Tag Archives: Chris Beckett

Continuing the Story: Why I’m Wary of Sequels and Series, with Some Exceptions

Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.

It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).

But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).

A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.

 

So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?

 

I want to know what happens next.

 

WINNERS:

After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.

Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.

 

LOSERS:

Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.

Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.

 

 

I want to spend more time with these characters.

 

WINNERS:

Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.

I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).

Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.

Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.

Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.

 

LOSERS:

H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.

The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.

I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.

The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.

I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.

 


What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.

 

Sequels: yea or nay?

My Patchy Experience with Book Clubs

I know that a number of you have long-term, faithful book clubs. Boy, am I envious! You might find it surprising that I’ve only ever been in one traditional book club, and it wasn’t a resounding success. Partway through my time working for King’s College, London, an acquaintance from another library branch started the club. A group of five to eight of us from Library Services aimed to meet after work one evening a month at a Southbank venue or a staff room to discuss our latest pick. By poring over old e-mails and my Goodreads library, I’ve managed to remember 10 of the books we read between November 2011 and June 2013:

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick [classic science fiction]
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott [Canadian historical fiction]
  • A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon [contemporary fiction]
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith [classic suspense]
  • The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox [bizarre historical fiction/magic realism]
  • What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn [contemporary fiction]
  • Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger [classic short fiction]
  • The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar [graphic novel in translation]
  • Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith [an update of Greek myth]
  • Angel, Elizabeth Taylor [an obscure English classic]

That may well be the complete list. Although I was a member for 20 months until I quit to go freelance, we often only managed to meet every other month because we couldn’t find a mutually convenient free evening or no one had read the book in time. I was consistently frustrated that – even when our selections were only about 200 pages long – I was often one of the only people to have read the whole book.

Overall, the quality of books we chose struck me as mediocre: I rated half of these books 2 stars, and the rest 3 stars. (I think I was a harsher rater then, but it’s not a good sign, is it?) Perhaps this is part of the inevitable compromising that goes with book clubs, though: You humor other people in their choices and hope they’ll be kind about yours? My suggestion, for the record, was the pretty dismal Little Shadows, for which I got a free set of book club copies to review for Booktime magazine. But I also voted in favor of most of the above list.

Looking back, I am at least impressed by how varied our selections were. People were interested in trying out different genres, so we ranged from historical fiction to sci-fi, and even managed a graphic novel. But when we did get together for discussion there was far too much gossipy chat about work, and when we finally got around to the book itself the examination rarely went deeper than “I liked it” or “I hated all the characters.”


If it was profound analysis I was after, I got that during the years I volunteered at Greenbelt, an annual summer arts festival with a progressive Christian slant. I eagerly read the eclectic set of three books the literature coordinator chose for book club meetings in 2010 – Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – and then as a literature volunteer for the next three years I read and prepared copious notes and questions about our festival “Big Read.” We did Exile by Richard North Patterson in 2011, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett in 2012 and So Many Ways to Begin by Chris Beckett in 2013, and each time I offered to chair the book club meetings.

Unfortunately, due at least in part to logistical considerations, these were run in the way many festival events are: a panel of two to five talking heads with microphones was at the front of the tent, sometimes on a raised dais, while the audience of whatever size sat towards the back. This created a disconnect between the “experts” and the participants, and with the exception of the McGregor meeting I don’t recall much audience input. I’ve mostly blanked out the events – as I tend to for anything that entails public speaking and nervous preparation for something you can’t control – but I was pleased to be involved and I should probably make more of this on my CV. It wasn’t your average book club setting, that’s for sure.

In recent years the closest thing I’ve had to a book club has been online buddy reading. The shadow panels for the Wellcome Book Prize and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award fall into this category, as do online readalongs I’ve done for several Iris Murdoch novels and for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity with various female family members. A few of us book bloggers chatted about Andrea Levy’s Small Island in an online document earlier this year, and my mom and I e-mailed back and forth while reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in May. I’m also doing my last three of the #20BooksofSummer as online buddy reads, checking in occasionally on Twitter.

Of course, there are some inherent limitations to this kind of discussion – people read at different paces and don’t want to spoil the plot for others, and at some point the back-and-forth fizzles out – but it’s always been easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing, so I likely feel more comfortable contributing than I might in an in-person meeting.


This is all context for my decision to join my neighborhood book club next month. The club arose some months back out of our community’s Facebook group, a helpful resource run by a go-getting lady a few doors down from us. So far it’s turning out to be a small group of thirty- and fortysomething women who alternate meetings at each other’s houses, and the name they’ve chosen gives an idea of the tone: “Books, Booze and Banter.”

I made the mistake of not getting involved right at the start; I wanted to hang back and see what kind of books they’d choose. This means I wasn’t part of the early process of putting titles in a hat, so I’ve looked on snobbishly for several months as they lurched between crime and women’s fiction, genres I generally avoid. (Still, there were actually a couple books I might have joined them for had I not been in America and had they been readily available at the public library.) For many people a book club selection will be the only book they get through that month, so I can understand how they’d want it to be something ‘readable’ that they’d be happy to pick up anyway. Even though statistically I read 27 books a month, I’m still jealously protective of my reading time; I want everything I read to be worthwhile.

So for September I managed to steer the group away from a poorly received historical novel of over 400 pages and the new Joël Dicker and onto Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, which the bookstore chain Waterstones has been promoting heavily as one of their books of the month. I already had a charity shop copy in hand and the others liked the sound of it, so we’re all set for September 12th! Future months’ literary fiction choices look promising, too, so provided I enjoy the discussion and the camaraderie I plan to stick with it: a backlist Pat Barker novel I’ve not read, and Kirsty Logan and Jonathan Coe novels I’ve read before and won’t reread but will remind myself about briefly before the meetings.

I’m out of practice with this book club thing. My mother tells me that I have a lot to contribute but that I must also be open to what I’ll learn from other people – even if I don’t expect to. So I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert. In fact, I probably won’t even mention that I’m a freelance book reviewer and book blogger. Mostly I’m hoping to find some friendly faces around the neighborhood, because even though we’ve lived here just over two years I still only know a handful of names and keep myself to myself as I work from home. Even if I have to read books I wouldn’t normally, it’ll be worth it to meet more people.

 

What has your experience with book clubs (in person and online) been?

Some Books I Was Surprised to Love

Like most fiction readers, I generally stick with what I’m pretty sure I’ll like. For me that means that, unless I’ve heard very good feedback that makes me think the book will stand out from its peers, I tend to avoid science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels (or genre fiction in general). I’m also leery of magic realism and allegories, as these techniques can so often be cringe-inducing. But occasionally a book will come along that proves me wrong.

to-say-nothingFor instance, last week I finished To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!). Once I got into it, I read it extremely quickly – finishing the final 230 pages on one Sunday afternoon and evening – and it provoked a continuous stream of snorts. I can hardly think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to. 4-5-star-rating


This got me thinking about some other pleasantly surprising books that took me outside of my usual reading comfort zone in recent years:

dark-edenDark Eden by Chris Beckett: Six generations ago a pair of astronauts landed on the planet Eden and became matriarch and patriarch of a new race of eerily primitive humans. A young leader, John Redlantern, rises up within the group, determined to free his people from their limited worldview by demythologizing their foundational story. Through events that mirror many of the accounts in Genesis and Exodus, Beckett provides an intriguing counterpoint to the ways Jews and Christians relate to the biblical narrative. Page-turning science fiction with deep theological implications. I liked each of the two sequels less than the book that went before, but they’re still worth reading. 4-star-rating

dead-in-their-vaultedThe Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley: Normally I shy away from series and tire of child narrators – and yet I find the Flavia de Luce novels positively delightful. Why? Well, Canadian author Alan Bradley’s quaintly authentic mysteries are set at Buckshaw, a crumbling country manor house in 1950s England, where the titular eleven-year-old heroine, also the narrator, performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) is the best yet. In this installment, Flavia finally learns of her unexpected inheritance from her mother. The most recent, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8), is a close second. 4-star-rating

discovery-ofA Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: The thinking gal’s Twilight. Harkness, a historian of science, draws on her knowledge of everything from medieval alchemy to recent DNA mapping. The main character, reluctant witch Diana Bishop, is studying alchemical treatises at the Bodleian Library. She calls up an enchanted manuscript from Ashmole’s original collection, presumed missing since 1859. There are three excised pages, and the book instantly draws attention from the myriad “creatures” (non-humans) plaguing Oxford. Enter Matthew Clairmont, a mega-hot vampire with a conscience. From rural France to upstate New York, he and Diana fight off rival vampires and the witches who killed Diana’s parents. As with Beckett’s books, the two sequels are a bit of a letdown, but the first book is great fun. 4-star-rating

you-too-canYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: A full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on body image, consumerism and conformity. The narrator, known only as A, lives in a shared suburban apartment. She and her roommate, B, are physically similar and emotionally dependent, egging each other on to paranoid anorexia. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we compulsively buy things we don’t need, have no idea where our food comes from and worry about keeping up a facade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. 5-star-rating

first-fifteen-livesThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: The theme of a character reliving the same life over and over will no doubt have you thinking of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but I liked this book so much better. Perhaps simply because of the first-person narration, I developed much more of a fondness for Harry August and his multiple life stories than I ever did for Ursula Todd. Harry, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, is born in the same manner each time – on New Year’s Day 1919, in the ladies’ restroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed rail station! – but becomes many people in his different lives. 4-star-rating


What books were you surprised to love recently?

Reviews Roundup, April–May

One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)

[I seem to have done more ‘free’ than ‘required’ reading this past month, which I attribute to having been on vacation in America for about two weeks of that time.]

BookBrowse

turner houseThe Turner House by Angela Flournoy [subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free on the website]: In Flournoy’s debut novel, the 13 grown children of Francis and Viola Turner must put aside their own personal baggage and decide what will become of their parents’ Detroit house during the financial crisis.

4 star rating

 


The Bookbag

Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett: This sequel to 2012’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning science fiction novel Dark Eden sees Gela’s descendants splitting into factions and experimenting with different political systems. Starlight Brooking emerges as a Messiah figure, spreading a secret message of equality. Releases June 4th.

4 star rating                   

sophie and sibylSophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker: In Duncker’s sixth novel, a playful Victorian pastiche, George Eliot’s interactions with her German publisher and his feisty young wife provide fodder for Daniel Deronda. Consciously modeled on John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, this is a postmodern blending of history, fiction, and metafictional commentary.

4 star rating

 


We Love This Book

gracekeepersThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan: This inventive debut novel imagines a circus traveling through a flooded future world. Humanity is divided into two races, landlockers and damplings. Fear and prejudice distance these groups but the novel imagines them drawn together through a meeting between two young women, Callanish and North.

 3 star rating


Foreword Reviews

organ brokerThe Organ Broker by Stu Strumwasser: “There is no shortage of organs; there is only a shortage of organs in America.” The antihero of this debut novel finds organs on the international market and sells them for huge profits to Americans on transplant waiting lists. With snappy dialogue and a lovable hustler protagonist, it explores ethical ambiguities.

4 star rating

 


BookTrib

I chose my top four mother–daughter memoirs (by Alice Eve Cohen, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel and Jeanette Winterson) for this Mother’s Day article.


I also post reviews of most of my casual reading on Goodreads.

 

Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner: A writer of Tudor-era mysteries turns to more recent history with this novel about Coco Chanel. Detailing every business venture and love affair, he makes some parts a real chronological slog. I always associate Chanel with the 1950s–60s, so it was interesting to learn that she was born in the 1880s and experienced both world wars.

3 star rating

 

empathy examsThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: I liked the medical-related pieces – attending a Morgellons disease conference, working as a medical actor – but not the Latin American travel essays or the character studies. The overarching theme of empathy was not as strong as I thought it would be; really, the book is more about how experiences mark the body.

3 star rating

 

The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook by Ellen McCarthy: McCarthy writes about weddings and relationships for The Washington Post. This is a collection of short pieces about modern dating, breakups, wedding ceremonies, marriage, and making love last. The style is breezy and humorous, largely anecdote- and interview-based, with some heartfelt moments. If you’re a wedding junkie you’ll definitely enjoy it, but I didn’t think it broke new ground.

2.5 star rating

 

visiting hoursVisiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy E. Butcher: The facts are simple: one night towards the end of their senior year at Gettysburg College, Kevin Schaeffer walked Butcher home from a drunken outing, then stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death. This book has elements of a true crime narrative, detailing the crime and speculating on possible causes for Kevin’s psychotic episode, but it’s more about how the crime affected Butcher. This is a concise and gripping narrative reminiscent of Half a Life by Darin Strauss.

4 star rating

 

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell: Vee, Lady and Delph are the fourth generation of Alters, a Jewish family cursed with a rash of suicides. Indeed, the majority of the novel is the middle-aged sisters’ collective suicide note, narrated in the first-person plural. They reach back into the past to give the stories of their ancestors, including great-grandparents Iris and Lenz Alter, the latter of whom had the ironic distinction of being the Jewish creator of Zyklon gas (based on a real figure).

3.5 star rating

 

Beloved Strangers: A Memoir by Maria Chaudhuri: Islam versus Christianity is a background note, but the major theme is East versus West – specifically, Chaudhuri’s native Bangladesh set against America, where she attended university and later lived and worked. Religion, sexuality, dreams and second chances at love are all facets of the author’s search for a sense of home and family in a life of shifting loyalties. (My full review will appear in the autumn 2015 issue of Wasafiri literary magazine.)

3 star rating

 

shore sara taylorThe Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands off the coast of Virginia. As a Maryland native, I think of Chincoteague and Assateague as vacation destinations, but Taylor definitely focuses on their dark side here: industrial-scale chicken farms, unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence, bootleg liquor, gang rape, murders and meth labs.

4 star rating

 

Echoes of Heartsounds: A Memoir by Martha Weinman Lear: Longtime New York City journalist Lear’s first husband, a doctor named Hal, died after a series of heart attacks. Ironically, 30 years later she was admitted to the same hospital for a heart attack – an event that presents completely differently in women. As a sequel to her previous memoir, Heartsounds (1980), this explores life’s odd parallels and repetitions.

4 star rating

 

readers of broken wheelThe Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald: A Swedish tourist opens a bookstore in small-town Iowa. Given that she’d never visited the States at the time she wrote this novel (published in her native Sweden in 2013), Bivald has painted a remarkably accurate picture of a Midwestern town peopled with fundamentalists, gays, rednecks and a gun-toting diner owner. A cute read for book lovers, provided you can stomach a bit of chick lit / romance.

3 star rating

 

Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness by Sasha Martin: Martin writes well and I enjoyed this book overall, but at times you may become frustrated and ask “where’s the food?!” That’s because the makeup of this book is: Misery Memoir – 70% / Global Table Adventure blog – 30%. Martin had the idea to cook dishes from every country of the world. At the rate of one feast per weekend, the blog project took four years. She manages to give a fairly comprehensive overview of the cooking she did over that time.

3 star rating

 

Plumb Line by Steve Luttrell: Disappointingly average poems about nature and memory. The situations and sentiments are relatable but the language so plain that nothing sticks out.

2 star rating

 

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert: The picture Kolbert paints of our environmental situation is depressing. I already knew the facts of climate change and animal extinction, but according to Kolbert the prognosis is even worse than I was aware. As a longtime New Yorker journalist, she writes at a good level for laymen: not talking down, nor assuming any specialist knowledge. Luckily, there are spots of humor to lighten the tone.

3.5 star rating

 

circling the sunCircling the Sun by Paula McLain: This is just as good as The Paris Wife – if not better. I didn’t think I was very interested in aviatrix Beryl Markham, but McLain proved me wrong. The love triangle between her, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton forms the kernel of the book. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on the external thrills, though there are plenty of those.

4 star rating

 

The Size of Our Bed by Jacqueline Tchakalian: Well-structured and grouped into thematic sections, these poems are primarily about motherhood, the death of a much-loved husband from cancer, and adjusting to the reality of war. Alliteration and assonance stand in for traditional rhymes. Tchakalian is especially good with colors and flowers, which combine to create memorable metaphors. Releases September 15th.

4 star rating