My top ten favourites are listed first…
We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
A supremely creepy and unsettling bit of New England Gothic from the 1960s. It’s written in the first person, from the point of view of Merricat, an 18 year old girl who lives reclusively in the big house with her agoraphobic older sister Constance and her disabled and obsessive uncle Julian. Twice a week she ventures into town to go shopping, and encounters the extreme hostility, bullying, harassment, name-calling and chanting of the villagers. But we gradually learn that the villagers have reasons to be suspicious: The rest of Merricat’s family were wiped out six years ago by arsenic in the sugar bowl. Then their boorishly awful gold-digging cousin Charles moves in and tries to get them to join the real world, and that’s when it really all kicks off. This book is brilliantly written: Jackson is a master stylist. It’s also fabulously weird. There’s nothing at all supernatural about it, yet the goings-on don’t seem quite natural either. Merricat is deeply disturbed, and the world as viewed from inside her childish, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, ritual-bound world is a very strange place. But it’s hard not to sympathise. She’s at once totally twisted, and the only person who can see what’s really going on.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
There are books that are desperately trying to be cool, shocking and subversive, and then there are books that actually are cool, shocking and subversive – this is one of the latter. It’s about a family of travelling carney folk who decide to create their very own freak show. The mother – Crystal Lil – dutifully plys herself with cocktails of drugs and radioactive substances throughout pregnancy to produce suitably disabled offspring. There’s a boy with no limbs, a pair of Siamese twins, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and one who appears perfectly normal but actually has telekinesis. The plot meanders around, but it’s beautifully written, with a strong flavour of Tom Waits about its descriptions of lonely, desperate stretches of the USA abandoned by normal people. There’s incest, rape, drugs, madness, bodily fluids galore and a pretty high body count. The limbless Arturo is truly a monster and he sets up his own cult, persuading people to gradually have their own limbs cut off so that they ultimately resemble him. The ‘freaks’ pity the normals and revel in their own weirdness. I wouldn’t say the book has any particular moral message, other than to cherish your own weirdness, but then perhaps that is a powerful message. An interesting cult read.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
This brilliant comic novel was written in 1932 but is just as funny today. It’s a jeu d’espirit – a bit of silliness – about a penniless but well-brought-up young woman who decides to impose herself on her relatives instead of getting a job, and then sets about boldly, and successfully, interfering in everyone’s lives, in the interests of common-sense and improvement. It’s a pastiche of all those Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence-style doom and gloom in the countryside novels, which takes their sensibilities to dizzying heights of absurdity and then brings them crashing back down when they meet the brisk busybodying of the metropolitan Miss. There are an array of catchphrases like ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed!’, ludicrously exaggerated characters, and comic set-pieces. My favourite line is the crazed family preacher yelling ‘There won’t be any butter in hell!’ I now say that every time I have a bit of toast. It’s a good excuse to eat more butter. There’s something so joyously, gleefully anarchic and life-affirming about this. Don’t we all wish we could take on irritating relatives, crumbling farms and the whole muddy countryside in general, and win? How can you not love Flora, who arrives at Cold Comfort Farm and immediately telegraphs to her London friend ‘worst fears realised darling, send gumboots’? Plus, the author takes things one step further by helpfully putting little stars next to the really good literary bits (e.g. the worst bits) to save us time. Bizzarely, there are also some pointless science fiction bits in it. A total treat.
Black Sea, Neal Ashershon
This is about 90% history book, 10% travel writing, and it describes the history of the black sea and its peoples. It’s quite rambling and free-form. Rather than having a linear structure through time or even a circular route around the sea, it wanders around thematically. It’s pretty intellectual, and I felt a bit out of my depth at times, as I really know nothing at all about this area. But it is wonderfully engaging and beautifully written. I have learnt all about the Cossacks, about the Pontic Greeks, Ghengis Khan’s golden horde, the birth of the tiny state of Abkhazia, and about trade routes, religion, languages, archaeology, grave-robbing and what Herodotus got right. There’s lot of interesting speculation about the nature of nationalism, the good points of Empires, and about the nature of history writing itself. It’s challenging but really fascinating stuff, and it feels peculiarly relevant in the light of Brexit. I loved it, and wished all history books were like this.
Gut by Giulia Enders
This is a very jolly and readable account of the body’s most underrated organ – the gut! In fact, it takes in the whole digestive system, and lots of other bodily functions as well. It’s really fun and features great illustrations – not medically accurate, but little cartoons that just make it obvious what Enders is talking about. I now know what the appendix does (same as the tonsils – it’s part of the immune system), how salivary glands work, what the lymphatic system is, and how and why people develop allergies and food intolerances. I’ve also learnt useful stuff to incorporate into my diet: olive oil is really good for you, unless it’s heated, when it becomes really bad for you; sugar is turned quickly into fat, whereas fat isn’t turned into fat for a long time; and most people can’t digest a lot of fructose, so fruit juice, smoothies, and anything with ‘fructose syrup’ in it is best avoided, unless you want stomach ache and lots of farts, in which case juice away!
On Writing, by Margaret Atwood
This is a short book based on a series of lectures Atwood gave on the subject of writing and writers. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, it starts off with her childhood and decision to become a writer as a teenager, but there the similarity ends. Atwood doesn’t tell us how to write, she just asks questions: why write? What is the relationship between the reader and writer? What is the relationship between writers and the marketplace? Should writers write art for art’s sake, or should they strive for social relevance? And, where do writers go when they enter that imaginative ‘other place’ from which they bring back fiction? Do all writers have a secret double – the one who writes and has their names on a book, and the one who lives their life? She illustrates all these questions with copious examples from all kinds of literature, from ancient myths to literary classics and sci fi. She doesn’t come to any conclusions of course, but the journey is interesting and gave me lots and lots of food for thought, as well as a long bibliography of things I’d now like to read. The style is very Atwood. At one point she comments that if you write for social relevance you may end up on a panel discussion in hell, but if you write for art’s sake you could end up making verbal doilies for the gilded armchairs in the palace of art. No easy answers then.
Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
A fantastically well-written memoir by a New York chef. I’d never heard of her before, but she’s had a really interesting life, being abandoned, more or less, by her parents aged 13. She lies about her age so she can get a job, travels the world, takes lots of drugs, gets charged with grand larcency, and graduates from university and gets an MA in creative writing. There’s lots of great foodie descriptions of learning to cook and to taste, and lots of wonderful food-related moments. She describes using all five senses, but is also amazing at describing emotions and bulding tension, and also intellectually analysing incidents. Reading this is a bit like reading Nabokov: you’re bound to feel bad about yourself for not writing a great memoir in your spare time, when you’re not bringing up your two children and also working eighteen hours a day managing your own restaurant. I wouldn’t want to have her life, as I couldn’t cope with the ‘I didn’t sleep for more than two hours a day for five years’ thing, but it is really admirable. And an interesting read.
Just Kids, Patti Smith
Rock’n’roll icon Patti Smith’s memoir of her youthful days and her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a great read. Patti isn’t a great writer and in places the book was a bit repetitive and could have done with an editor. But it’s an incredible story. Patti has an ordinary working class childhood in the 1950s, gets pregnant aged 19, gives her baby up for adoption and moves to New York. She’s homeless and has literally nothing at all, but then it’s the summer of love, and the city is full of homeless hippie kids. She eats food from bins and eventually gets a job in a bookstore. Then she meets Robert, they fall in love, and move in together. They never have any money and are always hungry, but they create art! Art!! Eventually Robert realises he’s gay, but the two of them make a vow to always stay together, and their friendship continues to be pretty much the most significant one in their lives until Robert dies of AIDS in the 1980s. Patti’s tales of the New York scene in the 70s are amazing. They knew everyone: William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix. They lived for a while at the Chelsea Hotel, where the owner accepted art in lieu of payment, and it was populated entirely by writers, musicians, actors, models, experimental film makers, etc. In a way I feel envious: imagine having met all those people and actually lived through all this! But I don’t envy them the starvation, lice, filth and absence of bathrooms. Their relationship was incredible: mutual emotional and practical support through thick and thin, no matter what. It’s a great insight into a period of history and a way of life that’s probably gone forever now.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Teenage girls suddenly develop the ability to create electricity in their bodies. They mainly use this power to electrocute men, obviously. Soon the power has spread all over the world to women of all ages. The inevitable follows: porn, drugs, gangsters, revenge, new religions, terrorism, war, and women taking over the world and enslaving men. This is a terrific, easy, pulp-fiction read. Alderman is a protégé of Margaret Atwood, and there’s a definite handmaid’s tale thing going on here. Mostly the narrative is straightforward, but there are snippets of internet forums and emails, and a framing device – a humble male writer, thousands of years into the future, writes to Naomi with this book, imagining how the power may have begun. The most interesting thing is that of course none of this is fantasy at all – Alderman just writes about the world we live in right now, and simply reverses the genders. I guess it’s an easy trick, but it is amazing that what is totally normal for women to feel and experience is weird, unimaginable and sort of hilarious or upsetting when it happens to men. It really shows what a crazy world we live in, and how massively sexist everything still is. Not that we need reminding, really.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
I haven’t read for about ten years so I thought it was time to give it another look. It’s amazing that Carter’s re-fashioning of classic fairy tales was published in 1979, and still has the power to surprise and shock. Each story is a beautifully crafted, highly polished, artificial gem. There’s something of nineteenth century France about the style of most of them. It’s interesting that this came out the year before I was born, so I suppose my whole life has been lived in the era of Carter, an era in which people have unpicked classic fairy tales to show the sexual violence that lay at the heart of them, and also the possibilities for re-appropriation and transformation. Although the tales were often labelled feminist, they’re darker and stranger than that, and I love them even more for it.
And the rest…
Slouching towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
Didion is a legendary figure in non-fiction writing and ‘new journalism’ – reporting that reads like a story. This is a collection of her journalism from the 1960s. I enjoyed the opening story, about a murder trial in California, but after that I went off the whole thing. Didion writes beautifully and her pieces are carefully constructed. There is much to admire and find instructive here, but I don’t like her point of view. Didion was an uber-privileged arch-WASP, and her feelings about things don’t resonate with me. Or rather, they seem baffling and completely irrelevant now.
At Home, Bill Bryson
Bill is a genial, avuncular companion of this random wander about, allegedly, the history of the home. Everything that he writes is full of enthusiasm and gentle mockery of history’s most eccentric characters, wackiest anecdotes, and most interesting little factoids. But Bill obviously has no interest at all in the history of domestic life. He doesn’t consider, ever, who lived in homes, how they lived in them, what they did there, how they felt about it. He’s much more interested in things like how the Eiffel tower was built, the history of canals and concrete, international exploration and plagues of locusts on American farms. These aren’t even digressions, really: they’re just the contents of the book. Some things, such as architecture, furniture design and a history of lighting, are interesting and relevant, but most of feels totally irrelevant. It’s still a jolly read, but if you really want to know about the history of the home, as opposed to a totally random bunch of stuff, read Lucy Worsely’s book on the topic instead.
The life and loves of a she-devil, Fay Weldon
It’s kind of depressing that Weldon’s comic novel is 33 years old yet still feels relevant and gleefully transgressive. Women don’t seem to have moved forward very much. It concerns Ruth, a downtrodden, 6 foot 3, ugly woman, whose husband leaves her for a petite, attractive romantic novelist. Ruth puts aside all notions of femininity, responsibility and morality to become a she-devil, in her quest for revenge. This involves her tackling, one at a time, all the factors that keep women from the things they want. Caring duties for children and elderly parents must be palmed off on someone else. Homemaking must be abandoned. The patriarchal church, state and law must be bent to her will. Money must be made. Faithfulness, love and romance must be exchanged for promiscuity. But whilst it’s blindingly clear that all these factors are just as bad ever, this isn’t a totally feminist novel. Ruth moves in with a muesli-munching feminist commune at one point, and they are a joyless and ridiculous bunch. She seeks revenge on other women as much as her husband. She certainly doesn’t attempt to level the playing field or improve the lot of women, but rather to manipulate things to her advantage. The tools she uses are sex, housekeeping, embezzlement and blackmail. And also plastic surgery, as she finally remakes herself to resemble her rival. This is an enormously entertaining, page-turning novel. But it also presents an uncomfortably bleak view of the power relations between the sexes.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Can you believe I’ve never read this classic Victorian horror story? In fact though, it’s easy to see why – it’s not very good! The concept, of a sensible, do-gooding Dr who transforms into his evil alter ego after consuming a potion, is everything. There’s little more to it than that. The story is told from the point of view of Dr Jekyll’s friend, a lawyer, who thinks mysterious things might be going on. He doesn’t really uncover these until he gets a series of letters explaining the situation though. Victorian sensibilities being what they were, we get a great deal of build-up, and a lot of talk about evil deeds! Horror! Sin! Temptation! But we never find out what Mr Hyde really gets up to, which is very disappointing. Top marks for the amazingly steam-punk description of the potion though, which goes through fizzing, frothing, steaming and multiple colour changes before being drunk.
How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman
This book is a compendium of social history, telling you everything you could ever need to know about how real people, mostly the working and middle classes, lived their daily lives in the nineteenth century. It is structured around the daily routine and features washing, dressing, housework, work, school, childcare, leisure, sickness, food and sex. Each section talks about the different social classes and about the products available, the processes used, and a bit of historical context. What’s really interesting is that Goodman has done a lot of re-enactment work, so she can shed a lot of light on what things actually felt like. Wearing a corset while hand scything a field, the process of doing laundry, cooking on a Victorian stove, etc. are all covered in detail. One of the most interesting parts is the clothing. Ruth knows exactly how to make a set of clothes for a toddler, how long it took, how long it took to get the child dressed (at least 15 minutes), and how difficult it was to wash the stuff. The practicalities – or impracticalities – of daily life explain a lot about how the Victorians lived. I’ve always been baffled by boiled puddings, for example. But whilst it was fairly easy to boil a pan of water, you had to be upper middle class at least, or possibly a wealthy farmers wife to have access to an actual oven. So those who could afford a bit of fat and flour could boil up a savoury or sweet pudding, but a cake was out of the question for most until the twentieth century. Interesting stuff, and a very engaging, easy read.
Death by Chocolate: the serial poisoning of Victorian Brighton by Sophie Jackson
I picked this up because it concerns Christiana Edmunds, a serial poisoner who ended up in Broadmoor. I researched her and wrote a chapter about her when I did my (unpublished!) book on Broadmoor. I was never able to find any trial reports for her, which was odd, and so I wondered whether this author would have tracked them down, so that I could learn something new. It’s a bit a mystery, what’s happened to them. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of the reports here. It’s hard to imagine how something that’s therefore pretty thin on fact could be spun out to the length of a short book. Jackson does it by giving endless background information on poisoning and poisoners in general in the nineteenth century, food adulteration, forensics, the invention of chemical tests for poisoning, and background details on Christiana’s family and the families of those she poisoned and the police who investigated. In other words it all circles around the subject. It’s pretty poorly written though, low on general accuracy (e.g. ‘this is an echo of today’s health and safety culture’ – no! Today’s health and safety culture might be an echo of the Victorians, but not the other way around, because an echo never comes first, does it?) and low on historical nuance. Still, Jackson manages to spin things out into a narrative with a sense of mystery, which is more than I ever did. So, pretty poor but still better than I can do. A useful lesson.
Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale
This book relates the history of the Kremlin, used as a focus through which to tell the whole of Russian history. There’s an awful lot of Russian history, and as I don’t really know anything about Russia, it was a lot to take it. I sometimes felt there was either too much information or not quite enough. Ivan the terrible turned out to be genuinely terrible. He was pretty much insane and had some kind of proto-Nazi death cult of mercenaries and they just rampaged about the countryside slaughtering everyone and burning everything indiscriminately for no real reason. Like something out of Mad Max. Peter the Great was also interesting, as were the more contemporary bits. But I think I would have got more out of this if I’d already known a bit about Russian history.
Wolf Borders by Sarah Hall
I’ve read a couple of her books before and enjoyed them, and was very disappointed by this. It concerns a women who is some kind of poorly defined wolf expert who helps a wealthy aristocrat reintroduce wolves on his Cumbrian estate. The wolves are terribly metaphorical of course, and there’s plenty of cringeworthily A-level discussion of social class and politics. But mainly the book is about a string of curiously boring and pointless family dramas, with very stereotyped characters, and at least 50% of it is descriptions of landscapes. Apparently there’s a lot of landscape in Cumbria. I wouldn’t know that of course, as I’m an elitist metropolitan Londoner, and we’re all idiots, according to Sarah Hall. Another thing I didn’t know was that there are seasons in Cumbria. Luckily Hall is on hand to tell me what seasons are, very thoroughly, for about 45 million pages. We don’t have seasons in London, so I had no idea. One of the boringly humdrum events of the plot is that the main character has a baby. Before she has a baby, like all childless women, her life is worthless and she’s a despicable person. Afterwards, she becomes a holy saint, and suddenly the world is meaningful. Honestly, as a childless Londoner I’m such a piece of worthless scum I should just be put down, for my own good. I can’t believe I actually finished this.
The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey
This is a zombie book with an interesting twist – it’s from the point of view of a sentient zombie. It’s a very readable, exciting thriller. Some of the characterisation is a bit clichéd, and the plot features all the elements you’d expect, but somehow that doesn’t matter. The plot feels driven naturally by the characters and the decisions they make so that it never feels contrived. The world building is beautifully done without straying too far into flowery descriptions, there are some good twists, and it adds to zombie mythology in some fantastic new ways. There are even a few moral conumdrums to ponder over.
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
In a nutshell this is a posh British version of Forest Gump. It starts in the 1920s with Logan Mountstuart’s childhood, and follows him through success and failure, his accidental involvement with many of the important historical events of the day, and meetings with many of the most famous people. It feels a bit pastiche and cliché, but Boyd is an extremely readable writer, and he just about pulls it off. Strangely, I later learnt that Roald Dahl’s life was actually remarkably similar to this, so perhaps it’s not so far-fetched after all.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
This book won numerous prizes for both science fiction and fantasy writing, and yet it’s rubbish. Obviously I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I really can’t see why it’s considered such a classic. For a story about a battle between the old gods (Odin, leprechauns, etc, brought to America by successive immigrants and then forgotten about) and the new (technology, the media), it’s incredibly dull. The central character, Shadow, is indeed a shadow: voiceless, characterless, totally passive. This is dull and removes all emotional investment. Everyone who dies is immediately resurrected anyway, so there’s little tension. The structure is weird too. It’s rambling and plodding, and there’s a lot of pointless padding. There are little mini-stories about how different gods came to America shoe-horned in, but few of them relate to the gods who actually feature, so unless you know a lot about mythology, you’ll be pretty baffled most of the time. The story and the world-building also make no sense, and get stupider the longer you keep reading. Sometimes gods can sense you are in danger and will magically appear to rescue you, but other times you need to telephone them and they have to drive over from Florida. Plus, any interesting elements of the plot – and there are few – are totally wasted, by being so heavily signalled in advance that you’d have to be retarded not to see them coming. Then, when finally things happen in exactly the way we’re know they’re going to, Gaiman explains how they’ve happened, about 15 more times, just in case we’re really stupid. Plus, the whole thing is coated with a terrible tweeness that just makes me cringe.
The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
This thriller from 1939 was awesome. Fast-paced, action packed, dripping with irony and black humour, and with some magnificent characters. I wasn’t surprised to find that it’s been really influential on thrillers from Graham Greene to John le Carre. Anyone who’s seen The Third Man won’t be too surprised by the plot. The story involves a rather wet and naïve academic turned writer of classic country house detective fiction. His stories are cosy and Midsummer-murders-ish. When he becomes intrigued with a real-life murder, he finds that the truth is nothing like fiction. The action takes place all over Europe, from Istanbul to Paris, Switzerland to Greece. It depicts a Europe flooded with refugees, recovering from the aftermath of ‘The Armenian Holocaust’, where a lazy, ignorant populace is controlled by media lies, funded by shadowy corporations, collusive governments, and banks that lie beyond the reach of any law. Drug dealers, people-traffickers and pimps are the main criminals, but it turns out that there’s not much difference between them and legitimate businessmen. In fact, they’re the same people. Sounds oddly familiar, huh? But this isn’t some right-on left-wing rant. There’s no justice to be found, and little interest in it either. Also, there are wonderfully sly digs at blissfully ignorant Britain, and Mr Peters – one of the most gloriously odious villains ever written. Great stuff.
Indignez-Vous by Stephane Hessel
This actually is a little left-wing rant, or rallying cry, by a Jewish French diplomat and resistance fighter. After escaping from Hitler’s concentration camps he became one of the key figures in the creation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. He deplores the state of Palestine and urges young people to get outraged and fight for their rights. It’s very French, in that there’s a lot of abstract philosophy in here, but it’s only a tiny little essay really, less than 40 pages, and Hessel is certainly an inspirational figure.
The Southern Reach by Jeff VanderMeer
This is a truly bizarre bit of sci-fi horror. I definitely had wild dreams and felt very anxious about going for a wee in the night after reading it, and I haven’t felt like that since reading The Shining. It starts with four women – known only as the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and psychologist – crossing the border into Area X, on a mission to investigate. The area was abandoned by humans following some kind of environmental catastrophe, and now there are weird phenomena there. It very quickly becomes obvious that all is not what it seems – not Area X, the mission, or the women. There are some seriously weird and horrific events, and it’s compounded by the total disorientation brought on by mistrust, lies and misinformation. What on earth is going on? Really, this book is about nature fighting back against humans in baffling and deeply unsettling ways. It’s also the second book I’ve read this year in which fungi play a significant part. It’s scary and unnerving, and like all the best sci-fi it forces you to re-examine the world from a completely new angle.
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemmingway
Can you believe it, I’ve never read any Hemmingway before. And now I know why! I didn’t think a lot of it really. Apparently it concerns a man named Jake who was ‘injured in the war’ (the first one) in some unspecified way and as a result he’s now impotent so can’t marry the woman he really loves. Though I never would have guessed that if I hadn’t read the introduction, as it’s all hinted at so vaguely and bafflingly. Also, I don’t see why it would be a problem. There must be lots of couples for whom conventional sex is a problem because of disability of chronic health problems, but that doesn’t have to stop you from being together does it? All very odd. Really, all that happens is that Jake and his pals drink a lot in Paris, and then they go on holiday and drink a lot in Spain and do some fishing and watch some bullfighting, all while very drunk. The woman Jake loves has sex with everyone except Jake. I can kind of see the virtue in Hemmingway as a stylist: short sentences, incredibly simple, limited vocabulary, hardly any adverbs or adjectives. He uses almost no subordinate clauses at all. He focuses completely on the action, and leaves us to infer from those actions – drinking, arguing, fighting – the interior life of the characters. He called this the ‘iceberg theory’ – show the readers the tip of the iceberg and they’ll infer the rest. But like most modernist novels it’s formless, and very dated now. It’s like one of those 1940s war movies where people had such stiff upper lips they spoke almost entirely without vowels, but with extra booze.
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
This is a very, very short book on how to write. It includes a section on grammar and punctuation, which is useful but pretty dry; a section on commonly misused words and expressions; a section on composition and a section on the nature of style. It’s brilliant. It’s incredibly useful as a reference, but it’s also fun to read. No, really! Each useful piece of advice backed up with entertaining good and bad examples. It’s not too prescriptive: White doesn’t mind if you split infinitives, etc, as long as the meaning remains clear and it serves a stylistic purpose. The rules are made to be broken with intent. On the other hand he’s also a cantankerous man with many personal hobby horses, which he gets wonderfully outraged about. It’s not ‘the student body! Just say ‘the students!’ This is useful advice for any kind of writing, from novels to student essays and catalogues. If I’d read this age 18 it would have saved me a lot of trouble. It’s Stephen King’s favourite book and it’s not hard to see why, for includes so many gems: use definite, specific, concrete language; omit needless words; do not explain too much; do not construct awkward adverbs; and my personal favourite, do not affect a breezy style. I don’t think there’s anything else I need to know about writing.
Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 3, various authors
This is an anthology of short stories, and whatever people say about weird fiction, in this case it just means ‘horror that’s a bit vague’. As with all anthologies I enjoyed some stories more than others. Julie was terrific – in 18th century Paris a prostitute takes a supernatural revenge on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I liked Orange Dogs, even though the ending was irritatingly non-committal. It was set in a post-apocalyptic Oxford, plagued by global warming, social breakdown and mysterious giant butterflies. I liked the surreal metaphor of The Guests as well. It’s written in the 2nd person, which should be an experimental disaster, but it works. Some of the stories I liked less. There’s a tendency to build up a great atmosphere, suspense, an interestingly twisted world and then… nothing. It’s always hard to make the build-up pay off in horror, but honestly, just leaving things hanging is really annoying and unsatisfying. Some stories were also too derivative of classics by Lovecraft, MR James or even Roald Dahl. Another problem for me was that most of the male characters were feeble and helpless, which gets tiresome after you’ve read a lot of them. The female characters at least are usually complicit in their own demise, which makes them slightly more interesting.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I’m afraid I read all of the ‘childhood’ section and then gave up at chapter 28 of ‘adolescence’. Everyone’s been raving about Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it either, I just couldn’t be bothered to carry on. This book is a faux-memoir of a childhood in working class Naples in the 1950s. The language is simple, there’s nothing tricksy about the style, yet Ferrante manages to make everything stunningly vivid. She really conjures up a sense of place. The problem is, I didn’t really enjoy spending time in 1950s Naples. The dads beat the wives and the kids, and the ‘brilliant friend’ gets chucked out of the window by her dad, breaking her arm, when she wants to stay at school past age 11. The wives spend most of the time screaming abuse at the kids, the husbands, and each other, and throwing things at each other or out of windows. The kids throw rocks at each other. When the girls hit age 11, suddenly they are horribly sexually harassed at every waking moment by adult men, but they have to hide this from their brothers, or the brothers will be obliged to beat someone up, and there will be an endless blood-feud. Several people murder each other. At one point some boys started shooting at another group of boys because their firework display was better. In the end I was exhausted by all the pointless melodrama and the ridiculous, steotypical Italian-ness of it all. If they could have just sat down for a nice cup of tea, none of it need have happened.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martell
I got this because it had the word ‘Portugal’ in the title. It was divided into three parts, set in three different eras with a tenuously linked story. In the first part, a grief-stricken man protests at death by some odd behaviours, then sets out on an anti-religious quest. The tone veers between tragedy and farce. It was surreal and implausible, and was mostly about him battling to drive one of the world’s earliest cars. Honestly, listening to descriptions of how a car works for a hundred pages gets a bit much. There was also too much period description relating to objects, and the protagonist had surprisingly liberal, politically correct views on everything for 1904. Plus all symbolism has to be pointed out and explained, which is patronising and robs it of its power. In the second part a grief-stricken pathologist is subjected to a lengthy discourse from his wife about how Agatha Christie is an allegory for the Bible. This goes on forever and is boring, silly and psychologically implausible. Then he performs an autopsy on an old man and pulls various magical objects from his body, and at the end we realise that several of the characters may have been ghosts. It’s horribly twee and infuriating. The final section, strangely, is lovely. It concerns a grief-stricken Canadian senator who randomly adopts a chimpanzee, and takes it to start a new life in Portugal. The relationship between human and animal is beautifully explored, and all the implausibilities here are completely forgivable. If I were you I’d just read the final section, and not bother with the other two.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
This is pretty much the world’s largest ever anthology – Kindle tells me it takes an average of 46 hours to read. I’m cheating a bit including it here because I haven’t finished it yet. It contains short stories from the nineteenth century up to the present, arranged in chronological order. They are mostly Anglo-Saxon, but plenty of the stories are from other countries including Japan, India and Nigeria. Lots of the stories are by women too. Some of them are by well-known authors like Kafka, Borges and Shirley Jackson, but lots are by people I’ve never heard of. I had to keep having a break from this, because after a while I’d have enough of surreal blips in time, a creeping sense of dread appearing out of ordinary things, strange shadows, menacing trees, etc. But it’s really nice to read things in chronological order and see how this genre has developed, and I enjoyed most of the stories, ranging from pure pulp to very literary.
The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White
The autobiography of a man who was fine dining’s enfant terrible and rock-star chef in the 1980s. It’s ghostwritten, and it has that very ghostwritten style, of someone taking another person’s oral testimony and shaping into something workable, but inelegant. I learnt a lot about how professional kitchens work, and there were some interesting bits of gossip of other celebrity chefs, like Michel Roux (a great chef but too slow to cope with being a chef de partie) and Raymond Blanc (lovely, but too nice to keep his chefs under control). But other than that it’s pretty dull. MPW is obviously a man of action, without an introspective bone in his body – useful for working 18 hours a day in a kitchen, hopeless for writing. He comes across as a really unpleasant man, who perhaps has had some therapy for his issues and parrots back platitudes about how all his problems stem from the early death of his mother, his difficult childhood etc, but who is still totally lacking self-awareness.
Collected Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson
I haven’t read these for many years either. Although Anderson’s tales are moralistic and macabre, with people (female children, mostly) subjected to all sorts of bizarre punishments for committing terrible sins such as wearing nice shoes, they’re also really, really funny. I’d forgotten, or maybe not noticed before, how dryly funny many of his stories are.