Friday, 31 August 2012

Book #76 Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Alys, Always

Taking a break from this years Booker list which I've been rather disenchanted by, I turned to Harriet Lane's Alys Always which Amazon had been recommending to me for some time. I actually read this book really quickly, I had read over half of it before I realised it, so its a real page turner, not just an easy descriptor to use.

In this novel, protagonist Frances Thorpe appears to be a stereotypical loner, single, living alone, visiting her parents on weekends, and virtually invisible in her offices. Quiet, mousey, and uninteresting to those around her, Frances edits copy for the book component of a London newspaper.

One night driving home, she is the first on the scene of an accident and last to speak to the victim, a woman, "Alice", who then dies. This is, at first, an unusual diversion in a mundane life for Frances; but then the realisation comes that the "Alice" in question is Alys Kyte wife of literary giant Laurence Kyte.

What then follows is Frances Thorpe giving those reading her story a total masterclass in opportunism and social climbing as she inveigles her way in to the lives of the Kytes, through deceit, manipulation and flattery.

Frances, seems as you first read her words to be perfectly normal and then you realise by the little things she lets slip and her skewed views on things, and particularly by the way in which she studies the behaviour of everyone around her, calculating how best to win them over, what a sociopath she is.  
I found it a bit tame that the one or two people who began to become suspicious of her were easily diverted or won over, I would have liked her to have had a bit more of a fight on her hands at least once.

It is odd, that though Frances is so devious, you find yourself rooting for her, I think this could be because nobody she's deceiving in her pursuit of better things is that likeable anyway. A modern day Becky Sharp, but without the same vivaciousness, Frances is a dark character  and her closing lines give you the creeps. I did wonder whether Harriet Lane had encountered a Frances type in her own life and whether Alys, Always was an expose or portrait of such manipulative, self interested Talented Mr Ripley type women. 8/10

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Book #75 Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil


Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, a Booker 2012 longlist nominee, is a portrait of drug addicts in Bombay. Omniscient narrator Dom describes a variety of characters encountered in Bombay's drug dens. Prostitute Dimple, Chinese refugee Mr Lee, drug dealer Rashid etc.

There are, without a doubt some absolute gems hidden within the prose of Narcopolis, a passage about the nature of doubt stood out for me, and the novel got off to a good start, but there is no plot as such; despite the quality of the prose I found myself disengaging from the novel and at a certain undefinable point it stopped being something I was reading, and became a chore I had to get through.

For readers unfamiliar with India, use of slang and cultural references, will sometimes create a barrier of understanding, or did for me at any rate. I suppose if I wanted to give it a catchy, easily understood summary I'd say "It's an Indian Trainspotting". Likewise did Trainspotting, with its use of local dialect create a comprehension barrier for the average reader.

Narcopolis is the 8th book on the longlist which I have now read, with the exception of Bring Up The Bodies which I read regardless of its presence on the list, at the time of publication, I have been pretty disappointed with this years list, plenty of "good" solid books like The Lighthouse say, but nothing which has transcended words on a page, and entered a part of my mind or heart.    

Book #74 Skios by Michael Frayn


Another Booker longlister this year is Skios by Michael Frayn. My only previous experience with Michael Frayn was Spies a few years ago, a book I found dull and did not have much time for.

In this story, Nicki who works for academic institution The Fred Toppler Foundation is charged as ever with organising this years lecture. The speaker for this year is to be Dr Norman Wilfred, and we meet him flying in on his plane, a man who does the circuit and is rather bored of it. As Nicki waits for him at the airport, a man named Oliver Fox, bored with his circumstances too, decides on a whim, liking the look of Nicki to claim he is the man she is waiting for, and thus a novel of mistaken identity ensues when Wilfred and Fox effectively switch lives.

On the plus side, Skios is often entertaining and I laughed once or twice, but on the whole it is ridiculously silly, to the point of irritation as the circumstances continue on for far too long than is either believable or necessary, compounded by a slew of other silly misunderstandings as it progresses.

As a reader it is imperative to suspend any issue of  believability in order to in any way enjoy the story, and for me, I felt it was very "lightweight" the kind of thing one might expect from Tony Parsons or John O'Farrell, that kind of comedic "bloke lit" that sprouted up around the time Nick Hornby came on the scene. Because I would describe it as "summer fluff" it surprises me that it landed on the Booker longlist, and this is probably somehow political a nod to the authors reputation rather than the work itself.

Unlike say, previous Booker winner The Finkler Question, it qualifies as a comic novel, because it is in part, actually funny, but the humour becomes samey and irritating.

The problem is it isn't really a great contribution to literature which society would be lost without, ultimately it's all a bit frivolous which makes its inclusion for a big literary prize all the more puzzling.     


Sunday, 19 August 2012

Book #73 Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home

In Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, another contender for this years Booker, popular poet Joe Jacobs is on holiday with his wife, daughter and a couple they are friends with in Nice, when their privacy is intruded upon by one Kitty Finch who they find floating naked in their pool.

At first it all seems like an honest mistake, Kitty regularly holidays here too and has just got her dates confused, that's all, she's happy to go to a hotel, Isabel Jacobs, Joe's wife offers to put her up when no hotel can be found. But it doesn't take long for either Joe or Isabel to discover she is just another fan looking for the poet's attention.

What would make the book lose its general credibility is the group tolerance of Kitty, a clearly unbalanced individual, but Levy sidesteps the issue of Kitty's continued presence by giving the lead characters of Isabel, Joe, and Nina reasons to want her to remain.

If mentally unbalanced Kitty has intruded upon their lives and is manipulating them as their neighbour, who has dealt with Kitty's psychological problems before suggests, so too are they using Kitty, manipulating her; Nina idolising her, hurting her mother by choosing this stranger over her at a pivotal moment in her life, Joe has no interest in helping her develop as a poet, he wants what he gets from all his groupies & rather than Isabel being Kitty's victim, Kitty is Isabel's, invited in and thereby exploited to do exactly what Isabel needs her to do.  

Swimming Home is really compulsive to read, an active page turner and its really accessible as a novel, there are great moments in the prose which I really, really liked such as this description of psychiatrists  :
A bad fairy made a deal with me, give me your history and I will give you something to take it away
Or this quote about knowledge :
knowledge would not necessarily serve them, nor would it make them happy. There was a chance it would instead throw light on visions they did not want to see

Swimming Home comes from a very, very small publishing house called And Other Stories, which relies on subscribers to exist, so it's a triumph, a really great thing to see one of its books up for the Booker. Like many however I could have done without the fawning Tom McCarthy introduction, I skipped it because it was fawning but I am told it gives away aspects of plot which is an unforgivable thing to do to a reader 8/10 


Book #72 The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is also on the longlist for the 2012 Booker. The main protagonist of The Lighthouse is Futh, a man who in the wake of his separation from his wife has gone on a walking holiday in Germany. Futh alternates chapters with Ester, one of the proprietors, alongside her husband, of a hotel Futh stays in during his journey.

In many ways the novel is an expose of the very great psychological damage parental abandonment can do an individual. During the narrative Futh revisits and revisits the moment his mother told his father he was boring her, vanishing from both their lives.

The disappearance of his mother has defined Futh, whose career centres around recapturing her scent, carrying her lighthouse shaped perfume bottle wherever he goes. His marriage has been damaged by his obsession with her, but too, I felt his wife lacked the decency of compassion to assist Futh in overcoming these issues.

As a portrait of a man, The Lighthouse is almost a hymn to loneliness. Futh is permanently ill-fated, and it shows well that loneliness was almost inescapable for him, the boy alone in the rain on his climbing frame, the boy in the dark in his neighbours kitchen as his father stole his only friend, how lonely boy grows into isolated man. The inevitability of it, it's very well done, if slightly depressing, his anonymity compounded by his lack of first name. Moreover, the knowledge that had he made a human connection with one of two other characters he needn't be alone anymore, compounds Futh as a tragic figure, destined to the kind of fate he meets.

Separately from the plot I loved the lighthouse motif that ran through the novel, from the flashing of torches, to the bottles, to the name of the hotel, very cleverly done and my favourite bit was the description of the storm, a dual description of two separate events.

Alison Moore's debut novel has all the assurance of a veteran, a strong contender for the prize, its sense of despair will either be its making or its undoing 9/10     

Book #71 The Garden Of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden Of Evening Mists

In May, I read The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng and I thought it was an extremely beautiful novel, and I looked forward to reading his new offering The Garden Of Evening Mists, like its predecessor, it has been nominated for the Booker Prize and alongside its predecessor it shares certain thematic approaches.

Yun Ling, a newly retired Judge returns to her country home Yugiri in the Malaysian hillside. Terrified by an illness, the symptoms of which have become to cause dementia, she begins to write down her recollections of when she first came to Yugiri in her twenties.

Yun Ling's story begins in Post war Malaysia which is recovering from Japanese occupation. Yun Ling herself was a prisoner of war. Determined to honour the memory of her sister who did not survive, Yun Ling came to Yugiri to persuade master gardener Aritomo to build her a garden in her sisters memory. Aritomo refuses, but offers her an apprenticeship. The two begin an uneasy relationship, for Aritomo is Japanese, and Yun Ling a victim of their wartime atrocities.

In many ways the construct and concept behind The Garden Of Evening Mists ape those of The Gift Of Rain, Philip that novels protagonist like Yun Ling is Chinese, and like Yun Ling is telling a story about his past. Again like Philip, Yun Ling has the dilemma of an intense friendship with a Japanese person at a time when Japanese people were extremely hated in Malaysia and Aritomo like Endo-san has hidden secrets. Both novels have a present day storyline, for Philip the visit of Michiko and for Yun Ling the visit of Tatsuji both of whom are come to make enquiries after each protagonists Japanese friend.

It frustrates me that the novels should have such overt similarities, because again like The Gift Of Rain, The Garden Of Evening Mists is beautifully crafted and stunningly written, there is no doubt in my mind that Tan Twan Eng is a wonderful writer. Yet, as a writer of his calibre, surely he should have been able to create more difference, more distance between the two, unless they are somehow intended as companions, which if they are I'm not aware of it. Clearly, Eng is fascinated by the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, but The Gift Of Rain was such a detailed well crafted look at the issue that another novel on the same kind of topic, albeit from a later angle, and so similar is somehow superfluous.

However, detach this novel entirely from its predecessor and take it of its own accord, and what you have in your hands is a great novel with everything a great novel ought to have. It is moving, absorbing, has great characterisation, and above all superb prose that you can almost forgive Eng the overdoing of thematic emblems, because there are many successful authors out there drowning in status, plaudits and awards who cannot write prose even half so well as him. 9/10              

Monday, 13 August 2012

Book #70 Philida by Andre Brink


Philida, by Andre Brink is another nominee on the longlist for this years Booker Prize. A tale of slavery in old South Africa the novel begins with the eponymous character, a slave on a farm, journeying by foot to complain at the governing body for slave masters that she has been mistreated by Frans Brink, a son of the family who owns her by whom she has borne four children.

What makes this novel all the more remarkable and special then is that it was written by Andre Brink, a descendant of said slave owners and that despite taking dramatic licence with the actual events that occur, many of the characters in the novel were in fact once real people, the authors own ancestors. Philida was a genuine slave owned by them who genuinely did go and complain about Frans Brink. A faction then, a blend of the events that Andre Brink was able to verify alongside his imagination and the knowledge of the history of the period.

The novel pitches a variety of narratives, occasionally told in the third person, the novel is also told in first person narratives from the viewpoints of Frans, Philida, Cornelius, and Petronella, a mash up which actually works and flows well.

As always I find it important that stories such as these are told so that people continue to acknowledge the indignities and abuses suffered and continue to learn from the warnings of history.

Whilst it is undeniable that this book is very accomplished and well written, for me the plot faltered slightly when Philida moves to Worcester and becomes friends with coffin making Muslim Labyn, one section of the novel feeling like an extended RE Lesson. The relationships between Frans and Philida and Cornelius and Petronella are striking enough in their own right to warrant being the sole focus of the narrative.  

As a reader, however I was left with certain ethical qualms about this novel. The Brink family once owned Philida as though she was cattle. Would Philida have enjoyed having this novel written about her? Would she have agreed with its contents and are they fair? Or has Andre Brink further exploited a women already once exploited by his family (albeit consigned to history) for creative and commercial gain?


Sunday, 12 August 2012

Book #69 The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was originally born out of a BBC Radio Play, and now finds itself on the Booker Prize longlist for 2012, something which created some media surprise when it was announced.

Harold Fry is a sweet portrait of a man who has lived by all appearances an ordinary and mundane existence, who receives a letter from a dying friend; setting out to post his response he finds he cannot stop walking and eventually resolves to walk all the way to visit his old colleague Queenie Hennessy. It is not however, a short journey for Harold lives in Dorset and Queenie in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Quite why Queenie is so important is revealed slowly over the course of the novel, which is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking. The style of prose has a fable like quality to it, and though the story packs a emotional punch with its terribly human psychology and identifiable feelings, the actual writing is fundamentally simplistic, making me wonder whether it is worthy of the Booker accolade, and certainly of winning it, though it is a nice nod to a sweet book.

I found the section where other people join in Harold's mission and hijack it for their own purposes really quite annoying, I have seen it done as a device in other novels which involve a mission or a cause and find it irritating. Essentially it's like the section in Forrest Gump when he runs on his own for ages. And that's the problem, this phenomena is quite un-British, and quite cheesily American, which is something that Harold Fry overall is not, Harold and his wife Maureen being quite quintessentially British which is the novel's central charm.

Though Harold's eventual reunion with Queenie is what I had expected all along, the novel is as with life about the journey not the destination. The end of the novel is incredibly touching, and you must have a heart of stone if you are not moved by the revelation towards the novel's close. 7/10

Book #68 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas

I seem to have had a copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a Booker nominee in 2004, languishing around my house for some years, I got rid of one unread in a decluttering haul and then brought another one back in at a later stage!

Ultimately it's time came when I saw the attention grabbing trailer for the forthcoming film adaptation from the Wachowski siblings, renowned for their work on The Matrix. Absolutely intent on seeing the film and ever one for reading the book first, I embarked upon it.

Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of short stories each about 50-70 pages long which then stops at the middle and revisits each narrative in reverse order like a train going backwards. These segments are connected by the same principle "Souls Cross Ages Like Clouds Cross Skies" and is a book about reincarnation showing how two soulmates named in one life as Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith have always known each other and always been connected in different ways across their past present and future.

These sections are as follows:

The Private Diary Of Adam Ewing - a period set piece reminiscent of Moby Dick

Letters From Zedelghem - in which an arrogant young aspiring composer discovers said diary during correspondence with his friend Rufus Sixmith

Half Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery - Reporter Luisa Rey meets whistleblower Rufus Sixsmith and embarks on a thriller style expose

The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish - A publisher is tricked into entering an old peoples home

An Orison of Somni - The story of a replicant who becomes sentient

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After - post apocalyptic Hawaii

The principle point behind Cloud Atlas really works until we get to Timothy Cavendish, though this section is an easy enough read and a connection is provided to Luisa Rey, it is difficult to see where he fits in with regard to the novel's overall Sixsmith/Frobisher soulmates idea.

Following this the book falls apart a little, though An Orison Of Somni gets that notion back on track, it is occasionally extremely difficult to follow and because of that becomes incredibly tedious and tries your patience. This section also bears more than a passing debt to A Handmaid's Tale.

But, if I thought that of the "Somni" section, it has nothing on "Sloosha's Crossin"which is written in a dialect and is breathtaking in its utter awfulness as a read, so truly maddening that I debated whether to skip the entire section and just read the rest, but was afraid I would "miss something" and felt I couldn't "truly" claim to have read it if I skipped that part.

So, it leaves a situation for the reader in which the first third and final third of the novel are good and what matters essentially is whether you like that first third enough to be able to suffer the middle.

Despite areas of annoyance what David Mitchell does in this novel is he writes a period pastiche, then an epistolary novel, then a US style thriller, then a contemporary, then a sci-fi and then a dystopia in dialect, and he does all these sections with total literary believability. This is genuine writing talent which deserves praise. However it is also if not pretentious per se, a bit like the smug boy who always has his hand up across every subject. There is something narcissistic and ultimately masturbatory about it, which makes even the good bits difficult to like.  I also didn't like the fiction-within fiction-within fiction aspect.

The idea of souls being together across many lives is a concept I find beautiful and compelling, and it's a shame this doesn't always pay off. Still the film trailer is beautiful and can be found here I hope that the Wachowski's do that rare thing and do a better job. 6.5/10

Book #67 The Universe Next Door by Marcus Chown

The Universe Next Door

Reading The Universe Next Door follows on from my reading both Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku and Chown's own The Never Ending Days Of Being Dead earlier in the year and covers similar ground.

Was the Universe conceived by beings of higher intelligence?
Can time run backwards?
Could we live forever?
Are there multiple universes?

 In The Universe Next Door there is a discussion about how electron bubbles work, and I found myself switching off during that. I find that I'm a bigger fan of the grand ideas than of the practical scienctific details that explain them!
The central issue for me reading this book is that the concepts and ideas of this book, have a high level of crossover with the concepts and ideas of The Never Ending Days Of Being Dead, in many ways the two are companions but TUND was written in 2003 and TNEDOBD in 2007, making the latter the more up to date work.

Additionally, I liked the writing and hypotheses in Never Ending Days more and ultimately though this is by all means a solid book, I would recommend to others that they buy that one, which is brilliant, instead, I don't feel guilty for doing this as they are the product of the same author and so I haven't cost him a sale! 7/10


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Book #66 Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov


Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov has the unusual distinction of being the first book I have ever read set in Kyrgyzstan or by a Kyrgyzstani author. I'd love to be more "globally read" the vast majority of the novels I read and their authors being either UK or USA based, so reading Jamilia feels like an expansion of my literary horizons.

Jamilia is a tender, nostalgic, evocative tale about a painter named Sait, reflecting upon his youth, when the country was at war, and his relationship with his beguiling sister in law Jamilia and the time he spent as a boy working alongside her.

It's a lovely little story, charming and engaging, but little is the operative word, at only 94 pages long, this doesn't even feel like a novella, but more like a short story.

Charming as it is, I think that the cover quote by Louis Aragon that Jamilia is "the most beautiful love story in the world" must rank highly among the plethora of over exaggerated cover quotes in publishing. The best adjective for it is simply "nice"      

Additionally, I paid £7.99 for this book, £5.99 on Amazon, sweet as it is, it simply isn't worth paying £6 for, not in the least. 7/10

Book #65 Death Comes To Pemberley by PD James

Death Comes To Pemberley

Like many, I am a big fan of Pride and Prejudice, both the original Austen novel and 1990's BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth. Over the years, many "sequels" have been produced by other writers, with mostly insipid, cheesy covers capitalising upon and sullying another writers genius, at which I have resolutely turned my nose up.

But....the premise of this was, in theory, a different and original look from a respectable writer with established credentials, a murder mystery, with our beloved couples at the centre. The idea was too good to resist.

Sadly the execution does not match the readers anticipation. Darcy and Lizzie die a little under James' pen, and lose their charisma Lizzie particularly losing all vivaciousness, and the portrait of their life at Pemberley is very slight. Both seem cowed by others at times and not at all their assertive selves.

When I turned the page to the description of a servant scrubbing the silver, I sighed with a "Who Cares?" disappointment, and the entire servant saga was completely uninteresting.

At the end of Pride and Prejudice we are told that Kitty Bennet divides her time between the Bingley's and Darcy's and becomes a great friend of Georgiana and yet James chooses to erase Kitty from the story entirely and she does not feature except as a passing mention.

Additionally great chunks of the novel seem to recap past events from Pride and Prejudice and even in some cases, recycle dialogue used in the Andrew Davies script, though the reader has a fondness for this history, it seems to exist to bump up the word count, if these elements were stripped away, you would perhaps be left with a short story or at best a novella.

The only thing of note was an expansion of the story behind the relationship of Wickham and the mysterious baddie Mrs Young, but taken as a whole, the novel is sub par as an Austen sequel, and if it were a novel in its own right and therefore not relying on Austen's already established parameters and characterisation, it would be abysmal.

I will be returning to my former rigid rule of never reading a sequel not by the original author, a phenomenon which has always dismayed me and am really rather mad at myself that I broke that rule for this mess. 2/10