Category Archives: Fiction Reviews

Doorstopper of the Month: The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (2019)

Epic fantasy is far from my usual fare, but this was a book worth getting lost in. The reading experience reminded me of what I had with A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, or perhaps Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – though it’s possible this last association was only in my mind because of Dan Kois. You see, we have Kois, an editor at Slate, to thank for this novel being published outside of Knox’s native New Zealand. He wrote an enthusiastic Slate review of an amazing novel he’d found that was only available through a small university press, and Clarke’s novel was his main point of reference. How’s that for the power of a book review?

Taryn Cornick, 33, has adapted her PhD thesis into a popular history of libraries – the search for absolute knowledge; the perennial threats that libraries face, from budget cuts to burnings – that she’s been discussing at literary festivals around the world. One particular burning looms large in her family’s history: the library at her grandfather’s country estate near the border of England and Wales, Princes Gate. As girls, Taryn and her older sister, Beatrice, helped to raise the alarm and saved the bulk of their grandfather’s collection. But one key artifact has been missing ever since: the Firestarter, an ancient scroll box that is said to have been through five fires and will survive another arson attempt before the book is through.

Nearly 15 years ago now, Beatrice was the victim of a random act of violence. Soon after her killer was released from prison, he turned up dead in unusual circumstances. Ever since, Detective Inspector Jacob Berger has suspected that Taryn arranged a revenge killing, but he has no proof. His cold case heats back up when Taryn lands in the hospital and complains of a series of prank calls.

What ensues is complicated, but in essence, the ongoing fallout of Beatrice’s murder and a cosmic battle over the Firestarter are twin forces that plunge Taryn and Jacob into the faerie realm (Sidh). Their guide to the Sidh is Shift, a shapeshifter who can create impromptu gates between the two worlds (while others, like Princes Gate, are permanent passageways).

Fairies (sidhe), demons, talking ravens … there’s some convoluted world-building here, and when I reached the end I realized I still had many ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, though often this was because I hadn’t paid close enough attention and if I glanced back I’d see that Knox did indeed tell us how characters got from A to B, and who was after the Firestarter and why.

The book travels everywhere from Provence to Purgatory, but I particularly liked the descriptions of the primitive lifestyle in the faerie realm. Knox gives enough detail about things like food and clothing that you can really imagine yourself into each setting, and there’s the occasional funny turn of phrase that inserts the magical into everyday life in a tongue-in-cheek way, like “The Nespresso [machine] made hatching-dragon sounds.”

My two favorite scenes were an intense escape from a marsh and one that delightfully blends the human world and faerie: Taryn’s father, Basil Cornick, is a Kiwi actor best known for his role in a Game of Thrones-style television show. He’s roped into what he thinks is a screen test, playing Odin opposite a very convincing animatronic monster and pair of talking birds. We and Taryn know what he doesn’t: that he was used to negotiate with a real demon. The terrific epilogue also offers an appealing vision of how the sidhe might save the world.

If, like me, all you know of Knox’s previous work is the bizarre and kind of awful The Vintner’s Luck (which I read for a book club a decade or so ago), you’ll be intrigued to learn that angels play a role here, too. But beneath all the magical stuff, which is sometimes hard to follow or believe in, the novel is a hymn to language and libraries. A number of books are mentioned, starting with the one that was in Beatrice’s backpack at the time of her death: “the blockbuster of that year, 2003, a novel about tantalising, epoch-spanning conspiracies. Beatrice enjoyed those books, perhaps because they were often set in libraries.” (That’s The Da Vinci Code, of course.) Also mentioned: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, the Moomin books, and the film Spirited Away – no doubt these were beloved influences for Knox.

I appreciated the words about libraries’ enduring value, even on a poisoned planet. “I want there to be libraries in the future. I want today to give up being so smugly sure about what tomorrow won’t need,” Taryn says. She knows that, for this to happen, people must “care about the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, and about keeping what isn’t immediately necessary because it might be vital one day. Or simply intriguing, or beautiful.” That’s an analogy for species, too, I think, and a reminder of our responsibility: to preserve human accomplishments, yes, but also the more-than-human world (even if that ‘more’ might not include fairies).

Page count: 626 (my only 500+-page doorstopper so far this year!)

My rating:

Recent BookBrowse & Shiny New Books Reviews, and Book Club Ado

Excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for other places:

BookBrowse

Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio

The quotation that gives Carofiglio’s tender novel its title is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” It lends an appropriate sense of time suspended, of earnest seeking and extreme circumstances: The main action of the book takes place over just a few days in June of 1983, when Italian teenager Antonio and his father are stranded in Marseilles while there for Antonio to be seen by an epilepsy specialist. The gift of this time outside of time allows them to get to know each other better, such that the memory of the trip will be precious to Antonio even decades later. I appreciated how the limited setting heightened this short novel’s emotions. Carofiglio invites readers to peer between the leisurely progression of events to see the bond that is being formed. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on HarperVia, a new publishing imprint for international literature.)

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Inspired by the composition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this Australian debut novel explores the lives of the women on its fringes through the words that were omitted. The suffrage movement and World War I loom large as the storyline enters the 1910s. I most appreciated the relationships Esme has with the various women in her life. The main action spans the 40 years of the original composition of the OED. That scope means there is a lot of skipping forward in time. Especially in the first half, I longed for the narrative to slow down so I could spend more time with this character. Despite the first-person narration, I never felt I knew Esme very well. Women’s bonds and women’s words are strong themes in this forthrightly feminist novel that, despite its flaws, would make a great book club selection. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my reading list of books about dictionaries and lost words.)

Shiny New Books

 

Notes from Deep Time: The Hidden Stories of the Earth Beneath Our Feet by Helen Gordon

To assess the place of humanity, we can look back to prehistory, but also forward to envision the “deep future.” (It was only in a late chapter on nuclear waste disposal sites and warning messages to the future that I found too much direct overlap with Footprints by David Farrier.) This engagingly blends both tactics, surveying the fields of geology and palaeontology and pondering the future traces of the Anthropocene. I most enjoyed the middle chapters, in which science meets wildlife and cultural studies. For instance, a chapter on ammonites leads into a profile of Mary Anning and the history of both fossil hunting and women in STEM careers. The prose is well pitched to the layman’s level. Interviews, travels, and snapshots from her own life generally keep the material from becoming too dry. An invigorating interdisciplinary tour. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)


My book club has been meeting via Zoom since April 2020. This is a common state of affairs for book clubs around the world. Especially since we have 12 members (if everyone attends, which is rare), we haven’t been able to contemplate meeting in person as of yet. However, a subset of us meet midway between the monthly reads to discuss women’s classics like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. For next week’s meeting on Mrs. Dalloway, we are going to attempt a six-person get-together in one member’s house.

Anyway, a neat thing we did last month was a Zoom chat with the author: a BBC correspondent who happens to be the brother of one of our members. If you’re a news junkie in the UK, you may know the name Jon Sopel, though since I don’t have a telly or ever listen to radio, I hadn’t encountered him until this “in-person” meet-up. He has been the BBC’s North America Editor since 2014.

UnPresidented is the third book he wrote over the course of the Trump presidency. It started off as a diary of the 2020 election campaign, beginning in July 2019, but of course soon morphed into something slightly different: a chronicle of life in D.C. and London during Covid-19 and a record of the Trump mishandling of the pandemic. But as well as a farcical election process and a public health crisis, 2020’s perfect storm also included economic collapse and social upheaval – thanks to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests worldwide plus isolated rioting.

UnPresidented served as a good reminder for me of the timeline of events and the full catalogue of outrages committed by Trump and his cronies. You just have to shake your head over the litany of ridiculous things he said and did, and got away with – any one of which might have sunk another president or candidate. The style is breezy and off-the-cuff, so the book reads quickly. There’s a good balance between world events and personal ones, with his family split across the UK and Australia. I appreciated the insight into differences from the British system. I thought it would be depressing reading back through the events of 2020, but for the most part the knowledge that everything turned out “right” allowed me to see the humour in it. Still, I found it excruciating reading about the four days following the election.

Sopel kindly gave us an hour of his time one Wednesday evening before he had to go on air and answered our questions about Biden, Harris, journalistic ethics, and more. He was charming and eloquent, as befits his profession.

Would any of these books interest you?

Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: My Cousin Rachel (1951)

It’s probably a decade or more since I read anything by Daphne du Maurier. The three novels of hers that I know are Rebecca (of course), Jamaica Inn, and The House on the Strand. HeavenAli’s annual reading week was the excuse I needed to pick up the copy of My Cousin Rachel that I grabbed from the closed-down free bookshop in the mall about a year ago as we were clearing it out. I’m glad I finally got to this one: it has a gripping storyline and the title character is a complex woman it’s impossible to make up your mind about.

To start with, we have an opening line that’s sure to make my year-end superlatives post: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” The whole first chapter is heavy with foreboding, most of which I didn’t pick up on. It’s clear at once that the narrator, a young man named Philip Ashley, feels guilty for the situation he finds himself in, but can’t decide whether Rachel shares his culpability. Philip is the ward and heir of his older cousin, Ambrose, who winters in Florence for his health but on his latest trip marries Rachel, a widow and distant half-Italian cousin who also has roots in Cornwall, and stays in Italy.

From what little he learns of her through Ambrose’s increasingly incoherent letters, Philip is predisposed to dislike Rachel. When Ambrose dies of a suspected brain tumour, Philip is alarmed to hear that Rachel has already emptied their Florence villa and is reluctant to meet her when she arrives in Plymouth some weeks later. But she is not what he expected: just 35 and beautiful; with a passion for garden design and herbal medicine; witty and gently flirtatious. Before long Philip is smitten. “Why, in heaven’s name, did she have to be so different and play such havoc with my plans?”

The plot revolves around Ambrose’s unsigned will and what it means for the ownership of the Ashleys’ Cornwall estate. Philip is now 24, but on his 25th birthday, which happens to fall on April Fool’s Day, he will come into his inheritance and can make his own decisions. Will Rachel, notorious for her extravagant spending, bewitch him into altering the will to her advantage? A pearl necklace, hidden letters, a beggar woman, churchyard conversations, tisanes, lavish curtains, and a foppish Italian visitor form the backdrop to this Gothic tale.

I never succeeded in dating the action: the only major clue is that it takes three weeks to travel between southwest England and Florence, which seems to point to the nineteenth century. But a lack of definite markers makes the story feel timeless and almost like a fairy tale. Although she shrewdly looks out for her own interests and can manipulate Philip’s emotions, Rachel is no stereotypical witch. Sally Beauman’s introduction to my Virago paperback usefully points out that we only ever see Rachel through the male gaze (Philip’s perhaps unreliable narration and Ambrose’s letters) and that from the title onward she is defined in relation to men. In making a bid for her own independent life, she is the true heroine of what Beauman calls du Maurier’s “most overtly feminist” novel.

I always love the murky atmosphere of du Maurier’s work, but can find her plots contrived. However, this ended up being my favourite of the four I’ve read so far. Initially, it reminded me of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, while by the end I was wondering if Janet Fitch took it as inspiration for White Oleander. There’s an unusual pair for you! Make of it what you will…

What else should I read by du Maurier?

Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal

Today I’m taking part in the “blog blast” for Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal (translated from the French by Jessica Moore), which is published today by MacLehose Press.

This is the third novel I’ve read by de Kerangal, after her 2017 Wellcome Book Prize winner, Mend the Living, and 2019’s The Cook. Painting Time resembles the former in the way it revels in niche vocabulary and the latter in that it slowly builds up a portrait of the central character. But all three books could be characterized as deep dives into a particular subject – the human body, gastronomy, and painting, respectively.

The protagonist of Painting Time is Paula Karst, one of 20-some art students who arrive at the Institut de Peinture in Brussels in the autumn of 2007 to learn trompe l’oeil technique. They’re taught to painstakingly imitate every variety of wood and stone so their murals will look as convincing as the real thing. It’s a gruelling course, with many hours spent on their feet every day.

Years later, the only classmates Paula has kept up with are Jonas, her old flatmate, with whom she had a sort-of-almost-not-quite relationship, and their Scottish friend Kate. The novel opens with the three of them having a reunion in Paris. Given this setup, I expected de Kerangal to follow all three characters from 2007 to the near past, but the book sticks closely to Paula, such that the only secondary characters who come through clearly are her parents.

It’s intriguing to see the work that comes Paula’s way after a degree in decorative painting, including painting backdrops for a Moscow-set film of Anna Karenina and the job of a lifetime: working on a full-scale replica of the prehistoric animal paintings of the Lascaux Caves (Lascaux IV). The final quarter of the novel delves into the history of Lascaux, which was discovered in 1940 and open to the public on and off until the late 1960s. Deep time abuts the troubled present as Paula contemplates what will last versus what is ephemeral.

As de Kerangal did with medical terminology in Mend the Living, so here she relishes art words: colours, tools, techniques; names for types of marble and timber (Paula’s own surname is a word for limestone caves). The long sentences accrete to form paragraphs that stretch across multiple pages. I confess to getting a bit lost in these, and wanting more juicy interactions than austere character study. However, the themes of art and history are resonant. If you’ve enjoyed de Kerangal’s prose before, you will certainly want to read this, too.

My thanks to MacLehose Press for access to an e-copy via NetGalley.

Three on a Theme for Mother’s Day

In advance of (American) Mother’s Day, I picked up two novels and a set of short stories that explore the bonds between mothers and their children, especially daughters. The relationships can be fraught or fractured, but always provide good fodder for psychologically astute fiction.

 

Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander (2020)

Hope: A Tragedy, Auslander’s 2012 debut, is among my absolute favorites, an outrageously funny novel that imagines Anne Frank is alive and dwelling in a suburban attic, frantically tapping out her endless magnum opus. Solomon Kugel, the sap blessed to have an icon sharing his home, has a deluded mother who actually grew up in Brooklyn but believes she survived the Holocaust and now hoards food and curses the Nazis who ruined her life.

I start with that bit of synopsis because Mother for Dinner showcases rather analogous situations and attitudes, but ultimately didn’t come together as successfully for me. It’s a satire on the immigrant and minority experience in the USA – the American dream of ‘melting pot’ assimilation that we see contradicted daily by tribalism and consumerism. Seventh Seltzer works in Manhattan publishing and has to vet identity stories vying to be the next Great American Novel: “The Heroin-Addicted-Autistic-Christian-American-Diabetic one” and “the Gender-Neutral-Albino-Lebanese-Eritrean-American” one are two examples. But Seventh is a would-be writer himself, compelled to tell the Cannibal-American story.

For years Mudd, the Seltzer family matriarch, has been eating Whoppers for each meal in a customary fattening-up called the Cornucopiacation. She expects her 12 children, who are likely the last of the Cannibal kind, to carry on the tradition of eating her corpse after her death. It’s a way for ancestors to live on in their descendents. The Cannibal Guide, disguised as a deer processing manual, sets out the steps: Drain (within two hours), Purge, Partition, Consume (within 24 hours). Unclish, the Seltzers’ uncle, drilled the rules into them when they were kids through rhymes like “A bite and half / and you won’t need another, / whether it’s your father, your sister, / or even your mother.” From her deathbed, Mudd apportions her body parts to her offspring, some tenderly and some vengefully. Their inheritance – a Brooklyn dump that will still net $5.2 million – is conditional on them performing the ritual.

Interspersed with sections on the practicalities of butchering and cooking a morbidly obese woman are flashbacks to key moments of Cannibal history, which has turned into myth. In 1914, Julius Seltzer left the paradisiacal “Old Country” with his sister Julia, who pretended to be his wife and traveled with him to Detroit to work for Henry Ford. (An overt parody of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.) Mudd is vocally intolerant of all other minority groups, from Blacks to homosexuals, and always chooses the version of history that reflects best on her own ancestors, while the Seltzers’ father was more willing to admit flaws.

My proof copy, with a joke on the cover, came with a napkin!

Auslander is pushing the boundary of what an author can get away with, not just with a literal cannibalism storyline but also with jokes about historical atrocities and the recent trend for outing beloved figures as reprehensible (what Seventh calls “Contemporary Assholization Studies”). He shares Lionel Shriver’s glee for tipping sacred cows. I did appreciate his picture of the pervasiveness of xenophobia – the “You’re Not Me” look that anyone can get when walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood – and his willingness to question the value of beliefs and ceremonies once they’ve stopped being reasonable or of use. But with all the siblings known by numbers, it’s hard to distinguish between them. The novel ends up heavy on ideas but light on characterization, and as a whole it leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

My rating:


With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (2016)

{CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.}

Like so many who were impressed with the Women’s Prize-shortlisted The Vanishing Half, I rushed to get hold of Bennett’s California-set first novel, which, while not as skillfully put together, is nearly as emotionally engaging. After her mother’s suicide, 17-year-old Nadia Turner only has her father, a Marine, but they are bolstered by their church family at Upper Room Chapel. Nadia is a bright girl headed to Michigan for college, but in her senior year she gets mixed up with Pastor Sheppard’s 21-year-old son, Luke, leading to a pregnancy and abortion that his parents swiftly cover up / pay for. Luke drops her at the clinic and hands over the money, but doesn’t pick her up; that looks the acrimonious end of their relationship.

But in the years to come, especially when Nadia takes a break from law school to care for her father, their lives will intersect again. Nadia’s best friend in that final year of high school was Aubrey Evans, who is estranged from her mother, who failed to protect the girl from sexual abuse at the hands of her own boyfriend. Now Aubrey wears a purity ring, enamored with the idea that faith will make her clean again. Once Nadia leaves, she starts dating Luke, ignorant of her best friend’s history with him. This sets up a love triangle mired in layers of secrets.

There is dramatic irony here between what the characters know about each other and what we, the readers, know – echoed by what “we,” the church Mothers, observe in the first-person plural sections that open most chapters. I love the use of a Greek chorus to comment on a novel’s action, and The Mothers reminded me of the elderly widows in the Black church I grew up attending. (I watched the video of a wedding that took place there early this month and there they were, perched on aisle seats in their prim purple suits and matching hats.)

Nadia and Aubrey are relatable characters, and Luke earns our sympathy after the cruel return of his football injury. (I was intrigued to see that Peter Ho Davies was one of Bennett’s teachers – his novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a rare picture of male grief after abortion, also present here.) Bennett explores multiple facets of motherhood: memories of a mother, the absence of a mother, the choice to become a mother, and people who act in the place of a mother by providing physical care or being a source of moral support.

The timeline is a bit too long, which makes the plot wander more than it needs to, but this is a warm and bittersweet novel that always held my interest. Bennett has produced two winners in a row, and I look forward to seeing what she’ll do next.

A favorite line: “Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” (not literally vast like in the Auslander!)

Source: Birthday gift (secondhand) from my wishlist last year

My rating:

 

Close Company: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, ed. by Christine Park and Caroline Heaton (1987)

I read 14 of 25 stories, skipping to the ones that most interested me (by familiar names like Sue Miller, Sylvia Plath, and Jeanette Winterson), and will read the rest next year. The only story I’d encountered before was Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” originally published in Bluebeard’s Egg. The title phrase comes from Jamaica Kincaid’s story. A recurring theme is women’s expectations for their daughters, who might repeat or reject their own experiences. As the editors quote from Simone de Beauvoir in the introduction, “the daughter is for the mother at once her double and another person.”

I particularly liked “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of “The Little Mermaid,” and “Swans” by Janet Frame, in which a mother takes her two little girls for a cheeky weekday trip to the beach. Fay and Totty are dismayed to learn that their mother is fallible: she chose the wrong beach, one without amenities, and can’t guarantee that all will be well on their return. A dusky lagoon full of black swans is an alluring image of peace, quickly negated by the unpleasant scene that greets them at home.

Two overall standouts thus far were “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker and “The Unnatural Mother” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In Walker’s story, which draws on the parable of the Prodigal Son, a hip Afro-wearing daughter returns to her mother’s rural home and covets the quilts and butter churn – to her this is quaint folk art that she wants to take away and display, but her mother and sister resent her condescension towards their ‘backward’ lives.

Gilman is best known for The Yellow Wallpaper, but this story has a neat connection with another classic work: the main character is named Esther Greenwood, which is also the protagonist’s name in Plath’s The Bell Jar (consider this a preview of my next Book Serendipity roundup!). A gossiping gaggle of women discuss Esther’s feral upbringing and blame it for her prioritizing altruism over her duty to her child. A perfect story.

Source: Free mall bookshop

My rating: (so far)

 

If you read just one … Make it The Mothers. (But do also pick out at least a few stories from the Close Company anthology.)

Adventures in Rereading: Madeleine L’Engle and Posy Simmonds

I’m not doing as well with my rereading goal this year as I did in 2020. So far I’ve gotten to The Republic of Love by Carol Shields and the two below (with another DNF). Considering that I completed 16 rereads last year, I’m looking seriously behind. I still have a bulging shelf of books I’d like to reread, but they never seem to make it onto my current reading stack…

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

I probably picked this up at age seven or so as a natural follow-on from the Chronicles of Narnia – both are well-regarded children’s sci fi/fantasy from an author with a Christian worldview. In my memory I didn’t connect with L’Engle’s work particularly well, finding it vague and cerebral, if creative, compared to Lewis’s. I don’t think I ever went on to the multiple sequels. As an adult I’ve enjoyed L’Engle’s autobiographical and spiritual writing, especially the Crosswicks Journals, so I thought I’d give her best-known book another try.

On a proverbially dark and stormy night, Meg Murry and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace come down to the kitchen to join their mother for a snack. In blows Mrs. Whatsit with the promise of a way of rescuing their missing scientist father through a “tesseract,” or wrinkle in time. Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, rounding out a trio of Macbeth-like witches, accompany the children and their friend Calvin on a perilous journey to face up to cosmic darkness in the form of a disembodied brain called IT that keeps their father hostage and tries to entrance Charles Wallace as well.

Interplanetary stories have never held a lot of interest for me. (As a child, I was always more drawn to talking-animal stuff.) Again I found the travels and settings hazy. It’s admirable of L’Engle to introduce kids to basic quantum physics, and famous quotations via Mrs. Who, but this all comes across as consciously intellectual rather than organic and compelling. Even the home and school talk feels dated. I most appreciated the thought of a normal – or even not very bright – child like Meg saving the day through bravery and love. This wasn’t for me, but I hope that for some kids, still, it will be pure magic.

Favorite lines:

“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”

“we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”


Original rating (as remembered from childhood):

My rating now:

 

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2007)

This must be one of the first graphic novels I ever read. Hearing that it was an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, one of my favorite novels, was enough to attract me. During the years that I worked at King’s College London, I took full advantage of Lambeth Library’s extensive graphic novel collection and would pick up big piles of all sorts of books on my lunch breaks – I got a gentle ribbing from library staff nearly every time I showed up. Anyway, this is all backstory to me finding a severely underpriced secondhand copy (99p! the dear old ladies pricing things couldn’t have known what they had) in the Hay-on-Wye Oxfam shop in April 2017. It took me until earlier this year to reread it, though.

Simmonds recreates the central situation of FFTMC – an alluring young woman returns to her ancestral village and enraptures three very different men – but doesn’t stick slavishly to its plot. Her greatest innovation is in the narration. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, the novel is told in turns by Dr. Glen Larson, a (chubby, Bryson-esque) visiting American academic trying to get to grips with his novel; Beth Hardiman, who runs the retreat center and does all the admin for her philandering crime writer husband, Nicholas; and Casey Shaw, a lower-class teenager who, with her bold pal Jody, observes all the goings-on among the posh folk from the local bus shelter and later gets unexpectedly drawn in to their lives.

Tamara is a hotshot London journalist and, after a nose job, is irresistible to men. Andy Cobb, the Hardimans’ groundsman, runs a small organic food business and is a clear stand-in for Hardy’s Farmer Oak. He’s known Tamara nearly all their lives, and isn’t fussed about her new appearance and glitzy reputation. But she certainly turns Nicholas’s head, and also draws the attention of Ben, former drummer for a washed-up band. Tamara and Ben are a power couple in this sleepy village, and stir up jealousy. Ben is closest to Sergeant Troy, but he and Nicholas (who’s most like Boldwood) aren’t one-to-one equivalents. Casey and Jody fill the role of the servants and rustics, with chavs serving as the early 21st-century peasantry.

So Simmonds takes what she wants from Hardy, but adapts it as it suits her. There are a lot of words on the page compared to some graphic novels, so this would be a good halfway house for someone who’s new to comics for adults and still wants a good story to get the teeth into. At nearly 150 pages, there’s plenty of time for Simmonds to spin an involved, dramatic tale and give insight into her characters and their interactions. One ends up feeling, perhaps inevitably, more sympathy for the narrators than for the other characters, but all are well drawn. There’s a surprise ending, too. Back in 2010 I was probably more interested in getting a straight Hardy remake, so might have been disappointed when Simmonds strayed from the source material, but now I thoroughly enjoyed this for its own sake.


Original rating (2010?):

My rating now:

And a DNF:

I’ve long considered A.S. Byatt a favorite author, and early last year my reread of one of her story collections was successful. But trying again with The Biographer’s Tale (2000) – which I remember reading in an airport as I traveled to or from Leeds, where I was doing a Master’s degree, to see my family for Christmas in 2005/6 – was a lost cause. I remembered an intricate, clever, witty take on the biographer’s art, but couldn’t have recited any details for you. I managed about the first 100 pages this time. Phineas G. sets out to write a biography of famous biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose subjects included Francis Galton, Henrik Ibsen, and Carl Linnaeus. The novel quotes extensively from Destry-Scholes’s writing on these three, and his general notes on writing biography. I got lost somewhere in the documents. I think in my early twenties I was more impressed by virtuoso faux-scholarly writing like you often get in Byatt or Julian Barnes. Alas, it engages me less now.

Done any rereading lately?

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)

The readalong that Cathy of 746 Books is hosting for Brian Moore’s centenary was just the excuse I needed to try his work for the first time. My library had a copy of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, his most famous work and the first to be published under his own name (after some pseudonymous potboilers), so that’s where I started.

Judith Hearne is a pious, set-in-her-ways spinster in Belfast. As the story opens, the piano teacher is moving into a new boarding house and putting up the two portraits that watch over her: a photo of her late aunt, whom Judith cared for in her sunset years; and the Sacred Heart. This establishment is run by a nosy landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice, and her adult son Bernard, who is writing his poetic magnum opus and carrying on with the maid. Recently joining the household is James Madden, the landlady’s brother, who is back from 30 years in New York City. Disappointed in his career and in his adult daughter, he’s here to start over.

Moore’s third-person narration slips easily between the viewpoints of multiple characters, creating a dramatic irony between their sense of themselves and what others think of them. Initially, we spend the most time in Judith’s head – an uncomfortable place to be because of how simultaneously insecure and hypercritical she is. She’s terrified of rejection, which she has come to expect, but at the same time she has nasty, snobbish thoughts about her fellow lodgers, especially overweight Bernard. The dynamic is reversed on her Sunday afternoons with the O’Neills, who, peering through the curtains as she arrives, groan at their onerous duty of entertaining a dull visitor who always says the same things and gets tipsy on sherry.

An unfortunate misunderstanding soon arises between Judith and James: in no time she’s imagining romantic scenarios, whereas he, wrongly suspecting she has money stashed away, hopes she can be lured into investing in his planned American-style diner in Dublin. “A pity she looks like that,” he thinks. Later we get a more detailed description of Judith from a bank cashier: “On the wrong side of forty with a face as plain as a plank, and all dressed up, if you please, in a red raincoat, a red hat with a couple of terrible-looking old wax flowers in it.”

Oh how the heart aches for this figure of pathos. James’s situation, what with the ultimate failure of his American dream, echoes hers in several ways. Something happens that lessens our sympathy for James, but Judith remains a symbol of isolation and collapse. The title also reflects the spiritual aspect of this breakdown: Judith feels that she’s walking a lonely road, like Jesus did on the way to the crucifixion, and the Catholic Church to which she’s devoted, far from being a support in time of despair, is only the source of more judgment.

Alcoholism, mental illness, and religious doubt swirl together to make for a truly grim picture of life on the margins. The novel also depicts casual racism and a scene of sexual assault. No bed of roses here. But Moore’s writing, unflinching yet compassionate, renders each voice and perspective distinct in an unforgettable character study full of intense scenes. I especially loved how the final scene returns full circle. I’d particularly recommend this to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor, and fans of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. I’ll definitely try more from Moore – I found a copy of The Colour of Blood in a Little Free Library in Somerset, so will add that to my stack for 20 Books of Summer.

My rating:


The “P.S.” section of the Harper Perennial paperback I borrowed from the library contains a lot of interesting information on Moore’s life and the composition of Judith Hearne. After time as a civilian worker in the British army, Moore moved to Canada and became a journalist. Later he would move to Malibu and write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

The protagonist was based on a woman Moore’s parents invited over for Sunday diners in Belfast. Like Judith, she loved wearing red and went on about the aunt who raised her. Moore said, “When I wrote Judith Hearne I was very lonely, writing in a rented caravan, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning almost no money as a reporter and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.” The novel was rejected by 12 publishing houses before the firm André Deutsch, namely reader Laurie Lee and co-director Diana Athill, recognized its genius and accepted it for publication.

Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Leilani, Lockwood, and Lyon) & Predictions

Tomorrow, Wednesday the 28th, the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I have read just over half of the longlist so far and have a few more of the nominees on order from the library – though I may cancel one or two of my holds if they don’t advance to the shortlist. Also, my neighbourhood book club has applied to be one of six reading groups shadowing the shortlist this year via a Reading Agency initiative. If I do say so myself, I think we put in a rather strong application. We’ll hear later this week if we’ve been chosen – fingers crossed!

The three longlisted novels I’ve read most recently were all by L authors:

 

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie’s voice is immediately engaging: cutting, funny, pithy. It reminded me of Ava’s in a fellow Women’s Prize nominee, Exciting Times, and both novels even employ a near-identical metaphor: “I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat” (Dolan) versus “all the kids stacked underneath my trench coat rejoice” (Leilani). They are also both concerned with how young women negotiate a confusing romantic landscape and look for meaning beyond a dead-end career. The African-American Edie’s entry-level work for a New York City publisher barely covers her rent at a squalid shared apartment. She’s shagged every male in the office and is now on to one she met online: Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with an open marriage and a Black adopted daughter.

As Edie insinuates herself into Eric’s suburban New Jersey life in peculiar and sometimes unwitting ways, we learn more about her traumatic past: Both of her parents are dead, one by suicide, and she had an abortion at age 16. Along with sex, her main escape is her painting, which is described in tender detail. There are a number of amusing scenes set at off-the-wall locations, like a theme park, a clown school, and Comic Con. Leilani has a knack for capturing an entire realm of experience in just a few pages, as when she satirizes current publishing trends or encapsulates what it’s like to be a bicycle delivery person.

But, as a Goodreads acquaintance put it, all this sharp writing is rather wasted on the plot. I found the direction of the book in its second half utterly unrealistic, and never believed that Edie would have found Eric attractive in any way. (His interest in her is beyond creepy, really.) What I found most intriguing, along with the painting hobby, were Edie’s interactions with other Black characters, such as a publishing company colleague and Eric’s adopted daughter – there’s an uncomfortable sense that they should have a natural camaraderie and/or that Edie should be some kind of role model. I might have liked more of that dynamic, instead of the unbearable awkwardness of temporary instalment in a white neighbourhood. Other readalikes: Queenie, Here Is the Beehive, and On Beauty.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy is one of my absolute favourite books, so Lockwood’s debut novel was one of the 2021 releases I was most looking forward to reading. It took me a while to warm to, but ultimately did not disappoint. It probably helped that I was familiar with the author’s iconoclastic sense of humour. This is a work of third-person autofiction – much more so than I’d realized before I read the Acknowledgments – and to start with it feels like a flippant skewering of modern life, which for some is all about online personality and performance. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.”

Midway through the book, she receives a wake-up call in the form of texts from her mother summoning her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life.” Shit just got real, as they say. But “Would it change her?” she asks herself. Apparently, this very thing happened to Lockwood’s own family, which accounts for how heartfelt the second half is – still funny, but with an ache behind it, the same that I sensed and loved in Priestdaddy.

It is the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. As the protagonist tells her students at one point, “Your attention is holy,” and with life so fragile there is no time to waste. What Lockwood is trying to do here is even bigger than that, though, I think. She mocks the whole idea of plot yet takes up the mantle of the “social novel,” as if creating a new format for the Internet-age novel in short, digestible sections. I’m not sure this is as earth-shattering as all that, but it is entertaining and deceptively deep. It also feels like a very current book, playing the role that Weather did in last year’s Women’s Prize race. (See my Goodreads review for more quotes, spoiler-y discussion, and why this book held personal poignancy for me.)

 

Consent by Annabel Lyon

I’m always drawn to stories of sisters and this was an intriguing one, though the jacket text sets it up to be more of a thriller than it actually is. After their mother’s death, Sara, a medical ethicist, looks after Mattie, her intellectually disabled sister. When Mattie is lured into eloping, Sara’s protective instinct goes into overdrive. Meanwhile, Saskia, a graduate student in French literature, feels obliged to put her twin sister Jenny’s needs first after a car accident leaves Jenny in a coma. There are two decades separating the sets of sisters, but aspects of their experiences reverberate, with fashion, perfume, and alcoholism appearing as connecting elements even before a more concrete link emerges.

For much of the novel, Lyon bounces between the two storylines. I occasionally confused Sara and Saskia, but I think that’s part of the point (why else would an author select two S-a names?) – their stories overlap as they find themselves in the position of making decisions on behalf of an incapacitated sister. The title invites deliberation about how control is parcelled out in these parallel situations, but I’m not sure consent was the right word to encapsulate the whole plot; it seems to give too much importance to some fleeting sexual relationships.

At times I found Lyon’s prose repetitive or detached, but I enjoyed the overall dynamic and the medical threads. There are some stylish lines that land perfectly, like “There she goes … in her lovely coat, that cashmere-and-guilt blend so few can afford. That lovely perfume she trails, lilies and guilt.” The Vancouver setting and French–English bilingualism, not things I often encounter in fiction, were also welcome, and the last few chapters are killer.

 


The other nominees I’ve read, with ratings and links to reviews, are:

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

 

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

 

The rest of the longlist is:

  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – I might read this from the library.
  • The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig – I’d thought I’d give this one a miss, but I recently found a copy in a Little Free Library. My plan is to read it later in the year as part of a Patricia Highsmith kick, but I’ll move it up the stack if it makes the shortlist.
  • Because of You by Dawn French – Not a chance. Right? Please!
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – A DNF; I would only try it again from the library if it was shortlisted.
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon – I might read this from the library.
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – I will definitely read this from the library.
  • Summer by Ali Smith – I struggle with her work and haven’t enjoyed this series; I would only read this if it was shortlisted and my book club was assigned it!

 

My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  4. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  5. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  6. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

vs.

My predicted shortlist and reasoning:

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – A dead cert. I’ve said so since I reviewed it in June 2020.
  2. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – Others don’t seem to fancy Doshi’s chances, and it’s true that she was already shortlisted for the Booker, but I feel like this could be more unifying a choice for the judges than, e.g. Clarke or Lockwood.
  3. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – Another definite.
  4. Luster by Raven Leilani – Not as strong as the Dolan, in my opinion, but it seems to have a lot of love from these judges (especially Vick Hope, who emphasized how perfectly it captured what it’s like to be young today), and from critics generally.
  5. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – Ordinarily I would have said the Prize is too staid to shortlist a trans author, but after all the online abuse that has been directed at Peters, I think the judges will want to make a stand in support of her legitimacy.
  6. Summer by Ali Smith – The most establishment author on the list, and not one I generally care for, but this would be a way of recognizing the four-part Seasons opus and her work in general. Of the middle-aged white cohort, she seems most likely.

I will happily accept some mixture of my wished-for and predicted titles, and would be surprised if any of the five books I have not mentioned is shortlisted. (Though quite a few others are predicting that Claire Fuller will advance; I’d have no problem with that.) I don’t think my book club would get a say in which of the six titles we’d be sent to read for the shadowing project, which is risky as I may have already read it and not want to reread, or it may be a surprise nominee that I don’t want to read, but I’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.

Callum, Eric, Laura and Rachel have been posting lots of reviews and thoughts related to the Women’s Prize. Have a look at their blogs!

Rachel also produced a priceless spreadsheet of all the Prize nominees by year, so you can tick off the ones you’ve read. I’m up to 150 now!

Spring Reading 2021: Birdsong, Cherry Blossom & More

It’s been a gorgeously sunny spring here – how about where you are? Although there have still been some frosty nights troubling the gardeners among us, it’s been warm in the daytime and the flowers and blossom are coming on apace.

Recently I’ve read a couple of books reflecting on the spring of 2020, specifically the opportunities it offered to reconnect with local nature at a time when we were isolated and couldn’t travel.

I’ve also been feeling nostalgic for Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, where I grew up. It’s been two years since my last trip back, but I’m holding out hope that I can make it over in June for a family wedding.

Rounding out my selection of “Spring” titles is an offbeat Japanese novella.

 

Looking back to the coronavirus spring:

On Thursday evening I watched “The Act of Nature Watching,” a special Earth Day Zoom talk for West Berkshire Libraries by local nature writer Nicola Chester, whose memoir is coming out in the autumn. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries, she lamented. We are hardwired to watch and love nature, she noted, yet have never been more alienated from it. Reading from her columns and anthology contributions (as well as the Lovatt, below) and giving tips on recognizing birdsong and mammal signs, she spoke of nature-watching as a form of mindfulness – an approach that chimed with the first three books I feature here.

 

Birdsong in a Time of Silence: An Awakening by Steven Lovatt (2021)

During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, from Birmingham and now based in South Wales, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. (He even gives step-by-step instructions for sounding like a magpie.) Birdsong takes him back to childhood, but feels deeper than that: a cultural memory that enters into our poetry and will be lost forever if we allow our declining bird species to continue on the same trajectory.

Mentions of current events are sparse and subtle, so the spring feels timeless, as it should. I worried there might be too much overlap with A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, but there’s room for both on your shelf. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds: “The song of a turtle dove is like the aural equivalent of a heat-haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing.”

 

Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (2021)

Lovatt must have been a pupil of Moss’s on the Bath Spa University MA degree in Travel and Nature Writing. The prolific Moss’s latest also reflects on the spring of 2020, but in a more overt diary format. Devoting one chapter to each of the 13 weeks of the first lockdown, he traces the season’s development alongside his family’s experiences and the national news. With four of his children at home, along with one of their partners and a convalescing friend, it’s a pleasingly full house. There are daily cycles or walks around “the loop,” a three-mile circuit from their front door, often with Rosie the Labrador; there are also jaunts to corners of the nearby Avalon Marshes. Nature also comes to him, with songbirds in the garden hedges and various birds of prey flying over during their 11:00 coffee breaks.

His speaking engagements and trips cancelled, Moss turns to online events instead. Twitter serves as a place for sharing outrage over UK politics and world events like George Floyd’s murder, but also as a welcoming community for sharing nature sightings. As the lockdown come to a close, he realizes that this time has had unexpected benefits: “Having to press the pause button … has made me rethink my life, in a good way.” He feels that, for once, he has truly appreciated the spring, “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home”. This made for perfect reading in Somerset last week.


Also recommended: The Consolation of Nature by Marren, McCarthy and Mynott

 

Remembering springs back home:

Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947)

“The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe … knowledge of spring gives me the freedom of the world.”

For Halle, who worked in the State Department, nature was an antidote to hours spent shuffling papers behind a desk. In this spring of 1945, there was plenty of wildfowl to see in central D.C. itself, but he also took long early morning bike rides along the Potomac or the C&O Canal, or in Rock Creek Park. From first migrant in February to last in June, he traces the spring mostly through the birds that he sees. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook that makes Halle a forerunner of writers like Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. He notes that those caught up in the rat race adapt the world to their comfort and convenience, prizing technology and manmade tidiness over natural wonders. By contrast, he feels he sees more clearly – literally as well as metaphorically – when he takes the long view of a landscape.

I marked so many passages of beautiful description. Halle had mastered the art of noticing. But he also sounds a premonitory note, one that was ahead of its time in the 1940s and needs heeding now more than ever: “When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had all better make ourselves ready for another Flood.”

This was a lucky find at Hay Cinema Bookshop back in September. For me it was the ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel, though I imagine it might not mean as much to those without a local connection. The black-and-white in-text illustrations by Francis L. Jaques are a particularly nice addition.

 

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to Washington, and guess what I’ve seen… by Russell Punter and Dan Taylor (2019)

More cherry blossoms over tourist landmarks! This is part of a children’s series inspired by the 1805 English rhyme about London; other volumes visit New York City, Paris, and Rome. In rhyming couplets, he takes us from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial via all the other key sights of the Mall and further afield: museums and monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, even somewhere I’ve never been – Theodore Roosevelt Island. Realism and whimsy (a kid-sized cat) together; lots of diversity in the crowd scenes. What’s not to like? (Titled Kitty cat, kitty cat… in the USA.)

 

And, as a bonus, some fiction in translation:

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014; 2017)

[Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton]

Like a Murakami protagonist, Taro is a divorced man in his thirties, mildly interested in the sometimes peculiar goings-on in his vicinity. Rumor has it that his Tokyo apartment complex will be torn down soon, but for now the PR manager is happy enough here. “Avoiding bother was Taro’s governing principle.” But bother comes to find him in the form of a neighbor, Nishi, who is obsessed with a nearby house that was the backdrop for the art book Spring Garden, a collection of photographs of a married couple’s life. Her enthusiasm gradually draws Taro into the depicted existence of the TV commercial director and actress who lived there 25 years ago, as well as the young family who live there now. This Akutagawa Prize winner failed to hold my interest – like The Guest Cat, it’s oddly preoccupied with architectural detail, a Japanese fascination that doesn’t translate so well.

 

Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?

BanksRead 2021: Espedair Street (1987)

The dead end just off Lonely Street

It’s where you go, after Desperation Row

Espedair Street

I had my first taste of Iain Banks’s work last year with The Crow Road and was glad to have an excuse to read more by him for Annabel’s BanksRead challenge.

I chose Espedair Street, which was in surprisingly high demand at my local library: I was in the middle of a queue of five people waiting for a novel released nearly 35 years ago! Luckily, the system’s single copy came in for me in early April.

This was Banks’s fourth novel. I recognized the Glasgow and western Scotland settings and witty dialogue as recurring elements. The Scottish dialect and slang were somehow easier to deal with here than in books like Shuggie Bain. Daniel Weir (nicknamed “Weird”) is a former rock star, washed up though only in his early thirties and contemplating suicide. He has all the money he could ever want, but his relationships seem to have fizzled.

Dan takes us back to the start of his time with the band Frozen Gold in the 1970s. He acknowledges that he only ever had limited musical talent; although he can play the bass well enough, his real gift is for lyrics. Songwriting was mostly what he had to offer when he met bandmates Dave and Christine after their gig at the Union:

What am I doing here? I thought once more. They don’t need me, no matter how good the songs are. They’ll always be heading in different directions, moving in different circles, higher spheres. Jesus, this was life or death to me, my one chance to make the great working class escape. I couldn’t play football; what other hope was there to get into the supertax bracket?

Boldly, he told them that night that they were a good covers band but needed their own material, and he had sheaves of songs at the ready. From here, it was an unlikely road to a world tour in 1980, but a perhaps more predictable slide into the alcohol abuse and gratuitous displays of wealth that will leave Dan questioning what of true value he retains.

Dan’s voice, as in the passage above, is mischievous yet confessional. The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll theme made me think of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six, a rather more enjoyable novel for its interview format and multiple perspectives, but both include pleasing made-up lyrics. Here Dan’s frequent use of ellipses threatened to drive me mad. It might seem a small thing but it’s one of my pet peeves.

I think I’ll make The Bridge my next from Banks – my library owns a copy, and he called it his favourite of his books.

Do check out all of Annabel’s coverage from the past week: she’s given a great sense of the breadth of Banks’s work, from science fiction to poetry.