Here's another bumper compilation of reviews to round off October. I must say, I haven't had much success with this month's reading and I'm rather glad to see the back of it. My 'lightweight' books of choice have either been a) distinctly average or b) not actually that lightweight, and The Lantern was my only real guilty-pleasure-type read. On to bigger and better books (I hope) for November! As ever, full versions of the reviews are over at Goodreads.
The Lake of Dreams (2011) by Kim Edwards
The story: After her father's death when she was a teenager, Lucy Jarrett left her hometown behind to go to university and travel the world. Now 29 and living in Japan with her boyfriend, Yoshi, Lucy receives news of her mother suffering an accident which prompts her to return to her family in America. There, she discovers a package of old pamphlets and letters hidden beneath a window seat. These contain mysterious clues that lead Lucy to investigate her family history, uncovering the existence of an ancestor she never knew she had, and helping her to re-examine her relationships with those she loves in the process.
The verdict: I didn't expect this book to be anything amazing, but I do usually enjoy these tales of lost letters and family secrets, and I thought the story had a lot of promise at the beginning. The first chapter presented an enchanting depiction of Lucy's life in Japan which drew me in and set the scene beautifully - or so I thought. But once Lucy returned to America, it quickly became obvious that the whole book was going to be overloaded with whimsy. The title, The Lake of Dreams, is actually the name of the town at the centre of the story (yes, really). It's a completely unrealistic place, with the main attractions being a ludicrously popular glassblowing factory at which crowds of people clamour for demonstrations, and a constantly packed, stunningly modern vegetarian restaurant. Also, a key character, Lucy's former high school sweetheart, is named Keegan Fall. I could not take this character seriously, nor the exceptionally contrived romantic elements. On top of that, there are numerous faults in the construction of the narrative: stilted dialogue, endless repetition of certain phrases and sentence patterns, action that seems to drag on for chapters and then suddenly moves forward at a literally unbelievable pace, and notable inconsistencies (my favourite being when the proprietor of the aforementioned vegetarian restaurant brings TURKEY sandwiches, specifically described as being from the restaurant, to a party).
There's little here to really recommend this book, apart from the fact that one major element of the plot gave me a pleasant surprise by not taking the obvious route. I really did have faith that the story was going to gather steam at some point, but instead it just plodded along with far too much meandering off in various directions - it seemed like the author had been unable to decide whether this was a story about Lucy's ancestor Rose and her involvement in the suffragette movement, or Lucy herself and her issues with her father's death. By the time the last few chapters delivered what I suppose were meant to be shocking twists, I didn't care what happened, and was just glad to get it over with.
Isis (2006) by Douglas Clegg
The story: Loosely based on the Ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, this is a very short book (a short story, really) containing a creepy, symbolic tale of the supernatural. Iris Villiers, a young woman in (I think) Victorian England, is the protagonist and narrator. She lives a miserable life in her parents' imposing Cornwall home; her father absent, her mother drunk, two of her three brothers constantly teasing her. Her only respite from this depressing existence is her third brother, Harvey, with whom she shares an unusually close relationship. However, disaster strikes when a terrible accident occurs, and Iris is driven to take matters into her own hands, armed with local legends related by the old gardener and her grandfather's collection of occult books.
The verdict: This little book is very well-written and creates a wonderfully spooky atmosphere which brought to mind Susan Hill's similarly brief ghost stories, particularly The Woman in Black. I think my favourite details were the scary tales told to Iris by Marsh, the gardener. Like most stories of this genre, it's an ideal read for a dark, stormy night; but it's unsurprisingly lacking in detail and after the pivotal event of the plot occurs, it feels very rushed. I also disliked Iris and found her hatred of the governess childish given that she's a teenager, not a little girl. I could have done without the denouncement of said governess as a 'harlot' and all the stuff about evil women luring men to their doom, too, though I am guessing this was meant to be a reflection of Iris's jealousy. Finally, the illustrations: these may have added enjoyment to the book for some readers, and it's true that with the story being so short, there's a need for something to flesh out the pages. But I thought they were very kitsch, and old-fashioned in the worst way. Isis is worth the short amount of time it takes to read it, and if you're looking for a quick, spine-chilling read as the nights begin to draw in, it's a perfect fit. It's insubstantial, though, and would work better as part of an anthology of short stories.
Imperium (2006) by Robert Harris
The story: The first of a trilogy, Imperium stays close to what is known of real-life events in the life of Roman lawyer and statesman Cicero. The tale is narrated by Cicero's trusted secretary, Tiro, whose voice gives the book a welcome warmth and allows for personal observations which really bring the story to life. This volume is an account of Cicero's ascent to power as consul of Rome, a journey fraught with backstabbing, vituperation and several uneasy alliances, and peppered with appearances by a great number of significant historical figures, notably Pompey, Crassus and a young Caesar.
The verdict: This book's Roman setting appealed to me, but due to my familiarity with Robert Harris's work, I did expect it to be light and easy to read, and probably heavily embellished. In actual fact, it's really quite a serious novel - lengthy, detailed and impeccably well-researched. Political intrigue is constantly bubbling under, and in fact there is little else to the story; there's virtually no sex and only a handful of violent scenes. Reading this so soon after Harris's contemporary thriller The Ghost, I couldn't help but notice the very modern spin Harris has put on the political affairs of the time, for example an attack by a group of pirates being likened to modern-day terrorism. Like the Tony Blair-esque Adam Lang in The Ghost, Cicero himself has echoes of New Labour; while a 'man of the people' who is derided by the aristocrats because of his comparatively humble birth and support for wider democracy, he is chiefly a fiercely ambitious individual. Determined to achieve supreme political power - the 'imperium' of the title - at any cost, he is perfectly prepared to make alliances with his bitterest enemies and support undemocratic decisions.
Because the book is necessarily written in a modern style, there are points when it seems a little inauthentic, for all its attention to historical detail, while at times the opposite is true, with lengthy factual descriptions making the narrative feel a little too dry. For most of the book, though, Harris balances fact and fiction effectively, bringing Rome to life with evocative, but restrained, prose. Vivid and absorbing, this novel not only held my attention, but also made me feel I'd learned quite a lot about this particular period in history, and about how Roman democracy operated. It's not always a page-turner, and may not appeal to everyone who has enjoyed Harris's contemporary fiction. However, I really enjoyed spending time in the company of Tiro and Cicero, and while I don't feel compelled to begin the second book of the trilogy - Lustrum - immediately, I will definitely be picking it up at some point in the future.
Affinity (1999) by Sarah Waters
The story: Nearing thirty, unmarried, and recovering from a series of difficult and upsetting events including the death of her beloved father, lonely Margaret Prior takes up the duties of a 'lady visitor' at London's Millbank prison. Assigned to visit, speak with and offer companionship to the female prisoners, she finds herself developing a particular affection for one inmate - Selina Dawes, an alleged medium imprisoned for fraud and assault. At first, Margaret's visits are focused on exploring the unfamiliar environment of the prison and meeting the women incarcerated there, as a distraction from her dull and unhappy home life. Her diary makes up the majority of the narrative, intercut with extracts from Selina's earlier journal recounting the events that led to her imprisonment. But as Margaret's friendship with Selina blossoms and she begins to feel increasingly alienated elsewhere, Millbank becomes the centre of her world, a growing obsession.
The verdict: I have read two of Waters' other novels: Fingersmith and The Little Stranger (a personal all-time favourite). While Affinity shares supernatural and psychological themes with the latter, it has far greater similiarities with the former: two female protagonists who take turns narrating the story, and a parade of unpleasant minor characters; a burgeoning lesbian romance, full of suppressed emotion and dull erotic charge; a heavy atmosphere of doom and dread; a series of dreary, depressing settings, from Millbank's cells to the foggy streets of London and Margaret's stifling existence at home. Like the heroines of Fingersmith, Margaret and Selina are both thoroughly trapped - Selina, obviously, by her imprisonment, and Margaret by the expectations of society, her family and her sexuality, as well as the illness she cannot name (depression). Treated with sedatives and opiates, which she becomes increasingly dependent upon as the story progresses, Margaret descends into a private, obsessive madness in which the mysteries of Selina's spirit world become very real to her. Selina, meanwhile, remains a more enigmatic character, with her journal conspicuously lacking in emotion. The story builds tension very slowly, and at points seems to drag, only resolving itself into a revelatory plot twist towards the end. I have to say, I did see this coming: if you have your doubts about certain elements of the plot, it's fairly easy to work out the nature, if not the exact details, of the twist. I do think Waters is a brilliant writer, and I can't fault her wonderfully authentic recreation of a Victorian narrative here. However, as much as the story was compelling and held my interest, it didn't come close to matching the page-turning intensity of Fingersmith, or the brilliant creeping tension of The Little Stranger, and it was extremely bleak throughout. While it's worth reading, I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point for newcomers to the author's work.
High-Rise (1975) by JG Ballard
The story: High-Rise is set completely within a huge, self-contained tower block containing not only apartments, but also a supermarket, amenities such as a gym and swimming pool, even a junior school. The inhabitants of the block can live their lives largely within this one building; the initial protagonist, Dr Robert Laing, works a five-minute drive away, and other than that rarely leaves, socialising only with his immediate neighbours. However, the book's opening makes it clear that this supposedly utopian micro-society is doomed to failure, and the story goes on to catalogue its rapid, anarchic downfall.
The verdict: I picked this at random from a load of books I'd downloaded onto my Kindle - simply because I had no idea what to read next, it's fairly short, and the first page really grabbed my attention (there's a great opening sentence). The story is allegorical in a very obvious way, with the tower block representing a class system: the penthouse apartment is occupied by the co-designer of the scheme, the unsubtly-monikered Anthony Royal; the middle-class residents live, obviously, in the middle section of the building; and the least affluent are on the bottom ten floors. As the story progresses, the divisions become more marked, and the residents begin to split into tribes. Parties start to get out of control, there are physical attacks, the population of the high-rise becomes increasingly insular, and life in the block begins to degenerate into a surreal nightmare. It's not subtle, but I have always really enjoyed this type of postmodern social parable, and this is a particularly vivid example of the genre due to its disturbing intensity and the surreal, chaotic depths the characters reach. However, I never really connected with the characters and felt as if I was at a distance from them; I'm not sure how this could possibly have been remedied as the story would hardly have worked had it been filled with likeable characters, but nevertheless, this was a barrier to my enjoyment. The book was first published in 1975, and it shows - something indefinable about the prose feels dated, although the prescience of the plot's message is pretty striking when you consider it was written well before the excesses and class conflicts of the 1980s. It's either a misanthrope's dream or a misanthrope's worst nightmares about humanity brought to life, I'm not sure which (perhaps they're the same thing). A quick, discomfiting read which I certainly found thought-provoking, but the overall tone fell a little flat for me.
Rating: 6/10 (I am kind of cheating by including this, as I finished it today, so it wasn't an October book. But since it's a short book and a short review, I thought it would be better off here than being the subject of a whole new post!)