For the past few months I've been reading a lot of literary fiction, so I've decided to use the month of October to get through some of the more 'lightweight' books on my to-read list. It's my theme for the month, if you like. I'm only allowed to read genre fiction and short books and I might even (SHOCK!) read some chick lit (although I have to say I've tried to start a couple so far and no dice, I can't get into them). These are more likely to be books I'll read quite quickly, however, so I don't want to post every single review here separately or they will CONSUME my blog. Here are some edited versions - the full versions are all at my Goodreads account, of course.
The Ghost (2007) by Robert Harris
The story: Famous for being a roman à clef about the life of Tony Blair following his tenure as prime minister, The Ghost is told from the perspective of a nameless ghostwriter who is drafted in to edit the memoirs of the Blair figure, ex-PM Adam Lang, after the apparent suicide of an aide who was assisting with the book. Lang is holed up in a mansion in Martha's Vineyard, surrounded by security and a host of associates, including both his wife and his mistress. After Lang is accused of being involved in an illegal operation to imprison suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, the narrator is pushed to work quickly on the book, and soon uncovers evidence to suggest his predecessor's death may not have been suicide after all...
The verdict: In terms of plot and style, The Ghost was pretty much a standard thriller. What elevated it above the rest, and spurred my interest, was the fact that Harris was once close to Blair and they had a high-profile falling out, so it can be assumed that there's a fair amount of truth in this depiction. 'The ghost' was necessarily anonymous, but unfortunately the lack of a name or background didn't help in making him someone I could believe in and/or root for. I know Harris can write engaging, likeable, human heroes - after all, he created Fluke Kelso in Archangel, one of my favourite books of all time - but this guy wasn't one of them. He made some obnoxious observations (comparing bad conditions in an airport to the Holocaust, really?) and used a few too many daft similes, and although I didn't hate the character, I can't say I felt fully invested in his plight either. With everyone else in the story seeming to be either power-crazed or a complete liar (or both), and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the first half of the book, The Ghost had a tense but gloomy feel, full of dread and foreboding. After the narrator eventually left the isolated mansion, the pace picked up and I got through the rest of the book pretty quickly.
I didn't expect The Ghost to be a truly amazing read and it delivered more or less exactly what I expected - a gripping, if not brilliantly written, thriller that held my attention, didn't tax the brain too much, and didn't require any emotional involvement. It's certainly worth reading and I'd recommend it if you've got a flight or long train journey coming up, but if you want the author's best work, this isn't it. (Archangel is).
Like Bees To Honey (2010) by Caroline Smailes
The story: This is the tale of Nina; born and brought up in Malta, she moved to England as a teenager and was disowned by her family for getting pregnant by, and then marrying, an English man, Matt. At the beginning of the book, Nina is travelling back to Malta to face a reunion with her parents, accompanied by her teenage son, Christopher. However, all is not as it seems with Nina's journey, nor her destination. There is a supernatural element to the story, as the Malta of Like Bees To Honey is shown to be a magnet for wandering spirits, while Nina has the ability to communicate with them. The tale that follows is an exploration of loss, identity and faith, as Nina attempts to come to terms with the losses she has endured and struggles to maintain her religious beliefs in the face of personal anguish. The book is predominantly about Nina's emotional journey, interwoven with touches of fantasy and magic.
The verdict: The rather twee cover and title of Like Bees To Honey do it something of a disservice. If it hadn't been for a) a few good reviews I'd read and b) the setting of Malta (which holds a special place in my heart), I'd probably have passed over this, assuming it would be very lightweight and overly sentimental. In fact, this original and unusual novel turned out to be unlike anything else I've read. The writing was unique, very lyrical and emotive, but with a constant undercurrent of sly humour. Nina's narrative (which makes up the majority of the book) did seem somewhat emotionally overwrought at times, but the vividly imagined comic details helped to balance it out. There was Jesus holding court in a seedy bar where he drinks endless pints of Cisk lager, paints his toenails and talks to the local spirits about Come Dine With Me, Simon Cowell and Paul O'Grady; Tilly, a lesbian ghost with anger management issues and a very distinctive voice; and John Lennon playing ghost gigs in the defunct St Julian's branch of TGI Friday's. The book was occasionally hampered by frequent repetition of onomatopoeic words and translations of Maltese phrases, which really wasn't necessary. However, it was easy enough to skip over these lines and if you get into the story, they're not going to get in the way of your enjoyment of it. While I didn't fall completely in love with this book - I could never quite connect with the character of Nina - it really surprised me by going in directions I didn't expect. I paid just 49p for the Kindle edition, and it was absolutely worth the money.
The Crossing Places (2009) by Elly Griffiths
The story: The first in a series of mystery/thriller novels based around the character of forensic archaelogist Dr Ruth Galloway, this book begins with the disappearance of a child on the gloomy Norfolk coast, a case which seems to mirror that of a still-missing girl from ten years before. When a body is dug up, police suspect it's the first girl, but it turns out to be an Iron Age sacrifice, preserved by the peat. This finding brings Ruth into the investigation, and as events progress she finds herself closely involved in the hunt for the missing girls.
The verdict: A quick and easy read, this book's biggest asset was its main character. In Ruth Galloway, Elly Griffiths has created a protagonist who is clearly tailor-made to appeal to a certain type of female reader. She lives in an isolated house in the midst of a desolate, windswept landscape; she's happily single through her own choice; she loves cats but doesn't have/want children; she prefers to be on her own and makes concerted efforts to avoid her neighbours; she often shuns social events in favour of a good book. As a foil to Ruth, there was Harry Nelson, a no-nonsense, somewhat gruff police officer - a stereotype, but likeable all the same - and a great cast of supporting characters too. However, the story surrounding them was rather more standard fare: two missing children, a series of cryptic letters sent to taunt the police, bodies turning up in the Norfolk marshes, etc - without the archaeological detail, it would be a standard whodunnit. The book was written in present tense, which can work well in fiction, but sometimes seemed a bit clumsy here. If you've read a reasonably well-written crime novel before, there will be nothing in The Crossing Places to particularly surprise or excite you. It was competently put together and consistently engrossing, but contained a few irritating inconsistencies - it was hard to believe Ruth wouldn't be more alarmed about certain developments. Overall, while I enjoyed this book, I felt like something better could have been crafted around these characters and this wonderfully bleak setting.
I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan (2011) by Alan Partridge (ahem...)
There's probably not a great deal I can say about this, really; the fact that it's a spoof autobiography of a fictional comedy character tells you all you need to know. If you're a huge fan of Alan Partridge, you'll probably find it a very amusing read - if you're not, well, it's not going to be of much interest. The strongest point of the book was that the narrative captured Alan's voice brilliantly - I almost felt I could hear him speaking as I read it, and most of it would easily work as dialogue - but I kept having to take a break from it, as there was only so much of this I could take at any one time (it turns out you CAN have too much Partridge). Thankfully it's not just a rehash of material from the TV series, and it's quite obvious a lot of work has gone into making this book funny and original at the same time as staying true to what fans know of Alan's life, right down to the 'Forward Solutions' motivational seminars from Steve Coogan's 2009 live DVD. I did laugh out loud quite a bit, but some parts were a lot funnier than others, and at points I got fed up (not clinically, though) of reading it. This is a very amusing book and it's more than a let's-rush-this-out-in-time-for-Christmas job, but it's something I doubt I'm going to be reading again. My advice is to buy it now, read it (carefully) and pass it on to someone else for Christmas. I'm sure Alan would approve.
Blacklands (2009) by Belinda Bauer
The story: The 'hero' of Blacklands is Steven Lamb, a young boy whose uncle, Billy, was murdered as a child nineteen years ago. He is convinced that if he can discover where Billy is buried, he will bring his family closer together and make his grandmother, who has never recovered from the loss, happy again. At first Steven spends his spare time digging his way across the surrounding Exmoor landscape, searching for bones, but after an English lesson in which he receives praise for his letter-writing style, he has a better idea - to write to Arnold Avery, the serial killer who was convicted of the assault and murder of several other children from the area (but never admitted to killing Billy) in prison. Switching between the viewpoints of Steven and Avery, the story charts the pair's correspondence as both become increasingly obsessed with what they might be able to discover.
The verdict: I was really interested in the concept of this book, but sadly, I found the execution pretty average. On the plus side, I was impressed by the way Bauer managed to capture the thoughts of her characters and create a real voice for them, all within a third-person omniscient narrative. Steven's chapters effectively conveyed his youth, innocence and naivety without becoming childish. Avery's chapters were handled well too; Bauer didn't shy away from portraying the killer's lack of remorse or his continuing lust for his child victims, even his arousal at the very idea of his crimes, and while this occasionally verged on being harrowing, it was helped by frequent, if brief, switches to the perspective of fellow inmates or prison wardens. Even minor characters were given a brief backstory, making some of the chapters feel almost like self-contained stories. However, although the book was well put together, it was all just a bit... drab. Steven's home life was portrayed as loveless and depressing, and although this was perhaps necessary for the reader to understand his obsession with Billy and motivation for contacting Avery, the characters of his mother and grandmother were very unsympathetic as a result. Blacklands is a short book, and like many short books, it could have done with a lot more detail and explanation; certain parts regarding Avery's actions were completely unrealistic. I felt as though this book was designed to be skimmed over and wouldn't stand up to much analysis or a re-reading.
Like so many of these modern gothic suspense novels, The Lantern has a split narrative and two narrators. In the present day, we have a naive young woman, known only by her nickname Eve; she leaves behind her life in London after a whirlwind affair with an older man, the enigmatic Dom, who whisks her away to a tumbledown Provence farmhouse named Les Genévriers. In a plot clearly modelled on that of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (there's even a direct reference to Rebecca thrown in, just in case anyone's missed the blatant parallels), Eve becomes increasingly obsessed with uncovering the truth about Dom's first wife, Rachel - a subject he refuses to discuss. The second narrator is Bénédicte, also an inhabitant of Les Genévriers, albeit some years before Eve and Dom's arrival. An elderly woman who has lived in the house her whole life, she believes she is close to death, and is being visited by the spirits of her ancestors and siblings. Her chapters alternate between these 'hauntings' and Bénédicte's recollections of her childhood and later life. The two timelines come together when Eve, searching for a project to keep herself occupied, begins to research the life of Marthe Lincel, a blind perfumier from the local region who disappeared without a trace at the height of her success - and who was also Bénédicte's sister.
The book has numerous flaws. Eve is, for want of a better word, rather wet - by the halfway point of the book, I'd lost count of how many times she'd wimped out of actually asking Dom about something or had willingly accepted a one-sentence answer and left it at that (despite the fact that she spends the majority of her time pondering all the things he hasn't told her). You start to lose sympathy for her after this happens for the tenth time, and it's a rather tiresome way of setting up what is obviously bound to be a revelatory outburst from Dom. The characters lack depth, and almost all of them could do with a bit of fleshing out; in portraying Dom as a vague, ambiguous character who could be either good or bad, the author makes it difficult to care about what becomes of the protagonists' relationship either way. The description is frequently over-the-top in its enthusiastic depiction of the French countryside, and left me feeling like I'd overdosed on flowers.
So the plot isn't remotely original (the similarities to Rebecca make it pretty easy to work out what the key to the mystery surrounding Rachel is going to be...), the modern protagonists are irritating, and the prose is unncessarily florid. Why, then, am I giving it a positive review; why would I classify this as a book I liked? Well, as much as I found fault with it, I simply loved reading it. It grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go, and I raced through it, constantly desperate to know what would happen next. The levels of suspense were extraordinary given that the characters didn't particularly inspire enormous amounts of sympathy. And all the hyperbole at least meant all the settings were rendered in beautifully vivid style. I'm in two minds as to whether to classify this book as a 'guilty pleasure'; it's not really something I'd be embarrassed to admit I liked, but I do think it's fair to say that the amount I enjoyed it was out of proportion to how technically 'good' I thought it was.
The Lantern is evidence that a book can be completely derivative and still extremely enjoyable. Apart from the many allusions to Rebecca, the narrative style and structure will be familiar to anyone who habitually reads fiction of this genre: see also Kate Morton, Kate Mosse, Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Lawrenson (or, rather, her publisher) is obviously hoping this similarity will translate into comparable success, as evidenced by the fact of this being the author's first book to be published in the US. It deserves to sell just as well as its contemporaries, and it makes the perfect read for a lazy day - absorbing, tense and full of lush descriptive language. Lightweight (as befits my Month of Lightweight Books), but rather lovely.
NB: This isn't the only book I've read since I last posted; in fact, there's been quite a few - I just haven't had time to keep up to writing about them, or indeed anything else, here... Old habits die hard. I'm going to do a round-up post soon!
Having sampled Helen Oyeyemi's work before (I read her third novel, White is for Witching last year, and enjoyed it), I knew this book was going to be unconventional, and sure enough, it is. As writers of fairly mainstream fiction go, she is clearly an author who likes to 'think outside the box'. In White is for Witching, one of the four narrators was a house, another a girl addicted to consuming inedible materials. In Mr Fox, one of the protagonists (arguably the main character) is an imaginary muse, and the story weaves its way in and out of fiction and reality, exploring the connections between the two.
Mr Fox is about an American novelist called St John Fox, and his aforementioned muse, who takes the form of a beautiful British girl called Mary Foxe. St John enjoys killing off women in gruesome ways in his stories, and one day, Mary visits him with the intention of persuading him to stop. He is unwilling - insistent that fiction is only fiction, and has no connection to how people choose to behave in the real world - and what follows is a game between the two of them, as they tell stories that map out one another's fates, sometimes directly, sometimes obscurely. These short stories, which are inserted into the narrative as separate chapters, are mainly variations on legends and fairytales, and they vary from the straightforward and realistic to terrifying fantasy. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing narrative concerning St John's (real-life) marriage to Daphne, who suspects him of having an affair - and of course, his 'lover' is actually Mary. The actual and the fictional begin to overlap more and more as the story progresses, until it's difficult to tell which is which.
The book is about - and named after - St John Fox, but it's Mary who emerges as the central character. Of course, she's a figment of St John's imagination, so it could be argued that she is simply a facet of his character. There are points when she appears to be a product of Daphne's insecurities, too, becoming more physically similar to Daphne as the latter finds her confidence growing towards the end of the book. But Mary is fleshed out far more than the two 'real' characters; often the focus or the narrator of the short stories, she is given a distinct personality which the reader is encouraged to identify with. She is likeable and human, in contrast to both St John (a classic chauvinist) and Daphne (rather dull and stupid), though they all have their own recognisable, cleverly written voices. The stories themselves are largely avant-garde and sometimes threaten to tip over into self-indulgence. One - in which the characters are referred to as Blue and Brown - reminded me so much of Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy that I can only assume it's intended as an homage. In others, Oyeyemi reworks the old folk tale of Bluebeard, much as Angela Carter did (better) in her superlative collection The Bloody Chamber. The longest story, 'What Happens Next', is clearly evocative of the tale that gives Carter's book its title.
I liked the message of the novel - that violence against women in fictional contexts validates its use in reality, and that the creators of these fictions ought to take responsibility for the consequences of their work. But because the narrative is so broken up, it's difficult for the story to resolve itself into a cohesive whole, and it's ultimately unsatisfying. The message, which is so dominant in the stories and Mary's admonishment of St John, is lost towards the end, sidelined in favour of the comparatively tedious exploration of St John and Daphne's marriage. For me, the book would have worked better simply as a series of short stories, or as a pure battle of wits between St John and Mary, with the marriage plotline left out. Mr Fox tries to be two things at once - a story about the realities of love, and a series of fantastical, mind-bending tales - and although it manages to bring elements of both together quite eloquently in places, for example the significance of stories in resolving the problems between St John and Daphne, it doesn't quite succeed fully in either.
Last week saw the launch of an online jewellery shop I've been excited about for MONTHS - Bad Passion, the sister site of This Charming Girl. I've always admired This Charming Girl, but vintage-inspired, girly styles really don't suit me - which is why I was so excited to learn about Bad Passion, which has a much more rock 'n' roll vibe.
I know jewellery stores are ten a penny on the internet now, but I find so many of them to be poorly put together, rushed and overpriced. I'm also sick of seeing supposedly unique, 'handmade' jewellery that's clealy about as handmade as a bracelet in Primark and almost as widely available. With Bad Passion you really get the feeling that thought has actually gone into cherry-picking the products, rather than that sense of 'people will buy this, so it'll do' that pervades so many 'shops' out there. There's a definite overarching style to the selections, which means that if you like one thing, you're probably going to like almost all of it.
A little summary of this month's books, as per tradition...
66.The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst - 8/10 (full review). A slow-burning, but rich and rewarding family saga spanning almost a century, this will definitely appeal to fans of Brideshead Revisited. 67.God's Own Country by Ross Raisin - 10/10 (full review). A simply brilliant book with a completely unique, funny and shocking narrative voice. Farmer's son Sam Marsdyke relates the story of his infatuation with a new neighbour's daughter, building effectively to a terrifying climax. 68.Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth - 6/10 (full review). Part coming-of-age story and part murder mystery, this novel slowly uncovers the truth behind an apparent suicide pact between a schoolgirl and her older boyfriend, told partly in flashbacks from the perspective of the girl's best friend. 69.The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - 7/10 (full review). The most-hyped book of the month, this tale of two rival magicians' apprentices falling in love against the backdrop of a fantastical travelling circus is pure escapism. 69½.Incubus by Carol Goodman - ABANDONED (a bit more detail). A 'paranormal romance' from the author of several very good gothic mysteries, this was just terrible in every way and SO cringeworthy - a big letdown. 70.The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy - 6/10 (full review). While wonderfully written in truly beautiful prose, this story of middle-aged emotional angst set on board a cruise ship is frustrating in parts and lacking in plot. 71.The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter - 9/10 (full review). I couldn't help falling in love with this due to its similarities to a number of my favourite books, but the plot - regarding an Australian woman who disappears in New York on 9/11, and her friends' struggle to discover what became of her - is enthralling in its own right.
Quite a good month, given that I've been very busy with work. I'm already close to achieving my target of reading 75 books in 2011! However, I read a total of 25,435 pages in 2010, and I'm still some way off that this year (I've already read more books than I did in the whole of 2010... but obviously, last year, I was reading longer ones!)
I came across The Legacy by complete chance on Goodreads, which is something I seem to have been doing a lot lately - the happy by-product of browsing numerous strangers' profiles for interesting reviews! Next on my reading list is another random find, Like Bees To Honey by Caroline Smailes, a tale of loss and family secrets set in Malta, which I had to snap up when I saw the Kindle version was just 99p. But since work and life in general have been a bit stressful recently, I'm going to go for some light relief this month and read a few trashy thrillers.
Which books have you read and loved (or hated) this month? Has anyone managed to get their hands on the Alan Partridge autobiography? I really want to read it, but I kind of resent the idea of paying £9 for a silly comedy book!
It's a little disconcerting that the plot summary on the jacket of The Legacy, and even the tagline on the cover ('what has happened to Ingrid?'), give away key points of the book's plot before you've even begun reading. The blurb describes this as a story about a young Australian woman, Ingrid, who goes missing in New York on 9/11, and the search undertaken by her two best friends, Julia (the narrator) and Ralph, to uncover the truth of what really happened to her. While it's true that this forms the centre of the story, 9/11 - and, therefore, Ingrid's disappearance - doesn't occur until almost 200 pages in. Additionally, the short prologue - the only part of the book narrated by Ingrid rather than Julia - lets the reader in on a secret the other characters are unaware of; that Ingrid's husband, Gil Grey, a much older art dealer, was physically abusive towards her. But prior to Ingrid's disappearance, the narrative concentrates on character-building: establishing the calm, intelligent, sometimes insecure voice of Julia, the background of the protagonists' friendship and family ties, and the love triangle between them.
The Legacy owes a significant debt to a number of other literary works. It's apparently based on The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which I can't comment much on as I haven't read it (though, on the basis of a brief description, I can see that the basic plot outline and character names in The Legacy are an obvious homage). The structure reminded me strongly of Brideshead Revisited - there's a much-longer-than-the-others Part One covering the trio's idyllic university days and Julia's infatuation with Ralph; Part Two involves a journey and a passionate affair; and Part Three sees the protagonists back in familiar places, though with circumstances much changed, and one character in particular conspicuous by their absence. The character of Ralph is very much like Brideshead's Sebastian, especially when the story touches on his drinking, poor health and erratic behaviour. The style, meanwhile, is a successful blend of two of my favourite modern books: the incredibly effective nostalgia of Part One, along with the exclusive friendship between Julia, Ralph and Ingrid, belongs to the elite collegiate atmosphere of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, while Part Two's depiction of the New York art scene is straight out of What I Loved. Tranter's writing has the same clear, evocative tone as both Tartt's and Hustvedt's prose. The magic is in small observations; occasional shocking events are described briskly in a realistic, no-frills style, and are all the more powerful for it.
There was so much I adored about The Legacy, but top of the list, I think, is Part One and its portrait of Julia, Ralph and Ingrid's days at university. This is a personal weakness, I know, but I found everything about it - from Julia's night shifts in the video shop, to wild drug-fuelled parties, to café rendezvous on rainy days - desperately romantic. There's a quote on the cover from The Guardian, describing the book as 'a seductive contemporary literary thriller'; which is true, but doesn't quite get to the heart of what's good about it, or why you should want to read it. Another review quoted is completely inaccurate, speaking of Tranter's 'gazillion-watt searchlight' (?) and mentioning that the book throws in 'a randy professor, a drugged-up fortune teller and a dominatrix' - actually very minor characters who have little to do with what happens. The story is in fact extremely understated and moves at a sedate (not slow) pace, treading carefully. For some readers, this may translate to 'dull', but for me, The Legacy has an unusually quiet brilliance.
The only problem was that I could never quite understand the mass obsession with Ingrid - why Ralph (who is not only her cousin, but also - as the narrative makes absolutely clear - gay) is in love with her; why Julia is beguiled by her despite the fact that she invades and upsets the balance of Julia and Ralph's close relationship, then abandons it; why the two of them, especially Julia, devote so much energy to digging into her past; why, as Julia says when researching Ingrid's life in New York, there was a need to 'always begin with the assumption that any man who knew her had probably been in love with her'. Tranter tells, rather than shows, the reader that Ingrid is irresistible to everyone she meets, and there is no real evidence to prove why this would be the case. Admittedly, it would be difficult for any writer to do this when Ingrid is largely absent from the story, her absence being the whole point. However, the contrast between the flimsiness of this character and the portrayal of Julia's unrequited love for Ralph - beautiful, unapologetic, and palpably real - is noticeable.
I've said it before, but you know a book's good when, upon finishing it, you feel like going straight back to the beginning and starting all over again. I borrowed this from the library and have been frantically hunting for a cheap copy so I can have one of my own before I have to take it back. I can see why The Legacy won't be a hit with everyone; I can see why some might find it boring. But I loved it (and I am already waiting impatiently for the author's future work). Despite a couple of flaws, this is a book I can't stop thinking about and it's firmly on my list of favourites for 2011 - if you loved any of the books I've referenced in this review, particularly the modern novels, you should give it a try.
I must apologise for the awful photos; I just have no time for this sort of thing anymore and had to take advantage of a free half-hour to snap a few quick pictures of some stuff I've bought for autumn/winter. This Indian summer weekend has been nice and all, but I'm absolutely ready for piling on the woolly jumpers, layers, scarves, socks and boots now. Just realised I said exactly this in my last fashion post but still: IT'S A VALID POINT.
1. Zara gilet / H&M men's jumper 2. Primark jumper / Topshop rip-off skirt from local boutique 3. New Topshop blusher (Neon Rose) and eyeliner, plus nice eyeshadow thing I found in my room (I think this is from when I bought my friend a birthday present that overzealously included three different eyeshadow palettes and thought I'd better take one out...) 4. Particularly crap picture of Primark brogues, they're much nicer irl 5/6. Pictures of the view from my new (well, newish now) house, because there had to be something to make this post visually pleasing.
The Blue Book is a complex, fractured story. It centres on middle-aged Beth, who is taking a cruise with her boyfriend, Derek, who may be about to propose. But it also jumps into Beth's past, when she was the lover and professional partner of Arthur, a fake medium, and in turn visits scenes from Arthur's past - and their history together. Some chapters seem entirely random and don't take on real significance until much later. The book is written mainly in the third person, but it occasionally inhabits Beth's head, so we see her thoughts in close-up, first-hand, stream-of-consciousness detail. It also appears to address the reader (or is it one of the characters?) directly, and there are playful details such as wrongly numbered pages - a little reference to the numerical code Beth and Arthur use to communicate with one another.
I'll address the main positive of this book first: the writing is simply sublime. As soon as I began it, I was finding lines I wanted to quote or write down on almost every page. Kennedy's use of language is brilliant, original and sometimes very offbeat (she frequently merges words together to create new meanings), but comes off as effective and innovative rather than deliberately 'quirky'. The plot, however, is more of a problem. The main set-up of 'love triangle on a boat' is comical, probably more so because this is a literary novel, yet the premise - at first glance - sounds like either pure trash or pure farce. To draw something intriguing and sometimes frightening out of this is no mean feat, to be sure, but there's no denying it's restrictive. Perhaps for this very reason, the narrative is choppy, and while I found the chapters detailing Beth and Arthur's work together interesting, there were others - scenes from the protagonists' childhoods, Arthur's solo work with wealthy customers - that bored me.
I loved how the reader is able to see Beth's thoughts in their purest form, and I liked her, but I often found the way the characters behaved around one another frustrating in the extreme. Every tiny thing seems to be fraught with difficulties and hugely overcomplicated - I wanted to reach into the book and knock some sense into them. I couldn't really figure Arthur out, either. I felt like Kennedy was hinting that he had some sort of mental health issues throughout the book, but never quite got at what these were. At points, he appears to be completely detached from reality and some of his monologues read as though he has severe learning difficulties. Kennedy is clearly an accomplished writer, so there's obviously some point to this, but - I'll be honest - I didn't understand what it was and I struggled to make sense of him as a character. His eccentricity seemed to jar alongside the intensely sexual nature of his relationship with Beth.
I skimmed through a number of reviews of this book after finishing it, and this passage from Katy Guest's review in The Independent particularly stood out to me: 'Some books are brilliant, challenging, memorable and bold, but the experience of reading them is quite unpleasant. A.L. Kennedy's latest is just such a book.' I wouldn't quite say The Blue Book was an unpleasant read, exactly, but I certainly found it impressive more than enjoyable. I can imagine many readers tiring of Beth and Arthur's hand-wringing over their relationship long before the final twist that makes sense of their (or, at least, Beth's) debilitating angst. The late deployment of this twist, and the suffocating sense of past trauma and emotional damage permeating the whole book, reminded me a lot of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and my feelings about both of these critically lauded books are similar - while beautifully written, they lack the power to truly engage or convince. I'd read more by Kennedy, but I'd need to feel there would be more to hold my attention than just the language.