Monday, December 31, 2007

the end of the affair

Just time for a little round up, as we depart the festive season and get ready to enter a new year.

As hoped there were many pleasing parcels under my Christmas tree, including a bounty of new books to add to my sagging shelves. I’m pleased to welcome -

Found: the best lost, tossed, and forgotten items from around the world (Davy Rothbart)

Wall and Piece (Banksy)

A Winter Book (Tove Jansson)

How We Became Human (Joy Harjo)

Storm Damage (Brian Patten)

Capyboppy (Bill Peet)

Bogwoppit (Ursula Moray Williams)

Survivor - My Story, the next chapter (Sharon Osbourne)

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

A little something for the poet, the dreamer, the artist, the collector and the child in all of us.

As the last days fade I annually compile a summary of the best albums, films and books of my past year, to circulate among like-minded friends. This year I share part of that list with you, my virtual but well-read friends.

With the help of Goodreads it would have been all too easy to pick ten books with a 5 star rating - but looking back perhaps at times I was too generous with those stars - you just finish a book, you enjoyed it, you give it 5 out of 5, you look back months later and some that only got 4 now seem stronger and more lasting given a bit of distance. I’ve therefore picked 10 books (out of the 93 that I read this year) that appealed for different reasons -

In A Fishbone Church (Catherine Chidgey) - my favourite Compass Journey Page read of this year

Encyclopedia of Snow (Sarah Emily Miano) - my favourite form messing book, and probably my favourite cover too

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) - for seeing my old cowboy loving friend trying his hand at something different

The Gift of Rain (Tan Twan Eng) - for being the Booker novel that most surprised me by how much I liked it

Number9dream (David Mitchell) - for making me feel so excited by a book, jumping around and smiling and all

Fred and Edie (Jill Dawson) - for being my favourite new author of the year

Do White Whales Sing at the Edge of the World? (Paul Wilson) - for being picked from a charity shop on the title alone but being thoroughly splendid

This Side of Brightness (Colum McCann) - for bleak beauty and making me care about tunnels under New York

The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) - for allowing me yet again to prefer the voice of the retard

Tori Amos : Piece by Piece (Tori Amos) - for being my favourite non-fiction, and for making me love her even more, despite not really understanding a thing she is on about

See you all on the other side.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

tis the season

Yesterday I received a delightful little book called Sei - The Glassblower’s Apprentice in the post from Canongate - they had even taken the trouble to co-ordinate the envelope to match the book cover! A festive treat and a vast improvement on the usual corporate card. And its prompted me to do a pre-Christmas catch up.

A long time on the shelves I finally dusted off Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams with the desire to sample Sylvia Plath in prose mode. Many of the pieces are awkward and not that great (although she sounds particularly strong when writing about the sea), but at times her unique eye shines through and we get phrases that would sit happily in her later poems -

‘There might be a hiss of rain on the pane, there might be wind sighing and trying the creaks of the house like keys’

I also travelled beyond the sky via Moondust : In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (Andrew Smith). I enjoyed the author speculation far more than the actual meetings with the astronauts, and his lunar descriptions were unexpectedly poetic, full of shadows and silence - with a moonwalker struggling to navigate the surface ‘trapped in a dusty hall of mirrors’.

I have also conquered my vague fear of Paul Auster. I read The New York Triology about ten years ago, mainly to see why so many of my friends had him high on their literary pedestals. But it didn’t help me to understand - it was ok, but nothing that special. Since then I’ve built him up into one of those ‘he must be great, it must be me that is lacking something’ writers - but I decided to give him a go again. And I genuinely enjoyed Oracle Night - despite the fact that my copy had brown speckles embedded in every other page (which distracted me far more than his use of footnotes). I still don’t think he is that special, but he writes something a bit different, and that is mostly a good thing.

For a reader like me its impossible not to give books to all my friends at Christmas. This year I have wrapped and handed over about a dozen volumes, in all shapes, sizes and persuasions. Books of pictures, books of words, and blank books for those who long to write their own. I’ve also spotted a fair few book-shaped presents lingering under our tree, so hopes are high that my shelves will be even more laden come this time next week.

At this time of magic and sparkle I like to pick appropriate books to read, things that harmonise with the season. Last year I immersed myself in a couple of the Canongate Myths, and there are two still on my shelf so over the coming week I might slip my head inside The Helmet of Horror or dip my finger into the Lion’s Honey. Or I might spend time with Geoff Ryman (Was) and see where his re-working of the Oz story lands me. And then there is The Book of Lost Things (John Connolly) apparently a fairytale for adults - but which has such mixed reviews that I’m rather wary of it.

But for now I am spending the last days of advent in the company of The Portable Virgin (Anne Enright’s collection of short stories) - aptly titled what with all that business with Mary and the donkey!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

three's a crowd

My absence from the Kingfisher roost is not because I’ve not been reading - if anything it’s that I’ve been too wrapped up in reading to remember to review. I’m poor at multi-tasking - I’ve always struggled to balance the ins and outs of reading and writing. It’s just the way I am - little point in trying to fight it. So no proper reviews for now but some snippets from recent notable reads.

My second RIP II challenge read was The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. My first proper foray into Lessing Land (I have a vague memory of reading her at school, perhaps a short story about swimming through an underwater tunnel?) and surely not my last. It’s a brave woman who writes a book that questions that innate mother / child love bond and Lessing is up to the task.

‘One early morning, something took Harriet quickly out of her bed into the baby’s room, and there she saw Ben balanced on the window-sill. It was high - heaven only knew how he had got up there! The window was open. In a moment he would have fallen out of it. Harriet was thinking, What a pity I came in… and refused to be shocked at herself.’

She lulls you with her tone and her setting, not to mention that meek little granny author photo on the cover - and then grabs you with teeth and claws.

And then there was Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson. My new favourite author.

‘I could eat those flowers. I want to eat them, to fill up my mouth with things green, things alive, things which keep growing and dying and growing again. I want to fill myself up and keep out the grey in here, the fine dust, the thinness and coldness, the bloodless drinks of tea, the empty corners of the room where even light, even air is absent and only absence is present like a grey crushing blanket, a suffocating weight.’

And what to do when you find one like Dawson - read all the novels in one delicious feast or try to eek them out, to savour and to tease? At the moment I’m trying the latter but feel myself edging dangerously nearer to the former all the time.

And then most recently Into the Forest by Jean Hegland. This was the first recommendation from the first book blog I read that I have followed through to reading completion. A simple but striking tale which felt like The Road recast by Little Women.

‘there’s a lucidity that sometimes comes in that moment when you find yourself looking at the world through your tears, as if those tears served as a lens to clarify what it is you’re looking at.’

While we are on the topic of tears I’ve found that even some disappointing books have their sparkling moments, like this jewel in the otherwise dull Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thompson -

‘In recent years, Iron Vale had become home to the Museum of Tears, and it was the inalienable right of every melancholic, no matter where they might live, to have a sample of their tears stored within the museum walls. All you had to do was write to the curators, enclosing proof of identity. They would send you an air-tight glass vial, no bigger than a lipstick. The next time you cried, you collected your tears and transferred they to the vial. Some people waited for an important event - the death of a loved one being the most obvious, perhaps - but it was up to you to choose which aspect of your melancholy nature you wanted to preserve. When it was done, you sealed the vial and returned it to the museum, where it would be catalogued and then put on display, with millions of others.’

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

with the lights out

When an American child tires of everyday routine they might gun down their school friends - a Japanese child might behead them. Always eager for something a little twisted I thought I would kick off my R.I.P. II challenge reading with a serving of horror Japanese style.

‘The return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living, and I wholeheartedly shared Kei’s conviction that contact with such beings was something to be avoided.’

Sounds like common sense to most of us - not so for Harada, central character in Taichi Yamada’s Strangers. When he meets a couple who bear uncanny resemblance to his long dead parents he doesn’t run a mile, instead he slots them neatly into his social schedule, spending evenings eating with them, playing cards with them.

This novel deftly walks the fine line between what we wish (perhaps unconsciously) for and what happens when wishes comes true. The horror comes when we are shown our inability to resist returning to something highly dangerous to us - something everyone around us, except us, can see is steadily killing us.

Yamada tells a neat little story. Initially we are lulled by a setting far from typically scary - no remote country house, instead a modern developed cityscape. But one by one those essential scare boxes are ticked - the failed light switch, the empty building, the character questioning their sanity when faced with the impossible, the silence -

‘…it hit me how quiet the building was. Too quiet, I thought.’

Yamada also makes skilful use of repetition - lines, images and encounters occur again and again and grow more unsettling each time. My only concern was that the prose felt somewhat disconnected and passive but perhaps this owes more to the translation than to the original text.

All in all a good creepy read with no screaming, no hysterics, no moonlit chases - just a slow steady crawl of goose-bumps across your skin.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

barely a breath

The news has rarely felt so long. Edge of my seat, rubbing my hands together, smugly hoping I had predicted the winner when…

… a quick cut to Howard Davies, mid-sentence, he spits out that the winner is Anne Enright for The Gathering. (We didn’t see that one coming did we?)

She looks shocked, I look shocked. She scuttles to the stage, smiles and is gone.

That was it. All over. For another year. Thanks for reading along with me!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

the end of the tunnel

So here we are. Mere hours away from the announcement of the 2007 Booker Prize winner. And thankfully, unlike last year, I know I will have read the winning book, whichever the judges choose to pick.

Its been a great reading experience, with a hearty stack of titles almost all of which entertained me. The Booker Dozen (or thereabouts) was a good progression, avoiding a baggy long longlist with titles quick to fall by the wayside.

My personal shortlist would have been -

Self Help
The Gathering
The Gift of Rain
Animal’s People
Mister Pip

- which gives an overall picture of a reader who leans toward a liking for the miserable. A fairly accurate assessment!

If I had to pick a winner that also features in the judges shortlist my prize would go to Animal’s People. It was striking and entertaining, handling a serious issue without detriment to literature. And the further I move away from reading it, the clearer it stays in my mind.

I have an inkling that that judges are likely to pick Darkmans or Mister Pip - but from now till the 10 o’clock news, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Indra Sinha. See you on the other side.

Monday, October 15, 2007

the one that got away

In most things I’m a firm believer in saving the best till last - I finish the cornet before eating the flake, open the junk mail saving the parcel. Except when it comes to a box of chocolates, when I always leave those I don’t like till last in the hope that someone else might pick them instead. (Note - contrary to recent appearance I am not food obsessed, I read far more than I eat, I’m just food analogy obsessed). But with this years Booker I took the chocolate box approach - leaving the unappealing trio of Self Help, The Gift of Rain and Winnie and Wolf till the end. The first two proved quite tasty but I choked on the latter.

25 pages in and there is a hint of nausea within - I’m feeling edgy, my fingertips plucking at the corners of the page, my eyes all over the shop. I just can’t do it, almost like an allergy, the novel repels my every attempt to focus.

To be honest I was bored by the cover blurb. I liked the sound of the Hitler content, and I was happy to accept a hearty dose of European philosophy, but the opera wass a step too far. Add in the tone of the novel - the blithering narrator and his pseudo text-book style and it was a lost cause.

I used to force myself to finish every book I started. But then I realised that life is far too short and there are too many better books gathering dust for me to spend time with ones I don’t get along with. So Winnie and Wolf will join the slender ranks of this years unfinished. Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree - which I know I will return to, but just wasn’t right on that particular day. Will Self’s The Book of Dave - which I wanted to like, having partially conquered my fear of his use of unfamiliar words when I thoroughly enjoyed How the Dead Live, but which I didn’t get on with at all. And Claire Messuds’ The Last Life - which struck me as too dreamy and too French.

It’s a huge shame that in quitting this novel I’ve failed my self set Booker challenge. But perhaps liking the first 12 used up my Booker luck, so A. N. Wilson became the unlucky 13th.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

bullets with butterfly wings

Another book that doesn’t exactly shine through its synopsis and cover art - The Gift of Rain was always destined to be in the balance for me. On the downside there was war and martial arts, on the up the Eastern setting. However Tan Twan Eng cast a subtle spell that made me love all the things I usually despise. Early on, when Phillip Hutton is introducing us to Penang we learn of his love of the sea - and from that moment on I knew I was in too deep! Even the descriptions of the aikijutsu lessons welcomed me - physical activity described in terms of thought and feeling and spiritual connection.

In a similar way to The Reluctant Fundamentalist the story unfolds as Hutton relates his life story to a female visitor to his home. We are taken back to his teenage years, his struggles as a mixed race child, his friendship with his Japanese teacher, and increasingly the turmoil as his homeland is invaded by the Japanese. The tale is told with an unhurried pace, everything will be revealed in due course, but we must be patient.

‘His words had bones in them, like the flesh of fish one bites into innocently.’

Tan Twan Eng creates a strong sense of place - of people within their environment, complete with sounds and smells, of water, trees, birds and insects. But for a fair part of the novel these didn’t feel alive to me. They felt stifled and reserved - somewhat like Phillip’s fathers cases full of mounted butterflies. You can see the beauty but you can’t touch - but in time the doors are opened and the colours flood out and surround you. Eventually the characters and their surroundings warm to you, and welcome you, and then the novel truly springs to life.

‘All around, candles had been placed on my father’s collection of statues and they appeared to move like living things as the flames fought the breeze.’

And then war comes. Tearing into the idyllic home you have come to love, leaving you wincing at the brutalities. In a similar way to The Welsh Girl boundaries between friend and enemy are constantly shifting. Along with the characters our loyalties are questioned and challenged - do we know for sure whose side we would stand on?

A novel with a strong plot and distinctive characters, I’m surprised and disappointed that The Gift of Rain didn’t make the Booker shortlist. I loved it - and won’t forget certain striking passages where scenes came to life almost as if a photograph in your hand suddenly shifted from black and white to colour -

‘the Temple of Azure Cloud, where hundreds of pit vipers took up residence, coiled around incense holders and the eaves and crossbeams of the roof, inhaling the smoke of incense lit by worshippers.’

fade to grey

An uninspiring cover opens to reveal a novel more typical of previous Booker lists, yet quite out of character this year. Pages of prose offer prolonged musings on the human condition. Mostly centred on one family, and their hangers on, we move between London, Paris, New York and St Petersburg - each appearing more bleak than the last. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that calls on the colour grey quite so frequently -

‘The road was striped from the centre with grey sludge - plain grey, dark grey, darker grey and black grey, churned and squashed and churned again by endless traffic.’

The cold introspective tone of the setting suited the people it housed. These characters are indulgent people - not just materially but emotionally and mentally. Happy to sit for hours stewing in their own juices - though by the last quarter I began to despair at their constant complaining and wanted to shout aloud to pull themselves together.

You may think by now that I didn’t like this book - on the contrary I almost loved it. There were moments of pure poetry in Docx writing -

‘battered Czech wrecks and tattered Russian rust-crates’

and he managed to portray time as a distinct and animated presence -

‘the worst night of his life was squatting black and heavy in the shabby courtyard outside.’

Maybe the mood of the book suited the recent change in our weather. And St Petersburg according to Docx felt far more recognisable and welcoming than Barker’s Ashford. (I am somewhat familiar with both places, from childhood visits to an Aunt and Uncle in the latter and a one day trip to the former).

Clearly a self obsessed kind of novel I enjoyed getting caught in the meandering loops of someone else’s thoughts even if I didn’t like the person very much. Unlike Darkmans Self Help seems to solidify into the memory of a great read the further I get from it - and I shall be searching out Docx other novel. Whilst not a light or particularly pleasant read, and probably not the kind of place I would want to come to often, Self Help is somewhere good to visit every now and again, if only as a warning to myself.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

shadow puppets and starlings

Darkmans is a very hard book to hold - at the beginning it pulls you towards the right, and by the end it starts to swing you back the other way. It dents your knees and strains your wrists. It’s exercise without leaving the armchair. It is also a hard book to review, but not, despite my fears, a hard book to read.

Reading Darkmans was a bit like changing TV channels and coming in halfway through a programme. You don’t know who the characters are or what’s going on, what type of programme it is, or how long its been on for - but you find yourself strangely drawn in, transfixed, unable to turn away.

And 838 pages later you’re not much clearer on what you’ve been reading. In fact you’re likely to be left with two main questions - what happened? and did I like it? Plot is a slippery beast in the hands of Nicola Barker. I would say that Darkmans deals loosely with a network of friends, enemies, acquaintances and relatives grouped in or around Ashford, Kent.

‘Nanna Spivey - was so old that she had hardly any teeth or skin or hair. She looked like a fractious newt or a newly born kitten. The veins in her temples and on her hands were the same shade of blue as willow-pattern china.’

History, both near and distant haunts many of the characters despite never departing from the modern day. Barkers’ skill lies in creating a novel that feels so unusual without messing with the form, mainly through loose plotting and an undying faith in the power of minutiae. Scenes imbued with fairy tale imagination (a jar of feeding fleas tethered by invisible thread) are bordered by passages of mundane realism.

‘He carefully inspected his hands. He frowned. He chewed off the jagged tip of a broken thumb-nail. He inspected his hands for a second time. He stopped frowning. He took out his phone. He re-checked his texts.’

Her descriptions are often striking and memorable, especially when writing about people -

‘As she talked, her hands neatly and rapidly dissected her third consecutive clementine, clambering over the individual segments like a pair of frantic but purposeful albino spiders.’

Although as the novel goes on it can feel like she over-describes everything. In progress reading Darkmans felt like a pleasurable and worthwhile experience. But afterwards I am left unsure - was I awestruck, or bored, confused or enlightened? Is this novel a bold and brave epic, or is Barker just trying to see what she can get away with?

To stick with my novel as food analogies, which are becoming rather frequent, I think Darkmans would be oysters - we are not encouraged to linger over the taste, or get our teeth stuck in, we just have to throw our head back and swallow.

Friday, September 28, 2007

bookish aside

A rainy Friday afternoon, a quick break from the last legs of Darkmans, a quick chat about a few book related matters.

This week I discovered Goodreads, as evidenced by my sidebar. I’ve wanted to catalogue my reading online for a while, but the most recommended site (Library Thing) wanted to charge money if I input more that 200 titles. I want to catalogue everything I’ve read since 2000, which is when I first started keeping a log. Goodreads seems fairly easy to use (I’ve only input 2007 so far), at least for what I want it to do - which is just to keep track, so I can quickly check to see if I’ve read something and what I thought of it, without having to go through the pages of a notebook. You also get to see what I’ve read in a lovely little box - I’ve chosen to share my books in order of how highly I rated them.

I buy most of my books online - its almost always cheaper than any of the local bookshops. But I like to browse in bookshops - online browsing just isn’t quite the same, I tend to get too lost down those alleyways of ‘if you liked this you might also like…’. Proper bricks and mortar bookshops also allow a better inspection of cover art and printing quality, font style and size etc - good examples of which can help any reading experience.

So when I spotted the new Penguin Celebration range online I had to head downtown to check these little devils out in the flesh - and thankfully they had pleasing matt finish covers as I hoped. The only let down is that I have already read most of the titles that I fancy, but they are so appealing that I might have to try a few of the ones I don’t fancy too - especially when they are only £3.99 each at Amazon!

I prefer to read paperbacks - in fact the Booker bunch is mainly the only time I read hardbacks - unless I am particularly impatient and can’t wait / won’t wait for the paperback issue. Or unless someone gives me a hardback as a gift, clearly ignoring the fact that I don’t really like reading hardbacks. Paperbacks are easier to cram into a bag to take out and about, for alfresco reading opportunities - and less likely to cause damage if I drop them on my face while reading in bed. So I’m looking forward to getting back amongst my little papery friends once the Booker is done and dusted.

I think I might keep the Kingfisher Scrapbook in sometime operation between Bookers. And my first non-Booker aim will probably be a couple of titles for the R.I.P. II Challenge. I think I should just about have time to digest a couple of slim volumes before the Halloween deadline. After that, who knows what I’ll do here, talk about other books I guess…

Sunday, September 23, 2007

four legs good

Some novels stand out from the crowd based on their plot, some on their characters and Animal’s People is clearly the latter. Which isn’t to say the plot was a let down. Obviously a fictionalised account of the aftermath of a chemical disaster like that which occurred in Bhopal in the early 80’s - we encounter Khaufpur, an Indian community twenty years on, fighting to survive and get justice and compensation from the American ‘Kampani’ responsible for the leak.

‘Like drunks with arms round each others’ necks, the houses of the Nutcracker lurch along this lane…’

But Indra Sinha deftly avoids any danger of bogging his novel down with weighty issues by the masterful creation that is Animal, his central character. Born at the time of the chemical spill Animal is profoundly distorted, doubled over and forced to walk on all fours.

Animal takes us by the hand (and be careful to watch where he puts his other one!) and leads us through his world, often bending low, but sometimes climbing high like a manic monkey. We see through his eyes - just as we are the ‘Eyes’ who he directly addresses - his captive audience, unable to turn away even if we choose to. His world view is infectious, vile and hilarious in equal measures.

‘If you took a skeleton, chopped off one of its legs, removed half its teeth, dressed the result in rags and pissed all over it, this is the type of impression that Mr Saliq likes to give.’

He speaks his own language - a backwards mix of Indian, English and French, but this proves no obstacle to understanding him and the reader quickly slips into his speech pattern.

As we follow Animal through the twists and turns of his double dealing with everyone he encounters we come to learn a fundamental dilemma at the heart of his existence. The choice (which becomes a real possibility when an American doctor arrives in Khaufpur offering curative treatment) between his animal existence and potential normality. He regularly asserts his desire to be viewed as animal rather than human, and we can see that this attitude has probably accounted for his survival so far, a lack of self awareness easing the pain that full acknowledgement might bring.

‘…if I agree to be a human being I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong-shaped and abnormal. But let me be a quatre pattes animal, four-footed and free, then I am whole, my own proper shape…’

But if Animal is to fulfil his main ambition - the desire for love in the long term, and sex in the foreseeable future - straightening up and embracing humanity might be his only option. And the call of the wild beast barely contained in his shorts is a loud one - indeed Animal easily wins the meaty battle of the penis begun by Anne Enright.

A number of the shortlist novels have struggled at their endings - most notably the McEwan and the Hamid - and while the final tying of the last few pages of Animals’ People might come as a little too ahhhh for some, the section immediately preceeding them gives all the ooohh I had come to hope for. Like an apocalyptic acid trip Animal shares his final sensory overdose, worn with a style that suits just like his kakadus.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

more than a mouthful

Gifted tells the story of Rumi, fourteen going on fifteen. Born in Wales to Indian parents, she struggles to reconcile their conflicting demands. On one hand they want her to excel in British academic circles. But on the other they demand she show due respect to her blood heritage - complete with a lack of sex before the inevitable arranged marriage.

Gifted is also the story of Rumi’s parents. Her father who struggles to find the balance between love and discipline and who tends to treat his wife and friend as though they were also children. And her mother who tries to fit in despite a hankering for the country she left behind - a woman whose preoccupation with food quickly rubs off on Rumi, marking much of her inner thought with edible references and prompting her addiction to cumin seeds.

Gifted is also the story of Rumi the maths prodigy - more at home with numbers than people -

‘Under the burning tube lights, she attacked the numbers with speed and ferocity, as though she was playing Space Invaders, devouring the figures with the hunger in her belly and spitting out the remains.’

accelerated academically to Oxford, succeeding in exams but falling at all the basic hurdles of adolescence .

There is great strength in Nikita Lalwani’s characters and plot but fundamental weaknesses in her delivery. Vivid loops and twirls add colour to her prose -

‘It was a tart globule of thought, bitter as a gooseberry gobstopper, which she sucked, waiting for it to crack up into something she could chew, digest and understand.’

but she tends to over-describe nearly everything which bogs the story down. She also fell into the McEwan trap of trying to hard to tie up all the loose ends - and I feel the novel would have been stronger had it ended with the Brit-flick style finale, omitting the epilogue.

Where Mohsin Hamid gave us tasters and left us wanting more, Lalwani overheaps our plate at every course and offers such a vast menu that all our choices become spoilt. Any one of the major storylines in itself could have made a great novel (given a slightly lighter hand with the prose) - but all together I’m overfed and a little nauseous.

Monday, September 10, 2007

half a world away

If I had to name my favourite cover from this years selection Mister Pip would win. Eye catching colours fill bold shapes, printed onto pleasing matt paper. And thankfully the words within please too.

We join Matilda (aged 14) on her South Pacific island home. It’s 1991 and a time of change - war is rumbling, people are taking sides, lives are being lost. But the children of Bougainville are offered a welcome escape from the harsh realities by Pop Eye Watts, the only white man on the island, and self-styled teacher who transports them far away with his reading of Great Expectations. [Great Expectations works as a character within this novel - as such a reader needs no more previous knowledge of the book than they would have of any other fictional character they encounter]

Watts is everything a good teacher should be - knowing his limits, never claiming to know everything he calls upon the parents to come in and share their knowledge which results in lessons on such wonderful topics as the colour blue and broken dreams. As with the many stories within stories that are told in Mister Pip it’s the vivid telling that gives them their life -

“His mum got drunk on jungle juice and feel off a tree inside the house. When she hit the ground her eyes bounced out of her skull. When she lost her eyes she also lost her memory.”

Despite the ever present threat of violence this novel really tells the story of the power of literature itself. The way a book can make you think about yourself, your life - the way you can draw parallels and note differences. Charles Dickens offers Matilda a way to learn things not passed down from her parents. But the power of books also brings danger - and Great Expectations takes on the status of a holy book, it can support or denounce, save or condemn. It can also raise barriers between a mother and daughter forcing difficult choices.

I am a fan of fiction written from a child’s perspective and Lloyd Jones handles the form with great skill - Matilda is alive and believable, balancing knowledge with naivety.

“The great shame of trees is that they have no conscience. They just go on staring.”

Hand in hand with Matilda we come to understand the magic of imagination - not least in the scene where the islanders pool their collective memories of Mrs Watts, both real and fictional, and thereby bring her to a new kind of life.

As is often the case, I find it hardest to describe those things I like the most, and so it is with Mister Pip. The prose was light and poetic and in keeping with the story and Matilda’s voice and had me catching my breath at times -

“The world is grey at that hour, it moves more slowly. Even the seabirds are content to hold onto their reflections.”

Safe to say, Mister Pip is my favourite Booker read so far. I’m pleased to see it sitting tight on the shortlist and I think its become my choice to win so far.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

short changed

And so the Booker judges have announced their final six -

I’m pleased to see The Gathering there - good that they aren’t put off by possibly the most miserable of the 13. And a wave to Mister Pip which so far is still so good.

Animal’s People and the mighty Darkmans seem reasonable choices based on what others have said about them - and I am looking forward to bumping them up the pecking order of my still to be reads.

But On Chesil Beach and The Reluctant Fundamentalist seem this years odd choices. Perhaps they fancied a couple of short reads to offset Darkmans? perhaps they thought they better put the Hamid on so that people wouldn’t solely point the finger at McEwan for being too short? perhaps McEwan is on just to keep him sweet? perhaps Hamid purely for the post 9/11 fiction fans?

Looking forward to seeing what others think of the list - and to hear the cursing that The Welsh Girl fell at the first hurdle.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

great expectations

On the eve of the announcement of the Booker shortlist it seems apt to share my hopes and fears. Over the past few weeks I’ve read my way through six of the titles, and am part way through my seventh.

So far all of the novels have been good reads, none have been appalling or a struggle to finish. At no point have I felt I could be spending my time a better way. Although one or two have lulled me close to a semi-conscious state, it has been a pleasurable one and may owe more to the erratic English weather than the novel itself. But some have stood out as better.

But what does better mean? to me? or to the Booker judges? Quite possibly two different things. At this half way point in my reading I come to realise that my criteria for judging these books is far stricter than for the rest of the books I read throughout the year. Mostly I stumble across books or seek them out from various lists and recommendations, and read them with little or no expectation. But these thirteen arrive under a banner that suggests they are the pick of the crop of English language novels. And I read them as such. Some fall short of that accolade, some make the grade but don’t particularly appeal to me.

My favourite two novels from those I have read so far are The Gathering and Consolation. Both had their flaws, but told a story that engaged me in a style that felt comfortable and appropriate. Both have stayed in mind despite them being my first two reads. As such I would like to see these two make the shortlist.

I think The Welsh Girl deserves a place on the list too - despite it not really capturing my heart - because as I said in my review, I find it hard to point out a fault. And at this stage, unless it takes an unexpected turn for the worse - I would also stick Mister Pip on my shortlist too. However the other three seem a little too holey to continue in the race, perhaps in other years they might have gone further, but this year the competition is too good for anything but the best to get through. But that only makes 4 out of the required 6, so adding on the 2 most tempting titles from my remaining pile gives this as my Booker shortlist -

However, if I had to make a guess at the judges final six, based on my own reading so far, and various quality reviews from other Booker bloggers - it would look more like this -

But then again, looking at these, there is far too much overlap - I am never in that close agreement with the Booker panel, something must have gone wrong in my estimations! Till tomorrow then…

a little less conversation, a little more action

I would class myself as a fan of Ian McEwan - granted On Chesil Beach seems a little slim for the Booker criteria, but I was pleased to see it waiting on my pile. The plot premise was a good one - an early sixties couple in their honeymoon suite, about to consummate their marriage, with all the hopes and fears that entails. But it fell sadly short of the mark. Admittedly there was a fair dousing of striking writing, the kind I’ve come to expect from McEwan -

‘Entering the bedroom, she had plunged into an uncomfortable, dream-like condition that encumbered her like an old-fashioned diving suit in deep water. Her thoughts did not seem her own - they were piped down to her, thoughts instead of oxygen.’

But that’s about as far as the good marks go. I found Florence and Edward largely ridiculous people. Products of their time, they show how love doesn’t always feed lust, that what may be natural doesn’t always come easily and that sex is nothing like they show in the movies. Perhaps I too am a product of my time - a snakebite snog to the B52’s - but I couldn’t help giggling at Florence’s fears of ‘the close embrace’.

On the cusp of personal and sexual liberation, a decade of new freedoms and fun to come, I somehow doubt these two would know how to enjoy it if it bit them on the arse. A spark of possibility and hopes glimmers when Edward starts to give vent to his angry side -

‘the beginnings of a darkening of mood, a darker reckoning, a trace of poison that even now was branching through his being. Anger. The demon he had kept down earlier when he thought his patience was about to break.’

But fizzles out as quickly as it ignites. More lasting was my rage at his choice of white wine to go with the beef!

A neat little afternoon read, there was a strong sense of momentum throughout the novel, steady progress that builds as we are carried along, to learn how they came to this moment. This effectively mirrors the sex that so unnerves Florence, the dreaded one-thing-leads-to-another. But sadly, before we reach the end, Mr McEwan himself falls foul of Edwards greatest fear, that of ‘arriving too soon’. He spills his conclusion rapidly and messily over the last few pages - leaving me unsatisfied and unimpressed.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

counting sheep

Some books stand out for how they make you think, some for how they make you feel. The Welsh Girl makes me feel like a child on a Sunday afternoon - stuffed full of meat and two veg, overdosed on gravy and crashed out in front of the telly. There’s nothing on the box but a black and white war movie and my mind screams ‘BORING’ but I feel myself hopelessly drawn in by the tale, despite the stiff upper lips and foolish costumes. Because while times and places change, people are people.

And people are what this novel is all about. The relationships between children and their mothers and fathers, between people and their birthplace and their country of origin. People dislocated by war, and people craving to break free from the limits of their roots.

All the characters and communities that Peter Ho Davies creates are peopled and alive, sparking with warm little details like the German POW who makes toy planes for the evacuee out of bed slats and bullet casings.

There is risk with any novel that adopts multiple narratives that each might be diluted by only claiming a share of the novel but this never seems to happen in The Welsh Girl. Each narrative - the surrendered German POW, the interrogator or the Welsh girl herself, Esther - seems to reinforce and elaborate on each other. This supportive narrative allows Peter Ho Davies to break through the barriers of enemy and friend, them and us -

‘She tries to decide how she feels about the Germans now. It seems important. She ought to hate them, she thinks, and she supposes she does, but she can’t quite muster the heat of anger. She doesn’t know them, after all; whatever they’ve done, it doesn’t feel like they’ve done it to her.’

I particularly enjoyed Esther’s struggles to find expression between two languages, each which seems to have a life and mode of thought of its own. She struggles to understand what happened to her in the abandoned swimming pool within the context of the word itself -

‘In the midst of it, yes, the word had filled her mind, buzzing and crackling like a lurid neon sign in a gangster picture. But not afterwards’

The novel seems almost faultless (incredible considering it’s his first), and every box ticked that ought to be. The prose is highly accomplished and vivid -

‘his nose as sharp as a beak and his cheekbones swept up like wings under his skin, as if his face were about to take flight.’

and I can see why all the reviews I’ve read speak so highly and tip the novel for the Booker shortlist at the least. It’s a well woven blanket, each thread handled with care and combined into a colourful pattern - but ultimately for me the blanket is a little too thick, a little too warm, and I am liable to find myself dozing beneath it, dreaming of sheep.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

up close and personal

Mohsin Hamid adopts a distinctive tone for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Over a number of hours Changez sits at a café table in Lahore speaking to an unnamed American. Through the course of his confessional monologue we learn of his experiences in America before and after the pivotal 9/11 attacks.

I dislike first person narration as I don’t like to be forced into someone elses shoes - and the shoes don’t get much tighter than this. But despite my reservations I am drawn in. What starts as discomfort and a desire to tear myself away becomes a compulsion, a need to stick this out to see how it ends.

Within the novels limited length Hamid gives us tasters without fully heaping our plate. The American is never given voice, we can only imagine what he has said based on Changez reactions, but the American still manages to annoy with his constant jumping, complaining and suspicions.

Some of the warmest sections of the novel are when we are shown interactions between individuals as opposed to nations, between men and women, between Changez and Erica -

‘I had begun to understand that she has chosen not to be part of my story; her own had proven too compelling, and she was - at that moment and in her own way - following it to its conclusion, passing through places I could not reach.’

Another theme that Hamid skilfully threads throughout is the role of film. On his arrival Changez uses knowledge of American films as a currency to buy his way into social acceptance, sharing exchanges of Top Gun dialogue at a job induction. But film later takes on a negative role when the collapse of the World Trade towers appears to be almost unreal, and when America goes to war Changez again observes how they act as if in a film.

Changez disappointment and animosity towards the United States builds steadily throughout by which time he has provided ample evidence to support his change of heart. But it is only near the very end that he distils this evidence into one clear statement of accusation, still delivered in measured, calm eloquence.

‘As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums…’

With this neat little novel Hamid has sat us down at his table and told a warm but sad tale of isolation, of people reaching out and failing to find someone willing to grasp their hand, of a country willing to greet when it suits but quick to turn its back when it doesn’t. Hamid has kept to his chosen path throughout and has not allowed himself to get carried away or side-tracked, but I doubt I would have chosen to walk his way if not for the Booker longlist.