Sunday, 23 August 2015

This week's links: 23 August 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post... Book reviews and lists: Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Shop

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Catching up: Four recent reads

First Execution by Domenico StarnoneFirst Execution (2007, translated 2009) by Domenico Starnone

First Execution begins as a tale of political intrigue. Domenico Stasi, a retired teacher, goes to meet a former student, Nina, who has been arrested on a charge of terrorism. She sets him a task: to go to the apartment of a friend of hers, find a certain book and copy out a specified line, which will be collected from him by a stranger. When he complies, he finds himself drawn into a dangerous chain of events. But then the story becomes metafictional: another Domenico, the author himself, appears in the narrative, talking about how he's writing this book, where he wants it to go, and how his own experiences and memories are feeding into it. The two stories then run alongside and into each other, as Stasi's dilemma gets worse and Starnone rewinds and reshapes his story, exploring the different directions it could take. First Execution is bursting with ideas - about politics, education, writing, ageing, justice and injustice, the nature and definition of 'terrorism', pacifism vs direct action... - but they are expressed so clearly and beautifully that the book is a pleasure to read. I frequently found myself marking pages to remember, or highlighting passages that struck a chord with me (I've compiled a long list of quotes over at Goodreads). It's intensely thought-provoking and challenging - but also a gripping story I struggled to tear myself away from.

Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren HolmesBarbara the Slut and Other People (13 August 2015) by Lauren Holmes

Lauren Holmes's debut is aptly subtitled And Other People, correctly indicating that what's inside is a collection of character sketches rather than a set of neat stories. These are very much character-driven tales, each giving a little window into the life of one of the author's creations. There's a girl trying to negotiate coming out to her mother, a graduate who chooses to work in a sex shop instead of joining a law firm, a woman who only discovers she doesn't like her new boyfriend when he moves into her flat, and the title character - a teenager whose sex life leads to her being bullied. If there's a major flaw, it's that the stories are too similar: they're all told in first person, all about young people trying to find their way in the world, all of whom are Americans from similar backgrounds, and almost all set in the US in the present day, or close to it. I was impressed by the apparent depth of the characters and how well they were drawn in such short spaces; they'll certainly strike you as real, with all their flaws and vulnerabilities. But I felt the book could have used some diversity, in who the characters were and how their stories were told. Still, it's obvious from this collection that Holmes is a talent to watch.

The Good Liar by Nicholas SearleThe Good Liar (14 January 2016) by Nicholas Searle

Reviews of this are supposed to be embargoed until close to the release date, so I'll be publishing a more detailed write-up later. For now, I'll just say that I'm not surprised this is being talked about as one of Penguin's big debuts of 2016 - it's got that 'unputdownable' quality in spades. It starts as the story of Roy, an ageing conman who, after a series of dispiriting dates in gastropubs, appears to have found his perfect mark - Betty, elegant, widowed and, most importantly, wealthy. We know Roy has nefarious intentions from page one; things get more interesting when it becomes apparent that Betty has a hidden agenda too. But what is it? The Good Liar will keep you guessing as it slowly unpacks Roy's character and tells his life story in reverse, taking several surprising turns along the way. This is a thriller in an old-fashioned sense (comparisons have been made to Patricia Highsmith), a book I think will appeal to readers of historical fiction, classic suspense and crime.

Number 11 by Jonathan CoeNumber 11 (11 November 2015) by Jonathan Coe

Completely addictive - and what a fantastic return to form after the lacklustre Expo 58. I read this at breakneck speed, barely able to tear myself away from it. It tells interconnected stories that revolve around two women, Rachel and Alison, childhood friends whose lives go in very different directions after what might be a life-changing encounter with the 'Mad Bird Woman' when they're both ten years old. It's also a very loose sequel to Coe's What a Carve Up! and makes numerous callbacks to that novel (but you don't need to have read What a Carve Up! to enjoy it). Political/social commentary mingles with satire, mystery and a touch of horror. My favourite section was 'The Crystal Garden', which tells of a man's obsessive search for a magical film he watched as a boy. The ingredients all add up to a book so incredibly enjoyable that I fell into a genuine state of despair upon finishing it.

As with the above, a more detailed review will follow closer to the publication date. If you want a preview, an extract from 'The Winshaw Prize' - probably the most obviously satirical story in Number 11, not necessarily representative of the tone of the whole book - is available on the Guardian's website.

I read advance review copies of Barbara the Slut, The Good Liar and Number 11, the former received direct from the publisher and the latter two via NetGalley.

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Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House by David MitchellSlade House (27 October 2015) by David Mitchell

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks may have been a disappointment for numerous reasons, a three-star book that really, if I was being completely honest, should have been two (as I've occasionally done, I gave it extra credit, so to speak, because of my affection for the author's other work), but that didn't stop me from being excited about Slade House. A (sort of) ghost story centred on one mysterious house was always going to be irresistible to me. Early reviews have compared it to classic ghost stories and horror movies, and it's often been referred to as 'a haunted house story'. That isn't quite the case, as anyone familiar with the premise of The Bone Clocks' more fantastical segments will likely guess, but Slade House certainly has the spirit (no pun intended) and suspense of one.

Why am I mentioning The Bone Clocks anyway? Well: published hot on the heels of its predecessor, Slade House is a short novel with significant links to the world of The Bone Clocks; though it's been established that all Mitchell's novels are linked, this is arguably a follow-up rather than a wholly new story. (It's also partly based on a tale Mitchell originally 'published' in a series of tweets.) That said, you might initially wonder where exactly the similarities lie. This begins as a story about Nathan, a teenage boy who, with his mother, visits the eponymous house. It's hidden down Slade Alley, grey and narrow and and permanently rainy, and is accessed through a small iron door. What lies beyond this unprepossessing door is incongruous: a grand house, a beautiful, verdant garden, and a charming aristocratic host, Lady Norah Grayer.

In what's become regarded as typical Mitchell style, the book doesn't stick with Nathan, but tells a number of short stories in different voices and different time periods, though they all have the same basic premise and structure: someone comes to visit Slade House and finds something they desire behind that door - something that's (needless to say) not what it seems. There are nuances of characterisation here that were (weirdly) absent from the much longer Bone Clocks: loveable but exasperating Nathan and his understandably agitated mother; swaggering copper Gordon, with an unexpected heart of gold; Sally - lovely, tragic Sally. The first two in particular are clever feats of subverted expectation: starting off as cliched character types, they turn out to be so much more fine-spun than that. Meanwhile, our villains are the ruthless Grayer twins - they're undoubtedly sinister and satisfyingly nasty, but there's an element of comedy in their bickering that smacks of sitcom banter. That prevents the repeating doomed scenario on which the plot hinges from making the whole thing too depressing, even though really, there's quite a lot of tragedy in this book, something that's particularly keenly felt because the characters are so well defined.

Much shorter and tighter than The Bone Clocks, Slade House lacks the flabbiness of its predecessor; but towards the end, its links with the world of Bone Clocks become clearer, its fantasy element ramps up, and much of one chapter is devoted to belatedly explaining the Grayers' backstory. This is where it lost me a little. I know lots of people love the self-referential thing in Mitchell's books, but I'm finding it increasingly gimmicky; straining to recognise references or remember where you heard a name before can sometimes be detrimental to enjoyment, and gets a bit tiresome when repeated. And as much as I thought Bone Clocks was overlong, as much as I literally just said it was good that this was shorter, there were some other things I'd prefer to have been expanded and examined, instead of a rerun of all the Atemporal/orison/pyroblast stuff. I felt slightly deflated by the ending, though as with lots of enjoyable books, that might just have been because I wanted it to go on and on and on.

The thing is that even with its flaws, I'd read this again, and I want to buy a physical copy. I loved the idea, the mystery of Slade House; the setup of each character's approach of the place; I ache to know more about some of them, maybe all of them; and the atmosphere of the whole book has really stuck with me. I think it benefits from the fact that it's definitively a horror story, and a great example of one. The late October publication date is perfect, not only because it coincides with events in the story, but because this is one of those ideal winter books, with its crawling sense of horror and rain-soaked, freezing settings. And it made me want to revisit The Bone Clocks, too. Who'd have thought?

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

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

Sunday, 16 August 2015

This week (and last week)'s links: 16 August 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...

I've had stacks of work and very little free time for the past week and a half, hence the lack of a links post last weekend or any reviews this week, but I did manage to bookmark about a million things. You're welcome, or not.

Articles and essays:
Some interviews:
Book-related things:

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian by Han KangThe Vegetarian (2007, translated 2015) by Han Kang

Translated from Korean, this is the kind of story that's hard to define; a sort of character study, I suppose, of the titular vegetarian (though the diet she chooses to follow is actually vegan), the inscrutable Yeong-hye. The book is made up of three 'acts', each observing Yeong-hye from the point of view of a different person - her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. In her husband's version, she's the very picture of dull domesticity, a woman he has chosen specifically because she's plain and boring. In her brother-in-law's, she's recognisable, but interpreted in a wildly different way - an always-calm enigma with a unique sense of self-possession. In her sister's - perhaps unsurprisingly the most complicated - she's two things at once, a victim and a manipulator, an emaciated psychiatric patient who is nevertheless perfectly capable of controlling (and often frustrating) those around her.

While it's intriguing from the beginning, the second part of the novel is where the story really comes alive. It depicts Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, a character known simply as J, succumbing to an intense erotic obsession with her. He has long envisioned an art project, a potential magnum opus, which involves a woman's body being painted with huge, elaborate flowers, and after discovering by chance that Yeong-hye still has a 'Mongolian mark' - a type of birthmark that usually vanishes in childhood - his lust for her becomes bound up with his artistic obsession; as the pages turn he becomes more and more convinced that she is the only possible subject. At points this narrative has a feverish sexual charge, but at the same time it shows Yeong-hye rejecting any such objectification - in J's words, she has 'a body from which all desire had been eliminated', yet he is unable to stop desiring her, and that desire is expressed in two inextricable ways, sexual and artistic. She happily participates in his art project, but she's detached from what it means to him, simply indulging his cravings. It's hard to say what makes this - the juxtaposition of erotic scenes and, well, anti-eroticism - work so well, as of course it's not a matter of merely saying it. It's surely symbolic that Yeong-hye's body literally becomes a blank canvas on which J paints; the most explicit expression of a theme running through the novel.
It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hands wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn't look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.
We know from the first part of the novel that Yeong-hye has decided to reject not only meat, but a great deal of food in general, following a series of gruesome, bloody dreams. Toward the end, when the narrative focus switches to her sister In-hye, we see where this has taken her; she is close to death. Yet we sense she's still in control of her fate, playing a game those around her are oblivious to, as she has throughout the novel. Her steely reserve, the 'hard and self-contained' quality that J sees, is maintained to the end. While books that skirt around their main characters, seeing them only through others' eyes, often make that central character shallow and unbelievable as a result, The Vegetarian triumphs in its portrayal of Yeong-hye. She's always the most important figure in the story, though there's a clear sense of others projecting their expectations, wishes, insecurities onto her. (In the first act, she's only 'my wife'; a role, not a name.)

It's hard to put into words what makes The Vegetarian so compelling, but it's a truly spellbinding story which flows beautifully; it has an atmosphere that's almost completely unique. It's equally hard to pin down what it's really about. Food, sex, art, asceticism, the nature of desire, the power of determining one's own identity? Or of self-destruction? The relationship between people and nature is a recurring motif - one that reaches its climax when In-hye pays her last visit to Yeong-hye, the latter now seeming to believe she is becoming a tree, while In-hye is plagued by memories of her sister and thoughts of her wandering the forest. In-hye is drawn to a destructive part of her own self - and to the dark, elemental power represented by the mountain where she walks at night. Like the cleverly designed UK cover, nature in this book is at first glance benign; at second utterly macabre.

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

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Reading round-up: July

July 2015 books

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Extremely enjoyable ghost story about a folk band recording their second album in a spooky country manor. While what ensues is fairly predictable, it's perfectly pitched and works very well indeed. If you're into ghostly tales, get this on your radar.

Armada by Ernest Cline - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This second novel from Cline, author of Ready Player One, has had lots of bad reviews: I thought it was pretty enjoyable, if not quite as good as Cline's debut. The story follows a video-game-obsessed teenager who's recruited to fight an alien invasion. It's naturally a bit silly, but fun; a film version is already in the works, and it's easy to see how it will translate to the screen.

Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman - 6/10. Full review / Buy the book
To nobody's surprise, this story about a campus murder is being touted as similar to The Secret History; what the blurb doesn't tell you is that it follows its three main characters for years after that, and is more a study of their post-university lives than a mystery. The style is what I'd call elegant but emotionless - it kept me interested, but it's difficult to connect with the somewhat coldly written characters.

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood - 10/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
A beautiful, completely engrossing novel about inspiration and the creation of art, this has jumped straight to the top of my list of 2015 favourites. Elspeth Conroy is a long-term resident at Portmantle, an island retreat for artists; the first part of the book shows her forming a relationship with a new member of the community, while the second tells us how she became a painter, and what happened to lead her to Portmantle. The third and fourth parts of the book then draw all the strands of these stories together in brilliant, surprising, entirely unexpected ways. Thoroughly recommended to everyone.

The Reckoning by Edith Wharton - 8/10. Buy the book
Two perfectly formed, heartbreaking short stories from Wharton. In 'Mrs Manstey's View', an ageing woman is driven to extreme measures to preserve one of her only pleasures: the garden view she enjoys from her room. 'The Reckoning' exposes the machinations at the heart of a relationship, as a wife comes to regret an agreement made with her husband years ago.

The Blue by Lucy Clarke - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
If you've read Clarke's books before, this is more of the same (in a good way). If you haven't, think a cross between travelogue, thriller and relationship drama. Best friends Lana and Kitty join the nomadic crew of The Blue, a yacht sailing around the Philippines, but they're inevitably plagued by secrets and jealousy; the narrative alternates between 'then' and 'now', the latter clearly set after some sort of terrible incident and/or betrayal. An easy, gripping read, this is the perfect beach book.

Where the Trains Turn by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen - 6/10. Full review / Read the story at Tor.com
A long short story, or short novella, about a family haunted by sentient trains, which is about as daft as it sounds, but saved by a great sense of atmosphere and some unusual characterisation. In contrast to the cosy book-loving themes found in Jääskeläinen's best-known work, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, the protagonist here is a fanatically rational woman who loathes fiction. Focusing on such a character works surprisingly well and results in a strong ending.

Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen - 10/10. Buy the ebook
This book is kind of awful. It's also a legit masterpiece. Like, an I don't know if I'll ever read anything like this again in my life, once in a generation kind of masterpiece. I gave up the first time I tried to read it, but something made me go back, and thank god for that instinct. Sometimes when I think about it I want to collapse/die, but I mean that in a good way if you can believe it. This is all I am going to write about it; if you want a summary that makes sense, there are actual reviews here and here to start with.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang - 9/10. Review to come / Buy the ebook
Translated from Korean, this is the kind of story that's hard to define; a sort of character study, I suppose, of the titular vegetarian (though the diet she chooses to follow is actually vegan), the inscrutable Yeong-hye. The book is made up of three parts, each observing Yeong-hye from the point of view of a different person - her husband, her brother-in-law, her sister - as she is tortured by gruesome dreams, gradually becomes anorexic and suffers delusions. It's hard to put into words what makes this so compelling, but it's a truly spellbinding story which flows beautifully.

Another good month: Book of Numbers, The Ecliptic and The Vegetarian will be on my best-of-2015 list for sure. And as promised last time, I've definitely managed to post more this month!

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Monday, 3 August 2015

This week's links: 3 August 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
Book reviews, lists and other snippets:
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Saturday, 1 August 2015

Review: The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic by Benjamin WoodThe Ecliptic (2 July 2015) by Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic: I had a good feeling about this book. The first time I heard about it was, unsurprisingly, on Twitter, when those with early review copies began talking about it in reverent tones, implying it would be one of the best novels of the year. Naturally, this excited me, and naturally, it made me nervous. But the excitement won out enough that I squandered a whole Waterstones gift voucher on the hardback edition, thinking as I did so, this had better be worth it. Thankfully, it was.

In the first part of the book, Elspeth Conroy, a painter, is a resident at Portmantle, a refuge for artists housed on a sylvan island off the coast of Turkey. Presided over by the severe provost, it's a place for those who have lost touch with their muse, with a strict set of rules designed - in what might be seen as a contradictory fashion - to remove all barriers to creative freedom. This includes the creation of a new identity, so Elspeth is known as 'Knell', and her closest friends - MacKinney, Quickman and Pettifer, a playwright, author and architect respectively - are similarly pseudonymous. One joins Portmantle only by invitation, and must keep every detail of its nature, even its existence, secret. The opening scene depicts the arrival of a new member of the community, Fullerton, a teenage boy - just a child, a disruptive but very obviously fragile presence who Elspeth immediately feels maternal towards.

The second part spools back through Elspeth's history. From her childhood in Clydebank to an attic in London, the beginnings of success and fame, and a fateful boat journey to New York, her life is mapped out in scenes that flesh out her character so successfully she becomes painfully real. Being disconnected from Portmantle is initially upsetting - as a setting it has an irresistible pull, and I'd hoped the whole story would be set there. But I quickly realised our heroine's past would be just as absorbing and affecting as her present. This is particularly the case when it comes to Elspeth's relationship with her erstwhile mentor, Jim Culvers, with whom she falls in love. (Architects of unconvincing romances everywhere, take note - this is how you do a love story. It's absolutely heartbreaking.)

The third part takes us back to Portmantle.

And that's all I can say about the plot. Anything more is going to spoil major revelations that come in several bursts, upending each other, in the final quarter of the book, and while telling you what they are might not actually spoil your enjoyment - because it's all so beautifully written and beautifully crafted regardless, and this is a story that has twists rather than relying on them - I think it's better if you don't know.

The Ecliptic is first and foremost a book about the hard, exhausting, consuming work of creating art. It's a force that engulfs Elspeth's life, moulds her relationships, and manifests in occasional bursts of obsession and extreme fatigue that skew close to madness. Portmantle purports to offer a respite from all the distractions that might divert an artist from achieving their true purpose, but in the end it's those 'distractions' that make a life, and Elspeth and co's time there keeps them trapped in a loop of not creating. Rather than a shelter, it becomes a kind of stasis. Like addicts who can't leave rehab, Elspeth and her friends remain on the island for years - for so long they've lost track of the years - despite failing to complete any of their planned masterworks. The story in The Ecliptic is constantly provoking questions about how inspiration is lost and found, and what that means for the artist.

If I had to compare it to something? Station Eleven, and not just because a comic book plays a pivotal part. While reading both books I really savoured the style - yet again I want to use the words 'elegant' and 'restrained'; the characters are centre stage, their development the most important thing in the novel despite the often-dramatic, potentially complicated story in which they are placed; style-wise there is nothing over the top here, nothing that really plays with conventional language, but it's intelligent, powerful, and always has that odd little edge of implied strangeness that suggests there's something more to all of this than meets the eye - something just out of reach. (Though I should mention that The Ecliptic is definitely not dystopian or sci-fi or post-apocalyptic.)

The Ecliptic itself unfolds like the process of creating a painting, specifically one of Elspeth's works. Layers of paint are overlaid by a magic ingredient, the lustrous pigment she creates from an unusual species of mushrooms, with the end result being something that can only be properly appreciated and understood in certain conditions - from the correct angle, in the correct light, or lack of. In Wood's book, this moment comes in the fourth and final section, when the reader can finally step back and understand how everything not only fits together, but creates a glorious effect, a beautifully synchronised whole.

Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback