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|We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo|
a Guardian first book award nominee for
Photograph: Mark Pringle
|copyright Linda Nylind, photographer|
|No Other Darkness is available from Amazon|
I could tell The Chimes was written by a poet, as soon as I opened it and started reading – long before I discovered Anna Smaill has also had a book of poetry published. The language here is lyrical, with the introduction of words that add to its strangeness, the narrative necessarily fragmented and filled with sensory impressions. But it’s perhaps because Smaill is a violinist, that in her first novel, she’s deeply imagined what a world without writing, but full of music, might be like.
|Anna Smaill Photo Credit - Natalie Graham|
|The Thames from Oxford to London|
I was playing Vinculus, a character in the amazing, intriguing and compelling book called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A group of 10 of us, all lovers of this 1000 page (if you include the copious footnotes) work of magical fiction, had gathered together to enact, discuss and explore this amazing achievement. Acting out a huge piece of fantasy is not as daunting as it may seem; the same group of people have acted out Tolkien’s work and all of Homer’s, using a three day period to do so. In that time, we eat, dress and sleep the book in question.
Susanna Clarke writes about her invented world with such ease; it’s easy to believe England could really be like this – filled with magic and romance. It has been described as 'Harry Potter for grownups’ but that really does not do this eloquent and momentous work justice, although adults who adored Harry Potter will be impressed with the rich characterization and the great finale to the story.
Clarke has a flair for language, utilising the right words at all the right moments. She chose for her style an emulation of Jane Austin, (including archaic spellings). Some passages made me laugh aloud – Austin was funny, and here is another layer spread upon that ironic wit.
|Ready to dance till dawn|
at the Fairy Ball in the kingdom of Lost Hope
- The reader needs to feel grounded within the story. Overload of information, or conversely, lack of relevant information (usually because the writers hasn’t taken into consideration that the reader isn’t familiar with what the writer is telling them), are two major factors. The reader needs time and help to absorb the details of the story. In The Miniaturist, Burton researches her time-period very well, even adding a glossary. But, Nella, as Rachel Cooke points out… “has a sensibility more akin to that of a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one: outspoken, determined, reflexively feminist.” This cut me adrift from her as I read – was she really from the 17th Century?
- Communication with your reader. Stories (or parts of a story) appear implausible because the writer has assumed that the reader ‘will understand’ what they are writing about. Don’t ever assume that; check as you go that your plot is comprehendible and that there are clear links as you move along it, filling in details that will help your reader to keep up with plot developments. It annoyed me, when Nella recalled, towards the novel’s end, all the ‘thrilling conversations’ she and Johannes had, because the reader hadn’t been privy to any of these. We’d barely seen them communicate and when they did, Johannes would peremptorily curtail the dialogue. And yet, Nella seems to gain an affinity with him that I could not credit.
- Character development and identification. It’s often the character, especially the narrator, who convinces the reader the story is believable. Your characters should be well-developed on the page, so that the reader can identify, possibly emphasize with them. This links closely with communication above; it will be the narrator who communicates the plot and fills in those all-important linking details. Rachel Cooke writes; “We know their tastes, but little of what lies in their hearts; we know all about their failings, but their motivation remains elusive.”
- Cause and effect. When the causes of character action are solidly imbedded in the story, leading directly to the naturally realized effects, the story is likely to feel convincing and believable. There is one plot-line in Jessie Burton’s novel which is never fully explained, and as that concerns the title of the story…the miniaturist who makes strangely predictive furninture for the cabinet house…I felt decidedly let down by this. However, I must commend Burton for the ending to her book. I thought her denouement and final flourishes were cracking – not only plausible, but shocking and perfectly balanced.
- Motivation should always be driven by character emotion. Cook writes, “I had the sense that the novel's characters were simply figures (from a doll's house, perhaps) to be moved around on an Amsterdam-shaped board.” I agreed At times, Burton concentrates too much on her fabulous plot, and forgets the emotional motivation of her characters. Motivating your characters successfully isn’t easy, but here’s a little template that will help you make that check:
- The author wants certain things to happen. This creates poor motivation.
- The actions further a character’s objectives. This creates strong motivation.
This book will go down in my experience as the one that took me back to writing Haiku (occasionally, and mostly on twitter). It was all because of an ordering mistake online; I saw what I thought was a very cheap copy of the novel, and being both cheap and impatient myself, clicked to order a completely separate book. What I received was The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho, a 16th Centuary Japanese poet, which describes his journeys and relates through his haiku. I loved this book, actually quite a lot more than I loved Flanagan's. His Booker prize-winning story was described, by the judges described The Narrow Road to the Deep North as a book that "kicks you so hard in the stomach it takes the breath away." I felt kicked in the stomach, but not in quite the same way. The book is unwieldy, and fails to get inside the male characters in a way that this female didn't warrant. The story is too similar to others set at the same time with the same prisoner-of-war events, but for me failed to deliver in the same way because the panoramic view doesn't ever get in deep enough.
The novel centres around Mass Lunel, a crumbling, ancient family farmhouse in the Cevennes in southern France, the home of Aramon Lunel, a man who is so ridden with guilt at the crimes he has committed in his past and now sickening from a very unhealthy lifestyle. He hits on the idea of selling the house and land, which would net him more money than he has ever imagined. But he needs the help of his half-sister, Audrun, who has suffered a lifetime of abuse at his hands and is now exiled to an ugly modern bungalow on the edge of the land. She is horrified at the idea of selling the family home, especially as her home, and the forest land she inherited with it is threatened by the sale. Alongside this fear, she is already festering with long-term hate and resentment towards Aramon.So go for it, Miss Tremain. Your exquisite prose and consistently dark themes are perfect for creating crime noir, and I for one enjoyed Trespass as much as Music and Silence and Restoration. The characters are filled with real existence, despite being to a person damaged by their troubled histories. There is no sympathetic protagonist to latch on to, but even so this is a compelling story.
- THE HELP by Katheryn Stockett. My book club read this book and there wasn't a member who didn't love it from page one to the epilogue. We all agree that it taught us so much about the lives of the women - both black and white - of the deep south of the US in the early sixties. But I am also in praise of it because of it's confident use of writing technique; it is a multi-viewpoint book, with three 1st person voices, all as engrossing as each other (although I can't help loving Minny best) and a single chapter writen in the omnicsient which worked perfectly...very hard to pull off. The plotting of the story drew the reader in, hooking them from an early stage - the first pages of chapter one, infact - as Aibeleen learns of the plan for each 'help' to be given their own 'bathroom'...so that the white families don't catch their diseases. The irony and balletic comedy between the white classes, who are clearly terrified of the black community that they dispise and pay despicable wages, is beautifully drawn. And the dramatic tension that builds as Skeeter becomes more and moresecretly involved with her black friends is terrifying and heartwarming at the same time. A first time author, Stockett is one to watch.
|Published in 1956|
with its iconic cover
by Edward Balden
- My copy of Virginia Woolf’s A WRITER'S DIARY seems to be a first edition of 1953 from The Hogarth Press. It has that smell of an old book about it – a mix of tobacco, spores and midnight oil. The original owner of the book has written her name in on the first page in slanting black ink...Marjory Todd...and dated it 1/1/54,suggesting that this was a Christmas present. Dipping into it on occasion, as I do, reminds me of something Virginia wrote...What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in and found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could happily live here and read forever...Virginia Woolf’s diaries were kept over a period of twenty-seven years and after her death, her husband, Leonard, gathered extracts from them together. He went through 30 handwritten volumes and selected passages that related only to her writing life. They take us from 1919, when she was 36, to 1941. The last entry, just 20 days before she walked into the River Ouse with an overcoat filled with stones, finishes...I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.
I can’t recommend Woolf’s diaries highly enough to any writer; it won’t matter one whit if you’ve not read anything else of her work...although reading the diary may entice you into the marvel of her novels. Perhaps we should end with Virginia's words; a marvellous description of the June 1927 eclipse of the sun...In our carriage were Vita, Harold, Quentin, Leonard and I. This is Hatfield, I daresay, I said. I was smoking a cigar...so we plunged through the midlands; made a very long stay at York. Then at 3 we got out our sandwhiches and I came in from the W.C to find Harold being rubbed clean of cream....We got out (at Barton Fell, Yorkshire) and found ourselves very high, on a moor, boggy, heathery, with butts for grouse shooting...We could see a gold spot where the sun was, but it was early yet. We had to wait, stamping to keep warm...Then, for a moment, we saw the sun, sweeping - it seemed to be sailing at a great pace and clear in a gap; we got out our smoked glasss; we saw it, crescent, burning red; next moment it had sailed fast into the cloud again; only the red streamers came from it; then only a golden haze, such as one has often seen. The moments were passing. We felt cheated; we looked at the sheep; they showed no fear; the setters were racing round; everyone was standing in long lines, rather dignified, looking out. I thought how we were very like old people, in the birth of the world - druids on Stonehenge. At the back of us were blue spaces in the cloud. These were still blue. But now, the colour going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. Nothing could be seen through the cloud. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over - this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills - at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. If was like a recovery.
- My daughter recommended SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay, a book by a French author who is an expat American. Although her first language is English, this is the first book she's written that is not in French. A story about the 6oth anniversary of a dreadful moment in the days of Vichy France, which proves how culpable that government was for the fate of French Jews during the 2nd WW. It's written in a light tone using two main voices; Sarah, who is nearly ten in 1942 and Julia, a journalist who is doing an article on the round-up of Parisienne Jews...the Vel D'HIver. I'd recommend it as a book club read that would stimulate debate.
- Reading ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson led me to SEXING THE CHERRY, and through her work to WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL, one of her most recent books. This tells the 'other story' told as fiction in Oranges; the search for happiness. I have heard reviewers say that Winterson is not so much a novelist as an essayist; I'd agree with this. Her first book was autobiography; since then her novels have been only a hair away from being essays. This new book seems to be a bit of all of these; I'll report back when I've read it through!THE TIGER’S WIFE has been feted as a stunningly original novel. Tea Obreht is the youngest winner of the Orange Prize, and it is clear she had a fantastic imagination and can weave incredible tales. I did love the story, but there were times when the reading became difficult, not because it is a dense read or literary read, but because the writer, still only 24, doesn’t yet know how to take several short stories ( previously published) and pull them into a cohesive story. We meet innumerable incredible characters but these never glue the novel into one, heart-thumping piece. Emotion seems to be painted on, and I’m sure that is because Obreht tried to plait her short stories together without remembering the one piece of advice I always give to my students...be sure you know your own Core Emotional Truth.
We are All Completley Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Witty, stylish, page-turning and very finely written. Fowler takes a startling subject and creates deeply-felt characters as well as a shocking twist in the middle of the book. The disturbing lives of the Cookes family consists of a pedantic psychologist father who specializes in animal behavior, an emotionally fragile mother and three children: Lowell, Rosemary and Fern.
One daughter mysteriously vanishes, the other changes from a prodigiously talkative child to a silent adult; the brother runs away. And beneath the basic plotline lies a story as fantastic, terrible and beautiful as any Grimm's fairy tale.
This unconventional, dysfunctional family can't be too autobiographical, but Bloomington, Indiana where they live in the novel is also where Fowler spent the first 11 years of her life.
I found the ending didn't live up to the promise of the rest of the book, but that may be because I wanted it to be fairytale, and in reality, that woulnd't have been fair, right or very convincing.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah
The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
original illustration by John Leech
from A Christmas Carol
Winter of 1910, and a child is born; and keeps being born until she survives this first ordeal; and then keeps being born each time her life takes the sort of turn that leads us all at times to wish we could go back and try again. This is a book that tackles a tricky premis; I commend it for this. The concept of allowing a character to try at life until she gets it right – life after life – is an appealing one and one that has not been attempted overmuch.
The scope of this novel is vast; two world wars and the landscapes of England and Germany. But I never got to like any of the characters, especially Ursula and her irritating mother, Sylvia. Perhaps I was expecting something a bit more self-determining; Ursula may keep going back until she gets it right but quite a lot of the problems are random; if , as a small child, you drown in an undertow, you surely learn very little (not to go paddling?) on your return.
I wanted to get closer to Ursula; see what made her tick, and was prevented by the sheer speed of the narrative. I wanted her to tell me why she did this; why doing this was any better than striving to live one, solid life.
All the prize-givers loved this book; all the papers loved it too. The Telegraph review tells us…Each time Ursula is reborn, she tries to prevent the traumas of previous lives. She’s not exactly conscious of what’s been before, but she feels looming dread and déjà vu. This leads her mother to pack her off to a psychologist who talks of Nietzsche and Amor fati (love of fate). I would have really liked the opportunity for Ursula to find herself discussing her strange life experience, of which she's not quite aware, but she can't; she not quite aware of it.
The Guardian reviews their own review of the book…
I agree. Structurally it's tricksy. The emotional whimsy did not impact on me. So; 10 out of 10 for a clever idea, Kate, but sorry, sorry I didn't like the result.
I couldn't put The Hours, by Michael Cunninham, down, It's the perfect accompaniment to Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - which at one point she was going to title ‘The Hours’. It is also a great achievement in itself. Written somewhat in the Woolf style, it moves deftly, never making a shortcut, through a single day in the lives of three women.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri's short stories, which I love, often seem to ramble and have no tight point to make. But if one stops and thinks about them, not only does one see the point and see it clearly, but all those rambling make perfect sense; the entire thing makes perfect and satisfying sense and leaves you changed and pensive. So I did expect The Lowland to ramble; I did expect to have to think, long and hard, after finishing the book, to find the sense, the meaning and the point. And it's all there in the first chapter, which shows a scene of two inseperable young brothers up to mischief and punished for it. The brothers go their seperate ways, with different passions and in different continents and the decades pass. It told me a lot, eventually about love; how it works, how it pulls us to act and react, and how it can't be forced.
I was also fascinated to read about the Naxalite movement in India, something I knew nothing about until reading this book. That's something I love in a novel; learing something new.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
Toibin's portrayal of a mother is acute; her thoughts are a mother's thoughts, right down to the feeling one experiences at birth and the protection one feels for a child througout life. Mary only wants her son safe; Jesus ignores and rejects her council. This story could be about any woman who has lost her child to a radical cause. It's as much a story for today as for 2000 years ago.
Tracy Chevalier is a renowned author; I’ve previously read and enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn. For her most recent historical drama, The Last Runaway, she turns to the American slave trade. Honor Bright is young, naïve, an English quaker who goes, in the 1850’s to the northern USA to live (Ohio). Against her new family’s wishes, she befriends runaway slaves, helping them escape to Canada through secret routes and safe houses. Torn between her conscience and the law, she become more plucky and determined when she meets other strong women. It’s a good insight into the early Quaker settlers’ lives and the dark period of American history just prior to the Civil War, beautifully written in a ponderous read, but this is, in the end, a piece of historic romance. Chevalier does not care to dig too deeply into what the Northern States of America were like at that point in history, or into the slave trades excesses, or even, to be honest, into her main character’s mind. She is now often compared to Maggach and Philippa Gregory, downgraded from literary status; maybe she never wanted that anyway! This is an easy, enjoyable read; keep it for the beach.
I love it when work (research) is also pleasure...in other words, I'm reading crime fiction. the emphasis today seems to be on Eurocrime; from the dark and slightly dismal north to the glowingly sunny south. As we are members of the EU, I’ve included the UK in this category, to review the books I’ve recently read. Each one has been read as a writer, as well as a reader of crime fiction; I’m looking at how other people achieve structure, plausibility, powerful, empathetic characters and maintain that sense of mystery right to the end, as well as appraising the ending itself; did it surprise, did it satisfy, did it droop and above all, can I later remember who did it?
- NOTES FROM AN EXHIBITION is my first Patrick Gale; it won't be my last. I love novels that are 'about something' that inform as well as entertain, and the setting of Cornwall, and the theme of contemporary art was enticing. I also love
- THE DISCOVERY OF WITCHES. Deborah Harkness is a new writer from the US. The book attempts to bring an adult feel to the subject matter that Twilight and Harry Potter fans. It did feel a bit like a fusion of the two series...except I think that's a bit of an insult to JK Rowling, who's overall plotting, theme and narrative is exceptionally rich and inventive...unless the author had previously watched True Blood, which has a very similar premise. Nothing much happens, but the hero, Matthew, a vampire is worth following...sexy and dangerous.THE FINKLER QUESTION, Howard Jacobson. A shaply funny, but powerfully intellectual look at all things Jewish, from Zionism to Judaism. The 3 main characters share the story, in fact this is that rare thing; a contemporary novel successfully written from an omnicsient POV. I did enjoy it; more so, I did amire it, but its intense concentration on a world I know nothing about did leave me floundering at times. A comic novel filled with pathos.UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE. Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite 19C writers, and this is the only novel of his I hadn't read. I'd noticed that people fall into two distinct camps over this one; either they think its his best or his worst. Sadly I fall into camp two. This first novel is his 'juvinilia', with almost none of that fantastic, complex plotting that comes later, or the deep emotional identification which is present by the time of Jude the Obscure. But yes, you could love it for its fantastic characters; the minor players are more fascinating than the protagonists. Very readable and quite short (for him), it might make a good start for a teenaged reader, but on the other hand it might bore them solid, which later novels shouldn't do.A collection of Annie Proulx's short stories, FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS was described by the Telegraph as heartbreakingly beautiful. In some ways this is true; Proulx's prose is lyrical yet blunt, even brutal and the combination of rough settings and unfortunate outcomes (an awful lot of people die) does leave you gasping.Milan Kundera FAIRWELL WALTZ- This is one of those 'comedies of manners' that delights the literary theorists, I fancy, a lot more than it delighted me. I thought the characters were quite thinly developed and behaved in ways not explored within their psyches. Sort of Iris Murdoch without atmosphere - but to be fair to Kundera, an exhaulted figure in the workd of literature, translations can weaken a story.BLACK WATER RISING, on the other hand, Attica Locke's first book is resolent with the deeply explored, delightlfully flawed character of the protagonst, a black lawyer pracicing in the 1980's in a predudiced Deep South. It is a strong and lyrical thriller with an atmospheric miliue.
Alias Grace. Like Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood has taken an historical figure and fictionalized an account of their life. Grace spent thirty years in prison convicted of the murder, at just 16 of two people. Atwood makes an excellent fist of creating a riviting story around the basic facts, but I still think Mantel has the edge if one compares the books - perhaps one shouldn't compare the books!
- WAITING FOR COLUMBUS, Thomas Trofimuk. I think this book is trying the same trick; take a famous life (in this case Christopher Columbus) and fictionalize the account, but in this case the writer goes further, creatinig an entire fantasy around the the events of so long ago. This makes it slot into what I think of as 'books that made a stir' for being original in their treatment; Lovely Bones, The Book Thief, The Time Traveller's Wife (all of which I've read, but not reviewed here), are others. I didn't think any of these books meric a 'literary' sticker, and I think they will all be forgotten in time. But Columbus is an interesting read, although I thought it dipped badly in the third quarter.
- CARRY ME DOWN, M.J. Hyland. By exploring the emotional development of a dreamy young boy, Hyland uses very simple language to look at big issues; truth, marriage, and pre-pubescence. I enjoyed it enormously.
- Delphine De Vigan NO AND ME This has been translated from the French - a slender volume which is clearly a crossover novel for young adults and teens as well as proper grown ups. The voice is young, innocent, vibrant. It flags a bit in the middle, and the ending was a teeny bit disappointing, but it is a lovely story of a 13 yr-old whose life - and that of her family - is changed when she meets a homeless girl.(France 2007)
- Siri Hustvedt WHAT I LOVED. This featured on Radio 4's Book Club. I had never heard of this US author, but I was impressed with her flawless narrative voice (male) and the scope of her timescape. The story's plot is structured unconventionally - not exactly Holliwood material - but the depth of character development is stunning, and she does that sooo difficult thing; discuss and describe fictional visual art on the page.(US 2003)
- Iris Murdoch A FAIRLY HONOURABLE DEFEAT I read every Murcoch as it appeared in the bookshops and read this one when I was about 30; I re-read it recently to see if it had changed in my eyes and mind. Actually, I was surprised at how much I 'missed' the first time round and knowing the end (which I won't spoil for you) didn't matter at all, especially as I could not remember it perfectly. I knew what the tragedy was, but could not recall who befell it! I understood more of her philosophical insertions, and clearly saw how she was 'puppet master'. Murdoch was always my first love as an author and did not lose her currency as the count of books went up and up. If you've never read one of her books, choose from the early to middle period, as the later period is heavy and deteriorates, understandably towards the very end of her life (UK 1970)
- Kate Williams ENGLAND'S MISTRESS. Subtitiled The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton. Kate wanted to write a definitive biography of Nelson's mistress after she discovered her personal letters during research for her doctorate. She was still very young when the book proposal was accepted, but this doesn't show; the writing is mature yet fresh. I loved the way she tells us about the life and times of Emma; the slum world of her childhood, the great monarchic houses of Europe when she lived abroad, the facts on childbirth when she was having her first baby, and the art world, because she was painted time and again. Nelson comes in late on, but then dominates the canvas. I soaked up every word, and felt I knew the 18C better as a result. (UK 2006)
- Marina Lewycka WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE. Having read her first book A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, I was keen to see if this one would suit me better. I find some of her writing a little predictable and rather dependent on poking fun at eccentric (usually foreign) characters. Well, she continues to extract comedy in this slightly distasteful way, and I didn't find parts of this any more convincing that her first book, but it did make me laugh. A lot.(UK 2009)
- At the other end of the spectrum, THE SHIPPING NEWS, by Annie Proulx, a lyrical, textured novel that is almost unrelentlessly grim but so beautifully told - like all Proulx's work - that it pulls you in and won't let you go. (USA 1993)
- Clare Morrall THE MAN WHO DISAPPEARED. Having gained a shortlisted Booker place for Astonishing Splashes of Colour, Morrall has had to make do with being a TV book club 'summer read' with this one. But it is an interesting take on a crime novel, using solid psychology to endear us to the characters on both sides of the 'criminal divide'. I enjoyed it at least as much. (UK 2008)
- CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN, Louis de Bernieres. I agree with most critics - an editor should have taken a massive red pen to this book to chop it into readable size. And although I admire alternative endings, this one seemed contrived to be as awful as possible...I just don't think that's cricket! However, its landscape is seductive and the characters wonderful. He does poke fun at the Italian fighting machine, but that was probably fair game.(UK 1994)
- GOTHAM WRITERS' WORKSHOP FICTION GALLERY (Bloomsbury) is a wonderful array of US short stories, each with a summary and author's notes. There are some old favourites, but lots of new (to me) stories too. A definite must for the short story reader. (US 2004)
- William Trevor THE STORY OF LUCY GAULT Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2002, I stumbled across this in a charity shop. But I can't say I enjoyed it, despite the beauty of the writing. It is a gaunt (redolent of Gault) tale, which has an unhappy beginning, middle and end. Some of the set-up didn't convince me and I didn't fall in love ...or even like Lucy. I am now reading FELICIA'S JOURNEY, which is an improvment.
- BIRDSONG, Sabastian Faulks most acclaimed novel attempt to reinvigorate the voice of the lost generation of 1st WW soldiers. It is unremittingly emotional - occasionally manipulative of the emotions, and there isn't much attempt at plot - the war is the story, and that remains shrouded in vague truth. But a gripping read and in my opinion, Faulk's best attempt at a novel. (UK 1993)
- Peter James SWEET HEART men never quite get female characters right, do they? If I was desperate to get pregnant and had pregnancy symptoms, I'd think I was pregnant, periods or not. In this book the crime is in the past and a little supernatural element creeps in; but then, I can talk!
- Davide Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is a masterly attempt to weave several stories together through time and space. I enjoyed this more and more as I read into the book. The links are clever, but more importantly, the stories are great - thrilling, absorbing and full of brilliant characters.(UK 2004)
- Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney (Eds) EMERGENCY KIT If you should want just one large anthology of recent poems, I would recommend this one, as it is both disturbing and exuberant and brings renown poets between the same covers as lesser-known ones. (UK 1994)
- Carl Hiaasen SKIN TIGHT. Billed as funny, and yes, LOL, but I could have done with a bit more 'slowing down', it is so fast paced that it lacks atmosphere at times. I did not like the end. I felt it tried to aim for black (gory) humour, rather than stick with the characterization of the 'hero'. (US 2003)
- Sarah Waters THE LITTLE STRANGER don't believe the critics, who are saying Waters latest book is her first without a theme of lesbianism. They are just blind! This tense thriller/ghost story held me from first to last, and her male protagonist was well crafted. This is not my favourite Walters; that remains FINGERSMITH, but it's a pretty good addition to the cannon. (UK 2008)
- Ali Smith THE ACCIDENTAL An extremely competent novel with a stream of consciousness format that sucked me right in. I wasn't completely convinced by the plot/setting - the idea that an odd girl wanders into a family's holiday and stirs things up completely - but stranger things have happened, I'm sure. What I loved was the structure, style and masterful narration techniques and the way the girl is cleverly used by the writer as a tool to understanding.
- Kate Atkinson WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? - Atkinson knows that you can explore the deeper side to life and literature via the crime novel (UK 2007)
- Christopher Brookmyre A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD PENCIL - a very funny writer, although this novel had an overload of lowland dialect (UK 2000)
- FUGITIVE PIECES, by poet Anne Michaels won many awards and is just a beautiful read...rather like doing a jigsaw of an Old Master. A story of the Holocaust, but rightly so, we shouldn't forget. Michaels interlocks lives across cultures and generations.(CANADA 1996)
- Sue Grafton THE ALPHABET SERIES love or hate - these books are frothy and joyful, if you like mile-long runs and clever detection (US from 1980...still going!)
- Frank McCourt ANGELA'S ASHES. Sorry, but I've got to churn out the cliche; the book is heaps better than the film that could not do justice to either the lyricism of the writer or even the true squalor of the living conditions. (US 1996)
- I read THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS quite a while ago, when it won Booker Prize. It is both a joyous and tragic look at an Indian family through the eyes of 2 young twins.Its massive theme is love, and this is conveyed through clear prose and careful structure.(INDIA 1997)
- Sara Paretsky KILLING ORDERS - a loved US writer of good crime, however, although her creation, VI Warshawski is delightfully flawed, Paretsky is also no flawless as a writer. (US 1999)
- VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE. What Paulo Coelho loves to do...what his readership love him for him to do...is write fables. This book is built on the understanding that we don't really value our lives until they are snatched from us. It also describes mental institutions in stark and bitter terms My favourite Coelho novel remains THE ALCHEMIST, but this is a fascinating read. (BRAZIL 1998)
- Frances Fyfield, in COLD TO THE TOUCH, spares no quality in her writing - she is the natural successor to PG James, but in my opinion her characters are more realistic and I can identify with them more closely (UK 2008)
- I met Frances Fyfield and Mark Billingham during my week at Arvon. I really enjoy his appearances on Radio 4. But now, he's on TV, too! Billlingham's flawed detective Thorpe is a great protagonist. In LIFELESS, he goes on the streets to solve the murder (UK 2004)
- Hilary Mantel WOLF HALL. I've followed Mantel's career with interest, after reading her very first book 20 or more years ago. That was brave and original. Wolf Hall is simply stunning. If you don't know much about the mid-Tudor period, you will if you read it. But if you do know a lot about that period, you will be even more impressed, as she constantly takes situations recorded in history and zones into them, interpreting them as fiction and making them zizz with colour. I was fascinated by the ending - rushing to my 'Kings and Queens of History' to check certain dates. I'm still not sure if she's saying what she seems to be saying, but it's certainly staying my mind as the most enigmatic ending...up there with Basic Instinct...(UK 2009)
- WHITE TEETH is actually not my favourite Zadie Smith novel. That remains ON BEAUTY, which I think is more expansive and mature. But this first book catapulted Smith into favour, and is resonant with great characters, a broad vista and a compassionate tone. (UK 2000)
- THE COLLECTOR by John Fowls. His first book, it has that controlled style and once-removed eye on the chosen fictional world that later brought us THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN. I do recommend it, especially if you enjoy books that uses an unreliable narrrator. (UK 1963)
- THE LINE OF BEAUTY Alan Hollignhurst only just tips my admiration for his earlier work FALLEN STAR, with this much vaster and heavier novel. Both are filled with wit and sparkle, and both have graphic scenes of gay sex. The former is perhaps a little more acidic in the earlier book, the latter better handled in Beauty, where a hedonistic life style is well described. I think of him as the Jane Austin of gay fiction.(UK 2004)
- HALF A YELLOW SUN. This is another panoramic novel, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie's most challenging and expansive, it tells the story of the Biafran uprising using several perspectives, returning to the start of the story half-way through to present a further point of view. Very thought-provoking.(NIGERIA 2006)
- Donna Tartt wrote THE SECRET HISTORY, a marvellous story of intrigue between pretentious students, which I very much enjoyed. She almost fell apart from the overwhelming responses, which were both good and bad and only produced THE LITTLE SISTER ten years later. This is also weighty and nicely written, but ponderously plotted and means less, I think. (US 1992)
- There is only one way to read THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Onjaatje. Read it - watch the film - read the book again. Then read all the really lovely, lovely bits again. My favourite is the candles in the church.(SRI LANKA 1992)
- Ian McEwan, ATTONEMENT. Having pilloried him for being loved, I'd better mention that I’ve really enjoyed all his books, but especially this one for its breadth of vision. Keira Knightley does well in the film version, but best read the book first. David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is a masterly attempt to weave several stories together through time and space. I enjoyed this more and more as I read into the book. The links are clever, but more importantly, the stories are thrilling, absorbing and full of remarkable characters.(UK 2004)
• THE WILD PLACES by Robert McFarland is a rare treat; a piece of non-fiction written with a poet’s eye. McFarland chooses to explore wilderness landscapes of the British Isles with madcap pluck and a deep understanding of the natural world. Into this mix, he blends a knowledge of science and history with little snippets of his own memories. Betwitching. (UK 2007)
echniques and the way the girl is cleverly used by the writer as a tool to understanding.
• Andrea Levy's SMALL ISLAND is now well thumbed, I've lent it to so many people. I loved the way she keeps this weighty story of immigration and changing landscapes light, while still being thought-provoking. She perfectly capturing the dreariness of fifties England, compared to the colour of the Caribbean (UK 2004)
- It must be dreadful trying to follow up a best-seller with a second book, and LAKE OF DREAMS by Kim Edwards did try to be different at least, with this one, choosing fresh subject matter, settings and characters. I don’t remember The Secret Keeper’s Daughter being quite so beautifully written, actually; this is lyrical prose with brilliantly painted scenes, something that’s reflected within one theme...stained glass art nouveau. At 377 pages, it’s clearly a long book and complex in that she keeps several plot balls in the air at one time. Sadly, for me, after a good start in the symbolically rumbling and shaking world of Japan, these ball in the air seem to float in slow motion for most of the middle of the book. She sets up some crackers of plots, mostly related to family dynamics now and in the past, but none of these are able to fully develop or be realized until the end, when she'd want her explosive finish. I wasn’t precisely bored at any time, but I did begin to wonder when things would reach their dramatic climax.I didn’t think the characters, especially Lucy, behaved in a plausible fashion for a lot of the time. Having been away for five years, she hurts her brother by telling her mother that his girlfriend was pregnant after he specifically asked her not to do so, then calls him at 1:00 am (in bed with said girlfriend) to tell him that she thought that he was handling his career choice all wrong. Long overdue, in the final chapters she asks if she needs to apologise – unbelievable behaviour and by no means the only time in the book this happens. Lucy discovers her uncle has committed manslaughter and yet she does not contact the police...instead she gets away scot free with vandalizing his store. I recognise that she might be described as a multi-dimensional character with many conflicting personality traits, but by this time, Lucy was irritating me too much for me to be convinced. There is also too much coincidence. She finds an old package of documents in her mother's house; why has no one else found them and who put them there...we are never told, but her mother suddenly recalls that she found a baby blanket hidden in the lining of an old trunk in the barn twenty-five years ago, which had a note with the same hand-writing. I found this hard to swallow. But I did get caught up in the story that is revealed by the package and particularly liked the minutia of the Art Nouveau stained glass work Rose was involved in. I liked the end; at least this wasn’t forced.Sylvia Plath's only novel, THE BELL JAR, was a second-hand purchase from a lovely cafe we use as we head south east into Wiltshire...Dick Willow. I'd been meaning to read it for ever, and so enjoyed the wonderfully unself-concsious, almost artless tone which was lighter and funnier than I could have hoped. The story of a young woman setting out on her higher education and her life only to be beset by a dark emotional destruction of her mind and her subsequent incarceration in a mental hospital, it turned out to be a 'can't put it down' read. Like Angel at my Table, Janet Frame's 3 part autobiography, (filmed by Jane Campion), it describes the desperate state of psychiatric care in the 50's and 60's. It has an upbeat end, which makes Plath's own end more poignant.
- GODS WITHOUT MEN by HARI HUNZRUI had not encountered Hari Kunzru before, despite the fact he was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. In fact, I knew so little of him, that on starting the book he published this year, Gods Without Men, I wrongly presumed he was American; the control and confidence he uses within his setting...mostly an area of the California desert called the Pinnacles...convinced me he knew the US well. The breathtaking sweep of the novel immediately reminded me of Don Delillo, Tom Wolfe or even John Irving.