Book Reviews 2015, July-December

Back in July I posted reviews of all the books I read in the first half of the year. Here’s the second half, along with my top ten and some thoughts on my year’s reading.

Probably a few spoilers.

My Top Ten Books of the Year (see below, or January-June for reviews)

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

Common People, by Alison Light

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula le Guin

Stasiland, by Anna Funder

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

Darkmans, by Nicola Barker

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

The Devils of Loudin, by Aldous Huxley

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

Thoughts on my reading this year:

Looking through my top ten, I have 2 works of literary fiction (Darkmans and The Blazing World). Both of them are pretty strange and experimental. I also have 2 works of science fiction (The Lathe of Heaven and Station Eleven), 1 classic Victorian novel and 5 works of history and non-fiction.

Looking at the books I didn’t really enjoy or gave up on, these were mostly mass-market fiction, which I don’t think I’ll bother with at all in the future, unless I’m really desperate. Even something like The Bees, which appealed to me with its bizarre concept, was just too cheesy for my liking and not terribly well written. There were also a few books like The Goldfinch, which had ambition, but which I found dull and pretentious.

My runners-up were The Vegetarian, Pure, Bad Blood and Under the Skin, though they just didn’t quite make it into the top ten.

Reviews, July-December

Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf

This is a popular history of attempts by 18th century astronomers to chart the transit of venus from different parts of the globe, in order to calculate the exact distance between the earth and the sun. It’s an interesting topic, but I found the whole a bit lacklustre. I think the problem may be that there were just too many different people involved, which makes it hard to bring the whole thing to life in a short book. One of the voyages, for example, was Captain Cook’s legendary voyage on board the Endeavour, during which he discovered Australia, Joseph Banks botanised like crazy, and an astronomer named Green charted the transit, and later died. But there’s little time to explore this in any depth. The most interesting thing I learnt was that one of the astronomers – a French gentleman named Chappe – went to Siberia, and wrote an entire book on it, mainly about the charms or otherwise of Russian women. Catherine the great was so furious at her country being portrayed as the home of alcoholic, ugly, backwards, superstitious peasants that she wrote a point-by-point refutation of the book. Can’t imagine Elizabeth II getting that involved!

 Loitering with intent by Muriel Spark

A friend of mine lent this to me, but I’m afraid I gave up on it very quickly. The protagonist and narrator, an aspiring novelist, is just such a despicable person I really couldn’t face this at all. I think perhaps we’re supposed to realise that she’s awful and to be laughing at her, not with her, but I just didn’t want to bother. Also feels quite dated.

Darkmans by Nicola Barker 

This is yet another novel that was Booker-nominated but didn’t win. I think judges always go for the most boring option. It’s even longer than The Goldfinch and the plot is either so complex or so non-existent that it’s difficult to describe, and yet I really, really loved it! I will definitely read more by Barker. It’s set in Ashford Kent, a place notable only because the Eurostar inexplicably stops there, and takes place over just a few days, described in enormous detail. The characters can best be described as the kind of chavtastic scum you probably went to school with, if you lived in the countryside, and crossed the street to avoid. Most of it is interior monologues by these characters, or long bits of Tarantino-esque dialogue, where characters frustratingly discuss something very trivial while meanwhile the house burns down. The punctuation and sentence structure is often ‘avant-garde’. There’s an amazing literary device where Gaffar, a Kurdish illegal immigrant, gambler, champion boxer and general hard-nut (who has a pathological phobia of salad, possibly caused by his Yazidi heritage) speaks not very good English in a normal typeface, and brilliant, poetic Turkish in a Gothic typeface. We understand everything he says, but the other characters only get the half of it. Of course that’s not explained anywhere, you just have to figure it out. The main ‘action’ revolves around the spirit of a medieval jester who may or may not possess various of the characters at different times, causing complete mayhem, violence, flooding, fires, and the death of pets. There is a creepy small child building a perfect model of a medieval French city he has never visited, out of matchsticks. Beede (the venerable) takes revenge on a man who stole some medieval tiles by employing a forger named ‘Peta Borough’ to replace all the objects in his house with ever so slightly different replicas. There’s a fat lady who is described as ‘Jabba the Hut with asthma and a council flat’. Like I said, it’s weird. The closest thing I’ve read to this is Lanark, but Darkmans is less flamboyantly surreal. I enjoyed the puzzle and complete unpredictability, as well as the playful use of language(s). It’s either magical realism without the tweeness, or Goth without the silliness. Either way, it was strange and I liked it.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Undertaker, blogger and founder of death-acceptance society ‘the order of the good death’ Caitlin Doughty recounts her experiences working in a crematorium, outlines the history of Western death rituals and puts forward a polemic on the problems of our death-phobic society. Her style is jaunty, straightforward and humorous and you can tell that much of this started out as a blog. Each short chapter is carefully crafted and includes the personal, historical and philosophical. It’s peppered with anecdotes about death in Japan, cannibal tribes of the Amazon, embalming during the American civil war and medieval European cathedrals. It tells you everything you could ever need to know about corpses, from the processes of embalming (horrifying!! Terrible for the environment! Gives the embalmers cancer! Don’t do it!) to the practicalities of cremation. For example, the fatter you are, the faster you decompose and therefore the worse you smell. When cremated, a fat body burns faster and tends to liquefy instantly, which can cause litre upon litre of molten human lard to gush out of the cremation machine and drench the operator. To say undertakers are not fond of fat people is an understatement. On a more serious note, it’s hard to argue with Doughty’s central thesis. Our fear of death and terror of dead bodies are new features of an increasingly secular western culture that doesn’t know how to make sense of it all. Mortality is a massive taboo. This leads to inadequate care for the elderly and terminally ill, extending to doctors simply not telling people that they’re dying, and inadequate death rituals to help mourners in their grief. The awful process of embalming is continued, despite it having no actual meaning for us, other than a terror of bodies in their ‘natural’ – sunken, grey-looking, slack-jawed – state. Doughty advocates green burials, greater openness about the process of dying and body disposal, and forward planning for our own deaths, to help us cope with the inevitable. Very sensible.

Never Mind by Edward St Aubin

The last, or at least latest, in St Aubin’s autobiographical ‘Patrick Melrose’ sequence has just been published to huge critical fanfare, so I thought I’d read the first one, having missed the boat as usual. St Aubin is a great prose stylist in the hyper-aware psychological style of James, Nabokov or the modernists. There’s much to admire here, but I can’t really say this is an enjoyable read. The story is about a rich upper class boy terrorised by a sadistic father – a rapist and child abuser, while his terrified mother drowns the whole thing out by popping an astonishing array of pills and glugging on booze. The action takes place over a single day – the day on which Patrick’s father first sexually abuses him – and the viewpoint switches frequently between the family members, the maid, and the dinner party guests. This means St Aubin can focus on the inner lives of the characters with incredible, intense precision. It’s hard not to be impressed by St Aubin’s empathy, distance, and refusal to be sucked into self-pity. It’s also impossible not to think ‘thank god I’m not upper class!’ The appalling levels of snobbery on display here are party what enable the father’s bad behaviour. It’s also pretty clear that St Aubin himself is still a mighty snob, despite experiencing the results of that. You can literally get away with anything as long as you’re posh enough. I think I’ll need quite a rest before reading any of the others in the series, because although there’s humour and understanding here, it’s pretty traumatic.

 The Hydrogen Sonata by Ian M Banks

I appear to be reading one ‘culture’ novel a year, in totally random order, but it doesn’t seem to matter. This novel centres around the subliming – moving off into the 11th dimension – of the humanoid Gzilt civilization. Subliming is what civilizations or species do when they get bored – they all go off into some kind of mysterious hippy-dippy eternal life, and no one really knows what goes on there. But this is just a MacGuffin. In fact the main characters are all ‘minds’ or culture ships. They zip off about the galaxy and their humanoid avatars and various humanoids have all kinds of adventures, action, and encounters with odd creatures and strange places. I enjoyed this more than Consider Phlebas. Banks has reigned in his tendency towards torture porn a lot here. It’s still Banks, so there’s plenty of weird sex, macabre body modifications and bizarre deaths, but it’s not quite as gross. I love his ability to make you, a human, feel small and unimportant – as one character laments, there is literally no way in which a human can ever be as good as a mind. They look upon the ‘biologicals’ as we might look upon a cat. The Ship ‘Empiricist’ in fact has a population of billions of people, not to mention every type of animal and habitat. It’s a giant moving planet controlled by a hive mind of AIs. There are also some really cool ship names including: Refreshingly Unconcerned With the Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity; Beats Working; Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life’s Rich Tapestry; Smile Tolerantly; You Call This Clean?; and my personal favourite The Mistake Not… . At the end of the novel we finally find out what the … stands for: My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath. Turns out to be a surprisingly accurate description.

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

A friend of mine posted me this from Australia – thanks mate! It’s a deadly-serious and carefully researched, totally exhaustive guide to surviving zombie outbreaks. I was impressed by its coherency, practicality and thoroughness. The equipment lists for different situations – surviving a siege or going on the run through zombie-infested territory – are excellent. A must-read for anyone who doesn’t want to end up as a walking buffet for the undead. Remember: never take refuge in a shopping mall, never use a car and always fill the bath and destroy the stairs. Good luck.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

A young man rises to become head of a mid-nineteenth century cotton mill, there are a series of intrigues, triumphs and disasters, after which he meets ‘Mr Black’ and develops a gigantic emporium of mourning goods. But who – or what – is the mysterious ‘Mr Black’? I find phrases like ‘jet hatpins’, ‘black bombazine’ and ‘half-mourning’ peculiarly enticing. I enjoyed a hero who was a practical, efficient man of business, not given to introspection or wan fits of poetics. But this felt very saggy in the middle, drawn out and a little disjointed. It needed a good edit and a few sub-plots to hold the attention. It’s pretty obvious who Mr Black is, so there’s no big reveal. Not terrible but not terribly exciting either.

Mr Brigg’s Hat by Kate Colquhoun

A narrative non-fiction about ‘Britain’s first railway murder’. This is very atmospheric and well-written, pulling in lots of themes and social commentary from the Victorian era – their views on crime and punishment, the history of the police, the railways, immigration, etc. Colquhoun really guides the reader and give you a sense of what all the questions were, both regarding the case and the light it shed on wider society. But I found this quite repetitive – in the end she has exhaustively researched a very small corner of history, and so we go over more or less the same accounts and witness statements again and again, as they are re-iterated and re-used in different investigative and legal contexts. Interesting, but I skipped over quite a lot of it.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve read lots of books by Ishiguro before, so I was looking forward this, his first foray into fantasy. I had to give up after 50 pages, it was that bad. I think that an Arthurian fantasy is a hard genre to pull off, and coupled with the plot device – a mysterious mist floats over the land, causing everyone to forget everything – it just felt vague, characterless, cliched and boring. Also dear god, the dialogue! What on earth was he thinking? Horrible. He should stick to literature in the future.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

I expected these memoirs of a brain surgeon to be full of insight into the mind and the mysterious workings of the brain, but in fact it’s just an old man ranting about stuff, much of it comically stereotypical. Here are some of the things Marsh doesn’t like: management; signs; health and safety; meetings; training sessions; the NHS; the European working time directive; being told what to do; being asked questions; young people; the youth of today; change; technology; computers; women; childcare; recycling; supermarkets; being ill; lack of dignity for his patients; initiatives designed to give dignity to his patients; attempts to select young medics by aptitude rather than by the old school tie; other people using ‘his’ (e.g. the hospital’s) sitting room; security; hospitals; new hospitals especially; traffic jams; not being allowed to smoke and drink in the hospital; patients who are bovine and trusting and don’t ask questions; patients who look up their symptoms on the internet and ask questions; neurologists; psychologists; occupational therapists; etc. Oh how he longs for the good old days when he could scream ‘bugger your childcare – you’ll never work with me again’, without people complaining about how abusive he is, when they quite reasonably say they can’t start an operation late because no one is looking after their children. Obviously, he’s not a man who’s ever had to worry about who is looking after his children. Obviously, he’s also divorced. I suppose some of his complaints about the NHS may well be totally valid, but as he doesn’t explore or examine them in any way, and levels the same amount of vitriol against signs warning him to wash his hands as against changes in doctors’ training, it’s really hard to know. If I ever need to have my brain operated on, I won’t care if it’s him or a similar old git who does it – as long as they are competent it doesn’t really matter if they’re an awful old dinosaur. But do I want to read a book that consists mainly of a sexist, rich, wildly over-privileged old codger incoherently ranting about the ludicrous and childish things that annoy him? Nope. I actually wanted to find out about brains and brain surgery.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

This late Victorian novel is about the intertwining lives of various men and women in the writing trades. Novelists, journalists, editors, critics, agents, creative writing teachers, they’re all there. And it’s amazing how little has changed, really. We may have the internet, but it’s still largely true that making a name in literature is mostly about who you know and how hard you hustle, not how good your writing is. The novel has two main protagonists. There’s Edward Reardon, a talented but naive literary novelist with artistic integrity, poor social skills and fragile mental health. The there’s Jasper Milvain, a journalist and general hustler, determined to climb the social ladder to literary fame and fortune, whatever it takes. Neither of them are particularly loveable characters, but they are very believable. Reardon’s inevitable descent is charted with horrible, unflinching precision, and it’s painful to go through his appalling mental health crisis with him. But at the same time, the reader can’t help wanting to shout ‘pull yourself together!’ On the other hand, Milvain is utterly despicable, but you can’t help grudgingly admiring his drive, hard graft, cunning and ultimate success. The novel also deals very seriously with poverty and its consequences, and with the results of the mass education that had only just been introduced. In terms of style it hovers interestingly between Victorian realism and modernism, with plenty of psychological and social insight, often presented in piercingly acute quotations about the generally awful state of the world. That makes it seem very doom and gloom, but in fact there’s also romance and humour, and plenty of interesting minor characters. Overall I would describe it as grimly compelling, with occasional sunny spells. Well worth a read.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This whopping 800 page Victorian classic is a fantastic page-turner. It really has a terrifically gripping plot, full of danger and excitement and can’t-wait-to-find-out-what-happens next. Like Collins’ other classic The Moonstone, it’s told by a variety of different narrators, which offers interesting changes of perspective – sometimes humorous, sometimes revelatory. The plot, settings and style are pure gothic: an innocent lady reluctantly marries an older man with a dark secret. There’s doomed romance, heightened emotions, women in peril, dastardly villains, gloomy landscapes, crumbling mansions, escapes from lunatic asylums and mystery galore. There are also some great characters: I love Marion  – the brave, intelligent, sensible older sister of innocent, helpless Laura. I guess it’s all pretty similar to the gothic stories of an earlier age, like Clarissa: rich ladies without a male protector are in a lot of trouble, because they have no legal rights and cannot protect themselves. Impossible not to notice how influential this book has been on later writers like Sarah Waters as well. It is pretty clichéd, or has become so since, but my word it’s well done, and brilliantly entertaining.

Signals of Distress by Jim Crace

A very literary yet very readable historical novel set in the 1830s. I raced through it very quickly. It opens with an American vessel wrecked off the coast of Cornwall, and takes place during the week or so it takes to get the vessel back out to sea. The main character, Aymer Smith is an awful person. He is smug, self-righteous and selfish, yet filled with well-meaning notions about workers’ rights and abolishing slavery, etc. Naturally, he is naïve, painfully self-conscious, patronising, deluded, and everyone hates him. He blunders around absurdly causing all sorts of problems and annoying everyone in the small, impoverished town he is stuck in. He ‘liberates’ a slave without thinking of the possible consequences for a lonely black man left wandering the British countryside in the middle of a snowy winter with no food or shoes and very little clothing. He falls in love with pretty much all the women, and makes unwelcome and clumsy advances. There were also some interesting historical tit-bits – I didn’t know that fishing communities supplemented their income by burning kelp to create soda-ash, an essential ingredient in soap.

A brief history of seven killings, by Marlon James

This year’s booker winner relates the story of a failed assassination attempt against Bob Marley in 1970s Jamaica. It has a rather avant garde structure, with each chapter told from a different perspective, ranging from gangsters and CIA operatives to receptionists who’ve had flings with Marley. There is an enormous cast of characters, and at first I struggled with not having any idea who they were, what was going on, and that many of them narrate their tales and speak in patois. After about 50 pages though, I really got into it and was hooked. I have never really thought about Jamaica before, so I had no idea about all the political tensions described, the misery of life in the ghettoes, violent gangsters, drugs and police reprisals. So all this was interesting, as well as the many different layers of snobbery and racism, and an unofficial caste system based on the exact shade of people’s skin. An interesting, unflinching and ambitious book.

Under the Skin by Michael Faber

I enjoyed the film of this novel about an alien before I read the book, but the film is very different. An alien, surgically disguised as a human female, drives around the highlands of Scotland picking up male hitchikers. She chats to them to make sure they won’t be missed – preying on the unemployed and friendless – before zapping them and taking them back to the farm, after which they will be turned into meat and shipped back home. Faber has done a good job of capturing planet earth from an alien’s perspective, making our home planet seem wonderous and strange. He also neatly satirises human male behaviour and both the meat industry and animal rights activists, an aspect that’s entirely missing from the film. Odd, creepy, and very enjoyable.

The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

Other than Brave New World, I’ve never read any Huxley before. Now I can’t believe I’ve been missing out. This history book tells the story of a priest in seventeenth century France accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake after a whole convent of nuns become ‘possessed’. Huxley is incredibly erudite in a very old-fashioned way that frequently went over my head. He goes off on bizarre digressions about theology, ESP, Buddhism, totalitarianism, ecology, and his own esoteric philosophy. But he is marvellously acute about human psychology, and gloriously acerbic, witty and sarcastic. He revels in cynically taking all the characters down a peg or two. He is also a brilliant writer. Almost every paragraph contains little gems that deserve to written down and poured over afterwards. This book was the inspiration for the much-banned film ‘the devils’, but although there’s a lot of sex in it, Huxley is much less catholic-bashing, and does not allow us to have cosy feelings that we’ve put this sort of thing behind us and ‘progressed’. What happens in Loudun is far more about politics than either sex or religion. Human nature being what it is, Huxley suggests, modern-day witch hunts continue to flourish all around us. This book was revelatory in showing me just what a history book can be. A minor work of genius.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
This young adult novel is set during an apocalypse – of the slow-burning extinction by infertility kind. It was nominated for the Booker, but I don’t really see why. The protagonist is a teenage girl, and while she’s fairly convincing, she’s not individual enough to be really interesting or to make us care about her. There are some interesting ideas here, but there’s just not enough plot to drag out to a full-length novel. It would have made a much better short-ish story. The various minor characters don’t really add much to the plot, it’s absurdly heavy-handed about the symbolism (see title) and the world-building is not strong enough either. Children of Men it aint.

High-Rise by JG Ballard

This novel has a terrific opening line. ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Liang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months’. Normally I’m against gimmicky flash-back structures, but this is brilliant. The book is off like a rocket from this point: fast-paced, tightly-controlled, with a laser-sharp economy. I like how Ballard’s straightforward style is punctuated, about once a chapter, with a really elaborate yet appropriate metaphor. However, I admired this but didn’t really enjoy it. The story of total meltdown in an apartment building feels pretty dated now, and my main problem is that Ballard doesn’t really do characters. His people are purely symbolic, in this case Freudian symbols. Their actions can only be explained if everything is an elaborate allegory, rather than as the actions of actual people. That’s interesting, but it could have been contained in a short story – why drag things out to novel-length if there’s no emotional engagement with the characters?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel 

This post-apocalyptic novel has a very tricksy-wicksy structure: there are multiple characters, flash-forwards and flashbacks, interviews and a graphic novel with parallels to the action of the book. But this actually adds pace and suspense, and it mirrors the strange, elliptical workings of memory and the disjointed nature of information in a brave new world. 99.9% of the population has been wiped out by flu in the space of about two weeks. Twenty years later, a caravan of actors and musicians travel around the great lakes in Canada, performing music and Shakespeare plays to the tiny, isolated ‘towns’ of this new world because ‘Survival is Insufficient’ – a quote from Star Trek. They encounter strange cults, threats and various horrors on their perpetual journey. Many of the characters are connected, in various ways, to a Hollywood star, and so the book also concerns his life back in the old world. His three failed marriages, paparazzi, lavish lifestyle and amazing death-scene provide an interesting contrast with the new world, and become relevant in bizarre ways. The writing style is almost young-adult in its simplicity, but the characters are complex, the structure and plot are interesting and unexpected, and the themes are thought-provoking. A very unique and oddly uplifting vision.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

This is the memoir of academic, who was not especially well-known until she published this, which became a huge hit back in 2000. It’s easy to see why. Sage is a brilliant writer, you feel there’s not a subject in the world that she couldn’t bring vividly and easily to life. The rest of the appeal comes from the fact her family truly are mad. If you ever think your relatives have problems, you should read this to cheer yourself up. Her grandfather was a philandering, furious, alcoholic vicar; her grandmother was a sort of perpetual baby-Jane who gave as good as she got; both her parents were horribly damaged people; Sage had a baby aged 16. But this isn’t a misery memoir – in fact it’s rather joyful. Sage takes great glee in dissecting all these awful relationships and character failings. It’s also set during an interesting time, the post-war era in an isolated Welsh village in which little has changed since the nineteenth century, and which all of a sudden gets electric light, council houses and convenience foods. It’s wonderful and fascinating and full of uncomfortably brutal assessments of people and places. Sage clearly couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of her.

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