Friday, 8 May 2015

Reading round-up: April

April 2015 books

Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This fantastic debut is the story of Yasmin, a dissatisfied teenager obsessed with a popular classmate. When she spots a man staring at Alice, the object of her infatuation, she quickly latches on to him and pursues a very odd sort of friendship. Yasmin's voice - thoroughly believable but insidiously sinister - is brilliantly realised, and the story, which turns out to be something of a twisted coming-of-age tale, takes some thrilling turns.

Wolf, Wolf by Eben Venter - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Wolf, Wolf is an exploration of masculinity and sexuality in present-day South Africa. It's a dense, complicated novel (very difficult to sum up briefly) that's not necessarily an easy read, and can be an uncomfortable one, but is nevertheless very rewarding and satisfying.

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - 10/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Another South African novel - but a very different sort of book to Wolf, Wolf. This incredibly subtle and vaguely tense book is written in a spare, elegant style, and it describes what happens at a near-deserted rural hospital when a young, extremely idealistic new doctor arrives. Disturbing undertones and hints of tension combine to spellbinding effect. It may sound uneventful, but I found the slow release of the plot absolutely gripping. Probably the best book I have read this year.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
My first proper encounter with Woolf's work. I'm really glad I've read it - and I could instantly see the influence it has had on many other things I've read - but I felt a sort of detachedness towards it. It certainly isn't the first time I've said it, but this was a book I admired rather than loved.

How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are by Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret and Sophie Mas - 7/10. Full review / Buy the book
A fun fashion/lifestyle book centred on the idea of the 'Parisienne'. The authors treat this concept with the frivolous approach it deserves, and the result is a funny, irreverent, often sarcastic scrapbook of advice, stories, lists and recipes that's like an extended and improved version of a fashion magazine. Way more enjoyable than I thought it would be.

In My House by Alex Hourston - 9/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
Along with the aforementioned Things We Have in Common, this is one of the best debuts I've read in 2015. It starts off as a story about a fiftysomething woman, Maggie, who is asked for help by a girl in an airport; unwittingly, she ends up saving the girl, Anja, from a trafficking operation. Then Anja insinuates herself into Maggie's life. If you think you know where this is going, you're probably wrong - it's not a thriller but rather a thoughtful character portrait, a study of love and family and selfhood, with a mere undercurrent of tension. In My House really exceeded my expectations.

Zines by various authors, ed. Liz Farrelly - 5/10. Buy the book
I acquired a copy of this completely randomly, and wasn't surprised to learn it's out of print. Purporting to be a visual history of zines, it's very much of its time (it was published in 2001), with large spreads given to zines like Shoreditch Twat and illustrations by James Jarvis. It also offers no commentary on the featured publications, so it's really more of a coffee-table book than anything else - nice to look at, but it won't teach you anything.

The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Something of a love letter to Buenos Aires, The Tango Singer has an intriguing plot - revolving around a near-mythical singer whose ethereal voice has never been recorded - but really, it's all about the setting. Alive with music and heat and a somehow tangible texture, this is a lucid and labyrinthine story - it's dreamlike, but it so vividly evokes the city that you'll feel like you've been there.

The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - 8/10. Full review / Buy the book
A re-read of the classic short story, and my first encounter with other work by Gilman: this volume, part of the Penguin Little Black Classics series, also contains two other stories - a ghostly tale entitled 'The Rocking-Chair', and the acidly funny 'Old Water'. The power of Gilman's most famous work is undiminished, and the others are enjoyable, though nowhere near as memorable.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North - 7/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
With a similar setup to Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World, Anna North's novel tells the story of Sophie Stark, a talented young film director, through a 'chorus of voices' belonging to those who knew and loved her. It's very compelling, but it doesn't quite achieve a rounded portrait of Sophie, who remains unknowable and a bit unbelievable. While incredibly readable, I couldn't help but think it was all a bit flimsy as a whole.

The Trap and A Dance in the Sun by Dan Jacobson - 10/10. Review to come / Buy the book
Two books in one volume - although The Trap is really more of a short story. I bought this after reading that Jacobson's work inspired Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor, and was delighted to find so many similarities between them that they could almost have been written by the same person - not that The Good Doctor is derivative, but both authors use a prose style that's simple and graceful yet complex and full of meaning, telling a hundred small stories in one. Set in sun-bleached semi-wilderness, both The Trap and A Dance in the Sun - published in 1955 and 1956 respectively - weave intricate tales of entrenched racism, latent violence and family tension. Unfortunately most (if not all) of Jacobson's books are now out of print, but I'll certainly be seeking out more.

Stallo by Stefan Spjut - 5/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
Translated from Swedish, this murky supernatural thriller traces the connections between a boy who went missing in the 1970s, a woman who runs a website about mythical creatures (and whose father allegedly took a photograph of one such creature), and the possible sighting of a troll in a small town. It promises fascinating themes, but at 600+ pages it takes far too long to get to them; it also reveals its secrets far too early, leaving the (sizeable) remainder of the book with a distinct lack of suspense.

Fermentation by Angelica Jacob - 8/10. Review to come / Buy the book
If I write down a one-sentence description of this novel, it sounds seriously bizarre: set during a scorching summer, it's a semi-erotic novella about a pregnant French woman who begins to experience uncontrollably strong cravings for cheese. An oddity it may be, but Fermentation is also beautifully written and irresistibly atmospheric.

Better late than never - this roundup feels a bit incomplete with several reviews missing, but once again I've got a huge backlog to catch up on! I read some really great books this month, with the highlights being The Good Doctor, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, In My House, and Things We Have in Common. In fact, almost everything I read in April was really good.

I expect May to be another bumper month. Having been on holiday, I've already read 7 books and crossed off most of my outstanding to-read list from last year - but more on that in another post...

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