitty stationery - left as debris in the dust after the kidnapping bring home the wretchedness of the situation more than any news report. These early scenes only open the doors for the emotional journey ahead. The reader shares the bemusement, terror and depravity experienced by the girl; also the courage of those who help her when faced with the threat of the same. In fact it is all so well done that the book becomes hard to judge as a work of literature, more a graphic depiction of a real event and as such it is terrifying and sad.
A great work, but one which will bring no pleasure. I plan to reach a certain age and then stop reading books like this. Can't wait.
2018: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
This is the first Ondaatje book that I have read. He comes with such a strong reputation and I think that I expected something a little different to this. I am not sure why that is the case. This book is slightly strange. It is intended to give a picture of a strange upbringing and a strange life, so that much is intentional, but having read it I am left with more questions about direction than answers and I remain unsettled. Like the man in the cartoon I ask myself, "What was all that about?"
The book tells the story of the children of someone working for the Secret Service post WWII. The life of the parents is terribly important and secret, to the extent that they disappear for most of the second half of their children's upbringing. The children are looked after by shadowy figures from some mixture of the criminal underworld and the secret service, and their lives become unorganised and chaotic. It is not really clear why a nanny was not employed, or is that too pedantic a point to even suggest?!
There is a change of pace half way through the novel as the children reach adulthood and their lives move on. The narrator devouts the adult part of his life to uncovering the mystery of the child part.
The book (eventually) describes some everyday details of how secret services operated across wartime London, and this makes it a bit reminiscent of Faulkes' Birdsong as it brings to life a mostly uncovered aspect of wartime. It also chases down the mystery of the secret service mother and it explores relationships between growing children and several pseudo uncles who mind them using unconventional methods. But it does not really throw itself into any of these themes with real gusto and it ends up being a mixture, as if the story could not quite decide which direction to which it should commit itself, and ended up committing to none.
Nice language at times, readable, told a story that flowed through time. But after turning the final page I found myself still asking the same question, "What was all that about?"
2013: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Well, have to say I didn't enjoy this one much. Story of a Japenese schoolgirl with suicidal father and remarkable nun great-grandmother, told as a Canadian writer reads her diary. The book has quantum physics overtones, with storylines one side of the Pacific, at one time, not settling themselves until observed by the reader distant in both time and space. Schrodinger the cat makes an appearance, and at one point is in a box, hovering between life and death. Hard to gain much empathy with the Japanese heroine, lots of casual violence and bullying are in the story. School bullying reminiscent of Faulks' Engelby, but I thought less central to core story. Some horrific war crimes alluded to in unecessary detail, all created distance between reader and story. Everything ties up into a happy ending at the end, which is nice, and the cat survives you will be pleased to hear, but I thought tying all the threads detracted from the realism of the story. Contrast this with Grace' Harvest which ties very few threads and produces a stronger narrative as a result. I thought a more forceful and less cosy ending upon observation would have been better. Forcing the ending of the story while the cat remained in the box, hovering between states, its fate left open would have been a better metaphor. And I thought the use of dreams to tell parts of the story, and the use of the Canadian writer, an image of the real author, as storyteller, were both tired plot devices. Still, what do I know? :)
2020: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Runner up for the Pulitzer 2020.
The Dutch House is a wonderful book, an epic family history focusing on brother and sister, children of a self made man who inherit his dogged independence. This is lucky because their step mother disinherits them out of everything on the father's death. The children take care of themselves and try not to obsess over her selfishness, the former mostly successfully and the latter unsuccessfully.
The inheritance is encapsulated in the house, with its unusual and striking architecture, which becomes symbolic of everyone's ambition and rights throughout the book. This is fortunate, because without the house it would just be family bickering about money, which is less deep or interesting.
The children are wonderfully done, their two personalities and characters develop, contrast and blend together very well. He marries but his wife only ever has a minor role in his life according to the saga of this book. Their father is taciturn and rugged, picked out in the detail but is hard to love. The stepmother is only ever viewed through a distant window, you never really meet her. The two servants are tenaciously loyal to the children and house and are a bit cliched. Patchett allows no minor character the freedom to contrast with where she wants this book to go.
The ending, where the stepmother loses her mind and the children win back the house, is deeply symbolic and also a little corny. Deeply immersed in the novel it seems monumental, but it is harder to justify when writing a pocketbook review a month later. Of course, the capturing of this realisation is exactly why I attempt to write these reviews!
What if you took the whole ending out, the whole closing of the circle thing, and just ended the story with the two halves of the step family drifting apart, each nursing an injustice at the other. Less symbolic certainly, but would it make for a better story? Perhaps.
The book deals with obsession, it goes back often with the children to sit in a car and just gaze at the lost house. It does this once too often, becoming obsessive and overlong. Of course, one might say that once too often is just right when dealing with obsession, by getting me to write that sentence the author has achieved her objective. Hmph. Perhaps. But I still groaned inwardly when the story returned there for the umpteenth time.
An epic novel, perhaps best seen as symbolic rather than realistic, perhaps just one lap too long.
2020: Love After Love, by Ingrid Persuad
Costa First Novel Award, Winner
The first two reviews in the blurb are from Marlon James and Rachel Joyce, can one imagine two more different writers?
This is a wonderful book: close, personal, emotional, that lies deep in the hearts and lives of ordinary people, just like you and me. It does not headline major or thrilling events, they happen elsewhere.
Betty is a widow; Mr Chetan is a homosexual; Solo is a teenager. All are ordinary and decent people, all have problems getting through life everyday because they are different. We are all of us ordinary, all of us different, and we could be any one of them. This book gets under the skin and opens up these people, in doing this it opens up the reader too. It is wonderfully done.
The language has a strong carribean lilt to it (strong enough to convince my Aberdeen-Gloucester-Trollhättan ears anyway :) ) but only enough to enhance and give character to the language, never so much as to get in the way and disturb the reader. (Perhaps Marlon James could consider doing something similar one day.) The land and the cooking are strongly carribean also, both are presented with richness and depth, pulling the reader into the backgardens and kitchens of the book's characters.
We live with them, look through their windows, eat their food. Before long we are swimming alongside each relationship, rooting for each friendship, seeking to heal breaches and arguments. We have gained book friends and live through the week with them quite as closely as we do with real friends.
Having pulled us into her world and made us care, Persuad is hard-headed enough not to sugar-coat the ending. We have grief and loss to deal with as the tale comes to a close. Poor Mr Chetan eventually pays the price for being different. It could have been either one or the other, or you or me. Society can be cruel. Solo reunites with his mother, but the pain of loss cannot be wiped out, and it is a sad ending.
It is beautifully done. Low, personal and emotional, Persuad has taken us over without our even noticing it, we give up the volume only with a sigh. The best writing is always about people, and this is up there with the best. A great read.
2019: The Overstory by Richard Powers
2019 Pulitzer winner.
The Pulitzer rarely disappoints and this one certainly does not. A mighty tome, deep, rich, involved, well researched, complex, satisfying; this book is all of these things and more. Reading a Pulitzer winner should change your life's outlook, and this does it all.
The book takes up the threads of half a dozen different stories, each wrapped up with the life of trees, and slowly entwines them into a wonderful whole; a homage to trees and what they should mean to humanity; a warning for the future lit up with optimism for how things could go.
Each individual thread is a masterpiece in itself, one gets so wrapped up in each that it is painful to let it go when it is time to move on to the next. One of the threads involves a scientist whose work rebels against the clinical forest management of the late 1900s and champions non-interference for tree life, highlighting the extraordinary benefits brought by dying, rotting, decomposing trees. This must have taken great research to write, at least it certainly reads as if it did.
The story builds to high drama with the eco-warriors; to romance with the aging scientists; to naked ambition with the computer game programmer; to bonding soulmates with the keeper of the last elm in the land. Each thread strengthens the saga, each journey passes through doubt and tragedy to a future of possibilities; each tree asserts its personality into the story.
Every walk in the skogen that you take after reading this book will be different to those you took before. You will see and listen to and smell trees in a different way. You will remember the people you met on the journey.
This beautifully written masterpiece will change your life. I expect nothing less from a Pulitzer, this lives up to expectations in every way.
2021: The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey
Costa Novel Award, Winner
Regret that some time has passed since I read this, so the review won't be as long as it should be.
Another Caribbean novel, there were a few in the Costa lists this year. This one weaves together a relaxed, personal depiction of life in a small fishing town with elements of supernatural folk tales. The mermaid is huge, mythical and unworldly, and yet has qualities that are all too human; she is hungry, curious, sexual and all too worldly. It is an enticing mix: ancient and modern, mythical and human, and is very well done. The poor fisherman at the centre of it all has to keep his find safe and secret, satisfy her demands, fall in love, have his heart broken and keep fishing all in the one story. But don't expect much sympathy for the man in this parable of women's freedom.
The language is mostly straight english, with just a soft Caribbean lilt in the background, which pleased this straight english reader. The setting is the fishing life: all shoreline huts, boats, nets and hard working days; quite different from the suburban houses and sumptuous cooking of Persuad's Love After Love. The hero is a simple man reluctant, although ultimately able, to play the role of the mermaid's rescuer, educator and lover. Then his heart is broken as she is unable to cling onto her land life and is pulled back to the sea.
She is a thousand years old, this creature, cursed into sea life by witches of a millenium ago. This enables Roffey to invoke a little Caribbean history as another layer of the saga. The woman is pulled out of the sea only briefly, can experience friendship and love only briefly, before the curse overcomes in the end. What does this say about a woman's life in the modern world?
A wonderful story with touching characters, layers of myth and history building up into statements about modern life, lots to ponder. But change is only temporary. Eventually everything raised up from the sea returns to the sea and water covers it over. And so it ends.
2019: Normal People by Sally Rooney
Winner of the Costa Book of the Year for 2018. Despite the accolades of my betters my review is going to be a little down.
This book tells the story of two young people who are drawn together as a passionate couple. It starts in late school and continues to early university. Their bond continues as the affair between them comes and goes, interspaced with various affairs with other people. At school one of the pair is popular while the other is an outsider. In other environments roles change and reverse.
The reader is drawn to these two people because both show fundamental qualities of kindness and patience in contrast to their peers who behave with the crassness and cruelty of late teenagers. The sense of groupthink is strong in the social groups in which our pair interact and their acceptance as being normal or abnormal is heavily dependant on their behaviour. Sometimes they conform and sometimes not, but in neither case is this due to an effort to conform for its own sake. The reader respects them for it, albeit the peergroup might disagree.
The characters are well drawn, the points are well made. Ultimately though the story is one of teenagers floundering to plan their own lives according to what they want to do, offset against the outrageous expectations of inane and crass peer group pressure. This failure to find enough self confidence to express their own preference turns the story almost into a tragedy. Both heros fail to grasp the future they want when it is clearly available to them.
I remember those days well, but not with much fondness. There are stories to be told around the confusion of late adolescence, but mostly it is just bad decision making by both antagonists and peers. In this book the author pulls the strings of the bit players to provoke responses on cue. It comes across as being a bit forced and it is not clear what messages are being told. Teenage peers are insensible. Young lovers believe only through inexperience that their passion is of the ages.
One can write of this age group and make important points. But this book, and Low and Quiet Sea by Ryan below, and 4 3 2 1 by Auster below, all really just serve to demonstrate that it is hard. More often the author demonstrates the confusion of these years by illustrating it. I find it hard to empathise with the work as this unravels.
2018: From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
The second half of this book seemed to lack relevance after reading the first part. The book promised histories of three men, each broken by circumstances, being brought together. In essence this was 3 short stories, with a rather light connection of happenstance at the very end. I am always dubious when a series of short stories claims to be a novel. What is so wrong with a series of short stories?
The first of these stories is hard, challenging, a real tear-jerker. It tells of a doctor driven to escape Syria, or some other god-forsaken land, with his family, but then having his beloved family killed on the journey. The story is not original, but it is quietly told in a devastating manner and it tightens your heart just as much as reading all the newspaper reports do.
This then shows up the second and third stories which tell of young men in rural Ireland having their heart broken by some girl. The author is aware of the difference in depth of course, and that the juxtaposition of different circumstances is intentional. But, still, I struggled to engage with the latter stories. Girls (and boys) are like buses, there is always another one along soon.
There is space in this world for stories about a teenager losing his girl, and also for a father having his daughter killed. Literature needs both. But if you set both stories beside each other then only one matters.
I thought that this was a curious mix of tales, and I am not convinced that the juxtposition and the order works.
2015: Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
Excellent story of a group of illegal immigrants from India living and trying to find work in the UK, mostly with strong requirements to get money to send back to family in India. The story focuses on 4 of these, but then in a series of substories goes back in time and gives us the background stories which are varied, some are heartbreaking, which has the effect of humanising these people and having the reader sympathise with them. Our preconceptions on illegal immigration, perhaps very strong as it is such a big issue across Europe at the moment, are challenged. In the second half of the book the story develops as the season changes, and the ongoing challenges of living in difficult and challenging conditions intensify, the interrelationships between our 4 heroes intensify, and the risk of not having money to send back, and the subsequent consequences, all intensify.
Unfortunately, having brought all of these issues to the boil, Sahota then sugarcoats the ending and has all of our heroes winning through. Its not often I criticise a Booker shortlist book for being too nice - its not often I get the opportunity - but this book suffers at the end for this. It is reminiscent of a plot device used by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit when he bring a family to the edge of starvation and disaster and leaves them there in the middle of the novel, only to produce them in the final chapter and say everything worked out fine in the end. I'm pleased for the fictional characters, but the moral of this strand of the plot falls a wee bit flat. Sahota brings us up to terrifying climaxes, as Randeev nearly kills his housemate in desperate self defence, and Tochi has all of his money - everything that he has produced for the whole of the book - stolen from him. Both of these events should be huge life changing and plot changing crashes, but in fact both turn out just fine and it is OK.
A good book, strong book, well told and gripping. But an opportunity missed to draw out the misery and horror of the situation by seeing the tragedy through to the bitter end. In Morpurgo's Private Peaceful we know at the beginning that one brother makes it and one doesn't, but don't know until the very end which is which. Now that is a plot device that would have worked a treat here.
2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This book is well written by a good writer, which is by no means true of all on the 2017 Booker short list.
A strange book in many ways, this tells the story of a group of people stuck in purgatory, hanging around the cemetery where they have been buried. They cannot move on because they still obsess over some earthly thing, a lost love or some property they owned. A child dies and the father returns to the mausoleum to grieve over the child's body and this device creates a crisis point for the various inmates, many of whom take this as a cue to stop obsessing and move onto the proper afterlife. In one strand of the story we see a vision of the entrance to the afterlife, a real Dante vision of a great judgement with a blissful heaven and a vile hell awaiting.
The author decides to make the child and father the figures of Abraham Lincoln and his son. Does he mean by this that royalty are more finely sensed and feel grief and the finer feelings more than ordinary people do? I guess he would baulk at this rhetorical question, but if he does not think this then....what are the reasons for making these characters American royalty?
The book is told in a series of statements by the main characters, with no external narration of scene. This makes it unusual for a novel, although of course this is less unusual for a play.
The earthly obsessions are disappointingly mundane. One lady is there because she is loth to leave her daughters whom she feels still need her care, which is a positive reason. But the other characters hang around for trivial stuff, some with cartoonish physical characteristics to indicate their obsession.
It is beautifully written, well paced, consistent. I felt some of the devices were a bit inconsistent, and consequently found it hard to identify a single theme that the author wanted to put across. Disappointed at the use of royalty to put across a point. I found the Dante stuff a bit strange in the context of a modern novel. I guess this was used to make the literal story more cartoonish and so increase focus on the metaphorical story.
I found the overall narrative good, but a bit lacking in engaging a single direction or a single point of empathy for me. Pace and characterisation and flow were all very good. A good and rather strange book.
2019: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in the Strange World by Elif Shafak
Bit of a catch up - I am late doing this one.
A fantastic premise, to focus on the race of thoughts passing through the head of a lady in the last seconds of her life. In fact the book does more than that, as the last third is given over to her friends burying the body after death, with a normal flow of time. The lady in question is a decent person ostracised from family and society after social transgressions when young, the book takes a stern look at how hard life gets for people in this position.
Given the fantastic premise, most of the narrative is standard. If the story had just run through her life not many words would be different. I can't help but feel that the author didn't exploit this unusual setting enough, she should have used it more.
The life story was fantastic, tragic, a terrible indictment on society that feels it can reject whole human lives for reasons of such trivia. It is beautifully told, the hero is brought to life very well.
The final third of the novel has a very different style, there are elements of farce as a wagon bumps along a rutted path with the corpse bouncing about. Perhaps it served to focus the first part of the story and, like a good variety show, enhance through contrast. It only partly did this for me. I wondered where it was going, and missed the possibilities opened up by an examination of the dying moments of the brain which had not been exploited.
A good book, well told, the final third got a litte sloppy, but perhaps an opportunity missed to do something really original.
Just my humble opinion again
William Shakespeare was a playwright roughly contemporaneous with Elizabeth I in England. He wrote a couple of dozen plays, including tragedies and comedies. He also wrote historical fiction with many historical inaccuracies, many of which are now widely accepted as urban truths. Most of his work was written in iambic pentameter. His work is ludicrously overrated.
His work is extremely good, and he has always been rightly regarded as a classic writer, arguably one of the greatest in English literature. For years, indeed centuries, he had a very high reputation.
But then at some point in the 1800s something very strange happened to this reputation. He ceased to be regarded as an ordinary writer and his works became instead regarded as some kind of embodiment of an ideal. His writing moved beyond ordinary criticism. In addition the Shakespeare canon joined that rather odd set of knowledge, alongside a knowledge of latin and greek and the greek myths, which is used by the aristocracy in the UK to pointlessly flaunt what they call a classical education, as opposed to an academic or useful one.
As years go by, Shakespeare's body of work seems only to grow in reputation from its already peculiar position in the canon of English literature. Many sources seem to regard it as having fully half the value of the complete set, and in some cases perhaps the greater half. One cannot get a school qualification or a university qualification or any other kind of recognition of English literature in the UK without studing a huge volume of Shakespeare's work, and this is certainly true of no other writer.
Around half the questions on English literature in University Challenge seem to be based on Shakespeare's work.
It is quite acceptable in UK society to dismiss any personal knowledge of the Noble Prize for literature, or the Booker Prize, or the Pulitzer, or Costa, or of Tolstoy and the Russian masters, or of French literature, or of any pretence at writing oneself. But it is not acceptable in society to admit to an ignorance of Shakespeare.
His work is regarded as being beyond criticism. For example it is not the done thing to state an opinion that his work is not good, or not favourable to the speaker. One cannot state that the body of work of a Nobel laureate, say, is equal to or greater than the body of work of Shakespeare. To do so in normal English society would be widely regarded only as a sign of a misunderstanding of correct logic or correct grammatical syntax.
It is all a very odd thing to do to the reputation of someone who was an extremely good writer, and who produced many good plays and poems.
There are many people who regard themselves as being well read because they know Shakespeare, but who have not read a single book published in the last 10 years. It is a bit like meeting a sports fan who can ramble on for hours about the old greats, about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and all of their achievements, but then when you ask them if they saw the game at the weekend their mouth drops open and they gape at you in open astonishment.
"Game at the weekend? What on Earth would I be doing watching a game this weekend? Why would I want to do that? I was busy in the library researching the archives from the 1930s."
There are people like that of course, we are all geeks about something and good fun it is too. But in sport that is a niche thing, almost everyone is most interested in the games played today.
But not in English literature. Not in England. Not today. Mostly, it is Shakespeare.
I don't get it.
2017: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A disturbing story which travels to the centre of the IS dictatorship with a recruit, and then gets into the mind of him and his twin sister and other family members to try and recover the situation. The story really revolves more around the desperation of the twin at home and the unlikely coupling of her with the son of the Home Secretary in a strange plot as she tries to get hold of strings to pull.
The narrative is gripping, and the characterisation is good, but the plot is all far fetched and having put characters in certain situations, the author is then really hard pressed to elicit softer feelings for some of them. It is a pity in a way, because I think the story telling would be really good around a better story. Something less earth shattering, which creates more mixed emotions to twist characters around. And don't make senior executives central characters, they are too hard to get right.
I'm happy to give the author another go, but perhaps a more local plot will show it all off to better effect.
2017: Autumn by Ali Smith
Well, a great and exciting ride through the vagaries of life, as I come to expect of Ali Smith. I am a veteran now, having read two of her novels! This is a book so lacking in the terrible atrocities of the worst of human existence, that seems to draw other booker authors like honey draws bears. In this book an older narrator looks back at her coming of age years and her close relationship with a much older man. This man shared a philosophy of life with her that was optimistic, quirky, challenging and symathetic to the young girl's own feelings.
Characters in the novel are all grounded and real and normal and open to others and all try to seek out the best in life. The book takes a few shots at aspects of modern life, such as post office queues. Although generally first person narrated, in addition we gain some insight into the older man's final dreams and meandering conciousness as he nears death.
While it is an enjoyable and positive read amongst the debris of other booker novels, we are left questioning what we get from it all. Is this quirky philosophy really much more than just parlour games of an elderly neighbour to amuse the child next door? Is the post office queue bit not just a cliched bit of stand up comedy? Surely it is only in bad film scores that characters play this verbal oneupmanship, each trying to produce a witty closing line to the conversation thus far, not in real life. Where exactly is the narrative, the beginning, middle and end that I was told about in English at school.
And also, where does autumn come in? This must be important because this book is apparently the first in a quartet named after the four seasons. Perhaps this tells the story of the autumn of this man's life. If not, then I'm not sure why it is named this.
So an enjoyable and light read, but didn't really strike much deeper with me.
2014: How to be Both by Ali Smith
At last!, a 2014 Booker book which is joyful and happy and a pleasure to read. A single novel split in two at the very middle: the first part is a part life story of a teenage girl coping with Mother's death, the second part that of a Middle Ages painter dragged back from mouldering in the Earth to view and commentate on this same teenage girl.
The change of direction caught me completely by surprise, and suddenly interrupts the prose text with two pages of poetry: full of life and movement as the painter experiences the rushing sensation of, literally, being dragged back through the Earth and out into the World. A fantastic rush of adrenaline into the novel which captures and enwraps the reader.
For me, only with this second half were the full themes of the novel brought out, as it turns out the painter is female, dressing, acting and living as a man in order to train and work in their career in their time and world. This brought out the full theme and message of understanding the respect places of men and women in this age, as transposed alongside the same theme so obviously present in a different age.
An optimistic and happy book, the reader experiences some sad moments in this girl's life, but travels through into better places. The rush in the middle is wonderful writing, which captures and expresses a zest for life so wonderfully.
Stop Press: and so the plot thickens. Now I read in a newspaper review that this book has been given separate print runs, each with the two halves of this tale in a different order, the book I bought presented these two halves in essentially a random order. So I read the second part as bringing out fully the theme of the story as a whole, but then perhaps I might have said the same thing if I had bought the other version of the book. Perhaps the other way round the second half would have explained and given life to themes from the first. Certainly I viewed the striking 2 page poetic description of the painter rushing out from the mouldering Earth into life as being an injection of adrenaline which brought increased vitality into the book, and of course that would not have happened the other way round. Perhaps it would have been an explosive start instead. Who knows? Well, come to think of it, half the readers of this book do.
2018: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
I think I ended up being a wee bit disappointed in this. It was my first Zadie Smith book and the reviews of her and of this book are so great that I expected something wonderful, but I feel that it was only very good. This makes it disappointing in a very unfair way, of course.
The book claims to pursue a special childhood friendship through the different paths in life taken by the two girls involved. I found that this was only partly true. The friendship did not seem particularly special to me. Narrative was in the first person of one of the girls. The other girl danced for a bit, but then dropped out and had children and became trapped in the same poverty cycle in which she had been brought up. The hero of the book lived an unusual life and it is really this which, for me, made the story less emotive. Its lessons and the emotional journey became one of celebrity watching and not real life, and this distanced me from the actions in the narrative.
In the end, the tale became one of the daughter of a celebrity working as the assistant to a celebrity, with a childhood friend now stuck in a poor estate sending them abusive emails. The story heads off to a village somewhere in Western Africa for chunks also. But here there are comments to be made around hackneyed and prejudged assumptions about villages in Western Africa, and it all gets a bit confusing to tell what is hackneyed and what is satire on being hackneyed. Does this confusion mean that it has hit the mark exactly right? I am not sure.
There is a skin colour theme throughout also, but this all depends on the assumption that dark skinned people brought up in London share in a special way a cultural heritage with American slaves and African villagers because their skin colour is also not white, and this is controversial. I do not agree with it, and found little in this story to convince me otherwise, other than the oft repeated assumption that it must be so.
The storyline was a little jumbled and haphazard, but I guess that followed the life of the narrator. I struggled to find much empathy with any of the main characters.
I'm not sure that this story has much in it to relate to me, or other readers. I felt distanced from the themes and lessons in the narrative. Or perhaps the whole point was to throw up controversy and cliche and struggle and I have just failed to grasp the level at which the satire comes in and have missed it all. This is very possible as well of course.
Clearly from rereading the above I struggle also to find much to say that is really positive here. I want to, because I want to like this author and all the positive reviews that there are of her. Perhaps this is just the wrong book for me, so lets suspend judgement and try again.
2021: Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford
Booker Long List
A fascinating tale that takes the sad story of a bomb going off in London during the Blitz which killed a number of people, then creates an alternative future for a fictional five of them, children at the time, who go on to experience highs and lows of life through the following half century. The opening chapter is a masterpiece, describing the technical events through microseconds of the bomb's detonation. Beautifully crafted, its offsets the human shock and tragedy with layers of scientific detail.
The rest of the work presents five lives in a series of chapters, calling in to each every fifteen years. It is reminiscent of Auster's 4321, and like reading that book I ended up keeping brief notes so that I could jump back into each story as it came up. Again, like that book the sentences and paragraphs were beautifully worked, well written and absorbing, but it was harder to pull together the greater work. Is this just five short story biographies interlaced, or a novel? And if it is the latter, then what makes it so? Neither answer is clear to me.
Certainly it was thrilling and gripping, each character skillfully formed and the reader becomes desperate to find out what happens with each life. It also becomes a social history of the times, as different characters view events of the age, or at least the financial crash, through different windows.
Unfortunately, I felt an unravelling of the threads a little in the final chapters, as if the author was trying to force lives into a particular direction in order to complete some wheel or something, and the style suffered. A couple of scenes, including the grandchild's eating disorder and the upmarket box at the football match, didn't work for me, felt a little forced.
An excellent read, great idea, wonderful opening, perhaps just lacking a really strong unification, but then who is to say that is not just life? Its what we all get, enjoy it while you can.
2018: Dracula av Bram Stoker
En oversättning av en berömd bok. Det är enkelt att glömma bara hur hemsk och skrämmande det här boken är. Den två personer i mitten av saga överlevde, men andra dog. Vampyrnar ta och dödar en barn i slotten i Transylvanien. Det är helt mycket gotiskt, med vampyrar, vargar, fladdermöss och mer. Stackars Jonaton tittar på mycket hemsk saker, och stackars läsare tittar på alt också, utan snyggare regler av 1900 talet för att räddar honom.
Det här bok är hemsk och skrämmande även i lättläst. En seger för mig, den första boken som läst jag utan ett lexicon.
2020: Mitt Namn är Lucy Barton av Elizabeth Strout
Mitt Namn är Lucy Barton kan sitter nu brevid My Name is Lucy Barton i min bokhylla. En fantastisk bok på båda språken, Lucy Barton är väldigt enkel och mycket djup.
Historien handlar om en vanlig kvinna, make och två barn, som ligger på sjukhuset i flera veckor. Hons Mamma kommer och sitter med henne, men förhållandet mellan två är komplicerat, djup och trasigt. De pratar av vanliga saker och berättar om deras känslor. Lucy berättar läsarna historier från sin barndom, men hur mycket kan läserna tro är sant?
Strouts karaktärer är fantantiska, de kommer att vara din vänner, men man kan inte alltid tro vad de sägar. Samma som dins faktiska vänner, verkligen.
I slutet av boken har man inte hela svaret, men man kanske förstår mer om karaktärerna, dina vänner. En jättefint bok.
2018: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
This is a rather beautiful book, slow and insightful, about a relationship between mother and daughter. There is lots of resentment there, lots of feelings of a job badly done, neglect, an unloving upbringing. But at the same time the author implies lots of subjectivity, lots of one sided memories with hints that there are other sides of stories to be told. One gets little sympathy for the mother from what the daughter says, but there is some more to be had from how she actually acts.
Excellent writing to carry through a narrative that is so internal, with so little external action. Elizabeth Strout does people really well, and is masterful at allowing parts of the narrative to be only hinted at through the subjective voices of her characters. One does not get the full story, but the reader can form their own opinions based on what they can see and what they guess lies behind. A bit like real life, in fact.
2017: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
I'm writing this 2 years after reading the book because I feel I cannot review the sequel with doing this first. It was such a wonderful book, though, that it has stayed with me and I feel I can do it justice.
Elizabeth Strout is becoming one of my favourite authors. She writes about people. Her stories are thrilling not because the events are thrilling in themselves, but because her characters have become part of you, watching them progress and evolve through life's ordinary challenges has become thrilling. Her characterisation is wonderful. Stumping along through breakfast, trips to the supermarket and fast food lunches they mutter and grumble ordinary dialogue and break into your heart. Each character is a masterpiece and Strout's writing stands amongst the very best.
Olive is a wonderfully contrasting character. She is grumpy, ungrateful to her husband and unloving to her son. You despair of her and determine that she is an antihero. Then she shows absolutely fearless community spirit and saves a soul because she is willing to intervene when others pass by, and you think she is a saint. You can never make up your mind, and neither the incidents which pass you by one by one in the book, nor the ending will make it up for you.
She is offset by her husband who is a faultless pillar of Last Century Small Town America and is loved by everyone. Her son might have an axe to grind, but his grinding is so relentless that it wears on you and you cannot decide on his culpability either.
What matters is that you care, that you have opinions, you have taken these people into your life. They have become real.
The book is a masterpiece. The characterisation is wonderful. It won the pulitzer and yet comes up to expectations in every way.
2019: Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout
You might have thought that Olive was about done at the end of her first book. She was very elderly, and seemed to have closed chapters for the most important parts of her life. But you would be wrong. Here she returns to continue living, to marry again, to involve herself in the lives of many other people. She continues to be utterly wonderful.
Elizabeth Strout achieves the near impossible by producing a second book that maintains the standards of the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. Second time around the reader gets no closer to deciding whether they can ever like the cantankerous grouch, or dislike the heartfelt samaritan who helps others because it is what you do.
As she gets older the living hell of a retirement home gets ever closer, increasingly she is seen only as a fringe member of society by others. The young upstarts seem to hold all of life's cards. Olive sees only that part of the world in which she lives, which gets smaller with each passing year. With each passing year, though, she clings more tightly to the eternal mystery of life.
Once again Strout opens out her main character; shows us her mysteries without ever trying to solve them; explores the world through individual chapters in the lives of people who come to Maine for a short time. It is wonderfully done. A masterclass in how to reveal the world through the actions of a village. A masterclass in how to write.
2016: All That Man Is by David Szalay
Disappointed, I thought that this was a rather depressing read. It is not a novel but a serious of short stories. The stories had a common theme and a chronological order, but I was still surprised that this set was considered for a book award for novels.
These nine short stories depict the nine ages of man, from late teenager to a immaturely aged 70yo. A pretty miserable depication it is too, wrapped up in sexual conquest (invariably inadequate), pursuit of wealth (invariably inadequate) pursuit of power (inadequate and fleeting) and ultimately pursuit of life (fleeting and temporary). There is no space in these stories for love, children, artistic achievement or anything nice or positive.
A hard-hitting series of tales, with nothing to contrast the bleak and unhappy pursuit of inadequate, fleeting and temporary goals. An unhappy depiction of manhood, I do hope that this is not chosen to be the literary message of the year.
2020: Tuschritningen och Tre Andra Hisotrietter av Hjalmar Söderberg
Hjalmar Söderberg kommer att bli en ny favorit för mig. Hans historier är korta, mörka, svarta, roliga och djupa. Man tänker genast på Saki, naturligtvis. "Jag kommer ihag ditt skratt från min mosters begravning, sju år sedan," fick mig att skratta högt.
Denna bok har bara tre noveller. Jag ska läser många fler i framtiden.
2018: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
This is a novel by Colm Toibin. It is a masterpiece, a study of people and human emotion in intimate detail, the focus never wandering from the close setting of the family and yet giving a ride for the reader as rich and as full of life as the widest historical saga. Those two sentences are synonomous, of course.
Another beautiful experience given by the master storyteller. This story tells of the final weeks, but not the final days, of a man dying of AIDS, and how his family return around him. As one life flickers to its end so the setting in turn provides the impetus for the family members to relive what has happened in the past and rebuild their own lives with each other.
The opening chapter features a typical family scene with young boys running around an adult party, and there are just one or two sentences here which seem a little out of place, as if Toibin is not quite comfortable with this setting. This is really just humorous, to see even a line that is not perfect amidst such prose.
The main setting of the story then settles to a house on the Western cliffs of Ireland, crumbling into the sea, both metaphorically and literally. The past crumbles away but there is new life and redemption available for all of us, even those of us approaching deaths door, as we break open family barriers and talk with those we love.
It is a wonderful book, a superb story, a masterpiece. What else would you expect?
2013: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
Remarkably, for such a short book, the real value of this work is in the opening 10 pages and closing 10 pages. The 80 pages in the middle is more a retelling of a well known story. This is done vividly, and the point of view is very off-centre and the miracles are presented as second hand tales, talked up, which allows both for a practical recounting of the tale while simultaneously shrouding in mystery, but none of this is original of course. It is the opening and closing lines which pull in the reader. These present the mother in shocked perpetual mourning for the son. Paraphrase - my body is full of memories as well as blood and bones. At the end she wishes in her decreptitude that she could return to before: to before the events of his life, to before his danger, even to before his adulthood, and cradle once more her child. This is powerful and emotive writing, which presents age and motherhood and mourning in a vivid and gripping light. These best parts are very good, but that they are so short highlight even more strongly the length of this book. Can one present a Booker Prize for 20 pages of superb writing?
2019: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
This original and superb book won the Costa Book of the Year 2018 for a first novel. The biggest problem the author has now is how on Earth to follow it up!
The story is a classic whodunnit. Someone is murdered in a country house by one of the party of guests. However, the story is constructed more like a computer mystery game than along classical lines. The reader and the first hero start off in a forest together, knowing nothing and with no clues. Neither know who this hero is. Knowledge is discovered piece by piece. The physical setting, the cast of characters, the story's framework is revealed only slowly. Ultimately the reader is taken through the day seven times, from the eyes of seven different characters.
It is all an audacious idea: Agatha Christie for the Tomb Raider generation. Turton brings it off superbly. The plot is fantastically complicated, and loops around itself many times. The pace is consistently frantic. Knowledge is kept back and revealed with perfect timing. In particular each of the seven different characters is inhabited with great characterisation; not just physical attributes but also individual mental processes are modelled in great detail for each personification. Heaven only knows how many post-it notes were used in the production of this masterpiece!
This book is the result of a massive amount of preparation, and it shows. Most impressively, not only the complexity of the plot but also the quality of the writing is magnificent. Not a bad word to be said, it is just wonderful.
I need to stop now, my thesaurus has run out of superlatives.
2020: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Long list Booker.
A fantastic novel of Anne Tyler, who manages to tell a tale of the world just through following a single person through a few ordinary days. The most simple of stories follows an idiosyncratic man, a mild misfit, through a week or two as he messes things up with his girlfriend and helps out a troubled teenager. Somehow Tyler manages to speak directly to the reader, addressing the most fundamental issues of their life through the telling of this simple tale. It is masterfully done, a wonderful work to say so much without ever leaving hometown.
The hero is a single man slowly becoming middle aged. He works freelance, has convenient, no strings relationships, takes meticulous care of his house, lives to a schedule and generally is organised enough in himself for society to consider him a misfit, without him really doing anything unsocial or unusual enough to justify this. He is beautifully drawn, on the fringes of accepted norms, neither normal nor abnormal, neither social nor unsocial.
His girlfriend is mildly threatened with having no apartment and he offers help, without directly offering a place in his apartment. The reader would have offered her their bed. A troubled teenager arrives on his doorstep and our hero offers help in an offhand way which seems very relaxed, but is probably more direct than you or I would do. The reader secretly, perhaps begrudgingly, admires what he does. How can a character whom we have decided is marginally unsocial behave in a way which is more social than we would do? We are pulled in different directions by his actions.
No matter how laid back these actions are, they have strong influences on others: the boy reunites with his parents, his girlfriend leaves him. We are mildly surprised at such strong reactions. Finally our hero is affected enough to reassess his life and he decides to jump into a long term relationship with both feet, no matter how disruptive this will be to the structured routine of his life thus far. The reader naturally applauds his impulse and considers that he has won through, err, something.
Tyler paints this complex picture in just the primary colours. It is all just hometown life, breakfast and commutes and chores and chats over coffee. A wonderful achievement to say so much with so little words and action. A wonderful book.
2015: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
OK, OK, I concede, I do think this is a really good book. It took a while to sink in for me. The opening 2/3 is well-written, but quiet and homely; internal looking; focusing on fairly ordinary family relationships. It is good enough, but not really something to challenge your perceptions or tug at your heartstrings. The storyline sets up a family, sets up the family history, and the relationships between the older and younger generations. The family member most closely described is the most itinerant, most absent, least reliable, with seemingly most fragile family ties. Central to all of the action is the family home. This part ends in tragedy, as the Matriach is killed in a car crash and all need to reassess where they sit in the new family structure.
With the final 1/3 however, the author has a neat trick of revisiting ancient tales of family history through the eyes of those taking part, and we gain a new perspective. Both couplings of parents and grandparents are revisited, and while family legend has these great events as predestined and firmly set, we see that at the time they were just arbitrary events, blown by the winds of chance. Both couplings were set up by the women, with one willing and one unwilling partner, and both only took place because random acts and decisions fell into place.
As the scene with the varnished or blue porch swing comes to its climax we are on tenderhooks. What will it be? Varnished or blue? Is this comedy or tragedy that we are reading? Even with all of the tension leading up to the final scene, Tyler still manages to surprise us with where it goes.
As the present family members reaffirm relationships and separate out once more, upon the sale of the family home, the story ends with a surprising final couple of paragraphs. Burns or Keats-like suddenly we are given a view of misery and desperation, as if it is all pointless and all life is dust anyway. This threw me for a bit, but I think the author is giving us insight that separation from family always gives us misery and despair, regardless of whether this separation is tragic or self-induced.
The story focuses on family ties, superficially to a building, but more strongly to each other, across different people and different bonds; across events of random chance and events long planned; across those that love each other and those that fight. In the end it is always family, family, which gives us purpose when we are togther and plunges us into despair when we are apart.
Beautifully told, very readable and attention grabbing.
2018: Bengtssons hemlighet av Camilla Wallqvister
Det här är en bra bok från Camilla Wallqvister. Det är inte en klassik, eller en stor berättelse, men man läser om några svårta problemar och det åker till svårta platser.
Hjälten tappa bort några får som släppa ut av en fält, och det här konsekvensen börjar en gräl med hennes granne. Det här granne agera i en hemsk väg. Men, på samma gång läserna kan se att mannen är i djup sorg eftersom hans fru och dotter var dödade i en bilolycka många år senare. Har vi sympati med honom eftersom han är i sorgen, eller ingen sympati eftersom han agera så hemsk. Det finns ingen rätt svar.
Till slut den två karakterer kommer tilsammans och vi har en små seger, men utan den mjuka anledning av grannes historia kommer ut.
Det här är en utmanande bok, även i lättsvenska, och en bra läsa.
2021: When Chicago Ruled Baseball, by Bernard A. Weisberger
OK, OK, so I suppose this isn't really literature.
These books are often, as in this case, surprisingly educational. Ballclubs are often run by weighty industrialists, having some weekend fun; the players' contracts and gate attendance are heavily influenced by social standards; the author can be an actual history professor taking six months off their regular job. So you get lots of baseball, but with no small amount of social and industrial history scribed by an academic. Not to be sneezed at.
Anyway, sneeze away, what do I care? The White Sox win the World Series. Hurrah!
2017: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Oh, what a fantastic, fantastic book. This year's Pulitzer Prize winner still manages to exceed expectations. Beyond all its moral outrage and history and fantastic realisation of the railroad, and the thrill of the ride, it is in addition beautifully written. I might plough miserably through a few bad books and stream of conciousness stuff in chasing through competition shortlists, but they are all worth it for the life changing experience of reading a book as fantastic as this.
A story told in a series of 6 acts, each set in a different southern state, tracing the escape route of an escaped slave, each giving a background of a distinctly different attititude and social structure to how slavery is managed. All actions of both the lead character and those that try to capture her have been indelibly influenced by the actions of her mother, who abandoned her and escaped never to be caught or seen again, back in the scene setting beginning.
The sheer cruelty of chapter one is not repeated, but nevertheless ties the reader to a never fading fear that the lead character might be returned to such atrocities.
The escape route of the Underground Railroad is given a mythical and literal portrayal as an actual railroad, with steam trains and lines and stations and drivers and guards. This is well presented and the author manages to capture the grand scale of such a mythology without losing the terrible grounding in the awful realism of the novel's setting.
At one point the hero discovers the word, "optimistic," but is confused because neither she nor any other ex-slaves know what the word means.
As the tale continues the battle between the escaped slave and slave-capturer becomes personal and perhaps goes one leg beyond the realistic, moving from literature to thriller. But equally this final leg becomes almost fantastical anyway, as the final clinch between the two becomes symbolic of everything, and the final appearance of the actual railroad becomes more fantastical and more like an ethereal road to heaven at the same time.
In a devastating final very short chapter the author revisits the original escape of the hero's mother. This character travels for only an hour, lies in open ground and savours freedom, then starts to return to her daughter, whom she never could abandon. On the return she is bitten by a snake and dies, body becoming lost in the swamp. The author takes a liberty in presenting her internal thoughts so late in the story, but the effect is stunning. Throughout the book all these lives have taken their course, influenced by a parent's desertion of child, by the child fighting to survive with no mentor, by the slave owner's rage against a successful escape, by the child following what might have been the same railroad escape route, and yet all this influence was misplaced.
Throughout it all there is not a line out of place, not a single badly described scene or thought. Writing is magnificent, the reader is absorbed throughout. The balance of realism and myth works wonders. The early extreme violence serves to set the reader's nerves just where the author wants them. It is not repeated, although the terrible cheapness of life in this setting is demonstrated repeatedly. It is all just so well done. A fantastic book.
I wrote separately about my disgust in this book not being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Ridiculous decision which cheapened the Booker Prize to some ridiculous Turner Prize event.
2019: The Fall of Light by Niall Williams
A wonderful book which clings tightly to the family table. This novel presents the hopes and dreams of a crazy Irish family, races with them through escapades across the island and has no qualms with dipping into myth and magic as and when to keep the story ticking along. It grabs your heart and pulls you into the journey. Another way of saying all this is that it is a novel of Niall Williams.
This story gives you a bystander's view of the potato famine of mid 1800s. A crazy family, driven by a father who has too much ambition and imagination for his lowly status in life, takes flight and flies across the island. Driven by their plight, and helped along by myth and magic along the way, they end up self sufficient on a tiny island isolated from the mainland.
From here they touch mainland civilisation only slightly as years go by. This is lucky for them as the famine strikes the mainland and wrecks its havoc, viewed only through a distant lens. Other family members are flung across the globe to remote parts and live and die in distant lands, without ever losing their place at the family dining table in Ireland.
Williams can present a story of crazy people dipping into magic and yet still bring it home to you because the fundamental driving forces are those you have complete empathy with. It is these which remain as the details of mere names and events and mythology fall away. Wonderfully done by a master.
2014: History of the Rain by Niall Williams
An Irish girl, bed ridden, tells the story of her father, through his father, and through the huge and miscellaneous collection of books that he bequeathed her. These relatives lived unusual and chaotic lives in unusual and chaotic houses in Ireland. Family history full of characters. There is even the obligatory chapter of Irish history right back to the primaeval, part based on evolutionary science and part on Irish folklore.
It is a good and well told history, but I couldn't really love the story. Perhaps because I had just read something very similar from Jane Urquart a week or two previously. Well told though, with a well produced ending. But, but, but.....
Och the language. The phraseology. This was such a highlight. Beautifully told, with an exquisite touch, rising to the sublime. Williams does what Wodehouse can do: totally disrupt the flow of the reader with a single phrase so beautifully crafted that one has to stay and savour, and cannot let pass.
This adds such a personal touch and tragedy to the key points of the story, and raises a good tale into a great novel. This one didn't make it to the shortlist. Pity, because I would have chosen it in front of at least 3 shortlisted books, probably more.
2017: Tin Man by Sarah Winman
This is quite a good book, but I cannot say that it really grabbed me, and indeed writing this 2-3 weeks after reading it I am struggling to remember the main themes. The story is that of a man desolate in lonliness as he tries to work and eat and function in the years after the death of his wife. As the story expands it drifts more and more into flashback, and one discovers that in his early life he had one very close male friend, and he dallied with a love affair here before meeting his wife. In fact his mariage became a bit of a threesome with hero, wife and friend forming a close alliance. And the death when it happened was of both wife and friend in the same car crash.
The study of grief and lonliness is acute, and the setting of this life in a working mans environment works also. I found the special relationship had little empathy for me, and I found that it all got in the way of the close story, but perhaps that is just a personal thing.
I found it all quite good, quite emotive, quite readable.
2020: The Clicking of Cuthbert by P G Wodehouse
Short stories from the master, mostly romances played out on the links and one peculiar thing mixing Auchtermuchty humour with the land of Nebukadnessar which is, well, peculiar. They do not push the bounds of dramatic literature, they do not address avantgarde academic form, they will not challenge your philosophies, they will not win awards. They will simply delight you, charm you, entertain you, amuse you, live long in the memory as the most pleasant of reads. Not a word out of place, not a feather ruffled, simply wonderful without caveat.
2020: Plum Pie by P G Wodehouse
Short stories from the master. We are gifted one each of Jeeves and the Earl of Blandings before falling into a steady stream of gay bachelors and dashing spinsters all spinning their romantic webs. Each plot an intricate wonder; each sentence a shimmering diamond; each character a butterfly of trivial beauty. A perfect delight, no need to analyse further, just immerse yourself with joy.
2021: Spring Fever, by PG Wodehouse
Delightful nonsense, set in a stately home that is crumbling to bits. The British upper crust have titles, rolling lawns, fair damsels while the Americans have all the money. Dashing young men pretend to be other people and everyone is in on part of the secret except for the matriarch. Nothing new going on here, it's all familiar, gentle, comforting, convoluted, witty and utterly glorious. A world to lose yourself in. A form of heaven on earth.
2018: The Coming of Bill by PG Wodehouse
I belong firmly in that camp of people who regard PGW's prose as coming straight from the pens of the Gods, so don't expect this to be an objective review.
Notwithstanding the above, The Coming of Bill is a different offering from the Master. The blurb advertises it as being not a comedy. This is not quite true, some characters and some scenes are certainly comic, but it is true that it includes some darker scenes and some sadness, which is almost unprecedented in a Wodehouse work. The overall tone is light, but there is an absence of those exquisite lines which are so wonderful that they encapsulate the reader, simultaneously destroying their concentration. In addition my copy had a very strange typesetting and it felt more like reading a technical journal than a novel, which was unsettling.
So it was good, inventive, light with darker patches, and memorable characters. A good read, but still the only PGW review I have ever written not aimed somewhere over the stars.
2015: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The 2015 Booker hot favourite, weighing in at an impressive 725+ pages, this was a monster that had spent 3 weeks glowering at me from across the library. In the end I read about 1/3 of it, but did not finish, and I'm sure that I won't (maybe, if it wins, maybe....). Readable and well written, once I was into it I got through pages OK, but the story is pretty intense and unappealing. Starting off telling the tale of 4 young men trying to make it in different fields in New York, it quickly focuses in on one. This person had an abusive childhood, echoes of which (more than echoes really, including physical infirmaties) haunt his burgeoning adulthood. As his path and career develop he is surrounded by friends and surrogates who love him and care for him, but his past haunts every relationship. As the tale develops, his past is peeled back, piecemeal, and becomes ever more horrific, and his adult support group become ever more loving, to a point which passes realism. Tear jerking in parts, I kept waiting for the tale to expand and offer different perspectives, but instead it spiralled ever inward, and reviews I read independently assure that it does that for the full 725+. I never actually decided to stop reading, but as the countdown to the end of the 28 days came, and available hours to read disappeared, I just never picked it up again.
Well written, but a terribly inward looking tale which is tear jerking at times, but also unrealistic. Although this has the effect of highlighting the extreme differences between this poor person's childhood and adulthood, I expect more than this from a 700 page novel. Some reviews remarkably negative considering its continued favouritism. I guess I read so many reviews struggling to find a way into the rest of this book.
2019: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
Costa First Novel shortlisted book. This is a fantastic novel. This book is exactly why the Costa First Novel competition is so good. The author is older; the book is inventive and softly spoken; the structure is classic although every chapter is written as a letter; quality is extremely high and it was a delight to read. Without the competition to bring it to prominence I suspect that it would have struggled to get attention. A wonderful read and also, quite incidentally, a real inspiration to this particular, older aspiring author.
The story starts as an accidental letter exchange between two older people. The lonliness of each pushes them to successively reply, and so this becomes a correspondence and then a friendship. Through this ongoing exchange we hear more of the people and hear their stories. Both are or were trapped in marriages which were not unhappy, but neither did they go as planned.
The softly spoken museum curator lost his wife just before the book started. She was an independent spirit, and he felt that she required constant supervision, more even than his children when they were small. The more outspoken country farmers wife feels like no more than a functional cog in a busy, untidy, working farm. The letters talk over the crisis in one life when the wife died, and then goes through the crisis in the other when the husband is unfaithful.
Throughout it all the author brings these people to life, opens them up, gets into their heart. She does this softly and gently, never exposing them or driving them through passion, but just through the powerful force of conversing with a friend. It is slowly and beautifully done.
There is a clear change of pace, style, phraseology, personification between the letters written by the two people. This is achieved consistently and well, the two quite different personalities coming through the pace and phraseology with which they write. It is easy to forget that the actual author is one person, and not two.
The story does not actually stay with them until they come together although the ending, and the book's title, suggest that this is imminent. I am not at all sure that this pair would actually chime together as a couple. The very differences which cement and strengthen their friendship perhaps make that unlikely. So I have my own ideas about what happens next. But the point is that I think and care, and that is testiment to this wonderful and touching novel.
Seven hour lamb indeed.