Bookworm update

Yes, I’m procrastinating. Two posts in one day? What else could possibly be going on? I’ve got a document to draft by Tuesday, and I meant to have it finished by Thursday evening. It’s far from done, so I’m crossing off other bits of mental laundry so that tomorrow can be as productive as physically/mentally possible. Terrifyingly, it’s nearly 6 months since I last jotted notes here on my recent reading. In the meantime, I’ve finished 32 books (what can I say, the longer commute and the part-time work suit me down to the ground). As last time, links go to my commentary elsewhere online.

Iain M. BanksAgainst a Dark Background
I wanted to honour Banks’ passing by visiting with one of his worlds. I had read 3 Culture novels recently (or so I thought. In fact, it was 2 years ago), but I knew I wanted the M. As I hadn’t reread AADB since I first bought it, I decided it was time to revisit it. I remembered this as a very dark novel, with a climax that left me upset. As it turned out, it’s much lighter than I recall – perhaps because modern fiction has so thoroughly embraced the moral lowground and the ick? – and the scene I was thinking of wasn’t the climax at all. It’s far from perfect, but I enjoyed the whimsical world-building – so much is neither shown nor told, just referred to in passing, which accurately portrays just how much attention the really rather self-absorbed heroine pays to it.

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane
A book that grew out of a short story that grew out of childhood memory, and then grew some more. Ocean is now appearing on practically every Best Of 2013 list going, so there’s little I can add other than to say I loved it. I heard Neil read the beginning at the Royal Society of Literature, and was fairly sure it would fall neatly into the half of his body of work for which I fall fast and fall hard (as opposed to the other half, to which I’m utterly indifferent). By the time he introduced the Hempstocks, it was a done deal. Any fiction that can wrap up childhood fears and dreams with mythic archetypes – and make it feel true – is a potential classic.

Peter Watts – Starfish / Maelstrom
Another re-read, this time of Canadian author Peter Watts’ dark vision of a corporate-controlled near-future which crosses Sphere with Outbreak. A group of dysfunctional loners are put on a deep-sea station to monitor a new thermo power generator. As each sinks deeper into dysfunction, they begin to suspect that they are being trapped on the sea-bed by their employers and yet to aggressively fight any suggestion that they leave – until they determine that their employer intends to blow them up. Unclear on why, they strike out for land – not realising that they carry with them an organism that may disassemble all life outside the deeps. This is fairly unpleasant stuff, due to Watts’ focus on the sources of the Rifters’ dysfunctions (trigger warnings) in the first novel and on the rise to prominence of a security bod on shore who is an extreme sadist in the second. I chose not to complete the trilogy as I had no desire to revisit his head; the first two novels are twisted, but interesting. Plus I have a weakness for underwater and apocalypse fiction.

A. S. Byatt – Ragnarok
I’d previously read a volume of Byatt’s short stories, and they left me as cold as did Ragnarok. Part of the intriguing and moreish Canongate Myths series, I couldn’t resist a literary pass at the armageddon of Norse mythology. It’s interesting food for thought (a young girl’s experience of WWII as an interpretation of Ragnarok), but it’s a terrible introduction to the myth cycle and peculiarly bloodless, which is both surprising and disappointing. Norse myth should be vibrant and wild, fearsome in its bloodlust and crafty in its treachery. This is just rather dry and dusty, and the lovely prose can’t create a missing heart.

David Mitchell – Ghostwritten
Nine short stories span the globe, slowly unfolding to reveal a greater (if not very cheery) whole. This is a far cry from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I loved, and lacks that novel’s emotional resonance, but has the added advantage that you can regularly come up for air. Peopled with intriguingly rounded (although not necessarily likeable) characters, this is a narrative of circumstance and coincidence in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sadly, the grand narrative isn’t quite grand enough – I could see the climax coming, and it was a familiar trope – so this isn’t an entirely successful novel, but it was intriguing.

Phillip Pullman – Grimm Tales
I couldn’t resist the elevator pitch of Pullman retelling Grimm, and I didn’t have a copy of Grimm, so this was an obvious choice. Reading it cover to cover may have been less wise; Grimm is, well, grim – and very misogynistic – so I’d recommend other readers dip in and out rather than tackling it in one go. There’s very little tinkering with the original tales; the odd bit of polish on language or nuance, but essentially this is an edited collection rather than a reinterpretation. Most interesting are Pullman’s notes on each story, identifying archetypes, other similar stories from the body of European tales, and comments on what intrigues or annoys him about each.

Patrick McCabe – Winterwood
I added this to my wishlist on a whim some years ago, and it has sat on my shelf ever since. I think I understood this to be a lyrical, poetry-soaked ghost / fairy tale in the tradition of the mountains, blending myth and reality. There is a sense in which this is true, but it fails to capture just how nasty a piece of literature this is: technically adept, to be sure, but utterly unpleasant. Unreliable narrator Red Hatch, happily married to a younger woman, takes a trip to his childhood mountain home and comes face to face with Ned Strange, storyteller, folk hero, self-declared wife-killer, alleged child-abuser, and possibly a relative. Red may be haunted, or may be schizophrenic; he’s probably suffering from repressed memories of being abused as a child, but he’s certainly got a violent streak and a stalking habit. Ned may be real, or may be a figment of Red’s guilt. Regardless, this is masterfully-written car crash literature, and I had to force myself to finish it because it’s so inescapably squicky almost from the off.

Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist
I thought it was finally time I got around to this classic. It self-describes as a fable, which is absolutely accurate. A young Spanish shepherd seeks advice from a Gypsy about a dream, and is sent on a journey to Egypt. The novella follows his journey, his adventures and his learning – and is simplistic almost to the point of being patronising. Whilst not as annoying as Who Moved My Cheese, I don’t like being preached to and I particularly dislike insights that are framed in religious terms. This being the case, The Alchemist and I were never going to get on. It’s all very aspirational, and I’ve got no beef with the core message about fighting for your dreams and learning to hear the lessons the world can teach you, but I kick hard against Random Capitalisation and ‘previously, in The Alchemist’ recaps.

Albert Camus – The Stranger
Another classic knocked off my bucket list, this novella is something of an in-joke in our household thanks to a gem of a film called Scenes of a Sexual Nature. Here, Andrew Lincoln (more recently Rick in The Walking Dead) is caught ogling a pretty French girl as she reads L’Etranger. Put on the spot by his wife, he claims to have read it. I can vouch for the fact that it’s definitely not about a sheriff saving a small town 🙂 The link above is to my comments on LJ at the time – I enjoyed this after a fashion, although I still can’t get a handle on fatalism.

Ninni Holmqvist – The Unit
I was bowled over by The Unit, a near-future dystopian Swedish novel that channels Never Let You Go or Spares and adds pensioners. Democratic Sweden has decided that the answer to social control is mandatory retirement to a Unit in your 50s if you are deemed dispensable. The Units are biological reserve banks for medical experiments and organ donation; inmates are kept in the lap of luxury and form a close community, but will never leave alive (and have a life expectancy of just 3-5 years). The novel explores the concept from every angle, so this one also comes with trigger warnings a-go-go, whilst leaving the reader ample room to extrapolate – which makes for very uncomfortable thinking indeed. This is not a likely scenario, and the pro-life subtext is problematic (you are indispensable if you have children) although arguably set up to be rejected, but the real message here is on the importance of being politically engaged. Terribly well executed. Expect a film at some point that shreds you to the bone (assuming it’s in Swedish; I wouldn’t trust Hollywood with this one).

Rachel Joyce – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
This novel is perfectly likeable, but not all it’s cracked up to be. A light-hearted, bittersweet tale of a dysfunctional marriage and the lengths to which an Englishman will go to escape a difficult conversation. There are a number of endearing vignettes, and the whole is fairly life-affirming and no doubt supposed to cement your belief in humanity, but holds few surprises. A good one for an aeroplane or a week on the beach; but basically fluff.

Sarah Waters – Fingersmith
Fingersmith was at a disadvantage because of how much I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. A slice of gothic melodrama, in which a light-fingered thief is placed in service with an heiress to help a conman steal her hand in marriage, defraud her of her fortune, and lock her in an asylum. Cue much backstabbing, deceit, double-dealing and so on. The first two-thirds trips along like an accessible Dickens, with colourfully unpleasant characters and a restrained lesbian subtext (country halls being rather more discreet and repressed than the music halls of Velvet). The last act, however, is painfully overwrought and lingers like a bad smell, long past the point where an open window and a sweet breeze would make all the difference. I couldn’t help but feel that Waters had over-complicated things and written herself into a corner.

Sjon – The Blue Fox
A quirky slice of myth-making, in which a nasty pastor meets his match hunting a fox through the snowy landscape. Cross-cut with a narrative describing the pastor’s bullying of the vulnerable in his flock, just to be sure you believe he deserves a sticky end. Lyrical, and I daresay very Icelandic.

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl
As problematic as it is accused of being (gender! race!), this is also an accomplished dystopian novel that explores a future in which rising sea levels are drowning the world’s low-lying areas and aggressive corporate genetic modification is destroying biodiversity and the ability to cultivate independent crops. The setting and technology are inventive, and the economics and politics absorbing. Ultimately, this is a novel of evil white corporate aggressors, sexual exploitation, racism and civil war, and I found that it didn’t quite deliver in the final chapters – but the journey was fascinating.

Anna Goldsworthy – Piano Lessons
This was a gift, and had been dragging on my conscience. As an autobiography of a musician I’d never heard of, it wasn’t an obvious choice for me, but the combination of author’s name and my childhood experiences with the piano (limited; poor) were apparently the inspiration. Sadly, any affinity ended there – I read this through gritted teeth, as my brief LT review suggests.

Right – that will do for this evening. Halfway to present day, which is a less intimidating task for Christmas!