Book reviews: 2014

I know its a bit late to be reviewing 2014, but I’ve only just got round to it… Here are some interesting books I read last year.

Non-fiction:

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Relates the history of North Korea, especially the famine of the 1990s, as told to the journalist by defectors who managed to flee to the west. The book carefully avoids descending into a kind of pornography of horror, and dwells instead on the subtler, psychological side of surviving traumatic times. I was sort of pleased to learn that as a not very tall woman aged between 30 and 50, I would probably be amongst the last survivors of a famine. But only sort of.

The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean

This easily-readable book sits somewhere between narrative history and popular science. It describes what we currently know about how the brain works by detailing how those discoveries were made. This usually involved bizarre head injuries that led to people behaving in startlingly odd ways, or hideous experiments on animals. It’s funny and surprising and humbling and slightly awful to think about the little grey cells, working away in our heads.

Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers by Mary Roach

This tells you everything you ever wanted to know about dead bodies but were too afraid to ask. Decomposition, embalming, funeral homes, cremations, burials. And, more excitingly, useful cadavers: organ donation, forensic body farms, weapons testing, medical research. It’s one of the funniest, most uplifting and comforting books I’ve ever read. No, really! When I’m gone, I want to make a practical contribution to science. I quite fancy being a crash test dummy or something. Because as the book says: just because you’re dead, you don’t have to be boring.

Fiction:

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Rice’s vampire world is vivid, tangible and wildly erotic – despite featuring no actual sex at all. Sometimes it got on my nerves though. I wanted to say ‘give it a rest Anne! All this sensuality is exhausting!’ It’s like all vampires are DecadenceBot from Futurama. Rice also breaks creative writing rule 101: never have a passive protagonist. But Louis the Vampire basically does nothing except wring his hands and get pushed around until the very end of the book. Somehow Rice makes that work. The final twist is a bit of pure gothic genius. If you read this, make sure you keep a wet flannel at hand, to pop over your face if you get a bit swoony. Otherwise you may never recover.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell 

I’m a huge fan of Mitchell but I was a bit disappointed by this novel. As with all his books it has a very clever plot. His amazing skill at writing in the first person and creating unique voices is as strong as ever. But I felt this was a bit disjointed, with some of the sections feeling shoe-horned in. I didn’t care for the full-on fantasy elements either. I prefer fantasy to contain an element of mystery – when everything is spelt out loud and clear it can get a bit star-trekky. The ending was moving though, and almost brought it all together for me – but not quite.

Consider Phlebas by Ian M Banks

This is the first of Banks’ ‘Culture’ series novels. The Culture is a socialist-anarchist, galaxy-spanning, hedonistic utopia, portrayed in Phlebas mainly from the point of view of its enemies. It’s interesting to see what’s wrong with utopia – e.g. liberal democracy – according to the religious maniacs and despots who oppose it. But it’s mainly a picaresque adventure story, zipping through various world and locations for some action-packet set pieces. Banks has an amazing imagination, and I think this would make a terrific film now the CGI is up to it. However, I got tired of all the torture and brutality. It’s a bit American Psycho in space. I didn’t hate this, but it was something and nothing – neither a philosophically thought-provoking novel, nor just a well-plotted bit of fun.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

To be honest, I’d decided to hate this before I even started it. It won the Booker prize in 2004, the same year that Cloud Atlas and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell were nominated. I’d decided nothing could beat those two favourites of mine. It’s also heavily modelled on the writing of Henry James. I went through a phase of reading James and pretending I liked it, but in fact James is boring as hell. So I was pretty prejudiced against this book, and I didn’t find anything to change my mind. In terms of plot, The Line of Beauty is effectively Brideshead Revisited with additional cocaine and gay sex. It’s supposed to be a satire on the tories of the 1980s, but it doesn’t have much to say other than ‘oh, weren’t they awful and awfully rich’? Quite. In the end I think this won a prize out of sheer blandness.

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

This novel sees Count Dracula marrying Queen Victoria, and Britain becoming a nation of Vampires. The Jack the Ripper killings are re-imagined as Vampire slayings. The main interest, however, lies in the total geekery of this book. Newman is a horror aficionado, and mainly writes on horror films. Here he shoe-horns in every vampire character that’s ever appeared in anything before, from folk tales and obscure 18th century novels to porn and Blaxploitation parodies. He further populates the novel with a mixture of real and fictional characters from the 19th century. Trying to spot who’s who is pretty fun, and has made the book a cult amongst a certain kind of reader.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

I’m obsessed with the apocalypse, and I love Louise Welsh’s gothic thrillers, so I was very excited about this. It features a murder investigation conducted as London is decimated by a deadly virus. I liked that the main character is a bimbo with a slightly ludicrous job as a presenter on a shopping channel. Books about people who are writers/academics/journalists are a pet hate of mine – like novelists think that nothing interesting could ever happen to a plumber. The descriptions of the plague and its effects felt thrillingly real and cinematic, but the mystery plot was a bit ho-hum. It’s the first in a trilogy though and I’ll probably read the others.

The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin

I picked this up purely because I liked the cover. It turned out to be my favourite read all year! It’s a book that operates on two levels. The first is as a critique of Richardson’s Clarissa and other 18th century epistolary novels. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t matter if that goes over your head – it’s pretty unobtrusive if you’re not looking for it. On another level, this novel is a great little rake’s progress. A young man makes a Faustian pact with his godfather. He will lead an exciting life and write to the old man, telling him all about it. Naturally, he is encouraged to descend to morally dubious territory. But what really impressed me here, was that the Irwin avoids the temptation to give us full-blown goth. Instead we get interesting characters, moral dilemmas and psychological insights about what happens when you start recording you life for the consumption of others, rather than experiencing it. Although set in the eighteenth century, it feels strangely relevant to the digital age. All the characters are sympathetic –  even the scandalous old godfather is a tragic figure, for all the damage he does. The plot is terrific, and builds to a completely unexpected ending. This is a great read, but also moving and thought-provoking.

Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

This is the story of a teenager seduced by her teacher. When teacher leaves, she sinks into sex addiction, always trying to recreate that magic she originally found with him. Then he reappears into her life, and they take up a relationship even more violent and destructive than before. Maguire challenges the familiar feminist narratives of child abuse and battered women, by writing solely from her protagonist’s point of view. And Sarah Clark doesn’t see herself as abused in any way, or psychologically damaged – she sees herself as a woman with a passion, deeply in love, and outside the normal constraints of bourgeois society. It’s sometimes hard to agree with that – and Maguire seems to want to provoke her readers, pushing you to say ‘really love, I think you need to go to a women’s refuge right now‘. There’s a lot of sex in this book, but 50 Shades of Grey it ain’t. Much of the plot is quite ropey, and the writing isn’t great. But still, it was hypnotically weird and disturbing, and I really didn’t know what to make of it.*

*While googling the cover image, I came across a weight-loss book called ‘tame the feast beast!! Kill the voice of inner fatness!’ Seriously, what a title! Can you imagine anyone actually buying that??!!!

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