Monday, 1 December 2014

Reading round-up: November

November 2014 books

Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño - 7/10. Buy the book
Short, fragmentary and surreal, this fractured narrative is filled with potent imagery, menace, and constant darkness. It's often described as prose poetry, and it's hard to determine any real story or meaning - the book is open to all sorts of interpretations. Made up of scattered scenes and snatches of dialogue, it is powerful and compelling, but probably one to avoid if you prefer stories that... make obvious sense.

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
One of the few non-fiction books I've read this year, The Dark Net was a really insightful and entertaining read. Bartlett sets out to explore the darker corners of the internet, a category that covers everything from drug-dealing forums on the deep web to extreme right-wing nationalists on Facebook. There is some disturbing subject matter - child porn, pro-ana sites, online harrassment - but also some really interesting stuff about the history of the internet, how online behaviour has developed over the last 20-30 years, and how online activity is shaping our personalities and philosophies. Split into chapters on different topics (most of which can be read as self-contained essays), it's a useful, informative primer, with loads of recommended reading should you want to continue investigating any one of its focal points.

Five Fires by Laura Lippman - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This is a Kindle Single, and I usually find them hit and miss - they're often a bit too insubstantial to bother with. Thankfully, this one was a definite hit. It is a perfectly constructed mini-mystery with a fantastic twist and a wonderfully devious narrator. The suspense, the atmosphere, the characterisation are all insanely good for such a short story. Though a quick read, it's 100% worth the money.

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
The subtitle of de Kretser's atmospheric novella is deliberately misleading - it both is and isn't a ghost story. First and foremost, it's the tale of Frances, a new wife in a new home who feels out of place and uncertain about everything. It's in the midst of this uncertainty that she becomes fixated on a strange, diaphanous figure she spots in a nearby garden. Springtime constantly evades the reader's expectations, playing with the ghost story theme in order to keep you guessing. Readers looking for spooky thrills are likely to be disappointed, but this is a beautifully written, elegant book nevertheless.

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
In contrast to the above, these are definitely old-school ghost stories, complete with things that go bump in the night, spine-chilling apparitions and very haunted houses. If you've read any 'traditional' ghost stories before - M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe et al - there won't be anything new here, but they are still enjoyable to read. Of particular note are 'Keeping His Promise' (comically spooky), 'The Wood of the Dead' (impressively subtle and haunting) and 'A Suspicious Gift' (not actually supernatural at all, but still scary).

Ice by Anna Kavan - 10/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Ice is a cult classic, and once you've read it, you'll see why. The difficulty in reviewing it lies with the fact that you kind of have to read it in order to understand why it's so brilliant; it's an extremely abstract novel, and very difficult to describe. In simple terms, it's about a man who is trying to find a girl in a vaguely dystopian world, a world ravaged by ice. There is, however, much more to it than that. It is frequently dreamlike, changes direction all the time, and slips in and out of reality; the characters and environments become symbolic; the meaning is elusive, the language as hallucinatory and incandescent as the ice itself. Ice is often described as one of the major works of the slipstream sub-genre, but really it's impossible to categorise. Perhaps the thing that explains it best is this fact: after I finished it, I immediately ordered SIX more of Kavan's books. Yes, it's that good.

The Well by Catherine Chanter - 9/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
In any other month (i.e. a month that didn't also include me reading Ice and A Phantom Lover), The Well would have been my runaway favourite. I doubt, at this point, that I really need to mention that I'm a fan of debut novels in general, but even so, this is an OUTSTANDING example. Fantastically original, it had me totally hooked from the first page and it just never stopped being amazing. The story follows Ruth Ardingly as she moves to a country farm with her husband; soon afterwards, drought begins to spread across the country while the Ardinglys' home, The Well, remains miraculously unaffected. Mixing elements of science fiction, domestic saga and mystery/thriller, the book focuses unflinchingly on Ruth's life before and after she supposedly commits a crime, the nature of which is at first unknown to the reader. Though the basic plot may sound like nothing out of the ordinary, the narrative voice is completely unique, and it all adds up to a story that's unlike anything else I've ever read. Ugh, I really struggle to describe it in a way that makes it sounds as good as it is. Just please get it on your 2015 wishlist.

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Aickman famously defined his own work as 'strange stories' - somewhere between ghost stories, horror and weird fiction. There are eight tales in this collection, which, while consistently intriguing, is rather patchy. Two of the stories - the award-winning vampire narrative 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' and the really quite terrifying 'The Hospice' - were amazing, but the rest failed to live up to that standard. If you find traditional ghost stories a bit formulaic, the unpredictable nature of Aickman's tales might be what you're looking for, although they have a tendency towards ambiguity which may frustrate some. I didn't love this, but it was good enough that I'll definitely read more by the author.

Liars and Thieves by Karen Maitland - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Another Kindle Single - published to promote the release of Maitland's novel The Vanishing Witch - this story revisits the characters of the author's debut, Company of Liars. It's good to be back in that world, and Maitland is reliably great at recreating medieval England in typically grotesque detail. However, the plot itself is nothing particularly special: unless you're already a fan, I would recommend just reading Company of Liars instead, or one of her other books (my favourite is The Gallows Curse).

Disclaimer by Renée Knight - 6/10. Full review / Pre-order the book
Disclaimer is a debut suspense/thriller novel that's hotly tipped to be a big success in 2015. And it probably will be a big success, since it's very gripping and suspenseful. The story flips between a fortysomething mother with a secret and a retired teacher with a grudge; the plot hinges on a book the former finds on her bedside table - a book that seems to be the story of the very thing she's been trying to hide for twenty years. I enjoyed the mystery, which kept me guessing, and at times I found the book almost impossible to put down; but it really isn't that remarkable, and doesn't seem designed to be at all memorable once you've finished it. Fun enough, but throwaway.

A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee - 10/10. Full review to come / Get the ebook
This book is phenomenal. A ghost story slash love triangle. A meditation on aesthetics and art. A book from 1886 that feels like it was written yesterday. This deserves to be much more widely read than it appears to be - I'm going to write a proper review later, but honestly, just get it now, the ebook is FREE.

I decided to write some more in-depth summaries of this month's books because I haven't been posting reviews here very often. This November batch takes me up to a total of 115 books read this year (a personal record!) I know it's a pointless thing to say, but I can't believe it's December already. I don't have anything in particular lined up to read (although I do want to read A Christmas Carol this year) and that's partly because I have so much to write up before the year ends. Time to get going with my best of 2014 list...

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