Monday, 20 October 2014

One to watch out for: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

The Room by Jonas KarlssonThe Room (2009, English translation to be published 15 January 2015) by Jonas Karlsson

This is the story of Björn, the newest employee of 'the Authority' - an organisation which, as mysterious as it sounds, resembles the sort of very ordinary office found all over the world. Convinced of his own superiority to his co-workers, Björn immediately develops a plan for success, involving 55-minute periods of intense work and as little contact with his colleagues as possible. But it's only when he discovers 'the room', a small, beautifully furnished office which appears to belong to no-one, that his awakening really begins. In the room, he can focus perfectly on his work, become an improved version of himself. The problem is, nobody else believes the room exists.

The Room works on lots of levels:

– It's a satire of office culture in which the characters, and the workplace, are at the same time generic and completely recognisable. (The author bio at the beginning informs the reader that Karlsson has never worked in an office - pretty amazing given the merciless accuracy of his portrayal of this environment.)

– It's a psychological drama - we don't know (at least at first) whether Björn is mad, whether he's consciously pretending, or whether the room really exists and his colleagues are playing a cruel trick on him. His visit to the psychiatrist provides a real stomach-flipping twist.

– If you choose to read it this way, it's a mystery - what does the Authority do? Do its employees even know the answer to that one? If the room does exist, what reason do the other staff have for pretending it doesn't? This conundrum is one that's investigated by Björn himself, and forms part of the breakdown charted in the novel.

– It's a comment on workplace bullying and the way we respond to mental illness. When the staff of the Authority confront Björn, it reads partly as funny - there is an element to this setting, with its lack of detail, that's somehow unnatural, so the reader knows not to take what happens entirely seriously, and some of the details are explicitly comic (Björn shuffling around in his plastic shoe covers). But if you put yourself in his place, it's also horrifying: his fellow workers talking about his 'madness' in insulting terms right in front of him, speaking about him as if he's not there, becoming openly threatening and nasty. Another aspect of this: if Björn's soujourns to the room help him to do his job, make him more productive and a more valuable member of the team, does it matter whether they're real or not? How should the others balance their discomfort about Björn's activities - which, after all, are harmless - against the benefits they gain from allowing him to carry on? Again, this is a question the characters are forced to ask themselves and, by extension, a question the reader is encouraged to face too.

Björn is a brilliant character. He's unreliable on several fronts (lying to the reader and/or lying to himself?), incredibly pedantic, and his personality combines extreme awkwardness with extreme arrogance, producing an effect that's both awful and hilarious. He isn't supposed to be likeable, and other readers will no doubt have mixed reactions to him, but I couldn't help liking him. Maybe I sympathised with Björn because one way to read The Room is as a critique of individualism: his colleagues object to his behaviour not just because of its obvious strangeness, but because Björn acts alone and apart from the group. Is the story, perhaps, a cautionary tale about the dangers of daring to aim too high or 'think outside the box'? (Literally, in Björn's case.)

The Room is the first of Swedish author Karlsson's works to be translated into English. As far as I can tell, it was originally published as part of a volume of short stories, and that shows in the precision of its minimalist style. Which is not to say it's too short to count as a novel in its own right - it has 65 chapters. But each tiny detail is finely honed. Björn's brief, faintly sinister summary of his history - 'I have to admit that I didn't always see eye to eye with my colleagues', he says of his previous job, no doubt significantly downplaying whatever that situation was. His scathing pen portraits of workmates - 'pinned up around his desk... were loads of jokey notes and postcards that obviously had nothing to do with work, and suggested a tendency towards the banal'. The room itself - its neatness, its clean lines, its atmosphere akin to 'early mornings at school... the same relaxed feeling and limited freedom'.

The blurb for The Room describes it as Kafkaesque, a comparison that's often thrown about without having much real relevance to whatever it's attached to. The last book I read, The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington, came with a quote on the jacket likening it to 'a more expansive Kafka' - I liked the book, but that comparison is frankly ridiculous. In Ch'oe In-ho's Another Man's City, the influence of Kafka is made explicitly obvious - not least through the fact that the protagonist is known only as K - but I found the references too overt. The Room, however, really does deserve to be called Kafkaesque. The subtle surrealism of Björn's situation, the overwhelming and disconcerting power of the Authority and all its bureaucratic regulations, and Björn's persona - halfway between ignorant and knowing, looking for a way out of this labyrinth but going about it in all the wrong ways - all fit the term very well. The Room is more than just a homage, however: Karlsson's style and humour make it a strong story in its own right, quite apart from any influences.

A short, sharp, quick read that's nevertheless full of details ripe for analysis, The Room has the makings of a cult classic, and I'm really looking forward to reading more from Karlsson.

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

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

Friday, 17 October 2014

What to buy in the Kindle Autumn Sale

The Kindle Autumn Sale is now on, and to my mind this isn't as strong an offer as some of the previous sales. Loads and loads of crime, but a bit of a poor showing for literary fiction, and quite a few books that have appeared in sales several times before... But anyway, here's a few highlights I've picked out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight - £1.99
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - 99p
The Awakening by Kate Chopin - 99p
Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber - both £1.29
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble - £1.79
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews - £2.39
Unwanted by Kristina Ohlsson - £1.49
Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason - £2.07
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas - £1.39
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine - £2.39

Let me know if you've spotted any other good buys!

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Monday, 13 October 2014

On reading burnout, or book fatigue

A small portion of the to-read pile...

It’s finally happened: I am suffering what I can only define as some sort of reading burnout. The absolute exhaustion that results from even thinking about the amount of books I want to read, and how I can ever hope to work through my to-read list, has started to become stressful. These days, it’s a relief if I start a book and it’s bad, because that means I can cross it off the list, and move quickly on to the next one. I’m reading three books at the same time right now, and I’m not sure why: because I want to balance out different types of books, different reasons for reading? Or because I’m not really satisfied with any of them?

I’ve written previously about the perils of book blogging and the race to read new books first, and the various difficulties involved in trying to review books as honestly as possible, but this is something else again. It’s more about trying to reconcile my desire to read as extensively as I possibly can with reality: I can’t read non-stop, I can’t ever know or understand everything, I can’t read every book before everyone else, and I have to be able to make time for other things. Choosing the next book is always a stressful task, one dogged by various fears – that I should be reading something ‘better’ or more worthy, that by choosing this one I might be missing out on something else that’s brilliant, that I lack the ability or knowledge to analyse the text properly.

I guess the crux of the matter is that I want to find books that are right for me, whether new or old, revered or unknown, trashy or intellectual. And I think that takes a bit of time and work and getting to know oneself as a reader. In the past few years, as I’ve established this blog, I have had a bit of a scattergun approach - reading loads of new releases, mainly, and not paying enough attention to whether they have much merit beyond newness.

Since I wrote this post last year, I think I’m becoming better at ignoring new and forthcoming releases if I think they will be of little, or even just mild, interest to me. It’s a slow process, though. I’ve also learned to (mostly) ignore books loudly compared to other, better books – the comparisons are often inaccurate and sometimes they’re completely and utterly irrelevant. (Some of the books I’ve seen described as ‘the next Gone Girl’ are so totally unlike Gone Girl in every way that it’s actually pretty hilarious.)

There are other concerns at work here too. I want to do more writing of my own, making time to write stories and other pieces rather than just reviews. I want to take some time away from concentrating solely on reading fiction; I want to learn about critical theory, I want to learn how to code, and I want to watch more films, and maybe even watch some of the 9000 TV shows that have completely passed me by over the past few years – and I want to write more about these things, too. And at the same time, I want to read more non-fiction and essay collections. At the same time, I want to read more translated fiction and experimental fiction. At the same time, I want to read novels by women from the 80s and 90s which were then considered significant but have now fallen into near-obscurity. At the same time, I want to keep reading new releases and being the first to find exciting new voices. At the same time, I want to continue making time for books I find comforting and entertaining, even if they have little literary merit. At the same time, I worry I haven’t read enough classics and should be pointing my reading energy in that direction. At the same time, coming full circle, I want to learn to be a better critic, a better reviewer, a better editor. I want to be (and read) a million things simultaneously and feel like I am letting myself down by not achieving this, even though it's impossible.

In the past few months I’ve noticed myself moving away from reading books on my Kindle and buying a lot of physical books. In some cases this has been a necessity: some of the books I've been trying to track down aren’t available in ebook format. It's also, admittedly, informed by the romantic/nostalgic notion of carting a battered old paperback around. But I can’t help but think there is some subtext here about trying to impose some order on the chaos of my ever-growing to-read list – making it a physical thing to be conquered rather than an endless, formless scroll of Kindle categories – and harking back to a simpler time, when I didn’t have this need-to-read-EVERYTHING problem, and having several hundred ebooks waiting to be read wasn’t even possible.

October is going to be a really busy month, and I’m going to try and concentrate less on reading as much as possible, more on getting other things done. I need to write up a review of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room (it’s really, really good), and finish those three books, and after that this blog might be quieter for a month or so. I’ve also started a Tumblr for assorted notes, links and pieces of writing about topics other than books. Hopefully, once I’ve got some of these worries out of my system, I’ll have a clearer picture of exactly where it is I want to go as a reader and a reviewer.

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Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington - the magical, the grotesque and a dash of charm

The Spirit Cabinet by Paul QuarringtonThe Spirit Cabinet (1999) by Paul Quarrington

Long story short, I found this after an exhaustive search for a novel that would be as similar as possible to the film The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, without actually being a comedy. TIBW was a film I became obsessed by while simultaneously thinking a lot of things about it were terrible and it could so easily have been better (I am still planning to write something about this) and, while still in the obsession phase, I was briefly determined to find a book that captured the things I had been drawn to. The glamour and excess and sexiness of the Las Vegas stage magic mini-world but also the many things about it that are grotesque, dated, insular and weird. It had to have a contemporary setting (most books I could find about stage magic had a historical setting) and ideally, obviously, I wanted it to be focused on a successful duo and to be set in Vegas. I didn't think I was going to find anything that fulfilled all the criteria until I came across The Spirit Cabinet, although I had to order a copy from the US; I don't think it was ever published here, and indeed Quarrington seems to have been much better known in his native Canada than elsewhere - a search for UK pages containing the author's name doesn't turn up anything much at all.

That wasn't really a long story short, was it? Anyway, the main characters in The Spirit Cabinet, Jurgen and Rudolfo, are clearly based on Siegfried and Roy. Reading a few biographical articles on them while reading this book made it clear that the characters are so similar, Quarrington's novel could almost be a roman à clef, if it didn't take a fantastical turn part-way through. The plot hinges on Jurgen's purchase of a collection of Houdini memorabilia, including the titular Spirit Cabinet, which he quickly becomes obsessed with. There are three stories here: one about what happens after Jurgen acquires the Spirit Cabinet and begins to 'change', one about how he and Rudolfo came to be famous, and one that seems to be a glimpse into the future, with Rudolfo alone and ruined.

The Spirit Cabinet has a sort of slightly 'zany' tone that differs from anything I would normally choose to read. Everything's larger than life, though this is perhaps normal for the Vegas strip. There were numerous scenes I found painful to read despite the fact that the things they described weren't particularly graphic or unpleasant, compared to other horrible stuff I've read without flinching. The author seems keen on reinforcing these grotesque elements every so often: he doesn't let us forget about Jurgen's 'crippled, purple' eyelids, damaged in an early performance (remembering the details of this makes me feel queasy even now), or the condition that leaves Rudolfo completely hairless. There are many minor characters with utterly repulsive appearances, or chronic bad breath or acne, or some other unfortunate affliction. Samson, Jurgen and Rudolfo's albino leopard, is anthropomorphised to a degree, the narrative often providing insight into his all-too-human thoughts and emotions. In fact, he's probably the most sympathetic character.

This is, after all, a story of magic, and there are hints of the real thing everywhere. This fantastical element heightens after Jurgen's Spirit Cabinet fixation begins, but it's already evident before that: it's not always clear whether some of the characters are simply doing tricks or actually have powers. When someone mentions vampires you have to pause for a moment to wonder whether this should be taken literally, and when something implausible happens (for example the development of a completely improbable - but, in the end, quite sweet - relationship between two of the secondary characters) it seems less ridiculous than it should.

I find it difficult to judge, overall, whether I enjoyed this book or not. It held my interest, but there were times I found it altogether 'too much', and had to take a break from it: as a result, it took me a relatively long time, nearly a month, to get through it, even though it's not a challenging read. And as always with books I give an average rating, it's hard to say how I'd recommend this, or to whom. I suppose it boils down to this: I wouldn't not recommend it, but at the same time, I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to get hold of a copy, like I did. Too dark to be quirky entertainment (see The Night Circus), but too wacky to achieve much literary merit, it occupies a strange, yet undeniably intriguing, hinterland between comedy and sincerity.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Paperback

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Reading round-up: September

September 2014 books

85. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - 5/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
86. Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey - 9/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
87. Jackaby by William Ritter - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
88. The Children Act by Ian McEwan - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
89. Ghostly Tales Vol. 1 by J.S. le Fanu - 5/10. Read my full review / Get the ebook (free for Kindle)
90. I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
91. Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
92. The Serpent and the Pearl by Kate Quinn - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
93. Dante's Divine Comedy by Seymour Chwast - 6/10. Buy the book
94. The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse - 5/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
95. The Horla by Guy de Maupassant - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook

September was a weird, mixed-up month in which I could never quite decide what I wanted to read (and probably made some pretty bad choices). As well as a handful of recent releases, I read a graphic novel version of The Divine Comedy, a YA paranormal mystery, an Icelandic mystery/ghost story, a couple of classic ghost/horror stories, and a fun and trashy historical novel, with varying levels of success/satisfaction.

My favourite book of the month, by a long way, was Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief. I knew I would probably love it from the moment I read the plot synopsis - it is made up of a woman's letter to an old friend, or perhaps an enemy, a letter the unnamed narrator begins on a winter's night and writes over the course of six months. It flips back and forth between the past and present, between situations real and imagined, and it is not just a portrait of a damaged, obsessive friendship, but a meditation on memory and truth in the stories we tell about our own lives. It's a really beautiful book.

Also good were I Remember You, a supremely spooky, in fact genuinely scary, ghost story/thriller set in a remote part of Iceland; The Children Act, a quietly tense legal novel which was the best thing I've read by McEwan; and The Serpent and the Pearl, aka the aforementioned trashy historical novel, which was lots of fun. Most of the other books I read in September had something good about them, but weren't quite right for me: Jackaby I would only recommend to much younger readers, Little Egypt was mostly good but unforgivably implausible in numerous ways, while the le Fanu and de Maupassant tales were enjoyable but very brief, and not the masterful examples of the genre I might have expected. However, The Bone Clocks and The Taxidermist's Daughter were both disappointments - particularly the former, since I had been looking forward to it so much. The hyperbolic praise of it from various quarters continues to mystify me.

I feel a bit burnt out at the moment - I'm not sure what I want to read or what I 'should' be reading, and I think a few recent disappointments have knocked my confidence in new fiction. My reading plan for October is uncertain - I've actually started four books in the past couple of weeks and have intermittently been reading bits of them without really committing to anything, and apart from The Horla, all the books listed above feel as if I read them ages ago. In fact, I've been writing a huge blog post about this subject for about three weeks and am just trying to cut down some of the rambling before I post it here! To be continued...

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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Hypnotic and haunting: Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief by Samantha HarveyDear Thief (25 September 2014) by Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief, Samantha Harvey's third novel, opens with the irresistible image of a woman starting a long letter to an old friend, opening her missive with the words 'In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, I have, yes, seen through what you called the gauze of this life.' Instantly enigmatic and captivating, this beginning sets the tone for a a narrative that doesn't so much twist and turn as double back on itself, reroute and realign, continually reshaping the story. Written over the course of half a year, the unnamed narrator's letter is addressed to Nina, known as 'Butterfly', a figure who - appropriately enough - hovers constantly over the protagonist's life, once almost literally (when she appears in a dream, standing beside the bed), always metaphorically. She was a friend for decades, now estranged, her whereabouts unknown. And as the story unfolds in its fragmented, non-linear way, it becomes clear that 'Butterfly' betrayed the narrator with her husband, Nicolas - now also estranged. You would expect such a betrayal to be at the heart of the book, and in a way it is, but to define it in that way would do this surprising novel a huge disservice. While it's described, in part, as a triangular love story, it is really only the central friendship that matters.

It's impossible to discuss a book like this without invoking the lingering spectre of the Unreliable Narrator. Dear Thief is perhaps doubly unreliable: the narrator's memories of things are blurred, and her account is entirely one-sided, but of course she is also addressing this account to a former friend, an enemy - and even though she hasn't seen this person for years, the narrator's emotional relationship with the memory of 'Butterfly' and her actions remains complicated. Sometimes she seeks to accuse, to lay blame, to provoke guilt; at other times she wistfully speaks of the pair's shared childhood, the closeness of their bond. And since she doesn't know where in the world 'Butterfly' is, or if the woman is even alive, it's questionable how much of this letter is truly a letter and how much is an exercise in self-purging, in forgiving herself.

Dear Thief reminded me a lot of Anna Raverat's criminally underread and underrated Signs of Life, which is a personal favourite. Raverat's narrator, Rachel, has a similar type of unreliability, conceding that some things in her story only might or could have happened, but insisting that this isn't important. What she remembers, how she remembers it, and how she perceives the effect of this other person on her life are far more important than what actually took place, or didn't:
You were standing at the end of the platform with your head down and your weight off one foot, in the way I've seen wounded wolves stand in films like Once Upon a Time in the West - not that I have seen this film, but this is how I imagine it to be.
This small detail captures the essence of the narrator's habit of redefining facts and memories to fit her story. In one sentence she states unequivocally that she has seen this thing; in the next she refutes that entirely. But it doesn't matter, because this is how she imagines it. She often employs this sort of contradiction, asking her addressee: 'isn't the admittance of a lie more honest, anyway, than a truth arrived at through editing?' The frustration and fascination of Dear Thief lies in the fact that we will never know how many of those lies the narrator doesn't admit, how many things she misremembers, leaves out, or embellishes. In some chapters she paints a cruel picture of an imagined version of the life 'Butterfly' lives as she imagines it now, living alone in a woodland hut, sleeping in 'maximum discomfort'. These parts of the narrative are explicitly invented - a sort of punishment, a psychological prison in which the narrator has confined her memories of her former friend - but they come to be part of the story, just as much as the more obviously factual chapters. What we never discover is how much of a fiction those 'facts' may actually be. The narrator also alludes to the idea that Yannis, a local restaurateur she becomes acquainted with, could have been made up to provide a parallel to her story (he is on the verge of divorce, and the narrator finds herself giving him advice). It's certainly true that Yannis seems to serve as a plot device on more than one occasion, but is this the work of the author of the book, or the author of the letter?

Extending this idea, it is possible to wonder whether 'Butterfly' even really existed. The character, flighty, artistic and sensual, is surely more the realisation of a trope than a believable person: doing what she pleases, skipping from country to country, taking drugs, floating around in an old shawl she's worn since she was a girl. There are points when she seems like a sort of conduit for the narrator's own unspoken desires and dreams of more uninhibited behaviour, and it's as if her remembered actions are more symbolic than real - for example, when she spontaenously kisses a female dinner party guest on the mouth, flustering the narrator's husband, while the narrator scuttles around in the background, pouring drinks, the very picture of domestic obligation. In one of my favourite passages from the novel, the narrator talks about her theory that 'people are wrong to believe that we desire what we cannot have... Instead we desire what we aren't, but can conceivably be'. (I couldn't stop thinking about this for a while - even if not generally accurate, it is certainly true of me.) Is this, then, what 'Butterfly' represents? The person we could become, if not for inhibitions, responsibilities, prudence?

The second chapter of Dear Thief opens with the words 'on the whole I do not think of you any more'; the entirety of the rest of the book sets about disproving this claim in every detail. The narrator's past, her marriage, her life now, her dreams - all are haunted, consumed, by 'Butterfly', and a final scene in which the narrator literally chases her friend's shadow, or ghost, or double only serves to underline that. While reading it I didn't love this book as much as I thought I might, and yet the more time I spend thinking about it, the more fascinated I am. There is so much to pick out of it that I could probably read it again and write a completely different review. Both a portrait of friendship as a love story, and a cautionary tale about the risk involved in friendship of this depth and fragility, Dear Thief, described by no less than A.M. Homes as 'a hypnotic, beautiful and sometimes dark incantation', is haunting and totally unforgettable. I loved it.

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

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

Monday, 22 September 2014

Underwhelming gothic: The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate MosseThe Taxidermist's Daughter (11 September 2014) by Kate Mosse

I really don't like having to give negative reviews. They can be quite fun to write, but that doesn't make up for the time wasted reading a disappointing book, especially if, like me, you have a constantly expanding to-read list of several hundred potentially better others. Unfortunately, The Taxidermist's Daughter turned out to be another addition to 2014's growing batch of much-anticipated, but ultimately mediocre, new novels. (Funnily enough, The Independent's review of this book compares it to three other books from this year which I would categorise in exactly the same way.)

Connie Gifford is the titular taxidermist's daughter, though it would be more accurate to say she is the taxidermist. Her father has long been an incapable drunk, and Connie, having learnt his trade, secretly keeps the family business going. Not that there's much call for it: in the early twentieth century, taxidermy has fallen out of fashion, and with her father's 'world famous' museum gone, Connie struggles to make ends meet. She also struggles with her own condition: an accident when she was twelve wiped her memory, and she is only now beginning to remember flashes of her 'vanished years'. There's also the mystery of a murdered woman, found in the river next to the Giffords' house, and the links this crime may have to Something Terrible a group of local men (including, possibly, Connie's father) did ten years ago.

Connie is okay, but she is never truly established as a character who actually has any real personality, beyond a passion for taxidermy and, vaguely, a caring nature. The male characters, meanwhile, are so numerous and so utterly indistinct from one another that I couldn't tell them apart at all. Mosse has set the story in the West Sussex village of Fishbourne, apparently a place of personal significance to her, and it is evoked well, full of a Daphne du Maurier-esque stormy darkness despite the fact that the story takes place in spring. The most atmospheric scenes are set in a rain-lashed cottage; these sections, though very effective, are frustratingly few.

The Taxidermist's Daughter is very like Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black: the gothic gloom (it's 1912, but everything feels very Victorian), the use of bird motifs, but most of all, the dull, turgid story lumbering towards a largely uninteresting conclusion. And, like Bellman & Black, I'm giving the book a medium rating because it was simply okay: by no means terrible, simply underwhelming and forgettable. While it all started promisingly, and did start to pick up again after I was halfway through, too much of it was simply tedious. I didn't care what the men of Fishbourne had done ten years earlier - partly because the characters were uninteresting, partly because I knew from the start it would be something deliberately 'shocking' but also unbelievable as something these people would really take part in. (Spoiler: it was.) Interviews with the author suggest the theme of taxidermy stems from a childhood fascination with the art, but it often feels as if it has been chosen simply because it's suitably gruesome and archaic.

I've read one book from Mosse's Languedoc trilogy (Sepulchre), found it average, and haven't bothered with any of the others in that series. However, I really enjoyed her ghost story The Winter Ghosts, and last year she published a collection, The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales, which, while forgettable in terms of content, created a number of wonderfully atmospheric, wintery settings I can still remember quite vividly. I'd quite like to read it again for that reason alone. With all its gothic trappings, I hoped The Taxidermist's Daughter might be more of an ethereal ghost story than drab historical fiction, but sadly not. Competently written, with some intriguing scenes, it never quite gets off the ground, and in the end it is no more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 5/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Sunday, 21 September 2014

What I've read recently, September edition

The Bone Clocks (2 September 2014) by David Mitchell
What it's about: The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell's sixth novel, nominated for the Booker prior to its release - is, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas before it, a series of interconnected stories set in different places and time periods. The difference here is that the link between the stories is explicit: they all focus, in one way or another, on a woman named Holly Sykes. And Holly, a teenager at the start of the book, is an unwitting and unwilling pawn in an ancient battle between two races with the ability to transcend time.
You should read it if: Well, my suggestion would be that you shouldn't - while there are flashes of brilliance that do make it kind of worthwhile reading the whole thing, they are far too few. This is by far the poorest book I've read by Mitchell, and I found several of the characters deeply unlikeable and sometimes offensive. But if you're a die-hard fan of the author, you'll probably like it better than I did.
My review: Generally speaking, I love books that combine touches of fantasy, magic, or something macabre with a setting that's recognisable as the world we live in, with individuals' lives remaining largely realistic and relatable. (Ghostwritten did this brilliantly, and is one of my favourite books as a result.) However, in The Bone Clocks the gulf between the two is too great: the ordinary lives are too ordinary, the fantasy is too fantastic, they simply don't gel... Read the full review (warning: lots of spoilers)
Rating: 5/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Jackaby (16 September 2014) by William Ritter
What it's about: The publisher's blurb includes the claim, repeated in pretty much every review of the book, that Jackaby is 'Doctor Who meets [BBC] Sherlock'. It's a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American port where a runaway English girl, Abigail Rook, meets an eccentric investigator, R.F. Jackaby. Much entertaining adventure ensues.
You should read it if: You enjoy YA, or you're looking for a good book to gift to someone of YA-reading age. Or the idea of the 'Sherlock meets Doctor Who' setup appeals to you.
My review: Surprisingly, that claim turns out to be pretty much accurate. While it was way too young for me, this was good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. The author's grasp of witty, quick-fire dialogue is excellent, there's a strong and funny heroine/narrator and a plot that focuses much more on friendship and adventure than romance... Read the full review
Rating: 6/10 | Buy on Amazon: Hardback

The Children Act (2 September 2014) by Ian McEwan
What it's about: A female judge, Fiona Maye, is called on to make a quick decision in an urgent case: she must decide whether a seventeen-year-old boy should be forced to have a blood transfusion that will save his life. The boy, Adam, and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and have thus far refused the treatment. At exactly the same time, Fiona's husband, Jack, asks her permission for him to be able to have an affair with a younger colleague. In five parts, The Children Act explores the consequences of the decisions Fiona makes in both situations.
You should read it if: You tend to prefer fiction written in simple, elegant prose, rather than an over-descriptive style. You find complicated legal wranglings fascinating.
My review: I had absolutely no intention of reading this - McEwan is not a writer whose past books have impressed me as much I expected them to. I just started reading a preview to see what it was like, and was so swept up in the narrative I had to continue reading the book. Many of the events on which the story focuses are either easy to predict, or obviously signposted. I didn't find anything in the plot surprising, but I did find the book elegantly written, compelling and perfectly paced... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I Remember You (2010, translated 2012) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
What it's about: Part horror story, part mystery, I Remember You starts with a couple, Garðar and Katrín, travelling to Hesteyri, an extremely isolated community which has been otherwise abandoned by its few inhabitants for the winter. Along with their friend Líf, they've bought an old house they intend to renovate and turn into a guesthouse. Meanwhile, in the town of Isafjördur, a psychiatrist named Freyr is assisting in the investigation of a strange act of violent vandalism, in which a preschool has been ransacked and defaced. When all of these characters start to experience apparent 'hauntings', the links between their pasts slowly become apparent.
You should read it if: You enjoy ghost stories and don't mind being a bit spooked - this is genuinely frightening in places!
My review: I honestly found the ghost story in I Remember You one of the most terrifying I've read. Yes, it employs pretty much every cliché of the genre, but the tension is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level - I found myself almost too scared to keep reading, but so riveted I just HAD to find out what would happen next. The mystery is more prosaic, and it's a pity the characterisation is sometimes weak, as otherwise this would easily have earned a higher rating from me... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Little Egypt (15 March 2014) by Lesley Glaister
What it's about: Little Egypt splits its narrative between early 1920s and 2002. In the former chapters, 13-year-old twins Isis and Osiris spend a restless year in their family home, Little Egypt, with put-upon maid Mary and louche Uncle Victor, while their obsessive Egyptologist parents search the real Egypt for an elusive tomb. In 2002, meanwhile, Isis is in her nineties and hasn't spoken to Osi in ten years - despite the fact that they still share the same house. Things are changing, and she may finally have to make a decision about the future of Little Egypt, but what are the secrets that have kept her there for decades?
You should read it if: You like 'past-and-present' narratives and quirky, eccentric characters.
My review: This is the first book I've read by Lesley Glaister, and there is no doubt she has a wonderful way with words. A horse's coat is 'mottled like a rainy pavement'; when Isis enters a quiet room, it is filled with 'a thick hush like fur'; the sounds made by budgies are 'hard chips of glassy noise that rattled against her teeth'. The devil is in the detail. Unfortunately, there's also some very implausible plot points... Read the full review
Rating: 6/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Down the Rabbit Hole (2010, translated 2011) by Juan Pablo Villalobos
What it's about: This novella is narrated by Tochtli, the son of a Mexican drug baron, living an isolated life in a 'palace' where he has his own zoo, a private tutor and a vast collection of hats. He knows little of the outside world, yet his every whim is catered to. But, despite the protagonist's privilege and his exposure to violence and corruption, this is still a story about a lonely child trying to understand his surreal, limited world.
You should read it if: You like short books (this is such a short novella that it's pretty much a short story); you enjoy fiction in translation or stories that are a bit more 'off the beaten track'.
My review: The translation is excellent - this really doesn't feel like a book that's been translated from another language, all the more impressive given that creating an authentic childlike voice is hard enough in any language, let alone when trying to render the nuances and colloquialisms of another... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Leviathan (1992) by Paul Auster
What it's about: The narrator is a writer who, at the beginning of the book, hears about the death - in odd circumstances - of one of his oldest friends. For reasons that will eventually become clear, he's keen to hide what he knows about this man, but he is compelled to write down the history of their friendship, a history that includes the narrator's affair and subsequent obsession (or the other way round) with the man's wife. The story that ensues is part factual account, part confession.
You should read it if: You're a fan of the author, or you like fiction with just the smallest touch of something inexplicable.
My review: If you already like Paul Auster, you will definitely enjoy Leviathan, and if you dislike him or have a negative impression of his work, it's unlikely to be the book that will change your mind. This is, in many, many ways, textbook Auster. It casts a spell, creating a world that is always subtly strange and slightly altered from our own in ways it is difficult for the reader to put their finger on... Read the full review
Rating: 8/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

The Serpent and the Pearl (2013) by Kate Quinn
What it's about: Like Quinn's 'Empress of Rome' series, The Serpent and the Pearl is loosely based on real events, in this case the rise of the Borgia family in 15th-century Italy. Using a variety of narrative voices - Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia; Leonello, a dwarf who becomes her bodyguard; and Carmelina, a cook in the Borgia household - it tells a highly enjoyable tale packed with twists and moments of suspense.
You should read it if: You like historical fiction that's fun and trashy rather than serious and accurate: this is more like a soap than a faithful recreation of real events. And you don't mind a cliffhanger ending - it's part of a series, and you'll need to read the next one to discover the characters' fate.
My review: Quinn is great at writing strong, interesting female characters you can't help but like, but this perhaps isn't that unusual for a female author of this type of fiction. What she's also great at is writing men who should be completely detestable, but are somehow imbued with such charisma and magnetism that you are nevertheless drawn to them... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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