Sunday, 7 September 2014

Reading round-up: August

August 2014 books

70. The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
71. Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier - 5/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
72. The Lazarus Prophecy by F.G. Cottam - 9/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
73. J by Howard Jacobson - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
74. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - 8/10. Read my full review / Get the ebook (free for Kindle)
75. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle - 6/10. Read my full review / Get the ebook (free for Kindle)
76. The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
77. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - 9/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
78. Another Man's City by Choi In-ho - 6/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the book
79. Improper Stories by Saki - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
80. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
81. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
82. Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
83. Generation X by Douglas Coupland - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
84. Leviathan by Paul Auster - 8/10. Review to come / Buy the ebook

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I managed to read 15 books in August - and, in the process, surpassed my 2014 target of 75 books.

First of all, Emily St. John Mandel's magnificent Station Eleven was my favourite book of the month. It's set in a post-apocalyptic version of America, and tells two stories - firstly how the fall of civilisation happened, and secondly, what happens when a travelling band of actors and musicians run into trouble in a town ruled by a mysterious 'prophet'. If that doesn't sound like something that'd normally have you running to a bookshop, I didn't think it would be my kind of thing either, but the way Mandel writes, fleshes out her characters, and puts all the pieces of this jigsaw together s-l-o-w-l-y with infinite humanity and elegance is just perfect (and I went in with very high expectations after all the buzz about Station Eleven on Twitter). It's out in a few days - buy it.

I also loved F.G. Cottam's The Lazarus Prophecy, a horror/historical mystery/thriller hybrid from my favourite author of ghost stories. J by Howard Jacobson was an enjoyable and thought-provoking mix of dystopian fiction and satirical humour, and better than Jacobson's Booker winner The Finkler Question. Equally thought-provoking and funny, though in a very different way, was Roxane Gay's essay collection Bad Feminist, which includes some brilliant and truly inspiring pieces of pop culture criticism alongside insightful pieces on all sorts of topics, including - but not limited to - feminism.

Out of the handful of classics I read this month, the best was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was a much quicker, easier read than I anticipated; also very good was The Driver's Seat, a dark and strange little novella. I still haven't been converted into a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes books, but the second, The Sign of Four, was definitely better than the first. John Collier's short story collection Fancies and Goodnights was entertaining to begin with, but repetitive themes and constant misogyny across the course of 50 stories (too many, really) dragged it into below-average-read territory for me.

While very short, Down the Rabbit Hole was an intriguing, powerful story - a snapshot of the life of a drug baron's son, from the boy's point of view. The Vanishing Witch was a fun mediaeval romp, a return to form after Karen Maitland's lacklustre fourth novel. Leviathan by Paul Auster was really good, but shares a lot of themes and quirks of style with his other books, so it won't be anything new to fans of the author. I liked Improper Stories by Saki, and although it wasn't really what I expected (gentle satire with a macabre touch, nothing more horrifying than that!) I'd still like to read more by the author.

Nothing I read this month was a real disappointment, but a few of these books - Generation X, By Grand Central Station..., Another Man's City - were just okay, and particularly in the case of the first two, didn't live up to what I'd hoped for from their reputations.

I can't believe it's September already. I've just finished David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, and a huge review is forthcoming - but with so many spoilers I'll probably only be able to post it on Goodreads! I'm currently reading Samantha Harvey's intriguing Dear Thief. What are you reading this September?

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Feminism and so much more: Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay Bad Feminist: Essays (24 August 2014) by Roxane Gay
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain... interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
I loved Bad Feminist. This is a collection of essays that feels like coming across a particularly brilliant blog and obsessively reading back through pages and pages of posts, elated to have found something so smart and relevant and readable. Throughout this book, the author comes across as so likeable and brilliant I can't imagine how you could read it and not want to be her friend. I was making notes from the introduction onwards; after a few chapters, I'd followed Gay on Twitter and Tumblr; I came away from the book with a reading list. If I could easily find other non-fiction books as engaging as this, I'd read a hell of a lot more non-fiction.

I was originally going to write a review that would link my appreciation of this book with some of my own opinions on modern feminism, online feminism, and the reasons I've become reluctant to participate in online dialogue surrounding feminist issues. But the more I read, the less relevant this seemed. While this collection may be framed as a feminist book, it is actually much broader than that in terms of the subjects covered. True, Gay writes from a feminist standpoint, but a minority of the essays here are actually about feminism. They also take in issues of race, class, culture, politics and education as well as more personal topics.

My favourite pieces in the collection were the pop-culture-focused ones in which Gay examines topics such as the representation of people of colour in film, or 'unlikeable' female characters in contemporary fiction. I like that her references are only occasionally classics: more often she analyses popular novels, blockbuster movies, well-known TV shows. 'Girls, Girls, Girls' discusses, unsurprisingly, the hit US series Girls; in 'I Once Was Miss America', Gay revisits her childhood obsession with the Sweet Valley High, segueing into a hilarious assessment of the recent 'adult' sequel to those books; in 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' she looks at various representations of women in modern culture, from novels to reality television. One of the best is 'Not Here To Make Friends', an essay on the importance of 'likability' in characters, mainly female characters, in fiction. In this one I highlighted the following passage, not because it makes any especially salient points, but because I could have written it myself, and when I read it I had one of those delightful moments of feeling as if the author had read my mind.
I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who behave in socially unacceptable ways, say whatever is on their mind, and do what they want with varying levels of regard for the consequences. I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.
I came away from this essay and 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' in particular with a reading list made up of novels I either hadn't heard of or had previously dismissed. I loved these essays so much, I know I'll read them again and again, and they made me want to read more pop-culture criticism, and aspire to write this sort of thing myself. She makes it look easy, though it patently isn't.

The downside of a collection like this, including a number of essays previously published elsewhere, is that the quality is inevitably going to be inconsistent to a certain degree. There were a couple I wasn't interested in (mainly the Scrabble one, to be honest), and one or two felt like something had been tacked on to the end of an existing piece to make it more relevant to the feminist theme. There are certainly parts of this book that are worthy of five stars, but I can't quite give the whole of it five stars; but, having said that, there are very few faults I can find with it.

Bad Feminist is a lot of things: funny, moving, thought-provoking, intelligent, relevant, and extremely honest. It's easy to read and amusing and insightful; I hope that means it will be very popular. No doubt, because it has 'feminist' in the title, it will be put under the microscope and pulled apart in certain corners of the internet; but I really like the fact that it is emphatically a personal book, that Gay wears her 'bad feminist' credentials, as outlined in the quote at the start of this review, on her sleeve. The notion of being a 'bad feminist' - a person who is always still learning, who enjoys some things that are deemed problematic, who doesn't care about some things she should care about, and cares too much about others - is something all feminists can surely relate to. And in spite of the prefix 'bad', I, like the author, find it a very positive and freeing concept.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Friday, 22 August 2014

Believe the hype: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Station Eleven (10 September 2014) by Emily St. John Mandel

First, two points about my experience of reading so far in 2014.

1. I've read some great books this year, but in terms of highly anticipated new fiction, 2014 has frequently been disappointing. Elizabeth is Missing and The Miniaturist, two enormously hyped debuts I had been hearing about since around a year ago, were both perfectly readable and okay, but fell far short of what I expected from them; Sarah Waters' new novel The Paying Guests I found boring beyond belief and didn't even finish. Therefore, when I started hearing about Station Eleven, I approached it with scepticism. It's Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, but whereas the first three were put out by an indie publisher, Unbridled Books, this one has been picked up by major publishers in both the UK and US. If you're're active in the book community on Twitter, it probably won't need any introduction - although it doesn't come out until September, in social media terms it is already one of the most talked-about books I have come across all year. The marketing campaign has been extensive and effective. I'm yet to start hearing about the book in the mainstream media but I have no doubt that I will. All of which inevitably left me wondering whether it could possibly be as good as people were saying, and actually put me off starting it immediately.

2. This has been the year I have discovered I really enjoy speculative fiction, or at least some sub-section of it that I'm not quite sure how to define. Three of the most enjoyable books I've read in 2014 - Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way To Burn, Sarah Lotz's The Three, and this - have been based around a version of the near future that might, to various degrees, be called dystopian. All of these books could be defined as fantasy, but they retain a significant sense of the 'real', recognisable world. They are not high fantasy or science fiction and, particularly in the case of Station Eleven, they are more literary in style than many would expect this genre to be. There's a whole other tangent here about how I've become jaded by the hackneyed themes of much popular literary fiction, and find myself drawn more and more towards books like this - well-written, intelligent and driven by character as much as plot, but including components and tropes traditionally belonging to genre fiction: a mystery, bits of fantasy or horror, gothic elements - than I am to more 'typical' literary fiction, but that is another discussion for another time.

Station Eleven itself is a book I am keen to recommend, but I don't want to say that much about it. I think it is best approached with little existing knowledge of what happens. It is about a future version of North America, twenty years after most of the population was wiped out by a pandemic. But it starts in the present day, during a theatre performance of King Lear, and throughout the book there are flashbacks to these 'before' moments which gradually establish the backgrounds of several characters - characters who do not necessarily feature in the 'after' sections, but have some kind of link to those who do. Although you may have to wait for some time to find out what that link is. 'Station Eleven' is not, as you might expect (well, I did), some remote outpost in this ravaged landscape, but a reference to a kids' comic book which is... well, it's a part of one of those links.

This is a very elegantly written novel, very restrained. It doesn't go too far with its world-building, and it isn't overdramatic; in fact, one of the many remarkable things about it is how quiet this fall of civilisation seems to be. It isn't, of course, and we know this from things some of the characters say, and fragments of their memories, but all of this happens off-screen, with the focus purely on the 'before' and 'after'. The story is more about human behaviour, relationships and the invisible connections between individuals then anything else. The fact that it is set in a post-apocalyptic future could almost be incidental, but I can't deny that the surreal surroundings add an intense intrigue and a sort of malevolent undertone to anything that happens. There is constant, low-level tension. For anyone who finds abandoned buildings interesting, there are parts of this narrative that will be endlessly fascinating. There are flecks, mere flecks, of magic.

I'm not going to write about the characters in detail, either, except to say that I loved them. They are so real. Mandel is one of those authors who can do that magical thing of making a fictional person human and sympathetic within just a couple of pages, without much background detail being needed. She isn't afraid to kill characters off, but it's never gratuitous; she also isn't afraid of leaving loose ends untied and important things unsaid.

The book Station Eleven most reminded me of was Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad - which I can't remember very clearly and would be hard pressed to recall anything specific about, and yet I repeatedly thought of it throughout my reading of this book. Looking back at my review of Goon Squad, I wrote: 'The chapters, then, are not always directly about the main characters, and sometimes don't even mention them at all; the story reaches out beyond the protagonists to explore the past and future of the people surrounding them. Each chapter works on its own as a self-contained short story but the connections between all of them form... not quite a whole, but more a sort of web, or network.' Most of this is true of Station Eleven, except that it isn't structured as short stories (the post-pandemic narrative runs through the book and is interspersed with flashbacks), but each character's story could, I think, be taken out and read as a short story on its own. Station Eleven as a whole circles one character in particular, but it also tells the stories of various others in order to achieve that.

For me, this incredibly enjoyable novel is a perfect blend of literary and genre fiction, the sort of story I would love to read more of: intelligent, elegant, original, with both plot and character realised beautifully. It is a wonderful piece of real storytelling and yet it is tightly controlled; I could have read more and more and more about this world, but I'm glad the book isn't too sprawling. Its clear focus on who and what it is about is a great strength. With this one, you can believe the hype.

I received an advance review copy of Station Eleven from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Monday, 18 August 2014

What to read in August & September 2014

What to read in August & September 

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor - 7th August
Kapoor's debut is a haunting, intense tale of a destructive affair, set in present-day Delhi. The enigmatic narrator, bored and frustrated by her limited life, takes up with a dangerous man she meets in a café almost on a whim, but the ramifications of their relationship will continue to affect her for years to come. This is a dark, evocative and very memorable story. (My review)

The Objects of Her Affection by Sonya Cobb - 12th August
If The Goldfinch has made you keen to read more novels about art theft, this could be the book for you. An unassuming wife and mother becomes caught up in an escalating life of crime when she starts smuggling priceless items out of her husband (a museum curator)'s office. The description makes the book sound part art-themed literary novel and part domestic drama; if it's more the latter, I'm not sure how interested I would be, but I'll certainly be watching out for reviews to see what other readers make of it.

Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little - 14th August
Compared to Gillian Flynn (but what female-centric thriller isn't, these days?) this debut follows a Los Angeles 'it girl' who may, or may not, have killed her mother. It's being pushed as 'THE book of the summer' and is described as sharp, sassy and funny. I've decided not to read this simply because, for now, I've had my fill of the genre, but if you're still hunting for 'the next Gone Girl' you may want to check this one out.

Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas - 14th August
Louise Douglas is one of my favourite authors of what I've come to think of as comfort reading - fiction that is cosy, heartwarming and non-taxing but also free of terrible writing and silly clichés. Sadly, I didn't enjoy this new book nearly as much as her last two: it's a very different type of story, one that is a bold choice for the author but also makes the book quite depressing and hard to relate to. It didn't work for me, but die-hard fans may be thrilled by its new direction. (My review)

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland - 14th August
With her fifth installment of medieval fiction, Karen Maitland returns to England, with the tale of a wealthy merchant bewitched (perhaps literally) by a beautiful widow. The characters are a mixture of likeable and grotesque (with an emphasis on the latter), the narrative is lively and there's plenty of suspense: nothing here will surprise fans of the author, but this is a thoroughly entertaining piece of historical fiction. (My review)

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero - 14th August
I started this one and decided it wasn't for me, but I have to admit, even though I've given up on it, I STILL think the whole idea sounds incredibly tempting. A young man inherits a grand estate from a relative he knows nothing about; the ensuing story of this strange place is told though a variety of formats including letters, journal entries and coded messages. Described as a mixture of elements of horror and supernatural adventure, and compared to Neil Gaiman, it looks like it will live up to its title - although something tells me it will appeal more to a YA audience than older readers.

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly - 14th August
Hot on the heels of Erin Kelly's great The Ties That Bind comes her novelisation of the hit ITV crime series Broadchurch. Don't expect this to be just like Kelly's own novels: the amount of detail that's crammed in means it lacks the powerful description typical of her books. Although I struggle to entirely grasp the point of novelising an existing series rather than creating a new story, I found it readable and page-turning. (My review)

J by Howard Jacobson - 14th August
Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 with The Finkler Question, and now J has been put on the 2014 longlist. In my opinion, this is a far better book than The Finkler Question. While it addresses many of the same themes - Jewish identity, the power of memory and the influence of history - it does so in an entirely original way. It starts off oddly and is disconcertingly humorous and whimsical, but if you stick with it, it matures into an impressive feat of storytelling. (My review)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay - 21st August
I've just started reading this book of feminist essays, and I'm really hoping it will be a feminist book I'll actually want to shout about. I've read various posts from Roxane Gay's Tumblr and have always found them insightful, relevant and funny, and the fact that many of the pieces included in Bad Feminist are themed around pop culture also excites me. The introduction has already got me making notes, so the signs so far are good.

Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner - 21st August
Warner is an author I haven't yet read, although I've been meaning to read some of his books (particularly Morvern Callar and The Sopranos) for years. Set in 1980s London, this story about two writer flatmates and the woman they're both in love with is described as 'a darkly comic tale of hope and humanity'. The love triangle angle kind of puts me off this, but since the Guardian compared it to Withnail & I, I feel more inclined towards reading it. I think I'll wait to hear more verdicts from other readers before I make my mind up.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - 28th August
Sarah Waters' new novel, which has more in common with her earlier work than the divisive The Little Stranger, is set in London post-WWI, where a woman and her 'spinster' daughter are forced to take in lodgers to fund the upkeep of their home. The bad news is that I didn't like it. The good news is that about 98% of other people who have read it so far seem to love it. I'm sure most fans - and even those with a passing interest in Waters - will be keen to make up their own minds. (My review)

The Secret Place by Tana French - 28th August
This is the fifth in the Dublin Murder Squad sequence and, in my opinion, the best so far. Tana French tackles the intense and insular world of teenage girls with a murder mystery that unfolds across the course of one day at a prestigious boarding school. The setup might seem too slight to sustain a 500-page book, but it works brilliantly, full of magic and mystery. (My review)

The Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson - 28th August
If you're looking for a book that's gentle and comforting but still compelling, I would recommend The Sea Garden. Made up of three loosely linked novellas - two historical and one set in the present day - it follows the lives of three women and slowly reveals how their experiences are connected. It's perhaps being released a bit late in the year for proper appreciation of the wonderfully summery locations it portrays, but nevertheless, it's a glorious piece of escapism. One for fans of Kate Morton, Louise Douglas and Lucy Clarke. (My review)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - 2nd September
For me, this is the most exciting of the 'big name' releases this autumn. It follows a single character from childhood to old age, 'a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality'. The Bone Clocks is a 'metaphysical thriller, meditation on mortality and chronicle of our self-devouring times'... I've really enjoyed everything I've read by Mitchell, and this sounds amazing. But I have been let down by quite a few much-hyped books this year: hopefully this will be the exception.

These Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff - 4th September
Another of those books that's being compared to Girls because it's about young people in New York - These Days Are Ours actually came out in 2012 in the US, but is only now being published in the UK. It's about a bunch of privileged graduates whose beliefs are, apparently, challenged when one of them meets a man from a different background. I don't know if this is a romance, a coming-of-age story or what. It sounds interesting so I want to keep it on my radar, but again, I'd prefer to hear what other readers think before I embark on reading it.

Outline by Rachel Cusk - 4th September
A writer sends a summer in Athens, teaching a course, where she 'becomes the audience to a chain of narratives' - the life stories of the various people she meets. Outline is described as 'a novel about writing and talking, about self-effacement and self-expression, about the desire to create and the human art of self-portraiture in which that desire finds its universal form'. I'm not familiar with Cusk's work, but the themes described here are very enticing.

The Lazarus Prophecy by F.G. Cottam - 9th September
Cottam's ninth tale of the supernatural sees him back on top form, with a story combining horror, mystery and historical thriller, with a pinch of dystopia. When a present-day murderer appears to be copying the crimes of Jack the Ripper, the investigation leads to the discovery of religious connections; meanwhile, London seems permanently poised on the brink of a riot. With cleverly interwoven narratives, this is an exciting, atmospheric novel and a must-read thriller. (My review)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - 10th September
I've been hearing buzz about this book for months - everyone who's read it seems to adore it. I've just finished reading it (the review is a work in progress) and can, happily, confirm that it is excellent. It's a post-apocalyptic story, set in a version of the USA twenty years after a pandemic wiped out most of the population. There's also some flashbacks. That's all I really want to say - I think it's best if you read the book without knowing much about it beforehand. Suffice to say, it's very original and exciting and it deserves the hype!

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse - 11th September
Mosse is best known for the Languedoc trilogy of split-narrative historical/contemporary mysteries; I far preferred her atmospheric ghost story The Winter Ghosts. This new standalone novel sounds like an intriguing mix of the two. It's set in 1912, in a coastal village where superstition still reigns, and the eponymous character lives in a grand, decaying house containing the remains of her father's once-famous collection of taxidermy. With mysterious deaths, dark secrets and gothic details galore, I'm optimistic this will be the perfect autumn (or Halloween) read.

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce - 16th September
With this one, it was the blurb that lured me in. Merritt Tierce is an award-winning writer of short stories and plays, but this is her first novel: it's 'an urgent, intensely visceral debut novel about a young waitress whose downward spiral is narrated in electric prose'; 'an unapologetic portrait of a woman cutting a precarious path through early adulthood'. I really like fiction that deals with 'ordinary lives' and the praise heaped on Tierce's prose has made me feel sure Love Me Back will be a debut to watch out for.

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey - 25th September
I really love the sound of this. It begins with a woman writing a letter to an estranged friend. The letter starts with the words 'In answer to a question you asked a long time ago...' The story that then unfolds is one of betrayal, anger and the death of a friendship. If it's as well-written as I hope it is, then this is exactly the sort of book that could easily become a favourite. My hopes are very high.

Rooms by Lauren Oliver - 25th September
Lauren Oliver is known as an author of YA and kids' books. Rooms is her first adult novel - and not only is it a ghost story, it's narrated by the ghosts themselves, two spirits who speak through the house they inhabit (the idea reminds me a bit of one of the stories from Lucy Wood's Diving Belles). My experience with adult fiction by YA authors hasn't generally been a positive one (Sophie McKenzie's Close My Eyes was one of the worst things I've ever read, and I didn't even get to the halfway mark with A Love Like Blood by Marcus Sedgwick), so I am sceptical about this, but there's a lot of promise in the concept.

What new books are you reading right now, or looking forward to in the next couple of months? Let me know if I've missed anything, or if you have any suggestions for the next installment (October to December)!

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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Funny, clever, subversive: a literary dystopia takes shape in Howard Jacobson's J

J by Howard Jacobson J (14 August 2014) by Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 with The Finkler Question; J - described as both 'a dystopian novel like no other' and 'like no other novel Howard Jacobson has written', along with platitudes like 'thought-provoking and life-changing' - is on the longlist for this year's prize. When I read the premise of J, I assumed it would be a serious dystopia, especially since the blurb makes comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. (Actually it says 'J is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World', which almost put me off reading it at all - I hate it when pronouncements like that are forced on the reader, and this one seemed a particularly foolish and grand example since the books mentioned are generally regarded as classics.) But, while it matures into something approximating this by the final chapters, it actually starts as a much stranger and more light-hearted mixture than I was led me to believe. This threw me off a bit until quite a way into the book, although I suppose it shouldn't really have surprised me after the strong element of humour in The Finkler Question, and the author's reputation for comic writing. J is also an unconventional love story, with a blossoming relationship between two of the main characters, Kevern and Ailinn, forming the basis for the plot.

There is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, but it's a subtle one. Society is altered in some ways that are minor, but odd enough to be disconcerting; in other ways not at all. It is mentioned more than once that 'the past is a foreign country', rarely discussed, an ethos enforced by Orwellian slogans (or perhaps the logical conclusion of 'keep calm and carry on' mania) such as 'yesterday is a lesson we can learn only by looking to tomorrow'. Consequently, much classic literature and music has been forgotten - or at least is not consumed publicly - as with many, many things here, there is no explicit law against it, it just isn't done. There is some sort of taboo around the letter J, which is rarely used and which Kevern cannot pronounce without making a gesture - covering his lips with his fingers. Digital technology seems to have died out, so in some ways this feels like a historical novel or one about a remote part of the world isolated from modern society. (Although when the characters leave their home town, Port Reuben, and visit 'the capital', there's more of a typical dystopian vibe - city-dwellers are attired in colourful costumes that sound similar to the ones worn by the upper echelon of society in The Hunger Games (I'm basing this on the films, as I haven't read the books) and once-grand hotels limp onward in a state of dilapidation.) Love is championed above all things, and constant apology is encouraged, but adultery and violence within relationships are common for both genders. Above all of this looms the influence of an event only referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, a concept just as frustratingly opaque to the reader as it is for the characters. It has the significance of some apocalyptic disaster, yet the secrecy surrounding any discussion of it, not to mention the uncertainty about whether it even took place, makes it seem impossible that this could be the case.

In amongst all this, the relationship that develops between Kevern and Ailinn is so dysfunctionally whimsical it feels as though it's straight out of some quirky-hipster-romance story - something like Q: A Love Story or The Girl With Glass Feet. With his paranoia, rather pathetic nature and morbid romanticism, Kevern definitely shares numerous traits with Julian, the protagonist of The Finkler Question, while Ailinn occasionally veers a little too close to MPDG territory. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, I felt like I was reading some kind of farcical comedy. Larger-than-life small-town characters have noisy affairs and brawl in the streets. Giving a member of the opposite sex a brutish kiss is a common practice, a disturbing expression of sexual aggression - but the fact that this act is still known as 'snogging' makes it read as amusing. Even murder has something colourful and comic about it and doesn't quite seem real. It is only later that these strangely, and sometimes uncomfortably, funny elements, converge and a darker, more serious narrative emerges. The story takes a new turn, focusing more heavily on the reasons why Kevern is being observed by an eccentric colleague (whose diary makes up part of the book), the secrets Ailinn's 'companion' - half housemate, half foster mother - may be hiding. Similarly, while I didn't feel that the relationship between Ailinn and Kevern ever quite transcended its twee foundations, it does become apparent as the story progresses that it has a greater significance than appearances suggest - which in itself makes it less annoying. This is a book in which threads really do come together slowly, but when they do come together, they make sense of so much.

J is, like The Finkler Question, essentially a novel about Jewishness; it is also, indirectly and abstractly, a novel about the Holocaust. This is not something that is made explicit at the start. Even going into the book knowing that this is the case, it is initially difficult to link the characters and their circumstances directly to these themes without feeling that you are clutching at straws, or shaping things to make them fit. It's especially disconcerting, if WHAT HAPPENED is the Holocaust or something like it, that the characters all have Jewish surnames - until you discover the reason for this. The humour and oddness of the first half of J work to obfuscate the real direction of the story in the same way that bland ballads, saying sorry, quaint and unnecessary jobs, sex and petty crime distract the population of Port Reuben from any public analysis, apportioning of blame or questioning of the past. This makes the eventual unfolding of the truth, achieved partly through explanation within the story and partly through gradual realisation on the part of the reader, all the more powerful.

There is something richer and more rewarding about J than much literary fiction - that element of light-heartedness also carries over into the language and wordplay - but it's still easy to read. It's a story you can (but don't have to) think about in order to read between the lines; the first half in particular could be read as a typical dystopian tale, and it may not mean the same thing to all readers. Its speculative aspect means that, although it discusses a lot of the themes typical of Booker nominees and novels by big-name authors of literary fiction - identity, memory, the power of history etc - it does so in an entirely original fashion. In a time when bestseller charts and awards lists are still saturated with fiction about WWII and its aftermath to the point that you wonder what else can be said about the subject, this approach makes it far more memorable.

Having finished J, I am still not entirely convinced by the comparisons to Orwell and Huxley - but I am far closer to being convinced than I was at the start of the book. Although I don't think any novel is ever really 'life-changing', it is certainly thought-provoking, and enormously clever; it plays with the reader's perceptions and subverts them, not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to draw parallels with the story itself. I really enjoyed this book, but more than that, I was impressed by it. It's also much better than The Finkler Question, and would be a worthier Booker winner.

I received an advance review copy of J from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Lazarus Prophecy by F.G. Cottam - horror meets mystery meets historical thriller

The Lazarus Prophecy by F.G. Cottam The Lazarus Prophecy (9 September 2014) by F.G. Cottam

I am (as most people reading this probably know) a fan of F.G. Cottam, and have enjoyed all of his books. I enjoyed The Lazarus Prophecy, though, more than anything he's written since the unbeatable Dark Echo. It's both a return to form and a departure for the author: the former because it feels very original, very considered and carefully crafted, has more than one perspective and type of narrative, and takes so many turns before the conclusion is reached; the latter because it is not a straightforward (if there is such a thing) supernatural/horror narrative, it also has mystery and historical elements and a background which allows the social and political ramifications of the story's events to be explored.

The basic premise is that a murderer is targeting women in London, confounding the police because he seems impervious to detection - leaving no incriminating trace of himself at his crime scenes despite his habit of scrawling blasphemous messages, written in archaic languages, above the bodies of his victims. The detective leading the investigation enlists the help of a theologian, leading to the discovery that all of this has some connection with a secretive order of Catholic priests located somewhere in the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, the lack of resolution of the murder case leads an extremist right-wing organisation to whip up antagonism among Londoners, adding a very real edge to the 'end of days' atmosphere that permeates the story. This portrayal of a city on the brink of chaos brought to mind two of my other favourites from this year: Sarah Lotz's The Three, in which inexplicable events precipitate political dissent and the breakdown of international relations, and Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way To Burn, which depicts a nightmarish version of present-day London ravaged by a pandemic.

The blurb on Goodreads and Amazon doesn't make the setup sound great; the description on NetGalley, which likens this book to The Da Vinci Code, is possibly worse (the comparison may attract certain readers, but it does the book a bit of a disservice - Cottam's writing is not the by-numbers style of Dan Brown). Although there is a serial killer angle to the plot, it is handled well, and the violence (which is actually minimal) is not gratuitous. As usual with Cottam's books, the characters are believable and likeable, and there are numerous strong and complex female characters. It's these characters who drive the plot forward, and that does help to balance out the fact that the villain tends to target women. I don't think the blurb does the best job of getting this across, so I feel it's important to underline here that the women in this story are not just victims: it is largely a female-driven book. In fact, the main male character, while he does make a contribution, plays the sort of sidekick/love interest part which might traditionally be the only significant sympathetic role available to a female character in a thriller.

I could have devoured this book in a few hours, but I tried to make it last longer, stretching it over several days, because I felt there was much to savour. I particularly liked the scenes taking place at the remote French monastery, a place perfectly created in its sense of atmosphere, eeriness and import. There's also a historical diversion - delving into an apparent connection between the modern-day London killer and Jack the Ripper - which is executed well and retains its own distinct character, while still fitting with the rest of the narrative. If you're a fan of the author already, I'm confident you'll love The Lazarus Prophecy. If you're a fan of either horror or mystery and would like to try something that has an element of both, I enthusiastically recommend it.

I received an advance review copy of The Lazarus Prophecy from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Photography: Christophe Jacrot

While in recent years I have developed an affection for the summer, at heart I will always be a winter person. That might be part of the reason why (despite the inappropriate timing) I'm so entranced by these photographs of rain-soaked, wind-blown and snow-bound cities by Paris-based photographer Christophe Jacrot. Jacrot states on his website 'I like the way rain, snow and "bad weather" awaken a feeling of romantic fiction within me', and that's exactly how I feel when I look at these pictures - I instantly want to start writing stories and making up characters. I love the way they frequently capture isolated figures and create an atmosphere that's both unsettling and romantic.

New York by Christophe Jacrot
Venice by Christophe Jacrot
Bologne by Christophe Jacrot
Paris by Christophe Jacrot
Paris by Christophe Jacrot
New York by Christophe Jacrot
Tokyo by Christophe Jacrot
Paris by Christophe Jacrot
New York by Christophe Jacrot
Chicago by Christophe Jacrot
Normandie by Christophe Jacrot
Chicago by Christophe Jacrot
Bologne by Christophe Jacrot
New York by Christophe Jacrot

All photos from Christophe Jacrot's website

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Sunday, 3 August 2014

Reading round-up: July

July 2014 books

62. Hunger by Susan Hill - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
63. After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry - 10/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
64. The Evil Seed by Joanne Harris - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
65. Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley - 4/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
66. Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
67. A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor - 8/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
68. Touched by Joanna Briscoe - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
69. Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook

I haven't had as much time to read this month as I have for the last couple of months. It was my 30th birthday (!), I've been ill (yes, this is still going on, I'm struggling to remember not being ill), it's been a generally busy and slightly manic time. I feel like I lost sight of my reading goals a bit - I mostly stuck to ARCs and new books, only deviating from this for a couple of books from my bigger to-read backlog, and an unsatisfying mystery I picked up at the library (I'm annoyed with myself for succumbing to the latter... But it has been so hot, I've felt as if I should be reading trashy holiday books!)

Best book of the month was Sarah Perry's wonderful debut, After Me Comes the Flood. In this atmospheric, entirely unique novel, a man who spontaneously decides to leave his humdrum life behind gets more than he bargained for when he stumbles upon a picturesque country manor, the residents of which claim to have been waiting for him and anticipating his arrival. The story that unfolded after this beguiling opening wasn't anything like I expected it to be, but was even more compelling, exciting and haunting than I could have imagined. I really loved this book, and it's immediately become not only one of my favourites of the year, but one of my favourites of all time - I can't recommend it enough. (I know I said exactly that about Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party last month, but they're both wonderful!)

Cartwheel, a novel based on a real crime, was an ARC I'd had for about a year and put off repeatedly because I just wasn't that enthusiastic about the idea of it. But I'm happy to report it was actually an excellent read, which was so much more than a retelling of something that really happened. The fantastic characterisation was its strong point, and a relationship between two of the characters moved me so much I was also in tears. A Bad Character was also a moving and evocative novel in which both characters and setting came alive on the page. It follows a young woman in modern India as she becomes entangled in a dangerous affair with an unpredictable man, and I found it incredibly vibrant and memorable.

I read a couple of Hammer horror novellas this month. DBC Pierre's Breakfast with the Borgias was the better of the two - and a pleasing return to form after the author's last book, Petit Mal, a compilation of writing and art which I thought was terrible. It's a traditional sort of ghost story in which an innocent young character is stranded, in the midst of impenetrable fog, at a guesthouse full of ridiculously eccentric characters. I thought the premise was perfectly suited to Pierre's style, and the result was both humorous and horrifying, but most importantly a really good read. Joanna Briscoe's Touched was interesting, and less predictable than Breakfast, but ultimately not quite as successful for me. It's about a young family who move into an apparently haunted house in a small village, but the story that follows is more about the evil people do to one another than it is about anything supernatural.

Hunger was a very short, quick read, but really enjoyable - I expected something ghostly from Susan Hill, but it was actually more interesting than that, with the feel of a timeless fable. The Evil Seed, which was Joanne Harris's first novel, was fun, but a bit of a mess overall: it had intriguing themes and an atmospheric setting, but got a bit too bogged down in an attempt at real horror. I wasn't particularly impressed by Can Anybody Help Me?, but I should have known that before I even started it, so I only have myself to blame. It's a predictable, run-of-the-mill thriller - the only intriguing element was that the characters were linked together through their participation in an online forum, but I think that idea could have been used to much greater effect than it was.

I should also mention that I had one significant 'did not finish' this month - Sarah Waters' forthcoming novel The Paying Guests. I had been looking forward to reading this so much, and I am truly disappointed that I didn't like it. I'm not going to write a review, but there are some thoughts here; basically, I found it really dull and disliked the protagonist. A real shame, as it was one of my most-anticipated books of the year, but they can't all live up to expectations - and it was a good exercise in writing honestly about how I felt about the book when a) I was lucky to get an advance copy and b) everyone else loves it.

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