Sunday, 28 October 2012

Notes on recent books (and things)


This post came about because I seriously began contemplating the idea of a starting a book Tumblr. As if I need more ways to waste time online! It's just that I don't get time to write properly about every book I read here, I often write a review some time after finishing a book, and I've also begun to think it's pointless reproducing every single review I write on Goodreads here - unless the book, or the review, is particularly notable. I wondered if a Tumblr might be a better platform for very brief reviews-in-a-nutshell - which, in a sense, is what I do in the monthly reading round-up posts, but sometimes there are books I wish I could do more about recommending (or warning people away from). Anyway, I've managed to talk myself out of the Tumblr idea so here's a few notes on good books I've read recently (and a couple of other things).

First up, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I read this last month and it popped into my head again at the weekend when I saw the trailer for the film version. This is a difficult book to review because it's essentially six short stories - they are loosely linked, but don't overlap. Naturally, some of the stories are much better than others (Half-Lives and Letters from Zedelghem were my favourites) but I really liked the book as a whole, despite the fact that I didn't see it as some wonderful literary achievement. Opinions on Cloud Atlas seem to be largely divided between 'it's a work of absolute genius' and 'it's absolute trash masquerading as something meaningful and philosophical' - well, I didn't think it was either of these: for me, it was simply a highly enjoyable set of stories. I think this is probably best exemplified by the fact that I loved Half-Lives to bits even though it's a pastiche of a pulpy mystery and many reviewers seem convinced the reader is supposed to think it's badly written. The fact that the stories ape and/or spoof particular genres was actually one of my favourite things about them. I wasn't keen on the idea of a movie version at first - some of the casting doesn't seem right, and I'm still not sure how a film is going to successfully balance all six narratives without being a bit of a mess - but I'm a bit more interested after seeing the trailer on a big screen. It doesn't come out here until February, though, which seems a bit ridiculous (it's already out in the US).

In my quest to investigate everything on the Booker shortlist, last month I read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Set mainly in Malaya during the Japanese occupation, it's a subtle mystery with a complex historical backstory. The protagonist, Teoh Yun Ling, is a retired judge who was the only survivor of a POW camp many years before, and the bulk of the narrative is devoted to an exploration of the period of her life immediately following her escape. Criticised by some reviewers for being dull, The Garden of Evening Mists is a slow-moving but, in my opinion, ultimately rewarding novel which not only achieved an emotional resonance, but also taught me something about the history of Japan and Malaysia. The only thing that frustrated me was that I wanted more detail about some of the characters' relationships, but overall it was a quietly engrossing and memorable book which I'd definitely recommend.

Another September book I think is worth a further mention: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. It's an odd mixture of satirical humour, mystery and sentimental family drama, which it took me a while to get used to - but despite the reservations I had at the beginning, when I was concerned it might be too narrowly focused on very rich Americans for me to properly embrace it, the witty, lightweight style won me over in the end. I was really impressed by the author's ability to make a bunch of ridiculous, overprivileged and really quite obnoxious characters into people I liked and cared about. It's definitely not the sort of book that lingers in the memory, but if you're looking for something fun and light, it's a perfect quick read.

I read Kate Morton's new book The Secret Keeper in August, via an advance copy from NetGalley, but it's just been released properly this month. I didn't manage to get a proper review written of this in the end (of course), but I loved it. Like all Morton's books, it has more than one storyline, and the narrative is split between the past and the present day, with family ties binding the characters together. Towards the end, there's what can only be described as a stupendous twist, which genuinely shocked, delighted and impressed me - though I've enjoyed Morton's previous novels, I've never been that surprised when the 'big twist' has been revealed, but this one I didn't see coming at all. The whole story was an absolute pleasure to read and I tore through it in two train journeys. I've said it before, but if you are a fan of the author then you will absolutely LOVE this - in my opinion it's the best thing she's written and I'm already looking forward to buying a physical copy and reading it again.

I've become a bit addicted to Daphne du Maurier's short stories this month. I'm currently reading The Breaking Point, having really enjoyed two other anthologies: Don't Look Now and The Birds. They're so well crafted and quite macabre - perfect, I think, for this time of year.

The Booker Prize was won by Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, one of a couple of titles from the shortlist which I have no interest in reading. I was quite surprised by this - I was sure the winner would be Swimming Home by Deborah Levy: I found it rather medicore, but it seemed like a dead cert for the prize. Personally, of course, I wanted Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil to win (but knew it wouldn't), and I also thought Communion Town by Sam Thompson should have made it onto the shortlist (if only to gain more exposure for the book - it's brilliant).

In other cultural news, I continue to be incapable of getting into ANY TV drama series at all... yet my obsession with Adventure Time just gets bigger and bigger. I cried at the penultimate episode of the fourth season, and the finale left me stunned with its brilliant cliffhanger. Okay, so it's a cartoon, but I refuse to believe it's only for kids! I love it so much, in fact, that I recently read all of the Adventure Time comics so far. Never been much of a comics person (not as an adult, anyway - remember Bunty?!) and was really surprised by how much I enjoyed them - the artists have capture the characters' attitudes and voices perfectly. I am DYING to see how the fifth season will start now.

I also saw Looper last weekend and a week later I'm still thinking about it. I didn't think it was absolutely brilliant when I was in the cinema, but as films sometimes (unexpectedly?) do, it's really stuck in my head since I saw it. I've got a thing about near-future dystopian narratives (in films only - books of this type usually do nothing for me, funnily enough) so I shouldn't be that surprised. It definitely hasn't got anything to do with my enormous crush on Kid Blue. Ahem...

Finally, look at the exciting cheese I bought last week... white chocolate and cranberries!! Someone has finally realised my ultimate dream of combining cheese and chocolate in one (that Philadelphia stuff doesn't count) and it's amazing. Thanks, Asda.

1 comment:

  1. Hello. I have been following your blog for ages but never commented (sorry!). Anyway, just wanted to say that I like the idea of this cultural notes post (and I always enjoy your monthly reading review). Hope to see it become a regular thing. Also, particular thanks for the Adventure Time mention - I had not heard of it but it is currently downloading.

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