Posts Tagged Kate Atkinson

60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 15-28

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the second instalment of my reading diary, with the third to follow on 10 September.    I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.

14 August. Day 15 –  reading Kate Atkinson is, as always, a delight. My 2016 books blog said:

And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.  I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling.  I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again.  Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.

Case Histories is obviously different, it’s crime fiction if one has to pin a genre on it, featuring Jackson Brodie (PI) who was played by Jason Isaacs in a TV version a few years back.  Not sure why I’ve never read Atkinson’s detective fiction since I’ve loved her other books and – as must be fairly obvious – I love crime/detective fiction.   OK, it wasn’t strictly necessary to illustrate this with the DVD cover but, well, Jason Isaacs.

brodie

The Le Carré memoir is fascinating.  It’s years since I read any of his books, but I have read a lot of them (and watched the recent adaptation of The Night Manager).  Le Carré introduces The Pigeon Tunnel with a caveat:

These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?

But he says that nothing is consciously falsified – merely disguised where necessary.

lecarre

His account of his friendship with Yvette Pierpaoli (the inspiration for Tessa in The Constant Gardener) is a highlight – an extraordinary woman who lived and died in the pursuit of a mission to help people who needed it, in particular refugees, in war zones around the world.  Coincidentally, le Carré’s (or more accurately Cornwell’s) world overlapped with Alan Bennett’s (anecdotes about Alec Guinness, and Lindsay Anderson, for example).  And another coincidence – Cornwell senior was a fairly monstrous (if sometimes pathetic) figure, a crook and a swindler, and monstrous fathers have cropped up a number of times in the books I’ve read so far.

Now reading Jane Casey’s The Last Girl, her third Maeve Kerrigan thriller.

casey

I’ve read the previous two, and Casey’s stand-alone novel, The Missing, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much.  I might have slipped up, however, in reading two crime novels concurrently – will try to avoid that in future, so I don’t get my corpses mixed up…

15 August. Day 16 – I think the occasional sense of familiarity I’m getting from Case Histories must be déjà vu rather than déjà lu.  There are multiple narrative threads – too early to see if/how they come together – but not all of them evoke that feeling, which is probably because the TV series simplified things and some story-lines and/or characters were excised.   As always, I revel in Atkinson’s writing.  She can set you up to find a character ridiculous or unlikeable and then suddenly, wham, you’re weeping or cheering for them.

The Last Girl was thoroughly enjoyable.  Maeve Kerrigan is a convincing and intriguing protagonist, and there is a host of persuasive characters – colleagues, suspects, victims – with whom she interacts.  Her two key relationships – with her partner, Derwent, and her boyfriend, Rob – have layers of ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty which make them interesting.  This wasn’t my favourite Casey – it’s a wee bit talky, and a bit baggy in the middle, perhaps.  Nothing that stopped it being a grand read, nor will it deter me from devouring the rest of the Maeve Kerrigan series.

Something a bit different now, Michelle Paver’s Thin Air.

paver

Finished Case Studies.  Right to the end, it was funny, and terribly sad and utterly engaging.  Did I mention I love Kate Atkinson?

16 August.  Day 17 – alongside the Michelle Paver (which is gripping stuff), I’m about to start Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.   Here I anticipate incredulity and outrage – what do I mean, I’ve never read this?  How can I possibly claim any credibility as a feminist and a booklover and a leftie and, well, anything else, if I haven’t read it?  Well, I don’t know, I just somehow never got round to it.  I did read a couple of hers many years back, The Edible Woman, for sure, and possibly Cat’s Eye.  But not this one.  I have seen the TV series, which was outstanding, powerful, extraordinary and harrowing.  Time I read the book then.

atwood

 

17 August.  Day 18 – if I was concerned that having seen the TV adaptation so recently, reading The Handmaid’s Tale would be a let down, I need not have been.   The TV series does, I know, depart significantly from the book in plot terms later on (there are already aspects which are interestingly different and I will be fascinated to see how they pan out).  But the book can do things that the TV series cannot, even with June/Offred’s narration to help us out, in the description of places and things that go so far beyond the literal and the visual.  It’s been said that the best books make the worst screen adaptations, and there are many I’ve seen that would bear that out, although plenty also to disprove it – in this case both the book and the TV adaptation are immense, and horrifyingly pertinent, and will stay in the mind and the heart long after they have been read or watched.

Thin Air is an excellent read – it’s about an ascent, some time between the two world wars, of Kanchenjunga.  I don’t know the historical basis for it, and will (by a considerable and commendable effort of will) not Wikipedia it.  It’s billed as a ghost story, and so far, so atmospheric.

Finished Thin Air.  It’s an old-fashioned sort of ghost story – partly that’s created by the narrator’s voice, he’s very much a man of his time and class, partly because there is always a degree of ambiguity about the haunting, whether it is the product of fear, guilt, altitude sickness – or whether there really is something terribly wrong on Kanchenjunga’s south-west face.   There’s a chill in the air, in every sense.

Now reading Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, the true story of Second World War double agent Eddie Chapman.  A fascinating character, Eddie.   And the story is told with a dry humour that promises well:

Which is how Eddie Chapman came to be pounding down a Jersey beach, leaving in his wake two plain-clothes policemen, a distraught young woman, and half a sherry trifle.

macintyre

 

18 August.  Day 19 –  The Handmaid’s Tale is astonishing.  I am trying not to focus too much on the differences between the book and the TV series, just to take in the book for what it is.  What strikes me is the sense of time stretching out for these women, whose lives have been essentially reduced to one function, waiting for the moments when they have to perform, waiting each month to see whether they will be able to fulfil that function, or whether some other, worse, future threatens.  The other thing is the sheer physicality of the descriptions.  As the Handmaids have been reduced to their biological function their bodies become paramount, the sensations of their (modest and hygienic) clothing on their skin, their memories of desire and of a loved person’s arms around them, or a child in their arms.   The other thing of course is that the book is entirely from June/Offred’s point of view – we know only what she knows, whereas the TV series tells the stories of some of the other characters, showing events which June did not witness or learn about.  This makes the book even more brutal and gives huge power to her statement about why she is setting down her account, why she is bearing witness, without knowing that that there is anyone to bear witness to:

It hurts me to tell it over, over again.  Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story  because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place.   What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being.  Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence.  I tell, therefore you are.

Just finished The Handmaid.   I fear I’ve rushed it, which was always going to be a risk with this exercise, but I will look forward to a re-read at some later point, when I can savour it properly.

Agent Zigzag often seems a less plausible tale than Atwood’s dystopian fantasy.   As with so many books I’ve read about espionage and counter-espionage in WWII, what strikes one quite often is that the Allies’ success is due to a mix of brilliance (breaking codes, turning German agents), the incompetence of the Abwehr (sending agents who could barely speak English and/or were utterly unfamiliar with the culture – for example the one who tried to pay for a pint with £10 and 6 shillings, when he’d been charged 10 & 6 ….), and sheer luck.

On now to M L Stedman’s The Light between Oceans.  I haven’t seen the film (the trailer looked a bit maudlin for my taste), but the book got some good reviews, and has been recommended by my daughter.

stedman

 

19 August.  Day 20 –  Finished the extraordinary story of Agent Zigzag.  Brilliantly told by Ben Macintyre, who sees his subject clearly and without sentimentality, but with justifiable respect and warmth.

About to start Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth.  Billed as an ‘apocalyptic chiller’ – I haven’t yet read anything by Sarah Moss but seem to have several stored up on the Kindle so will be interested to try this one.

moss

20 August.  Day 21 – Cold Earth gets off to a thoroughly intriguing start.  Set in Greenland on an archaeological dig, Moss juxtaposes the narrator’s voice (Nina, who travels a lot but hates being anywhere she’s not within walking distance of bookshops and good fairtrade coffee, and who worries about everything) and another darker voice from a distant past, along with hints of something bad happening back at home …  No idea how this will play out but can’t wait to read on.

21 August.  Day 22 – Finished Cold Earth.  Interesting how it links in with two of the other books I’ve read as part of this challenge – All the Little Children, and Thin Air.  I can’t think of any way of fully explaining what I mean by this, without risking major spoilers, so will limit myself to saying that there are elements of (possible/threatened) apocalypse in common with the first, and of hauntings (possible/imagined) with the second.  And they share a prickly unease, a sense of the uncanny, and of growing dread.  I mentioned the narrator as being Nina, who gets the first section of the book to herself, but in fact each of the protagonists is given their own voice, so each sets the events, and the other people, in a different light.

Also finished The Light between Oceans. This was emotionally gripping, not so much the story of a moral dilemma, but of a moment when a choice was made – the wrong choice – and events unfolded inexorably such that ‘putting things right’ meant making everything wrong. This could have been a specious exercise in manipulation – it is much better than that, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and the setting too.  We are drawn in to the life on the island and the responsibilities of the lighthouse keeper, so that we understand how that terribly wrong choice was made.  Yes, it’s melodramatic, at points, and yes it is a weepie.  Nothing wrong with that, if it’s well written.  It sounds as though the film may tip things over into an excess of heart and tear-duct wringing, though….

22 August.  Day 23 – on to a sci-fi classic now, H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau.  It’s of particular interest since this 1896 novel inspired the brilliant TV series, Orphan Black (whose final series we are currently watching).   This edition has an intro by Margaret Atwood which is heralded with spoiler warnings so I will read it after rather than before I read the story.

In parallel with H G, I’m reading a thriller which is very much of the moment.  Startlingly so.  Sam Bourne’s To Kill the President is not about past conspiracy theories (no grassy knolls here).  It’s about what happens when the unthinkable happens, and the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger is a ‘volatile demagogue’, an ‘increasingly crazed would-be tyrant’:

When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launching a nuclear attack, it’s clear someone has to act, or the world will be reduced to ashes.

bourne

Obviously any resemblance to real persons or situations is entirely uncoincidental…  It was written, presumably, during the election campaign, but must have been finished by or very shortly after the inauguration.  It’s right now, in other words.  Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who’s always worth reading anyway, and this thriller really does thrill.

The Island of Dr Moreau is fascinating – it sits in a way with Frankenstein as a study of man taking on the role of god, in the context of Darwinian theory and with elements of social satire.  It’s uncomfortable, in its depiction of white men manipulating and dominating the humanoid creatures who are in the main black or brown, and are described as brutes and savages (however, this is not simplistically  a reflection of the racial views of the time, but is justified – to a degree – within the narrative in terms of what defines humanity.

Crikey, To Kill the President was a cracking read.  If I’d read it before last November, I would have dismissed it as implausible, but now….   Some of what it talks about has certainly happened, some has nearly happened, and some, well, who knows but it seems an awful lot less fanciful than a few months ago.  The crucial thing is that the ethos of the current White House comes across so powerfully – the very question that causes us libtard /snowflake/antifa/alt-lefties so much puzzlement, which is how this administration, this President, can lie, and lie, and lie, without its supporters losing faith, feeling betrayed and fooled, how anyone can look at him and his cronies and not feel revulsion and fear at what they may be capable of.  I can’t say reading this made me feel better about what’s happening over there and its potential implications for not only the US but the rest of us, but it was exhilarating nonetheless and we have to believe that there are people like the good guys in the book still working for peace and democracy within the institutions of the State, as well as on the streets of Charlottesville and Boston and so forth.

From a (slightly) fictionalised portrayal of a politician without political convictions or a moral compass, to the autobiography of one of the few Tory politicians I can stand (and not only because he’s a Forest supporter), Ken Clarke.

clarke

Finished off the day with a few poems from Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection, Contraflow, published by the estimable Longbarrow Press, whose books are always things of beauty and whose customer service is second to none.   These poems are all inspired by the Rivelin Valley, which we can see from our dining room windows, and have often walked in over the years.

The tales that rivers tell have tangled with our own for millennia: before, through, and after the industrial age. Humans’ rapid migration to towns, often along the course of these waterways, has left many of us bewildered and ill-equipped in an environment at odds with the natural world we depend on. Rivers, bringing the relief of nature to the centres of cities they grew, confront us with forces bare-faced and ancient, seemingly unmoved by our regard. Malleable in their youth, prone to messing about before finding their groove, many were harnessed for mill-work as they matured, and then, like us, after centuries of valuable industry, were abandoned, left to lick their wounds.

All these tales converge in the Rivelin, which rises from peat moorland north-west of Sheffield, and descends 80 metres as it approaches the city. This fast-flowing river, and the valley it etched out, is the setting for many of the poems in Fay Musselwhite’s first collection. Contraflow harnesses these energies to carve its own rugged course, with its bottlenecks, bends and counter-currents: tales that slant, swell and spill.

musselwhite.

23 August.  Day 24 – also reading T C Boyle’s Talk Talk, a thriller about identity theft.  It’s intense, all the more so because one of the three main protagonists is deaf, and her struggles with both hearing and speaking, in her attempts to find out who has appropriated her identity and to set things right, are compelling.   Very hard also not to feel a twinge of paranoia and the need to check and re-check one’s bank statements rather carefully, whilst reading about this sort of crime.

t c boyle

Ken Clarke’s memoir is packed with detail (perhaps a tad too packed) but fascinating to read his insights into the Heath and Thatcher governments, the EU referendum (the 70s one, though I think I know where he stands on the recent one too), and many of the political controversies and upheavals with which I am familiar but not from a Tory POV.   (One does gain the distinct impression that most MPs were at least mildly pissed most of the time during the 60s and 70s.)  Also fascinating to read of his Nottinghamshire childhood and education (he was a Nottingham High School boy, as was my husband a few years later).  Every chapter borrows its title from a jazz number, another reason for my fondness for Ken.

24 August.  Day 25 – Talk Talk was excellent.    It’s billed as a thriller but there’s no neat resolution, and it’s about – obviously – identity, but even more than that, about communication and the gaps and dislocations on which relationships and one’s sense of who one is can founder.   Another writer who’s new to me but who I will read more of anon.

Ken continues to entertain.  I’m up to the John Major government now, Black Wednesday looming.  Fascinating to read his perspective on Thatcher: as a longstanding ‘wet’, ‘not one of us’, and a passionate European, he was never an uncritical supporter but he portrays her, not so much sympathetically on a personal level, but somewhat positively in some respects on a political one, at least until her hubris and the sycophancy of her inner circle brought her down.

25 August.  Day 26 – Just about to start Patrick Gale’s The Whole Day Through.  I’ve read several of Gale’s novels, and loved them, so I’m looking forward to this one.

gale

 

Very little progress today.  Mother in law in hospital after a fall at home, all is reasonably ok but a day spent waiting around (for consultants, paperwork etc) without access to reading matter.

26 August.  Day 27 – The Patrick Gale is every bit as engaging as I hoped it would be.  I was interested to note that amongst his top ten books, along with Proust (yes!), Middlemarch (obv) and Persuasion (my favourite Austen, as it happens), was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – there’s something in common I think between Gale and Tyler, who I’ve always loved (I think my favourite Tyler would be Saint Maybe, or Breathing Lessons, but Homesick Restaurant is fab too).

Managed to read a few pages of the Ken Clarke autobiog whilst doing hospital visiting (Mum had nodded off, so I wasn’t really neglecting my duties…).

27 August.  Day 28 –  Finished The Whole Day Through.  Gale’s protagonists are both engaging and infuriating, they want and try to do the right thing, but they’re flawed and awkward and muddled. One of his other novels is called A Perfectly Good Man, which is a brilliant title because the man in question is quite explicitly not perfect, not in the Aristotelian sense that his goodness is complete, could not be better, and has attained its purpose.  These perfectly good people could always be better, and their goodness often fails to attain its purpose, thwarted by their own flaws.  In a way the title reminds me of the way we say ‘its perfectly OK’ which is an odd phrase, but is used to reassure, where ‘OK’ alone could seem grudging.

Also finished Ken Clarke’s autobiography.   Of course I disagree profoundly with him about many things, but he does seem to me to be a man of integrity and sense, and his passionate commitment to Europe gives us substantial common ground.  One of the really interesting things to emerge is the way in which, from John Major onwards, PMs and Cabinets were in hock to the media, desperately trying to play the (mainly right-wing) press.  Ken was persuaded to hold a meeting with Rebekah Brooks at one point and was quite withering about the notion that he, as a lawyer and one of the most experienced government ministers in that Parliament, should listen to and take seriously policy suggestions from an unelected newspaper editor, whose grasp of ethics was decidedly shaky.

About to start Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata.  I’ve read several of her novels, and have enjoyed them all.

tremain

 

 

Weeks 3-4

So, where am I up to now?  I completed 13 books this fortnight, and am midway through 2 (Musselwhite and Beevor).   Total completed at the end of the fourth week is 25.5 (allowing the Andrea Levy I read in the first tranche as only 0.5 as it was a short story).

I have been somewhat stymied by events, but am pleased to be as close as this to the target.  Allons-y!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 1-14

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days.

Starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.  I originally thought I’d just do one mammoth post at the end of the challenge, but judging by the length of this first entry, it seems more sensible (and kinder to my reader(s)) to post every 14 days.

Rules?  Well, I’m making these up, obviously, since there is as far as I am aware no national or international case law relating to such things.  But I think I have to exclude any re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.  For practical purposes I’m favouring short (obviously), relatively straightforward in narrative terms (nothing too Proustian) and in English as my reading speed in French is far too slow for this exercise.  Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.  I’m including fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), and there’s no reason I can think of to exclude playscripts, or a volume of poetry, as long as I read all of the poems and don’t just dip in, or a collection of short stories.  That raises a question though.  I have on my Kindle some books that are described as short stories – are they too short to count?  How short is too short? The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.

31 July.  Day 1 – already underway: Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain, and David Boyle’s Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance.  Started today, Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective.

1 August.  Day 2 – finished The Last Detective.  That was my first Lovesey, I don’t think it will be my last, not groundbreaking but thoroughly entertaining.  Started and finished today, Jo Furniss – All the Little Children, a bow drawn at a venture, a freebie from Amazon Prime, which turned out to be a cracking thriller (her debut – will watch out for her next book). Meantime continuing with Beevor.  Fascinating, but so dense with names and facts and places and dates that it’s not going to be a quick read.

furniss

2 August.  Day 3 – finished the Dunkirk book.  This was background reading for the brilliant Christopher Nolan film, which gives the audience an immersive experience of survival on the beaches, at sea and in the air, but quite deliberately no context in terms of the strategy or the politics of it all.

Quite a change of pace, style, genre – everything really – for my next read, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat.  A lovely, quirky, funny and sad children’s/YA book, with mysterious Polaroid illustrations that aren’t at all what they first appear to be.  I’m familiar with some of FCB’s work, of course – Brookie, 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, 24 Hour Party People, Who (what variety is displayed there!) but hadn’t come across this one.  A delight.

cottrell boyce

 

Started on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  Years ago I read The Haunting of Hill House, which Stephen King regards as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century, and this one is apparently reckoned to be her masterpiece.

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3 August.  Day 4 – finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  That was brilliant! Gothic and charming and deeply disquieting at the same time.   Must read more Shirley Jackson.

Next up is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid.

hamid

 

4 August.  Day 5 – just finished The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  Fascinating, ambiguous, with a compelling narrative voice.  I’ve been faffing about since finishing that one, trying to find the next thing to go for, and opening one after another without being convinced. Finally decided on Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry.

fitzgerald.

Wow, that was powerful.  A psychological thriller, where the tension and the anguish build up and up, where you want to scream at the protagonists not to make the mistakes they seem to be inevitably about to make, but where you (at least I) could identify intensely with the female protagonists.  I felt almost physically that hot, awful sense of panicky stress that comes with trying to manage a screaming baby on public transport. Not going to say any more for fear of spoilers.

5 August. Day 6 – having been recommended to read something by Andrea Levy, I found Uriah’s War already on my Kindle. It’s described as a short story though – hmmm.   I might have to work out a rule of thumb and count something as a fraction of a book. This was written for the WWI commemorations, inspired by Levy’s discovery that her grandfather fought at the Somme.

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This was indeed a short story.  A good one, albeit not unfamiliar territory if one has read or watched anything about the role of colonial troops in either World War.  I thought in particular of Rachid Bouchareb’s Les Indigenes (Days of Glory) which tells the story of a group of North African soldiers in the latter days of WWII.

On to Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, a collection of personal memoirs.  The first part is a delightful, funny, and often very moving account of his Mam and Dad and the wider family.  His is such a distinctive voice that one can hear it as one reads, and his famed ear for dialogue brings the various family members to vivid life.

bennett

 

6-7 August.  Day 7-8 – Oh no, I’m falling behind!  7.5 books (counting the Levy as .5) at the close of Day 8.  Will have to up my game…

8 August.  Day 9 – Still reading the Alan Bennett.  It must be a big book!  One of the perils of the Kindle, of course, is not being able to weigh the book in your hand, flick through the pages, and judge how long it might take to read.  I’m loving it, anyway.   Still also reading The Battle for Spain but I think I must put that to one side if I’m to have any chance of meeting this ridiculous challenge.

9 August.  Day 10 – I found at my mother-in-law’s house the other day a Daphne du Maurier novel that I’d never heard of, let alone read.  I thought I’d read the lot, obsessively and repeatedly, as a teenager.  This one, Julius, had escaped my notice completely.  I’ve liberated it from Mum’s bookshelves and just started it this morning.

julius

 

10 August.  Day 11 – finally, that’s Alan Bennett sorted.  I seemed to be making such slow progress, despite enjoying it enormously, but the reason became clear when all of a sudden I’d finished the book, with about 25% still to go, the remainder being illustrations (delightful) and index etc.  I thoroughly approve of indexes (indices? or is that something different?) and would ideally like every book to have one, along with a thorough bibliography, but it’s another way in which the Kindle is inferior to the ‘real’ book, in that it’s very clunky to actually make use of such things when you can’t (easily) flick back and forth to check things.   Anyway, the first memoir, focusing on his parents and aunties, was the best bit of the collection but there was a lot more to enjoy, even if ‘enjoy’ seems somewhat the wrong word in relation to his account of being beaten up in Italy, or of treatment for cancer.   And the word ‘splother’, to describe a lot of fuss and to-do-ment, is now firmly a part of my vocab, thanks to Alan’s Dad.

Beginning to get properly into the du Maurier.  I begin also to see one possible reason why this is so much less well known than her other works, which I will probably comment further upon when I’ve finished the book.

Donal Ryan’s The Thing about December was a grand read.  The writing is beautiful and there’s humour and tragedy and ambiguity in Johnsey’s view of the world, lonely and naive, trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it, who may be genuine or duplicitous or a mixture of the two.

ryan

 

11 August.  Day 12 – Valentina Giambanco’s first Alice Madison thriller, The Gift of Darkness.

giambanco

 

12 August.  Day 13 – continuing with Julius – a decidedly uncomfortable read, whilst sharing with du Maurier’s better known work a compelling narrative style.  More anon.

The Giambanco is a cracking police procedural and I shall be adding her to my list of favourite current crime writers.  Her protagonist is Alice Madison, who herself now joins my list of favourite current fictional female cops and PIs (Laura Lipmann’s Tess Monaghan, Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome, Cath Staincliffe’s Sal Kilkenny, Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, and Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw).  Alice has a quality of stillness and steeliness that I love, and there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy).

13 August.  Day 14 – finished Julius.  It’s the portrait of a monster, a man who has to own and control and would rather destroy something than let it get away from him.  Someone who has power but doesn’t understand love, friendship and affection.  Someone who likes to cause pain but doesn’t understand it.  What makes the book so problematic though is not that Julius is a monster – du Maurier has created other monsters, male and female, and her work is never mere bosom-heaving romance but dark, brooding, ambiguous and even nightmarish.   The problem is that Julius is a Jew.  This isn’t mere incidental detail, his Jewishness is referred to on page after page after page.   In so far as he is capable of feeling any real connection with others, it is with other Jews, and at least at moments in the synagogue.  Thus Julie Myerson in her introduction to this edition argues that his monstrosity and his Jewishness are not linked, that ‘if Julius has a benign side, a sensitive side, there’s no doubt that it’s the Jewish side’.  That is so, but I can’t quite buy her statement that du Maurier ‘always avoids the easy racist cliche’. Julius becomes immensely wealthy – through hard work but also through manipulation and exploitation of others.  He’s not, at the beginning, ostentatious in his wealth and remains careful with his fortune, always in control, always pulling the strings.  Nina Auerbach in her study of du Maurier’s work (Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, Pennsylvania UP, 2000), describes him as ‘unsavory (and unpleasantly stereotyped)’, as radiating ‘hunger and hate’.  Julius was written in 1931 (published in ’33), and it’s not uncommon in reading work from this era to find language about and treatment of Jewish characters that grates horribly (not only Jewish, of course, but other racial groups).  Du Maurier evidently came under some pressure later in her career to revise the book and tone down or take out some of the references to Julius’s Jewishness.  Ultimately, however, nothing in the book feeds into the most dangerous narrative, gathering strength and toxicity even as she was writing, of the Jewish race as loyal only to each other, as subverting and undermining the nations that they inhabit, as preying on the gentile community.  Though Julius feels some tug of humanity in relation to his Jewishness it is not enough – his ‘own’ people find him as strange and troubling as everyone else, as impossible to comprehend.  So it is possible to read it as the portrait of an individual, shaped by a brutal early life, driven and consumed and consuming.   Possible, but not easy, and not comfortable.

Also finished The Gift of Darkness, and have already got hold of the second in the Alice Madison series.  Will save that for later though, and start on Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, and Jarlath Gregory’s The Organised Criminal.

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The Organised Criminal is darkly (very darkly) funny, as well as kind of bleak, but with glimmers of hope in friendship – family is a lot more problematic in this exploration of morality, complicity and masculinity.

On to John le Carré’s ‘memoir’, or stories from his life, The Pigeon Tunnel.

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That’s my first fortnight.  I’ve read 12.5 books in 14 days (if the Andrea Levy counts as 0.5) so technically I’m slightly behind.  However, I’ve also read a significant chunk of the Anthony Beevor, and made a start on the John le Carré, so it’s not a bad start.  Onwards!

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Books of the Year 2016

With the luxury of retirement, I’ve done a lot of reading.  These days, though, I’m more likely to put a book to one side, temporarily (if I know it’s good but I just can’t quite get into it right now) or permanently, if the writing is clunky and/or clichéd.   The pile of ‘to read’ books by my bed seems never to be dented by my voracious reading, and that doesn’t even take account of what’s stored on my Kindle.  Life is simply too short to read bad books.  Not when there are so many good books waiting to be read – by which I emphatically do not mean just serious, literary books, let alone ‘improving’ books, but books that expand the reader’s sympathies, take them to other places,  make them care, compel them to read on and read more.

My policy with this annual blog – eagerly awaited, I know, by my loyal readers – is to make no reference at all to the final category.  I want to recommend, to share my enthusiasms, not to knock anyone’s work.

So these are the books that I loved this year.

In non-fiction two titles on current politics stand out.  The first is Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy.  Not an encouraging read, but immensely informative and enlightening, and it seems to me that we need to understand the nature of that new threat, if we are to have a chance of defeating it.  The second is Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in Dark Times, recommended to me via the That’s Where the Light Gets In blog, and a real tonic at a time when it almost seems that the battle is not worth joining, that there is nothing we could do in the face of the tide of unreason and prejudice.

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I discovered Paddy Ashdown’s WW2 histories, thoroughly researched and thrillingly written.  Game of Spies told the extraordinary story of a spy triangle in wartime Bordeaux, involving a secret agent, a right wing Resistance leader, and a Nazi officer, whilst Cruel Victory was a very human story of the Resistance uprising on the Vercors plateau after the D Day landings.

I found myself without any particular plan to do so, reading a succession of accounts of long walks.  Really, really long walks.  Poet Simon Armitage walked the Pennine Way in reverse, Nicholas Crane undertook a seventeen-month journey along the chain of mountains which stretches across Europe from Cape Finisterre to Istanbul, and Cheryl Strayed walked the eleven-hundred miles of the west coast of America alone. None of them were entirely well prepared or equipped for their journeys, all of them were at times injured, miserable, lost.  All three write compellingly and with both poetry and humour about the landscapes and the people they encountered.   Much as I loved reading about their journeys, I did not feel moved to emulate any of them.

Another book about wandering came from the Fife Psychogeographical Society, whose blog has delighted me for a long time.  From Hill to Sea describes various meanderings around Fife and further afield, with poetry and photographs and even a playlist of the music that accompanied the walks.  This wasn’t about walking as a challenge, clocking up the miles or the peaks, but about detours and details, spotting the anomalous, the unexplained.

From the countryside to the city, and Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities.  This is ‘creative non-fiction’, which draws upon a vast range of texts and cultural artefacts to explore ‘the metropolis and the imagination, … mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds.‘ An exhilarating read.

Ian Clayton’s Bringing it all Back Home talks about music the way I think about music.  How the music you love becomes woven into your life, your loves and losses, the places you live in, encounter and remember.  It’s moving and funny throughout, but the coda will break your heart.

And First Light, an anthology of articles in tribute to Alan Garner, whose books have been part of my life since I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child of probably 7 or 8 and it scared the living daylights out of me.  Garner’s writing is spare and stark and beautiful. Philip Pullman says of him that he explores ‘the mysterious subterranean links between the present and the past, between psychology and landscape, between the real and the dream. If the rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs and dens of the land of Britain had a voice, it would sound like Alan Garner telling a story.’  This collection brings together celebrations of his work from writers/readers including Margaret Atwood, Susan Cooper, Neil Gaiman, David Almond and Helen Dunmore.

 

In fiction this year I finally got round to some classics that I’d either never read before, or had read so long ago that I could come to them afresh.  My reading of Conrad’s The Secret Agent was prompted by the TV adaptation, and of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Sam Baker’s excellent modern take on the narrative.  Anne Bronte led me to Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, a story familiar in broad outline but rich in unexpected detail, even if reading it now one cannot help but be aware of the things that could not then be said.

And two French classics, Les Liaisons dangereuses, and Vercors’ Le Silence du mer.

The former is an 18th century epistolary novel, and an extraordinary one.  Where this literary device was usually used to give the sense that one is being admitted to the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, here we find each writer presenting radically different versions of events and motivations depending on who they are writing to.  These are highly unreliable narrators, and it is up to the reader to try to tease out the truth, if indeed it is there to be found.  Are they immoral, embracing transgression for its own sake, or amoral, indifferent to everything except the games they play?

Le Silence was published clandestinely in 1942, during the Nazi Occupation of France.  Jean Bruller’s novel, published under the pseudonym Vercors, is a call to mental resistance to the enemy, written before much organised armed resistance was underway.  It describes a household forced to take in a German officer, where the father and daughter maintain silence in the face of the officer’s attempts to communicate with them, and to show them that he is a cultured and civilised man.

In contemporary fiction, I enjoyed new work by writers who feature most years in my ‘best of’ lists.

Stephen King completed his Mr Mercedes trilogy with the excellent End of Watch, and also produced a selection of short stories (as always with King’s collections, they’re of mixed merit, but there are some crackers in there).

Cath Staincliffe’s The Silence between Breaths was one of the tensest narratives I’ve read all year.  Read it.  Just perhaps don’t read it as I did whilst on a train.

I’d read some of Louise Doughty’s books before (Apple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love) and thoroughly enjoyed them.  Fires in the Dark was something else again.  The narrative takes us from the late ‘20s in Bohemia to the final days of WW2 in Prague, through the lives of a Romany family.  Doughty inducts us into their rich culture as well as drawing compelling and complex characters, so that as the darkness of oppression gathers around them and little by little everything is taken from them, we feel it.  Harrowing and very moving, and immensely enriching.  Her other Roma novel, Stone Cradle tells the story of a family in Britain, through the changes and challenges of the twentieth century, focusing on the lives of two remarkable women.

I found myself drawn to re-read Chris Mullins’ A Very British Coup, which I knew from the TV adaptation years ago with Ray McAnally.  Quite unnerving, sometimes the text could be ripped from today’s papers, but in other respects (the risk of a left-wing Labour leader becoming PM, for example) it seems incredible…

New writers to me –

Deborah Levy’s unsettling Swimming Home

Lynn Alexander’s The Sister, based on the life of diarist Alice, sister of Henry and William James

Walter Kempowski’s account of the chaotic days of the end of WW2, through the eyes of a German family, All for Nothing

Elizabeth Wein’s Codename Verity and Rose Under Fire were powerful and moving YA novels of WW2, with female protagonists, not shrinking from horror but focusing on friendship, courage and love

In Patrick Gale’s wonderful Notes from an Exhibition the notes, part of an imagined posthumous exhibition of an artist’s work, build her story and that of her family, non-sequentially, a bit like a patchwork or kaleidoscope.

Glenn Patterson’s The International is a novel about the Troubles that ends before the Troubles begin, but sets the scene vividly and with black humour

 

And as always, there’s been a fair amount of murder.

Some old favourites (Rebus, Wallander, Dalziel & Pascoe, Ann Cleeve’s Shetland series), more from some more recent discoveries (Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome, and Allan Massie’s Bordeaux novels set in WW2).

I’ll be following up on Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series, which I discovered after reading her stand-alone novel, The Missing.   Another discovery was Michel Bussi, whose Maman a tort was a satisfyingly complex and compelling psychological thriller.  And finally, W H Clark’s An End to a Silence was a riveting read, whose sequels I look forward to immensely.

 

And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.  I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling.  I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again.  Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.

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A notable omission.  I’m stuck on Proust – about an eighth of the way into the penultimate novel of  A la Recherche.  So my objective for next year, as well as making at least a dent in the ‘to read’ pile, and discovering lots of wonderful new writers, and re-reading some of my favourites, is to bloody well finish Proust…

 

 

Lynne Alexander – The Sister

Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities

Simon Armitage – Walking Home

Paddy Ashdown – Game of Spies, The Cruel Victory

Kate Atkinson – Life after Life, A God in Ruins

Sam Baker – The Woman Who Ran

Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Jason Burke – The New Threat from Islamic State

Michel Bussi – Maman a tort

Ian Carlton – Bringing it all Back Home

Jane Casey – The Missing, The Burning, The Reckoning

W H Clark – An End to a Silence

Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent

Nicholas Crane – Clear Water Rising

Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark, Stone Cradle

Fife Psychogeographical Society – From Hill to Sea

Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition

Elizabeth Gaskell – Life of Charlotte Bronte

Sarah Hilary – Tastes like Fear

Walter Kempowski – All for Nothing

Stephen King – Bazaar of Bad Dreams, End of Watch

Choderlos de Laclos – Les Liaisons dangereuses

Deborah Levy – Swimming Home

Laura Lippman – Hush Hush

Allan Massie – Endgames in Bordeaux

Chris Mullins – A Very British Coup

Glenn Patterson – The International

Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark

Cath Staincliffe – The Silence Between Breaths

Cheryl Strayed – Wild

Vercors – Le Silence de la mer

Erica Wagner (ed.) – First Light

Elizabeth Wein – Codename Verity, Rose Under Fire

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