Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Recent books in brief, part 2

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld All the Birds, Singing (20 June 2013) by Evie Wyld

First line: Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.

The story: The ambiguously-named Jake Whyte - actually a young woman, despite her name and profession - is a sheep farmer who lives alone on an isolated, windswept English island. When the story opens, she is standing over the body of a sheep that seems to have been ravaged by some predator: perhaps the work of local kids with nothing to do, or maybe something more sinister. Half the book deals with Jake's deliberately lonely life on the island, while the other half, told in alternating chapters, is about the early life that led her there. The latter story unfolds in reverse order, starting with the incident that prompts her to leave her native Australia, and rewinding through her troubled past.

The verdict: The first time I tried to read this book, I couldn't get into it and wasn't sure I'd go back. I'm really glad I did, and that I allowed the many positive reviews I've read to change my mind: because of its powerful characterisation and originality, All the Birds, Singing is among the most memorable books I've read this year. It is quiet and in some ways uneventful, but also menacing, unnerving and intriguing; bleak, strange and wild. While it reminded me of a few other books, it has its own atmosphere and its own momentum. I was both surprised and unsettled by some of the revelations abut Jake's history, there are moments of great tension, and the narrative is also interesting for the various methods it uses to play with gender roles and subvert the assumptions we make about women and men. The kind of book you look forward to re-reading a few years into the future.

Rating: 8/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent Burial Rites (29 August 2013) by Hannah Kent

First line: They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.

The story: Burial Rites is a novel based on real events. In 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be executed in Iceland: she was beheaded for her part in the violent murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. Hannah Kent's debut speculates and expands on the circumstances surrounding Agnes's crime and the period prior to her execution, when she was housed at a farm while awaiting her fate. She is installed as the charge of Jón Jónsson and his family, including two daughters, one of whom takes an instant dislike to Agnes, while the other seems to be somewhat fascinated by her. Another significant character is Tóti, the priest Agnes has requested as her spiritual guide, who also finds himself inexplicably drawn to the 'murderess'.

The verdict: I really enjoyed this book, but it was very different from what I expected. I was worried that it would be painfully literary to the point of potentially being quite boring; I was also expecting it to be heavy on the unreliable narrator theme. I was wrong on both counts: it is clear from the very beginning that the author wants the reader to sympathise with Agnes, and while the dramatic tension largely lies in finding out how the murders happened, there is no suggestion that the character is being in any way dishonest. Additionally, there is something quite conventional - almost soapy, in the best possible way - about the way this story is told. It's easy to follow and always compelling, even though it's often very bleak. This is not a groundbreaking novel and perhaps doesn't quite live up to the hype, but it's a great debut, and a must-read if you enjoy historical fiction or stories with harsh, unforgiving settings.

Rating: 7/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe Expo 58 (5 September 2013) by Jonathan Coe (review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley)

First line: Thomas was a quiet man. That was his distinguishing feature.

The story: It's 1958 and civil servant Thomas Foley is unexpectedly given a new role: he is to travel to Brussels for the World's Fair - also known as Expo 58 - where he will be in charge of overseeing the Britannia, an 'English pub' which will form part of the UK's exhibition at the event. Once he arrives at Expo 58, he is captivated - by Anneke, a hostess who greets him at the airport; by his affable roommate Tony; by a charming Russian journalist who frequents the Britannia; and by the fair itself, with the futuristic Atomium as its centrepiece. However, relationships between the participating countries are uneasy, and Thomas finds himself drawn into a complicated situation involving his new Russian friend, a beguiling American girl, and a pair of bumbling British spies.

The verdict: This new novel from Coe has received some bad reviews in the press, and although I liked it, I can understand why. Expo 58 is essentially a gentle historical comedy: it's pleasant and amusing but doesn't really go anywhere, and lacks the satirical bite and complex interconnectedness I've come to expect from the author. Part of the problem was that I didn't like Thomas, Anneke was barely developed, and there was no discernible chemistry between the two of them: meanwhile, some of the other plot points just seemed sloppy. The plot was diverting enough, nothing much to dislike about it, but I'm used to Coe creating stories full of unexpected connections, coincidences, details that might be fact or fiction, and relationships that aren't what they seem: all of these were missing here, or at least very watered down and unsurprising. Fun, but fairly unremarkable - if you haven't read any Coe before, I wouldn't recommend starting here.

Rating: 6/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback


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