Friday, 19 June 2015
What I read on holiday: the Venice edition
Perhaps I invited bad luck by saying in my last holiday reading post that I always set off with a reading list in mind. I wanted to read at least one book or short story actually set in Venice, and had planned to read my first Elena Ferrante novel (The Days of Abandonment, which has now gone back onto the to-read list); I also had a vague aim to avoid any new/forthcoming books, sticking to pre-21st-century fiction and novels in translation. But then, of course, my Kindle broke. Using the world's most unreliable wi-fi (I had to sit in the bathroom sink to get it to work), I managed to get a few books downloaded to my phone, but not the ones I'd planned to read - so the Venice reading list was a mish-mash of whatever I had to hand, plus a couple of NetGalley ARCs.
Vertigo (1954, translated 1956) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
I was so confused about the provenance of this edition of Vertigo at first. I had initially assumed it was a new translation, but it's actually (I think) a reissue to tie in with the launch of Pushkin's Vertigo imprint, dedicated to 'writers of the greatest thrillers and mysteries on earth from countries around the world'. Adding to the confusion (which is perhaps very apt for this novel), I was half asleep when I read it. So I can't write anything much in the way of a review, but I did really enjoy this noirish mystery and tale of obsession; it's a quick read with a great ending. I'll certainly read more Boileau-Narcejac.
Rating: 8/10. Buy the book
All This Has Nothing To Do With Me (2013, translated 2015) by Monica Sabolo
An odd one, this. I went into it basically expecting chick-lit - albeit a slightly superior form of chick-lit, by virtue of it being translated from French. However, it takes some rather grim turns, and the title - which I, at first, took as flippant and funny - ends up having a certain dark significance, especially if (as everything implies) the story is autobiographical. It starts as the story of a female journalist, 'MS', pursuing a colleague, 'XX'; we observe the birth and death of their fling, and MS's subsequent heartbreak. But alongside this, the backstory of MS's family is told. At first comparatively dry, these chapters build to a disturbing revelation which is surprising, even shocking, in the context of the light and silly earlier half of the novel. However, the book is too slight to really examine it, and just comes to a stop soon after this point. The overall effect is an uneven work, with not one but two stories left feeling frustratingly unfinished.
Rating: 5/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Asylum Piece (1940) by Anna Kavan
Kavan's brief, lucid stories have the quality of remembered nightmares. The first work published under the name of Kavan (she had previously used her married name Helen Ferguson, and took her nom de plume from a character in one of her own novels), Asylum Piece - a patchwork of interlinked vignettes that could be considered a novel or a short story collection - is sometimes brilliant, but a little patchy. The title story, made up of eight mini-stories, is somewhat hit and miss - while it's the longest and most complete piece, it's also the only one to deviate from the first-person narrative (seemingly always belonging to the same person) Kavan uses elsewhere, and it suffers for that. The motifs used throughout the rest of the stories build up themes of oppression, paranoia and the impossibility of escape familiar from her fantastic novel Ice.
Rating: 8/10. Buy the ebook
Pretty Is (2 July 2015) by Maggie Mitchell
Probably best categorised as a thriller, this is actually a book of two very distinct halves. Firstly, it's about two 12-year-old girls who are kidnapped and help captive, for a period of a few months, by an apparently benevolent man they name Zed, and the effect this has on their lives thereafter. Secondly, it's the much less interesting story of these characters 18 years later, now an author and an actress, and how their identities and lives come under threat when they meet again. The clever way Mitchell handles the kidnapping story - relating different aspects of it with different voices, playing with form by including explicitly fictionalised accounts, and retaining a measure of ambiguity so that the reader is never quite sure they have the whole truth - is the book's greatest strength. Unfortunately, the 'present-day' story is riddled with plot holes and wrapped up with a disappointing, abrupt ending.
Rating: 7/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
Slights (2009) by Kaaron Warren
A weird, sick, dark character study that's often disturbing/disgusting, frequently surreal, and definitely NOT for those who have a low tolerance for unsympathetic, misanthropic characters. Disastrously fucked-up protagonist Stevie is obsessed with recreating a near-death experience she had after the car crash that killed her mother; she finds that being in a state somewhere between life and death takes you to a room where you're tortured and tormented by those you 'slighted' in life. Though nominally a horror story, Slights spends more time unravelling Stevie's life story and the history of her family - the narrative follows her from the age of 18 to 35, and the major twists involve revelations about her father. Going by other reviews I've read, many horror fans don't seem to think it's worth sticking with for 500 pages, but I enjoyed the dark humour and Stevie's destructive adventures.
Rating: 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Burning Secret (1913, this translation 2008) by Stefan Zweig
A very sharp little story. It subverts what seems to be a typical tale of seduction - set in a hotel, it tells of a lecherous baron setting his sights on a married woman - by focusing on the seductee's son, a highly sensitive 12-year-old. The bounder's strategy of capturing the boy's affections first quickly backfires: he develops a deep admiration of the baron, and is outraged when he's abandoned in favour of his mother's company. Unable to understand what the baron wants with her, he determines to discover the nature of the 'secret' he's convinced the two must share, and in doing so he unwittingly throws the stability of his family into jeopardy. The short narrative builds to a deflated but emotionally impactful conclusion that's both reassuring and deeply sad (for the boy as well as the reader).
Rating: 7/10. Buy the ebook
Music for Wartime: Stories (23 June 2015) by Rebecca Makkai
I've written a proper review of this here, so I won't go over all the same points again. Suffice to say I loved this story collection; some of the shortest stories are a little weak, but the longer pieces are almost all brilliant - in some cases perfect. I loved the way that each story created its own little multi-faceted world so completely.
Rating: 9/10. Full review / Pre-order the book
I received review copies of Vertigo, Pretty Is and Music for Wartime from the publishers through NetGalley and Edelweiss.
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