Book reviews

I’ve been reviewing all the books I read this year. I was going to save this up until January, but that would make a monstrously long post. So here’s the top 5 books I’ve read in the last 6 months, and all the rest…



1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I’m a fan of Hustvedt’s brand of psychological post-modernism, but I think this is her best book yet. Harriet Burden is a grandmother and widow of a rich, famous art dealer, and also an artist in her own right. She’s long felt that her gender and her husband’s status excluded her from the art-world fame she truly deserved, and now she’s devised an experiment. She will create the art shows, and get three male artists to pretend it’s their creation, see how the critics react, and later expose them for the hypocritical bigots they really are. Of course, things don’t actually work out like that. Although to a certain extent this is a satire on the art world, that aspect is not that important. The novel is presented as an edited collection of Harriet’s own diaries and notebooks, interspersed with reviews from critics and interviews with Harriet’s, friends, lovers, children and collaborators. It’s a regular polyphonic spree that explores gender, identity, the media, robotics, the internet age, neuroscience, memory, philosophy and art. How do we know who we are, and how can we control how others think of us? Are memories to be trusted? Do we become many different people over the course of our lifetimes? Do straight white men really get a free pass in life? Do women sabotage themselves and each other? There are no answers here, but there are jokes about Freud and footnotes on Heidegger. It is all incredibly highbrow and quite a challenging read in some ways. Yet there is also a terrific story, which builds an incredible sense of menace, mystery and tension. There are unexpected moments of pathos, fistfights, and a refusal to shy away from bodily functions. The language, descriptions and constantly shifting characters are so vivid that I found this truly a blazing world. The ending was so totally unexpected and yet so perfect that I actually cried, which drew some funny looks at 8.30am on the district line, I can tell you. I suppose this is not something that will appeal to everyone, but it’s definitely my book of the year so far. I’m looking forward to re-reading this to discover even more that I missed the first time round.  

2. Common People by Alison Light

Alison Light’s account of her family history is unusual in that it was nominated for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. How often does genealogy win prizes? Never, that’s how often! Light organises her story into 4 parts, each part tracing her family back in time, starting from one of her four grandparents. The painstaking research is set carefully within its context of social history. As a ‘common person’ the narrative covers everything you would expect to find in a general account of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries: poverty, workhouses, lunatic asylums, factories, farming, the industrial revolution, war, prisons, transportation to Australia, the slave trade, emigration and immigration, the royal navy, disease, meddling do-gooders, evangelical religion, unmarked pauper graves, and the rise of socialism. But it’s so interesting to see how this is not just a distant world of ‘British history’. It’s Light’s personal history. She writes beautifully and reflects frequently on the emotions evoked by her search, the purpose of family history in the modern world and the nature of personal identity. She does this while maintaining a narrative drive describing the rising and falling fortunes of different strands of her family. That’s a lot of balls to juggle with, but she keeps them all in the air. I found this an incredible feat of research and writing skill, as well as moving and thought-provoking.


3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursule le Guin

A brilliant intellectual, literary, sci-fi. The story concerns a man whose dreams come true, and is an extended riff on ‘be careful what you wish for’. He is taken in by an unscrupulous but well-meaning hypnotherapist, who controls the dreams to create a better world. Cue a whole series of interlocking utopias, each of which gradually dissolves into a new dystopia. It’s funny, poignant, and superbly plotted, building and building towards a very satisfying conclusion. One of my favourite bits was when the dreamer destroys racism – by making all humans into a particularly nasty shade of grey. There are also some brilliant aliens – weird, scary and adorable at the same time. The novel does what all the best sci-fi does – encourages you to bend your mind round corners, and asks important philosophical questions – should we try to make the world better, or should we simply accept what is?


4. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

An envoy is sent to an alien planet, to try to persuade them to join an intergalactic trading federation. The whole planet is in the middle of an ice-age and so endures permanently arctic conditions, and there are plenty of political intrigues and tensions between the two main countries, which have very different political ideologies, and a strange mystical religion that can foretell the future. There’s also a trek on foot across the arctic wastelands, modelled on accounts of Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic. But the main interest lies in the interesting physiology of the people of the planet Gethen. They are ambi-sexual. Most of the time they are one, neuter sex. For a few days each month they experience ‘Kemmer’, when they become sexually active and can change into either sex, depending on the hormones emitted by those around them, and their personal preferences. This could have been the cue for a feminist polemic, but Le Guin does something far more interesting: she simply explores gender roles, raising a whole raft of questions. Apparently most humans find being judged purely on their humanity, rather than their gender, to be an ‘appalling’ experience. Women don’t necessarily come out of this debate looking any better than men. For example, this planet has never experienced a war, but is also technologically backwards. But how much of this is down to low testosterone, and how much to the fact that it’s just pretty difficult to survive in such bleak conditions? I mean, even without men they’ve still managed to invent elaborate social hierarchies, torture, and murder. They still feel the need to think in binaries like the rest of us. The small minority of people who stay in Kemmer all the time and are thus gendered are branded ‘perverts’ and are social outcasts. This is certainly a novel to provoke debate.

5. Stasiland by Anna Funder

This is what I call a ‘New Yorker’ style book. I don’t actually read the New Yorker, but to me it means elegant, literary non-fiction, with plenty of journalistic self-reflection. Funder is a German-speaking Australian who works in East Berlin shortly after the wall comes down. After being baffled by the authorities’ attempts to sweep the communist era under the carpet, she tracks down both former members of the Stasi and their victims and gets them to talk. East Germany had one informer for every 60 citizens, making it the most spied-upon country in history. Anyone who opposed the regime could have their life slowly destroyed by techniques designed to hound a person to despair and suicide: spying, following, humiliation, blacklisting from employment, education and social activities, forced divorces and family breakups. In addition, the Stasi had a huge prison for political prisoners, right in the centre of Berlin. It had enough torture chambers to torture at least 60 people simultaneously, and was in full use until 1989. Not one of the torturers has ever faced trial. In fact, the Stasi men continued to run the country after reunification, as judges, policemen, businessmen and politicians. Few of the Stasi she interviews have any regrets. When you contrast that with the increasingly elderly Nazis that keep being wheeled out their nursing homes and put on trial, the level of indifference is pretty shocking. But Funder’s book bears eloquent and humane witness to the horrors of that era, and to a nation struggling to find peace with its past and to recreate a sense of identity.

All the rest…

Pure by Andrew Miller

Set in Paris in 1785, this is the story of a young engineer tasked with the unpleasant public health project of excavating the overflowing cemetery of Les Innocents. It’s literally overflowing, in that after strong rains semi-rotten corpses tumble through the walls and into the cellars of all the neighbouring houses. Our engineer is a plausible and sympathetic character: naïve, uncertain, plagued by self-doubt. Everyone around him seems to be a mad alcoholic revolutionary, a ruthless ambassador of a corrupt and complacent regime, or mysteriously hysterical about the loss of the cemetery. Other characters are equally interesting, and the story rattles along at a good pace, with plenty of action and unexpected twists. The plot has suitable elements of the gothic and bizarre, but never strays into the fantastical. Miller brings the past viscerally alive: it is filthy, stinky, dark and uncomfortable, and every little task is a heroic effort of manual labour. His writing is unobtrusive but vivid. At first I was disconcerted by the choice to write in the present tense, but I quickly got used to it, and it seems an apt choice. Our engineer is a helpless, baffled space cadet for much of the story, and the present tense conveys that sense of aimless drifting. The themes are interesting too. Here is a world on the cusp of monumental change, and a society about to reject the ancienne regime and embrace the modern. One of the characters even explicitly points to the central metaphor: by digging up the cemetery the Parisians are casting off the accumulated weight of history and moving forwards. Almost made it into my top 5.

The Once and Future King by TH White

A 1950s take on Mallory’s classic Arthurian legend, Le Mort d’Arthur. The Disney movie ‘the sword in the stone’ is based on the first part of this, and is actually pretty similar, but with less jousting. There really is SO. MUCH. JOUSTING.  I skipped over most of the jousting bits, and all the information about how to hunt with a hawk, how to construct a siege engine, how to harvest hay with a scythe, etc etc. Young Arthur gets turned into various animals and finds that badgers wear waistcoats, ants are evil communists, and birds of prey are terribly against racism. There’s also quite a lot of actual information about the natural world as well as cute anthropomorphism. War is terrible but jousting is good, communism is evil but feudalism is OK, women are generally a bit sinister, and racial stereotypes abound. I loved Merlin though – I found some of his words of wisdom rather moving, and then he would endearingly lose his hat and get tangled up in his beard. Altogether a completely mixed bag of oddity.

Before I go to sleep by SJ Watson T

his is an excellent thriller about a woman with severe amnesia. Could easily have collapsed under the weight of its high-concept premise, but it’s superbly handled.

Tender is the night by F Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald certainly has a way with words. A hotel is ‘shaded by deferential palms’; a woman is ‘the wife of an arriviste who had not yet arrived.’  But the non-linear structure feels like a confused jumble and I couldn’t empathise with the characters. It concerns a ‘brilliant’ psychiatrist, who marries his patient, a beautiful 18 year old billionaire with a traumatic past. They have a lovely time on the Riviera and in ski resorts, shopping and lunching and pushing waiters down the stairs for jollies, because people who have to work for a living – LOL!!! After that it gets even worse. The novel is autobiographical (eeek!) and I think it’s supposed to show that first world problems are real problems, but I just couldn’t handle the snobbery.

Appetite by Philip Kazan

This was billed as ‘perfume’ but about food. Actually it’s less of a foodie’s gothic maelstrom, more of a sappy love story about a chef in renaissance Florence. Pretty silly and not very good.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I didn’t actually read this – I listened to it. All six CDs of it, in short instalments. Talking books are so relaxing, and Dickens is great read aloud. He becomes funnier and more dramatic.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London

These terrific nineteenth century novels relate the adventures of a dog that goes feral, and a feral dog that becomes domesticated. London has a real feel for narrative, driving forward with a relentless sense of purpose. The books are as lean and devoid of any spare flesh as the sled dogs and wolves he describes, living their harsh lives in Canada and the north USA. They are also philosophical and lyrical, in a clean, pared down way. These could be a lesson in the writer’s mantra of ‘omit needless words’.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This short Korean novel starts with a woman developing a sort of vegan-related eating disorder, which rapidly causes all hell to break loose, so anathema is vegetarianism to a conservative society. The first part is all blood, fear, carnivorousness and antagonism. The contrasting second part is narrated by the vegetarian’s brother in law, an artist who uses her as muse and develops an erotic obsession with her. It’s all weird, dark desires and vegetable obliviousness. Never before have I thought of plants in such a sexy light. In the third part we see the awful family fall-out from the point of view of the vegetarian’s sister, but I didn’t feel that added much, in terms of theme or narrative. I guess this is Korean psychological goth, and overall I liked it.

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Performance artist, musician and frequently naked person Amanda Palmer failed to attract much mainstream notice until she crowdfunded £1 million over Kickstarter to produce an album. She gave a TED talk about how she did it, and this book is basically the extended version. It’s mainly an autobiography and she’s certainly had a bona-fide bohemian artistic life. How did she raise all that money though? As usual the secret is – there is no secret! Palmer has spent more than a decade working hard, slowly building a fan base and artistic community, and 25,000 people now love her so much they collectively paid her a million. She certainly doesn’t make it sound easy. In fact, the one message I take from this book is that, unless you are wildly extroverted and you want to throw massive free art/music happenings and parties, give (naked) hugs to strangers, tweet relentlessly all day long, and have 25,000 friends, you can forget about making much money on Kickstarter. Good to know!

Bedlam: London and its Mad by Catharine Arnold

I found this very disappointing. The research is shallow, based only a handful of well-known secondary sources, some of which are now out of date. There are plenty of inaccuracies and inconsistencies, and worst of all it’s sensationalistic. A low point is when Arnold suggests that ‘millions’ of women were murdered for witchcraft during the 17thcentury. Historians now think that was the fate of no more than a thousand. The chapter on ‘mad women’ is particularly idiotic.

The Snow Child by Eowen Ivey

Even though I was on a plane with nothing else to read, I gave up on this after the 3rd chapter in favour of the in-flight magazine. The main character is a literature professor’s daughter (!!!) who persuades her husband to move to Alaska, then sits about uselessly reading Emily Dickinson and looking wan and disappointed. I have no patience for this sort of nonsense.

The Man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks

Sacks’ 1985 work became an instant classic and remains the best-known book on neuroscience, partly because of the intriguing title. It’s full of really truly weird and fascinating stories of people with odd capacities or lack of capacities, that shed light on what it means to be truly human. Temporal lobe epilepsy in particular does all sorts of uncanny things. It can create total recall, or the experience of completely re-living past events. In one man it dramatically enhanced his colour perception and sense of smell, so that he felt he was like a dog – experience such a rich and immediate world there was very little point in exercising his ‘higher’ functions of planning, thinking, abstractions. If this book does anything, it really shows that Descartes got it all wrong. It should never have been ‘I think therefore I am’. It should have been ‘I FEEL therefore I am’. Those people who have lost their basic grip on reality – for example the man whose vision was intact but who could no longer recognise faces or perceive objects, and so mistook his wife for a hat – those people have serious problems. They exist in a solely intellectual world. People with limited ‘intellectual’ abilities, on the other hand, may be perfectly human and experience life to its fullest, and may even be able independent lives.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This Pulitzer prize-winning novel mostly revolves around a music producer and his PA. Each chapter is from a different point of view, and takes place at a different point in time. Each of these snapshots is funny, poignant, elegantly-written, and very revealing about the strange high-octane show-bizz world. Some of it is set in the future, and one chapter is written entirely in diagrams on powerpoint slides. It’s certainly an incredible technical achievement. But after a while I started to feel that all the characters were too similar. Plus, I found it cynical and depressing. The ‘goon squad’ refers to ageing, and the consequences of a misspent youth are drug addiction, mental illness, divorce and disillusionment. However, some of the characters do find redemption by the end. Maybe Egan’s just saying that we’ll all go through a difficult second album period before making our comebacks?

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

This book sold for a 6-figure advance, has been incredibly hyped, and apparently everyone in world loves it, except me. It’s a historical drama set in 17th century Amsterdam, with a magical-realist element. The ‘historical’ aspect suffers badly from what a friend of mine called ‘the Bakelite knob problem’: everyday objects are described in a wealth of detail like something from an antiques catalogue. This is meant to convince but does the opposite. Simultaneously, there is a total absence of any kind of historical context. The plot is identical to Sarah Dunnant’s excellent The Birth of Venus, but with all traces of plausibility removed. The prose is awkward. The magical element is shoe-horned in there for absolutely no reason. It does not reveal anything about the characters, push the plot along, or relate to any deeper themes in the novel. It is totally pointless. The characters are motiveless non entities. There is an attempt to address issues such as racism, sexism and sexuality, but it’s never followed up or explored in any way, and feels deeply implausible given the context. But the worst thing of all is the dialogue. Everyone speaks in a random series of baffling non-sequiters, like this:

‘I wish this miniaturist would stop sending me all these spooky things!’ I pleaded.

‘Don’t worry. Soon all the sugar will be sold’, she soothed.

‘It’s going to be Christmas soon,’ I murmured.

‘Oh god, we’re all going to die!’ she screamed.

I made that up, but you get the picture.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Again, everybody loved this Booker-prize-winner except me. I thought it was 850 pages of tediousness. On the plus side, it has a plot. Quite an exciting plot with plenty of drugs, heists and gangsters. On the down side, that plot is Dan-Brownishly ludicrous. It’s very repetitive. The protagonist, Theo, goes to Las Vegas at one point, where he is ignored by his feckless father, and hangs out with a Russian stereotype called Boris. Boris loves to say things like ‘cocaine is good, yes?’ He says this a lot, because for 200 pages nothing happens except descriptions of getting drunk and taking drugs over and over again. It’s incredibly tiresome. There are long, Proustian sentences with semi-colons, brackets and dashes all over the place. All the characters, not just Boris, are stereotyped. It’s written in the first person, but unlike David Mitchell, Tartt makes no attempt to give Theo a voice of his own. It’s painfully obvious that this is just her voice, and that she doesn’t know a lot about teenage boys. Theo knows things and thinks about things that a 13 year old just wouldn’t, but is also rather childish for his age. He seems to have no personality at all, and is completely passive, just drifting from thing to another at random. While I suppose that happens, it’s not very interesting to read about. I kept wondering if I’d missed something and if the novel is supposed to be some kind of satire? Whatever it was, it’s many hours of my life that I’m never getting back.

The Bees by Laline Paull

This novel is literally all about bees. And I learnt a lot about life in a beehive, which was all super interesting. It’s not that I didn’t like bees before, but I do have a new respect for them. As well as being hard-working and self-sacrificing little ladies (the men don’t do anything except eat too much, mate and die), bees face a lot of challenges. They get poisoned by pesticides, threatened by unpredictable weather and poor harvests, chased by crows and captured by spiders. Worst of all is the ‘visitation’, when a godzilla-like monster pumps their hive full of disorienting smoke, pulls the roof off, and steals their precious honey. There is an epic battle against invading wasps that’s like something from the Lord of the Rings. Paull has had a good stab at imagining a world with a hive mind, where communication is mainly through smells and vibrations. Bees are also pretty devious and bloodthirsty – the battle to become the next queen is pretty nasty and involves plotting, intrigue and massacres. Some critics suggested this was a dystopian novel, but I think that’s pushing things. We may find some aspects of bee culture distasteful, but then they are bees – so it’s hard to see what message there could be here for human society.

Elizabeth is missing by Emma Healey

Told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia, who is convinced that her friend is missing, but confuses this with the disappearance of her sister 70 years ago. It’s a sympathetic portrait of dementia, with plenty of dark humour that prevents it being too gloomy or worthy. It’s very well-written and well-paced, if a little repetitive at times. I found it slightly too similar to ‘before I go to sleep’, which I read a few months ago, and both the present and historical mysteries are absurdly easy to figure out. Still an interesting light read though.


Share this post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Follow me: twitterrssby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *