The Dog by Joseph O’Neill was enjoyable in its own way and, at times, well observed. Dubai must be a weird place to live and the adjustments the rather unpleasant narrator makes to his moral compass in order to survive are not totally beyond the pail, just a degree or so above what we all do to survive in UKIP Britain! The narrator is not only hard to like but almost friendless so the picture we get of him builds by very slow degrees which I enjoyed. I’d like a go in his chair as well!! This is a bit of a man’s book, I suspect, and I’m not sure that female readers would give him the time of day to finish the book but I was sufficiently entertained to go on and if you have the time to read because you employ a cleaner it might make you reflect for a moment! You might think twice if you have a dog as well!
I Can’t Begin to Tell You by Elizabeth Buchan is another good book in parts. The occupation of Denmark is well illustrated and the author communicates well the suspicion, the fear and, at times, the hopelessness of living with it. Reading the book, you live on the edge with the resistance as well as sharing in the tribulations of the British wireless operators who support them. I think the weakness for me is the lack of depth in the central character. She gets dirtier as the book goes on and acts more ruthlessly but somehow I missed the internal development and the subtle bits of what it takes to tear up your family life for a cause. Maybe because all relationships are corrupted by war it is hard to show character development through them. Anyway, it is a reasonable read and it makes you think how lucky we are to have never been occupied in the Twentieth Century.
Scherzo: Murder and Mystery in 18C Venice by Jim Williams was a bit of a Venetian romp with a lot of darkness, canals, murder, masks, seduction, drains and general dirtiness. Too clever by half with a character who might or might not be Voltaire and a castrato, plus the odd vertically challenged person for good measure. The story flicks about a bit and some bits of it are not exactly necessary to the narrative but if you like that sort of thing and a scant regard for historical accuracy which I admire then it’s okay.
Reading The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw is one of those where you get the impression that an author has a couple of books that will never get finished so they stitch them together and call them a novel. Maybe it’s me, but I found the narrative links in this book so tenuous that it simply didn’t hang together. I was also not altogether taken in by the view of Japan which seemed a bit predictable at times – bowing and stuff. That’s a shame as I like the style of Mark Henshaw’s writing which is often well observed and stylish.
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty is a so-so sort of book. I can’t help but think that she read The Slap by Christos Tsolkias which is also Australian and to my mind a bit more subtle. The secret which the husband is keeping is pretty serious but for some reason he wrote it all down and lost the letter which might be called careless. When his wife finds out, her systematic life, nicely bound up in a Tupperware metaphor, gets its lids mixed up and she falls apart. I felt a bit sorry for the teacher in the book and I kept getting the women mixed up. The husband with the secret is a complete drip and for various reasons it was quite impossible to feel any sympathy for him. I think the book could have been better with some tweaking.
I found the highly rated Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn vaguely entertaining but also a bit sour! The concept is nice but it gets a bit strained at times because the story is told by two unreliable narrators and you make your own sense of it. Amy. the wife, is a bit too clever for my taste and Gillian Flynn glosses over several things she does which would have clearly been difficult to achieve without giving anything away. Her husband is not as bright but, really, not a nice person – well I didn’t warm to him anyway – although I think the writer starts to like him more as she goes on. The police are a bit dim especially at the end which I thought was a bit of a cop-out (geddit!).
Ina slightly similar relationship sort of way I found One Day by David Nicholls increasingly disappointing as it went on. Some of the reviews wanted to imply that this was quite a significant read and some kind of chronicle of our social and cultural history. I suppose it might have been designed as such but it is really pretty shallow even if readable. So, surprise surprise, I’ve been made redundant so I go out and buy an electric car and listen to Olly Murs on my iPod before stumbling off for some geriatric sex. One of those books written with Wikipedia open while the sense of an emerging and growing set of relationships didn’t quite come across for me.
Another real oddity is The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. Sometimes you read a book and you wonder if somewhere along the line you missed the point or, of course, maybe there wasn’t one to miss! That’s how I feel about this book which might, just might, be something very subtle about how literature co-constructs and guarantees reality or it could be a bit of a murder story with a flawed female detective gradually finding her way through the evidence to solve a crime that happened years before or, there again, it could be a ghost cum fantasy story with some odd fantastical characters who tumble from the story world into reality. The central character, the literary guru, might be dead or alive or some kind of symbolic muse. It could all be real or it could be someone’s narrative. If you like that kind of uncertainty then this novel might be for you but, personally I like a few more clues. Stylistically, I got a bit fed up with the central character who doesn’t always act intelligently but seems to get out of the scrapes she gets into. Finally, the central conceit about the literary club started to fall flat for me as it sort of got rather silly and then a lot of dogs turned up to help sort out the ending. Barking? This book might be!
An equally weird read was The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. This is a strange book to comment on but at heart it is about a spiritual meltdown for the hero and his pastor role in space. Oddly, he kind of has it on a plate – nice congregation, comfy life but he fluffs it. Why he left his wife to go is a big issue for me and not altogether convincing. Then, what happens to her happens in letters so there isn’t much scope for development. He spends a lot of time being sweaty and scabby and generally not taking care of himself either with the aliens or at the base and has to get rescued a couple of times so you begin to think why bother! In between he props himself up with the Bible and his mission with the aliens. Not enough happens here as the Base is pretty unchanging in its ways and people don’t share much so the book has its flat moments. At the end he goes back and you want to know what happens to him. Does he find Bea? What state is the world in? We should be told!
Quite different is The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney which is a good book in some ways but it’s not for the squeamish. In fact, its main topics are prostitution, drugs, alcoholism, organised crime and violence (often to people incapable of resistance). The trouble with this kind of story is that you don’t get a break and you end up dry mouthed and slightly hung over. In that sense, it reminds me of A Brief History of Seven Killings which had the same feel and the same refusal to acknowledge any sort of humanity in its characters who are propelled into this chaotic world and don’t seem able to get off the train. Even when people try to be kind and form loving relationships two pages later you’re into pregnancy, abortion and it all goes wrong. Maybe, it’s like that in Ireland but it is an extreme picture, bleak and pessimistic about humanity.
After You’d Gone by Maggie Farrell is well written but depressing! This was my first Maggie Farrell and I wasn’t expecting much but she writes very well. The plot was a bit dire though full of unremittingly horrible people and sad. Don’t read it to cheer yourself up!
The Sellout by Paul Beatty was another book I couldn’t make my mind up about. Sometimes you hear something and you don’t quite get the joke and you wonder why is everyone else laughing? It’s embarrassing. I’m a bit like that with this book. I know it’s very sharp wit and the central idea that white endeavours not to be racist probably are and maybe that’s partly true and there’s a lot of USA guilt about it but it passes me by like a lot of the Los Angeles references and the throwaway lines which might work better in stand-up than a book. I kind of think it’s a trendy read for us honkies to show we’re cool about not being racist but maybe that’s racist too. I wouldn’t have given it the Booker but I can see why they did being so smart as the judges are and able to tell the emperor’s new clothes when they see them – or maybe not…
It’s unusual to read a book about Jews in World War Two who survived although it takes some mighty coincidences for The Girl from Krakow by Alexander Rosenberg to achieve it and maybe that makes it a more interesting read. I think there’s a hint of personal biography here as well which adds a bit of extra authenticity. Sometimes the characters are a bit wooden and obvious, it’s a downer on homosexuality and the baddies are very bad, but also it sometimes surprises you. The heroine is done for at the end but the German who has tracked her down realises that the end of the war is imminent and let’s her off. War was probably like that – a bit of a lottery. The ending is a bit sentimental but let that go. Overall, well written, a different take and a good first novel.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson is a book, probably just of its time, about how Twitter can destroy reputations and a selection of people who post one daft tweet which goes viral. It’s also about misogyny and hate generally and how Twitter let’s you give these feelings play anonymously. It’s about how you can collaborate to bring someone down because you think they deserve it. It’s then the shaming which leaves the scars that people cannot recover from. In a way, it is a bit old fashioned already and perhaps online abuse is now accepted in a way that makes it more survivable but the misogyny and hate remains. Part of the problem is to do with writing and permanence and we haven’t worked that out yet as a society. If you met Katie Hopkins at a dinner party you wouldn’t go there again but the way her opinions get circulated and set in stone is new. What is worrying is how this enforces a kind of need to say what is safe and avoid risk and that leads to a dull conformity. We could all end up like politicians only ever making carefully nuanced comments. Setting boundaries and pushing the margins is Foucault of course, and leads to the normalised statement and the anodyne analysis which is not exactly the stuff of debate. A book to make you think but also well written and entertaining. Me, I’m going to carry on arguing!
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig is essentially about a person who never dies and is not very grateful! Matt Haig knows how to tell a good story and he has an easy writing style so there is a lot to enjoy about this narrative which, without giving anything away, features a very old man in the 21st-century who ages much more slowly than the rest of us and has been around all over the place in the past. I have a slight issue with time travel type books which is that the protagonists always seem to have bumped into all kinds of famous people and this bloke does seem to have done that rather a lot. There’s also a rather silly secret organisation which features and kind of gets sillier. I think the writer realises this by making out this is treatise on what true happiness and that is interesting but it doesn’t quite work either. The book raises a few questions like if you lived for five hundred years wouldn’t you quite likely get accidentally killed in a war, murdered or run over and skates over what happens if you’re ill but if you not too questioning as a reader it’s good fun. Me? I was left thinking maybe threescore years and a bit more is enough for anybody…
Exit West is by the Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid and focuses on war and its unlikely casualties. There’s lots to recommend and enjoy about this novel. The slowly unfolding relationship of Nadia and Saeed is set against the background of a city, probably Syrian but never stated, which is falling apart into civil war and extremism. The way this happens is understated so that a series of events somehow build together to make the place unlivable. No one takes sides, the crisis just happens and this slow slide into catastrophe is well described. Then the novel changes gear, the lovers become escapees and migrants making their way across a changed world. I’m not sure about this second half of the novel. The lovers remain real enough as they now grow apart while they cross the globe in slightly fantastical ways. Finally, they drift apart as the world order resolves itself. I wouldn’t have given this the Booker. I’m not sure the second half of the novel works convincingly although I can see what it is trying to do. Also, I found the matter of fact documentary style in describing the collapse of the city, sparse and interesting in its own way but, eventually, it stopped me identifying with the characters who were not sufficiently touched by it.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a good read but a bit of a trial towards the end (haha). I really enjoyed the start of this book and the way the setting and characters were built up. The book gives a powerful sense of the chaos which must have involved society in the generation after 1918, the notion that you were somehow having to let your standards and expectations decline is nicely portrayed as is the notion that there could still be ‘fun’ to be had which comes with the arrival of the paying guests. I also liked the way the flirtatiousness and the inevitability of the love interest developed – not easy to draw that picture and Sarah Waters does it really well. However, the second half of the book dragged for me and I skipped a bit. It was less immediate, slightly second hand and it didn’t carry me with it. I don’t think it would have happened like that really! As an aside, the book links in to some really interesting stuff about the independence of the post-war new woman being marginalised, and even criminalised, and a bit of domestic history that our generation has never engaged with.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer possessed a significant flaw in that the characters didn’t seem very interesting to me. It’s a long account of the lives of a small group of people using flashbacks and it kicks off with them all meeting up at summer camp. Some unlikely things go on to happen to some of them, which were not altogether convincing and sometimes the flashbacks are a bit knowing like name-dropping tunes and people or fashion fads. I found the summer camp a bit over sentimentalised but perhaps Americans like that. In overall terms, the narrative holds together okay and for the most part I think the book is well written. It would make a good book club choice as the characters would give you lots to talk about if you found them… er… interesting.