Tuesday, October 06, 2009

the end is nigh

This year I’ve struggled to find enough time to devote to my Booker experience. I’ve kept up with my reading aims, but not the consequent blogging. And here we are, on the day of the big announcement, and here I am, cracking out a quick post to give me some sense of last minute involvement.

You’ll have to take it on trust when I tell you that my shortlist predictions were very accurate this year. I guessed 5 out of 6 of the judges choices. I wonder if that might help me in guessing the winner again this year?

Since my last post I read The Little Stranger and didn’t think that much of it. I conclude once again that I just don’t get Waters. I read The Glass Room which I loved and has jumped out as one of my best reads of 2009. I read Summertime which excited me and made me think a lot, and made me realize Coetzee is really quite cool. And I’m currently ploughing on through The Children’s Book - which I’m liking quite a bit, but I’d enjoy far more if it was in paperback and not such a killer to hold.

And so to winners and thereby losers. My personal pick for the Booker Prize 2009 would be The Quickening Maze. It’s stuck with me long after reading, and I think it has a lot of hidden depths. It would be great to get it to a wider readership, who might find unexpected pleasure in reading the prose of a poet. But if I can’t have that I’d be very happy if Mawer took the prize.

But I feel, as ever, that the judging panel won’t agree with me. Sod’s Law would have Wolf Hall win as I haven’t read that one (and doubt I will). I doubt they’ll give it to Byatt or Coetzee again. Overall I’ve got a nasty feeling that Sarah Waters will win this year…

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

lost in a forest

A strange thing happened with The Quickening Maze in that the novel has seemed to get better the further away I’ve got from actually reading it.

A relatively short book, it tried to pack a great deal into it’s pages, mainly through the multiple character threads we jumped between. This reinforced a sense of confusion, perhaps echoing characters who don’t always have a firm grip on who they are. The reader is pulled in as one of the many confused souls, but after a while the charm of the maze began to lose it’s appeal. However with the safety of distance I realise I actually quite enjoyed myself!

I especially liked Fould’s emphasis on setting. The buildings and the forest were vivid and almost acted as characters in themselves, creating a strong rural gothic atmosphere throughout.

‘Even the building looked mad: plain, square and tight, with regular small barred windows that emitted shrieks.’

Dividing the novel into seasonal chapters gave a strong sense of time passing, and the actions in each chapter sat well within the intended season. The first Autumn section felt like trying to grasp at many tumbling leaves, but by Winter characters had begun to still and settle into their roles.

‘the stopped fish under their dirty window of ice.’

Whether because Foulds is a poet, or due to the historical setting of the novel at many times I almost forgot I was reading a contemporary novel. The dialogue and description felt like they genuinely reflected the 1840’s. In The Quickening Maze Foulds created a vehicle to deliver regular bursts of his poetic prose which makes this novel one of the more elegant for it’s language on this year's longlist.

‘Two crows cranked past with their slow labouring stroke when a wind caught them and swept them round like a finger turning a clock hand.’

It’s possible that The Quickening Maze needs the same attention that a poem requires and that further readings might better unravel it’s many layers. As the Booker judges will be re-reading these novels I think it’s highly likely that we might see this title on next weeks shortlist.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

confessions of a chimp

One of the joys of the Booker Prize list is when I’m introduced to a novel I would not otherwise choose to read - and Me Cheeta certainly fits that bill. And a good job I took a chance on it because I was hooked after a just a few pages.

I know a fair bit about primates and next to nothing about the Golden Age of Hollywood but neither were a barrier to enjoying this book. Whilst specific names and films and incidents meant little to me the overall tone kept me engaged throughout. Cheeta’s story bears much relevance to our current celebrity obsessed culture, where hopefuls fling themselves at fame, and even minor celebrities update their autobiography every other year. At times I had to pinch myself to remember that this was fiction (sort of).

Cheeta, the ultimate unreliable narrator, played varied appealing roles within his life story, and I’m left with many memorable moments. There were scenes of innocence and experience - eating his first banana, seeing stuffed heads of walls and commenting on the animal loving nature of the home-owner. A master of faux naivety, the reader rapidly realises that Cheeta knows far more than he is letting on, such as when he calls a plane an ‘iron bird’ when knowing full well both it’s make and model.

There were moments of existential wisdom -

‘A human trying to act a chimpanzee is somehow pathetic, whereas a chimpanzee trying to act a human is funny because… well, why is that? Something to do with aspiration. You think we’re pure and want to be us. We know you’re not pure, but we still aspire to be you.’

and heartbreaking poetry -

‘I still felt scattered, like the golden light rippling on the underside of a bridge.’

Me Cheeta does what many of the best of the old films does, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it sucks you in despite any reservations you may hold. Earlier copies of the novel name Cheeta as the author, and online articles talk of James Lever merely ghost-writing the autobiography, so it’s hard to know who to credit with the achievement. But it’s fun and unexpected and great to see such a banana skin slipped in amongst the more serious Booker longlisters.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

land of confusion

The Wilderness is the first novel I’ve read that features a central character with Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease that offers plenty of potential for literature, but has inherent pitfalls, which I fear that Harvey fell into at times.

The way Harvey charts the progression of Jake’s illness is memorable and moving. Incidents such as the first time a loved one notices that something isn’t quite right, losing common words, and finally total bewilderment at everyone and everything.

‘He sees a mouth moving, hears words cluster together like a series of shapes that promise tessellation, but which do not, no matter how one turns them.’

I also liked the structure that Harvey used, with the main story interspersed with titled chapters reflecting past events. This made the novel feel a little like a collection of stories, perhaps showing up that there is less organisation to life that we sometimes like to believe, a pretension that Alzheimer’s is keen to strip away.

In the same way as Toibin with Brooklyn I feel Harvey probably achieved her aim, but in reality I found The Wilderness quite a confusing read. Some people have simple lives - if they then develop Alzheimer’s it becomes more confusing. However, when someone has a complex life (as Jake does to my mind) and then Alzheimer’s comes into play the story descends into chaos. To my mind Harvey tried to do too much, and didn’t quite pull it off. Jake’s story without the Alzheimer’s might have worked, the Alzheimer’s story without quite so many other threads might have worked, but the two together clashed.

‘Gradually he is being scattered and lost - hundreds of unread messages floating out across the sea.’

I came to care for the increasingly unreliable narrator Jake, his pockets stuffed full of letters, head stuffed full of grand plans for glass houses, his heart pulled in many directions at once, but at too many times during the novel I felt like I was the one losing the plot.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

there and back again

Irish novels often feel like familiar territory. In almost every one a character heads off to America in hope of a better life. So Brooklyn, with its central story of just that journey, seems like a good place to start my voyage into Booker waters.

This is a novel about a couple of years in the life of Eilis Lacey. And that is both its strength and its weakness - because a novel that has such modest aims relies heavily on the ability of that character to engage the reader. And there Eilis struggled for me.

Eilis is supremely passive. Life happens to her. Major decisions are made for her, and she goes along with them. She assumes there are no other options, but she doesn’t even look for them. I felt little connection with her, perhaps because there was so little substance to connect with. In fact the only glimmer of life came when grief visited. As if until then she was a blank slate waiting for pain to write its message on.

‘Somehow, she thought, if she could look at him, take him in clearly when he was not trying to amuse her or impress her, something would come to her, some knowledge, or some ability to make a decision.’

It seems clear that Colm Toibin intended Eilis to be this way, and he succeeded in maintaining that throughout, but in creating such a passive character inevitably the novel itself took on a lot of her character. At times I felt I was drifting through it, floating from scene to scene, with my attention only partly engaged.

Thankfully my partial engagement took notice of some of the background details which gave my reading greater satisfaction. Many of the minor characters were lively and entertaining. I was particularly fond of the wily Mrs Kehoe. The dialogue of minor characters often brought scenes to life and offered genuine humour in places -

‘No one likes flies,’ Miss Kelly said, ‘especially on a Sunday.’

I also loved the significant role of letters throughout the novel. It is letters that firstly arrange her passage to Brooklyn, and once there Eilis comes to experience her Brooklyn largely through what she chooses to share or omit from her letters home. A times letters hold offer both good and bad news, and in the end they remain unopened and unreplied to signalling Eilis further decent into passivity.

Brooklyn is an example of good old-fashioned linear storytelling. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a calm voyage with Toibin at the helm, although at times I felt like we were barely moving. Admittedly we got to our destination but I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed a few more choppy patches.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the pick of the crop

Slap bang in the middle of an English summer, clouds in the sky, and the Booker longlist announced yesterday.

AS Byatt - The Children's Book

JM Coetzee - Summertime

Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze

Sarah Hall - How to Paint a Dead Man

Samatha Harvey - The Wilderness

Jame Lever - Me Cheeta

Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall

Simon Mawer - The Glass Room

Ed O'Loughlin - Not Untrue & Not Unkind

James Scudamore - Heliopolis

Colm Toibin - Brooklyn

William Trevor - Love and Summer

Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger

My initial impression was one of pleasant surprise that there were quite a few books already on my ‘want to read’ list. In particular How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. Her Electric Michelangelo was one of my Booker highlights in 2004 and last year I read her earlier Haweswater and it was my book of the year. I can’t wait to see how this one measures up.

I’ve picked six titles to start with, I’ll see how I get on with those and if I’m still hungry I’ll come back for a second helping. I already had my eye on the Colm Toibin and the Samantha Harvey, so they were easy choices, and I decided to try again with Sarah Waters, as while I’m never that sure about the strength of her writing, she usually writes a pretty good story. The Quickening Maze appealed as I’ve liked fictionalised realities of poets in the past. I’m pushing my boundaries by choosing to read Me Cheeta, it sounds simply bizarre, but Booker reading is about self-challenge, reading things I otherwise might pass over, so that had to go in the virtual basket.

Overall it seems to be a very appealing longlist. If I was asked to read all 13 there is no single title that I would be eyeing with dread. Although for the moment I’m skirting around those two hefty volumes! It seems a varied selection as far as setting and story and time. And with possibly less political agenda that in previous years. A notable absence of an Indian novel too. Quite a few titles that focus on artists, writers. A few that interweave fact with fiction. All in all I’m looking forward to my first batch of books arriving. Let the summer commence!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

a rose between two thorns

Only a couple of days to go before the Booker longlist is announced. Just time to tidy the scrapbook and catch up with my best reads for the last few months. The benefit of getting behind with these means I get to look back and reflect with a little distance, and often the quieter titles shine through with more lasting warmth than those that burned brightest at the time.

Stephen Clayton undoubtedly created a great character in Jonathan. Reflective, existential and able to make fascinating even the most mundane of daily activities. At times I felt like I was reading a modern day Camus. But where the death in The Outsider illuminates Meursault, the death in The Art of Being Dead overshadows Jonathan. It clouds him and draws attention away from the real strengths of Clayton’s writing. I felt like he started well but didn’t quite manage to sustain his creation but this was still easily my best read in April.

‘I was a part of the pub and the silence and the rain, and yet I experienced everything as if through a thin sheet of frosted glass; as if I were my own ghost watching my life unfold about me.’

In contrast Michael Kimball managed to hit the right note straight off and stick with it. Dear Everybody was utterly engrossing and at times almost too real to bear. Impossible to read without wondering what collection of scraps we each might leave behind. Not just my book of the month for May, but stands a high chance of being my book of the year.

‘Unfortunately, the photo shop also processed the unused film at the end of the roll, so that the last few photos are all just black, which made me realize that they were actually photos of all the things that we never did together.’

I sometimes read pieces by Burnside in the LRB. His style draws me in and I find myself fascinated by whatever he chooses to share with me. And so it was with Glister, a weird little tale of a strange Scottish town and it’s peculiar inhabitants. I liked dipping into their perspectives, each as unsettling as the last. I liked the feeling of tension and not-quite-rightness throughout. The ending felt like it spun out of control a bit, but hard to think of a better way to wrap up what Burnside had weaved by then. Quirky and a little rotten, my top June read and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

‘the dead so away into their solitude, but the young dead stay with us, they colour our dreams, they make us wonder about ourselves, that we should be so unlucky, or clumsy, or so downright ordinary as to carry on without them.’

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My books of months gone by

I’ve got a bit behind with my book blogging, but thankfully not with my book reading, and I’ve got a couple of Book of the Months for February and March to share.

‘My mind hopped around agitated on a high tree, would not come down, would not let me read…’

I’ve developed quite a taste for books based in cold settings.  Snow, ice, remote, barren, wind-swept places, they all appeal within the pages of a book read in a nice centrally heated house with a cup of tea!  So when John Self reviewed Julius Winsome at his Asylum I knew I had to read it.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  Slightly shaken up, but not disappointed.  What a book!  I had to force myself to read it slowly, as I knew I did not want to miss a single word.  I had to remind myself to breathe.  And sometimes to put the book down if I was gripping it too tightly, just as it gripped me.  It was so tense, emotionally as well as through the plot, which is a simple but perfect vehicle for Julius to meet us.   

‘The winter is fifty books long and fixes you to silence like a pinned insect; your sentences fold themselves into single words, the hand of twelve makes one hand of time.’

If I could stand the loneliness, the cold, the guns and the dead dog then this is the life I would choose to lead.  In the meantime I’ll just enjoy the book.

I was impressed by my first introduction to Kate Grenville via her 2006 Booker nominated The Secret River.  She has the ability to draw me in, almost purely through the strength of her writing, to stories that might otherwise slip through my fingers.  Her next book I read was Lillian’s Story, which I got in a grotty little yellowed paperback.  However the story and characters exploded like one of those snakes in a can, and I’ve never quite crammed them back in since.  At times I still feel that a little bit of Lillian is lingering near.  I was eager then to read Dark Places which Grenville wrote to tell the story of Albion, Lillian’s father, in some ways the flipside of Lillian’s Story.  What a great idea - I can’t stop thinking of how many other books I’d like see this done to!  It feeds that need of wanting a bit more once a novel has ended, without resorting to a sequel.

‘Their features were jammed together in the centre of their faces like an afterthought, and they all stared out woodenly at the world, as if it cost money to have an expression on your face.’

And Dark Places has nothing of the sequel about it.  It begins before Lillian’s Story, and like that, follows quite a linear path of a character’s life.  But it is in no way dull for that approach, and whilst at times it is painfully obvious where Albion is heading, we are still gripped to see him get there.  Again Grenville has created an utterly life-like character, and while there were times when I felt very uncomfortable spending so much time with such a vile man, I couldn’t help but see him through to the end.  And like Lillian, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting him in a hurry.  

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Letters - Fiona Robyn

Over the past few years of blogging I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a select handful of published authors.  I’ve found it fascinating to learn a little about their writerly lifestyles and habits alongside talk about their families, interests and amusements.  I’ve picked up tips, numerous reading recommendations and endless encouragement on the way.  And typical me, I’ve hoarded their books, eking out the eventual pleasure of reading them. 

Fiona Robyn had her book on that pile, and I’m allowing her to jump to the top as it’s due out on Monday 2nd March and this seemed the perfect time to read it and share my thoughts! I knew it would add an extra dimension to my reading to feel I know the author if only virtually.  However I didn’t realise how hard it would make this post.  I want to shower The Letters with unconditional praise and say I adored every page.  But I can’t, not quite. 

One of the things that makes me like a book is if I like the people, places or events within it.  It takes an outstanding writer to make me enjoy a book if I don’t like the main character.  And truth be told, I didn’t like Violet.  I didn’t like her attitudes, or her lifestyle.  I don’t think I was particularly meant to like her, but I found it hard even to tolerate her.  The only times when I warmed to her at all were when she was reminiscing about her childhood.  I felt I could have been friends with the young Violet, but not the woman she grew into.  I didn’t like the regular need to use quoted words and phrases within the prose referring to Violet - I felt she might be one of those people who constantly makes quote motions in the air with raised fingers.  I wished she’d have used her own voice, her own phrases throughout and not fallen on the safety net of those marks.  Some might say that Fiona Robyn has created an authentic character if she can inspire this much dislike in a reader!

‘She’d never been a natural at developing connections.  Other people seemed to find them so easy.  She sometimes imagined them as having lots of different coloured strings attached to their bodies, representing the things about themselves that other people would find attractive or interesting.  All they had to do was take the end of one of these strings and offer it to a passing stranger, and the stranger seemed to willingly take it and become a friend.’

That said there were large parts of The Letters that I enjoyed very much.  I loved the letters themselves, the way they appeared out of nowhere and were largely unremarked on by Violet for the majority of the novel.  This allowed me to feel like they were my secret.  It hinted that I might be able to work out their message before she did - I didn’t, which made the final twist all the more pleasing!  I liked and believed in Elizabeth and warmed to her through her words.  I would have liked to have spent more time with her. 

I loved the structure Fiona Robyn chose for her novel.  The shifting back and forth in time weaved the whole together into a neat bag to carry the main plot.  There were sharp observational details throughout, as I would come to expect having enjoyed her small stones for some time. I was most delighted by the seaside scenes, and strangely for me, the cat scenes.

‘She didn’t know why she’d never paid proper attention to raindrops before.  There was a whole country of individual drops, like citizens, and when a new one splashed down it would either find its own place and sit quietly, or it would merge with a neighbour.  If the new raindrop and the neighbour created enough weight they would be smeared across the windowpane by the light wind, and join a whole chain of drops together, gathering speed and fluidity as they streaked down towards the bottom corner of the window-frame.’

I’m sure that readers who get along well with Violet will enjoy a smoother ride than me, but I’m very glad to have read Fiona’s first novel, and wish her all the success she desires for it.  And I look forward to reading the next one, to see who she introduces me to!

Monday, February 02, 2009

My book of the month - January

I’ll admit that once I would have been a bit snobbish at the thought of book recommendations given by a popular television pair.  But over the years I’ve noticed that quite a few novels I’ve really enjoyed have appeared among the Richard & Judy selections.  I recently got a copy of The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite - so when I saw it on R & J’s 2009 selection I thought I’d jump it to the top of my reading pile.  And what a treat it was.

Beatrice Colin tried to do a few things within the novel, and achieved all with a well-handled balance.  Each chapter begins with still image (and for me there is something so thrilling about finding pictures in my novels) and a little snapshot from cinema history.

‘Every evening for a year, barring church holidays, and days off due to ill health, Arnold von Heidle and his wide, Hilda, attended the Union Movie Theatre in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.  Two hundred and fifty films they witnessed, incognito, to assemble their extraordinary statistics.  And this is what they saw: ninety-seven murders, fifty-one adulteries, nineteen seductions, thirty-five drunks, and twenty-five practising prostitutes.’

Then within the chapters we follow the story of Lilly - a gripping rags to riches story.  Her name changes with her role - Tiny Lil, Lilly, Lidi.  From orphan to housemaid to film star - from backroom fumbles to a personal invitation back to Germany from Joseph Goebbels.  Along the way we learn a bit about interwar Berlin life - especially as it impacts on a small group of women. 

We grow to love Lilly, and her perseverance and spirit despite the bad luck that always seems to dump on her doorstep. 

‘With snow thick on the ground outside and the air filled with dozens of burning cigarette ends, the bar gave the impression of warmth if not the real thing.’

This was one of those rare books that I thought about when away from its pages.  I cared enough about the characters to be eager to return to spend more time with them, and I wondered more than a little at what happened to them after the novel ended.  Hence I especially enjoyed the gently omniscient narrator who gives us little glimpses into the fate of those extras who people Lilly’s world - some get their just desserts, some don’t.